What Went Wrong

Some movement activists believe that whatever has been, had to be. To me, this is very strange. On a large scale, suppose  the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs had missed. T-Rex and friends would might still be cavorting and you and I and our species might be unborn. Goodbye human history.

Or suppose the dark ages hadn’t brightened. And but for a few events, the dark ages could indeed plausibly have lasted another couple of thousand years, as Pahronic Egypt lasted about 4,000 years, or longer, with almost no change. That would have meant overwhelmingly different human history.

Or suppose the Nazis had won World War Two. It could have happened. Much of the world might have emerged more or less as it did, but much else would have differed – so that too would have meant a somewhat different human history. However, these observations are not particularly informative for current movement practices.

In 2014 there is pain and suffering everywhere. A more meaningful hypothetical question is could our path, starting a half century ago and unfolding to the present, have been quite different had we acted differently? Could different choices have dramatically altered our current situation? In the half century since 1964 could we have attained a vastly better situation?  Had we made different choices, could we now be approaching liberated societies around the world?

Some take pleasure in answering this question “no.” They agree that things could have been a lot worse if we had made worse choices. For example, if Khrushchev had been as irresponsible as the Kennedy brothers we could have had a nuclear war over the Cuban Missile Crisis.

But they quickly add to that admission that while things could have been much worse due to people making worse choices, they could only have been marginally better due to people having made better choices. In that view, history’s flow was and presumably is largely written in the material conditions of the times, and for this half century material conditions precluded doing much better than we did. For this perspective, no different movement actions, beliefs, or choices could have generated significantly greater success, because significantly better outcomes were simply unattainable.

When someone suggests that different movement choices could have accomplished more, people who gave their life trajectories to those movements  often rush to defend themselves and their allies. I have many friends for whom criticisms of the New Left Movements of the Sixties, or the No Nukes movement in the Eighties, or the most recent Occupy movements just yesterday, and all the other movements interspersed over the past half century, hit them like body blows. They clench up and protect themselves. They frequently even lash out in reply.

My view may be no less subjectively driven than theirs, but it yields a completely different attitude. I eagerly seek flaws in our past. I want to reveal that if we had made better choices, we would now be better off. I want myself and others to be in some sense culpable for the relative failure of the past half century – because that would mean that starting now, new actors could learn lessons and do better.

Suppose we achieved much less than we sought even though we were perfect in our efforts. Yes, we wouldn’t have to feel an iota responsible for the current condition. However, there would be nothing for anyone to do better, next time. To me, that would be profoundly depressing.

So what went wrong? Was it nothing? Did my generation and those that followed over this past half century do all we could have done, and do it as well as possible? Did we achieve less than we sought because it wasn’t in the stars to get better results? Or did we accomplish less than we sought because there were things we did that we could have done better, or things that we didn’t do but should have  done?

If we want the truth to be that our choices could have been better so that others can take lessons and themselves do better, we should look to see if we can find what, in fact, could have been done better. To find avenues for improvement is the point. And I am not talking about a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil causing a tornado in Kansas, or an errant Asteroid, helping us out. I don’t care about anything beyond our influence. I am asking, were there better choices that our past half century of movements could have made without us needing to have been different people, or needing to have been living in a more amenable context?

I have written about this often, and I have offered many possibilities. Here I repeat a few, briefly, in hopes of spurring folks to think more deeply about this matter. The aim isn’t finding fault. The aim is doing better in the future.

Think of it like a sports team doing a post mortem on a bad season. The point shouldn’t be, to punish teammates psychologically or materially or any other way. The point should be to find areas for improvement. The purpose of the season’s post mortem should be future improvement, not past recrimination.

Going back fifty years, and considering every step thereafter, I think we could have been far more intelligently “intersectional.” It shouldn’t have taken decades of graduate academics to see what was in front of our noses. It required, instead, just a willingness to see, well, what was in front of our noses. Civil rights activists, anti war activists, feminist activists, labor and anti capitalist activists, environmental activists, fifty years ago, and ever since, could easily have seen – as some did – that the dynamics of racial, gender, sexual, power, class and ecological institutional arrangements each exist in context of all the rest. We could have realized that we couldn’t fully understand the situation of an individual based on looking at influences from only one or two of these dimensions of life without also accounting for the rest and for their often mutually enforcing and sometimes mutually contradictory implications.

