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 Mark Feynman. 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.
Mark Feynman, you were born in 1990, and became a nurse by trade. You were from the outset a very strong advocate for working class politics, and for highlighting the interface between nurses and doctors and between workers and members of the coordinator class. You have been in RPS from its inception and a pivotal figure in both its class commitments and its workplace and worker constituency organizing. I thank you for getting together with us and I wonder if you can begin by telling us how you got involved and what were some of your early post convention activities?
I went to the founding convention as a working class nurse already hostile to profit seeking and corporate hierarchy. I didn’t know whether the convention would even notice such concerns, much less respect and elevate them, but I went anyhow. And I was very pleasantly surprised.
Nurses were there in force to say we hate bad health care. We want better. We should be part of providing better. We should be respected. The ridiculous allotment of most power and income to doctors at the expense of nurses, technicians, and people doing other work in hospitals had to stop.
At the convention nurses met, talked, and became more confident and empowered from sharing our views. We were excited about the program that emerged, and we quickly decided to form Health Care Workers United…a movement for better health for all, including ourselves.
After the convention, HCWU became a militant, multi focus movement to organize workplaces and win broader heath policy reforms. We investigated and learned about our jobs and their financial logic and especially about health workers’ attitudes toward their conditions. We attracted support and soon initiated positive campaigns.
What was your attitude toward doctors? What did you feel needed to be done regarding the interface between doctors and nurses?
A doctor discussing viruses or kidneys was likely to be quite bright. A doctor discussing social programs, or even the nature of the hospital he worked in, could be just as ignorant as the next guy, and more so. There was one experience at the convention, repeated later in hospitals around the country, that I especially remember, and it speaks to your question. After we nurses had held some sessions and doctors had too, we invited doctors to come and attend one of ours so we would be all together. And that was intense.
The trick was to get honesty – otherwise there would be no benefit. So one nurse – okay, it was me – got up and got things rolling. I said, basically, look, we of course respect the work you do, but we feel you are way overpaid, way too powerful, way too protective of yourselves, and way too bossy toward us. I could be here with you and celebrate our joint anger at hospital profit seeking but I take for granted we can arrive at unity about that. What I want to know is do you really think you are doctors and we are nurses because you are somehow superior? Because we are somehow inferior? Do you really think you deserve more income, more status, more power? Or do you understand that you have those benefits because you have taken them despite there being no justification?
That was gutsy. What happened?
All hell broke lose. Did they have better income and more power due to some difference in talent and ability to attain knowledge, or to a gap in effort, or was it due to a them monopolizing empowering circumstances?
Did the difference in tasks we did justify our difference in income and power? Or did the difference in tasks – and in our circumstances earlier in life – lead to differences in skills and means to attain knowledge, which in turn enforced differences in income and power? Did the difference in our tasks sustain but not justify the difference in our incomes and influence?
People spoke. It was heated, but considerable progress was made. And something became evident in a way none of us had previously experienced. It wasn’t the anger, tension, defensiveness, and rationalizations. Everyone had experienced all that. It was a realization of how difficult it would be to overcome it all, but also how important it would be. It was understanding we had to eliminate this class division. We had to involve current coordinator class members in RPS without having them dominate RPS.
Right there, that day, many nurses realized that that agenda might need to be our main contribution to RPS and that it wasn’t going to be easy. Doctors, and for that matter coordinator class members in general, typically defended their advantages. They believed they were properly empowered and rewarded. They thought they helped those below. Many even believed those below should be grateful and not be in a movement seeking a better society. They saw us as too dumb or parochial. They felt that while we should help a movement for a new society, we should not have any decision making say in it.
A parallel obstacle to success was that often we nurses and other workers accepted our own incapacity to do empowering work as being due to biology and accepted it as warranting less income. Or if we were not submissive, then we were often so furious at doctors we not only wanted them not ruling us, which was a necessary desire, but out of RPS. It was an understandable attitude, but not constructive. Even worse, we were so angry at doctors we sometimes even rejected training, knowledge, and skill themselves, rather than only their monopolization and distortion.
I know this wasn’t entirely new, but were nurses alone in addressing this, or had it arisen in other ways and realms as well?
This clash and associated insights had been around for ages, and had been named and discussed for decades, albeit always on the fringe of the left. I think the prominent place of nurses in how this issue unfolded was because while nurses were relegated to working class subordination, in fact their job wasn’t as successful as most working class jobs at disempowering them. Nurses’ roles included social interactions and responsibility for other people. Nurses were subordinated like other workers, but were also less socialized and weakened. We were less prone than other workers to accept or be fatalistic about our subordination.
Nonetheless, difficulty getting these particular issues seriously addressed was intrinsic to the topic. On the one hand, as an activist you didn’t want to alienate 20% of the population who have critically important knowledge necessary for social change. You didn’t want antagonize them into militantly supporting the status quo and rejecting change. This often meant activists put a lid on our real feelings. But even when some of us would get beyond that and try to gain visibility for our views, our means for gaining wide attention was mainly public exchange of ideas – and on the left, that would be mainly via progressive media. But this kind of discussion of coordinator class and working class difference was incredibly difficult to attain.
An analogy helped me understand. We don’t see mainstream media often question private ownership of workplaces. Media moguls veto that being a major topic, or even a topic at all. Self preservation of elites prevents serious focus on the structures that elevate elites. Media attention to the ills of private ownership comes from alternative media far more than it from anything mainstream.
