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 Noam Carmichael. 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.
Noam, you were born in 1995. Active in media and public speaking, your written work focuses on popular culture and broad social trends, especially issues of political participation and race. In RPS, your work has emphasized raising consciousness, developing organizing projects, media, and aiding RPS internal relations. To start, I wonder if you remember first becoming radical?
In 2001 I was just old enough to get a vague sense, with my parents help, for the change in my situation due to my name and appearance. And, indeed, I think I was radicalized in significant part by later trying to understand Islamaphobia, and to survive and oppose it.
I don’t think there was one incident that radicalized me, but I do think there was one that had a lot to do with what kind of radical, and later revolutionary, I became. When I got to college my roommate took one look and you could see him blanch and feel the fear and rising anger. For about two weeks we worked that through, and then we became very close friends, even to this day.
I would have to guess, and I think he would agree, that had I not been his roommate, and had we not dealt with the tensions he would likely have voted for Trump, later, instead of backing Sanders and then doing a lesser evil vote for Clinton, having himself moved left of all of them.
And however anecdotal and personal the experience was, I took a lesson from that. We didn’t navigate us both to a good place by becoming enemies. We did it by listening to one another and working through confusions, biases, ignorance, and worse. If you don’t talk to much less if you dismiss and denigrate your potential enemies they will become your actual enemies. If you don’t talk to your actual enemies, they will become steadily worse enemies.
I have been asking folks if they could remember a particularly inspiring or otherwise personally important event or campaign they experienced during the rise of RPS. Could you do that for us, please?
During the early period, around 2025, I had the opportunity to teach a number of times in RPS Schools for Organizers. The schools had broadly two aspects. They focused on skills and techniques of movement building, organizing, outreach, etc. And they focused on the substance behind and fueling activism, partly analysis of the roots of society’s ills, but more so, vision of what society could and should be, and insights into how to get from the current situation to the desired future one.
There were many many such schools. Sometimes on a campus, sometimes in a workplace. Sometimes for people in some industry like the Hollywood schools that began in 2022 and in some ways birthed the whole extended project. Sometimes in an apartment complex. And sometimes a particular school was for RPS members themselves.
At any rate, in most of these there would be intense classes, discussions, and time to socialize, as they typically ran for at least a week, and sometimes ten days or even more. Well along, after there was a remarkable level of trust and very positive energy, there would be a night session where those attending were welcome to answer the question, what, in your life, do you think is responsible for your being here to learn about revolutionizing society?
Well, those events were in case after case, nearly unbearable and at the same time indescribably uplifting. One part of the stories people told was somewhat cerebral or movement rooted. For example, people would tell of first reading some new author, a radical, and the eye opening effect it had on them. Chomsky’s name would come up so often it was surreal. But others were mentioned too. Or, people would tell of a first rally or march launching them into activism.
But the other part of people’s stories was mainly visceral. Tears and trauma were palpably present. I was abused as a child. I was raped. I saw a friend gunned down in the streets. I lost a parent or friend or a friend’s parent to drugs or suicide. I lost my home and lived threadbare for years. I became addicted and escaped addiction. Sometimes it was less extreme, being bullied in school, or even being a bully and the ensuing guilt. Being cheated on, or cheating. The stories were relayed in depth. It was wrenching.
The overall impact was an incredibly intimate mosaic of America – not the America of adoration but the America of people’s rarely discussed and rarely even mentioned real lives. Part of what made it so compelling was the overall scale. People who no one present would have expected to have such stories, told them. They often noted that even their friends had never heard what they were saying in this group setting, inspired by stories from others that sometimes also no one had ever heard before. The mood was so cathartic that people chose to speak. And for me, the scale of the revealed pain and suffering, and the scope of the revealed courage, were more than enough to cement my commitment and to make me much more of a listener than I had ever been before.
Getting back to the topic at hand, what was your view of the implication of race for issues of leadership inside RPS?
Like most things social, this was simple but also complicated. The direct implication was obvious and had been well known for a long time. An organization seeking a better society would have to be comfortable for and also benefit from the involvement of diverse constituencies in society, in particular, racial communities. This would be horribly unlikely if an organization didn’t welcome and elevate members of that community such that they would be able to exert leadership in various contexts. But even more, it would not happen if an organization subordinated a community to the will of outsiders and if it didn’t convey to a community predominant say over its own affairs.
What is complicated about that?
Well, it is like what Cynthia was talking about. Do you accomplish this necessary step in a way that creates even greater antagonisms, or do you do it in a way that reduces antagonisms? Do you get a momentary better look, so to speak, they used to call it the optics of the situation, while churning new fissures beneath the appearance, or do you not only get the better look and better reality regarding present results, but also reduce and eliminate the fissures? RPS, basically, always has its eyes on winning a new society rather than only on being right about some short term issue, whether internal or external.
