Interviewing Bertrand Dellinger, Part Two


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 Bertrand Dellinger. 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.

–Michael Albert

Bertrand, what was the origin of the phrase “planting the seeds of the future”  – and what does it mean?

I think it was originally an anarchist slogan but whatever its source, it certainly means the attitudes, social relations, and structures we plant determine our harvest. If you want daisies, plant daisies. If you want roses, plant roses. Conversely, if you plant weeds, you won’t harvest daisies or roses no matter how well you water the weeds. We should not plant seeds today which will become other than what we want tomorrow.

Suppose an RPS project needs funds. Why doesn’t it sell drugs or porn to get the needed revenue? Some would say it is because those practices are immoral but the more instructive reason is because the mindsets and practices associated with selling drugs or porn would breed tendencies contrary to our aims.

Suppose a media project needs funds. Why not sell ads? Selling ads means selling your audience to commercial outfits and that means attracting audience that has disposable income and ensuring that your content doesn’t leave that audience disinclined to buy what advertisers offer. Selling ads will subvert your project to save it.

This type calculation comes up often in electoral campaigns, tactical choices, and deciding how to make decisions. To intelligently navigate such matters requires clarity about the basic features of the society we seek. Without that clarity, we can’t think wisely about the seeds we are planting. We could ask if some policy works today, but we couldn’t judge which seeds have future fruits we desire or which seeds will subvert the garden we seek.

Bertrand, what is the RPS attitude to universities and schooling?

As RPS was being born, universities and schools had all the problems they had had for decades past. They were repositories of dull drill, extinguished feeling, narrowed vision, destroyed character. But there was one new problem as well. The attention span and inclination of students had seriously deteriorated. I and many friends who were teaching back then found that we couldn’t usefully give lectures any longer. The problem was that the students would sit in the lecture halls, these are large classes I am talking about, and would have in their laps phones, tablets, or even laptops, and they would give far more attention to those than to the lecture. Lectures required sustained attention. The electronic doo-dads in their laps, fostered flitting from thing to thing. These students were sitting there texting, emailing, watching short videos, listening to music, browsing. Click, click, click, they jumped from brief focus to brief focus. It was so habitual they became driven to avoid the operational dissonance of trying to maintain a serious, sustained, focus. And from colleges it seeped downward to become the norm in high schools too.

As faculty we had to find ways to nuggetize our messages so as to accommodate the short focus of our students. But that path only cemented the dynamic…

It must have been incredibly frustrating…

It was, very much so. You know, people are born ignorant, no doubt about that. But we are made stupid by faulty education. To see students drift away was like being pummeled, daily, by failure incarnate. It was very hard not to get angry and even hostile toward the students. It was as if they were literally killing curiosity. It was as if they would rather die than think, and soon enough they would. But, in truth, the trend was not confined to young people.

I saw it in my own family, over and over. At a holiday gathering, for example, whereas when I was young, in my home, back then, there would be joking around, of course, and TV too, sure, but there would also be serious talk about matters of intellectual interest and serious issues of the day. In particular, the young would be curious. They would want to hear reasons for what was going on around them. And ditto for adults.

But in the immediate pre RPS period, it was quite different. Kids would sit on a couch with a tablet, laptop, and phone, and with the TV on. They would flit from one to the other. They couldn’t even focus on something they still were interested in much less have sustained interest in something substantial. They were almost proud of social ignorance. Party and play. Shop till we drop. Flit from Facebook to Twitter to TV to web site, and back. Do it again. Hold views based on their repetition on those venues. Know little. Investigate nothing. It really was a sad state of affairs. And it virally spread to adults as well.

What was new about the situation was we had ever present social media, selfies, and news as entertainment. Ideas became annoyances oppressing short attention spans. Imagine that.

And now returning to schooling, all this greatly aggravated what was old about the situation, and ultimately also most critical, which was that the prevalent education process wasn’t primarily about education. It was instead socialization that sometimes transferred (highly constrained) lessons and skills but that mainly delivered students, like any other product, suitably to their consumers, who were their future employers. And what was suitable to the future employers of course depended on the role the student would fill.

