In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way.
By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at http://rps2044.org presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its substance as well.
In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article, part two of his session, is named Andrej Goldman. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara will seek to avoid undue overlap, no one interview serves as more than a facet of the larger whole.
Andrej , at the risk of over focusing on one event and its aftermath, especially one which has been written, talked, and argued about ad nauseam over the years, I wonder if you could tell us a bit about your reaction to Trump winning – how did it happen, and what did you take from its having happened? As you saw it then, not as you see it now.
There isn’t much difference in my view of it now, and my view of it then.
Lots of people wondered why is Trump President? How did it happen? My first reaction was to wonder, why ask why? Were we morbidly curious? Were we seeking someone to blame? Were we looking to escape blame ourselves? Or did we hope to find a workable path for the future? I opted for that last motive for myself and here were my thoughts which were part and parcel of what RPS also came to feel.
I blamed Mainstream media mendacity. I knew mainstream media coddled Trump throughout the primaries and well into the national campaign. I knew it sold eyes to advertisers, not truth to the public. I knew that when media moguls finally saw a disaster brewing, they continued to prioritize profits so even their end game castigations of Trump were shallow.
What I took from that was that truth and commitment required developing more alternative media and also forcing better results from mainstream media. Pressing the press and building alternative media had to become paramount activist concerns for print, radio, video, and social media.
I felt that if all the largest megaphones were operated by unhindered elites and if our smaller megaphones were operated as a discordant cacophony rather than in concert, we would continue to face insurmountable odds. To mimic the mainstream would be suicidal. We had to carve our own entirely new communicative and organizational paths.
I also blamed the Democratic Party. I knew if Sanders had run, he might have won. I could see that fearing that, the DNC torpedoed Sanders’ campaign. I knew if the Democrats had not squandered grassroots white working class support in prior decades, Trump would not have won no matter who he ran against. I knew it was accurate to blame the Democratic Party but that anyone surprised by Democratic Party behavior hadn’t been watching up until then. The Democratic Party was part and parcel of power and wealth. The Democratic Party did what it does, which was to protect power and privilege. For me, that indicated that a progressive agenda could benefit from a reconstructed Democratic Party and that a radical agenda could benefit from one or more effective new parties plus major election reform. Acting on these insights while not allowing maniacs into office could win Democratic Party overhaul, generate new parties, and win electoral procedural changes.
I also blamed Republican obdurate tenacity. If the Republican base had decided to forego their party to block Trump on grounds of his special debits, then Trump would have lost. But other than pointing to the obvious need to “organize, organize,” did that observation lead anywhere new? I thought about it by asking myself to suppose Clinton had won in a landslide, or that Sanders had won and we were dancing in the streets. Should Sanders or Clinton voters then dismiss and ignore Trump voters? Should Sanders or Clinton voters then write off Trump voters as irredeemably opposed to progressive much less radical change? As irrational and unreachable?
To my mind, to ask the question was to answer it. If those who voted successfully for Clinton or Sanders wanted to not only win an election but also to fundamentally change society, they would have to ask, could that happen without winning over those we disagree with? The answer would be no. Trump won, but the question should have therefore been even more forefront than in the hypothetical case above, not less.
The lesson I drew from this was that whether we win or we lose, and whether it is an election campaign or a programmatic battle for some policy change, when the dust clears the next task is to reach out energetically and congenially to those who disagreed with us but who we think ought to have agreed given their situations.
We shouldn’t ignore allies but we also shouldn’t spend all our energy listening, talking, and organizing only among allies. We ought to solidify and also grow. Yet I knew we routinely often avoided reaching out to those we disagreed with. And I knew we had to instead collectively make that a priority.
Okay, regarding the white working class, why did so many radicals and others, right after Trump won, assume the worst was predominant? Why not assume other less vile albeit very confused motives dominated?
It was striking. Virtually all the interviews done with Trump voters by non name calling interviewers pointed toward better, albeit confused motives. Vote tallies also pointed toward better motives. So why did so many upset anti-Trump commentators and even left activists reject what was highly probable?
Perhaps one reason some concluded only racist and sexist desires yielded Trump votes was that they lacked knowledge of the pain, suffering, and daily fear of contemporary working class life Trump’s voters felt. If that suffering didn’t register in your perception, clearly you would not deem avoiding it an important motive. That is an ugly picture of the reason for blaming white workers but I think it applied to many Democratic Party regulars. However distasteful, that was far more plausible to me than that half the country were little Trumps. But, at the same time, I didn’t think ignorance of or even dispassion for working class suffering was a major reason why so many progressives and radicals were castigating white workers as irretrievably racist and sexist. At least I hoped not. But what else might have lead to some progressives and radicals aggressively disparaging and dismissing white workers?
