In the year 2042, an oral history of the then 25 year-old ongoing Revolutionary Participatory Society organization/project in the U.S. will be published. The book’s fifteen chapters will excerpt and arrange insights culled from eighteen interviews to present events and ideas in a sequential, encompassing way.
By unknown dynamics, the book’s introduction, its 18 source interviews, and even drafts of its chapters, have begun to appear via email in the present. The web site at http://rps2044.org presents more about the project, its aims, and ways to relate to it, and offers more of its substance as well.
In any event, the interviewer is named Miguel Guevara and the interviewee in this article is named Cynthia Parks. The year they meet is 2041. The interview is a virtually verbatim transcription. Also, as there are 18 interviews and since Guevara will seek to avoid undue overlap, no one interview serves as more than a facet of the larger whole.
Cynthia, you were born in 1992. You watched your family lose their modest home in 1998 due to the housing crash of the time. Years later you became an advocate for inexpensive quality public housing. You became, as well, a staunch proponent of what was then called rights for the city and worked within RPS ever since on related programs and organizing while staffing diverse campaigns. A militant activist, a tireless staff contributor to project after project, you were the secretary of housing in the second RPS shadow government. Thank you for this opportunity to interview you for our oral history project. To start, do you remember first becoming radical?
Yes, vividly. When I was six, as you researched, my family lost its home. I can still remember the pain and harm. I can remember my angry confusion. My mom explained the economy was in trouble. We didn’t have funds to pay our bills. The banks were taking our home. And I asked how our not having a home helped the economy, or anyone. My mother told me it helps the bankers. It helps the rich.
I watched my father sink into depression, and what I would later understand to be alcoholism. I saw my mother ravaged by trying to secure the family and protect us from poverty and from my father as well. And at six, I believe my life was mapped out, but it was only years later that I knew what I had become.
Can you tell us what were the most personally inspiring RPS events or campaigns specifically for you?
For me, for the course and direction and content of my life, many many events and campaigns had profound impact, especially those relating to city life like the military and prison conversion to housing campaigns. But if you are asking for the kind of epochal personal event people experience, I can’t even begin to tell you why – I don’t know – but two things that come immediately to mind are quite oddly and unexpectedly when I first used People’s Social Media and when I attended the first talk by Edward Snowden after he was pardoned and welcomed back to the U.S.
I think using our new social media moved me so much because I was doing something natural, nothing special, but I was doing it by way of an institution conceived and built by RPS people that I knew was going to last all the way into a new society. I think it was the first time I felt that level of confidence in our future. What we were doing would last in the way we hoped. Something about that just grabbed me. We were going to win.
And the Snowden talk, it wasn’t so much what he had to say, though that was very good. It was that it felt like a milestone of progress and potential. I felt, just sitting there in the audience, that the divisions that were so often destructive were, in time, going to be bridged and it wouldn’t be by some kind of saccharine make believe smiling and saying have a nice day, but by real understanding that moved everyone forward.
Once the first RPS convention was over what do you think kept things going? There was a lot of conflict in the early growth, wasn’t there?
In any social project some things get easier as time passes, unless, of course things literally go downhill. The hardest part is nearly always just getting started. This is because when first starting anything, one is acting without evidence that one’s actions will have impact. It involves reason and passion, but it also takes a large leap of faith. Since nothing is certain, there is always some leaping into the unknown in any work, but as time passes, there is more evidence and more reason to expect impact. It becomes a lot easier to act when you believe you will have effect than when having impact is more a tenuous wish rather than a secure expectation. And this general picture applied to RPS. We were leaping. We were acting without certainty. We had to manufacture hope and motivation from meager means.
Another factor that kept things going, followed from the first. In the early days of endeavors, poor choices can be fatal. If you are just getting going, and you opt for some action or formulation and it falls flat and fails, that can derail everything. Imagine if the convention had been a bust.
The same applies if you are trying to create a local chapter. But later this becomes steadily less true. Once you are well underway, bad choices will still be bad, but far less decisive. Your project is more robust. Mistakes can be side stepped and corrected, and the more a project embraces diversity, the more it will have flexible insurance against sudden collapse. When one path doesn’t work, okay, you have others ready to pursue.
When we came out of the convention we were just getting started. Fear of failing thrived. Fear of failing caused many people to think each choice was paramount. We vested each choice, often, with too much weight. We tended to defend positions too inflexibly. Imagine meeting with ten or fifteen folks to form a chapter. Your life is changing, it is urgent stuff. You are discussing how often to have meetings, or how to conduct them, or who to invite to the next one. It can seem like everything is at stake. It can seem like get it right, or you will fail. Can you see how you might invest too much and fight too hard for modest or even minor differences, seeing them, instead, as monumental?
At the convention, its scale and our shared excitement thwarted that tendency. But after the convention, in small fledgling chapters, we often got into unyielding arguments between contending views where, were things further advanced, we would have had more relaxed compromises or simultaneous exploration of different possibilities to determine relative merits by evidence rather than by prediction.
Three thousand people attended the convention and then returned to their jobs and homes. We never knew exactly, but a reasonable estimate is that 500 attendees became overwhelmingly committed revolutionaries. Our criterion for decisions was first to contribute to creating the organization and movement, and then, in context of that, to also live our lives with family and do our day jobs. Another 500 attendees became revolutionaries, eager to really help, but with less time to allot. And the remaining 2,000 or so became supporters with varying commitments. They often called themselves revolutionary, but had not yet changed to a point where winning a new world had become the center of their way of thinking and acting.
Okay, but why did RPS persist?
Persisting meant creating a good many local chapters which could in turn work on campaigns, reach out to attract new support, further define the organization, and help existing other organizations and movements. A Catch 22 blocked the way.
