Interviewing Michael Albert

Michael Albert is interviewed for The Bookpress by Satya Mohanty and Lourdes Beneria, professors at Cornell and members of the Cornell Forum for Justice and Peace.  Albert will visit Ithaca November 22nd and 23rd to participate in the Ithaca Social Forum.
SM: Why do you think the Bush administration is interested in a regime change in Iraq? What are their real reasons? Since the White House released the new National Security Document in September (http://www.whitehouse.gov/nsc/nss.html), many people have been wondering whether the war against Iraq fits into a broader pattern.
Saddam Hussein, who was Washington’s ally and aided by our administrations when he committed his worst crimes–gassing his own citizens, waging war with Iran–became in U.S eyes, after his invasion of Kuwait a bit more than a decade ago, a monster. He became a monster not by virtue of the inhumanity of his policies. Those were acceptable and even worthy of reward in the eyes of Washington. In fact, other heads of states with similarly horrible policies are now favored by Washington. No, Hussein became a monster for Washington — and in our media – because he stopped following Washington’s orders.
As a result, the U.S. has been in a kind of war — a chemical and biological assault which restricts Iraq’s access to food and medicine — with Hussein (or, more accurately, with the population of Iraq) since Kuwait. This assault by the U.S. on Iraq has taken hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, most probably over a million. It helped convey the lesson to Iraq and the rest of the world that not abiding by the will of the U.S. leads to severe punishment. Indeed, when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked whether a policy responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children below the age of five was worth it, she said yes, it was. If you ask what was the gain that, in her eyes, made such carnage worthwhile, the only thing to point to is the conveying of that lesson: don’t mess with the U.S., our violence knows no bounds.
In that context, and in light of everything from Vietnam, through Nicaragua, the Gulf, Afghanistan, and the rest, it is my view that removing Saddam Hussein is intended by Bush, Rumsfeld, et al. to (a) make clear the warning that it is unwise to get on Washington’s bad side, in accord with the U.S. desire to have a compliant world of nations afraid of our anger, and (b) gain far greater control for the U.S. of Iraqi oil, the second largest known reserves in the world, all the more important given Saudi instability, while (c) studiously avoiding legitimating international law and peace-keeping or law enforcement methodologies that could be used, in turn, to oppose U.S. policies and
So does the war against Iraq fit into broader polices? Of course it does. For example, U.S. foreign policy arises from geopolitical concerns that are in large part aimed to keep the world safe for American (and other) corporations to ply their business in pursuit of maximum profits. It is essential, in that regard, to optimize U.S. access to resources and control over them, to obstruct any avenues of dissent from our will, and so on. These are the aims that lead to policies of the sort Bush is pursuing in the war on terrorism, regarding dissent, and in the proposed war on Iraq.

SM: So U.S. foreign policy is to a great extent about what powerful corporations want, even if that goes against what ordinary people, here in the U.S. and everywhere else in the world, want. What can ordinary Americans do to resist this disastrous foreign policy and the kind of corporate rule it supports? Are there things that seem especially urgent now? There is the immediate need to prevent war, but there are also the dangers of corporate globalization, as you point out. If we want to fight against both, where should we begin?
Yes, U.S. foreign policy serves elite and not popular interests. There was never a referendum on any war, much less a referendum following a full and informed public discussion of all relevant information. Had their been such a referendum, there would have been no war in Vietnam, and likewise through a long list — much less if those to be bombed had participated and had a say. War endeavors, like peacetime policy, have nothing to do with the public well-being, and everything to do with profit and power.
Consider the government’s assertion that the “war on terrorism” is a courageous undertaking to protect the lives of innocent Americans. (Let’s ignore for a moment that this “war” is revealed to be a campaign of economic redistribution upward, and of arms enlargement, and of repressive legislation, and of empire defense and expansion — by its content.) Let’s just ask, could protecting innocent Americans possibly be the main motive? Well, if it was the motive it would imply that Bush and Co. were seriously concerned about the lives of innocent American civilians. Indeed, if they were moved to massive assaults on other populations and civil rights when 3,000 innocent Americans died, what would they do about 50,000 innocent Americans dying each year?
