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 is named Lydia Luxemburg. 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.
Lydia Luxemburg, you were born in 1946 and became political in the great upheavals of the 1960s. You have held many jobs over the years but in just a few minutes of our time together my impression is only one was permanent and basic to your motivations and perceptions, that of revolutionary. Life-long feminist, activist, organization builder, and media worker, you are one of the best RPS participants for addressing its past and future contours, including having been its first shadow government President. I thank you for taking the time for this interview, I hope you won’t take it as ageist, or otherwise offensive, but you have been a personal inspiration for me for a long time, not least due to the longevity of your focus and effectivity.
You are very kind. Thank you. Hopefully I can hang around a bit longer.
I have been asking all my interviewees how they first became radicalized, so I should ask you too, though of course there are various biographies telling your story in full.
I was in college in the 1960s and, like many others, I got caught up in the culture of the times, and also the politics. I became anti war and then anti imperialist due to the butchery my country imposed on Indochina. I became feminist in considerable part, even mainly, due to the sexism within the left itself, the assumption that women were ornaments to be paraded and servants to do tasks that men wished to avoid. I became revolutionary when my mind and heart linked in a commitment to win change.
I have also been asking folks to recount a personally moving or inspiring event or campaign from the past twenty years. Would you do that for us too, please?
At Trump’s inauguration the huge outpouring of women and men, not just in Washington, which was enormous, but all around the U.S., and, understandably, given the international role of the U.S., all around the world, was, for me, an incredibly timely boost for what had been my then somewhat precarious personal morale. From then on, it was one inspiring campaign after another, though of course there were setbacks and also less exemplary moments.
One particularly moving experience was that during the community control of police campaigns I was able to spend some time talking with what had begun to be called exonerees. These were people who had been jailed for crimes they did not commit, and who were later exonerated and released. To hear their stories, particularly people who had been imprisoned for years, and even for decades, and to hear of the incredible travail that awaited them even upon their being exonerated due to people they knew earlier being long dead, and their having no home, and to see their cheer and positivity despite all that, and despite all the pain in their past and still to come, was for me an incredible testimony to human potential even as it also evidenced – as if I needed to hear it anew – just how insanely unjust our society had become.
Considering all the people incarcerated by plea bargain deals that to avoid worse injustice accepted lesser injustice, and all the people in jail for victimless crimes who were in turn made deadly by the deadliness of it all, well, I saw the underside of the underside of current relations, and like the upper side of current relations, it needed nothing so much as total renovation.
But I also had a very different kind of experience, far more personal yet I thought also political, that had a big effect on me. I had decided to try to write a novel to get across the kinds of ideas and commitments I was always advocating but in a different and hopefully more effective way. So I wrote a draft of the novel, and while I had written plenty and often before, a novel was a first for me and I was quite unclear on whether it had any merit and quite sure I needed reactions to guide making it better, supposing trying to do that even made sense.
So I sent a draft to a whole bunch of people who I had worked with, or was friends with, and also to many family members. I knew it was a lot to ask people to take a look at a whole book, but I asked, making clear that I needed and was hoping for any reactions people might have – or questions, or suggestions, or criticisms – as a way to try to make the book better. And then came a surprise. I think five out of about twenty five people I sent the draft to even bothered to acknowledge receiving it. Those five said they would get to it soon, but none did. The other fifteen also didn’t read it or provide comment, and they didn’t even acknowledge the request having occurred. Not one out of the twenty five asked a single question. Not one even asked what it was like to try to write a novel, much less ask anything about its contents.
This wasn’t a technical work. It was a story about matters of society and people’s reactions and experiences that were key to all our lives. And yet there was no curiosity much less any inclination to try to help. Yet each person I sent the draft to was, as a potential reader, on as firm grounds as I as the writer for evaluating the draft, and for making suggestions about it.
And I thought about this and at first, honestly, I was just hurt. It wasn’t disturbing that any one person didn’t reply since there could be various reasons in any individual case. What hurt was the universality of it. I was sure that had any one of these people sent me something comparable, and asked my reaction in hopes of my providing help to guide improvements, I would immediately acknowledge receiving the draft, have questions about it, and then try to provide help, or I would have reported my incapacity to do so if I tried but failed.