Okay, but within the left, even in our alternative media, pre-RPS the issue of worker-coordinator class relations was almost completely absent. The reason was the same as why mainstream media almost completely excluded discussion of private ownership. People rarely welcome criticisms of themselves, particularly when it challenges their wealth and power, and perhaps even more so, when it challenges their self image. So left media which was typically run by people who were coordinator class members both by their position inside the media and also by their background, didn’t have eyes for its own classist biases.
The phenomena had existed for a long time but public attention had been minimal. However, as RPS took shape, the issue surfaced into greater visibility. This was partly due to initial RPS organizers working to bring it forward. But another factor was the earlier surfacing of this class issue in the Trump/Clinton campaign just a few years before.
Remember, 2016-2017 was a time when reactionaries and even fascists were rising across the U.S. and Europe. In the UK, Brexit fed on and bred hate. Fascists won or nearly won in Austria, Hungary, Poland, Italy, France, and other countries too. And in the U.S. Trump rose in the polls and then won. Syriza rose in Greece, Podemos in Spain, Corbyn in the UK, and Sanders in the U.S., but then each also suffered setbacks.
Misplaced opposition to immigrants and blatant racism churned reactionary dissent as did anger at elites for their imposing collapsing services while they accumulated uncountable riches. Hypocritical lies from above confronted legitimate desires from below. Elites organized to deflect or crush opposition. Radicals wondered, would the final product be reactionary or revolutionary? We tried to understand how to navigate that divide.
We knew that progressive ideas and forces had for decades won serious gains along axes of race, gender, and sexuality. We hadn’t won all we wanted, but we had won quite a lot. But we also knew we had achieved far less along lines of class. About class we had addressed nothing comparable in scope and complexity to the range of issues that anti racist and anti sexist activists regularly battled over.
Many folks who worked toward RPS, and many others too, faced a question. How do we explain working class support for Trump and the parallel relative ineffectivity of progressives at enlisting working class activism, and what do we do about it?
We knew that part of Trump’s support (and the just slightly earlier UK Brexit vote, and the rise of fascist parties in Europe) stemmed from unwarranted fear of immigration and from racist, imperial yearnings for past triumphalism. But we also knew that another part came from workers’ warranted anger at being economically worse off than in a half century due to the greed of political and economic elites.
But Donald Trump was a billionaire and didn’t for a second deny it. Given that a large part of the anger fueling his constituency was about economic impoverishment, why were his working class supporters aggressively wedded to one of capitalism’s main practitioners of impoverishing others?
There are videos that show Trump’s early supporters being asked what it would take for them to not vote for him. Would you not vote for Trump if he went back on some promises? If it turned out he had been a fraud in the past? If it turned out he was horrible to employees? If it turned out he has a swastika tattoo? The respondents all said no, they would still vote for him.
Okay, would you not vote for him if it turned out he had raped someone in the past? If he killed someone in public? If he said he was eager to use a nuclear bomb? The questions got more aggressive because the answer, from person after person, to the end, was no, I would still vote for him. He is my guy.
Pundits scoffed at and ridiculed this solidity of support, though when Trump won and only slightly less dramatic revelations followed, it turned out many of his supporters did hang on at least for a time, as they said they would. Worse, scoffing and ridiculing them fueled the tenacity of their support for Trump.
We needed to understand how Trump’s supporters could be so angry at their personal economic plight – and they were – and at media and government – and they were – and yet be so steadfastly, unswervingly, and unyieldingly positive about a bigoted billionaire – which many were. What happened to class consciousness?
The answer that began to win attention was the idea that class consciousness was playing a big role, just not how most leftists expected.
The passionate anger at elites coursing through a good part of Trump’s supporters – and evident in the UK, Spain, France, Austria, Italy, Greece, and Poland – was, in fact, class conscious hostility to a perceived class enemy. But the class enemy was not mainly capitalists.
Most working people never personally encounter a capitalist but they routinely encounter doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers, and others who have highly empowering jobs with associated status and wealth. These empowered folks compose what RPS calls the coordinator class, which is about 20% of the population. Workers daily serve these people, obey these people, and get meager but absolutely essential benefits from these people, though paternalistically and having to accept demeaning rules and inflated fees. We are routinely treated like children or worse by these people. And, yes, when we are talking about overall averaged out attitudes – we typically despise these people even as we must often depend on and obey them.
You feel this way yourself, even now, and back then, too?
Yes, absolutely. As workers we see the advantages that coordinator class members enjoy. We often want our kids to escape the family neighborhood and its local employers to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or whatever, however infrequently it could happen given society’s definitions of jobs and the hugely different conditions people encounter growing up. We tend to despise these folks, yet we want our kids to become them.
When I walk around on the streets, in the mall, going to the doctor, or at work, I don’t encounter capitalists but I do encounter coordinator class types who dress differently, talk differently, enjoy different movies and shows, and who expect working class people to move out of their way or to follow their instructions as we go about our demeaning tasks.
Workers hate being administered, being bossed around, being rendered powerless, being considered inferior and dumb, and being paternalized – but we also acclimate to enduring all this in order to get by. And acclimating has effects. After all, we all become what we do.
Yes, I hate my material deprivations and my work conditions, but the group of human beings that I daily experience as at least in part responsible for and as benefitting from my personal plight, and which is often harshly derogatory and dismissive of me directly to my ears and eyes, is the group of empowered actors in the economy, the coordinator class, not the owners.
But how does seeing all that explain anything about Trump, or even more so, about what you called leftists’ relative lack of success reaching out to working class constituencies?