It isn’t a make-believe question. That is roughly the number of Americans who die in industrial accidents and of work-related ailments yearly. Do Bush and Co. wail in pain over this? Do they pass desperate legislative measures to improve workplace safety and enhance medical care for working people? No. And the reason they don’t do that, though it would be immediately effective in saving so many lives, is because those choices would not enhance the profit and power of elites. Is there anyone who doesn’t understand this, nowadays — deep down, defensive rhetoric aside? I honestly don’t think so. We all know how the system works. You can see it a millimeter beneath the surface in countless novels and tv shows and movies. So why not anger? Why not rebellion? Mostly because, on the one hand, people think you can’t fight city hall and win, and, on the other, they doubt that even a people’s victory would make much of a difference.
You ask which of the struggles comes first. I don’t think we need to put aside other struggles to fight against the invasion of Iraq. It is very easy to talk about any one focus, and to make links to the rest. Iraq is a manifestation of the war on terrorism, one of its faces. It is an outgrowth of the system of profits and power, of income maldistribution, of a skewed budget and of all manner of other profit related problems. It is fueled by the same sexism that generates misogyny. It is racist to the core. The links to other struggles are obvious. What is needed is a growing, multi-issue, multi-focus movement, with many arms but one soul. That is what can raise social costs sufficiently to convey to elites that they must revamp their plans.

SM: You say that most ordinary people see through the rhetoric of the Bush administration and the ruling elites, but the main reason they don’t rebel against this corrupt system is because they don’t believe that anything can really be done to change it. Can you say more about this, giving some examples if possible? Do most people really see through the official rhetoric and ideological justifications? Would there be less passivity in the face of injustice if people could believe that social institutions can indeed be changed?
We have to be careful. I am not saying that the average person can dissect and refute all the rationales offered. The point is, average folks feel no motive for or purpose in doing so. And I am not saying they won’t and don’t cling to the rationales offered by Bush and Co. That is precisely what many do, in order to get on with their lives and avoid the moral tension of knowing how bad the crimes of their state are. What I am saying is that they adopt the rationales because of lack of hope. I think average folks — virtually everyone other than the most highly educated — know deep down that U.S. motives are reasons of state and profit, not reasons of the well being of Iraqis or even Americans. In a calm context, with nothing much at stake, over a beer, almost everyone will admit it. But I think nearly everyone feels there is no viable alternative to what is, and also wants to have some degree of good feeling for their country — again, to be able to lead a less troubled life. There is nothing people can do to right the wrongs, they think. So they adopt a very readily available — indeed a constantly trumpeted — set of rationales that let them get on with their lives without undue angst over the state of things.
It is quite interesting to note that Bush, Hussein, and every other maniacal warlord building up and using armaments for their own vile ends at the expense of huge numbers of innocent people must argue on behalf of their adventures by pretending they are doing good. Bush doesn’t get up and say I want to go to war on Iraq to show the world there are no limits on our violence, to delegitimize international law so that it doesn’t constrain us, and to gain greater control over their oil for our corporations to better profit thereby. He says we are doing it for the people of Iraq, for average Americans, for world peace, for justice. Why lie? Why not just parade the truth? Because normal people can’t and won’t ratify the real motives, and can only live with themselves by being able to hold on to the rationale, however inconsistent it is with their underlying insights. It is a kind of cognitive dissonance. The reality must be sublimated. But why is the sublimation successful? Why will people swallow the government’s rationales and lies, when an eight year old could easily see that they are lies after an hour of serious thought?
