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Worst of Times, Best of Times


We who write for alternative media persistently address the current tsunami of vile ills. We highlight Trump aggressively enlarging institutional mayhem. To passively watch the world burn is bad enough. To actively light the fires is existentially worse. To gleefully unplug alarms and incarcerate fire brigades is the kicker.

But another ill resides in ourselves, not Trump, unacknowledged, even unnoticed, and horribly under addressed.

We focus, focus, focus on Trump and society’s most malicious reactionary trends but we barely mention polls saying that majorities have become openly critical of “capitalism,” and even openly positive about “socialism.” Worse, we don’t prioritize enlarging that trend.

Take the polls further. Imagine fears of climate incineration, nuclear Armageddon, rampant poverty, racism, misogyny, and cultural vapidity were, however briefly, not making us depressingly cynical. In a free thinking, relaxed state, assuming we were urged to express desires not fears, what do you predict would be poll answers to the following questions, especially among young people:

 

  • 1. Do you favor killing 20 million Koreans in an inferno of human corpses, or do you prefer negotiating peace?
  • 2. Do you favor curtailing solar and wind and enlarging oil and coal at the cost of submerging coastlines and making once a century storms weekly holocausts, or do you prefer emphasizing solar and wind while financially ensuring those now laboring in (but not owning) the coal and oil industries?
  • 3. Do you believe government should serve the rich and powerful and their corporations at the expense of everyone else, or do you believe that government should provide services that improve the well being of everyone else while reining in the rich and powerful and their corporations?
  • 4. Do you favor transferring wealth from those who now struggle to survive much less enjoy life, to those who are already rich beyond any possible human utilization, or do you favor the reverse?
  • 5. Do you favor racism, homophobia, and misogyny that ridicules, denies, sequesters, and brutalizes so many, or do you favor a diverse approach to life that guarantees all people dignity and full rights?

Imagine positive aspirations were widely and effectively enunciated about all these matters by tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even millions and tens of millions of people openly agitated with careful reasoning, abundant evidence, and compassionate empathy on behalf of humane answers. What do you think polls would then show?

I realize that many with otherwise fine values sadly believe that nearly everyone would answer like our disgusting, vile, irredeemable thug-in chief. But for those who think that the preponderant drift of views in society is already overwhelmingly humane, or that it could easily become so with broad efforts at reversing false fears and beliefs – a practical question arises. After all, our point ought to be not just to understand the world, or to have humane views about it, but to change it by actually implementing humane views. Why don’t more of us try to envision and win new institutions in tune with most people’s desires?

Ours is among the worst of times. Just view corporate and government policy trends, international relations trends, climate trends, and even the emergence of fascist constituencies. Power is running roughshod.

Ours is also, however, among the best of times. Just view popular openness to progressive, radical, and even revolutionary aspirations and sentiments and the tenuous basis of contrary beliefs, as well as the incredible reach and scope of narrow issue and short time horizon but nonetheless highly progressive projects and movements. Dissent is turning toward rebellion.

So why do we who write for alternative media so often largely ignore, minimize, or even deny and certainly not aggressively celebrate and pursue the positive? And why do we so often multiply, highlight, exaggerate, and wallow in the negative?

Why do we proclaim and re-proclaim that the societal glass is nearly empty? Why do we discuss and re-discuss its emptiness, try to prove and re-prove its emptiness, and even predict and re-predict its only getting yet emptier?

Why do we look forward and see only dystopian emptiness? Why don’t we envision a fulfilling future? Why don’t we write not just to reveal or better make current emptiness less deadly, but to attain comprehensive fullness?

Is the answer that we are cowed by fear of repression, or that we are callous or lazy? Do the countless people who would humanely answer our hypothetical poll listed above suffer those ills? Do all those people now working tirelessly and courageously for mitigating one aspect of pain or another, or for preventing one reactionary step or another, suffer those ills? I think the idea that fear, callousness, or laziness are what mainly impedes emergence of unified movements seeking comprehensive visionary change is nonsense.

But what about depression, cynicism, and defeatism? Are they what limits our formulations and actions? Do more than a handful of people escape those ills? Does that explanation convey considerable truth?

But even if like me you think it does, why are we so depressed, cynical, and defeatist that it demobilizes us or at least limits the range of our desires and actions to being anti this or anti that, but not pro a real vision of liberation?

