A Winning Strategy for the Left

Social movements should focus on targeting corporations and oppressive institutions rather than politicians.

Protesters at a Fight for 15 action last September. Michael Courier

The Occupy Wall Street movement highlighted a rising tide of protest directly targeting corporate America. Since then, even the major media has covered housing rights activism aimed at exploitative lenders, strikes and other work actions against fast-food chains and low-wage retailers like Walmart, and boycott-and-divestment movements targeting the fossil fuels industry and companies linked to the Israeli occupation.

Activists’ decision to target corporations reflects a growing conviction that the government is unresponsive to popular demands because it is unwilling or unable to stop the abuses of the corporate world (this view is supported by recent statistical findings that “the public has little or no influence” on policy). While these movements can change corporate behavior, we believe that they can also influence government policy in ways that direct pressure on politicians cannot.

In the modern United States, few progressive reforms have been enacted and implemented without the consent and/or support of substantial sectors of the corporate elite. Inflicting pain on corporations through disruptive mass activism has historically been the best way to reduce corporate opposition to progressive changes, and in turn, the resistance of the politicians who represent them.

So while it is usually assumed that the best way to change government policies is to pressure politicians or elect different ones, movements are actually more effective when they target the corporate and institutional interests that control public policy behind the scenes.

How might this strategy of targeting corporations and institutions play out in current movements?

The recent fast-food and retail campaigns offer one example. Contrary to many analysts’ assumption that putting Democrats into office is the best way to substantially increase the minimum wage, workplace actions and protests targeting low-wage employers could be the best strategy. These actions focus public attention on low wages and help pave the way for local and state ballot referenda to raise the minimum wage.

More importantly, direct pressure — through boycotts, protests, labor strikes, or supply chain interruptions — on McDonald’s, Walmart, and other powerful firms can “adversely affect” their bottom line, especially given “increasing public focus on matters of income inequality,” as McDonald’s company documents recently warned. This pressure can simultaneously yield direct concessions: some fast-food and retail chains have reacted to recent protests by granting raises to unruly workers, and a few have promised company-wide increases.

But beyond this immediate impact, the changes wrought by direct protest can also neutralize the affected firms’ opposition to raising the minimum wage to the level they are (now) paying their workers. Some may even lobby the government for such an increase to reduce their competitive disadvantage. This logic motivated certain US businesses to support the 1891 Meat Inspection Act, the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, and other landmark regulatory laws, because they saw the laws as forcing their competitors to honor standards they were already being forced to meet.

Climate activism targeting corporations could have a similar effect. Boycotts, lawsuits, labor actions, and divestment by cities, colleges, and pension funds can raise costs for big polluters and force a (partial) shift to greater renewable energy sources. This might not only relax their opposition to stronger regulations, but also lead them to support government policy that forces their competitors to adhere to standards they themselves are already meeting.

Movement pressure might also help push non-energy businesses — many of which face threats from the effects of climate change — to turn against fossil fuels interests. This strategy doesn’t require capitalists to experience a moral awakening — it simply requires them to view concessions to movement demands as a lesser evil.

Though most activists have not consciously adopted this strategy, we are already seeing some examples of its efficacy. Consider, for example, the contribution of local protests and legal action in halting the construction of 184 planned coal-fired power plants, which according to Marc Hertsgaard is “arguably the greatest climate victory” of recent years. This activism may have laid the foundation for the Obama administration’s regulations on power plant emissions — timid and woefully inadequate as they are — since the regulations would have impacted the very plants that had already been canceled.

More generally, the recent surge of anticorporate climate protest could substantially shift the cost-benefit analysis of both the big polluters and non–fossil fuels businesses, thus facilitating government climate reform.

This approach is not focused on individual consumption practices and does not appeal to an imaginary corporate conscience, as some mainstream environmental groups seek to do. Rather, it aims to impose costs on capitalists through organized mass action, thereby influencing the calculus of both capitalists and state officials.

Targeting corporations can even make sense when corporations aren’t the most visible enemies of reform, as in the immigrant rights struggle. In March 2011, dozens of Arizona-based corporate executives wrote a letter to state legislators asking that they refrain from passing further anti-immigrant bills like the infamous SB 1070, which was in 2010.

The problem, they explained, was that “boycotts were called against [the] state’s business community” in response to the law. The boycotts were so “harmful to [their] image” that “Arizona-based businesses saw contracts cancelled or were turned away from bidding,” and “sales outside of the state declined” (the boycotts also led many Mexican companies to stop trading with Arizona businesses).

