Always Side With The Underdog
1. Michael Albert: First, can you tell folks just a bit about where you are from, how you became radical, and what your current focuses are?
Paul Street: I became radical in part by growing up in a very liberal middle class family in the University of Chicago (UC) neighborhood (Hyde Park) during the 1960s. My parents took me to see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Soldier Field in 1966. They helped out with the Chicago Freedom Movement on housing and schools issues.
The ethos in my household was that you always sided with the underdog (part of why you had to be a White Sox fan and hate the New York Yankees) and you didn’t blame poor and oppressed people for their circumstances. I remember my mother taking me once a year to spend a day in the school where she taught at 47th and Wabash, in the middle of the Chicago Housing Projects (a lesson in segregation and disparity). I remember my father (who was a sociologist and a remarkable jazz pianist) driving me up to look at the “rich Republican bastards” up on the Gold Coast and in Lake Forest and Winnetka and Kenilworth. I remember one of my father’s students taking me to hear Pete Seeger in Old Town. I’ve got an old photo my father took of my mother walking a picket line in a teachers’ strike in (I think 1969) and another one of her dressed to march in an antiwar Moratorium event.
In the summer of 1969 we took a summer vacation to Europe. We were in London at the same time that the U.S. landed on the moon. It was the first time BBC television had stayed on past midnight, I believe. British people the next day would congratulate us: “way to go Yank,” stuff like that, as if we’d had anything to do with it. My father responded by saying basically “thanks but no thanks.” He told them how many poor people there were in “wealthy” America. He thought that the money spent on the Cold War lunar spectacle would have been better invested in meeting human needs at home – imagine. That’s the kind of household I grew up in.
It wasn’t just my family that leaned left. It was the neighborhood and the school, both integrated to a degree that was exceptional in Chicago at that time. In an old fifth grade class picture from the UC Lab School, I’m wearing a “Dump Daley” button. I’m sitting next to a girl with a peace symbol on her cap. I remember the silent mass march that stretched down Woodlawn Avenue the day after King was killed in 1968. You couldn’t see the beginning or end of it.
I never quite forgave my parents for moving out of Hyde Park. They left suddenly and without warning for Long Island (SUNY-Stony Brook 1970-73) and then Ann Arbor (1973-76), which turned out to be disastrous for them –a real decline. I dropped out, which knocked me off the track to higher educational success. It didn’t take much or long to fall off. I was fortunate to graduate high school. I did thanks to an alternative high school (Community High) in Ann Arbor, where the feeling was very countercultural and New Left.
In retrospect, there was some serendipity here. If my folks had stayed in Hyde Park I would have coasted like Arne Duncan through K-12 at the UC Lab School (where I had done very well) and gone to some elite university and been integrated into the corporate-academic system. Instead, I ended up associating and identifying with a different and more working and lower class set of folks, traveling the country by bus, and working different low-paid jobs back in Chicago (the North Side this time, a different city). When I decided I did want to attend college (working as a dishwasher and bellhop was instructive in that regard), I ended up out in DeKalb, Illinois (where my father had grown up, by coincidence) at Northern Illinois University (NIU), where the history department was something like half-Marxist and very much on the cutting edge of the New Left “revision” of American History. I was drawn to that like a moth to a lamp. It was the “little red schoolhouse on the prairie.” I read The Communist Manifesto and Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Revolution and Lenin’s Imperialism and Frederick Engels’ Socialism, Scientific and Utopian and Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution and Arnold Kettle’s Introduction to the English Novel and Marx’s Capital (the parts I could understand at the time) and that was it.
It was like a bright light bulb going on in a dark basement. And it was an instant community, including undergrads, grad students, and faculty. I was a “Marxist historian” in training. I woke up with a (generally left) book next to my bed for about 4 years in a row.
