‘A Freedom Budget for All Americans: Recapturing the Promise of the Civil Rights Movement in the Struggle for Economic Justice Today’ reviewed by Hans G Despain

Reviewed by Hans G Despain

About the reviewer

Hans G Despain is Professor of Economics and Department Chair at Nichols College, Massachusetts. He …


This moment in history is most remarkable. The Road to Serfdom is austerity. Austerity lies shattered (Blyth 2014), and at the same time implemented throughout the world, leaving working people beaten down and battered. For decades wages and benefits in the US and other countries have stagnated and declined for the majority of occupations. Massive corporations and capital mobility dominate the global order constituting twenty-first century imperialism and socioeconomic precariousness for working populations (Standing 2011, 2014). US Banks (and billionaires) received bailouts on the grounds they are “too-big-to-fail.” European banks are “too-big-to-bail.” The financial crisis and billionaire bailouts generated, as usual, massive sovereign debt crises. Protests across the globe erupted in 2011. The focus was primarily on the vast inequality between the “99% and 1%.” Governments proceeded by slashing public spending, increased age requirements for pensions, development and infrastructure projects postponed or abandoned, minimum wage lowered, government employees laid-off, social welfare programs cut.

In this new world order of financial dystopia instead of banks operating to serve the economy, the economy operates to serve banks. Neo-serfdom emerges with tithes and taxes imposed in the form of financial interest and fees placing citizens in debt for an entire human life span (Lazzarato 2012, 2015)

The undemocratic practice of austerity budgets and the financial debt-peonage of individuals will continue to breed civil unrest. What is the alternative to the insanity of austerity and debt? It is not enough to complain about inequality. Lowering CEO pay, or imposing an increase on capital gains taxes are not enough. New financial regulations are too easily dismantled. Perhaps what is needed is a New New Deal (Grunwald 2012). Perhaps the Great Transformation (Polanyi 1944) that wasn’t, is happening now.

A New New Deal (à la Grunwald 2012 or Krugman 2012) fails economically; capitalism is no alternative (Despain 2013) and a New New Deal policy is not capable of overcoming the stagnation quagmire that is capitalism (Despain forthcoming). Any hope of a Great Transformation is not only politically blocked, but also currently unpalatable to the public. We need a political point of entry to publically question the economic premises and injustices of capitalism as a mode of production and politics challenge the spectacular failures of capitalism as a system of distribution.

Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates have recently identified a political point of entry that has the potential to galvanize wide public support and focus political discussion and debate on the most glaring (historical) weaknesses of capitalism as a mode of production and to begin to nudge public awareness toward the deep contradictory ontology that is capitalism.

The point of entry is the notion of “A Freedom Budget.” Instead of a federal budget geared toward neo-serfdom, Le Blanc and Yates offer a federal budget proposal that lays the structural conditions for “freedom.” Indeed, they do not invent the idea afresh. Civil rights activists proposed “A freedom budget for all Americans” in the 1960s (89-126).

In this sense there are two distinct but dialectically related elements to Le Blanc and Yates’ book. First they provide a remarkably rich, well-documented and well-written history of the first “Freedom Budget.” Second, they argue for reinitiating “A New Freedom Budget.” In other words, the study of the movement for the initial Freedom Budget is not simply historically significant, it has radical political economic and philosophical “relevance for our own time” (127). We can add a third distinct, but dialectically related, element of the book, namely the relationship between reformism and revolution (17-19).

The original freedom budget, advocated from 1966 to 1968, was couched explicitly as not socialist (15). Rather it was promoted as a type of promise that public-interventionist-capitalism could provide stable employment, adequate incomes, health and retirement benefits, decent housing, clean air and water, and educational benefits for all (244-5). Many on the left interpreted the Freedom Budget as placative reformism (118), a mere extension of Roosevelt’s New Deal and Johnson’s Great Society policies to prolong the exploitative and predatory tendencies of capitalism (9).

Le Blanc and Yates insist that it is mistake to reduce the economic dimensions and political implications to mere reformism (16). Its potential was far more radical, educative, and potentially emancipatory (9). To be sure, Le Blanc and Yates accept the reformist dimension of the (New) Freedom Budget. It was (and is today) a commitment to a type of domestic Marshall Plan (111). But its potential is far more radical. In brief, it is primarily the reform struggle process that engenders and forms a radical class-consciousness (17). It is only by somehow radicalizing the masses (182) that revolutions and emancipation from social injustices happen (238).

