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. This is part two of her interview. 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, RPS shied away from direct ties with alternative media, but actively sought support from it and submitted content to it. RPS also helped with mainstream media battles. Was the RPS approach optimal?
Nothing in society and human relations is ever optimal, but a wise idea guided the RPS choice, and it worked out fine.
The thinking was, if RPS made direct connections with specific alternative media, including bringing those media under RPS auspices, ultimately, that media would lose independence. Whatever we might prefer, the pressure to praise RPS and to repress criticism of RPS, even if the latter was only implicit or benignly motivated, would have effects.
Now you might think, sure, but so what? If RPS has media that it is staffing and financially supporting, but other alternative media exist as well, won’t the latter provide a counter pressure so the effect on narrowing alternative media agendas is overcome by other alternative media?
The answer is yes, that was conceivable. But it was also conceivable that as RPS grew, its media would become steadily more robust and secure, and other alternative media would lack in comparison. The former would grow. The latter would shrink. By the time RPS succeeded, we might have a single organization dominant in the world of communications and information.
So our thinking was, if we don’t want that, then why take a path that could potentially, even with no ill intent by each participant, lead toward that?
So RPS decided to send content, seek support, help with battles against mainstream media, and even provide funds for all alternative media to share, but not to become institutionally entwined with alternative media. It helped generate fiscally secure media of incredible diversity beholden to no organizational sponsor.
How did the fiscal security come about?
Mainstream media operates on a commercial model of selling audience to advertisers. For alternative media to do that – though some did try, at times – was antithetical to our agenda. You couldn’t fully serve fiscally poor audiences when your logic of existence was to attract viewers with disposable income. You couldn’t fully provide honest and needed information and vision when your logic of existence required that the audience you dangled before advertisers should be ready to buy products rather than being made disgruntled, angry, depressed, or actively hostile to commercialism, ads, and corporate logos and machinations by your content. You couldn’t sustain insightful attitudes toward market driven commercialism when you were constantly commercially market driven.
But if we refused ads, how would we pay our bills? While that difficulty had existed for decades, the internet worsened the situation in many respects. The prior solution had been to seek listener, viewer, and reader support, or sometimes foundation support, all in the form of donations as well as, of course, to get revenue from informed purchases of books, magazines, and the like. If you weren’t soliciting companies to give you ad revenue, then you had to get revenue from your audience. In at least one way, however, the internet made this harder, by establishing the view among its users, more than ever before, that information should be free.
People would visit sites that had ads all over and think, how great, I don’t have to buy the information and therefore there is no cost. They ignored that the price of what they bought all over society included the cost of the ads, and that access to them was being sold to advertisers, which, with a different spin, should have been understood to be a major personal and social violation.
Then the same people would visit alternative media sites. Whereas before the rise of the idea that all information should be free, appeals for donations seemed reasonable, now, for many – not all – such appeals seemed annoying. Why should I give anything when I can get whatever information I want free from other sites? Why should I get a print subscription, say, or buy a book? Why should I donate? It mostly wasn’t as overt as the questions suggest. It was mostly more subtle, a kind of meme-like diffusion of resistance to paying. But in response alternative media had to become even more perpetually fund seeking than in its past.
Alternative media at first seemed to grow with the internet, but it undeniably also suffered major losses. And the losses weren’t only financial and in having to become fixated, sort of like political candidates, on fund raising. Another set of problems had to do with content and scope. The internet, and in particular Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging, and the like, tended to acclimate people to short content. This in turn wrecked havoc with people’s attention spans and content expectations. When you get used to short, you seek short. Long starts to feel onerous, even oppressive. Eventually, even alternative media drifted toward a short is beautiful orientation, partly desperately trying to preserve audience, but in time extolling and advancing the ethos of short, shorter, shortest as if this trend owed to some positive logic rather than to the dictates and impact of ad driven commercialism.
But you asked about how the fiscal security came about and I am getting off track. The answer is RPS argued with all who would hear – both in its membership and beyond – that alternative media was a public good and should be financed by collective support from the whole community. It should be like public education. Each item should be free to the person using it and to that end the project as a whole should be funded by the community’s largesse. RPS argued that separate alternative media institutions shouldn’t compete with each other for donor support which in time led to partial participatory planning inside left media.
The whole progressive community put up funds needed, which were in turn dispersed among alternative media projects in accord with their delivery of socially desirable output. Since the broader society should also contribute, RPS initiated a campaign for government support of dissident media, and for the spoils of popular support to also be collectively shared.
