Editors: What can we learn from movements on college campuses in the past?
Albert: It is a very large question that can’t be answered in anything but very broad strokes in a short interview. That said, I think we can learn quite a lot about organizing techniques and problems, things like the need to address people’s real underlying concerns and problems – such as lack of hope in any alternative or in the efficacy of activity, on the one hand, and pitfalls or benefits of certain types of organizing, certain types of demands, etc., on the other hand.
There is a tendency in current activism to decry past errors, but to then recapitulate them, rather than to actually transcend them. Creating narrow-focus movements, engaging in apocalyptic organizing, guilt-tripping and ostracizing difference, over-attending to railing about oppression and under-attending to convincingly explaining the actual institutional requisites of liberation, and particularly approaching politics in ego driven ways that lead to something like narrow in-grown communities, rather than constantly outreaching to those who disagree, are examples of the kinds of problems of the past, recurring now, that I have in mind. It is hard to make a case about any of this in a short interview, however.
Have they been effective? How can students who are concerned about the future of our world act toward substantive change?
Very generally, I think students can first educate themselves to understand where problems lie, what their sources are, and their potential solutions, both short and long term. Then students can become adept at the tasks and behaviors critical to reaching out to people who are less well informed or motivated. Then they can use this new knowledge of problems and solutions and this new capacity to organize. Sometimes part of organizing can be holding rallies or demonstrations or doing aggressive actions very unique to particular venues. But, mostly, the key is to put oneself in front of others who disagree, who are passive and cynical or actively opposed to dissent, and interacting. The key is to talk. Email is nice, but it reaches those whose address one has. What is needed, however, is to reach those who disagree, whose address you don’t have. What is needed is one-on-one in depth discussion, without guilt tripping, without hostility and disrespect, uncovering real reasons for reticense and honestly and carefully and very convincingly addressing them.
What can we learn from your personal experiences organizing at MIT in the sixties?
This too is a very large question. I have just written a book – these things are called memoirs – using life experiences to try to convey useful insights and information. It will be out next fall. It goes from mid 1960s and earlier to the present, but a nice chunk is about the sixties itself including my time at MIT and in other organizing venues. It is a long book. Here I can only intimate.
At MIT we tried to assess where we were, what our fellow students felt, why they were (initially) inactive. Then we tried to conceive both actions and modes of talking and writing that directly addressed our fellow students’ beliefs and hesitations. We didn’t create a small community and then act as though that was all we needed. We went to every dorm and fraternity, talking to every kind of student – athletes, campus politico types, intellects, and all – over and over, night after night. We did small things, and sometimes much bigger things, that disrupted usual thought patterns – from redesigning corridors in the dead of night, to hanging wall posters all over, to holding rallies, marches, sit ins, and even riots. We harbored an AWOL GI on campus – it was called a sanctuary. We used music, visual display, talk, print, assembly, and also disruption. We ran for office, won it, and used its resources. And so on. We also suffered from various kinds of arrogance, sectarianism, and infighting. We suffered from tying our identitites too much to our proximate choices and beliefs. And much more, on both the good and the bad sides.
So, yes, I think there are things to learn, both about useful things to do, and things to avoid, and I think very regretably my generation has largely failed to convey those lessons – which has been a real shame and loss, but one that can perhaps be made up in coming times.
To what degree are students and faculty free to pursue controversial projects, to critically analyze the establishment, and so on?
Do you know of any student or faculty in the U.S. being killed for such behavior? Being taken in dead of night and arrested? There are repressive measures that occur, yes, but on the one hand it is generally quite possible to act in ways that are not subject to those when one’s movement is too weak to ward them off or to defend against them. On the other hand, as support grows, the best defense against people being in any way hassled, much less thrown out or fired, much less anything worse, is to create a condition in which repression would do more harm to those enacting it than to dissent. So it never makes sense to bemoan repression as a reason for inaction. If repressive measures exist as a threat preventing what one wants to do, one’s actions should be (a) to operate in ways that can’t be attacked and (b) to create by one’s acts sufficient support and community so that such repression would be counter productive if enacted. Having accomplished that, one can go on to new types of activity, previously unwise. It is easier to say than to do all this, of course, but it is, I think, an effective stance.
What external pressures limit individuals’ application of this freedom, in what ways, to what extent?
