This is chapter twenty four of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees.
Bertrand Dellinger and Lydia Luxemburg discuss Political and Kinship Vision.
Bertrand, in seeking an overview of values and ideas that formed and still form the foundation of RPS, we have come to vision, and though of course it has been written about, discussed, reviled, advocated, shared, and pursued for a quarter century and is now very well known, maybe you can briefly describe key elements of the political vision of RPS.
When asked what’s your vision, past activists would list societal virtues or accomplishments like equity, justice, and so on.
For RPS, what is your vision means what institutions does RPS favor to attain accomplishments like equity, justice, and self management? Asked what’s your vision, we always describe preferred institutions and their roles, because ignoring that aspect would undercut whatever we might propose regarding values.
So, for politics, RPS recognized that political activity includes legislation of laws, adjudication of disputes, and collective implementation of shared programs. A new political system should of course accomplish these functions, but also produce solidarity and diversity.
We asked, if we are part of a community, state, or country, how must we organize ourselves to attain such results? How must we interact so our decision making will advance each citizen via the advance of all citizens? How might we respect multiple paths forward and not enshrine one right mind or one right path?
We knew polity should have internal structure and role relations that generate fair outcomes, redress past imbalances, prevent future ones, and produce collective self management for all. But how might we organizationally accomplish those diverse aims compatibly with one another?
We knew we needed to respect past experiences and lessons but also to try new ideas. We took the grassroots mechanisms activists tended to spontaneously form as our starting place by seeking nested councils with primary-level councils including every adult in the society in local councils, and some folks elected to higher level councils, and another layer, and another.
Through practical experience we learned that the number of members in each council should be low enough to guarantee that people could be involved in face-to-face discussions, yet high enough to allow an adequate diversity of opinion and ensure that the number of levels of councils accommodating all society was manageable. Twenty five members per council proved a good choice. With twenty five, seven layers would cover even the largest country.
Within each council we had to decide the mandates of representatives and associated responsibilities, procedures of debate and evaluation, and rules of voting and tallying. How should we arrive at a preference for using one approach over another at particular levels and for particular types of decisions?
The RPS answer was that we should in every case seek self-management by methods that would also reliably arrive at wise choices. Likewise, we should protect and pursue diversity. We should maintain solidaritous feelings and practices. We should get things done without debilitating delays.
Reasonable people, we realized, would often disagree about some issue or other. Some people might see the facts of a matter, say abortion or a more local issue of land development, differently than others. Some might calculate incorrectly, say about the merits of some judicial mechanism, while others are accurate. Some might have different priorities, values, or intuitions than others about complex implications of a new law about space travel or pollution, or just putting a new pool in a neighborhood.
We realized that the trick to attaining successful legislative structure would be to have a system that allows collectively and collaboratively self-managed choices in which everyone agrees that outcomes are reached fairly for all and subject to review even while alternative options are still explored. This is what we felt a nested council system, emphasizing participatory deliberations and guided by commitments to self-management, solidarity, and diversity could achieve.
Beyond legislation, however we also knew that judicial systems often address judicial review (are our laws themselves just?), criminal justice (have specific individuals violated laws?), and civil adjudication (how do we resolve disputes?).
We undertook many experiments in how to hold legislation and people accountable and arrived at favoring a court system that would operate with hierarchical levels adjudicating disputed council choices.
Is ours the best approach possible? Can we refine it to better implement self-management? Experimentation, much of which is under way or still to come, will tell.
For criminal matters and also civil adjudication, diverse lawyers and legal advocates proposed and tested various options until we settled on a court system modestly different from what we had had earlier, plus community controlled police with balanced job complexes and remuneration for effort and sacrifice. About police, in particular, there was a great deal of struggle.
Back when RPS was forming police departments were still being militarized, not humanized. Incarceration was soaring and was almost totally punitive. Police still frequently engaged in racist, sexist, and classist violations ranging from harassment all the way through unjust arrest and murder. We had mass struggles over all that, building on the earlier Black Lives Matter movement, featuring demonstrations, rallies, marches, occupations, and strikes. Indeed, prisoner strikes began shortly before RPS got moving and then accelerated greatly. So did actions by families of prisoners and by community members seeking lawfulness instead of repression for their neighborhoods.