From this point on, my views were radical left. The question was would I express those views only through academic pursuits or would I also or perhaps exclusively develop and act on them outside the ivory tower. As it turned out, except for some impromptu speeches and rants – especially one that surprised me against the Persian Gulf War in NIU’s Martin Luther King Commons in 1991, when we had an antiwar movement for about 2 days – I only really found my writing and speaking voice many years later when I got free of the academy (on which I had already overdosed as a child and adolescent to be perfectly honest). Some of that started to occur when I got a job working on contemporary policy issues at a small social policy shop at NIU in the middle 1990s. My boss there operated with a base in the school, but funding came from outside and the audience for studies I worked on was not academic – it was journalists, community groups, policymakers, and politicians etc.
I was pleasantly surprised at how easily and enjoyably I took to (a) to studying and writing about contemporary issues and current events, not just the past and (b) writing and speaking for a more public and engaged audience, with the intention of contributing to policy change in the present and near-term future.
I remember at this time a change when I walked into a bookstore. Prior to the mid 1990s, I had walked straight to the History section. Now I walked over to Current Events and divided my time between that section and the political journals.
By the end of the decade I was sending pieces to Z Magazine and other Left venues. Another neat and radicalizing thing that happened around this time was the emergence of the global justice movement the end of the Clinton years. It was extraordinary. I taught some mass U.S. History surveys on a part-time basis at NIU in 1999 and every class seemed to have 10 kids or so ready to join Students Against Sweatshops. We ended up taking a big trip down to Washington to protest the World Bank.
Left-anarchist thought didn’t really get much attention or respect when I was a student at NIU (or at Binghamton, where I did a doctorate in U.S. history), given the hard Marxist emphasis. The only way I got exposed to the left libertarian tradition was through the labor history (my academic specialty) I studied at the graduate level, which introduced me to an important left-anarchist-leaning essay by Stephen Marglin (“What Do Bosses Do?”) and to the history of syndicalist and anarchist movements in the U.S. (the IWW) and Europe.
I didn’t read anything by Noam Chomsky until probably 1993. That happened in the context of trying to make some sense out of U.S. foreign policy in preparing U.S. history courses I taught as an adjunct instructor in and around Chicago (I taught at six different schools and universities in the 1990s –itself something of a re-radicalizing experience). Besides shedding an enormous amount of empirical and conceptual light on U.S. imperialism and more, Chomsky for me was something of a second light bulb going off in a dark basement in relation to the left-libertarian/anarchist tradition. I remember reading a short book he recommended by Rudolf Rocker (the title escapes me) that was a wonderful exposition of the left-libertarian-socialist tradition and analysis (it kind of does for left anarchism/libertarian socialism what Engels’ Socialism Scientific and Utopian does for “Marxism”).
Regarding current focuses, I’m currently finishing up a book titled They Rule: The Wealthy Few v. Democracy and a Decent Future (Paradigm, 2013), which is a nice follow-up to my books on the Obama and the Tea Party phenomena. This time I get to look more comprehensively and explicitly than I did in my previous volumes at the whole system of class rule in the U.S. The book was inspired by the Occupy Movement/ Moment, which I think was remarkable on numerous levels.
They Rule has a strong ecological dimension, reflecting my agreement with something Herve Kempf said in his book The Rich Are Destroying the Earth: ”the left will be reborn by uniting the causes of inequality and the environment – or, unfit, it will disappear in the general disorder that will sweep it and everything else away.”
2. What from your earlier times of radicalization seems most relevant to your views now? What remains relevant in present circumstances?
Well, it’s all relevant, minus some of the childish sectarian concerns and the obsession with the Russian Revolution and Trotsky that seemed to be part of the process. What seems most relevant at present is the environmental aspect – the understanding that state capitalism is institutionally wired to basically wipe out a livable planet. The profits system is “exterminist,” to use a word that the great British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson coined in the 1980s. Thompson was talking about the nuclear arms race, but the term applies just as well if not more appropriately to what John Bellamy Foster and his colleagues call “the ecological rift,” led by anthropogenic global warming (AGW).
After my initial Marxist radicalization at NIU, I got very into the writings of the socialist environmentalist Barry Commoner (who died last year) in the late 1970s, when there was a lot of talk about energy and energy policy in the wake of the Arab oil crisis. We even had Jimmy Carter lecturing Americans on the need to consume less stuff and conserve more energy. He had solar panels on the White House for God’s sake.
