It is often assumed that American politics is dominated by financial elites and the 1%, who use their massive wealth to gain power and influence, pushing for legislation that benefits them at the expense of everyone else. The actual mechanics of how this works, however, are often difficult to see and understand, obscured by distortion via the media, politicians, and the stories we often tell ourselves about how political change happens. These narratives often tell us about noble figures who come forward with powerful speeches and pieces of legislation that pushes us forward, as well as figures who sell out and cave to the powers that be. What these narratives often leave out is the broader context that those leaders were in the middle of, not only shaping but being shaped by the organizing that was happening around them.
Filling in this gap are my guests today, Kevin Young and Michael Schwartz (cowriter Tarun Banerjee was unable to join us), here to discuss their book Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It (Verso, 2020). A work of political theory, sociology and history, this book covers a lot of different areas, but underlying it all is a belief in the importance of mass organizing to resist the power of capital. The first half of the book delivers an insightful and critical look at the Obama presidency, looking at his failures and limitations when it came to healthcare reform, Wall Street regulation and environmental protection, looking to understand the underlying mechanics of his political orientation and how they were insufficient for the tasks at hand. The later chapters of the book then look at various political successes, such as the labor movements during the depression of the 1930's and the struggles for civil rights in the 1960's, analyzing the ways massive organizing efforts were made to apply political and financial pressure and force capital to the bargaining table.
Written with a brilliant combination of academic rigor and accessibility, this is a how-to guide for how to organize movements and challenge power, and will be of interest not just to people who want to understand the world, but who want to change it as well.
Kevin Young is an assistant professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and is also the author of Blood of the Earth: Resource Nationalism, Revolution, and Empire in Bolivia (2017). Michael Schwartz is a distinguished professor emeritus of sociology at Stony Brook University, and is also the author of The War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (2008). Tarun Banerjee is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh.