In December 2013 David Marty did an extensive interview with Michael Albert. We present it in nine parts – of which this is the seventh. Other parts address: Radicalization, Media, Debating Vision, Venezuela, Occupy and IOPS, Fanfare, Chomsky, and a conclusion.
Writing as a Task
When I hear people say interesting stuff I often say “hey, you should write about that, people should hear what you just said to me,” but then the replies I get are often of the sort “but I’m not the writing type of person, I leave that to intellectuals, I’m too pragmatic for that,” or, more often than I would like: “What is the point? No one cares and who’s going to read me anyway? I’m a nobody.” Are you familiar with this?
Yes, I hear this type of thing all the time, not least because I am so often telling people they should write up their experiences and insights – including, dare I say it, yourself!
The person who says he or she is leaving it to intellectuals is very likely making a horrible mistake. For one thing, who is an intellectual, in contemporary societies? The answer, I am afraid, is someone who has certain credentials that say “intellectual here.” However, getting those credentials, particularly regarding areas of social life, most often inculcates all kinds of horrible habits, interests, and inclinations in turn, making the person ill suited, rather than highly suited, to writing for a broad audience, on the one hand, and to writing about matters of justice and social change, on the other hand. It is a Catch 22. I have a friend Danny Schechter, who liked to say – and even wrote a book titled – “The More You Watch the Less You Know.” It was about how watching news on TV actually causes a diminution of awareness – not always and for everyone, but a whole lot. That was controversial enough. My version is even worse. The more schooling you get, the dumber you are – precisely about the richer aspects of the subject you are schooled in – not the sciences, but social realms, especially economics. Again, it isn’t so for every long time student and all the time, but it is for most long time students, most of the time. Intellectuals, in the mainstream sense of the word, are highly schooled. So leaving writing about social, political, economic matters to intellectuals often means leaving it to people horribly ill suited to doing a good job or anything like the job that the person you are talking to, could do.
Now, who should be an intellectual? The answer is of course everyone. The word “intellectual” should simply mean a person who addresses questions about life, society, history, economics, or perhaps some other field, in a serious and very careful way, taking into account evidence and logic, and also trying to communicate as clearly as possible. So, in that sense of the word “intellectual,” leaving it to intellectuals would mean precisely leaving it to the person you are talking with.
I think the second point you encounter is somewhat harder to deal with. First, it is undeniably true that people are more likely to read someone who they believe, before they pick up the article or book, is going to have something worthwhile to say. And that is not elitist, or sycophantic, but sensible. Of course it shouldn’t be the only criteria one has for what to read, but it is one reasonable criterion. So there are two answers I often give to a person who is not known, and who on those grounds thinks writing will be a waste due to having no readers.
First, on some topics, the relevant credential to attract interest is legitimately either significant training (something in very short supply, see above on being intellectual), or, even more so, past accomplishment auguring future quality. Given that context, the only thing someone new to writing and who for that reason lacks such credentials can do is what others have done before. Wade in and do it anyway. Write. Practice. Write again. Practice more. And so on. None will be wasted, even without garnering many readers at first, and perhaps for a long time, because each effort will lead toward having a resume able to attract more readers. But this is far more relevant to writing about, say, some technical field. Writing about society, strategy, or vision, while it certainly helps to have read associated material for its lessons, and to have thought long and hard, and to have become reasonably adept at written expression, the paramount credential may well be informed and self conscious involvement in related activities – which is precisely what the person you are talking with has.
I don’t want to minimize the real concern. Writing well is for most of us very hard. Less hard, but still not trivial, is becoming familiar with the issues at stake, the ideas, etc., partly through reading and talking, partly through practical experience. Hardest might well be feeling that it is going to accomplish much – that people will read it, get it, care about it, act on it, etc. I would be lying if I didn’t say that such concerns also hobble me, because they do. Getting read depends on a whole lot of variables, not least your work getting reviews, being discussed, etc. which is hard to come by, for many reasons. On the brighter side, a work read by say a few hundred or a few thousand people – rather than tens of thousands, may still have profound impact through the ripple effects of its readers’ later activities.
How about those who actually do try to write something? What are the most common ways, you think, people get paralyzed and never actually submit their work or even just a draft?
My guess would be that perfection crowding out achievement, is one issue. People write, think it is less than perfect, and keep banging away, throwing stuff out, starting over, and finally shelving it. That can be okay, if it keeps going forward, but often it doesn’t, bogging down, and finally dying. Yet all along, they had something quite good, even if it was not perfect. But they never released it. It is a fine line between not releasing something that is in fact, not ready for release, and not releasing something that should see the light of day, not least so you can proceed to new tasks.
Fear of being bashed by readers, or of looking dumb, is certainly another obstacle. I suspect this one not only keeps lots of people from writing at all, which it no doubt does, but also keeps a lot of people who do write from writing about anything very controversial, or about anything where they have to take new positions rather than just repeat what is already highly verified and what they can therefore be confident they have perfectly right, and certainly not embarrassingly wrong.
And third, there is that cost benefit analysis assessment: will the product be read enough, and addressed enough, for it to have been worth the extraordinary effort its creation will entail. I don’t think I have a good answer for this one. This is, I suspect, why many writers will say they write for themselves. It certainly is a motivation that is far easier to feel you can fulfill than is writing to affect social change, say.
How about you? How many books have you written? When did you first try to write a book and how good/bad was it in your opinion?
I think I have written or co-written about twenty books. Honestly, I am not sure, and it also depends on how you count. The first book I wrote was called What Is To Be Undone. I don’t know what to say about getting it finished other than that I just did it, and had a lot of help with editing, which I most certainly needed, from Lydia Sargent.
On the face of it, perhaps writing this book – despite having a really clever title for it – was absurd. That is, I wasn’t remotely a writer. This was published about five years after college, and I did a lot of it while running wild in the streets – pragmatically involved, I guess you might say, in the words of your last question. This book was important not only because it caused me to work through many ideas and become highly familiar with the diverse schools of thought it addresses, but because Lydia Sargent and I also produced it for the small publisher, Porter Sargent press. It was that experience that latter gave us the motivation to do South End Press. So, this is actually a good case in point regarding an under educated ill-prepared activist doing some writing. In school I was considered worthless as a writer – in high school and in college too. And I was highly active. And before wading into this project my reading in the related fields was quite spotty. But, I ignored all the reasons against doing it, and I simply wrote the book, because I felt there were issues that needed to be addressed. Doing so not only led to my writing much more, in time, but even to Lydia and I undertaking South End Press, and all the rest of the media work that followed.
As to how good or bad that first book was, to say much I guess I would have to look, anew. My guess is the writing is not great, and arguably worse than that – but at least readable. The content, I suspect, is probably quite good, rarely at odds with anything done later, I would bet, and very revealing not only in what it addresses, but in showing what the mindset of a new leftist of the times was. In fact, now that you bring it up, I am tempted to go back and look for just that reason.
Once you start working on a book, how often do you check what’s in the fridge or play online backgammon? In other words, how do you deal with procrastination and apathy?
For me it is the fridge and online Go – an oriental board game. But I think this is a very serious question because I do think the ability to stick with one’s writing is paramount for accomplishing much in that vein. At ZMI, the summer school Z has done on that addresses politics and also skills, among many other courses I have taught about writing. One part of that was trying to get people to realize the need for discipline – for setting goals, preferably daily, and then without fail sticking to them. If I have to write 2,500 words today, or 4,000, or whatever goal I may have set, then I just need to sit there and do it. And if I feel stuck – that’s tough. I sit and do nothing in that case, until I can get myself to write rather than just be bored.
It is often key to write without going back, without altering, until you have a draft. I don’t do that, tending to frequently edit as I go – but I think that is less of a problem for me than it may be for some other people, because for whatever reasons I have no trouble sitting and working for hours on end. No disruptions, no pausing – not even to play Go online, which is certainly an easy escape. I do visit the fridge once or twice a day, but I keep the trip short.
You and Robin Hahnel have co-authored quite a few books, mainly on Parecon and Parsoc, vision and strategy, but also an in-depth and unique critique of marxism. However, your most recent publications, while still on similar subjects, were made separately. What is the difference between his books and yours? A difference in style?
I think that style is probably right. I believe he is a formally better writer, but that sometimes he gets a bit too concerned to communicate to academics, which can reduce the impact of his skills for everyone else. I am more inclined to write as I would speak, or at least to try to, which means I try to write always for a pretty general, albeit left audience. But beyond that, as best I have been able to tell, there is very little difference in the actual substance that we present.
I would like to ask just a bit about a few of your books, if that is okay?
Is there anything in What Is To Be Undone, written forty years ago, that you would write dramatically differently, today?
Man, you sure know how to deliver a knockout punch in passing. Forty years? It is true, and it is really hard for me to fathom. Without looking closely, if I remember right, there is a chapter on Maoism called “The Chinese Experience.” I would probably write that differently now. I suspect the rest, while I would try to write it better, and with added insights and perhaps different emphases, wouldn’t involve too much change of substance. In any case, it is online, on ZNet, and maybe there are some print copies here and there. Perhaps I should try to do an update of it, with new insights. That book I alone authored, with Lydia’s help, but Robin was relevant too, because we had talked about much of it, not least, when we worked together painting houses a couple of summers. I think it also shows the origins of much that followed, the roots of our views in other formulations and approaches, as well as actually including material that wasn’t revisited much, due to other agendas.
Do you remember what was next?
I think we could perhaps say three books were next – Unorthodox Marxism which was in 1978, and after a bit of a delay, Marxism Today and Tomorrow, and Socialism Today and Tomorrow, which were both in 1981.
In those books you and Robin took up the task of demolishing a giant. I am talking about Marxism. In my opinion your presentation is hardly refutable and leaves very little room for anyone who would want to have the last word on this, at least so long as ‘having the last word’ means defeating an argument. However, if my math is right, you both were pretty young at at time, at least for people daring to mount on the left’s sacred cow like it was Rodeo Night. It seems once again here that we are going back to the recurring theme of self-confidence, but I’d like to know what encouraged you to write it? What would discourage you?
Yes, that was a key topic, so to speak. Unorthodox Marxism looked closely at Marxist theory and practice, and tried to uncover deep roots of difficulties. I think it may remain the best or most complete work by Robin and I on that topic. The two other books revisited that topic, but also looked much more closely at specific cases, Cuba, China, the Soviet Union, and at models – which was the beginning of participatory economics, I think. These books, my guess is, I would change little now, were I to go back to them. Of course, now there is a positive spin off in the form of new vision, theory, and strategy, foreshadowed in the early books, but going much further, which could be added, I suppose.
As to doing this, it was the times that encouraged us. There was so much genuflection, I guess you might call it, toward marxism, the socialist countries, and even leninism – that was in our eyes so ignorant in many respects – and this included us – and that was in our view so harmful to making progress, that we felt a new look and very critical look was needed. In a sense these books were continuing the What Is To Be Undone agenda, but more carefully and in more depth for the areas focused. But I admit we did not start off neutral – looking just to see what was there. We knew we had very strong doubts and growing criticisms, and we were writing in part to see where those could take us. Yet, if you look at Unorthodox Marxism, you will find that the first few chapters simply present it, pretty fully, making a case for it. We felt we couldn’t legitimately critique something – in this case Marxist thought – unless we had immersed ourselves and become adept with the ideas on their own terrain. It would be nice, I have to say, if more people had that attitude. Indeed, we were proud that a number of professors used those chapters as a positive introduction to Marxist thought, but we were also frustrated and sad – for what it said – that they didn’t bother having their students read the critique that followed.
I don’t think either Robin or I hesitated to write any of these works on confidence grounds, but we knew it was a horribly uphill battle, even if we did a good job. We were not confident of succeeding in affecting others, widely, you might say, though we were quite confident we would at least get the books done.
After Unorthodox Marxism was out for a bit, we got a message from Ronald Meeks. He is not particularly well know, but he was one of the foremost Marxist writers and thinkers of the time, and he wrote to us that he found the book really convincing and was going to review it, and say so. Our reaction to that note was elation that the book would get that boost, and thus might have the impact we hoped for, soon. And that shows you that we had no confidence that would happen otherwise. Meeks died a bit thereafter, and no review ever appeared and almost certainly he hadn’t gotten to it before his death.
We can’t even briefly address all the books you have done, but you did a few, I think, emerging from the Z Media Institute teaching that you did. Can you treat those as a group, like you did for the three, above?
I think so, sure. I guess this would include Thought Dreams, Thinking Forward, Moving Forward, and perhaps also Trajectory of Change. The first two are courses in a book, so to speak – one trying to present theory for understanding society and history in a very very engaging and pedagogic way, the other doing the same for concepts and ideas for understanding economy and elaborating economic vision. The third offers strategic program, and the fourth does too, but it is adapted from a bunch of shorter essays. I think these are very accessible books, instructive, and I doubt that I would take issue with anything much in them, were I too go through them closely, again.
So we come to the core of books released later, around 1990, I think, followed by Parecon, in 2003 or so.
The first three were written with Robin, beginning with Looking Forward which first fully presented participatory economic vision. It was very accessible, even including graphics and cartoons, written for people without related background, and it still stands up well, I think, though there have certainly been refinements since. At almost the exact same time we did a far more academic book written for economists but covering the same ground, called Political Economy of Participatory Economics. I have always felt the most interesting thing about that two book pair – setting aside the actual economic vision presented – was that the former totally popular book, including cartoons and such, was not less comprehensive and less contentful than the more academic one – but more. The effort to write for the profession, rather than for the public, perhaps added some modest precision and clarification in places, plus some critically important proofs that were, however, totally ignored, but in my view, at least, it was the popular book that said more. Another title done then, much longer and still more inside the profession, was titled Quiet Revolution in Welfare Economics. In that book I think all the math and more academic material actually did say a lot, add a lot, but it was largely ignored.
Parecon came out later, as you note, and it was my effort to further refine and more compellingly present the participatory economic vision. That book has gone into many languages and helped the cause of the vision quite a lot, I think. Robin has done his own work seeking to do the same, and his and mine have somewhat different emphases and style. A good mix, though, I think.
What about Remembering Tomorrow? These obviously greatly diverge from those mentioned above and all others I have done, too, in their approach.
Remembering Tomorrow is what one calls a memoir – but I think one of a somewhat different cast. It certainly uses my experiences at diverse undertakings, partaking in or interacting with diverse projects, working with many people, etc., to provide stories and information that sustain the flow of the book, as a look at the sixties and at subsequent times up until about 2000. But instead of the person being the center – in this case me – or even the experiences recounted, the book mainly tries to draw relevant lessons and insights from that mix – and it is those that are the heart of the matter. I honestly think it is my best writing. It was also the hardest book to do. And perhaps the most fraught with tension, too.
Well, there is the issue of what to include, or exclude? There is the problem of material that is included bothering or even greatly disturbing other people who were involved in the events. There is the problem of writing about self, which feels pretty bad – and of remembering (which is very hard for me since I just don’t have a good memory). I also violated almost every norm of memoir writing, I am sure – from making up nothing (the norm is, according to how to books about writing a memoir, to make up whatever details you need to get flow, to have texture, excitement, etc.), to contacting all those mentioned at any length and showing them the sections to see if they had any different memory, etc. There is also a more personal dimension – revelation, on the one hand, and feeling like, hey, who am I to do this, on the one hand, and am I dead, is this the end of what I can do of value, on the other hand. Hopefully the revelations did no harm, and I don’t seem to be dead, yet. Perhaps there will even be another volume, in time, if something substantive and new merits this type of treatment.
Three Books at Once?
Your most recent publication is a three volume set of books called “Fanfare for the Future“. Let’s deal with those a bit more than the others, above. First, can you explain the title?
A “Fanfare” is something ordinarily played to announce royalty. An American composer, a progressive and perhaps a socialist, Aaron Copland, wrote a musical piece, Fanfare for the Common Man, turning the fanfare definition on its head. It is normal folks who deserve respect, not royalty. So I liked the idea of Fanfare for the Future, which is just another twist on the concept, in which we celebrate and try to usher in a better world.
What does the set of books cover?
The three volumes – and they could have been three parts to one book but were offered instead as three separate volumes so that each is very manageable – are titled Occupy Theory, Occupy Vision, and Occupy Strategy. The names pay respect to the Occupy movements, on the one hand, and convey that activists and grass roots people of all kinds, need to “occupy” these domains, meaning they need to make theory, vision, and strategy their own rather than the purview of academics. That being the attitude behind the books, they try to be accessible and to not require much prior background.
Why should anyone read them? What is the ‘value added’ of this trilogy as compared to previous books you and others have published on Participatory Economics and related matters?
On the one hand, even if there was nothing new in these three short books, since the number of people who have read the earlier works is relatively low compared to the number of people who need to occupy these subjects if movements are to be participatory and successful, for many people reading these books would be a first time event. But, in fact, there is plenty that is new even for folks who are familiar with the other works.