And there was another problem that had to be addressed, a very hard one. Of course a major cultural issue on the left, and in society, was the relegation of minority communities to subservient roles, lower income, less influence, more danger, and so on. But, even while tackling that problem, it was possible to focus so centrally on it as to be blind to other matters, or downplay them, or even use a short term view about race to trump other concerns that also needed attention. So a second need was to be sure to add to a race focus, a gender, class, and authority focus.
For the most part, though, overcoming latent and even very active racist attitudes, and even more so overcoming racist structures, was high on the agenda. BLM was wise, and so was RPS, even from those early days.
There was still another issue, very controversial, in which if I remember right you played a role. It was about who should organize whom, right?
I was at an RPS sponsored meeting. It was in the early days. It was about working on an anti racist campaign. It was a diverse meeting, and there was this seeming understanding, I guess, among the experienced blacks present, and more widely too – and this held among women too, about sexism. They felt, and they aggressively enunciated whenever the point somehow arose, that it was not their responsibility to organize among white people – or in the case of women, among men. It was not their task, but instead only another burden for them to expect them to explain racism or otherwise combat racism among white folks by talking with them, or to explain or combat sexism among men by talking with them. White folks and men had do the talking to other white folks and men. This formulation, at least in the abstract, and whenever one wanted to call on it, was accepted as being above argument. It had been repeated so often, so forcefully, so emotively, that it was kind of like an axiom. It was just a given and to doubt it when it was offered was itself taken as racist or sexist, which is probably why so few did challenge the view, at least out loud.
Well, I doubted the view. And I was forthright about challenging it. Out loud.
I remember the time the controversy specifically erupted for RPS. A prominent black activist at a big meeting conveyed this view to some young white kid just getting going in RPS with a tone that said, newbie, you are backward. Newbie, you have to clean up your thinking that I have some responsibility for telling you about racism as compared to your educating yourself and other whites.
This upset me. I guess it just brought my doubts to a head. So I said, also aggressively, and it was recorded and transcribed later, which is why I can offer it to you now, essentially verbatim, “wait a minute. I am an activist, I am anti racist, I am black, and I don’t understand that. Oh, I get that in a wonderful world you and I wouldn’t have to worry about educating anyone about racism, much less spending time explaining it to white folks. I get that. For sure. And I get that it is annoying and time consuming and even disturbing to have to do so. Sure. But I don’t see how that implies that I literally shouldn’t talk to whites, educate whites, organize whites, sometimes, about racism. Why does that follow? If I shouldn’t do anything that when it is compared to being burden-free in a better world is an imposition, then I also shouldn’t organize blacks. That is a burden too, compared to not having racism. But I do it, not every minute, but often, because it is needed. Because I think it contributes to overcoming racism. So isn’t the right question about my talking to white people about the nature of, the impact of, and the ways to overcome racism, will my doing so help the anti racist cause? And if that is the question then when I am in a better position to successfully communicate or organize with other whites than are whites who are present, shouldn’t I do it? I think I should.”
Well, I got shouted down, but I didn’t fade away. And I knew that a great many folks agreed with what I had said, not least because they told me so after the meeting, but were intimidated from saying so by fear of being ostracized, called racist, and so on. So I kept at it. And it got written up. Discussions began. Before long the old viewpoint started dissipating.
I mean really, as all can see now, this should have been trivial to achieve but it wasn’t for reasons of identify, for reasons of habit, for reasons of people protecting priori assumptions, for reasons of people tying this stance to being anti-racist and opposition to this stance to being racist, when, in fact, if you wanted to pose things remotely like that, arguably the reverse could be said. But it was not hard due to real evidence or logic.
The issue, which was hard to surface, was the same as in many other cases. It was were we trying to win? Did we believe we could, or were we just hammering out a stance that felt okay and made some modest gains without an eye on long term goals? The point wasn’t that blacks – or women in the parallel case – should spend all their time talking fruitlessly to totally intractable white racists or male sexists. No, the point was that there were many situations in which blacks and women knew more and could better convey and motivate what they knew to whites and men than could other whites or men, and in which a white audience, or a male audience, could have its consciousness raised by the effort to do so. So, in such cases, do it, among other valuable pursuits.
Solidarity with Autonomy
Noam, another area of potentially serious differences had to do with issues of solidarity and their implications for being true to one’s views. Can you tell us the form of this issue?
Solidarity means acting in accord with the interests of others, and supporting others in their pursuits. Autonomy means functioning without intrusion from without. Clearly you shouldn’t always support but nor should you always ignore others’ wishes. So the question was, what mindset and choices have the best chance of coming up with a desirable mix.