The 500 most committed participants were absolutely central. We were the ones who would call meetings of others from the convention in our area, or of friends, neighbors, or workmates who hadn’t yet connected with RPS. We were the people who would do the needed work. We were the glue. Where we were absent, nothing much happened, at least for a time. If that had been everywhere, the whole undertaking would have fizzled. Where we were present, meetings were called, chapters were established. Campaigns were begun. Outreach accelerated.
What was the Catch 22?
It was that those who were most intent on success, and most essential to keep things moving, were also the most susceptible to being afraid of failing, and thus the most prone to fight over details.
So at the beginning we really had two obstacles to surmount. First, we had to depend on relatively few people to carry too much of the initial workload and responsibility. This might entrench them/us with too much relative power and contacts. Second, depending so much on only about 500 people caused us to be so intent on succeeding and so averse to failing, that we often wouldn’t flexibly listen and hear others.
We made it past those difficulties, but honestly, I believe we certainly could have failed. The enormous project that is RPS two decades later, now well on the road to success and with nary a chance of unraveling, could have died at many points, especially in the initial period.
If you want to sing the praises of anyone for RPS succeeding, I would not nominate the famous actors, or the initial conceivers, but the subset of 500 who brought to the early efforts not just great and unrelenting energy, but, also, despite the pressures, enough sensitivity and flexibility to cool down themselves and the hot tempers of others to generate sufficient room and time for enough new people to become involved so we could move from fear of failure producing anxiety and inflexibility to informed confidence of success producing hopefulness and flexibility. To me, that may have been the most basic achievement on which everything else depended.
Was it personally difficult for people?
Absolutely. The convention was over. There was great excitement. People left. Now let’s say you are one of the 500. That is an infinitesimal number in the grand scheme of society. Even on the left, it is a tiny group. On average, ten per state. That meant you maybe knew one or two other people, at the very most, as energetically committed as yourself. And perhaps no one.
So now you are working yourself toward exhaustion, you believe in RPS and its potentials and you fear that the relative lack of effort by many others will torpedo it. Do you see how you could become hostile and bitter toward many?
You believe that errors could be fatal, and that your commitment and growing greater experience, justify your belief that your views of what should occur are much wiser than the views of others. Do you see how you could become inflexible and even sectarian about your views?
So what do you do to ward off those quite natural trajectories, which even appear warranted – and even were warranted, in some partial sense?
How do you get yourself to understand that progress and success depended easily as much on the way you interacted with folks, your patience, your willingness to abide what you thought were poor or even wrong choices, as they were on getting some abstractly right decisions made while having fewer and fewer people feeling committed to those decisions?
My guess is people had different means. Maybe there were some saints among us who weren’t susceptible at all to these tendencies, though I doubt it. For most of us, and this was true for me, I think finding one or two people who would keep us honest, who would keep our priorities in order, was critical. I think for many there was also a very conscious step, at some point, toward prioritizing avoiding these ills as one’s own special contribution. I remember myself literally pledging to myself to prioritize that. It didn’t hurt, indeed, it probably helped a lot, that there were some RPS founders and deeply involved folks who saw all this at the time, and who wrote and spoke movingly of it, even as they too struggled to avoid the pitfalls sprinkled across our paths.
I would like to ask another question, perhaps a bit personal. In those demanding times, there was a question, I am sure, for many, about family responsibilities as compared to movement desires. Post convention, tirelessly working on sustaining the emerging activism, you had a young child. How did you think about this choice between family and movement? And how did others?
For myself, I think I first focused on that face off at the time Trump was elected, or perhaps just a bit after, and then really when I had my first child. Honestly, I felt strange even having a child with his persona and malevolence lurking all over society. I started to think about what it means to serve one’s family, one’s loved ones, even if we leave out, for a minute, concern for the rest of humanity.
It seemed to me that even with the narrow view, to think that the best one can do for one’s kids is about earning as much as possible, or, for that matter, shielding them as much as possible from worrying about the direction of society – this is for somewhat older kids, of course – seemed to me mistaken. I now think it was likely always mistaken, a product of the atomistic competitive character of then social life, but surely when the direction of society threatened to curtail and even stamp them out children’s future lives, to highlight only supporting them in the usual ways as if all would be well, struck me as a kind of magical thinking. Thinking all will be well, one could think usual style efforts on behalf of one’s family, would prove to have been optimal, years later. Again, even forgetting broader social responsibility, which I don’t think we should, but even doing so, that view made no sense to me. It seemed to me, instead, that for one’s kids, as well as for society, one had to seek change.
I later read an interview with David Dellinger, arguably the foremost American civil disobedience revolutionary of his time, done decades earlier. He was asked whether he ever had misgivings, doubts, sorrows, about having spent considerable time in jail away from his kids, but, even more so, about his having not accumulated nearly the wealth he could have to provide them during their childhood and to pass on to them after he died. His reply was that he had no such misgivings, no such doubts, though he did have endless sorrow about it. He felt it was his duty to provide an image of socially responsible, caring, behavior – for them, but also for people more generally as well – and he felt he had done that, and from there on it would be up to them what road they took. He had sorrow, however, that the world was such that being responsible for them and others required him devoting less time to engaging directly with them than he would have otherwise preferred. I was moved by that, and I think encountering his response pretty much completed my thinking about the topic.
As to others’ views, I don’t know but I can guess, I suppose. I think there were over the past quarter century or so, many many pressures for parents, siblings, daughters, and sons, vis a vis their life choices – and much travail dealing with those choices. Should I largely ignore society and mainly pursue my private agendas and my family’s well being? Should I pay peripheral attention to social turmoil, but overwhelmingly address my own private agendas and my family’s well being? Should I give more time and even more so, more focus, to concerns about society, or even elevate attention to that to the prime place in my thinking? Should I shield my kids, keep my home a sanctuary of fun and internal caring, and not address society and the responsibilities it raises? Or should I bring concerns about society home, share them, and hope all will address them?