We had the Three Mile Island near-disaster, which was the cause of the first protest I participated in as an adult – and also how I met my wife Janet Razbadouski, who was the leading activist on campus and way ahead of me and all the local big shot academic Marxists on nuclear power and the environment. There was this strong ecology- and related energy-focused dimension to becoming left at that time – at least there was for me. I remember putting up posters for Commoner’s Citizens Party presidential campaign in 1980.
I lost touch with environmental issues as I got caught up in trying to make a living doing academic studies and adjunct teaching during the 1980s and 1990s. I started paying belated attention to ecological issues about 10 years ago and was like, “holy shit, we’ve got a generation at most to save a livable planet. Weren’t we talking about these things front and center in the Seventies?” Back in the 1970s it was about Nukes, along with more traditional air and water pollution and pesticides and the like. Now, of course, the leading problem is AGW, which John Sanbonmatsu rightly calls “the no. 1 issue of our or any time.” As Chomsky says, “if the [the environmental] catastrophe isn’t…averted – [then] in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.” What good is it to inherit a poisoned Earth from “the 1%?” – more equally sharing out a poison pie?
I am not suggesting that we trade in red or red and black for green. To the contrary, I have no confidence that AGW or other key parts of the “ecological rift” can be overcome within the profits system. Saving humans and other living things from environmental catastrophe – preserving a decent future and livable planet – means confronting what Dr. King called “the real issue to be faced….the radical reconstruction of society itself.”
“The rich,” Herve Kemp has reminded us, “are destroying the earth” – the rich and above all their profits system
3. At the other extreme, since earlier days, much has happened. What do you think is profoundly different now from when you first became radical? What new insights do you think have changed your views, or ratified them in recent years?
Where to start on what’s profoundly different? Since I first became radical:
- The Soviet bloc vaporized and with it any credible state-specific military counter to American militarism as Russia morphed from Stalinism to neoliberal gangsterism.
- U.S. manufacturing base has all but disappeared and finance capital has seized power, dismantling and de-developing much of the nation.
- Neoliberal ideology (which says that social solidarity, the common good, and human empathy are defunct and dysfunctional) knocked off the lingering social Keynesian liberalism of the long New Deal era.
- The percentage of U.S. workers enrolled in unions fell from 27 to 11 percent – to a pre-Great Depression level.
- The loathsome rat and arch reactionary Ronald Reagan was elected to the U.S. presidency. He served two terms, doing enormous damage at home and abroad.
- Japan was overtaken by the U.S. as the industrialized nation with the longest working hours
- Wages and benefits have stagnated or fallen for most while wealth and income has skyrocketed for the top tenth, especially for the richest within the top 1 percent.
- U.S. inequality has reached “Second Gilded Age” levels, on par with the 1920s.
- “Marxist-Lenninist” China has emerged as the great new center of manufacturing and global capitalist accumulation.
- The U.S. prison population (now over 2 million) has increased more than 6 times over and 1 in 3 black adult males are now saddled with the crippling lifelong mark of a felony record, aptly termed “the New Jim Crow” by law professor Michelle Alexander.
- Poor kids’ former entitlement to public family cash assistance was liquidated
- The low-wage anti-union import platform Wal-Mart replaced high-wage unionized General Motors as the nation’s leading corporation (and leading “template” for labor-management relations).
- The universities returned to their normal historical pattern of abject servility to the corporate and imperial establishment.
- Corporate media ownership has shrunk yet further to what is it now…8, 7, 6, 5…corporations owning more than half of all media print and electronic? (I lose track).
- The Internet emerged for better and/or worse and countless millions Americans are regularly zoned-out in front of atomized glowing computer screens on private e-mail chats, Facebook “walls” (Ray Bradbury must have appreciated that term), Twitter, and iPhones.
- There has emerged a related mass prescription epidemic of psychosomatic drugs (Aldous Huxley would appreciate that).
