Urgent Patient Tasks

Michael Albert

The architect wants to
know future changes in architectural insights. The militarist wants to know
future weapons. The mathematician wants to know future theorems. The musician
wants to know future compositional styles. The engineer wants to know future
mechanical and electrical innovations. Their motive?

If they can
confidently envision future innovations, they can get in on the ground floor.
They can do today what will enhance tomorrow. They can avoid squandering time on
things that come to naught. The same holds for foreseeing new insights and
methods that will characterize more successful future activism. Foreseeing where
future activists will make great and important progress, we can confidently join
the effort, now.


Intellectual Tasks

In the future, when the
left is growing and succeeding more widely (and those who don’t think this can
happen or aren’t oriented toward making it happen, might just as well stop
reading now—since this essay assumes this as a given), we can predict that it
will have popularly formulated, widely held, substantial, and compelling vision
dealing with main areas of social life in ways that inspire, provide hope,
contour long-term strategy, and inform short-term program. “What are you for?”
people constantly ask us. It is a fair question. We shouldn’t defend not having
accessible, shared answers as enlightened. We shouldn’t justify lack of vision
as reflecting the difficulty of envisioning. We ought to acknowledge not having
vision is a serious problem. We ought to realize that since having vision will
be part of having stronger movements in a desirable future, the time to develop
vision is now.

In 2001, people
know that the basics of society are broken. Countless lives are illegitimately
lost. Endless souls are savagely sundered. People also know that these ills are
social and not personal, systemic and not private. But people don’t know what to
do about it. Thirty five years ago, of course people who endured society’s pains
also knew that alienated labor and poverty hurt, that racial battery and
discrimination hurt, that rape and battering hurt, that powerlessness, not to
say bombs, hunger, and preventable disease hurt. But thirty five years ago
people also largely felt that the degrading limits they endured were their own
personal failing. I suffer because I haven’t succeeded. Thus, thirty five years
ago revelation of systemic roots of oppression in the form of enumerating the
ways in which profit seeking or patriarchy or white supremacy or heterosexism or
authoritarianism or other structures caused people’s suffering, rather than
people’s personal failings being the cause of the problems, even provided
without inspiration and vision, generated mass movements.

At a broad level,
in 2001, however, working people, poor people, black and Latino people, mothers
and daughters, know that much of what people endure in modern societies is
unnecessarily painful and also know that it isn’t their own personal fault. It
isn’t retribution for failure or inadequacy, it is injustice. A book on poverty
like Michael Harrington’s The Other America, which thirty five years ago
spurred action by identifying poverty as a social problem rather than a personal
failing, even presented in a much better, more comprehensive, and more
convincing version now, would today spur little or no response. It would tell
folks what is already their common knowledge, at least at the broadest level.
Our economy hurts people, badly, unjustly.

consciousness raising groups like those so successful in the early women’s
movement, with women revealing to one another their formerly closeted pain and
indignity at the hands of abusive husbands, uncles, and fathers, and thereby
collectively discovering that their circumstances were shared by others and were
systemic and not personal, if enacted today would no longer tell women what they
don’t know. Revelation is no longer revelatory. Describing injustices is no
longer incendiary. Likewise, leaflets and teach-ins about war and racism
revealing that our country does grievous ill, even to the barbaric extent of
literally starving already poor and suffering souls to death, or revelations
about the health industry or pharmaceutical companies demonstrating in detail
how they seek profit even when doing so yields huge piles of corpses dying for
want of cheap medicine, or revelations about failing schools and hospitals in
communities where people desperately need knowledge and medical care and where
induced ignorance enforces class subordination, don’t uplift and detonate
audiences who rationalize such phenomena as personal failings—because such
audiences, for the most part, no longer exist.

People now know
the failings are systemic, and even the most wise and eloquent testimony to that
effect is not a surprise. Now such revelations don’t cause people to burst into
anger at the radical news…but instead reach audiences which may have some
ignorance of details, and which may need some precise information to withstand
propagandistic media manipulation, of course, but which more importantly aren’t
active largely because they doubt that anything better is possible. Now is not
thirty five years ago in this very simple respect more than in any other.

