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 Lydia Luxemburg. 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.
Lydia Luxemburg, you were born in 1946 and became political in the great upheavals of the 1960s. You have held many jobs over the years but in just a few minutes of our time together my impression is only one was permanent and basic to your motivations and perceptions, that of revolutionary. Life-long feminist, activist, organization builder, and media worker, you are one of the best RPS participants for addressing its past and future contours, including having been its first shadow government President. I thank you for taking the time for this interview, I hope you won’t take it as ageist, or otherwise offensive, but you have been a personal inspiration for me for a long time, not least due to the longevity of your focus and effectivity.
You are very kind. Thank you. Hopefully I can hang around a bit longer.
I have been asking all my interviewees how they first became radicalized, so I should ask you too, though of course there are various biographies telling your story in full.
I was in college in the 1960s and, like many others, I got caught up in the culture of the times, and also the politics. I became anti war and then anti imperialist due to the butchery my country imposed on Indochina. I became feminist in considerable part, even mainly, due to the sexism within the left itself, the assumption that women were ornaments to be paraded and servants to do tasks that men wished to avoid. I became revolutionary when my mind and heart linked in a commitment to win change.
I have also been asking folks to recount a personally moving or inspiring event or campaign from the past twenty years. Would you do that for us too, please?
At Trump’s inauguration the huge outpouring of women and men, not just in Washington, which was enormous, but all around the U.S., and, understandably, given the international role of the U.S., all around the world, was, for me, an incredibly timely boost for what had been my then somewhat precarious personal morale. From then on, it was one inspiring campaign after another, though of course there were setbacks and also less exemplary moments.
One particularly moving experience was that during the community control of police campaigns I was able to spend some time talking with what had begun to be called exonerees. These were people who had been jailed for crimes they did not commit, and who were later exonerated and released. To hear their stories, particularly people who had been imprisoned for years, and even for decades, and to hear of the incredible travail that awaited them even upon their being exonerated due to people they knew earlier being long dead, and their having no home, and to see their cheer and positivity despite all that, and despite all the pain in their past and still to come, was for me an incredible testimony to human potential even as it also evidenced – as if I needed to hear it anew – just how insanely unjust our society had become.
Considering all the people incarcerated by plea bargain deals that to avoid worse injustice accepted lesser injustice, and all the people in jail for victimless crimes who were in turn made deadly by the deadliness of it all, well, I saw the underside of the underside of current relations, and like the upper side of current relations, it needed nothing so much as total renovation.
But I also had a very different kind of experience, far more personal yet I thought also political, that had a big effect on me. I had decided to try to write a novel to get across the kinds of ideas and commitments I was always advocating but in a different and hopefully more effective way. So I wrote a draft of the novel, and while I had written plenty and often before, a novel was a first for me and I was quite unclear on whether it had any merit and quite sure I needed reactions to guide making it better, supposing trying to do that even made sense.
So I sent a draft to a whole bunch of people who I had worked with, or was friends with, and also to many family members. I knew it was a lot to ask people to take a look at a whole book, but I asked, making clear that I needed and was hoping for any reactions people might have – or questions, or suggestions, or criticisms – as a way to try to make the book better. And then came a surprise. I think five out of about twenty five people I sent the draft to even bothered to acknowledge receiving it. Those five said they would get to it soon, but none did. The other fifteen also didn’t read it or provide comment, and they didn’t even acknowledge the request having occurred. Not one out of the twenty five asked a single question. Not one even asked what it was like to try to write a novel, much less ask anything about its contents.
This wasn’t a technical work. It was a story about matters of society and people’s reactions and experiences that were key to all our lives. And yet there was no curiosity much less any inclination to try to help. Yet each person I sent the draft to was, as a potential reader, on as firm grounds as I as the writer for evaluating the draft, and for making suggestions about it.
And I thought about this and at first, honestly, I was just hurt. It wasn’t disturbing that any one person didn’t reply since there could be various reasons in any individual case. What hurt was the universality of it. I was sure that had any one of these people sent me something comparable, and asked my reaction in hopes of my providing help to guide improvements, I would immediately acknowledge receiving the draft, have questions about it, and then try to provide help, or I would have reported my incapacity to do so if I tried but failed.
And when I thought about that, my sadness only grew, but it also changed a bit. It seemed to me this kind of silence was emblematic of contemporary life in the U.S. Everyone at that time thought it showed a degree of human solidarity, civility, and sympathy to say, “have a nice day” and to otherwise appear civil and concerned. It didn’t matter if you meant it or not. It was quick, it was easy, and you got points for it. More, if you didn’t do it, you were a brute. But to sincerely regard one another with interest about something substantive, to say original caring things and actually mean them, well, that might be taken wrong. It might elicit criticism, and it wasn’t easy since it took time. You might even get negative points for your effort. And so people didn’t bother and not bothering became acceptable.
Surface cordiality plus below the surface aloofness became the U.S. cultural order. Superficial civility was familiar, understood, and accepted. Serious intent and effort was unfamiliar, misunderstood, and rejected. To avoid the former as paternalistic was considered uncivil. To seek the later as solidaritous was considered intrusive or even selfish. Atoms, bouncing around, saying “hi, have a nice day,” and moving on, was what people expected and welcomed. More substantial interest and concern struck people as intrusive, strange, or even abusive.
We had as a people, in my view of it, become so atomistic, so insular, so focused on popular culture as a safe way to engage, and so removed from our abilities to evaluate and think about anything social and from our abilities to actually apply ourselves beyond reflex reactions that we saw an act like my sending around a book draft seeking advice rather like we might see a stranger asking us to help them with something totally foreign, totally beyond us, totally lacking interest for us.
Ask about a ballgame, a TV show, or a dinner out, and people eagerly converse. No risk. Auto pilot. Ask about some horrible event or events, some political enemy, or whatever else of that sort, where there is nearly universal instant agreement, and again, people are quick to have spontaneous opinions, which, however, in the circles where they are offered are commonplace and accepted even before being uttered. Auto pilot. But to try to dig in and think through the cause and effect of spontaneous opinions was shocking. It went too far. And to offer unusual, provocative, much less challenging views, especially about people’s options and choices, that was simply unacceptable.
In that context, if you ask about a new socially aimed novel or about anything else that would require reacting in ways that required thought beyond what was common and safe, and where a comment might even be thought less than ideal, the energy for engagement dissipates. You couldn’t tweet a reaction to a draft of a book, so the reaction was never produced, nor was even a simple acknowledgement. At any rate, whatever one may think the real meaning of this experience may be, it had a broad and amorphous affect on me, impacting how I related to RPS thereafter, and affecting what acts I thought could and could not reach people, which is why it came to mind, I guess, in reply to your question.
When RPS was first emerging, I guess you were already around seventy and had had a lifetime’s worth of activism as your history. Did it take you by surprise? Did you feel vindicated?
I think I felt more like, what took so long? I mean I knew why so many efforts had lost, lost, lost when measured against the norm of establishing an organization that could last right through winning a new society, but still, I felt like, jeez, some of us knew what we needed 45 or 50 years ago. Why couldn’t we do a better job of bringing it into being?
So RPS happening didn’t surprise me but I certainly didn’t feel vindicated. I was ecstatic it was happening – but I was also tormented by how many lives had been lost or made less than they should have been by the fact that my generation hadn’t done better decades earlier.
Even before the first convention, what ideas did you think distinguished RPS from many predecessor projects that hadn’t taken off? What ideas attracted you back at the beginning, and what do you think served as a foundation for what has emerged since?
Remembering back, I would say the thing that first got me intellectually engaged was the way RPS overcame some problems with my prior ways of thinking about society and history.
Before I was attracted to RPS I was a very militant feminist. Of course I remained that, but before RPS I saw the world refracted through a lens that highlighted gender relations so heavily that often much else went largely or even completely unnoticed. It wasn’t that I explicitly thought everything else was unimportant, it was that my totally warranted attention to gender monopolized my perceptions and thoughts to the exclusion of seeing much else.
I would go into a workplace and see the relative situation of men and women, how they related, what people were doing and why, and what they got for it – but all as men and women. Same for the church, education, and of course families. I saw how men and women had different circumstances and rewards and costs. I saw their connections and disconnections. To a considerable degree I saw variants on the nuclear family, ported to other realms than households, with women typically filling roles that included mother-like and housewife-like attributes and men filling roles that included father-like and husband-like attributes. But I tended to miss or at least not dwell on and realize the importance of other aspects.