And when I thought about that, my sadness only grew, but it also changed a bit. It seemed to me this kind of silence was emblematic of contemporary life in the U.S. Everyone at that time thought it showed a degree of human solidarity, civility, and sympathy to say, “have a nice day” and to otherwise appear civil and concerned. It didn’t matter if you meant it or not. It was quick, it was easy, and you got points for it. More, if you didn’t do it, you were a brute. But to sincerely regard one another with interest about something substantive, to say original caring things and actually mean them, well, that might be taken wrong. It might elicit criticism, and it wasn’t easy since it took time. You might even get negative points for your effort. And so people didn’t bother and not bothering became acceptable.
Surface cordiality plus below the surface aloofness became the U.S. cultural order. Superficial civility was familiar, understood, and accepted. Serious intent and effort was unfamiliar, misunderstood, and rejected. To avoid the former as paternalistic was considered uncivil. To seek the later as solidaritous was considered intrusive or even selfish. Atoms, bouncing around, saying “hi, have a nice day,” and moving on, was what people expected and welcomed. More substantial interest and concern struck people as intrusive, strange, or even abusive.
We had as a people, in my view of it, become so atomistic, so insular, so focused on popular culture as a safe way to engage, and so removed from our abilities to evaluate and think about anything social and from our abilities to actually apply ourselves beyond reflex reactions that we saw an act like my sending around a book draft seeking advice rather like we might see a stranger asking us to help them with something totally foreign, totally beyond us, totally lacking interest for us.
Ask about a ballgame, a TV show, or a dinner out, and people eagerly converse. No risk. Auto pilot. Ask about some horrible event or events, some political enemy, or whatever else of that sort, where there is nearly universal instant agreement, and again, people are quick to have spontaneous opinions, which, however, in the circles where they are offered are commonplace and accepted even before being uttered. Auto pilot. But to try to dig in and think through the cause and effect of spontaneous opinions was shocking. It went too far. And to offer unusual, provocative, much less challenging views, especially about people’s options and choices, that was simply unacceptable.
In that context, if you ask about a new socially aimed novel or about anything else that would require reacting in ways that required thought beyond what was common and safe, and where a comment might even be thought less than ideal, the energy for engagement dissipates. You couldn’t tweet a reaction to a draft of a book, so the reaction was never produced, nor was even a simple acknowledgement. At any rate, whatever one may think the real meaning of this experience may be, it had a broad and amorphous affect on me, impacting how I related to RPS thereafter, and affecting what acts I thought could and could not reach people, which is why it came to mind, I guess, in reply to your question.
When RPS was first emerging, I guess you were already around seventy and had had a lifetime’s worth of activism as your history. Did it take you by surprise? Did you feel vindicated?
I think I felt more like, what took so long? I mean I knew why so many efforts had lost, lost, lost when measured against the norm of establishing an organization that could last right through winning a new society, but still, I felt like, jeez, some of us knew what we needed 45 or 50 years ago. Why couldn’t we do a better job of bringing it into being?
So RPS happening didn’t surprise me but I certainly didn’t feel vindicated. I was ecstatic it was happening – but I was also tormented by how many lives had been lost or made less than they should have been by the fact that my generation hadn’t done better decades earlier.
Even before the first convention, what ideas did you think distinguished RPS from many predecessor projects that hadn’t taken off? What ideas attracted you back at the beginning, and what do you think served as a foundation for what has emerged since?
Remembering back, I would say the thing that first got me intellectually engaged was the way RPS overcame some problems with my prior ways of thinking about society and history.
Before I was attracted to RPS I was a very militant feminist. Of course I remained that, but before RPS I saw the world refracted through a lens that highlighted gender relations so heavily that often much else went largely or even completely unnoticed. It wasn’t that I explicitly thought everything else was unimportant, it was that my totally warranted attention to gender monopolized my perceptions and thoughts to the exclusion of seeing much else.
