Oh, so sad the things that capitalism does to radicals

I just recently finished reading the memoir of a relatively prominent leftist by the name of Michael Albert, called “Remembering Tomorrow.” Albert is one of the founders of South End Press, as well as Z Magazine and Z-net. He’s written or co-written many books about revolutionary theory and post-capitalist vision, such as “ParEcon,” “Looking Forward,” and “Liberating Theory.” His memoir is not great, and in some places it downright pissed me off (mostly regarding his treatment of the Black Panthers, women’s liberation, and really many parts of the sixties in general…if you ask me to explain myself, I will, but otherwise, I’ll save it), but still it was well worth reading and it inspired me.

The truth is, I have read I think almost every book that Michael Albert has written, some a couple of times (his earliest work with Robin Hahnel, “Unorthodox Marxism,” is actually my favorite). I first discovered his writing when I was 16, and his thinking has been pivotal in my own development as a radical. In many ways still, I’m kind of an “Albertist” in my radical worldview. At the same time, he’s definitely a sixties white, male leftist, with many of those trapping and contradictions, plus I’ve had friends tell me that’s he’s kind of a jerk, etc, and that all probably holds too. But all of this together, I’m glad that he has lived and done the work he has, because he has helped me to become a better thinker, a better, radical, and frankly a better person. His writing frankly helped me transition from standard white male anarchism toward listening to the ideas of my anti-racist and feminist friends. If I hadn’t had that role-modeling from an older white male radical intellectual, I don’t know if I would have listened as intently to my friends’ demands for me to change my ways…even still it took me years.

I’m writing about all of this because, in the book, Albert mentions numerous times that actually, among his prominent radical friends, his thinking is actually met with silence. He seems genuinely frustrated by the lack of critical response he gets even from his friends about his work. I was wondering why this might be…maybe he’s hard to be honest to, maybe, personally, he’s an asshole (as I’ve heard from some, but not all), maybe he’s such an obnoxious debater that no one wants to get into it with him….or maybe they actually just don’t care very much to help push his ideas forward. Maybe engaging in his theorizing and vision doesn’t seem worthwhile to them, which I think is just kind of crazy. I know that almost all of my friends have had almost no interest in reading the theorizing of an old white male leftist. I’ve let them have that opinion, but that hasn’t stopped me from keeping up with his work, and I don’t regret it. Frankly, I’ve met very few other contemporary US radicals of different identities who talk about revolution and actually winning as much as he does (other inspirations that come to mind are the women of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence…they are on the cutting edge, way far ahead of Albert in many ways on many things…but I don’t think all).

But his discussion about the great silences that surround his work really shook me, because honestly it is kind of how I feel about my work. For a really long time, I’ve felt that while overall I’m liked (mostly, I think, because I’m nice, a good listener, and very non-threatening…and a perpetual optimist, which I think people sponge off of, because they aren’t…it can actually be very draining for me), I don’t think I’m recognized as actually very useful as a radical thinker, or as the kind of asset for social change that I have worked hard to try to be for years. Usually, this doesn’t bother me much at all, I’ve gotten used to it, being within a political context of non-white males who really don’t trust people like me very much for doing much more than staying quiet and nodding along, as “allies”…because of such a long past of broken trust by white male radicals. I get this, and I have just sort of been patient, because I know that someday someone will ask my opinion, and someday that will be able to make a difference…like it did for awhile at the school. But that is precisely it. I have realized that now that I’m feeling un-valued and thrown away at the school, a key source of my intellectual and radical self-esteem has shriveled, and I’m realizing that outside of the school, in this radical “community” that I am more or less a part of, I actually have almost no developed base of trust, where I am known or appreciated as anything other than a smiling, humble background character.

