This is the second half of the transcript of my interview with Adolph Reed Jr.,
Reed was recently a guest on Bill Moyers, discussing his article in Harpers about the problems with the left, electoralitis, Neo-liberals, movement building, problems with the Clintons, and a lot more.
This is the second half of the transcript of my interview with Adolph Reed Jr., transcribed by the podcast published here. Here's the intro:
My guest tonight is Adolph Reed Jr. He is a professor of Political Science at University of Pennsylvania. He is the editor of Race, Politics and Culture: Critical Essays on the Radicalism of the 1960s and Without Justice for All: The New Liberalism and our Retreat from Racial Equality.
He's been a columnist for The Progressive and The Village Voice, and has written frequently for The Nation and he has a feature article out in this month's March issue of Harper's, Nothing Left, The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals. Race and 20th-Century American Political Social Thought Power, Culture, and American Cities and Labor and the Left in Postwar American Politics. Welcome to the show.
R.K.: You know, let me throw one other thing out. I call my show the Bottom Up Radio show because I believe we are in a transition from a top-down to a bottom-up culture...
A.R.: Yes, I like that too, by the way.
R.K.: ...so, I'm curious where those ideas fit in and I'll throw in Occupy as well. Now, you finish your article in Harper's talking about, you kind of say that electoral politics are important but not enough and that it really is going to depend on labor.
R.K.: I just wanted to throw in the Bottom Up stuff to see if, kind of get you to think along those lines if you have any thoughts on that.
A.R.: Oh, absolutely.
R.K.: And the answers.
A.R.: Well, l you know, I think ultimately all of us need to work out the answers together because I'm not that smart, I'm not that good. But I think, I suspect that a lot of people who consider themselves on the left, or progressives would agree with you and me that we need to have a bottom up politics, right? But it's one thing, it's kind of like a foreign language.
It's one thing when you can hear it and translate it as you hear it into your native language and then translate back from the native language to speech, but fluency comes when you hear and think in the second language. And I think that we're in something of a position like that when it comes to thinking through the implications of commitment to a bottom-up politics because I think, first of all, and this is also, I believe, this is also a product of the decades of defeat, but too much of progressive politics have gotten focused on the electoral realm and I think that's because, well, obviously it's in the first instance it's because people feel the urgency of the need for some kind of change.
Nobody likes to hear it when I say, well, we didn't get into the situation overnight, we're not going to get out of it overnight; but the reason that I make that argument is that I just don't believe that the electoral domain is a place for building a social and political movement. It's a domain for consolidating power that's been won at the level of social movement organizing. That may be can be a longer discussion if you want but, first of all-
R.K.: Yeah I want. I also...I mean, where is the bottom...
A.R.: Okay, yeah!, well good.
R.K.: I also...and where does the bottom up come in in terms of electoral politics versus movement building.
A.R.: Oh, well,...that... I think" Off the top, the sort of ...I think a crucial distinction is between a de facto assumption that the constituency for a left politics is already out there just waiting to be convoked, called together, and I think that's what feeds what I consider the fantasy of electoralitis- if we could just get the right candidate who could light the spark that would condense the movement. I think, actually, the factoid that I opened the interview with is instructive in this regard.
In 1944, 68% of Americans thought that there should be a fundamental right to a job. In the 60+ years since then, or 60 years since then, no, 70 years since then, man I'm getting older, 70 years since then, we've fallen farther and farther behind on the propaganda front. We've seen the atrophy of, along with the decline of the labor movement, we've seen the atrophy of independent sources of information and interpretation about policy and world events.
A smaller and smaller percentage of the population, of the working population, has access on a daily basis to alternative views to the neo-liberalism consensus about the facts of life basically, and ,I mean, like with your program and others, one of the frustrating contradictions is that, for most people the only way to get access to alternative views of politics and interpretations of events is through already being sophisticated enough to want to go look for them and so what we've lost is a movement culture, such that your nephew or your neighbor or your coworker will engage with you, find out about the publication or the radio broadcast and then tell somebody else about it and tune in and then spread the word that way because it takes organizers, or people who are committed to movement building, to make those links. That's what we now have.
R.K.: Talk about movement building. What is movement building, what's involved with that? When you say it takes movement organizers and movement building, what does that mean?
