All posts by Bruce Lerro

Big Brother Facebook: Drawing Down The Iron Curtain on Yankeedom

Leading a double life

When my partner, Barbara, first opened an account on Facebook, she used it in a way that most people in Yankeedom use it. Her network was an eclectic assortment of family, current and former workmates, new and old friends, neighbors and relatives living in other parts of the country. Most of what was posted on this account were pictures of kids, dogs and kitty cats, vacations, dinner outings, jokes – nothing too controversial. Like most members of Yankeedom, religion and politics were off limits. However, there was a kind of politically unconscious assumption operating that liberal values prevailed and that somehow the Democratic Party embodied those values. I nicknamed her Facebook account the “Suzy Cream Cheese” account after the Mothers of Invention’s album because it only dealt with surface preoccupations.

As the most recent US presidential primaries heated up and people took sides about Hillary, Bernie and Jill Stein, the Suzy Cream Cheese page started to be “not nice”. The political unconscious became conscious. The assumption was that all women – in the name of feminism – should vote for Hillary. My partner thought this was a very shallow understanding of feminism and posted an article she wrote that was published in a number of online radical newsletters titled, “Feminism is Bigger Than Gender: Why I’ll Be Happy in Hell Without Hillary.” Oh dear. After she posted that article on Facebook, she got the cold shoulder and lost a couple of friends. Around that time she opened up a second “political” Facebook account and started adding to it a whole new group of far-left friends and acquaintances. She continued posting “suitable for family viewing” comments with her Suzy Cream Cheese account while posting and responding to socialist and communist posts on her political account.

The Two Faces of Facebook

Neither Barbara nor I are sociologists of social media or specifically of Facebook, so what follows is experiential. However, we do know a thing or two about how capitalist institutions operate in general and Facebook is no exception.

The primary purpose of Facebook is to sell ad space to marketers. But how do you reach the Yankee public? You make it easy for Yankees to set up individual accounts so that Yankees can do what we do best—talk about the micro world of family, dogs and friends. In the process, hopefully people will purchase some of the products or services touted in the ads. Facebook has also made it possible for individuals to join groups and set up pages that then allow them to place ads to publicize their group or organization. For Facebook, reading groups, hobbies and support groups are fine.

But Facebook has encountered a problem that many other capitalist institutions have. The problem is that you can set up the conditions for selling your products, but you can’t control people’s motivation for buying the product, (joining a group or setting up a political page) or what they will do with the product (what kind of group they will form). Facebook could even tolerate political groups. But the political imagination of Facebook consists of Republicans and Democrats. What Facebook had not counted on is the proliferation of political groups that exist outside both parties. As most of you know, there are many anarchist groups, Leninist groups, social democrats and even council communist groups. On the right there are all sorts of nationalist and fascists groups. It is safe to say that Facebook, as a capitalist institution, does not want to host these groups but until recently has not been able to do anything about it.

Planning Beyond Capitalism Meets Suzy Cream Cheese Facebook

Six years ago Barbara and I co-founded an organization called Planning Beyond Capitalism. The name pretty much says what we are up to. As an anti-establishment organization our main problem was, and still is, outreach. We stumbled and bumbled our way with the help of some anti-establishment social media whizzes who convinced us we could reach a lot more people through placing ads on Facebook. Facebook calls it “boosting”. At first, we were skeptical because the language used in placing an ad on Facebook seemed to have nothing to do with politics. They were ads for businesses. They encouraged us to “pick the right brand” and “target our audience” for best “market return”. We weren’t a business and we weren’t a non-profit. The best category we could find was “community organization”.

One of the things we do on Planning Beyond Capitalism is to select one article from a left-wing news source and write one post and commentary each day. We call this “Capitalist News Interpreted”. We publish these posts daily on Facebook, but don’t “boost” them. But every couple of months or so we write a longer article, in which we make an analysis of world events, mostly in the United States, from the perspective of our organization. We put these in the category of Perspectives. Over the course of two or three years we found four or five political newsletters in which to publish our perspectives. In addition, we decided to “boost” those perspectives on Facebook.

Our pattern was to boost our perspective for one week for the cost of $30.00 to run for one week. This money came out of our own pockets. We were able to select our demographics – age, gender, interests – and we could post it to almost any country in the world. In selecting our audiences when we first started boosting our posts, the choices of “anarchism” and “socialism” were available for us to select. Typically, in a single week we reached about ten thousand people – with a ratio of people in that audience of people who “liked” our perspective from about 20% to 33%. The number of “shares” in a week ranged from 75 to about 250 depending on the article. In the process of doing this, we began hearing from people in other parts of the world. Some of those people then began to write for us.

We were pretty amazed that Facebook approved of virtually all our perspectives in 2016 and 2017 despite our anti Democratic Party, anti-capitalist slant. Here are some of our titles:

No Pink Wooly Caps for Me

Open Letter to the Sandernistas: The Political Revolution Continues – Hearts, Bodies and Souls

Planning Beyond Capitalism meets Big Brother Facebook

Things began to change for us on Facebook when I published an article on April 1st of this year claiming the Democratic Party was worse than the Republican Party for 90% of the population. After we posted a link to it on our Facebook page we tried to boost it.

Greater of Two Evils: Why the Democratic Party is Worse than the Republican Party for 85% of the U.S. Population

Facebook rejected our ad and we contested that rejection. They said it was sensationalistic, involved hate speech and promoted violence. We contested this rejection and after two arguments from us, won our appeal. We ran the ad for two weeks because of its popularity. It reached 38,000 people, had many hundreds of shares and we gained about 100 new followers.

The next article we published was written by an Iraqi comrade of ours living as a citizen in Russia. The article was about why Russians are upset with Americans.

Why Russians are Upset With Americans – Seen Through the Eyes of an Iraqi

This ad was again disapproved by Facebook but for different reasons: it was “political”. We contested this as well. Below is our argument:

We have been boosting posts on FB for 2 years. Every single one of them has political content. Why is this particular one being singled out? However, this is the first article that we’ve published about Russia, written by someone living in Russia. We believe that you are not authorizing this ad because it is a favorable account of the Russian people, which does not conform to the Democratic Party’s anti-Russian ideology. This article was written by a Russian citizen and is written from his own observations and viewpoint. Furthermore, his sources are documented and it is neither sensationalistic nor violent. We are not advocating for Russian foreign policy. We are talking about average Russian citizens. If you read the article, you would see that your response is exactly the reasons Russians are upset with Americans. Their experiences are suppressed, while we maintain the stereotypes of them as in the cartoon image that leads the article. This, to us, constitutes blatant discrimination. 

Facebook’s response was a boilerplate line about what constitutes a political post. Their policy about political ads had changed as of May 7th, 2018. It implied that their disapproval had nothing to do with its content. It was because the category was “political”. We were told that in order to consider having our ad approved, we had to register as a political organization. In order to do this we needed to:

  1. Be citizens of the United States
  2. Provide proof of citizenship
  3. Provide a residential address
  4. Provide a drivers license number
  5. Provide a Social Security number

All this – simply to place a political ad. Doesn’t this sound like we are registering to be investigated by the FBI or CIA? Oh, no that’s just left wing paranoia.

Further, they said it would take up to six weeks to verify this and to approve our ad. But not to worry, they would delete all our information once it checked out.

As the author of the article on Russia, Jamal pointed out his other two articles that had been accepted by Facebook were far more political than the one they just rejected. But that was before their change of policy. Jamal rightfully pointed out that the rejected article was more historical, sociological and cultural than political. However, the upper middle class honchos of Facebook, having taken one class in political science in the United States, cannot tell the difference between sociology, political economy, and culture. Their formula is:

Russia = political = bad

America = Democratic Party = good

To paraphrase an old country tune, “Take this job and shove it”, we told Facebook to “take your political registration and shove it”.

No, there is no “Iron Curtain” in the US. That is for Russians.

Our Analysis of Facebook

We think it is reasonable to suspect that Facebook wants to get rid of its “political underground”, the groups that exist beyond the two party system. Why? For one thing people at both extremes of the political spectrum are likely to buy the products that are advertised on their pages. The second reason is that our ads are chump change for them. Getting rid of us will cost them close to nothing in revenue. The third reason is political. Facebook, like most media institutions, is committed to the Democratic Party. Cleaning its house of “Fake News” (the news and opinions of the socialist or fascist sides of the spectrum) will steer people back to reasonable choices like the Democratic Party. It is our belief that this change in policy requiring organizations like ours to register as political groups has occurred in 2018, in part, because this is an election year.