Imagine you thought that if people believed rampant racism and misogyny motivated most or all Trump voters it would lead to effective follow up activity to reduce racism and misogyny. At the same time, imagine you also thought that if people believed that most Trump voters were attracted to his claim that he would aid the “working class” by challenging trade agreements and rebuilding infrastructure, it would reduce effective anti racist, anti sexist follow up activity. Feeling that way, you might assert racism and sexism were the key factor not because there was some compelling case it was so, but because you felt asserting it was so would yield the best outcome.
So I wondered what responses would follow from believing the worst about Trump’s voters or from instead believing the situation was more complex?
Those who said racist and sexist motivations were paramount seemed to feel that to deal seriously with racism and misogyny those phenomena had to become absolutely forefront. They had to be very aggressively “called out,” shamed, and even punished person by person. In this view, asserting that factors other than racism and sexism played a preponderant or even just significant role would lead to less or no calling out and shaming of Trump voters. It would cater to them, coddle them, and reduce prospects for improvement.
In contrast, those who said that a great many or most Trump voters were not mainly motivated by racism or sexism but by anti establishment anger funneled into a candidate who at least acknowledged them, heard their grievances, and said relevant (albeit, lying and manipulative) things, saw a very different approach for dealing with the situation. They felt activists fighting against reaction and for positive change needed to avoid adding to Trump’s voters’ feelings that liberals, progressives, and radicals reflexively dismiss white working class concerns as stupid and/or vile, which feelings would only further alienate those constituencies.
We needed to reach out, in this view, by making clear what real action on behalf of working class gains would include. We needed to explain, without denigration and dismissal, why Trump wasn’t an avatar of desirable change. We needed to point out the incredible injustice and harm of racist and sexist policies, but without pointing our fingers at the people we were talking with. We needed to admit the horrendous faults of Clinton and the Democrats, and battle those as well.
We needed to address that economic and social support for workers faces opposition not only from owners, but also from managers, doctors, lawyers, many top level union bureaucrats, and others who the Democratic Party catered to and who I call the coordinator class, and who actively defended their massive advantages, and we needed to challenge those relations too. We needed to talk not at Trump voters but with Trump voters. We needed to hear their valid insights and debate our important differences.
I took away from it that we needed to prioritize two simple insights which were, of course, part and parcel of the later emergence of RPS. Opposing generalized economic domination of workers while ignoring or even minimizing and dismissing the non economic pain and suffering of women and non white communities is morally deficient and strategically disastrous. But, at the same time, addressing the social suffering of women and non white communities while ignoring or even minimizing and dismissing the economic and non economic suffering of workers is also morally deficient and strategically disastrous.
So for me the big divide was would we we try to shame Trump’s voters, to call them out, and to label them racist and sexist, somehow thinking that doing that would cause them – unlike anyone else ever before accosted that way – to welcome and side with us? Or would we try to reach out, listen, hear, and when need be forthrightly not yield an inch regarding racist or sexist policies and beliefs, but also and very strongly address the class issues that both white and non white, and both male and female Trump supporters powerfully felt? Would organizers working with white workers and would activists in general assess our own efforts to see if anything we had been doing may have contributed to white workers willingly voting for Trump?
There were those, I believe, who felt black voters had a share of blame, weren’t there?
At this point some might hear that and wonder, what? Blacks at fault? Blacks voted only somewhat less for Clinton than for Obama, but still overwhelmingly for her. So how could they have been even partly at fault for Trump’s victory?
Some looked a few months further into the past and noted that Southern blacks voting for Clinton against Sanders in the primaries ended Sanders’ chances of winning the nomination. While few writers addressed this, it too was true. There were various reasons such as Sanders starting out little known, initially emphasizing economics to the near exclusion of race, and especially fear that Sanders might do worse against a Republican, as well as, less compellingly, the Clinton’s undeserved reputation as allies of the Black community. Still, it was true that if black communities across the country, and particularly in the south, had voted even modestly more for Sanders, much less if they had voted mainly or overwhelmingly for him, he would have won the nomination with an avalanche of delegates.
A lesson this implied, I thought, for future work was that insular identity politics often breeds confusion as well as hostilities. And I felt that just as organizers of white workers should assess if aspects of their past work were in part responsible for some white workers holding views that allowed voting for Trump over Clinton, so too organizers in Black communities should assess if aspects of their past work were partly responsible for some Blacks holding views that allowed them to vote for Clinton over Sanders. But beyond that, I didn’t think the historically anomalous one time error of some black voters had implications for what to do next.
What about blaming women and especially white working class women?
Women were at fault in this view for voting less for Clinton than she needed if she was to win. Women who voted for Trump were in some cases branded racist or even misogynist. The formulation came not only from antifeminists trying to parlay it into feminist division, but from some feminists, too.