In the first two volumes, what is new is mostly new examples and new ways of expressing the ideas. But that matters quite a lot, I think. I also think that even as I and others have tried to make earlier books accessible, these books succeed at that better, and therefore provide a better entry point, but without sacrificing content. The third volume, by contrast, has largely new substance. It presents a strategic approach or framework and specific insights, and has many innovations compared to earlier writings.
The overarching idea is for these three short books to help provide and welcome folks into having an intellectual tool kit sufficient to modern activist needs. Of course, only if the books are widely read and addressed will we discover if they succeed in that aim. I hope, however, that the new ideas and new ways of expressing more familiar ideas, add to the body of work that is developing around these broad views, inducing more people to participate.
I know I participated in the making of the third book, called Occupy Strategy, but could you tell us about the other authors?
Occupy Theory has as authors myself and Mandisi Majavu who is from South Africa and a South African activist, and who is now finishing a degree in New Zealand. Occupy Vision has myself and Mark Evans as authors. He is a nurse from the UK, a labor organizer, and very active in the International Organization for a Participatory Society, to which all the authors belong. Indeed, there is a sense in which Fanfare is itself meant to be a curriculum or a tool for IOPS members to use to collectively develop and share theory, vision, and strategy. And Occupy Strategy has as authors myself, you, a Spanish activist and IOPS organizer, and Jessica Azulay, who is a longtime activist in upstate New York in the U.S., and is also a media and internet veteran, and, again, a member of IOPS.
What was the contribution of the authors other than yourself?
Well, I invited these four folks to participate for two reasons, honestly. First, I had hopes it would help them gain some visibility and thus the possibility of themselves writing, being known in seeking a publisher and audience, etc. It was to help their writing resume, as we talked about earlier. And second, I hoped on receiving a draft of their respective parts, they would each have good ideas for deletions and additions, refinements, and actual new formulations to add, editing to incorporate, etc., that would make the books better.
The participation hope, however, perhaps was misplaced. It is hard for people to feel they can be a co-author, affect the product, etc. Confidence, may be a factor. Perhaps not feeling it appropriate that they take too critical a stance. I don’t know what all, but such things interfered with the effort put out, as did all their many responsibilities, etc. I would have to say Mandisi, Mark, and yourself, contributed at about the level of a close friend who reads and comments a bit on a manuscript – mostly just saying I like it fine, as is. Jessica, by contrast, worked really hard on the Occupy Strategy book, making changes throughout, and I think it shows in the final product’s merits.
Feelings, Methods, and Motivations
How happy were you about the result?
I like the three books. I think they cover important ground in accessible language. Which means I am happy with the product between the covers. I am less happy about the response to the books, which has been, at least that I have been able to see up until now, pretty muted and minimal. That these books are ignored, at least so far, by left periodicals such as, say, The Progressive in the U.S. or Red Pepper in the UK, and really pretty uniformly across the whole universe of left publications, is a little hard to understand. I of course realize that the ideas might not match entirely the ideas of the publishers/editors, say, at least in the case of the Progressive and many others (though not Red Pepper, where it seems to me to be quite in their ballpark). But for those periodicals that run reviews, or essays about new positions and ideas, or interviews about them, and so on, these books have diverse authors, have support from around the world, present views that are growing in influence, deal with issues that are undeniably timely and important, and are serious and accessible. So why wouldn’t they get attention?
Silence about publications is not Golden, it is murderous. If progressive and left periodicals completely ignore an overtly leftist book, then that book will have a very hard time getting an audience. People either won’t know about it existing, or they may hear of it in passing but seeing no attention given to it by folks other than the authors, deduce that it isn’t worth their time. This is a hurdle that the book Parecon, and pretty much all others of this broad school, have faced. It has been going on for three decades and it persists even as the ideas gain more and more advocates despite not having media attention and reviews. It is quite striking, I think.
How do you explain that situation?
I think explaining the silence – which most people working at the silent periodicals do by saying “well, there are lots of books,” or “we have some issues with the content,” though no publisher or editor ever says what those issues are, or “there is no time for addressing these books compared to all the other work we address,” and so on – is a major dodge. If it was one book, or just Fanfare, say, these could of course be accurate reasons. But for thirty years and about twenty books – I don’t think so. And in fact, reviews do get written, they do get submitted, but then they get summarily rejected. Writers, and even staff writers in some cases, suggest to their editors or publisher doing interviews or articles about the ideas, and they get told no. There is a long history of this regarding Participatory Economics and everything around it.