There are other indicators Facebook is closing ranks. In selecting an audience for our article, we noticed the choices given under political interests on the left, the furthest left available to choose was “very liberal”. There was no socialist choice even though a self-proclaimed socialist ran as a Democratic in the 2016 primaries.

If anyone reading this has recommendations for alternatives to Facebook that would allow us to place political ads to broaden our reach, please contact us. It’s time for those of us on the far left to find an alternative to Big Brother Facebook.

• First published at Planning Beyond Capitalism

Greater Of Two Evils: Why The Democratic Party Is Worse Than The Republican Party For 85% Of The U.S. Population

How to conceive of the two-party system

Lesser of two evils

Among liberals and the different types of socialists, when the subject of the Democratic Party comes up, there are at least two variations. One is the familiar liberal argument that the Democratic Party is the “lesser of two evils”. For them, the Republican Party is the source of most, if not all, problems while the Democratic Party is presented as shortsighted, weak and/or incompetent bumblers. Among some of the more compromising members of the Green Party, the lesser of two evils manifests itself when it implores its voters to “vote in safe states”.

There are a number of reasons why I will claim that the Democratic Party is not the lesser of two evils. But for now, I want to point out that the lesser of two evils has at its foundation a political spectrum which is organized linearly with conservatives and fascists on the right. Along the left there are liberals, followed by social democrats, state socialists, and anarchists on the extreme left. All the forces moving from liberals leftward is broadly categorized as “progressive.” What this implies is that there are only quantitative  differences between being a liberal and being any kind of socialist. In this scenario, being a liberal is somehow closer to being a socialist than being a liberal is to a being a conservative. However, there is an elephant in the room, and the elephant is capitalism.

What unites all socialists — social democrats, Maoists, Trotskyists, council communists and anarchists — is opposition to capitalism. What divides us from liberals, whether they are inside or outside the Democratic Party, is that liberals are for capitalism. In relation to the economic system, liberals are closer to conservatives than they are to socialists of any kind. So, the “lesser of two evils “argument is based on the expectation that socialists will ignore the capitalist economic system and make believe that capitalism is somehow progressive. It might have been possible to argue this case 60 years ago, but today capitalism makes its profits on war, slave prison labor and fictitious capital. Characterizing this as “progress” is ludicrous.

The parties are interchangeable

Most anarchists and various varieties of Leninists claim there is no difference between the parties. They say that capitalists control both parties and it is fruitless to make any distinctions. I agree they are both capitalist parties, but what most socialists fail to do is point out that, in addition to protecting the interests of capitalists as Republicans do, the Democratic Party: a) presents itself as representing the middle and lower classes; and b) stands in the way of the formation of a real opposition to the elites.

The second reason I disagree with the idea that the two parties are simply interchangeable is that it fails to make a distinction between the interests of the ruling and upper classes (Republicans) on the one hand, and the upper middle class (mostly Democrats) on the other. There are real class differences between elites that should not dissolved.

The Democrats are the greater of two evils

The argument I will make in this article is that the Democratic Party is worse than the Republican Party for about 85% of the population. I make this argument as a Council Communist, and my argument in no way implies voting for Republicans, Greens or even voting at all. Before giving you my reasons for why the Democratic Party is worse for most people I want to give you a sense of how I came up with the figure of 85% .

Old money vs new money and the class composition in the United States

Sociologists have some disagreements over how many classes there are in the United States and what occupations cover what social classes. While some might have a bone to pick about my percentages, I am confident that I am at least in the ballpark. The ruling class constitutes the 1% (or less) of the population and the upper class another 5%. What these classes have in common is that they all live off finance capital and do not have to work. This is what has been called “old money”. This old money had its investments in extractive industries like oil, mining and the war industry. This is the stronghold of the Republican Party.

The upper middle classes consist of doctors, lawyers, architects, and senior managers who make a lot of money, but have to work long hours. It also includes scientists, engineers as well as media professionals such as news commentators, magazine and newspaper editors, college administrators and religious authorities. Yet there are tensions between the elites and the upper middle class. The upper middle class represents “new money” and makes their profits from scientific innovation, the electronics industry, including computers and the Internet, among other avenues. This class constitutes roughly 10% of the population. The upper middle class is the stronghold of the Democratic Party.

A number of economists from Thomas Piketty to Richard Wolff have argued that for these social classes there has been an “economic recovery” since the crash of 2008. For all other classes there has been decline. The role of the Democratic Party is:

  1. To represent the actual interests of the upper middle class; and,
  2. To make believe it is a spokesperson for the other 85%.

Far be it for me to say that the Republicans and Democrats represent the same thing. There is real class struggle between the interests of the ruling class and the upper class on the one hand and the upper middle class on the other. My point is that for 85% of the population these differences between elites are irrelevant. What the top three classes have in common is a life and death commitment to capitalism – and this commitment is vastly more important than where the sources of their profits come from.

Who are these remaining 85%? Poor people, whether they are employed or not, constitute about 20% of the population. When they are working this includes unskilled work which simply means no previous training is required. Working class people — blue and white collar — represent about 40% of the population. This includes carpenters, welders, electricians, technical workers, secretaries, computer programmers, and X-ray technicians. Middle class people — high school, grammar school teachers, registered nurses, librarians, corporate middle management, and small mom-and-pop storeowners — are about 25% of the population. Most poor people don’t vote and in a way, they are smart because they understand that the Democratic Party can do nothing for them. While many working-class people don’t vote, highly skilled working class people do vote, and many will vote Democrat. Middle classes are also more likely to vote Democrat with the exception of small business owners. In fact, research by labor theorist Kim Moody into the voting patterns of the last election showed that a high percentage of this petty bourgeois voted for Trump.

The Democratic Party has nothing to offer the middle class

When I was growing up in the 1950’s and 1960’s, my father worked as a free-lance commercial artist about 40 hours per week. My mother stayed home and raised my sister and I. One income could cover all of us. My parents sent me to Catholic grammar schools and high schools, which were not very expensive, but they had to save their money to do it. They helped pay for part of my college education after I dropped out and then came back. They helped my partner and I with a down payment on a house in Oakland, CA. Today both parents in a middle-class family need to work and the work-week for middle class workers is at least 10 hours longer. As for savings, if a middle-class family buys a home, it is much more difficult to save for their children’s education.

In 1970 I was living in Denver, Colorado and had my own studio apartment for $70/month. I worked 20 hours a week at the library as a page and could afford to go to community college part-time. Twenty years later I tried to communicate this to my stepdaughter who was 20 years old and then compared it to her experience. She was working full-time as a waitress, had to live with two other people and could only afford to take a couple of classes without going into debt. Reluctantly and seemingly defeated she had to return home to live if she were to ever graduate from a community college. The Democrats did nothing to stem the tide of the decline of the middle class. Working class and middle class people may continue to vote for Democrats, but that doesn’t mean Democrats are delivering the goods. It just means these classes don’t want to face that:

  1. a) They have no representation; and,
  2. b) There is no alternative party and they do not live in a democracy.

Now on to why I believe the Democratic Party is worse that the Republican party for this 85% of the population.

The Democratic Party has nothing to do with being liberal

Most people who support the Democratic Party don’t really consider the party as it actually is, but how they imagine is should be according either to political science classes they’ve picked up in high school or college or from what they have picked up unconsciously through conversations. They have also gotten this from Democratic Party members themselves who talk about liberal values while in practice acting like conservatives. These voters think the Democratic Party is liberal. What do I mean by liberal? The term liberal has a long political history which I have traced elsewhere1 but let’s limit the term to what I call “New Deal Liberals”.

These New Deal liberals think that the state should provide essential services like pensions, food stamps, natural disaster relief as well as road and bridge construction. They also think the state should intervene to minimize some of the worst aspects of capitalism such as child wage work or sex slavery. These liberals think that Democrats should support the development of unions to protect the working class. This class deserves an adequate wage and decent working conditions. They also think — as it is in the American dream — that in order to justify their existence, capitalists should make profit from the production of real goods and services. These liberals think that the Democratic Party should support the development of science and research to create an easier life so that the standard of living for the American population should go up from generation to generation. These are the values of New Deal liberals. If the Democratic Party acted as if it supported these things, I could understand why liberals would say voting for the Democratic Party is the lesser of two evils. The problem is that these New Deal liberals are trapped in a 50-year time warp when the last real liberal Democratic president was Lyndon Johnson. The Democratic Party hasn’t been liberal in 50 years. This is one reason why the program of New Deal liberal Bernie Sanders had been so popular.

