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Defining Ourselves


This is chapter eighteen of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees. In its eighteenth chapter 
Dylan Cohen, Malcom King, Lydia Luxemburg, 
Bill Hampton, and Barbara Bethune discuss 
RPS’s second convention and shadow government.


 

Dylan Cohen, born in 1981, you are a writer-activist focused on military agendas, peace movements, and campaigns aimed at military and police structure and policy. At the first RPS convention everyone agreed that decisions were temporary until there could be a second convention with greater participation. Can you tell us how the second convention came about, and what it was like?

At the first convention, participants were individuals who liked RPS ideas. Organizers had circulated materials beforehand, but most people who attended hadn’t deliberated face to face in advance.

For the second convention we waited over two years and had established over 800 chapters with an average of 40 members each or 32,000 active members. 32,000 people couldn’t all attend so we decided each chapter would send five people including at least two women and at least two people of color, 4,000 people in all. Chapters could choose who to send however they liked. A statewide meeting of all delegates from each state preceded the national convention, which lasted five days and included presentations, talks, discussion, debates, eleyctions, social events, and topical meetings.

How did planning occur?

A year in advance, each chapter proposed a person to work on a planning committee and serve as convention staff. About 400 chapters proposed people. Descriptions of nominees were distributed and each chapter got five votes but had to vote for at least two women and two men, and also for at least two people of color. The 20 women and 20 men with the most votes were on the committee, as were the 20 people of color with the most votes. The committee, therefore, had to be at least 40 people and could conceivably be as many as 60. It turned out to be 49.

Those 49 became the planning committee and chose a venue, prepared advance communications, developed an agenda, invited guests, choose moderators for sessions, and arranged accommodations and food.

What from the first convention changed at the second?

The program was updated, but the most basic commitments barely changed at all. At the first convention, we worried we would blow our opportunity. At the second convention we were confident. Almost everyone felt we were building a vehicle that would take society to a new place. There was revolution in the air, but it was a quiet, calm assessment that RPS wasn’t going away. We had skits that poked fun at ourselves. We were serious, but with a joyful lightness.

Even during votes on program and for the Shadow Government we stayed relaxed and emphasized diversity and respect for minority positions. Though votes were mostly lopsided, losing parties were always accommodated with means to explore their ideas further in case winning ideas proved flawed.

Tension was less than at the first convention and when we reached decisions, I sensed no bad feelings. Yet, we weren’t becoming a hive mind. Since the first convention, far more people advocated richer and more varied ideas and while we had more differences about details, people had gained trust, confidence, and a sense of perspective. Activists had historically often considered only numbers of people relating and the growth of militancy as signs of movement progress. While those measures matter greatly, it was our less easily described interpersonal progress that kept growing numbers of militant RPS participants functioning well together.

Dylan, I forgot to ask you how you became radicalized. Do you remember?

At war, one day I saw someone who I killed face to face. Next day, I watched a friend die. Other days, I killed and saw death but it had no face. It became just death, a nasty cousin of life, uninvited but intermittently gate crashing.

Escaping military indoctrination is hard. We learned to blindly obey orders which precluded having opinions at all. We learned we were a team, even a family. Each of us needed to regard others as a lifeline to survival. But our family had borders. To the inside, we should show respect, loyalty, and incredible solidarity. To the outside, we should show unyielding strength and, if need be, deliver horrific hostility. Battlefield connections were deep and enduring, both positive and negative. In battle, our training fostered survival and winning, but in life it bred isolation.

My radicalization began when I jettisoned false beliefs and behaviors in Iraq and deepened when I helped others do likewise. I looked at where our views came from and what alternatives existed and I saw the link between imperialism and anti sociality. I lived the link between a life-denying system and its beat up soldiers of fortune. RPS provided a natural home, it kept me sane against my PTSD, and effective in our struggle.

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Malcolm, you ran for and won your first local election shortly after the second convention. What was the attitude toward elections that emerged from the conventions? How did RPS impact your electoral efforts?

