Remembering Remembering Tomorrow
Admittedly I was unsure of how to write a review about a memoir, especially one like Michael Albert’s Remembering Tomorrow that I really enjoyed reading. Because the book was so well written my initial feeling was I wanted a review to convey the overall message of the book while not demeaning the value. So I have opted more for a sort of memoir of a memoir.
I am a daily reader – and have been for several years, and I guess I should also point out that I am also a “sustainer” – of ZNet and what is now more broadly called ZCommunications, and I can still remember seeing the initial advertising of the memoir. I really liked the title of the book. The double-entendre was appealing. On one hand it is nonsensical to remember something that hasn’t yet happened, and on the other it is inspiring in its optimism to remember what it is we are working towards. We remember tomorrow for what can be.
A few years and dozens of books later – I have a voracious appetite for reading radical Leftist books – I finally got around to reading the book. I had tried the Dave Dellinger book, From Yale to Jail, and while Dave is certainly a hero of mine, the book didn’t really captivate me the way Albert’s did. The book was very interesting and informative. You really get a good sense of who Michael Albert was and who he is.
I read the book on lunches while sitting in my car, still digesting the peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwiches – or leftover meals Amy made – and sometimes I read it before bed.
The memoir begins with a young Jewish boy who aspires to be a physicist – in a parallel universe I can see myself reading a book by Albert critiquing string theory on perhaps the same grounds as other theoretical physicists like Lee Smolin. He leaves for MIT and in what just a few years prior would have been the strangest of all places to turn radical; Albert gets turned into a radical Leftist.
It starts with an uncomfortable encounter with his fraternity when he discovers they spy on their recruits, and quickly escalates with his involvement in Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).
It was difficult to put down the book in some places. For example, Albert’s involvement with SDS, the Rosa Luxemberg SDS (RL-SDS) chapter to be exact, showed how he quickly slipped into the movements of the 1960’s. Over a brief period of time his focus on physics changed to that of being a revolutionary. His constructive criticisms of the Weathermen and the Left in general are truly inspirational even for today’s Leftists who want to get beyond counter-productive tactics on one hand or mush-minded liberalism on the other.
I guess one thing that interested me or kept me interested is how I could see some parallels between his life and mine – though I, unfortunately, never had the focus or the nerve to take the risks that he has. His initial aspirations was physics, mine was music. But around the same age we both were moved by current events that pulled us towards certain causes like gravity keeps us grounded, or the planets orbiting around the Sun.
Almost predictably Albert gets kicked out of school. Authority that is challenged for its justifications seems to look for ways to preserve itself, and in these times it can win most of the time (but a point I am sure Albert might agree with me on is that it is the times we win that can make all the difference).
From there, as we move out of the 1960s and into the 1970s, Albert moves on to co-founding South End Press – a radical Leftist publishing group that seeks not only to provide activists and interested readers access to books that otherwise might not have gotten published, but to provide something counter to the current institutional practices within businesses (even those on the Left). The stories about seeking funding for the group revealed a lot of nasty (not so) secrets about prevailing business practices. I am referring to how Albert describes Capitalism: “garbage rises.” I remember thinking the old cliché, “nice guys finish last.”
Eventually Albert and his companion, Lydia Sargent, decided to move on to new endeavors in the late 1980s: Z Magazine. Though this also preceded an attempt to get a degree in economics for his father (this doesn’t happen due to many backsliding agreements between Albert and some radical faculty members). Remembering Tomorrow lets today’s readers see the evolution of one of our most valuable tools of information.
But it is the economic writings with his longtime friend, Robin Hahnel that has long interested me. The criticisms of Marxism, the inclusion of Barbara Ehrenreich’s third class (i.e. what Hahnel and Albert later dubbed the “coordinator class”) and eventually the creation of Participatory Economics, which was created as a response to Margaret Thatcher’s claim “there is no alternative.”
