Somebody’s Hurting Our People

By Tim W. Shenk, Robert Ascherman, and S. Ani Mukherji 

Somebody’s hurting our people, and it’s gone on far too long,

Gone on far too long, gone on far too long.

And we won’t be silent anymore!

“Somebody’s Hurting My Brother” by Yara Allen

When we sing this song, we do so to affirm and share our knowledge that poverty is violence. It is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States today. Only heart disease, cancer, and smoking kill more, but these too are intertwined with poverty. COVID-19 has been 2 to 5 times more deadly in poor counties than wealthy ones.

We know—contrary to decades of propaganda about individual laziness and the “culture of poverty”—that the production of poverty is a structural feature of how this country’s society, politics, and economy are organized. It is not the individual or collective failing of the 140 million people who are either in poverty or teetering on the brink.

But Allen’s song also begs a question: who are the somebodies hurting our people? Who are the enemies of the poor who make it impossible for us to live and thrive? How have they built and maintained their power? How are they organized? What are their weaknesses, and how can we take advantage of them?

This article maps out some first attempts to develop an approach to answering these questions, drawing on both historical and present-day organizing traditions and analyses. We then discuss some examples of ruling-class organizations we have studied with a particular focus on New York as a key command center for global capital. Looking at the specifics of New York helps us understand concretely that the people organizing empire and militarism on a global scale are often the same people organizing policing, gentrification, anti-democratic reforms and impoverishment at the local and regional level. We conclude by discussing two current organizing efforts of the poor and dispossessed that seek to stop the somebodies hurting our people.

Studying our opponents throughout history

Historically, many social critics and revolutionaries have sought to understand their opponents in order to counter their strategies. As we see our work as settling the unfinished business of Reconstruction, we look to examples from earlier movements to reconstruct democracy and ensure that all in society thrive. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass laid out an analysis of what he called the Slave Power in his 1857 speech on the Dred Scott Decision. He noted that the way that a small number of wealthy slaveholders and capitalists were able to rule the country was through their “complete organization.” He described this organization in detail.

“In one view the slaveholders have a decided advantage over all opposition. It is well to notice this advantage—the advantage of complete organization. They are organized; and yet were not at the pains of creating their organizations. The State governments, where the system of slavery exists, are complete slavery organizations. The church organizations in those States are equally at the service of slavery; while the Federal Government, with its army and navy, from the chief magistracy in Washington, to the Supreme Court, and thence to the chief marshalship at New York, is pledged to support, defend, and propagate the crying curse of human bondage. The pen, the purse, and the sword, are united against the simple truth, preached by humble men in obscure places.”  

Douglass used this assessment of his opponents’ strengths in his proposals for how the abolitionist movement should proceed. He went on to say that the question of slavery was not settled but rather became more and more “unsettled,” even as the anti-slavery cause lost decision after decision in the courts. He reminded fellow abolitionists that the national conscience was roused each time human dignity and decency were dragged through the mud by the nation’s highest institutions. 

Indeed, just four years later the slaveholders’ rebellion came to a head when the country went to war. Before the Emancipation Proclamation, enslaved Black workers took advantage of that moment to demand that they be allowed to fight for their freedom. Du Bois argues that subtracting this massive unfree labor force from the South and adding it to the North as an economic and military source was the decisive factor in the outcome of the war.

So the poor themselves shifted the national balance of power to secure the end of chattel slavery. The Slave Power was brought to its knees just a few years after Douglass’s assessment of their complete organization, in part because its moral bankruptcy moved more and more of society to join the anti-slavery camp.

Activists in the 1950s and ’60s again took up studying capitalists and how they oriented society. Some have called this era of the movement the Second Reconstruction. Corporate influence researcher Derek Seidman has written about the “hidden history” of power research in social movements of the 1960s including the anti-war National Action/Research on the Military-Industrial Complex (NARMIC) and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s (SNCC) Research Department. The latter group is especially instructive. At the same time that SNCC was organizing voter registration drives and freedom schools in the South, they were building an archive of information and an analysis of the power structures to understand how, for instance, powerful companies, banks, the Democratic Party, and the White Citizens’ Council were connected in a larger Mississippi Power Structure that oppressed both Black and white workers. Seidman quotes SNCC veteran Julian Bond on the importance of the Research Department:

“‘Power structure’ was no abstract phrase for SNCC’s band of brothers and sisters, but a real list with real people’s names and addresses and descriptions of assets and interlocking directorships, demonstrating how large interests, ranging from Memphis and New York banks to the Queen of England, might own at least partial control of a plantation in Mississippi’s Delta. Knowledge of who owned what was crucial to SNCC’s strategies. From it, we knew that Southern peonage was no accident, but rather the deliberate result of economic policies determined thousands of miles away from the cotton field.”