Yes, I won my first election back then. The RPS attitude, which hasn’t changed much since, was that to run for office and to win was potentially good, but pitfalls could pervert good into bad. We liked that running could facilitate outreach to new audiences, raise consciousness, and boost morale. Winning could also gain access to resources to help win more gains in the future.

We worried that candidates might fixate on winning votes and lose track of larger aims, worrying more about vote tallies and fundraising then program. We might fall in love with holding office more than with achieving worthy aims.

RPS members helped immeasurably with my campaigns and work in office. RPS gave me a rooted sense of my role and helped me arrive at my views and practices, pushing me to be accountable. Members aided campaigns, but to avoid getting sucked into nasty electoral dynamics, RPS avoided organizational electoral participation.

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Lydia, did the shadow government idea surface at that time? What did the shadow government do, and what did you do in it?

The idea was floated back when Ralph Nader had run for President as a Green. I remember wanting Nader to do it, and then, later, Sanders, feeling that without a prominent jump start, a shadow government would accomplish little. Greens actually did have a shadow government, albeit nearly invisibly, during the Obama administration. When Sanders lost the nomination in 2016 the idea surfaced again, but it didn’t happen. Years later, the idea resurfaced in RPS and became part of the agenda for our second convention.

We hoped to set up a group with the same official positions as their counterparts in real government: a President, a Vice President, a cabinet, Supreme Court judges, Senators, and other posts as well.

Our idea was the shadow government would operate in parallel to the real government. We would take stands on all major issues the real government addressed, and on critical, but officially unaddressed issues as well. We would offer our views to display an alternative and to agitate for policies we favored. We would also generate and fight for our own projects and programs.

Despite the fact that I wasn’t particularly prominent, I became the first President. But the key factor was the 32,000 RPS active members, and tens of thousands of other supporters who were not yet in chapters. RPS members helped generate policy and demands and agitated for them. They contributed, on average, $25 each per month, which meant nearly $10 million in the first year, and the annual amount grew dramatically due to our growing membership.

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Dylan, how did the first shadow government get formed?

It was partly through an election for the President, Vice President, and Senators, and then appointments for Supreme Court Judges, Cabinet members, and others.

The shadow Senators were elected before the second national convention by State conventions. The President and Vice President were elected at the second convention. Nominations were conducted earlier, at the State conventions, and were whittled down to four for each office by a prior national online vote of all chapter members. The vote at the national convention was of the whole membership too, since each chapter got live reports from its delegates, saw speeches online, and then voted at local gatherings. In the vote at the convention, chapter tallies were reported, state by state.

Did it all go smoothly? Were their any serious problems?

There were some hiccups, of course, with people arguing about the merits of different candidates. No one knew quite what the new jobs would entail and sometimes communications got confused.

One serious problem arose, and I was involved. A group of ex-military made a collective proposal on behalf of arming so as to battle directly with police. They deemed themselves “true revolutionaries,” because they were ready to shoot it out. They proclaimed that rejecting weaponry was “cowardly and phony.”

They claimed that if we rejected using weapons, the status quo would inevitably win by force of arms and repression. They had a one-step argument that we could not win fundamental change unless we overcame state violence with movement violence, so anyone who said we should be non violent was conceding we could not win fundamental change.

What made this a problem wasn’t that such a view was offered, but the way it was offered. These guys marched in, armed with rifles, and took the stage. This, they felt, demonstrated the power of guns. They offered their one-line logic, and from then on their only stance was you are either with us, or you are with the state.

The people present didn’t want to take too strong a stance with these folks who had, after all, gone through war-time conflict — their views were a product of their history.

And your involvement?

I argued that violence would not only distort our ability to think straight and function well, but that it would play into the hands of the powers that be. Violence was terrain the state would inevitably win. Our task was to disarm state violence by making it ineffective because their use of violence against us would mean more dissent.

I was a veteran of active duty and a military organizer so I quickly gathered a group, unarmed, and we walked up on stage and said, “Now what? Are you going to shoot us? Or would shooting us do your agenda more harm than good?” We clearly weren’t “cowardly and phony.” We got them to leave the stage with us to talk further.