In the period leading up to the bombing of Afghanistan we had a computer failure at our offices. The owner of a local computer outfit, a man of about thirty, came to fix it all personally. We talked for a couple of hours. He was a white male, owner of a small business, and a listener both to Rush Limbaugh and NPR, like many people. To make a long story short, he heard my views, and had no problem understanding any of it. In that calm context, with nothing at stake, he initially resisted none of it – and in fact wound up in tears. He understood that Washington’s motive was to delegitimize international law so it couldn’t constrain us. He understood that the motive was to create a lasting “War on Terror,” useful to redistribute wealth upward and to scare the population into accepting policies benefiting only the rich and powerful. He understood that the motive was to display U.S. power to deter noncompliance with our will. He understood that Bush was willing to endanger millions of lives by starvation, by bombing, and that that was terrorism on a gigantic scale with virtually unbounded callousness – an immorality of world historic proportions. And he cried over the last. But then he said, “Michael, you know you need to understand that I don’t want to hear all this from you. My wife doesn’t want to hear it. My workers don’t. My friends don’t.” And I said, “Just like you don’t want to hear me describe the agony and pain of an earthquake? And he said “Yes, exactly. We can’t do anything about it, there is nothing to be done about it, and wallowing in it will do no good. All I want to do is to go about my business, earn for my family, live within the means at my disposal.”
He knows the truth at some level . But if next week someone at work casually asks him about Bush’s war, dollars to donuts he will go along with some easy rhetoric about beating up the monster Hussein. Because that is the way to “get on with life” and “be responsible to those he can affect” while the earthquake unfolds its horrors, beyond his impact — and he thinks beyond any impact at all.
That’s what I mean when I say that the bedrock of inaction, the bedrock of compliance, is the belief that no better world is possible and that even if it were conceivable in some sense, we couldn’t attain it. Movements have to refute the lies and propaganda bearing on each issue, for example on Iraq — yes, by all means. But we also have to overcome this
more basic underlying cynicism, which fuels and refuels passivity and rationalization in the face of injustice.
You ask if there would be less compliance if people believed in alternatives and could imagine ways to attain them. That is precisely what characterizes periods of upheaval and change throughout history, and it is what will characterize the next such period in the U.S.: optimistic and militant hope based on rational informed faith in what can be achieved and the methods for accomplishing it.
SM: There are many people I know who don’t believe that they can have “rational informed faith” in the possibility of genuine social transformation. They admire the decent and courageous folks whose religious commitments drive them to social activism, but they think that their faith in the possibility of meaningful social change is just naive. How can activists begin to talk about the sort of rational informed faith you talk about? How can we talk rationally about what can be achieved in a world that looks so overwhelmingly corrupt and unjust?
I think there are two parts to this question. The first has to do with vision — is there anything better that’s possible? The second has to do with strategy – how do we attain it? The only way a movement can change how people feel about these questions is to address them — centrally, aggressively, effectively.
Some people might think that this is silly, since critics already speak clearly about better possibilities all the time. Replace the IMF and World Bank with institutions that tilt the playing field to favor the poor and weak instead of the rich and strong. Pursue avenues of international law rather than violent mayhem. Raise wages. Enact affirmative action. And so on. And it is true that almost every movement proposes immediate aims and explains why their attainment would improve people’s lives. The thing is, the audience isn’t unconvinced of all this. The audience has a different doubt, that goes largely unaddressed, derailing their commitment.
For decades we have been telling people that capitalism and other basic defining aspects of society exude forces and influences that powerfully limit life. So people feel, yeah, we might with a lot of work win a higher wage, a law ameliorating some ills of sexism or racism, or even an end to a war or some horrible institutions, but how long will it be before the influences of the underlying defining institutions of society undo what we have gained? If we stop one war, there will be another. If we remove one ugly institution, in no time at all the new one we favored will be as bad or worse. If we raise wages over there, someone will suffer for it elsewhere, and when the prices get done moving, the distribution of income will be as bad as before. Rollback will bury our efforts.
Such views in fact largely correspond to our teachings and are also, in certain respects, correct. With basic institutions in place, and as long as they go unchallenged, all our gains are subject to loss or manipulation.