It seemed to me that this issue was almost exactly parallel in most relevant lessons to the other issues we discussed earlier. The one thing to add, was that I thought in this case too, organizers of women should assess if aspects of their past work were in part responsible for so many women holding views that allowed voting for Trump against Clinton (or for Clinton against Sanders in the primaries). Had they organized women in a way that unnecessarily polarized men? In a way that neglected other important aspects of women’s lives?
Andrej, a last point about that election, was there tension between the Sanders’ “Our Revolution” project and the early RPS?
The Sanders spawned project, it wasn’t only his, had a different agenda than RPS. Our Revolution was about trying to maintain the momentum of his campaign via a project that would focus largely, though not exclusively, on electoral work.
Our Revolution sought to raise money, galvanize volunteers, and provide other functionality mostly to candidates but also to particular policy campaigns. It was a good thing, potentially, though there was a danger it would become so enmeshed in the processes and connections with more mainstream elements that its value would evaporate. The positive scenario was that Our Revolution would be a pressure and advocacy group able to help Sanders-like candidates and projects win office or demands and then use the gains to win further gains.
There was a moment when the project may have been able to be more than that, and, indeed, perhaps it could even have become what RPS became so the success we have had would have come even more quickly than it did, and I think perhaps Sanders considered this. But no one in Our Revolution’s core visibly displayed that kind of inclination at its outset, though many of its most energetic local volunteers and organizers did have just such inclinations. While some efforts were made to galvanize the more radical elements to try to influence the organization, those efforts didn’t pan out. Mistrust of the dangers of cooptation kept away additional folks who might have made Our Revolution much more than it became.
Ultimately, I think the presence of the more limited Our Revolution was nonetheless quite helpful to RPS in three ways. First, Our Revolution helped elect many candidates, including in time many with RPS connections, and it aided their efforts in office to win new policies. Second, people working with Our Revolution often wanted to move beyond it to a more encompassing approach, and to grassroots campaigns for valuable changes, or even to add a more encompassing connection in addition to their work with OR, which often meant they joined RPS. And third, another benefit was that with OR in place, RPS didn’t have to fret nearly as much as it would have otherwise about its choice to organizationally ignore electoral intervention. OR took care of electoral intervention, if not always precisely as RPS people favored, still, better than it not happening at all. And OR doing that facilitated RPS’s choice to avoid that realm and the dynamics that realm embodied, which I think was very healthy for RPS development. On the other hand, if RPS hadn’t emerged and become so effective including by greatly strengthening the more radical members of OR, my guess is OR would have devolved into nothing but a Democratic Party booster club, and even changes inside the Party itself would have been minimal.
Okay, changing gears a bit, what was most critical for activism to achieve what it hadn’t in prior decades – a lasting, persistent, growing, project, RPS?
Information and analysis mattered, of course. But I tend to think it was secondary. I remember hearing a talk about activism, decades back, that focused on a case study. In May of 1968, the speaker said – and I guess this talk occurred about forty years from the event described – Paris and France entered a kind of revolutionary moment. One month it was like other places at the time, with considerable activism, but along with the activism a vast sea of passivity. Then some modest events happened – mostly about male and female hours of access and entry on college campuses – and, bam, overnight the country was in turmoil. And for weeks after France was, indeed, a revolutionary cauldron of tremendous energy and creativity. Everyone seemed incredibly creative about delineating the horrors of modern life, and incredibly ready to fight for comprehensive freedom. Everything about society was called into question. Yet, if you looked a few months later, all was again relatively quiet. Rebellion, then passivity.
What happened? How could we explain such sudden turning on and off of gigantic social upheaval? The speaker said one broad possibility that many might suggest is that ideas about how society works were suddenly successfully widely conveyed, and the new wisdom fueled the uprisings. But then the insights melted away and the upheaval subsided back into life as usual.
The speaker then amusingly wondered how a whole society can become enlightened and then undergo mental erasure so apocalyptically. Mass lobotomy?, he joked. He then suggested another possibility that dramatically affected my thinking.
Before May 1968 there was, he proposed, no hope among France’s population for a transformed future. Then during May there was hope. Then hope disintegrated. The relatively brief presence of widespread hope freed minds and hearts. Hope aroused and fueled turmoil. But once hope dissipated, hope’s absence terminated the turmoil.
I thought claiming aroused hope was key was astute, just as thinking newly learned ideas were key was ridiculous. That is why, when I am asked about ideas that I thought were important for RPS emerging, the one I emphasize is that RPS offered compelling, desirable vision for the future sufficient to sustain informed hope. At any rate, that was central for me.
But that was then, what about now?
I later had your thought, too. I think a way to answer it is to compare the half century extending from 1965 to 2015, to the next quarter century, extending from 2015 to 2040. What is the broad difference? What changed so that in the earlier period, despite that large numbers of people compellingly understood society while countless others were only a hair away from similarly understanding society, the period never generated lasting sustainable projects for literally winning a new society – yet now we have such projects verging on full success?
