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 Bertrand Dellinger. 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.
Bertrand Dellinger, you were born in 1966 and politicized by no nukes and anti war activism. You became a key advocate of RPS from its inception, and, like Lydia, you are exceptionally well placed to discuss virtually every aspect of RPS development. You have been a university professor of physics and a world renowned contributor to physics theory, as well as a social critic and militant activist your entire adult life. You were shadow Vice President during Lydia Luxembourg’s term as president, and later you had your own term as shadow President. I thank you for giving of your time for this project. Was your initial attraction to RPS similar to Lydia’s or did other facets play a larger role for you? How did you get involved, and why?
For me too the multi dimensional aspect and the emphasis on institutional roles were important. But even more important for my early choice to join RPS was its attitude to the economy, and beyond ideas, its moral approach and the specific values it highlighted.
Before I got involved in RPS, I was mainly anti war and internationalist, though I was also worried about global warming and the possibility of nuclear catastrophe. My activism was anarchistic. I militantly rejected any authority that wasn’t absolutely essential for some specific time bound reason. I had aggressive faith in human potentials and little time for impersonal dynamics largely beyond our reach. The fact that RPS highlighted human needs and potentials was a strong attraction. However, I was most drawn by the specific value it celebrated for how decisions should occur, and by the centrality RPS gave that value.
RPS called the value that hooked me “self management,” and it is, of course, the now ubiquitous idea that people should have a say in decisions in proportion as they are affected by them. RPS wasn’t first to espouse self management, but it made its commitment more precise than others had, and I was moved by that.
I liked how RPS argued against elitist notions of a few people making decisions for all. Even more, I liked how RPS found violations of self management not only in dictatorships or in centers of corporate power that bossed around workers and consumers, but also in the dynamics of central planning and markets, electoral systems, and even sexual and family relations and schooling, not to mention the dynamics of prior left organizations.
Indeed, in those early days of RPS, I saw my calling as seeking self management for all people in every side of life. This got a little problematic in the way Lydia mentioned for how a narrowly feminist allegiance could get problematic. It wasn’t that my feeling that self management was incredibly important was bad – that was correct. What was bad was having one value drive my perceptions so heavily that it crowded out my seeing and assessing other values. In time my activities in RPS got me past that narrowness.
You said you were moved by how RPS found certain less obvious violations of self management and not just self evident ones. Can you give an example that mattered a lot to you?
If an owner can tell employees their hours of work, their pay, and even whether they can take a bathroom break, it obviously violates the workers’ self managing their circumstances. But less obviously consider this example, which very much affected me when I finally understood it.
Most people fifty years ago felt they freely chose their work by applying for a job and getting it. They felt they freely chose what they consumed by going to the store, or online, and purchasing it. It seemed true enough. After all, I didn’t have to take a job or to buy particular shoes. I work here or there. I buy this or that. I choose.
But if the jobs we get all have certain features we can’t escape or influence, are we really choosing how we will work? Or if the range of items available to consume is tightly constrained and we have no say in that, again, do we really freely choose?
Consider two analogies I heard back then. Imagine you are in prison and go to the commissary and purchase some items. Do you self manage your choice? Well, yes, but also no. You certainly decided to go there and you certainly saw the options and picked some. However, you had no say in what was and what wasn’t available and yet that largely determined what you wound up with. Outside prison obviously a much wider selection is available, though I saw it too was horribly constrained by market pressures.
Similarly, when you apply for a job, if you have as your only options to apply for jobs that are subordinate to a boss and paid a wage based on power relations – are you really self managing your choice? Wasn’t the main choice made before you arrived?
Or consider one more example. About 90 years ago was called the golden age of capitalism. Let’s call the average productivity per hour at that time golden output. Roughly fifty years later, productivity per person was literally twice golden output. Another forty years to the present and it is now 3 times golden output. This means if the average time of a job per week was 40 hours just under a century back when average productivity per person was called golden, we could have had the same golden output per person in society in 20 hours a week at the start of this century and in about 13 hours a week now. The reduced duration of work would allow the same wealth per person in real terms.
So the question arises, who decided that instead of working hard a half or even a third as long as earlier, we would actually work hard quite a bit longer than earlier generating vastly more output, and, on top of that, that the immense fruits of that labor would be given over to a small percentage of the population or to creating weapons and other useless or harmful outputs? I didn’t decide that. You didn’t decide that. No one we know decided that. In fact, in truth, it is fair to say that in large part no person decided it. Rather, market competition imposed that to survive firms had to pursue a profit-seeking path. The institutional context of market allocation took away control over critically important decision making about how long we should work as well as who should get the fruits of our labors.
From these examples, I came to understand more viscerally the prerequisites of self management and the complexity and promise of institutions providing rather than curtailing it.
What about within the left itself? Was there self management there?
In the period from the 1960s upsurges through, say 2016 or so, the idea of self management certainly existed. It was discussed, it was even elevated to a prime or even the prime status by many, especially, for example, anarchists, but, was it actually operative inside the left?
If you look at activist organizations and projects of the times, for example at media organizations of which there were many, or even at organizing projects and movement organizations like unions, ecology movements, anti war organizations, and feminist organizations, there really wasn’t much structural commitment to self management.
Mostly, movement projects looked like other institutions in society. Some people made decisions. Way more people were largely absent from decision making. Donors and fund raisers had incredible power, just as owners did in mainstream society. People who were analogous to managers and engineers, or who even held the same positions, like editors and publishers in alternative media organizations, also had great power.
When self management went from rhetoric to actual practical efforts, it was almost always in a kind of transitory situation, where it was praised but not implanted in lasting structure. Groups would be more or less collective, but it was a function of people’s attitudes, not of structures which ensured collectivity and self management.