Take globalization. At our best, we activists advocate new agencies of trade and international regulation, with new and more just and fair motives, and we spell all this out. Fine, people think, it sounds good, but if the U.S. persists as before, and England, and Bolivia, and Egypt, and so on, and so forth, then the same forces emanating from the defining structures in these countries’ economies will persist as in the past, and they will again shape international relations until, before long, it is again the rich getting richer while the poor suffer the costs. After all, the IMF and World Bank themselves were first instituted as agencies for progressive correction of gross imbalances, but then were molded by the pressures of capitalist economies to become the vile agents of power that they are.
This view can’t be just brushed off. I think what movements need to do, in response, is to present long term in addition to short term vision. We need to say, here is an alternative to capitalism — a different way of doing production, consumption, and allocation — and with this alternative system in place life would be different in the following hugely desirable ways. And we need this vision to be comprehensible, convincing, and inspiring. We need to be able to explain that if we win gains and develop movements that continually seek these ultimate goals, and if we keep fighting ever more effectively for new gains and better circumstances that empower us toward these ultimate goals, then rather than winning a little bit and having it rolled back shortly thereafter, we can win a little bit and use that gain as a springboard to winning a little more, and then more — in a trajectory of changes that culminates in a new economy and society. And we need to make that picture real for people, to give it wings so it can fly for people.
And so I think our movements not only need to make that sustaining and inspiring vision real for people, and to incorporate people’s refinements of it, but to develop again, a convincing picture of struggle from now until we have the new world. People need to understand what role consciousness raising plays, the role of dissent and demonstrations, the role of civil disobedience, the role of the construction of new institutions that embody the long term values we seek, the constituencies that will be reached, the views that must be conveyed, and how various people with various personal situations can contribute to the overall process, and why it is meaningful to do so.
SM: The question of “vision” is important for many reasons. In your book The Trajectory of Change, which many of us in Ithaca have been reading and discussing, you talk about the urgent need for a common overarching vision that can unify the variety of progressive groups and movements we see today. But you also emphasize the importance of retaining the autonomy of the various groups. You discuss the need for “solidarity with autonomy” — a need that wasn’t recognized by many traditional Left parties with their hierarchical structures.  Could you say a bit more about this idea of a unified progressive political movement that will be based on the ideals of both solidarity and autonomy?
I think vision matters to give a positive tone to our efforts, to provide hope and overcome cynicism, to orient analysis of the present, helping us see its shortcomings, and to root strategy so that it leads somewhere that we would like to wind up. And vision is also important, or could be, to generate a better kind of oppositional identity, rooted in shared desires rather than in shared rejections. Instead of being anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-authoritarian — we could be for shared goals and compelling institutional aims.
You then ask about autonomy and solidarity. By solidarity we mean movements supporting one another. By autonomy we mean movements having the room and means to chart their own agendas without supervision or denigration from without. On the large scale, think of civil rights or anti-racist movements, labor movements, consumer movements, anti-war movements, women’s movements, the gay and lesbian movement, the ecology movement. They each need to set their own course. They also each need the other movements that focus on other matters to support them, if they are to be as powerful as possible. How do you have both? How can an anti-war movement, for example, support a gay and lesbian movement in what it charts as its agenda, and yet allow that gay and lesbian movement no say over its own antiwar agenda?
When the women’s movement emerged (anew) in the late sixties, it said women need to provide the insight and desire that defines this movement’s agenda. We can’t do what we need to do, not fully and optimally, in a male-dominated milieu. We need a room of our own, a movement where we don’t have to continually deal with men’s priorities and views, but where we develop our own. That is what the civil rights movement morphing into a black power movement said, as well. I think the message in both cases, and in others too, is warranted. But, there is a tendency for people to go from justifiably wanting autonomy – feeling that a most centrally affected group needs to be the source and repository of the logic and passion of a particular struggle – to separatism, in which the group cuts all outward ties, or nearly so, and not only separates from other constituencies in the act of forming its own movement, but even goes so far as to curtail movement-to-movement relations, or even members’ participation in other movements. This occurred, too often, in the left of the seventies.
