“There will be no successful movement to escape capitalism until there is widespread agreement that there is superior life beyond capitalism”
Beyond the impasse. Strategy and direction: the social movements and the left
Interview by Júlio do Carmo Gomes
People need to refuel and quite reasonably want to know what will be Syriza’s impact. But it would be disastrous for a sensible pause to transform into a let’s watch the government and hope for the best mentality. While Syriza maneuvers for space I think there should be very intensive grassroots organizing of two broad forms. First, to reach out to non elite constituencies which opposed Syriza to win new support. And second, to engage with constituencies who support Syriza to collectively establish goals for the emerging struggle.
By establish goals for the emerging struggle, do you mean that the social movements should force Syriza to adopt an anti-capitalist approach?
For Syriza to have perfect views but little support would not be valuable, no matter where the views came from. For it to have poor views but lots of support, would also not be valuable. Both these types of groups, great views no support, horrible views plenty of support, exist all over. What is needed, of course, is for Syriza’s support and its outreach to grow at the same time as its views become steadily better.
Your question assumes, I think, that the social movements have better views – and that may well be true, I really don’t know. It also may be true that those in Syriza, even its officials, are just as anti capitalist, but operating in a very different context than someone demonstrating in the streets or fighting a housing battle. But whichever is the case, what I am suggesting is that what Syriza needs to do is not just to maneuver for space, and not just to pursue short run programs, but also to reach out to all sectors of society potentially aligned with serious change. When reaching out to those that are now hostile, the task is to take them seriously and communicate well with them, hearing and offering, and the hope is that this will reduce hostility or even nurture new allies. And I am not talking about rich opponents, of course. I am talking about connecting with working people and otherwise disenfranchised people who are dubious about Syriza or even hostile to it, perhaps even drifting toward the far right. Nothing is gained by ignoring or ridiculing such people. The task is to reach out and connect with them.
And second, there are a huge number of Greeks, maybe more percentage wise than in any other European country, who are now anti austerity and also very hostile to mainstream authority – and they typically support Syriza. The task with this supportive constituency is not to merely maintain passive support, but to engage them as equals in envisioning a transformed Greece, in having a vision of fundamental change, collectively and publicly and not just individually and in the privacy of dinner conversations. So, if this happens, will the substance of the emerging shared vision come from within Syriza? Will it come from social movements? Will it come from heretofore less involved citizens? I don’t know. I suspect it would be a mix of all of it. But I am pretty sure we will only see if there is the effort.
What could have been longer lasting and more transformative about the emancipatory movements from Iceland to Spain and Greece and from Occupy Wall Street to Taksim Square?
First, activism can win material benefits for deserving constituencies. Second, activism can enlarge consciousness, grow organization, and increase commitment to promote further struggle.
By these measures, for the waves of struggle you mention, there have been some short term benefits and considerable gains in awareness and, in some places, in organization as well.
What might have been better? Perhaps more popular energy could have been turned into lasting changes in existing institutions or into creating new institutions under movement control. And perhaps there could have been more self conscious creation of new movement structures of outreach, education, and agitation. But all this is still unfolding.
Has there been an impasse of social struggles after the fall of the anti-globalization movement, the end of “no war”, and the institutionalization of anti-neoliberal struggles in Latin America.
The anti globalization movement raised awareness and fueled the occupy and other movements that followed years later. It schooled many of the later’s participants, aired and aroused many of the sentiments now percolating, and pushed forward many of the tactics.
Recent anti war movements didn’t end wars, but if we ask whether wars have been carried out at the level of destructiveness that is readily available, we see major benefits.
Podemos wouldn’t have happened without 15M, nor would the waves of local and grass roots housing struggles, for example, and the same holds for Greece and Syriza’s role there.
Finally, what does “institutionalization of struggles” in Latin America mean? I suspect you have in mind that the energy of opposition has gotten mired in bureaucratic or authoritarian structures that sap vitality and impose oppressive dynamics.
As an example, when the Brazilian left party, the PT won the presidential election for Lula, it had already held some mayoralties and governor positions. What was incredibly striking was that in the election that Lula won, the results were worse for the PT in the areas that the PT governed than elsewhere. Getting mired in the intricacies of running the local state had actually diminished the PT’s grass roots appeal. Indeed, one might even say that later, the National PT as a whole followed a similar path, including losing its radical inclinations.
However, that is not the only possible situation. First, even when it does happen, being mired in bureaucratic or authoritarian dynamics is not due to creating institutions per se, it is due to creating flawed institutions. We should certainly urge that endeavors not become ossified. But we should not suggest rejecting institutions per se.
When movements embark on creating change in some society – say Venezuela, Bolivia, Spain, or Greece – they do so amidst horrendous historical legacies in the state, the economy, and the culture. To think that those movements should immediately attain ideal results ignores reality. To claim that anything short of full victory is total failure subverts potentials.
A better norm is do movements improve people’s lives and establish conditions for further gains as effectively as current circumstances allow. Is the Bolivarian government, the Bolivian government, the new Syriza government, improving conditions for deserving constituencies? Are they winning new footholds and developing new levels of popular participation to facilitate further gains? Are they operating consistently with winning a new society as compared to falling back into accepting the one we now endure? Are they doing as much as circumstances permit? Those are fair standards to apply.