In addition to informing strategy and tactics, SNCC’s concrete knowledge that Jim Crow was “the deliberate result of economic policies” determined by elites also helped organize new recruits to the freedom movement, as people saw the everyday violence that they witnessed and experienced as part of a larger system and history.

Our class enemy today

Today, the somebodies hurting the poor and dispossessed are many, from those who seek to profit off of our health crises to those who seek to criminalize homelessness, from the prison industrial complex to the nonprofit industrial complex. In his 2015 book, It’s Not Enough to Be Angry, Willie Baptist situates all of these actors within a context of financialization and globalization of capital and a digital technological revolution. 

“The accumulation of capital and centralization of wealth have reached a stage of competitiveness and speculation that has given rise to an unprecedented labor-eliminating micro-electronics technological revolution. This has resulted in a globalized crisis that is not simply cyclical but chronic: it is casting huge sections of the middle-income strata down into the ranks of the poor and reducing those with poor income to superfluousness…. In other words…the fundamental technological shifts in today’s economic and political realities are such that today the predominant movement of global capital is the greatest enemy of humankind. (p.9)” 

Global capital is not a person or a thing in itself. Yet those who own capital wield the power to shape the institutions, laws and cultural “common sense” that protect and grow their wealth. At the same time, their ability to define death and ecological devastation as “externalities” to their drive for profit makes their rule a threat to people and the planet. 

One particularly potent concentration of owners and representatives of global capital is Wall Street. Wall Street is both a literal and metaphorical entity. It is an eight-block-long stretch in downtown Manhattan and also stands in as shorthand for the finance sector, the leading sector of the economy.

Once the site of the North’s most important slave auction block throughout the 1700s, Wall Street is now the home of some of the most influential entities in the world, including the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, multinational banks, ratings agencies and hedge funds. Wall Street leaders are the cadre of the leading section of the ruling class. They represent the financial sector that includes the following:

  • Investment banks such as: JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs, BofA Securities, Morgan Stanley, and Citi;
  • Commercial banks such as: JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Citibank, Wells Fargo, U.S. Bank;
  • Asset management companies: BlackRock, Vanguard, Fidelity;
  • Ratings agencies: Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s, Fitch;
  • Hedge funds: Fallon Capital Management, Citadel;
  • Consultant firms: Bain, McKinsey, BCG. 

Though physical proximity to the NYSE does still matter, even as most financial trading is done online by bots, not all of “Wall Street” is physically located in lower Manhattan. These companies compete against each other for profits and market share, and the larger ones tend to come out on top. Yet when it comes to overall strategy and policy positions, the sector presents a united front that prioritizes superprofits for capital over the economic, social, political and cultural rights of people at home and abroad.

In its introduction of the Poor People’s Walking Tour of Wall Street video, The People’s Forum shares a provocative definition of Wall Street:

“Wall Street stands above all other command centers of global capitalism, and that’s why it’s so important that people struggling from below come here to see it for themselves – to reflect on the Wall Street Bull, the New York Stock Exchange, to know our history, and to know who we’re up against. In this system, all corporations have to go to the bank and serve their shareholders. That is what Wall Street represents.”

In this sense, Wall Street isn’t just the banks that manage our savings accounts, credit cards or car loans if we have them. In the late 19th and early 20th century, banks went from being “modest middlemen” who helped industrialists produce more efficiently to holding the reins of the whole economy. Finance capitalists control the money in the economy, and because they control the money, by and large they get to set the terms on which other capitalists borrow to operate their businesses.  Because of the political power that goes along with that tremendous wealth, Wall Streeters have been able to advocate very convincingly for policies that benefit their section of the ruling class. 

How does the ruling class organize?