There were massive phenomena, like what was called the Occupy movement, with vast assemblies, and hand votes of all involved often seeking consensus. Yet, even with those, if you looked closely, you would see that relatively few people were really calling the shots, and, more to the point, there were no lasting structural features that could deal with more complex agendas and processes.
Right before RPS began to take form was the election of 2016. The Sanders campaign said very good things about not being a one man show and about the paramount importance of grassroots involvement and trying to attain real democracy, but even with those verbal commitments, which I considered pretty sincere, at least from Sanders himself, the overall project was still utilizing old forms of internal organization with a few people deciding everything, and with only at most very vague and unimplemented notions of any alternative.
Debate between tight hierarchical decision making and incredibly loose raised hands decision making with virtually no lasting structure and anyone at all voting, had long had little to do with actual self management. RPS started to confront that, and to pressure changes not only in society’s election procedures, official accountability, and social relations, but also in movement organizations and projects.
I should mention one other impact. In the anarchist community we had always militantly rejected oversight, hierarchy, and authority. But sometimes this led us in unproductive directions. People would argue their right to do as they please as if others didn’t have a right to be free of imposition by the first group’s preferences. We can riot at the demo if we want despite that it meant others would have to stay away or endure riot. Or people would argue against having lasting rules, laws, and even collective norms, as if every situation had to emerge anew, spontaneously, with no attention to prior agreements. This sometimes got very self serving, with each argument reflecting only immediate interests of the person making it, and with little attention to the interests of others who would be affected.
At any rate, RPS’s clear early enunciation of the logic and some methods for collective self management did a whole lot to focus anarchist values and commitments in ways which were far truer to the early days of anarchism than were the self centered approaches that had become prevalent for some anarchists before RPS. So RPS at its outset actually strengthened my anarchism, and propelled much more and better anarchism from others, as well, I think, even as it also initially aroused opposition from many folks calling themselves anarchist. Of course as time passed and RPS values manifested in program, the worth of self management became evident far more widely.
You said another aspect of RPS ideas attracted you – not just its multi issue approach and its prioritization of institutions, was its approach to the economy. Can you explain what that was?
Before RPS, leftists, including myself, called a couple of percent or so of the population capitalists because those folks owned the means by which society produces and distributes goods and services, society’s capital. We called non owners workers because those folks owned only their ability to do work. Owners and workers were seen to clash over wages, the length of the work day, the pace of work, work conditions, production choices, and national economic policies.
RPS felt that if you see only workers and owners you rightly recognize that the non owners all work for owners, but you wrongly miss that about a fifth of non owners have great power and influence due to their position in the economy, while four fifths of non owners have nearly no power and influence, also due to their position in the economy.
This observation that some people who weren’t owners nonetheless had dramatically more power, income, and wealth than other non owners went all the way back to early anarchists well over a century before RPS. But even being aware of that, until RPS got active most activists didn’t understand why this difference existed, and why it meant there were three main classes, and not just two.
RPS said that beneath owners and above workers, sits another class. This third class was did not own differently than workers since, like workers, members of this third class did not own workplaces and resources. And like workers, these other non owners were also subordinate to owners. They too worked for wages paid by owners. What put these particular non owners above worker non owners was the different types of tasks each did.
Seeing this class difference was, I think, a graphic instance of utilizing the type of institutional thinking that RPS emphasized. RPS argued that the division of labor in corporations and throughout modern societies gave about 20 percent of non owners empowering tasks and gave about 80 percent of non owners disempowering tasks. It called the empowered non owners the coordinator class. It called the disempowered non owners the working class. Because of their different tasks, those with empowering roles accrued confidence, social connections, organizational skills, information, time, and disposition to affect affairs and define relations. Those with disempowering roles were habituated to obedience and became fragmented from one another and separated from information. They knew each other but not people with pull. They suffered shortages of time, became exhausted, and became disposed to escape their alienated subordination as much as possible.
RPS additionally explained that coordinator class members not only would oversee working class members in capitalist settings, where the former designed the circumstances, issued daily orders, and even healed and mended worker’s below – but they would continue to do so even with owners gone, as long as the same division of labor prevailed.
To me, this last observation shattered many prior beliefs and created new ideas in their place. For example, it shattered my attachment to old forms of post capitalist vision. It made me ask how we might remove the features of economic institutions that give the coordinator class both it’s power and its inclinations to use its power as it does. It made me think about what new institutions could deliver real classlessness.
While RPS was trying to modestly refine our understanding of race, power, and gender in light of incorporating the impact of each on the rest, regarding economy it had to undertake a much more ambitious renovation. It not only had to remove the tendency to over stress economics in a pursuit often called economism, it had to get us to see how class division arose not only from ownership relations but also from a corporate division of labor. At first I found it difficult and unfamiliar to understand this in personal human terms and especially in terms of what it meant regarding vision, strategy, and people’s ways of thinking, acting, talking, and writing. But as I did, it became a big part of my becoming deeply committed to the RPS project.
Did it impact your life choices outside RPS?
Actually yes, but not without some resistance from me, I admit. I am a physicist. I work in a major university as a professor and also in a lab. In my workplace, well known scientists are paid more, have better conditions, have more influence, and are, indeed, coordinator class. So there was a real issue. Would I continue to accept the many advantages I enjoyed, which seemed like my right, or would I agree to and even join efforts to attain balanced job complexes?
Powerful pressures for change came from students and newbie scientists, and also from technicians, janitors, and others who worked in traditionally powerless positions that benefitted everyone, but for less pay than professors earned and with no say in policies.
At first pretty much all professors resisted. We mostly found it absurd. How could it make any sense for us, given all our experience and training, to do a share of cleaning up? It would mean disaster for science, for physics. In fact, our reaction was wrong even regarding productivity, much less regarding justice. Indeed, the justice part was obvious as soon as one regarded all who were involved as equally worthy human beings. But the productivity part while it ought to have been evident with a little thought, only became compelling when it turned out that labs with balanced job complexes were not only much more humane and fulfilling to work in, but because of the reduction of tensions and what I guess some would call “office politics,” were also better at apportioning time and getting tasks done. And if one had eyes for it, one could see they were vastly better at teaching the next generation.