Trump’s voters believed Trump was a good guy, friendly, and unrelentingly forthright, even though he was in fact – even if we set aside his policy views – a horrible guy, a bully, and systematically dishonest. But to many workers’ perceptions, what stood out about Trump was that he didn’t masquerade. He wasn’t a lying hypocrite. He didn’t exude academic arrogance. He shot straight. He was tough and ready to fight. He was not some hypocritical, arrogant, dismissive, academic, coordinator class type – like Clinton – who would pander to workers, talk about workers’ pain, claim to support workers, but who workers could viscerally feel just didn’t give a damn about working people and who was so classist that it was evident in the way she walked, the way she talked, in the very air that circulated around her, all of it so different than Trump’s walk, talk, and surrounding air, even if she hadn’t provided the additional evidence of calling Trump’s voters – which wound up being what, 60 million people – a basket of deplorables.
And, sad to say, while Trump’s supporters’ perceptions of him and sometimes even love for him was horrendously misplaced – though to be fair it was not so different in its being based on personal impressions rather than on substantive evidence than the love that many blacks felt for the Clintons based on the Clinton’s persona – Trump’s supporters’ antipathy for the managers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and accountants who earn many times what workers earn and who have power and influence that dwarfs and subordinates workers, and who treat workers like children or fools, and who have zero real empathy for workers but only a palpable air of their own holier than thou entitlement, was most often more than warranted.
While working class hostility to what they called PC, or political correctness, was undeniably sometimes racist or sexist, it was nearly always hostile to the class that had all kinds of rules and norms that workers must obey. Our hostility focused on those who used rules and fancy manners and obscure language to perch above us, to lord it over us, and to defend their class prerogatives at our expense.
With these views, some of us thought about the election, well before the vote, and decided that if Sanders were running against Trump, he could and would appeal directly to Trump’s voters, and when he did that in face to face exchanges with Trump, those voters would hear him. Sanders would come across to them as caring, honest, and tough – not as a pose but because he was in fact caring, honest, and tough. And Sanders would have had answers that Trump’s supporters really would want to hear.
In turn, when Sanders had won, in that scenario, Trump’s supporters would not have felt that they had been disregarded. Far from it, they would have wound up supporting Sanders or, if not, at least respecting and liking him. Their class consciousness of all types would still be alive, which would be a very good thing, but their hope would be aroused as well, and they would have been moving toward opposing real injustices and seeking real solutions rather than scapegoating other victims of injustice.
But in the case of Clinton beating Trump, we feared it could yield a whole different trend, even though for countless other reasons it was essential for her to beat Trump. To white working class guys, and many working class women as well, Clinton was the archetype despised, arrogant, academic, boss. They heard her verbally celebrate solidarity, but they saw a style and manner that put the lie to that solidarity. Sexism made the hatred of Clinton more intense for some, to be sure, but even without sexism, Clinton and a good part of the population were oil and water.
Unless Clinton worked a near miracle on her substance and even more on her style, we thought working class males and many working class females too, would hear nothing she said even if she tried to communicate with them. And that was the best case. More likely, we worried she would sense their hostility and would develop a campaign that aimed for Black votes, Latin votes, Asian votes, female votes, and young votes and that basically ignored and constantly ridiculed with a coordinator-ish and paternalistic tone Trump’s supporters. And in that case, if Clinton won that way – and in the nightmarish horror show we faced, we had to hope that she did indeed win – while her victory would have kept Trump from power and would have kept the right wing machine from dominating social life, Trump’s supporters would feel even more angry and more ready to fight than earlier. They would have been ignored yet again. And so the phenomena of right wing populism that was trending toward fascism would not have been beaten back forever, but would have only been stalled and at the same time aggravated.
My point is that our thinking at the time, well before the first RPS convention, of course, and also before the Trump/Clinton vote and Trump’s electoral college victory, was already orienting us to paying great attention to coordinator class dynamics in social and movement life.
Even more relevant to what later followed, we also thought during the campaign and thus well before the RPS convention, about why progressive and radical forces didn’t have greater reach in working class communities. Why didn’t the far more accurate answers that left commentators had long given about the state of white working class lives, and the far more supportive history of activity of left organizers around labor activism, resonate more with the working class than did Trump, a billionaire owner who treated workers with contempt? How could it be, we looked in the mirror and asked ourselves, that decades of organizing had left so many working class men and women susceptible to this maniac?
The question was old, but the context was new and urgent. One answer, rarely vocalized but very often thought, was simply that workers, especially white and male ones, but all of them, really, were just too dumb or too narrow minded or too easily manipulated, to arrive at progressive much less left positions and commitments. Of course this explanation, whether made explicit, or only implicitly stated, or even only manifested in expression and tone, was part of the problem. In considering this, we knew the issue was not mainly about the last six months or year. It was about the last fifty years. And during that span, we realized that however discomforting it was for activists to have to admit, our movements had often come across as not worker aligned, not worker identified, not worker led. Indeed, our movements had often come across as rooted in coordinator class connections, assumptions, and values. Our movements had often had manners, style, tone, taste, vocabulary and even policy priorities dismissive of working people. And we realized this was apparent to class conscious workers even when some candidate or anti nuke organizer or campus radical or mindless ideologue said screw the 1% and champion the workers – because other choices of words, phrasing, and style on the left said, wait, I am not one of you.