Like I said in my ego post, all of us have egos, and all of us want to be validated and valued, like we’re contributing. That goes for me, too. Not because I want to be a big leader or have fame. I simply want to feel useful. We have a revolution to build, and I think I’m pretty young, smart, energetic, and frankly ethical, and so I want to have a place where I feel like I can make a difference. But the problem is that nobody really wants me……but it’s not just me they don’t want. Nobody really seems to want anybody. Because nobody really thinks that way on the radical left. People on the left mostly just seem to be thinking of themselves, of their pet projects, and on getting everyone else to just be spectators, or marchers, or readers, or donors to them. People signing up to be equal, active participants in creatively building grassroots organizations? No, there is almost no interest there.

This is what capitalism has done to the radicals. It has sucked us dry and turned us way too far inward. And not inward in a healing way (that would be great, and is necessary), but in an unhealthy, cannibalistic way. Let me explain:

On one level, capitalism has captured many of our really energetic intellectuals, influencing them to go to universities and become academics, where they will be totally isolated from the movement outside of books and, worse, where they will be so pressured to come up with original theses and ideas etc….more books and cutting edge analyses, even though we really have many good ideas already, we just don’t practice them, and so we have radicals who just end up making old ideas more inaccessible, then they don’t engage with each other, they find cozy positions in society and…suddenly…where did they go? Off the streets, out of the neighborhoods, and into the ivory tower.

On another level, capitalism takes some of its cash and it doles it out to foundations, who dole it out to non-profits (read The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, by INCITE! must-read book), who then suck up our most accomplished and efficient organizers, having them organize stale campaigns and, worse, fundraisers, when they should be doing grassroots base-building outside of the non-profit system. They become professionals, who have traded efficiency in making narrow gains (and then exaggerating their victories for their donors and boards of directors) for effectiveness in building a mass-based visionary politics. Suddenly, where did all of the dynamic organizers who were willing to work for free go?

And the rest of us? With professional intellectuals making our ideas less user-friendly, not more, and with professional organizers making our work less ordinary-person friendly, not more, those of us who don’t join have to find normal jobs, where we are tired, and then we do activism on the side, in more or less unfunded and unstable groups, where we have a constant brain and ability drain into the academy and the non-profits, and we are left with sad little radical groups…which really just become the equivalent of farm teams in baseball…just a way for the big leagues to recruit our best and brightest, leaving us hanging.

Do I sound bitter? I am. I’m also furious. I have been a radical activist for more than 11 years. I still don’t have a radical group to belong to. Almost no one around me even seems very interested in the idea. My inspirations have all gone on to grad school. Maybe I will too. This makes me so sad.

Everything we know about global warming, water, and oil tells us that we are the generation that must take swift, decisive action. Us. Everything we know about the system tells us that it will not make these changes fast enough, or good enough. We must get organized and act for fundamental systemic change. We have the knowledge, the creativity, the generations of experience, the kick-ass intersectional revolutionary ideas and the ability to popularize them. We could win. We really could. But why aren’t we organizing more?

Because capitalism has bought too many of us off, and it has us cozying up. It had me for four years, at the high school, and I’m just now realizing how many other great things I could have and should have been doing. I still don’t regret it…at all. But now that I’m on my way out, I’m antsy to really find something effective to do now.

We can’t let this system beat us. We just can’t allow it. We are the generation to begin turning the tide. I want to rejoin that effort. Fuck getting paid for it (although, of course, I understand that some people have survival needs much bigger than my own…I’m speaking for myself)…fuck getting a book published out of it…I just want to make the world better….and yes to have my close people see my worth. This isn’t too much to ask.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi

8 comments

dude. you tapped into one of the big reasons that i’m moving. not cuz the bay is “all better” or anything, but a greater density of people yields a greater density of people who want to form the revolutionary organizations that don’t get bought into the nonprofit industrial complex. i’m tired of having all this fantastic food justice ideas and no one to do them with if i don’t wanna buy into b.s. social worky orgs. blech.

gonna have some writing for me by friday? wanna plan an uprising? 🙂

xox.