Fortunately there are grassroots movements in Spain and Brazil who have sought to create new institutions (housing, education, consumption) as well as trying to extend their social influences as widely as possible. But there is a frequent problem: cooptation. I agree it is better to have SYRIZA and Podemos in Government than the established ruling parties. But knowing that autocratic institutions subvert human relationships and block gains against commodification of the various spheres of human life, do you think that social movements that seek to achieve non-hierarchical and non-capitalist outcomes should, as a means to achieve that purpose, participate in political processes that exclude self-management and prevent self-management attempts?
We can all agree that it is better to do what works well and has less likelihood of getting derailed or being coopted. But what are the actual options a movement has? I don’t agree with dismissing options that have risks and even flaws if we have no better options to take their place.
We want a new type of government that seeks and promotes self management and rejects capitalism, racism, and so on. Okay, but we aren’t going to get it overnight. So, if relating to a government that exists, even winning office in it, can be done in ways that are beneficial to our agendas, unless there is some better path, that is good. To say that using existing structures while altering them and adding new ones is impossible goes too far, I think.
An economic analogy may make this more clear. If you take a job as an employee in a capitalist firm, you are participating in a process that is horribly debilitating and that reproduces current relations. On the other hand, you need to eat. If there is job doing something really valuable, in a non hierarchical setting, great. Take that. But if there isn’t, and if your choice is wage slavery or starvation, it makes no sense to criticize taking the wage slave position – though it does make sense to point out the dangers of it and to work for change in the conditions of work, etc. Even more, your options for seeking change may initially be quite limited. The issue isn’t did you transform your workplace over night, the issue is, are you doing what can be done, and avoiding getting sucked into passive acceptance?
For Syriza, to move into federal offices where they share space with other actors who support none of Syriza’s aims and where they have to abide repressive laws built into the current structures, and where they must look on at harsh and even vile behaviors – for example, in the still unchanged penal system – is certainly not ideal, but it may be better than all other actually available options, which doesn’t mean their restricted choices can’t fail, but nor does it mean that that they must fail.
What if Syriza officials in the government can steadily progress in their ability to use their position to protect the movements you mention and to provide them resources? What if they can successfully transform some old structures to accord with new priorities? Even truly difficult ones with huge inbuilt bureaucracies wedded to vile past behaviors – like the police say, or prison system? Yes, it is still true that even if all this occurs, and all this is a whole lot, it is possible that the officials might in the process become bureaucratic, authoritarian, or simply out of touch and boring… but unless there is some better path, the solution is to exercise their options better and resist succumbing to conforming forces better, not to do nothing.
But do we face an impasse? Is political intervention that pursues genuine social change blocked, as many think? How can we keep thinking in a revolutionary way in the absence of struggles?
Efforts at genuine social change will run into obstacles until society favors social innovation rather than being organized to enlarge the wealth and power of a few. That is why we have to struggle. The issue is how do we overcome the inevitable obstacles. You lose, you lose, you lose, you win. Yes, setbacks can sometimes reduce – though rarely if ever eliminate struggle. Right now people are organizing all over, and the fact that it isn't as visible and as large scale as at some other moments in the recent past doesn't mean it is absent.
Of course thinking in a revolutionary way is strengthened by large scale struggle, but what it absolutely requires is an unrelenting commitment to win new institutions. One can participate in mass dissent but not be revolutionary. Conversely, one can be locked in a cell incommunicado, with no movements outside, and be revolutionary.
Speaking about the June 2013 Uprisings in Brazil, one of the key actors was the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL), a self-organized, anti-capitalist movement fostering a process that led millions of people in the streets, with protests in more than a hundred forty cities (some say in more than 350). The dissent achieved a resounding political result with the suspension of the ticket fare increase in dozens of cities and it forced president Dilma to draw up a package of social and political reforms.
What you describe is that this energetic uprising had positive effects on the lives of deserving constituencies and was large scale and had elements that were self organizing and anti capitalist. Sounds promising.
Yes, but looking at the massification of this uprising and knowing that today the MPL remains active, spreading in neighborhood assemblies, and connecting with occupation movements and hyper-precarious residents of the periphery, it is also true that there is little struggle within the workplace. What strategy could be made to generate a labor struggle with the same success as the June Uprising?
Mass scale facilitates winning victories that help people and means that longer term benefits in consciousness, commitment, and organization involve larger rather than smaller numbers of people. But consider the opposition to the first Iraq war. 13 million people took to the streets. It was incredibly large scale. But the energy did not transfer into lasting opposition and consciousness much less lasting organization. I would have preferred one million in the streets and then, with each passing month, steadily more, rather than 13 million at the outset and then, with each passing month, steadily less. There is a civil rights slogan from the U.S. – keep your eyes on the prize – but the prize isn’t having a big splash. The prize is winning a new society.
