Justin Podur: You recently completed an unusual book RPS/2044. Can you first tell us what it is?
Michael Albert: I think the publishing industry would call it an alternative history novel. In it, Miguel Guevara from a time-shifted version of the U.S., interviews 18 participants in Revolutionary Participatory Society, or RPS, the organization and movement successfully transforming his society. Guevara merges his interviewees’ answers into thirty chapters recounting and assessing their experiences. In Guevara’s time his work constitute an oral history. Conveyed to our time, it presents a possible future for us to consider.
You have written many books, but never fiction. Kathy Kelly called RPS/2044 “a fictional leap into a future where survival is enabled and sanity prevails,” and a “gamble on literature, in the form of meaningful fiction, to help readers puzzle through crucial ethical questions.” Why did you make this “gamble on literature”?
I think “literature” is overly kind, but, as you say, I have written often, though never fiction. I even have another book just out called Practical Utopia, from PM Press, which also highlights concepts, vision, and strategy, though in a non fiction mode. So why fiction?
I have long thought a novel could better convey the personal dimensions of social change, and better aid it, than the writing I was doing. But I knew a novel required skill at developing plot and characters. I thought Arundhati Roy, Barbara Ehrenreich, or even more obviously, Kim Stanley Robinson could write that, but not me. So my writing an oral history is a compromise. It reads like fact. I know interviews. The protagonist is a movement, not an individual. The writing less daunting. I could just channel the views of the many folks involved. And indeed, I would type, yes, but it felt like I was transcribing Miguel and his interviewees.
John Pilger says of RPS/2044, “Mike Albert is attempting here something I wouldn’t dare – a description of a revolution in the future based on the mayhem of today. Aldous Huxley and George Orwell did something similar and provided us with ways of measuring our regression. In an era when the dominant propaganda attempts to convince us we are living in an ‘eternal present’ (Time magazine), this original and wonderfully ambitious project feels like a welcome antidote.” If Pilger wouldn’t dare attempt it, did you feel any trepidation before attempting it?
For years I had wanted a novel to exist but never even tried. That was more than trepidation…I knew I would bollix it. But having Miguel ask questions, and having the interviewees answer from their diverse backgrounds and situations seemed a much simpler literary task so I decided to try. Still, I was and I remain nervous.
I think Pilger may have also meant that he wouldn’t try to describe possible future events at all. And I wouldn’t either, as prediction or as blueprint. But as one path that might broadly occur for us, and that did occur for others, why not? If we can’t envision that, albeit roughly and flexibly, however risky it may seem, how do we intelligently fight to win fundamental change? But the interviewees are very careful and very forthright about their history being their’s, and our future being up to us.
Florian Zollmann comments that “much progressive writing aims to expose the machinations and effects of power politics. Far too few books reveal realistic alternatives to the societal status quo. Even fewer works highlight sensible political strategies to reach a better world. Michael Albert’s new book RPS/2044 perfectly fuses visionary and strategic thinking for political activism. Guided by a sophisticated vision for a participatory society, RPS/2044 provides a multitude of personal and collective practical examples that can be emulated by people and movements during their day-to-day struggles for a better world. RPS/2044 is a must-read for anyone concerned with the current trajectory of society and how to change it.” Does Zollman capture what you were trying to do?
He certainly captures my intentions. I can only hope his kind assessment is warranted. Zollman is right there are way too few books – articles, talks, or films – about realistic positive alternatives. And like him, I can imagine folks emulating elements of the interviewees’ future, but I can also see people adapting, refining, or transcending elements of it, of course.
So is the book a “must read” for anyone concerned to change society, as Zollman says? We’ll see. But I think we can confidently say addressing positive possibilities to better win them is a “must do.”
RPS/2044 is pretty long at a time when articles are getting tweet-like and books are getting article-like. Stephen Shalom says its interviewees “tell their personal stories, advocate their favored positions, respond to their critics, and describe their fears and feelings. They discuss income in a just society, relating to lesser evil candidates, the pros and cons of markets, the role of violence in social change, connecting race, gender, and class agendas, overcoming sectarianism, generating mutual aid, building lasting organization, conducting effective boycotts, strikes, and occupations, planting seeds of the future, and much more, always via an engaging fictional emotive format.” How did you choose what to include? Are there elements in the book that could happen or not happen, as opposed to everything in the book being central to a good future?
Shalom’s list is representative. And it will sound strange, I know, but I didn’t choose what to include. I decided who would ask the questions and who would answer them, and their background. But once that was done, Guevara and the interviewees were in charge. The twenty of them didn’t collude with each other about topics, and I didn’t look over their output and decide we need more of this or less of that. Asked a question, each interviewee answered unaware of the answers others gave, as would be true for any real oral history. So the book includes what they said to Guevara, given their backgrounds and priorities. For myself, reading it, I think the key point for all the interviewees wasn’t covering some comprehensive list of issues, but covering particular issues that allowed them to tease out the lessons they wanted to convey.