Wow, so much to respond to in this post – a lot that I feel you on, a lot that isn’t very clear to me. I can’t touch on everything (that’s what face to face conversation is for 🙂 ) but I will say something here…

I still don’t have a radical group to belong to.

I went to the NW SDS regional conference two weekends ago (though I was only there for a night and half a day). For folks who are four to five years younger than us, this is their “radical group…” and a lot of the work we’ve done in the years since the anti-globalization movement, a lot of the issues we’ve hashed out in painful ways, those lessons are being incorporated into this latest wave of young radicals. I’m not saying there weren’t things missing – some of the conference was very bad. Most of it was incredibly inspiring. Folks are starting to move on things. It made me really hopeful. I’m not a student anymore, so I don’t know if it could ever now be “my organization,” but for some folks I think things are coming together. That makes me feel good.

Plus I’m moving to Seattle, Jeremy; we can fight this shit together! 🙂

Thanks for the posts, Bruin and Andrew. They’ve made me feel better.

And yes, I’d love to hear some time about what is unclear…I actually almost deleted this post this morning, after waking up and feeling that it was way too whiny and self-indulgent. It also made weird ties between Albert, me, my job, and then suddenly capitalism….But I’m glad I didn’t delete it. This was an angry post from me as I felt. That’s cool. Self-critique can come later. (For example, the fact that it takes me personally being hurt at my job and in the movement to get this angry about shit that I’ve noticed happening to other people and have known about for years…this is telling).

Bruin, I hear you about the Bay, although I don’t plan on leaving Washington anytime soon…but you know that I hope you find some kick-ass food justice radicals to organize with down there.

As for SDS, yes my friend Peter Bohmer has talked to me about that conference…and I think there is some potential in SDS/MDS. Just waiting for someone to form a Seattle chapter. I don’t want to be the one.

And also, I CAN’T WAIT until you’re in Seattle, Andrew…seriously.

Hi Jeremy,

Thanks for sharing these reflections. You’re hitting on some things I’ve really been grappling with. There are two main responses I have. I’m not sure if they count as areas of disagreement or just ways that I’m trying to prod you a bit. If this is disagreement, please take it as comradely disagreement.

First, I completely hear what you’re saying about feeling like your contributions (and potential contributions) aren’t recognized. And trust me, I’m familiar with that sense of longing to be the “great leader” you mentioned in a previous post. It’s hard to resist that, I think, particularly for those of us who are relatively privileged. But I also want to challenge you here: I don’t think your choice is between, on the one hand, being a yet another know-it-all self-appointed leader guy on the left (there are plenty of them, for sure) or, on the other hand, patiently and quietly waiting for that “someday” when someone will ask your opinion, when you will be able to make a difference.

I think the intense cocktail of anarchism (which is sometimes unfortunately understood to suggest that all “leadership” is wrong) and anti-oppression politics (which is sometimes unfortunately oversimplified to mean all privileged white guys step back and shut up) can leave us white, middle-class activist guys a little disoriented – as if we should just stand by until our support is requested. But that’s too easy. It’s true that we have a lot to learn about how much we are *not* central to the struggle for collective liberation. However, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have a responsibility to step up, take initiative, and, dare I say, act as leaders. The real question, it seems to me, is how we can take initiative in ways that advance the leadership and centrality of oppressed people in the struggle.

This is all to say: I don’t think you should wait for “someday.” I want to push you to recognize how you are making a difference right now and to imagine how you can step up to leadership – not in a way that diminishes others’ capacities to take initiative but in a way that widens them. I know you can.

Second, you’re absolutely right about the ways that capitalism creeps into our lives and our life choices as radicals. “It has sucked us dry and turned us way too far inward,” you say, which is all too true. Your analysis of academia and the nonprofit-industrial-complex is dead-on. Both of these institutions play incredibly debilitating roles for the left in the US. But here again I want to challenge you: no one makes choices in a vacuum; it’s not as if we can change our circumstances through sheer will alone. Academia and the nonprofit-industrial-complex aren’t simply problems because radicals gravitate into them; they function as institutions in a much broader system – an aggressively capitalist white supremacist patriarchy which puts a premium on individualism.

