In biochemistry a precursor is a chemical substance that precedes another, usually by some metabolic process.
Revolutionary processes have theirs too. Consciousness precedes action. And there lies the role of revolutionary precursors: to raise the consciousnesses of others; to awaken the sleeping masses. Or in terms of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, to break us from the chains that keep us imprisoned and thinking that the shadows cast by the fire behind us is reality; to look up to the blinding truth and revolt. And considering the class structure of our society, "look up" is pretty apt.
When explaining ourselves or what it means to be a revolutionary to the average person not acquainted with radical leftist politics I find there are four things that need to be stressed:
- The world we live in
- What is right and wrong with it
- What is a preferable world to live in
- How we get there
Every person who passes through the public education system in the US has been exposed to a method of heroification. This is where leaders – often wealthy, white, authoritarian males – are sanitized for mass consumption. James Loewen has a great book on this subject, Lies My Teacher Told Me.
From Christopher Columbus to the American Revolution to the Abolition of Slavery to Women’s Rights, Labor Rights, Civil Rights, the Vietnam War to the Cold War and after. All of these issues are largely thought of being the product of wealthy, white, authoritarian men. More often than not the reality of popular social movements at odds with big business and politicians is distorted or suppressed. It would likely make a huge impact if students were taught that the majority of progressive change in this country was the product of organized masses struggling against their employers and government. We would likely, and rightly, see more force emanating from civil disobedience and movement building than voting or obedience.
I bring this up because we can’t know the world we live in without knowing the lies we have been told, and those lies reveal how we are a racist, sexist, and authoritarian society ruled by elites waging class warfare. Even with minimal consciousness we know that politicians and corporate executives are lying pieces of shit.
The former will say whatever to get elected and then once in office do another – usually by repaying their gratitude to the assholes that funded their campaign. For example, Stanley Aaronowitz – he teaches Sociology and Urban Education at CUNY – recently described President Obama’s campaign and win:
What was obscured by Obama’s rousing campaign and nimble rhetoric has become brutally apparent in the aftermath. The Democratic Party has, since the end of World War II, been the favored party of finance capital. That mantle once belonged to the Republicans — the fabled party of the rich and wealthy. But the GOP has sunk into a right-wing party of opposition and no longer pretends to be a party of government. Its cast, begun as far back as the Goldwater takeover in 1964, is anti-internationalist, narrowly ideological and administratively incompetent. Meanwhile, the Democrats live a glaring contradiction: on the one hand, they rely on labor and the new social movements of feminism, ecology and black freedom both for votes and for a large portion of their political cadres. On the other, they need hundreds of millions of dollars to oil the party apparatus and run 535 national election campaigns. Aside from the unions, most of this money comes from corporate sponsors and wealthy individuals.
This contradictory existence accounts for several important political realities: Despite a large "progressive" congressional delegation, especially in the House of Representatives, the Democrats’ weight of governance falls on its debts to, and alliances with, leading financial corporations. For example, that the Democrats are forced to sponsor some version of healthcare "reform" cannot disguise the fact that the big insurance companies have called the tune on the legislation. Nor are the Democrats’ ostensible commitments to dealing with global warming as powerful as the influence of the energy giants who have systematically thwarted any attempt to address what may be the defining public issue of this century. And the Obama administration has handled the most profound economic crisis since the Great Depression by continuing the Bush policy of bailing out the banks and insurance companies and virtually ignoring rising joblessness, burgeoning foreclosures and deepening black and Latino poverty. In short, Obama is the perfect manifestation of the contradiction that rips across the Democratic Party bow.
The latter will do anything for profits. From tainted peanuts to climate change, a broader accounting of the costs of our activities is obscured and shaped around making things profitable. It is no wonder that politicians and corporate executives are the least liked people in our society. Fire fighters and teachers kick the living shit out of them. And it’s obvious why. The latter actually make valuable social contributions, where politicians and corporatists are known as being anti-social usurpers who worship Mammon, the god of greed. They prey on us, and usually in cahoots with one another. It’s like John Dewey famously wrote: "As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance."