Now, if we don’t
talk about vision and strategy accessibly and with a breadth and depth that meet
people’s doubts, then we aren’t addressing the most powerful obstacles to most
people actively seeking change which is their doubt that change is even
possible—much less that we can induce it by our efforts, much less that they
personally can usefully contribute. Many people may be ignorant of precise
details of income distribution, maltreatment of minorities, or international
relations—but this ignorance is not solely due to horribly constrained education
and media, but also to avoiding painful truths because people doubt any better
future is possible and reject bemoaning how bad the untranscendable present is.
Some people honestly think there is no injustice; evidence and facts may turn
them. More people avoid criticizing the present because they lack hope for any
alternative. Vision may turn their heads. People regard our enumeration of the
ills of poverty, sexism, racism, and the rest more or less the way we would
regard a depressing person’s compiling of massive testimonies to the fact that
aging limits options and hurts us, or that gravity limits our options and
constrains motion. They see us as uselessly whining about inevitable not
surmountable problems. We think showing that social ills have social causes
should undercut this fatalism, but in fact it doesn’t. It says to people, it
isn’t laws of physics, it is laws of human social interaction, at root, but it
doesn’t undo their belief that these laws are unbridgeable. What can undercut
people’s fatalism, the vaunted cynicism of our age, the very specific and
crippling belief that there is no better alternative, is only the compelling
enunciation of the features of better alternatives plus experiments in enacting
those features, plus victories that bring us nearer to their generalized

So people need a
left that not only enumerates the ills of the suffering system everyone
themselves already sees and feels, but even more so, a left that provides hope
and direction forward by addressing the “what do you want,” “how do we get it,”
and “what can I do that will matter,” questions. As we activists keep
highlighting the causes and features of problems around us, clarifying
confusions induced by media manipulations, here are some additional
“intellectual tasks” that have become critically important to reaching an
optimistic future.


    Develop gender/kinship vision

Activists rightly seek
affirmative action and other reforms to restrain sexist tendencies. But what
about attaining new institutions that produce positive kinship and gender
outcomes? What institutions can accomplish procreation, nurturance, and
socialization in ways that propel broader feminist aims?

If we constantly
feel mostly that every worthy gain that we achieve—changes in voting, in payment
levels, in media representations, in medical treatment, in reproductive
rights—risks being sundered by a return to the past that eats away at hard
fought victories, it is hard to keep fighting for the gains. But if we
constantly feel mostly that every gain is part of a discernible road to a new
future, we will have anticipation and hope that will fuel relentless struggle.

Certainly, we
need a vision for what families should look like, how parenting can be carried
out without reinforcing sexist gender roles, how children and parents can play
meaningful roles in communities—not just in circumscribed nuclear family
units—and how we can develop supports and institutions that encourage a
diversity of family arrangements capable of meeting a wide range of needs.

We need to
understand sexuality as a form of human expression—not just as procreation—that
we should support and celebrate in all its diversity.

We need to look
at how we regard and reward work outside the home versus work inside the home.
Sexist workplace practices like lack of comparable worth, welfare policies that
punish women’s independence, and a socioeconomic mindset that trivializes and
invisiblizes caretaking work all add up to devaluing women—a fact which supports
their dehumanization in all other areas of life as well. And isn’t education
part of this picture too, what should become of that?

Feminists have
long criticized sexist institutions, but how would we replace them with ones
that support liberatory gender relations, sexual practice, and caretaking?

Since having a
gender related vision will be part of successful future movements, shouldn’t it
become a priority focus of feminist organizations, writers, and activists now?


    Develop cultural/community vision

We rightly seek
affirmative action and other reforms to restrain and then reverse racist
tendencies. But what about attaining new institutions that produce positive
cultural outcomes vis-a-vis race, religion, ethnicity, and national allegiances?
What institutions can facilitate people creating, elaborating, and enjoying
modes of celebration, communication, mutual recognition, moral development, and
cultural identity, in ways that enhance rather than subvert cultural values we
hold dear? How can people have cultural communities to sustain and advance their
lives, but without pitting those communities against one another?

– and what movements of the late 1960s called intercommunalism – already
highlight not only a target for opposition but some positive aims as well. But,
beyond communities respecting one another, a future with successful social
movements will certainly have clear, cogent enunciations of the causes of the
hierarchicalization of religious, ethnic, racial, and national communities, plus
positive aims not only for defensively holding these bitter causes in check, but
for new structures that promote true cultural diversity and solidarity among

So doesn’t
developing such visionary insights about religion, race, ethnicity, nationality,
and other cultural community relations and making the insights public and
widespread warrant priority attention? How else can we move toward the better
cultural future we anticipate?