So, you ask why. Well, one explanation would be that parecon and the rest is drivel and doesn’t deserve even meager attention. Okay, maybe so. File that as a possibility.
Another explanation, however, is that there is something about this particular set of ideas and commitments, some set of implications that comes from them, that left media organizations and especially the editors and publishers of those organizations find so disturbing or distasteful – much more so than they find liberal stuff, leninist stuff, horribly academic stuff, and so on, all of which they routinely publish and or review – that they literally dismiss pareconish stuff and any attention to it out of hand. I think if we ask what that content is and what implications it has that might be so disturbing as to elicit that reaction so widely and so consistently – well, you can think about that as well as I can – but, at a minimum, I don’t think being busy or there being lots of other stuff to address explains the situation.
This goes back to parecon and class relations, doesn’t it?
Yes, I think it does. By analogy, imagine a periodical that is internally racist or sexist in its structure and operations. You would expect it to be unlikely to publish anti racist or anti sexist content, especially when a direct implication of the proposed content is that the periodical should change its ways. You would also then think that the people at the institution, operating in context of its own racist and sexist policies and structures, probably wouldn’t be very sensitive to the matter, wouldn’t prioritize it, etc. And even more so, if the content very explicitly implied a need for an institution to change its ways and could lead to dissent within its staff or from its audience, a desire for self preservation could become paramount. We can understand this, and if we are talking about a time when awareness of racism and sexism was really low, say 1950, we may even commiserate a little bit – though not for a period when awareness was high, say 1970, much less now.
Okay, what if, as is indeed the case, many alternative media institutions internally have a fairly sharp class structure – which is to say, relatively wide differentials in power and income between those who occupy the corner offices, and those who clean up. In that case, by analogy, we might expect that there will be a considerable lack of prioritization of these matters. Maybe the media isn’t privately owned, and maybe it comes out against capitalism, but its critique of or even its awareness of a coordinator class over workers will be missing. And, such observations won’t be welcome, either, since they will seem to those in charge like a prescription for diminishing their role and, in their eyes, the quality of the product which they believe depends on their leadership.
Rejecting pareconish views is fueled, then, by their desire to preserve their control which they see as critical to the media institution surviving and doing good work. Of course, in fact, this commitment precludes the institution doing good work about class in the sense I am referring to – not to mention precluding the institution becoming a model of how to be self managing, classless, etc. – but all that goes unnoticed, at least by those who are making decisions.
To me, that explains the historical antipathy of many alternative media venues to even noticing the existence of participatory economics, much less taking it seriously. It is really an antipathy to noticing and taking seriously the existence of a class division based on a division of labor that they replicate. Of course, another explanation is that I am just dead wrong and so are you, and many others, and parecon doesn’t deserve to be critiqued much less taken seriously. But I think anyone would have to admit that it is an odd situation for there to be near universal silence, given how ready everyone on the left usually is to dump on anything which they find lacking. Ask yourself, do you think the publisher and editors of various periodicals that ignore parecon and have done so for over two decades would like to debate in front of an audience, and for public viewing or reading, the question – should alternative media have a division of labor (and power and income) internally like it now has, or one like parecon seeks?
How hard is it to write a book? What it the hardest part for you?
The way I think you mean this question, it depends on the book and the person. I have thought about trying to do a novel, for example, to convey participatory economic and social vision, and perhaps also strategy, via an account of fictional events, using fictional characters, albeit perhaps modeled on real people. I have never gotten anywhere. So I would say that doing that, at least for me, is incredibly hard, perhaps too hard to even get going, much less get finished.
On the other hand, writing a non fiction work, I think, at least for me, is much easier, though still hard because it takes a lot of time and care. Of course if you have a really fine natural writing style, it will be much less work. But I don’t, so for me polishing a book so it reads even reasonably well takes as long, and actually probably longer, than getting a draft down on paper in the first place – especially if you count in, as we ought to, time spent by friends or others who help fix up what you first got down, and even after you work on it endlessly.
But, another very hard part for me, and I think for most people, is keeping going. The trick is, once you are committed to doing a book, you need to write pretty much every day, and if possible at scheduled hours, and without failure. Once you start allowing delays, they tend to magnify endlessly.