Different strokes for different folks, I guess. But over time, one thing is certain. If the trajectory hadn’t been toward the more participatory perspective, there would be no RPS, and I think there would likely be not much future, either, by now, and certainly not much dignified and worthy future for the families in question and even for the whole species.
As you went down that trajectory toward greater and greater involvement, were you hostile toward those who didn’t?
Sometimes yes, to my embarrassment, but mostly no. However, I did try to affect their views. I thought the objective implications of the mainly self and own family oriented approach that denied need to change our choices and priorities as time passed was objectively harmful to future prospects, and that if it was dominant, it would even totally swamp them. So I would try to work to change such views.
But, as to being hostile, how would you react if someone replied to your suggestion that they might demonstrate, or study up, or join a chapter, or whatever, by saying – “why should I, I don’t think you stand a chance. Injustice and degradation will prevail. More, what the hell can I contribute? What can I do that would matter? I don’t think your project has a chance in hell of succeeding, but even if it does, I am sure my adding myself to it will have no significant impact. But I know I can work with considerable chance of some success to make my kids more healthy and fulfilled, my spouse, my sister, my brother, even perhaps, my closest friends. But the whole country? The whole world? Come on. I cannot impact that, it’s a fool’s errand. To deny my kids, my spouse, my family, my friends, to go off on that tangent. Not me.”
Of course, for everyone or even just most people to adopt that stance would be a self fulfilling recipe for disaster. But one person thinking that way – whose fault was that? Was it really that person? Or was it we who understood society and history better, who realized potentials and needs and possibilities, but had not, as yet, effectively made them compelling and believable? And for that matter, was the lone person making that assessment even wrong? If so, in what way? It took a kind of leap of faith to commit to the needed tasks. Luckily enough people made that leap, and then more and more. A large part of why I was so attracted to RPS, was that it acted to help people make that choice, over and over.
Returning to RPS getting going, I assume as people left the initial convention the key next step was forming chapters. Was that so? And why?
Yes, when we left the convention we all knew that RPS success was going to depend on it having reliable, informed, working chapters with face to face trust and exploration. We hoped chapters would emerge in communities, on campuses, and in workplaces. We felt a chapter with ten members was okay, but one with forty or fifty members would be much better. We thought that a chapter just getting going, on reaching that larger scale, should as much as situations allowed divide into two – not a nasty split, but a friendly break so that each half could grow again, and divide again. In that way, on a campus, in a workplace, or in a community, there would be steadily more chapters, each operative in a particular and steadily more focussed region or area but all tied to the rest.
You might start with a few people constituting a chapter for a whole community, workplace or college. Then, that single chapter would reach forty members, say, and divide into two chapters – each for half the community, workplace, or campus. Then it would happen again, and again. In time there would be chapters for neighborhoods, not one for a whole town, say, and chapters for living units, not one for a whole campus, and chapters for divisions of a workplace, not one for the whole plant. As we got more chapters, however, we hoped each would remain entwined with its parent and sibling chapters, so that many chapters in a community, or workplace, or campus, would together constitute an assembly for the whole unit – and then, as time went on, we could also have a federation of those assemblies.
It was an ambitious picture, but then that was the whole point. RPS wasn’t asking what modest thing can we perhaps accomplish and celebrate as our achievement and then go home. RPS was asking what are the big things we must accomplish as part of moving forward to a whole new society.
We knew chapters were essential so the organization would have face to face venues of participation. Chapters were needed to pursue program in concert with one another as well as to directly serve members. Without chapters, RPS would be a cyber organization, with only tenuous connections among its members. With chapters, as long as we could develop them in a way ensuring the tight connection of each to the rest, RPS could be personal, direct, and participatory.
Can you tell us what the steps were, and what difficulties occurred?
It was different for different cases. I left the convention and within a week or two hosted a group of friends. I was still in college and at a dinner party I spoke about the convention, handed out materials summarizing the nature of RPS, and urged those who were interested to return for another session a week later. In the meantime, I urged people to discuss the ideas and read the materials, and I offered to answer questions that might come up.
That part was easy, actually. At our second session, there were twelve of us. We even thought of calling ourselves the dirty dozen before realizing the name would make no sense as we grew. In any event, we began figuring out how we would proceed. We decided on meetings twice a week – on Wednesday and Sunday nights. The meetings would be for dinner and we would rotate who had responsibility for bringing food. We also decided we would have a second, optional cultural/entertainment gathering each week. At each Sunday meeting someone would be responsible for proposing what the cultural gathering would be – perhaps a movie, or picnic, or playing ball together, or whatever.
Beyond those essential steps, for us to get to know, enjoy, and trust each other, we also started talking about what we could do. Here there was often tension. Some thought the thing to do was to get good, ourselves, at presenting the RPS views and vision and then to reach out and grow. Others thought the thing to do was to become active, either joining an already developed campaign on campus, or initiating a new one.
If I remember right instead of endlessly arguing and accomplishing neither aim while burning ourselves out in dispute, we pretty quickly compromised. When we had twenty people, less than one new person per current person, we would continue recruiting, but we would also establish our own campaign to simultaneously pursue. And so that is what we did.
Because momentum was building in many places, it took only ten days or so, if I remember right, to get to twenty. And indeed, we reached forty members, amidst considerable campus turmoil from our first two campaigns in just another few weeks, and at that point we made ourselves into two chapters, and we just kept growing.