Since I can imagine doubts, to further make the point about “channeling,” suppose you were to read Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal Lector’s words and deeds are his, not Thomas Harris’, in all ways that matter. The same goes in this case, albeit I overwhelmingly like and respect the characters rather than seeing them as pathologically deviant. Still, their words are their’s.
On the other part of your question, the interviewees indicate what they deem central to winning a good future. For example, prioritizing all sides of social life and winning various pivotal economic, political, cultural, and kinship changes. Overcoming sectarianism, attaining mutual aid, and fulfilling key organizational aims. Avoiding electoral cul-de-sacs while using and winning elections. Overcoming reformism while winning reforms. Avoiding violence while mastering militant multi-tactical approaches. But the detailed events, campaigns, struggles, discussions, and debates, and they recount many, are of course contingent. They appear because they occurred in the interviewees’ experiences, but they certainly aren’t mandatory even for winning the same goals the interviewees won.
Also commenting on the book, Noam Chomsky said, “More than anyone I know, Mike Albert has emphasized the need to relate long-term vision to devising practical strategies for today. This imaginative oral history from the future is a provocative and most welcome contribution to this urgent and ever-present task.” Bill Fletcher in turn called the book “the most unusual and intriguing combination of prophecy, manifesto and movement-building manual that I have ever encountered.” I have to ask again, are you in fact predicting the future, pleading for a particular future, or just trying to write an engaging novel with some political impact?
RPS/2044 is not predicting but it certainly wants to engage. Its interviewees present key aspects of a better future and lessons about winning, but their aim is to inspire folks to take seriously future possibilities and develop their own priorities.
Cynthia Peters says your characters “share the strategies that brought about victories, the breakthroughs in healing the divides that kept people apart, and the discipline and commitment that was necessary to survive tumultuous but exciting times.” She adds that “in current times, we know a lot about what’s wrong, and we have access to reasonably effective short-term tactics. But long-term strategy and vision are largely missing from our movements. With RPS/2044, we get a taste of what it could look like – a large-scale, radical overturning of current systems, which then puts in place new systems based on solidarity, diversity, and equity. This work fills a huge gap in our social movement literature.” Milan Rai adds that RPS/2044 “is a generous offering of well-grounded hope for desperate times. I can’t imagine any point on the political spectrum that won’t benefit from engaging with and arguing over RPS/2044.” So who do you hope will read it, and who do you think will read it?
I think Peters identifies my priority reason for trying fiction: to better convey the feelings, sympathies, and personal attitudes that can form and sustain winning movements. Her comment highlights an effect I hoped for. I also hope that a wide range of people will read RPS/2044. For example, people who supported Sanders but also anarchist revolutionaries who were critical of him. Feminists, gay activists, and also BLM advocates and activists. Local grass roots organizers and also trade unionists. Green Party members, environmental justice organizers, and climate activists and supporters. DSA members and also left liberals seeking more than their Party offers. Those frightened of Trump, and, yes, also those who voted for Trump because their communities are collapsing, their health is suffering, and their incomes are plummeting.
So, like Rai urged, I of course hope people all across the spectrum will read the book. I can even think of specific individuals outside the usual vocal readership of radical books it would be great to hear from about it, and listing some of those will reveal just how wide my hope spreads.
For example, the book talks a lot about electoral politics and related campaigns, so how about Sanders, Warren, and Stein reading it? Their reactions would certainly be instructive. It includes a Hollywood star in a pivotal role, and has much discussion of related Hollywood activism , so how about Danny Glover, Susan Sarandon, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck reading it? Sports-related activism plays a big role too – so how about Colin Kaepernick reading it, LeBron James, Serena Williams, or even Tom Brady? I’ll read Brady’s “get fit” book if he’ll read this “win a better world” book. Dylan and Springsteen are in the playlist, how about them?
I suspect the above will sound outrageously unrealistic, but why? If I or anyone really thinks RPS/2044 is a must read for anyone concerned about society, why doesn’t that imply wanting lots of diverse readers? Why couldn’t “anyone concerned about society” include the people mentioned, as well as the constituencies mentioned?
We who devote ourselves to social change often presuppose our own failure. We set our sights not on the prize, but on not being embarrassed. We set our bar of accomplishment so low it is barely off the ground. A great hockey player, Wayne Gretzky, said, “You miss 100% of the shots you never take.” I make plenty of mistakes, we all do – but I avoid trying for so little that I can’t possibly fall short. Saying what is wrong with Trump, racism, sexism, or capitalism is important – but how often should we do that to the same people who already agree, and in the same ways? Saying what can come next and how to get it, is harder, sure, but isn’t that also important, and isn’t it a task far less undertaken and therefore needing far more attention?
