The Trajectory of Change
Cambridge: South End Press, 2002
Review by Jeremy Brecher
In the 1960s student activists used to say, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.” The fact of the matter is, there were few people over 30 worth trusting. Until the student movement made its mark, pathetically few Americans were willing to support militant action for racial equality or forthrightly oppose the war in Vietnam.
In fact, we got a lot of grief from our elders. I wish instead we could have had the kind of supportive passing on of lessons from the past that is embodied in Michael Albert’s short new book The Trajectory of Change.
Michael Albert was an anti-war activist at MIT in the 1960s. He co- founded several valuable movement institutions, including South End Press, Z Magazine, and ZNet. He’s also author (and co-author) of a string of books on the politics of social change and a prime theorist of an approach to defining economic alternatives to both capitalism and state socialism known as participatory economics or “parecon.”
And now for a disclosure alert: As a writer of several books published by South End Press, as a columnist for Z Magazine, and as a regular contributor to ZNet, I’ve personally benefited repeatedly from Albert’s work. Those seeking “objectivity,” be warned.
The purpose of Michael Albert’s new book is to address some of the problems that are facing the left (primarily in the U.S.) today. It consists of short essays mostly based on Z Magazine articles and on talks given to movement groups over the past couple of years. It is addressed to movement activists, especially those who have made a personal commitment to work for social change, but who don’t have a lot of background or experience in how to turn that commitment into a viable movement and a sustainable way of life.
The Trajectory of Change portrays a radical movement that has grown rapidly in response to globalization and war, but that is now in danger of becoming stalled. The movement has, to be sure, been growing more militant, but in ways that may actually prevent its further growth. What it needs most is wider outreach. “We need to expand our movements in size and diversify them in focus and tactics until elites meet our current demands—and then we need to go for more.” Rather than just focusing on large national and even global events, our movements need to emphasize “more regional and local organizing, in smaller cities and towns, reach people unable to travel around the world to Los Angeles, Prague, Quebec, or whatever.”
This emphasis comes from Albert’s view of the source of movement power. “We are not fighting a little battle that a small army of dissidents can win.” Elites, for example those who are promoting the current “war against terrorism,” think twice about making war “only when movements provoked by their war start to threaten the warmakers’ underlying position and power. Warmakers think twice, that is, when they realize that pursuing war has the opposite of their intended effect. Instead of serving their position and power, their war cuts their own throats.”
The reality of a growing movement is the crucial threat. “A huge and growing mass of dissident humanity can restrict government options.” A movement that has reached a plateau does not provide such a threat. What is needed is “a trajectory of forward-moving growth that elites must worry about and will eventually succumb to.” The “logic of social change” in the near and middle term is provided by a trajectory of activism that “elites cannot easily repress or manipulatively derail.”
The Trajectory of Change calls for multiple tactics and multiple issues that allow diverse constituencies to find a place within the movement. It also calls for “a militant edge that creatively displays a rising tide of anger and commitment.” But it emphasizes that militants must “stay with the pack” and help it move ahead en masse, rather than separating themselves out through a kind of ultra- militance that is not possible for most people to participate in or even to find attractive.
Albert argues that the strong suit of popular movements is “information, facts, justice, disobedience, and especially numbers.” The strong suit of states is “lying and especially exerting military power.” Therefore “a contest of escalating violence is a contest we are doomed to lose.” Conversely one in which “numbers, commitment, and increasingly militant nonviolent activism confronts state power is a contest we can win.” To throw stones or Molotov cocktails at the police “simply invites further escalation of their violence. It does nothing to hinder elite agendas. Instead, it propels and legitimates them.”
While Michael Albert occasionally talks about “revolution,” he describes the process of change in a way that implies not a single cataclysm but rather “a sequence of steps.” Gains are won by raising “the social cost of not granting the gains we seek until we reach the point where those who don’t want to give in to our demands have no choice but to do so.” Change comes from stringing together such reforms or limited victories into “a pattern in which we continually change the contours of the world that we live in, making ourselves stronger and making those who oppose change weaker until, ultimately, we win basic alterations.”