My reading of this book implicitly underscores the demonstration of the radicalization of the civil rights movement in the real meaning of the term radical, i.e. getting to root causes both philosophically and concretely or politically.

The emergence of the civil rights movement was initially a struggle against Jim Crow laws that legally and institutionally segregated whites and blacks in a “separate but equal” institutional system (21-8). The civil disobedience of the struggles against the injustice and abuses of Jim Crow laws began to have significant success (32). Civil rights leaders, student activitists, and socialists in particular (14) became increasingly aware, and more effectively potent in arguing, that the ultimate answer for African Americans had to address a transformation away from the exploitative and predatory system of production and the institutional structure of capitalism (92, 106). The problems facing African Americans came to be understood as not just the legal and institutional structures of Jim Crow, but as rooted in the socioeconomic order. Wherefore, society’s failures to meet the needs of African Americans are even more deeply rooted in the failures of capitalism to meet human needs generally (110).

The philosophical, theoretical, political, and historical work of thinkers such as W.E.B Du Bois, C.L.R. James and George Rawick (22) began to have an impact on 1960s’ civil rights activists, such as in the writings and activism of Thomas Kahn, Michael Harrington, and other “cadres” (60-70). The notion of cadres refers “to experienced activists, educated in political [economic] theory, analytically oriented, with practical organizational skills, who are able [to] attract and train new recruits and contribute to expanding efforts in broader movements and larger struggles” (289, n. 37). These cadres are essential both to the on-the-street struggles and to help educate and enlighten people toward an understanding of the contradictory and stagnation tendencies that are capitalism. Le Blanc and Yates point out that this is a historical process of philosophical enlightenment and political empowerment that begins to resonate, by the effort of reformist struggles, with the general population and politicians.

Reformism can generate revolution. Following the 1963 civil rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, central civil rights leaders A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King, Jr. advanced in 1966, A Freedom Budget for All Americans. King had himself articulated a labor solidarity position as early as 1958, when he wrote in Stride Toward Freedom, “Both Negro and white workers are equally oppressed. For both, the living standards need to be raised” (46). King adds that at some point Americans must ask why one out of four Americans are poor. He reasons, “when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy” (47).

By 1968 King underscored the importance of dealing with “class issues” of the privileged over against the underprivileged of all races. He contended “there is something wrong with the economic system of our nation … something wrong with capitalism” (44). By 1967 King contended that across “the globe, men [of all races] are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression” (150). King’s language leaves little doubt that C.L.R. James was right to declare King in fundamental agreement with Marxist-Leninist ideas (44). In his 1967 statement on the Vietnam War, King declared Americans needed to “undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society” (149). King insisted that “there must be a better [system of] distribution of wealth, and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism” (44).

King was hardly alone, or even the main voice of the effort for the Freedom Budget (89-126). Space prohibits me from outlining the brilliantly rich history of names and events documented by Le Blanc and Yates. Furthermore, my intention is to underscore the contemporary relevance.

The struggle for the Freedom Budget was ultimately unsuccessful (145-79). This defeat, argue Le Blanc and Yates, was in part because the promoters of the Freedom Budget down-played its anti-capitalism and revolutionary potential. They believe this was a mistake. Moreover, they contend that it was a mistake for the proposal to be neutral toward the Vietnam War. The vast majority of the originators were privately and publically opposed to the war. Nonetheless, they thought an anti-war position in the Freedom Budget would alienate support from both politicians and AFL-CIO. Le Blanc and Yates point out this was a strategic mistake in that anti-war movement gained traction and public support while the Freedom Budget lost traction and never gained public support. In spite of these historical mistakes and twists of fate of the initial Freedom Budget, the lesson that is brought forward by Le Blanc and Yates is that a revolutionary moment requires a revolutionary thrust to accomplish change, most often through the process of reform, struggle, and enlightenment.