Why are so many of us eager to block Trump, but beyond that not eager to win really positive, humane lasting social progress across all facets of society? Why don’t more people want to win back modest prior gains, but to also win new liberation we haven’t yet had? Why do so many of us believe that espousing and working for comprehensive, structural gains is a fool’s errand not worth our support much less active involvement? Why do we accept that the best we can perhaps attain is warding off literal insanity?

Why do even courageous, energetic, socially immersed movements to overcome Trumpism, or to prevent global incineration or flooding, or to block surging racist and sexist violence, or to mitigate corporate greed, rarely rise to the level of seeking more than offsetting current losses or moderately mitigating current injustices in only one or another realm of life? Why don’t they pose truly positive liberating aims, and more, why don’t share and connect them, mutually enforcing one another. Why is there more back biting than having each others’ backs?

Why do so many already aroused and courageous folks, much less folks who are incredibly angry and shocked, but not yet active, disparage even conceiving of new institutions that could really meet human needs and unleash popular potentials, much less working to join them into overarching vision that transcends single focuses?

Why is there so little presentation of answers to the question we so often hear from people we reach out to who say, yes, I know what you dislike, but what do you really want, and why do you think it is desirable, possible, attainable, and how do you think you can win it?

Why do even radicals, and even those deemed revolutionaries, so often dismiss efforts to formulate and present much less to unify around comprehensive demands and innovative institutional social vision and associated program and strategy?

Aren’t these questions worth attention?

If another world is to be made possible, don’t we have to conceive it? If it is to be won, don’t we have to proclaim it, believe in it, and collectively plant it’s seeds?

Is our lack of shared vision and issue spanning mutual aid just a self fulfilling prophesy at work, now and for a long time past? We don’t have a long-term vision, so we don’t have hope much less strategy for long-term transformation, so we don’t pursue it?

Does anything beyond habit held over from the past, on the one hand, and hopelessness stemming from our own unchallenged immersion in a world that says there is no alternative, obstruct us? Can’t we find the audacity to overcome those internal limits?

Whatever other priorities we who write for alternative media, and we who read, and we who organize and demonstrate may have, shouldn’t we also prioritize overcoming our residual and depressed visionlessness before the hopelessness and fragmentation that visionlessness induces produces collective social suicide?

In the old one liner, shouldn’t we “dare to struggle, dare to win” even if doing so requires that we overcome our own cynical doubts and risk ridicule, even from friends, family, and allies for being utopian, naive, or arrogant?

6 Comments

  1. avatar
    Doug Morri December 22, 2017 11:13 pm 

    Mike,
    To undergraduate students, over the past few years, I’ve posed questions very similar to the five you raise in your piece, and other related questions. Responses are not mixed. I’d say nearly 100% of students respond in ways that demonstrate care, concern, empathy, solidarity, compassion, and a desire for change (the desire, however, does not often play out in activities toward change). When they share such questions with others outside of class and report back, the responses are similar. 90% or more rooted in what we might call “humane values.” They often ask the question: How can it be that roughly 95% of the people hold these humane values, but the society itself is going in the opposite direction?
    Regarding fear, callousness and laziness versus cynicism, depression, and defeatism, I’d say among the undergraduate students with whom I’ve had contact the answer is the latter. They will often say “When we look out at the world, there are SO MANY problems in so many arenas it is difficult not to feel already defeated. If we focus attention on a problem it seems like we should also be focusing on ten other problems and if focused on those ten it feels like there are ten more. It is overwhelming.” Others will literally say “I am depressed…the world is going to hell and there is not much we can do about it.” This is not, of course, universal. There are always some who jump into the struggle in various ways even if they feel the odds against success are enormous (and typically they do).
    In general, however, it can safely be said that whether or not they are cynical, depressed, and feeling defeated, they are interested in notions of a different and better social order, an animating vision of an alternative to the current disaster. When ideas for alternatives are introduced (judging from the past two years or so) I’ve yet to be accused of being “utopian, naïve, or arrogant.” A step forward?
    As you know very well, overwhelmingly, they have not had an education in alternative social structures and systems; they have no knowledge of the history of popular movements in the U.S. or elsewhere; they have no courses in their K-12 education rooted in strategies for social transformation; they often have no idea that we are in the midst of serious climate change; they have never heard about “organizing;” they’ve had no courses looking at U.S. imperialism or the history of U.S. oppression, violence and exploitation; they’ve had no classroom time dedicated to thinking about what it might mean to oppose the system of capital while also working to construct a human and ecologically friendly alternative.
    There is another problem these days too…they are constantly (and admittedly) distracted by social media/iPhones. In many cases, they have difficulty remaining present in a conversation for more than a few minutes, and that bodes poorly for long-term commitment, dedication, focus, and clarity.
    Thanks for the continued valuable, important, thought/action-provoking, and inspiring work!

    en la lucha, por la lucha!