There are many who want to say it is such and such a brilliant insight we have had that they didn’t have earlier, or it is such and such an event we experienced that they did not experience earlier. And while I am not denying the importance of ideas or events, I don’t think they are the sole or even the primary answer. Their spread or isolation is important, but a spread of activism is at least as much caused by other factors as it is by brilliant insights or specific events.
So what was primary?
Let me offer a few ways of saying this that are probably different sides of one complex dynamic.
One is what is above. Hope replaces absence of hope. By that I mean people altered from believing during the first period, that “there is no alternative,” to people believing, during the more recent period, wait, “there is an alternative.”
A second difference, very connected to the first, is a dispositional switch from people being mainly eager and willing to criticize, reject, and denigrate one another along with old social relations, in the earlier period, to people being most eager and willing to celebrate, advocate, and support one another while proposing new social relations in the recent period.
Related to this was recognizing that “united we stand, divided we fall” is not just a catchy slogan but a powerful insight we have to embody to succeed. One person can have impact. Many people can have more impact. But many people don’t combine effectively unless they self consciously acknowledge each other’s diverse contributions and desires. This is related, of course, to why RPS’s concepts highlight the way different sides of life are mutually entwined.
Yet another change is a bit different, though also related. In all communications of anything new, one aspect is style, and another is substance. The former is the cleverness and poetic or emotive punch of chosen words. The latter is the coherence of sentences in paragraphs and then of paragraphs in full arguments. The two factors deal respectively in the former case with addressing and even appealing to or countering feelings and biases – and in the latter case with evidence and logic.
In the half century up to 2015, I think the prior component was emphasized often to the near exclusion of the latter component, rather than there being a good balance. The climax was Trump who paid essentially zero attention to evidence, logic, and even truth – and who gave all attention to catch words and slick phrases seeking to stoke passions. But Trump wasn’t alone in that. He just operated more blatantly. The growth of social media played a role in this. Twitter and Facebook distorted communication into short nuggets that precluded serious evidence and argument. The narcissistic idiocy of selfie photographs was indicative. All this was toxic, and while it certainly wasn’t inevitable, Trump emerged.
In the years since, I think we have reversed the imbalance between style and substance, and I think that that has been part of laying the foundation for RPS. I imagine you will later address institutional efforts, including new media to preserve what was positive about internet connectivity and avoid what was negative. But the upshot is we realized that while a catchy phrase can matter, we had to emphasize substance while we aggressively avoided manipulation.
I think mutual aid oriented insights about society, commitments to develop and share vision, and growing desires for organization and program that could win aided RPS forming in our last quarter century where it hadn’t in the prior half century, at least in the U.S.
So, Andrej, if we could, I would like to ask you a bit about the founding convention. Did it matter greatly to what followed? What was it like? How did it emerge? What conflicts occurred?
I think having the founding convention was fundamentally important, though at the time we had doubts. Would enough people attend? Would attendees divide over minor differences or unify over major agreements? Would we attain collectivity and lasting structure? Would we implode and do more harm than good?
We wanted an organization suited to the times, oriented to win a new society, and able to facilitate mutual trust. We worried attendees would nitpick priorities, ignore others’ views, and fail to compromise.
One aspect of having the convention was mechanics. We didn’t want fifty people, or a hundred, but a few thousand. We already had two or three dozen local groups who hoped to become part of a national organization, which was very good, but none of these had an agreed structure or membership criteria. We lacked enough coherence to have the first convention be a gathering of delegated representatives. Even more, most who would want to attend weren’t in any such group.
A bunch of people took initiative. We could have been terrible at it and alienated others by seeking power. We could have been precipitous and incompetent. Inflexible. Luckily, instead, we had considerable credibility because of our other involvements, connections, and participation in past collective efforts. We proved able to mediate and organize.
Conveniently, most of the work creating a convention was familiar from past gatherings, and was certainly not elitist. You had to get space. Put out a call. Arrange housing. Develop an agenda. We were trying to get a very broad assemblage into a room for a long weekend, including settling on a clear agenda that would congenially arrive at shared program without abrogating participation. We knew some who would attend would have deep ties with others attending. We knew most would have only modest or no prior ties with others attending.
Did you have a conscious plan to survive until a more structurally rooted gathering was in place? What was the initial idea for what the emergent organization would look like?
We sought a bridge toward a workable future, but to say we were sure it would happen would be a gigantic exaggeration. Almost everyone planning the first convention was very nervous. We knew if the effort failed, it would delay and might even prevent for a long time arriving at a multi issue, multi tactic, vision-oriented organization. I remember losing a lot of sleep worrying about such possibilities.