It does not take a Marxist to argue that the United States has been in economic decline since the mid 1970’s. It won’t do to blame the Republicans alone for this 50-year degeneration. The Democratic Party has had presidents between 1976 and 1980, in addition to eight years of Clinton, as well as eight years of Obama. They have had twenty years’ worth of chances to put into practice liberal values and they have failed miserably. Under the Democratic Party:

  • The standard of living is considerably below the standard of living 50 years ago.
  • The minimum wage bought more in 1967 than it does today.
  • The standard of living for all racial minorities has declined since the 1970’s.
  • Unions, which protected the working class, have dwindled to barely 10%.
  • With the possible exception of Dennis Kucinich, no Democrat is prepared to commit to building infrastructure as a foundation for a modern civilization.
  • The proportion of wealth claimed by finance capital has dwarfed investment in industrial capital compared to fifty years ago.
  • The Democrats have signed off on all imperialist wars for the last 50 years.
  • Science has lost respectability in the United States as it fights a battle against fundamentalism. Do Democrats come out unapologetically for science and challenge the fundamentalists and the New Agers? There are more people in the US who believe in astrology than they did in the Middle Ages. Does the Democratic Party, in the name of its claimed roots in the Enlightenment, rescue the public from these follies? Hardly.

Please tell me in what sense is this party liberal?

The Democratic Party is not an oppositional party: the Republicans play hardball; the Democrats play badminton

It is right about this time that a liberal defending the Democratic Party would chime in and say something about the Supreme Court. The line is “If we don’t get so and so elected, then the evil right-wing judge will get appointed and Roe vs Wade will be threatened.” This line has been trotted out for the last 45 years. What it conveniently ignores is that the Democratic Party has been in power for at least 40% of the time, whether in the executive or any other branch. It has had forty years to load the Supreme Court with rabid liberals so as to bury the right-to-lifers when they had the chance. An oppositional party would have done this. The Democratic Party has not.

Trump has been on a tear destroying what was left of US international diplomatic relations put into place by Kissinger and Brzezinski. His “policies” are consistently right wing “interventions”, whether they succeed or not. At the same time, domestically Trump has been consistently right wing on every issue from public schools, to immigrants to social programs. What he has done has destabilized international and domestic relations. Conservatives have been doing this kind of thing for 50 years, but with more diplomacy. If the Democratic Party were really an oppositional party, I would expect to find liberal interventions that are roughly the reverse of what Trump and the conservatives have done. There have been no such interventions.

Examples of what an oppositional party would look like

Under an oppositional Democratic regime we would have found a normalization of trade relations with Cuba. There would be scientists and engineers sent to Haiti to build and repair roads and bridges destroyed by natural disasters. There would be normalization of relations with Venezuela and bonds built with the social democratic parties of the Latin American left. Domestically the minimum wage would be restored to at least the standard of 50 years ago. After all, statistics show “productivity” has gone up in the late 50 years. Why wouldn’t the standard of living improve? Social Security and pensions would be regularly upgraded to keep up with the cost of inflation. Bridge and road repair would have been undertaken and low-cost housing would be built. A real liberal president might be so bold as to deploy US soldiers to build them since most them would no longer be employed overseas. They might also have put forward bills implementing a mass transit system, one that is as good as those of Europe or Japan. Has the Democratic Party done any of these things?

This is “opposition”?

Internationally the Democratic Party’s policies have been indistinguishable from the Republicans. Obama did try to normalize relations with Cuba but that was in the service of the potential for foreign investment, not out of any respect for the social project of building the socialism Cuba was engaged in. The US Democratic regimes have done nothing for Haiti. Its attitude towards the Latin American “pink tide” has been hostile while supporting neo-liberal restoration whenever and wherever possible.

Domestic Democratic regimes have done nothing to stem the tide of longer work hours and marginalization of workers as well as the temporary and part-time nature of work. Social Security and pensions have not kept up with the cost of inflation. The Democratic Party has had 20 years to repair the bridges, the roads and the sewer systems and what has it done? The Democrats had 20 years to build low-cost housing and get most, if not all, the homeless off the streets. What have Democrats done? Like the Republicans, the Democrats have professed to have no money for infrastructure, low cost housing or improving mass transit. Like the Republicans they have gone along in blocking Universal Health Care that virtually every other industrialized country possesses. But just like the Republicans they suddenly have plenty of money when it comes to funding seven wars and building the prison industrial complex. Time and again Democratic politicians have ratified increasing the military budget despite the fact that it has no state enemies like the Soviet Union.

In 2008 capitalism had another one of its crisis moments. Marxists and non-Marxist economists agree that the banks were the problem. The Democrats, with that classy “first African American president” did not implement a single Keynesian intervention to reign in the banks. No banker has even gone to jail. What a real Democratic opposition would have done is to tell the banks something like, “look, the public has bailed you out this time, but in return for this collective generosity, we require that you make your profits from undertaking all the infrastructural work that needs to be done, like building a 21st century mass transit system and investing some of your profits in low cost housing.” This is what an oppositional party would do. Notice none of this has anything to do with socialism. It’s straight New Deal liberalism.

In sum, over the last 45 years have you ever seen a consistent left liberal intervention by Democrats that would be the equivalent of what Trump is doing now or any conservative regime has done in the last 50 years in any of these areas? Has Carter, Clinton I or Obama done anything equivalent in their 20 years of formal power that Republicans have done in their 30 years? No, because if they ever dreamed of doing such a thing the Republicans would have them driven from office as communists. When was the last time a Democratic candidate drove a Republican from office by calling them a fascist? The truth of the matter is that the Republicans play hardball while the Democrats play badminton.

The second reason the Democratic Party is not an oppositional party is because “opposition” is a relative term. The lesser of two evils scenario works with the assumption that parties are partisan: all Republicans vote in block and all Democrats vote in block. This, however, is more the exception than the rule. Most times some Republicans support Democratic policies and most times some Democrats support Republican measures. Many Republican policies would not have been passed had the Democrats really been an oppositional party. In 2004, when Ralph Nader ran for president, he was raked over the coals for “spoiling” the elections. Yet as later research proves, more people who were registered Democrat voted for Republicans than the total number of people who voted for the Green Party.

The Democratic Party is a party of the elites

Those politicians and media critics who inhabit the nether worlds between left liberal and social democracy such as Robert Reich, Bernie Sanders, Cornell West are tenacious in their search for the “soul” of the Democratic Party. They insist on dividing Democrats into conservative and liberals. The latest version is to call right-wing Democrats “corporate” Democrats as compared to some other kind of Democrat labelled “progressive”. The implication is that it is possible not to be bought hook line and sinker by corporations if you are in the Democratic Party. I am skeptical that any person can run as a Democrat candidate, win an election and not make some compromises with corporations even at a local level. I am cynical this can be done at a state or national level. Corporations are ruling class organizations and they own both parties. There is a reason why Martin Luther King, Malcolm X never joined the Democratic Party.

If the last Democratic primaries in which Clinton II was handed the nomination over Bernie Sanders was not enough to make you leave the party, the World Socialist Website published two major articles on how the CIA is running its own candidates as Democrats this year. When a world terrorist organization runs candidates under a liberal banner, isn’t that enough to convince you that the Democratic Party is a party of the elites?

Earlier I stated that the upper middle class represents the Democratic Party and the upper class and the ruling class represent the Republican Party. While each may have inter-class differences it is essential for all three social classes that their struggle be seen by the 85% as something this 85% has a stake in. It is important for the ruling class and the upper class that there is a party that appears to represent the unwashed masses (the Democrats). The ruling class and the upper class need the Democratic Party even if they have differences with the upper middle class, whom the Democrats represent. They need the Democratic Party to help create the illusion that voting is an expression of democracy. But the Democratic Party has as much to do with democracy as the Republican Party has to do with republicanism.

The Democratic Party’s presence is an obstacle to building a real opposition to elites

By far the greatest reason the Democratic Party is worse than the Republican Party is the way in which the presence of the Democratic Party drains energy from developing a real opposition to the elites and the upper middle class.

