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Envisioning a Future Participatory Society


Book Review: RPS 2044: An Oral History of the Next American Revolution by Michael Albert

The Z Media Institute was a 9-day summer school that ran in Cape Cod, Massachusetts every other year or so in the 1990s and 2000s. Organized by Michael Albert and Lydia Sargeant of Z Magazine, the school’s main attraction was “Chomsky Day,” which featured a talk by Noam Chomsky in a small classroom setting, and an evening lecture by him where all 70 or so of the students would gather at a local library or town hall.

The school played a big role in my own political development. I participated in several ZMIs, first as a student, then as an assistant, then as an instructor. I saw students react to different instructors. They would leave a class by a particularly charismatic instructor saying: “Wow! What an amazing speaker!” Or, “what a great lecture!”

People leaving Michael Albert’s lectures, though, were less enthusiastic but much more specific: “I take his point about the importance of balancing jobs for empowerment, but I really don’t see how you can measure effort,” or, “I think that his argument about revolutionary organization is a bit too dismissive of Leninism.” Students learning from Michael got pulled deep into the ideas he presented, sometimes in spite of themselves.

Michael teaches through analogy. Among his favorite analogies is the following: if all the leftist writing on what was wrong with the world (analysis) were printed out and piled up, and all the leftist writing on what kind of a world we want (vision), and how to get there (strategy), were printed and placed beside the analysis pile, what would the discrepancy be between the two piles? Ten times as much analysis as strategy? A hundred times as much doom and gloom as positive vision?

Michael has tried to address this lack of vision and strategy through a series of books over decades including Looking Forward, Thinking Forward, ParEcon, an autobiography called Remembering Tomorrow, and others. More than once I have heard him lament his own limitations as a writer, feeling that a better prose stylist could write a fictional account of a better future that would move people to action in a way that eloquent laments about the horrors of the world never could. His ideas about a participatory economy had been powerfully influenced by the late Ursula K. LeGuin’s book The Dispossessed. What if someone could do that for a future revolution, in the United States of all places?

In 2017 Michael stopped waiting for the writer and invented one instead. His new book RPS 2044 is the result.

RPS 2044 tells the story of the American Revolution for a Participatory Society (RPS), looking backwards from 2044 at the people, organizations, and strategies that succeeded in winning a new world. In 2044, a president from the RPS organization is elected, and journalist Miguel Guevara conducts a series of interviews with the president-elect and the many activists that made the revolution possible.

The new world has the features that Michael has professed throughout the decades in his nonfiction books: a socialist economy with a participatory planning process, in which decisions are made by democratic and neighborhood councils in direct democracy. There is no division between professional and unskilled labor because everyone does a mix of both, a “balanced job complex.” “Miguel Guevara” interviews activists from different walks of life as they trace the way they won this new economy where they live, and the specific consequences of the change for their lives.

Guevara’s interviews take the reader sector-by-sector through how Michael thinks a revolution in the US could go.

Alternative Media

Obviously an optimistic world view is a prerequisite for writing a book like this. It is on display in the discussion on how the media were transformed. The revolutionary organization, RPS, worried that if it developed its own media, “by the time RPS won, we might have a single organization dominant in the world of communications and information.”

Michael’s thinking is full of such ideas, premised on optimism. His work is premised on the idea that revolutionaries can, and often have, won, and gotten more or less what they sought. The problems arose, in this line of thinking, from the inadequacy, partiality, or failures of their vision and strategy as they pursued goals that had authoritarian, undemocratic, or unequal effects.

Considerable space in RPS 2044 is devoted to alternative media and its problems, understandable given its author’s life’s work. One of the interviewees laments the “idea that all information should be free.” Before that idea took off, “appeals for donations seemed reasonable. After free media became preferred, such appeals seemed annoying.”

So the road map pursued by the revolutionaries was to create an organization of journalists for social responsibility; to seed a broad movement demanding changes in mainstream media (“press the press”); workplace organizing in the media; and creating a supportive network of alternative media – the latter being something Michael has repeatedly tried to pursue in the real world. In the fictional world, the alternative media create an industry council to organize their work, which “eliminated valuable time going to endless fundraising, and it caused alternative media groups to see one another as partners rather than competitors.”