The underlying problem of the above scenario, and less extreme variants too, is that we can’t generate really powerful movements in particular realms or about single issues unless the people most affected in those realms or regarding those issues are highly empowered by those movements, not having to continually fight rearguard battles against recalcitrant folks less affected by the focused issues. For example, people of color need a movement in which they don’t have to be putting up with white folks, women need one in which they don’t have to be putting up with men, gays need one in which they don’t have to be putting up with straights, workers need one in which they don’t have to be putting up with what I call coordinators: professionals, managers. People fighting about ecology, really focused on it, don’t want to have to talk about war or rape at every meeting. On the other hand, it is also the case that we can’t generate really powerful movements about anything unless progressive and leftist people in different realms, with different highest priorities, and with different main focuses, nonetheless support and even join in one another’s efforts. So, we need autonomy and we need solidarity too.
A frequent way to combine diverse efforts is very minimally. Activist groups form coalitions around some minimal agreement. There is no real lasting solidarity leading to increasing mutual knowledge and commitment, but instead there is just a kind of mutual using of each other for a time, and then renewed distance. Instead of only separate projects, separate movements, separate efforts, and instead of temporary coalitions, why can’t we have a massive movement that includes diverse projects and struggles, each autonomous in that they set their own agendas, and all also saying — hey — we are all together, we do not see any point in ranking our priorities, and we are going to support one another, and to provide human power and energy to one another’s efforts, even when there is disagreement? The left — the big movement in this scenario — is more than the sum of its parts, and includes differences.
The anti-war movement supports labor struggles and affirmative action struggles and whatever other struggles emerge from the other arms of the big movement. The women’s movement, the labor movement, the ecology movements, what have you…they are part of the whole. These various movements become mutually supportive, above and beyond their separate agendas.
LB: In your book, you have a valuable discussion of why social class is often ignored in contemporary left politics, especially since various kinds of identity-based political movements have gotten considerable prominence. You are right to emphasize the need to bring class back to the center of our vision. But it might be argued that you don’t give enough credit to the importance of identity-based struggles in ensuring representation and the deepening of democratic principles. How can class-based politics and identity-based movements work together?
I am not sure what you mean by “identity-based” politics. I think the phrase has different meanings for different people. My own view is that matters of culture and race, kinship and gender, polity and authority, and economy and class, are all fundamentally important. Each of these areas of life emanates defining influences throughout society, creating potentials and also, in our society, quite severe restraints that greatly delimit how we can live. Some names for these limiting systems are sexism, patriarchy and homophobia, authoritarianism, racism and ethnocentrism, and capitalism. To a considerable extent, I think being radical or revolutionary means seeking new ways of organizing these areas of life, ways which don’t create hierarchies among men and women, order-givers and takers, races and other cultural communities, and classes.
With this perspective, paying central attention to class in no sense implies or requires not paying central attention to race or gender or authority. In fact, to pay attention to class most effectively requires the broader attentiveness, and vice versa.
I don’t think class moved relatively off the left’s agenda because race and gender crowded it out, so to speak. If people grow more concerned about race and gender due to the emergence and growth of related movements, why should it follow that they will become less concerned about class? There is nothing that dictates that activists can think of only one issue as centrally important. The increasing importance I attributed to race, gender, and sexuality, induced by the lessons forcefully taught by women, gays, blacks and other constituencies, certainly didn’t cause me to move away from viewing class as important.
Rather than being crowded out, attention to class declined, in my view, because serious consideration of it would have made us much more radically aware of the daily life content of class relations, and because that would have meant highlighting not only the distinction between workers and owners, but also that between workers and what I call coordinators, or managers, or other types of empowered employees (like some intellectuals). I think the implications of that kind of awareness were feared, or just unconsciously avoided, particularly by those who had and who largely continue to have relative power in left projects and movements.