The upshot was to reduce the punitive aspect of law enforcement and emphasize rehabilitation. Police function, methods, and control have ever since been challenged with demonstrations, internal organizing, new laws, and community oversight, and by all that substantially transformed – which has been critical, I should say, not only to developing clarity about a new polity, but also about movement relations in the period we have gone through.
Why did RPS’s view of police inspire outrage in many leftists who desired a better society?
Until we have a new society police often act in ways that hurt rather than help all but narrow elites. RPS and other activists had long encountered that, not least when police repressed us. Many concluded that in a new society we must entirely do away with police. Indeed, that was the most prevalent view among our most energetic members in the earliest days of RPS. But going from rejecting aspects of policing to rejecting all possible institutional means of accomplishing worthy police functions was highly controversial.
Can you explain that point a bit more?
This broad type of dispute has come up repeatedly in the history of RPS and prior radicalism as well. For example, governments often hurt rather than help all but narrow elites. Just look at history. They spy, regulate, incarcerate, rob, torture, and murder. Must we, therefore, get rid of all political/government functions?
Workplaces often spew pollution, violate labor, and manipulate consumers, and, in doing so, hurt rather than help all but narrow elites. Must we get rid of all structured workplace institutions?
Families, cultures, schools, journalists, and doctors even today often pursue horribly restrictive and destructive habits and beliefs. Must we get rid of all institutional structures for addressing nurturance, socialization, education, celebration, and communication?
My point is, a person urging rejection of workplaces, police, polity, or families typically claims doing so will liberate the virtues of humanity. Yet, the person is simultaneously saying humanity is too flawed to create institutions to collectively accomplish various social functions without unleashing debilitating effects. While holding up a banner proclaiming human perfection, the critic of having workplace, police, political, or familial institutions ironically assumes human failings preclude institutions having desirable attributes.
Such disputes were surprisingly hard to resolve. Imagine saying we need an improved version of policing to people who had routinely had their heads smashed by a cop or had witnessed a family member gunned down by one. Enormous passions arose. Resolutions weren’t quick. At times people even left RPS, at least for a time, over such matters. Even RPS willingness to retain exploration of ways of dealing with disputes and criminality that did not involve retaining a police function – in case the majority view that that function had to remain, albeit redefined drastically, was wrong – weren’t enough to keep some anti police members involved.
To understand what by now is a virtually non-existent view, imagine you were an RPS member and you had been raped and RPS was saying there is a place for rape, suitably redefined, in the new society we seek. You would be horrified. You would fight the insanity, and if you lost, justifiably decide the new organization was not worth your support and involvement. I think some members who left over RPS retaining policing as part of a new society left with a similar level of disgust and anger. What was admirable about RPS is that even in their absence we kept the exploration of alternatives going. That didn’t lead to eliminating policing per se, but it did lead to many improvements in our understanding of what police training and functions ought to include including our realizing that it is not policing, but adjudication, legal advocacy, and legal decision making that are most difficult to dramatically improve in a better society. That is where issues remain most vague and experimental.
Wasn’t there a strategic aspect to this, too?
Yes, how do we relate to the police now? To put it very starkly, do we treat them as enemies beyond reason or as potential allies to be organized? This discussion had the same passions as the visionary one, but added dimension of immediacy and strategy. Did we better aid prospects for winning changes now, and more later, by treating police like aliens or vicious animals, or by being realistic about their situations and views, but trying to communicate with and even organize them?
There was a barely remembered face-off of sorts about this not long before RPS emerged. A socialist organization that was growing dramatically with an influx of people motivated by fighting Trump had a convention and elected a steering committee.
One candidate, who won, had a long and very impressive history of labor organizing. After the ballot it came out…though anyone looking at his record could have easily known earlier, that he had organized with a police union. Considerable bedlam ensued due to various people feeling that should disqualify him. There was considerable friction. One chapter issued a statement about opposing police violence as if organizing police was incompatible with the view. So, even then, even in a socialist organization, a great many took police organizing not as serious and wise, even essential, activism, but as sell out. That was sad, but it wasn’t long before the ensuing discussion spread new views. The simple truth was that demonizing opponents did nothing to reduce or reverse their opposition, and, as well, made us far less personally admirable.
Lydia, what does RPS say about kinship? How did its views on how to accomplish procreation, nurturance, and socialization emerge?
