This is chapter Seventeen 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. In its seventeenth chapter Leslie Zinn discusses media makeovers.
Bertrand Dellinger and Lydia Luxembourg discuss values at the heart of RPS.
Bertrand Dellinger, born in 1966, you were politicized by no nukes and anti war activism. You became a key advocate of RPS from its inception. You have been a renowned contributor to physics theory, as well as a social critic and militant activist. You were shadow Vice President during Lydia Luxembourg’s term as president, and later you had your own term as shadow President. How did you first get involved?
Like many, I was moved by RPS’s multi-dimensional aspect and it’s emphasis on institutional roles but also RPS’s economics, its moral approach, and the specific values it highlighted. Before I got involved in RPS, I was mainly anti war, internationalist, and worried about global warming and the possibility of nuclear catastrophe. I militantly rejected authority that wasn’t absolutely essential for some specific time-bound reason. I believed in human potential and welcomed that RPS highlighted human needs.
RPS called the value that hooked me “self management,” and it is, of course, the now ubiquitous idea that people should have a say in decisions in proportion as they are affected by them. RPS wasn’t first to favor self management, but RPS made its commitment more precise than others had.
I liked how RPS argued against elitist notions of a few people making decisions for all. I liked how RPS found violations of self management not only in centers of corporate power, but in the dynamics of central planning, markets, electoral systems, religious institutions, and even sexual and family relations and schooling, not to mention in the dynamics of many left organizations.
Indeed, in the early days of RPS, I saw my calling as seeking self management for all people in every side of life. This got a little problematic. It wasn’t that my feeling that self management was incredibly important was wrong – I was correct about that. I was wrong in having one value drive my perceptions so heavily that it overrode other values.
You said you were moved by how RPS found less obvious violations of self management. Can you give an example?
Most people fifty years ago felt they freely chose their work by applying for a job and getting it. They felt they freely chose their consumption by going to the store and purchasing it. They thought, “I didn’t have to take a job or buy particular shoes. I work here or there. I buy this or that. I chose.” But if the jobs we choose all have certain features we can’t escape do we really choose our work? If the items to consume are tightly constrained, do we freely choose?
Imagine you are in prison and go to the commissary and purchase some items. Do you manage your choice? You certainly decided to go to the commissary and you certainly saw the available options and picked among them. However, you had no say in what was and what wasn’t available – yet that largely determined what you wound up with. Outside prison, a wider selection is available, but I saw that it too was horribly constrained by market pressures.
Similarly, when I apply for a job, if my only option is to apply for jobs that are subordinate to a boss and paid a wage based on bargaining power – am I really self-managing my choice? Wasn’t the main choice made before I arrived?
The period about 90 years ago was called the golden age of capitalism. Let’s call the average productivity per hour at that time golden output. Roughly fifty years later, productivity per person was literally twice golden output. Another forty years to the present and it is now 3 times golden output. This means if the average duration of a job per week was 40 hours just under a century back when average productivity per person was called golden, we could have had the same golden output per person in 20 hours a week at the start of this century and in about 13 hours a week now. The reduced duration of work could produce the same wealth per person.
So who decided that instead of working a half or even a third as long as earlier, we would work longer to generate vastly more output, and, on top of that, who decided the fruits of that labor would go to a small percentage of the population or to creating weapons and other useless or harmful outputs? I didn’t decide that. You didn’t decide that. No one we know decided that. In fact, no person decided it. Rather, market competition required that to survive firms had to pursue a profit-seeking path. The institutional context of market allocation took away control over critically important decision making about how long we would work as well as who would get the fruits of our labors.
Consider an election. Candidates routinely lie. They compete to move news and votes where neither would otherwise go. Companies amass gargantuan databases that candidates use to clutter voters’ minds with fear and anger unrelated to actual prospects. I freely pull a lever, but do I freely develop and express my views, or were my views constrained by candidate, party, and corporate machinations? From these examples, I understood more viscerally the diverse prerequisites of self management and the complexity and promise of institutions providing rather than curtailing it.
What about within the left itself? In the period from the 1960s through 2017, the idea of self management existed, but did it operate inside the left?
If you look at media organizations, organizing projects, and movement organizations like unions, ecology movements, anti war organizations, and even feminist organizations during those years, you see little self management. Instead, movement projects looked largely like mainstream institutions. Some participants made decisions. Way more participants were absent from decision making. Donors and fundraisers had incredible power, rather like owners did in mainstream society. People who were analogous to managers and engineers, or who even held the same positions such as editors and publishers in alternative media organizations, wielded great power.