What matters most, I think, is that whereas in the early and middle New Left period the necessary task was to give race and gender priority along with class, now the necessary task is to get class back into appropriate attention. But we don’t need to re-elevate a weak and narrow comprehension of class (or an exclusionary one). We need a view of class’s importance which takes into account not only property relations but also the corporate division of labor and particularly the apportionment of empowering and disempowering tasks in work – e.g., the division between those who make decisions, who deal with ideas, versus those who are expected just to follow.
I think broadening our understanding of class is long overdue. And I think the repercussions of doing it will be more or less analogous to the repercussions that came from elevating race and gender years ago. Movements will have to address class relations inside their own operations. Just as we are attuned to the need for our projects, organizations, and movements to not incorporate racist and sexist assumptions, norms, and relations, so we would become attuned to the need for our efforts to not incorporate classist assumptions, norms, and relations. We would see the need to try to achieve economically desirable aims (I like to think, pareconist aims, in tune with the economic goals I favor). This would be no small change…and it would affect the way left efforts are organized, how labor is apportioned in them, how people are remunerated, and how decisions are made — and by these changes how our movements appeal to and empower working people.
Years back I was continually critiquing economism and arguing for the need to give other spheres of life the same level of priority as the economy. Now, while still having essentially the same conception (as described at the start of this answer), I write more often about the need to address class seriously, about some ways of doing so.
LB: “Parecon” is short for participatory economics, right? You’ve written a fair amount on this subject. Could you summarize your vision of alternative economic system very briefly? Also, since you talk about “horrible” trade agreements in your book (p.2), it is natural to ask you if you can imagine trade arrangements that are good and equitable. Historically, of course, trade has sometimes contributed to the economic progress of societies and has promoted positive cultural and social interaction.
Yes, parecon is the shorthand name for the economic vision I advocate. Briefly, parecon is based on five key values — solidarity, diversity, equity, self management, and efficiency. People should care about one another rather than trampling on one another. There should be many and varied solutions to problems and a variety of options to follow. Wealth should be allocated among actors fairly, in accord with the effort people expend and the sacrifices they make. People should have influence on decisions proportionate to the extent to which they are impacted by them. And we shouldn’t waste or otherwise misuse things we value.
And parecon, after further elaborating the meaning and implications of these values, goes on to establish key defining institutions to accomplish production, allocation, and consumption, consistent with advancing the values. The desired institutions include worker and consumer councils with self-managing decision making methods, remunerating only for effort and sacrifice (rather than for property, power, or output), what we call balanced job complexes (rather than the corporate division of labor), and what we call participatory planning (rather than markets) for allocation. Even a brief description of each of these institutions would take too much space for this interview, I think, though there is an easily accessible website about parecon at www.parecon.org — but the basic idea is relatively simple. Instead of an economy in which each actor gets ahead by competing with all other actors for better jobs, for higher income, and for more status and power, each participant advancing only as some others suffer loss, a parecon involves a cooperative approach to economics in which people gain collectively and socially and there is a fair apportionment of circumstances, income, and influence. Indeed, the hallmark of parecon is arguably that each participant has influence on outcomes in proportion to the extent to which the participant is impacted by them, so there is no class hierarchy at all. 
Trade occurs when there are benefits to be had. Instead of my doing x and y, and your doing x and y, it turns out to be advantageous for me to do more x and for you to do more y, and then for us to exchange to wind up with what we want. Even with having to send the items of x and y between us, the greater total x and y we generate makes specializing and then trading a good idea. Ignoring other possible problems, let’s say a trade is warranted. Now the question is, who is going to get most of the benefit? And that’s what trade agreements and laws are largely about — corporate globalization is just changing the rules of the game so that the rich and powerful get an even larger share of the benefits than they used to get, the poor and weak getting less.
You ask what are good changes in trade arrangements? Well, they are changes that do the opposite of what corporate globalization seeks. Changes that move more of the benefit to the weaker and poorer traders — as well as changes that protect people affected but not directly involved in the trade, such as changes that protect the environment, or
social relations, or communities, and so on. It really isn’t hard to come up with a long list of changes in trade relations that would be desirable. Just look at what the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO generally do, and for the most part support approaches that would lead in the opposite direction regarding the distribution of benefits, and the protection of environment, workers, and consumers.