You describe a situation of benefits in Brazil spreading into neighborhoods and local organizations and assemblies, and of growing connections among constituencies which could provide a basis for more to come. But you also ask what about having a comparable promising struggle in workplaces, what could provoke that? In different places, at different times, there will likely be different precipitating events. But I suspect that the underlying energy of successful workplace struggles will primarily involve concerns about material well being and conditions of dignity and influence. It follows that since successful worker activism will emphasize attaining fair shares of income and dignified and empowering work conditions, activists working to arouse and assist working class desires would do well to understand and be able to communicate about what is a fair share of income and what are dignified conditions and appropriate levels of power for workers.
Many activists feel that they are already providing that answer when they reject private ownership and wage labor. Do you agree?
Saying you don’t want to have people getting income for owning property is excellent, but it doesn’t answer the positive question, what do you want.
Suppose you are in a campaign seeking a higher minimum wage. Let’s say it is $15 an hour. Okay, you favor the demand. But then you want to talk about how much income you think they should receive and therefore where the movement should ultimately be aimed. Saying there shouldn’t be owners taking a ton of income is good, but it doesn’t provide a full answer. Saying there shouldn’t be wage labor – well, I think it will sound meaningless to most people and it certainly doesn’t say what income people should get. What share of the social product should each person should receive? Try it in discussion, see what happens.
It is a large issue, but my positive answer would be that people should receive income for their labor in proportion to how long they work, how hard they work, and the onerousness of the conditions under which they work assuming they are creating socially useful results.
Clearly with that norm, you don’t get income for owning property, nor for being able to take it by virtue of having power. Nor do you even get income based on the total value of what you yourself produce – that may owe to luck or conditions or tools, etc., and not duration or intensity of work. But my positive answer aside, my point is that if one is going to participate in a campaign for higher wages and one wants to do it in a way that builds consciousness and desires and capacity for in turn winning still more gains, being able to advocate for a long run aim is essential. And the same thing holds for campaigns addressing conditions of work, and allotments of influence over decisions. To seek better short run outcomes in a manner leading toward winning new social relations in the longer run pretty much requires, I think, developing shared aims for the longer run.
Even in activist circles the idea prevails that contemporary mobilizations emerge suddenly and only due to specific and regional factors, and because of the effectiveness of social networks. Does this claim devalue the historical processes of struggle against oppressive power, conservative mentality, and capitalist culture? Does it remove effect from the struggles, dynamics, and achievements of the past and in that way contribute to cynicism?
A big sudden upsurge will most often have a galvanizing cause local to where it starts. Take an archetype example, May of 1968 in France. It was a huge upsurge that threatened the very bedrock of French society. Yet it was precipitated by a very local campus reaction to rules about men in women’s dorms. In such cases, the precipitating event becomes much less consequential than where it leads. In the French case, within a short time very few people even knew the initial events.
The relevance of organizing to upsurges is that the odds that a local and focused reaction will expand more broadly are vastly improved if it occurs in context of lots of prior organizing.
A riot is not a rebellion and neither is a rebellious upsurge a revolution. Lasting impact requires high awareness, deep solidarity, sustained activism, and lasting structures. Does an initial spark confine itself to some precipitating focus or does it expand to address much more? And does dissent simply bubble and boil, or does it construct and preserve?
Is this issue somehow connected with the “apocalyptic mode” of organizing you often mention, cautioning us that if we're in this for the long haul, we need to avoid that mode?
The apocalyptic mode builds on anger of the moment to pose momentarily inspiring but ultimately impossible demands like “we want the world and we want it now.” Apocalyptic organizing often even self consciously rejects having a view beyond winning immediately. It refuses to admit that it takes time to build movements and it takes time to win changes that will last.
We go to Washington with the slogan stop the war or we will stop the government – and we organize for it by saying that stopping the war by tomorrow is winning, but anything less than that is losing. When the war doesn’t stop, people feel defeated, hopeless, and give up. They do not understand that they did good work.
With an apocalyptic approach, we talk about every issue as if it is the last. We must win by next Thursday or humanity is doomed. We shout, “do it now, do it as if you have been schooled for years as an activist, or if you don’t, you are a reactionary.” Nuance disappears. Strategy beyond the moment disappears.
We call a demonstration to shut down some meeting – perhaps the IMF, or whatever. Our organizing focuses on that event. The issue becomes entirely did the doors open and the elites hold their meeting, or did we stop the meeting. Building up to the blockade, most energy goes into debating about tactics – ours and those of the police. What gets lost is that winning and losing is not a matter of did the meeting happen or not. It is a matter of did we raise consciousness and come away with more organization and stronger support than before the events. With the second viewpoint, you emphasize different content, take different lessons, proceed in a different manner, than if you are fixated on the immediate meeting.
How do we reduce fragmentation among movements? How do we have solidarity without losing diversity?
The key step is realizing that we need diversity not just of constituencies but also of approaches and attitudes. We need the various parts of our movements to work strongly together. With those two commitments, when we plan events, achieving solidarity with autonomy becomes part of our agenda.