- The Supreme Court installed a proto-fascistic messianic militarist in the White House on openly absurd grounds (Bush v. Gore, 2000). He served two terms and did enormous damage at home and abroad.
- The Supreme Court has permitted (on openly absurd grounds – Citizens United, 2010) the nation’s sociopathic corporations to invest unlimited sums from their business treasuries in the deepening their already extreme plutocratic control of U.S. politics – this in the name of free speech.
- Both of the official political organizations (which barely resemble parties anymore) have moved well to the right of the citizenry qua electorate in abject service to “the unelected dictatorship of money” (Edward Herman and David Peterson’s excellent phrase).
- Urban and national policing have become highly militarized and ever more technologically sophisticated as the war on “homeland” (a lovely and revealing phrase) dissent has been buttressed by a significant and chilling expansion of police state powers (e.g. indefinite detention and rendition) in the wake of 9/11.
- Runaway carbon emissions generated by the growth addicted profits system are now pushing the climate quickly towards an irreversible “tipping point” that has some earth and life scientists talking in serious terms about the not-so distant threat of human extinction.
To me this is all in many ways a validation of what the radical thinkers I first read and studied in the 1970s said and wrote. It’s “socialism or barbarism,” Rosa Luxembourg once wrote. She was quite right but Istvan Meszaros added a critical caveat relating to the global ecological crisis: “socialism or barbarism if we’re lucky.” To me, the Neoliberal era (1973 through the present) is in many ways the profits system returning pretty much to its vicious long duree norm. The Keynesian Golden Age after World War II (1945-1973) – when inequality fell and good union jobs were plentiful in the U.S. – was the anomalous period. “Neoliberalism” is nothing new. You can read about its basic ethos and character in The Communist Manifesto, Karl Polanyi’s Great Transformation and Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Capital. 1848-1875, not to mention Marx’s magisterial volumes. We have had a series of economic crises – 2007 to the present being the biggest of all – that are straight out of Marx: declining rates of profit and over-accumulation of capital, related to financial speculation and so on. What’s called globalization, also less than novel, is a validation of Marx and Engels’ basic point that working men and women “have no country” and must unite across national borders.
Still, looking back on all this and especially on the environmental crisis, I am much less classically “Marxist” than I was in the late 1970s and 1980s. It’s not just about taking over the forces of production from the monopoly capitalist property masters – the bourgeoisie – and repacking those forces within the more democratic relations of socialism by and for “the proletariat.” Those forces themselves are cancerous and exterminist to no small degree, like nuclear warheads. Modern capitalism has responded to the chronic over-accumulation of capital and the related declining rate of profit that results from its success in increasing labor productivity by mutating into what Foster and his colleague Brett Clark call “an economy of built-in waste: both economic and ecological.” The leading forms of waste include: “a gargantuan and ever-expanding sales effort penetrating into the structure of production itself; planned obsolescence (including planned psychological obsolescence); (3) production of luxury goods for an opulent minority; (4) prodigious military and penal-state spending; and (5)…a whole speculative superstructure in the form of finance, insurance, and real estate market.” (Foster and Clark, “The Planetary Emergency, Monthly Review, December 2012). Reflecting on the massive building into the production process of such monumentally resource-squandering but profits-serving waste as advertising and plastic-packaging, Foster and Clark have revised Marx’s famous circuit of merchant and industrial capital (M-C-M’) to include an investment that is dedicated to nothing more than “the specifically capitalist use value” (CK) of promoting exchange value: M-CK-M’. In the world of M-CK-M’, much of what passes for wealth becomes “illth” (John Ruskin). The very techniques and design of production, not merely its ownership and the distribution of its rewards, have become perverted and cancerous – a threat to the survival of human and other sentient beings –under “late capitalism,” which certainly gives new and unintended meaning to Fukuyama’s reflections on “liberal” capitalism and the “End of History.”