The US doesn’t spend half the world’s military budget for defense. To anyone who doesn’t suffer from bouts of delusion it is clear we are not defending ourselves in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and elsewhere. We don’t have one thousand foreign military bases for defensive purposes. We are an empire. George Washington admitted as much in a quote not likely to be read in grammar school where he referred to America as "our rising empire."
Our empire is to protect and augment the reach of its influence in foreign economies and polities. Which is why even the least savy of foreign policy experts (i.e. the average working class person) finds it odd that we are busy "liberating" in Iraq and Afghanistan and not, say, Africa. Of course, a deeper dig reveals that the horrors found in Africa work to our benefit by extracting valuable resources cheaply – i.e. we benefit from their suffering. I mean, seriously, think about it. The US is 5% of the world’s population yet we do 25% of the consuming. That kind of consumption can’t be the result of self-sufficiency, especially not in the world we currently live in where industrial and technical materials are not regenerated but "wasted" on a massive scale. This kind of consumption patterns requires access to global resources.
Which brings us to why we meddle in the politics of foreign countries. We want a hospitable environment to loot in. So if you looked up the MAS party in Bolivia on wikipedia you would find this:
In 2002 a wire sent from the US embassy in La Paz to the State Department, which was accessed through the FOIA, it was stated that a planned USAID project would ‘help build moderate, pro-democracy political parties that can serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS or its successors’. Consequently, between 2002 and 2004, the US National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), supported trips to Washington in which emerging political leaders of the neoliberal parties were trained. Neoliberal parties included: MNR, ADN, MIR, and NFR. These funds were also used to support ‘party-strengthening’ initiatives in Bolivia of these same parties. This was possible due to funding from the US National Endowment for Democracy.
Just imagine if it was common knowledge that China, North Korea, Iran or Cuba poured hundreds of million dollars into financing the political parties of the United States that would "serve as a counterweight" to the popular parties that didn’t reflect their interests. This is business as usual for us. In fact, when we sign international treaties we often push for clauses that exempt us. That way it is possible for us to talk big about adherence without fear of being held accountable.
Here is an interesting example. Friday there was a show on the American father who struggled with the Brazilian courts to reclaim his son. American politicians, including President Obama said Brazil should adhere to international law. Obama said this without batting an eyelash.
Even domestically we know the working class comes second to the ruling elite: big business. We bail out the banks and the auto companies because they are "too big to fail." But the foreclosed homes and the unemployed must learn to swim on their own. Real living wages have been declining steadily for more than thirty years while the incomes of the corporate elite have gotten to be the highest in the world. The average CEO makes hundreds of times more than the average worker, while in Japan and Europe the inequity is often considerably less.
Social inequalities are a factor of social mobility and labor statistics show that a "black" or Hispanic woman has little chance to compete with white women. Not to mention their male counterparts. This means the average "black" or Hispanic woman grows up in a social climate where they must swim upstream. Even for white, educated, privileged women there is a glass ceiling. They can expect, even with equal and sometimes greater footing, that they will make 20% less than males.
And the upstream metaphor is conceptually useful. Imagine a number of streams. Some run up, with various levels of incline, and some run down. Now imagine that what determines what stream you are on is your gender, your race, and your relation to production (do you own or stand to inherit the ownership of productive assets that generate huge amounts of wealth?). Is the idea that what determines our mobility and access to opportunities our gender, race and class, digestible, or does it make us want to puke?
However we answer it is also worth noting that streams are (for the most part) natural constructs and that social hierarchies are not. If it was in our power to create them, then it is in our power to change them.
Okay. Then what is a better structure of society? This is a fair question and one any revolutionary precursor must be able to answer satisfactorily.