One of Albert’s themes over the years has been the need to conceptualize society, not in terms of a single constituency or form of oppression, but rather as “a conglomeration of entwined institutions that interactively create the opportunities or the constraints that largely govern our lives.” He highlights economic, kinship, cultural, and political institutions, which reinforce each other to produce “the preposterously insane thing we intuitively call ‘the system.’”
In this perspective, no one aspect, for example class or race or gender, can legitimately claim to be the primary or ultimate basis for the movement for social change. “Trying to use one single orientation inevitably subsumes much of what is dynamic and influential in each area.” Worse, it can “imperially extend the views characterizing one area—as when Marxism (or radical feminism or anarchism) elevates economics (or gender or the state) and ‘reduces’ other phenomena in the process.” The result is to prescribe aims for the oppressed, “rather than fulfilling the needs they themselves determine to be most important.”
How can such limited groups then gain the numbers and support they need to succeed? Albert calls for the difficult but essential work of combining autonomy and solidarity within the movement. But he seeks an alternative to a “lowest common denominator” approach in which the movement only supports what all can agree to, or the “laundry list” approach that throws in a few demands from each constituency. He proposes instead for “merging agendas in a lasting larger framework designed to pursue collective efforts and mutual support” while retaining particular agendas intact for separate efforts. The agenda of such a movement would be “the sum total of the agendas of all its affiliates.” How difficult this might be in practice is indicated by the requirement that each group would pledge its support to the others “for anything within their own domain that they undertook.”
Perhaps an idea that might help here is the concept of a movement agenda as an integrated set of changes in the social framework that meet both the common and the distinct needs of those affected. Such an integrated agenda can allow needs that currently appear incompatible—for example, between jobs and the environment—to become compatible.
A principal concern of The Trajectory of Change is that our movement is not “sticky” enough; millions of people have participated in one way or another in radical movements over the past decades, but few have remained for the long haul. It calls for attention to a wide range of “quality of life” issues within the movement.
One is that people should be encouraged to focus on issues that are personally meaningful to them and to engage in activities utilize their talents and interests. “That means you don’t just do what somebody else says is most important. You do things that you can do. You do things that will sustain you. We’re each different, and so we have to figure out where we fit. Not according to some abstract pronouncement that ‘it is now proper to go into such-and-such type of community and be such and such type of organizer.’ If that’s not who we are, we won’t do a good job. In fact, we’ll do a crummy job and we won’t last long.”
Another issue has to do with the quality of human and institutional relationships within the movement. Obviously, this includes an on-going effort to correct sexism, racism, homophobia, and other forms of prejudice that can make movement life miserable for many. It also involves challenging forms of class hierarchy within the movement. Albert points out that class relations in capitalism are not just a question of who owns the means of production, but also of the relation between ordinary workers and the managerial elite he calls the “coordinator class.” Movement organizations often seem to follow a corporate model of such relations. “Some of our people work in offices, make decisions, get higher pay, and have more status. Others of our people work more menially, are obedient, have less or no status, and earn much less pay and have much less power, as well. The main donor or fund raiser often dominates decisions in our institutions.” Instead we need to create “a movement environment seeking to internally eliminate class division.”
Another significant aspect of “movement quality of life” has to do with hope. People need a left that not only enumerates the ills of the system everyone already sees and feels, but “one that also provides hope and direction.” This involves a positive vision of what we hope to achieve and a positive conception of how we are going to achieve it. “If we feel that every gain is part of a discernible road to a new future, we will have anticipation and hope that will fuel ongoing struggle.”
Finally, we need to make being part of a social movement rewarding and fun. “A movement that can persevere over the long haul with continuity and commitment needs to uplift rather than to harass its membership, to enrich its members’ lives rather than to diminish them, to meet its members’ needs rather than to neglect them.”
I hope that this book will help a lot of people make a movement, and a movement life, that is more hopeful, more successful, and more fun. I know it makes me think of a country song whose chorus goes, “Oh, to be sixteen again and know what I know now.”
Jeremy Brecher is a labor historian, screenwriter, and activist. He is a frequent contributor to the ZNet and author of many books including Strike!, Globalization from Below, and Global Village or Global Pillage?