What were the two campaigns you settled on? And how did you get people to work well together when they hadn’t seriously known one another earlier and had so many differences among them?
The campaigns were a campus version of the arms manufacturers boycott that was growing nationally, plus our own campaign to rid our campus of violence against women and racist attacks on minorities, which centered, at first, on the behavior of some fraternities and sororities.
Developing trust had two bases, I think. On the one hand, we did, as I noted, pay close attention to actually getting to know one another and to sharing experiences. I think for most of us, and it was more so rather than less so as time went along, the chapter and later chapters became not only the locus of our political hopes and activism, but also a main site of our social lives. Once there were more chapters, we created our own intramural sports leagues, had regular parties, and held classes taught by members who had special skills or knowledge. This included everything from learning tennis, say, to becoming a photographer or learning computer skills. We eventually even had painting classes and the assembly of chapters sponsored plays and street theatre, both for artistic and political aims. A nice thing was that whenever we branched out or took up a cause or developed anything new, we wrote it up and sent it to folks on other campuses, and others did likewise. All this was pretty much without opposition, yet before long it provided a basis for very powerful campaigns.
But I should note, there was a danger in our social connections. We could become insular. We could become a campus group, content in its own virtues, happy in its own social life, and lacking a will and even energy to reach out to those disagreeing with us. But this did not happen. From the start everyone agreed that building our chapters in ways which would not sustain themselves due to internal frustration and alienation would be insane. So we needed the social life commitments. But we also agreed that to become comfortable in our own little universe, getting insular and static because it was more pleasurable to revel in each other’s support and in our joyful activities than it was to go out and talk to people hostile to our beliefs would consign our overall agenda to defeat for want of sufficient support, and would likely also turn us into less than the kind of people we sought to be. So we constantly gave most time to reaching out, and even our social events were always looking to get non RPS participants involved.
And we were quite strategic about it. We approached groups and individuals who we felt could in turn broaden our potentials most. In fact, when we had only fifteen members we literally made lists of individuals to reach, people very popular and visible in various constituencies on campus, including big living groups, sports teams, and the fraternities, and we assigned people to specifically reach out to each, and keep at it, until success.
Cynthia, you attended the first convention. Can you summarize the initial vision the convention adopted?
Our visionary proposal for politics was that the organization should seek a new type of government that facilitates all citizens participating in decision-making. It’s choices should be transparent. It should convey to all citizens a self managing say proportionate to effects on them.
We proposed that new government should utilize grassroots assemblies, councils, or communes. It should include direct participation by plebiscites as well as by representation and delegation where that would be better. We favored choosing among voting options such as majority rule, two thirds, or consensus, as means to further self management.
We favored maximum civil liberties, including freedom of speech, press, religion, assembly, and organizing political parties. More innovative, we argued that new government should expressly facilitate and protect dissent. It should promote diversity so individuals and groups would freely pursue their own goals consistent with not interfering with the same rights for others. It should fairly, peacefully, and constructively adjudicate disputes and violations of norms and laws. The aim should be justice and rehabilitation.
If you look at that, which is roughly verbatim, I believe, you can see how much we were thinking not only about expressing clear long term goals for what new institutions should achieve for future citizens, but also about establishing priorities for our own future. After all, we were saying this is for society, it is for when we win change, but to get there, this is also for us, now, in our own organization. You can also see the extent to which it really isn’t particularly complicated. A few basic values and some thought about how social institutions could further them were the bedrock of it. You could also see that it didn’t arise in a vacuum but incorporated lessons from the past, from movements in the U.S. and around that world, as well.
We urged that new government should support all community members contributing to solving problems. It should ensure that no political hierarchies privilege some citizens over others. We proposed values and aims, but only a vague scaffolding of means.
The then recent Sanders campaign had legitimated the idea of political revolution, meaning transforming how politics was conducted. We gave its proposals more reach and substance. But beyond what Sanders had begun for politics, we went on to address all key sides of life.
So, our proposals said we also seek future economy in which no individuals or groups own resources, workplaces, or workplace infrastructure, so ownership wouldn’t harmfully distort anyone’s decision making influence or share of income.
We argued that future workers who work longer or harder or at more onerous conditions doing socially valued labor should earn proportionately more, but there should be no payment according to property, bargaining power, or the value of personal output. Those unable to work should receive average income nonetheless.
We proposed that workers should have a say in decisions proportionate to effects on them, sometimes by majority rule, sometimes by consensus, or by other arrangements.
We proposed each worker should enjoy work conditions and responsibilities suitable for him or her to be sufficiently confident, informed, and knowledgeable to participate effectively in decision making. Each should have a socially average share of empowering tasks via suitable new designs of work. There should be no corporate division of labor giving about a fifth of workers predominantly empowering tasks and four fifths mainly rote, repetitive, and obedient tasks.
And finally, we proposed that for allocation there should be decentralized cooperative negotiation of inputs and outputs accomplished by workers and consumers councils. There should be neither market competition nor top-down planning.
You are remembering almost verbatim, yet this was almost twenty years ago. How do you explain that? But more, surely some of this was contentious even in the group working on the proposal. How did you resolve your differences before sending it out?
I can’t say I have it verbatim because of impressive memory. Rather, I figured this would come up in the interview, and I didn’t want to misrepresent, so I went back and re-familiarized myself with the way it was stated then. But the truth is, it isn’t really memory that underpins this, like you might remember some fact, who wore what, when, who said what, when. Instead it is understanding. Our economic aims sought to implement our values. You hold the latter, you understand institutions, you arrive at the former, and you don’t have to remember it, so to speak, because you can simply argue it yourself.
