In December 2013 David Marty did an extensive interview with Michael Albert. We present it in nine parts – of which this is the sixth. Other parts address: Radicalization, Media, Debating Vision, Venezuela, Occupy and IOPS, Fanfare, Chomsky, and a conclusion.
Occupy What, Where, How, and Why
I know you visited many sites of the Occupy movement in the U.S., and around the world, for example, in Spain, where I helped you attend, speak, etc., in 2011. What did you find was common from place to place, and what was different?
I went to many places, often due to being in the vicinity on a speaking tour., as in Spain. I guess the main sites I saw and talked to folks at were various cities in the U.S., and then in London, Dublin, and Edinburgh, Brussels, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, and Valencia, Athens, Istanbul, and perhaps a few others. I don’t want to exaggerate my contact with activists in each place – I was often just passing through for a day or two, attending some events, talking to participants, and giving a talk or interview or two myself. Certainly nothing sustained.
The most obvious commonality I saw was pretty evident to everyone. The whole series of events, across many countries, evidenced a surge of anger against the pains of capitalism in general, and particularly the recent economic and social crisis.
Beyond that, I think the basic choices were also largely similar. Crowd into public spaces. Set up tents. Hold public assemblies. Take care of services and circumstances for those involved. Ward off attacks. In time, generate spin off projects, marches, and the like.
Another commonality was the lack of demands and the very widespread desire to avoid organizational commitments. An anti reformist and anti co-optive sentiment spanned the events. So too, participants were committed to anti authoritarian decision making, often by consensus, typically at public forums.
Difficulty with sexism and with fostering growing participation, problems with some internal criminality, and after a time problems with a steady diminution rather than a continual growth of energy and numbers of people involved, were also common elements, as was dealing with media machinations and police repression.
One thing that differed from case to case was people’s understanding of what they themselves were doing, and sometimes even why they were going it, ant this was true not only from country to country, but even within one country, or one city, or one occupied square. To an extent such diversity can be good, fueling new lessons, fostering experimentation, etc. But when variety of motives and aims causes a least common denominator message and slows down and even precludes large scale activity, then it is not so good. And when it causes the endeavors to have great difficulty talking convincingly to people outside the demonstrations, that is also not good.
All of those movements today have pretty much disintegrated. The May 15th 2011 movement in Spain still exists in some way. I think it would be fair to say that it has become little more than an empty shell. Has the same thing happened in the US? How do you explain the decline? Have the popular movements changed in nature? Have they been manipulated from outside?
To some degree things remain active in that particular people, schooled or re-aroused during the earlier and more massively and visibly active period, remain active and even pivotal in lots of ongoing projects. Some of these efforts are related to the original occupations, like the various projects around housing. Other efforts are distinct, say, on-going anti war work, though they are based on some of the same people. But, yes, when you consider the scope and breadth of what occurred for a brief time just a few years back, only a small fraction of that remains. I hope more is subterranean, burrowing, and waiting to re-erupt in new shapes, but that isn’t obvious – though there are some very promising indicators – as for example, in the U.S., minimum wage battles, Walmart organizing, etc.
So what happened? Well, my own take would be that some of the very positive underlying feelings common to the occupations regrettably took behavioral shapes that interfered with and diminished prospects for longevity and continued growth and enrichment. The idea that folks didn’t want to get caught up in fruitless negotiations, or to imply that some modest change was all that was needed to satisfy them, was good and warranted – as was a desire for participation and for sharing conditions and responsibilities. But these very desirable sentiments frequently took damaging shapes. For example, there was little push toward shared views much less shared agendas. There was little solidification of organization that could transcend the public spaces themselves to last into the future. There was relatively little effort to find ways to seriously involve people who could not occupy the public spaces. These are not small matters. Consciousness raising and construction of lasting organization are ultimately more important than what monopolized everyone’s attention, which was the day to day details of holding a public space. Indeed, they are what could have and should have led the initial act of occupying spaces into lasting gains.
Some people would say they don’t feel identified with such movements as Occupy or the 15M in Spain and that even if they share the same grievances they don’t want to participate in those. Do you understand those who say that?
I can’t be sure who you have in mind, but there are many reasons why someone might say that. Certainly most people were in no position to literally camp in public spaces. People have jobs, families, and especially children or elderly parents to care for. Other people are themselves older, and less able to manage such strenuous activity. A better approach, from very nearly the outset, would have been to try to maintain, to the extent it made sense, the occupations of public spaces – which of course generated momentum, camaraderie, and visibility – even while also working toward ways for many more people to meet and participate where they live or where they work.
Another factor was very likely that most people found the discussions in the occupations, which seemed so germane and even inspiring to many who were highly involved – quite off putting. Discussions seemed, no doubt, to many, very in group-ish, full of jargon, and often even hostile and obnoxious in being dismissive of contrary views. I saw this at all the sites I visited and these kinds of relations can cripple prospects of people staying involved, even while folks who are staying are pretty much oblivious that the problems are occurring. I remember watching lines of men getting up to speak – each one saying nothing new, often talking in a jargon most folks wouldn’t be able to relate to, and often saying things highly denigrating to the life choices of normal folks. Yet, the most arcane speakers sadly seemed to carry the most status - and the realistic and relevant women and others who were trying to actually speak about people’s lives without rhetorical flourish, garnering little respect and attention. I am sure you experienced much of this.
Some people say those movements are “too leftist”. What do you make of that?
Well the pessimistic assessment would be that the phrase “too leftist” identifies what it seems to – that is, that most people find criticism of elites, of the 1%, of corporations, and so on, too radical for them. But I doubt that is actually what it means. The same people who say it, will often rail at corporations, government, and elites generally, when talking with their friends, often more aggressively than the occupations did. I think that instead the phrase “too leftist” stands for too obnoxious, too judgmental, too academic, too sectarian, too male, too white, and so on – with different concerns in mind for different people who might say “too leftist.”
