1. At a public talk someone asks you, "okay, I understand what
you reject, but I wonder what are you for? What institutions
do you favor that will be better than what we have for the economy,
polity, gender, race, ecology, or whatever you have vision for?
I am for a society and political economy that fosters (rather than discourages) participation, self-criticism, experimentation, and cooperation. Thus, I find myself leaning toward a radical, but democratic, reorganization of society. However, any hope for a revolutionary overthrow of the existing national political economy should first reflect upon the danger of moving toward a radical–i.e., democratic socialist–reorganization of society when a substantial portion of the non-capitalist population stands vehemently opposed to it. Simple questions such as "What will happen to those who work in selling finance, luxury goods, and ‘selling’ in general? What will happen to those who cannot provide for themselves? More importantly, who decides what happens?" Even in acknowledging these few questions, we realize that, compounded by the relentless propaganda and misinformation spread about socialism’s inviability/undesirability/etc., the uncertainty and magnitude of the necessary transition toward socialism does indeed render a radical reorganization as something beyond daunting. This of course forces one to ask, "Do I really despise capitalism so much that I would be willing to support a theoretically-quarrelsome, internally divided, poorly-planned organization to oppose it?"
My feeling has always been that once one feels a true sense of empowerment, he or she is unlikely to let it be taken away easily. Union members have felt (and often continue to feel) this. But, when faced with the insurmountable pressures of globalization, outsourcing, downsizing, etc. (i.e.–capitalism itself), power then has to be taken from them. However, local arrangements that seek to democratically coordinate production and consumption of goods and services have the potential of providing a perhaps more profound sense of empowerment to the individuals that participate. And, if these local arrangements were to be created now (which they can), when these individuals return to their full-time jobs, they would immediately be confronted with the grave alienation, subordination, and powerlessness that characterizes most places of employment–especially within the corporate sector. Will these local arrangements quickly replace capitalism? Can they–and should they–seek to compete against capitalist firms (as do, for example, the government’s "Mercal" stores in Venezuela)? I would answer in the negative. The first step–the most important step–is to show people what is meant by democratic socialism and participatory economics. I like to think of it as a potential part-time job for radicals and non-radicals alike. Producing clothing, providing/consuming education, consuming locally grown food–all of these things could be done by small, local arrangements without much money and with a lot of democratic decision making. It would even appeal to those who may not consider themselves radical at all. But the ultimate, deeply resonating effect would indeed be radical insofar as those who participate will quickly see that the world of capitalism could never provide this sense of empowerment. I am therefore hesitant to recommend precisely how the ultimate goal should occur when useful institutional prerequisites–such as local arrangements to coordinate production and consumption–are so difficult to find.
2. Next, someone at the same event asks, "Why do you do what you do?
That is, you are speaking to us, and I know you write, and maybe you organize, but why
do you do it? What do you think it accomplishes? What is your goal for your coming
year, or for your next ten years?
The capitalist ideology is powerful. In the film, "The Truman Show," the main character, Truman, inadvertently finds out that he has, since birth, been unknowingly acting as the main star of a television show that takes place within a fabricated world that he has always thought to be "the real world". In a similar way, until one realizes that there actually exist criticisms of capitalism as a system of socioeconomic organization, they may simply go on believing that the world has always been–and will always be–this way. To them, capitalism is not a choice–whether of an individual, a class, a society, or a world–but rather a "reality", just as Truman’s world was simply a "reality". Quite naturally, then, crises, alienation, social injustice, war, exploitation, discrimination, etc., appear as accidental. When capitalism is understood as the natural outgrowth of "human nature" (i.e., the root of all roots), rather than as a system, it will (at best) lead one to begin looking for solutions to these problems within capitalism itself–just as Truman first ran to trusted "friends" and "family" to seek help and advice.
But when Truman finally begins to understand what is going on, his unrelenting need to know the truth, to live on his own terms, to determine his destiny, becomes an end in and of itself. He is eventually told of the despair which exists out in the real world, and is reminded of the ease with which he lives in "his world". He is fully aware that he is completely ignorant of what exists outside of "his world", and likewise has no idea what might happen to him out in the real world. Yet, Truman risks death to get out of "his world"–and, in the end, he does.