But you are right that some of it was quite contentious. Most of what we proposed came from prior efforts by other people who had only had some very limited organizational success. We adapted a framework that preexisted our effort in pretty much the same way we hoped that the convention would work with, adapt, and refine, what we offered.
What we had most trouble settling on were the parts where the wording slid from broad guidelines about a better future into statements about more specific ways to fulfill the guidelines. For example, there was long discussion about what later was overtly advocated as balanced job complexes, and quite a lot of discussion, as well, about allocation, since the latter ruled out markets and central planning. The controversy was should we outline the main points of the institutional aims for division of labor and rule out familiar allocation options, or should we confine ourselves to indicating only what good institutions should accomplish in value terms, in moral terms, without saying how?
If you look, we mostly did the latter for almost all details and even much that was broad and general. But we took a more specific stance about division of labor and markets. The reason was fear.
Fear? Fear of what?
For almost all aspects of vision we thought there were no severe fault lines of disagreement among leftists who would attend the convention. Free and open discussion of most matters would reach good results. Needed refinements could happen later, within the organization, rather than as a kind of precondition for the organization getting started. But after much discussion we agreed that division of labor and markets were specific issues that were not just fundamental, as so many issues are, but also vastly less addressed up to that point. We thought they were much more subject to biases from old unexamined habits. We thought they could be sidetracked by uninformed assumptions, lack of attention, and class bias and contending class interests even among many of our attendees. For those reasons, we thought we needed to be more explicit about those matters.
People who might attend if we required no prior agreement about such matters were not likely to be well steeped in and might even resist really understanding the roots and implications of coordinator class interests and how they could silence working class needs and potentials. For race, gender, and other key aspects of focus, leftists who would attend hoping to create a new and revolutionary organization would have differences, of course, but given the strength of anti racist and feminist organizing, we felt if we agreed on broad values, none of our operational differences would be so severe as to subvert potentials for worthy unity and clarity in those facets of activism. However, around underlying issues related to class hierarchy, we felt getting a result able to ward off tendencies toward coordinator class bias and rule depended on our being more explicit about institutional solutions for division of labor and markets.
Can we get the rest of the initial convention proposal on record here. What about the rest of the visionary aspect?
We proposed new gender and kin relations that would not privilege certain types of family formation over others, but would instead actively support all types of families consistent with society’s other broad norms and practices. We proposed that living units should promote children’s well-being and affirm society’s responsibility for all its children, including affirming the right of diverse types of families to have children and to provide them with love and a sense of rootedness and belonging.
We proposed to minimize or even eliminate age-based permissions, preferring non-arbitrary means for determining when an individual is ready to participate in economic, political or other activities, as well as to receive benefits or shoulder responsibilities. We proposed to respect marriage and other lasting relations among adults as religious, cultural, or social practices, but to reject them as a way to gain financial benefits or social status.
We proposed to respect care giving as a valuable function and to utilize diverse means to ensure equitable burdens and benefits. We proposed our kinship vision should affirm diverse expressions of sexual pleasure, personal identity, and mutual intimacy while ensuring that each person honor the autonomy, humanity, and rights of others. It should provide diverse, empowering sex education, including legal prohibition against all non-consensual sex.
You can again see throughout the formulation that the vision was mostly guidelines and values, not specifics about institutions. We provided a skeleton that could provide guidance and orientation to later lead toward more specifics about key institutions. This was in tune with our desire to leave precision – not to say perfection – for after the chapter members had better means to participate and own the vision, and had more experience with and time to consider the issues at hand. The innovation wasn’t really the substance which had all existed here and there before. It was brining all the facets together. And it was sharing them, and urging that we all needed to relate to the whole picture, not just one part or another.
We also proposed that new cultural and community relations should ensure people freely have multiple cultural and social identities. We urged providing the space and resources necessary for people to positively express their cultural beliefs and habits. We urged recognizing that which personal commitments are most important to any particular person at any particular time depend on that person’s situation and assessments.
We proposed that new cultural relations should explicitly recognize that basic rights and values exist regardless of cultural allegiances. All people deserve self management, equity, solidarity, and liberty. While society protects all people’s right to affiliate freely and seeks to foster diversity, society should also affirm that its core values, if not their exact means of implementation, are universal.
We proposed, also, that new cultural relations should guarantee free entry and exit to and from all cultural communities, including affirming that communities that have free entry and exit can be under the complete self determination of their members so long as their policies and actions don’t conflict with society’s basic values.
We proposed that international relations should extend societal commitments beyond national borders. Internationalism should replace colonialism and neo-colonialism. New internationalist relations should steadily diminish economic disparities in countries’ relative wealth and protect cultural and social patterns interior to each country from external violation. Nations should facilitate internationalist globalization in place of corporate globalization.
And, finally, organizers also proposed that new ecological relations should account for the full ecological (and social/personal) costs and benefits of both short and long term economic and social choices so future populations can make informed choices about levels of production and consumption, duration of work, self reliance, energy use and harvesting, husbandry, pollution, climate policies, conservation, and consumption as part of their freely made decisions about future policy.
New environmental relations should foster a consciousness of ecological connection and responsibility so that future citizens can freely decide their policies regarding animal rights, vegetarianism, or other policies that transcend sustainability and even husbandry, consistent with ecological preferences and with social and economic aims.
It was so much. It was so dense. Even here, now, long since familiar with it, and now summarizing, it still weighs heavy. Was that a problem?
Sure, and as you say, I bet it will be a problem for many who read this interview. But concision isn’t the only virtue when communicating. You also have to convey important subject matter. And sometimes that entails more words simply because there is more to convey. Sometimes communication takes more time and effort, but without that there isn’t enough substance to matter or misinterpretation is too likely. We could just describe glorious moments, emotions, a picture of high points vibrating with personal pathos without underlying thoughts, but that isn’t better. It is is more exciting, I guess, and less demanding, but it is not better.