RPS brokered meetings of alternative media operations to form an alternative media industry council…and it urged the community of users to interactively and cooperatively negotiate the output of alternative media. The idea was that various projects would propose what they wanted to do, and what it would cost, and the sum of all that from each of its participants for each new year was what the whole alternative media industry wanted to do. This would be made known to those who use alternative media and the involved community would make known their reaction, and how much they would provide. And it would go back and forth a bit. And there would be an agreement, and thereafter, for the year, each operation would have a budget to pursue its own efforts. All alternative media operations who subscribed to this had to forego individual fund raising, or, if they had contacts they wanted to pursue, had to report doing so and allot the donations to the collective bounty. Different projects had different budgets because of having different agendas requiring more or less staff and resources, not because of knowing wealthier donors or winning fund raising competitions.
It was like a mini instance of cooperative planning…
Yes, but of course half a bridge is often very hard, or even impossible, to cross. So while it revealed much about such planning, it wasn’t a full test because it was so partial. Nonetheless, it eliminated valuable time going to endless alienating, self seeking fund raising, and it caused alternative media groups to see one another as partners rather than competitors, which led to far more synergistic work. It was a major achievement for RPS, yet RPS itself got from it only the same benefit as everyone else, greater stability, more solidarity, and better communication.
Lydia, I would like to talk some about RPS’s feminism for society writ larger? What was innovative in RPS’s approach?
Much of RPS feminist program was familiar from earlier feminist agendas that had undertaken campaigns against violence against women, for equal pay, for abortion rights, and for day care. All that and quite a lot more was familiar. On those fronts, RPS innovations weren’t that the campaigns were new, but that the rationale, discussion, and also the groups battling for the changes were new. This owed to the RPS emphasis that efforts in each area should support efforts in other areas, strengthening them all. And it owed, also, to RPS emphasis on finding ways to talk about gender issues that went beyond merely ratifying the views of feminist allies and trouncing the views of sexist opponents, to continually challenging ourselves and addressing the concerns of opponents with sympathetic understanding able to reverse their allegiances.
RPS feminism focused on replacing institutional structures that enforced feminism rather than just criticizing the sexist ideas or habits they imposed. We didn’t ignore the latter, of course – but altering current behavior was just a part of our agenda, and the lesser part at that.
So for any institution you might name, we sought to change its roles so that men and women were not required to behave in ways that advantaged men and disadvantaged women.
One place this quickly emerged was in worship. The organizing of women against sexist norms and requirements in nearly all religions was difficult, and sometimes turned ugly, but it also inspired world wide attention. I remember way back to the draft card burnings during the emergence of anti war activism in the Sixties. Similar but perhaps even more moving, inspiring, and powerful, were the public moves by women to eradicate barriers to their religious visibility and participation starting in 2020, activity that was dear to and in many instances assisted by RPS activists.
But the most controversial area addressed, even beyond redefining religion, was in households, living units, and families. And again, it wasn’t just a matter of trying to get equal income to change the situation of women in families – though that was very important. We had to literally redefine what men and women did in their families. This was tricky. You can’t impose behavior patterns on how men and women take care of their homes or relate to their children. Yet RPS wanted to impact those dynamics because RPS felt that those dynamics buttressed sexist beliefs and behaviors.
I remember countless discussions that calmly – and that was new in itself – explored the difference between what was called fathering and mothering. RPS argued for gender neutral parenting, instead, calmly addressing hysterical men and sometimes women too, who thought it was unnatural. And when this was taken out into the broader world, based on the lessons gained within RPS itself, it was tumultuous. Writing about it, speaking about it, creating dramatic plays and shows about it, street theatre, law suits, formation of support groups, teachers taking up the banner and bringing it into classes, all together slowly turned the tide. And at every step, two criteria guided: winning gains but also not polarizing but instead seeking to win support from men as equals.
Lydia, what about class writ large? I have heard from various folks about seeking RPS like relations inside chapters and small firms, like balanced jobs, equitable income, etc. What about writ larger in large workplaces or in society?
It was, and remains, the same problem. Just on a different scale. And that has had positive and negative aspects. Positively, there are many more ways to address issues, and more resources to bring to bear. Training is easier, for example. As is working out task assignments when there are more tasks and more people. On the other hand, the impersonality of dealing with people you don’t know makes things harder.
In any case, this was applying the same kinds of thinking, and even program, to society and its components as compared to applying it just to a chapter or assembly of chapters or even the whole organization. So we had campaigns for accountability in a great many workplaces, but even more important, for job redefinition to spread empowering tasks in whole workplaces and later even whole industries. This meant battling for workers power in day to day decision making on the job, but regarding broad social policies as well – sometimes via union battles, sometimes via workplace councils which were often in some ways just larger versions of workplace RPS chapters. It also meant applying the same participation and leadership norms to broad RPS campaigns and events as we were opting for in small scale local chapter sponsored campaigns and events.
