In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way.
By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at http://rps2044.org presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its currently available substance as well.
In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article is named Juliet Berkman. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara seeks to avoid undue overlap, no one interview addresses more than a facet of the larger whole.
Juliet Berkman, you are a militant feminist, born in 1993 who became politically engaged roughly in parallel with the emergence of RPS. You have been a workplace and union organizer and are known for your effective advocacy of non violent tactics and your outreach to people holding seriously contrary views. You have been centrally involved with RPS from its earliest days and a shadow Secretary of Labor. Thank you for welcoming this interview. To start, I wonder, do you remember how you first became radical?
I was brought up in a family with radical parents. When I entered college, I had radical insights and beliefs, but I didn’t have the drive that propels action.
When Donald Trump was elected I got ill and almost bottomed out. I was upset by Trump but also by my community of radicals many of whom seemed bent more on preserving some kind of radical status than on moving forward. It was the first and last time I ever got fall down drunk and my dissolution lasted for many weeks.
Thankfully, the resistance that emerged from countless directions restored my hope. I knew Trump was a product of our society and an aberration only in being as uncouth and extreme as he was, and that scared the hell out of me and gave me drive.
To provide some additional personal context, can you tell us the highpoint events of RPS over the past twenty years, not for others, or for history, but for you?
It’s a hard question. I would say, certainly the first two conventions and the campaign for balanced jobs beginning in 2024 and for the 30 hour week starting in 2025. But for me more personally, here are two that aren’t on the map of RPS history for many other people.
One was negative. It was a meeting RPS arranged with workers in a defense plant that was associated with a campus where the students were fighting against military ties and research. It was the early days of that struggle and I spoke in a large room to protesting students and defense oriented employees.
I called for closing the worker’s workplace. I offered no concern for their future livelihoods. I rightly had on my mind warfare, but wrongly did not have on my mind the situation of those sucked into its maws. I railed at them as if they were war mongering enemies of peace because they weren’t rushing out to join the student protests that would, as formulated, end their employment.
Even as I was doing it, even caught up in the moment and offering the workers a suicidal notion of what solidarity with the students required, I began to feel incredibly ill at ease. Later I saw a video of it and I was seriously depressed at what I had done and violently angry at myself for doing it.
It was the kind of thing radicals and revolutionaries often get caught up in due to having eyes on “being radical” but not on the conditions and feelings of those we were ostensibly trying to reach. It was the kind of thing that repeatedly made working people so angry as to completely dismiss our substance due to our apparent disdain for them. Thinking about my ugly behavior greatly affected my priorities, too late for that event, but in time for much more. And of course, movements against war making learned the lesson as well.
And the second?
I was at a memorial service held for civil rights activists from past years. The music, the solidarity, all of it combined to transport me until I had, I guess, a bit of a psychotic break. It was as if I was in Birmingham, as if I could see Bull Conner in action, as if I could see the activists literally risking life and limb for change.
After that I reread Martin Luther King Jr.’s letter from a Birmingham Jail and his more famous Mountaintop speech. I was incredibly inspired. I even memorized them. Later, when in jail or risking jail or even choosing to not risk it, I would repeat the speeches to myself. Even absent, MLK was a guide and mentor for me.
What can you tell us about the first signs of RPS?
This is difficult because we can trace aspects back decades and longer. But I think people began to have what became RPS type unity in their minds nearly 25 years ago.
I remember my first such feeling at a rally in Detroit about minimum wage and also police violence. I went with my young daughter. It was a nice day, a calm crowd, and everyone enjoyed the camaraderie. It appeared typical, yet I felt something was happening beyond the two stated priorities.
Many speakers explained how the low minimum wage and police violence were part of a larger dynamic of oppression and denigration. Speakers joined class, race, gender, and sexuality to the wage and the police violence issues, and vice versa.
I had heard such linkages before, but this time the speakers added that everything had to be renovated for anything to comprehensively change. A few speakers called what they were seeking revolution and called for organizational continuity and coherence. Some offered ideas for what an organization needed to do to raise wages, reduce violence, and especially win new social relations.