A.R.: Well I mean, it takes first of all having some general vision of how the society could be a better place and it takes talking to people, right, face to face, to people with whom you have standing in your workplace and community, family, bowling league, your wine sipping club, kid's baseball league, or whatever, and over time a cultivating of shared understandings and the conversation about how the society could be improved and what kinds of things we can support that's possible to imagine in practical terms, that we can support that could make the society better than it is. This takes me back to the difference between the electoral domain and what I would call the movement building project. It's kind of like the difference between how one approaches making contacts with people in an election campaign and how one approaches making contacts with people in a union organizing campaign.
In the election campaign, you want to cast the net as widely as possible because the whole point is just to get more votes than the other guy gets. So, it calls for diluting the program to appeal as broadly as possible to people where they already are. So, at the crudest level, the approach to door knocking is entirely different. In an election campaign ,when you knock on a stranger's doors you don't want to engage with them, you drop the literature and you say a couple things and then leave because it's all about covering as many as you can.
In a union organizing campaign, or a community organizing campaign, you want the old lady to invite you in for tea and cookies because you want to talk to her, you want to build a relationship with her, you want to develop standing because it's from the standing that you have in people's lives that it's possible to be, through which your ideas of what's credible, what's possible for us to do, can be real to people and can ... it's through those contacts that your opinions become trustworthy and that's what I mean as the key to the movement building project. It's not a matter of... there's this tendency, I know, among progressive groups to form coalitions, right, and to go out empty organization goes to empty organization and they form the coalition and what the coalition turns out to be often enough is like fifty pieces of stationery with the letterheads on them, but they don't really represent anything.
And again, I appreciate the sense of urgency that people feel ,but what's coming to grips with the fact that the left has been basically liquidated as a significant force in American politics means is that in practical terms it means acknowledging that you have got to walk before you run, you've got to crawl before you walk and we're at the crawling stage now. I know it's not comfortable for a lot of people to hear that because they want things to change but you know, what that also means then is how we should think about what is the most we can hope for in the electoral realm and I think the most we can hope for is getting behind candidates who will be less worse than the others and what that means practically is to slow the pace of liquidation of all of the social protections that we've wanted since the 1930's.
R.K.: That's horrible!
A.R.: Well, I know, but there's only one thing I can think of that's worse and that's denying that that's the situation that we're in.
R.K.: Wow. Yeah. And you know when I read your article and I read the reports of the article it made me think of Chris Hedges' book, The Death of the Liberal Class...
A.R.: Oh yeah.
R.K.: Right along the same lines"
R.K. ...and you talk in your article about how all the horrible, terrible, right wing things that Clinton did - privatizing things, Glass-Steagall; look, his history as a president is a right wing victory basically...
R.K.: ...NAFTA and globalization and Obama has a great... frankly, I voted against Hillary because she was the head of the DLC. I didn't want a DLC president and I even interviewed Katrina Vanden and a couple others discussing the DLC aspect of Clinton versus Obama and I think everybody hoped that he would be something different, but actually he's probably as bad or worse, right?
A.R.: Yeah, I think that's right. I mean, I can't remember if I say this in the article, I know I do when I make this argument in the chapter, the book chapter that it comes from, that Clinton's victory, or Clintonisms and the purge of the democratic party, basically was a condition for Obama's existence basically.
I mean, for his approach to work Clinton having pushed through a welfare reform for instance was and having embraced as a democrat that element, that core element of the Republican agenda .is sort of what made it possible eight years down the road for Obama to campaign in the way that he did by tossing off little snide barbs about how you can't expect government to do anything or to do everything he would say, but taking smacks at the public sector along the way, talking the personal responsibility stuff, foreign policy, things the same and. look. I mean I know, I know a lot of people, I mean freaked out, frankly, when I said during the primaries that there really wasn't that much difference between Obama and Hillary Clinton and I understand why people freaked out, I understand why a lot of people had bad tastes in their mouths about her and her role in Clintonism, I mean, contrary to what some strain of feminists think, you don't have to be a sexist not to like Hillary Clinton.
I mean, I worked in the short-lived Harkin campaign for the democratic nomination in '92 and in that capacity we spent a lot of time playing close attention to the Clinton's operation in Arkansas and plus my father taught at the University of Arkansas for the last twenty five years of his career knew them pretty well and it's clear they were corporate pools from the beginning to end, always,but the problem was Obama wasn't any different and Obama said in 2007 for instance, he said already that he would expand the war in Afghanistan into Pakistan. I mean, he said it publicly, it's not like he said it in a bar to a stranger, this was, it was reported in an article, I can't remember now if it was the New York or where, maybe even the New York Times actually.