Our point was that movements thinking they can violently fight the state play into the hands of the state – which wants nothing so much as to move from politics to their terrain of military power. However, the armed guys did reveal a relevant truth. In a group, one guy with a club is a problem. Five guys with guns are an even bigger problem.

We faced two issues. On the one hand, could we handle police and military violence at local demonstrations? The answer was yes, but only by creating situations in which when the police or military used violence it would rebound to our benefit, not their’s.

The second issue was trickier. Could we handle personal violence motivated by thuggery or infiltration or coming from our own people – such as these vets? It would be hard if not impossible to make internal violence counter productive for those doing it if they were beyond reason much less if they were actively trying to damage RPS. We did intervene in that way, actually, with the guys on the stage at the convention. But they weren’t trying to harm RPS.

And so emerged a feeling that RPS had to have a means to deal with internal or external craziness or sabotage. Could we address this yet not corrupt the style and modes of operation of RPS and distort people’s mindsets? Could we prepare for such situations without our preparedness harming us more than the situations themselves?

A first thought was, how about if we establish a few people with the training and experience for handling crazy, violent interlopers. They could be invisibly armed and prepared. But we saw that there would be problems.

First, the secrecy was disturbing. We decided the decision had to be made by the organization as a whole. We decided to elect a group who would secretly designate security folks.

Second, what if the security folks themselves became problematic? We decided we shouldn’t pick the most macho and military of our members. Experienced folks should train people picked based largely on temperament.

We next decided that while our set of steps made sense, we weren’t sure it was really needed. After all, we had completed two conventions and had undertaken countless demonstrations and campaigns, often running up against police and state power. So maybe paranoia about the likelihood of internal lunacy was a bigger problem for us than such lunacy itself. And it turned out that this cautiousness at undertaking the project was wise.

We had the plan ready to propose for a wide discussion and vote, but we decided to hold off until and unless practical evidence suggested it was needed. And, because of our huge growth, beyond a small scale, that time never came.

On the other hand, I and various others around the country did quietly non-violently but forcefully work with folks on how to deal with local intruders, drunks, ideologically intractable folks, infiltrators, and the like. And here we are, so I guess all was well.

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Lydia, what was the hardest thing about doing the Shadow Government and what were its first successes?

Well, it was a tremendous amount of work. After all, we were generating positions on an array of issues and we needed to get the facts right, even though we lacked the giant support bureaucracy the real government had. I was constantly meeting, discussing, and then holding press conferences and giving public talks 200-250 days a year for my four-year term. It was exciting, I had a sense of accomplishment and joy in the work, but I was also exhausted.

We formed our Shadow Government mimicking the U.S. Government’s structures yet everyone involved hated that set of institutions. I hated the presidency but was Shadow President. I gave speeches as Shadow President. showing the media and public the contrast between RPS and the actual government. But shadowing the government included, at least at first, a problem of accomplishing our aims using their structure.

To redress that, we decided to steadily alter our government structure, announcing organizational changes – like other polices we advocated – as things we thought should happen in the actual government. We changed election laws, funding mechanics, added and deleted various positions, and changed their mandates during my four-year term.

The hardest part, however, was keeping my head on straight. We didn’t require that everyone call me Madame President and otherwise pay homage, but many did treat me that way. And I was constantly interviewed, questioned, and listened to as if I was some kind of oracle. I had to avoid falling into elitist habits. What helped most was I appointed as my Press Secretary and Chief of Staff people who could keep me in line.

I think the first significant success was when we took on mainstream government military policies, budgets, and interventionism, with our new approach emphasizing disarmament, reallocating funding, using military forces for social good, re-tooling bases, withdrawing troops, and so on. Our proposals were so extensive, clear, and sensible and their benefits were so apparent, that the whole process – despite breaking with the entire history of U.S. militarism – gained tremendous credibility. From then on, Shadow presentations of policy were highly anticipated and taken very seriously by many.

Next, I would say our dramatically expanding social service policies, increasing minimum wages, and shortening the work week, were also effective steps. We contrasted our desired policies to the mainstream government’s policies, but also invested time, energy, and funds into organizing and agitating.

