My Resoc Interview
By John Sanbonmatsu at Oct 24, 2009
1. At a public talk someone asks you, "okay, I understand what you reject, but what are you for? What institutions do you want that you think will be better than what we have for the economy, polity, gender, race, ecology, or whatever you think is central to have vision for?"
Keeping in mind that our needs cannot really be known or spelled out fully in advance of actual practice and changing circumstance, I would offer the following provisional four institutional reforms that strike me as the most urgent.
First, we need to socialize and democratize the national and world economies. I think the best we can hope for is a decentralized, market-based, cooperative enterprise model of the sort favored by David Schweikart. There are some key defects with this model. Among other things, it does not solve the problem of the division of labor either locally or internationally, and it does not close the door on commodity fetishism (with all its attendant social pathologies. Nor is there anything built into the model that ensures that networks of cooperatives will not also engage in ecologically destructive behaviors or the enslavement or exploitation/killing of the other animals. Nonetheless, the cooperative model would have several strategic advantages. First, it would weaken monopoly capital, which would in turn create new democratic openings within the liberal state. Second, it would utterly transform the social imaginary around labor. Right now, few people on earth have even heard of the cooperative model of business. The totalitarian communist "experiment" in the 20th Century essentially poisoned the well of the utopian imaginary, to such a point that most workers in industrialized countries think their only choice is to work in a unionized vs. ununionized corporate setting. Should millions of people begin to organize themselves into cooperatives, the existing authoritarian model of the workplace, which is thoroughly "naturalized" (made to seem natural), would be shattered forever. Many workers will prefer a paternal, even authoritarian system over one in which they are required to work cooperatively and take responsibility for the financial and production arrangements of their workplace. But many others will see the ethical, practical, and of course economic advantages of democratic control over the terms of their labor. Further down the line, once workplace democracy has become widely adopted (that is, "naturalized"), we should experiment with bolder economic models like Michael Albert's Parecon and more anarchistic arrangements. But the first we have to show working people that there *is* an alternative to the status quo.
Instituting a model of this kind will necessarily entail a challenge to and transformation of the capitalist state itself. As a purely practical matter, no worker cooperative model can broadly succeed in the absence of (1) financial stabilization and investment from the state, and (2) a successful ideological assault on the institutional pillars of the capitalist system: the US Chamber of Commerce, the IMF and World Bank, and so on. In the short term, we need to demand that the state give no more support to corporate or authoritarian economic entities than to democratic, cooperative ones. (At least in the US context--the situation may be different elsewhere, particularly in the underdeveloped world--the "free enterprise" system is so well entrenched, ideologically, that it is inconceivable that we could abolish state support for corporate capital overnight. We will need to wage a more patient, if militant and uncompromising, "war of position." Until we can completely end individual states' financial incentives to capitalist businesses--in the form of tax breaks, privatization of public goods and services, subcontracting, subsidization of local industries (e.g., agribusiness)--we should demand parity in state investment for coops.) We also need to find ways to democratize economic investment decisions. This would entail stripping finance and entrepreneurial capital of their power to decide social investment priorities and to determine the course of technological development. But it would also mean socializing the banks--enabling local community members to have control over the decisions affecting their lives. Again, Schweikart has some good ideas about this (e.g. replacing banks with publicly controlled grant-making agencies).
