Towards a New International

Our friends over at ZNet are currently conducting a poll to test the appetite for a new internationalist radical organization. A letter signed by Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Michael Albert and others states that:

“Since we would all benefit immeasurably from a massive, militant, coherent, and effective international organization that has branches in countries around the world, that galvanizes people around shared program while having sound organization – it would be a major benefit to folks working on all such endeavors to discover leftist reaction to this poll as widely as possible. It might tell us all that now is not the time. Or it might tell us all, as we who have signed below fervently hope, that now is the time, and that there is right now in the world a large, ready, and even eager constituency for such an undertaking.”

I put a few questions to Z Net founder Michael Albert:

Z Net has been encouraging users to respond to an online poll regarding a new type of internationalist organisation. Can you explain the thinking behind the poll? Why the need for a poll if no such organization is currently being proposed?

I would think the question would be almost the reverse. If one were already building an organization, then you wouldn’t poll people to see their reactions to a possible pursuit – you would try to recruit people to the actual pursuit. However, not knowing people’s reactions, and wanting to see an organization come into existence, you poll them, to see if there is interest.

Building a serious organization, something those involved in the work hope will not only have short term benefits, but remain in existence way into the future, indeed becoming part of the process of winning a new world – is a big task. It involves time, expense, etc. You don’t want to undertake it if there is no interest, or even just little interest. Partly to pursue it in that case would waste resources that could have gone to something better. And partly, in failing, due to the lack of interest, it would make people even more hesitant and dubious about subsequent efforts. Indeed, while you might learn a lot that could help in the future, even from a failed effort – the fact of the failure itself might offset, in its effects on both immediate morale and future expectations, those useful lessons.

So the idea is to try to get people to indicate their reactions. Imagine, 10,000 or 50,000 people did that. Some years back we put up a statement – very similar politics to the poll description, actually, during war time. It was called We Stand and people signed on saying, “we stand for,” and listing things. Very similar content to parts of the description associated with the poll. About 120,000 people signed on. And signing up was a pretty similar task, too. People had to read the We Stand statement, decide whether they liked it, and log in and click to agree to be listed.

There is a difference, it seems, partly the description is longer, yes, but I am not entirely sure what else. At any rate, if 120,000 people around the world registered their reactions to the three poll questions, after reading the organizational description, and if the percentage who supported the ideas was even a fifth as favorable as the current answers have been – the message would be very very strong that people should get on with building a new organization. In fact, even if the response was a tenth as positive, I think that that would be the message. So it turns out there are two problems – first, what would people answer, if they did answer, and second, getting people to answer at all. Both problems – substance and inclinations – exist for any effort to build an organization, too, so both are real hurdles to overcome.

The poll seems to be suggesting a form of organisation that conforms quite closely to the values of participatory economics and the participatory vision more generally advocated by Z. In the UK I would say that Parecon is not widely know, much less advocated for by leftists. Globally is there really enough support for the participatory economic vision to imagine a significant international movement that advocates that vision arising any time soon?

Well, I guess that is what we are looking to find out. I actually think the visionary parts of the statement probably resonate very well with very wide swaths of the left around the world. Indeed, I don’t really think that agreement about those values is the big hurdle, honestly. Not that everyone agrees with everything that was offered – which is short of parecon and parsoc, but certainly related to them – which means also related to anarchism, related to twenty first century style socialism, related to feminism, etc.

No, I think the bigger issue is people wanting to join into a large project that deviates some from their exact feelings and beliefs, but is very close to them and particularly people feeling there is a reason to do that, as compared to doubting the efficacy of any such undertaking. Of course, maybe I am wrong and the issues people feel are more diverse, or different, and have more to do with the values, say. That’s what a poll is for, and the discussion it generates. Finding out, not by guessing, but by listening.

The novelist Nick Hornby once described cynicism as “the Esperanto that caught on” – you have identified cynicism as one of the impediments to envisaging new organisations. How can this problem be overcome?

I think maybe cynicism is a misleading word. Partly it is an emotional feeling of doubt, of powerlessness, yes. Which may have many roots. It didn’t so much catch on as get produced by the institutions around us, the lives we lead, the horrors we encounter, the failings we suffer. But partly it is also just an honest and sober estimate, based on past experience, of the likelihood of current or near term success. If we extrapolate from the past, well, it doesn’t look all that promising. So if one says, I will only do that which is really promising, and seems so to me, one is left not doing anything particularly ambitious. 

This isn’t complicated. If you have tried things and failed, then, until you succeed, your accumulated image of possibilities is ugly. But, if you feel that success is both mandatory and possible, then you keep trying and obstacles are just hurdles you must deal with. These are two different mindsets. One thinks, we may lose, better not try. The other things we may win – let’s by all means try. And, more, the latter knows you lose, you lose, you lose – but someday you win. And you only have to win once.

It is disturbing to see old folks with, admittedly, lots of accumulated bad taste, despondent. But it is even more disturbing to see young folks stop trying. There is no greater gift to the status quo.

Indeed, I will get in trouble for this, probably, but it honestly seems to me that a person who understands society and isn’t trying to change it is far far less admirable than a person who just doesn’t understand society, especially one who honestly tries to make lives better albeit piecemeal and without coherent direction and aims, and often doing things that are even counterproductive.

The poll we have uploaded arose over time from a project called Reimagining Society. There were lots of people who partook of that project, writing about societal vision and strategy, discussing their ideas, etc., and that project also had a poll, toward the end, that was very long. There was very strong support for various positions registered, and those preferred positions have been amalgamated into the description in the current poll.

This poll, then, doesn’t ask much, after all, from people. It requires a little time. Let’s say an hour to read the description and think about it – or perhaps some people would take longer, others certainly would finish more quickly. And then one has to only click a few boxes to answer three questions. Perhaps another five or ten minutes. That’s not much. Maybe more than the We Stand statement, but not much more. But the payoff for the poll is large in the form of real and useful information about a profoundly important matter. And the poll’s payoff is also laden with possibility, either to retrench because there is no constituency for organization building, or to build, because there is. And wouldn’t the latter be something to have contributed to


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