So, yes, I became an advocate not only in theory, but in my own realm as well, with some delay, but a lot faster and more thoroughly, though I wish that weren’t true, than for most others in comparable coordinator roles.
Look, we all lived in a diseased world in which it was impossible for anyone to be fully human. One way or another, everyone who lived in that world was somewhat sick or maladjusted. To be flawed was no crime. To ignore the flaws after they became evident – that was a problem.
What about the last key social value that RPS was initially emphasizing, equity? Did that resonate for you?
I was slower to take to the last RPS value then I was to favor balanced job complexes. I think it was due to my defending deeply held but not fully thought out prior beliefs.
RPS says a person should get an income, which is actually a share of the total social product, in accord with the duration, intensity, and onerousness of the socially valued labor they do. If you work longer, harder, or under worse conditions, RPS says you deserve to receive more. But it also says you do not deserve to receive more for having special talents or for working in some area that is more valued than another, or for working with tools that increase your output, much less for owning property or for simply having power to take more. One way to think of it is you get remunerated for your effort and sacrifice. Another way to think of it is that each person should enjoy a combination of leisure and work which, overall, should afford the same total benefits minus debits as every other person’s mix of leisure and work.
In 2040, for all members of RPS, and for most other socially engaged people as well, whatever label for this aim one favors, this approach to income seems natural and even obvious. But when RPS was just getting started, that wasn’t the case.
Having come from an anarchist tradition, I had always believed in the guiding precept “from each according to ability, to each according to need.” That slogan was a cornerstone of my radical identity and I vigorously defended it more like one would defend a relative, literally, than an idea. I heard the RPS formulation as a step back and an attack on a central component of my radical identity, not as to a serious issue for discussion and understanding.
At any rate, as an idea, in its intent, the anarchist norm was actually quite similar to the RPS view, but the anarchist norm assumed without describing it that there would also be an accompanying economic arrangement that would allow the norm to operate. However this assumption was made as a kind of dogma, or first principle, without thinking closely about the actual features needed to attain the assumed effects.
Additionally, the anarchist norm took for granted that having rules about work and consumption that limit options for each person in light of social circumstances is intrinsically alienating and oppressive. Later, that seemed quite strange. After all, why shouldn’t my connections with others impact my options as well as theirs? Earlier views about this eventually seemed to me strangely anti social, even though that was of course not the earlier intent. And yes, this of course harks back to what I said earlier about the impact of the RPS view of self management on anarchism’s understanding of its own values.
At any rate, for me, at the time, the anarchist norm as I then understood it meant that we should each do what we can with our talents to contribute to society because that is the right thing to do – and, likewise, we should each receive from society what we need, like everyone else, because that is the right thing for society to provide. But while that was my feeling about it, RPS caused me to ask myself, what does this delightful norm literally mean if we try to implement it in real relations rather than only use it as a rhetorical place holder for broad hopes about outcomes?
Even regarding the intended goal – and ignoring that the anarchist norm offered no institutional mechanisms to attain it – as RPS made a case for its new approach, I began to realize that while I liked the anarchist slogan for its connotations, I hadn’t seriously examined its meaning.
Work to ability? Okay, who will say what my or your ability is? Consume to need? Okay, who will say what my or your need is? Anytime anyone went from abstract discussion to actually considering how to remunerate in some new project aiming to be a model, these type concerns arose.
If this norm says someone else will determine my ability or need other than me, then it foregoes all its anti authoritarian connotations. But if it says that I am free to determine my ability, which means how much I should work and at what tasks, and that I am free to determine my need, which means how much I should consume of what items, and if it says there should be no say in these determinations for anyone or anything beyond myself, then the norm translates to saying that I can have for consumption whatever I decide to take and I can work however much or little I choose, at whatever job I choose. There is clearly an implicit assumption or hope, no doubt, that I will choose wisely, but there are no constraints, no requirements, and even no mechanisms to facilitate my being wise.
As the alternative RPS approach slowly gained traction, and I had to hear it more thoughtfully, I realized my anarchist “from each to each” norm had two central problems. The first was rather obvious and people would often discuss and argue about it. The other was more subtle, and up to the emergence of RPS, it was rarely raised, though once considered, it was clearly crucial.
The first problem was, we can’t all compatibly take what we want and produce what we choose. On the one hand, producing what we choose, with no attention to how well we are able to do it, is a problem because people may choose to do things they cannot do well. But even if we ignore that difficulty and assume we will each only want to produce things we can produce well, why can’t I take a tremendous amount from output, and produce little or maybe nothing? The maxim says do as you will, so, why can’t I do that? So the maxim’s first problem is if people strictly obey it and opt for the best result for themselves with no concern for the effect on others, society crumbles from there being way too much demand and way too little supply. The minute you get behind the rhetorical allure to practical meaning, this becomes evident.
In response, the “from each to each” maxim’s advocates would typically qualify it to accord better with their intentions. They would say their maxim really means that we should take what is fair, given our needs, and we should produce what is fair and needed, given our abilities, where the latter includes only doing work that we do well enough so our product is socially valued. Indeed, the above is literally the pattern of thoughts I had when first confronted by RPS advocates and, even more so, the reality of determining how much real people in real institutions I was working with should receive. I wanted to retain my link to the slogan that I thought was at the heart of anarchism’s logic, but I also realized I could retain my allegiance to the anarchist norm only if I qualified it. But my attempts fell short and the RPS folks were relentless. I was forced to recognize that even with the fix, I still had a problem. How would I know what is fair? For that matter, what does fair even mean?