The Democratic Party attacks the Green Party far more than it attacks Republicans

While the Democratic Party plays badminton with Republicans, it plays hardball with third parties, specifically the Green Party. It does everything it can to keep the Greens off the stage during the debates and makes things difficult when the Greens try to get on the ballot. After the last election, Jill Stein was accused of conspiring with the Russians to undermine the Democrats.

If the Democratic Party was a real liberal party, if it was a real opposition party, if it was a party of the “working people” rather than the elites, it would welcome the Green Party into the debates. With magnanimously liberal self-confidence it would say “the more the merrier. May all parties of the left debate.” It would welcome the Greens or any other left party to register in all 50 states and simply prove its program superior.

The wasted time, energy and loss of collective creativity of non-elites

About 10% of the 40% of working class people are in unions. Think of how much in the way of union dues, energy and time was lost over the last 50 years trying to elect Democratic candidates who did little or nothing for those same unions. All that money, energy and time could have been spent in either deepening the militancy of existing unions or organizing the other 30% of workers into unions.

Think of all untapped creative political activity of working class people who are not in unions that was wasted in being enthusiastic and fanatical about sports teams because they see no hope or interest in being part of a political community. Instead of being on talk show discussion groups on Monday morning talking about what the Broncos should have done or could have done on Sunday, think of the power they could have if instead they spent their time strategizing about how to coordinate their strike efforts.

Think of all the immigrants and refugees in this country working at skilled and semi-skilled jobs that have wasted what little time they had standing in line trying to get Democratic Party politicians elected. That time could have been spent on more “May Days Without An Immigrant” as happened thirteen years ago

Think of all the middle class African Americans whose standards of living have declined over the last 45 years who wasted their vote on Democrats and put their faith in the Black Caucus. Think of the wasted time, effort and energy of all middle class people who often actively campaign and contribute money to the Democratic Party that could have been spent on either building a real liberal party or better yet, a mass socialist party.

For many years, the false promise that the Democratic Party just might be a party of the working people has stood in the way of the largest socialist organization in the United States from building a mass working class party. Social Democrats in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) who should have known better continue to blur the line between a real socialist like Eugene Debs and left liberals like Bernie Sanders. With 33,000 members there are still factions of DSA that will not break with the Democrats.

Are there real differences between the neo-liberal Democrats and the neo-conservative Republicans? Are there differences between Soros and the Koch brothers? Yes, but these differences are not, as Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Claire have said, “a dimes worth of difference”, especially compared to what the presence of the Democratic party has done for 50 years to 85% of the population. Their fake opposition has stood in the way of building a mass left political party.

The Democratic Party is a parasite on social movements

Can you remember a time when the Democratic Party had an innovative program of their own that was clearly separate from the Republicans yet distinct from any left wing social movements?

I can’t. What I have seen is a Democratic party that does nothing but sniff out the flesh and blood of social movements and vampirize them. I have no use for identity politics, but I can remember a time when the Democratic Party wanted nothing to do with it. Now it runs candidates based on identity politics. Black Lives Matter is now part of the Ford Foundation, a Democratic Party think tank. The Occupy Movement term “occupy” was taken as a name for a Facebook page sympathetic to the Democrats, Occupy Democrats, as if the Democratic Party could be occupied. The Democratic Party, which did nothing for feminism while it was attacked and marginalized by the right wing since the 1980’s, has suddenly “discovered” feminism in the Pink Pussy cats. This is an upper middle class party that sings “We Shall Overcome” fifty years too late.

What should be done?

Rather than focusing on the evil Republican Party, which makes the Democrats seem merely wishy-washy or inept, the policies of the Democratic Party should be attacked relentlessly while paying little attention to Republicans. In the election years, the Green Party should abandon its strategy of soliciting votes in “safe states”. Instead, the Greens should challenge those who claim to be “left-wing” Democrats to get out of the party as a condition for being voted for. In my opinion, there needs to be an all-out war on the Democratic Party as a necessary step to building a mass party. The goal of such a party should not be to win elections, but to use public opportunities as a platform for deepening, spreading and coordinating the commonalities of the interests of the poor, working class and middle class people.

  1. Counterpunch, “Left Liberals Have No Party”

Socialist Planning Circles

Common objections to socialist planning from below

In my last article, “Do You Socialists Have Any Plans? Why We Need Socialist Architects“, I argued that the only way 21st century socialism is going to get any traction with working class people is to not only have a socialist vision, but also to have feasible plans which suggest transitions in between the current capitalist crisis and our ultimate vision.

In that article, I presented the following objections along with their rebuttal through a dialogue between two workers: an older worker, Andrew, and a young, anarchist worker, Sean. The objections of Sean to socialist planning transitions were:

  • Marx said a plan isn’t necessary—the workers of the future will figure this out.
  • Workers are only capable of dealing with survival needs. Planning is too remote from every-day life for them.
  • Plans are rigid and can’t do justice to the complexity of social life.
  • Plans aren’t implemented as politics gets in the way. (Stalin’s chaotic five-year plan)
  • There is something inherently revolutionary about collective spontaneity.

Let’s examine some small but hopeful moments that could benefit from and be deepened by socialists who have collective experience making socialist plans.

Disaster socialism as a precursor

In his book Introduction to Collective Behavior and Collective Action, David Miller cites convincing research demonstrating that natural disasters bring out the best rather than the worst in people. Contrary to centrist newspapers’ mantras about “looting”, most people respond to a crisis heroically. Instead of mainstream newspapers’ warmed-over version of a Lord of the Flies scenario, if we examine the mass behavior in the recent hurricanes to hit Florida, Texas, Mexico and Puerto Rico, we find stories of people acting altruistically, in socialist ways. From a socialist point of view, the problems with the crowd’s altruistic response to these disasters is that after the storm people have not built socialist institutions that can help them extend their altruism longer before the return to a rapidly collapsing capitalism. Yet the behavior of masses of people in natural disasters is very close to how people behave in revolutionary situations. How can we preserve and deepen the memory of such collective creativity?

Workers cooperatives

Capitalists have done a good job of convincing people that there is “no alternative to capitalism because all socialism is Stalinism – and that has failed. This ignores the fact that workers’ self-management, workers’ control, and worker cooperatives currently exist and many are surviving with better production records than capitalist businesses or workers under state socialism. (Seymour Melman’s book After Capitalism provides a wonderful description of this). In the case of worker cooperatives, they are managed and run by workers themselves, most of whom have ownership in the company. Through regularly held general assemblies, workers decide together what will be produced, how much will be produced, how long and how hard they will work and what they will be paid. They also decide what tools and resources they will purchase and what they will do with the surplus. This is a radical departure from companies where workers have no say in any of these matters. John Curl’s book, For All the People documents the history of workers’ co-ops.We don’t expect miracles from any worker co-op because they still have to exist within a decaying world capitalist system. However, worker co-ops and the flashes of “disaster socialism” are promising.

Rank-and-file union democracy

As many of you know, radical unions in the early 20th century in the United States like the Wobblies used to talk about workers running things on their own, having “One Big Union”. Now unions have given up any vision of workers running anything. Instead, they preside over the most myopic concerns at sparsely attended meetings. In fact, when my partner once asked her shop steward at the university where she worked, “why don’t all these separate unions unite under one union instead of having numerous small ones? Wouldn’t we be stronger united?”, the steward looked at her like she was from another planet. Despite this, one small bright spot in the United States is Labor Notes, a monthly publication which tracks union activity around the US from the point of view of the rank-and-file. These monthly reports are union workers’ experiences with the strategies and tactics they used to combat employers and were largely independent of union leadership.

What is missing from these scenes of “disaster socialism” workers’ co-ops and rank-and file union democracy is a unified political party which coordinates, synchronizes, deepens and expands all these activities and spreads them to wider sectors of society with some kind of transition program. We don’t have such a party, but if we did the party would need a coordinated plan to link these experiences together in time and space.

Limitations of Trotskyist transition programs

Unlike anarchists, Leninists have experience with state power and understand the importance of a socialist transition program which takes years and decades to implement. In the United States, the Socialist Workers Party used to lay out a transition program as part of their presidential runs. We think this was a very good idea. The problem here is that all the imaginary planning was done by the vanguard party. “The workers”, as Lenin said, “can attain only a trade union consciousness”. They need to be injected with the collective imagination of the vanguard. But the workers of Russia during the first four years of the revolution and the Spanish workers during the Spanish Revolution of 1936-1939 showed more collective imagination than any vanguard party. They developed general assemblies, workers’ councils, and direct democracy by politically mandating delegates rather than representatives. Optimally, these delegates were rotated and were strictly recallable. These were the inventions of working class collective creativity that were not imposed on them by any socialist leadership. In the case of Russia, it was the Bolshevik party that reacted and supported these councils or “soviets”, for a time. But the origin of these political forms were workers, peasants and soldiers.