It is odd, because I had been closer to the RPS view earlier, back in the late sixties and early seventies, but then for a time I lost my multi issue balance. My approach prior to RPS – but post my Sixties New Left involvements – was a bit like looking at the world through a filter that makes certain colors or shapes very intense while causing other colors or shapes to fade in comparison. I saw male and female in high definition. The rest was less sharp and even blurry.
Add to that my personal intensity and first hand knowledge as a woman about the situation of women, and I was highly attuned to gender and sexuality, which was good, but barely attuned to class, race, and other dynamics, which was not good. I was particularly blind to interrelations among all these facets of society, and especially to what pushed on kinship so much as to alter it – as compared to how kinship pushed on other facets of society, which I was attuned to. I saw, to go back to that workplace, how sexist relations permeated it and affected its definition, but I did not see nearly so clearly how class relations coming from the workplace permeated and affected family relations.
So I was initially standoffish about how intent RPS was on adopting a holistic approach. Honestly, at first felt like some kind of purist badgering, even though I knew that when I was in my early 20s I had had a very similar inclination. But, for whatever reasons, in time RPS elevating all central sides of social life to parallel importance began to convince me, or perhaps I should say re-convince me, that we should not assume any hierarchy of importance among the different defining parts of life and society.
But why were you initially standoffish? Why didn’t the insight simply grab you, right off, without resistance on your part?
At first, I worried that to promote the parallel importance of non gender dynamics would lead me to discount and finally relegate kinship and gender to lower priority and attention than I was sure they deserved. I worried that if I and others stopped elevating kinship, various men with various other agendas would manage to peripheralize it. Indeed, I so feared that prospect that it took some time for me to even hear the RPS message much less grapple with it, and finally agree with it.
Another aspect of this was how I pursued feminism, or, for that matter, how other people pursued their anti racism, or their anti capitalism. Often it was a matter of protecting against ills, not pursuing virtues. And there is a difference.
The defensive mindset could yield a fortress mentality. It prioritized constantly calling out and punishing whatever one sought to ward off, in my case, sexism. Our priority was seeing ills, avoiding them, beating them back. We didn’t seek and advocate new positive outcomes. With the defensive mindset we saw mainly how choices could yield men dominating and feminism yielding. We were reflexively negative.
But I did finally hear and I did finally realize, wait a minute, my fear that kinship will be minimized if I don’t maximize it is exactly what maximizing kinship does to other parts of social life, it minimizes them. There has to be a better way than to pick a focus and defend it to the exclusion of properly attending to other equally critical focuses. I realized RPS was adding, not subtracting.
Once that insight penetrated my defenses, I didn’t have to agree that something else trumped my feminism to adopt the RPS approach. I just had to see that the economy, polity, and race also played pivotal roles. I had to see that just as pressures from gender could mold other parts of society until those other parts did not violate or would even buttress central kinship characteristics – so too could pressures arising from economy, polity, or culture mold gender to not violate or even to buttress central economic, political, or cultural characteristics.
What was remarkable was as soon as I was open to seeing such relations, I saw them all over. RPS revealed how dynamics in one part of life could alter the defining logic and relations of other parts. It revealed how fixating on one part could interfere with seeing interrelations. It saw class in families and schools, gender in workplaces and churches, race in government and health, and on and on. It showed how economics affected politics, how race and nationality affected economics, and how gender and kinship affected culture and economy and politics but was also affected by them. It provided a basis for a project that could unify key constituencies without submerging the concerns of any of them.
It made me see that we should use concepts able to overcome all our biases and reject concepts that narrowed us to pursue only our most personal inclinations. This was the tight connection between thought and action that RPS propelled, and I liked it.
Can you give me an example or two of this insight advancing your understanding compared to what it had been earlier? Did it change how you understood winning change?
The RPS view got me to understand that you couldn’t change gender relations by only focussing one the home and upbringing. It was in the home that the basic structures which defined sexism were rooted. But it was not alone there.
The RPS idea was that the pressures of sexist kinship roles have requirements for men and women. These requirements imprinted people with beliefs, values, and habits producing men and women with gender specific expectations and inclinations. These attributes didn’t disappear if a man or woman exited a living unit and entered a workplace, ballpark, or mall. Other institutions then abided or violated the family-based expectations and inclinations. If they violated, there would be conflict and need for resolution. If they abided, there would be stability. And this interaction could be even more profound. Other institutions could begin to incorporate the same sexist logic as households to the degree that they too became not just compatible with persistent sexism, but sources of its reproduction. Then, movements might win important changes in households, but if they ignored the sexism that had become entrenched elsewhere, emanations from those other places could push back on the changed households, causing them to revert.
This same pattern holds for class and race too. We can see that class and race permeate society, not just being active in economy and culture, and so there are sources of class and race hierarchy persisting in laws and families, and not just in workplaces and cultural venues.
The upshot was that to change society it would be a major error to think one should identify some single social focus because winning in that realm would change everything. The incredible truth was, with a single focus approach, seemingly winning for that focus wouldn’t even win just for it, ultimately, because the win would be temporary, in time wiped out by unaltered relations in other parts of society.
Once one had that perspective, it was easy to see the need for broader movement connections. Before having that perspective, it was not so easy.
Can you give a less abstract example, perhaps one from back near the start of RPS, that caused a different view than had been prevalent, including different actions?
The Sanders campaign, and then the rise of Donald Trump, you may remember from the histories of the time, had a very profound effect in diverse ways. But there was also great controversy about the meaning of some aspects of what occurred. Many white men supported Trump, but why? Trump was rich, violent, egomaniacal, racist, sexist, really an abomination. Still, he undeniably had a whole lot of support and, more, it was support that should have been for Sanders and that would need to support any successful project for a truly new society.
Okay, there were many variables of course, and I won’t rehearse everything, but here is a line of thinking which came from the kinds of insight I have been noting, that was earlier mostly absent, though later preponderant.
Women and Blacks were then and had for a long time been fighting hard for a better situation in society. They were doing so, very often, as women and as Blacks. Watching that, and hearing that, and sometimes encountering it, white men had to also assess their own situations, which were horribly deteriorating due to economic losses as well as by being marginalized by the political process, including and even especially the Democratic Party.
Okay, so what is the white guy to think? If society is a battle between genders and races, and that is what the white guy thinks he is hearing said – and if it is a personal fight at that, to a considerable degree individual by individual – then white men’s worsening condition must have to do with, they might deduce, their losing that battle. And along comes a thug candidate to say that out loud, and to seemingly be ready to fight against the trend. Many identified with that.
RPS tried to identify their views but didn’t focus on blaming white men. Sure, there was racism, sexism, fear, and ignorance. But what were the roots of it? The RPS approach noticed but didn’t focus on the Democratic Party having moved toward ignoring people as workers in favor of attending to professionals and addressing people only as black, female, etc. That was true. That was important. But the RPS approach was about finding what we ourselves can do to win change, not about decrying what others were doing that we didn’t like.
Two things emerged as reasons for Trump’s support that had to do with our choices as people who understood and fought against social injustice. First, we were undeniably horrible at communicating about class to, ironically, the working class. If they didn’t see their worsening situation as a function of corporate policies and structures of which Trump was a prime emissary, where was the cause of that that we could address rather than just moan about?
Answer: it was in ourselves. We had to pay attention to why we weren’t being heard, why our words weren’t resonating with working people. The upshot was realizing that overall we didn’t respect, understand, relate to, hear, and learn from their concerns, so they didn’t see reason to listen to us. And, perhaps more than anything, we didn’t address the divide between workers and professionals or what RPS took to calling the coordinator class.
And the second awareness to emerge and later greatly impact RPS was about our approach to race and gender. To fight over improving the conditions of constituencies in ways that polarized others into becoming resistant to and even hostile to change beyond what their actual situations provoked was counter productive. We had to learn to fight racism, fight sexism, fight homophobia, but simultaneously support working people, and yes white male working people, not as some throwaway line, but, because doing so was right as well as prerequisite to winning a new world.
And this was all hard for you to accept? I mean, now, just twenty five years later, it is all second nature. It is hard to see why it would have been so difficult.
When these notions surfaced and spread, or really resurfaced and respread, we all had to overcome our long held narrow prioritizations. Some had prioritized economy and class. Some, like myself, had prioritized kinship and gender. Some had prioritized culture and race, or politics and power, or war and peace, or ecology and sustainability. At the extreme, people very self consciously prioritized one area above all others. Less drastically, and more often, people didn’t explicitly do that, but nonetheless, in difficult situations would fall back into that bias by way of the narrowing effect of the concepts they had forefront in our minds. I was in that camp.