Another hard part for some people I know, though not for me, is what we mentioned earlier, letting a desire for virtually impossible perfection interfere with accomplishing really worthy and valuable (but not perfect) results. This can delay work inordinately, and it can also, and often does, I think, totally derail it. In these cases, the pursuit of something that never arrives derails something else that would have been valuable and worthy.
All that said, also as mentioned earlier, what is actually hardest for me is not related to the actual tasks of writing or editing, but is, instead, about what happens after a book is finished. What is hardest is knowing that the works will likely have far fewer readers, far fewer people taking the content and running further with it, than I desire. That is a really daunting perception that tends to trample initiative and momentum, if one lets it. I know this dynamic well, and it is a hard struggle to overcome the doubts and even depression it can induce.
I heard someone say “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.” Is that also why you write?
Different strokes for different folks, I guess, but to me, this is a strange claim. If a writer said that, what could it actually mean, assuming it wasn’t just posturing? I can determine what I think about something new – by thinking about it. So can anyone else. A good way to do that is in conversation, either with oneself, I suppose, or better, with others. To carefully write and polish the results – that would seem to me to be a ton of extra work yielding little more in the way of knowing what one is, oneself, thinking.
Similarly, I can find out what I am looking at – by looking at it. I can try to assess the meaning by thinking about it, and by asking others, and so on. What I want – what I fear – why does writing enter into discovering that?
I suspect some writers say these kinds of things because they heard someone else say something similar, and its sounds artsy and wise. If self deception or posturing was the only problem, it would be no big deal, but there is something elitist about this formulation, too, I think. Does it mean that people who don’t write books don’t know what they think, don’t know what they see, don’t know what they fell and fear, and so on? The only sense in which I can understand the above stated reasons, would be if the writer proposing them really meant the only way for him or her to process information and tally evidence and develop his or her own views was by writing them down - and presumably reading to see what they had written, and then polishing the writing, and so on. This is not remotely the case for me. Maybe it is for the person you heard say it – though I sincerely about it – but then how come in the end the publish published the result? If the point was to learn their own thoughts, why publish it for anyone else to read? There must be another motive operating.
Even more, what I am thinking, seeing, wanting and or fearing is – well, most often, inconsequential to anyone but me – unless there are more general matters, less personal ones, that I choose to convey with the intention that some audience will enjoy or benefit from it in some way. I myself write with a very specific purpose, and I would not write if I did not have that purpose, and if I did not feel there was at least a chance, however small, that I could put something in a book, article, or interview, that helped accomplish that purpose. And the purpose is – to contribute to social change.
I certainly can see people having other reasons to write – perhaps to express one’s emotions and feelings for others, or even just for oneself, or just to express them at all, even, and then stick the result in a trunk or burn it, I guess. Or perhaps to earn an income. But as to my motives, none of that has relevance, at least as far as I am aware, or even a tiny role to play in why I write. I certainly would not write other than when I think it may contribute something worthy to social change efforts. For me, writing is not fun. It is not in itself fulfilling. It is not a way to enlarge my own thinking or discover my feelings. And it certainly isn’t a way to earn income. It is just hard work, for a purpose.
I have written lots of things that have never been published – or read. I did not see it as time well spent, other than, perhaps, as training or practice for writing something else that would be read.
Regarding Occupy Vision, why the need to describe a vision? What is it you call a vision? Do you see yourself as a visionary? Why are you projecting yourself so far down a path when neither you nor I know whether we will live long enough to see anything close to a participatory society?
The need for vision arises, as already noted, from some pretty obvious reasons. For example, it is hard to get someplace that you are not seeking to arrive at. It would be luck, or accident, and you would be more likely to arrive somewhere else, entirely, as happens so often in social undertakings. To seek to arrive at a social result entails knowing its primary features.
Put another way, movements need vision for orientation today. There is a slogan, “plant the seeds of the future in the present.” How can you do that, intelligently, without having some clarity about key features of the future? And if you can’t do it, then maybe, as, so often in the past, even with the best intentions imaginable, you will inadvertently plant the seeds of a nightmare…not of a better future.