I would go into a workplace and see the relative situation of men and women, how they related, what people were doing and why, and what they got for it – but all as men and women. Same for the church, education, and of course families. I saw how men and women had different circumstances and rewards and costs. I saw their connections and disconnections. To a considerable degree I saw variants on the nuclear family, ported to other realms than households, with women typically filling roles that included mother-like and housewife-like attributes and men filling roles that included father-like and husband-like attributes. But I tended to miss or at least not dwell on and realize the importance of other aspects.
It is odd, because I had been closer to the RPS view earlier, back in the late sixties and early seventies, but then for a time I lost my multi issue balance. My approach prior to RPS – but post my Sixties New Left involvements – was a bit like looking at the world through a filter that makes certain colors or shapes very intense while causing other colors or shapes to fade in comparison. I saw male and female in high definition. The rest was less sharp and even blurry.
Add to that my personal intensity and first hand knowledge as a woman about the situation of women, and I was highly attuned to gender and sexuality, which was good, but barely attuned to class, race, and other dynamics, which was not good. I was particularly blind to interrelations among all these facets of society, and especially to what pushed on kinship so much as to alter it – as compared to how kinship pushed on other facets of society, which I was attuned to. I saw, to go back to that workplace, how sexist relations permeated it and affected its definition, but I did not see nearly so clearly how class relations coming from the workplace permeated and affected family relations.
So I was initially standoffish about how intent RPS was on adopting a holistic approach. Honestly, at first felt like some kind of purist badgering, even though I knew that when I was in my early 20s I had had a very similar inclination. But, for whatever reasons, in time RPS elevating all central sides of social life to parallel importance began to convince me, or perhaps I should say re-convince me, that we should not assume any hierarchy of importance among the different defining parts of life and society.
But why were you initially standoffish? Why didn’t the insight simply grab you, right off, without resistance on your part?
At first, I worried that to promote the parallel importance of non gender dynamics would lead me to discount and finally relegate kinship and gender to lower priority and attention than I was sure they deserved. I worried that if I and others stopped elevating kinship, various men with various other agendas would manage to peripheralize it. Indeed, I so feared that prospect that it took some time for me to even hear the RPS message much less grapple with it, and finally agree with it.
Another aspect of this was how I pursued feminism, or, for that matter, how other people pursued their anti racism, or their anti capitalism. Often it was a matter of protecting against ills, not pursuing virtues. And there is a difference.
The defensive mindset could yield a fortress mentality. It prioritized constantly calling out and punishing whatever one sought to ward off, in my case, sexism. Our priority was seeing ills, avoiding them, beating them back. We didn’t seek and advocate new positive outcomes. With the defensive mindset we saw mainly how choices could yield men dominating and feminism yielding. We were reflexively negative.
But I did finally hear and I did finally realize, wait a minute, my fear that kinship will be minimized if I don’t maximize it is exactly what maximizing kinship does to other parts of social life, it minimizes them. There has to be a better way than to pick a focus and defend it to the exclusion of properly attending to other equally critical focuses. I realized RPS was adding, not subtracting.
Once that insight penetrated my defenses, I didn’t have to agree that something else trumped my feminism to adopt the RPS approach. I just had to see that the economy, polity, and race also played pivotal roles. I had to see that just as pressures from gender could mold other parts of society until those other parts did not violate or would even buttress central kinship characteristics – so too could pressures arising from economy, polity, or culture mold gender to not violate or even to buttress central economic, political, or cultural characteristics.
What was remarkable was as soon as I was open to seeing such relations, I saw them all over. RPS revealed how dynamics in one part of life could alter the defining logic and relations of other parts. It revealed how fixating on one part could interfere with seeing interrelations. It saw class in families and schools, gender in workplaces and churches, race in government and health, and on and on. It showed how economics affected politics, how race and nationality affected economics, and how gender and kinship affected culture and economy and politics but was also affected by them. It provided a basis for a project that could unify key constituencies without submerging the concerns of any of them.
It made me see that we should use concepts able to overcome all our biases and reject concepts that narrowed us to pursue only our most personal inclinations. This was the tight connection between thought and action that RPS propelled, and I liked it.
