The Need in Social Work Community Organizing: Responding to Oligarchy with Access & Math

#SWNext #SocialWorkNext #Oligarchy


nobelplaqueThe Nobel prize for Economics was announced Monday. It went to Angus Deaton for work highlighting the mechanisms that perpetuate the wealth gap between the rich and the poor. It reminded me of one of the most troubling moments ever as a social worker. I cringe when I hear another social worker state that they don’t like Math, or when I hear a social work student complain about the Economics course requirement in their education. It is troubling because a thorough understanding of Math and Economics is exactly what is needed in our culture. Without this knowledge, social change agents are ill-equipped to address the status quo, collect indicators, calculate impact, and predict outcomes.

Activating the Power of the People

I have discussed the fact that oligarchy only thrives in the context of poverty and apathy. Of course, the poverty is a function of the lack of financial means. Apathy is a lack of engagement in the public discourse for fear that your voice is not enough. But, we face multiplier effects in the intersection of poverty and apathy. Consider that poverty with apathy supports the disdain even for knowledge that does not immediate fit into a solution to the most pressing current problem. Even beyond what Abraham Maslow termed the hierarchy of needs. Beyond the determination of thriving versus survival, poverty-with-apathy refuses knowledge.

Poverty-with-apathy accepts the explanation that the systems are too complex to understand. You hear this in news reports on financial derivatives lamenting, “No one knows how these packages are constructed.” Not true! They are constructed by mathematical formulas that we can review. Access would mean revealing those formulas to any requesting individual. But, apathy makes that list short.

apathy-i-dont-careMy point is that even our rhetoric presupposes inaction and acquiesces to a lack of access. We become resolved that we do not have power to change the status quo. The solution is to reclaim access to knowledge, but also relationships, roles, and mechanisms.

The People’s Math

The first discipline on the chopping block is Math. Consider that oligarchy is most simply defined as rule by a small number of individuals. How would it be possible for a small number of individuals to persist without the active consent of the large numbers of others? Math tells us that the larger numbers would surely not accept that the smaller numbers would rule without their consent. Yet, somehow it works.

Math does not say that the proposition is less difficult. But, it does provide multiple ways to present an explanation. The following two statements are facts based on the same mathematical calculation, but present two very different propositions. One presents a focus on money, individualism and consumerism. The other presents a focus on people, collectivism and producer-ism.


Individualism and consumerism: Top 20% of Americans own 93% of Wealth


Collectivism and producer-ism: 109,268,569 (80% of 2014 tax payers) with community value to gain from tax code fairness.


The Challenge to Overcome

  1. Mis-education. Consider that the great challenge is not poor education. That can be overcome with personal responsibility for learning. The great challenge is mis-education—an approach that teaches them the rules, but never reveals that it is an arbitrary game.
  2. Negative Competition. Life and financial success is not a zero-sum game. Your success does not depend on my failure. We are not competing to get our piece of the pie. We can participate in the bakery that is the financial markets.
  3. Perhaps the most versatile of the challenges, distraction has many forms. From sensationalism to propaganda, from entertainment to leisure, from vacations to self-endulgence it is all more comfortable than the work and self-examination required by the truth.
  4. Perhaps the most effective of the challenges, institutionalization is invisible to the casual observer. It is the ability to certify what is right, acceptable, scholarly, and worthy without identifying the individual or bias that created the rules.

The Access to Overcome Oligarchy

  1. Universal Education that focuses on empowerment, inquiry, logic, and the creative in addition to empirically-based facts and established wisdom. Include a curriculum based on navigation and leverage in what matters including financial literacy, health literacy, systemic change, human synergy including family development, social enterprise development, and collective action.
  2. Emphasize the value and import of social capital and alternate economic systems like barter and trade. Supporting the conversation of advancement as a challenge and support to the advancement of another. Not “get your piece of the pie,” but “patronize the bakery and keep it in business so that everyone can get their favorite baked good.” Otherwise known as social good baked into the societal loaf.
  3. Seek to produce as well as consume with the purpose of connecting with and influencing markets. Promote social good from inside the market mechanism as a producer as well as outside the system as a consumer.
  4. Means of Production. Awaken to the mechanisms of human life, discourse, and policy making. Recognize the ability of each individual to create, spin, and disseminate information. Approach new knowledge with voracity, and also place it in the context of multiple sources with test of utility for social good.