Noam, over the years you have seen all kinds of projects come and go. Recently you became a member of the new effort called International Organization for Participatory Society, or IOPS whose web site is at http://www.iopsociety.org/. You had this to say about IOPS:
"Hardly a day goes by when I do not hear appeals – often laments – from people deeply concerned about the travails of human existence and the fate of the world, desperately eager to do something about what they rightly perceive to be intolerable and ominous, feeling helpless because each individual effort, however dedicated, seems to merely chip away at a mountain, placing band-aids on a cancer, never reaching to the sources of needless suffering and the threats of much worse. It's an understandable reaction, and can too often lead to despair and resignation. We all know the only answer, driven home by experience and history, and by simple reflection on the realities of the world: join together to construct and clarify long-term visions and goals, along with direct engagement and activism shaped by these guidelines and contributing to a deepening our understanding of what we hope to achieve. But the formula, while accurate enough, does not respond to the pleas. What is missing is concrete proposals as to how to proceed. IOPS strikes the right chords, and if the opportunities it opens are pursued with sufficient energy and participation, could carry us a long way towards unifying the many initiatives here and around the world and molding them into a powerful and effective force."
We would like to ask you some questions about IOPS and social change more generally.
1. First, have you ever before been in a revolutionary organization? Can you briefly describe why, in the earlier cases? Or if you haven't been, was it that you felt there were no good options, or for some other reason?
I've never been much of a "joiner," but I have taken part in a number of organizations over the years, and even helped initiate some. I've never felt that the US had reached a revolutionary period, and therefore never regarded these as revolutionary organizations, except with regard to long-term goals. But it's also worth always keeping in mind Bakunin's observation that we can try to build some of the components of a future society within the present one. That's true now as it's always been. There are many quite feasible actions – some in fact being undertaken – that have revolutionary import if they can be sustained and significantly extended in depth and scale.
2. Setting aside IOPS, for a moment, why have an organization at all, rather than people separately pursuing various campaigns like for peace, or immigrant rights, or economic redistribution, or broader efforts like the recent Occupy projects and actions?
Individual initiatives are fine, but mutual support, and articulation of common goals, can considerably enhance their impact.
3. IOPS seeks to become a federation of national branches which are in turn a federation of state, county, and otherwise regional and city chapters. You join IOPS and you are in a local, say your city, but also in a national and an international. Does being national or international add anything, in your view? Or is it a debit?
Depends on how real it is. Every labor union calls itself an "international." If this extends to real international solidarity – it sometimes does, but much too rarely – it can be very meaningful. Otherwise it's just words. Same in this case.
4. IOPS focuses priority attention on race, gender, power, class, ecology, and also international relations. It says each has to be understood in its own right and as they entwine, and also that an organization needs to have vision and program for each if it is to appeal to and empower important constituencies. Do you think we need this multiple focus to build a better world?
Perhaps we might put the matter differently. It would be a better world if any one of these concerns can be successfully addressed. And a still better world if several or even all of them are. Furthermore they are not independent. There are plenty of interactions, and progress in one dimension can enhance opportunities in others. To the extent that a long-term vision with practical implications can be developed, and accepted at least as guidelines, it can only improve these efforts.
5. Another way IOPS is different than many other organizational efforts is that regarding economy it wants to eliminate private ownership so there aren't capitalists ruling over workers, but IOPS also wants to eliminate the monopoly that some actors have on empowering work, systematically ruling over workers. Many in IOPS call the group monopolizing empowering work a ‘coordinator class’. IOPS wants not only to get rid of private ownership and thus capitalist rule, but also to get rid of the corporate division of labor and other bases for coordinator rule. In these ways IOPS seems to take seriously warnings from Bakunin and other anarchists that weren't just about political dangers, but were also about economic ones. Was this prioritization of all sources of class rule an attractive feature of IOPS for you?
Sure. It's always seemed to me a core element of the struggle for freedom and justice, including the constructive elements in the (often intersecting) anarchist and socialist traditions. With much deeper roots, of course, and many varied ones. Makes good sense to be as explicit as possible about these matters.