What if someone says that in their view fair is to receive income equal to what their property produces? Or, fair is to receive income equal to how much society values their personal product? No anarchist would abide either view and nor would any advocate of RPS. But how does the “from each to each” maxim rule these choices out? Further, whatever I decide is fair, how do I manage to make choices that implement it?
RPS convinced me, as is by now well known and widely accepted, that the ethically desirable and economically viable choice is that people should get income for how long they work, how hard they work, and the onerousness of the conditions under which they work, as long as their work is socially desired. But RPS crucially added that in practice, none of us can make this assessment unless we engage with one another in production and consumption in ways that reveal what people want and how much they want it.
This last observation, in some sense purely technical, factual, was critical for me. The dispute wasn’t only about ethics. It was also about what information had to be available for people to be able to be ethical. That was when I decided that the RPS norm was consistent with my anarchist desires for equitable outcomes, but that unlike “from each to each” the RPS norm and institutional commitments were together able to generate the desired outcomes by revealing needed information rather than obscuring it. I would later realize there was more, for example, the information was also needed for society to orient its future production sensibly in light of changing desires, but the above is what got me initially.
I have been asking folks to recount an event or campaign or situation during the rise of RPS that was particularly inspiring or meaningful for them. Could you do so too, please
Aside from all the major RPS campaigns and events molding me, I have to acknowledge a particular long running experience. When I was about 18, I guess in 1984, visiting with a girlfriend at the time, listening to music, she played me the album Another Side of Bob Dylan. It was playing, we were enjoying each other, but then the sound started to take over my mind. I don’t know what else to say. I was not one to have a song detract me from anything else, much less 18 year old enjoyments, but it started happening, and then I heard “Chimes of Freedom,” and I was in thrall.
I later listened not only to that album but to a whole lot of Bob Dylan online, over and over. I poured over certain lyrics until I could hear them fully, like “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” “Ah, get born, keep warm, short pants, romance, learn to dance, get blessed, try to be a success…” I didn’t just look the lyrics up via Google. I wanted to hear them as first listeners did, decades earlier. Some songs I heard fine right off, others I had to hear repeatedly to begin to get a hold of.
I think it was the first time something so cerebral was also so emotive for me. I think Dylan was the main literary engagement I ever undertook. And I truly do believe that my experience of his words and music contoured my life journey and especially my revolutionary desires about as much as anything else did.
I could talk about song after song and its impact on me. I assume that I often read my feelings into them, but a great song achieves that. Someday I hope to write about his words and their impact, but some other time. Though, if it is okay, just one more bit on it, here.
Of course many of Dylan’s songs opened me to the breadth and depth of injustices in society, to the dangers its structure imposed, to the insanity, to the hypocrisy, and to hope as well. But less known, Dylan was also an observer of critics of injustice, and as on most topics, he was way before his time, conveying insights way beyond what his actual involvement and awareness of activism would seem to have alone permitted. Somehow he seemed to tap into wisdom that he didn’t even himself own. I don’t know where he got it, or how he mined it. I always wondered if he could express it in dialog, in simple terms, remotely as he did in song and sometimes poems, but I always doubted he could – which to me was and remains a bit of a mystery.
Consider this, as one passage of many. It is from the song “Farewell Angelina” and to my ears it is Dylan not only bidding a very gentle goodbye to Joan Baez, but also a not very gentle goodbye to the tumultuous movements then growing around the country which Joan wished to still relate to – for reasons that activists in those movements should have heard, and which I think RPS, later, in some sense did hear.
The machine guns are roaring
The puppets heave rocks
The fiends nail time bombs
To the hands of the clocks
Call me any name you like
I will never deny it
The sky is erupting
I must go where it’s quiet
For him, we were the puppets, even the fiends. And he did seek quiet. And the movements of the day largely lost their best political muse, their best political troubadour, though Dylan’s social brilliance went on and on.
Bertrand, in seeking an overview of values and ideas that formed and still form the foundation of RPS, though of course it has been written about and discussed and proclaimed and shared and pursued for over twenty years and is now very well known, maybe you can briefly describe the political vision of RPS is and how people came up with their new allegiances.
RPS recognizes that political activity includes legislation of laws, adjudication of disputes, and collective implementation of shared programs. Given RPS values and concepts, we realized a new political system should accomplish these functions but also produce solidarity rather than anti-sociality, and diversity rather than homogenized outcomes.
We thought to ourselves, if we are part of a community, state, or country, how must we organize ourselves to attain such results? How must we interact so our decision making will advance each citizen via the advance of all citizens? How might we respect multiple paths forward not enshrine one right mind or one right path? We knew polity should generate fair outcomes, redress past imbalances, and prevent future ones. It should produce collective self management for all. But how?
Partly we had to think about it, accounting for past experiences and lessons. We had to try new ideas to see what could replace old bad choices and improve old good ones.
We began by assuming that the kinds of grassroots mechanisms people tended to spontaneously form when they were highly active were a good starting place. We should try to employ nested councils where the primary-level councils would include every adult in the society in local councils, and then some folks would be elected from the local ones to higher level ones as well, for another layer, and another. Practical experience experimenting with this in our chapters and upward to national RPS, taught us that the number of members in each council could be low enough to guarantee that people could be involved in face-to-face discussions, yet high enough to allow an adequate diversity of opinion and ensure that the number of levels of councils needed to accommodate the entire society was manageable. Twenty five members per council turned out to be a good choice. With that size, remarkably, we calculated that only seven or eight layers would cover even the largest countries.
Then we thought about councils themselves and how they might best operate. Suppose within a council we are choosing between one person, one vote-majority rule and consensus for decisions, or we are deciding the mandates of representatives and their responsibilities, or we are settling on procedures of debate and evaluation, or we are deciding means of voting and tallying. How should we arrive at a preference for using one approach over another at particular levels and for particular types of decisions?