Perhaps the largest example was the massive campaign RPS undertook for a shorter work day and work week, fought for in ways highly attuned to working class and not coordinator class needs. So the campaign began much like earlier campaigns around minimum wage increases. Workers in particular industries, in this case it was at Walmart and Amazon and a few other mass suppliers, began to agitate for more time off. This was initially partly about vacation and partly about forced overtime, but relatively quickly matured into more general demands for a thirty hour work week.
But the workers imposed advanced conditions. They could not afford to work three quarters as long as before for the same hourly rate as before. That would mean their total income dropped by a fourth and since it was already way too low for living, that was simply unacceptable. If the campaign required that loss of income, working class support would dry up. So seeking a shorter work week had to mean hourly wages had to go up, so that total income did not drop. And that meant an hourly wage increase by one third. If you were earning $15 an hour earlier, then after a switch to a thirty hour work week you would be earning $20 an hour and your total income would not change.
But wait a minute. What if you were earning $60 an hour before or $150 an hour before. Should you now earn $80 and hour, after, or $200 an hour after. No. If your income was too high before, why not have the battle for a shorter work week bring things more into line. It couldn’t yet seek a cut in hourly rate for high paid employees, that would came later, But it did prevent any raise in hourly rates from going to those already over paid.
So now, the demand was that everyone would work 30 instead of 40 hours, but only those earning less than $30 an hour would also get an hourly pay increase of one third. How would owners manage this? By earning less profit, of course. But what if to avoid that they imposed overtime to raise output to try to make up for the costs? Okay, let’s allow overtime, but always optional, not forced, and with overtime pay being not time and a half, but triple time.
There was another exemplary aspect. Consider doctors in a hospital. After the change the owners would have them working thirty hour weeks and would have to pay triple time to get more labor from them, which labor they certainly needed. As did society. What would happen? The answer was either the owners would pay the higher rate, supposing doctors were willing to work the extra, or they would have to redefine work, on the one hand, to get more doctor like contributions out of other employees, mainly nurses – and to start to pressure the school system to produce more doctors. These are all, again, trends that impact class relations positively. And it wasn’t just hospitals, it was throughout the economy. To take one example, law firms notoriously worked young lawyers ludicrous hours, just like hospitals overworked young doctors. The real logic in each case was to keep down the number of doctors and lawyers and socialize them into their roles, to keep up their relative power and incomes. Once it was too expensive to persist in that since you had to pay triple time, and even more, in many cases, because now the young doctors and young lawyers could legally work only thirty hours and attempts to force them to do more were illegal and punishable by severe fines on profits – as well as by the growing militance of the workers involved, things had to be re conceived.
That is just a taste, of course, of the kind of struggles that developed.
Lydia, the question of seeking reform or revolution has been contentious among leftists as long as there has been a left, including at the outset of RPS. First, what was the debate?
The debate was, are seeking reforms and seeking revolution mutually exclusive, or are they mutually beneficial?
One side said, since RPS is committed to fundamentally transforming society’s defining institutions it should reject seeking reforms such as increasing the minimum wage or passing a law curtailing pollution. The logic was that a progressive reform improves some constituency’s conditions but doesn’t alter the underlying institutions that will keep producing and reproducing old outcomes. Winning the higher minimum wage leaves the market system and private corporate power in place to just reverse the gains as soon as they could. Similarly for pollution controls, born to be broken.
Reforms are unstable. Pressures from existing institutions will in time either reverse them or rearrange circumstances so that while the formal changes persist, the benefits they were meant to convey are reduced or eliminated by offsetting deficits. For instance, winning a wage increase is eventually offset by rising prices. Those opposing seeking reforms argued that anything short of revolution enforces the status quo.
Proponents of reforms argued back, first, that the benefits that accrue from reforms like a higher minimum wage or pollution controls are real and can be quite substantial for the people involved. To dismiss people’s efforts to win such changes for being less than seeking revolution and to not support or to even denigrate such efforts, is callous.
Proponents of seeking reforms added that while many people dismiss fighting for reforms in the abstract, no one would tell workers seeking a higher minimum wage, or activists trying to end a war that they are nothing but system supporters and should stop their misguided endeavors. Likewise, people do not typically move from uninvolved to revolutionary in one giant leap. It is precisely the experience of fighting for reforms like a higher minimum wage or pollution controls that raises consciousness, confidence, and skills to sustain longer term commitments.
Lydia, i would also like to ask you about the shadow government idea. When did it arise? How did you get involved? What did the shadow government do, and what did you do in it?