But you also asked who I actually think will read the book, not just who I hope will read it, and I think that depends. If RPS/2044 is a crummy read, then hopefully very few will read it at all, much less finish it. But if the various activist/scholars you have so supportively quoted in your questions are right about the book’s merits, then who reads it will depend on many variables outside[ the book’s own merits.
First and foremost, will people even hear about it to know it exists to be read? Second, will people write reviews and other commentary that indicates reading RPS/2044 won’t be a lone endeavor with no follow-up, but that others will read too, and exchanges will occur? With none of that, I think RPS/2044 will have at most a few thousand readers. On the other hand, with lots of reviews and with reader discussion and postings establishing momentum, there could be ten thousand, and perhaps even a few tens of thousands, or more. For a book as for organizing, momentum matters. And not taking shots guarantees you don’t score.
If RPS/2044 attracts only a few thousand readers, they will likely all be folks who anticipate agreeing. If it has ten or even tens of thousands of readers, they will include many from among the broader constituencies I mentioned earlier, like say, Sanders supporters. But suppose some of the better known individuals I mentioned relate to the book. Then, how many?
The above answer applies to all books and even all media. I remember back when John Landau saw a very early Bruce Springsteen concert and wrote in a review, “I have seen the future of Rock and Roll and his name is Bruce Springsteen.” Without that gigantic push motivating other reviewers to also review him, maybe Bruce would have remained a small audience act. With the boost, Springsteen’s visibility was huge and his songs still shine on. So, who knows, maybe Sanders or Kaepernick or someone will write, “I have seen the future of the U.S., and it’s name is RPS.” Is my hoping for that, or that Danny Glover or Susan Sarandon will produce a film, or that Damon and Affleck will write a new screenplay called “Good Will Winning,” over the top? Maybe, but maybe not. They all could, couldn’t they?
If people agree with those who have commented on the book and want to help promote it, what can they do?
They can get it, read it, and if they then think it warranted, they can tell family or friends about it. They can use social media to increase the book’s visibility. They can write a reader’s review on Amazon, I am told those matter a lot. If so moved, they can write a review for the Nation, Truthout, ITT, Jacobin, Counterpunch, Common Dreams, Telesur, Red Pepper, ROAR, New Internationalist, or anywhere else, and send to Z too, in case “anywhere” isn’t receptive. They can also urge periodicals or sites to address it.
How should people use the web site that accompanies the book? How would people use the video music playlist? And can people really question the book’s interviewees, receiving answers from the future, as it were?
The site, at rps2044.org, is set up precisely to promote discussion, exploration, refinement, and improvement. It has forums and people can post blogs too. It posts reviews, essays, and testimonials we hear about, and there is already quite a lot of that.
The playlist? I guess people should just enjoy it and if so moved, suggest refinements, too. And yes, there is a section of the site that not only has very brief biographies of the interviewees, but also means to send any interviewee questions, which he or she will answer on the site…and I think there are about 20 questions and answers already there.
What would you consider a successful outcome, a failed outcome? What do you think will determine which it turns out to be?
Imagine you give a talk and ten people attend, or 500. In the first case, suppose your words and ideas so inspire and enlighten one of the ten that she goes on to have incredible impact on hundreds, thousands, or even millions of other people. As you leave the talk, it could feel like it was a compete failure – the nine others may even have hated your talk, and the one who benefitted might have left without saying a word. So you exit wondering if you should ever speak in public again.
In the second case, suppose the audience of 500 loves what you say – not least because they already agree with it. In that case, suppose no one is changed by the experience, but afterwards they line up and praise and celebrate you. You may leave feeling elated and accomplished. Of course, in truth, unbeknownst to you, your seemingly failed talk was incredibly successful and your seemingly successful talk accomplished nothing.
If RPS/2044 inspires and edifies, if it provokes others to do better than I have done, if it contributes to building organization, campaigns, and movements that contribute to eventually winning a new society, then it is a success. If it does none of that, then it fails.
Since having more readers doesn’t guarantee but certainly enhances prospects of success, I think reviews and other efforts to reach audience and pursue discussion and related activism will decide the outcome, unless, of course, the various early testimonials are wrong and the book is boring drivel. In that case, folks should ignore the book, but try to find ways to help inject steadily more visionary and strategic insight, long-term orientation, and ambitious, winning attitude into current anti Trump and other activism. But if the testimonials are right and the book has merit, we should try to get it out and around, and I thank you for helping with that by your questions!