The Coordinator Class

Another major preoccupation in Michael’s work is with the “coordinator class” – also sometimes called the “professional-managerial class.” This class, which Michael guesses is about 20% of the workforce in the US, is a highly privileged group and, to the other 80%, is the face of capitalism and oppression (most working people will never meet an actual capitalist, but must suffer daily encounters with professors, doctors, lawyers, and managers who constantly remind them of their lower status). Unless anti-capitalists take great care, their movements will be easily taken over by people from this coordinator class and either lose all their potential for liberating people, or simply lose because they are unable to attract working people.

The coordinator class and its norms are everywhere in society and, unfortunately, on the left as well. One interviewee, a scientist at a university, describes his difficulties unlearning the coordinator class mentality. When the professors at the university are presented with the idea of “balanced job complexes”, “We mostly found it absurd. How could it make sense for us, given all our experience and training, to do a share of cleaning up when we could be writing or doing research? We thought it would cripple science. But in time we learned that our reaction was wrong regarding productivity, much less justice.” Similar transformations are outlined in medicine, in which doctors must unlearn their dominance habits and embrace more widely-dispersed knowledge and empowerment.

The Place of Violence

It has been a few years since I have experienced this debate, but every time a movement grows to any size it arises: what is the place of violence in a movement for change? Advocates of nonviolence can point to numerous successful examples of nonviolent struggle; so can advocates of violence. The nonviolent strategists point to civil rights and Indian independence; the violent strategists point to Vietnam and Russia. Nonviolent strategists chide their counterparts for using the oppressor’s tools; violent strategists argue that violence, or the threat of it, has been present even behind the most nonviolent struggles. There seems very little new to say – but here, too, Michael has some clear and valuable ideas. An interviewee asks: “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 theirs.” The RPS revolutionaries used the expertise of military veterans and organizing inside military and police forces to create such situations. They got so good that when some advocates of violence arrived at a meeting with guns to show the importance of preparing for violence, the RPS revolutionaries stood in front of them and said – do you think shooting us will help your agenda?

RPS 2044 might be favorably compared with Ralph Nader’s book speculation on a new American Revolution, Only the Super Rich Can Save US! Nader’s book doesn’t hold up so well. In it, a cabal of well-meaning super-rich, led by Bill Cosby (before the scandal broke), fund a “new deal” type legislative program and see it through. The revolution in RPS 2044 is much deeper and it is led by the people, not billionaires.

The book is long and full of ideas. I have chosen only a few to explore here, but most of the themes of Michael’s work are developed in it – including a critique of social media, the incompatibility of market economics with socialism, the limitations and possibilities of electoral politics, the role of police in a good society, and more. Even when he didn’t fully adopt them, the ideas of activists he has worked with are also present. There is even a sop to vegans in the book, no doubt a product of the author’s long engagement with vegan anarchists and others over the decades. One of the interviewees says “I do think a meat-free and even a fully vegan diet is healthier for individuals and the planet. And ethically better, as well… I would not be surprised if a future RPS society… will leave behind eating animals.”

Even though it is clearly written and presented in a fun format, RPS 2044 is a big, sprawling book that takes the reader in many directions in spelling out an American revolution. It is best to read it slowly, over a few weeks, and then go back to specific sections, ideally when thinking through a specific problem you might face as an activist. Journalists might want to read and re-read the sections about media; if your university is on strike (as mine is as I write this) you might want to read about how the revolutionaries transformed education. Because that is the kind of book RPS 2044 is – a dream of utopia that today’s activists should use as a practical reference.

Justin Podur is an activist and writer based in Toronto. He hosts The Ossington Circle podcast (https://podur.org/podcast) and the runs the blog podur.org. His writing can be found at ZNet, Alternet, Ricochet (Canada), rabble.ca, and other outlets.

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