If you believe shutting down a meeting is the be all and end all – you will courageously try to do so. If you instead believe the confrontation at the meeting is important as one part of a process of conveying information, raising awareness, developing commitment, enlarging confidence, and creating lasting ties and new organization, then those are the things you will courageously try to accomplish. In practice it is the difference between wanting to have a nice event and wanting to win a wonderful society.
One way of gaining solidarity without losing diversity would be to protect and even celebrate minority viewpoints by giving them space to try their approaches, rather than if some position loses a vote, that’s the end of the losing position. Our aim should be to win a new society, not to enshrine our own viewpoint. Victory is not to have one’s view be deemed correct – only to then lose in struggle. We can and should have different ideas and priorities, but also experiment with options, discover what works and pursue it, and keep alive alternative approaches in case what we have come to think was valid turns out to be wrong.
Do you think movements risk inadequacy if they do not present a vision and, therefore, a direction?
I think without having vision inadequacy is a certainty, not merely a risk.
People nowadays are horrendously cynical because they do not believe in alternatives. We can’t inspire cynical people by telling them there are injustices – they already know that. We have to convince them there are alternatives. People know that war kills, poverty debilitates, and so on. We need to offer a vision to overcome doubts and motivate involvement.
Additionally, if we don’t know broadly what defining institutions we seek, we will not be able to choose demands, language, and organizational structures that plant the seeds of a preferred future in the present. If we do not understand where we want to arrive, we tend to make horrible and even suicidal choices that lead us nowhere, or worse.
During Occupy Wall Street (in an interview with Article 11) Ken Knabb said “It is almost irrelevant whether people say they are for or against “capitalism” or “the State”; it is much more important that they are now engaged in a non-hierarchical and non-capitalist process”. Do you agree and if so why?
I agree that what one says, especially when using words that are vague and mean different things to different people, is less important than one’s visible choices and commitments. But what does being engaged in a non-hierarchical and non-capitalist process mean? Is it only rejectionist or does it have some clear future oriented commitments?
Back in the 1960s huge numbers of young people became involved in creating farms, communes, co-ops, and collective housing, and variants on that have happened every decade since. The choice was and still is far better motivated than grubbing grades in pursuit of corporate positions, but it has very often been defined almost exclusively by rejection and failed to envision positive and forward looking changes that could work for society as a whole. It has very often, that is, become insular.
What matters more than people saying they are for or against “capitalism” is if they are battling to win changes that they intend to extend into the future and that are oriented toward non-hierarchical and non-capitalist outcomes that can transform society. Even better, and likely essential to that much, would be if people clearly indicated what those outcomes are, and if they are designed and discussed to be compelling to typical citizens. It is far better to be clearly and compellingly for something positive than to be loudly against something negative.
In your book Occupy Strategy, one main argument is that we need to avoid treating different tactical or strategic evaluations as if they were unbridgeable differences of principle. Can you elaborate on that?
I think you are referring to a claim that tactics and even strategy are almost always contextual. They make sense and work or not in some context. For that reason, becoming a permanent advocate of some particular tactic often makes no sense. Fighting over such commitments makes even less sense.
In the book you persuasively explain why even the most committed revolutionaries ought to support reforms. What are the arguments upon which you sustain this conclusion.
I reject reformism. I want to fundamentally transform society’s defining institutions, not just ameliorate their worst excesses. But on the road to accomplishing fundamental change, I certainly do not oppose reforms per se.
To reject reforms means rejecting ending a war, rejecting increasing renewable energy use, rejecting having affirmative action, rejecting winning a shorter work week. Why would anyone in their right mind favor justice, equity, and so on, but reject these kinds of changes that can improve people’s lives? To do so would be extremely callous. In our reality, we do not have the wonderful possibility of winning a whole new society right now, in one leap. Rather, we can win changes that help people and also give us more strength to win more changes.
To reject reforms is to live in a bubble of arrogance, callousness, and ignorance of social process. And yet, I admit that I understand and even sympathize with the sentiment. I think when someone says no reforms for me, it is because the person thinks that one must do that or one inexorably becomes reformist. They think being true to wanting a new world requires rejecting reforms. The problem is, this perception is wrong.
Yes, favoring reforms can be consistent with being reformist. And yes, battling for reforms can slowly but surely distort one’s perceptions into becoming reformist. But the solution is not to reject reforms. It is not to reject ending wars, reject raising wages, etc. The solution is to seek and win reforms in non reformist ways that constantly emphasize the need to go beyond the momentary gain toward long term fundamental change.
Can you clarify a bit more the difference between being reformist and seeking a reform, but not being reformist?
One way to fight for something is to say it is good, it will help folks, and that will be that. This is typically reformist. Another way to fight, even for the same thing, is to say that winning it will be good because it will benefit people but also part of a process leading to much more. We should work for the gain in ways that develop commitment and organization for seeking more.
Take fighting for a higher wage. Is it better than not seeking the higher wage? Yes. But if you do it and never mention anything but the somewhat higher wage, your effort will be very limited. If you instead clarify and develop understanding of what a fully desirable income would be in a good economy so that the higher wage is viewed as only a step to a larger goal, the limits on what you are doing disappear.