When self management went from rhetoric to practice, it almost always occurred in a transitory situation where it was praised but not implanted in structure. Groups would be more or less collective, but it was a function of people’s attitudes, not of adopting structures that ensured self management.
We had what was called the Occupy Movement, with vast assemblies, using hand votes to attain consensus. Yet, even there, looking more closely revealed that relatively few people called the shots. We had no lasting structures able to deal with more complex agendas and processes.
Debate between tight hierarchical decision making by only a few and incredibly loose raised-hands decision making without lasting structure and with anyone at all voting, had little to do with real self management. RPS started to pressure changes in society’s election procedures, official accountability, and social relations, and also in movement organizations and projects.
I should mention that in the anarchist community, we had always rightly rejected rampant oversight, hierarchy, and authority. However, I have to admit that this had often led many of us to argue we had a right to do as we please, ignoring other people’s right to be free of imposition by our choices. We proclaimed our right to riot at a demonstration, ignoring that our doing so meant others would have to stay away or endure riots. We rejected having lasting rules, laws, and even collective norms, as if every situation had to emerge anew, spontaneously, with no attention to prior agreements, whenever such a stance favored our immediate interests, but we evidenced little concern for the interests of others who were affected.
This was the worst, and certainly not all, of our anarchism, but in any event, RPS’s clear enunciation of collective self management helped focus anarchist values and commitments in ways far truer to the early days of anarchism than the self-centered approaches that had become prevalent for some anarchists before RPS. Indeed, RPS actually improved and strengthened my own anarchism, and propelled much more and better anarchism from others, as well. It was remarkable that at first many anarchists, myself included, resisted the very idea that our commitments could improve, but in time we welcomed change rather than defensively rejecting it.
You said another aspect of RPS ideas that attracted you was how it approached the economy. Can you explain that?
Before RPS, I called two percent or so of the population capitalists, because those folks owned the means by which society produces and distributes goods and services. I called non-owners workers, because those folks owned only their ability to do work. I saw owners and workers clash over wages, length of the work day, pace of work, work conditions, production choices, and national economic policies, but I also missed that about a fifth of non owners have great power and influence due to their position in the economy, while four-fifths of non owners have nearly no power and influence, also due to their position in the economy. Early anarchists had observed this demarcation well over a century before RPS, but until RPS most activists didn’t understand why the difference existed, or that the differences meant there were three main classes – capitalists, coordinators, and workers – not just two.
Seeing the additional class was a graphic instance of utilizing the type of institutional thinking RPS highlighted. We argued that the division of labor in corporations and throughout modern societies gave about 20 percent of non owners empowering tasks and gave about 80 percent of non owners disempowering tasks. Those with the empowering tasks accrued confidence, social connections, organizational skills, information, time, and disposition to affect affairs and define relations. Those with the disempowering tasks became habituated to obedience, fragmented from one another, and separated from information. They knew each other but they knew no one with pull. They suffered shortages of time, became exhausted, and became disposed to escape their alienated subordination as much as possible. RPS additionally explained that the coordinator class members would continue to oversee workers even with owners gone, as long as the same division of labor prevailed.
This last observation shattered my attachment to old forms of post capitalist vision. It made me ask how we might remove the features of economic institutions that gave not only the owning class but also the coordinator class both its power and its inclinations to use its power as it does. It made me ask what new institutions could deliver real classlessness.
While RPS was trying to modestly refine our understanding of race, power, and gender in light of seeing the impact of each on the rest, regarding economics it had to also show how class division arose not only from ownership but also from a corporate division of labor. At first I found it difficult and unfamiliar to understand the third class’s implications in personal human terms and especially in terms of what it meant regarding vision, strategy, and people’s ways of thinking, acting, talking, and writing. But as I did, it became a big part of my becoming deeply committed to RPS.
Did it impact your life choices outside RPS?
Yes, but I initially resisted.
I worked in a major university as a professor and also in a lab. In my workplace, well known scientists were paid more, had better conditions, had more influence, and were, indeed, coordinator class. So there was a real issue. Would I continue to accept the many advantages I enjoyed, which seemed like my right, or would I support efforts seeking balanced job complexes and equitable remuneration?
Powerful pressures for change came from students and newbie scientists, and also from technicians, janitors, and others who worked in traditionally powerless positions.
In contrast, at first nearly all professors resisted. We mostly found it absurd. How could it make sense for us, given all our experience and training, to do a share of cleaning up when we could be writing or doing research? We thought it would cripple science. But in time we learned that our reaction was wrong regarding productivity, much less justice.