In recent history, for example, the same kind of dynamic surrounded the label feminist. The term feminist became identified not with what it actually refers to, but, instead, with whatever the person employing it did not like in what they took to be, or what the media told them was, feminist activism, even if the behavior was manifested only on the fringes of feminism, or even only in caricatures offered by anti feminist media.
Similarly, what you describe is a little like someone saying something is too anarchist – as a reason for not being involved. They don’t mean that they don’t like what characterizes Chomsky the anarchist, or Kropotkin the anarchist. They have in mind, instead, too mindless, too violent, too dismissive of others, and so on. These negatives become identified with anarchism, or with being on the left – and then any sign of such ills, even if the signs are quite marginal – much less if they are very prominent – becomes a reason to run for the hills – running away from a left which one should be part of and one should help fix.
For me, a song Bob Dylan wrote a long time ago, “Farewell Angelina,” poetically revealed the devastating effect of these types of dynamics on Dylan’s and many other people’s participation. Such rejections – too left, too feminist, too anarchist – occur, often even tearfully, when disgust at or fear of the ills of the left, which ills one often experiences first hand, swamp one’s consciousness and foreclose trying to improve daily life by transforming institutions. The desire for change and one’s horror at mainstream injustice remains, but folks pull back to join more mainstream efforts to deal with it, or they simply become cynical, or very private. “I must go where it is quiet.”
The organized radical and revolutionary opposition – the feminists, anti capitalists, anti imperialists, anarchists, and others that have clear views on current society – though not often on what they are seeking – comes across to most people as strident, dismissive, callous, elitist, and generally not nice to be around much less to be part of. Sure, some folks are ideologically anti left and they reject Occupy for being “too left,” because they instead support the status quo. But I think most people who say the occupy movements were too left were saying something more like what I imply above, plus, especially, that it was too irrelevant in the sense of leading nowhere positive, to bother trying to join it to overcome its faults.
I would have to say the only promising and hopeful response to such dismissive feelings about our efforts is to try to change our actions so that people no longer feel these ways. Ultimately, there is no point blaming the people who are repelled by the left, or blaming media who magnify the left’s faults and ignore its virtues. There is only a point in trying to do better – including forcing better results from media.
A different way of saying the same thing is that while certainly the mainstream media aggravates this situation, people’s negative impressions of left activities really do have some weight. Ironically, this is also a promising thing, because it means we could fix the situation. If the best we could, ourselves, ever hope to generate is to repeat Occupy – because everything done was already done as well as it could be done – that would be a depressing situation. If there are real flaws we can uncover and address, that is hopeful.
What do you think have been the accomplishments of the Occupy movement? What has changed since its height?
Writ large, I think it was a mass outpouring that put the idea of poverty and wealth being two sides of one rich person’s coin back on the table. It also moved lots of people into activism, often for the first time, and the experience laid a foundation that further activity can tap. Of course, the downside is that if the experience was negative, or if it left a participant skeptical of future involvement, the memories of Occupy could bolster passivity instead of providing fertile basis for new rounds of resistance. It is very hard to tell which effect dominates.
Locally, there were and there continue to be other gains, but of course only local folks know about them – which is another failing of our work, this time regarding too little communication of lessons learned so that others can also learn from them.
Still, if we are honest, and if we look at the world since the height of Occupy, my guess is that the lasting impact was substantial but also way less than needed. Occupy did not improve the conditions of very many people very much. It built little lasting movement and organizational structure. Not surprisingly, then, in many places, it is the right, not the left, that is at least momentarily ascendant. Though there are exceptions – including in the U.S. – such as some recent left electoral gains in NYC and Seattle – unsurprisingly two centers of left activism – and emergent labor movements among service workers, Walmart employees, in the aerospace industry, etc.
What do you think needs to happen for us to get real, long lasting, social change? Another Occupy type of movement? If that is the case, what needs to be different this time?
Long lasting change certainly requires lots of people in motion. Elites don’t spontaneously enact changes that reduce their own power and wealth to deliver power and wealth to working people. Nor do small numbers of active dissenters cause them to give in. Near term change requires many people resisting, which means many people raising social costs for elites that the elites decide are too high to bear – so they give in and make changes. When you say another Occupy type movement, I assume you mean, more outpourings of lots of people, and of course, that is part of what is needed.
But consider two things. First, if there are thousands or even millions of people aroused and acting, what kind of threat does it pose for elites? If the threat to them is really large, then they will want to make changes to get the aroused people to back off so as to forestall the danger of even greater dissent. So, even just in the short term, the question we need to answer is what can make people who are aroused and acting into a real and escalating threat that elites want to reduce?
Well, numbers is one factor, to be sure. And visible and strong dissent is a second factor, of course. But perhaps the biggest factor is the trajectory of the numbers and the activism. Does participation appear likely to keep escalating in size and commitment? Does the activism seem likely to go beyond addressing some particular policy changes to also address the basic fabric of the whole social system? Is the threat just immediate dissident anger, or is the threat a developing pattern of anger which could become much worse, from the perspective of elites?
That said, our question becomes – what makes a large opposition appear to be on a possibly system threatening trajectory, and thus something that elites need to curb, even if it means they must give in on various issues? My answer is that the opposition has to appear coherent, committed, and continually growing, and has to display desires that are continually diversifying and becoming more systemic.
So, at least by that logic, new outpourings, to win serious gains, need to communicate a compelling warning of where they may go – which means they have to be reaching successfully into the broader population, they have to be steadily developing greater commitment, and they have to be developing their focus to not only seek various policy changes – which are demands they want met – but also to address social institutions.
Longer term, the issue is, will the movement persist? Will it win changes, and then of course fall off somewhat when the changes are granted, but come back stronger, seeking more changes. If repressed, is it poised to diminish or to grow larger? For continuity and resilience there needs to be, and this is also extremely threatening to elites for the same reasons, an emergence of lasting structure and a steadily increasing coherence of aims.
