Changing Minds: Waging Campaigns-Their Educational and Political Impact (Part 6 of 6)

By Willie Baptist, Charon Hribar, and John Wessel-McCoy

Having an accurate estimate of your enemy and yourself is the first basic principle of the art and science of strategy and tactics. This estimate involves a continuous assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of your forces, as well as those of the forces arrayed against you. This assessment necessarily includes knowledge of how these strengths and weaknesses are reflected in the mental terrain. The weaknesses or the points of vulnerability are also called the ‘Achilles’ Heel.’ From this basic principle is derived another principle of strategy and tactics; that is, to concentrate your strengths against the weak points, the ‘Achilles’ Heel,’ of your enemy. History teaches us that to win one must concentrate your strength against your enemy’s weak points. Ongoing campaigns, which are coordinated series of interconnected, repeated, protracted, and multifaceted forms of actions, must be thrown at those points of vulnerability when and where they are discerned and located.

The present technological revolution is ushering in a new electronic era, which is potentially a thousand times more productive, rapid, and efficient than the passing industrial era. Its unprecedented productivity and efficiency is increasingly eliminating the need for human labor in all areas of production, exchange, and communication. Given the economic status quo, that is, the present profit-making and poverty-producing system, this technological revolution is resulting in an accelerated growth of poverty in the midst of plenty. It is turning the middle-income strata into the poor and the poor into superfluousness. This is causing the weakening or the beginnings of the weakening of the ruling mental fortresses; the raising of fundamental questionings about economic status by, at first, the newly emerging leaders of the increasing struggles the poor and dispossessed. This is making possible the construction of campaigns to raise class-consciousness that can strike a crippling blow on these mental fortresses.

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was very prescient when he talked about the launching of the 1967-8 Poor People’s Campaign: “If …[the poor] can be helped to take action together they will do so with a freedom and power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.”[1]

Dr. King anticipated the Achilles’ Heel of the present economic system and its protective ideological superstructure, including the mental fortresses of the 6 Rs—the ruling class’s prevailing and protective conceptions of Reality, Rugged Individualism, Religion, Race, Rights, and Redbaiting

The potentially powerful role of the poor and dispossessed becoming “a new and unsettling force” has more strategic and mass import today then ever before, as their plight worsens and spreads, and their fights grow. Nothing more threatens the global economic status quo and frightens the Powers That Be than sustained exposure through protracted and united actions of the poor and dispossessed (i.e. series of poor people’s campaigns) in their resistance to the unnecessary and immoral existence of poverty in the midst of plenty. The political threat is that these united actions can become an opposing rallying point that can attract large sections of the middle-income strata, which is the main social base of support of the ruling class and their profit-making and poverty-producing economic system. 

In antiquity, Aristotle pointed out that a stable and growing middle strata is necessary for the stability of class societies. Currently, the global economic crisis is proving to not be only cyclical but chronic, undermining the stability of the so-called  “middle class” or middle income strata. This is in turn weakening the ruling class’s political control and prevailing ideological influence. That is why the ruling class and their political representatives continue to wage billion dollar campaigns to portray the poor as either a charity case or a criminal case. In either case, poverty is falsely presented as not the inevitable result of an economic system that needs changing, but as the result of the poor’s own indiscretion or inertness.

The poor today are not the poor of yesterday. In the industrial era, the poor were a necessary part of the labor force, serving largely as the surplus labor reserve to be partly thrown later into the production process of an ever-expanding economy. The poor now represent the increasing breakdown of a capitalistic social production and exchange system that can no longer provide the basic economic necessities of life to increasing masses of the people. Most of the so called “middle class” have considered themselves as such because, despite the fact that they don’t have any real possession of the means of production and exchange, they nonetheless currently receive a living wage. However, today they have a growing sense of insecurity about this middle-income status because the new economic conditions are reducing increasing segments of them to impoverishment without any real future prospects for them and their children.

The apologists and strategists of the economic status quo clearly see and admit in hindsight the necessary end of ancient slavery and the feudal production systems. However, they and the capitalist class are blinded by their own upbringing and propaganda to the necessity for the end of the present economic system of class exploitation and social oppression.  All the mental fortresses, together with all of society’s old and traditional values and views, are combined to apologize or argue for policies that protect the existing economic system of class exploitation. These arguments and policies are supported by notions like “American Exceptionalism”, including the more recent idea advanced by Francis Fukuyama of the “End of History. In other words, God has blessed American capitalism and that there can be no more productive and innovative system than this liberal democratic system. These notions are so embedded in the thinking of the ruling class that, for them, it unconsciously goes without saying. So day in and day out the ideologists of the status quo are strategically and tactically deployed to win the mental terrain of their class and the masses of the people. Again, the basic strategic objective is to cover their weak flank by pre-empting and preventing the powerfully unsettling role that the poor and dispossessed, whose united actions undercut the hegemonic false notions, can play in society 

Conducting campaigns are effective ways of concentrating strengths to attack weak points. Campaigns are not separate tactical operations, like a march or a day’s action or rally. It is conducted over a more sustained period to coordinate combined tactical operations or plan successive phases of actions where initiative is taken. This initiative compels your enemy to react on terms unfavorable to them. Campaigns should not be confused with strategy, especially political strategy, and of a conflict waged over a longer period. History teaches that political strategy is concerned chiefly with the overall and long-term course of struggles, the line of march of social movements for or against political and economic emancipation. As mentioned earlier, social movements develop through stages conditioned by the ups and downs, lulls and leaps in economic developments. Campaigns are constructed and conducted to complete each stage of development of social movements, and their political strategy  for social change. 