In your books and articles you talk about decision making quite a lot. The most controversial suggestion, especially for movements that make a point of honor in the use of consensus as a decision procedure in their assemblies, arises when you use the example to suggest consensus is sometimes seriously flawed. How would you argue to convince a reluctant assembly to give up its non-authoritarian structures?
I wouldn’t. It is true that there are times, in a horrible world, where making progress requires things like secrecy and discipline in carrying out agreed plans. But I don’t see how or why that is controversial.
On the other hand, more controversially, I don’t think consensus is the height of anti authoritarianism. In fact, in many contexts, I think consensus is horribly ill conceived, even while in other contexts, it is excellent. In other words, consensus is a tactic, a method. It is sometimes appropriate, sometimes not, and certainly not something around which to rally in principle. To me, the alternative to authoritarianism is the norm that all people should have a say in decisions that affect them in proportion to the effect on them. Only in some circumstances does everyone having a veto abet that aim, and likewise for one person one vote majority rules. These are tactical approaches. For me, the principled aim they fulfill or not in different settings is self management.
A second issue extends beyond the immediate mechanics of the choice. Should we overcome and eliminate minority positions. Or should we respect them and even give them an opportunity to test and refine themselves. I favor the latter, obviously. This is what diversity really means.
More generally, and this does engender much controversy, I think that some people feel that unless each person can do whatever he or she wants, there is authoritarianism. Conversely, for people with this view, anti authoritarianism means everyone should be able to do whatever they want all the time, regardless of the views of others. To me, honestly, such a stance is anti social.
Suppose we are in a workplace. Let’s say we workers collectively agree the work day ends at 5 PM. But I say hold on, I want to work after 8 PM. If I get to do that, it will mean others who I depend on will have to do so as well, and the lights will of course be on, and so on and so forth. But I want it. Do I get it? No. This would be nonsense. I should not get it. I should be able to impact the decision of work hours proportionately to its effect on me, as should everyone else. And if I am part of a strong minority perspective it should be explored rather than simply eliminated due to the whole group collectively agreeing on something else. But still, there is a place for discipline once there are agreements.
One’s social commitments and responsibilities, even if they aren’t precisely what one would prefer, are not necessarily impositions. Indeed they can be part and parcel of being a caring and social human.
Talking about polemical questions, perhaps one of the biggest taboos in the left is classism. Nowadays even the right questions its prejudices around gender, so why does the left (even the most ideologically progressive) maintain the prejudice of classism and corporate division of labor (in their projects, newspapers, movements, etc.)?
Neither the right, nor left, became enlightened about gender issues until women and then gays and trans people forced the issues into visibility and battled for dignity and influence in society – a struggle that is still occurring. And when these constituencies did this, one component of their effort was certainly about equal pay, but another component was about a view of social relations and what is just and what is not.
Now take class. Historically there has certainly been tremendous effort regarding matters of material benefit, but there has been much less regarding the social relations of class. And the latter, when it has been present at all, has been distorted, at least in my view.
Often we address wages. Sometimes we address owners above and workers below and even the psychology of the owning class as opposed to that of working people. And few on the left are reticent about criticizing owners. So why does your question resonate, nonetheless? I think the answer is twofold. First, while most leftists can and do condemn profit seeking, not that many are clear about an alternative. In comparison, when people condemn treating women or gays or others as inferior and reject restraints on their lives because of their gender or sexual preferences, they also know that the alternative is to treat people equally, period. In contrast, with owning versus working, some, even on the left, lack clarity about the alternative which is no more ownership of productive property.
However, I think a much bigger issue is that society doesn’t just have two centrally important classes owners and workers. There is a third, coordinator class. Owners own. Coordinators work for income paid by owners, but they occupy economic roles that empower them. Workers also get wages from owners, but they occupy roles that disempower them. Workers do various tasks. So do members of the coordinator class. Workers tasks are typically rote, repetitive, and carried out in response to orders from above. For these reasons the tasks workers do convey little knowledge or confidence. Coordinators do tasks that convey confidence and information. They make decisions. Their work gives them social ties. It empowers them.
Due to this difference in circumstances, coordinators, who are roughly 20% of the population in developed economies, rule over workers, who are roughly 80%. The coordinators oversee and even define the daily circumstances of the workers. The coordinators set agendas, define relations, issue instructions. The workers obey. So what does this have to do with classism being largely out of sight in left discussion?
Suppose we go back to the analogy. Consider the left when it was dominated by men, say, or by whites, and when there was no real discussion of that condition much less effort to alter it. At such times, the discussion of sexism and racism wasn’t completely absent, but it was horribly limited. It was typical to decry rape and lynching, but not the less dramatic day to day indignities that permeated society, and also the left, in those days.
Now switch back to class. The left does not typically incorporate in its own operations people who own the left. There is some of that, I suppose, but not very much, so the issue of ownership is not off limits. Broaching it hurts no one on the left.