Can you give me an example or two of this insight advancing your understanding compared to what it had been earlier? Did it change how you understood winning change?
The RPS view got me to understand that you couldn’t change gender relations by only focussing one the home and upbringing. It was in the home that the basic structures which defined sexism were rooted. But it was not alone there.
The RPS idea was that the pressures of sexist kinship roles have requirements for men and women. These requirements imprinted people with beliefs, values, and habits producing men and women with gender specific expectations and inclinations. These attributes didn’t disappear if a man or woman exited a living unit and entered a workplace, ballpark, or mall. Other institutions then abided or violated the family-based expectations and inclinations. If they violated, there would be conflict and need for resolution. If they abided, there would be stability. And this interaction could be even more profound. Other institutions could begin to incorporate the same sexist logic as households to the degree that they too became not just compatible with persistent sexism, but sources of its reproduction. Then, movements might win important changes in households, but if they ignored the sexism that had become entrenched elsewhere, emanations from those other places could push back on the changed households, causing them to revert.
This same pattern holds for class and race too. We can see that class and race permeate society, not just being active in economy and culture, and so there are sources of class and race hierarchy persisting in laws and families, and not just in workplaces and cultural venues.
The upshot was that to change society it would be a major error to think one should identify some single social focus because winning in that realm would change everything. The incredible truth was, with a single focus approach, seemingly winning for that focus wouldn’t even win just for it, ultimately, because the win would be temporary, in time wiped out by unaltered relations in other parts of society.
Once one had that perspective, it was easy to see the need for broader movement connections. Before having that perspective, it was not so easy.
Can you give a less abstract example, perhaps one from back near the start of RPS, that caused a different view than had been prevalent, including different actions?
The Sanders campaign, and then the rise of Donald Trump, you may remember from the histories of the time, had a very profound effect in diverse ways. But there was also great controversy about the meaning of some aspects of what occurred. Many white men supported Trump, but why? Trump was rich, violent, egomaniacal, racist, sexist, really an abomination. Still, he undeniably had a whole lot of support and, more, it was support that should have been for Sanders and that would need to support any successful project for a truly new society.
Okay, there were many variables of course, and I won’t rehearse everything, but here is a line of thinking which came from the kinds of insight I have been noting, that was earlier mostly absent, though later preponderant.
Women and Blacks were then and had for a long time been fighting hard for a better situation in society. They were doing so, very often, as women and as Blacks. Watching that, and hearing that, and sometimes encountering it, white men had to also assess their own situations, which were horribly deteriorating due to economic losses as well as by being marginalized by the political process, including and even especially the Democratic Party.
Okay, so what is the white guy to think? If society is a battle between genders and races, and that is what the white guy thinks he is hearing said – and if it is a personal fight at that, to a considerable degree individual by individual – then white men’s worsening condition must have to do with, they might deduce, their losing that battle. And along comes a thug candidate to say that out loud, and to seemingly be ready to fight against the trend. Many identified with that.
RPS tried to identify their views but didn’t focus on blaming white men. Sure, there was racism, sexism, fear, and ignorance. But what were the roots of it? The RPS approach noticed but didn’t focus on the Democratic Party having moved toward ignoring people as workers in favor of attending to professionals and addressing people only as black, female, etc. That was true. That was important. But the RPS approach was about finding what we ourselves can do to win change, not about decrying what others were doing that we didn’t like.
Two things emerged as reasons for Trump’s support that had to do with our choices as people who understood and fought against social injustice. First, we were undeniably horrible at communicating about class to, ironically, the working class. If they didn’t see their worsening situation as a function of corporate policies and structures of which Trump was a prime emissary, where was the cause of that that we could address rather than just moan about?
Answer: it was in ourselves. We had to pay attention to why we weren’t being heard, why our words weren’t resonating with working people. The upshot was realizing that overall we didn’t respect, understand, relate to, hear, and learn from their concerns, so they didn’t see reason to listen to us. And, perhaps more than anything, we didn’t address the divide between workers and professionals or what RPS took to calling the coordinator class.