I had attended many prior rallies and demonstrations but I had always felt that despite people’s passionate rhetoric what we were doing was time bound, issue bound, and place bound. I had heard the most powerful, uplifting, and inspiring rhetoric, but when sobriety returned, I had always felt the words lacked follow-up substance.
When Trump was elected, the activist priority, even while many were starting to ask for more, became largely to stop him from bludgeoning us into the past. Thinking about that, I realized that for decades activism had typically emphasized thwarting horrible plans. But the rally in Detroit didn’t say the same old things to sound radical. It said new things to be radical. And I wanted in.
That was my turning point toward what would become RPS. Even more than the ideas circulating that day, what attracted me was a no surrender feeling in the air. It transcended verbal artistry. It urged winning fundamental gains tether than preventing imminent losses. Maybe my memory embroidered the event, but I don’t think so.
Many have said that the great 2020 March on Wall Street was their jumping off place for RPS. Not you?
My personal turning point was the earlier, smaller rally, but yes, the March on Wall Street, with 300,000 people, had that same feeling. And the march certainly inspired many more people than the earlier rally.
I remember at the Wall Street march feeling part of something much bigger. The march addressed income distribution and corporations. It displayed an emergent community defining itself. Connections were diversifying. We were inside a young but growing organism.
On the surface, the Wall Street march delivered focused dissent and excellent demands. Underneath, we were defining our connection to each other and our attitude to society.
A rousing speech called “We Are the Future,” was given. Have you heard it?
“We are a movement for dignity and justice. We support one another even as we seek change for all.
We are not solely against impoverished budgets, cavernous inequality, racist repression, gender subjugation, sexual predation, schools as factories, corrupt pharmaceutical drug dealing, corporate profiteering, disempowering work relations, war, repression, OR global warming.
No. We are against impoverished budgets, cavernous inequality, racist repression, gender subjugation, sexual predation, schools as factories, corrupt pharmaceutical drug dealing, corporate profiteering, disempowering work relations, war, repression, AND global warming.
We don’t seek racial solidarity and integrity, gender equity and dignity, sexual diversity and liberation, political freedom and self management, OR economic equity, diversity, and classlessness.
No. We seek racial solidarity and integrity, gender equity and dignity, sexual diversity and liberation, political freedom and self management, AND economic equity, diversity, and classlessness.
The speech continued but even those few words reveal how folks were traveling toward the encompassing ethos of RPS. I knew the Wall Street March was a big and confident gathering. I was optimistic, but if you had told me that thirteen years later I would be Secretary of Labor in a Shadow Government created by an organization that would be fully transforming society by 2045, I would have laughed. Luckily, I would have been wrong.
I think my initial mentality, getting into RPS, was simple. I believed when a highwayman points a gun at your head and demands your money or your life, you hand him your wallet. You ‘consent’ because his gun makes dissent suicide. Similarly, I believed when you work for a capitalist employer, his owning the job and demanding your subservience or you get no income, makes dissent suicide. That had to stop. But I didn’t realize how fast that view could spread.
Juliet, others I have interviewed have told me cynicism was a big problem at the outset. Did you also encounter resistance based on cynicism? If so, how did you reply to it? And what impact did encountering this have on you and RPS?
We all encountered it – including inside our own feelings. When Trump became President virtually everyone had moments of desperate depression or denial. And while resistance to Trump grew quickly, and while in helping with that we had to address various intermediate obstacles, once blocking Trump was accomplished, to go any further we almost always encountered skeptical defeatism about human potentials. It sometimes reared up in ourselves, as well.
My way of replying, and of overcoming my own backsliding was indirect. I would ask people, can you think of even one person who is not evil? Perhaps your grandmother, some personage, maybe yourself? I could get everyone to say “yes, I have someone in mind.”
Then I would say, okay, place that person on the social side of a ledger. Now list as many folks as you want on the anti social side, Hitler, Trump, the Clintons, the rest of your friends and family and yourself, or whoever comes to mind as evidencing your idea that people are just too evil and too anti social to attain desirable social institutions.
Now consider, I would say to them, that if evil was inevitably wired into human nature – like having kidneys, eyes, or a heart – everyone would be on the evil side of the ledger. Evil is not inevitable. On the other hand, we know evil is possible because anti social folks certainly exist. We know evil can lie and manipulate and fear monger its way into major office. So we know human nature allows people to become evil. To deny that would be ridiculous. It happens, therefore it is possible. But it is only possible. It is not inevitable. Otherwise you, your grandmother, or whoever you indicated was nice, would be evil.