At any rate, you can see that while we covered many topics in some depth, we were very clear about not telling future citizens what they should choose. We were intent, instead, only on delivering a setting which would enable future citizens to make their own choices however they decide.
And you can also see that what later emerged and became the RPS vision as we now know it, even twenty years after the founding convention, has indeed met the standards we set. The broad values and aims have barely altered but considerably more institutional substance has been added. Learning through experiment and in campaigns and institutions of our own has advanced our clarity but it wasn’t smooth sailing to get where we are all these years later.
Can you summarize what the main complexities of un-smooth sailing were?
It wasn’t so much arriving at good ideas. It was arriving at good ideas and not having them subvert others doing so as well, and it was having improvements continue. It wasn’t having good ideas, it was understanding when and how their application was helpful.
The hard part was holding a view and not becoming sectarian about it. It was holding a view, that typically percolated into existence via a long path, and not acting as though anyone who didn’t yet agree with the view was, on that account either a moron or an enemy. It was not forgetting that maybe a month earlier, or a year earlier, or at any rate at some point, we who now held the new view didn’t hold it. And it was holding a vision but realizing that dismissing policies in the present by saying they aren’t yet our full vision – we want all or nothing – was a surefire way to get nothing. We had to determine if current choices led toward preferred future goals, not if they were already those goals.
We were people living in contexts that nurtured in us morally and operationally horrible habits of mind and judgement. I always find it strange when a radical or revolutionary says how bad social relations and institutions are but then acts as though that doesn’t affect the probability that our own views are sound and sympathetic.
Racism is deadly. All radicals confidently and rightly say it distorts the views of racists. Few admit it impacts those who suffer the indignities and violence of racial denigration. The same holds for sexism and classism. We say they imprint all kinds of harmful beliefs and habits on the personalities, values, and ideas of sexist or classist men or on owners or coordinators. And it’s true. But we largely ignore that these social ills can also distort our inclinations and reflexes.
I am not proposing ridiculous posturing of guilt. I am talking about soberly realizing that one ought to be open to continually re-assessing one’s views and choices, rather than quick to assert their priority. Walking a fine line between being over confident and over diffident is very difficult, I think, and made the RPS journey far from smooth.
I remember being gently but also forcefully talked with, sympathetically, constructively, but also unyieldingly, about inclinations of my own to judge people as if they had to immediately know what it took me years to learn. And I remember having to overcome my unwillingness to consider refinements of views I held. I also remember sitting with others, where I was one of those doing the intervening. None of this was easy. I remember lying in bed at night, wondering, was I being unfair to others? Was I being inflexible? Or were the others avoiding responsibility and clinging to past identities? Each was possible. Each could be the case. Each did occur. It wasn’t easy.
That was vision and the organizational agenda, Cynthia, and even as the total was so much, I can also see how the things proposed were geared to guide an interim period without overstepping to determine too much at the outset. But what about program?
The proposal for consideration leading to the founding convention added to the above visionary and structural aspects that the organization’s broad program should be regularly updated and adapted and should always strive to incorporate seeds of the future in its present projects both in how members act and by building institutions that the organization could display as liberating alternatives to the status quo.
We proposed that the organization’s program should constantly grow membership among the class, cultural, and gender constituencies the organization sought to aid. It should learn from and seek unity with audiences far wider than the organization’s own membership. It should attract and empower younger members and help build diverse social movements and struggles.
It should seek changes in society for citizens to enjoy immediately and also and especially it should help establish by the terms of its victories and by the means used in its organizing a likelihood that citizens would pursue and win more change in the future. It should connect efforts, resources, and lessons from place to place, even as it recognizes that strategies suitable to different places often differ.
You can see in those aspects of the proposal our commitment to flexibility, our fear of sectarianism, and our attitude to reforms. These were arguably the three foundational desires most critical to RPS being not just another temporary and internally flawed effort, but a project with real staying power.
While no one would have explicitly argued that instead we should be inflexible, or sectarian, or reject seeking current limited gains, in practice these matters, like many others, were in the past sometimes given lip service but not priority. We very consciously prioritized these matters right from the start.
How, was there anything more concrete?
We proposed that organizational program should seek short term changes by its actions and by its support of larger movements and projects as its affected members decided, including addressing global warming, arms control, war and peace, the level and composition of economic output, agricultural relations, education, health care, income distribution, duration of work, gender roles, racial relations, media, law, legislation, etc.
But that was guidelines, not specifics?
We had two reasons. First, we meant the proposal to be timeless and knew that specific campaigns are contextual. As context changes specific priorities change. And second, we felt specific program should emerge from discussion and debate, and we didn’t want to prejudge that process.
We also said that organizational program should provide financial, legal, employment, and emotional support to organization members so they could most easily negotiate the challenges and difficulties of participating in radical actions. Program should substantially improve the life situations of its members. It should enlarge their feelings of self worth, their knowledge, skills, and confidence, their mental, physical, sexual, and spiritual health, their social ties and leisure enjoyments.
Being part of seeking a new world would certainly take sacrifice and involve boredom and risk at times, but it shouldn’t imply foregoing well being in the current world. In a new world we should not only fulfill our potentials, but also dance and love and enjoy life.
It seems awfully broad…
Yes, and we knew a person might agree to everything being proposed, yet in practice do nearly none of it. And that was obviously not our intent. We wanted the guidelines, however people might refine them, to provide a framework for talking about specific shared program and deciding on it.