We realized workers often heard from many of us, not explicitly, but in our tone, manner, and style – and sometimes even in our policy pronouncements – that we are fledgling managers, lawyers, and doctors. And that we knew it. And that we looked down on them, thinking that worker views were dumb and workers needed our guidance, our instructions.
Leftists talked a lot about owners and profit seeking but ultimately often we showed no interest in changing the relation between our class, or our class to be, the coordinator class, and their class, the working class, much less any interest in eliminating that class difference entirely.
Why were so many leftists surprised, then, that our underlying reality of difference plus our dismissive and denigrating approach together created a gigantic impediment to unity, and indeed even to hearing one another with the slightest sense of empathy and understanding?
What was utterly remarkable, at least to my eyes, was that for decades women and blacks had revealed all the perceptiveness about relations of oppression between constituencies that was needed to see the dynamics of coordinator/worker classism. If activists had taken their ability to see the interpersonal elitism, collective cultural denigration, material inequality, and decision making exclusion typical of race and gender hierarchies, and transferred it to to examining the relations of coordinator/worker hierarchy, the issue would have been addressed. But year after year and even decade after decade, it didn’t happen.
This was something to consider. And finally a lot of people began thinking about it. And so while recognition of the importance of coordinator class dynamics had been around the periphery of left discussion for a long time, the 2016 election and then the emergence of nurses raising the issue helped bring it to the fore so it could play a large role in the RPS convention, in our session with the doctors, and then in RPS writ large.
Mark, health care is partially about what goes on in hospitals, but it is also about the companies that provide medicine, and about how the rest of society produces health or illness. What were some of the early inclinations about each?
Well, the class revelation, and of course long standing broadly similar insights about race and gender, played a big role. The truth was you couldn’t be in a hospital and daily see the horrendous denial and deprivation and not either insulate yourself from feeling anything much – which was the accepted approach, and which was also understandable as a way to try to function – or feel outraged and then move on to trying to change things.
After all, how often can you see the effects of pollution and carcinogens, of over priced care and of warranted hostility toward authorities offering care, of guns and shooting and gangs and drugs, of hunger, of diseases empowered by profit gouging pharmaceutical prices, and of misuse of drugs for the mind and of antibiotics, and not lose focus and plunge into depression or become active in opposition – unless you block yourself from feeling, which, of course, while it would allow you to function privately and personally as a doctor, writ larger it would simply add to the context that produces all the ills.
I once went to India, back at that time, actually, a bit earlier, for a gathering. I was in Mumbai traveling around with a very well known Indian revolutionary activist. We were driving somewhere, I don’t remember, and beggars were coming into the street at every stoplight seeking help. It was a horrible sight – they were talented at their calling and would routinely send the worst off among them – or the one who looked worse off, at any rate – to accost the foreigner, which was me.
As we travelled through the city, I was getting more and more depressed and distressed, but my host was carrying on as if there was nothing happening. So I finally asked how she could stand it. She told me she had to become literally blind to it. She had to not see it, not feel it. She had to tune it out, turn herself off to it, and continue on her path. And I could see that it was true. She did have to do that or the pain and sheer magnitude of it all would immobilize her. But of course most who took that route to sanity developed a creeping coldness of the spirit and soul. Cultivating an ability to look away could spread and congeal into outright dispassion. It could become anti-social or worse. My activist escort was a rare exception, but her traveling a better path didn’t negate the observation.
Another time I was talking with a prominent activist from the New Left era who told how in subsequent decades he was not able to retain the degree of sensitivity and openness to reality he had felt earlier. He explained that in the Sixties and early Seventies he could act, he could do things, so he tuned in to the reality around him, he turned on to his full sense of human solidarity, and he adopted the militant radical path of the day, which let him express his anger and desires fully. But later, that outlet was largely gone. He could be dissident, yes, but to express the scale of outrage and the level of solidarity he had allowed himself to feel earlier, would not resonate or be productive, and not being able to express it, he couldn’t let himself feel it. So like the Indian activist, he too had to curb his empathy.
When I thought about those examples, I realized, we were barely different in my hospital. It bred a similar self censoring of emotion and human solidarity and outrage so we could be effective in a limited context. I saw that this censoring of sensitivity made perfectly good personal sense to avoid dissolution of one’s sanity and to be able to function, but I also saw that writ large self censoring our sensitivity was a powerful system-sustaining mechanism.
What overcomes this vicious dynamic is only massive activism that creates a context that permits real and full sensitivity to emerge and grow. The early movements around health and around RPS health program, began to ask very simple questions. Which policies, behaviors, habits, and requirements in society caused people to be unhealthy? What changes could improve the situation as well as lay groundwork to go further? And that worked wonders.
Next came various boycotts of unhealthy products and their manufacturers. Then we took up demands about pharmaceutical prices and their courting doctors to write excessive prescriptions, and we addressed doctors’ policies as well. We took up single payer health care, and initiated mass campaigns to provide excellent health care in rural and low income areas, in the treatment of children in schools, in pre school programs, and in diet.
The National Nurses March in 2027 was a pivotal turning point. 200,000 nurses marched in Chicago and no one knows how many more did one day strikes and marches around the country. The speeches and supporting teach-ins set the tone for much of the substance of ongoing health and hospital related activism. I can’t put into words the feelings of empathy, anger, hope, and desire that accompanied and fueled that march. And in tune with those feelings and as all these efforts began to generate very wide support, we began campaigns in medical schools to revamp curriculum and behaviors, and in hospitals to overthrow the idea of interning as a kind of boot camp. It was rapid, exciting, and of course led to much more in years to come.