As Douglass alluded to, ruling-class organization takes many forms and operates on many levels. From local chambers of commerce to industry associations, from the World Economic Forum to the apparatus of the state, each form of organization has its own particular goal and function. Other informal spaces, such as exclusive country clubs, luxury vacation spots or a city’s opera house, can serve as venues where relationships among the wealthy are fostered and ruling-class unity is strengthened. 

Perhaps no ruling-class organization has as much breadth and scope as the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). We are indebted in our understanding to the work of Bruce E. Parry, whose pieces for the University of the Poor Journal here and here summarize key elements of the CFR as a central node of ruling-class power. Parry in turn draws from the work of many, including William Domhoff, Laurence Shoup and William Minter.

Fundamental to the development of Wall Street-centered ruling-class organizations was David Rockefeller (1915-2017), a leader and advocate for the ruling class on a global scale. David was the grandson of the world’s first billionaire, John D. Rockefeller, and was groomed as the heir to an empire. He became CEO of Chase Manhattan, the Rockefellers’ bank, in 1969. In 1970, he became Chairman of the CFR, and he would be a central driving force of that organization for the rest of his life. In 1973, he founded the Trilateral Commission, a hub for strategic dialogue among leaders from the U.S., Europe and Japan, the three largest pro-capitalist forces during the Cold War. In 1979, Rockefeller turned his attention more locally and assembled an organization that would come to be known as the Partnership for New York City (PNYC). He was a tireless organizer on behalf of his class, the capitalist class. He believed in substantive dialogue oriented toward questions of strategic and long-term importance for the maintenance of wealth and power for the few to the detriment of the many.

With Parry’s writing as an important backdrop, we’ll focus next on the PNYC, a key ruling-class organization in New York City. This is not primarily because of its geographic location, but because the PNYC represents the interests of global capital concentrated on Wall Street.

The Partnership for New York City: Ruling-Class Organization at the Local Level

The Partnership for New York City (PNYC) was founded in 1979 as a pro-business interest group. The New York Times described the group as “a coalition of top corporate executives” that would represent “the business community” on issues of rent control and development in the city. Founder David Rockefeller presented the appearance of the group as addressing an unmet need: “Labor speaks for what’s good for labor. Conservationists speak for their interests. But business has not had an organization that can speak for business as a whole.” The self-declared voiceless corporate leaders in the PNYC included representatives of AT&T, CBS, Exxon, Citicorp, and various local real estate developers.

To understand why the elite came together as the PNYC, it is helpful to place the founding of the Partnership in its specific historical moment—the rise of austerity politics that was the ruling-class response to gains made by post-war labor and left movements, broadly speaking, and the fiscal crisis in 1970s New York City, more narrowly. Historian Kim Phillips-Fein describes this moment of material and ideological transformation in Fear City (2017). One of Phillips-Fein’s most important points is that the imposition of austerity programs—cutting essential services such as public housing, education, clinics and hospitals— in response to significant financial challenges was not a necessity, but a choice made by the elite that has since become ”common sense” for many Americans. The Partnership for New York City might be understood as the ruling class’s organized effort to impose this common sense and have it define policy.

How the PNYC has carried out this task in the past four decades isn’t well-known. While representatives of the Partnership are often quoted in newspapers and magazines, there is little written about the group, its long-term strategies, or its influence on New York state and city politics. But a review of PNYC’s appearances in the New York Times from its 1979 founding to present gives us enough information for a thumbnail sketch of the group’s activities, key players, and connections. That is, we can glean some contours of the New York State power structure in the past forty years.

One of the first articles that mentions the work of the PNYC recounts how leaders of the group helped shape Democratic Mayor Ed Koch’s agenda of balancing the city’s budget by “paring service capabilities to the minimum,” a position that earned Koch PNYC’s endorsement and support. Over the next two decades, PNYC representatives continued to meet with key players in city politics to advance an agenda of reforming rent control, limiting taxes, and securing government subsidies to aid real estate developers. 

At the same time, the PNYC was also stirring a moral panic over crime in New York City. Starting in 1983, the Partnership worked with police and local officials to make the case that widespread criminality was hurting opportunities to develop housing and open businesses in the city. They helped create the television program “Crime Stoppers” that aired four times a week during the local news hour to dramatize local crime and to offer citizens rewards of $500-$1,000 for informing on their neighbors. The point of this regularly televised spectacle was to convince viewers that the problems in the city were “criminals,” not poverty and the loss of social programs. 