The idea was floated back when Ralph Nader had run for President as a Green. And Greens actually had one during the Obama administration. When Sanders lost the nomination in 2016 the idea surfaced again, this time for him, but it didn’t happen. I remember wanting Nader to do it, and then Sanders, but feeling that without a prominent jump start, such a project would accomplish little. Years later, the idea resurfaced in RPS and became part of the agenda for the second convention.
I liked the idea and agitated for it even though I worried that without a well known national figure to generate excitement, it might not fly. The logic was to set up a group who would have the same official positions as their counterparts in real government. We would have a President, a Vice President, a whole cabinet, and various other positions, including Supreme Court judges, Senators, and other posts as well.
Ironically, given my desire for someone really prominent to galvanize the idea and despite the fact that I wasn’t particularly prominent, I became the first President. But the key factor wasn’t me, or even my lack of prominence. It was the 32,000 RPS active members, and tens of thousands of other supporters who were not yet in chapters. That was what made the Shadow Government idea work. Members contributed on average $25 per month, which meant nearly $10 million in the first year, with the amount growing dramatically due to our growing membership each year thereafter. And members also helped generate policy and demands and agitated for them.
The idea was for our shadow government to operate in parallel to the real government. We would take stands on all major issues the real government addressed, and on critical but officially unaddressed issues as well. We would offer our views to display an alternative and to agitate for policies we favored. We also generated our own projects and programs and fought for progressive policies.
What was the hardest thing about doing the Shadow Government? And do you remember what you considered its first successes?
Well, truth be told it was a tremendous amount of work. After all, we were generating positions on an amazing array of issues and we needed to get the facts right even though we lacked the giant support bureaucracy the real government had. I was constantly meeting, discussing, and then holding press conferences and giving public talks. I was on the road 200-250 days a year for my four year term. It was exciting, and there was a sense of accomplishment and joy in the work, but it was also exhausting.
We didn’t have office holders traveling first class and doing only that which was engaging. No, office holders did our fair share of rote work. And the responsibility we felt was also difficult. But, as hard as the work was, and as tiring as the constant pressure to deliver was, I think the hardest part, was psychological. And this had two parts.
First, we formed our Shadow Government mimicking the U.S. Government’s structures and offices but everyone involved hated that set of institutions. It made each day strange. I hated the presidency and was shadow president.
We wanted what we created to resonate with the country. When I gave a speech it was as Shadow President. And the same would hold for the rest of us. That way, the media, and even the public would quickly understand the contrast between RPS and the actual government of the U.S. But shadowing the government precluded, at least at first, a contrast of operations and structure. To redress that, we decided to slowly alter our government structure, announcing organizational changes like other polices we advocated as things we thought ought to happen in the actual government. We changed various election laws, funding mechanics, and then added and deleted various positions, changed their mandates, and made other changes, too, even during my four year term.
The second hard thing was also psychological. Keeping my head on straight, and likewise for other folks. We didn’t require that everyone call me Madame President and otherwise pay homage, but many did. And I was constantly interviewed, questioned, and listened to as if I was some kind of oracle. So it would have been all too easy, and even natural, to get into bad habits. I worked to avoid that but I think what helped most was I appointed as my Press Secretary and Chief of Staff people who would keep me in line.
Assessing successes is not so easy. People usually think in terms of actually winning sought gains. But in truth that is not the earmark of success. You can win, and go home, and it doesn’t mean much for the long haul, even if there is some important benefit in the short run. You can lose a battle, a demand, whatever, but in the process establish new methods, or organization, or consciousness, that persists and leads to later gains. You can win, nominally, but lose. You can lose, nominally, but win.
I think the first significant success in both senses that we all celebrated was when, after just a few months, we countered mainstream government military policies, budgets, and interventionism, with our own foreign policy approach emphasizing disarmament, reallocation of funding, use of military forces for social good, retooling of bases, withdrawal of troops, and so on. Our proposals were so extensive, clear, and sensible and their immediate and long term benefits were so apparent, that the whole process gained tremendous credibility. From then on, Shadow presentations of policy were highly anticipated and taken very seriously by wide circuits of people.
Next, I would say our passing dramatically expanded social service policies, minimum wage policies, work week length laws, and so on was also a very effective step. We didn’t just contrast our desired policies and choices to the mainstream government’s actual policies and choices, though that was part of it. After all, we said to people see what you get with them – and see what you would get with us? We also went beyond that to the Shadow Government investing time, energy, and funds into outreach, organizing, and agitation. Starting to win gains on that front was another massive achievement, spurring us to do more.