And the second awareness to emerge and later greatly impact RPS was about our approach to race and gender. To fight over improving the conditions of constituencies in ways that polarized others into becoming resistant to and even hostile to change beyond what their actual situations provoked was counter productive. We had to learn to fight racism, fight sexism, fight homophobia, but simultaneously support working people, and yes white male working people, not as some throwaway line, but, because doing so was right as well as prerequisite to winning a new world.
And this was all hard for you to accept? I mean, now, just twenty five years later, it is all second nature. It is hard to see why it would have been so difficult.
When these notions surfaced and spread, or really resurfaced and respread, we all had to overcome our long held narrow prioritizations. Some had prioritized economy and class. Some, like myself, had prioritized kinship and gender. Some had prioritized culture and race, or politics and power, or war and peace, or ecology and sustainability. At the extreme, people very self consciously prioritized one area above all others. Less drastically, and more often, people didn’t explicitly do that, but nonetheless, in difficult situations would fall back into that bias by way of the narrowing effect of the concepts they had forefront in our minds. I was in that camp.
To hear someone say that part of the fault for white men moving to the right with Trump was radicals doing a crappy job of communicating about class, and particularly about coordinator class / working class relations, felt like an assault to those who had been working so hard to confront capitalist owners. And to hear that part of the fault even rested with how blacks and women pursued their rightful anti racist and anti sexist agendas, felt to many, including me, like the assertion itself was racist and sexist. So it was very hard to navigate the tensions.
Still, the more I thought about all this, the more I saw, with many other people who became early adherents of RPS, that there were actually two problems with over-prioritizing one key focus as compared to others. Neither problem was that we might each personally focus our personal attention and activism more on one area than another. That is both inevitable and sensible. We can’t each do everything.
The first problem was that we would be active in ways diminishing our capacity for relating to phenomena beyond what we were focusing on or even diminishing our ability to best focus on the full complexity of what we were ourselves addressing. Elevating a particular side of life to conceptual priority mislead our efforts to understand society as a whole. Each effort to prioritize a particular area didn’t so much attribute too much importance to the preferred area as it attributed too little importance to other areas and, in so doing, missed much about critically important and mutually intersecting social relations and possibilities, sometimes not even noticing their presence. Approaches that elevated one priority (say, gender) above the rest (say economy, polity, and culture) tended to see the world through a single set of lenses (feminist) rather than utilizing a conceptual toolbox that had a number of sets of lenses.
But the second reason why prioritization was a serious problem was that it pitted constituencies that needed to work together against one another. Each narrowly focused approach would declare or at least often act as though its own focus was paramount. Its adherents would often pursue their focus blind to the implications for other dynamics and relations. They wouldn’t say, we have to address race, class, gender – or whatever – but only in ways consistent with and even advancing comparably addressing the other focuses.
It was like there was a slippery, heavy object to move. And there were various teams ready to work on doing so. Each team had a part of the whole that they knew best, a part that they most wanted to move, and a part that given their inclinations and dispositions they could grab and hold and tug better than they could grab, hold, and tug any other part. So each team grabbed their part, and then exerted courageously and unrelentingly, but also without noticing what the other teams were doing with their parts. So instead of all the teams moving all the parts in concert, so the whole object got where they intended, the teams were pulling and pushing their focussed parts in ways at times conflicting with each other, so the whole object was just moving a bit here and a bit there, but never far in any direction. RPS said, hold on, each part is critical, no denying that, but unless we address all of them in mutually enhancing ways, none of them are going to alter much. When adherents of different approaches are out of touch with each other, it produces opposition and competition instead of mutual aid.
So even though I had found it hard to adopt the new view, what resonated most for me was RPS’s explicit recognition of multiple key sources of influence for how society works and for how we need to change it. It was not easy for me to express much less act on, and there were many ups and downs along the way, but these conceptual commitments were a big part of what attracted and held me. I realized the views traced back to the 1960s, at least, but for me, I really fully understood and was affected by the message by way of RPS. RPS found better ways and more lasting ways to convey the insights than those who had similar views decades before, including myself.
Was this basically the debate between advocates of identity politics and class politics?