To hear someone say that part of the fault for white men moving to the right with Trump was radicals doing a crappy job of communicating about class, and particularly about coordinator class / working class relations, felt like an assault to those who had been working so hard to confront capitalist owners. And to hear that part of the fault even rested with how blacks and women pursued their rightful anti racist and anti sexist agendas, felt to many, including me, like the assertion itself was racist and sexist. So it was very hard to navigate the tensions.
Still, the more I thought about all this, the more I saw, with many other people who became early adherents of RPS, that there were actually two problems with over-prioritizing one key focus as compared to others. Neither problem was that we might each personally focus our personal attention and activism more on one area than another. That is both inevitable and sensible. We can’t each do everything.
The first problem was that we would be active in ways diminishing our capacity for relating to phenomena beyond what we were focusing on or even diminishing our ability to best focus on the full complexity of what we were ourselves addressing. Elevating a particular side of life to conceptual priority mislead our efforts to understand society as a whole. Each effort to prioritize a particular area didn’t so much attribute too much importance to the preferred area as it attributed too little importance to other areas and, in so doing, missed much about critically important and mutually intersecting social relations and possibilities, sometimes not even noticing their presence. Approaches that elevated one priority (say, gender) above the rest (say economy, polity, and culture) tended to see the world through a single set of lenses (feminist) rather than utilizing a conceptual toolbox that had a number of sets of lenses.
But the second reason why prioritization was a serious problem was that it pitted constituencies that needed to work together against one another. Each narrowly focused approach would declare or at least often act as though its own focus was paramount. Its adherents would often pursue their focus blind to the implications for other dynamics and relations. They wouldn’t say, we have to address race, class, gender – or whatever – but only in ways consistent with and even advancing comparably addressing the other focuses.
It was like there was a slippery, heavy object to move. And there were various teams ready to work on doing so. Each team had a part of the whole that they knew best, a part that they most wanted to move, and a part that given their inclinations and dispositions they could grab and hold and tug better than they could grab, hold, and tug any other part. So each team grabbed their part, and then exerted courageously and unrelentingly, but also without noticing what the other teams were doing with their parts. So instead of all the teams moving all the parts in concert, so the whole object got where they intended, the teams were pulling and pushing their focussed parts in ways at times conflicting with each other, so the whole object was just moving a bit here and a bit there, but never far in any direction. RPS said, hold on, each part is critical, no denying that, but unless we address all of them in mutually enhancing ways, none of them are going to alter much. When adherents of different approaches are out of touch with each other, it produces opposition and competition instead of mutual aid.
So even though I had found it hard to adopt the new view, what resonated most for me was RPS’s explicit recognition of multiple key sources of influence for how society works and for how we need to change it. It was not easy for me to express much less act on, and there were many ups and downs along the way, but these conceptual commitments were a big part of what attracted and held me. I realized the views traced back to the 1960s, at least, but for me, I really fully understood and was affected by the message by way of RPS. RPS found better ways and more lasting ways to convey the insights than those who had similar views decades before, including myself.
Was this basically the debate between advocates of identity politics and class politics?
Yes and no. That debate had raged for a long time and surfaced anew after Trump’s victory. The RPS approach was to think outside both boxes in ways that allowed each of the prior two poles of debate to participate positively and without any rancor toward the other.
It went like this. The class focus side had its roots in anti-capitalism that caused adherents to think that class was so centrally important to social change, that analyzing events, forming agendas, and having goals had to prioritize class and economy even at the expense of all else. The idea was that the tools for being attuned to class had to be constantly in hand and utilized, but the rest, not so much. Of course there were all kinds of nuances.
The identity politics side had its roots in feminist and anti racist organizing reacting to the class approach and its effects. It chose, at first, and for some long after, a new priority focus – either kinship or culture/race – and treated it more or less as the class over everything else folks had treated economy. But as the years passed the debates bounced about, and eventually the race, gender, and sexuality folks began to unite creating what some called identity politics.
An additional wrinkle was the class first folks had always prioritized institutional dynamics. Their discussions of class and economy only rarely ventured into the day to day injuries of class at the personal level. For identity politics, attention instead went mainly to the attitudes, behavior patterns, and personalities of both advocates and opponents of the focused oppressions. In some ways the debate was like a flexible, complex tug of war. First it would shift a bit one way, then the other. Every so often each side would alter a bit, as well.
Each side had two lines of argument for its stance – one seen as objective, the other subjective or operational. So, the class side would argue in one form or another that economy is fundamental and class is paramount because economy is unavoidable and constrains and impacts all else. But the advocates of race, sex, or gender, or all of them, made precisely the same case, with essentially the same logic. They each are unavoidable, constrain and impact all else. On this axis of argument, there really was no logical reason for the divide. You could hold both stances simultaneously, and there was no reason in the underlying logic to do otherwise. The same was true for paying priority attention to both institutions and mindsets/behaviors.
In truth I don’t think the objective side of the debate had much to do with why people lined up as they did from the late 1960s on. The operational side pushed the contending proponents into opposition. The class folks worried that priority attention to race, gender, or sexuality would diminish attention to class at great cost. The race, gender, and sexuality folks worried that priority attention to class would diminish attention to their areas at great cost. All that was required, as in the objective logical difference, was for both sides to see that both claims were correct. It was certainly possible – though not inevitable – that giving central attention to one focus would come at the expense of others. But, the only solution other than dropping attention to something that ought to be getting attention, was to give attention to all the focuses in ways that didn’t inhibit giving attention to the rest.
So RPS brought to this a reiteration of views that had certainly existed a long time, and been repeatedly but unsuccessfully proposed earlier. RPS said, basically, the class folks are right about institutions being critical, and are right that class is critical. The identity folks are right the mindsets and behavior patterns of people are critical and that gender, race, and sexuality, are critical. More, there is no contradiction between these many views as soon as each side acknowledges not only that its own views have merit, but so do the seemingly contrary but actually completely compatible views of the other side.
RPS said, simply, institutions and what is in people’s minds and habits are each important and mutually impact one another. Race, gender, sex, and class are each important and mutually impact one another. We should come at society giving forefront priority attention to institutions and mentalities/behaviors and to race, gender, class, and sexuality, and should not try to prioritize among these focuses. We should prioritize each and to their connections.
You said two RPS innovations played a major role in attracting you. What was the second?
It was something so simple that nowadays it may seem silly to even utter. Even at the time it was a very simple idea, one that had been long understood, and asserted, but that in actual daily situations didn’t seem to drive many people’s thinking, or mine, anyhow, until RPS came along.
This view refined one aspect from the class side of the debate I just mentioned. It asserted that institutions affect outcomes overwhelmingly by the roles they make people fill if people are to gain the institution’s associated social benefits. It was a simple observation, almost self evident. If you want to be in the economy, you have to work someplace, consume via markets, and so on. To be in a religion you had to relate to its church or other structures. To be in a family, you had to be a mother, father, brother, or sister. If you wanted benefits from some institution, you had to comply with whatever roles you managed to fill in that institution. Your roles in turn determined your range of acceptable actions.
If you were a nurse, a congressperson, a priest, a teacher, or whatever else, to gain benefits you had to behave consistent with your roles and with the other related roles in the institutions you navigated. There had long been a kind of vernacular slogan for it. You had to learn to play the game, meaning you had to learn to abide the accepted norms of your situation and adopt the behaviors required by your roles.
Once I became self consciously aware of this dynamic, I could feel it operating all over my life. I could see it in novels and even TV shows. We become what we do and we do what our situations require. This was true no less in a corporation, family, shopping center, or church, than it was true in a prison, government, the military, or a criminal cartel, and the observation had three major implications.
First, to evaluate a workplace, church, family, government or whatever – we had to reveal the roles people had to relate to in that institution to successfully engage with it. Having determined the roles, we had to reveal what the roles demand of people and thus who the roles cause us to become.
Second, to move from understanding an institution to changing it, we had to decide what roles could accomplish whatever social functions were needed more consistent with our preferences for social life. What is our goal for the institution in question? What roles block that goal? What new roles could accomplish that goal?
Third, given our circumstances and resources, we had to determine what we could fight for at any moment which would move us in the desired direction. What changes in our ways of organizing ourselves could move us nearer our goals and also make winning further gains likely? What roles characterized our movements? We had to ensure they were consistent with our aims, rather than contrary to those aims.
For me, these aspects of RPS ideas were central attractions.
Can you give an example of what kind of experience made you elevate the simple insight about roles and institutions to a centrally guiding norm of your thinking and doing?
Early in my time with RPS I was visiting an occupied workplace in the Midwest. I was talking with workers there about their situation and they were surprisingly despondent about their new circumstances deteriorating back toward what they had known before they took over. “All the old crap is coming back,” they reported, and they felt crushed by that fact because to them it said there was no alternative to the capitalist drudgery and poverty they thought they were escaping.