As we know, this criminalization was racialized, targeting Black and Brown youth in particular. The Partnership also endorsed the disastrous policy of “broken windows policing.” The intensified policing of specific neighborhoods corresponded with the gentrification of the city, opening up parts of the city for real estate development and increased profits for the developers and banks.

In 2002, the PNYC merged with the New York City Chamber of Commerce. The group also became more vocal in city and state politics. They advocated for mayoral control of public schools under Michael Bloomberg, supporting a program of anti-labor politics (directed at teachers), expanding charter schools, imposing high-stakes testing, and breaking up schools and local school boards. In 2011, the PNYC created a sibling organization, The Committee to Save New York, as its political wing to offer financial support to state politicians like Governor Andrew Cuomo with his promised “ultra lean” budget. In 2019, the PNYC argued for the deal to bring Amazon Headquarters to New York, a proposal that would have given Amazon billions in public subsidies. More recently, the group backed Mayor Eric Adams based on his support for cutting public goods (for example, public libraries), his advocacy on behalf of business interests, and his “tough on crime” posturing.

What we see from this brief review of the PNYC’s activities over four decades is that the Partnership has influenced policy, transformed structures of government, and spread ideologies that divide us. The group is not some secret cabal. Rather, it is a prime example of how the ruling class has organized to divide, conquer, and concentrate wealth and power.

The Anxieties and Reflections of a Leading Ruling-Class Cadre

Lest we be cowed by the power and organization of the ruling class, it’s important to remember that it too has weaknesses and areas where it struggles to maintain its supremacy. In fact, if you pay attention when the ruling class talks about their worries and read those anxious reflections against the grain, you can learn a lot. 

In the middle of 2023, Richard Haass stepped down after 20 years as President of the CFR. He has styled himself as a rational moderate willing to admit mistakes about past policy positions, engage in debate with a range of actors and analyze world events with concern for the future of the United States. Haass has built a reputation as an astute thinker and prolific writer. In the last week of his tenure leading the CFR, in an interview on CFR podcast “The President’s Inbox,” he gave a sweeping summary of the end of the Cold War to the present and the U.S. position related to global leadership. He began this way: 

“When historians look back on this and they look at this roughly three-decade arc, from the peaceful end of the Cold War on terms even optimists had trouble conjuring up, the successful management of Iraqi aggression against Kuwait, talk of a new world order, a moment where the United States had good relations with both the Soviet Union, the precursor of Russia, as well as with China. 

Fast forward three decades later to where we are now. War in Europe, a totally alienated Russia, U.S.-Chinese relations having reached something of a nadir in their relationship, problems with North Korea, Iran, climate change, pandemics, a divided United States – I didn’t begin to have the imagination to come up with this image of the future. Even a pessimist would not have – I mean, quite honestly, what historians will find challenging, Jim, I think, is how did we get to where we are? Reminds me of the old joke: How do you get a small fortune? You start out with a big one. Well, I feel in the United States, we now have a small fortune, but we got there the wrong way.”

In this podcast, Haass goes on to say that it was not inevitable that the U.S. lost some of its dominance in world geopolitics. He blames a series of bad foreign policy decisions. That is a serious self critique, because the CFR has been the major driver and creator of U.S. foreign policy. It’s where major policy orientation is discussed by the ruling class, where books are written and where the analysis is done about how the ruling class is going to rule. In Haass’s mind, they have “squandered” their opportunity. 

We note three things from Haass’s comments. First, he frames the narrative on ruling-class terms. We would refute many of the ways he has framed world events here. He doesn’t name capitalism or imperialism. He names “a divided United States” as a problem, not a billionaire class that profits off of the impoverishment of the whole world, the U.S. population included. Haass also conflates the interests of the U.S. with the interests of the U.S. ruling class. 

Second, Haass admits that the U.S.-based ruling class is not all-powerful. It operates on ever-shifting terrain and is subject to many interconnected forces beyond its control, in particular the constraints of the laws of capital and a warming planet.

Third, Haass’s analysis affirms that the ruling class studies, reflects, and develops their own intellectuals. These intellectuals bring their study of history to bear on the current moment, and if we read between the lines, they can be quite self-critical. They make conscious assessments and plans with the goal of their class protecting and growing their wealth and staying in power.