Yes and no. That debate had raged for a long time and surfaced anew after Trump’s victory. The RPS approach was to think outside both boxes in ways that allowed each of the prior two poles of debate to participate positively and without any rancor toward the other.
It went like this. The class focus side had its roots in anti-capitalism that caused adherents to think that class was so centrally important to social change, that analyzing events, forming agendas, and having goals had to prioritize class and economy even at the expense of all else. The idea was that the tools for being attuned to class had to be constantly in hand and utilized, but the rest, not so much. Of course there were all kinds of nuances.
The identity politics side had its roots in feminist and anti racist organizing reacting to the class approach and its effects. It chose, at first, and for some long after, a new priority focus – either kinship or culture/race – and treated it more or less as the class over everything else folks had treated economy. But as the years passed the debates bounced about, and eventually the race, gender, and sexuality folks began to unite creating what some called identity politics.
An additional wrinkle was the class first folks had always prioritized institutional dynamics. Their discussions of class and economy only rarely ventured into the day to day injuries of class at the personal level. For identity politics, attention instead went mainly to the attitudes, behavior patterns, and personalities of both advocates and opponents of the focused oppressions. In some ways the debate was like a flexible, complex tug of war. First it would shift a bit one way, then the other. Every so often each side would alter a bit, as well.
Each side had two lines of argument for its stance – one seen as objective, the other subjective or operational. So, the class side would argue in one form or another that economy is fundamental and class is paramount because economy is unavoidable and constrains and impacts all else. But the advocates of race, sex, or gender, or all of them, made precisely the same case, with essentially the same logic. They each are unavoidable, constrain and impact all else. On this axis of argument, there really was no logical reason for the divide. You could hold both stances simultaneously, and there was no reason in the underlying logic to do otherwise. The same was true for paying priority attention to both institutions and mindsets/behaviors.
In truth I don’t think the objective side of the debate had much to do with why people lined up as they did from the late 1960s on. The operational side pushed the contending proponents into opposition. The class folks worried that priority attention to race, gender, or sexuality would diminish attention to class at great cost. The race, gender, and sexuality folks worried that priority attention to class would diminish attention to their areas at great cost. All that was required, as in the objective logical difference, was for both sides to see that both claims were correct. It was certainly possible – though not inevitable – that giving central attention to one focus would come at the expense of others. But, the only solution other than dropping attention to something that ought to be getting attention, was to give attention to all the focuses in ways that didn’t inhibit giving attention to the rest.
So RPS brought to this a reiteration of views that had certainly existed a long time, and been repeatedly but unsuccessfully proposed earlier. RPS said, basically, the class folks are right about institutions being critical, and are right that class is critical. The identity folks are right the mindsets and behavior patterns of people are critical and that gender, race, and sexuality, are critical. More, there is no contradiction between these many views as soon as each side acknowledges not only that its own views have merit, but so do the seemingly contrary but actually completely compatible views of the other side.
RPS said, simply, institutions and what is in people’s minds and habits are each important and mutually impact one another. Race, gender, sex, and class are each important and mutually impact one another. We should come at society giving forefront priority attention to institutions and mentalities/behaviors and to race, gender, class, and sexuality, and should not try to prioritize among these focuses. We should prioritize each and to their connections.
You said two RPS innovations played a major role in attracting you. What was the second?
It was something so simple that nowadays it may seem silly to even utter. Even at the time it was a very simple idea, one that had been long understood, and asserted, but that in actual daily situations didn’t seem to drive many people’s thinking, or mine, anyhow, until RPS came along.
This view refined one aspect from the class side of the debate I just mentioned. It asserted that institutions affect outcomes overwhelmingly by the roles they make people fill if people are to gain the institution’s associated social benefits. It was a simple observation, almost self evident. If you want to be in the economy, you have to work someplace, consume via markets, and so on. To be in a religion you had to relate to its church or other structures. To be in a family, you had to be a mother, father, brother, or sister. If you wanted benefits from some institution, you had to comply with whatever roles you managed to fill in that institution. Your roles in turn determined your range of acceptable actions.
