Rev. Barber says capitalism has failed, new politics needed
Bishop William Barber spoke to People's World ahead of his departure for a Vatican conference on building coalitions among religious communities hosted by Pope Francis. | AP photos

“Interlocking fusion movements, regardless of faith” are needed to unite and help lift the world’s billions of poor and low-wealth people, Bishop the Rev. William Barber II, founder and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, will tell a special Vatican-sponsored conference on October 3.

And Barber expects Pope Francis I—another outspoken advocate for lifting the economic chains from workers, the poor, and the near-poor—to pay heed.

After all, the Pope had Vatican economist Jeffrey Sachs, the head of the conference and Francis’s top economic adviser, specifically invite Barber to address the meeting at the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. The meeting coincides with the birthday of St. Francis, the church’s most famous saintly advocate for the poor of medieval Europe.

Barber previewed his remarks in an exclusive telephone interview with People’s World before leaving for the Oct. 3-4 conference in Rome. There, religious leaders will discuss “Coalition-Building And Religious Communities”—unity the Poor People’s Campaign has consistently championed in the U.S.

“I’ve been asked to talk about why it’s necessary to have these interlocking fusion movements,” he explained, adding the concept stretches back to the preaching and teaching of Christ, as well as the Jewish prophets preceding him.

“The trickle-down economy and neoliberalism are taking down our country and undermining our ability to face the problems of poverty and low-wealth people,” he explained, emphasizing he’s speaking on their behalf. Those economic powers have “a footprint across the world,” Barber added.

The Poor People’s Campaign is playing a leading role in the fight to pass the Build Back Better Act. Here, Rev. Angela B. Martin holds up a sign during the ‘Moral March on Manchin and McConnell,’ a rally held by the Poor People’s Campaign, calling on them to eliminate the legislative filibuster in Washington, June 23, 2021. | Caroline Brehman / CQ Roll Call via AP

“The Pope gets it. They (the Vatican) are very clear that poverty occurs not because people are immoral, but because of immoral systems that have been created.”

Barber will brief his religious colleagues about “economic conditions in the U.S.” and the Poor People’s Campaign’s goals and platform, which has attracted wide U.S. ecumenical support. He also wants to see more and higher Catholic leadership participation in the campaign. The PPC speaks for at least 140 million poor and low-wealth people, 42% of the nation.

Among other goals, the Poor People’s Campaign advocates workers’ rights, including the right to organize, a $15 federal minimum wage and a union, comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legalization and citizenship, and a 50% cut in U.S. military spending—with the money redirected to housing, health, education, and other human needs.

“You can’t have a country spend 20-some trillion dollars” on the military since the al-Qaeda attacks of 20 years ago “and then say you can’t address the problems of poverty,” he said in the Sept. 30 interview with the World.

Interlocking religious fusion movements, Barber added, would also help the “right of the poor” to achieve living standards they need and deserve, and which capitalist societies and political choices often deny them. “Poverty is about choices” political leaders make, he said, repeating a frequent comment.

The Poor People’s Campaign also advocates combatting systemic racism and white nationalism, as well as false fealty to exploitation.

Many of the campaign’s goals are congruent with what Francis has been preaching and teaching even before he became Pope and especially since he ascended to the post.

Barber noted Francis’s latest encyclical again denounced unbridled capitalism’s repression of human beings. Portions of that encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, were in the Pope’s talks at a prior Vatican conference on the environment Barber attended several years ago, as a delegate, not a speaker.

“‘Opening up to the world’ is an expression co-opted by the economic and financial sector and is now used exclusively of openness to foreign interests or to the freedom of economic powers to invest without obstacles or complications in all countries. Local conflicts and disregard for the common good are exploited by the global economy,” the Pope said in Fratelli Tutti.

“There are markets where individuals become mere consumers or bystanders. As a rule, the advance of this kind of globalism strengthens the identity of the more powerful, who can protect themselves, but it tends to diminish the identity of the weaker and poorer regions, making them more vulnerable and dependent. In this way, political life becomes increasingly fragile in the face of transnational economic powers that operate with the principle of ‘divide and conquer.’”

In that encyclical, Barber said in a prepared statement before he left for Rome, Francis “made clear the ‘magic theories’ of market capitalism have failed and the world needs a new type of politics that ‘promotes dialogue and solidarity and rejects war at all costs.’ He agrees with the poor people of this nation: We need a moral revolution of values.”

And Barber expects pastoral delegates even from poor nations will join the call for mass fusion movements, rather than look askance at a pastor from the richest country of the world talking about its own poor. “They have real poverty, but they will hear us challenging that, too,” he added.

He’s also going to invite his colleagues to the mass march on Washington that the Poor People’s Campaign has planned for June 18, 2022—or to host their own marches in their countries that day.

But Barber will also tell the Vatican conference of some frustrations the poor and low-wealth people have with political allies.

One is that Democratic President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better $3.5 trillion 10-year plan to vastly strengthen the social safety net in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic’s ravages isn’t big enough.

“The real question ought to be where you stand with respect to the children, where you stand with the people who are called ‘essential’ and then deemed expendable,” Barber explained.

Barber will also tell the Vatican conference of some frustrations the poor have with their political allies. Here, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at the Poor People’s Campaign’s Moral Action Congress presidential forum in Washington, June 17, 2019. | Susan Walsh / AP

“We’ve been saying that directly to his (Biden’s) handlers,” Barber said. But Biden has yet to bring Barber and PPC members to the Oval Office. “Poor people have got to show who we are and what we are,” he said.

“They want to talk about poor people, but not talk to poor people at all.”

If there was such a meeting, with Poor People’s Campaigners directly participating, Biden could then come out with “moral agency” and articulate those goals and how his agenda would fulfill them, Barber believes.

Biden, however, agreed with the Poor People’s Campaign and its goals in a speech and dialogue with PPC members during a 2020 campaign appearance in North Carolina, which Barber acknowledged.

Another frustration Barber and the campaign have with supposedly sympathetic politicians—which he’ll tell Vatican conference delegates about—is their tendency to split issues. By contrast, the campaign’s platform realizes issues are intertwined. “Voting rights and economic issues are all interlocking,” as an example, he said. But politicians “want to isolate us into little pockets.

“And lastly, they want us to jump and do flip-flops when they do little things for you,” he says. “If we give people child care tax credits, but not living wages, you can’t end poverty.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.