This meant roughly 80% of people coming out of public schools were being prepared to endure boredom and take orders, the two main prerequisites to being a desirable hire for an employer trying to fill working class jobs. For the other 20%, broadly speaking, you needed some particular knowledge for the likely spot you would fill – perhaps accounting, medicine, engineering, or whatever – but you also needed a disposition suitable to maintaining your position against workers below and willing to accommodate to owners above. If schools delivered folks ready for those two futures, they were by the old society’s standards doing their job well. Their graduates could fill the slots they were destined for. They weren’t under prepared for their tasks, or, even worse, disinclined to accept their tasks or over prepared for them.

So educational transformation was in many respects like it was for other domains. It had to be comprehensive. Often this meant creating new schools from scratch. Many RPS folks, and others too, set up neighborhood schools, did group home schooling, or initiated summer schools and other such innovations for children and also workmates and townsfolk. Some even created new institutions for higher learning.

But transforming education was also about battling inside existing schools. Public school teachers, community college teachers, and in the initial stages especially grad students at many colleges and universities, were a bit like the nurses in hospitals. Many were ready and eager to be productive workers of a new self managing kind. And they were ready to fight for it with strikes and other actions. But educational transformation was also, somewhat more so than were many other transformations, intrinsically about what society overall would be like.

Education will, in any society, prepare people to participate. A good education generating confident and capable adults requires a society that needs confident and capable adults. So educational transformation had two powerful advocates. On the one hand, students, teachers, and families battled directly for their own better results in their current or new institutions. On the other hand, people all over society battled for the future of society.

From early on in the history of RPS both factors were at play by way of movements seeking to develop new educational institutions or to steadily alter existing ones and also demand broad educational policy changes. We sought to fulfill students and teachers, by producing new citizens who would demand new social relations. The latter effect was the long term revolutionary aspect of our non reformist approach to education.

Where has it led?

Changes are still happening, of course. But some big gains have been vastly increased involvement of communities and parents in schooling and learning. You probably remember not just the demand to open schools but the occupational and community programs that were then enacted, at night, fait accompli, all over the country. Early on, these campaigns demanded opening thousands of schools in the afternoons and evenings for all kinds of activities and learning, not only by students, but by adults too. But then we realized, what the hell, why are we asking anyone. The schools are there, we should just go in and use them. And we did.

The reduction of class size with the steady increase in number of teachers has been another huge gain. But the main thing, I think, has been the infusion into the schools of the mindset that education should uncover and nurture people’s curiosity and talents in whatever directions people desire, and the infusion of a critical mindset into classroom pursuits.

Higher education, like public education, had to become relevant to peoples’ fulfillment rather than to people passively fitting unfulfilling slots waiting in society. Partly this was a matter of the approach of faculty. Should we hammer in facts to no benefit, as in the past, or should we foster comprehension and critical thinking, to huge benefit, in the future.?

You might think this would have been trivial to attain. Who would want to regiment rather than facilitate? But it wasn’t trivial because many existing teachers had become habituated to old ways, adept at them, and were scared of failing at new ways. But, it had to happen and it did.

Another big change was a matter of what students pursued, what they had available to read, who they had available to talk with, what they could attain. The whole notion of learning as a mutual project, and of caring for the place of learning as a collective pursuit, and especially the idea that society should bend its roles to the outcomes of enlightened learning, rather than schooling curtailing learning to accommodate the inflexible roles of a restrictive society totally changed the relations among all the actors, just as with other institutions.

What do you think was the turning point after which you felt that you were no longer battling against the odds, the odds were now on your side?

I think there were quite a few. For example, the first occupation of a public school – it was in Chicago – with the ensuing mass meeting to determine what uses the school could be put to at night, was one. You saw that happen and you knew right away that it would spread and the ramifications would be profound and irreversible. And what an immense change in terms of people’s involvement and in the attitudes people had to schools and education that and other occupations of schools led to.

Similarly, I think the campaign by RPS to provide alternative online curricula that challenged the prevalent social science and history texts had a huge effect, too. Lots of kids came into class highly knowledgeable about the flaws in the old lessons. This began in San Francisco and Boston, but then spread very rapidly. It put immense pressure on faculty to do better, and most faculty began to see the potential of real learning, and to want to provide it.

