Consider these issues bearing on changing society: the need for left resources, summarized as money; the need for a wider and more compelling conveyance of ideas and values, summarized as communications; the need for lasting structures that address multi issue and multi tactic approaches to change, summarized as organization; and the need to have a compelling shared picture of desired institutions to inform our choices and inspire our efforts, summarized as vision.
Projects pursued to address these difficult large scale issues have all too often failed. For example, even from just my own experiences: Trying to create a city and region wide student organization in the late sixties. Trying to generate alternative media solidarity to shore up the finances of all alternative media and to enhance alternative media’s collective impact on consciousness raising. Trying to generate a network of alternative newspapers. Pursuing collective means of fund raising and fund dispersing on the left. Trying to create massive online community. Trying to create a left alternative to Facebook. Trying to create an international revolutionary organization. Trying to create an online school, twice. And most recently trying to create a community of mutually supportive writers. All these efforts ultimately failed, and even worse, nothing as ambitious has succeeded or for the most part, even been attempted.
Why all the failures when trying to achieve gains extending across constituencies, across geographies, and across ideologies, as compared to considerable successes with much more narrow endeavors dependent on small groups of participant workers like, again, merely my own experiences: creating a publishing house, a magazine, an online information system, and a summer school?
One thing I notice is that more people related more strongly to the parts of the endeavors that paid people. Similarly, parts that delivered something immediately tangible to people, or that seemed likely to deliver something that some people saw as immediately personally beneficial, those people generally related to. But people helping to create a new project without gaining direct immediate benefit for themselves – not so much.
People tend to relate as an act of friendship or an act of general solidarity, but without much followup. Especially for larger scale endeavors, very few people even conceive of more supportive participation as a possibility unless they are going to immediately benefit. And yet, in such cases, everyone typically agrees the problem each project addresses is paramount.
As just one example: regarding the organizational effort called International Organization for a Participatory Society, before the fact a poll had about 4,000 responses. It offered a list of possible attributes for a possible organization and asked if in light of those attributes poll respondents would want it to succeed, would join it, and would work for it – and the response was about 95% positive. In light of that, about 50 activists and noted writers were enlisted to become a consultative body. However once the organization was up and running, most of the 4,000 poll supporters didn’t join and only a small number did any work. Most damaging, only a handful of the fifty consultants tried to promote the project at all, much less vigorously – and even worse, alternative media with almost no exceptions ignored it.
As a second example, consider the alternative social networking project called Faceleft. Everyone knows Facebook is a major multinational corporation and the largest spy agency in the world, so that getting social media apparatus and revenues away from Facebook and inside the left would be wonderful – especially as Faceleft was designed to benefit all progressive organizations who wished to relate. Even so, only a relative handful of potential users related to the effort, and, again, alternative media and prominent figures who could propel Faceleft’s visibility overwhelmingly ignored it.
Why? You would think reasons would be evident from public criticisms but for IOPS there were no essays saying we don’t need an international organization based on local, regional and national chapters. Nor were there essays criticizing even one value the new effort espoused, or one commitment it had. Similarly, for Faceleft there were no essays saying the new social networking effort couldn’t provide what we needed, given ample participation, nor did anyone suggest that doing so wouldn’t be a terrific gain.
So what explanation remains?
In 1969 a friend told me that thinking primarily in terms of the overall movement and what one can usefully do for it – as compared to thinking primarily in terms of one’s own inclinations and benefits – was precisely the difference between being a revolutionary and just having some radical views.
Do I ask, my friend wondered, “what can I do for just myself or even just for my project or my organization considered unto itself?” Or do I ask “what can I do for fundamental social change, even if what it needs will be somewhat uncomfortable for me or for mine?” Additionally, even if we operate with the larger calculus, does a cynical sense that nothing will ever succeed prevent us from trying what is truly new and needed?
I am not saying everyone or even anyone individually is horribly at fault or anything remotely like that. But I am saying that collectively, we have a huge problem no doubt imposed by circumstances and history, but still, within us. Cynicism is a key part of it. Employing a narrow perspective that prioritizes only immediate narrowly conceived returns is another.
Yes, I realize that for particular projects mistakes by their designers may cause failures. But even in such cases, wouldn’t some folks motivated by larger social change aims point out the mistakes, try to correct them, and mainly, if necessary, seek to do better by undertaking a different and better approach. Some have, in some cases, but very few, I think, compared to the needs.
