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A Rock and a Hard Place, Reform and/or Revolution


The following is a close transcription of episode 91 of RevolutionZ and it’s titled A Rock and A Hard Place, Reform and/orRevolution. You can access all episodes on various platforms via the RevolutionZ archive and help page

Radical activists often debate reform versus revolution. Seek a liberated future but work in a limiting present. Some day, full transformation. Today modest changes.

A question arises: how do we conduct activism seeking limited gains with the personalities and means we have at hand, yet in ways that lead toward comprehensive transformation?

An answer is that we seek reforms but we reject reformism. We understand our context but we develop a future vision we can refine as we proceed. We fight for changes now but we do so in ways that galvanize sufficient support to win more changes tomorrow. We acknowledge and work in light of the present’s limitations, but we chart a trajectory leading where we wish to go. We win gains that matter now, while we prepare to win more gains, without pause, until we attain a new world.

Since we want economy beyond capitalism, kinship beyond patriarchy, polity beyond bureaucratic perversity, community beyond racism, and ecological sustainability and international peace beyond suicidal nightmare – we organize to win limited gains now but in ways that develop steadily more comprehension of, desire for, commitment toward, and means suited to winning still greater gains later.

How is this self evident stance being caught between a rock and a hard place, our title, remember, for this episode of RevolutionZ?

The rock is reformism. If our words and actions imply the permanence of basic institutions they will ensure just that outcome. Tilting toward reformism, our ultimate aims will dissipate into a miasma of suicidal compromise.

The hard place is delusion. “We want the world and we want it now.” Echoing off surrounding skyscraper facades, the chant sounds inspiring, but as a sole agenda, it leads one to think reforms are for wimps and sell outs. Tilting toward what some call “ultra leftism,” our prospects will dissipate into a miasma of holier than thou posturing.

Too much concern for respecting and abiding the contours of the present precludes escaping the present. We must be bold. Too much concern for reaching the contours of a desired future precludes gaining a foothold to take a positive step. We must not lose connection with reality.

The solution? Take manageable immediate steps always conceived and implemented consistent with reaching the future. Take one example. 

Suppose you seek an increase in the minimum wage. The usual way is to say we want, we deserve, $15 an hour. All in the struggle think the full aim is the new minimum wage. That will be just. Win it and go home. While organizing, in that case we will create ties, connections, and means to exercise pressure to raise sufficient costs and fears for authorities that they will relent rather than risking greater losses. Good. But we will do it without any notion of persisting after winning, without connection to longer term aims and vision, without connection to other aspects of a full program. Bad.

A second way to approach the situation is to not fight for such a demand at all. Folks with this view claim such a demand ratifies the powers that be. It fails to seek a new world. With this view folks may take to the streets, courageous and committed, but their demand is to have “the world, now” – and nothing lasting is learned or built, much less won. Bad.

A different way than reformism or than righteously abstaining from the minimum wage demand entirely, is to seek the $15 an hour wage but to simultaneously convey a larger conception of what is just, worthy, and warranted consistent with one’s ultimate aims – which aims might be, for example, that people should receive income for how long they work, for how hard they work, and for the onerousness of the conditions under which they work, but not for property, power, or even output.

In this third approach, the movement seeks $15 an hour as a worthy advance and also a step toward fully equitable remuneration. The approach builds ties, connections, and means to exercise pressure that can win now, but that also link with and facilitate additional on-going campaigns.

These contrasting approaches exist for almost any campaign one might initiate. You can either seek a gain to go home and celebrate its attainment, which tilts toward reformism. Or you can forego even seeking the immediate limited gain, on grounds it isn’t all you want, which tilts toward “ultra leftism.” Or you can seek the gain to attain and celebrate the very meaningful advance, but also to prepare to seek much more, moving further forward.

There is a related situation, less well discussed than the need to avoid reformism and also ultra leftism, for which pretty much the same thinking, albeit often in more contextually complex conditions, typically applies.

Consider trying to set up a new institution or movement organization meant to embody the values of a desired future while it serves various purposes and needs in the present. A new but closely related rock and hard place choice arises.

On the one hand, you want the new project to embody new values, aims, and structures, and even to have features consistent with and able to melt into a better future. On the other hand, the new project has to work in the present, with current people, resources, and sources of support. Too much fealty to the ideal goal and you might be true to your desires but fail completely due to not succeeding in existing circumstances. Too much attention to fitting the constraints of present circumstances and you might build a lasting project which has, however, so lost touch with the ultimate goal that its successful establishment is undercut by its failure to be sufficiently new and different to plant the seeds of the future in the present.

By way of example, we can consider the media project called First Look, including The Intercept as its first operational component. The stated aim was at its outset broadly two fold:

  1. to provide needed news and analysis and 
  1. to develop new institutional relations defining and sustaining a new kind of journalism. 

On both counts the project would hopefully plant the seeds of the future in the present, including enhancing the amount and quality of needed news by virtue of the benefits of having a more amenable venue for it. How might people – such as Poitras, Greenwald, Scahill, and Omidyar – those who were initially involved – do all this?

First they would face some unavoidable realities. 

They would have to employ people who are used to working in and have habits and expectations molded in the present. Likewise, they would have to pay bills. For example, those involved would need income for their labors and other expenses would have to be met as well, such as rent, equipment, fees for services, research costs, and so on.

Questions arise. Where will funds come from? How will relations among people involved in the project be structured, such as with what division of labor and with what mode of making decisions? Likewise, how will the new institution interface with other already existing media organizations and with other types of institutions as well such as movements, and, not least, the government?