Filling in the Gaps

As I said in my previous article, socialists are very good at criticizing capitalism. You can get us to argue about what would and wouldn’t be allowed in our ideal socialist society: whether or not to abolish inheritance; how people should be compensated for their work or whether we use labor vouchers or dissolve all mediated exchange of products and services. But the moment you say “what about the messy transition from the current capitalist crisis to our ideal conditions?”, almost everyone disappears.

There are a few visionaries who propose scenarios about what socialist futures might look like and how to get there, including David Schweickart, John Romer, Michael Albert, and Erik Olin Wright. But do radical organizers use these plans? No. They either don’t know about them or they do know, and they dismiss them because the theorists are academics. But worse, they don’t even think plans are necessary. At best, radical organizers go from socialist principles directly to strategies, tactics and then to collective actions. My claim in this article is that between principles and actions there needs to be socialist plans that inform strategies and tactics. Plans mediate between principles and strategies. They ground principles, making them more tangible while they give wings to strategies by keeping the long-view in mind.

Here is what I don’t understand. Socialists have no problem starting and sustaining book clubs in which they discuss and learn what the great theorists say. There are book clubs about politics, economics, history and anthropology. But there are no meeting groups where socialists are forced to write detailed plans to answer questions such as:

  • Give me a snap-shot version of how a socialist future will work in terms of politics, economics, the workplace, housing and education.
  • How long do you project it would it take, and by what process are you going to get there?

If I weren’t already a socialist these are the questions I would expect most socialists to be able to answer readily. If they couldn’t do this I’d never take them seriously. If fiction-writing groups get together and write stories, why don’t socialists get together and share their dreams as architects of socialism?

My Personal experience with socialist planning circles

About three years ago, four of us got together for over a year and engaged in what we called a “socialist planning circle”. We met for three hours once every two weeks. We each developed our own plans for the most basic social institutions that would need to be reorganized as part of the revolution – food production, basic housing, energy harnessing, transportation systems, and workplace organization, to name a few.

The kind of controversies we addressed were:

  • Economic allocation systems: who is entitled to what under what conditions?
  • What does a transition out of the wage system look like?
  • How do we institute a global minimum wage to keep capitalists from leaving a country?
  • How to we abolish finance capital? Is there a place for “socialist banks?”
  • How might food cooperatives reorganize food production?
  • If we want to abolish the prison system, what do we do with people who continue to engage in anti-social activities?
  • By what process would shortening the work week be institutionalized?
  • Which social industries can afford to be localized and which, say, energy system might need to remain centralized?
  • How to coordinate workers’ councils from the local to regional level?
  • Will we still have a need for political parties and if so, how would they be organized?

Our procedure in socialist planning circles

We agreed on an area in social life from our master list, say economic allocation. Over the next two weeks we each created our own vision of the future about economic allocation. We each made a table entitled “The Current Crisis of Capitalism” and followed it through in six phases:

  • Transition one phase
  • Justification for transition one
  • Transition two phase
  • Justification for transition two
  • Ideal condition
  • Justification for ideal condition

Once the phases were identified:

  • Each of us presented our plan for economic allocation at the next meeting
  • We criticized and discussed each other’s plans
  • Two weeks later we synthesized the plans into a written document
  • We picked a new topic and repeated the steps

What was invigorating about this process was how often we already had ideas about these topics but we didn’t know we had them because we never asked ourselves, let alone anyone else. We also learned a great deal from the criticism from other members. Some of us were hesitant about our own plans but we could be critical of the plans of others. These criticisms in turn led us to look at our own hesitant plans in a new way. What was also interesting was the need to prioritize in what order we would restructure things in a socialist manner. It’s like a parody of the old show “Queen for a Day”. If the gods said you had a week to build a socialist system, what would you do first, second and third?

Justification for socialist planning circles

A socialist planning circle is a small group of 4 to 8 people formed with the intention of:

  • Giving socialists confidence that we can plan the future now while living under capitalism. This involves learning and practicing our skills at planning transition programs for the infrastructure, structure and superstructure of socialist society among ourselves. We rehearse our scenarios in the hope that when capitalism collapses we have some semblance of a collective, structured understanding as to what is to be done because we have shaped, criticized and refined our plans through thought, discussion, writing, criticism and revision over weeks, months and years.
  • Once we have experienced this process in a pilot group, we establish new groups to provide a supportive atmosphere to help working class people build confidence that they are smart enough to coordinate production across their workplaces.

There is a need for working class visionaries who learn to collectively imagine socialist futures, not by reading books, but by writing and sharing our imaginations now, before capitalism completely collapses. We need to rehearse, rehearse and rehearse our socialist plans with each other. We need to begin to cultivate our social imaginations now, rather than waiting for leaders or vanguard parties to do this for us. We have to have the nerve to say, “I can imagine transportation systems could be run this way, or food distribution should be run that way”. This project requires us to take seriously our socialist claim that we know how things could work in an ultimate sense, as we imagine how we navigate in the immediate future through the muddy, murky waters of getting from the crisis to our ideal conditions.

Objections

Why don’t you just start a reading group of socialist visionaries like you mentioned earlier rather than reinventing the wheel?

For the same reasons that you don’t begin scientific research with a literature review. You begin with your hypothesis and what the reasons are you think will support it. Then you do the literature review. Otherwise what you think is buried by the literature review. The same thing is true for art. You don’t begin drawing the figure by measuring it with a ruler. You begin with a gesture drawing, so you bring life into the drawing. You measure later. In the case of socialist planning, I’m convinced that people have an unconscious knowledge of how social organization could be. It is currently buried within them and needs to become conscious and worked on. The scenarios of scholars would only bury this unconscious knowledge. In the revolutionary situations that are coming, we are going to have to figure this out by ourselves anyway.

Socialist planning circles are too abstract and not connected to the working class. Getting together and spinning socialist plans pulls us away from the daily struggles of poor and working-class people. It will draw people who just want to talk and not act.

This is a danger in a discussion group in which there is no reading and where no preparation is required. It is less of a problem in a structured reading group because the individuals must make the effort to read the book in order to discuss it. A socialist planning group requires imagination and preparation, just the way a painting group would require people to bring two paintings to show for the next meeting or a songwriters’ group would expect people to come up with two songs for the next meeting. In some ways planning is more difficult than imagining ideal conditions. Ideal conditions ask you to imagine how things could be in an ultimate sense. Socialist planning groups ask, “How are you going to get there”. In my opinion, the second requires a far more active commitment. A socialist planning group would very quickly shed ‘dead weight” people who just wanted to talk.

These plans will dissolve once they face the realities of real social life

Any socialist who participated in these groups would know that when they return to their political practice much of the plans they learned to cultivate in the group would crumble and dissolve. However, the collective memory of some of these plans would remain and grow stronger by continuing in the socialist planning hot-houses over weeks, months and even years.

For example “participatory budgeting” is a way for people to become involved in local economics by having a say in the prioritization of the city’s budget. This exercise is designed to give residents practice in how to plan economically. But years ago, anarchist Murray Bookchin argued that the basic unit of city governance should not be city council, but neighborhood assemblies. City budget priorities were proposed at these local assemblies. Does that mean the city council in a capitalist city would accept that local neighborhood assemblies should exist at all? Of course not! Neither are they likely to agree if these assemblies decided that they wanted real estate “developers” kicked out along with a reduction of the police force. The important thing is to awaken in working class people a taste for planning and running things independently of the outcome.

The subtitle of this article was very carefully chosen. I am not advocating a static blueprint. I am advocating building scaffolds. In a technical sense a scaffold is defined as a temporary structure outside a building used by workers while constructing or repairing a building. Scaffolds are a necessary but not a sufficient condition for buildings. Scaffolds are not buildings. But without scaffolds there would be no buildings. The buildings themselves are like the socialist institutions of the future. The scaffolds are the means by which we build that future. There will be no socialist “buildings” without scaffolds.

As capitalism continues to decline, we will have more “disaster socialism” situations because the chickens are coming home to roost in capitalist ecological policies. Workers’ co-ops may spread because they will pay better entry level wages than capitalists and they are less likely to fire people in times of crisis. Rank-and-file democracy in unions will spread as workers become increasingly disgusted by a union leadership wedded to the Democratic Party. In all these circumstances the memory and enactment of socialist planning circles’ scaffolds could only deepen and organize what is already going on.