The justice part was obvious as soon as we saw all who were involved as equally worthy human beings. The productivity part became compelling when we realized that labs with balanced job complexes were not only more humane and fulfilling, but also reduced the tensions and “office politics,” that so often interfered with doing good work.
We all lived in a diseased world in which it was impossible for anyone to be fully human. One way or another, everyone who lived in our world was restrained or maladjusted. To be chained or flawed was no crime. To ignore our chains or flaws, after they became evident, was a crime.
Lydia, were you as attracted to RPS’s elevation of values as Bertrand? Did RPS’s new attitudes toward class play a role for you as well?
For me RPS’s emphasis on diversity as a basic value had most initial impact. My coming at things as a strong feminist already disposed me toward recognizing the incredible range of options bearing on sexuality, nurturance, and bringing up children. The fact that RPS highlighted and celebrated diversity was a big plus for me. When I came to understand diversity as emanating just as logically from an ecological orientation, it helped further broaden my thinking.
Similarly, RPS wasn’t the first project to urge that people ought to feel solidarity with one another. That was long since familiar. It was the way RPS coupled making values central with understanding institutions that impressed me.
For a value like solidarity, we were pushed by our institutional approach to ask what current social roles impede people feeling solidarity? What would have to happen for society’s various institutions to accomplish their functions and simultaneously foster solidarity? Market competition forced buyers and sellers to fleece each other. Did that create solidarity? Of course not, and RPS’s concepts pushed us to ask why not, and to consider what we could do about it.
Similarly, did families with a male operating with father duties and a female operating with mother duties foster self management or solidarity either in the adults or in their children? No? Okay, then what could we do about it? Government, hospitals, sports, media, malls, city planning, worship, everything warranted this type assessment.
In real societies, what happens in the economy affects everyone who fills economic roles because our economic roles require us to behave in certain ways and respect and implement certain norms. And this holds, albeit with different substance, for any economy, not just for the capitalism that RPS struggles to replace but for the new economy RPS favors, as well.
But RPS says the same thing holds for the institutions of kinship and the ways their roles require certain kinds of behavior from people bringing up kids and relating to one another in families. Kinship roles require that people behave in certain ways, and respect and implement a certain logic.
The economy affects our assumptions, circumstances, beliefs, and habits, and in turn we bring all these affects with us after work and beyond consumption, for example when we are at the dinner table, or in bed, or celebrating holidays, or voting. And similarly, exactly the same holds for kinship’s impact on men, women, and children. Here too the effects are not confined to when we are inside families, say, or with friends, but travel with us into workplaces, places of worship, malls, and voting booths.
RPS shows how societies push and pull into a more or less stable entwined mosaic of all their key parts, as well as how this mosaic can become unstable, and can even be unraveled to become entirely transformed. Even more, it raises the question, What new mosaic should we implement?
Bertrand, what about the last key social value that RPS initially emphasized, equity? Did that resonate for you?
RPS says we should be remunerated for our effort and sacrifice. Each person should enjoy a combination of leisure and work which, overall, affords the same total benefits minus debits as every other person’s mix of leisure and work. We should each get a share of the total social product in accord with the duration, intensity, and onerousness of the socially valued labor we do. If you work longer, harder, or under worse conditions, you deserve to receive more. But you do not deserve more for having special talents or for working in some more valued area, or for working with tools that increase your output, much less for owning property or for simply having sufficient power to take more.
When RPS was just getting started, this norm was completely foreign to the then current ethos of rewarding property, talent, and output. But that was society’s preponderant initial negative reaction toward the innovation RPS favored. You asked about my own reaction.
Having come from an anarchist tradition, the guiding precept “from each according to ability, to each according to need” was a cornerstone of my radical identity and I vigorously defended it like I would defend a spouse or sibling. I had a nice looking banner proclaiming it on a wall in my house. I had a shirt with it printed on the front. I heard the RPS formulation as a step back and even an attack on a central component of my identity. To me, this wasn’t an issue for discussion and understanding. It begged aggressive dismissal.
I later realized my anarchist norm assumed, without describing it, that an accompanying economic arrangement would allow the norm to operate. Additionally, the anarchist norm took for granted that having rules about work and consumption that limit options for each person in light of social circumstances would be intrinsically alienating and oppressive. Later, that seemed strange. After all, why shouldn’t my connections with others impact my options as well as theirs? My earlier views eventually seemed to me anti social even though that was certainly not my earlier intent.
RPS caused me to ask what the norm means if we try to implement it in real relations and I began to realize that while I liked the anarchist slogan for its emotional connotations, I hadn’t seriously examined its practical meaning.