For each choice that arises the general quandary is how does one navigate between: 

  1. the need to establish the institution and keep it functioning at a sufficient scale to accomplish more than the (in this case) associated writers would accomplish if they were dispersed among other existing mainstream institutions, such as those they already had jobs at before embarking on this project, and, 
  1. the need to have the project take shape and operate consistently with its longer term aims, rather than the project persisting but losing its identity and thus its merit, in the process?

This conundrum should be very familiar to anyone who has created new institutions and worked at them. It defines many hard choices whose resolution depends greatly on views of what the implications of the choices are likely to be.

So, take for example starting the Intercept (or, if you prefer, TeleSUR English or Z Communications, or RevolutionZ, etc.) 

As a first decision to consider to see the dynamics of the hard choices, should one take advertisements, or not? 

The argument for doing so is simple. One needs funds with which to pay bills. The argument against doing so depends on how one sees the situation. One might feel that ads are bad only because they have bad content. In that case, one might think, well, we shouldn’t advertise cigarettes, say, but surely it will be fine to advertise good books, or even just books generally. We should do what is not immediately horrible in its specific content, and what won’t corrupt our thinking and lead via a slippery slope to undercutting our virtues even as it pays the bills. A different analysis might say, wait, advertisements are intrinsically bad. They ratify the idea of deception. They sell the attention of users to corporations. Your audience becomes your product to be sold to companies wanting access, while your content is reduced to a mere means of attracting that audience – and not just any audience, but one with means to buy the commodities advertised. The ads one chooses may for a time seem to seek to sell only nice items, but what is really happening is selling the media audience to the corporations buying your ad space, and in so doing, it compromises the whole media project.

Such a discussion is always in some context. For example, what about other means for income? Taking donations from users entails asking for them, which can undercut outreach and feel degrading. On the other hand, if you can keep that debit to a minimum, user donations as a funding mechanism has the virtue of allowing self sufficiency and of raising pressures on the media project to meet audience needs rather than to sell audience attention and information to companies. 

But what if your audience just won’t donate sufficiently?

What about taking funds from large money donors, whether foundations or individuals? On the plus side, this can generate large chunks of cash, facilitating many useful endeavors. On the downside, however, this can generate dependence on sources who may impose, implicitly or explicitly, constraints on content. Nice values are acceptable, but don’t go too far or you will lose our support. This threat need not be explicit to be powerfully damaging.

Now consider another still more complex issue. How to make decisions? It could be a media project, a political organization, or whatever. How to organize its work? The same kind of calculation applies. 

We need to make decisions and to organize the tasks composing work – any organization has to do that, of course. Should we do it in ways that are familiar from current society, matching people’s prior experience and expectations – or should we do it in new ways that attempt to move toward what we prefer for a new society?

The former approach is far easier, and at least in some respects we know that it works. It will likely be easier to get funding for the familiar and will better fit people’s prior habits as well. A hierarchical approach to decisions, for example, will get decisions made. A corporate division of labor in which some folks monopolize tasks that are empowering while others do purely rote tasks will get considerable work done. Donors will understand both.

In contrast, a self managing decision making approach that apportions to all workers a say proportionate to their involvement is uncommon to people’s experience and will require training and experiment and is unlikely to appeal to large donors. It asks for more participation from many folks, and strips some authority from other folks, as compared to what people are used to. Similarly, regarding apportioning work tasks, having what we have called in many RevolutionZ episodes balanced job complexes where everyone does a comparable share of empowering and therefore also of disempowering work, again asks of people a kind of involvement they are not used to and which many may find initially quite foreign and consider a burden.

The argument for the plant the seeds of the future in the present option of self management and a new division of labor is twofold. First, the choice won’t ratify what our long terms aims (should) want to transcend, and while the choice will risk new kinds of problems due to clashing with old habits and expectations and horrifying big donors, it will also allow new kinds of benefits due to facilitating diverse opinions and better developing and utilizing all participant’s talents. Second, in a media institution or movement organization, in particular, for example, there is another argument. 

Consider an analogy. Why should a media institution reject sexist or racist structures in its own organization? I think likely most everyone hearing this episode of RevolutionZ can agree: First, doing so will avoid ratifying and enforcing what needs to be rejected, and will allow new kinds of benefits (such as contributions from folks who would otherwise be alienated and diminished. But, also, second, if a media institution or movement organizing project is internally racist or sexist, then over time its ability to address issues of race and gender in its reporting, analysis, and policies will steadily deteriorate. It understandably becomes steadily harder to even perceive much less critique what one is daily engaging in. And the point of the example is that the same observation holds for having internal authoritarianism or corporate divisions of labor. The rationale justifying that choice will infect people’s values and perceptions and will inhibit and even obliterate prospects for media coverage or organizing work to fully properly address power and class issues.

So, for a media experiment, or a movement organization, the issue we are considering becomes how to raise finances, make decisions, and define jobs and rules for work. And what is at stake is two fold – will editorial content or outreach organizing be compromised and will the institution survive and serve as a positive model?

To judge choices that are made is always hard from outside. But the basis for judgment ought to be evident. Win reforms but avoid reformism. Win reforms that benefit folks now, that move toward ultimate goals, and that prepare and inspire folks to seek further changes later. 

And what about RevolutionZ? Well, it is a pretty simple operation. No division of labor because I am the only staff. Not much funding controversy because the operation is inexpensive and the funding is entirely donations. The one potentially problematic aspect is content. Does it envision future goals? Fundamental change? Does it explore strategic issues and means? And does it try to find non reformist paths forward? If your answers are yes, I hope you will consider not just listening to lots of Episodes but also making them known to other folks. And I hope you will consider visiting www.patreon.com/RevolutionZ to provide some material aid. I can certainly use the help. And, that said, this is Micheal Albert signing off until next time for RevolutionZ.

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