The threat to their profits led them to insist on a change in public policy. The result? Within a week, the Republican-controlled legislature rejected five bills designed to further criminalize immigrants.

This approach is not a magic bullet for movement success. There are many components to a successful organizing strategy, and external conditions also matter. Corporate responses to activism vary by industry and by company, depending on the targets’ links to other companies, among other factors. Progressive movements must take these into account in crafting a strategy.

But the historical record is replete with examples that show the effectiveness of targeting the institutions (usually, but not always, corporations) that backstop the political resistance to progressive policies.

Consider the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), which essentially legalized private-sector unions. Most corporate leaders opposed the bill when it passed Congress, and it went unenforced for the first two years. But in 1937, numerous large corporations reversed course and turned to the new National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to quell the unrest in their workplaces. The surge of labor agitation that erupted in 1935–37 — including nearly nine thousand strikes across the country — was responsible for this change of position.

In the auto industry, for instance, rival factions within the United Auto Workers union engaged in alternating work stoppages, drastically reducing output and threatening the industry’s profits. In this context, auto companies came to see NLRB-sanctioned unions as the lesser evil, preferable to the ongoing disruption of strikes. Auto manufacturers — and, ultimately, management in other large corporations — sought out the NLRB, thus legitimizing it and allowing for the implementation of the NLRA.

The Jim Crow system of segregation ended in much the same way: mass pressure on key business interests led to progressive changes in government policy. The bus boycotters, sit-in participants, and Freedom Riders targeted vulnerable economic institutions and, for the most part, did not focus their energies on public officials. In many places in the South, protesters definitively disrupted the local economy, imposing costs that businesses could not endure. Management not only ended segregation in their own facilities, but also softened their opposition to changes in government policy.

Civil rights historian Charles Payne comments that among Southern whites confronted with disruptive protests, “the group most consistently playing the progressive role turns out to have been businesspeople,” since protests “were not healthy for the bottom line.”

After the failed campaign that focused on local government in Albany, Georgia, in 1961–62, Martin Luther King Jr himself concluded that the campaign should have targeted “the businesses in the city,” saying that “the political power structure listens to the economic power structure.” The 1963 campaign in Birmingham followed that advice, leading to the abolition of downtown segregation, and proved crucial to later legislative victories.

In both cases, movements seeking changes in government policy compelled their economic adversaries to accept those changes by threatening to undermine their profits or even their existence. The enemies of reform — large manufacturers in the 1930s, segregated businesses in the 1960s — eventually came to prefer progressive policy change over labor strikes, boycotts, and other disruption.

Once sufficiently threatened, they either relaxed their opposition to policy change or actively promoted it, leading to decisive shifts in politicians’ behavior. In these cases, it was the posture of business leaders that triggered the policy reform — not the election of sympathetic politicians.

The importance of direct institutional pressure as compared to the political affiliations of officeholders is also exemplified by the behavior of the explicitly conservative Nixon administration. Nixon desegregated more public schools in the South than the Kennedy and Johnson administrations combined, increased domestic social spending more than any president since World War II, advocated a guaranteed minimum income, expanded Social Security, and established food stamps, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

These programs and policies didn’t stem from Nixon’s own beliefs — they were the results of a political context that left him little room to maneuver. That context included not just the Civil Rights and Black Liberation Movements but also surging environmental, antipoverty, feminist, LGBT, antiwar, and workers’ movements.

For the most part, these movements did not spend their time pressuring the Washington establishment or engaging in sustained electoral campaigns. They instead sought to develop institutional pressure against the corporations and agencies that created the problems they sought to address. The policy changes emerged from the political maneuvering — notably by the targeted institutions — that resulted from this pressure.

Though only indirectly focused on the federal government, the 1960s movements, like the 1930s labor movement, resulted in progressive policy changes that had been unthinkable ten years earlier. They also led to significant changes in government institutions and capacities: an empowered NLRB by the late 1930s and a viable civil rights enforcement apparatus by the late 1960s.

All future presidents, regardless of party, would be constrained by those institutions (though the institutions would be subject to continual attack, and eventually weakened — a point to which we will return).

Corporations are not the only enemies of progressive reform. Sometimes the key interests blocking change are powerful governmental institutions like the Border Patrol, the NYPD, or the military leadership. Here again, the most effective strategy can be targeting the offending institution instead of elected officials.

Take, for example, the US withdrawal from Vietnam. Conventional interpretations hold that withdrawal resulted from congressional opposition to continued war (with varying degrees of credit given to the antiwar movement, public opinion, and individuals in Congress).