Even more important, we could have recognized that the stronger any one of these realms of influence is, the more likely its effects will pervade all other realms to the point that the other realms reinforce the first. If gender dynamics are really powerful – as they are – then they will impact all other dimensions of social life, including molding those other dimensions to accord with and even to continually reproduce sexism. And we could have realized that that  means that to address sexism successfully, one has to not only address specifically gender relations and institutions, but also economic, political, and cultural institutions and relations, because gender will have impacted all those other domains to the point where they too produce sexist outcomes.

Similarly, we could have realized that if class is really important – as it is – then to address class successfully we will have to not only explicitly address specifically economic institutions, but also gender, political, and cultural, institutions, because, again, class pressures will have molded all those other dimensions to in turn produce classist results.

The upshot, taking into account issues of race and power too, which upshot we could also have understood and acted on starting fifty years ago, was to realize that to focus each movement on exclusively one area and to then have all movements more or less compete side by side – as we have – rather than each movement mutually intersecting and reinforcing the rest in serious, sustained, and deep mutual solidarity, was a recipe for defeat. Could that realization have fueled better results? I think it could have.

Similarly, again a half century ago and very regularly since then, we could have listened when people asked us, what do you want? Sometimes, this was just oppression-defenders saying, you can’t be radical, you can’t protest Vietnam, you can’t protest racism and sexism, you can’t protest nukes and global warming, you can’t protest captalism and whatever else, because you have no alternative – so shut up.

Other times, however, it was just honest people, saying, okay, we understand what you are upset about. We are upset too.But we see no way to live that won’t involve injustice and deprivation of the sort you don’t like but which you have no solutions for. So, if you want us to lend our energies, give us some hope. Give us some reason to believe. Give us some incentive to take a risk.

By and large, in response we didn’t provide the hope, the reason to believe, and the incentives to take risks, and while with each new movement upsurge our numbers grew for a time, as a result the growth was not nearly enough, and with every upsurge instead of initial growth being sustained, growth tailed off.  Would our being able to compellingly enunciate vision have made a big difference? I believe it would have.

We could also have taken seriously the incredibly prevalent mood that you can’t fight city hall. This extends the prior point. Even if someone comes  to think there is an alternative way to organize society and live, and even if he or she takes hope and orientation from that vision – there is still a big obstructive elephant in the way of the person actually participating in seeking change. For most people, quite reasonably, the immobilizing thought runs like this: “If we can’t beat the rich and powerful, what is the point of fighting them? Even if there is a better future in theory, even if I would love to help attain that better future, if there isn’t a better future in practice because there is no path to reach it, I see no reason to fight. Leave me alone.”

Over the past five decades our movements haven’t had much to say about vision, certainly not in comprehensible language that compellingly addresses real issues. But our movements also didn’t say much about strategy able to win a new world. If we had had strategy arising from and justifying vision, with both totally accessible and widely available, how many more people would we have inspired? How many more people would have lent some of their time and creativity, and by their efforts in turn attracted others, and then more others, and so on? This was not beyond possibility. We just didn’t do it.

More, when the little that we said about why an alternative could be viable and worthy, and the little that we said about broad strategy, was together actually enough to induce in some people real interest, next we could have answered far more supportively when many of them sincerely asked – but what can I personally do that would matter?

In other words, a person could agree that there is a possible, viable, worthy, and even incredibly desirable future. And a person could even agree there is a plausible way to get to it, writ large, supposing enough people get on board. But that same person could nonetheless feel, what can I do, personally, given my limited resources and time, that would make a difference? And we could have done much more to address that question too, not just with compelling ideas and program they could relate to, but with supportive mechanisms to let people find their own ways to contribute. Wouldn’t that have produced better outcomes, too?

