Albert: What were some of the key political influences and events in your early politicization? Why do you think you went in the directions you did, as compared to many other people you knew, friends and siblings, etc., who did not follow such a path?
Peters: My mother was an early civil rights activist and advocate for all sorts of social justice issues. I watched her struggle to have a voice in a man’s world. It never came easily to her, and she paid a huge price for stepping out of typical wife/mother roles, but she never gave up. She gave me a strong sense that right and wrong matter, and that you should take a stand.
My father was a career CIA man. We battled constantly from the time I was about 8 years old and watching images of the Vietnam War on television. I couldn’t understand why he – a great big powerful grown-up – wasn’t doing anything to stop it. When I questioned him about it, he argued with me about the politics of the war – even though I was just very young and obviously looking for emotional support not an intellectual debate. However, he always engaged me in serious debate. As much as I hated it, perhaps I took from it the possibility that my ideas were serious and that I should develop them and get better at understanding issues and winning arguments. I imagine I became a leftist because my mother taught me to open my eyes to the world around me, and my father taught me to be a thinker.
When do you think you learned most of what you now believe, most became who you now are?
I can’t point to any one time period because I am still evolving. I studied Social Thought and Political Economy at UMASS/Amherst where there were a bunch of Marxists in the economics department, and my interdisciplinary major let me read widely in radical social theory. In my 20s, I did all sorts of political work – with Teamsters for a Democratic Union in Detroit, a rape crisis center in Atlanta, the Central America solidarity movement, the anti-nuke movement, etc. They were all formative for me – teaching me that organizing works but also that single issue organizing has limits.
Working with the South End Press collective for 13 years, starting immediately after college, exposed me to excellent political analysis, dedicated collective members, and wonderful writers. Your work, Michael, along with Robin Hahnel, has had a huge impact, and not just your writings, but the model of your persistence. Doing organizing in Boston with dedicated, skillful organizers from a wide range of grassroots groups has continually challenged me to build bridges between analysis, strategy, and the day-to-day work. In particular, City Life/Vida Urbana with its powerful organizing model and method of fighting for reforms in a way that forwards a deeper critique of capitalism and systemic oppression has been a key influence on me. Attaching myself to people who help keep me honest and who help me keep evolving is key – all my friends and comrades at Z who read my stuff and discuss ideas with me, all the other Z writers and writers for other alternative media who keep me informed and understanding the workings of empire in all its permutations, my fellow activists in Boston, and my family.
A big part of your life has been alternative media. Tell us how you got started and why you worked on it so long?
I got started in alternative media when I got a job at South End Press in 1983 when I was 22 years old. Those were extremely formative years from me, as I had the privilege to work closely with other members of the collective and with so many amazing writers. South End Press felt like a very lively place that both reflected the movement and drove the movement. The books we published often had a holistic analysis that looked at the problem using a race/class/gender lens; we published books that went beyond critiquing the status quo and included strategy and vision; our books directly informed the movements of the time and were informed by those movements. It was very exciting to be part of that.
I was on the editorial board of Radical America; I edited Dollars and Sense for a while; I worked at Gay Community News; I currently edit The Change Agent; and I’ve been an independent writer and editor for many years. I keep at it because information and analysis matter. The airwaves are clogged with messages that beat us into submission and reinforce the status quo. Keeping open a space for alternative ideas to emerge is critically important.
Looking broadly at alternative media – your first-hand involvement and also, what you know about – what have been the main successes, do you think? What have been the areas where you think things might have gone better?
The main success, I suppose, is that our message has actually gotten across. So many people employ a “new left” analysis. For example, it is quite common to find grassroots organizations using a race/class/gender analysis in their work. It didn’t come from nowhere. It came from progressives making that analysis available – often through the alternative media – and often with very few resources and in competition with the mainstream media which is controlled by a handful of multinational corporations and promotes a very narrow range of “thinkable thoughts.” The existence of the alternative media meant that we successfully expanded that range of thought. You had to look to find our books and our articles, but they were findable.