The left does include, however, the behaviors and structures associated with some people doing overwhelmingly empowering work and by virtue of it largely dominating other people who do overwhelmingly disempowering work. So while it is fine on the left to give attention to the need to be nice about being a manager, doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc., there is very little left attention to the underlying social division of tasks being unjust. To the injustice of the corporate division of labor would adversely affect a subset of leftists, and it is a subset that decides what is addressed and what isn’t.
In other words, while the institutionally driven dynamics between owners and wage slaves is welcomed as part of left consciousness and focus because it has no adverse implications for leaders of the left, the institutionally driven dynamics between people who monopolize empowering tasks and those who do rote tasks is barely part of left focus at all, and when it is addressed, it is without depth of understanding, because addressing this would dramatically impact leaders of the left.
Today, with the reduction of power of the labor movement, it often seems as if there is nothing outside of capitalism’s reach. If our own daily life is engulfed by neoliberal practices and the capitalist way of life, can we successfully resist without a non-capitalist foundation for our thought? Without a vision that goes beyond capitalism?
Capitalism extended its logic throughout society in the past, too. In some cases, things like company towns made it arguably even more true earlier, I suspect, though other aspects are, I agree, becoming steadily capitalistic now, such as education. Mainly, though, I agree that now, in the past, and in the future, if we take our insights from what is habitually all around us, it becomes difficult for us to escape the assumptions of society. We do need to be aware of what exists, lest we be unrealistic, but we also need to emphasize what we desire lest we replicate society’s relations.
In that regard, considering Latin America, many on the left feel that on the one hand, there is the nouvelle gauche that was formed with Chavez, Lula, Morales, and Correa, and renovated capitalism, and, on the other hand there is the contemporaneous indigenous revolt and communalization (that began with the creation of the Shuar Federation in Equatorial Amazonian in 1964 and gained momentum with the Zapatistas of the EZLN in Mexico) and in the urban sphere, for instance, the cooperative worker movement (Movimiento Nacional de Fabricas Recuperadas, Los piqueteros, etc.) in Argentina. Are these incompatible visions? If the end is to create a new world, which of these perspectives do you think is politically and strategically more important?
Is changing society for the better via grass roots activism in communities and workplaces contrary to changing society for the better via government programs? My answer is yes and also no.
Yes, because change “from above” and change “from below” often harshly conflict even if there are sincere desires by both participants to win the same changes. The dynamics of “from below” are typically, though not always, consistent with propelling growing strength below and diminishing strength above. The dynamics of “from above” are typically, though not always, consistent with propelling growing strength above and diminishing strength below.
However, though the negative “from above” dynamic is often aggravated even by forces seeking good from above – this does not have to be the case. Movements can win control of various official structures and use them not only to respond to pressure and institute changes demanded from below, and not only to sometimes go beyond what is being actively demanded from below, but, also to enlarge the room for maneuver and the resources available to those below, so that power from below grows and power from above diminishes.
People who want a world with self management should certainly be attuned to the dangers of trying to utilize the master’s tools to unseat the master’s programs. Any such endeavors should emphasize enhancing popular power while diminishing state or corporate power, even if the latter is being used to do good things. My impression is that too many left activists have not merely been aware of the dangers, which is appropriate, but have taken for granted that the dangers are inevitable. For them, this rules out working steadfastly to assist the effort to avoid the dangers of from above and to multiply the benefits, which have indeed been impressive.
To many it seems that capitalism has already become a kind of living corpse. What remains of the carcass of the capitalist ship? Should society around us only be seen as a tactical resource (for breaking up, gradually making it obsolete) or does the strategy to take over the ship and proceed by using its complex structures still make sense?
I suppose metaphorically capitalism could be called a living corpse because it is so damn morbid. But what remains in place and operating is the whole damn thing.
Capitalism does not designate all of society – which also has a polity, culture, kinship, etc. – but just the economy. And the heart of capitalism is private ownership of productive property plus remuneration for bargaining power, a combination of market and authoritarian allocation, and a corporate division of labor. All of that persists. Far from being dormant, like a corpse, its energy, while brutal and even suicidal in many respects, is immense. I think this question is essentially the same as the last one. Can we navigate within the confines of what capitalism gives us, or will navigating in its domain inevitably rope us back into preserving it?
I heartily agree that we should certainly put some of our energy into creating new structures and relations we can operate in, instead of working only in those bequeathed by the past. But this observation in no way trumps the realization that people have to eat, have to deal with health, have to relate to schools, have to live in communities, and have to work and consume, and all of that entails engaging with institutions that are imprinted with the logic of today and not the logic of our desires for a better future.
We who want to revolutionize society have no choice but to do so even while we navigate society as it is, including suffering its pressures to conform. Until we attain a new future, we have to do a great deal of our living, and our organizing, within structures from the past. That is unavoidable. The task is to do it in ways that constantly subvert pressures form the past and ratify preferred features of our desired future.
Do you think that sometimes electoral participation makes sense?
Yes. Are the Venezuelan people, from their barrios and at work, fools to vote? Are the Greeks, the Spaniards?
Could mistakes be made in voting? Of course. Could electoral efforts swirl into old patterns becoming, eventually, that which they opposed? Yes. But is the solution to not make the efforts? Sometimes it is, but not always.