Second, how can you address the public in a manner that has hopes of inspiring activism and participation in social change, if the public is horribly doubtful of anything better being possible or attainable? TINA, the belief that “there is no alternative,” is a foundation and bulwark of current oppressive relations – and if you have nothing to say to offset people’s doubts, you can upset people about injustices but you can’t, at least in large enough numbers, elicit activism. One thing that needs to be said for people to become truly engaged is how a better future is in fact possible, including describing the key institutions that would make it desirable and viable.
Thus, what I call a vision is a set of defining institutions in some domain of life that reveals how that domain can be free of oppressive relations and deliver on values people hold dear – but which is not fanciful or excessive. It describes institutions that are essential, but not more than that. And it describes institutions that are desirable, but also viable.
I don’t even know what a “visionary” is. I see myself, at least in this context, as someone who sees a very powerful need, and who is trying, with others, to meet that need. The label visionary, in contrast, connotes some kind of cosmic insight into the details of the future. I don’t have that, nor, in my view, does anyone else. Instead, participatory economy and society are about trying to carefully and rationally discuss the key institutions we must implement to have a better future. It is not describing the details of a better future, but only the most essential scaffolding around which the details will be constructed by future citizens. And the methods for discerning the essential scaffolding are simply to think about what societies do, about what underlying defining relations establish the current harsh results, and about new relations that could turn that situation around. This doesn’t take special talent, rather, just hard and careful work, plus attention to the evidence to be gleaned from one’s own experience and historical evidence.
Finally, I would be lying if I said I thought the journey will be complete soon. Could we be pretty far along a new path, developing its features, including having massive social participation in thirty years – yes, I think that is very possible. Perhaps even twenty or even ten, in some scenarios. Indeed, in some respects, not all, we will have to be, or we will be suffering so immeasurably from ecological impacts and grotesque injustices and inequality that all agendas will have to be revamped, at best. But once giant involvement exists, how long will the rest of the journey to a well established, stable, fully and smoothly functioning new world of new societies with people operating consistent with their new relations? It won’t be the work of a weekend, that is for sure.
So why work for it, fight for it, and forego other possible personal options to apply oneself to pursuing it? I am tempted to say, because – and leave it at that. How does one answer such a question? This is where someone with a novelist’s or poet’s sensibility might do better than I can. I certainly would like to see progress, major progress, before I die for what it would mean to everyone. Consider the new organization, IOPS, we talked about earlier. I would be far happier than I currently am if I saw convincing evidence that it will persist and contribute to creating a new world, to helping construct it, etc. Why? Because I would like future generations to be liberated, of course.
It is also true, I think, that to be making progress toward a new world will mean that current relations are improving as fast as possible. So in that case, benefits from seeking a new world would accrue all the time, even if ultimate benefits, the full fruition of efforts, were far off.
I see there’s a comic book about your life called Parecomix. What is this?
It isn’t so much about my life as it is about using various events and relations that happen to come from my past experiences to draw valuable lessons and convey what the author Sean Michael Wilson, and the artist, Carl Thompson, hope are important and useful insights.
There is a whole world of publishing that takes the idea of the comic – which is basically frames on a page with graphics/pictures/drawings in those frames, plus text usually in the form of comments by folks who are pictured – and applies it not to superheroes say, like Thor or Batman, but instead to making graphic novels or non fiction works.
When Sean Wilson, a highly accomplished author in the genre, wrote to me saying he wanted to do that with events from my life to convey ideas such as parecon and others, and to inspire new thinking in a more accessible way than in the many other plain text works seeking the same ends, my reaction was, great, by all means, give it a try. And if you need my help, let me know.
My optimism on hearing from Sean owed a lot to the fact that by pure chance I had just read a graphic book – the only one I have read other than Marvel comics and the like, when I was a kid, about Bertrand Russell and the associated history and ideas. I thought it was true to the ideas and history, which I had suspected before reading it, it wouldn’t be, as well as very readable and enjoyable, all due to rather than despite the graphic/comic treatment. So why not, I thought.
Well, they got started and I thought it would turn out okay and I could give it to various family members and perhaps some others could do so too. But in fact, I think while it is excellent for that purpose, it is also much better than that suggests, due to providing an incredibly accessible presentation without compromising substance. All kinds of people – living and brought back to life – show up in Parecomix, and in my view all are treated well and rendered compellingly – by way of diverse scenes, events, and ideas from the sixties up to 2000. To my reading, at least, Parecomix is remarkably concise yet does not sacrifice content. I think it is a really good piece of work and I hope Sean will take up more projects like this.