First, obviously we should tackle hierarchies and class structure. Economically speaking, this means we should address ownership, planning, divisions of labor and on what grounds we pay people. The gist of this for further exploration is Michael Albert’s and Robin Hahnel’s alternative economic system called Participatory Economics.
If 5% own the majority of the productive assets then we will not only expect them to use and dispose of them as they will but to put their interests first, regardless of how it affects others. A solution here is that productive assets should be socially owned and socially managed. The latter brings us to planning.
Like ownership, if we leave planning to some minority group of technocrats then we can expect that their interests will dominate the planning process. We need to be conscious of how social interaction shapes us individuals, and how it furthers our collective and personal development. Unless we are pathological monsters we are going to want our planning process to be inclusive. If something affects me I should have a say too. We want to meet our needs and desires by getting goods and services to where they should go, but we also want them to reflect accurate costs. If I am affected by pollution then I want the cost of polluting to include its effects on me. Prices should reflect more than the cost of labor, but also the costs of health care, sustaining the environment and even preferences. The solution here is participatory planning. This process involves workers and consumers (individually and through various councils) coming together to discuss, plan and formulate their activities over a given period of time. To expedite and assist the process would be an Iteration Facilitation Board (IFB) that would compile data based on prior activities and current proposals. The IFB would play a role in helping set prices and relaying the information needed to do so.
And keeping with the theme of classlessness brings us to divisions of labor. Every workplace (including the home!) has a variety of tasks that need to be done to ensure efficiency and productivity. In most cases not everyone can do everything, and I am sure for most people that it is not even desirable. Some tasks are empowering, some provide us with pertinent information or give us the skills to run the operations while some simply do not. We expect that if the empowering, informative and enskilling tasks are monopolized by a few than class divisions will arise. There will be those who give the orders, and those who obey. A preferable solution is to balance out the tasks so that all have a fair access to the necessary skills and information to manage their lives. While this doesn’t require everyone doing everything it does allow for everyone to choose from (a) what they want to do; (b) what they are qualified to do; and (c) what is available to do, so that the end result is everyone shares the burdens of tedious, rote tasks while enjoying the benefits of the uplifting and fulfilling ones.
Finally, how do we compensate? We know that in our society compensation comes from bargaining power. What leverage can we use to fleece others to get more for ourselves? Is it ownership, talents and skills? Is it our skin color or our gender? Is it things within our control or not? If due to the genes I inherited I am not only the skin color that enjoys more opportunities but also endows me with the physical talents to out produce others then is that fair to pay me more? What of our work ethic? It is a common phrase for white conservatives in America to display the slogan, "spread my work ethic, not my wealth." There is a number of ways we can approach that slogan. We can inquire as to what the work ethic is? Hard work or fleecing? Is wealth really a product of good old hard work, or is the strategic maneuvering to do others in for a profit? Rewarding good work ethics is sound. But what is a good work ethic? Should a lawyer get paid more than a garbage collector? Is his work ethic superior to those who dispose of our garbage? We will come back to lawyers in a minute. A solution for remunerative justice is rewarding effort and sacrifice, the only two things within our control. It’s not the tools we use, or whether we are more productive or even if such-and-such product is more socially valued, but so long as it is socially valued what matters is how hard and long we work at making it. If you and I make the same thing but you are able to spit out more but it is agreed that we both work equally hard and long and endure equal sacrifices then equal pay is warranted. But if you produce more than me due to genetic inheritance while I work harder and longer than you then rewarding me more is fair.
Bertrand Russell once wrote that "the only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation." We are a social species. We value good relations over bad. It is unfortunate that we have also developed antithetical social relations. The writer, Hunter S Thompson, once summed up why he prefers animals over humans like this:
I have always loved animals. They are different from us and their brains are not complex, but their hearts are pure and there is usually no fat on their bodies and they will never call the police on you or take you in front of a judge or run off and hide with your money….
Animals don’t hire lawyers.