(3)     Develop political vision

Social activists rightly
fight for new laws all the time, for example to enlarge enfranchisement or to
expand rights or eliminate residual violations of them. But beyond specific
political gains, how can society accomplish political functions compatibly with
propelling political values that we hold dear?

In a better
future we will work toward ways to legislate, adjudicate disputes, address
violations of citizens’ rights, and arrive at and implement shared projects so
we not only get good outcomes and justice in each particular instance, but so we
get larger social trends that foster equity, honesty, diversity, sociability,
participation, and true democracy. If we will have such shared institutional
goals forefront in the not too distant future, doesn’t it make sense to begin
elaborating and refining them now?

Of course we
don’t want vast differences in power. That is obvious and has been an inspiring
anarchist credo for a century and more. But beyond that broad aim, we need
convincing substance able to inspire hope and inform strategy. Clearly,
successful future movements will know what they want vis-à-vis judicial affairs,
law making, and execution of shared political programs, so isn’t it about time
movements in the present developed and then widely refined and shared such aims,
preparing for that more effective future?


    Develop economic vision

We don’t want economic
institutions that array actors against one another, homogenize options, create
wide differentials in circumstances or income, or misappropriate influence over
choices so that a few people rule and many obey. We don’t want class division
and class rule making our workplaces into dictatorships of owners and managers,
who determine outcomes and enjoy rewards over and above working people. We don’t
want vicious competition, poverty, pollution, alienation, and subservience.

But what do we
want in place of markets, private ownership, and corporate workplace
organization? How will we remunerate, if not for power and property? How should
economic decisions be made, and by whom? What institutions should we seek for
economic life?

Envision huge
numbers of working people seeking massive alterations in economic life,
hopefully in the not too distant future. Surely such a successful workers’
movement will have clearly enunciated and publicly “owned” economic vision. It
will have convincing, inspiring, vision, that is refined, popularized, and made
relevant to people’s program and strategy, ways of arguing, and reasons for

I believe
participatory economics (www.parecon.org) provides such an economic vision, but
whether it does or not, that we need to develop economic vision as another task
of the present is beyond dispute. So among all our other priorities, shouldn’t
at least some of us, probably quite a few of us, be doing so, now?


    Develop international vision

There are huge movements
around the world opposing the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and
the World Trade Organization. They oppose not globalization, but efforts to
pervert global ties at the expense of the weak and poor to enhance the power and
wealth of the already hugely powerful and immensely wealthy. There are likewise
movements against war by nation against nation, and movements against other
violations of cultural, military, economic social exchange among nations.

But what is the
positive alternative? What institutions should mediate international exchange of
all types, trade, culture, and so on, to enhance equity, diversity, solidarity,
and participation with appropriate influence over decisions?

Really effective
“anti-globalization movements” and international peace and justice movements are
going to be able to enunciate vision for international relations and fight for
changes attaining the new relations. If that is so, shouldn’t we be working out
such international relations aims now, trying to develop popular support for
them to speed the whole process?


    Develop ecology vision

For decades substantial
numbers of people have focused on ecological and environmental matters. In part
they have worked to protect humanity from egregious violations of nature that
rebound to our disadvantage. In part they have worked to protect other species
and aspects of nature in their own right. These ecology movements have
emphasized sustainability and caretaking, among other values. We know we don’t
want despoiled rivers, befouled air, poisoned water supplies, depleted forests,
or species annihilation. But what are our positive aspirations? What ecological
institutional structures and practices do we favor? Surely powerful future
activism on behalf of ecological sanity and innovation will have goals, so
shouldn’t we begin generating and sharing them in the present?

(7)    Develop
strategic concepts and plans

People ask
activists not only what do you want, but how do you expect to get it against the
immense obstacles in your way? This too is a fair question. Explaining the
tremendous power of existing institutions, describing their many tentacles and
interconnections, and charting their pervasive influence and tenacity, does not
provide an answer. Indeed, if done without parallel discussion of our strategic
goals and methods and their efficacy, merely describing how existing
institutions hurt us and how they powerfully resist alteration can actually
aggravate cynicism more than produce resistance.

So we need to
compellingly describe a strategic path forward. We need to explain the range of
demands, infrastructure, projects, issues, and tactics regarding kinship,
culture, politics, economics, international relations, and ecology that will
together comprise a trajectory of change to a better future. We need to show how
the visionary aims that we advocate and an array of proposed organizational
programs and tactics that we implement in the present can combine into a
confident forward-moving trajectory of change that people refine by their
accumulating experience. We need to:

Clarify who we
are organizing, into what forms of movement and organization, with what
programs, and employing what tactics for outreach and communication.
    Describe the kinds of organizational structure that can empower activism and
lead toward the visions we seek.     Refine our understanding of what wins
immediate reforms, and of what non reformist reforms we need to be winning to
string together a convincing, non-reversible trajectory of change.