Show me a Greece, Venezuela, Bolivia, much less a U.S. where popular movements in the streets have a direct route to becoming sufficiently strong and insightful to transform society’s institutions which path doesn’t include the massive consciousness raising exercise of elections, and doesn’t include the stabilizing option of creating room to move and winning lasting gains by holding power, and doesn’t include enlarging organizing capacity throughout the population via using that power – and, yes, I will agree with the entreaty that Greeks, Venezuelans, Bolivians, much less Americans, ought to take that path and not risk getting waylaid by the dynamics of relating to elections and holding government office. But while I respect and have no problem with others seeking such a path and trying to build such a path, and even navigating what seems to them to be such a path – so far, I haven’t been impressed that such a path actually exists much less would reach the better future faster, with less social cost, and with less likelihood of later unravelling.
On the question of power, it seems clear that both participants in protest movements and ordinary people (see, for instance, the electoral abstention levels in Europe) have realized that the democratic project does not match with the representative democracy model.
I agree, folks see that contemporary democracy is horribly flawed. But what they do about that depends, doesn’t it? Greeks voted, Venezuelans voted. American leftists, not so much and sometimes not at all. But when I say there is a place for elections – I am saying there is a place for people making choices by casting ballots. That doesn’t imply that the electoral methods we now have are optimal or even remotely desirable.
Regarding economics, popular confusion seems stronger. It still seems nearly impossible for ordinary citizens, and even for a good part of activists, to see beyond commonplace claims that an economy without capitalism is fiction. Do you agree that in general terms ordinary people have noticed the lie of democracy but still keep a progressive and egalitarian ideal of democracy – yet at the same time they cannot imagine a future without capitalism? What remains to be done in this area to get people to believe in another type of economy and economic relations?
Yes, I agree, though I might want to add that even for the polity, folks aren’t very sure about what ought to exist to manifest real self management in political functions.
But regarding the economy, I agree there is a much greater degree of fatalism. People feel that if we want to have jobs, to have products, to eat, even to survive – then our only option is a rat race economy in which even the winners are rats. Our only option is an economy that causes respect, mutual aid, and support to be badges of failure, and greed and domination to be badges of success.
People have been convinced by competitive pressure, grotesque inequality, the seemingly inexorable domination of a few who seem – and I stress seem – to be somehow more productive or clever or worthy, and the commodification of everything from eating to breathing and from communicating to loving, that there is no alternative. And yes, I believe this fatalism is arguably the largest obstacle to social change.
There was a line in a song in the sixties, “paranoia strikes deep, into your life it will creep” – and to me it was about how threats and acts of violation, spying and repressing, cause people of good will to lose focus and direction and even to curl up in fear or want to arm themselves and coerce others. Actually, sadly, we often even abet the paranoia inducement by talking almost endlessly about the spying and the repressing, and almost not at all about our aims, agendas, and positive alternatives.
But the thing is, important as it sometimes may be, fear is not the biggest impediment, I think, to participation in struggles for change. Cynicism – which appears to those suffering it to be entirely rational – is far more powerful.
People think that fighting against poverty, war, and injustice is a lost cause because these phenomena are unavoidable outgrowths of the human condition. However grim, these horrors are a necessary price we have to pay, or at least some of us have to pay, for humanity to survive at all.
The irony is, though it is true that with our current institutions this price must be paid, it isn’t true because of a human attribute. It is because we live in societies structured to make it true. And people don’t see that, and honestly I think people in large numbers won’t see it sufficiently to mobilize and win a new social system until and unless movements convincingly describe the possibility of better relations. There will be no successful movement to escape capitalism until there is widespread agreement that there is superior life beyond capitalism.
One main argument for the supposed impossibility of alternatives remains related to the image/concept of the human being (the dominant culture, with long term effect amongst others the economic sciences, reached to create). Following this image, violence and self interest are substantial elements of human culture (which prevent even thinking that solidarity, equity, and self management would working principles). What do you reply confronted with these preconceptions?
Someone says to me – but people are evil. People are greedy, self centered, violent, etc. It is human nature. Trying to attain a better society is whistling into the wind. It is a fool’s errand. You may want a better world, but we have a human world, and we are stuck with it. Human nature dictates it. I have a number of ways I reply.
Saying something is possible given our human nature is one thing. Yes, we know being greedy, violent, etc. is possible. We see it – so obviously it is possible. But saying something is driven by human nature, the way we all have a liver, or we need to breathe oxygen, or we need water, and so on, is very different.
So – suppose you say we have greed, or violence, or rape, or whatever because it is wired into our natures like having a liver is, or needing water. That means you think everyone that you have ever known, and you, are greedy, exert violence, or rape, like you need water. Do you really think that?
Or, imagine you are looking out a window on a very hot day. A big guy comes down the street and there is a little child there with an ice cream cone. The big guy grabs the cone, swats the child into the gutter, and walks on. Do you think to yourself there goes a fine specimen of humanity acting out the human nature we all share, or do you think, there goes a pathological thug?
