I have read a few articles lately that have posited the viewpoint that if we, the politically active people, spend our time working on social issues like gay marriage and marijuana legalization then we are using time that could be more well spent doing union organizing and other things that would result in real economic gain for all Americans. And that if we focus on economic issues then the social issues will all be taken care of more easily when we are all better off. While there is definitely some truth to this I would like to argue for a more balanced view. I think the situation is actually a little more complex.
What has happened is this: over the past 30 years, the elite 400 people in America - who own so much and for the most part control the nation - have been able to accomplish a significant part of their goal by rolling back all of our rights and by lowering our standard of living so they can keep the excess capital for themselves. They do not need this capital, but they want to have it so that they can have more control. The reason this has occurred is the balance between haves and have nots has been upset. Under capitalism, both sides are supposed to always be fighting for a greater share of the capital which will give the people more rights and a higher standard of living, and give the rich more power and control. Since 1980, the people have, in large part, stopped participating in this fight. This is because one of the greatest strategies of the elite is to use the media to manipulate the people into behavior that will give the rich the upper hand.
Over the last 30 years, the elite have accomplished this by focusing the public’s attention on social issues that do not affect the struggle for capital and resources. So, most of the people’s energy has been focused on social issues such as abortion, gay rights, animal rights, identity politics, drug legalization, and many others. Now, the elite view these social issues as completely unimportant because they do not affect the outcome of the game (or at least very little). The rich purposely use the media to distract people into fighting for these issues that do not matter to them - thus siphoning off energy that could have been used by people in the game. So, since people have not been paying as much attention to the bread and butter economic issues, we have seen the fall of unionism, leading to longer hours, lower pay, fewer benefits, and an overall lower standard of living. This means less capital for the people and more for the elite.
Now, some thinkers among the people have started to realize this in the past few years. They have stood up and said, “Wait, we need to focus on economic issues, not social ones, because without capital the entire game is lost.” They are correct about this. In order for the people to return to the place of having any real power in society and having a decent life in the long run, they have only two choices. They either need to take control of enough capital to have power or they need to render capital worthless by eliminating it. That means we either have to overthrow capitalism completely or we have to take control of large amounts of capital.
The problem comes when the very well-intentioned thinkers go too far in the other direction and tell the people that the social issues do not matter and that only economic ones do - because this is not true. Economic issues are fundamental to any people, since the lack of economic power will eventually render all social issues meaningless. If one is starving, one tends not to worry so much about their gender identity. But to do this is to take the same strategy are rich but from the other side. And it is my supposition that we do not want to do this. The game of the rich is not necessarily our game. We want more out of life than just basic economic security.
As the labor movement of the last century figured out, just economics are not enough. In the Lawrence Massachusetts textile strike of 1912 led by the Industrial workers of the world (IWW), the workers asked for bread but roses too. After years of struggle the IWW figured out that just economics were not enough to make life worth living. In this strike, the roses meant beauty, art and joy - but I see the social issues to be like roses as well. They are not essential to survival or essential to getting the upper hand in the battle with the rich, but they are an important part of life.
In addition, social issues can help to inspire people and transform and radicalize their thinking. Many that end up working on hard economic issues began their activism with social issues that were close to their heart. Social issues can be very important in helping young people to enter into a life of social awareness.
In the end we need a more balanced approach. We do need to strategically focus the majority of our energy on the economic issues because they are so critical - but we also want to keep fighting the social battles as well because they are part of our zeitgeist. Just as the IWW found that we the people also want to focus our energy on art, fun, and joy, we now see that we also want to focus it on marijuana legalization, gay rights, and pro-choice. These social issues all help to define who we are as a people. It is not enough to simply survive. We must then build the type of world that we want to live in. We need bread, but we want roses too.