Program, we added, should develop, debate, disseminate, and advocate truthful news, analysis, vision, and strategy among its members and in the wider society. It should develop and sustain needed media as well as means to pursue face to face communication. It should use educational efforts, rallies, marches, demonstrations, boycotts, strikes, and direct actions to win gains and build movements. But it should place a very high burden of proof on utilizing even purely defensive violence, including cultivating a decidedly non violent attitude. And it should assess engaging in electoral politics case by case, including cultivating a very cautious electoral attitude.
You can see, again, that we proposed a kind of meta program, that we hoped would be pretty much timeless. It specified only the kind of thing specific program in different places and times ought to accomplish and therefore just the kinds of demands and campaigns that should be adopted. It didn’t overextend by explicitly specifying universal demands and campaigns.
Among those who prepared the proposals, did you have differences?
We who made the proposals, even after weeks of collective interactions, were, even as the convention date approached, divided on what we hoped the convention itself would do. Should it just ratify the proposals with some modifications. Or should it ratify with modifications but then also apply the proposals in the current moment to decide some specific campaigns for when people went back to their home regions?
I leaned toward the latter view and expected doing that to be a significant part of the gathering and that the specifics would pretty much emerge from a kind of meshing of the programmatic aims that had emerged earlier during the Sanders campaign and its aftermath, and the program that Black Lives Matter activists had settled on, and that the massive women’s anti Trump organizers had proposed, and what followed from others, as well, with some of our own guidelines leading to adding some new features so the whole would better fulfill the emerging RPS norms, and, indeed, I think that is basically what happened.
Were you confident after preparing all the various proposals?
We looked at the pile we had generated, all the words, and we imagined people hearing a call for this gathering and getting all these vision, structure, and program proposals. We imagined their hearing that to usefully attend they should read the proposals and think about them, talk about them with others in person or online, and at least tentatively decide their attitude toward them. We were far from confident. Some who we consulted called us crazy to ask so much from people, especially since just attending was itself a big logistical and financial step. But there was motive in our madness.
We knew someone first hearing all this, I guess like someone first reading this interview, couldn’t possibly quickly process it. It would require time and effort to process so many proposals and have opinions of them. But we felt that was okay. That was the right approach because we wanted to be clear we weren’t gathering people for a conference merely to celebrate one another. We weren’t seeking to merely display our numbers. The convention wasn’t an event to attend as a voyeur or to be able to say you had been there. The convention had to make serious choices based on carefully and respectfully addressing the issues at hand.
So we offered a lot of information before the convention despite that it was obviously a lot to send people and is even a lot to convey now, answering your questions, but we were committed that people who would attend should become clear about the issues beforehand and bring their proposed refinements with them. They should think for themselves.
We created a web site for people who would attend that included forums for discussing ideas in advance, and a place to post essays about the issues of concern. But we mainly urged that people should talk face to face with others, even as we provided means for online interaction.
Cynthia, you got involved with RPS coming out of prior activist work. Can you tell us what that was, and what drew you into RPS?
My family lost its home when I was ten years old. Many people we knew lost their’s too. I was young, but I saw not just what was totally obvious, that families of four, five, six and more had to live in one and two room ramshackle flats, or that two or more families had to move in together in a home that was too small for either family alone, or that people had to live in a car, as my family did for two years.
I also saw the drift of families into anger, despair, alcohol, and drugs. I saw incredible tension and violence. But as I got a little older I met folks who devoted themselves to preventing evictions for inability to pay mortgages or due to vicious development projects clearing out whole neighborhoods, and, in cases where preventing evictions proved impossible, people who devoted themselves to helping those victimized find livable new homes.
The contrast between these activists who sought just results, and the real estate developers, bankers, and police who callously carried out evictions and arrests, was so stark for me that it pretty much dictated the course of my life.
Within a short time of starting to organize alongside housing activists my understanding broadened even while my energies remained focused on housing. I understood that the guys dumping household contents onto the street weren’t the core problem, nor even the bankers foreclosing on mortgages, nor the cops, legislators, or real estate developers. Oh they were each certainly part of the problem, of course. And while some showed remorse, most acclimated themselves to their roles. But the core problem was a system of requirements that propelled people into these behaviors. That system was my deeper enemy. I was already a revolutionary because I not only despised that system, I also felt that despite all the deprivation and depravity I had already seen, people could do much better.
So, when I first met various RPS organizers, it was a perfect fit. I didn’t have to change my focus. I only had to welcome support from others and lend my support to them.
In fact, I quickly realized that in some ways I was more prepared to contribute to RPS than many of the people who were already in it. After all, the bond between a housing organizer and a potential victim of eviction who will become a housing organizer too, and then between the potential victim turned activist and others in similar circumstances, was a model for RPS reaching outside its base of members.
Housing organizing required listening, hearing, and empathizing as much as any activity I knew of. It entailed consciousness raising, skills development, confidence building, and informed, tireless solidarity for and from everyone involved, all in incredibly intense circumstances. It required collectively conceiving and sharing creative solutions. You had to pay close attention to means at hand and to means attainable. You had to be patient with people and impatient with institutions. It involved exactly the type of activism RPS needed. And what we housing organizers needed back from RPS was the power and continuity of a large scale organization willing to support us. A perfect fit.
Cynthia, another interesting early project involved transportation, right?
Yes, the campaign for bicycles before cars had as its logic ecological benefit, safety, and also improved urban social relations. The case was open and shut. On no grounds was inner city travel by auto superior to travel by bicycles plus mass transit. What was interesting was not so much the argument for this transition as the argument against it, and the process by which support grew.
Those against had to ignore – or concede – that bike transit was more economical for those doing it, faster when mass transit also exists, and clearly better for the ecology. But they argued that cars exist and we like them and feel secure in them, and we don’t want to be told we can’t use them, or that we are doing something evil by using them.