So we have to ask, if anti sociality isn’t wired in, why are so many people so seriously greedy and violent or at least callous toward others, not just in Trumpian moments, but all the time?
For the answer, I would urge whoever I was addressing to look around at the institutional setting we all operate in. Together we would note how it produces the anti social and even the evil traits and tendencies they were calling part of human nature. We would see that our institutional setting rewards and even requires greed, insecurity, and violence while it punishes the more social and caring inclinations we also find in people. Since the latter persist, widely, it must be because the better traits are in our natures, albeit able to be muted. Our better sides have nowhere else to come from since institutions don’t foster them. The anti social aspects, can be – and I would say they are – mostly produced by circumstances that impose them.
Sometimes it would have to end there. For example. I remember many times giving talks, offering that viewpoint, and then moving on. But other times, discussions went longer. Maybe it was me and one other person. Or maybe it was talking with a group in an open ended discussion in a dorm or workplace, or meeting with a group and going on as long as possible.
Longer discussions would consider how our social roles mute our social inclinations and impose anti social ones. And this would be a very pertinent matter bearing on people’s deepest beliefs. The reasoning was trivial, even obvious, yet the discussions were hard. People could not hear it at first. They would find my claims opaque. This was not a logical difficulty. It was a difficulty accepting that one had taken false things for granted.
Did you have other ways of addressing the cynicism?
Sometimes I would borrow an approach from Noam Chomsky. Imagine you are looking out a window on a really hot summer day. There is a child with an ice cream cone. Along comes a big adult. The hulking figure takes the cone, swats the kid into the gutter, and walks on. Do you say to yourself about the guying walking off with the ice cream, there goes a fine specimen of humanity? Do you think to yourself, that guy’s human nature is freely expressing itself? “Gimme that ice cream and get out of my way” is in our genes like having a liver is in our genes? Do you think to yourself, I wish I could be as true to my real self as the ice cream grabber is being to himself? Or do you think, there goes a pathological deviant who has been warped by his history or was perhaps born seriously messed up?
Chomsky had another way of dealing that I did not like as much. He would say, look, I know that if we do nothing, the result will be dismal or worse. If we work hard to win change, the result may be better. Surely we should try.
The logic was solid but at least when I tried using it, it was often ineffective. The problem was that people have difficult personal lives, jobs, overtime, families. To give time, energy, and emotional focus to fighting for change incurs emotional, social, and sometimes material costs. A person hearing that to not fight for change is suicide but to do so may accomplish something would often ask themselves, but will my personally fighting for social change offset losses for those I care about better than my choosing to directly benefit them? For their answer to be yes required informed hope and a broader sense of solidarity. Inspiration often needed more then an entreaty to hedge against disaster.
I first reached this perception with my own parents and some close friends. I was on my activist path. They were very progressive, very liberal, but in no sense trying to affect change. And while the above approaches to inspiring involvement had some modest effect on some people I talked with, any significant shift in their actual choices had to wait for them to gain a sense of efficacy and hope.
So, yes, I agree with cynicism being a big problem. The root factor causing many to resist seeking change was hopelessness. Events that would spontaneously generate hope such as massive outpourings of dissent that betokened more outpourings to come were kryptonite for cynicism. Wide dissent like that against Trump momentarily struck at cynicism’s foundations. But you couldn’t provide that kind of jolt as an individual in a one on one discussion. Operating one to one, you had to resort to thought experiments like those about a loving grandma or an ice cream grabbing brute. And even socially sparked involvement needed something more to persist through slow times. Writ larger, the effect of encountering so much cynicism on me and on many others was to eventually make us see that while we had to accurately criticize unjust relations and show their roots and catastrophic implications – doing that would rarely if ever alone generate sustained forward looking activism.
So then what more did you need to provide?
Beyond overcoming imposed ignorance and willful rationalization, we had to address people’s emotional resistance to becoming radically active. We had to overcome peoples’ view that we cannot win a better world because the enemy is too powerful for us to beat or because our natures are so anti social that any seeming victory would eventually devolve into new oppression and deprivation. Even further, we had to provide hope that each person could personally contribute to such an undertaking in a meaningful and worthwhile way.