The organized poor targeting ruling-class weak points

Our responses, as the poor and dispossessed, must be strategic as well as focused on the goals of survival and building power by and for our class. The ruling class relies on a diverse constellation of organizational forms, and so must we. Local and community-based organizations are essential, but in isolation they are not enough. Because our enemy is connected and in communication across borders, statewide, national and international forms of organization and coordination among the poor and dispossessed are also required. 

Two national formations we’ll highlight briefly are the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival (PPC:NCMR) and the Nonviolent Medicaid Army (NVMA). Both are oriented around the basic premise that the digital technological revolution will continue to replace human labor-power with that of machines, robots and AI. There is no expansive new sector of the economy rising to meet the demand for work. A growing unemployable population means rising poverty and precarity for more and more people. This is a strategic weak point of the capitalist ruling class, which cannot or will no longer pay for redistributive programs that keep the poor alive and fit for the workforce. Deepening poverty and inequality in the U.S. undermine the ruling-class narrative that capitalism and free enterprise are the solution to the world’s problems, and common dispossession has the potential to unite disparate groups in favor of revolutionary change.

Launched in 2017, the PPC:NCMR and its coordinating committees by state are developing an organizing model by and for the poor, independent of the two major political parties. According to a 2022 piece analyzing the PPC:NCMR in the University of the Poor Journal, “the Campaign is building an independent national electoral organization, built around the program of the poor.” 

The NVMA is a network of organizations and committees actively working in ten U.S. states. It has chosen the struggle for healthcare as its strategic point of unity, noting that “the fight for healthcare broadly unites the global working class.” The network recognizes that “As millions more in this country are thrown into the ranks of the unemployed or underemployed, the need for Medicaid steadily increases and healthcare will continue to be one of the top concerns on the minds of the everyday people.” 

Both the PPC:NCMR and the NVMA are emerging organizing vehicles oriented to raising the demands of a growing number of poor people in the United States. They raise moral questions aimed at winning over the middle strata and put forward material solutions that benefit the whole working class broadly defined. Both have the potential to grow as the multiple crises of our society deepen.

Final reflections

Seeking effectiveness in their struggles, revolutionaries throughout history have sought to understand their adversaries. Our objective has been to outline the need to study the ruling class today. We have focused here on Wall Street and the PNYC, an organization that advocates for the interests of finance capital in New York city and state politics. 

Rather than advocate for a particular course of action or mobilizing target, perhaps this piece can offer a way to analyze how power operates at the level of cities and states, in relation to broader elements of class power. The better we know who we’re up against – those somebodies hurting our people – the better we can strategize and organize to build the unity and power of the poor and dispossessed. 

For further study

Willie Baptist, It’s Not Enough to Be Angry (2015).

https://universityofthepoor.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/ItsNotEnoughToBeAngry.pdf 

Brooke Heagerty and Nelson Peery, Moving Onward: From Racial Division to Class Unity (2000).

https://drive.google.com/drive/u/1/folders/1hrS9CqPCY6HCamIAbF4KoqbcuPH51Xwm

On Wall Street and the Financial Power Elite

“A Poor People’s History of Wall Street.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_O5S6qcJ8U 

John Bellamy Foster and Hannah Holleman, “The Financial Power Elite”

https://monthlyreview.org/2010/05/01/the-financial-power-elite/ 

On the ruling class, its leaders and forms of organization

Erik Wallenberg, “David Rockefeller: An Alternative Obituary”

https://jacobin.com/2017/03/david-rockefeller-an-alternative-obituary/ 

Laurence Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics (2019)

Bruce E. Parry, “Learning from the Class Enemy.” https://universityofthepoor.org/learning-from-the-class-enemy/

Kim Phillips-Fein, Fear City: New York’s Fiscal Crisis and the Rise of Austerity Politics (2017)

Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (2008)

 

Tim W. Shenk is a member of the University of the Poor Journal Editorial Committee and participates in the New York State Poor People’s Campaign. He lives in Ithaca, NY.

Robert Ascherman is an organizer in the health care sector and first trained as an organizer by leaders of the University of the Poor. He lives in New York City. 

Ani Mukherji is an educator and organizer who teaches about racism, empire, political culture, and social movements at a college in upstate New York. 

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