We know that
broad understanding of these strategic matters will characterize a viable,
powerful, left movement in the future…so doesn’t it make sense to start
producing that understanding now? When we talk about globalization, or racism,
or war, or abuse of women or children or gays, or about poverty, or media
control, or any other ugly dimension of contemporary life, shouldn’t we be
rooting our discussion in long-term positive aims and proposing means to win
victories that improve lives now but also move toward those longer term aims? If
the answer is no, fine…we are doing okay, already. But if the answer is yes,
then look through archives of left writing and judge critically whether we are
doing enough of this already, and if we aren’t doing enough of it, let’s do


The simple
organizational task list associated with the above intellectual task list is to
build vision and strategy in deeds and not just thoughts. It entails beginning
cautiously and realizing that the details will become clearer as we proceed, of
course. But perhaps we can usefully add detail some specific steps.


    Clean up our existing institutions

Movements in the future
will reflect our values rather than replicate the oppressions of the social
structures we oppose. Shouldn’t we bring the day closer by working to make it

Progressive and
left activists are all for ending racism and sexism in society. We know that we
must also persevere to reduce and finally end racial and sexual hierarchies
inside our movements—since otherwise we are hypocritical, uninspiring, and will
suffer the ills of these oppressions ourselves, and moreover, our movements will
not attract or retain women and people of color, nor effectively pursue our
anti-racist and anti-sexist priorities. There is more work to be done about race
and gender in our movement organizations, but the insight is good and the
activity is pointing in the right direction.

progressive and left activists are also for ending economic injustice and class
hierarchy in society. And we have to realize that that has a similar
implication: we must patiently, calmly, and constructively restructure our
movements so that they no longer replicate corporate divisions of labor and
decision-making as well as market norms of remuneration.

This must become
a priority if we are to transcend hypocrisy, become inspiring, escape class
alienations ourselves, attract, retain, and empower working people in our
efforts, and retain our economic justice focuses. Class, which once crowded race
and gender off our agendas, now needs to be brought back into priority, but in
ways that address not only the ills of capital, but those of high level,
decision monopolizing, mind workers, too, and, in particular, in ways that
elevate the positive needs of labor.

Envision a future
with left advances and innovations, even well short of complete victories.
Surely our left movements will embody our values, our organizations will be
congenial to our primary constituencies. So knowing that is the future, oughtn’t
attaining it be a priority of the present?

The left has a
great many research organizations, think tanks, media projects, and organizing
centers. In principle we know that these should manifest our values in their
internal organization. We know they will do so in a future time when we are
making great progress. They will then provide a worthy model. Working in them we
will learn the implications of our aims in practice. They will be congenial to
us whatever our backgrounds. We all know this be the case sometime down the
road. We even abide it to a considerable extent in our own practice, alreadya—as
we work hard to eliminate racial and gender hierarchies in our current efforts.
And that’s to the good, of course.

The problem still
to be addressed is to incorporate into our projects desirable norms and values
regarding class. When our current organizations pay people, they most often do
it according to classist norms, rewarding power and position. When our
organizations have job responsibilities, these are most often marked by
hierarchies of fulfillment and empowerment attributes quite like those typical
in capitalist corporations. 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. In short, rather than reducing class divisions by providing jobs
that employ people’s full capacities and share onerous tasks equitably, our
organizations are marked by typical corporate relations.

We know that in
the future our institutions will embody our positive race and gender, and also
our positive economic values. So the associated task we face is to continue and
improve our attention to race and gender in our movements, and to seriously
initiate and expand our attention to matters of class, as well – creating a
movement environment seeking to internally eliminate class division rather than
a movement environment that replicates the larger society’s class structure and,
in so doing, is hostile to working class involvement.