The second institutional reform needs to be a complete moratorium on the exploitation, genetic alteration, confinement, and mass killing of other sentient beings. Or to put it in positive terms--i.e., what we are for rather than what we are against--the creation and ratification of an international covenant, having the power of law, which prohibits the exploitation of other sentient beings for human purposes. The domination of other animals by human beings is first of all an urgent moral and "social" issue in its own right: no species that visits the kind of extreme terror, pain, and mass death that homo sapiens does on all the other species has any right to call itself moral or "civilized." A moratorium on all violence against all sensitive beings is therefore an absolute precondition to building a world without oppression. Second, human exterminationism is a key strategic linchpin of the overall human regime of human-to-human violence. Ideologically, the denigration of the human "other" is always accomplished through the "dehumanization" of that other. However, dehumanization is in turn only a code word for "animalization." Ending the false dualism between the "dignified" human and the "bestial" animal, therefore--with the latter reduced to an object always already worthy of extermination, violence, torment--is crucial to tearing down the structure that continually refreshes the ideology and logic of extermination (total war and genocide). For centuries, the technologies and cultural practices associated with enslaving, controlling, and killing other animals have served as the main wellspring of knowledge for enslaving, controlling, and killing human beings. Human enslavement was based direclty on techniques and practices gleaned from centuries of animal enslavement ("domestication"); the barbed wire used to surround prisons was invented to control "livestock"; the concentration camps of the Third Reich were modeled on the Chicago stockyards; Zyklon B, the gas used to murder European Jews and Roma, was originally developed as an insecticide; the rifles, poisons, bombs, biological agents, and crowd-control weapons being developed today by the Pentagon are first field-tested on goats, dogs, and pigs. The killing fields of Rwanda were prepared by the heartless butchering practices found in civil society, as well as by the "animalization" of the Hutus by the Dutch-sponsored Tutsi elite during and after the colonial era. And so on.
The third positive reform we need to pursue at an institutional level is the democratization of the mass media. Until we can socialize the means of production, hence also reproduction, as such, we need to develop strategic campaigns to place increasing pressure on the media outlets to democratize. Among other things, this means developing a vital non-partisan news organization of our own, a New York Times of the Left--but free of polemics, free of apologia for Leftist populist dictators, and of the highest intellectual calibre--that can provide us with a common cultural touchstone, as well as a tool for educating others into our movement. At the same time, we need to develop counter-cultural practices that undermine the juggernaut of digital technologies and media culture which, among other things, are relentlessly privatizing public space, reducing erotic relations to pornographic objectification, addicting our children and youth to video games legitimating misogyny, imperialism, and sadistic violence, and so on. We need both to loosen the totalitarian grip of corporate media on daily life and to develop our own innovative, but always ethical, modes of media expression. Among other things, this would mean mounting an admittedly "rearguard" defense of print media. When a culture loses its ability to read books and newspapers, it loses its ability to grasp the context of information, without which genuine knowledge and critical understanding and thinking become even more elusive than they are already.
Fourth, we need to develop a permanent institutional, spatial presence in civil society, in every local community. What I have in mind is the proliferation of left "churches" or "mosques": that is, community centers open to all which sponsor youth programs, athletics, and arts and counseling programs, and which also incorporate a public space or lecture hall for political meetings. We need to see ourselves as a "religious" movement for positive civilizational reform. One way to do that is to establish a presence in people's lives: physical buildings, designed and built democratically and with ecological efficiency uppermost in mind, to serve as monuments to our global transcendental vision and as havens in a heartless world. In a future socialist society such buildings--hynms to the human and ecological virtues of place, against the homogenization and abstraction of capitalist space--would "wither away" along with the state itself. In the meantime, they will help us survive the difficult times ahead.
2. Next, someone at the same event asks, "Why do you do what you do? You are speaking to us, and I know you write, and maybe you organize, but why do you do it? What do you think it accomplishes? What is your goal for your coming year, or for your next ten years?"
I have already indicated that the Left needs to conceive itself as a global movement for total civilizational transformation, hence as a "religious" movement of a kind. Or rather, as a "meta"-religious movement, one that would build on and be open to the best of all existing religious movements. In this sense, the answer to the question posed here is easy. Because not to have faith in the possibility of an alternative mode of civilizational development is to foreclose on that possibility altogether. In other words, to participate in the Left, to see oneself as a socialist or a feminist or an animal rights activist or anti-racist requires a Kierkegaardian (or existentialist) leap of faith. Why do I bother? I bother because I have no choice but to bother. I am by nature a pessimist, if a utopian pessimist. We need "a pessimism of the intellect, but an optimism of the will."