They had set up a workers’ assembly in order to have democratic decision making by everyone involved. They had equalized wages. They had created a climate of support. A year had passed since they took over their plant and instituted their changes. Yet in recent weeks, they said, their decision making assembly was attended by only a few. Wage differences were returning. Work was reverting to being a debilitating, alienating chore.
The workers got steadily more upset the more they described their deteriorating plight, and, most disturbingly, they attributed their worsening situation to their bosses and managers having been correct back when they had told the workers who first took over the plant, “you are naive. The inequalities and hierarchies you rebel against are part and parcel of being human. That is who we are. There is no alternative. Your joy at taking over this workplace will evaporate into failure.” And now the workers felt crushed that the depressing prediction was coming true.
I had become, not long before, an RPS organizer. And I knew that in taking over their workplace these workers had kept the old division of labor from the past. They had retained the same old jobs. In their new plant, like previously, some people were doing overwhelmingly rote, repetitive, and otherwise disempowering work while other people were doing mostly empowering tasks.
The workers throughout this plant were from similar backgrounds. They had all been workers in the plant, earlier. They had also all grown up in working class homes and neighborhoods. They all had had little formal education. They were not elitist. They were leftist, especially at the moment of taking over. But upon occupying their factory, most of them wound up with assembly work while a few others wound up with daily decision making and other empowering responsibilities.
They knew that was so, how could they not, but they didn’t register its importance. For them that was just the way things are. It was how to get work done. I pointed out that the folks with empowering tasks were, as time passed, seeing themselves as more worthy. They were dominating. The folks doing disempowering work were being dominated, and, again, as time passed, were becoming more resigned to it. That was precisely what they meant when they said the old crap was returning.
Of course we talked more, but the point of the experience that bears on your question was that it was a very graphic instance of a very particular role definition overruling people’s good intentions by its implications for people’s daily options. The way the workers had divided up work into jobs affected dynamics way beyond just getting the work done. It re-elevated all the old crap. This experience made clear to me that you have to take institutions and their roles very seriously.
This analysis wasn’t academic. You didn’t need a new vocabulary to talk about the situation. It was simple and for some on the left this was a kind of drawback. Such people liked to look smart by their long sentences and big words. If you spoke plainly and you advocated simple (but powerful) insights, you weren’t part of their community. They acted as if being clear and understandable indicated irrelevance. It may sound absurd, or perverse, but it isn’t if you realize this was just another part of the same problem of coordinator habits and practices distorting left behavior.
If your status, income, and power are a function of a monopoly on empowering circumstances, information, and skills, then defending your status, income, and power depends on making sure the information and skills remain inaccessible to people outside your class. But regardless of academic minimizing attention to coordinator class habits, the new ideas were not only accessible, they were also intensely practical. If you don’t pay attention to choices about institutions and their roles, some seemingly innocuous choice, or a choice that seemed to you inevitable and that was taken for granted, could subvert your best intentions. Retaining the old division of labor was an example. The experience of the workers taking over firms didn’t just show that institutions and their roles matter, it showed that they mattered so much that we had to focus on which features were okay, on which were not, and on what new ones would be better.
Lydia, were you as attracted to RPS’s elevation of values and did RPS’s new attitudes toward class play a role for you, as well?
I suspect almost everyone who relates to RPS was at least in considerable part moved by its emphasis on values, and, yes, I was too. But for me it was RPS’s emphasis on diversity as a basic value that had most initial impact. My coming at things as a strong feminist already disposed me toward recognizing the incredible range of life patterns bearing on sexuality, nurturance, and bringing up children. The fact that RPS highlighted and celebrated diversity was critical for me. When I came to understand diversity as emanating just as logically from an ecological orientation, that too helped broaden my thinking.
The notion of solidarity, which is also a central value of RPS, was, like self management, certainly not original. RPS didn’t come up with the idea that people ought to feel solidarity and even empathy with others. That was long since familiar to people seeking good social outcomes. It was the way RPS coupled making values central with understanding institutions that impressed me.
For a value like solidarity, we were pushed by our institutional approach to ask what current social roles impede or even annihilate people feeling solidarity? And, as well, what would have to happen for society’s various institutions to accomplish their desirable functions and yet also foster solidarity?
And the same thing happened for diversity and self management. With the values in hand, we had a criteria for judging institutions. Did market competition with buyers and sellers fleecing each other create solidarity? Of course not, but in RPS our concepts pushed us to ask why and to consider what we could do about it.
Similarly, did families with a male operating with father duties and a female operating with mother duties, each of them having contrary roles, foster self management or solidarity either in the adults or in their children? No. Okay, what could we do about it?
I hadn’t been immersed in the ownership-is-the-lynchpin-for-understanding-class mindset, so the revelation that RPS delivered regarding class relations didn’t uproot my views as much as it did many other leftists’ views, though it was certainly important for me, as it was for Bertrand, and played a key role in my activism.
Actually, we are uncovering, I think, one of the things about RPS that I am most entranced by. Every aspect is entwined with the rest. RPS’s understanding of class isn’t somehow isolated from RPS’s understanding of sexuality or gender or race, and vice versa.
In real societies, RPS says that what happens in the economy has implications for everyone who fills economic roles because economic roles require us to behave in certain ways and respect and implement certain logic. And this holds for any economy, not just for the capitalism that RPS struggles to replace, but for the new economy it favors, as well.
But RPS says the same thing holds for the institutions of kinship and the ways their roles require certain kinds of behavior from people bringing up kids and relating to one another in families. Kinship roles require that people behave in certain ways, respect and implement a certain logic, and so on.
What RPS notes is that economy affects our assumptions, circumstances, beliefs, and habits, and in turn we bring all these affects with us after work and beyond consumption, for example when we are at the dinner table, or in bed, or celebrating holidays, or voting. And similarly, exactly the same holds for kinship’s impact on men, women, and children. Here too the effects are not confined to when we are inside families, say, or with friends, but also travel with us into workplaces, places of worship, malls, and voting booths.
So, RPS emphasizes how the social and behavioral field of influence emanating from any one key area of society tends to require that other key areas respect its logic and sometimes even incorporate elements of its logic into their own relations. RPS shows, in other words, how societies push and pull into a more or less stable entwined mosaic of all their key parts – as well as how this mosaic can become unstable, and can even be unraveled to become entirely transformed. Even more, it raises the question – what new mosaic of what new parts do we desire to implement?
So it wasn’t only that I became aware of this third class existing in its birth area – the economy – if was that I became aware of it in all sides of life, including implications for families, religion, and so on.
Lydia, RPS shied away from direct ties with alternative media, but actively sought support from it and submitted content to it. RPS also helped with mainstream media battles. Was the RPS approach optimal?
Nothing in society and human relations is ever optimal, but a wise idea guided the RPS choice, and it worked out fine.
The thinking was, if RPS made direct connections with specific alternative media, including bringing those media under RPS auspices, ultimately, that media would lose independence. Whatever we might prefer, the pressure to praise RPS and to repress criticism of RPS, even if the latter was only implicit or benignly motivated, would have effects.
Now you might think, sure, but so what? If RPS has media that it is staffing and financially supporting, but other alternative media exist as well, won’t the latter provide a counter pressure so the effect on narrowing alternative media agendas is overcome by other alternative media?
The answer is yes, that was conceivable. But it was also conceivable that as RPS grew, its media would become steadily more robust and secure, and other alternative media would lack in comparison. The former would grow. The latter would shrink. By the time RPS succeeded, we might have a single organization dominant in the world of communications and information.
So our thinking was, if we don’t want that, then why take a path that could potentially, even with no ill intent by each participant, lead toward that?
So RPS decided to send content, seek support, help with battles against mainstream media, and even provide funds for all alternative media to share, but not to become institutionally entwined with alternative media. It helped generate fiscally secure media of incredible diversity beholden to no organizational sponsor.
How did the fiscal security come about?
Mainstream media operates on a commercial model of selling audience to advertisers. For alternative media to do that – though some did try, at times – was antithetical to our agenda. You couldn’t fully serve fiscally poor audiences when your logic of existence was to attract viewers with disposable income. You couldn’t fully provide honest and needed information and vision when your logic of existence required that the audience you dangled before advertisers should be ready to buy products rather than being made disgruntled, angry, depressed, or actively hostile to commercialism, ads, and corporate logos and machinations by your content. You couldn’t sustain insightful attitudes toward market driven commercialism when you were constantly commercially market driven.