SM: An economic system based on cooperation instead of competition? It sounds very attractive, but some people will argue that it isn’t realistic. Human beings are naturally competitive and acquisitive, they will say. We share and cooperate only when we absolutely have to.
Yes, many people do say things like that, and so anyone advocating a very different economic logic has to make a case for it, not only about people, but about proposed institutions. A detailed and compelling case, more than I can provide in a short interview, which is why I suggested the Parecon web site (www.parecon.org). But while the view you identify has to be responded to, because the perspective is so widespread and important, the view is of course very wrong, and even transparently so.
People are capable of being highly competitive and acquisitive, of course. That much is certainly true. We see that all around us. But we see it overwhelmingly in the domains where such behavior is heavily rewarded, indeed almost coerced – namely, the economy — and where more solidaristic and cooperative behavior not only doesn’t lead to gain, but actually induces personal loss. Nice guys finish last — in the market.
The truth is the opposite of what the question assumes. In fact, most of us have to be pushed and cajoled by a very daunting and aggressive combination of socialization, education, and incentives to care only about self, and to act as though others are mere fodder for us to exploit. Our natural inclinations are quite different, as seen in any crisis, in most gatherings of friends and families, and even in less likely places.
It is late at night, really late. You come to a toll booth. Do you run it or stick a quarter in? Why would anyone who is naturally acquisitive pay? Why would anyone who is so acquisitive, down in their very soul, ever leave a tip in a restaurant – yet virtually everyone does. Why would the poor give a higher proportion, by a large margin, of their income to charity? These acts occur, and countless others, even in proximity to the ubiquitous and overwhelming pressures toward aggressive acquisition that are built into our economy’s logic.
Now suppose we remove the market and similar generators of anti-sociality, and adopt, instead, an allocation system (and related institutions) which makes personal advancement depend on attention to the conditions of others. Imagine that we have economic institutions — remuneration for effort, balanced job complexes, council self management, participatory planning — such that for you to do better, others must do so as well. For you to determine the best policies for you, you need to assess the best policies overall, socially. In this case, instead of an economy that takes even very social and caring people and pressures and molds them until they behave anti-socially or suffer for not doing so — so that only the greedy and unsympathetic rise in stature and power — suppose we have institutions whose logic is such that they tell even anti-social and purely egoistic people that to advance they must take into account the social impacts of their choices. What’s the result? I say it can be a new world, with people freed from the de-dignifying and dehumanizing pressures which make us less than we ought to be.
SM: So the cynicism and pessimism we often see around us are themselves the product of social conditioning of some kind, perhaps even of social indoctrination…. Now, you have been a full-time activist since your college years at MIT, which was the period shaped by the Vietnam war. Would you say there is more cynicism now than there was back then? What do you see as the major differences between then and now? In particular, would you say that the progressive community in the U.S.
is less active and hopeful now than it was then?
People are cynical and pessimistic because they rightly perceive that the structures of our society lead, inexorably, to the rich getting richer, and the powerful getting stronger, even as each becomes steadily less humane and more corrupt. In such a context to feel no cynicism would be odd.
Just this morning I read in my local paper, the Boston Globe, one of the more “liberal” in the country, how the U.S. is trading financial and geopolitical promises of gain to countries to get them to side with us in war. We promise oil profits, they provide sanction for massacre. No wonder people are cynical. Not only does our government say, here, take this lucre (oil revenues and our ignoring their backyard repressions, as well), as a bribe to support when we blast the defenseless population of Iraq and obliterate any notion of justice or law in the process, but the mainstream media reports it as if this is just the normal order, with nothing unreasonable about it. Of course people are cynical. Moreover, most people are taught, by subtle and often blatant means that they have no right to even have an opinion, much less affect and shape outcomes.