Generating compelling vision and strategy had to become a priority. Yet that was hard to do. We had to change the balance of our intellectual and organizing efforts from overwhelmingly emphasizing what is wrong with current society and detailing the oncoming dangers that we had to ward off while saying nearly nothing about what we want, to doing some critique of current society, of course, and warding off disastrous oncoming possibilities, of course, but mostly clarifying what a good society would look like and why it would be viable, worthy, and stable, as well as how we might help win it.
I went from constantly saying war kills, poverty starves, diminishment stifles, racism subjugates, bad is bad – and constantly demonstrating how tenacious profit seeking, gender hierarchy, market competition, racial segregation, and political exclusion are – to showing what justice could mean in the shape of new fulfillment and new institutions and to showing how people’s choices could lead to justice in the shape of new ways of organizing and struggling. And I had to make that change not only because it was required to win, but because I really believed it and truly believing it was critical because otherwise no one would believe me. I think that is what RPS mainly gave me in those early days.
Juliet, feminist insights had been front and center in left activism for over fifty years at the time RPS was born. Yet, RPS made dealing with gender and sexuality in society and internally a core priority. Why was that necessary?
We had certainly made huge gains over those decades. We can see countless indicators. For example, in 1960 women doctors didn’t just have a hard time at work, rather, they were nearly as rare as black swans. Women had mainly household roles like nurturing and cleaning. Fully participating in social and economic life was largely precluded. Showing initiative more likely yielded women ostracism and even psychiatric confinement or brutal beatings than fulfillment. So, yes, we had won immense changes.
But, there is a difference between winning lots of change and winning all needed change. And there is also a difference between winning permanent change and winning change that is constantly under assault to revert.
As long as very basic causes of male dominance persisted, including the exploitation of women’s bodies and infantilization of women, then even if many sexist symptoms were reduced or even wiped out for a time, the still operative underlying causes would keep pushing for a return to old ways. High heels were rejected. High heels came back. Rape declined. Rape escalated.
Feminists changed peoples’ thinking and choices over the years leading up to RPS, and also changed many habits and laws. Nonetheless, something continued to cause sexism to continually reappear with each new generation. Something about society continually tossed up new pressures for males dominating and women suffering. We won very real and meaningful gains, for sure, massively, but they were always at risk of reversal. Progress was unstable. In response, RPS felt we had to overcome not only lots of manifestations of sexism, but also the deeper factors continually calling sexism back into existence against gains like abortion rights, access to jobs, and income independence.
But when we looked at our own activism, organizing, and projects, if we were going to be honest about it, we had to acknowledge the same tendency existed. The most blatant manifestations of sexism inside movements had been reduced or even largely eliminated over the pre RPS decades. Violence against women inside movements, complete dismissal of opinions offered by movement women, exclusion of movement women from responsibility, and vile sexual objectification of movement women had all diminished and during some periods even nearly disappeared. And yet everyone knew that the gains were unstable and that some of the ills were coming back. It was not surprising that some people, women included, at times slipped into thinking that it was just the way things are. We sometimes fell into thinking that instead of the natural order being what we were fighting for, the natural order was sexual hierarchy and we were fighting for an unnatural situation against which “nature” kept reacting. I think even most feminists had such thoughts or fears at times, I know I did.
As Hilary Clinton seemed about to win the presidency, and many women were celebrating that milestone not long before RPS emerged, the incredible misogyny that surfaced from the woebegone Donald Trump revealed that sexism was still powerful albeit subterranean in polite society. It could return to all sides of life. It was an ironic situation. Woman nearly president. Women under siege.
If there wasn’t an answer for this, feminism would dissipate. I can tell you for myself, at that moment I was very scared that would be the outcome.
So even on the left, even fifty years on from mid twentieth century feminism, there was still more to do about gender and the saving grace was that RPS didn’t shy away from it.
Juliet, others have described The RPS view of class division arising not only from property differences, but from the corporate division of labor. Did RPS efforts to challenge class division work? What was the turning point toward real success?