The RPS answer was that we should seek self-management by methods that would also convey confidence about arriving at wise choices. Likewise, we should protect and pursue diversity. We should maintain solidaritous feelings and practices. We should get things done without debilitating delays.
Reasonable people, we realized, would often disagree about some issue or other. Some might see the facts of a matter, say abortion or a more local issue of land development, differently than others. Some might calculate incorrectly, say about the merits of some judicial mechanism, while others are accurate. Some might have different priorities, values, or intuitions than others about complex implications, or say, something like a new law about space travel, or about pollution, or just about a new pool for a neighborhood. We came to realize that the trick of attaining successful legislative structure would be to have a system that allows self-managed choices in which everyone agrees that the choices are reached fairly for all and are either excellent or, in any event, flexibly subject to review even while alternative choices are still explored. This is what we felt a nested council system guided by commitments to self-management, solidarity, and diversity could achieve.
Beyond legislation, we knew, as had so many before us, that judicial systems often address judicial review (are the laws themselves just?), criminal justice (have specific individuals violated the laws?), and civil adjudication (how are disputes between individuals resolved?).
For the first, there emerged many experiments in how to hold legislation accountable and RPS arrived at favoring a court system that would operate with hierarchical levels adjudicating disputes arising over council choices. Is this the best approach possible? Can it be refined to better enhance self-management? Experimentation, much of which is under way or still to come, will tell.
For criminal matters and civil adjudication, again, diverse lawyers and legal advocates came up with and experimented with ideas and researched their implications and RPS proposed a court system modestly different from what we had, plus a police force with balanced job complexes and remuneration for effort and sacrifice. About the police changes, in particular, there was a great deal of struggle.
Back when RPS was forming police departments were still being militarized, not humanized. That was the trend. Incarceration was soaring and almost totally punitive. Police still engaged in horribly racist and classist violations on a regular basis, from harassment all the way up though unjust arrest to outright murder. So there were mass struggles over all of that, with demonstrations, rallies, marches, occupations, strikes. Indeed, prisoner strikes, which began not long before RPS got moving and then accelerated greatly, were important spurs to settling on police vision. So were actions by families of prisoners and by community members seeking lawfulness instead of repression for their neighborhoods. The upshot was agreement to get past the punitive aspect of law enforcement. Rehabilitation would be emphasized. Police function, methods, and control have ever since been challenged and in fact largely transformed – which has been critical, I should say, not only to developing clarity about a new polity, but also about movement relations in the period we have gone through.
Why did the RPS view about police work inspire outrage in many leftists who desired a better society?
Until we have a new society police often act in ways that hurt rather than help all but narrow elites. RPS and other activists had long encountered that, not least when police were used to repress us. This being so, many concluded and sometimes reverted to a view that in a new society we must entirely do away with police. Indeed, that may have been the most prevalent view about policing in the earliest days of RPS and one of the most tenacious in resurfacing. If the formulation had said we must do away with many aspects of policing as we now know it, the view would have been uncontroversial in RPS. But going from rejecting aspects of policing to rejecting all underlying functions and all possible institutional means of accomplishing those functions, was highly controversial.
Can you explain that point a bit more?
This broad type of dispute has come up repeatedly in the history of RPS. For example, government often acts to hurt rather than help all but narrow elites. Must we, therefore, get rid of all political/government functions?
Or workplaces often spew pollution and, in doing so, hurt rather than help all but narrow elites. Must we get rid of all work in any structured institution at all?
Or families today, cultures today, schools today, journalists today, doctors today, all typically adopt horribly restrictive and destructive habits and beliefs. Must we get rid of all institutional structures for addressing nurturance, socialization, education, celebration, and communication?
The dispute arises when some people move from rightfully rejecting horrible contemporary means of accomplishing some functions to wrongly rejecting any institutional means at all of addressing even refined versions of the functions.
A person urging rejection of workplaces, police, polity, or families typically claims doing so will liberate the virtues of humanity. Yet, ironically, the person is saying humanity is too flawed to create institutions to collectively accomplish various social functions without unleashing debilitating effects. While holding up a banner proclaiming human perfection, the person ironically assumes human imperfection precludes having institutions with desirable attributes.
The disputes were hard to resolve. Imagine saying we need an improved version of policing to people who had had their heads smashed by a cop, or had a family member gunned down by one. Enormous passions interfered. Resolutions weren’t quick. At times people even left RPS, at least for a time, over this and other such matters. Even RPS willingness to retain exploration of ways of dealing with disputes and criminality that did not involve retaining a police function – in case the majority view that that function had to remain, albeit redefined drastically, was wrong – weren’t enough to keep some anti police members involved.
Imagine you were an RPS member, and you had been raped and RPS was saying there is a place for rape, suitably redefined, in the new society we seek. You would be horrified, fight the insanity, and if you lost, decide the new organization was not worth your support and involvement. I think some members who left over RPS retaining policing as part of a new society left with a similar level of disgust and anger. What was admirable about RPS, I think, is that even in their absence we kept the exploration of alternatives going. That didn’t lead to eliminating policing per se, but it did lead to many improvements in our understanding of what police training and police functions ought to include.
At any rate, whatever one thinks about policing, RPS in time realized that it is not policing, but adjudication, legal advocacy, and legal decision making that are most difficult to dramatically improve in a better society. That is where issues remain most vague and experimental.
Bertrand, does your science background have any impact on your political work?
In my life as a scientist I conceive ideas, figure ways to test them, induce people to help do the tests, together examine the results, and then either rejoice in the merit the ideas display, or move on to other ideas more likely to accord with the test results.
Revolutionary politics should work similarly but we need to realize that difficulties arise. In social situations the number of variables is often too high to get clear results. Sometimes you can’t arrange experiments to give definitive information about what works and what doesn’t. Even in physics it typically pays to keep respectable ideas around after they seem to fail in case new information makes them important again, or in case examining them reveals a new angle on information that yields valuable insights. And this is even more true in political activism where definitive results are much harder to achieve. We should test ideas and constantly try to improve them. We should not ward off criticism as if finding fault would be harmful.