Lydia, it seems like there was a mentality in RPS that made all its project’s much more real and powerful than they might have been, or even than similar efforts had been earlier. Can you try to convey what that difference was?
I am glad you asked that. I think it bears a lot of repeating, actually, because it is very easy to think of the answer as just hand waving, or cheer leading, but I happen to think it really was pivotal.
I think one way to describe it is we went from whining to winning.
Think of a professional athletic team. What distinguishes those who win from those who lose? Talent and training are part of it, of course. But let’s assume talent and training are essentially the same for some set of teams. Then what distinguishes them? Luck will be a factor, but I contend that people’s attitudes will often be most important.
Those who think they can win and who confidently approach even difficult challenges as hills to remove, go around, or climb over have a chance for a great season. Those who doubt that they can win and who despondently approach even modest challenges as immovable mountains that irremediably obstruct their way, have virtually no chance for a good season.
Imagine a successful professional football or soccer coach meeting with her team. Suppose they lost their most recent game. It’s time to talk about the next game or the rest of the season. Does the coach repeatedly bemoan the size and strength of upcoming opponents? Does she talk endlessly about how the schedule is horrible for her team? Does the coach list her team’s detriments and the opponent’s strengths as if they are unbridgeable impediments to success?
No, the coach respects reality but approaches each game highlighting what her team can best affect. How can our team alter our choices and behavior to win? If the coach spends each meeting endlessly listing the strengths of opponents without any clarification of how those strengths are to be overcome, she needs to get a new job and the team might as well take a vacation.
Now consider the left. We might not like the similarity, but we, too, have to try to win just like professional athletic teams do. That’s the ultimate criterion of success in social struggle. Just playing well at improving society isn’t enough. Winning ends wars, feeds the hungry, gives dignity to the exploited, and reduces hardships. Winning creates a new world without the need for such struggles. On the other hand, just playing nicely or “fighting the good fight” without winning, or arguably without even trying to win, lays the seeds for further losses to come.
So does the left have a winning attitude? Can we have a good season, a good career with our current mindset? All too often in the past the answer has been no. All too often too many of us looked at a half-full or quarter-full (movement) glass and talked only about how much was missing in tones that suggested that our glass could never be more full. Indeed, we even saw leaks in our glass where they didn’t exist and imagined powers to deplete our glass’s contents that our opponents did not have.
Too few of us asked, how do we get more (members) into our glass, and how do we retain those we have rather than watching them leak away? Too often we went beyond sensibly analyzing the conditions that we encountered to fruitlessly whining about things we couldn’t influence. Too often we paid too little attention to things about our situation we could remove, go around, or climb over, much less to mapping out agendas for doing so.
Am I exaggerating our past condition? If so, not by much. Our glass is our movements. The fact is, whether we are talking about matters of class, race, gender, political power, ecology, international relations, or whatever else, our movements weren’t, before RPS and also in its early period, nearly as full of members as they needed to be for us to win short-run reforms much less long-run new institutions
But how many leftists back then wrote and spoke about what was wrong with society without accompanying this analysis with a strategic commentary, so that (even against their intent) their words had more or less the impact of moaning about the size of next week’s opponent? In contrast, how many wrote and spoke about why our movement didn’t grow faster, or about why it lost the members who we did attract, and especially about what we could do to have better results?
How many of us wrote or spoke about the oppressiveness or power of the media, the state, or corporations, as compared to writing or speaking about the attributes needed in our movements to oppose the media’s, state’s, and corporations’ power and oppressiveness, and about the potential power of opposition and especially how it might be enhanced?
Extending the sports analogy, a team or coach that doesn’t know what it wants to achieve for a season will wind up wherever it is pushed by events, but not somewhere that it seeks to be, such as becoming a champion. Successful teams map out clear goals. If they are not ready to try to win the championship this year, then next year, or the next. They attune their daily, weekly, and seasonal agendas to their long-term goals.
Did the left used to do that? Even individuals in it, much less as a whole? Did we have shared institutional goals for the economy, the polity, for families and kinship, for the culture, for international relations, for the ecology? Did we organize our thoughts about what to do today in light not only of our current strengths and weaknesses and of the immediate conditions we confronted and our immediate aims, but also in light of how all this related to our long-term goals?
Most of the left rightly disparaged professional sports for its commercialism, sexism, racism, and class relations. But it would have helped it we had learned a little from them, as well. Sports teams are the world’s foremost competitors and, like it or not, we are in a competition rooted in class, gender, race, and political relations. Sports reveals that if we despondently whine, we will lose. On the other hand, if we confidently strategize, we can win. Likewise, if we lack goals we will wind up somewhere we’d rather not be, but if we have goals, we may attain them.