But I think a problem is when you get into the horse race aspect of politics, a good friend of mine would often point out that the way that American electoral politics has evolved now, it's like the difference between people who prefer Chevys to the people who prefer Fords. You either buy Fords or you buy Chevys and you do it because you do it, basically. You do it because your father did it, or whatever.
R.K.: And moving from the analogy, what you're basically saying, there's almost no difference between republicans and democrats?
A.R.: Well there are some and especially, I voted for Obama in 2012 even knowing what he was and wasn't. I did it as I have voted in the most of the votes I have cast in my life, because the other guy was worse. So, and there are those dimensions.
As I said a little while ago, you can count on the democrats at least for now, the contradictions within the democratic party are such that in the short term, they can maybe, you know, they may be more inclined to slow the rightward slide, or to proceed more gently with the rightward slide than the republicans do. And that's not nothing. In the electoral realm, that's the only choice we have.
R.K.: You say in your article, since Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign, serious democratic candidates have insisted that because of appealing to the right agenda is necessary to win, the responsible left must forgo demands for specific policies or programs as quid pro quo for their support. As his reaction to left criticism of his approach to healthcare reform illustrated, the Obama administration defines as "responsible those who would support it without criticism. Those who do not are by definition the far left and therefore dismissible."
A.R.: Yes, and I guess, from some of the responses to my article, I belong to that far left.
R.K.: Thank you.
A.R.: And look, I mean that's kind of the way you would expect, or you can kind of expect it to go with mainstream democrats, right? It's been like that since the late 40's, too. But, the difference is, what's gotten worse, is that if we don't have anything, well we're not in a position to demand anything of them, right, and since Clinton, the move has been, I'm going to win if you don't shut up and get behind me either it'll be the end of civilization if a republican wins or I won't give you access to me if I win, or both. So, it's basically you don't have any alternative but to vote for me on whatever terms I put out there. Because, what's your alternative? I think that posture among democrats is what's led many people on the left to get juiced by third party candidates, but that really is a quixotic exercise and I've voted for one. I've been part of a third party initiative myself in the 1980's. I was actually an elector for Barry Commoner and the Citizen's Party after I voted for Ted Kennedy against Carter in the primaries. I understand the impulse and I voted for, as I pointed out publicly, I voted for Ralph Nader in 2000, partly because I vowed in 1988, when I lived in Connecticut, I would never vote for Joe Lieberman for anything, but also because of the right tilting campaign that Gore ran in 2000, which is something that the Gore supporters don't ever want to mention; that and the fact that no matter what the native voters did, he would have won the presidency if he could have only carried his home state of Tennessee.
But, I will say this about that experience, in the experience of the 2000 election, what struck me was how vitriolic democratic activists hacks, whatever and the labor movement elsewhere, got then and still get about the idea that any progressives would have voted for Nader or that Nader would have run.
And on one level I can understand the scapegoating because Gore was a flawed candidate, they didn't want to admit he was a flawed candidate so they blamed it on Ralph, but what really made the greatest impression on me was that hostility and anger and sense of betrayal that the Gore supporters and the democrats displayed at the very thought that any left of center voter would do anything other than vote for any democrat.
Which is to say they never bothered to ask, well why don't we offer these left of center voters something and it was a sense of fundamentally anti-democratic sense of entitlement on the part of the democrats to every left of center vote in America without having an incumbent obligation to offer anything to the left. Does that make sense?
R.K.: Yes. Now you say in your article, the desiccated leftism, capable only of counting parcels, hand-wringing, administering and making up just-so stories about this possession and exploitation recast in the evocative but politically sterile language of disparity and diversity. This is neo-liberalism version of a left. Radicalism now means only a very strong commitment to anti-discrimination, a point from which democratic liberalism has not retreated. Rather, it's the path democrats have taken in retreating from a commitment to economic justice.
So, you've got anti-discrimination versus economic justice. What's the difference?
A.R.: I want to make clear, too because I think this is another kind of point that sends a lot of people out of their trees or rattling their cages because they want to read it as my claiming or my dismissing the importance of anti-discrimination or suggesting that there's not a need for it. That's not at all true.
But I think what happens, so, I'll start out with the notion of disparity. Most of the academic literature as well as the popular journalism now about framing apparent inequalities according to race or gender in particular takes the form of objection to disproportionate representation of either women or non-whites, disproportionately high in the distribution of bad stuff in the society and disproportionately low in the distribution of good stuff in society. And that's really what disparity means.