I don’t think my physics itself has any lessons for people conducting their daily affairs. The life and times of elementary particles and cosmological models is way too distant from the life and times of activists and social visions to have relevance for that. But I do think the approach of scientists to both new and old ideas, and to evidence and logic, and, at our best, to each other as well, does have lessons for people conducting their daily affairs and particularly for people trying to improve society. And I think Lydia enunciated those lessons perfectly.
Bertrand, what was the origin of the phrase “planting the seeds of the future” – and what does it mean?
I think it was originally an anarchist slogan but whatever its source, it certainly means the attitudes, social relations, and structures we plant determine our harvest. If you want daisies, plant daisies. If you want roses, plant roses. Conversely, if you plant weeds, you won’t harvest daisies or roses no matter how well you water the weeds. We should not plant seeds today which will become other than what we want tomorrow.
Suppose an RPS project needs funds. Why doesn’t it sell drugs or porn to get the needed revenue? Some would say it is because those practices are immoral but the more instructive reason is because the mindsets and practices associated with selling drugs or porn would breed tendencies contrary to our aims.
Suppose a media project needs funds. Why not sell ads? Selling ads means selling your audience to commercial outfits and that means attracting audience that has disposable income and ensuring that your content doesn’t leave that audience disinclined to buy what advertisers offer. Selling ads will subvert your project to save it.
This type calculation comes up often in electoral campaigns, tactical choices, and deciding how to make decisions. To intelligently navigate such matters requires clarity about the basic features of the society we seek. Without that clarity, we can’t think wisely about the seeds we are planting. We could ask if some policy works today, but we couldn’t judge which seeds have future fruits we desire or which seeds will subvert the garden we seek.
Bertrand, getting more specific, what is the RPS attitude to universities and schooling?
As RPS was being born, universities and schools had all the problems they had had for decades past. They were repositories of dull drill, extinguished feeling, narrowed vision, destroyed character. But there was one new problem as well. The attention span and inclination of students had seriously deteriorated. I and many friends who were teaching back then found that we couldn’t usefully give lectures any longer. The problem was that the students would sit in the lecture halls, these are large classes I am talking about, and would have in their laps phones, tablets, or even laptops, and they would give far more attention to those than to the lecture. Lectures required sustained attention. The electronic doo-dads in their laps, fostered flitting from thing to thing. These students were sitting there texting, emailing, watching short videos, listening to music, browsing. Click, click, click, they jumped from brief focus to brief focus. It was so habitual they became driven to avoid the operational dissonance of trying to maintain a serious, sustained, focus. And from colleges it seeped downward to become the norm in high schools too.
As faculty we had to find ways to nuggetize our messages so as to accommodate the short focus of our students. But that path only cemented the dynamic…
It must have been incredibly frustrating…
It was, very much so. You know, people are born ignorant, no doubt about that. But we are made stupid by faulty education. To see students drift away was like being pummeled, daily, by failure incarnate. It was very hard not to get angry and even hostile toward the students. It was as if they were literally killing curiosity. It was as if they would rather die than think, and soon enough they would. But, in truth, the trend was not confined to young people.
I saw it in my own family, over and over. At a holiday gathering, for example, whereas when I was young, in my home, back then, there would be joking around, of course, and TV too, sure, but there would also be serious talk about matters of intellectual interest and serious issues of the day. In particular, the young would be curious. They would want to hear reasons for what was going on around them. And ditto for adults.
But in the immediate pre RPS period, it was quite different. Kids would sit on a couch with a tablet, laptop, and phone, and with the TV on. They would flit from one to the other. They couldn’t even focus on something they still were interested in much less have sustained interest in something substantial. They were almost proud of social ignorance. Party and play. Shop till we drop. Flit from Facebook to Twitter to TV to web site, and back. Do it again. Hold views based on their repetition on those venues. Know little. Investigate nothing. It really was a sad state of affairs. And it virally spread to adults as well.
What was new about the situation was we had ever present social media, selfies, and news as entertainment. Ideas became annoyances oppressing short attention spans. Imagine that.
And now returning to schooling, all this greatly aggravated what was old about the situation, and ultimately also most critical, which was that the prevalent education process wasn’t primarily about education. It was instead socialization that sometimes transferred (highly constrained) lessons and skills but that mainly delivered students, like any other product, suitably to their consumers, who were their future employers. And what was suitable to the future employers of course depended on the role the student would fill.
This meant roughly 80% of people coming out of public schools were being prepared to endure boredom and take orders, the two main prerequisites to being a desirable hire for an employer trying to fill working class jobs. For the other 20%, broadly speaking, you needed some particular knowledge for the likely spot you would fill – perhaps accounting, medicine, engineering, or whatever – but you also needed a disposition suitable to maintaining your position against workers below and willing to accommodate to owners above. If schools delivered folks ready for those two futures, they were by the old society’s standards doing their job well. Their graduates could fill the slots they were destined for. They weren’t under prepared for their tasks, or, even worse, disinclined to accept their tasks or over prepared for them.
So educational transformation was in many respects like it was for other domains. It had to be comprehensive. Often this meant creating new schools from scratch. Many RPS folks, and others too, set up neighborhood schools, did group home schooling, or initiated summer schools and other such innovations for children and also workmates and townsfolk. Some even created new institutions for higher learning.
But transforming education was also about battling inside existing schools. Public school teachers, community college teachers, and in the initial stages especially grad students at many colleges and universities, were a bit like the nurses in hospitals. Many were ready and eager to be productive workers of a new self managing kind. And they were ready to fight for it with strikes and other actions. But educational transformation was also, somewhat more so than were many other transformations, intrinsically about what society overall would be like.