Almost none. That is, it seems to me that the likelihood of some external agency, presumably government, interfering with students doing on campus organizing, which is mostly talking to other students, is nearly nil if activists are functioning in anything like a sensible fashion. Of course, if students garner sufficient support to engage in broadly illegal acts, the courts and police come into play. If it makes good sense to undertake such acts, then the prior answer applies.
Who runs the universities? Who should run them? Who has access to them? Who should have access?
I understand the motivation of this question, and what’s asked is perfectly legitimate and relevant, but it is also reasonable subject matter for much longer treatment. And more, I assume you and others are pursuing these matters yourselves – and of course there is much written, much experience, that bears on this and really on all these quesitons, not least probably your own experience.
Typically universities are run by boards, presidents, and small groups of faculty, in a somewhat convoluted hierarchy with, however, most campus people – which is to say most employees and students – having nearly no influence and often not even knowing what decisions are being made. If we believe in the broadest democracy, much less in self management (which is that people should have a say in decisions that affect them in the proportion they are affected), ,then I think the answers to your question become self evident.
As to access, in a desirable society all members would engage in work that was balanced in its components rather than about 20% monopolizing empowering tasks and the rest doing only rote, repetitive, and obedient tasks. With this change, education would become truly universal. Now, instead of each person receiving access to educational opportunities designed to elicit and facilitate fullest use of their potentials, 80% are channeled so that they may be primarily taught to endure boredom and obey orders. Do you remember high school? Do you remember watching the clock, praying for the end of class, or of the day, but sitting and enduring it? Obviously there is little need for higher education for people who are destined by society’s structure to have no use for it. This would change in a desirable society. Short of a truly just society, however, it follows that changes in that direction are moving toward what is just and should be undertaken.
What function do universities serve in international affairs? In the military-industrial complex? In systems of indoctrination?
I suspect you know the answer as well as I do. By and large universities are complicit in both rationalizing/justifying U.S. foreign policy (by what they teach, what they write, and even more so, what they ignore) and sometimes in carrying it out (by their research, and by literally fulfilling governmental functions, etc.). I am here just baldly stating a view, the task, to be convincing, is to offer evidence. My own belief, however, is that most students know all this, if not in detail, then at least broadly – and deep down. What isn’t clear to students, at all, I suspect, is why they should be aroused or upset by it. Instead, I think the typical view is that this is inevitably the ways things are – like night and day, wind and rain, gravity, and so on. You might moan and grown about such things once in a while, but there is no point in organizing about them. They are facts of life. This view, if I am right that it is prevelent, is why I think students need to hear and discuss not only what is wrong – which often leads largely only to cynicism – but also what could be, what ought to be, and how their choices can help bring it into being, which can convince people of the efficacy of involvement and activism.
With ParEcon, you have laid forth a precise and detailed vision for a possible post-capitalist society. How can this vision apply to the university system?
Parecon is only precise and detailed about some very specific core attributes of a new economy. For the most part, future economy will be worked out in the future and will vary from country to country, place to place inside countries, and so on. What parecon says is that if we want an economy beyond capitalism that is classless, that incorporates and even enhances solidarity, diversity, equity, and self management, then there are a few centrally defining institutions we need to adopt: workers and consumers self managing councils, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of labor, what are called balanced job complexes constituting a new division of labor, and what’s called participatory planning constituting a new means of allocation. A society is much more than economics, however, and a true social vision would include clarity about core needs in other spheres of life as well.
Suppose there were a group on your campus, or any campus, that had a shared vision of a better society’s defining institutions. That would imply, as well, I think, key aspects of what a better university could be like now. This, in turn, would suggest, I believe, a whole array of types of desirable changes in a current university, the logic underlaying such changes, the kinds of vision to hold out as the ultimate aim of such changes, and so on. I tend to think movements, on campuses, pursuing such efforts to incorporate stages of just remuneration, self managed decision-making, classless division of labor, participation, cultural, kin, and political innovation, and other features of a future good society in their institutions now would be great contributors to social change in a number of ways. They would be improving educational infrastructure. They would be moving universities in directions conducive to further arousal of and activism by students on many other fronts. And they would be exemplary for people in other parts of society – hospitals, factories and industries, entertainment, places of worship, government, neighborhoods – who might take up the task of beginning to transform their own domains as well. Indeed, one of the lessons of the sixties is precisely, I think, the need for this type activism and not simply protest.