So what's the alternative to disparity? Well, the alternative to disparity is parity. And what does parity mean? This takes us back to the point we were discussing earlier. What parity means is that across the board in the distribution of goods and bads, your non-whites and women, or your gays and lesbians where it's appropriate, should show up in percentages that are roughly equivalent to their percentages in their overall population.
And once again, that is yes, that's one measure of equality as the outcome of equality of opportunity or as a reasonably predictable outcome of equality of opportunity, but it's equality of opportunity that takes for granted the larger economic context that determines the overall pattern of the distribution of goods and bads. It's back to the billionaires again. The billionaires and the homeless.
And my argument is that to the extent that public complaint, organized complaint, about inequality takes the form of complaining about statistical disparities. Then it takes for granted the surrounding economic framework. I mean the political economic framework and the framework of economic policy that accepts stuff like the trade agreements and all the rest of that.
And from that perspective, I mean, you can almost see it as like the equivalent of a meteorite that's hurtling towards the sun and people on the meteorite focus on how their patterns are arranged among themselves as they're hurtling towards the sun. So it's not that how the level of inequality that pertains among them at the group level is irrelevant.
But as you move closer and closer towards the sun, things are getting worse and worse for everybody and you have got to have a way... I feel it's a tortured analogy, but to put it a little more plainly, if the larger economic forces that both parties accept are working to drive greater and greater percentages of people in the society to the depths of economic and personal insecurity then it doesn't mean, not only does it not mean a whole lot, but there should be more black and female, or there should be black and female billionaires or gazillionaires at the same rates that there are whites one, but what it also means in very practical terms that you don't have the basis for uniting a broad enough compliment of the population to create the kind of bottom up movement that is necessary to change the larger pattern. Or for that matter change the smaller pattern.
R.K.: In a sense it sounds like what you're saying is that when you ignore the economic justice and go with anti-discrimination you're hollowing out the movement.
A.R.: You absolutely are. And I think the ironic thing about it is that the only way effectively to challenge even the patterns of inequality that fit within the framework of anti-discrimination is to do so from the standpoint of a social movement that is broad enough to push for a better world for everybody.
And this is something actually that all kinds of leftists understood in like the 1940's and the 1950's. A. Philip Randolph and people like that were very clear even into the 60's that civil rights struggle for black Americans had to hinge on the existence of a vibrant public sector and a vibrant trade union movement for practical reasons and that's been lost. That's been forgotten.
R.K.: Okay. So we've covered a lot of ground. I wanted to cover two more areas.
R.K.: You teach courses, I mentioned this in the beginning on race and twentieth century American political social thought and power culture and American cities. I'd like your ideas about race and the democratic party and Obama.
A.R.: Well, I mean that's complicated. Or it's complex in a way. I think I've alluded to one key a little while ago which is that Obama has offered... when I say that Obama offers us his personal narrative in the place where you would expect a political program to be, that's obviously a key element of that narrative is the sort of feel good story of racial overcoming. Right? The first black president.
And there's a sense in which a lot of good hearted people, maybe some not so good hearted, I don't know, but a lot of good hearted people really liked the idea of what it would say about America. Not just to ourselves, but to the rest of the world that we had elected a black person to be president of the United States.
And it went along with that, too, the concern a lot of people had that Bush was such an arrogant, brusque moron that he made America look bad in the eyes of the rest of the world and a lot of the rest of the world also felt the same way about Obama's election by the way. I mean-
A.R.: Well ,apparently so. Even in the Middle East, people were happy, I know all over Europe, Africa of course, to some extent I think a lot of Latin America too. And it's because of the... partly because of the kind of funny artifact of American cultural imperialism which is the export of the sort of feel good story about the history of the civil rights movement like in the US.
And then there were people who just assumed that because Obama was black and had presumably had whatever they imagined to be a definitive black experience that he would be more empathetic with people elsewhere, especially in the largely non-white areas of the world, I mean, it's true among politically sophisticated people like in the Middle East as well and I kept saying yeah, well, maybe, but that will probably change when the first drone strikes hit. So that was part of it. So that's one of the ways that race worked-
R.K.: Let me try to kind of re-state that for you. Last year I did an interview with Douglas Rushkoff. He wrote a book called, Present Shock, and in it he describes how the nature of narratives in stories has changed for most of human existence it's been linear.