Thinking about all this, and reflecting on the U.S. building trades’ and the AFL-CIO’s predictable enthusiasm for the eco-cidal Keystone XL pipeline, I am less impressed by Marx’s dichotomy of bourgeoisie versus proletariat than I am by his related and I think more far-reaching dichotomy of use value versus exchange value. I’m all for rank and file working class struggle, but there’s little basis anymore for accepting Marx’s neo-Hegelian notion that there is any kind of historical law mandating the supersession of the bourgeoisie by the proletariat as the revolutionary historical class (what C Wright Mills called “The Labor Metaphysic”). People of all class backgrounds (and of all genders and races and nationalities and so on) who care about living in a decent and democratic society need to come together to plan and fight for a democratic, environmentally sustainable/harmonious, and non-egoistic set of forces and relations of production and distribution and more. We need to create an anti-hierarchical and participatory structuring of work and of social and political institutions along lines that left anarchists and others have long advocated in opposition not only to capitalist managers but also to avowedly socialist coordinators (remember Bakunin’s prophetic warnings against the “Red Bureaucracy” that left intellectuals promised to impose in the place of bourgeois management).
There’s some instructive recent history to consider. The ease with which the former “Marxist” Soviet Union and “Marxist” China transitioned into more classically capitalist relations and integrated into the world capitalist system and then generated their own propertied oligarchies (I think I heard recently that “communist” China now has more than 640 billionaires) ought to tell any of us who still don’t get it that it is not sufficient to replace or pre-empt private ownership of the means of production (and of the means transportation and communications and finance and distribution) with state ownership. We also have to address the rooting of class inequality in the authoritarian (“capitalist” if you like) division of labor – the alienating, hierarchical, and unequal organization of work/the labor process. It is quite remarkable how many former Soviet and “Marxist” Chinese coordinators and bureaucrats have translated privileged positions in the social division of labor into more classically bourgeois wealth forms once restrictions on private productive property were torn down. Of course, many millions or Russians are considerably worse off in the era of neoliberal market “freedom” than they were in the late Soviet period, just as many millions of black South Africans are actually worse off in the post-apartheid era, regardless of the fact that, as Chomsky says, there are some black faces in the limousines now.
4. When you consider activism over the last twenty years or so, what new lessons seem to you to emerge with importance for the future? Again, what might those involved in those years have done differently, or better, to have attained more progress?
Well, I’ll mention some lessons and leave it open on how “new” they are:
- The necessity of organizing and regularly communicating and acting on an international basis. Capital is militantly global and the left has no chance of countering its power without also acting on the planetary scale.
- The necessity of serious strategic thinking on how to win, both short-term (progressive and revolutionary reforms) and long-term (revolutionary systemic change including the overdue transcendence of the exterminist profits system) It’s not enough just to pound our chests and express our outrage – to mouth off and protest and channel popular angers for a while. A posture of permanent reactive resistance to the dominant culture gets tiresome and exhausting, pushing the ball up the hill only to see it rolled back again. What’s the plan here? What do we want to see and make happen? How are we going to get there? What will it take? What are we willing to do (and perhaps give up) in order to move forward and win? I have seen too much angry and alienated “expressivism” and too little “strategicism” (these are Sanbonmatsu’s terms) on the left over many years.
- The necessity of developing a reasonably detailed vision of what sort of desirable and viable sustainable alternative-democratic society we want to create as the culmination of the struggle we are asking everyday citizens and workers to undertake, often at all no small risk and discomfort.
- The necessity of building “permanent,” long-term, and deeply entrenched cadres and structures that united around a core left project of social, political, and environmental transformation. We have tended in the past to flit in and out of different causes and issues, leaving little real long term institutional basis and presence. We don’t have a Left with a permanent life to match that of those great super powerful artificial “persons” called corporations, who work to subvert the common good 24-7, 7 days a week.
- The necessity of keeping our eyes on the prize of economic justice and class inequality and on the need to confront the ruling class.
- The necessity of organizing in a way responds to the needs and encourages the widespread active participation of working and lower class people (I saw working class people antagonized and turned off by Occupy’s General Assemblies, which tended to get very cumbersome and frankly navel-gazing and time-squandering).