To cover all consequential matters, folks needed to arrive at the conference familiar with diverse proposals for program and structure. Attendees needed to have understood the issues and added their own views. To facilitate that, we disseminated a programmatic and a structural proposal months before the convention. We asked people to bring their concerns, amendments, and extensions. We wanted everyone prepared to collectively decide defining issues and post conference responsibilities.
We had to leave the convention with a workable but not necessarily perfect agenda. For one thing, we knew there was no way to know what would be perfect. For another, we realized that even if we could chaotically settle on perfection, it would be only marginally better or even a lot worse than “less perfect” agreement reached with a higher level of unity and mutual support. We needed a sense of proportion and modest compromise. We agreed that decisions would be provisional until the fledgling organization could attract more members into local chapters, meet again, and solidify its definition by enacting corrections and improvements. We didn’t seek false perfection immediately. We sought good results able to flexibly attain better results over time.
So how did that happen?
We had many meetings. We consulted many additional activists about how to establish initial program and structure to promote needed improvements in the future. We proposed that the organization should centrally address economics/class, politics, culture/race, kinship/gender, ecology, and international relations without privileging any one above the rest. We proposed it should seek to transcend capitalism, racism, sexism, and authoritarianism. It should explore and advocate long term vision sufficient to inspire wise current activity. It should acknowledge that program is always contingent on place and time and should plan to continually update analysis, vision, and strategy in light of new evidence and insights.
We prioritized leaving plenty of leeway not only for insights that might emerge at the convention, but for what we would learn later. This mindset may even have been our key contribution. Our first convention prioritized continual improvement. People didn’t adopt an identity to defend. We saw shared agreements as a contingent basis on which to build. We would adapt to new circumstances and refine our views as needed. We knew loyalty to what we had settled on meant we should continually, respectfully and collectively improve it. Our standard of accomplishment was to change tomorrow, not to have been right yesterday.
Did you propose specific societal vision?
Some, yes, but we emphasized that everything we proposed, even if ratified, would be contingent on a better grounded future convention ratifying it. We believed for an organization to be successful, it had to have considerable agreement in its initial iteration, but also not preclude future innovation. We proposed just enough societal vision to provide enough organizational unity and clarity to move forward. We thought the convention would settle on some of what we proposed and reject some, put some on hold and adapt or replace some, but in any event that whatever it decided would apply only until a second convention which could be more definitive due to having attained greater membership and local chapters learning from the experience of members working together.
What about proposals for the organization itself?
As much as personal choices were central to outcomes, we also knew that the setting in which we each operated and the structures we each inhabited would impact what our choices were. We knew a new project wouldn’t accomplish much without a well developed institutional foundation. People had to aspire to and achieve exemplary personal choices, but we would fail if we operated in a context that propelled the opposite.
We proposed that RPS structure and policy should be regularly updated and adapted and always seek to be internally classless and self-managing. We urged that no minority that was initially disproportionately equipped with needed skills, information, and confidence, such as those of us who were taking the most initiative at the outset or those who had long experience could form a formal or an informal decision-making hierarchy, leaving less prepared or less experienced members to merely follow orders and perform rote tasks.
The organization should strive to implement the self management norm that “each member has decision making say proportional to the degree they are affected.” It should guarantee members’ rights to organize dissenting “currents” and it should guarantee those “currents” full rights of democratic debate plus resources needed to develop and present their views.
The organization should literally celebrate internal debate and dissent. It should make room, as possible, for contrary views to exist and be tested alongside preferred views.
National, regional, city, and local chapters should respond to their own circumstances and implement their own programs but not interfere with the shared goals and principles of the organization or with other chapters addressing their own situations.
The organization should provide extensive opportunities for members to participate in organizational decision making including deliberating with others to arrive at the most well-considered decisions. It should implement mechanisms for assuring that decisions get carried out correctly.
It should provide transparency regarding all actions by elected or delegated leaders. It should impose a high burden of proof for secreting any agenda, whether to avoid repression or for any other reason. It should provide a mechanism to recall leaders or representatives who members believe did not adequately represent them. It should provide ample means to peacefully and constructively resolve internal disputes.
This is getting very long winded…
I know. I feel it too. But would you rather I leave stuff that matters out? Building a new organization to try to revolutionize society isn’t a small matter. I could just note the high points, or the guiding aims, but if this is to record what matters, well, more than high points mattered. Making a revolution is not a pile of Tweets.
So…we also quite explicitly proposed that the organization should apportion empowering and disempowering tasks to participants to ensure that no individuals control the organization by having a relative monopoly on information or levers of daily power. Members should have to actively participate in the life of the organization including taking collective responsibility for its policies. We should present, along with minority doubts and parallel undertakings, as much as possible a unified voice in action.