There's a step one, step two, you have the protagonist, he encounters something, he responds to it, there's a character arc, things change, and then there's a result at the end. What Rushkoff says is that's changed and a lot of it in part because of video games which have a different way of doing things. In video games you interact with the world. And Rushkoff says it's the same kind of thing with our stories now and that movies are becoming more like that.
The Game of Thrones is a great example of that. What's the story arc there? It's really just about a lot of really interesting stuff happening in that period and it sounds like what you're saying is that Obama, rather than moving forward and doing anything in particular, he is who he is and it's because of who he is that he is approved of and embraced or accepted.
A.R.: I think that's very well put and the Rushkoff book which I don't know sounds quite interesting so I should check that out. It sounds intuitively right to me. Especially as somebody who teaches and talks to other people who teach. Yes. What's the book called again?
R.K.: Present Shock.
A.R.: Present Shock. I'll take a look at that. I think that's exactly the case with Obama.
R.K.: Do you think that characterizes our politics as well?
A.R.: Well I wouldn't say it's everything but I think that's certainly a significant element of it. I think that's how, I mean I've been struck by what seems to me to be the increasingly rapid circulation of the movement from one enthusiasm to another without ever reflecting on the characteristics and the outcome of the previous enthusiasm. Right?
As well as it seems to be an inability to recognize the patterned nature of the kabuki theater of our political display in the sense that, well you can't notice that it's kabuki because you don't notice that it's a tale type, or a performance type that gets reproduced in different settings over and over. That's what a friend of mine calls the pageantry of protest. And I know one thing that I and I've not been alone about this have noticed for a number of years it's like, among progressives, among activists, what seems to be like the separation of action from performance of an action to assessment of its impact.
And some of that I've described as appearing as a reduction of politics or political action to a form of bearing witness but there's no real, accretive sense, or sense of political activism as a project that should be accretive, that the base of supporters and maybe the participants grows over time. And if it doesn't grow over time, if you're on the political margins, then it's appropriate to ask if what were you doing was worth it, but these questions don't ever come up and all that seems to be consistent with this construct of Present Shock, or it does to me. I wonder if that makes sense to you, too.
R.K.: I think it makes a lot of sense. Activists and the whole progressive conversation, where does it take us? Now it makes me think of Occupy which I think did make a difference and did bring in people and change the conversation.
A.R.: Well, I maybe a little more jaundiced about it. I think it's kind of like the WTO demonstrations. And I had talks with friends and colleagues over... in fact a number of them that went the same way over the span of a few weeks. We're talking about Occupy and I expressed my skepticism about it and the response I got was well but at least it has people talking about inequality and my response to that was well it has who talking about inequality?
You talked about it before, I talked about it before. Your friends and people you associate with talked about it before. So it doesn't have us talking about it when we weren't talking about it before. And then what the conversation would get around to was that, well, it was discussed in the New York Times or the Washington Post or whatever. I'd say yeah that's true but the Times and the Post also talked about Kim Kardashian's wedding. So you know.
A.R.: And it's gone. Like it fizzled and to be honest, I mean, I'm really not a conspiracy theory type though of course when people say that then it's almost an acknowledgment that they are but they don't want to be considered one, but I'm really not.
But I was intrigued to see the months in the run up to Occupy all of the exuberant coverage that the mainstream media were giving the so-called Arab Spring and what intrigued me about that was, well, the interpretive trope, that the people, which is already a problematic abstraction, just went into the streets and had these demonstrations and they toppled the government. So this is like an adolescent oriented understanding, movie of an understanding of how revolutions happen.
And that was curious, why, what this was all about. Why the hyperbolic constant coverage of it was going on and then I realized that most immediately it's got to do with the logic of the corporate news industry. There are arresting images, I mean attractive women on the barricades, things burning and blowing up and tanks and people chanting so there's that appeal. And it's also the case that the reporters don't have any understanding of politics themselves so there's that.
But it struck me though that this was also perpetrating a counter-productively naïve understanding about how political change is made. And then the next thing you know, there's Occupy. Now, I'm not saying that the CIA, or CNN, created Occupy but I have seen recently, when I get off the phone I can email these to you if you're interested if you haven't seen them, a couple of articles on Adbusters, one of which was in Jacobin, which I think is a very important left publication that actually came together after Occupy, but a couple of interesting articles on Adbusters which was the source of Occupy Wall Street. And there was no left politics that was involved in that. It was all about expression and a bizarre notion that you can create appeals to a kind of... I think a sort of Facebook farm or Dungeons and Dragons understanding of anarchism, that you can create the new society just by staking out its space on a public park and enacting it and making up the rules as you go along.