For me, another key happening was when students on the campus where I was teaching at the time, NYU, called a strike, shut down the place, and then reopened it for a full week of nothing but faculty student discussion of faculty student relations and the purpose of education and implications for how it should be conducted. It was incredible. The students didn’t just call for discussion. They came to the sessions profoundly well prepared. They chaired. They had ideas. They won respect at an entirely new level, and convinced faculty of their aims. The feeling of community that emerged, which was helped along by all kinds of social events the students conducted each night and sometimes during the day, too, was itself incredibly powerful. But the commitment to what was called student faculty power, in place of administrative power, was fundamental.

Perhaps most surprising, and also profoundly important, were the campaigns by students in elite professional schools demanding preparation for balanced job complexes and for solidarity in place of elite control and classist separatism. Those were stunning indicators of human solidarity and critical to the emerging participatory mentalities and policies of all of society.

Also critical, but more familiar and rooted in activism that preceded RPS, was the upheaval of student and academic life regarding the role of women and racial relations. But that too changed somewhat. Earlier the campus focus was largely on the tone of daily life, on affronts, on what were called, I think, micro aggressions. As RPS agendas began to have an influence this changed to a focus on the underlying social relations, the composition of faculty, the course curriculum, and particularly, and most innovatively, on what had earlier been called the town gown interface. This mirrored public school’s opening to the community. Now it was universities providing programs for local residents and research and resources for local activism as well.

All in all, instead of education being a bulwark of system maintenance, education became a propellant of system change. Elites had always understood this danger, and had always fought as best they could to prevent it, but our day came and once it was sufficiently in motion it became self fueling and unstoppable.

All the way back in the 1960s/1970s, shortly after the upheavals of those times, elites evaluating the situation decided that a big part of the cause was that public schools had, due to the space race and emphasis on enlightened education that it had spurred, become a very serious social problem. Public schools were graduating way too many students who expected to utilize their intelligence and initiative in society. When these students encountered the regimentation and subordination characteristic of typical daily life pre RPS, they just didn’t fit. They were round pegs in square holes. And many said no, not with my life you don’t, and so emerged the cultural and political rebellions of the time.

Elites looked at that and said, we can’t ever have that again. We have to change things. We have to reapportion school funds, change curriculum, and impose rules on teachers, all to ensure that the next generation and the one after that accept and even welcome their limited lot in life rather than questioning and rejecting it. And elites acted on that self serving insight and for decades it worked as they wanted, leading to poorly educated graduates who felt lucky to get work at all – and to the hypocritical and ignorant mess that was the U.S. educational system by about 2010, say, much less under Trump.

RPS pursued an opposite approach. Instead of squashing most students into passive conformity and making the rest elitist, conduct education based on the real needs and potentials of all students. Nurture desires and insights wherever they lead.

Bertrand, you were an RPS shadow President, after serving as Vice President. What has been your view on the controversies over seeking reforms?

I may be a hair more sympathetic than some others in RPS to those who are so caught up in rejecting reformism that they go overboard and think it means literally avoiding reforms and steering clear of working within mainstream institutions. I get the sentiment. Hell, in my bones, as a kind of feeling, but only a feeling, I even share it. The levels of hypocrisy rooted in conforming to injustice are so intrinsic to the structures that it is hard – though not impossible – to avoid getting sucked in, chewed up, and remade once you try to navigate the shoals of government.

A trick, however, can help. We don’t think it is inevitable or even a very strong prospect that if you get a job on an assembly line you will become an advocate of wage slavery. But why not? If you work there, you have to navigate the idiocies and injustices, and so why won’t you be bent in accord? Aspects of such a job certainly push people toward bad results, namely, becoming accommodating and resigned. But since your role in the corporation is that of victim of its ills, you may retain integrity and operate in its bounds without becoming its advocate.

Suppose, in contrast, you win an elected office in national or local government. Or, for that matter, suppose you take a job as a manager in a workplace. This situation is different. You are, or at least can be, recipient of the benefits and purveyor of the ills. So the trick is this. Even as you take office, you must define yourself to be an opponent of your position and your role. You have to literally see yourself as a fifth column from without, beholden to those outside and only operating inside the mainstream to pursue interests defined outside. Or at least that is how I see it.