It is of course difficult – but if we imagine another upsurge in Spain, Greece, or the U.S. or nearly anywhere, and it seeks specific changes, on the one hand, but is also clearly moving toward greater unity about long term visionary aims, and if it starts to generate or enlarge lasting counter institutions and movement organization, and if it reaches into the broad citizenry, then it will very likely win the important and lasting social changes it is immediately demanding, and, as well, if it is not bought off by its victories (which means if the visionary aims are tenacious enough and deep enough to persist beyond limited immediate gains) to also win additional changes and ultimately new social relations at the very core of society.
IOPS Today and Tomorrow
What is IOPS? Is there any link between IOPS and the popular movements we’ve seen in the US and Europe? I should mention before we get into this that, as you know, I am an active member, very vested in it, and will want to ask quite a lot on this topic – I hope that is okay.
Sure, it’s fine. The initials stand for International Organization for a Participatory Society which has been an effort to create an international organization which would be a federation of national components, which would in turn each be a federation of city and otherwise local components. The idea was – and remains – to in time have not only branches in countries and then smaller chapters in cities, but also even smaller chapters in schools, neighborhoods, and workplaces.
As to a connection from Occupy to IOPS, yes and no. There is a actually a link, in my thinking, between pretty much every left endeavor and every other. Sometimes this is antagonistic, sometimes it is supportive. Sometimes it is explicit and strong, sometimes only implicit and weak.
In the case of IOPS and Occupy, I think the link is quite significant. A good many people who have joined IOPS were quite active in Occupy in various countries, like yourself, for example. More significant perhaps, I think IOPS shares a great many beliefs and methods with elements of Occupy writ large, albeit made a lot more explicit and specific in IOPS.
I also think it is no accident, for example, that while there are people in IOPS from 100 countries, many of the largest memberships are in places where Occupy and related activities have been most visible. Arguably both are effects of the same cause, but I think Occupy itself has also been a cause.
Why do we need an organization, any organization at all?
An organization can help people share inspiration and aspiration. It can help us move from disparate to coherent activities and to develop shared insights and mutual aid, and to preserve and learn from our experiences.
An organization is also a means to enjoy the benefits of collectivity. Organization is for attaining continuity, shared values, and collective aims. It is for recruiting, training, and combining energies.
Having many movements, many campaigns, many projects and events, is essential. But having means for all these to share insights and bring their energies to each other’s aid in shared campaigns is also essential.
To reject authoritarian, racist, sexist, or classist organization is certainly warranted, especially if there is no progress being made toward being better. But to reject organization per se is like giving up eating to avoid harmful food. Not only is some food not harmful, but to give up good food along with what is harmful is biologically suicidal. Similarly, not only is some organization not harmful, to give up worthy organization is politically suicidal.
So is that why you became involved, actually, why you got the ball rolling?
Yes, basically. I sort of looked forward into the future asking myself, will we have to have a new organization, spanning countries, formed at some point, playing an important role, all the way into the creation of a new society? Looking forward is a blurry picture, of course, but I thought and still think I can see that much. Organization isn’t the only thing we need, but it is one thing, and I felt it was time to try to make it happen. So I used ZNet’s facilities and connections, and one’s built up over time, of course, to probe for interest, and then I enlisted various folks to help it begin, and then others got engaged, a site was created, and so on.
Some people I talk with ask, “but why should I join an organization? I seek action, not organization.” I imagine you have encountered the same sentiment, often. How do you answer?
Honestly, it probably depends on my mood. I might get snippy, not a positive thing, because the formulation really is absurd. Organization is not anti-action. Organization is all about action, not least by providing a means to give action shared clarity, collective support, informed focus, and the insights of accumulated wisdom.
Organization is about acting collectively in light of insights preserved from past lessons. It is about increasing the number of people prepared to act and facilitating their doing so together.
To fear that organization might weigh down action with useless bickering or with norms that would consign activists to boring self recriminations, or, for that matter, with dumb commitments, is certainly warranted. And so, yes, if someone looks at IOPS – or any other organizational effort – and feels that that is what the particular organization would do, then of course he or she should not join the organization. But if someone looks and feels that it looks like an organization that can, if we are careful, collectively help establish really desirable results, then he or she should seriously consider joining.
Some say, “why shouldn’t I just join an organization in my local area? Why should I be in an international organization?” Again, no doubt you have heard that too. How do you answer?
IOPS, as but one possible example, already has organizations in countries, regions, cities, and even parts of cities all over the world. Therefore joining IOPS is automatically joining (or perhaps beginning to form) an organization in a local area. IOPS actually provides means, motivation, and methods for emphasizing local organizing, as any good organizational effort should. If IOPS fails, then that is what any subsequent effort should try to do, as well.
However, the difference between IOPS or any organization of its type and a purely local organization that has a similar visionary and structural definition, isn’t that IOPS ignores local effort. It is that IOPS, or any other similar effort, entwines local efforts so they can mutually learn from and aid each other, and includes a national and international dimension so that members can address issues right where they are but also address larger issues that require larger response and also get and give help. I should be more accurate – that is a hope, not yet actualized.
So I think the question ought to be, what reason could there possibly be to join a local organization that has no national or international aspirations and linkages, if I can join an organization, that is equally locally rooted, but that also has larger aims and connections?
IOPS seems to fixate on vision – and in response folks ask me, “why do we need a vision at all, much less as a priority?” How do you answer folks who fear that worrying about the future will just limit our present pursuits.
Isn’t it true that without saying what we want – certainly not providing a detailed map, but instead providing just enough clarity to make our aims believable and to reveal them to be viable and worthy – most people will not relate? Vision can help overcome fatalism – which is essential for reaching out effectively.
And isn’t it true that to formulate worthy campaigns, demands, actions, and projects today, we need to have a compelling image of at least our broad institutional goals for the future? How else can we embody the seeds of the future in the present, unless it is by having some clarity about at least the core features of the future that we seek? Vision can inform activist choices.