Can you tell us of a very personally pivotal event for yourself, over the years?
What comes first to mind isn’t something I talk about much, nor was it particularly pretty – but, well, okay, I guess so. RPS was becoming prominent. It was, I guess, 2023 or 2024, sometime around then. I was at work, doing my job, but also, of course, at every opportunity talking about politics and RPS among other employees, and especially with nurses but also sometimes doctors, and even patients.
So one day I went to lunch in the cafeteria and I happened to sit with a doctor, a hospital psychiatrist who I knew quite well because my main interest and most of my nursing work was related to issues of mind. We had worked together, often, with no issues between us that I was aware of. At any rate, we got talking, and it got very heated. He took great offense feeling that my views implied he was insufficiently aware of and concerned about the well being of various others, as well as being classist toward working people, both in general and even among patients.
We weren’t literally talking about him, or even about such relations in general, but about specific attitudes to some specific campaigns outside the hospital. I don’t think I actually pushed his buttons at all intentionally, certainly not aggressively so, but what mattered was he took it that way. And, honestly, if we had a video of it, I later felt, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my tone or facial expressions or whatever revealed anger at, and even worse, a kind of dismissal of things he was saying about RPS campaigns, seeing his words as classist. I say that, because I am confident I did think just those thoughts, and so probably it was apparent.
Well, at one point he flew out of his seat and across the table, literally leaning on it to hold himself up while shouting in my face. His nose couldn’t have been more than five inches from mine. He was livid and I actually thought he might physically attack me. He went on for a considerable time, making all kinds of claims about me as a person being purely mental, uncaring, manipulative, and controlling, and also about him being a caring person.
Well, without belaboring, afterwards I thought a lot about it. Partly I was concerned to figure out how to communicate about issues of coordinator class working class relations and attitudes without so polarizing folks who my views contradicted that my efforts curtailed possibilities of useful exchange. But partly, I also wondered how a trained psychiatrist, someone who routinely had to maintain their calm in difficult situations, could get so wild over any affront at all, much less over a pretty indirect one.
What I took from it is the intense power behind our being moved to defend our views of ourselves, and the potential of that inclination to subvert reason and even history and connections. And also, I admit I felt that this friend actually would not have been remotely as upset if what I had said was in his own view ridiculous, as compared to it being, as he heard it, regrettably plausible. But this meant a person closer in viewpoint about, say, coordinator class and working class relations, and already at least somewhat able to see and understand the issues, could become oddly even more polarized and hostile than a person whose views were much further away. I suspect a lot of people in RPS could tell similar stories, and I hope we all learned from them. RPS history says maybe we did.
Mark, what impact did new understandings of class have on RPS internally. What was the problem to address?
Our problem was how could we attract, retain, and elevate to influence working class members but also not lose too many coordinator class members. Of course some coordinator class members would not identify quickly, or perhaps ever, with a project that would ultimately entail their doing a fair share of disempowering work and having a fair rather than inflated income. It isn’t a bad trade off, in fact, to give up those benefits but enjoy a classless workplace and society, but not all coordinator class members would be quick to see the upside or to discount the downside. Unless they developed solidarity with others, coordinator class members would cling to the idea they are special and deserve better conditions and income. In their rationalized world views they not only deserved it, if they didn’t get it, everyone would suffer because society would fall apart. So how do you reject that view and the associated social relations, yet cause there to emerge solidarity between people holding the view and benefitting from the relations and workers suffering the ill effects.This was a tough hurdle to navigate.
The flip side of the problem was that once workers became attuned to the reason for their plight being not only that owners buy and sell their labor, but also that coordinator class members monopolize empowering circumstances and use that advantage to gain great power and income, their intuitive dislike for the kind of arrogance and dismissiveness that so often emanates from people filling coordinator class roles escalates into really profound class anger. So that anger is on one side and on the other side, you have some coordinator class folks agreeing with the need for classlessness but still harboring a whole lot of habits and assumptions degrading workers who had suffered worse schooling and conditions, and then you had other coordinator class members – a large majority at first, who didn’t accept the aim at all but instead persisted in believing that they dominance is simply a fact of life due to their intrinsic talents and capacities, and not due to anything unjust, and that trying to overcome the difference would actually hurt everyone.
This is actually not so different than navigating race divides and gender divides in ways that undid the oppressions but did not jettison those who had benefitted from them, but it had been so much less discussed and addressed before RPS that for all intents and purposes RPS was first traversing the class terrain and encountering the class difficulties.
The internal issue was to have self management inside the organization, just as we sought it outside. We needed a consistent way of dispersing organizational tasks and responsibilities to make up for prior differences in training and confidence. We needed daily participation to elevate working class members and hold coordinator class members in check, sometimes even at the expense of under utilizing various people’s talents. And it wasn’t just that we had to accomplish that. Just like racism and sexism have structural institutional bases that must be challenged but also have long term effects on behavior and culture which if left to fester can easily bring back the old role relations, so too for coordinator classism.
Many types of movements, sometimes even labor movements (due to their bureaucracies) and certainly ecology movements, anti war movements, and more local movements, had for many many decades largely embodied coordinator class preferences. It would appear in almost every facet – not just who made the decisions but also what TV shows people would watch or denigrate, what sports, what foods and diets, and on and on. The leftist would read the New York Times, even while proclaiming it was a monstrous hotbed of manipulation and lies. The worker would read the sports page of a local tabloid. Was that true, I don’t know. But suppose it was. Who was the foolish one?