RPS values implied that kinship roles should enhance solidarity, preserve diversity, apportion benefits and responsibilities fairly, and convey self-managing influence – all as makes sense in every sphere of life. So with that set of desires, many questions arose for us. Should families continue as we now know them? Whatever families we will have, what else should exist? Should upbringing diverge greatly from what we now know? What about courting and sexual coupling? How should the old and young interact with adults and how should adults interact with the elderly and the young?
To fulfill our values, we knew that new kinship relations would have to liberate women and men rather than causing the former to be subordinate to the latter. But how? The truth is, we are still answering.
We knew the gain from transforming kinship would be removing the features that produce sexism, homophobia, and ageism, plus establishing an array of positive improvements that we could only guess at until we had more fully experimented with more complete proposals. But we also knew that not all gender related suffering would entirely disappear. Even in a wonderful society, I might love someone who did not love me. Previously strong ties could wither. Rape and other violent acts might still occur, albeit vastly less often. Social change wouldn’t remove the pain of losing friends and relatives to premature death. All adults would not suddenly be equally adept at relating positively with children or with the elderly, or vice versa.
We thought new relations would eliminate the systematic violation of women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, children, and the elderly, but we also knew that new relations would not eliminate all individual violations. We thought changes would eliminate the structural coercion of men and women, of hetero and homosexuals, and of adults and children into patterns that systematically violate solidarity, diversity, equity, and self-management, but also knew they would not eliminate all individual violations.
What would institutions defining better kinship look like?
RPS knew contemporary societies consign women to less empowering and fulfilling options than men. We had to determine the defining social structures we needed to alter to remove that systematic ordering.
Feminism had long taught that sexism takes overt form in men having dominant and wealthier conditions than women and that it takes more subtle form via longstanding habits of communication and behavior. Feminists had also shown how sexism is produced and reproduced by institutions that differentiate men and women, coercively as in rape and battering, but also more subtly via mutually accepted role differences in home life, work, and celebration. And feminists had shown the cumulative impact of past sexist experiences on what people think, desire, and feel, and on what people habitually or consciously do.
If we wanted to find the source of gender injustice, it stood to reason we had to determine which social institutions – and which roles within those institutions – give men and women responsibilities, conditions, and circumstances that elevate men above women. One structure that had been discussed decades earlier was that men father but women mother. That is, men and women fulfill two quite dissimilar roles vis a vis the next generation and pass on different expectations via those different roles.
Feminists from that earlier time had asked, “What if instead of women mothering and men fathering, women and men each related to children with the same mix of responsibilities called parenting? What if instead of one gender doing the nurturing, tending, cleaning, and other maintenance tasks called mothering, and the other gender doing the decision-based tasks called fathering, both genders did a mix of all the roles called parenting?”
The argument for this said that mothering and fathering are socially and not biologically defined roles. As mothers, women produce daughters who, in turn, not only have mothering capacities but want to mother and not father, while as fathers, men produce sons who not only have fathering capacities but want to father and not mother. We thought about those formulations and decided that perhaps one feature of a vastly improved society would be that men and women both parent. There would be no mothering versus fathering, just parenting.
Before long many young parents, and some older ones too, decided to test this out. You can imagine the intensity of feelings this aroused. Through history, including in your own upbringing, everyone practiced mothering and fathering. Your child’s life is at stake. There are no take backs, no do overs. Nonetheless, you decide to break the mold. We will each parent. That is no small step but had actually begun, piecemeal, for many, without explicit clarity, just trying to make home life more fair, years earlier. But it was in RPS and by its efforts that the practice accelerated and became self conscious. Much of it was simply changing one’s own personal choices, but not all. For example, to have parenting and not mothering and fathering required parental leave for newborn care, not leave for women only, so that battle had to be waged as well.
Another typical structure that had come into question long before RPS for many feminists was the isolated and insular character of the nuclear family. Should child care and familial involvement rest on only one or two biological parents, or should it instead involve many more people – perhaps an extended family, friends, and community members?
It seemed highly unlikely a good society should or even could have rules that required a few typical household organizations and family structures such that everyone would enact only those. We wouldn’t expect adults would, by law, have to live alone, in pairs, or in groups in any one or even in any few preferred patterns. The key point would likely be diversity but also that whatever multiple and diverse patterns existed, each option should embody features that call forth gender equity rather than gender hierarchy. So people have experimented with home life patterns aimed at broadening the care taking and interaction children enjoy, and at enlarging their participation in judgements, as well.