So the question can be asked: are the current circumstances ripe for a New Freedom Budget? According to Le Blanc and Yates the answer is yes. After the resurgence of conservativism and a hegemonic era of neo-liberalism (186-94) “capitalism hit the fan” (Wolff 2012) manifesting the 2007 Great financial crisis. We have entered a watershed moment. In addition to the 2011 occupies, (and after the publication of Le Blanc and Yates’ book) urban populations in US are protesting and rioting after the killing of young black men by police officers. The phenomenon is not new. Hundreds of people are shot each year, almost 2 people every single day in the US are shot and killed by police officers. Many are black. So why are the rioting and protests happening now in 2014/15? I believe it is a rise in radical consciousness. In spite of the popular media accounts, many protesters understand the problem is deeper than police brutality, it is a legal system corrupted by a dysfunctional economic system that fails to provide the most basic of provisions to 40% of Americans.

Le Blanc and Yates are correct: we are living in a potentially revolutionary moment. Capitalism is dominated by oligopolized capital. The crisis of 2007 has been “endless” and the financial system unstable. The labor markets are fissured, unemployment is high, underemployment even higher (197-9). Employment precarious, whereby we now theorize about “The Precariat” as a “new dangerous class” (Standing 2011, 2014). Incomes of the majority of Americans are insufficient (199-203). The US housing situation is plagued by inadequate and substandard housing (203-6). Debt levels of American households unprecedented (Lazzarato 2012, 2015). Inequality of income and wealth at a historical high (Piketty 2014). The environment, existence of the human species, earth itself are all at risk (216-7). Stagnation is the normal state of oligopolized capitalism, period (Despain forthcoming). The first time since Eugene Debs the US has a major presidential candidate, in Bernie Sanders, openly declaring himself a “socialist.”

The revolutionary potential of this generation is very high. Le Blanc and Yates draw radical lessons from their study of the initial Freedom Budget effort in 1966-8. First they urge activists to stay committed to a radical thrust and directly challenge the structure of capitalism in all reform efforts. The overly conciliatory effort of the authors of first Freedom Budget as not socialistic was a mistake (181). The US capitalist economy “had failed miserably,” radical boldness and structural critique of capitalism is necessary to form alliances from the “street.” “To rely on bureaucratized union officialdom was to build on sand” (183). The precariat class, the militant element, and cadres, are far more important allies, than courting an uncommitted liberal element in the AFL-CIO and political structure deeply embedded in and committed to oligopoly capital.

The radical posture should always demand “much more than can be won at any particular time” (182). The basic objectives a New Freedom Budget should reflect current socioeconomic conditions. Le Blanc and Yates contend a New Freedom Budget must struggle to win (224-41):

  1. Full employment, jobs for all willing and able to work
  2. Adequate income for all who are employed
  3. A guaranteed minimum of income for all
  4. Adequate and safe housing for all
  5. Health care for all
  6. Educational opportunity, debt free, for all
  7. Secure and expanded socioeconomic infrastructure
  8. Secure and expanded Social Security, lowering the retirement age
  9. Food security for all
  10. A sustainable environment
  11. Cultural freedom and enrichment for all
  12. Reduction in inequality of income and wealth

We should not apology for the fact that these goals question the very structure of oligopolized capitalism. Capitalism’s failure to provide these basic needs condemns it as no alternative. We should not apologize for the fact these proposals imply something akin to socialism.

We will need “to educate the public about the merits of the plan and the nature of the society in which it is being proposed” (182). In the context of capitalism’s failures we can win battles toward democracy in the workplace and economic freedom for all. We must emphasis there is no return to normal (Galbraith 2014). We must underscore the fact, stagnation is the normal state of oligopolized capitalism (Despain 2015) and we can condemn capitalism as no alternative (Despain 2013).

3 July 2015


  • Blyth, Mark. 2014 Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Despain, Hans G. 2013 It’s the System Stupid: Structural Crises and the Need for Alternatives to Capitalism Monthly Review No. 6, November, 39-44.
  • Despain, Hans G. Forthcoming/[August Forthcoming/[August 2015] Secular Stagnation: Mainstream Versus Marxian Traditions Monthly Review
  • Galbraith, James. K. 2014 The End of Normal: The Great Crisis and the Future of Growth New York Simon & Schuster.
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  • Standing, Guy. 2014 A Precariat Charter: From Denizens to Citizens London: Bloomsbury Academic Press
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  • Wolff, Richard D. 2013 Capitalism Hits the Fan: The Global Economic Meltdown and What to Do About It Northampton MA: Olive Branch Press.

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