Indeed, often self proclaimed progressive and even radical positions that were overall warranted would have as a subversive part of their composition classist attitudes – as in gun control overtones castigating workers favoring them, or the anti McDonalds franchise campaigns that were often as much or more about keeping low income people out of neighborhoods. Even ecological movements often embodied such values and assumptions. I remember once asking an anti nuke power plant activist (and I opposed them too) what he thought about the clear and present damage of coal mining in generating black lung disease and other ailments for the miners, as compared to the quite healthy circumstances, for the most part, of nuclear power plant workers, and he had not only not thought about it, he couldn’t even hear it. To me it said that for him the plight of workers just didn’t exist. The issue was plant failure that could kill people like him. He had the right position, only because what he left out didn’t in fact override what he was moved by, but his tone and manner put off working people from supporting the no nukes cause, and understandably so. The same would occur in the utter dismissal by some – not all – ecological activists for people’s jobs.
So, in any event, we had to figure out how to simultaneously confront classist assumptions and habits and undo classist structures, even as we not only elevated workers to full involvement, but also retained coordinators with progressive views while preventing them from dominating. Not to mention not letting concerns about class evaporate other focuses, such as about race, gender, or, in the recent period, ecology.
Then again, no one said attaining classlessness would be easy.
So what steps were taken to deal with class inside RPS?
First, we adopted the ideas of balanced job complexes and self management as goals for our own chapters and organization. This entailed making up for deficits in learning and confidence on one side, and for excesses of arrogance and entitled expectation on the other side.
Second, we recruited heavily among people with working class backgrounds and instituted changes to make their participation easier given all the other pressures they faced.
Third, we self consciously had working people take the lead, even more so than in general, regarding the internal culture and forms of celebration and socializing within RPS, which, remember, we also made priorities as ways to develop mutual understanding and trust.
Okay, but what did these entail in practice? In your local RPS chapter, say, what did all this translate into and what difficulties had to be overcome even once you were doing the above?
Everyone in the chapter had responsibilities. It changed as time went along. But even at the start there were diverse tasks – scheduling meetings, preparing snacks, cleaning up after, preparing an agenda, sometimes preparing materials, actively recruiting, coming up with and researching ideas for possible campaigns, and so on. Later there was much more, developing views and preparing materials for current and future campaigns, for example. About all this we assigned people tasks in a balanced way, or even sometimes unbalanced where the idea was those with the most experience and confidence would actually do more of the less empowering tasks, to redress (and avoid aggravating) the prior imbalance. And yes, even as we were doing this, folks would bicker about their having too much or even any rote tasks, and would even try to do other people’s empowering tasks, sometimes.
About self management, at first it wasn’t just that we had democratic votes. It was also, often, more about the process leading up to voting than about the final tallying of votes. We insured that those with greater confidence and prior knowledge did not dominate and that those with less confidence and prior knowledge became steadily more vocal and involved. We had an unusual rule, for example, that votes could not be taken until working class members were collectively satisfied they had fully voiced their views and been sincerely heard and accounted. In the beginning this threatened, often, to create tension, but the emphasis on attaining real solidarity overrode such possibilities.
Part of participating was people becoming knowledgable about social change and specifically about RPS views and vision. People also had to become skilled in public speaking and making compelling arguments. So, we realized we needed internal training and practice. But then something remarkable became incredibly evident. The gap between a coordinator doctor or engineer or accountant and a worker driver or assembler or short order cook obviously included a huge difference in particular specific knowledge. To bridge that difference would be very much about conveying knowledge of particular disciplines. But, the gap between a coordinator citizen/RPS member and a worker citizen/RPS member regarding issues of social change, involved quite modest difference in actual substantive knowledge, and was overwhelmingly, instead, just a matter of using different terms and having more or fewer references to book learning. There was a big language gap. Worker and coordinator members talked about society using very different words. And there was a big confidence gap. A big comfort with the topic gap. A big public speaking gap – especially if the speaking had to adhere to coordinator class norms. But it turned out that as far as actual understanding and insight, there was no obvious, large, one way gap. In short, there was a bit of a con game going on.
When we sat around and asked a worker to explain RPS views and challenge or support them, he or she typically had a hard time of it, at first, either not yet knowing the specifics or literally being too nervous. But when we asked a coordinator class member to do it, the presentation was mostly mechanical. That is, the coordinator class person could reel off a bunch of words – but had a hard time explaining their meaning in daily life situations in any convincing fashion. And it was almost rote, often, with little ability to translate it from fancy language to palpable, relevant meaning.
When working people saw that, and really felt it, they saw reason to chime in, and they began to. And as they got more confident, they realized that they brought a level of understanding, and a wealth of experience, that the coordinator folks replaced with fancy words and rhetoric. These steps proved, in other words, beneficial not only for worker participation, but for the substance of discussions and understanding. And this was of course all the more true for talking about relations between workers and coordinators, their implications, and what should be done about it. On that topic the coordinator class members were close to brian dead, honestly, and the working class members were advanced experts schooled by life. Regarding understanding class difference and rule, it turned out that the fancy words of the coordinators didn’t even masquerade as deep understanding, rather, the words blocked understanding by denying the problem.
