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This imaginative telling of a lost gem of American history offers a practical challenge to the neoliberal agenda, writes Adam Tomes

Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates, A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today (Monthly Review Press 2013), 303pp.

This history of the Freedom Budget offers a challenge to the mainstream retelling of the story of the Civil Rights movement as well as the neoliberal economic agenda. It does this by being an inspiring history of the movement itself and its key characters in their aim to link ‘racial justice for African Americans with the goal of economic justice for all Americans’ (p.9). By understanding the movement without the diluting and sanitizing effects of mainstream historians, it offers an insight into victories, defeats and individuals, altogether acting as a siren song to call activists to action. At the same time, the authors offer a concrete vision of what a ‘different, more egalitarian and humane society’ would look like (p.241). As such, this is a book not just for the historian but for the activist as well. It would make excellent reading for a study or book group, especially the final chapter that suggests a framework for a new Freedom Budget for the neoliberal world.

The Freedom Budget was proposed in 1966 by civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King Jr, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph. The Budget ‘projected the elimination of poverty within a ten year period, the creation of full employment and decent housing, healthcare and education for all people in our society as a right’ (p.9). The authors carefully place these demands within the context of the civil rights movement and the Johnson presidency. The Budget, in this context, was ‘explicitly not a program for socialism’ but was ‘developed and advanced most effectively by socialists’ (p.15).

By exploring the history of the civil rights movement through the prism of the budget, the authors are able to show that the leading figures in the movement had a ‘socialist orientation’, and also to demonstrate the key role of ‘genuine socialists’, which certainly contradicts ‘the popular accounts of the movement’ (pp.14-15). It is worth comparing here the mainstream history of Martin Luther King with the fact he was assassinated supporting a sanitation workers’ strike, and his words on the war on Vietnam: ‘our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism and militarism’ (p.150).

The Freedom Budget and the ‘strategy’ (p.52) to see it implemented also raises the critical question of ‘reform or revolution’ (p.17). The aims of the Budget were certainly ‘reform’ and would ‘seem quite reasonable and desirable to masses of people’ living in America both in 1966 and today. The authors show that inherent to the reasonable nature of the demands is the revolutionary aspect. If the system cannot accommodate such desirable goals then that has ‘revolutionary implications’ in rallying ‘massive sections of the 99 percent’ (p.16). As the history of the Budget unfolds, the defeats for the movement are closely identified with tactical mistakes.

In particular, the close alliances of leading figures with the Democratic Party and AFL-CIO leaders such as George Meany are seen as critical. This led to a desire to work within the system and not oppose it, which created a ‘deradicalization and demobilization’ (p.178). Crucial also was the failure of some leaders to oppose the Vietnam War for fear of upsetting Johnson or Meany; this seriously undermined the movement. How is it possible for ‘the people to fight for freedom and dignity in the United States while turning a blind eye to their being violated by our own government elsewhere?’ (p.181). This point is linked to the critical reason for failure, which is that the Budget lacked a ‘mass resistance’ strategy to ‘compel acceptance of something those with economic power did not want to grant’ (p.182). There is much to learn from the failures of strategy here that can be utilised in the movement to challenge austerity and neoliberalism.

The Freedom Budget was put forward in the Golden Age of US capitalism when there was ‘strong GDP growth rates, rising wages and benefits for a significant segment of the working class, high union density, and stable if still considerable income equality’ (p.184). Yet since the Budget’s defeat, the neoliberal project has radically altered the prevailing political agenda. The authors illustrate the policies adopted by neoliberal governments before describing the current situation in the US. Here the book is at its pithy best, illustrating poverty and all its attendant evils in the modern US. This chapter is written with a restrained anger that lets the facts speak for themselves in areas such as unemployment, low wages, healthcare, education, income inequality and the oppression of minorities.

The beauty of the book is that its restraint and focus on facts leave the reader all the more enlightened and so righteously angry about the situation. The injustice of 46 million Americans living in poverty with approximately twenty million more living in destitution in ‘the richest economy on the earth’ (p.196), with a child poverty rate of 23.1%, leaves us in no doubt about the current state of the nation. The fact that between 1979 and 2007, 60% of the increase in household income went to the top 1% of individuals with only 8.6% to the poorest 90%, leaves no place to hide for the vacuity of trickle-down economics (p.214). This does mean, as the authors illustrate, that a new Freedom Budget for today would need to be radically altered from that put forward in 1966, but also that the ground is now more fertile to develop ideas.

The final chapter puts forward the outline for a new Freedom Budget in a world where austerity ‘is everywhere the watchword of our economic and political rulers’ (p.222). The Budget is based around five fundamental principles; liberty and justice for all, deepening democracy, a commitment to future generations, a comprehensive solution, and harmony with global neighbours. These principles underpin a series of basic objectives such as full employment, adequate and safe housing for all, adequate income for all who are employed and a guaranteed minimum income for those who cannot or should not work. These proposals would seem eminently sensible and humane to a vast majority of people but would remain totally unacceptable to the Democrats or Republicans, or indeed the Conservative or Labour parties of this country. This is the inherent contradiction that provides the source of the opportunity for a challenge to the neoliberal order.

Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates are not content just to explain the rationale behind their Freedom Budget. They also put forward a case for the feasibility of the Freedom Budget. As with the original budget, there is an economic argument to make to show just how straight forward it would actually be to achieve the objectives. The fact that the US Government can spend an estimated $3 trillion on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, or over $780 billion on an economic rescue package after the current economic crash, proves that governments can always find the money to meet their own objectives. Hence it is clear that if government was ‘intent on eliminating poverty and its attendant evils, it could so’ (p.232). The argument that there simply is not the money for tackling poverty is another contradiction at the heart of the neoliberal view.

The final pages are devoted to how the Freedom Budget can be realised. In this section the main ideas are all drawn together into a coherent strategy for action that draws on the successes and failures of the previous campaign. The key element missing from ‘most contemporary struggles is an overarching ideology or mindset, which can offer guidance for what needs to be done’ (p.236). The solution is ‘ideological education, reaching out not to just those who are in basic agreement … but to broader layers of the population’ (p.236).

This education can take place through everyday conversations about the inherent contradictions everyone can see such as the ‘glaring contradiction between the formal democracy we enjoy politically and the dictatorship most of us face at work’ (p.237). This education can also take place through ‘mass economic and political protests and organisations, but also collective self-help efforts’ (p.238). Ultimately this idea and this book is best summed up by the quotation taken from Rachel Horowitz that ‘something wonderful happens to people when they are somehow determining their own destiny and beginning to control and change their own conditions’ (p.237).