But if we refused ads, how would we pay our bills? While that difficulty had existed for decades, the internet worsened the situation in many respects. The prior solution had been to seek listener, viewer, and reader support, or sometimes foundation support, all in the form of donations as well as, of course, to get revenue from informed purchases of books, magazines, and the like. If you weren’t soliciting companies to give you ad revenue, then you had to get revenue from your audience. In at least one way, however, the internet made this harder, by establishing the view among its users, more than ever before, that information should be free.
People would visit sites that had ads all over and think, how great, I don’t have to buy the information and therefore there is no cost. They ignored that the price of what they bought all over society included the cost of the ads, and that access to them was being sold to advertisers, which, with a different spin, should have been understood to be a major personal and social violation.
Then the same people would visit alternative media sites. Whereas before the rise of the idea that all information should be free, appeals for donations seemed reasonable, now, for many – not all – such appeals seemed annoying. Why should I give anything when I can get whatever information I want free from other sites? Why should I get a print subscription, say, or buy a book? Why should I donate? It mostly wasn’t as overt as the questions suggest. It was mostly more subtle, a kind of meme-like diffusion of resistance to paying. But in response alternative media had to become even more perpetually fund seeking than in its past.
Alternative media at first seemed to grow with the internet, but it undeniably also suffered major losses. And the losses weren’t only financial and in having to become fixated, sort of like political candidates, on fund raising. Another set of problems had to do with content and scope. The internet, and in particular Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging, and the like, tended to acclimate people to short content. This in turn wrecked havoc with people’s attention spans and content expectations. When you get used to short, you seek short. Long starts to feel onerous, even oppressive. Eventually, even alternative media drifted toward a short is beautiful orientation, partly desperately trying to preserve audience, but in time extolling and advancing the ethos of short, shorter, shortest as if this trend owed to some positive logic rather than to the dictates and impact of ad driven commercialism.
But you asked about how the fiscal security came about and I am getting off track. The answer is RPS argued with all who would hear – both in its membership and beyond – that alternative media was a public good and should be financed by collective support from the whole community. It should be like public education. Each item should be free to the person using it and to that end the project as a whole should be funded by the community’s largesse. RPS argued that separate alternative media institutions shouldn’t compete with each other for donor support which in time led to partial participatory planning inside left media.
The whole progressive community put up funds needed, which were in turn dispersed among alternative media projects in accord with their delivery of socially desirable output. Since the broader society should also contribute, RPS initiated a campaign for government support of dissident media, and for the spoils of popular support to also be collectively shared.
RPS brokered meetings of alternative media operations to form an alternative media industry council…and it urged the community of users to interactively and cooperatively negotiate the output of alternative media. The idea was that various projects would propose what they wanted to do, and what it would cost, and the sum of all that from each of its participants for each new year was what the whole alternative media industry wanted to do. This would be made known to those who use alternative media and the involved community would make known their reaction, and how much they would provide. And it would go back and forth a bit. And there would be an agreement, and thereafter, for the year, each operation would have a budget to pursue its own efforts. All alternative media operations who subscribed to this had to forego individual fund raising, or, if they had contacts they wanted to pursue, had to report doing so and allot the donations to the collective bounty. Different projects had different budgets because of having different agendas requiring more or less staff and resources, not because of knowing wealthier donors or winning fund raising competitions.
It was like a mini instance of cooperative planning…
Yes, but of course half a bridge is often very hard, or even impossible, to cross. So while it revealed much about such planning, it wasn’t a full test because it was so partial. Nonetheless, it eliminated valuable time going to endless alienating, self seeking fund raising, and it caused alternative media groups to see one another as partners rather than competitors, which led to far more synergistic work. It was a major achievement for RPS, yet RPS itself got from it only the same benefit as everyone else, greater stability, more solidarity, and better communication.
Lydia, I would like to talk some about RPS’s feminism for society writ larger? What was innovative in RPS’s approach?
Much of RPS feminist program was familiar from earlier feminist agendas that had undertaken campaigns against violence against women, for equal pay, for abortion rights, and for day care. All that and quite a lot more was familiar. On those fronts, RPS innovations weren’t that the campaigns were new, but that the rationale, discussion, and also the groups battling for the changes were new. This owed to the RPS emphasis that efforts in each area should support efforts in other areas, strengthening them all. And it owed, also, to RPS emphasis on finding ways to talk about gender issues that went beyond merely ratifying the views of feminist allies and trouncing the views of sexist opponents, to continually challenging ourselves and addressing the concerns of opponents with sympathetic understanding able to reverse their allegiances.
RPS feminism focused on replacing institutional structures that enforced feminism rather than just criticizing the sexist ideas or habits they imposed. We didn’t ignore the latter, of course – but altering current behavior was just a part of our agenda, and the lesser part at that.
So for any institution you might name, we sought to change its roles so that men and women were not required to behave in ways that advantaged men and disadvantaged women.
One place this quickly emerged was in worship. The organizing of women against sexist norms and requirements in nearly all religions was difficult, and sometimes turned ugly, but it also inspired world wide attention. I remember way back to the draft card burnings during the emergence of anti war activism in the Sixties. Similar but perhaps even more moving, inspiring, and powerful, were the public moves by women to eradicate barriers to their religious visibility and participation starting in 2020, activity that was dear to and in many instances assisted by RPS activists.
But the most controversial area addressed, even beyond redefining religion, was in households, living units, and families. And again, it wasn’t just a matter of trying to get equal income to change the situation of women in families – though that was very important. We had to literally redefine what men and women did in their families. This was tricky. You can’t impose behavior patterns on how men and women take care of their homes or relate to their children. Yet RPS wanted to impact those dynamics because RPS felt that those dynamics buttressed sexist beliefs and behaviors.
I remember countless discussions that calmly – and that was new in itself – explored the difference between what was called fathering and mothering. RPS argued for gender neutral parenting, instead, calmly addressing hysterical men and sometimes women too, who thought it was unnatural. And when this was taken out into the broader world, based on the lessons gained within RPS itself, it was tumultuous. Writing about it, speaking about it, creating dramatic plays and shows about it, street theatre, law suits, formation of support groups, teachers taking up the banner and bringing it into classes, all together slowly turned the tide. And at every step, two criteria guided: winning gains but also not polarizing but instead seeking to win support from men as equals.
Lydia, what about class writ large? I have heard from various folks about seeking RPS like relations inside chapters and small firms, like balanced jobs, equitable income, etc. What about writ larger in large workplaces or in society?
It was, and remains, the same problem. Just on a different scale. And that has had positive and negative aspects. Positively, there are many more ways to address issues, and more resources to bring to bear. Training is easier, for example. As is working out task assignments when there are more tasks and more people. On the other hand, the impersonality of dealing with people you don’t know makes things harder.
In any case, this was applying the same kinds of thinking, and even program, to society and its components as compared to applying it just to a chapter or assembly of chapters or even the whole organization. So we had campaigns for accountability in a great many workplaces, but even more important, for job redefinition to spread empowering tasks in whole workplaces and later even whole industries. This meant battling for workers power in day to day decision making on the job, but regarding broad social policies as well – sometimes via union battles, sometimes via workplace councils which were often in some ways just larger versions of workplace RPS chapters. It also meant applying the same participation and leadership norms to broad RPS campaigns and events as we were opting for in small scale local chapter sponsored campaigns and events.
Perhaps the largest example was the massive campaign RPS undertook for a shorter work day and work week, fought for in ways highly attuned to working class and not coordinator class needs. So the campaign began much like earlier campaigns around minimum wage increases. Workers in particular industries, in this case it was at Walmart and Amazon and a few other mass suppliers, began to agitate for more time off. This was initially partly about vacation and partly about forced overtime, but relatively quickly matured into more general demands for a thirty hour work week.
But the workers imposed advanced conditions. They could not afford to work three quarters as long as before for the same hourly rate as before. That would mean their total income dropped by a fourth and since it was already way too low for living, that was simply unacceptable. If the campaign required that loss of income, working class support would dry up. So seeking a shorter work week had to mean hourly wages had to go up, so that total income did not drop. And that meant an hourly wage increase by one third. If you were earning $15 an hour earlier, then after a switch to a thirty hour work week you would be earning $20 an hour and your total income would not change.
But wait a minute. What if you were earning $60 an hour before or $150 an hour before. Should you now earn $80 and hour, after, or $200 an hour after. No. If your income was too high before, why not have the battle for a shorter work week bring things more into line. It couldn’t yet seek a cut in hourly rate for high paid employees, that would came later, But it did prevent any raise in hourly rates from going to those already over paid.