This is nearly twenty years ago and it is hard to be really specific about the various steps taken since. But regarding recruiting we had another norm that was really demanding. At the outset we had fourteen people in my chapter, nine of coordinator background and aspirations, and five who were working class. So, we talked it through and agreed that RPS would ultimately need to much more closely reflect societal conditions – thus 80% working class and 20% coordinator class. We of course did not want to not recruit people, yet that is what we agreed. For every new coordinator class member we would need to recruit two new working class members. And the task of recruiting would be assigned overwhelmingly to working class members, as well, so that in time that ratio would get even better. Like everything else, this was difficult for everyone. For the coordinator class members it meant they could not just go out and recruit friends, family members, and the like, even if those individuals were strongly pro RPS. Recruiting more coordinators had to wait. And for the working class members, it also imposed a real burden. They had to do some great recruiting, and they had to push their coordinator class fellows to do so as well, but among working class people. Otherwise everything would stall.
To become an organization that fought against class division and class rule by empowering and elevating working people to controlling their own lives, all this had to be achieved, however difficult. When someone would say, but we could be bigger, quicker if we welcomed everyone who is interested without these silly requirements – we had to not just reject their view, but also understand their feelings and convince them that being bigger quicker, where what was being enlarged would not be able to retain its priorities, was not the aim and not better. Better to go slower, but better, was our norm. Though not too slow!
Getting working people to join, to attend meetings, and to relate aggressively and with energy was a problem, even for those of us who were eager to do it. Working class life was tense and constrictive. Time was short. Funds were short. Energy was short. So we realized that our chapter, and by extension RPS, had to provide a way for people with incredibly demanding work and home lives to participate. But what could we do? The answer was the organization could actually reduce their life difficulties. And so, we seriously considered that and came up with lots of innovative ways to do it. For example, a chapter, much less an organization, had people with diverse skills and talents. These could be directed at reducing the time working class members had to spend dealing with bureaucracies. We could also collectivize and reduce the costs of certain life tasks, not least food shopping and day care. We realized that scale was critical for all this, and so we proposed to RPS that when chapters grew and divided in two, the assembly of chapters take as a key priority utilizing the energies and talents across all the member chapters on behalf of all the members being able to better participate.
Mark, if we could switch focus a bit, what was the RPS attitude toward the internet and social media? How did planting seeds of the future play out in that realm?
When RPS was forming, the internet was a mixed bag for creating a better society. Positively, the internet facilitated popular participation in disseminating information. It aided announcing actions and conveying instructions. It facilitated spreading analysis and vision. These benefits were significantly compromised, however, by the tremendous volume of junk news and nonsense content that complicated finding valuable content. Also negatively, the internet rewarded extreme brevity. Users acclimated to short, shorter, shortest. Declining attention spans in turn produced more brevity, fueling a downward spiral.
Additionally, corporate surveillance tracked people’s internet use to amass gigantic databases which were sold to advertisers as well as used for spying by the state. This degraded privacy. Finally, though many thought internet browsing and youtube viewing were fundamentally decentralizing and de-commercializing, very quickly they were instead conveying more ads even than TV and magazines had, and the ads were far more intrusive. Centralization also accelerated as the huge bulk of traffic went through few sites until even with a nearly infinite selection of little venues to visit traffic was nonetheless overwhelmingly about ten or fifteen sites – not to mention Facebook trying to replace the whole of the World Wide Web with Facebook housed versions.
At the same time, the internet plus smart phones and social media elevated nastiness, escalated bullying, and produced narcissistic vapidity, even as they also, for those who could avoid its pitfalls, provided much needed information, training, entertainment, and popular outreach.
People might disagree about how to weigh the relative debits and virtues, but whatever the balance, why not try to remove the debits while enlarging the virtues? Why not provide services that would elevate substance and solidarity while retaining ease of use and scope?
Of course RPS folks put up web sites and produced and disseminated podcasts. And of course we tried to ensure that commenting and forums were civil, and that click bait and ads were absent. Nonetheless, many of us worried that even as we were trying not to contribute to bad habits, on balance we might be having more negative than positive effect. The number of left sites that began to employ click bait and short pieces and to have endless links for jumping about at the expense of maintaining focus, kept growing. Sites did it in pursuit of greater outreach, but was having more readers for shorter durations a real gain?
We decided to create our own People’s Social Media where we would facilitate inexpensive networking, outreach, and debate without including ads, data mining, spying, personal vituperation, manipulation, or the constraints and pressures that generated an inclination toward short and thin. But how could we do that?
The answer that various tech-oriented folks in RPS came up with rehashed some earlier attempts. We would create our own version of Facebook and Twitter – combined in one system – with transparent features and with revenues beyond costs going to progressive and left sponsoring projects – of which there would be dozens and then hundreds.
Each sponsor would become a source for cross constituency connections. We would have no length limitations, no ads, and no spying. Our system would be international, since there were no national borders in internet connectivity, so RPS folks first created a system that went into use in the U.S. about fifteen years ago, and then immediately welcomed people, social movements, and organizations in other countries to join.
The process was what you might anticipate from RPS folks. They got together, wrote software, got a bunch of people who would do the work, and offered it up. The system operates with balanced job complexes and keeps things inexpensive for users while pledging that beyond workers’ equitable wages and funds sufficient to cover server costs, all revenues from the low monthly fees go to the many sponsoring organizations, of which RPS was one.
At first the effort had to overcome old habits and biases. Perhaps hardest of all, at first we lacked the benefits of scale which existing systems had but which our new project could not gain until it had time to grow. This was a familiar Catch 22. On the one hand, the value of using our system depended on how many people already used the system. On the other hand, whether each new person who heard about the project wanted to use it depended on its value. You couldn’t attract people based on the system’s value without already having attracted people to give the system value.