This is all obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing because amidst pyrotechnic displays of mental virtuosity about discoursing paradigms – as well as amidst serious and admirable projects and movements that suffer a lack of resources and serious time pressures – this truism is often the first thing to drop out of our consciousness.
So, I think it was our cultivating a mindset to win that was key to the Shadow Government working. We weren’t preening for a mirror. We weren’t taking selfies to celebrate our good looks. We weren’t padding our resumes. We were hell bent on increasing our numbers of participants, infrastructure, and morale and thus our power to win immediate reforms and to lay the groundwork for further gains in the future, all the way to a new society.
When Sanders had his millions of votes I thought, okay, come on, do a shadow government. But maybe it was just as well he didn’t. If he had, I think its composition and evolution would have been quite different than ours has been. He would have started bigger, and with more resources, but a shadow government he did would have been less grassroots and would have had fewer insightful about developing in ways suited to winning a new society.
You can see how, I hope, if someone thinks that the left is not able to become a serious player in the future of our society, and thinks all that’s really possible is tweaking existing relations this way and that, then the mood and agenda of a shadow government would be very different than ours has been. And this applies not just to the Shadow Government project, but to the whole logic of a parallel or shadow society.
Lydia, if we could switch focus a bit, what does RPS say about kinship? What institutions will organize procreation, nurturance, and socialization? How will we accomplish upbringing and home life consistent with eliminating gender and sexual hierarchies?
RPS values implied that accomplishing kinship functions should enhance solidarity, preserve diversity, apportion benefits and responsibilities fairly, and convey self-managing influence–all as makes sense in this sphere of life. So with that set of desires, many questions arose for us.
Will families continue as we now know them? Whatever families we have, what else will exist? Will upbringing diverge greatly from what we now know? What about courting and sexual coupling? How will the old and young interact with adults and how will adults react with the elderly and the young?
To fulfill our values, we knew that new kinship relations would have to liberate women and men rather than causing the former to be subordinate to the latter, and similarly for other hierarchical or degrading relations. But how?
In these matters we were talking about transforming a side of life where the gain would be removing the features that produce sexism, homophobia, and ageism, plus establishing an array of positive improvements that we could only guess at until we had more fully experimented with more complete proposals. But we also knew not all gender related problems would entirely disappear. Even in a wonderful society, I might love someone who did not love me. Rape and other violent acts might still occur, albeit much less often. Social change wouldn’t remove the pain of losing friends and relatives to premature death. All adults would not suddenly be equally adept at relating positively with children or the elderly, or vice versa.
We thought new relations could and should eliminate the systematic violation of women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, children, and the elderly, but not eliminate all individual violations. We thought changes could and should eliminate the structural coercion of men and women, of hetero and homosexuals, and of adults and children into patterns that systematically violate solidarity, diversity, equity, and self-management, but not eliminate all individual violations.
How would the structural change happen? What would the institutions defining a vastly better kinship system look like?
RPS knew contemporary societies consign women to less empowering and fulfilling options than men. We had to determine the defining structures that we needed to profoundly alter to remove that systematic ordering.
Feminism had long taught that sexism takes overt form in men having dominant and wealthier conditions and that it takes more subtle form via longstanding habits of communication and behavioral assumptions. Feminists had also shown how sexism is produced and reproduced by institutions that differentiate men and women, including coercively as in rape and battering, but also more subtly via what often seem to be mutually accepted role differences in home life, work, and celebration. And feminists had shown the cumulative impact of past sexist experiences on what people think, desire, and feel, and on what people habitually or even consciously do.
If we wanted to find the source of gender injustice, it stood to reason that we had to determine which social institutions – and which roles within those institutions – give men and women responsibilities, conditions, and circumstances that elevate men above women.
One structure that had been discussed in just that way decades earlier was that men father but women mother. That is, men and women fulfill two quite dissimilar roles vis a vis the next generation and pass on expectations via those different roles. Feminists from that earlier time had asked what if instead of women mothering and men fathering, women and men each related to children in the same fashion, with the same mix of responsibilities and behaviors (called parenting), rather than with one gender having almost all the nurturing as well as tending, cleaning, and other maintenance tasks (called mothering), and the other gender having many more decision-based tasks (called fathering), with the former role being more involved and the latter more aloof? The argument behind this proposal was that mothering and fathering are roles that are socially and not biologically defined and that, as mothers, women produce daughters who, in turn, not only have mothering capacities but want to mother but not father, while as fathers, men produce sons who not only have fathering capacities but want to father but not mother. We thought about those earlier formulations and decided that perhaps one feature of a vastly improved society vis a vis gender relations would be that men and women both parent. There would be no mothering versus fathering, just parenting.