Yes, the concerned person is correct that trying to blueprint the future is a fool’s errand. It exceeds human capacity and it also violates self management. But, having agreed on that, isn’t advocating a set of commitments which will permit people of the future to determine their own choices not only desirable, but necessary?
If someone thinks vision won’t help clarify current analysis, won’t provide inspiration and hope, won’t orient strategy by clarifying its aims, and can’t be kept to the scale and character that is essential and not more than that – then IOPS or any vision-oriented organization is probably not for that person. But if a person thinks that being able to answer convincingly when people ask “what do you want?” if they are to join endeavors, and that knowing where you are going is necessary to be able to travel wisely, and that we can handle those requirements without overextending, then perhaps IOPS, or if not IOPS then some other effort serious about having vision, is for him or her.
Why is IOPS an organization for a “Participatory Society”?
A complete listing of its shared aims is available on the IOPS site [http://www.iopsociety.org/vision]. Participatory society, as we have discussed, is a society where all members participate with self managing say and with solidarity from and toward others. It is a society where all enjoy diversity of options and outcomes and an equitable share of society’s benefits and responsibilities. A participatory society’s institutions propel and ensure these outcomes. IOPS has those aims simply because it believes in them. Why else?
If some other organization has other aims, fair enough. Likewise, if IOPS fails, but the participatory society aims persist, as I believe they would, then a followup organizational effort could and I would hope still would favor those aims. If the vision appeals to a person, IOPS or some other organization with similar aims may be for him or her. If not, then such an organization, IOPS or otherwise, would have work to do if it was to gain that person’s support.
How does vision help right now, with what we must do in the present?
First, conceiving the key features of a better future provides a significant tool for understanding what is wrong with the present. For example, many worker coops seeking equitable, democratic relations tend, over time, to devolve from optimistic and hopeful to humdrum routine and finally to alienated doldrums. This leaves people feeling that maybe it is true that no better way of doing production is possible than what we now endure. Despondency replaces hope.
The vision people in IOPS favor includes a new way of dividing labor so that each worker enjoys conditions suitable to be sufficiently confident and informed to participate effectively in decision making, including having a socially average share of empowering tasks via suitable new designs of work. This approach emphasizes the need not only to eliminate owners dominating production, but also to eliminate a group that dominates production by monopolizing empowering work. Having this conception, an IOPS member, or anyone with that set of views in a worker coop realizes that a problem afflicting many coops (and movements too) is that while they institute formal democracy and equity, the coop (or movement) typically retains the old division of labor, which, in time, subverts and even obliterates other worthy gains by giving disproportionate influence and reward to the few who monopolize empowering tasks, and in time, also come to monopolize influence, income, and status.
Second, by conceiving and sharing the key defining features of a better future we become attuned to achievements that our strategies must attain. This helps us know what kinds of demands and actions, and what kinds of seeds of the future planted now, can actually lead us where we wish to arrive, rather than causing us to wind up somewhere we had no intention of going. The archetype example, of course, is well meaning movements that usher in authoritarian or class divided or still racist and sexist outcomes, even against their own members’ aspirations, because they operated in ways that, unbeknownst to most involved, led to ends they did not desire.
IOPS seems to have no action program. I hear some say, why should I join an organization that is doing nothing? And once it is doing things, why would it be any different than the way I am already doing those things? What will be gained?
A person of course shouldn’t join an organization that is doing nothing. But IOPS, even in its earliest days, should be doing nothing – and the same would hold for any other project in its early days. There is a mistaken notion that demonstrating is doing something but talking to folks and increasing awareness and even increasing numbers of members, is doing nothing. To me, and I hear it often, that is weird. It says that the precise activity which sustains demonstrating and gives it weight and meaning, is not action. Very strange.
As one example, the women’s movement in the U.S. developed on the foundation of gatherings that were held in living rooms and kitchens, where women talked with one another and developed trust and awareness – as well as confidence. That activity was, arguably, the most important activity in the emergence of the women’s movement – rather than not being activity at all. And there are similar patterns for virtually all other massive and effective movements.
It is true that IOPS currently has no international, national, or even for the most part city programs in the sense of shared demands and campaigns, as yet, because of two beliefs that I think are appropriate, and would be appropriate, if IOPS fails, in any successor effort, as well. First, action program is meaningful when it has serious participation and energy from large numbers of people. Program without participation, other than to reach out, is posturing.
Second, program should emerge from the self managing decisions of a membership that will undertake its implementation. For a project to have relatively few initial members, after a few weeks or months, or even a year, and for the few members or even just a subset of them to then set a shared program for the next year or more, that many many others who are not yet involved in the deliberations or decisions would implement – would violate the spirit of self management.
My feeling is that decisions about program and about many other aspects should at the outset only be interim, and even at that should be kept to a minimum. The issue of shared program should come alive, however, as soon as an organization is large enough for its program to matter greatly and especially as soon as it has convened and established decision mechanisms so its issues can be settled in a self managing way. IOPS isn’t there, yet.
On the other hand, suppose someone joins and then continues with his or her other pursuits just as now. And let’s say IOPS then grows, and in time arrives at a shared program – internationally, and in each country, and in local chapters – each in a self managing manner, including attaining an increased sense of collaboration, collectivity, and mutual aid yield diverse types of work, including what the person is already doing, to be undertaken in more solidarity with other types of work, and in more awareness of and accord with trying to win not just a specific campaign, but, built on that, and by the way that is done, also new societies. Seems fine to me.
Another response I often hear is that “IOPS will take time that I could give other pursuits. I am very busy with all kinds of involvements like anti war work, immigration work, anti racist work, feminist work, climate change work, that I consider very important. Why should I diminish my other involvements by adding IOPS to my agenda? For that matter, if I join IOPS but don’t participate in its specific creation, my membership is merely symbolic. What is the point of that?”