Strategy provides a big picture perspective to choose which battles or tactical operations are favorable to completing the stages of development of social movements and accomplishing their ultimate goals and objectives. Campaigns are about actually choosing  your battles and battlefields. Campaigns are about taking the initiative to frame the issue at hand in such a way as to particularly expose and oppose the weak points of your enemy’s argument and position of political influence. The initial stages of the development of a social movement are marked by the fact that the oppressed and exploited cannot out-money, out-mass, or out-might the ruling class. Because of this, campaigns in these early stages necessarily assume mainly the character of agitation and education operations. For the poor and dispossessed, they seek to out-maneuver the enemy by organizing and building up over time, step by step and stage by stage, their main strategic strength; that is, their overwhelming and still growing numbers. Herein lies the strategic significance of the lessons of King vision for the 1967-68 Poor People’s Campaign.

In his work leading up to the launch of the Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King expressed his clarity on the necessity of changing the mental terrain and fortresses of old values and misconceived views to create fundamental social and political change. These values and views included moral values and views; what is right and just and what is wrong and unjust. Historically, every social movement starts off with the struggle for political legitimacy based on the moral and ethical questions of the day. In April 1967, King gave his famous Beyond Vietnam Speech at Riverside Church, in which he underscored the need for a “revolution of values”,

“We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered… True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice, which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth… A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” [2]

In this new era of chronic economic crises and netwars, Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, which was aimed at uniting the struggles of the poor and constructing a multi-racial “nonviolent army of the poor,” retains much strategic value. This is especially so with regard to these initial stages, when the main object of strategy for a newly arising movement is to identify, build, and unite a large core of leaders and teachers who are committed to uniting the poor and dispossessed. Through the development of this strategic clarity and commitment, these leaders and teachers become a crucial embodiment of the necessary “revolution of values.” This “revolution of values” today involves primarily changing society’s prevailing and erroneous attitudes about the poor and poverty. 

These attitudes are expressions of the mistaken views of the vast majority of the people that devalue and stereotype the poor and blame the poor for the cause of their own poverty (that they have failed the existing economic system, not that the system has not failed them). These distorted moral views serve today as the main basis of society’s mass complacency against becoming a part of a broad and powerful movement to abolish poverty and deepening inequality, as well as all its connected social ills and injustices. It is against this complacency that Dr. King targeted his launch of the Poor People’s Campaign. His conceptualization and promotion of this campaign was about giving effect to the “revolution of values”. 

The economic and social position of the poor and dispossessed places them at the weak points of the poverty-producing economic system and its protective ideological institutions. This economic and political system is the main enemy of all humankind. This fact is clearly asserting itself in the increasing mass insecurity and impoverishment precipitated by the current global economic downturn. Launching and conducting campaigns that unite the immediate struggles of the poor in resistance to the excruciating effects of the economy in chronic crisis exposes and allows for the concentration of the fight against the Achilles’ Heel of the ruling class and the economic system it protects.

The mental fortresses of this system are finding it extremely difficult to hide, and impossible to explain, the true class reality that is now being asserted in the unprecedented economic crises that people are facing. The problems and issues of the poor today are in fact not self-inflicted; the worsening plight of the poor is not about individual cases of pity or punishment. It is now the leading indication of the breakdown and failure of the entire economy, which threatens the livelihood and life of everyone, not just the poor. The defense that the mental fortresses provided in the past ultimately relied on the misconception of the impoverished and dispossessed being seen as either criminal or inert and inept charity cases. In either case, the poor were stereotypically looked down upon as the “other” blamed for their own poverty. These misconceptions and stereotypes kept the economically insecure middle-income strata in a state of complacency by giving them, among other things, a false sense of security.

Dr. King envisioned and worked to build a campaign that would serve to help the poor, across color lines, to unite into a social force with the freedom and power to “unsettle” the complacent mindset of the broad masses of the people. This would in turn open the mental terrain of the American people for a “revolution of values” toward a “radical redistribution of economic and political power”, a “change of the whole structure of American life.” This meant that the Poor People’s Campaign was to be largely conducted as an agitation and education campaign to arouse and change the thinking of the mass of the American people. The struggle for the unity of the poor and dispossessed through the proper and protracted conduct of such campaigns provides the only ways and means of winning the middle strata, the social base of this cruelly unjust society, to thereby win the masses of the people necessary to actually abolish this poverty-producing system. This is much like the prolonged and effective ideological role played in US history by the runaway slaves in the Underground Railroad against first, mental, and then, material slavery.