I have a lot of questions for my many friends and comrades who are going into grad school and nonprofit organizations. And honestly, since I’ve been in grad school, I’ve become even more critical of academia; of the half-dozen or so activists who write me every year to get my advice about going to grad school, I only recommend it to maybe one person (who can demonstrate a really clear idea of why they’re going and how they see it advancing their movement work). At the same time, though, I’m trying hard to avoid being dismissive of those folks who make the choice to go to grad school or into the nonprofit world. The fact of the matter is, lots of the young radicals who rode the wave of the US global justice movement have watched it crash and are now trying to figure out what the hell to do with their lives. I figure I can either criticize them for not being politically “pure” enough or I can try to figure out ways to connect with them and support them in continuing to do sustained movement work.

This is all to say: academia and the nonprofit-industrial-complex are bad news. But if we’re serious about building mass movements in our society, we need to be building them in all sectors and supporting those who go into different sectors, even while we raise critical questions.

This is one reason, by the way, why I would actually support you going into the Evergreen Masters in Teaching program. I think public schools are a key site of struggle, and I have much admiration for those who are willing and able to fight there. You, my friend, would have much to contribute, I’m sure.

Best,
Chris

Ooooh, Chris, thanks for the rich comments, which are much appreciated.

I feel like what you’ve offered here in your comments are more nuanced ways of understanding some of my key points, which definitely were coming from a more raw (and problematic) place than normal that evening. Thank you.

However, I do have one thing I’d like to clarify, and one thing that I’d like to develop further.

The first thing is that I just want to make clear, if it wasn’t, that I do understand that the non-profit/academia problem is not radicals’ fault, nor do I generally take puristic stances on it. Lately I’m asking more stark questions of myself because I have some concrete choices I need to make, but overall I do understand the complexities of our various lives and needs and priorities, and I respect the decisions of my friends, even when they make me sad. I am excited for my friends who are pursuing PhD’s, like you, Chris, and others…but I do miss y’all, and I often do find myself wondering “what if the left had been more successful at building its own infrastructure internal to the movement?” Even with the phenomenon of “radical rock stars,” I recognize it as much more a consequence of a lack of horizontal organizational structures, especially on the national level, and not so much the fault of the “rock stars” themselves. At least most of the time.
That said, even though it’s not radicals’ fault, it is our responsibility to figure out strategic responses that don’t drain our movements, as we both would agree.

Secondly, I want to explore a bit more this question of leadership and privilege. Overall, I agree with you, Chris, and I think that the way you are talking is usually how I try to operate. I think quite a bit about the balance between humility and initiative, between stepping up and stepping back. I actually feel quite comfortable thinking about leadership in relation to ally politics, which I think is an area where privileged folks like me are often too frozen by guilt or shame or fear that we don’t think about creative or visionary activity. And in these regards I think your points resonate really well.

However, difficulties arise for me when we go beyond leadership around ally politics, or identity politics, and we start looking at the left’s other questions and struggles: anti-capitalism, building community power…etc. Here in Seattle, there is a wide gap between the traditional interests of anarchists (capitalism and the state) and those of other “anti-oppression” organizing….things that shouldn’t even be understood separately, but they are. That is, here in Seattle, among “anti-oppression” folks, questions of the state, of building community power, of dismantling capitalism, of even discussing capitalism, or even of building revolutionary infrastructure outside of non-profits are not talked about much…at least in my presence. And, on the other hand, among most excplicitly anarchist organizers….well I don’t even hang out with many of them any more because they aren’t very keen on the challenges offered by “anti-oppression” perspectives.