Or, can you think of anyone you know, or in all history, who is not greedy, violent, a rapist, etc.? If you can, that is a problem for you. You can’t think of anyone who doesn’t need water or oxygen or who doesn’t have a liver.
Or, suppose there is one good person – your grandmother, say, or whoever, in all the world. You can’t explain that person, given your view of human nature intrinsically producing anti social people. Innate evil plus surrounding institutions that either promote or stifle sociality and that either punish or enlarge greed would not yield even one good grandma. But I can explain every other person being violent, greedy, anti social, without it being driven by human nature as long as you will grant me that we live amidst institutions that aggressively and incessantly produce those traits – which, of course, we do.
And finally, suppose you are right, I might say. Let’s assume, against reason, that human nature has a strong proclivity toward violence, rape, greed and so on, and it includes very little push toward more social traits. Why would it follow from that dreary picture that we should have institutions that promote and reward all the anti social behaviors, rather than institutions that diminish their presence and promote and reward, instead, social traits?
Human nature is very complex. Beyond the obvious we actually don’t know much about it. Good novelists perhaps know most, not biologists. But what we need to know, and can be sure of, is simple and obvious.
In some contexts people will manifest quite horrible actions. In other contexts, people, and even the same people, will manifest very delightful and even wonderful actions. The upshot is trivial. We ought to have societies with the latter contexts ubiquitous. And that is precisely what we mean by seeking a worthy, desirable, society…
Speaking about a desirable society let's focus now on the economic vision of Parecon (abbreviation of Participatory Economics), which you theorize in depth and in an accessible manner for ordinary citizens. Where do you find points of contact with the Parecon vision and with what occurs day to day in movements, now?
Participatory economics rests on a very few key values and a few institutions conceived to implement them. The values are self management, solidarity, diversity, equity, and ecological sanity.
The institutions are worker and consumer councils that use self managing decision methods; income for the duration, intensity, and onerousness of the socially valued work we do; jobs that are balanced for empowerment effects so we all do tasks that comparably elevate our capacity to engage with others, to have ideas about our work, and to manifest them; and a cooperative collective negotiation of the inputs and outputs of economic exchange that we call participatory planning.
I think there are countless connections between this broad economic vision for the future and the actual struggles people wage within economies today. The connection rests on how we choose what to fight for and even more so on how we talk about it, and also on how we organize ourselves in our movements.
Take fighting for higher wages, or against the military budget, or for shorter workdays, or, somewhat differently, take creating a new cooperative workplace. In the first three cases, we seek. let’s say, a $15 an hour minimum wage, a lower budget allotment for weapons, or a shorter work week. If we are informed by a participatory economic vision, we will talk about what we are seeking by arguing our full beliefs – for example, the virtue of people getting income for how long they work, how hard they work, and with what kind of hardship; the desirability of workers and consumers deciding inputs and outputs in a collective and self managing way in light of full social costs and benefits; and the good sense of a workday fitting people’s actual needs for work time versus leisure time. Because of the emphasis we have, it becomes clear during struggle that while a higher minimum wage is good, those doing the most onerous and debilitating work for long hours should not be paid a minimum compared to others, but a maximum. A military budget should not only be reduced, but chopped to smithereens, and, even more, the choice in the first place ought to rest with those affected, not with an unreachable bureaucracy above the population. Likewise, workday length should depend on the desires of workers for leisure versus income, not on the desire of owners for profits. In each case, the battle continues after winning the demand. The discussion prepares the way for seeking more.
Or take the case of seeking a new workplace co-op. A left perspective of nearly any kind says, okay, let’s set up this new project without an owner above us. But a participatory economic perspective adds to that attention to having self managed decision making and equitable remuneration, and, in particular to having a new approach to dividing up tasks into jobs consistent with everyone being readied by their work day to participate in decision making.
Obviously, as with other questions, there is much more to say, about all that, but many things stand between participatory economics as an idea or a vision, and its real world implementation.
And what is the main obstacle that prevents people from deciding to put this vision into practice?
Certainly opposition from those who currently benefit most from existing economic relations is a very real and powerful obstacle. But I think your last question pinpointed a still bigger one. The power of the people, if utilized, really is bigger than the man’s technology – to use an old Sixties slogan. It is bigger, too, than the establishment’s police and media. It is bigger than moneybags’ ego and billfold. But, the power of the people is only as large as the people willingly manifest. So the obstacle we have to overcome is people’s fear to try, on the one hand, and even more so, their doubt and even utter disbelief that there is anything worth winning.
We don’t march down the streets of capitals around the world demanding that the grim reaper, death per se, retire. And it is sensible that we don’t do that. Grim as the reaper is, natural death is a reality. The problem is that most people think death by starvation, death by preventable disease, death by slow and steady denial of dignity, death by bullets and bombs, is like death at the hands of honest biology and a merciless clock. Just a fact to be accepted. But it isn’t. It is crime. And it is avoidable.
To march and rally and organize against socially imposed death and for a world that eliminates all that and replaces it with conditions of equity, participation, dignity, and popular power, is not just possible and desirable, it is absolutely essential to having any future at all, much less to having a better future.