Note, again, I am most certainly not talking about activism per se, or about organizing per se. I am talking about tackling various persisting large scale issues that have constrained activism and change for decades. So, I am not talking about working to improve a particular media outlet, like Z, say, where I work, but about vastly enlarging and also coordinating our overall outreach and messages via media linkages and alliances. I am not talking about one media or activist project or another surviving financially, but about solving the left’s overall financial problems with new collective approaches to fund raising and the distribution of resources rather than clinging to atomistic and even competitive approaches. I am not talking about building local campaigns or organizations, say a wonderful anti foreclosure or anti poverty effort, but about doing that in many many places while also building an encompassing larger scale organization able to undertake national and international campaigns. And I am not talking about, finally, only admitting that the absence of left vision is crippling, but about tackling arriving at shared vision.
In each case many people do the former task, often very very well, courageously and tirelessly, but very few even try to do the latter task at all. Almost everyone concerned with social change acknowledges the impoverishing and debilitating funding dynamics that plague us, our insufficiently means of communications, the paucity and narrowness of our own institutions, and our absence of compelling shared vision. Yet when all too rare attempts are made to address these problems, there is almost no sustained interest, particularly from left pundits and progressive media. Why can’t we more effectively tackle these issues since the success of what we do do – it’s reach, scope, impact, and prospects for further advance – depends on our doing so?
Particular projects addressing large scale issues like money, communications, organization, and vision that I know about first hand were not repressed or defeated by power. They were not technically beyond our limited means, nor even financially beyond us. In each case, a small group laid out time, energy, and funds prerequisite to a meaningful try. All that was needed from others to augment initial start up efforts was sufficient positive public support and open participation to provide hope and momentum for others to be inspired, plus a level of involvement sufficient for benefits to begin to accrue.
That didn’t arise yet the politics, values, and underlying commitments were never much criticized. The means to be employed were also not denied publicly, and, most important, few if any alternatives were ever substantively proposed. Instead, the missing ingredient for the various projects was participation, and especially widespread entreaties by noted people in diverse alternative media to let others know there were projects they should look into. The reef that these projects collided with and sunk due to was therefore ourselves.
The dynamic seems to be an elephant in the room that no one successfully addresses. A Chinese slogan, “dare to struggle, dare to win,” has some wisdom for us, I think, regarding addressing our big problems.
One interpretation of why we don’t have, for example, a network of entwined left local and regional news outlets, a mechanism for enlarging and channeling funding on the left to all activists collective benefit, an alternative media consortium increasing the stability and reach of each individual media operation, a real left alternative to Facebook, an international organization of revolutionaries with truly self managing commitments and anti sectarian practice, a massive online left school system for essential consciousness raising and skills sharing across borders and constituencies, and even a modest networking of established as well as fledging radical writers for coordinating their efforts – among many other desirable projects one might list – is that we are all doing good things already and some new things just don’t make the cut or inspire our involvement. Someone feeling that explanation might sensibly say to me, “these things you are talking about, Michael, they just aren’t worthy or they are too demanding of time that can better go elsewhere – or they were simply impossible.” Perhaps, but I don’t believe these explanations. I think what we don’t have and aren’t doing is at least as critical to success as what we do have and are doing.
Yet in the cases of attempts to address these types of large scale problem that I have direct knowledge of, the time, attention, and support required to have a very good shot at success after the initial work was already done was actually amazingly modest. And the potential movement benefits were large, and in some cases even enormous. Yet in each instance, there was virtually no discussion across alternative media and movement groups. Endless articles covering the same complaints about society appear over and over in our alternative media, but there is rarely serious coverage, either critical or supportive, of attempts to solve massive problems on the left.
Rosa Luxembourg said, “you lose, you lose, you lose, you win.” She was surely assuming we would learn from our losses. And while every project has its own specific lessons to learn, no doubt, I am suggesting that there is also at least one major overarching thing to learn from the overall pattern, and that it requires a lot less excavation to discover.
We cannot win without trying not just to be locally admirable and effective, but to win a new world. We cannot win without having our eyes on the full prize, as compared to on simply our own activities. We cannot win without knowing what the prize is.
We cannot win if we always take for granted that we will fail. If we assume things will fail every time out, we will often be able to brag of having been correct, but we will also miss the one, two, or three, possibilities for success. We will lose, lose, lose, and then lose again.
We cannot win without trying to really win, even if we have to do it skeptically, knowing at times that a project is a long shot. And perhaps I ought to add, we cannot win if we just try to persist, just try to defend some past belief we have long held, just try to appear radical or revolutionary, just try to distinguish ourselves from others who we deem less radical, or just denigrate those whose views we consider less wise than our own, even if we are doing more than they are for change, much less if we are doing less than they are for change.
Activists’ difficulties dealing with money, reaching out with consciousness that matters, and creating and sustaining multi tactic multi issue and visionary organization, are all gigantic problems for attaining lasting and far reaching change. Yes, we have to do our more familiar activism too, but if we don’t try to solve the large problems, our familiar endeavors won’t add up to winning a new world no matter how much courage, energy, and insight we bring to them.