It just struck me a little more like Children of the Corn than anything else, to be honest, but that said, there were people who were involved in it and it did draw that general motion drew some young people who would have the potential to go on from there to develop a serious politics and so now I can appreciate that secondary aspect of the Occupy thing. But as to how effective or to how much that has been the case it's too soon to tell. I go back to the WTO moment and the Seattle demo. For one thing, I mean nobody in their wildest minds expected that the anti-WTO demos would be as successful and effective as they were. But the problem was that there wasn't really a clear sense of where to go next and it's because the action, the politics was all in the action and then that just led to, that authorized an imperative to go get another action. And the problem is" Todd Gitlin did a really interesting book in 1980 called, The Whole World is Watching; The Mass Media in the Making and the Unmaking of the New Left, and he talks in the book about the logic, how the movements logic of activism converge on a mass medias logic of newsworthiness and the result was an internalization of a pressure within the movement.
This is both SDS and the black power to Black Panthers, but to make each demo an action more dramatic than the previous one; it had to be bigger. And when it couldn't get bigger, they had to do something, they had to do something different about them. They had to be violent. Smashing car windows, five thousand people had to get arrested, to remain consistent with the logic of the newsworthiness and I think there's something like that was at work in the Occupy stuff also but again, like I will say, that, yeah, I will freely grant that the moment struck a chord with some people especially, young people out in the society, but beyond that, who knows.
R.K.: So, let me take a step back. You said that the anti-WTO demos were more effective than they were expected to be. How were they effective?
A.R.: Well, they kind of shut down the city of Seattle and they made it very difficult for the delegates to meet and they definitely put the issue on the table. Now, I think this is another parallel because the way that they put the issue on the table, put the issue of globalization, which was the buzzword at the time, on the table seemed to be meaningful.
The problem was the vast majority of the people in the country didn't know, didn't have a clear sense of what globalization was, what its impact was, what the term meant and so the action was successful but it's not the kind of success that naturally can be built upon when you have to broaden the political base. It's episodic.
A.R.: And it's disconnected from that organizing imperative I keep harping on.
R.K.: So yes. So it seems to me that your solution to the current situation for the left which, as we started this conversation, I cited you as describing as desiccated, hollowed out and vaporous, is organization. Is people making face to face contact in communities and with labor and that's connection.
R.K.: That's direct connection. Not digital, not online connection.
R.K.: Or does that work, too?
A.R.: Well I don't think those are useless. I just don't think, see this is I think another problem that we've lapsed into that's maybe a distinctively American one or maybe just distinct at this moment, but a tendency to think that there could be technical solutions to what are ultimately political problems and this is the trope that runs through much of American life and has for a long time.
Like trading carbon credits can get us out of the ecological crisis, that kind of thing. But in this instance, communication technologies are useful for coordinating action. I don't think they're especially useful, or stuff like social media and Facebook, or even web-based activism although I have something else, another point I want to make about that, too.
I mean they're useful, they can be useful in exactly the same way, arguably more so, in the same way that cell phones, or the xerox machine, or the mimeo machine that you don't have to hand crank, for the older of us in your audience. And I can remember how my arm felt after cranking out twenty six thousand anti-war leaflets to pass out at a football game. So, yeah, I mean, those communications technologies make it more efficient to do some of the work of the movement, but they don't make the movement.
And that leads me to the point and click activism problem. Because that's kind of like, there's a sociologist out of Santa Cruz, UCLA named Andrew Szasz who did a really interesting book a few years ago called Shopping our way to Safety and it's an argument that he takes as the metaphor, you know some of your listeners like me, I trust will be old enough to recall this, but the bomb shelter craze in the late 50's and the early 60's because he argues that the bomb shelter mania was a direct product of the atomic energy establishment who were concerned that, sort of gave us the friendly atom also out of concern to keep the general or the level of anxiety among the general public with respect to the danger of nuclear holocaust at a level that was high enough to maintain public support for US bomb programs, but not so high that people would feel that there was imminent danger of their world ending and they had no control over it.