The situation arises in many forms, but here is the one that was most pivotal to the emergence of RPS. Consider a movement against racism or sexism. It certainly doesn’t want to be subject to the will of racists/sexists, nor even to the will of well meaning people in the dominant community who are, however, insufficiently aware of the dynamics of racism/sexism. It wants to be more autonomous than that. It wants to explore its own views, pursue its own agenda, learn from its own mistakes, and benefit from its own insights. Over fifty years before RPS was even born this wisdom was encapsulated in the idea of what was called the autonomous women’s movement including efforts like Bread and Roses in Massachusetts and various anti racist efforts beginning with what was called Black Power and including groups like the Black Panthers and the Latin Young Lords.
Women and Blacks were sick of men or whites determining their agendas. Sick, even, of having to constantly argue with men or whites, rather than developing as they themselves saw fit without having to continually expend excessive time and energy dealing with male or white complaints. And for that reason the idea of autonomy arose. The women’s movement and the Black power movement were autonomous, meaning they operated under their own control and pretty much unconnected to other aggregations of non female, non black people.
That was fine in theory, and to a point, but it had an associated operational problem. Such a movement could lose a lot in terms of ties to and solidarity from and toward others. So some would say, why diminish our overall power with this autonomy stuff? And others would say, why subject ourselves to endless hassle with folks who are trying to keep us down, or even with folks who are sincere, but just don’t understand our situation?
Some wanted to emphasize autonomy. Some wanted to emphasize solidarity. The tension would emerge in diverse contexts and ways, only one of which I just mentioned.
So, what has been the RPS solution?
This is a good example of how intellectually simple most serious social gains are – though they are often very hard to arrive at, and even harder to implement. The thinking went like this. We need autonomy in many situations. We also need solidarity. How can we have both? We needed cross constituency ties of a new form.
One familiar kind of tie was called a coalition. We could have a massive coalition containing women’s organizations, anti racist organizations, and so on, which all align about some particular concern, for example ending a war. Back in the height of the sixties anti war work, there were two huge coalitions organized around slightly different approaches to ending the war in Vietnam, with unity only in that respect.
A coalition it would join wouldn’t prevent a women’s organization from operating autonomously. And it would allow a degree of solidarity around whatever is the unifying issue of the coalition. The problem was that the solidarity was too limited. Typically, it was about one thing like ending a war. The component organizations and movements didn’t enjoy the benefits of solidarity from other members for their own agendas, nor did they offer any solidarity to other members for anything beyond one unifying coalition focus. A coalition accomplished something, but not enough.
RPS did not want to replicate the Sixties or any other period. And so we extended the logic of unifying another big step. What if instead of a whole bunch of groups or projects working together on one thing and having solidarity about that one thing but not about anything else, they instead worked together on what we might call their greatest common sum agenda? This was different, and initially seemed outlandish.
The idea was various groups and projects should join into a “bloc.” Each group and project would retain its autonomy to pursue its own specific program as it decided. But, each group and project would also pledge to support the programs the other bloc members proposed. The agenda of the bloc would be the sum of all the agendas of its component organizations, movements, and projects. Each part of the agenda would come from the autonomous leadership of one or another partner in the bloc, but everyone would adopt it all. Everyone would receive and give solidarity, even while everyone retained autonomy regarding its focussed agenda.
What made it so hard? And did it work?
It was more subtle than it may sound. Suppose we take the women’s movement discussed earlier. It has a program, agenda, and style of operations oriented primarily around feminist activism against sexism. If it joins a bloc with others, then its program becomes one part of the program of the whole bloc. It will receive support and aid from the other members. Reciprocally, as a member, it will support others regarding their programs. What made this hard is two main things.
First, this meant to join an organization in a bloc, I had to decide not only that I liked the organization itself, but that I liked the bloc as well. Organizations worried this would reduce their membership.
Second, if a bloc included two organizations with contradictory programs, the overall bloc program would have to contain both aspects, even though they were contradictory, and the members would have to support each, even though contradictory. At first that seemed ludicrous, yet it wasn’t. If the overall purpose of the bloc was shared – and in the case of RPS, the purpose was winning a new society with various agreed features – then the contradictory program components could each be seen as an experiment, to see what works. If one was much better, then in time it would dominate and be chosen. If some other aspect was better, than that would become preponderant. When it was uncertain and unresolved, then having the two contrary aspects in play would honor diversity, another RPS value.
As far as working, at first it was clumsy and tense. However, as soon as groups with a particular agenda began to reap the benefits of solidarity coming from others and to celebrate helping others the confusion began to dissipate so that in practice, it has worked really well.
Interestingly, though seeking a deeper unity than coalitions afforded was one way that some people came at the idea of the bloc, there was another way other folks came at it. The other path said in a good society people will of course often have disagreements, but they will also share overarching unity as citizens who all want what is good for society. Because of that unity they can live with and even relish and celebrate their differences. They can even have them count as virtues as they search for desirable paths forward. This was the same idea as a bloc. A good society is a bloc.
So the idea for having a bloc beyond having a coalition, resulted first from trying to improve on coalitions, and second from trying to embody in the movement what would need to become approaches of society writ large, once society was transformed.