So now, the demand was that everyone would work 30 instead of 40 hours, but only those earning less than $30 an hour would also get an hourly pay increase of one third. How would owners manage this? By earning less profit, of course. But what if to avoid that they imposed overtime to raise output to try to make up for the costs? Okay, let’s allow overtime, but always optional, not forced, and with overtime pay being not time and a half, but triple time.
There was another exemplary aspect. Consider doctors in a hospital. After the change the owners would have them working thirty hour weeks and would have to pay triple time to get more labor from them, which labor they certainly needed. As did society. What would happen? The answer was either the owners would pay the higher rate, supposing doctors were willing to work the extra, or they would have to redefine work, on the one hand, to get more doctor like contributions out of other employees, mainly nurses – and to start to pressure the school system to produce more doctors. These are all, again, trends that impact class relations positively. And it wasn’t just hospitals, it was throughout the economy. To take one example, law firms notoriously worked young lawyers ludicrous hours, just like hospitals overworked young doctors. The real logic in each case was to keep down the number of doctors and lawyers and socialize them into their roles, to keep up their relative power and incomes. Once it was too expensive to persist in that since you had to pay triple time, and even more, in many cases, because now the young doctors and young lawyers could legally work only thirty hours and attempts to force them to do more were illegal and punishable by severe fines on profits – as well as by the growing militance of the workers involved, things had to be re conceived.
That is just a taste, of course, of the kind of struggles that developed.
Lydia, the question of seeking reform or revolution has been contentious among leftists as long as there has been a left, including at the outset of RPS. First, what was the debate?
The debate was, are seeking reforms and seeking revolution mutually exclusive, or are they mutually beneficial?
One side said, since RPS is committed to fundamentally transforming society’s defining institutions it should reject seeking reforms such as increasing the minimum wage or passing a law curtailing pollution. The logic was that a progressive reform improves some constituency’s conditions but doesn’t alter the underlying institutions that will keep producing and reproducing old outcomes. Winning the higher minimum wage leaves the market system and private corporate power in place to just reverse the gains as soon as they could. Similarly for pollution controls, born to be broken.
Reforms are unstable. Pressures from existing institutions will in time either reverse them or rearrange circumstances so that while the formal changes persist, the benefits they were meant to convey are reduced or eliminated by offsetting deficits. For instance, winning a wage increase is eventually offset by rising prices. Those opposing seeking reforms argued that anything short of revolution enforces the status quo.
Proponents of reforms argued back, first, that the benefits that accrue from reforms like a higher minimum wage or pollution controls are real and can be quite substantial for the people involved. To dismiss people’s efforts to win such changes for being less than seeking revolution and to not support or to even denigrate such efforts, is callous.
Proponents of seeking reforms added that while many people dismiss fighting for reforms in the abstract, no one would tell workers seeking a higher minimum wage, or activists trying to end a war that they are nothing but system supporters and should stop their misguided endeavors. Likewise, people do not typically move from uninvolved to revolutionary in one giant leap. It is precisely the experience of fighting for reforms like a higher minimum wage or pollution controls that raises consciousness, confidence, and skills to sustain longer term commitments.
I would also like to ask you about the shadow government idea. When did it arise? How did you get involved? What did the shadow government do, and what did you do in it?
The idea was floated back when Ralph Nader had run for President as a Green. And Greens actually had one during the Obama administration. When Sanders lost the nomination in 2016 the idea surfaced again, this time for him, but it didn’t happen. I remember wanting Nader to do it, and then Sanders, but feeling that without a prominent jump start, such a project would accomplish little. Years later, the idea resurfaced in RPS and became part of the agenda for the second convention.
I liked the idea and agitated for it even though I worried that without a well known national figure to generate excitement, it might not fly. The logic was to set up a group who would have the same official positions as their counterparts in real government. We would have a President, a Vice President, a whole cabinet, and various other positions, including Supreme Court judges, Senators, and other posts as well.
Ironically, given my desire for someone really prominent to galvanize the idea and despite the fact that I wasn’t particularly prominent, I became the first President. But the key factor wasn’t me, or even my lack of prominence. It was the 32,000 RPS active members, and tens of thousands of other supporters who were not yet in chapters. That was what made the Shadow Government idea work. Members contributed on average $25 per month, which meant nearly $10 million in the first year, with the amount growing dramatically due to our growing membership each year thereafter. And members also helped generate policy and demands and agitated for them.
The idea was for our shadow government to operate in parallel to the real government. We would take stands on all major issues the real government addressed, and on critical but officially unaddressed issues as well. We would offer our views to display an alternative and to agitate for policies we favored. We also generated our own projects and programs and fought for progressive policies.
What was the hardest thing about doing the Shadow Government? And do you remember what you considered its first successes?
Well, truth be told it was a tremendous amount of work. After all, we were generating positions on an amazing array of issues and we needed to get the facts right even though we lacked the giant support bureaucracy the real government had. I was constantly meeting, discussing, and then holding press conferences and giving public talks. I was on the road 200-250 days a year for my four year term. It was exciting, and there was a sense of accomplishment and joy in the work, but it was also exhausting.
We didn’t have office holders traveling first class and doing only that which was engaging. No, office holders did our fair share of rote work. And the responsibility we felt was also difficult. But, as hard as the work was, and as tiring as the constant pressure to deliver was, I think the hardest part, was psychological. And this had two parts.
First, we formed our Shadow Government mimicking the U.S. Government’s structures and offices but everyone involved hated that set of institutions. It made each day strange. I hated the presidency and was shadow president.
We wanted what we created to resonate with the country. When I gave a speech it was as Shadow President. And the same would hold for the rest of us. That way, the media, and even the public would quickly understand the contrast between RPS and the actual government of the U.S. But shadowing the government precluded, at least at first, a contrast of operations and structure. To redress that, we decided to slowly alter our government structure, announcing organizational changes like other polices we advocated as things we thought ought to happen in the actual government. We changed various election laws, funding mechanics, and then added and deleted various positions, changed their mandates, and made other changes, too, even during my four year term.
The second hard thing was also psychological. Keeping my head on straight, and likewise for other folks. We didn’t require that everyone call me Madame President and otherwise pay homage, but many did. And I was constantly interviewed, questioned, and listened to as if I was some kind of oracle. So it would have been all too easy, and even natural, to get into bad habits. I worked to avoid that but I think what helped most was I appointed as my Press Secretary and Chief of Staff people who would keep me in line.
Assessing successes is not so easy. People usually think in terms of actually winning sought gains. But in truth that is not the earmark of success. You can win, and go home, and it doesn’t mean much for the long haul, even if there is some important benefit in the short run. You can lose a battle, a demand, whatever, but in the process establish new methods, or organization, or consciousness, that persists and leads to later gains. You can win, nominally, but lose. You can lose, nominally, but win.
I think the first significant success in both senses that we all celebrated was when, after just a few months, we countered mainstream government military policies, budgets, and interventionism, with our own foreign policy approach emphasizing disarmament, reallocation of funding, use of military forces for social good, retooling of bases, withdrawal of troops, and so on. Our proposals were so extensive, clear, and sensible and their immediate and long term benefits were so apparent, that the whole process gained tremendous credibility. From then on, Shadow presentations of policy were highly anticipated and taken very seriously by wide circuits of people.
Next, I would say our passing dramatically expanded social service policies, minimum wage policies, work week length laws, and so on was also a very effective step. We didn’t just contrast our desired policies and choices to the mainstream government’s actual policies and choices, though that was part of it. After all, we said to people see what you get with them – and see what you would get with us? We also went beyond that to the Shadow Government investing time, energy, and funds into outreach, organizing, and agitation. Starting to win gains on that front was another massive achievement, spurring us to do more.
Lydia, it seems like there was a mentality in RPS that made all its project’s much more real and powerful than they might have been, or even than similar efforts had been earlier. Can you try to convey what that difference was?
I am glad you asked that. I think it bears a lot of repeating, actually, because it is very easy to think of the answer as just hand waving, or cheer leading, but I happen to think it really was pivotal.
I think one way to describe it is we went from whining to winning.
Think of a professional athletic team. What distinguishes those who win from those who lose? Talent and training are part of it, of course. But let’s assume talent and training are essentially the same for some set of teams. Then what distinguishes them? Luck will be a factor, but I contend that people’s attitudes will often be most important.
Those who think they can win and who confidently approach even difficult challenges as hills to remove, go around, or climb over have a chance for a great season. Those who doubt that they can win and who despondently approach even modest challenges as immovable mountains that irremediably obstruct their way, have virtually no chance for a good season.
Imagine a successful professional football or soccer coach meeting with her team. Suppose they lost their most recent game. It’s time to talk about the next game or the rest of the season. Does the coach repeatedly bemoan the size and strength of upcoming opponents? Does she talk endlessly about how the schedule is horrible for her team? Does the coach list her team’s detriments and the opponent’s strengths as if they are unbridgeable impediments to success?