It isn’t finished, but yes, I think it all worked incredibly well when you consider it was challenging hundreds of years of uninterrupted class division and regimentation, and it was doing so not in a comparable number of centuries but in just a few decades. As to the turning point, I doubt there was only one, and perhaps there was not even one, but rather only countless trends and events merging into the processes we have all seen – but, okay, I will offer up a possibility, two, actually.
The first I would offer, at least without a lot of time to think about it, was the firestorm of strikes for a shorter work week, and indeed the whole package of related demands that emerged just a few years after the first convention. I guess the key moment was when almost all Amazon workers sat down at their posts and declared that they would not move and would not allow anyone else to take their places, and would not cease their sit down strike until Amazon changed its policies in accord with their demands. That was monumental. I can still remember hearing reports of it, seeing videos on the news, and then going there and lending my support. It may be the most exciting moment I enjoyed up to that time.
How did people react?
At first, people throughout the country were flabbergasted. These workers, after all, were effectively invisible beyond Amazon’s doors. How many were there? It turns out there were almost 300,000. We who had bought our books and indeed goods of all kinds from Amazon simply clicked a link and our package arrived. There appeared to be nothing human about it, much less 300,000 people working in harsh conditions for long hours at low pay. So, Amazon users wondered, what the hell is this all about? We didn’t realize at first the huge workforces involved. And most of us had no inkling how powerful their action would turn out.
But after a few days it became clear this was a massive escalation of militance and innovation in labor activism. Family and friends brought food and tents so the Amazon workers could make good on their threat to stay until victory. Students from nearby campuses turned out in force to bring needed supplies and stand outside, providing a buffer against police intervention. Everyone was watching, and then came the turning point, or points, if you will.
First off, the owners, the stock holders, said clean this up to the police. And first attempts to do so were made, but the workers said no. You come in these warehouses you won’t go back out again with any of us in tow. We will die first. The warehouses will be ravaged. And you will suffer in the chaos, as well. That was a hell of a message. And at the same time, tens of thousands of supporters, depending on the city, rallied outside, and also pledged to ward off attempts at violent suppression. I remember that well. I was there. The spirit was incredible. Here we were, in the streets, truly ready to be bashed mercilessly, but hell bent on staying. And the workers were inside, set to remain. With such an atmosphere of resistance and solidarity emanating from Amazon workers, what could the owners and the police do? It became clear to Amazon, the police, and everyone else, that force would breed more resistance. And right there and then a lot of people learned the way to prevent the state or private police or anyone else from using force to suppress dissent was to create a situation where the use of force would do more damage to the interests of those employing it than would not using force. The trick was to make violence counter productive for those being violent. And it became clear, as well, that what could accomplish that, in this case, and it seemed in all cases, was having so much support and so much clarity about what was at stake and what was going on, and so much willingness to not succumb, that forceful intervention would totally backfire, both on the immediate scene, and, even more so, in the larger public reaction.
Amazon workers and their supporters, myself included, learned from our daily experience of the sit down not only about warding off repression but also about the ins and outs of collectivity and struggle. Even more important, every day others were learning similar things all across the country from what they were seeing and hearing about the events. And after just a week, seemingly spontaneously but actually after much discussion and reflecting a considerable history of their own strikes, UPS workers stopped delivering, and then Fed Ex workers did so too, and by that point, society was reeling, and the companies had to give in. Just like that. Bam. New work hours. New payment schemes. And now as the campaign spread and workers in other firms raised similar demands, everyone knew what was next. Say no, and we will sit in our workplaces and you will lose.
The owners were hog tied. Not least because police departments were of mixed mind. Police felt officially responsible to follow orders, but personally a great many of them sympathized with the workers. Hell, they wanted normalized work hours too. And in response to that, another lesson emerged. Instead of regarding police as spawns from hell, we realized they are citizens, workers, like us, and we began to reach out and talk with them, meet with them, rally them, make it in their interest to listen and understand and, finally, to refuse to repress us.