Optimally socialist planning circles would be an institutionalized, ongoing structure within a working-class party. It could certainly be implemented within the Green Party. But we can’t wait for these organizations to do this. Socialist planning circles should begin now. If organizations form later to house socialist planning circles, fine, but we cannot afford to wait for them to see the light. We must be our own light. If they these political forms emerge later, they will be lucky to have us!

Do You Socialists Have Any Plans?

Claim and Qualification

For the first time in well over 70 years, the words “capitalism” and “socialism” can be circulated among the general public in the United States. However, what I am going to claim in this article is that the only way 21st century socialism is going to get any traction or respect from the working class is if socialists collectively develop blueprints for socialism: five years, ten years, fifty years down the road. By way of qualification, my ideas about socialist planning have little to do with Trotsky’s ideas and what his followers have called “socialist transition programs”.

Johnny-come-latelies

Leftists in the US are not exactly bold or innovative. It took the economic crash of 2008 for them to even consider using the word “capitalism” in public, outside their inner circles. So too, it took a New Deal liberal like Bernie Sanders to throw down the gauntlet and say, “I am a socialist” in order for real socialists to think it was safe to use that word again. While the Trump victory was more a result of the vote of the small business owners than the workers themselves, clearly working-class conditions are so bad that many workers would vote for anyone who promised a chance for jobs, any jobs. So after forty five years of championing identity politics; after forty-five years of imagining that the working class has disappeared; after forty-five years of saying the working class has bought into a middle class lifestyle; for many social democratic Marxists and anarchists, the working class is now once again a hit.

Is necessity the mother of invention?

It is no secret that the conditions of the working class in the United States are among the worst in the industrialized world. The combined membership of private and public unions is barely at 10%. The second problem for workers within unions is that the overwhelming majority of union leadership take their marching orders from the Democratic Party. Thirdly, the working class has no semblance of a political party that even remotely represents its interests. There are also real problems with forming a working-class movement when workers are not concentrated in factories. When the complete assemblage of products crosses national borders, it is very difficult for a strike to be fully effective as slowing, let alone stopping, the production of surplus value.

Yet in spite of terrible conditions, the left finds itself presented with a public willing to listen and that is far less likely to red-bait. For the first time in well over 70 years the left can now claim: a) the problem is capitalism; b) the solution is socialism; c) the key agent is the working class. Will the left seize this opportunity? So far it hasn’t. Many have preferred to dissolve or marginalize radical rhetoric in the name of “The Resistance”. There is also a fourth consideration that virtually no leftist group wants to take seriously – the importance of coming to the working class with concrete plans of how socialism might work. I’ll return to this later.

Can leftists talk coherently about capitalism to workers?

Let’s imagine two workers who drive forklifts in a Walmart industrial plant. One worker, Andrew has worked there for 25 years. The other worker is an anarchist (Sean) who is 25 years old and took this job for the purpose of “organizing the workers.” Andrew is complaining about the lack of time for breaks, the erratic schedules, the low pay and a micro-managing supervisor. “The problem”, Sean says, “is capitalism”. Andrew says, “What do you mean”? What does Sean say? What many leftists will do is talk about capitalism in a lopsidedly unfavorable light. They will fail to make a distinction between profits made on paper (the finance capital of the banks) and industrial capitalism (the production of infrastructures, goods and services). This is a serious omission because most workers in the US think that a capitalist should make a profit if they make something people want.

The second problem Sean will have to overcome is that while most workers do not like to be bossed around, their solution is not to collectively cooperate and own the means of production. They simply want to own their own businesses.

Another problem might be that Sean has waited five to eight years to talk about these topics so that when his ship finally arrives, he bombards Andrew with too much information, bringing in things about capitalism that are way beyond Andrew’s actual situation.

Sean also may have read books and discussed them with people already in the choir. He has had few actual discussions with people who are not already committed socialists. In that case, he may sound more like he is talking to the people who wrote the books or to his comrades than people like Andrew, who simply don’t have a framework. But let’s give Sean the benefit of the doubt and say that if push came to shove, Sean could explain capitalism to Andrew in a sensitive down-to-earth way once he gets more practice. After all, in my experience, leftists are largely self-educated and have been practicing this speech for years.

Can leftists coherently talk about socialism to workers?

Next comes the question, “Well, what is your alternative?” Andrew has to be convinced that socialism is about collectively owning natural resources, not collectively owning each other’s toothbrushes. Neither is socialism about forcing everyone into collectives. Sean may point out that during the Spanish social revolution between 1936 and 1939, the anarchists allowed people who wanted to work for themselves to do so, provided they did not hire people for wages. Again, leftists may stumble over their words, needlessly making distinctions between anarchists, Leninists and social democrats when poor Andrew did not ask for them. Sean may also compulsively refer to historical movements or controversies (especially in Russia or Spain) that Andrew knows or cares little about. Still, I’m convinced that there are enough leftists who could explain what socialism is well enough to keep Andrew interested. While many leftists are not as articulate and smooth as Richard Wolff, David Harvey, or Michael Perelman, they could explain socialism in a coherent way.

Can leftists convince workers that their social class is capable of transforming society?

Towards the end of the social psychology courses I teach, when we discuss social movements, I ask my students who are mostly working and middle class if they think they could run the place where they work if their bosses went on vacation for a month. Surprisingly, most say they and other workers could do it. However, when I ask if they think they could coordinate their efforts with other workers who might occupy a different point on the supply chain, most think that they couldn’t do it. While most working class people might be skeptical of the idea that the owners are in their position because they deserve it or have knowledge of how things work, most of them still think that middle class and upper middle-class people who are in managerial positions are there because they are smarter and know more about what is really going on. Short of revolutionary situations like strikes when capitalists and the state withdraw and workers are forced to take over, workers are not likely to be convinced beforehand that their class could transform society.

Are socialists capable of presenting to workers a plan as to how to implement socialism?

It is this fourth question that concerns me most and where I believe the left is in terrible shape. Andrew says, “Okay, capitalism is the problem, and socialism is the solution. I don’t know about our working class taking over, but anyway, how would you get there?” Here Sean is really at a loss for words, though he’d like to imagine that his loss for words really doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought about it. Instead he thinks it isn’t the right question to ask. So here I pick up an imaginary dialogue:

Andrew: So how do we get to socialism? What’s your plan?

Sean: Well, Marx said we shouldn’t make any blueprints of the future because only a future generation of communists would be able to figure that out.

Andrew: So, you don’t have a plan?

Sean: Well no. We need to focus on bettering our existing conditions now and let the socialists in revolutionary situations deal with what to do in the future.

Andrew: Wait, okay, let me get this straight. You think working people like me are the best hope for building a socialist future, right?

Sean: Right. All of us workers together.

Andrew: But you don’t have a plan. So you expect me and all the other workers in this plant to commit ourselves to a whole new economic system, but you haven’t figured out the steps it would take to get there. So how long has capitalism been around?

Sean: About 500 years.

Andrew: And how many countries is capitalism currently operating in?

Sean: In most parts of the world. The Scandinavian countries have some socialist tendencies and in South America….

Andrew: So basically, you are telling me that we are up against an economic system that is 500 years old, that it exists throughout most of the world and we are going to overcome this with a new system of socialism. But you don’t have a plan as to how to get there.

Sean: We’ll figure it out as we go.

Andrew: Look Sean, if I hire a general contractor to work on my house, that general contractor doesn’t just start building. I would hire an architect and the architect draws out some plans. No decent contractor would start a job without a plan. You are proposing something way more complicated and challenging than building a house – yet you have no plan.

Sean: The problem with plans is they are rigid. Social life is much too complicated for that. If we have plans, then bureaucrats with power will get too attached to them and impose them on new circumstances where the plan no longer will work.

Andrew: Look, you don’t understand how things actually work. When an architect draws up plans, they are rough drafts to start with. As the contractor builds the actual house, they run into unforeseeable difficulties with building materials, unsuspected soil erosion, the owners changing their minds in mid-stream, things like that. They have to make slight adjustments as they go. But no general contractor would throw up their hands and say, “What a waste of time to have hired an architect to make the plans” – because the actual building process requires adjustment. The plans help to reduce unforeseen problems, not eliminate them.