In this sense, the success of new social media was like the success of RPS itself. It depended on first participants taking a leap of faith to join before sufficient scale made participating beneficial.
The technology had to be good but I think that was the least of it. What really allowed success was a steadily escalating desire for something new. A subset of potential participants perceived in it a nearly full social media glass, even while our new system was in fact technically nearly empty. This optimistic audience provided a base that foreshadowed real value for all which in turn ensured a steady march into viability.
Come on, there must have been other difficulties in actually creating the system?
I wasn’t involved with the details, but I had a couple of friends who were. And you are right in one sense. They would tell me about endless hassling over all kinds of issues from database design to features, to appearance. And I would tell them don’t let ideas and disputes about how to attain an imaginary perfection drown your momentum toward attaining realistic excellence, though for a time my advice mostly fell on deaf ears.
When a group is creating something valuable, often each participant sees differences with other participants as monumentally important because they are so focussed on details. They tend to lose the forest for the trees. They think anything less than perfect will slide into disaster. My guess is the process probably took twice as long as it would have had all those working on it been seeking what they wound up with from the start. Still, they did get it done. And thereafter, if my friends are to be believed, they pretty much forgot about all the earlier disputes, save for a few key modest differences that were still being explored for possible inclusion later.
People are complex. When creating a new social media system, or, for that matter, RPS itself, countless differences arise and it is often hard to distinguish nit picking that only distracts from more serious differences that have major implications. Seeking a new world doesn’t free one from this kind of complexity or from sometimes needless hassle. But we can minimize waste by becoming less egocentric and more willing to embrace diversity.
Turning back to health, what were the biggest health industry problems to overcome?
In the private hospitals, the first intransigent and militant opponent of change was owners trying to protect profits. When employees fought for costly changes at the expense of profits, owners battled. When employees fought for open books, owners battled. When we fought for higher wages, owners battled. So that part of the struggle was about almost all employees against all owners.
The second intransigent and militant opponent of change was a subset of the coordinator class employees in the hospital. This was the hospital administration, accountants, lawyers, and many doctors – where for the most part the more established and highly paid doctors were, the worse they initially were.
The owners had only property as the basis for their advantage. After a point it was almost impossible for them to convincingly claim that their property warranted profits and power at all, much less at the expense of patients. It was clearly self serving immorality.
The second group had an actual substantive argument. They could claim they were essential to the hospital because they had indispensable talents and knowledge. They could argue that for them to do fewer empowering tasks or receive less pay would diminish the quality of care for patients. It was even true, in some cases in the short run.
If the surgeons in some hospital were doing 100 surgeries a week, but cut back to 50, what the hell would happen to the patients? The concern was correct, as far as it went. You couldn’t unilaterally drop doctors’ contributions so precipitously, so quickly, in the name of attaining classlessness, without having severe negative effects.
We had two counter arguments. First, over time we could make the change by having more people trained to do the needed work. And second, the amount of newly trained doctors needed could be reduced if hospitals were not delivering inessential surgeries simply to generate extra income and profit – a very common practice.
Due to the above considerations, a campaign aimed at the owners could demand all it wanted, right off, and it was being responsible. But if a project aimed at the coordinator class / working class division demanded all it wanted right off – while it would have been justified as a counter to injustices imposed on the workers, immediate gains would have been offset by immediate damage to patients. Therefore, the second project had to win a trajectory of changes, including winning training programs, winning changes in medical schools and hospitals, and winning changes in diverse policies. So that was how we pursued our aims.
Winning would be hard, we knew, but over a period of about twenty years we have won gains to the point where seeing complete victory no longer requires great imagination. Instead, we easily see complete victory as a product of current trends. What requires great imagination, and even great self delusion, is to think we are going to welcome back the old patterns.
What were some turning point victories along the way?
It varied from issue to issue and hospital to hospital. Where I had most involvement, I think the big turning point was when tasks began being reapportioned. At first it was quite modest. What doctor tasks could nurses immediately take on? What tasks could we reduce or jettison due to their not aiding health? What might doctors do, with their newly freed time, that would involve them more in the rote and less fulfilling parts of hospital work?
It wasn’t that the initial changes had great impact. They were modest. But nonetheless, I think the turning point was that we established the need to evaluate and make decisions about the division of tasks in hospital work. After establishing that, I felt it was all downhill to get to a really healthy hospital.
I remember the first meeting I was at where the agenda was to argue for or against evaluating the division of labor to try to make hospital jobs better for health and for employees. There were raucous fights about every suggestion that came from the nurses and employees. Some of what the doctors had to say was incredibly classist and degrading of others. And yet, I sat there elated. I knew the key step had been taken. Once it was legitimate to look at job roles and reapportion tasks to create a better hospital, it really was foregone we would win all the way to balanced job complexes and self management. There just wasn’t any way to sensibly argue against such a change. At most one could delay it, which was, in any case, often warranted, pending training.
Even now, okay, I suppose we could still lose. The trouble was as long as our changes were modest, daily conditions mostly continued reinforcing the coordinator worker division and all the mindsets associated with it. If there was no counter pressure to offset that continuing impact, things could stall and then devolve. My optimism wasn’t just because we had temporarily won recognition of the legitimacy of carefully and patiently altering job definitions. It was because we had won that, and we workers knew the score. Our victory was what we called a non reformist reform victory. Its meaning and value resided precisely in its future, and we workers were hell bent on ensuring that that was an unswerving trajectory toward a fully re-conceived workplace with no class division.