Work to ability? Okay, who will say what my or your ability is? Consume to need? Okay, who will say what my or your need is? Anytime anyone went from abstract discussion to actually considering how to remunerate in some new project, these concerns arose.
If implementing the anarchist norm included someone other than me determining my ability or need it would loose its anti authoritarian impact. But if the norm meant I am free to determine my ability, how much I should work at what tasks, and how much I should get to consume, and that no one other than me should have a say in these determinations, it would let me have for consumption whatever I decided to take and to work however much or little I chose, at whatever job I chose. The norm assumed I will choose wisely, but included no structures, requirements, or mechanisms to facilitate my doing so.
I realized my anarchist “from each to each” norm had two central problems. Producing what we choose, with no attention to how well we are able to do it, would allow people to do things they cannot do well. But even if we ignore that difficulty, the maxim’s first problem is if people strictly obey it and opt for the best result for themselves without assessing the effect on others, society crumbles from there being way too much demand and way too little supply.
In reply, the “from each to each” maxim’s advocates would typically qualify it to accord better with their intentions. They would say their maxim really means that we should take what is fair, given our needs, and we should produce what is fair and needed, given our abilities, where the latter includes only doing work we do well enough so our product has social value. However, I was forced to recognize that with that fix I could commit to being fair, but how would I know what is fair? For that matter, what does fair even mean?
What if someone says that in their view fair is to receive income equal to what their property produces, or equal to how much society values their personal product? No anarchist would abide either view nor would any advocate of RPS. But how does the “from each to each” maxim rule out those choices? Further, whatever I decide is fair, how do I manage to make choices that implement it?
RPS convinced me that the ethically desirable and economically viable norm is that people should get income for how long they work, how hard they work, and the onerousness of the conditions under which they work, as long as their work is socially desired. We can each get that without impinging on others doing so too. RPS crucially added that none of us can make informed decisions without negotiating with one another about production and consumption to reveal both what people want and how much they want it.
This last observation convinced me the dispute wasn’t only about what was ethical. It was also about what information had to be available for people to be able to be ethical. That was when I decided that the RPS norm was consistent with my anarchist desires for equitable outcomes, but that unlike “from each to each,” implementing the RPS norm could reveal needed information rather than obscure it. I later realized the information was also needed for society to orient its future production sensibly in light of changing desires, but the above is what got me initially.
I have been asking folks to recount an event or situation during the rise of RPS that was particularly inspiring for them. Could you do so too, please?
Aside from all the major RPS campaigns and events molding me, I have to acknowledge a particular long running experience. When I was about 18, in 1984, way before RPS, I visited a girlfriend and listened to music she played from the album Another Side of Bob Dylan. The sound started to take over my mind. I don’t know what else to say. I was not one to have a song distract me from anything else, much less 18 year-old night moves, but it started happening, and then I heard “Chimes of Freedom,” and I was enthralled.
I later listened not only to that album but to a whole lot of Bob Dylan. I poured over certain lyrics until I could hear them fully. “Ah, get born, keep warm, short pants, romance, learn to dance, get dressed, get blessed, try to be a success…” I didn’t just look the lyrics up. I wanted to hear them as first listeners did, decades earlier. Some songs I heard clearly right off, others I had to listen to repeatedly to get the words.
I think it was the first time something so cerebral was also so emotive for me. Dylan was the main literary engagement I ever undertook and I truly do believe that my experience of his songs contoured my life journey and especially my revolutionary desires about as much as anything else.
Many of Dylan’s songs opened me to the breadth and depth of injustices in society, to the dangers its structure imposed, to the insanity, to the hypocrisy, and to social hope as well. But less known, Dylan was also an observer of critics of injustice, and as on most topics, he was both way before his time, and able to convey insights way beyond what his practical awareness of activism would seem to have permitted. He seemed to tap into wisdom that he couldn’t have. I don’t know where he got it. I don’t know how he mined it.
Consider this passage from the song “Farewell Angelina.” To my ears it is Dylan not only bidding a very gentle goodbye to Joan Baez, but a less gentle goodbye to the tumultuous movements then growing around the country which Joan wished to still relate to. Activists in those movements should have heard and acted on his words, but didn’t. RPS, in some sense did, I think.
The machine guns are roaring
The puppets heave rocks
The fiends nail time bombs
To the hands of the clocks
Call me any name you like
I will never deny it
The sky is erupting
I must go where it’s quiet
For Dylan, activists were the puppets, even the fiends, and he sought quiet. The movements of the day largely lost their best political muse, their best political troubadour, though Dylan’s social brilliance went on and on.