Sean: Don’t you understand what happened when socialists made plans under Stalin? They had five-year plans and they were a disaster.

Andrew: That was before my time.

Sean: Mine too, but I read about it. So Stalinists carried out his plans and peasants and workers were killed or made miserable.

Andrew: Were they well thought out plans?

Sean: No. Stalin kept changing his mind.

Andrew: Did the people responsible for carrying out the plans have a say in the plans?

Sean: No. It was top-down

Andrew: So if the plans were not systematic and the people being affected by the plans were not consulted, the problem is with the planners and the planning process, not the plan.

Sean: No. It was a sign that plans don’t work. The problem with all plans is that they sacrifice the present for the future.

Andrew: What are you talking about? Of course, you should sacrifice the present for the future. How do you expect to get anywhere?

Sean: But in revolutionary situations, time slows down and the present becomes more alive with possibilities. You don’t understand the magic that happens in revolutionary situations.

Andrew: What do you mean?

Sean: Normally people are filled with petty preoccupations like following their football teams, movie stars and the lives of musicians. Marx called this “class-in-itself”. This is like passing the time, waiting for something magical to happen. You live for the future because the present is miserable and you try to get away from it with escapes.

Andrew: Oh, like me watching ball games.

Sean: Well, you said it, I didn’t. Let me finish. In revolutionary situations workers discover our collective creativity as we stumble and bumble our way into a new social system. Marx called this “class-for-itself”. People figure out what to do on the spot.

Andrew: And this is what you mean about time slowing down time because the present isn’t something you want to get over with?

Sean: Right.

Andrew: You don’t have any idea of what those workers went through. If I am lucky enough to have a job and keep it for a long time, when we Walmart workers go to our jobs and the place is closed, we don’t say, “This is my chance to show the bosses we can run things without them.” We say, “What does this mean? Is there a holiday? Am I going to get paid? Has the plant relocated?” All I want is for things to get back to normal. I am nervous and don’t know what to do. And you think me and these workers are going to say we are going to take over? You’re crazy!

Sean: Well, then, how do you explain that workers and peasants took over during the Russian and Spanish revolutions? Thousands of people overthrew capitalism and the existing state.

Andrew: I don’t know about that, but I bet you that those people were scared. Maybe some of them wanted to be a hero, but I’m sure it was mixed with fear and wanting things to get back to normal.

Sean: But my point is workers did this even though the leaders had no plan!

Andrew: And you think this is an advantage? It’s a sign of your incompetence as leaders of this socialist world you want to create. So whatever workers did it was in spite of the so-called leaders of socialism.

Sean: So, what would the leaders having a plan have done?

Andrew: The plan wouldn’t have solved all the problems, but it would have reduced nervousness because there would be some structure, some framework that people had heard of, to fall back on. The plans of socialist groups like yours would have to be adjusted to the actual situation, but we would be grateful to have your plans.

Sean: But how would we keep the plans from becoming rigidified?

Andrew: There are no guarantees. It would depend on how open you people are and how open we workers are to listen to you. If everyone stays open, we make plans and try them out. Some parts of the plan will work and others won’t work because there are unusual circumstances that no one could have foreseen. Then we rework the plans in the light of new experiences. It’s the same principle as the architecture and the contractor.

However, what you want to do is much harder. If you socialists were serious, you would have the “blueprints” of a plan worked out. You should figure out how food is going to be produced; how energy will be harnessed and distributed; how transportation systems would be in place and how people would be housed. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Where are your plans for these things?

Sean: No. Workers will learn to do this when the situation arrives.

Andrew: Now! That is your job right now. I don’t know what you people do with your free time.

Sean: Well, we criticize capitalism. We show how it alienates people, commodifies relationships, robs people of the fruits of their work.

Andrew: Look man. We don’t need your fancy words for all this. What matters is we know things are bad! Do you think it helps us for you to say: “No, no things are even worse than you think? Here’s why.” You will never get people to join your parties, groups or whatever they are on the basis of saying how bad things are. What do you think happens? Do you think we are going to stand up and say, “Things are so bad, I’ve had enough! I’m going to rebel!”? No, people say, “This is too much. I don’t want to hear it anymore”. And then we go watch a ballgame, have a beer and root for a team.

Sean: You mean because it is an escape?

Andrew: Maybe, but more because sports is a situation in which competition is fair and it’s possible to have a good ending. If you want to get people to follow you, you have to have long-term solutions and you need some happy endings – or at least a chance for a happy ending. Why do you think people go to the movies? We want happy fuckin’ endings. What do you offer? “We’ll see?” Forget it.

Sean: But we have happy endings. There is lots of socialist utopian literature in science fiction.

Andrew: I don’t know much about this, but what I’ve seen is that they are really bleak. Do the stories that do have optimistic endings have a plan as to how to get to this ideal state?

Sean: Mostly no

Andrew: Well, I suspected not. You socialists don’t want to get your hands dirty. You don’t want to deal with short-term messy situations. What are you going to do, three years, five years, ten years down the road? It’s like planning for when you get old. You have to figure out what your expenses are, how much money you need and how you will distribute your sources of income as things change over time. You’re too young to understand that. But any worker over 40 does care about this.

Seriously, you socialists are really out to lunch. You work people up, tell them you should run everything and then you provide us with nothing tangible to show how to get there. You really are naïve and arrogant at the same time. I’m sure throughout history you have broken a lot of workers’ hearts with this routine, setting them up to fail. But you are not going to break my heart because I see through you.

It’s easy to say capitalism is fucked up; it’s harder to say what you are going to replace it with. But the hardest of all is how are you gonna get there? If you aren’t going to show me any blueprints, don’t be bringing up this subject anymore. I’m not hiring you to work on my house.

Sean: But Marx said….

Andrew: Marx was wrong. We need plans now.

Scaling the Heights and the Depths

Until now… men were living both dispersed and at the same time, closed in on themselves, like passengers in a ship who have met by chance below decks with no idea of its mobile character and its motion. They could, accordingly think of nothing to do… but to quarrel or amuse themselves… Hitherto, in spite of external forces whose influence is to bring them together, the relations between spiritual atoms seem to be governed by an inflexible internal repulsion…. The more planetary ties tend to force us together, the more do we feel the need to disengage ourselves from one another.

— Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Activation of Energy, October 1970

The purpose of this article is to criticize the non-Leninist left in the United States for failing to provide its population with answers to three questions which every world religion provides answers: a) what are we? b) where did we come from? c) where are we going? This does not imply that the left must become religious. It only means that world religions have learned over thousands of years what draws people to them and, given the small numbers of people who are leftists, we could learn much from religion. I exclude the Leninist left because their theories are less susceptible to my reservations. I call the left in the United States “myopic” because right now it is not rooted in the past and it is afraid to project a vision of the future.

The Rise and Fall of Deep Futures on the Left

Today non-Leninist socialists are mired in the present. To them, only naïve liberals would dare to suggest that any futurist social life could be planned. Only naïve liberal educators, scientists, engineers and technocrats who sit on committees within the United Nations would actually produce such blueprints that never see the light of day. By the 1970’s it would seem that a major activity of left wing social scientists would have been to use the data in the field to construct models for a socialist future. This has not been the case. For 40 years leftist academics, acting as culture vultures, have drowned out any futurist planning schemes in a screeching cacophony of claims that projecting socialist futures was imperialist, oppressive, hopeless and out of date. David Schweickart, Michael Albert and Erik Olin Wright are three exceptions to the rule. Among non-socialists I still find that Buckminster Fuller and Oliver Reiser had breath-taking command of many disciplines and organized them in the service of a planetary civilization. Teilhard de Chardin is at his poetic best when describing the “noosphere” that the Russian Vernadsky coined.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the political left had a deep perspective about both the past and the future. Not only were the workers fighting capitalist owners of the factories in the contemporary world, but theorists like Fourier, St. Simon and Edward Bellamy projected possible socialist futures. Before Marx went on a tirade against socialist planning, it was at least a tolerated activity for intellectuals.

Rise and Fall of Deep Pasts on the Left

Theories of Progress

By the latter half of the 19th century, whether they identified with a liberal Enlightenment, Marxism or even anarchism, most theorists thought that the past was on their side. They speculated that human history did have a direction, and that direction was “progress.” Progress meant that human societies were gradually getting better using the criteria of material wealth, a more expansive morality, and less superstition. All social institutions would soon to be governed by collective reason. Many of the first wave of anthropologists in the 1870’s through 1900 categorized human societies as progressing in several areas. These include moving from savagery to barbarism to civilization (Morgan) and in the evolution of law from law based on status to law based on contract (Maine). According to Durkheim, societies were evolving from mechanical to organic solidarity. For Marx, human history could be organized as moving from primitive communism, to a descent into status and class societies and through crisis, possibly to advanced communism.