If you were a nurse, a congressperson, a priest, a teacher, or whatever else, to gain benefits you had to behave consistent with your roles and with the other related roles in the institutions you navigated. There had long been a kind of vernacular slogan for it. You had to learn to play the game, meaning you had to learn to abide the accepted norms of your situation and adopt the behaviors required by your roles.
Once I became self consciously aware of this dynamic, I could feel it operating all over my life. I could see it in novels and even TV shows. We become what we do and we do what our situations require. This was true no less in a corporation, family, shopping center, or church, than it was true in a prison, government, the military, or a criminal cartel, and the observation had three major implications.
First, to evaluate a workplace, church, family, government or whatever – we had to reveal the roles people had to relate to in that institution to successfully engage with it. Having determined the roles, we had to reveal what the roles demand of people and thus who the roles cause us to become.
Second, to move from understanding an institution to changing it, we had to decide what roles could accomplish whatever social functions were needed more consistent with our preferences for social life. What is our goal for the institution in question? What roles block that goal? What new roles could accomplish that goal?
Third, given our circumstances and resources, we had to determine what we could fight for at any moment which would move us in the desired direction. What changes in our ways of organizing ourselves could move us nearer our goals and also make winning further gains likely? What roles characterized our movements? We had to ensure they were consistent with our aims, rather than contrary to those aims.
For me, these aspects of RPS ideas were central attractions.
Can you give an example of what kind of experience made you elevate the simple insight about roles and institutions to a centrally guiding norm of your thinking and doing?
Early in my time with RPS I was visiting an occupied workplace in the Midwest. I was talking with workers there about their situation and they were surprisingly despondent about their new circumstances deteriorating back toward what they had known before they took over. “All the old crap is coming back,” they reported, and they felt crushed by that fact because to them it said there was no alternative to the capitalist drudgery and poverty they thought they were escaping.
They had set up a workers’ assembly in order to have democratic decision making by everyone involved. They had equalized wages. They had created a climate of support. A year had passed since they took over their plant and instituted their changes. Yet in recent weeks, they said, their decision making assembly was attended by only a few. Wage differences were returning. Work was reverting to being a debilitating, alienating chore.
The workers got steadily more upset the more they described their deteriorating plight, and, most disturbingly, they attributed their worsening situation to their bosses and managers having been correct back when they had told the workers who first took over the plant, “you are naive. The inequalities and hierarchies you rebel against are part and parcel of being human. That is who we are. There is no alternative. Your joy at taking over this workplace will evaporate into failure.” And now the workers felt crushed that the depressing prediction was coming true.
I had become, not long before, an RPS organizer. And I knew that in taking over their workplace these workers had kept the old division of labor from the past. They had retained the same old jobs. In their new plant, like previously, some people were doing overwhelmingly rote, repetitive, and otherwise disempowering work while other people were doing mostly empowering tasks.
The workers throughout this plant were from similar backgrounds. They had all been workers in the plant, earlier. They had also all grown up in working class homes and neighborhoods. They all had had little formal education. They were not elitist. They were leftist, especially at the moment of taking over. But upon occupying their factory, most of them wound up with assembly work while a few others wound up with daily decision making and other empowering responsibilities.
They knew that was so, how could they not, but they didn’t register its importance. For them that was just the way things are. It was how to get work done. I pointed out that the folks with empowering tasks were, as time passed, seeing themselves as more worthy. They were dominating. The folks doing disempowering work were being dominated, and, again, as time passed, were becoming more resigned to it. That was precisely what they meant when they said the old crap was returning.
Of course we talked more, but the point of the experience that bears on your question was that it was a very graphic instance of a very particular role definition overruling people’s good intentions by its implications for people’s daily options. The way the workers had divided up work into jobs affected dynamics way beyond just getting the work done. It re-elevated all the old crap. This experience made clear to me that you have to take institutions and their roles very seriously.
This analysis wasn’t academic. You didn’t need a new vocabulary to talk about the situation. It was simple and for some on the left this was a kind of drawback. Such people liked to look smart by their long sentences and big words. If you spoke plainly and you advocated simple (but powerful) insights, you weren’t part of their community. They acted as if being clear and understandable indicated irrelevance. It may sound absurd, or perverse, but it isn’t if you realize this was just another part of the same problem of coordinator habits and practices distorting left behavior.