As one last thing to list here, and perhaps the main thing – even – we could have taken all the above gains, had we accomplished them far more fully, or even to the limited extent that we did accomplish them, and we could have worked to preserve them structurally. We could have built radical institutions addressing health care in a community, providing food in a neighborhood, delivering daily education pre schools and after schools, doing publishing our way, and so on, embodying, reflecting, and enlarging the intersectional, visionary, and strategic insights – and we could also have built institutions geared to engaging in political and social struggle that would also embody the intersectional, visionary, strategic, and day to day mutually supportive innovations mentioned above in programmatic actions all over society, giving the insights structural basis and continuity.

No doubt there are many other things we might consider. The thing is, we are locked into a struggle with an implacable, immoral but far from stupid enemy. We can’t just make choice after choice, day to day, never assessing our results, never refining our reasoning, never trying to solidify our gains. We also can’t just reject past approaches tout court, as if doing something completely and totally different merely for the sake of it being different will automatically mean we have escaped past flaws without ever even admitting, identifying, and evaluating those flaws.

We can’t win without inspiring. We can’t win without marshaling energies effectively. When we make mistakes, especially big ones, we need to own up so as to do better. It is precisely that approach, carefully finding flaws and correcting them – and not making believe our past was flawless or, for that matter, that it was nothing but flaws – that can make our earlier efforts part of a long trajectory toward winning.

The good news is that a lot that we did over the past fifty years has been flawed, incomplete, inconsistent, and even wrong headed. It is good news because it means new generations can do better. But new generations won’t do better by throwing out everything and then adopting new methods that are equally bad, oftentimes in the same ways, due to not exercising careful thought. Nor will new generations do better by repeating the past tout court.

Instead, new generations will only do better by finding what was flawed, by understanding why it was flawed, and then by self consciously and carefully doing better. We should not ignore the past. We should not make believe it was without flaws. We should not make believe it was nothing but flaws. We should pay attention, and think, and improve.



  1. Lary Fuku September 5, 2014 6:47 pm 

    The “enemy” is anyone who doesn’t share your specific vision of the “better” future right?

    In reality society has been doing exactly what you are “suggesting” since its inception – it’s been progressing forward for the better – your pretentiousness is amazing.

    The real reason why haven’t achieved better results as a society is because people like you are constantly setting us back with tried and failed ideas.

    think about that…

  2. Giorgio Scattolini August 16, 2014 6:26 pm 

    Society is a complex chaotic system. This means that consequences of relevant choices big groups of people make are largely unpredictable on a significant time scale. Even when all the obviously unusable solutions to a problem have been discarded, it’s almost impossible to make the right choice between the remaining possibilities.
    You state that there are issues that previous generations could have handled better if only they were wiser. I reply that there is no way to know if your suggestions, though reasonable they seem, would have led to a better unfolding of events.
    As I already said the outstandingly great complexity of a society forbid us to have an even vaguely satisfying understanding of the dynamics of its behaviour.

  3. HENDERSON HELENE August 3, 2014 8:59 am 

    History, the story of mankind, as we know it, is a tiny little speck of time compared to the age of Earth.

    You seem to believe that time will necessarily bring progress, and each generation needs to improve what they find. This is not what History teaches us. Great civilisations have been wiped out, and technologies lost. Some were found again later and some were not (for example we are incapable of building a new Parthenon).

    What was is not anymore, what will be doesn’t exist yet, the present moment is the only important thing.

    We can only endeavour to act with fairness and love in our own short time on earth. The outcome is not in our hands.

    Be happy.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert August 3, 2014 2:38 pm 

      I am afraid we have to agree to disagree…

  4. avatar
    Ed Lytwak July 30, 2014 3:31 pm 

    The question of “whatever has been, had to be” is as they say academic, a moot point. Unless of course, you believe that we have entered a new phase of history that repeats itself simultaneously as both tragedy and farce (I’m thinking of Ukraine here). That is the real issue, whether history can be radically different from the past. Can we escape the “trap of history” where we are condemned to a future that is just a rehash of the past? That was the beauty of Occupy, people dared to imagine that the future can be radically different from all that has gone before. And, that is the beauty of Zapatista, imagining a world where many different worlds are possible.

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