So the marketing of the individual bomb shelters becomes a way to buy your own way out of the nuclear holocaust. When I was a kid, I can remember my dad saying, okay that's fine, so you're down there for two weeks or two months to six months with your canned goods and whatever, and then what happens? And we see stuff like that now, people talking about getting off the grid, building-
R.K.: Absolutely. There are whole TV networks around survivalism.
A.R.: Yes, it's pretty scary isn't it? And I mean especially in so far as it marks the space where a strain of hippie merges into a strain of heavily armed nutcase survivalists out in those big empty states who live on fear that people from the cities are going to come and take their canned goods. But
I mention that because the sense that we can... and this also feeds off a sense of urgency, right?
Things are so bad that we've got to have some way quickly to light the spark that mobilizes for change and I think that feeds a sort of techno fetishism that there are magic bullets out there. And it really is a kind of magic, right? I mean there's no way around this.
It's funny, I was at a grad student's colloquium Tuesday morning where we were talking about sustainability planning and at one point someone said well the fact of the matter is that if we don't do something in fifteen years then, we have to do something within fifteen years if we want to stem ecological collapse and my response to that was well then we're done because we can't do what needs to be done to stem it within fifteen years.
We can try to do what we can do now but the fact of the matter is that the sources of environmental degradation are too deep to be solved in fifteen years. I mean, if you live in a world where the Oakridge bomb plant manager boasts that they consume as much electricity in a day as the city of Los Angeles does in a month or maybe a year, and the big industrial operations like that that you need to be controlled which means you need to control capitalism, you know all of the blue recycling bags and making sure that I insulate my windows and close the refrigerator door just aren't going to stack up against that, right?
So I think that's the problem. That's sad. I think it's, and I'm not a complete Luddite about all of this stuff, I think it's possible to use and in ways that are more inventive than I can imagine to use the new technologies to assist in organizing, but the bottom line is that the foundation of a social movement building is going to be direct personal contact among people-
R.K.: Are there people who have written about that? Are there books that you would recommend? Are there people who are leading in that approach?
A.R.: Well, I mean that's what the trade union movement has always been anchored on, right. So it's not, I don't think it's... I don't think you need to have a PhD in organizing to do it and it's what people do for whatever matters to them anyway, right? If you're in the PTA and you want to see the school go in a certain direction you will talk with other parents and form alliances and try to find common understandings that will make it possible to produce a constituency that can win the vote for the project that you can agree on.
R.K.: Isn't part of the problem too that even among unions, the leadership has become so top-down that they have become loyal to these right wing, neo-liberals, and I vote in Pennsylvania and we had our own sector and the biggest unions were backing a republican.
A.R.: Right. Well I think that's probably building trades mainly but yeah I mean look, I mean that's another problem and for much of the national leadership of the AFL CIO, they've become much more, like all our movements have, much more cue-takers from the democrats than cue-givers to the democrats so in some sense their political function is to explain to members why it is they need to vote for democratic party that's not giving them anything basically.
So no, that's a problem. But it's also the case that there are a lot of cleareyed, progressive trade union leaders both at the level of international unions and especially like at the intermediate ranks, right? Elected leaders and big locals and district councils and stuff who have got good clear understanding of the position that they're in.
I think one of the reasons that many radicals get impatient and dismissive of trade unions start tossing around charges of bureaucracy and invoking a kind of fetishism of the rank file is ironically the product of the radical's frustration that the unions are democratic institutions and they are, and they have to be accountable not only by law but by the law of incumbency. They've got a duty to represent the interests of their members and you can't ju... I mean, I'll often hear lefties say something like why can't you just get the unions to support X. Well it's because they can't do it.
They can't do it on their own. Now I will say that one of the places that we've fallen behind is that much of the labor movement has failed to do the kind of political education among the member activists.
R.K.: In fact, a lot of labor union leaders end up working for the company. They become the agent that forces the workers to get in line even.
A.R.: Right. That's true. That's true up to a point. And I think that's as much a function of the shape that the post-war collective bargaining compact took. It kind of forced the labor movement into that position.
Once, in 1946, in contract negotiations with GM, and I know it sounds like I'm living in the past here, but Walter Reuther calls for the company to open the books so that the union and management could jointly plan production, wages, profit, pricing. That sent waves of horror through the business class and the big defeat really was kind of, not just around Taft-Hartley but I think Taft-Hartley consolidated this in 1947, was forcing the labor movement to accept that all decisions about production and really the organization of the production process where management's exclusive priority and forcing on the union movement is the concession and this is what I mean about when I say that the terms on which we win within the larger fabric of defeat are just as important if not more so than how we got defeated.