Furthermore, because of the alternative media, people understand how U.S. imperialism works, how corporate domination works, how racism, sexism, and homophobia hurt. When a new permutation of oppression arises – another war in the Middle East, a new economic crisis that predictably enriches the few and impoverishes the many, there are tons of materials already available to help you understand how the beast works. Again, this didn’t come from nowhere, but rather from vibrant movements of ordinary people communicating their messages (largely) through the alternative media and dedicated writers who often took no small risk (to their careers, say) by raising their voices through alternative channels.
What we could have done better over the years is figure out how to stand in solidarity with each other rather than compete for scarce resources. We could have spent less energy trying to convince people of how bad things are and spent more time helping movements strategize and mobilize for deeper change. We should have figured out how to move beyond “preaching to the choir.” An important evolution in alternative media that is urgently needed is accessibility; we need to reach people who read at a lower literacy level. This demographic is enormous. 90 million adults in the U.S. (according to a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Education) probably can’t read most of what is written in the alternative media. Thus, not only are we preaching to the choir, but our writing is oriented toward people with college degrees. Why is that?
You have been involved for a long time, now, with community organizing. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences?
Organizing (real organizing – not just random actions against the bad guys) seems to me to be the most important work we can be doing right now. For that reason, it is both the most energizing part of my life and the most discouraging. What can I say? I have been active for decades in all sorts of organizations, issues, and movements (international and domestic) – in the context of school, community, and unions – and while beautiful, transformative things have happened in these spaces, there is also so much dysfunction that it is really quite unnerving.
Along with analysis, strategy, and vision, the left needs to find more ways to contribute to healing. Even the best anti-racist analysis doesn’t get you very far if you don’t have a way for individuals in the movement to heal from the pain racism causes or to productively handle the moments when it erupts (and it does erupt – quite often!). Same with sexism, classism, homophobia, and all the other oppressions. And this is an ongoing process; I’m not sure it’s ever a chapter you can put behind you. Ideally, healing is integrated into the work and not isolated from it. When we are in the struggle with other people, when we are all fighting for our life together, we grow to love each other and that experience of solidarity is very sustaining. We are less judgmental; we are warmer toward each other; we have concrete ways to rise above our prejudices and experience each other’s humanity.
At City Life/Vida Urbana where I have been active for a long time, we hold each other up in numerous ways. Yes, we block each other’s evictions, show up to intimidate investors at the auctions, and organize mass rallies for more just housing policies. But at the meetings, I have also seen an incredibly effective spur-of-the-moment suicide intervention that brought one tearful, despairing woman into the embrace of the whole group. I’ve seen the autistic child of one of the members positively blossom in the context of a community that made him feel important, treasured, and listened to. I personally was held accountable (in the best of all possible ways) for doing a clueless white person type of behavior. The victim of my cluelessness got very angry with me. Then she accepted my apology and we got back to work. She did not send me on a crippling guilt trip; she did not trash my entire existence or shame me to my core. She just got really good and pissed, trusted me enough to show it, and then moved on. For me, it was a relief to be both held accountable and treated like a comrade. For her, I think, it was a relief that she could show her real self and know that the long arc of our organizing together would help us sustain the friction.
White people (men, straight people, all people) will probably always (or at least for a very long time) engage in offensive behaviors that spring from some level of cluelessness. Why should that surprise us? And yet, how many organizations expect that, allow for it, and engage with it, at the same time side-stepping paralyzing guilt and shame?
Looking broadly at community organizing – your own and what you know about – what do you think have been the main successes? What have been the areas where you think things might have gone much better? What lessons do you think we might usefully draw?
The main success is that we have amazing, diverse grassroots organizations working on a wide range of issues, mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people to make real change.