John Lennon’s great song “Working Class Hero” begins with the lyrics: “As soon as you’re born they make you feel small / By giving you no time instead of it all / Till the pain is so big you feel nothing at all.” And it ends with: “There’s room at the top they are telling you still / But first you must learn how to smile as you kill / If you want to be like the folks on the hill.” Did anyone or would anyone say that Lennon was off track in these observations? I don’t think so. Everyone knows that everything is broken, to quote another bard.
When I first became political most people thought that our society was fine. They thought some people were weak and undeserving and got less, but it was their fault. Doctors, lawyers, and all the rest, including CEOs – such people were generous and out for justice and to make people happier. Politicians were impressive, thoughtful, and caring. Those who suffered were only suffering due to personal inadequacy, or perhaps because they like to suffer. Favoritism, rape, poverty — these were personal failings afflicting a few people, and while each afflicted individual might – and really, might is the correct word — be angry about their situation, rather than only repressed, there was no broad awareness of a social cause for inequality and deprivation. The words racism, sexism, much less classism, weren’t in the popular vocabulary. And regimentation and obedience were the norm, everywhere.
The sixties eruption was in part the surfacing of a realization that the whole system was horribly lopsided and oppressive, unjust, immoral. As one example, women began talking to each other, shared their stories, and discovered that their subordination, whether rape or beating or just being denied dignity and a voice, was systemic and not personal. Anger flared. Movements grew.
What’s different now is that in reporting that pain and suffering are caused by social relations we aren’t telling people something they don’t know. When we describe the prevalence of rape or other abuse, racial profiling and brutality, poverty, indignity, war – we are reporting the obvious. Down deep, everyone knows about these things, and everyone knows they are built into our institutions. So our organizing problem has changed. We still have to counter misconceptions and rebut propaganda — for sure — but we have to provide vision and strategy as well, not least because the absence of hope is what makes people passive.
So there is much more understanding of the world now — it would be hard to convey how dramatically different the average awareness level is — than in 1960. There are a lot of mainstream TV shows, now, that are smarter in many respects than even quite progressive folks were then. And as to the left, other than pockets (sometimes large) of not so worthy elements, I think it is far better informed, more knowledgeable, and often more aware of deep issues than it was thirty five years ago. Also, recently, it is much more interested in developing positive vision and strategy — and I think these are very important trends.
Size? This is hard to know and depends a lot on definitions. There are millions upon millions of people now who are more aware of the nature of society, sometimes in deep-going ways, than all but a rather narrow sector of the left of the sixties, I think. But even regarding outward manifestation, the recent demonstration in England was larger than any there in the sixties. The anti-globalization activism around the world has been more sophisticated, had deeper comprehension, and had way more international solidarity and scale too, than most dynamics in the sixties. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a U.S. left, far from the most developed right now, reach a remarkable scale and influence in the next five years. I also wouldn’t be surprised, I should admit, if in five years it was little or no bigger than now, and no more influential.
Imagine you were looking at a top, spinning. You wouldn’t be surprised to see it fall to the right — or to the left. Little factors, cumulatively, affect it, pushing this way or that way. The same goes for progressive social change, though, of course, the image is only rough. The implication is that we should work as best we can to build movements that are congenial to oppressed constituencies, highly informed about their focuses, mutually supportive and solidaristic, multi-tactical, multi-focus, positive in outlook, putting forth vision and not just critique, militant, committed, embodying values we hold dear, empathetic…and resolved to win a trajectory of changes leading toward a new social order, not just to fight the good fight. If we do all that, even just reasonably well, I believe that five years from now, and perhaps even just one or two years from now, the results will be immense.
If the movement is like that top mentioned above, then society’s institutions slant the field it is spinning on. The media blows hard at it. Its own members’ prior socializations and impatience and frequent arrogance or insensitivity, not to mention honest errors, push at it too. All these push to the right, toward failures. But, the truth is, the combined force of all that is much less than people fear and imagine. If we pushed back to the left, calmly and knowledgeably, in tune with the necessities of outreach and of developing loyalty to movement activism, then leftward is precisely the way we would move.

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