A second but related turning point, I think, was about a change in underlying ideas, assumptions, and habits bearing on work relations. It started with a small group at Harvard medical school, of all places. There had been a campaign on campus to raise the wages of Harvard’s low income kitchen and custodial workers. Initially this was undertaken by the workers with some undergraduate student allies, but it then became a broader movement. The students were, in many cases, RPS influenced or RPS members, and they were engaging in the campaign not as an end in itself, but to improve the conditions of the workers while also trying to educate the whole campus and even more widely about what incomes really ought to be and even about class relations writ larger.
While the demands were for very specific wage increases, as they had been just a few years earlier in a prior similar but not nearly as aggressive and broad struggle, in this second attempt at change the rhetoric altered and began asking why those who clean classrooms should earn less than those who stand in front of them comfortably talking to students. And sure enough, after who knows how many dorm and classroom discussions occurring alongside work stoppages and teach ins, a group of med students, some in RPS, started to raise a ruckus about admissions policies, training methods, and the culture of the profession they were supposed to enter.
You can’t know these things for sure, but my guess is that students in the “raise wages” campaign talking with one another not only about the immediate wage demand, but also about what wages really ought to be, which they argued was more for rote workers than for professors, morphed into an evaluation of their own futures.
From its start among medical students at Harvard there exploded into visibility groups like doctors for the people, lawyers for the people, accountants for the people, engineers, architects, university faculty for the people, and so on. And in every case, not without some flaws and residual bad habits operating obstructively, and of course always encountering intense resistance from folks not wanting such radical change, the mood was sincerely about redefining the relations between each profession and the population, and even about redefining the responsibility of the profession, and its tasks, remuneration, and social responsibilities.
So I think these two examples pretty much sealed the deal – though I am sure many other folks, from elsewhere in the country, would just as confidently propose other “turning points.” Not that the battle was over once these events occurred, much less alone due to them. It still isn’t over, even now, of course. But I do think the final outcome became evident for all with eyes to see. Society was changing. Class difference had to be and would be not merely attenuated – a good first step – but eliminated.
When I later became Shadow Labor Secretary I had no doubts that the future was classlessness. This was not about a nicer new boss in place of the old nastier boss. It was going to take time and work, of course. But you know how sometimes you are trying to do something really difficult, and you are not sure at the outset that you will even succeed, and then there comes a moment when your evaluation reverses, after which you can no longer even conceive of not succeeding? That is what I think finding “turning points” is about. When we get past a turning point, it is not easy but it is all down hill from there.
Juliet, please excuse the change of topic stemming from the overall needs of the oral history, to let me ask, as a pacifist, I wonder if you have felt fully satisfied by the RPS approach to violence.
I believe in non violence as a principle, with no caveats. But I also understand that there is a gargantuan difference between violence to enforce domination and extract advantage, and violence in self defense to ward off oppression. That is why I have no trouble respecting and working even with people who have far more violence imbued beliefs than RPS, which itself very strongly favors non violence save in very limited circumstances.
I feel zero hostility toward strikers blocking scabs, even though I wouldn’t do it or recommend it. And I would extend that to a population violently defending against invasion, even though, again, I think such choices are ultimately counter productive.
Living in a world bequeathed by the past with much that is human and beautiful, but also much that is vile and ugly, is not easy. I think RPS has hammered out a politically, socially, strategically, and tactically wise stance. In fact, being honest, given the world we live in, I think it is probably a wiser stance than if RPS were to say no violence, period. Which is why in the discussions about RPS and violence, I never played much of a role. And yet, personally, for myself, I admit that no violence at all is my personal stance.
Is there a contradiction between my personal credo and my organizational credo? Perhaps. But sometimes in horrible circumstances what would be both ethical and sound in more desirable circumstances simply no longer works – at least until desirable circumstances are achieved. I have taken as a model in these matters Dave Dellinger, who was a pacifist, but very militant and open minded activist in the 1960s. His example of being a pacifist yet supporting the Black Panther Party and the Vietnamese fighting against the U.S. invasion, inspired me greatly as I understood it steadily more. I wish more people knew of his courageous acts and views.
RPS is not pacifist in the ethical sense that I favor. Its anti-violence owes overwhelmingly to believing violence is suicidal for trying to win a better society. I think RPS is right about that. But I also have this overarching moral pressure that I feel, though I admit that for history and for humanity it is probably just as well that RPS doesn’t feel that overarching pressure as strongly as I do.