I would reply, you probably shouldn’t diminish other political and activist pursuits based on joining IOPS or any other encompassing organization that is seeking, say, a participatory society. Nor should you need to. Any such organization should welcome and need its members to be diversely involved in all kinds of activist projects and movements both for the intrinsic worth of those involvements and also for the lessons that the involvements can bring to the organization.
So the fact that you have lots of pursuits on your agenda will enlighten IOPS or any such project you choose to join. More, when you do non-IOPS pursuits, hopefully your IOPS connections will help inform what you do, including allowing you to spread your concerns to other member to gain their help in those pursuits, as well as to inject into your many endeavors insights that you gain in IOPS.
Yes, if you join IOPS, or some other successor similar effort, it is true that you might choose to give growing amounts of time to it. And at some point, indeed, that allotment might detract from time that you would have given to some other worthy pursuit. If so, it will have been your choice to make that change. You will have decided it was a more productive option for you to give more time to the organization and, as a result, to give less time somewhere else. But, you might also have gotten additional local IOPS people involved in your other efforts, in sum adding energy to those local efforts and certainly not taking energy away from them.
However, for any worthy organization, even if you don’t grow your direct involvement with it, that wouldn’t preclude being in the organization nor would it hurt it, nor would it mean your membership was merely symbolic. It would instead mean, I would think, that you were giving less time to directly specifically organizational activities, but more time to other also worthy activities that were also respected by the organization.
That said, there is another point to be made. The world pummels us with dire emergencies all the time. Specific problems constantly scream for our energies to prevent catastrophes and to ameliorate pains. Some of us are involved in one or more critical campaigns of that sort. All this activity is, of course, worthy and needed.
However there does come a time for people to realize that what is ultimately needed is for all such campaigns to entwine with one another, and benefit from one another – rather than each carrying on in isolation from the rest. And for the campaigns to also move from only reacting to crises, to instead addressing their causes. IOPS, or some effort like it, can help with all that. It can inspire and facilitate collective solidarity and mutual aid among diverse campaigns and across borders, including moving from reactive and narrow campaigns to constructive and comprehensive ones.
You are talking about moving from reactive to proactive politics, from partial to whole politics. Is that right?
Yes. There comes a time for those who believe that the underlying structures of society produce the ills we suffer, and who believe that other underlying structures would instead be liberating, to start to alter their approaches to not only address ameliorating or warding off immediate calamities, but to do it in ways that begin to address seeking more systemic change. This of course doesn’t mean ignoring crises and impending disasters. It means, instead, addressing crises but doing so in context of a broader encompassing desire to deal with defining institutions. This is what any worthy organizational effort should urge as an implication of its definition. It is another way that being in IOPS or a project like it may benefit each members’ work in other projects and movements, and that IOPS or a project like it can benefit from what its members do even those who give virtually all their available time to projects that originate and operate outside.
In IOPS or any organizational effort of the sort an advocate of participatory society would favor, I would hope and anticipate that there will always be a tone, style, and mindset that says that working in all kinds of projects and movements is essential and desirable, but that ideally such work by members should start to take lessons also from the organization – as well as the reverse – bringing new insights to the organization. And the lessons from organizational affiliation should center on ways for members work in movements and campaigns in ways that help to align them with one another and with all other worthy efforts including seeing the many pursuits as each being valuable themselves, of course, but as also becoming even more valuable once they are self consciously part of a larger pursuit of a new society.
Is IOPS socialist, or anti socialist?
I think it is both, or neither, depending on your way of thinking about it. And that is what I think needs to be true of any organization worthy for the future.
For some people, “socialism” is primarily an economic label that leaves culture, kinship, and politics to reflect economic dictates. A state operates above the populace and “owns” the economy in which about 20% of the workforce does empowering work and 80% obeys dictates from above. This is the old Soviet model and is typical of what has been called market and centrally planned socialism. In this sense of the word “socialism,” IOPS and any organization I would consider worthy, is not “socialist” because it centrally seeks cultural, kin, and political transformations, and not just economic, and because it rejects all class divisions and not only those based on ownership.
For many other people, however, “socialism” means a society in which all citizens control their own lives, enjoy a fair share of social benefits, carry a fair share of social responsibilities, and operate without hierarchies of wealth, power, and status conveying advantages to some and debits to others. In this sense, IOPS or any organization seeking participatory society, is “socialist” due to seeking institutions that deliver all these benefits and more.
Some people in IOPS feel its name should be International Organization for Participatory Society – other people in IOPS feel its name should be International Organization for Participatory Socialism. The first group feels the negative connotations of the word “socialism” make using that term to summarize aims ill advised. The second group feels that the positive connotations of the word “socialism” make using that term to summarize aims wise. The contending views disagree about what the label connotes, not about substance. I suspect if IOPS fails, which is certainly possible, then the same naming problem will exist for any worthy successor.
Is IOPS leninist or anti leninist?
For many, leninism is an approach which revolves around the idea of a vanguard of actors taking responsibility for defining actions and future relations. This typically winds up generating and celebrating a single party state or even a dictatorship, and also seriously addresses race and gender issues largely or even only insofar as doing so benefits the winning of power by that one party in what is called class struggle. More, leninism typically highlights and opposes monopolization of ownership by a few but ignores and in practice even abets monopolization of empowering work by a few. IOPS or any effort that favors a participatory society has on these critical matters essentially opposite inclinations.
For some, however, leninism just means seriously examining relations and choosing actions so as to attain a new world. For people with this view, and also with the second equitable view of socialism mentioned above, leninism becomes a synonym for a serious seeker of justice who wants classlessness. In this very limited sense of the label, which, I have to say, in my own view obscures or ignores the history of leninist activity so as to cling to a positive image that doesn’t correspond to that history, I suppose you could say that IOPS or any participatory society seeking organization is leninist, meaning it seriously seeks to win classlessness.