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Bill, the broad idea behind the RPS Shadow Government wasn’t limited to government. What was the more general idea?

The “Shadow” aspect was to create models for future institutions with worthy effects in the present. Being Shadow meant these projects did functions that were done by existing institutions, but did them in parallel, and new ways.

The “worthy” aspect was that the projects should contribute to on-going activism and people’s current well being. A media or organizing project would do mostly the former, while a health clinic or day care center would do mostly the latter.

The “model” aspect was to create projects that showed how things would be different in a better future and that revealed – or discovered – new ways of operating that were suitable for future relations.

Shadow projects were initiated as you might imagine. Sometimes young people entering adult life would decide to create a media project, clinic, restaurant, law firm, or food distribution center in accord with RPS values.

Sometimes older folks who were already established in some field would transform their old institution or leave it to create a new one. We saw health clinics, day care centers, restaurants, food stores, and a few law firms transform. We also saw various teachers, health workers, day care workers, and lawyers leave existing establishments and group together to form alternatives.

So while the Shadow Government literally shadowed the real government – in contrast, health clinics, magazines, food coops, or day care centers didn’t shadow some specific mainstream institution. They did similar functions but in their own alternative and separate way. It was a fuzzy distinction. For example, the shadow government was continually redefining itself to have alternative features.

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Barbara, what impact did the shadow approach have? How did it interact with more direct campaigns?

Each successful shadow or alternative project educated not only those involved but also those who witnessed or interacted with it. As the efforts grew, they diversified and often experimentally tested potential features of a new society. Likewise, when a Shadow or Alternative institution worked well, it benefited its consumers and workers in the present, and its product contributed to future social change more broadly.

Why did some efforts work, where others did not?

The recurring reasons were like what plagues start-up firms more generally: lack of resources, pressure of financial shortfall, limited visibility, and lack of experience and confidence.

The miracle is that so many succeeded. It is one thing to establish equitable remuneration and balanced job complexes throughout an economy. It is quite another to do it in a tiny part of an economy that, overall, still worships personal material advance and still offers options to get such gains, albeit options whose pursuit denies other people the same gains.

If you had lots of training, skills, and knowledge, you could take a high paying job doing only empowering tasks. Or, you could instead take a job in a fragile start up where you would earn less and do considerable disempowering work. Imagine you had family and friends who perpetually warned you that the alternative endeavor was insane. Sticking with it was hard.

It was also different participating in large, classless institutions or in small ones. In the former, there were plenty of people you would like and take support from. Likewise, there were a wide range of tasks to create desirable balanced jobs from. In a small operation, you might not have any friends, and jobs would be harder to define and more likely contain elements you disliked. And any project, large or small, had to operate in the existing world where markets constantly compelled choices that impeded what you hoped to achieve.

Don’t get me wrong, there were many benefits to establishing a desirable workplace even in the earliest days, but for doing so to be relatively stress free required projects becoming more prevalent and larger. Nowadays, such firms are in high demand. Even folks who might fancy themselves so worthy that they should be paid more and allowed to avoid all disempowering tasks now have considerable reason to compromise on those desires in order to enjoy a congenial workplace without class conflict.

So for all these reasons, the earliest projects were by far the hardest, most vulnerable, most demanding, and most tense. It was the pioneers, often never acknowledged, who did the most difficult work, not those who unfurled banners celebrating great victories years later. There was nothing wrong with enjoying the latter, but it would be nice if we had more respect for the unknown trailblazers.

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Lydia, it seems like there was a mentality that made all this much more real and powerful than similar efforts had been earlier. Can you try to convey what that mentality was?

In slogan form, you might say we went from whining to winning. In one of my favorite quotes, all the way back in 1941, George Orwell said, “The mentality of the English left-wing intelligentsia can be studied in half a dozen weekly and monthly papers. The immediately striking thing about all these papers is their generally negative, querulous attitude, their complete lack at all times of any constructive suggestion. There is little in them except the irresponsible carping of people who have never been and never expect to be in a position of power.” We got beyond that.