If your status, income, and power are a function of a monopoly on empowering circumstances, information, and skills, then defending your status, income, and power depends on making sure the information and skills remain inaccessible to people outside your class. But regardless of academic minimizing attention to coordinator class habits, the new ideas were not only accessible, they were also intensely practical. If you don’t pay attention to choices about institutions and their roles, some seemingly innocuous choice, or a choice that seemed to you inevitable and that was taken for granted, could subvert your best intentions. Retaining the old division of labor was an example. The experience of the workers taking over firms didn’t just show that institutions and their roles matter, it showed that they mattered so much that we had to focus on which features were okay, on which were not, and on what new ones would be better.
Lydia, were you as attracted to RPS’s elevation of values and did RPS’s new attitudes toward class play a role for you, as well?
I suspect almost everyone who relates to RPS was at least in considerable part moved by its emphasis on values, and, yes, I was too. But for me it was RPS’s emphasis on diversity as a basic value that had most initial impact. My coming at things as a strong feminist already disposed me toward recognizing the incredible range of life patterns bearing on sexuality, nurturance, and bringing up children. The fact that RPS highlighted and celebrated diversity was critical for me. When I came to understand diversity as emanating just as logically from an ecological orientation, that too helped broaden my thinking.
The notion of solidarity, which is also a central value of RPS, was, like self management, certainly not original. RPS didn’t come up with the idea that people ought to feel solidarity and even empathy with others. That was long since familiar to people seeking good social outcomes. It was the way RPS coupled making values central with understanding institutions that impressed me.
For a value like solidarity, we were pushed by our institutional approach to ask what current social roles impede or even annihilate people feeling solidarity? And, as well, what would have to happen for society’s various institutions to accomplish their desirable functions and yet also foster solidarity?
And the same thing happened for diversity and self management. With the values in hand, we had a criteria for judging institutions. Did market competition with buyers and sellers fleecing each other create solidarity? Of course not, but in RPS our concepts pushed us to ask why and to consider what we could do about it.
Similarly, did families with a male operating with father duties and a female operating with mother duties, each of them having contrary roles, foster self management or solidarity either in the adults or in their children? No. Okay, what could we do about it?
I hadn’t been immersed in the ownership-is-the-lynchpin-for-
Actually, we are uncovering, I think, one of the things about RPS that I am most entranced by. Every aspect is entwined with the rest. RPS’s understanding of class isn’t somehow isolated from RPS’s understanding of sexuality or gender or race, and vice versa.
In real societies, RPS says that what happens in the economy has implications for everyone who fills economic roles because economic roles require us to behave in certain ways and respect and implement certain logic. And this holds for any economy, not just for the capitalism that RPS struggles to replace, but for the new economy it favors, as well.
But RPS says the same thing holds for the institutions of kinship and the ways their roles require certain kinds of behavior from people bringing up kids and relating to one another in families. Kinship roles require that people behave in certain ways, respect and implement a certain logic, and so on.
What RPS notes is that economy affects our assumptions, circumstances, beliefs, and habits, and in turn we bring all these affects with us after work and beyond consumption, for example when we are at the dinner table, or in bed, or celebrating holidays, or voting. And similarly, exactly the same holds for kinship’s impact on men, women, and children. Here too the effects are not confined to when we are inside families, say, or with friends, but also travel with us into workplaces, places of worship, malls, and voting booths.
So, RPS emphasizes how the social and behavioral field of influence emanating from any one key area of society tends to require that other key areas respect its logic and sometimes even incorporate elements of its logic into their own relations. RPS shows, in other words, how societies push and pull into a more or less stable entwined mosaic of all their key parts – as well as how this mosaic can become unstable, and can even be unraveled to become entirely transformed. Even more, it raises the question – what new mosaic of what new parts do we desire to implement?
So it wasn’t only that I became aware of this third class existing in its birth area – the economy – if was that I became aware of it in all sides of life, including implications for families, religion, and so on.