I should say, as well, that even in the Shadow Government the effects of greater support and more clarity mattered greatly. In the years I was VP serving in Lydia’s administration, we made great headway but it was quite hard. Instead of mainly working on change, much and sometimes even most of our energy had to go simply to developing our methods and procedures and filling our posts. By the time I became Shadow Potus (I love that ridiculous phrase), our Shadow structures and procedures were quite stable and effective. As a result, we could give more creative energy and time to elaborating our own positions and battling for them in society.

And while much of our program was about economic and social issues, we also addressed matters of polity. Building campaigns to transform from the elitist electoral college approach to direct voting with multi party preferential balloting was obviously a massive victory we were quite elated about. And yes, I think that and other gains, and mainly massive advances in popular awareness and desire have gotten us to a place where an RPS identified candidate can now not just become president, but take office with a huge mandate and with fellow RPS advocates occupying positions all over the country.

What do you think are the prospects for world affairs with a full RPS victory in the U.S.?

Back during the U.S. war on Vietnam and Indochina the government used as a pretext what they called the Domino Theory. The idea was that if a country fell into the hands of the Soviets, in turn more countries would fall to everyone’s detriment. So, if Vietnam went, then Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan, would follow. It was idiocy, of course, as it was stated, but a variant of the same refrain had considerable truth. That was called, I think for the first time by Chomsky, the threat of a good example.

His idea was if a country could extricate itself from abject subservience to U.S. domination, then what might follow? What lessons might be learned by other countries to fuel further defections? If Vietnam could show that it was possible to escape U.S. domination, why not other countries, not only in Indochina, but all over the world? Of course, in this interpretation of the dynamic, what elites feared was a good thing, and trying to prevent it was a horrible thing, but this different image of countries falling like dominoes, meaning, freeing themselves from subservience not least spurred by prior successes of others – had basis. The U.S. Reply was to make the carpet bombed human cost of extrication too high to contemplate.

There are many conceivable dimensions of a full RPS victory in the U.S. for world affairs. First, and most direct, with the U.S. no longer pursuing imperial ambitions and instead driven by sentiments of solidarity and internationalism, a main cause of international violations will be removed. A main obstacle – though far from the only obstacle, to peaceful world affairs will be gone.

Another impact, however, is, ironically, the threat of a good example. If the population of the U.S. can escape tutelage to old structural institutional forms to create a new society, then why not others as well? Of course, we already see this happening all around the world, and a case can be made, for that matter, that that early Vietnamese example, though not ultimately fully successful for Vietnam, and never really adopting RPS style content, did spread lessons and aspirations worldwide that later arguably even fueled RPS itself. I happen to think that that was the case.

At any rate, I think full RPS victory in the U.S. will shortly follow, or precede, comparable victories for new social forms in most if not all of the world. Once some, indeed many, major countries are on the side of justice, how long can injustice prevail? It loses its material defenders and, even more, it loses its aura of inevitability.

What then is the positive RPS view on international relations?

It is ultimately a pretty simple extension of RPS values from the national to the international arena. The aim is self management, classlessness, inter communalism, and feminism for all. But no approach can undo centuries of distorted economic and social development in minutes across the globe, any more than we can do that overnight in one country, like the U.S. But as countries adopt new institutions and dynamics, there is no worthy reason why some should endlessly retain giant advantages from the past and others endlessly retain giant deficits. So, the main international point is to find a way to redress inequalities so that we live in a world where there is equity, solidarity, self management, and diversity not only within some countries, but within all countries, and across borders as well. So how do we do that?

History will reveal the full answer, but one aspect will surely be engaging in international trade in a new way. Trade – when not overtly horrendously vile as in exploitative extraction and colonial domination – should yield overall benefits. Exchange should occur when one party which has some item should choose to enter an agreement to provide it to another party that lacks that item, but has others, where overall benefits outweigh overall costs. But how should the benefits of such an exchange accrue to the two parties?

In market transactions, and in international market and geopolitical relations, even when grotesque overt looting isn’t occurring, the benefits of trade accrue in accord with bargaining power, not justice. The bulk of the benefits therefore go to the more powerful party and the gap between a more powerful actor and a weaker actor widens. If I start with more, I get more benefit, so even though you get some gain, my advantage grows. In the face of that, a simple, manageable, RPS approach is to reverse the pattern. The bulk of the benefits of international trade and all international exchange should accrue to the poorer country, every time. That plus direct aid from wealthier to poorer countries would be the essence of international agreements among RPS style countries operating in a better future.

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