At the beginning, the bike proponents kept hammering on their own logic and largely ignored the feelings of the car advocates, or chalked them up to ignorance or selfishness. The car advocates characterized the bikers as deviants with no hope of success who were interfering with a working system in pursuit of something that would never happen.
A break came when the bikers started to listen and respond to what the car owners were saying. The arguments now took the form of here is an option that you might actually benefit from, and your kids and grandkids will certainly benefit from. Why not give it a limited chance, to see if it has merit? We can all learn from that. And with that non confrontational and cautious orientation, bike lanes began to spread and grow in use. And then some roads were made car free, at first just for a day or two a week, and then more. It was all experiment. It was all let’s see what’s possible, what the benefits and costs are.
Bike dealerships spread and bikers realized this was an area that could also be made less commercial. And then things got really interesting. Bikers took on auto manufacturers – seeking more efficient electric vehicles and also for them to produce bikes in large numbers for purchase by cities, to be made available on a sharing, free basis to inner city users.
Of course there were plenty of conflicts along the way. Including hostile face offs, fights, and even some huge brawls when cars clashed with bikes or vice versa on the streets. But once the bikers became open to real discussion, and saw their path as actually converting folks’ views rather than somehow “beating” them, they proposed the whole process as a social experiment to find the best transportation results for everyone. Progress grew pretty continuous. From small groups advocating bikes in cities, and larger groups using them but not fighting for their spread, more and more people got involved. And once the bikers took on auto companies, popular support overcame fearing losing old options.
Sometimes a contest is zero sum. One side wins and the other side loses. In the contest between those who don’t own productive property and those who do, getting rid of ownership means one side wins and the other side loses. Someone who loses ownership of a company may benefit in other respects, but he or she is not going to by some other means gain back more power or more wealth than the property conveyed.
But a great many other oppositions are not zero sum, even though, at first, everyone may think they are. For bikes versus cars if a really well conceived bike and mass transit inner city transportation pattern replaces a car centered pattern, everyone gains. The car folks don’t lose due to costs, or due to pollution, or even due to slower or less convenient transport. And this is why the approach the bikers finally settled on made sense. Make changes, carefully, with respect, to explore implications.
Didn’t some on the car side retain their hostility and opposition, even as the evidence of benefits mounted?
Yes, certainly. But even a cursory questioning revealed that it wasn’t because of anything about cars and bikes. Rather, those who remained car advocates, and who became militant about it, were really fighting not the transport project itself, but the project’s potential larger implications. They opposed a slippery slope to systemic social change. They opposed RPS.
This dynamic recurred over and over. It was the twofold task of the projects and movements seeking innovations to get the involved populations to assess them on their actual merits rather than to reject them because so many of their supporters favored separate, though related, overall systemic change. It was the task of those trying to ward off broader social change, and to ward off RPS, to fight each and every battle on grounds that giving in was a slippery slope toward altering society’s overall character, while trying to convince people that those overall changes would be a disaster.
Once movements for change understood this, they realized their ability to effectively advocate and justify RPS program writ large, and especially to dissipate fear of it, was critical to their winning separate components of it. The great bike crusades were a part of that. And the opponents were in one respect correct. When cities allowed only bikes and mass transit in downtown areas, and bikes appeared in huge numbers, the number of those bikers festooned with RPS slogans was undeniable.
Cynthia, when RPS emerged the Black Lives Matter movement was still operating at a very high level. Did RPS just take up their approach, or were there some changes?
When BLM first began it made no demands and overwhelmingly confined its attention to the precipitating situations, which, recall, were instances of police violence against community members. A year or two passed and then, I think it was late 2016, various members of BLM put together a very impressive document listing demands and issues. The program they proposed not only addressed police violence, but all sides of life approached from the angle of race and the impact on Black and other non-white communities.
Since it wasn’t a finished formulation, but, as all program should be, a work always in progress, I think for the most part it is fair to say RPS not long thereafter became part of that work in process.
Where RPS innovations entered, I think, was regarding how to propose and seek changes in policing, income distribution, and cultural relations. RPS emphasized that victory didn’t depend on winning a debate, but on assembling a massive majority. When debating issues we had to not only put forth honest and un-compromised claims and desires, but also to address the views of opponents to create growing unity. We came to realize that we each had to live our lives not only for ourselves, but as a model for others. It may seem obvious, but it really wasn’t. For decades, around race and really around every focus of serious oppression, dissidents were more often trying to validate their agendas and justify or even celebrate their actions, then they were trying to actually win their agendas.
After all, what would winning around race mean? For RPS it meant that when the dust settled not only would the structural bases for racial hierarchy be gone, but all those involved – which was really everyone – would see themselves not firstly as a member of a competing community or tribe – but, rather as members of humanity first. The differentiations by community would remain important, but become second-order rather than primary. The human connection would become primary. And community differentiations, including different racial, ethnic, national, or religious allegiances, would become not a matter of superior and inferior, or of better and worse, but simply a happenstance of birth and preference. The key was for everyone to see themselves as part of a larger whole and to see community differences as reflecting different optional choices that all deserved respect and room to persist. We didn’t want to homogenize culture to eliminate conflicts by eliminating differences. Nor did we want to exaggerate the source or implications of cultural differences, much less their exclusivity.
So this meant when an oppressed community was battling against conditions of oppression, it was crucially important to have long run success in mind. Our stance wasn’t about catering to the tastes of those in more dominant positions, nor was it about avoiding annoying them. It was about trying to communicate in a way that could lead to lasting solutions rather than leading to momentary feelings of success that were later wiped out by unaddressed or even needlessly provoked antagonisms.