Can you clarify the changed mentality you are pointing to?

Think of a professional sports team. What distinguishes those that win from those that lose? Talent, training, and effort are part of it, of course. But let’s assume talent, training, and effort are essentially the same for some set of teams. Then what will distinguish them? Luck will be a factor, but so will people’s attitudes.

Those who think they can win and who confidently approach difficult challenges as hills to remove, go around, or climb over have a chance for a great season. Those who doubt that they can win and who despondently approach even modest hills as immovable mountains that irremediably obstruct their way have no chance for a great season.

Imagine a successful professional football or soccer coach meeting with her team. Imagine the team lost its most recent game. It’s time to talk about the next game or the rest of the season. Does the coach list her team’s detriments and the opponent’s strengths as if they are unbridgeable impediments to success?

No, the coach respects reality, but approaches each game highlighting what her team can best affect.

Now consider the left. Just playing well at improving society isn’t enough. Winning ends wars, feeds the hungry, gives dignity to the exploited, and reduces hardships. Winning creates a new world.

So does the left have a winning attitude? Can we have a good season, a good career, with our current mindset? All too often in the past the answer has been no. All too often too many of us would look at a half-full or quarter-full (movement) glass and speak only about how much was missing in tones that suggested that our glass could never be more full. Indeed, we even saw leaks in our glass where they didn’t exist and imagined powers to deplete our glass’s contents that our opponents did not have.

Too few activists asked, “How do we welcome more (members) to our glass and how do we retain those we have rather than watching them leak away?” Too often we went beyond sensibly analyzing the conditions that we encountered to fruitlessly whining about things we couldn’t influence. Too often we paid too little attention to difficulties we could remove, go around, or climb over.

Am I exaggerating our past condition? The fact is, whether we were talking about matters of class, race, gender, political power, ecology, international relations, or whatever else, before RPS our movements weren’t nearly as full of members as they needed to be for us to win even short-run reforms, much less long-run new institutions. But how many leftists wrote and spoke about what was wrong with society without accompanying their analyses with a strategic commentary, so that (even against their intent) their words had more or less the impact of moaning about the size of next week’s opponent?

In contrast, how many wrote and spoke about why our movement didn’t grow faster, or about why it lost the members who we did attract, and especially about what we could do to fix those failings and have better results?

How many of us wrote or spoke about the oppressiveness or power of the media, state, or corporations, as compared to writing or speaking about the attributes needed to oppose the media’s, state’s, and corporations’ power and oppressiveness, and about the potential power of opposition and how it might be enhanced?

Did the left used to seek victory? Even as individuals, much less as a whole? Did we have shared institutional goals for the economy, the polity, families and kinship, the culture, international relations, and the ecology? Did we organize our thoughts about what to do today in light not only of our current strengths and weaknesses and of the immediate conditions we confronted and our immediate aims, but also in light of how all this related to our long-term goals?

Most of the left rightly disparaged professional sports for its commercialism, sexism, racism, and class relations. But it would have helped it we had also learned a little from them. Sports teams are the world’s foremost competitors and, like it or not, we are in a competition rooted in class, gender, race, and political relations. Sports reveals that if we despondently whine, we will lose. On the other hand, if we confidently strategize, we can win. If we lack goals we will wind up somewhere we’d rather not be. If we have goals, we may attain them.

I think our cultivating a mindset to win helped the Shadow Government succeed. We weren’t preening for a mirror. We weren’t taking selfies to celebrate our good looks. We weren’t padding resumes. We were bent on increasing our participants, infrastructure, and morale and thus our power to win immediate reforms and to lay the groundwork for further gains in the future.

We realized if participants thought that the left was not able to become a serious player in the future of our society, and that all that’s really possible was tweaking existing relations this way and that, then the mood and agenda of a Shadow Government would be very different than we needed. And this applied not just to the Shadow Government, but to the whole logic of a shadow society. Establishing our underlying disposition was arguably RPS’s main contribution to the whole shadow/alternative approach.

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