So what happened was that many young parents, and some older ones too, decided to test this out. You have to think about that to realize the intensity of feelings and choices involved over the past two decades due to this aspect of RPS vision. You have a child. Through history, including in your own upbringing, everyone practices mothering and fathering. Your child’s life is at stake, and you decide, no, we are going to break that mold. We will each parent. This had actually begun, piecemeal, without explicit clarity, just trying to make home life more fair, years earlier. But it was in RPS and by its efforts that the practice accelerated and became self conscious. Much of it was simply changing one’s own personal choices, but not all. For example, to have parenting and not mothering and fathering required parental leave for new born care, not leave for women only, so that battle had to be waged as well.
Another typical structure that had come into question long before RPS for many feminists thinking about improved sex-gender relations was the isolated and insular character of the nuclear family. This had to do with whether the locus of child care and familial involvement should be very narrow, such as resting on only two biological parents, or even just one, or should instead involve many more people – perhaps an extended family or friends, community members, etc.
It seemed highly unlikely a good society should or even could have rules that required a few typical household organizations and family structures so that everyone would have to abide only those. We wouldn’t expect adults would, by law, have to live alone, in pairs, or in groups in any one or even any few patterns. The key point would likely be diversity but also that whatever multiple and diverse patterns existed, each option should embody features that call forth gender equity rather than gender hierarchy. So people have experimented with home life patterns aimed at broadening the care taking and interaction children enjoy, and at enlarging their participation in judgements, as well.
We have been guided by hope that people born, brought up, and who then themselves bear and bring up new generations will not only be full, capable, and confident, but also lack differentiations that limit and confine the personality or the life trajectories of children to some kind of narrow feminine or narrow masculine mold.
And we have been guided by similar hopes about sexuality and intergenerational relations. We still don’t know what fully liberated sexuality will be like–in all its multitude of preferences and practices, nor do we know all the diverse forms of intergenerational relations adults and their children and elders will enter into. But we do believe no few patterns should be elevated above all others as mandatory, but also that all acceptable options should preclude purposely producing in people a proclivity to dominate or to rule, to subordinate or to obey, based on biological sex, sexual orientation, age, or any other social or biological characteristic.
Even 20 years into RPS, we have only rough ideas what sex-gender patterns will emerge, multiply, and continually develop in a better future – for example, monogamous and not, hetero, homo, or bi-sexual, and involving transformed care giving institutions, families, schools, and perhaps other political and social spaces for children as well as for adults and the elderly – but we are confident that actors of all ages and genders will engage in non-oppressive consensual sexual relations, free from stigma.
Of course there has been much internal dispute about aspects of this. A key thing, however, has been our flexibility of pronouncements and continued study of implications and options right to the present. It was hard to avoid being polarized into aggressive defensiveness when people would accuse us of trying to eliminate families or to wipe out love or childhood. But as with so many other issues, we learned to put a premium, internally, on being patient and respectful in such interchanges. And that has been the most admired stance in RPS, not militance, or aggressiveness, or even wonderful rhetoric and debating.
Lydia, would you like to add any final comment about the ideas and values of RPS vision?
Well there is much more to say, of course. Books upon books have been written, but I think the overview here has been good, albeit demanding, and I would like to add only two things.
First, RPS vision has always been rooted in a clear statement of values. It has always been about determining what we desire for humanity – in the shape of guiding values – and then trying our best to conceive institutions consistent with those values. This is actually different than many other visionary approaches. It is not unusual, for example, to look at the present and find instance after instance of undesirable attributes, with visionary thinking then adapting from what we have to arrive at replacements, one after another.
Our difference from that approach is that in RPS we ask, what do we want. If it is unreal or impossible, okay, we try again. But once we settle on what we want, we don’t then keep letting habituation with what we see all around us curtail conceiving what is needed to attain what we want.
I guess it sounds a little academic but it really isn’t. It is the difference between vision tinkering with the present and often failing to get much beyond it, and vision desiring a very different future and not being mentally saddled by the chains of today.
Another virtue of the values first approach is that it speaks to people in a way celebrating their humanity, rather than in a way rejecting their inhumanities. It is positive rather than negative. It celebrates aims rather than excoriating shackles. Oh, it does both, of course, but the positive aspirations drive the process.
You said you had two things you wanted to add?