No, the coach respects reality but approaches each game highlighting what her team can best affect. How can our team alter our choices and behavior to win? If the coach spends each meeting endlessly listing the strengths of opponents without any clarification of how those strengths are to be overcome, she needs to get a new job and the team might as well take a vacation.
Now consider the left. We might not like the similarity, but we, too, have to try to win just like professional athletic teams do. That’s the ultimate criterion of success in social struggle. Just playing well at improving society isn’t enough. Winning ends wars, feeds the hungry, gives dignity to the exploited, and reduces hardships. Winning creates a new world without the need for such struggles. On the other hand, just playing nicely or “fighting the good fight” without winning, or arguably without even trying to win, lays the seeds for further losses to come.
So does the left have a winning attitude? Can we have a good season, a good career with our current mindset? All too often in the past the answer has been no. All too often too many of us looked at a half-full or quarter-full (movement) glass and talked only about how much was missing in tones that suggested that our glass could never be more full. Indeed, we even saw leaks in our glass where they didn’t exist and imagined powers to deplete our glass’s contents that our opponents did not have.
Too few of us asked, how do we get more (members) into our glass, and how do we retain those we have rather than watching them leak away? Too often we went beyond sensibly analyzing the conditions that we encountered to fruitlessly whining about things we couldn’t influence. Too often we paid too little attention to things about our situation we could remove, go around, or climb over, much less to mapping out agendas for doing so.
Am I exaggerating our past condition? If so, not by much. Our glass is our movements. The fact is, whether we are talking about matters of class, race, gender, political power, ecology, international relations, or whatever else, our movements weren’t, before RPS and also in its early period, nearly as full of members as they needed to be for us to win short-run reforms much less long-run new institutions
But how many leftists back then wrote and spoke about what was wrong with society without accompanying this analysis with a strategic commentary, so that (even against their intent) their words had more or less the impact of moaning about the size of next week’s opponent? In contrast, how many wrote and spoke about why our movement didn’t grow faster, or about why it lost the members who we did attract, and especially about what we could do to have better results?
How many of us wrote or spoke about the oppressiveness or power of the media, the state, or corporations, as compared to writing or speaking about the attributes needed in our movements to oppose the media’s, state’s, and corporations’ power and oppressiveness, and about the potential power of opposition and especially how it might be enhanced?
Extending the sports analogy, a team or coach that doesn’t know what it wants to achieve for a season will wind up wherever it is pushed by events, but not somewhere that it seeks to be, such as becoming a champion. Successful teams map out clear goals. If they are not ready to try to win the championship this year, then next year, or the next. They attune their daily, weekly, and seasonal agendas to their long-term goals.
Did the left used to do that? Even individuals in it, much less as a whole? Did we have shared institutional goals for the economy, the polity, for families and kinship, for the culture, for international relations, for the ecology? Did we organize our thoughts about what to do today in light not only of our current strengths and weaknesses and of the immediate conditions we confronted and our immediate aims, but also in light of how all this related to our long-term goals?
Most of the left rightly disparaged professional sports for its commercialism, sexism, racism, and class relations. But it would have helped it we had learned a little from them, as well. Sports teams are the world’s foremost competitors and, like it or not, we are in a competition rooted in class, gender, race, and political relations. Sports reveals that if we despondently whine, we will lose. On the other hand, if we confidently strategize, we can win. Likewise, if we lack goals we will wind up somewhere we’d rather not be, but if we have goals, we may attain them.
This is all obvious, but it’s worth emphasizing because amidst pyrotechnic displays of mental virtuosity about discoursing paradigms – as well as amidst serious and admirable projects and movements that suffer a lack of resources and serious time pressures – this truism is often the first thing to drop out of our consciousness.
So, I think it was our cultivating a mindset to win that was key to the Shadow Government working. We weren’t preening for a mirror. We weren’t taking selfies to celebrate our good looks. We weren’t padding our resumes. We were hell bent on increasing our numbers of participants, infrastructure, and morale and thus our power to win immediate reforms and to lay the groundwork for further gains in the future, all the way to a new society.
When Sanders had his millions of votes I thought, okay, come on, do a shadow government. But maybe it was just as well he didn’t. If he had, I think its composition and evolution would have been quite different than ours has been. He would have started bigger, and with more resources, but a shadow government he did would have been less grassroots and would have had fewer insightful about developing in ways suited to winning a new society.
You can see how, I hope, if someone thinks that the left is not able to become a serious player in the future of our society, and thinks all that’s really possible is tweaking existing relations this way and that, then the mood and agenda of a shadow government would be very different than ours has been. And this applies not just to the Shadow Government project, but to the whole logic of a parallel or shadow society.
Lydia, if we could switch focus a bit, what does RPS say about kinship? What institutions will organize procreation, nurturance, and socialization? How will we accomplish upbringing and home life consistent with eliminating gender and sexual hierarchies?
RPS values implied that accomplishing kinship functions should enhance solidarity, preserve diversity, apportion benefits and responsibilities fairly, and convey self-managing influence–all as makes sense in this sphere of life. So with that set of desires, many questions arose for us.
Will families continue as we now know them? Whatever families we have, what else will exist? Will upbringing diverge greatly from what we now know? What about courting and sexual coupling? How will the old and young interact with adults and how will adults react with the elderly and the young?
To fulfill our values, we knew that new kinship relations would have to liberate women and men rather than causing the former to be subordinate to the latter, and similarly for other hierarchical or degrading relations. But how?
In these matters we were talking about transforming a side of life where the gain would be removing the features that produce sexism, homophobia, and ageism, plus establishing an array of positive improvements that we could only guess at until we had more fully experimented with more complete proposals. But we also knew not all gender related problems would entirely disappear. Even in a wonderful society, I might love someone who did not love me. Rape and other violent acts might still occur, albeit much less often. Social change wouldn’t remove the pain of losing friends and relatives to premature death. All adults would not suddenly be equally adept at relating positively with children or the elderly, or vice versa.
We thought new relations could and should eliminate the systematic violation of women, gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgenders, children, and the elderly, but not eliminate all individual violations. We thought changes could and should eliminate the structural coercion of men and women, of hetero and homosexuals, and of adults and children into patterns that systematically violate solidarity, diversity, equity, and self-management, but not eliminate all individual violations.
How would the structural change happen? What would the institutions defining a vastly better kinship system look like?
RPS knew contemporary societies consign women to less empowering and fulfilling options than men. We had to determine the defining structures that we needed to profoundly alter to remove that systematic ordering.
Feminism had long taught that sexism takes overt form in men having dominant and wealthier conditions and that it takes more subtle form via longstanding habits of communication and behavioral assumptions. Feminists had also shown how sexism is produced and reproduced by institutions that differentiate men and women, including coercively as in rape and battering, but also more subtly via what often seem to be mutually accepted role differences in home life, work, and celebration. And feminists had shown the cumulative impact of past sexist experiences on what people think, desire, and feel, and on what people habitually or even consciously do.
If we wanted to find the source of gender injustice, it stood to reason that we had to determine which social institutions – and which roles within those institutions – give men and women responsibilities, conditions, and circumstances that elevate men above women.
One structure that had been discussed in just that way decades earlier was that men father but women mother. That is, men and women fulfill two quite dissimilar roles vis a vis the next generation and pass on expectations via those different roles. Feminists from that earlier time had asked what if instead of women mothering and men fathering, women and men each related to children in the same fashion, with the same mix of responsibilities and behaviors (called parenting), rather than with one gender having almost all the nurturing as well as tending, cleaning, and other maintenance tasks (called mothering), and the other gender having many more decision-based tasks (called fathering), with the former role being more involved and the latter more aloof? The argument behind this proposal was that mothering and fathering are roles that are socially and not biologically defined and that, as mothers, women produce daughters who, in turn, not only have mothering capacities but want to mother but not father, while as fathers, men produce sons who not only have fathering capacities but want to father but not mother. We thought about those earlier formulations and decided that perhaps one feature of a vastly improved society vis a vis gender relations would be that men and women both parent. There would be no mothering versus fathering, just parenting.
So what happened was that many young parents, and some older ones too, decided to test this out. You have to think about that to realize the intensity of feelings and choices involved over the past two decades due to this aspect of RPS vision. You have a child. Through history, including in your own upbringing, everyone practices mothering and fathering. Your child’s life is at stake, and you decide, no, we are going to break that mold. We will each parent. This had actually begun, piecemeal, without explicit clarity, just trying to make home life more fair, years earlier. But it was in RPS and by its efforts that the practice accelerated and became self conscious. Much of it was simply changing one’s own personal choices, but not all. For example, to have parenting and not mothering and fathering required parental leave for new born care, not leave for women only, so that battle had to be waged as well.