Another success is that some people and organizations are attempting to build relationships across our “silos.” One example of this is the Radical Organizing Conference (ROC), which I’ve been involved with for the past 12 years or so. The idea is that we know so many organizers in Boston are radical – meaning they desire systemic change that addresses the “roots” of the problems we face. We acknowledge that much of our day-to-day work can only realistically be aimed at reform, but we want to get together to think about how our reform work can more effectively take aim at the system. We have staged about a dozen conferences and many educational workshops throughout the year in an attempt to raise consciousness about the need for a unified movement and some left infrastructure that can help support a mobilized grassroots base. Our conferences have been packed and enthusiasm is always high, yet there is a fatal flaw. At the end of each conference, we spend an hour on “next steps.” We collect scores of ideas – ranging from “let’s go to each other’s picket lines” to “let’s have more potlucks” to “let’s keep educating ourselves” to “let’s start a new organization.” We dutifully write the ideas down on butcher paper. Sometimes we do voting to see if any idea holds any particular sway. It’s all very democratic and it falls flat. The good news is: we know the Radical Organizing Conference is on to something important. The bad news is: we don’t yet have the capacity or the buy-in (or maybe it’s a failure of nerve?) to go beyond these serial blasts.
This is community organizing’s biggest failure: we have not figured out how to unite in a way that allows us to address the systems that keep giving rise to the horrors that we continue to address in a single-issue way. We are too campaign-oriented. We too often mobilize for big *actions* that give us a temporary boost and a moment or two of visibility but lead nowhere because they are not part of a larger strategy. We have gotten completely imbedded in the non-profit industrial complex, driven by large and (ironically) often corporate funders who want to keep us focused on short-term reforms – basically doing the work of patching up the increasingly frayed social safety net. Therefore, in a twisted way, we are sometimes the handmaidens of capitalism (and other oppressive forces) because we are dulling its sharpest edges, so the whole thing is more functional.
Perhaps most critically, we have failed to morph all our community organizing into a large, diverse Left with a functioning infrastructure that gives people a movement “home” that will allow them to continue growing and evolving from the single issue that brought them into the movement.
Even more, in your own experiences, what is most frustrating in the sense not only of personal feelings of waste, irrationality, etc., but also as factors that impede progress? Again, what might best be done about it?
The most frustrating thing about doing organizing is that we seem chronically unable to address the movement-building piece of our work. This seems like the height of irrationality (and co-existing with this irrationality is extremely personally challenging). Yet perhaps it is not so irrational after all. Perhaps what’s really going on is that people have different aims. They are not actually in it to win real power; they are in to reduce capitalism’s harm or to win short-term gains. These are good goals, but they are not my ultimate goals. Those of us who want to win systemic change have to figure out why so many people are willing to settle for short-term reforms. Maybe, as you, Michael, have argued, they believe there is no alternative, in which case there’s no point in engaging in long-term struggle, and you might just as well use your energy to improve people’s lives in the short-term. There is a lot of truth to that argument, and so we should be trying to address that.
People also refrain from long-term struggle because of cultural factors peculiar to the United States. The social/cultural pressure to see ourselves as individuals rather than as members of the community severely hinders our ability to imagine what grassroots power could look like. There are other factors, too, such as a history of infighting and sectarianism, which raises the possibility that any attempt to unite will actually make things more fractured than they already were. And there are other factors, too, that make it hard to move forward some of which I addressed in “Talking Back to Chomsky.”
You have been involved in the development of ideas bearing on what has been called participatory society, mainly the gender aspects, but also more broadly. Why? That is, why give time to such pursuits – vision? What do you hope will come from it?
The reason I worked on developing ideas for a participatory society is because I want to be able to organize around not just what is wrong but around what could be so great. I’d like to convince people to join us because there is some sign that life could be better, and to do that, you need to have some level of articulated vision. Still, it is very hard to hold the vision work along with the day-to-day organizing work. I’m not sure a single person I do organizing with even knows that I have written on kinship vision. If you want a symbol for how much bridge-building we have to do, I suppose that could serve as one.
