My Resoc Interview
By Justin Paulson at Nov 16, 2009
1. At a public talk someone asks you, "okay, I understand what
you reject, but I wonder what are you for? What institutions
do you favor that will be better than what we have for the economy,
polity, gender, race, ecology, or whatever you have vision for?
What we have" are sets of institutions that, more often than not, reproduce and deepen relations of inequality, alienation, and exploitation. Certainly some are better than others, but we need a broader vision than one that is limited to existing institutions. (Otherwise it's a bit like searching for a fine wine at a butcher shop.)
So I favour experiments: self-conscious attempts to think outside the capitalist box, and to create institutions that are at the service of people rather than the reverse. In most of the world, nationalizing the banks and turning finance into a public utility would be a relatively minor example of such an experiment. Taking over the insurance companies in the U.S. and building a truly socialized health-care system in their place would be another. On a larger scale, we need to think about what it would mean to change the relations of production themselves, and what that might look like. (This is easier to conceptualize in some contexts than others, but such questions are already on the table in some parts of the Americas.) Some experiments will fail, but they will open up other possibilities as they do so.
I also think institutions should have an ethical vision. Does the institution reduce suffering? Does it reduce exploitation? Does it make it easier for people to organize?
And I favour institutions that work together as part of a broader effort. If they can't collectively shape a counterhegemonic project, then any institutional experiments will be over before they get started.
2. Next, someone at the same event asks, "Why do you do what
you do? That is, 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?
Most of the time I'm an educator, which I like to think means I'm in the de-reification business. I try to historicize students' experiences, problematize what they take for granted, and teach them to think critically. What this accomplishes is often very small: it's just a form of planting seeds, getting people to question their relationships with each other and the rest of the world in ways they might not have done before. Where they go with that is up to them, but most years some of them become social justice organizers and activists themselves.
In the socialist and activist organizations of which I am a part, I participate because it's necessary. I would like nothing better than to live in a world in which we don't have to stage all the damn rallies and protest marches and picket lines. I'm sure most of us would rather be doing any of hundreds of more pleasurable activities instead. But in this world, this society, most people are denied the choice to spend their time engaging in pleasurable activities. Most have to toil just in order to live. And most of us have to do our work under patriarchal, racist, and/or colonial conditions (among others). And so we rally. And we protest. And we strike. We organize to defend ourselves, and we organize in solidarity with others. And organizing usually helps to build communities of the Left, the importance of which should not be discounted.
Yet it's true that we need to think much harder about the forms these protests take. In the U.S. and Canada, for example, strikes are most effective when their aims are minimal, and most solidarity rallies and marches accomplish little besides going on record as witnessing injustice (a far cry from stopping it). I'd be very happy to see, over the next ten years, a shift on the left away from a culture of protest (in which we make demands on an intangible target, like 'society', or march to buildings that seem to symbolically represent state power (e.g. federal buildings) that in fact have nothing to do with policy making) to a culture of struggle -- one in which we organize around a long-term vision but with tangible short-term goals, with a clear strategy to assert or reshape power (in a variety of levels or areas of society) rather than make unenforceable demands on it.
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?
I would be more likely to join if the invitation took the form of a personal conversation or a phone call rather than an email.
In any case, I would want to know that the organization proposed both short-term (i.e., shortly achievable) and long-term goals that were worth aspiring to, that it was non-sectarian while being firmly on the Left, that it was broad-based (not a predominantly student/academic organization nor just community activists nor just organized labour), and I would need to be comfortable with the makeup of the organization's leadership and membership structure.
That said, I would be inherently skeptical of a brand new organization asking me to devote all of my energy to it rather than to those in which I am already involved. There have been too many reinventions of the wheel on the Left, and any new organization of this sort ought to come out of existing organizations and activists in conversation with each other, not out of the blue.
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 not? If yes, can you say what, very
roughly, you think some of the implications would be for an
organization you would favor?
Organizing efforts always embody the seeds of the future in the present, whether they're conscious of it or not. All politics are prefigurative; the only building blocks for social relations of the future are the social relations of the present. But if an effort is made to consciously shape (and -- importantly -- continuously reshape) what that prefiguration looks like, then the future that we desire will be increasingly possible.
5. Why did you answer this interview? Why do you think others
did not answer it?
I found the questions interesting and apropos of the difficulties we face both articulating a new kind of society and devoting the requisite energy to achieve it. I can't speculate on why others did not answer the interview.