We have been guided by hope that people brought up this way will not only be full, capable, and confident, but also lack differentiations that limit and confine the personality and life trajectories of children to some kind of narrow feminine or narrow masculine mold.
And we have been guided by similar hopes about sexuality and intergenerational relations. We still don’t know what fully liberated sexuality will be like – in all its multitude of preferences and practices – or all the diverse forms of intergenerational relations adults and their children and elders will enter into. But we do believe no one approach will be elevated above all others and that all admired options will preclude purposely producing in people a proclivity to dominate, rule, be subordinate, or obey based on biological sex, sexual orientation, age, or any other social or biological characteristic.
Even 20 years into RPS, we have only rough ideas what sex-gender patterns will emerge in a better future – for example, monogamous and not, hetero, homo, or bi-sexual, and involving transformed caregiving institutions, families, schools, and other spaces for children as well as for adults and the elderly – but we are confident that actors of all ages, genders, and preferences will engage in non-oppressive consensual sexual relations, free from stigma.
Of course there has been much internal dispute about aspects of this. A key thing, however, has been our flexibility and continued study of implications and options right to the present. It was hard to avoid being polarized into aggressive defensiveness when people would accuse us of trying to eliminate families or to wipe out love or childhood. But as with so many other issues, we learned to put a premium on being patient and respectful in such interchanges.
I hope you won’t mind if I ask a question here that stands separate from the above, and is also a bit personal. I know you just turned 75 and I wonder if you would be willing to tell us your feelings about aging?
My father would sometimes repeat this old line to me by a famous poet named Robert Browning. It went “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” Nice rhyme, I guess meaningful to some, and uplifting for them. I didn’t begrudge my father his pleasure at the words, but to me the sentiment was a giant fudge, or even a delusional lie. My father died of Alzheimer’s. In the end he didn’t know who anyone was. Was that best?
For my elderliness, and this is, I think, a bit rare, the couplet carries some truth because the RPS project has been the core of my aims and hopes and is now nearing full success. There is incredible joy and serenity in that. But that welcome companion to my aging – an aspect that brightens each new year – has nothing to do with aging per se, only with when I happen to be lucky enough to be elderly and growing even more elderly.
Aging itself is, let’s be honest, the ultimate scourge of life. Save for rare exceptions, and supposing we avoid other worse ends, aging diminishes, demolishes, and as its climax totally eliminates our mobility. Aging dims, darkens, and finally switches off our conceptual power and even our perception itself. Aging murders our friends, family, and ourself.
I can’t celebrate that. I don’t see a positive point in telling the young to look forward to growing old and I won’t do it. By all means, look forward to learning more and study to make it happen. Look forward to gaining wisdom, and investigate widely to make it so. But look forward to the flip side of late life’s passing years, which is declining capacities? I don’t think so.
RPS is bringing institutions that won’t curb but will instead elevate our human potentials. That’s good. Aging curbs our potentials. That’s bad. Health matters, solidarity matters, and we are causing society to supply each in greater abundance than ever in history, but aging shatters health.
Respect for the achievement and wisdom that duration allows matters, and the new values that are increasingly guiding life choices daily enrich respect. That’s good. Aging adds experiences but dims memories. That’s a mixed bag.
Aging isn’t as devastating for us as it was for our forebears and it will become less devastating still for our children. Celebrate that. The best for society, for humanity, is yet to be and coming on strong. Celebrate that. But for each of us the devolution that is aging remains. Can I offer any positive advice about that now that stairs and even getting up out of a chair, loom as daily obstacles.
Don’t welcome funerals but don’t bemoan age. Stay young of mind and soul as best you can. Even shut age out. Deny its impact, if that works for you. Keep feeling 18 or 30 or whatever age works for you but as athletes used to say, there is no point in denying that Father Time never loses. Here is my own trick. Don’t revel in glory days. Even more don’t measure current accomplishment by yesterday’s criteria. Use what you can muster to do what you desire. Not doing late in life what you could do early in life is not failing. It is inevitable. Not doing late in life what you can do late in life, that is a different story.