(2)     Develop a new encompassing structure

Movements elevate
different priorities because people endure different conditions depending on
race, gender, class, sexuality, and diverse other factors. This is an inevitable
fact of life. It isn’t going to disappear. The ensuing diversity of orientation
is to the good in the breadth and depth of attention it gives each side of life.
On the other hand, that our movements often don’t aid one another, or that they
even compete with another, is bad. It robs each movement of the unity with
others that is essential to its success. We can confidently predict that in the
future when our movements are more successful, this atomization won’t be our
lot. There will be diverse focuses, yes, but there will also be mutual trust,
learning, and solidarity. Different agendas need space to develop, gain
confidence, and retain focus. But to win, different agendas also need breadth of
allegiance, which means that each has to benefit from the strength and character
of the rest. So we know that some time in the future we will solve the problem
of respecting diversity and autonomy even as we also find ways to have an
overarching sense of solidarity. That being so, shouldn’t we address the problem
sooner rather than later? Everyone will ultimately be fighting the totality of
oppressions, mutually supportively, even as they may focus more on one or
another. One big step in this direction will be for larger movements to support
smaller ones, and for richer movements to help pay the way of poorer ones –
unreservedly and with people’s bodies and resources too. That’s something worth
working on now.


(3)     Develop means to communicate

It is a constant refrain:
“How come you leftists are always talking to the choir?” There are no doubt some
folks who do it because it is easier than reaching out to people we don’t know
who may disagree with what we have to say, who may even be hostile at times.
Folks with this insular attitude ought to rethink it, of course. But the main
explanation for why people on the left are most often talking to people who are
also on the left, or who already wish to be on the left, is that the left
doesn’t have a megaphone that we can shout into that is loud enough to be heard
by folks who aren’t already all ears to our messages. Our media are still very
small so that even when we bust a gut shouting, we reach overwhelmingly only
folks who are already listening for us. Envision a future more successful
movement. Surely one aspect will be that it has media means to communicate with
the broad population. That being so, why not move in that direction starting
now? We need to strengthen our current alternative media, supporting and
enlarging it, and we need to pressure mainstream media as well—but beyond those
two tasks we also need to take seriously the problem of how the left gains mass
media mechanisms that place left views, analyses, agendas, and visions in the
face of the whole population rather than appearing only in hard-to-find nooks
and crannies that people have to search for to even know that we exist. This
will have been achieved sometime down the road—it will happen sooner if we begin
taking it seriously now rather than later.


    Develop means to finance activism

Look down the road at
future movements. They will still have bills to pay. They must amass appropriate
funds. They will do it, surely, and in ways consistent with democratic,
accountable, and equitable norms. So why not move in such directions starting
now? There is a very odd condition in our movements. We know that money matters
in our societies, but we don’t seem to realize that money matters on the left
too. Where does it come from? How is it handled? Is it empowering a few to the
detriment of the many? Is there enough of it? Most leftists don’t know the
answers because this topic is essentially taboo. Try to find essays and
ruminations much less proposals about how events, projects, and demos should be
funded, much less about how funds that come in should be redistributed among
efforts. Mostly, you can’t. There is a gigantic silence. Here’s but one example,
not the biggest, but currently on my mind. There is endless talk on the left
about using the internet constructively, which is good, but there is almost no
talk about how to have left internet operations generate revenues. Maybe this
focus should have be called the Ostrich Problem. At any rate, ignoring how we
get and handle money is a dead-end approach beneficial only to those who
monopolize control of what marginal monies the left now enjoys. This too needs
to be addressed to get to a future of more effective movement activism.


    Develop movements that will retain their members

Surely they are entities
that will inspire, empower, fill needs, raise aspirations…enrich lives. Surely,
once people come within their orbit, they will stay. Yet, over the past few
decades, millions of folks have come into proximity of the left, participated in
various events and projects, but later opted out. There are many reasons why
people often don’t stick with political dissent and activism. Not least, 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.

To join a
movement and become more lonely is not conducive to movements growing. To join a
movement and laugh less doesn’t yield every larger and more powerful movements.
Thus to be on the road to the future, rather than our marking time going nowhere
desirable, we need to make our projects places that folks from all kinds of
backgrounds would want to spend their time, even if working in our projects
weren’t the moral and socially responsible thing to do. It isn’t that changing
the world can become all play and no work. Movement building involves lots of
tedium, lots of hard work, of course. But there is no reason to make movement
building as deadening as possible, rather than as rich, varied, and rewarding as
possible. Movement participation should provide people full, diverse lives that
real people can partake of, not merely long meetings or obscure lifestyles so
divorced from social involvement that they preclude all but a very few people
from partaking. We struggle to make the world less oppressive and more
liberating, doing the same for our movements is part of the same project. We
know this achievement will occur, that future movements will be sticky movements
in which people who come into contact stay loyal…so we ought to get on about
solving the problem now. Z