- The necessity of uniting the causes of ecology and equality through the advance of a “Green New Deal” that simultaneously addresses the problem of eco-cide and the problems of mass structural employment and poverty (and more) by putting millions to socially useful and environmentally necessary public work converting our economy from waste and profit and the endless accumulation of private wealth to the meeting of human needs, protection of the commons, and the advance of the common good.
Perhaps I will address some of your question about things that might have been done differently in my next answer below.
5. Why do you think earlier generations of leftists, specifically those of the sixties era, failed to accomplish remotely as much as we had hoped? Do you see any broad reasons that indicate things that might be done better in the future?
It’s hard to know how exactly much of the failure you mention has to do with factors internal to the movement and its people and how much was about external factors including though not limited to repression – i.e. COINTELPRO and the like. We know that there was a very deliberate and class-conscious authoritarian response by the American power elite to the democratic flowerings of the 1960s and early 1970s.
With that caveat in mind, one of the New Left’s flaws was its tendency to move from one big march and demonstration and cause to another and another. The Old Left (here I would include the CP, the SWP, and the Socialist Party) did more to lay down long-term institutional structures and generated longer-term activist cadres so that, you know, in moments of crisis, ordinary folks could say, “quick, go get the Reds.”
A lot of former New Leftists I’ve known in the past seem to have migrated into academic careerism, where their often formidable and valuable skills have tended to be wasted and their former commitments have tended to fade. There are some admirable and enviable exceptions, to be sure – a disproportionate number of them in NYC it seems.
The New Left often seemed not to have kept its eyes on the prize of capitalism and economic justice, tending to get blown up by social identity politics and a flight from questions of class and the profits system. I don’t want to overdo this point.Mario Savio’s famous 1964 “End of History” speech at U Cal Berkeley included the charge that the modern corporate “university’s ‘respectable’ bureaucracy masks the financial plutocrats.” American capitalists and their authoritarian system (the “machine” whose “operation” Savio said had become “so odious…that you can’t take part [and have to] put your bodies on the gears …to make it stop”) was held in distinctly low esteem by the insurgent popular movements and counterculture that emerged during these years. Four years after the Free Speech Movement, Savio channeled the sensibilities of many New Left activists on the profits system and seemed to prefigure contemporary concerns about environmental ruin in announcing his candidacy for the California state senate:
“All those who gain least from war and poverty – the working people, the small farmers, the small businessmen, the professionals…must join together now against the minority in business and finance who own and run this country, and whose lust for power and profit and whose utter disregard for human suffering threatens now to bring the world to a final catastrophe….Our great task it to organize the people into a new majority. Americans are practical people….we must convince them that it is essential that our economy be dominated by production to satisfy human needs, not to swell profits; that this production can be planned publicly and democratically…and that administration of the economy should be highly decentralized so that the decisions are really made by the people….”
Dr. King himself said somewhat similar-sounding things. Sadly, that critical left economic equality and justice message often got muddled and lost for reasons both internal and external to the New Left movement. I think the attachment to social identity politics coming out of the Sixties is part of how so many former New Leftists (I will not name names, which would be counter-productive) made themselves look a little silly over the deeply conservative “Wall Street Barry” Obama in 2007 and 2008 and (in some cases since). I doubt that Savio would have gotten sucked in. He would have sensed something that John Pilger noted in 2009:
“The clever young man who recently made it to the White House is a very fine hypnotist, partly because it is indeed exciting to see an African American at the pinnacle of power in the land of slavery. However, this is the 21st century, and race together with gender and even class can be very seductive tools of propaganda. For what is so often overlooked and what matters, I believe, above all, is the class one serves. George W. Bush’s inner circle from the State Department to the Supreme Court was perhaps the most multiracial in presidential history. It was PC par excellence. Think Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell. It was also the most reactionary”.
I’ll add that I’ve repeatedly seen promising left movements and moments undone by that great destroyer ego, which comes down to misplaced faith in a solid and separate self who always knows better than others and is often in a seemingly constant state of war with others, including folks who ought to be comrades. Ordinary workers and citizens can smell egomania and narcissism a mile off and are not about to risk anything lining up with people who seem as selfish and amoral as the folks in power.