In reality, however, mass action targeting the US military was the decisive factor, bringing many top military commanders to welcome withdrawal even before Congress started taking its own halfhearted measures against the war. The sense that the war was not worth the financial cost also led to opposition from top corporate leaders, whose views were reflected in the advice of President Johnson’s “Wise Men” at the White House days before his March 31, 1968, speech announcing no new escalation.

The root cause of military and corporate leaders’ shift in attitude was the sustained and resilient resistance from the Vietnamese population. That resistance, in turn, helped catalyze rebellion within the ranks of the US military, leading to chronic personnel problems. By 1972, 47 percent of enlisted soldiers had engaged in “dissent or disobedience,” hundreds of thousands of draftees refused to report for induction, and conscientious objectors outnumbered inductees.

Although a landslide 1972 victory over antiwar candidate George McGovern gave Nixon cover to continue the war, the deepening institutional crisis of the army had already led a growing number of military leaders to advocate or consent to withdrawal. That shift in attitude, combined with growing business opposition, produced the US de-escalation and gradual exit between 1968 and 1973.

The 2011 withdrawal of US soldiers from Iraq was similar in many ways: mass action targeting the US military led to weakened commitment among military leaders, which was transmitted to elected officials. As in Vietnam, the most important disruptive force was the uncontrollable resistance (both violent and nonviolent) within Iraq. This resistance created huge strains on the US military, expressed in declining enlistment rates, low soldier morale, and the growth of organizations like Iraq Veterans Against the War and Courage to Resist.

When the Iraqi government — itself pressured by Iraqi resistance to the US presence — refused to grant immunity to US personnel, it was the Joint Chiefs of Staff who told first the Bush administration and then the Obama administration that withdrawal was preferable to allowing the Iraqi government to prosecute its soldiers.

In both withdrawals Congress, the president, and the party in power were relatively unimportant; military leaders made the ultimate decisions. This revisionist narrative has important implications for antiwar strategy in the future: impeding military recruitment, supporting resistance within the military, and increasing the costs of war for corporations may be the most effective approaches.

This emphasis on disruptive protest against key institutions does not mean that electing and targeting politicians is always unproductive. We are not arguing that the party in power makes no difference. But the influence of corporations and other large institutions means that the enactment and implementation of progressive policies may depend on first neutralizing that influence through direct pressure.

Beyond its impact on corporate and government policy, a strategy of targeting corporations has important advantages for movement building.

First, an anticorporate message has wide resonance among many people who will not vote for Democrats. The US public’s bipartisan distrust of big business is clear from opinion polls, and hostility is greatest toward the most parasitic sectors, notably fossil fuels, finance, and health insurance. Most people also think corporations have too much political influence (a 2013 Pew poll found that two-thirds of respondents felt government policies since the Great Recession had significantly benefited large banks, corporations, and wealthy at the expense of the non-elite).

Even most Republican voters think the minimum wage is far too low, as indicated by the success of wage-raising ballot measures in four “GOP states” last November. Movements targeting corporations can attract many of these voters if they do not ask them to support candidates or officials of the Democratic Party.

Second, movements that target corporations and government institutions are less susceptible to the cycle of misplaced faith and consequent disillusionment that tends to characterize party-based political activism.

We all know the pattern. Every few years, millions of liberals and progressives look to the Democrats to bring change. When they don’t, we get angry at Republican obstruction, and perhaps also at the Democrats, and watch in despair as Republican demagogues capitalize on popular anger in the next election.

Demoralization is less likely when a movement can empower people to challenge their real enemies: the corporations and other unaccountable institutions that govern so much of our lives. People tend to hold fewer illusions about these targets than they do about lofty-sounding politicians (perhaps partly for this reason, activism targeting corporations also tends to use more disruptive tactics, as a 2008 study in the American Journal of Sociology found).

Finally, this movement strategy may be more conducive to the long-term goal of promoting systemic change, since it focuses our anger and analysis on the institutions at the heart of capitalism, racism, patriarchy, and war.

Winning policy reforms, after all, is not enough: reforms are by definition tenuous since they leave intact the basic institutions and systems of society. As recent history makes painfully clear, labor protections and civil rights for black people have been subject to intense counter-attack by entrenched interests. Military withdrawals have not ended imperial violence.

Ultimately, only by destroying the old institutions and building more civilized ones in their place can we hope to safeguard the reform victories we win. And directly confronting the oppressive institutions that shape policy seems to advance this goal better than focusing on politicians.