Recently, I read Cormac McCarthy's important apocalyptic novel, "The Road." The reader encounters what I see to be the central ethical question of our time, which is whether it is ethical to cultivate hope in a hopeless world. How can our actions, however well-meaning, be considered "moral" if they involve a lie? If they involve bad faith? As becomes clear over the course of the novel, there is no easy answer to such questions. For such yearning to be authentic and have moral weight, however, it must be crystalized in action. In my own case (to answer the question posed here), I intend to continue using my writing to try to prod he Left toward organizational unity, strategic thinking, and what Gramsci called moral and intellectual leadership. I am also committed to using my writing--and filmmaking--to sound the alarm over the destruction of other natural beings, with consciousness and experiences of their own, by the juggernaut of human capitalist patriarchal culture. Beyond this, it is my earnest hope that in the next 2-5 years we can hammer out a federation of movements and movement organizations committed to a long-term project of grassroots organizing, political contestation, and institution-building. Should that happen, I would roll up my sleeves and get directly involved in electoral or grassroots politics. Right now, however, so long as the Left is scattered and formless, I see no point to doing so.
3. You are at home and you get an email that says a new organization is trying to form, internationally, federating national chapters, etc. It asks you to join the effort. Can you imagine plausible conditions under which you would say, yes, I will give my energies to making it happen along with the rest of you who are already involved? If so, what are those conditions? Or - do you think instead that regardless of the content of the agenda and make up of the participants, the idea can't be worthy, now,or perhaps ever. If so, why?
YES, I would join such an organization in a heartbeat--so long as authoritarian, crypto-Stalinist groups were excluded from the outset, so long as the effort was internationalist and radical (i.e. not liberal), and so long as I was invited in as a participant at the level of policy planning, and not merely tapped as a "foot soldier."
4. Do you think efforts to organize movements, projects, and our own organizations should embody the seeds of the future in the present? If not, why? If yes, can you say what, very roughly, you think some of the implications would be for an organization you would favor?
YES, of course. I think we all agree that it is important to try to live our politics. However, it is also crucial for the Left to come to terms with its inevitable penchant for "political correctness" (a self-ironizing term coined by the Left in the 1980s, before it was coopted by the political Right). This is to say that we need to cultivate a kind of humility before the human condition, which is a condition based inevitably in error, misunderstanding, power, and imperfection. If we create a culture that is punitive, disciplinary, and shaming, we will destroy ourselves. Nor will we be able to extend our influence outside a narrow circle of adherents or true believers. There is a fine line, therefore, between honestly trying to hold ourselves and others accountable to our politics, and ruthlessly and destructively lacerating ourselves and others, putting ourselves on the "rack" of moral conscience.
Any future organization needs to have built-in democratic mechanisms for handling conflict, social inequalities, and so on. Thus, women within the movement who feel sexually harrassed by men within the movement should be able to air their grievance before the community. Taking our commitment to nonviolence seriously should mean striving for vegan vegetarian catering at all of our events--not out of a "sop" to the handful of vegans in our movement, but out of our earnest desire to live a politics that eschews all forms of oppression and avoidable suffering. However, if we limit our movement leadership or our membership to vegan, radical feminist, socialist people of color with no personal foibles, we will find ourselves with an international membership of zero. This must be understood from the past: that our politics has to be lived, but also livable.
5. Why did you answer this interview? Why do you think others did not answer it?
I answered this interview because I think the essay forum, which unfortunately I joined rather late, has gotten too unwieldy and large, which has diluted all of our various voices. I am counting on fewer people to participate in this questionnaire, frankly, so that my voice might have a wider hearing!
As for why so few people are likely to answer it, I think the reasons are clear enough. First, online forums typically result in verbiage and idea-sharing but more rarely in concrete action or tangible institutions. So there is probably a sense of defeatism from the start. Second, everyone is feeling pinched for time.