Now, I think this is the situation for two major reasons, both of which make this leadership/initiative/waiting question hard for me:

1) We have an anti-oppression/intersectional left which is heavily dominated by non-profits, and which is incredibly weak at the grassroots…and this creates a situation in which strategic conversations happen at a staff/board level, and thus are usually highly co-opted by the realities of the non-profit system. Thus, we have a few high-profile organizations which are beautiful, but which take up so much space that there is very little room/time left for more democratic strategic discussions to happen among the grassroots intersectional left. If they were happening, I don’t think I would just be shy and wait to be asked. I think I would participate. But then again, maybe not, because of…

2) Which is that Seattle has a particular identity-politics/ally politics context that I (and I’m not alone) think is quite unhealthy, which owes largely to the ideological dominance of a certain national anti-racist group over the local left. I won’t name the group, but it is a group with a very specific race-above-all-else approach and also a very specific, unhealthy view of the role of white people in the movement. I have heard numerous accounts of how this is a problem specific to Seattle, or at least worse here…and I do think it is a real problem.

This context makes it hard for me to participate as a full person in the Seattle left, and not because I want to be a know-it-all, but simply because I want to be able to talk about not just racism and my culpability, but about many other aspects of the world and my role as well. But here, for me to do that is easily branded as “trying to distract away from white privilege.” It’s a weird situation up here, and it’s really problematic, because it creates a kind of special Seattle species of white-anti-racist…extremely self-doubting, guilty, uncreative, lacking almost all interest in independent initiative…and frankly hostile to discussing anything other than racism, even if it’s a discussion of the experiences of queers or women of color. Bad news bears.

Okay. So yeah, I do think that this situation makes maintaining a full, healthy personality in the Seattle left very difficult, and it has made me into someone who is capable of being very vocal about some aspects of my politics (specifically about whiteness and maleness, less about middle class privilege), but which leave very little room to open up discussions around questions of movement-building, socialism, dual-power, community power…or simply of movement strategy beyond critique. These questions, when discussed at all, are relegated first to the non-profits, and when not, then there is a pretty strong climate that white people don’t dabble in those affairs without people of color present, yet people of color aren’t really very interested at all in working with white people in Seattle…other than through extremely mechanical ally relationships.

Is this a criticism of organizers of color in Seattle? No. It shouldn’t be read that way. White activists hold the responsibility of actively demonstrating that we can be both good allies, and creative, visionary, strategic folks…that we don’t need robotic relationships to behave well, that we can actually be peers in a movement. But it’s a viscious cycle for me. We don’t organize in this kind of dynamic way as allies mostly because of the local fear that I’ve discussed…we white folks have learned a kind of ally politics in Seattle that asks people of color to essentially micro-manage us, which is just another way that white activists end up taking up space. So right now I can understand why organizers of color only want to work with their own…we are basket cases (is that an ablist term???).

But if this is all going to change, it does require 1) all grassroots radicals to challenge the hold that non-profits have on this town’s left, and 2) for white folks to step up in their responsible initiative and creativity, with folks of color being open to eventually forming peer relationships with us…as we prove our ability to show up.

So, I just wanted to explore that a bit more deeply. I hope it was interesting for you, because it was really useful to me, and I’d love to hear your feedback on it.

Thanks for writing, Chris…didn’t even know you were reading.

Jeremy

Hi Jeremy,

I started reading your blog last week. I first read it when you went to language school in Guatemala, but then I thought you’d stopped posting. Corresponding with you recently reminded me to check, and so I’ve added you to my RSS feed which is how I keep track of all of my friends’ blogs and livejournals.

At any rate, thanks for those further reflections. They’re really interesting. As usual, I learn lots from you.

Regarding your clarification about academia and the nonprofit industrial complex, I think we’re on the same page here. I like your question, “what if the left had been more successful at building its own infrastructure internal to the movement?” I think about that all of the time in relation to grad school. The work I’m trying to do would, in some ways, be much easier if I was able to work within some kind of movement infrastructure rather than academia – and I’m in a very unique corner of academia. And yes, I agree that “even though it’s not radicals’ fault, it is our responsibility to figure out strategic responses that don’t drain our movements.” Figuring out strategic responses is quite difficult, though. I don’t have easy answers. In terms of nonprofits, I am learning lots from INCITE!’s latest collection, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded. Have you checked it out?