Unlike with the word socialism, however, the overwhelming sentiment in IOPS and I suspect in any other project around participatory society is and I suspect will continue to be that to take on the label leninism, even giving it the very general, abstract, and unobjectionable meaning, would fly in the face of what leninist practice has meant historically and also what a great many leninists mean by the term. Thus, after noting that yes, of course IOPS is serious about winning classlessness, I would also say that yes, IOPS is anti-leninist.
Is IOPS anarchist or anti anarchist?
Anarchism is a wide and deep stream of beliefs, including some mutually contradictory elements. IOPS, and I think any other sensible organization with similar goals, rejects rejecting organization and institutions. It rejects rejecting lasting structure and favoring a return to nature. It very much advocates, however, eliminating hierarchies of power, wealth, and status in all dimensions of life.
Some lifestyle anarchists, anti institutional anarchists, individualist anarchists, and even apocalyptic anarchists think that only ultimate victory matters and not any gains winnable in the present. Those beliefs are such that IOPS and I think any other worthy organizational effort is very likely not for them. IOPS is, however, very much consistent with desires to transcend present relations and thus to transcend reformism even while winning desirable gains on the road to still more gains – and thus, winning reforms in a non reformist way.
For the great majority of anarchists who reject a state operating above the populace and who reject class division and class rule and who reject racial and gender oppressions, and who believe in the efficacy of planting the seeds of the future in the present, and who believe in winning a trajectory of changes each of which improves people’s lives now and is conceived and sought and won in a manner that taken together contributes to moving on toward ultimate victory, IOPS or any successor effort of similar intent, should provide a welcome home.
Why isn’t the organization marxist – or is it marxism in disguise?
No, it isn’t marxism in disguise, nor is it marxist in the sense the label typically means. Marxism usually – but not always, anymore – prioritizes economics and class above kinship, culture, and polity and prioritizes class above other social hierarchies. Any good organization nowadays says class and economy are critically important, of course, but realizes that so are other areas of life and their hierarchies.
In addition, regarding even just economy and class, while marxism has many brilliant insights about capitalism, to the extent marxism has a vision for what should replace capitalism, that vision is for most marxists a variant on market or centrally planned socialism. This leaves out the IOPS rejection of markets and central planning. It also, and even more importantly for contemporary practice, leaves out and/or literally denies the IOPS observation that the monopolization of empowering work, and not just of property, yields class division and oppression.
For these reasons, I would have to say in my view while of course many insights that many marxists have are shared by people who favor participatory society, still, such people are typically not narrowly marxist because we reject certain key marxist commitments and we add various new commitments many marxists don’t yet accept.
Why should anyone join an organization that is so scattershot – prioritizing race, gender, class, power, ecology, and peace – instead of an organization focussed on the one most critical realm, or even just the one I most want to personally work on?
You are right that unlike many other organizations, projects, and movements, IOPS doesn’t say that economics is primary, or gender is primary, or that race, or power, or international relations, or ecology is primary. Instead IOPS has as a key aspect of its definition that all these aspects of life are are primary. All require high priority attention. Each aspect is itself a focus as is each aspect as it entwines with and mutually causes and reinforces the others. And, indeed, I think this approach will prove true of any worthy and promising organization or project.
If someone has a more narrowly marxist view that class is the ultimate issue and that one should understand relations among men and women or among different cultural communities or in the state overwhelmingly as arising from and in terms of its implications for class – because the goal is simply advancing class struggle – then, yes, a multi focus organization is likely not for that person.
And the same holds if someone has a more narrowly feminist or nationalist or anti statist view that says that relations in areas other than the one the person prioritizes arise from and should be understood in terms of implications for the one area the person does prioritize, because the goal is simply advancing struggle arising in that primary area, whether culture, kinship, or state. In that case, too, a comprehensively oriented organization is likely not for that person.
On the other hand, if a person has a personal priority for addressing gender, race, class, power, ecology, or war, but he or she also recognizes the need for others prioritizing for themselves the rest of the focuses, and also recognizes the need for an organization to address them all, then the personal view is no problem for IOPS, or any similar undertaking, because the area the person prioritizes is also prioritized by IOPS, and because the other areas are too, as the person agrees they should be. In that case, perhaps IOPS or, if not IOPS, some other organization with an encompassing perspective, is for that person.
What does it mean that IOPS seeks classlessness? Didn’t the Bolsheviks say that too, and look what they wrought.
Yes, the Bolsheviks did say that, as have others who have nonetheless brought into existence societies with economic class division and class rule.
IOPS proclamations of seeking classlessness are different because IOPS prioritizes not only eliminating a structural basis for domination by 1% or 2% of the population as members of an owner class called capitalists, but also eliminating a structural basis for domination by upwards of 20% of the population as a decision making or “coordinator” class. IOPS rules out not only monopolization of productive property by a few, but also monopolization of empowering work by a few.
The reason this dual class focus makes the pursuit of classlessness more believable is that IOPS tackles all sources of class division and class rule in society as well as in opposition movements and projects. It does not ignore issues of differential empowerment, allowing class division on that basis to persist. I think this needs to be a core aspect of any organization that wants to attain classlessness, whether IOPS, or if IOPS fails to grow, something that follows.
Suppose I am a lawyer, doctor, accountant… a member of the coordinator class. Why should I join an organization that is for workers but is not for me?
Why should a white citizen join the abolitionists or fight against apartheid or any variant of racism? Why should a man fight against misogyny, violence against women, and, indeed, all aspects of patriarchy and sexism? There are two reasons in those cases, and in the case of a coordinator class member considering IOPS or an organization like it.
One reason is solidarity with those suffering the ills of racism and sexism and, in this case, a coordinator class member should – could – decide to fight against not only private ownership but also against 20% of the citizenry monopolizing empowering work out of solidarity with those that suffer most due to these classist features of society.
The second reason is for personal gain. The existence of racism, sexism, and classism certainly mostly hurts those at the bottom of associated hierarchies. And it also certainly elevates and rewards those above. But it also hurts those above insofar as it distorts their humanity and, as well, makes them targets for critique, and finally, also, victims of the byproduct harms of racism, sexism, and classism – in the last case, for example, this includes ecological disaster, war, overwork, economic instability, vile alienation, and so on.