Sectarianism was a big part of what blew up the student New Left at the end of the Sixties. I think particularly of the crazy Maoist shoot-off from SDS – the Progressive Labor Party – and also the Weatherman tendency, which got into blowing stuff up and breaking windows at banks and was pretty freaky on different levels. Egomania and narcissism were critical to the split up of SDS and are big driving forces (along with sheer stupidity and ignorance) behind sectarianism. We also know that the FBI, COINTELPRO, local police Red Squads and other parts of the national security and surveillance state played key roles in feeding splits and messing up New Leftists’ lives and prospects.
On a positive note, I think there’s reason to think that de-valuation of class and capitalism is going to be much less of problem for the Next Left. Sitting in the Great Recession sewer of the Second Gilded Age amidst the first great crisis of capitalism in its neoliberal phase (to paraphrase David McNally) and in a time when the profits system ever more evidently threatens life on Earth, I think it’s clear to most serious radicals now that the great issue of our time is precisely the economic system that is dominated by Savio’s “financial plutocrats” and “the minority in business and finance who and run this country” (run it into the ground, we might add, with eco-cidal/exterminst results leading to Savio’s “final catastrophe”). This, after all was the issue that briefly held center political stage thanks to the Occupy Movement in the fall of 2011 – a movement that had to be torn down by militarized police to make way for the re-installation of the next “highly personalized quadrennial electoral extravaganza” (Noam Chomsky’s phrase) as the definition of “politics….the only politics that matters.”
To a remarkable degree, the last extravaganza was geared around Occupy’s issue – economic inequality. Obama is with the 1%, of course, but at the level of campaign rhetoric 2012 revolved around class inequality more than any U.S. presidential election since 1936. I find that intriguing and hopeful.
While scary and terrible in numerous ways, the environmental crisis today poses the question of the profits system’s fundamental and deadly incompatibility with the common good. It’s (a) revolution or (b) escalating eco-cide, as is becoming ever more evident across a full planet – one that can no longer healthily sustain the system’s addiction to endless accumulation and growth.
6. You do a lot of public speaking, I believe. What do you think is its value - not just yours, of course, but in general? What suggestions do you have for people willing and eager to do public speaking for activist consciousness raising and organizing to speed their progress toward being really effective?
Well, it’s one of the few ways I know for an academically unaffiliated left intellectual to make any money. Beyond that, which matters (because leftists need money to get by), a talk by a left activist or intellectual can be good occasion for activist networking and inspiration. A few months ago, when Barbara Ehrneriech spoke in Iowa City, a local progressive used the Q&A period to start off a successful movement to vote down a referendum to spend millions of dollars on a jail expansion.
A good and informed speaker shares information that people need – I’ve left every Noam Chomsky lecture I’ve ever attended with significantly more knowledge on things that matter than I had going in. When I heard Ehrenreich, I learned a lot about what various municipalities are doing to do poor and homeless people around the country – terrible stuff I had no idea about.
Over the last few years, I’ve been able to share information that listeners didn’t have time or energy to dig up on their own regarding things like Barack Obama’s less-than progressive policy history and world view, the corporate funding behind “the Tea Party,” and the degree and impact of racially disparate mass incarceration.
I think it is good for time to be set aside in any serious left talk to address what can and should be done to address the problems being discussed. We are engaged change-seeking activists, not Mandarin-like academics, after all, and we “can’t be neutral on a moving train” (as Howard Zinn said). Without talking about solutions and alternatives and things people can do, much of what we radicals have to say about the world as it is can sound pretty depressing and paralyzing. There’s nothing inherently authoritarian about addressing Lenin’s question of What is to be Done? Speak not only about what you are against but also what you are for, and not just in terms of short-term policy changes but also in terms of big systemic change – what Dr. King called “the real question to be faced,” after all. You don’t have to do this in your formal talk. It can come in the Q&A. But it should come before people walk out of the lecture room or hall.