R.K.: You know one of the things, we've got to wrap up, but one of the things that I took from your article and from our conversation is that we really need to be thinking a lot bigger and longer
A. G.: Right.
R.K.: Really long term and really bigger. It's not enough to just look for a little, tiny modification to what we have.
We have really got to challenge the system, the whole big system and we have got to start envisioning big changes. What is real justice? What is...like you described in your article, what was it like in the 40's? What were people supporting then? Opportunities for anybody who wants to work and that's a start. If things had progressed from the 40's to now, it would be a lot better than that rather than so much worse than that now.
A. G.: Right. Exactly.
R.K.: It seems to me that we have to have a conversation which is something that I try to encourage and stimulate at opednews where we look at what things could really be like. I've been trying to get a conversation going that things have gotten too big.
It's not just billionaires, it's corporations. We need to develop an impetus towards coming up with models for small where you don't let corporations gobble up other corporations and get bigger and bigger and bigger until they become international behemoths that no longer have any interest in what's happening in this country.
We need small and local and we need companies that care about people, or better, that are owned by people like Gar Alperovitz describes and talks about a lot, the idea of co-opts and it seems to me that that's where we need to be going and we're not going to get that from the democrats, we're not going to get that from the republicans, we have to make it happen some way and I think that one really important step is to see reality and that's what you're giving us with your article.
Now you said your article was from a book chapter. What's the book?
A.R.: Well it's a book that began as a book about Obama-mania and the animating question was how did so many people who should have known better, not just good hearted people who were not politically sophisticated, but how so many people who should have known better got so completely swept up in the hype about Obama and as I started working on it, it either swallowed or was swallowed by another project that I've had on the back burner for a number of years that I had been calling, What Happens When Compromises Come Home to Roost, and this book is an account basically of the decline and transformation of the left in the US since the end of World War II. That's why my head is stuck back there now.
I'm trying to wrap up the last bit of the penultimate chapter which picks up in the mid-60's and I've decided I've got another chapter to write that I want to write after that. So I'm hoping to have it end, the book is under contract with Verso, they like what I've done so far even though it's not what we originally discussed when they approached me and I want to try to have it in to them by June at the latest.
R.K.: Okay. We've got to wrap. It's been a great conversation.
A.R.: Thank you very much. And you have a new listener and a new fan.
R.K.: Well, thank you.
Rob Kall has spent his adult life as an awakener and empowerer-- first in the field of biofeedback, inventing products, developing software and a music recording label, MuPsych, within the company he founded in 1978-- Futurehealth, and founding, organizing and running 3 conferences: Winter Brain, on Neurofeedback and consciousness, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, first presenting workshops on it in 1985) and Storycon Summit Meeting on the Art Science and Application of Story-- each the first of their kind. Then, when he found the process of raising people's consciousness and empowering them to take more control of their lives one person at a time was too slow, he founded Opednews.com-- which has been the top search result on Google for the terms liberal news and progressive opinion for several years. Rob began his Bottom-up Radio show, broadcast on WNJC 1360 AM to Metro Philly, also available on iTunes, covering the transition of our culture, business and world from predominantly Top-down (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal, big) to bottom-up (egalitarian, local, interdependent, grassroots, archetypal feminine and small.) Recent long-term projects include a book, Bottom-up-- The Connection Revolution, debillionairizing the planet and the Psychopathy Defense and Optimization Project.
Rob Kall Wikipedia Page
Over 200 podcasts are archived for downloading here, or can be accessed from iTunes. Rob is also published regularly on the Huffingtonpost.com
Rob is, with Opednews.com the first media winner of the Pillar Award for supporting Whistleblowers and the first amendment.
To learn more about Rob and OpEdNews.com, check out A Voice For Truth - ROB KALL | OM Times Magazine and this article. For Rob's work in non-political realms mostly before 2000, see his C.V.. and here's an article on the Storycon Summit Meeting he founded and organized for eight years. Press coverage in the Wall Street Journal: Party's Left Pushes for a Seat at the Table
Here is a one hour radio interview where Rob was a guest- on Envision This, and here is the transcript. .
To watch Rob having a lively conversation with John Conyers, then Chair of the House Judiciary committee, click here. Watch Rob speaking on Bottom up economics at the Occupy G8 Economic Summit, here.
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