This seems to me to be the brunt of the book. Michael Albert has grown from a radical in a movement dominated by a limited economic view that saw itself for the reason and solution to everything (i.e. Marxism) to the birth of “life after capitalism.” The book seems to tell this story for the hope that others can learn from his life.
The most important thing I took away from this book was the analysis and observation of the American Left, especially its media. I have long struggled with the incessant complaining and whining about what is wrong; Bush this and Bush that, the Rich this and the Rich that. Somehow despite all the successes the various movements of the post-World War Two era we have grown cynical, and thus have self-inflicted on ourselves a sense of impotence, helplessness and hopelessness.
With vision and strategy we can take our successes and continue them to something better. But to do that we have got to be cautious about our own internal structuring and organizing; does the Left media reflect operational practices we want to see in a better world – that is do they empower the workers, resolve inequalities and injustices, and do they put their workers and consumers before, say, ad revenue? – or do they reflect the style and practices of our alleged adversaries?
There are certainly more things to be conscious of than economics, but what Albert and Hahnel do with Participatory Economics is demonstrate that we can respond to many of the injustices, inequalities and inefficiencies of dominant economic institutions by responding to the structures; by re-evaluating property rights, allocation, planning, division of labor and remuneration. If certain institutions do this-and-that and we want something else then it is simply a matter of constructing new institutions and institutional practices that gives us what we desire. Participatory Economics does exactly that.
I put the book down not thinking about Albert’s personal life, but the message that guided him through his life: revolutionary optimism. Pessimism and cynicism has never freed people. It has never broken a chain of oppression or ended an injustice. It does not liberate. I look around and see so much complacency and cynicism. Even in the midst of an economic crisis that should have us following the steps of our Latin brothers and sisters to the south.
(Also, we just recently witnessed a brave Iraqi journalist risk torture and jail to not only throw shoes at the so-called “Leader of the Free World” but also to point out the Emperor has no clothes; the illegal, immoral and unjustified war and occupation of Iraq has produced horrendous results for our victims. The free citizens who are responsible for Iraq’s misery met this bravery with only a stirring of outrage. Was it only cynicism that explains our passivity?)
I go to work the following day with my revolutionary commitment revived. An elderly black woman comes into my office. Somehow a peculiar conversation arises. She talks about early retirement and the state of the economy. I tell her about the cap on Social Security and how even though the Congressional Budgeting Office says the program is fine through 2049, or how we overcame similar though more serious crises in the 1950s, 1960s and 1980s, many wrongly think the program is out of control. She quickly sees the solution: abolishing the cap. Why should 100% of our income be taxed while less than half comes out of the 5% richest? She even suggests the wealthy ought to pay a higher tax rate (i.e. progressive taxation). This is not a radical Leftist, just a sensible woman.
Then she moves a bit uncomfortably in her chair. She looks up at me and says, “You are still young, but I have learned this in my life: Everything about our society is built in favor of the rich.” I remember thinking, “Has this woman ever read Charles Beard, Morton Horowitz, Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn?” She has no idea how deep my radical roots run. I smile. I say, “Surely there is a solution.” She says if there is one she would like to hear it.
I seize the opportunity. “Well if there were a popular movement to push for certain reforms the rich would pack up and leave to make things difficult for us and to undermine us.” She nods in agreement. “Well maybe we should make certain things a part of our movement. Like demands on capital flight, rethinking property rights, nationalizing public serves like education, health care, water and telecommunications, instituting progressive taxation to really ‘spread the wealth’ [this is a comment that arouses a giggle] and pushing for worker’s rights that include, among other things, more empowerment.”
Such a statement reveals I follow things more closely than she expected. The smile deepens, a sense of solidarity is felt, a social bond is made and she gets up and thanks me for the interesting conversation and leaves. Oddly this has played out more and more frequently as more and more people are eager to discuss hardships.
Remembering Tomorrow closes with Albert “bringing the ship in”:
It doesn’t have to be this way. As in 1965, so too now. We can escape the institutions that clip our wings. We can bring the ship in. That’s how it seems to me, at any rate, looking forward to tomorrow.