We proposed, as well, that the organization should incorporate its members in developing, debating, and deciding on proposals. It should treat lack of participation as a serious problem to be addressed whenever it surfaced. The organization should set up internal structures that facilitate everyone’s participation including, when possible, offering childcare at meetings and events, finding ways to reach out to those who might be immersed in kinship or other duties, and aiding those with busy work schedules due to multiple jobs.
And the organization should monitor and respond to sexism, racism, classism, and homophobia as they manifest internally, including having diverse roles in projects suitable to people with different situations.
We knew we were not yet even remotely perfect people. We knew we couldn’t escape centuries of mutilation in minutes of elation. So we knew that for all the above, we had to not let seeking unattainable immediate perfection erase steps leading toward progressively attaining excellence. We had to know where we were going and we had to want to get there as well as possible, but we also had to realize that it was not a day’s, a week’s, or a month’s journey. We had to always be being born into the above broad pattern, never dying away from it.
You can see, again, despite that there are so many ideas, despite that delivering them all at once, as with vision, was a massive load, still, we weren’t leaping into detailed specifics. We knew we would have to come out of the convention with interim rules, and that that was likely to be hardest to do well and without rancor, but we didn’t want to narrow that discussion or go beyond what we felt was essential.
On the other hand, you can also see in the structural proposals a prominent emphasis on the prioritization of participation, self management, and attention to structurally avoiding hierarchy. We were seeking positive activist results, for sure, but we were also quite consciously trying to avoid negative ones, including, in particular, sectarianism and authoritarianism. We wanted to create an organization that was constantly intent on rejuvenating itself, revolutionizing itself, and even replacing itself, if need be, but never usurping to itself some kind of permanent power. At the convention a bit more specificity was added, and in ensuing months and years, especially with the emergence of active chapters, much more.
Andrej, I have heard from others there was considerable debate about advocating or not advocating reforms. How did you feel about that, and what has been the RPS solution? Has it worked?
I think the dispute often owed to poor terminology. If the opponent of reforms said, simply, I reject an approach which says all we need are reforms and to fight for each one unto itself, then an advocate of reforms could reply, of course, I agree. And that is what RPS said. But RPS also said that while rejecting reformism, we need to win reforms both because they matter to people’s lives, and because in doing so people can move toward further commitments. Why not fight for reforms that will benefit people in ways that are non-reformist?
And that became the lynch pin of the RPS solution to this long standing tension. We should fight for reforms, of course. We should not say we want the world and we want it now, concluding that seeking anything less now is a sell out. But nor should we say we want such and such a reform, concluding that seeking anything more is utopian.
RPS decided we should fight for reforms using language that explains our ultimate motives, aims, and methods. We should fight in ways that build lasting organization. We should ensure that upon winning a reform as many people as possible want further gains and are in better position to win them.
RPS said fight for winnable gains now in ways that enhance people’s desire to win greater gains later. Fight for winnable gains now in ways that improve people’s means of winning greater gains later. Fight for winnable gains in the present, but talk about the efforts, organize the efforts, and create lasting structures during the efforts, all to ensure that the efforts will unleash a trajectory of change leading toward establishing new institutions.
The upshot was we want reform and we want revolution, or, if you prefer, we want non reformist reform struggles as part of a revolutionary project. And the key to this view becoming predominant wasn’t so much an intellectual breakthrough. After all, there is nothing complicated about it. The key was for people who favored transforming society to recognize that wanting immediate more modest changes did not somehow negate seeking longer run fundamental changes.
Can you provide an example of people following this logic?
Well, virtually every campaign and project to win anything that RPS initiated, or even was closely involved in, over the years, followed this logic. Take the two mentioned issues, income and pollution. For example the national campaigns for higher minimum wage, but also local industry campaigns for wage innovations in their particular firms all followed the logic – meaning, they all sought to win some immediate demand, but while doing so they argued for full equitable income for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor, explaining its ethics, logic, and implications, and that the sought immediate goal was not an end, but a step toward the still larger aims. And the same for all kinds of pollution related efforts to get cleaner and safer industrial practices seeking the immediate gain, but also addressing larger long term issues of structure, and even, for example, markets and profit seeking per se.
If it is okay, and for purposes of having the oral history address all it needs to, I would like to shift focus and ask you about RPS economic vision. I know you have been involved, so, what is it?
RPS economics as by now everyone knows, proposes to carry out production, consumption, and allocation in a classless, equitable manner. It seeks to deliver to each actor self-managing say. It seeks to produce not only desired goods and services, but also desirable solidarity and diversity.
To accomplish these ideals we of course needed venues where people could determine their actions in accord with other people doing likewise. In workplace and community councils of the sort we have often seen in historical risings in the past, we found such venues. The idea we added to them was that each actor should, in accord with RPS values, have a say in council decisions proportionate to the impact of the decided issue on them.