I do what I do because I believe that many, if shown even a glimpse of capitalism’s full reality, would begin to feel an irrepressible urge to find a way for humanity to "escape" capitalism. There is a little bit of Truman in all of us.
3. You are at home and you get an email that says a new
organization is trying to form, internationally, federating
national chapters, etc. It asks you to join the effort. Can
you imagine plausible conditions under which you would say,
"yes, I will give my energies to making it happen along with
the rest of you who are already involved?" If so, what are
those conditions? Or – do you think instead that regardless
of the content of the agenda and make up of the
participants, the idea can’t be worthy, now, or perhaps ever.
If so, why?
I believe that, when dealing with issues such as these, increased organization/participation/planning etc. is almost always a good thing. I would support an organization that seeks to plant the seeds for the society that we wish to see. But this necessarily means something more than simply producing papers and holding conferences that often degenerate into overly-esoteric discussions which do little more than alienate those who are only starting to become engaged. Uniting with groups that embody–but may not necessarily outwardly espouse– "anti-capitalist" values is an excellent first step (such as many of the current "green" movements). And as difficult and outmoded as it may seem, running political candidates at the local level may produce interesting results (especially considering the small electoral turnout in local elections). If such a candidate could point to the local, voluntary arrangements that organize production and consumption (as I mentioned earlier), and simply say "this is our vision for what all of society could be like," I think it might produce some provocative results. The organization could reach out to political candidates who refer to themselves as socialists (such as the current candidate running for governor of New Jersey). Think of how extraordinary it would be if such a candidate were to win and, perhaps, advocate for and direct more funding to these local initiatives, as currently occurs within some of the more left-leaning states in Venezuela. The key, as always, is to first reveal a vision. Once the vision is shared by enough people, the possibilities for real change are limitless.
4. Do you think efforts to organize movements, projects, and
our own organizations should embody the seeds of the future
in the present? If not, why not? If yes, can you say what, very
roughly, you think some of the implications would be for an
organization you would favor?
Absolutely, otherwise, what would its purpose be? Simply advocating for more reform within capitalism, though I see some value in it in terms of strategy, could backfire as European countries that espouse a more "managed capitalism" slowly reform toward a freer market capitalism. I am not opposed to social democratic reforms in the U.S., but this is mainly because of their potential to reveal the class-based politics that is so often concealed. Creating another organization to simply tout the benefits of a more managed capitalism would amount to duplication at best.
5. Why did you answer this interview? Why do you think others
did not answer it?
I answered it because it forced me to think a bit more about what I myself would like to see. And, most importantly, because answering it assists in furthering the process for radical change. Many who consider themselves "critical theorists" are often great at criticizing capitalism and its inefficiencies, social byproducts, crises, etc., but have little to offer insofar as what to do about it. In fact, they may even refuse to take any stance in favor of something, or join any "organization," simply because they would be at risk of compromising and would, thereby, become susceptible to criticism themselves. In precisely this way, the radical Left, to me, has come to represent an enormous vehicle full of brilliant, passionate individuals, who collectively serve to step on the accelerator and the brake simultaneously. We get into the "chicken or the egg" debate when we try to decide between not moving forward until we have a coherent plan, and not making a coherent plan until we have moved forward. I advocate moving forward before worrying about a totally coherent plan–primarily because attempting to forecast the future conditions, which will have arisen from preconditions that have yet to fully manifest themselves, amounts to little more than useless speculation and ideological fetishism. Most importantly, the radical Left’s inability to agree on this simple strategy does not do much to help advance the credibility and appeal of its main desire–the "democratic reorganization the entire society," which would obviously involve endless strategizing and difficult decision-making; and it would have to occur across a much wider spectrum of political thought. In many ways, then, the success of the radical Left as a movement effectively speaks to the potential success of the kind of society and political economy we are supposedly advocating for.