Yes, the second thing I would like to say is that concepts, values, and vision are free creations of human thought and discussion. They are not products of the will of a king, a priest, or a god above, or even of a wise sage. Only collective assessment, testing, and advocacy can establish them. But their being human creations nonetheless means they can be flawed, time bound, and otherwise need frequent renovation. Values may embody misconceptions that render one or more contrary to our intents. Concepts may have insufficient scope or diverge from accuracy. Vision may be unattainable or internally contradictory, or could have unforeseen negative implications. RPS recognizes these possibilities and therefore also its own possible fallibility. It constantly tests and upgrades its commitments.
Here is how I think of it. Scientists are just like all the rest of us. They sometimes have biases that distort their perceptions. They sometimes develop self serving ways of seeing or psychological commitments to pet ideas or even to ideas on which their reputation or position depends. But science is supposed to serve truth. It is supposed to always seek to alter itself by finding and correcting flaws and developing new understanding. To continually self renovate, science doesn’t merely say to scientists, be good, innovate, don’t perpetuate. No, science incorporates diverse arrangements, roles, and incentives meant to create an enquiring, flexible, and always forward reaching mindset. It doesn’t always work, to be sure. But it is a priority in a way that doesn’t exist, say, in religious studies or in old style politics of the past.
My point is that RPS very self consciously sees its concepts, values, and vision the way science sees its hypotheses. We try to make our views as optimal as we can, but we try not to become so wed to our views that we then try to ward off improvement to preserve the past and our connections with it. Not all of us do this well, and no individual does it perfectly, but because RPS prioritizes this kind of flexible and growth oriented approach, and even more so, because it sets aside resources and time explicitly for the purpose, it most often attains the sought flexibility. This RPS approach is opposite to the usual talmudic approach to ideology. It is a key RPS virtue, and certainly one that played a big part in my becoming and remaining a member.
Finally, did being RPS Shadow Government President give you a feeling for the benefits of holding office? Do you look forward to RPS actually fielding a President in the near future?
In office, you learn quickly that the main determinants of the biggest policies and directions are institutional features, even in a shadow government. Even with a dictator that is largely the case. But with anything remotely like a democratic system it is certainly true. The structure of the governing bodies is critical, but so too, of course, are the concentrations of power in various other places – mainly corporations. So you learn that short of transforming all those institutions – which is of course the ultimate goal – you have to have sources of power, pressure, and creative innovation, beyond your office, or what you win will be nothing remotely like what you desired to win.
So even in the Shadow case, right off we could either abide existing relations in our mirror of the U.S. Government, just proposing policies and agitating for them, or we could also seek institutional changes in our own version of the government, partly as a model for things to seek in the world and partly so we could do more good in our own work.
If I was younger, much younger, and for some unfathomable reason it made sense for me to run for actual President in a campaign aimed to win, I would certainly do it. There are many on the left who understand that existing institutions, including the government are bent into shapes structurally accommodating the rich and powerful and also incorporating strong aspects of other oppressive relations, racism, sexism, classism, etc. They take from that insight one correct conclusion, and one incorrect conclusion, at least in my view.
The correct one is that we need new institutions. This explains the on going and by now overwhelming growth of support for the RPS vision. The incorrect conclusion, which is now largely overcome but was perhaps predominant at the outset of RPS, is that we should have nothing to do with flawed institutions. That was wrong.
It was a little like saying we want a new society for the whole population, but we don’t want to relate to the population. We want a new society spanning all the defining institutions, but we don’t want to battle within those institutions. We want to criticize existing institutions and rail at them from without, or replace them by building from scratch, but we don’t want to engage them from within, ever.
Railing at them from without is certainly essential. And so is creating alternatives from scratch that can serve as models to raise consciousness. But suppose someone said to radical working people, we want a new economy, so stop operating in this one. You can see, I hope, that that is utterly absurd. First, it means ceding that terrain to those who are not radical. Second, it means giving up one’s job. And third, it loses access to all the lessons that can be gleaned by operating within existing institutions, not only lessons about what is wrong with them, but lessons about what is needed in their place. And finally, it also foregoes victories inside those institutions that would make people’s lives better now. It often even acts as though such victories wouldn’t matter, a very callous view.
It may be harder to see, but the government is similar to the economy in all those regards, and there are added aspects. Corporations are entirely places where nothing non profit-seeking can be done other than by applying pressure. Government is somewhat different. The deck is heavily stacked, and the structural pressures to compromise and become what you don’t want to be are enormous. But it is also true that there is quite a lot of room to maneuver, and that there are many gains we can win simply by changing minds much less winning elections and using levers of power to influence outcomes.
At any rate, my feeling is that there are very serious and dangerous pitfalls, not at all easy to avoid. But, to not try is to forgo still larger gains, able to be won. And, yes, I think we have gotten to the point where our support is so broad, and even more important, so deep, that we can now win at the highest level.