So to use a workplace example, sometimes few workers would be the most affected constituency and decide their own actions though of course in context of overarching decisions by the whole workplace council. Sometimes the whole workplace council would be directly involved and decide, for example, work hours for all. Sometimes decisions would be by majority vote. Other times they would be by consensus or by two thirds or whatever. The point would be to best approximate people having a say proportionate to the effect on them while respecting that others should enjoy that same right. And all these patterns were tested in our own projects, of course, but also, as possible, in workplaces via reforms in them that moved them toward the RPS vision, as we proceeded.
But beyond having workplace self management, RPS economics wanted to also change work itself. This was about the class issue discussed earlier.
In the usual corporate pattern, about 20% of the workforce does overwhelmingly empowering tasks while 80% does overwhelmingly disempowering tasks. The former do work that conveys to them confidence, social and conceptual skills, knowledge of the workplace and its possibilities, and effective decision making habits. The latter do work that diminishes confidence, reduces social and conceptual skills, reduces knowledge of the workplace and its possibilities, instills habits of obedience, and exhausts them.
RPS members like everyone in society have had extensive personal experience that some jobs have better conditions and more enjoyable and engaging work than others. This differential could be offset by income considerations. But we knew a second aspect of work that people regularly experienced would be harder to deal with.
Some who work within a corporate arrangement become ready to govern, others become ready to be governed. The 20% who do overwhelmingly empowering tasks set agendas, make proposals, and dominate discussions. The 80% who do overwhelmingly disempowering tasks become bystanders. This difference derives from people’s position in the division of labor. RPS focused on this because our concepts highlighted role structures and asked their implications and our values highlighted impact on people’s ability to participate. Seeing the difference, RPS calls the the dominant 20% the coordinator class and calls the subordinate 80% the working class.
RPS members saw that in past experience eliminating owners’ relative monopoly on property did not significantly alter the coordinator/worker hierarchy. We saw that 20th century socialism, despite that ownership change had eliminated capitalists, had not ended class rule. So RPS members realized we had to also break the coordinator class’s relative monopoly on empowering circumstances. Rather than segregate empowering tasks into a relatively few jobs that a relatively few people would hold, we had to spread empowering tasks through all jobs by establishing what RPS called balanced job complexes.
Each person would do a mix of tasks they are capable of and comfortable at. The mix you would do and the mix I would do and the mix everyone else would do, would be balanced from one person to the next for the empowering effect of work on the worker doing it. This balancing would occur not only inside each workplace, but across workplaces as well. As a result, we would all have responsibility for an array of tasks that summed to a comparably empowering overall situation. Due to that, we would all be comparably prepared by our daily work life to confidently participate in workers and consumers councils and in other social engagements as well.
What about income and wealth? What became RPS’s view of each person’s rightful claim on the social product? How much should we get? What is responsible and fair? What works?
RPS said people who are too young or too old – or who are otherwise unable to work gainfully – should get a full income anyhow, but that people who could work should have an income share that depends on the duration, intensity, and onerousness of their socially valuable labor.
I shouldn’t be remunerated as an athlete, a singer, or anything else for which my abilities don’t allow me to produce outputs others want to have. But I should be remunerated for anything I do well enough for my efforts to be socially valuable.
Similarly, if I want to consume more out of the total social product than average I should be able to do so by virtue of working more hours, or more intensely, or perhaps doing some more onerous tasks, as long as I work in a balanced job complex and as long as I arrange my activities with my workers council, but the rate of pay per hour of socially useful average intensity work under comparable conditions should be the same for everyone.
RPS initially settled on this as fair but before long we all also realized it was needed to facilitate consumption matching production, to convey sensible incentives, and to unearth and convey essential indicators of people’s preferences for leisure and for different kinds of work and different products.
Beyond division of labor and income, what about allocation?
RPS members knew we also needed to replace markets and central planning with a system that could get allocation accomplished consistently while preserving RPS’s other institutional aims and promoting RPS values.
For that, we settled on advocating cooperative negotiation among workers and consumers councils. Each council would announce desires and then mediate their offers in light of what others offered. Various structures would help with assessing costs, benefits, and preferences. There would be no center or periphery, no top or bottom. Actors would self-manage their production and consumption in light of emergent measures of personal, social, and environmental costs and benefits. Personal motives and behaviors would mesh with those of self-managed councils and fit with balanced job complexes and remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor.
RPS claimed this economic vision could accomplish production, consumption, and allocation without class division and in accord with people’s needs and desires and with ecological sustainability and social harmony. RPS members in workplaces and communities began to agitate for changes in accord. In some cases this has already taken us to partial cooperative planning, for example, where federations of workplaces in industries mutually negotiate their interconnections and where communities and surrounding providers in what some have called communal arrangements negotiate their entwined production and consumption. If the RPS claim for the benefits of full scale participatory planning proves true, as I and all RPS members believe it will, then the overall RPS economic vision will be a worthy alternative to capitalism and also to what has been called market or centrally planned socialism – which RPS members instead call coordinatorism.