Education will, in any society, prepare people to participate. A good education generating confident and capable adults requires a society that needs confident and capable adults. So educational transformation had two powerful advocates. On the one hand, students, teachers, and families battled directly for their own better results in their current or new institutions. On the other hand, people all over society battled for the future of society.
From early on in the history of RPS both factors were at play by way of movements seeking to develop new educational institutions or to steadily alter existing ones and also demand broad educational policy changes. We sought to fulfill students and teachers, by producing new citizens who would demand new social relations. The latter effect was the long term revolutionary aspect of our non reformist approach to education.
Where has it led?
Changes are still happening, of course. But some big gains have been vastly increased involvement of communities and parents in schooling and learning. You probably remember not just the demand to open schools but the occupational and community programs that were then enacted, at night, fait accompli, all over the country. Early on, these campaigns demanded opening thousands of schools in the afternoons and evenings for all kinds of activities and learning, not only by students, but by adults too. But then we realized, what the hell, why are we asking anyone. The schools are there, we should just go in and use them. And we did.
The reduction of class size with the steady increase in number of teachers has been another huge gain. But the main thing, I think, has been the infusion into the schools of the mindset that education should uncover and nurture people’s curiosity and talents in whatever directions people desire, and the infusion of a critical mindset into classroom pursuits.
Higher education, like public education, had to become relevant to peoples’ fulfillment rather than to people passively fitting unfulfilling slots waiting in society. Partly this was a matter of the approach of faculty. Should we hammer in facts to no benefit, as in the past, or should we foster comprehension and critical thinking, to huge benefit, in the future.?
You might think this would have been trivial to attain. Who would want to regiment rather than facilitate? But it wasn’t trivial because many existing teachers had become habituated to old ways, adept at them, and were scared of failing at new ways. But, it had to happen and it did.
Another big change was a matter of what students pursued, what they had available to read, who they had available to talk with, what they could attain. The whole notion of learning as a mutual project, and of caring for the place of learning as a collective pursuit, and especially the idea that society should bend its roles to the outcomes of enlightened learning, rather than schooling curtailing learning to accommodate the inflexible roles of a restrictive society totally changed the relations among all the actors, just as with other institutions.
What do you think was the turning point after which you felt that you were no longer battling against the odds, the odds were now on your side?
I think there were quite a few. For example, the first occupation of a public school – it was in Chicago – with the ensuing mass meeting to determine what uses the school could be put to at night, was one. You saw that happen and you knew right away that it would spread and the ramifications would be profound and irreversible. And what an immense change in terms of people’s involvement and in the attitudes people had to schools and education that and other occupations of schools led to.
Similarly, I think the campaign by RPS to provide alternative online curricula that challenged the prevalent social science and history texts had a huge effect, too. Lots of kids came into class highly knowledgeable about the flaws in the old lessons. This began in San Francisco and Boston, but then spread very rapidly. It put immense pressure on faculty to do better, and most faculty began to see the potential of real learning, and to want to provide it.
For me, another key happening was when students on the campus where I was teaching at the time, NYU, called a strike, shut down the place, and then reopened it for a full week of nothing but faculty student discussion of faculty student relations and the purpose of education and implications for how it should be conducted. It was incredible. The students didn’t just call for discussion. They came to the sessions profoundly well prepared. They chaired. They had ideas. They won respect at an entirely new level, and convinced faculty of their aims. The feeling of community that emerged, which was helped along by all kinds of social events the students conducted each night and sometimes during the day, too, was itself incredibly powerful. But the commitment to what was called student faculty power, in place of administrative power, was fundamental.
Perhaps most surprising, and also profoundly important, were the campaigns by students in elite professional schools demanding preparation for balanced job complexes and for solidarity in place of elite control and classist separatism. Those were stunning indicators of human solidarity and critical to the emerging participatory mentalities and policies of all of society.
Also critical, but more familiar and rooted in activism that preceded RPS, was the upheaval of student and academic life regarding the role of women and racial relations. But that too changed somewhat. Earlier the campus focus was largely on the tone of daily life, on affronts, on what were called, I think, micro aggressions. As RPS agendas began to have an influence this changed to a focus on the underlying social relations, the composition of faculty, the course curriculum, and particularly, and most innovatively, on what had earlier been called the town gown interface. This mirrored public school’s opening to the community. Now it was universities providing programs for local residents and research and resources for local activism as well.
All in all, instead of education being a bulwark of system maintenance, education became a propellant of system change. Elites had always understood this danger, and had always fought as best they could to prevent it, but our day came and once it was sufficiently in motion it became self fueling and unstoppable.
All the way back in the 1960s/1970s, shortly after the upheavals of those times, elites evaluating the situation decided that a big part of the cause was that public schools had, due to the space race and emphasis on enlightened education that it had spurred, become a very serious social problem. Public schools were graduating way too many students who expected to utilize their intelligence and initiative in society. When these students encountered the regimentation and subordination characteristic of typical daily life pre RPS, they just didn’t fit. They were round pegs in square holes. And many said no, not with my life you don’t, and so emerged the cultural and political rebellions of the time.
Elites looked at that and said, we can’t ever have that again. We have to change things. We have to reapportion school funds, change curriculum, and impose rules on teachers, all to ensure that the next generation and the one after that accept and even welcome their limited lot in life rather than questioning and rejecting it. And elites acted on that self serving insight and for decades it worked as they wanted, leading to poorly educated graduates who felt lucky to get work at all – and to the hypocritical and ignorant mess that was the U.S. educational system by about 2010, say, much less under Trump.
RPS pursued an opposite approach. Instead of squashing most students into passive conformity and making the rest elitist, conduct education based on the real needs and potentials of all students. Nurture desires and insights wherever they lead.
Bertrand, you were an RPS shadow President, after serving as Vice President. What has been your view on the controversies over seeking reforms?