Another typical structure that had come into question long before RPS for many feminists thinking about improved sex-gender relations was the isolated and insular character of the nuclear family. This had to do with whether the locus of child care and familial involvement should be very narrow, such as resting on only two biological parents, or even just one, or should instead involve many more people – perhaps an extended family or friends, community members, etc.
It seemed highly unlikely a good society should or even could have rules that required a few typical household organizations and family structures so that everyone would have to abide only those. We wouldn’t expect adults would, by law, have to live alone, in pairs, or in groups in any one or even any few patterns. The key point would likely be diversity but also that whatever multiple and diverse patterns existed, each option should embody features that call forth gender equity rather than gender hierarchy. So people have experimented with home life patterns aimed at broadening the care taking and interaction children enjoy, and at enlarging their participation in judgements, as well.
We have been guided by hope that people born, brought up, and who then themselves bear and bring up new generations will not only be full, capable, and confident, but also lack differentiations that limit and confine the personality or the life trajectories of children to some kind of narrow feminine or narrow masculine mold.
And we have been guided by similar hopes about sexuality and intergenerational relations. We still don’t know what fully liberated sexuality will be like–in all its multitude of preferences and practices, nor do we know all the diverse forms of intergenerational relations adults and their children and elders will enter into. But we do believe no few patterns should be elevated above all others as mandatory, but also that all acceptable options should preclude purposely producing in people a proclivity to dominate or to rule, to subordinate or to obey, based on biological sex, sexual orientation, age, or any other social or biological characteristic.
Even 20 years into RPS, we have only rough ideas what sex-gender patterns will emerge, multiply, and continually develop in a better future – for example, monogamous and not, hetero, homo, or bi-sexual, and involving transformed care giving institutions, families, schools, and perhaps other political and social spaces for children as well as for adults and the elderly – but we are confident that actors of all ages and genders will engage in non-oppressive consensual sexual relations, free from stigma.
Of course there has been much internal dispute about aspects of this. A key thing, however, has been our flexibility of pronouncements and continued study of implications and options right to the present. It was hard to avoid being polarized into aggressive defensiveness when people would accuse us of trying to eliminate families or to wipe out love or childhood. But as with so many other issues, we learned to put a premium, internally, on being patient and respectful in such interchanges. And that has been the most admired stance in RPS, not militance, or aggressiveness, or even wonderful rhetoric and debating.
Lydia, would you like to add any final comment about the ideas and values of RPS vision?
Well there is much more to say, of course. Books upon books have been written, but I think the overview here has been good, albeit demanding, and I would like to add only two things.
First, RPS vision has always been rooted in a clear statement of values. It has always been about determining what we desire for humanity – in the shape of guiding values – and then trying our best to conceive institutions consistent with those values. This is actually different than many other visionary approaches. It is not unusual, for example, to look at the present and find instance after instance of undesirable attributes, with visionary thinking then adapting from what we have to arrive at replacements, one after another.
Our difference from that approach is that in RPS we ask, what do we want. If it is unreal or impossible, okay, we try again. But once we settle on what we want, we don’t then keep letting habituation with what we see all around us curtail conceiving what is needed to attain what we want.
I guess it sounds a little academic but it really isn’t. It is the difference between vision tinkering with the present and often failing to get much beyond it, and vision desiring a very different future and not being mentally saddled by the chains of today.
Another virtue of the values first approach is that it speaks to people in a way celebrating their humanity, rather than in a way rejecting their inhumanities. It is positive rather than negative. It celebrates aims rather than excoriating shackles. Oh, it does both, of course, but the positive aspirations drive the process.
You said you had two things you wanted to add?
Yes, the second thing I would like to say is that concepts, values, and vision are free creations of human thought and discussion. They are not products of the will of a king, a priest, or a god above, or even of a wise sage. Only collective assessment, testing, and advocacy can establish them. But their being human creations nonetheless means they can be flawed, time bound, and otherwise need frequent renovation. Values may embody misconceptions that render one or more contrary to our intents. Concepts may have insufficient scope or diverge from accuracy. Vision may be unattainable or internally contradictory, or could have unforeseen negative implications. RPS recognizes these possibilities and therefore also its own possible fallibility. It constantly tests and upgrades its commitments.
Here is how I think of it. Scientists are just like all the rest of us. They sometimes have biases that distort their perceptions. They sometimes develop self serving ways of seeing or psychological commitments to pet ideas or even to ideas on which their reputation or position depends. But science is supposed to serve truth. It is supposed to always seek to alter itself by finding and correcting flaws and developing new understanding. To continually self renovate, science doesn’t merely say to scientists, be good, innovate, don’t perpetuate. No, science incorporates diverse arrangements, roles, and incentives meant to create an enquiring, flexible, and always forward reaching mindset. It doesn’t always work, to be sure. But it is a priority in a way that doesn’t exist, say, in religious studies or in old style politics of the past.
My point is that RPS very self consciously sees its concepts, values, and vision the way science sees its hypotheses. We try to make our views as optimal as we can, but we try not to become so wed to our views that we then try to ward off improvement to preserve the past and our connections with it. Not all of us do this well, and no individual does it perfectly, but because RPS prioritizes this kind of flexible and growth oriented approach, and even more so, because it sets aside resources and time explicitly for the purpose, it most often attains the sought flexibility. This RPS approach is opposite to the usual talmudic approach to ideology. It is a key RPS virtue, and certainly one that played a big part in my becoming and remaining a member.
Finally, did being RPS Shadow Government President give you a feeling for the benefits of holding office? Do you look forward to RPS actually fielding a President in the near future?
In office, you learn quickly that the main determinants of the biggest policies and directions are institutional features, even in a shadow government. Even with a dictator that is largely the case. But with anything remotely like a democratic system it is certainly true. The structure of the governing bodies is critical, but so too, of course, are the concentrations of power in various other places – mainly corporations. So you learn that short of transforming all those institutions – which is of course the ultimate goal – you have to have sources of power, pressure, and creative innovation, beyond your office, or what you win will be nothing remotely like what you desired to win.
So even in the Shadow case, right off we could either abide existing relations in our mirror of the U.S. Government, just proposing policies and agitating for them, or we could also seek institutional changes in our own version of the government, partly as a model for things to seek in the world and partly so we could do more good in our own work.
If I was younger, much younger, and for some unfathomable reason it made sense for me to run for actual President in a campaign aimed to win, I would certainly do it. There are many on the left who understand that existing institutions, including the government are bent into shapes structurally accommodating the rich and powerful and also incorporating strong aspects of other oppressive relations, racism, sexism, classism, etc. They take from that insight one correct conclusion, and one incorrect conclusion, at least in my view.
The correct one is that we need new institutions. This explains the on going and by now overwhelming growth of support for the RPS vision. The incorrect conclusion, which is now largely overcome but was perhaps predominant at the outset of RPS, is that we should have nothing to do with flawed institutions. That was wrong.
It was a little like saying we want a new society for the whole population, but we don’t want to relate to the population. We want a new society spanning all the defining institutions, but we don’t want to battle within those institutions. We want to criticize existing institutions and rail at them from without, or replace them by building from scratch, but we don’t want to engage them from within, ever.
Railing at them from without is certainly essential. And so is creating alternatives from scratch that can serve as models to raise consciousness. But suppose someone said to radical working people, we want a new economy, so stop operating in this one. You can see, I hope, that that is utterly absurd. First, it means ceding that terrain to those who are not radical. Second, it means giving up one’s job. And third, it loses access to all the lessons that can be gleaned by operating within existing institutions, not only lessons about what is wrong with them, but lessons about what is needed in their place. And finally, it also foregoes victories inside those institutions that would make people’s lives better now. It often even acts as though such victories wouldn’t matter, a very callous view.
It may be harder to see, but the government is similar to the economy in all those regards, and there are added aspects. Corporations are entirely places where nothing non profit-seeking can be done other than by applying pressure. Government is somewhat different. The deck is heavily stacked, and the structural pressures to compromise and become what you don’t want to be are enormous. But it is also true that there is quite a lot of room to maneuver, and that there are many gains we can win simply by changing minds much less winning elections and using levers of power to influence outcomes.
At any rate, my feeling is that there are very serious and dangerous pitfalls, not at all easy to avoid. But, to not try is to forgo still larger gains, able to be won. And, yes, I think we have gotten to the point where our support is so broad, and even more important, so deep, that we can now win at the highest level.