Of course, beyond the broad aspects of RPS economic vision, there are countless details, some of which are pretty settled after the past twenty years of experiences in new RPS workplaces, occupied corporate firms, and via exploring the implications of reforms, and so on. But much else, indeed far more at the most practical level, no doubt, will emerge from further experience and, in particular, only once participatory planning occurs for a time throughout the whole economy and its implications for behaviors and habits are more evident. This is true not least because there is undoubtedly no one right answer to every aspect. Rather different populations, industries, technologies, heritages, and preferences will lead to an endless variety of details for RPS economies and firms, even as the core elements of self managing councils, equitable remuneration, balanced job complexes, and participatory planning form the backbone or soul of it all.
It can’t be that this vision arose and won support without dissent from both outside and even inside RPS. What was that like? Their reasons, their choices?
You are quite right, of course. Outside RPS, resistance to these ideas typically took just a few forms. The critics said equitable remuneration would provide insufficient incentives to elicit creativity and productivity. They said balanced job complexes and self management would sacrifice quality for false justice. And they said participatory planning would sacrifice efficiency and even viability for false solidarity.
Replies have appeared in countless exchanges, debates, and presentations. They came down, ultimately, to three things. We demonstrated how equitable remuneration would not only be morally sound and socially positive, but would also deliver needed information and desirable levels of both work and creativity. We revealed how balanced job complexes and self management would be not only morally sound and socially positive, but would also unleash huge swaths of human creativity and capacity as well as eliminate waste associated with class division. And we explained how participatory planning would not only eliminate the motivational and informational anti social ills of markets and the authoritarianism of central planning and the ecological irrationality of both, but also positively unearth the information needed for sound choices and mesh compatibly with equitable remuneration, self management, and classlessness. But the ultimate argument came only with being able to point at ever more successful experiments.
Within RPS, however, among its members, debates around economic vision were more about the implications of different visionary commitments for strategic success. Those within RPS who opposed the emerging vision did not often claim that once attained it would be harmful or even less desirable than some other outcome, but that at the current stage of history, enunciated now, then, the proposed vision risked alienating too many people – mainly of the coordinator class – to the detriment of RPS advance. The dissidents said why not offer an economic vision that will be less controversial and closer to our current immediate potentials. When and if consciousness permits, we can promote and seek to our full desires later in accord with the new possibilities.
So with RPS, one side was saying we have to be very careful not to alienate coordinator class identified people. We cannot afford their absence from activism both for reasons of numbers, and also for reasons of needing various skills they can bring. The other side, and I was on it, agreed that welcoming coordinator class involvement was necessary, but argued that to welcome coordinator involvement without being clear about our ultimate aims would interfere with attaining what was sought on two counts.
First, the duplicity would itself repel many and be internally corrosive. Second, to seek coordinator involvement without simultaneously addressing the dangers of coordinator co-option of the entire project invited disaster. To advance without coordinator class folks involved would be difficult, we agreed, so we should certainly try to avoid that situation. However, to advance with coordinator class involvement but without attention to the potential for it to subvert other aims risked suicide. If we advocated anti capitalist but not anti coordinatorist economic vision, we would wind up with no project or with a project subordinate to coordinator class interests and aims.
The second position ultimately won overwhelmingly. And indeed, it was a case in which it was hard to maintain the minority position at the same time as pursuing the majority one. The best we could do was to have a standing committee that would continually reevaluate visionary commitments and their strategic implications in light of learning more about each from RPS developments more generally. And we did that. But I must admit that it wasn’t long before the emphasis moved toward discerning further essential aspects of the favored vision, with the minority positions to drop balanced job complexes and to drop self management pretty much dipping into complete inattention. What remained at all times a flexible focus, however, was how best to grow and develop RPS in accord with attaining its ultimate goals.
I should add that some left RPS over this. But I think it is fair to also note that few if any who left were working class. And while each person who left over this difference operated for a time in progressive political ways, as they fell back into daily life coordinator involvements they fell away from dissent, or when they decided to persist in dissent, in time they rejoined RPS. The fear that the full vision would cause some coordinator class people to not relate positively to RPS was certainly correct – particularly for the folks arguing it. But for many many other coordinator class members, and more as each month and year passes, the predication was wrong.
Indeed one to the most celebratory dynamics occurring throughout society during all these years of RPS growth, is not just old coordinator class members signing up to RPS, but their joyfully teaching their worthy skills to worker’s and their sincerely progressively dispensing with their non prior worthy practices and attitudes. It has paralleled, for example, whites fighting against their prior racism and men fighting against their prior sexism, but often with even larger personal material losses and far fewer historical precedents.