    In peace and solidarity,
    d

    • avatar
      Michael Albert December 23, 2017 1:36 pm 

      We have very similar impressions. My guess is those under thirty, in particular, have far more progressive views and are vastly better informed than their counterparts, on average, in 1960, and probably even in 1966, say and perhaps later. They are likely active in some degree or another in greater numbers now than then. Then, however, we obviously had the capacity/inclination to move toward far more militant and, more important, far more comprehensive and optimistic involvement – which indeed, happened. Now, it is that step which is in question.

      Then we crossed that line in large numbers but, sadly, didn’t sustain it in lasting organization and structure. My intuition is, if current youth in large numbers could take that step into optimistic, comprehensive, militancy, they would be able to sustain it.

      Do you have any ideas about what might enhance prospects for optimistic militancy?

  2. avatar
    James December 20, 2017 11:24 am 

    “Why do even radicals, and even those deemed revolutionaries, so often dismiss efforts to formulate and present much less to unify around comprehensive demands and innovative institutional social vision and associated program and strategy?”

    This is not a question, probably rhetorical too, I could ever answer with certainty because I don’t hang with those types, I’m just someone down in the cheap seats caught in the daily grind. What I would like to see is some of these “radicals”, “revolutionaries”, writers and left media people answer the question directly to see if it is actually true. I suspect it could be and I would like to know the answer. I am actually interested in who these people may be, but I suspect they wouldn’t like being called out, so it’s kind of a catch 22.

    I would like to know what “efforts to formulate and present…comprehensive demands and innovative social institutional vision and associated program and strategy” are being dismissed and not unified around?

    There are many working in the above area such as the NSP, many within the p2p area, anarchists of all persuasions interested in this area like say Wayne Price, maybe Graeber, , Pareconistas, market socialists or should I say economic democracy folk, like David Schweickart and many others, Takis Fotopoulos and the Inclusive Democracy mob, Eco-socialists of many varieties, the group System Change Not Climate Change which includes Richard Smith who writes often about the need for a new, predominantly democratically planned economy, the Democracy Collaborative which is really the same as the Next System Project, solidarity economics people, simplicity folk like those at the Simplicity Institute, pluralist commonwealthers folk who are really the same as most folk at the NSP, and many other types…lots of stuff.

    Do they, the above, talk to one another regularly and with real positivity regardless of visionary or institutional disagreements in a way that almost suggests they are or could become a unified mob? Are they interested at all in really coming together to form a formidable group of thinkers and visionaries that could really give those on the starboard side of the political boat a scare? Some place where all these visions prepared and published by disparate people and groups are gathered up and sifted through, by clever, strong and clear minds, to discover where they differ, are the same or compliment one another, and then whittled down and re-presented in easy language? (Is the NSP the start of something like this? No? Yes?) Where debate and discussion is open to all to follow and even participate? Where people like Russell Brand could go and use to make his millions of adoring fans aware of possibilities, real ones, embryonic ones, already existing? A place George Monbiot could sell to his readership at the Guardian regularly rather than just doughnuts? Where lesser known Pareconistas, market socialists, p2pers, I.D folk, simplicity folk etc., could rub shoulders regularly and in a friendly way, chat about things, and iron out problems and differences? Could the big names all do it in a way that helps us in the cheap seats develop the confidence and understanding in choosing some kind of conceived new world and believe it really possible, in order to proclaim it? No easy bloody task even for those prepared to tackle the literature on this stuff that already exists!

    Celebrity lefties, high profile radicals and revolutionaries, those with their feet in the union door and other movements and those who work and write and publish regularly in radical left media need to realise how important it is to coordinate their own present activities, demands, wants, desires, within the areas they are presently active, and their writing, with some future vision, some specific conception which they proclaim and believe in…some alternative with cogent, coherent and clear institutional structure perhaps, because us down in the cheap seats doin’ the daily-survival-grind dance can’t do it but would benefit greatly from the example set by those doing the radical-activist-visionary-work-and-writing jig…no-one listens to nobodies no matter how knowledgable they may be, they just stare back at ya with a glazed look.