Regarding leadership, I had no idea about a lot of this Seattle-specific stuff. My time in Olympia was, for the most part, pretty disconnected from Seattle other than participating in the occasional demo or educational event and, of course, all the WTO organizing. Based on my lack of knowledge, your assessment sounds very sharp – and makes the Seattle context sound very challenging. The disconnect between what you call “the anti-oppression left” and “the traditional interests of anarchists” seems pretty widespread to me, but I can see how the prevailing identity-politics/ally politics context exacerbates that disconnect. Have you encountered any examples of groups (or even individuals) that manage to work outside some of these dynamics in Seattle?

I imagine that this situation is all the more challenging when you face it is as an individual. But it does sound like you’re in conversation with other folks about this stuff. Have you considered the possibility of starting up a collective or some other kind of formation? My experience has been that it’s much easier to figure out how to do meaningful political work in difficult circumstances (really, in all circumstances) as part of a group, even a small one, with people who are on a similar page politically. In the near term, you’re probably not going to be able to shift the major dynamics in Seattle, but you might be able to develop and model a different approach.

And finally, a side-note on “radical rock stars”: This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot – the way that status play (so often inflected by various forms of privilege) gets taken up and reproduced in radical left circles. I probably wouldn’t be thinking about this as much if not for two things: (1) my comrades who have called me out to account for the ways that I’ve benefited from the activist star system, and (2) spending some time in academia with its fucked up status games.

I don’t know about you, but I find it very difficult to adequately name this dynamic. However, I’ve gained a lot of clarity from RJ Maccani’s article “Enter the Intergalactic: The Zapatistas’ Sixth Declaration in the US and the World” which appeared in issue #3 of Upping the Anti. (Check it out here: http://auto_sol.tao.ca/node/view/2612.) In talking about the Zapatistas, he brings in a term from Mexican social movements: “protagonismo.” He defines this as “the problem within movements (or society as a whole) of people taking credit for work that is not theirs, the problem of self-promotion over promotion of the struggle, of placing one’s own recognition or fame over the growth of the movement.”

Maccani continues, “If protagonismo is understood in this sense then it is what most politicians and party formations do as a matter of course. But it also manifests itself within our networks, in both conscious and unconscious ways. From the classroom to the workplace, the report card to the resume, this internalized dimension of capitalism has us ever fighting to ‘get ahead’ in school, at work, and even in the movement, and forgetting the ways in which such structural privileges and oppressions as class, race, gender, citizenship, sexuality, and social currency, are warping the form and face of our organizing.

“That our movements suffer from protagonismo is certainly not a new worry, though we unfortunately have no similarly economical way of referring to the problem. Important as it is to remind ourselves of the various ways in which we succumb to protagonismo, however, it is equally important to remind ourselves that we are able to resist it, and that many around us are doing so.”

This is the best discussion of the “radical rock stars” thing that I’ve seen.

Chris

Tom (from WSF-Caracas)

Video of a recent nearby Michael Albert talk:

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3622753371052484817

Michael Albert has clearly proven himself to be a far less disciplined or rigorous political thinker than his former writing partner, Robin Hahnel, whose more recent solo work in economic theory represents a significant advance in depth & insight over the earlier collaborative “parecon” texts.

Though for a somewhat more rounded political philosophy on the radical end of the contemporary spectrum, it’s pretty hard to beat the work of John Holloway & David Graeber.

P.S. – Academia isn’t all bad; check out the recent AK Press anthology, “Constituent Imagination: Militant Investigation, Collective Theorization.” It actually covers quite a few of the issues raised in this post about the present academic/activist cultural dichotomy.