A related question – of late, really for years now but in an escalating manner, we see a strange conjunction of dynamics regarding issues of gender. On the one hand, women have advanced tremendously in a country like the U.S. in terms of access, rights, stature, etc. Half the students in medical schools are women, as but one indicator. On the other hand, there is what appears to be a very strong resurgence of many of the most visible signs of sexism in society – subordination of women – of a cultural sort. Thus, high heel shoes are ubiquitous again – even though they have long been considered a sign of and even contributor to subordination of women. So, on TV, virtually every woman wears them, sometimes ludicrously high – even as they are district attorneys, lawyers, doctors, strong, assertive, etc. To someone my age, it seems incredibly contradictory. I would what you make of it?
I don’t get how anyone can wear high heels, but I have plenty of feminist friends and two feminist daughters who wear them on occasion. Maybe they’re suffering from false consciousness, or maybe we have different taste in fashion. I tend to think it’s the latter. (Historically, high heels have been worn by various demographics, including upper class men.) Someday, when we have our better society, anyone who wants to will wear heels and if high heels send a provocative sexual message, it will be a playful and empowered one that no one is forced into or victimized by.
But your question raises an important point. The women’s movement helped women win rights (so now we have more women lawyers; women are allowed to have birth control; etc.), but it fell short of addressing underlying misogyny, which is still rampant. The culture hates women. Why? What are men so afraid of? What are the roots of this hatred and how does it take special shape in the current historical moment? That’s a topic for another interview. For now, suffice to say that while our short-term goals might be for increased rights (and access to existing privileges), our long-term goals must be for liberation – so that no one is held to some rigid notion of gender or sexuality and so that the whole system of doling out privileges based on how well you fit into prescribed norms is blown apart.
You are a member of IOPS – International Organization for a Participatory Society. Again, why? What do you hope will come from that?
I am a member of IOPS because I think it is important for us to be working on multiple levels at the same time – organizing in our communities, analyzing events as they occur on a macro scale, strategizing how to accomplish short- and long-term goals, and developing an idea – a vision – for where we want to go.
What do you think are the most promising things you see around you, that give you a degree of hope about the future?
I have two daughters and I know many young people who are right in the middle of this work. I see how they have benefited from previous generations. I see them incorporating lessons, building on the work older people have done, and merge/purging it all in a way that feels hopeful. They and their peers are starting out their political lives understanding how systemic oppression works. With this as their starting place, maybe they and their peers can figure out a strategy for addressing it. In this country, I see hope in this new generation of activists. I was inspired by the occupy movement. I see sectors of organizing that could catch hold and be leaders of a major new movement – such as the low-wage workers’ movements, the Right to the City, the immigrant rights movement, the anti-prison movement, and some unions. From abroad, I get hope from the Bolivarian revolution, the massive movements in Spain and Greece, the Arab spring, the unbelievable heroism of the Palestinian people, events like the World Social Forum, and many others. There are lots of signs that we humans have good minds and hearts, that we can be creative and cooperative and act in solidarity with each other, that another world is possible.
What do you see as the most daunting obstacles or problems that activists have to address and deal with, to make progress – and if you have ideas about how?
The most daunting obstacle is our failure to believe that we can win. We must somehow address this obstacle. Then we must make a strategy for winning and set about to win. We can start by sitting in a room together to make a plan, as Luke Elliott so eloquently argued. If we are afraid to win because we don’t know what winning will look like or because we’re afraid of what trying to win will look like, we must address those fears. Along the way, we must take care of each other and build movements that incorporate healing and love.
You know that bumper sticker that instructs us to practice random acts of kindness? I hate that slogan. And it’s as if our social change movements are modeled on that very idea. It’s as if we see that the shit is raining down on us, and instead of building a real shelter, we decided to run around with umbrellas and randomly shelter people for brief moments. It’s an act of kindness! What’s not to love? Occasionally, we alternate the random act of kindness with a random act of rage. Please. There is no better recipe for burnout. And yet our organizing often feels exactly like that – random; and the excuse we tell ourselves is that at least we’re doing something. Random will get us exactly nowhere. Careful, deliberate, strategic acts that mobilize us to gain power – will get us where we need to go.