Here is what Dr. King said in his 1967 Massey Lecture to the Canadian Broadcast:

“The dispossessed of this nation — the poor, both white and Negro — live in a cruelly unjust society. They must organize a revolution against the injustice, not against the lives of the persons who are their fellow citizens, but against the structures through which the society is refusing to take means which have been called for, and which are at hand, to lift the load of poverty. There are millions of poor people in this country who have very little, or even nothing, to lose. If they can be helped to take action together, they will do so with a freedom and a power that will be a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life…” [3]

The ultimate goal of the campaign in Dr. King’s view was to “organize a revolution” to “lift the load of poverty” and to abolish “a cruelly unjust society”, which was threatening the livelihood and life of not only the presently poor and dispossessed, but the whole nation and world. In this respect, the campaign aimed to awaken the consciousness of the mass of American people by effectively challenging the prevalent and false notion of the poor being a case of charity. The united actions of this “nonviolent army of the poor” were to culminate in mass protests of civil disobedience, publicly challenging unnecessary economic and social inequalities and the unjust laws that upheld those injustices. These tactical acts of protests were not acts of criminal disobedience, but of civil disobedience, deliberately designed to use mass arrests to bring mass attention to the injustice of poverty existing in the most affluent society in the world. In this way it was also meant to challenge the other prevalent and false notion of the poor being a criminal case.

Reigniting Poor People’s Campaigns today to unite the poor and dispossessed as the leading “unsettling” social force continues to hold particular significance. Historically, the so-called “Solid South” has used the ideology of white supremacy to hold intact a reactionary and oppressive all-white, all-classes unity based on the isolation and the perpetration of the open murder of particularly black citizens. It has secured this isolation and attacks through many years of de jure and de facto segregation, and through the bribery of whites and the mass incarceration and lynching of blacks. This unholy cross-class alliance has long served as a strong bastion for the mental fortresses of the 6 Rs in the United States, continually relied upon by the ruling class and Wall Street as an indispensable means politically controlling the entire country, and through this control to project its money and military power internationally. 

Moreover, this mental terrain finds expression in white nationalist evangelicalism, which justifies the ongoing assault on the lives of all the poor and dispossessed, white and non-white. This theology is rooted particularly in the overlapping lands of this country’s “Bible Belt” and “Poverty Belt”. This area made up the old black belt slave plantation region of the South, which today has the largest concentration of churches and the largest contiguous area of poverty in the country. This so-called region of the “Solid South”, since the Civil Rights Movement, has been largely Republicanized and transformed from the old home of the Southern Democrats, or the “Dixiecrats.” Our current chronic economic crises are asserting the common economic interests of poor whites and poor non-whites in this area and across the country, threatening in a profound way to break up the all-white, all-classes unity of the so-called Solid South. This is objectively opening the way for effective Poor People’s Campaigns to successfully fight for the unity and mass organization of the poor and dispossessed across color lines and all other lines of division.

In many ways, Dr. King’s vision and leadership of the 1967-68 Poor People’s Campaign anticipated the global crises and struggles of our day. A sustained series of reignited Poor People’s Campaigns, with directed and concentrated efforts, can help shift the mental terrain of a majority of people in this country, beginning with the poor. Dr. King’s view was very prescient because it anticipated that due to the social and economic position of the poor and dispossessed, they have been placed in a strategic position to play a similar ideological and political role that the runaway slaves in their Underground Railroad played in spearheading the unsettling of the prevailing thinking that upheld capitalist slavery. 

Also, because of the religiosity of the American masses, it is of strategic significance that the last year of Dr. King’s life in many respects parallels the last week in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’s Ministry was itself a poor people’s campaign, as much of it took place in the poorest areas of the Roman Empire, which inaugurated the early Christian movement. Similarly, Jesus’s work of uniting and organizing the poor resulted in his execution by the state apparatus of the Roman Empire. Just as Dr. King attempted to bring together leaders from the ranks of the different sections of the poor before he was assassinated by the US state apparatus, Jesus’s Ministry started with the identification, education, and organization of his core of leading disciples, which became a revolutionary movement that the ruling class of the Roman Empire had to reckon with and ultimately succumbed to.

In the initial stages, campaigns of this type allow for every struggle and every protest to be turned into a school for raising class-consciousness, a school especially for educating and training the newly emerging leaders committed to uniting the poor and dispossessed as a class. To ultimately move the mental terrain of the nation’s and world’s masses, to overcome its mental fortresses and its deeply held mistaken values and misconceptions, we must master the strategy and lessons of history’s campaigns, and use them to reignite campaigns to end poverty altogether under today’s changing conditions. 

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Nonviolence and Social Change,” The Trumpet of Conscience, (Beacon Press, 2011). 

[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., Beyond Vietnam, Riverside Church, April 4,1967.

[3] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Nonviolence and Social Change”.

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