    I believe in the need for vision and I know what’s already out there now, existing, debatable and discussable, now. I’m not pessimistic but I’m not particularly positive that those already involved in the visionary area, within the rad/rev left, and others when it comes to this subject, are able to truly get along with one another for the sake of all the rest of us not so gifted, stuck in disempowering jobs and used to the devil we already know. If they can’t unify under some kind of banner, over vision, strategy, program and stuff, and start to build some movement, some bloc, then why would they suspect the rest of us could?

    A “hard left writer”, one often published here, once wrote to me saying the “hard left leadership” needs therapy in order for them to work vercome narcisistec ego which breeds sectarianism. Maybe he is right!

    He also suggested a call for a national summit of leftists. No, that’s right, serious leftists. Well, maybe he’s right and in some ways I am suggesting a similar thing here but pertaining to serious vision, which goes to developing serious program and strategy.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert December 20, 2017 4:38 pm 

      I could be wrong, but I don’t think all the various strands you mention try much to engage one another, with very few exceptions. You can see it lots of places, actually. How many leftists seriously write about much less explore or debate the views other leftists offer, for example? Whether critically or supportive? either in print, or say, at conferences?

      In a discipline like, say, physics or biology, if someone puts forward an innovative viewpoint – unless it is ludicrous, and often even then, it will be addressed, seriously, and either disappear due to being shown invalid, or widely adopted, due to being shown not only valid but useful. This doesn’t happen much on the left, and much less so, regarding vision and serious efforts at programmatic or strategic innovation. People will rage over what is familiar, but not what is challenging, it seems.

      But you mention only what you call prominent writers, but it is not confined to those who write – it is readers too, and activists more broadly. Each tend to stick with the familiar, and narrow, and short time horizon, it seems.

      I am of course closer to and more aware of my own work, which might not be indicative. But consider the new book rps/2044 or the other new one, practical utopia. They both offer a lot that isn’t elsewhere, by and large. Claims and views which, if valid, would be important to address, and if invalid, important to dismiss. That is, they don’t just add some evidence to already accepted views, which they are repeating, but proposing views that aren’t widely held. The works are totally ignored. Not simply by other writers, though that is true, but by readers. In the former case, chapters put online get zero reaction. No sites repost. Etc. More than most other writers, I provide vehicles for folks to comment or challenge or enlarge on views – but it doesn’t happen much.

      Some views catch on, yes, often in forms far less compelling than first presented, but many just go unaddressed, as in ignored, or sometimes are actively dismissed but without substantive debate.

      Consider not only all the visionary efforts you mention, all largely ignored, I would say, most arguably even more so than parecon – but something like the initially PMC and then Coordinator Class viewpoint. This proposed existence of a third class between labor and capital either has validity or not. And if it does, it is certainly profoundly important for activists – yet it is barely addressed at all. It requires years, decades, to get anywhere at all, when it could have been months, one way of the other, at the outset.

      • avatar
        James December 21, 2017 9:41 pm 

        There is an element of coordinatorism in my suggestion, even in the suggestion – of a hard left leadership summit – of the writer I mentioned. One has to be aware of such a possibility, so transparency and openness is vital, as well as allowing bottom up participation (the NSP website has no participatory component at all) . So I think the recognition of a Professional Managerial Class, or coordinator class and the effects and behaviours that can arise from doing empowering work for long periods within left activism, needs to be acknowledged and accepted as true, along with the effects on the majority of people the “hard left leadership” or high profile radicals/revolutionaries are trying to reach, who have been working in disempowering work most of their lives and are unlikely to possess the kind of confidence in ideas that those involved in activism for decades may express.

        So coordinatorism is a fundamental issue that people need to be made aware of,. Something that sheds light on what happens when people enter a workplace, or any environment they will spend long times in (input), and then carry out predominantly either empowering or disempowering work, and then leave that workplace (output). This, the effects on people, is rarely discussed.

  3. Rick Goodman December 18, 2017 11:33 am 

    Thanks as always Michael for the challenging message. For me, I come to ZNET, and Zmagazine, to hear of ways to not just resist, but to build movements that will create a better society. I continue to find those ways when I read you and the hundreds of others writers, often when you link to a group or a book or a study that I otherwise have never heard of. You all provide the context that I need, and the practical guidance towards the struggle to win. Anyway, that is my perspective that keeps me going at this time.

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