To be fair, there brains are very complex. An octopus doesn’t shapeshift the way it does without a massively complex neural system. But his point is well taken. Animals don’t hire lawyers. They don’t try to fleece you. Is it any wonder that "man’s best friend" is so because they are loyal?
Much of the defining values of a participatory economy are useful for other parts of society. We don’t live on bread alone. Economics is not the base of our societies, nor is everything else superstructure. Our social relations at home and through government and in our communities and expressed in our cultures is equally important to our development. True, economics has an impact on these, but the same is true too. Richard Dawkins once made the point that if a soldier wanted to file for conscientious objector status that he or she would be best served by filing it for religious purposes since that is statistically more likely to pass.
If I wanted to slit goat throats for fun I would likely get a visit from animal services, and rightly so. But if I say such practices are religious then I am more likely to get away with it. I don’t (completely) intend to disparage the cultural practices that surround religion, but I do intend to demonstrate how culture affects other parts of social life (i.e. politics) and vice versa.
At home, for example, we should implement balanced job complexes. Why should women be forced or expected to do most of the work while the men enjoy more privileges? If women are busy cooking, cleaning and rearing children while the men are busy hanging out with their buddies or participating in political, consumer, worker, community or cultural councils, then how can we expect women to play a meaningful role as well?
In political institutions we should be pushing for the creation of more participatory democratic features. If the legislative process is dominated by privileged wealthy males then we shouldn’t be too shocked to see them representing privileged wealthy males (by the way, over half of the representatives in the House are millionaires). But if it is controlled and managed from below by local councils that people belong to and are actively involved in and is federated up through nested councils (to account for how some decisions affect more than just local areas – i.e. pollution) then we would expect to see it be more accountable as well as playing a progressive role in social affairs.
One idea is to begin creating coalitions of autonomous networks, groups, organizations, people, etc., that can come together from a diverse range of views and issues and organize around common struggles. These struggles present social fault lines that affect us and provide us the opportunity not only to resolve them but to begin laying the seeds of future social relations.
In 2009 in the US we saw many lost or missed opportunities to organize around many issues. From the torture at Guantanamo Bay Cuba to the embargo against Cuba (year after year the UN General Assembly has come together in large numbers to express their disapproval of the embargo) to the wars of aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan (and Pakistan) to bailing out banks and Wall Street while ignoring the foreclosed homes on Main Street to the unemployed to the healthcare crisis to climate change, and so on and so forth. That it was business as usual was hardly the problem. The problem was the lack of social mobilization to stop these things. There was no organized and popular social movement (not dependent on corporate funds or political support) to challenge and force the closure of Guantanamo, to end the embargo, to end the wars and prosecute the war criminals, to help the foreclosed and unemployed, to go to conferences like the UNFCCC one in Copenhagen and NOT be a force of subversion.
Stepping stones that advance human freedom or put us on the path to resolving issues may not be completely in line with the world we want to live in but so long as the stone is on that path it is one worth taking. Recently, Robin Hahnel has been stressing this point in regards to climate change. True, the UN and the Kyoto Protocol may not be ideal for us radical leftists, but strengthening them in ways that help alleviate the problem is preferable to doing nothing. Robin also argues that a strong international cap and trade treaty that reflects the "differential responsibilities and capabilities" of member states has two plusses over a carbon tax: (1) it is currently more politically possible; and (2) it is more equitable.
This same strategic thinking should be employed elsewhere. When choosing stepping stones we should look for what is possible and what is preferable, and choose accordingly. We should also be cautious about creating institutions that run the risk of replicating the very problems we wish to transcend – i.e. political parties or authoritarian structures. That is why these participants in autonomous coalitions should retain their autonomy. How decisions are made, how other participants can be involved, and their goals for not only revolution but post-revolution should be handled with care.
And this is the role of revolutionary precursors: to bring these issues out in the open. To spur thought, imagination, discussion and action. How do we move from a class-based, sexist, racist, and authoritarian society to a classless society that creates its social institutions to be inclusive and to maximize human and social development?