Another thing I’ll add is that you’ve got to bring some humor to the occasion. Public political speaking isn’t the comedy club but the issues we leftists talk about our just rife with comic opportunity. The laughable absurdities of the current authoritarian system are endless, after all. Working in some laughter is humanizing and a good way to connect.
7, From the experiences you have had, what do you think are the similar and different features of student bodies now and when you were in school, or even now as compared to the nineties? How do you explain changes you see among college age young people? What implications, if any, do those differences have for the tasks we face to attain a better world?
Except for some of the lucky rich kids at the elite schools, students today have much, much less free time for reading and activism than I did when I was in school. They have much higher tuition bills and other expenses and of course they tend now to carry a huge burden of student debt. They are much more likely to be working, commuting, and living at home. They often have less time and energy for subject matters that don’t seem to directly relate to getting a job and paying off their loans. And they are constantly on their iPhones and computers and Facebook and other the Web – very distracted. There are fewer working class kids in college and university today – they can’t afford it anymore (my best and favorite students when I taught American history were from working and lower class backgrounds). There used to be much more in the way of coherent student neighborhoods and sections of campus – something that tended to nurture community and activism.
It’s about neoliberal capitalism and the New Gilded Age obviously. I guess it’s a mixed bag: less time and space for radical reflection and activism but at the same time more economic oppression to make at least some students open to such reflection and activism, particularly around issues of economic justice.
I think it would be interesting to teach again at the college/university level in the wake of the Great Recession and Occupy and in light of the deepening ecological catastrophe capitalism is imposing. A properly alienated academic I know tells ME that “Marxism is hot in academia right now.” I’m not sure what that really means but it’s intriguing.
8. Much is made of the radical potentials of the internet, social networking, etc. Do you think the internet and social networking, as it has existed and been used, has overall aided or hindered the emergence of lasting, insightful, and committed movements?
It’s a mixed bag. I have somewhat Luddite tendencies on the Internet but I don’t give into them at the end of the day, obviously since my writings are all over the Web. On one hand it can be very atomizing and deadening and sedentary and narcissistic and vicious and overwhelming (information overload) and distracting and diversionary, even addictive for many. And of course you have all this commercial overlay and niche marketing and corporate exploitation and spying on Facebook and Google and so forth. On the other hand, used properly, the Internet is obviously a very powerful medium for effective political communication and information dissemination across geographic boundaries – something that is very important given the necessity of global organization. I’d have to say it’s a draw – half-good and half-bad – in terms of its overall impact to date. At the same time I’d say that we have no choice but to use the Internet and social networking as part of our activist toolbox. We should fight to keep the Internet and social networking as open to democratic use as possible and work to foster specifically left-democratic forms of Internet communication and social-networking. We cannot afford to be Web Luddites, I’m afraid.
9. When asked what you are for - what you want for a future better society and world, broadly, how do you answer?
Well I distinguish between short-term and long-term. Short term I am for a number of reforms that would make the world safer, more decent and democratic under the existing system – things like the Employee Free Choice Act (which would re-legalize union organizing in this county), public financing of elections, Single Payer health insurance, a financial transaction tax, Green jobs public works programs, stronger environmental regulations, an expanded social safety net, and…the list goes on. Longer-term I honestly do not believe that humanity can reasonably hope for a democratic or decent future beyond one more generation (at most) of state capitalism. That means I am for anti-capitalist transformation – transcendence of the predatory and pre-historical nightmare that is the profits system. The rub is that we are now in something of an ecological race against time when it comes to getting past that system. The long-term project of revolution seems like an ever more short-term necessity. “The hour,” to quote Bob Dylan, “is getting late.”
10. You are a member of IOPS - International Organization for a Participatory Society. Why? What about it caused you to join? What hopes do you have for it?
I think I’ve pretty much said it While I have warm feelings for other left groups out there, IOPS comes the closest to embodying the different values and necessities I’ve voiced above.
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many books, including The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010) and Crashing the Tea Party (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio, Paradigm 2011). He can be reached at email@example.com