So, if you are a lawyer, doctor, or accountant, and your mindset is that the wealth and influence you have is warranted and needs to be protected as your main political agenda – then IOPS, and any organization truly seeking classlessness, is not for you.
You could still do work that you believe in and are good at in an IOPS favored society, or therefore in IOPS itself, if you joined, for that matter, but you could not do only tasks that are empowering but would also have as part of your overall responsibilities a fair share of other tasks giving a balanced overall mix. If you refuse that type of equity and that basis for self management for all, IOPS, and I think any successor organization serious about real classlessness, is not for you.
However, if you are a lawyer, doctor, or accountant, and you feel that what you have is desirable but that everyone should have elements of it rather than you having too much of it – then IOPS’s or any similar project’s emphasis on full classlessness is very likely a very good fit for you.
When I read the IOPS structural commitments I like the anti sectarian and growth oriented sound of it, but why should I believe it? Everyone claims to respect and welcome dissent – right before they wipe it out. Why should I think IOPS will be any different?
This is a very fair question and, as you imply, the ultimate proof will only be in the actual practice. Tendencies to sectarianism and authoritarianism are rooted deeply in the training that people have had and the habits they have become ingrained in. IOPS emphasizes such matters in its definition precisely because the problems are so detrimental and also such ubiquitous outgrowths of who people become due to having been born and lived in horribly restrictive societies. I think this is another key commitment any worthy organization needs to have.
A reason to believe IOPS proclamations in these regards is if you feel IOPS structural commitments about dissent are stronger and more clear and compelling than usual and that the commitments to specific paths and outcomes, such as IOPS rejecting central committees and what has been called democratic centralism and IOPS welcoming dissent and providing means for it to persist internally and to experiment with and explore dissident preferences, are well conceived to ward off bad tendencies. If you believe that about IOPS or any other project claiming to be serious about welcoming dissent, then your participating and bringing your anti sectarian inclinations to the mix will help insure good results. Your not doing so, won’t help.
In my country, to favor revolution is to be deemed childish, delusional, and moronic. Why should I endure that?
For the same reason abolitionists once endured similar epithets. For the same reason women’s activists have. For the same reason anti colonialists have, labor organizers have, and so on.
At various times various aspects of society are under siege and elements of media and intelligentsia work hard to establish a climate of denigration of what they consider dangerous views. In the current world situation, what is under siege is not just one or another aspect of current society, but all the defining features. For that reason aspirations for real substantive change in any domain of life, or in all domains at once, brand one in the eyes of elites as childish, delusional, and moronic.
You should endure being called such names because truth trumps appearance. You should endure it because what elites think of you and trumpet about you is irrelevant to who you really are. You should endure it because today’s childish hopes can become tomorrow’s reality. Today’s delusions can become tomorrow’s wisdom. Today’s moronic beliefs can become tomorrow’s common sense.
I like IOPS, the mission, vision, all of it. But I don’t think you will get anywhere. People are too busy, too bought off, too scared, too passive, to individualist in outlook, too this, or too that – to join and participate. So why should I give time or even just emotional allegiance to something I think cannot succeed, regardless of how great it would be if it did?
There is no definitive answer to this. Sometimes such a view makes sense. Some silly undertaking is proposed. A few people get involved. You hear about it, or they try to recruit you to it, and you envision inevitable collapse for some reason you see lurking in the effort. Therefore you do not get involved. And it is a sensible choice.
Is this a situation like that? Different people will answer differently.
Over 3,000 people have joined. Very prominent people and grassroots people active in all kinds of movements and with all kinds of experience, are involved. Members come from over 80 countries. The IOPS site is impressive, though of late it has been suffering grave technical problems. The activity of members is slowly escalating. Personal face to face gatherings are slowly commencing.
If you think the visionary and structural commitments are fine and needed, if you think organization is needed, then the question arises: even if you are skeptical about success, do you see a more promising endeavor arising anytime soon? If you do, okay, maybe you should wait for it. But if you don’t, then why not try to make this one work?
If skepticism and doubts always trump need and potential – nothing would ever be established. If you think IOPS or some other effort has merit if it did succeed, and if you don’t think any other effort is more likely to fulfill the same needs any time soon, then to be aloof is to give up on those needs. Another way of saying this is the old adage, if not now, when? If not us, who?
It is hard to know whether folks initiating the women’s movement around the world, various anti war movements, labor movements – or organizations such as the ANC in South Africa – all felt certain that they would inevitably succeed. Some probably felt that way. Most likely did not. But what they all certainly felt is that succeeding would be excellent and this was the best current shot at succeeding, and that its prospects would be better with their sincere involvement than without it. That minimum conception warranted joining, as would, of course, a belief that this effort will work, but will work better with your participation than without it.
What would it look like for IOPS to really succeed? What is considered success for IOPS in the short run? And how about the end result? How far into the future do you want to project it? How patient should we be?
When you form an organization around commitments, short run success is solidifying into a viable and worthy organization that seeks its stated goals and is engaged in diverse program developed and agreed by its members. In the case of IOPS, this means having national branches and local chapters, convening a convention, arriving at agreed operating norms and shared program, and then working locally and more broadly, itself, and also in alliance with others.
The end result, if you want a new society, is a new society. So for IOPS it is remaining highly active and involved up to, and who knows, perhaps beyond, the attainment of new social relations around the world, consistent with its commitments.
Sometimes people say they are for things, or even against things, but it is said merely for the sake of appearance, or to stake out an intellectual position. In the case of a serious revolutionary organization that spans countries, saying it is for and against things means it will seek the implied ends, and success means attaining them. How patient should we be? As patient as is required to win, but not one jot more patient than that.
What would cause success, do you think? What is necessary to accomplish it?