I may be a hair more sympathetic than some others in RPS to those who are so caught up in rejecting reformism that they go overboard and think it means literally avoiding reforms and steering clear of working within mainstream institutions. I get the sentiment. Hell, in my bones, as a kind of feeling, but only a feeling, I even share it. The levels of hypocrisy rooted in conforming to injustice are so intrinsic to the structures that it is hard – though not impossible – to avoid getting sucked in, chewed up, and remade once you try to navigate the shoals of government.
A trick, however, can help. We don’t think it is inevitable or even a very strong prospect that if you get a job on an assembly line you will become an advocate of wage slavery. But why not? If you work there, you have to navigate the idiocies and injustices, and so why won’t you be bent in accord? Aspects of such a job certainly push people toward bad results, namely, becoming accommodating and resigned. But since your role in the corporation is that of victim of its ills, you may retain integrity and operate in its bounds without becoming its advocate.
Suppose, in contrast, you win an elected office in national or local government. Or, for that matter, suppose you take a job as a manager in a workplace. This situation is different. You are, or at least can be, recipient of the benefits and purveyor of the ills. So the trick is this. Even as you take office, you must define yourself to be an opponent of your position and your role. You have to literally see yourself as a fifth column from without, beholden to those outside and only operating inside the mainstream to pursue interests defined outside. Or at least that is how I see it.
I should say, as well, that even in the Shadow Government the effects of greater support and more clarity mattered greatly. In the years I was VP serving in Lydia’s administration, we made great headway but it was quite hard. Instead of mainly working on change, much and sometimes even most of our energy had to go simply to developing our methods and procedures and filling our posts. By the time I became Shadow Potus (I love that ridiculous phrase), our Shadow structures and procedures were quite stable and effective. As a result, we could give more creative energy and time to elaborating our own positions and battling for them in society.
And while much of our program was about economic and social issues, we also addressed matters of polity. Building campaigns to transform from the elitist electoral college approach to direct voting with multi party preferential balloting was obviously a massive victory we were quite elated about. And yes, I think that and other gains, and mainly massive advances in popular awareness and desire have gotten us to a place where an RPS identified candidate can now not just become president, but take office with a huge mandate and with fellow RPS advocates occupying positions all over the country.
What do you think are the prospects for world affairs with a full RPS victory in the U.S.?
Back during the U.S. war on Vietnam and Indochina the government used as a pretext what they called the Domino Theory. The idea was that if a country fell into the hands of the Soviets, in turn more countries would fall to everyone’s detriment. So, if Vietnam went, then Thailand, Indonesia, and Japan, would follow. It was idiocy, of course, as it was stated, but a variant of the same refrain had considerable truth. That was called, I think for the first time by Chomsky, the threat of a good example.
His idea was if a country could extricate itself from abject subservience to U.S. domination, then what might follow? What lessons might be learned by other countries to fuel further defections? If Vietnam could show that it was possible to escape U.S. domination, why not other countries, not only in Indochina, but all over the world? Of course, in this interpretation of the dynamic, what elites feared was a good thing, and trying to prevent it was a horrible thing, but this different image of countries falling like dominoes, meaning, freeing themselves from subservience not least spurred by prior successes of others – had basis. The U.S. Reply was to make the carpet bombed human cost of extrication too high to contemplate.
There are many conceivable dimensions of a full RPS victory in the U.S. for world affairs. First, and most direct, with the U.S. no longer pursuing imperial ambitions and instead driven by sentiments of solidarity and internationalism, a main cause of international violations will be removed. A main obstacle – though far from the only obstacle, to peaceful world affairs will be gone.
Another impact, however, is, ironically, the threat of a good example. If the population of the U.S. can escape tutelage to old structural institutional forms to create a new society, then why not others as well? Of course, we already see this happening all around the world, and a case can be made, for that matter, that that early Vietnamese example, though not ultimately fully successful for Vietnam, and never really adopting RPS style content, did spread lessons and aspirations worldwide that later arguably even fueled RPS itself. I happen to think that that was the case.
At any rate, I think full RPS victory in the U.S. will shortly follow, or precede, comparable victories for new social forms in most if not all of the world. Once some, indeed many, major countries are on the side of justice, how long can injustice prevail? It loses its material defenders and, even more, it loses its aura of inevitability.
What then is the positive RPS view on international relations?
It is ultimately a pretty simple extension of RPS values from the national to the international arena. The aim is self management, classlessness, inter communalism, and feminism for all. But no approach can undo centuries of distorted economic and social development in minutes across the globe, any more than we can do that overnight in one country, like the U.S. But as countries adopt new institutions and dynamics, there is no worthy reason why some should endlessly retain giant advantages from the past and others endlessly retain giant deficits. So, the main international point is to find a way to redress inequalities so that we live in a world where there is equity, solidarity, self management, and diversity not only within some countries, but within all countries, and across borders as well. So how do we do that?
History will reveal the full answer, but one aspect will surely be engaging in international trade in a new way. Trade – when not overtly horrendously vile as in exploitative extraction and colonial domination – should yield overall benefits. Exchange should occur when one party which has some item should choose to enter an agreement to provide it to another party that lacks that item, but has others, where overall benefits outweigh overall costs. But how should the benefits of such an exchange accrue to the two parties?
In market transactions, and in international market and geopolitical relations, even when grotesque overt looting isn’t occurring, the benefits of trade accrue in accord with bargaining power, not justice. The bulk of the benefits therefore go to the more powerful party and the gap between a more powerful actor and a weaker actor widens. If I start with more, I get more benefit, so even though you get some gain, my advantage grows. In the face of that, a simple, manageable, RPS approach is to reverse the pattern. The bulk of the benefits of international trade and all international exchange should accrue to the poorer country, every time. That plus direct aid from wealthier to poorer countries would be the essence of international agreements among RPS style countries operating in a better future.