6. IOPS has no specific action program yet because it feels program needs to emerge from deliberations by many more members. Do you agree with this approach to recruiting more support before having specific campaigns. Or do you think it would be smarter for the few initial folks to establish some campaigns, so that there would be more specificity for potential new members to consider as a basis for joining?
I don't see why there has to be a fixed answer. There's no reason to refrain from campaigns on specific issues – I suspect that virtually all of those who join IOPS are already engaged in them – and if pursuing them within an IOPS rubric contributes to the campaigns themselves, and to the growth of the organization, why not?
7. There is some debate in IOPS about its name. One option is International Organization for Participatory Society. Another option, still alive and being used! by some – with a decision to come only at a founding convention – is International Organization for Participatory Socialism. Which name do you favor?
I'd somewhat prefer "Society," primarily because the term "socialism," like virtually every term of political discourse, has been so vulgarized by political warfare.
8. Keeping the two name preferences alive is part of IOPS methodology, it seems. Indeed, IOPS claims to welcome tactical and strategic differences and dissent, including preserving minority positions and when possible experimenting with them alongside more widely supported approaches. For example, the IOPS definition says that IOPS "guarantees members rights to organize currents and guarantees currents full rights of democratic debate." People can of course differ about lots of issue, as you no doubt do with various IOPS positions, and yet function together well. Of course it remains to be seen if this will persist once IOPS has program, but it is certainly emphasized. Was this part of why you are a member?
I think it's a sensible stand.
9. You are not a Leninist and have been very critical of Leninist approaches to social change. How do you see IOPS being different from Leninism?
It's not a vanguardist party. It doesn't aim to take state power "in the name of the proletariat," with all of the repression and oppressive hierarchy (and worse) that follows almost as night follows day.
10. You often call yourself an anarchist. In what sense to you think IOPS is anarchist?
"Anarchism" means many different things to different people. I've always understood its central core to be the principle that structures of authority and domination, at an level from personal relations to international affairs, are not self-justifying: they carry a burden of proof, and unless that can be met (which is rare), they should be dismantled in favor of others more conducive to basic human values. I think that is a guiding component of IOPS.
11. IOPS seeks not only win a new world, but also to better the lives of citizens in the present. Partly this refers to winning improvements in society now, but partly it refers to developing community within IOPS itself. For example IOPS "seeks to develop mechanisms that provide financial, legal, employment, and emotional support to its members" and to "improve the life situations of its members, including aiding their feelings of self worth, their knowledge, skills, and confidence, their mental, physical, sexual, and spiritual health, and even their social ties and engagements and leisure enjoyments." Was this desire to create community internally part of what you found attractive about IOPS?
It's highly important, "in the present," particularly in a highly atomized society like ours. One of the primary achievements of the Occupy movements, I think, was the spontaneous development of communities of support and solidarity, with direct participation and open spaces for discussion and interchange, and mutual aid in many dimensions. That creates bonds and associations, and changes consciousness, and could spark really significant and positive changes in the society at large. IOPS can aspire to carrying such achievements far beyond.
13. Finally, when you say in your comment offered in support of IOPS, that we quoted earlier, that we need to "join together to construct and clarify long-term visions and goals, along with direct engagement and activism shaped by these guidelines and contributing to a deepening of our understanding of what we hope to achieve," we wonder what you think obstructs people doing this that IOPS can help overcome. Many places, even most places, it isn't repression that stops people. And it isn't the complexity of the issues, either. So what is it? The label often used for this problem is skepticism, fatalism, or doubt about the possibility of a better world or about the possibility of attaining it. You refer to IOPS helping to overcome "despair and resignation." But specifically how do you think IOPS can help overcome this type obstacle to people seriously seeking change?
First of all, the call has simply reached very few people. And they tend to be a select group, most of whom are already engaged in activist pursuits that are high priorities for them. They may not want to divert energy and effort elsewhere. There are others who remain to be convinced that IOPS programs and associations address the often very serious problems that they face in their lives – lack of employment, a decent place to live, and much else — and that human society faces, some of them truly awesome, like the possibility of devastating ecological catastrophe for the first time in human history. And individuals have their own reasons. The way to overcome doubts is to show what can be achieved.