The answer is always broadly the same. Hard, steadfast work plus mutual respect among ourselves and for others who we do not yet agree with but who we continually reach out to, to try to learn from and mutually aid. Audacity plus patience. Vision and rootedness.
It seems to me the answers to pretty much any question one might ask about IOPS, at least that don’t ask about future views or future actions that cannot be known now – can be found in the IOPS commitments. I say this because I think in reality taking seriously the commitments of an organization in development, or even of particular individuals, or even of oneself is not currently very typical. Instead, there is an assumption of exaggeration, posturing, staking positions without implications, and so on.
This is understandable, because there is a preponderant and even overwhelming amount of that out there. People interact and say things all the time that are effectively meaningless, pro forma, expected but not meant, said for effect, said without thought, said to not look bad, said to look good – but without serious consideration and real intent.
IOPS, at least in my view, has to always mean what it says. As I think I said earlier, the admonition to “tell no lies, claim no easy victories,” is a very wise one, and so is the somewhat odd admonition to “dare to struggle, dare to win.” The latter one means, take oneself and the world seriously enough to realize that while it is scary to contemplate all the various ways one’s actions might be distorted by impositions or might be ill conceived, still one has to try, not for the sake of trying, but to actually win.
Finally, do you think IOPS will succeed?
If it gets some momentum in the next year or two, yes, I think it will last and in time melt into the structures of new societies it helps to win. If it doesn’t gain that momentum soon, then no, I think it will in its current form, pass away, but then I also think that in time, another effort, quite similar, will arise, and will succeed. Why else would I have vested time, energy, and effort, in it? You win now. Or, you lose, you lose, you lose, you win later.
But if you are going to make me be brutally honest about it, okay, I think it is more likely to be losing for a time, than winning. I think, that is, that it is more likely that IOPS will be a kind of trial run, and that an organization that lasts for the duration will spring up later, partly having learned from this experience.
Why? Why not now? You presumably thought it had good chances when you started.
Yes, I did think that, and I don’t know. Call it naiveté, but part of me thinks getting IOPS – or something very much like it – established, ought to be easy. There are hundreds of thousands and probably millions of people around the world, right now, who are not just open to the views that guide IOPS, and therefore who we could talk with about those ideas, but who would, I think, if they took a poll, already come down strongly for the IOPS commitments. So why should it be hard to get 10,000 or even 50,000 to take the first step, to join a national branch or local chapter, and to start local activities, enriching activism locally while also helping create the national and international connections and commitments IOPS espouses – with all this leading to sufficient momentum to undertake a founding convention and move on from there?
I wish I could say, “here is why – and therefore, here is what I think we ought to be doing to get there.” But I can’t. I don’t know.
It isn’t just at the rank and file level that the tasks turns out to be hard, though. The notable members of IOPS are relatively few – say, 50 or so – and with almost no exceptions, they do nothing to help IOPS. Why? And also, why do the other 3,000 or so members not do more? And why do others, hearing of it, not join? And why has no left or progressive periodical, or nearly none, at any rate, published a word about it? I mean, really, I am trying, I know others who are trying, and the fact that the right wing isn’t supportive, or that the mainstream isn’t supportive, or that those who don’t yet have similar views of hopes aren’t supportive – is expected. Dealing with that is the task we legitimately face. But why aren’t those who would like the ideas if they gave them a chance interested, supportive, and involved? And why do those who do join, then overwhelmingly do so little?
I share your frustration. You are right on all counts, at least as far as I can tell. So, in order – that you raised the points, first, the roughly 50 notable members, have indeed done very little, and 0I guess I would have to say effectively nothing. They agreed to join, and to serve on a committee to deal with issues that arise, and they have in most cases done so, in response to my emails and polling them and so on – but, beyond that, there has been zero initiative. I didn’t ask anyone to commit to anything more than that, but I certainly thought a subset would do more. Yet none has written about IOPS, or nearly none, anyhow, I can’t remember for sure. Now suppose, in contrast, let’s say even just twenty of them had just spent a tiny sliver of time to write and publish one, two, or three articles, over the span of a few months, say, and to write some letters urging others to relate, and pushing publishers to do so, and so on. I believe that would have made, by now, an enormous difference. And this is them just doing what they ordinarily do – writing about consequential things – nothing more. It would not have required any herculean undertaking. It would not even have required stepping outside their comfort zone. So, why not do it? My guess is two factors are at play. One factor is feeling they will be alone doing it, so it won’t matter much, so why bother. And the other factor is, their being alone doing it, and it not mattering much, will not only mean it was time they wasted, but also that they will look naive or stupid for having worked on something that others avoided. To me, it is a cynicism/depression/hopelessness phenomenon, feeding on itself.
Second, what about the roughly 3,000 people who have joined. It is pretty similar, I think. A small percentage got lively and tried doing things, but were barely joined by others. Patience for what looks like futility eventually expires. I, for example, did a whole lot, for a considerable time, but then steadily less. So that is the pretty active and even very active folks. More broadly, the huge majority of the 3,000 joined in hopes IOPS would be valuable and important, but without any inclination to be the ones to make it so. Maybe later they would work on it, and do outreach for it, and so on, once it had proved its mettle. But until then, no dice. Which is a Catch-2, of course.
Third, what about the broader audience of leftists all over the world who would, in any discussion, be hugely receptive to the defining ideas and commitments? Well, on the one hand, many don’t hear about it, don’t see it, and so don’t decide about it. But, more, what they do see is silence in periodicals, silence in public talks, and so on. There arises a perception, not without merit, that it isn’t going anywhere, so why relate? And they don’t.
I suppose that is enough to explain it, any yet I think there is more, no doubt, in the details, one might find person by person. But, in the large, I do think the problem is mainly people’s sense of futility at doing anything collective, lasting, much less seeking a whole new social system.
If IOPS fails, which is distinctly possible – and yet, it could take off toward success at any moment, too – then at least it will have amassed various insights and experiences to fuel another effort. Because another effort and not a eulogy, of course, will in that case be needed.