Cultural relativism

The second wave of anthropologists, led by Franz Boas, rightly challenged the theory of progress as racist because if the latest societies were the best, then European societies were like adults, agricultural civilizations (most of whom were not white) were like adolescents and the remaining tribal societies in Africa were like children. This scenario worked very well if you were an imperialist or a missionary in the Gilded Age.

The theory of cultural relativism weakened the comparative nature of science in anthropology. According to cultural relativists, no anthropologist could make scientific judgments about how societies evolved in relation to each other because each society was thought to be unique. Who are we to say that one society is better than another? This was the argument of the “Culture and Personality” theorists like Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. Two world wars, a major economic depression and fascism buried the idea that social evolution could be characterized as progress. Whatever the direction of human societies, they certainly were not getting better. Among the thinking of cultural relativists, societies, if anything, were getting worse.

Leninists hold-outs

Meanwhile, Old left Trotskyists and Stalinists continued to believe that there was something like progress going on in social evolution in spite of everything. However, after World War II, it became still harder to stand behind the theory for progress. What made things worse is that the Leninist left failed to update Marx and Engels’ theory. Instead of sensitively incorporating what anthropologists have found about pre-industrial societies in the past 130 years, they continued to hold as sacred a sketch Marx and Engels’ drafted while anthropology was still in its infancy.

New Left anarchists

As for the anarchists, with the exception of Murray Bookchin and maybe a few others, the rebirth of anarchism in the 1960’s was accompanied by a surrender of the idea that the material wealth produced by capitalism was a necessary condition for socialism. The rise of the ecology movement furthered the conviction that the expectation of abundance was a sin and we needed to make do with less. Greens, anarcho-primitivists and individualist-anarchists entertained degenerative romantic notions of social evolution. By the 1960’s when the New Left rejected the Old Left, they embraced cultural relativism and have, with rare exceptions, never questioned it.

3rd Wave of anthropology “Improvised Evolutionists”

At Darwin’s centennial in 1959, a number of anthropologists expressed dissatisfaction with cultural relativism because it lacked a comparative understanding of how human societies are linked to history, to population pressure, resource depletion and ecological crisis. Leslie White tried to understand the evolution of culture through increasingly complex methods of harnessing energy. Elman Service and Marshall Sahlins also argued that there were patterns of culture linked to harnessing energy. Julian Steward saw cultures as adaptations to ecological settings. Marvin Harris presented a theory of cultural materialism in which population pressure and resource depletion were the real driving forces behind cultural evolution. In his book Cannibals and Kings, Harris traced this recurring pattern as he moved from hunter-gatherers, to simple and complex horticultural societies, to agricultural states to industrial capitalist countries. The work of Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse) is only the latest version of this third school.

All these “improvised evolutionists” (my term) argued that while characterizing the evolution of human societies as “progress” is obsolete, neither are they satisfied with liberal, humanist, cultural relativist ideas, which describe societies as accidental configurations that have neither rhyme nor reason.

From Socio-biology to Evolutionary Psychology

After World War II, it was thirty years before any biological explanation of human behavior would be tolerated in the social sciences. These conditions were made worse by the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Socio-Biology. His initial effort was to study human societies as they are compared to other animal societies. The problem for socialists arose when he reduced the dynamics of human societies solely to biological explanations.

What most of the left paid no attention to was the growth of a Darwinian evolutionary psychology which was much more willing to consider the active role of human culture in understanding human behavior. Darwinian psychology suggests that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature was formed in hunting and gathering societies 100,000 years ago. Many new human problems have come about in the last 10,000 years as we moved into social configurations such as horticulture, agriculture and industry, which were far from the conditions under which our human nature formed. Today “evolutionary mismatches” can explain many current conflicts between males and female over mating strategies, obesity, anxiety and rise in divorces.

Furthermore, the bio-evolutionary theory David Sloan Wilson and E.O. Wilson have argued that altruism has a basis in natural selection, which goes far beyond Hamilton’s original formulation of “reciprocal altruism”. Christopher Bohme has provided significant evidence for the egalitarian nature of chimp societies. If Marx and Engels were alive they would have been thrilled with these findings. So would the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, whose book, Mutual Aid, is a precursor to current evolutionary emphasis on the power of cooperation in natural selection. But for the relativist left, harnessing our biological and social evolutionary deep past is forbidden territory. Relativist leftist theories rob humanity of our deep social history and our connection to biological evolution.

The Human Need For A Theory of Origins

The overwhelming majority of people on this planet are religious. As I said at the beginning of this article, we need a story about what we are, where we have been, and where we are going. If we don’t provide one, the organized religions and cults will be more than happy to continue to oblige. Humanist academic leftists may be proud of their existential anguish and post-modern shift shaping, but no one outside liberal universities would be happy with this scenario. Improvised evolutionists and evolutionary psychologists provide a theory of social origins that has a scientific basis and provides hope. Here, then, is how I would put together a mythological story about our origins.

Prometheus Rising

If human beings stole fire from the gods, as the legend of Prometheus tells us, are we capable of taking that fire and lighting our own way or shall we give fire back to the gods?

For most of history this was not a choice for humanity. People in hunting and gathering and simple horticultural societies were content to work as little as possible and live off the land. Slowly their populations rose, their resources were depleted and they had to work harder and longer to support themselves.

With the rise of states, agriculture and the division of labor between mental and physical labor, there arose the first of a long series of contradictions. On one hand, there was a greater abundance of food, greater control over ecological uncertainties, and a specialization of knowledge. On the other hand, there arose the first social classes where life was good for about 10% of the population and very bad for 90%. These 90% produced enough food and other necessities to end the conditions of social scarcity for them. However, like a sleeping giant, they did not realize their own power.

Then, for the first time in history, the story of Prometheus became a pertinent issue for humanity. Between the rise of agriculture 5,000 years ago, to the dawn of capitalism in the 16th century, for the most part, the vast majority of humanity continued to renounce its own power and give it back to the gods through the form of kings, aristocrats, and ecclesiastical elites.

With the rise of capitalism, more and more of those in the galleys began to feel their own power. Some of those in the middle of the class hierarchy even turned on their masters. The results were mixed. To some extent working conditions got better, and for brief moments of rebellion those at the bottom felt their power. However, due to lack of material resources, lack of confidence and organizational skills, they continued to give the fire back to the gods.

At the same time capitalists themselves faced a unique set of problems. They wished to accumulate as much wealth as possible while enforcing submission on the lower classes. Yet they had to teach the lower classes the collective creativity necessary to problem-solve on the job. Capitalists have never been able to control how these workers used their creativity, especially when they used that creativity to organize against those same capitalists.

The 19th and 20th centuries were the first time that workers took fire from the gods and ran with it. The Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish revolution involved hundreds of thousands of people. They stole the fire and ran with it for weeks, months and even years.

Since the second half of the 19th century the capitalists have faced increasing economic instabilities. Like all ruling classes, they were incapable of managing the systemic crisis they created and like most people so far, they could not think beyond the next generation.

There is now raging an epic battle between the world capitalist class – incompetent, myopic, ignorant of their own system, incapable of ruling – and an erratic lower class caught between wanting the Promethean fire for itself on some occasions yet painfully renouncing their own power on the other.

To summarize, the history of humanity can be understood as a long spiral. The anarchist, Fredy Perlman, waxed poetically that humanity once was much and had little (tribal societies); then had much but was little (life in agricultural and capitalist societies). We have the possibility now of having much and being much. We aspire to be a flicker in the fire of Prometheus, which will take the fire from the gods and light our own world, having much and being much:

… and now, as the normal effect of growing older, we have just opened our eyes. The boldest of us have found our way to the deck. They have seen the vessel that was carrying us along… They have realized that there are boilers to be stroked and wheels to be manned…. they have savored the sweet scent of the Western Isles, over the curve of the horizon: it ceases to be the restless human to and from the same spot. It is no longer a drifting—it is a voyage.

___ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Activation of Energy, October 1970

Scaling the Heights and the Depths: Why Bio-Social Evolution and Futurology Should Matter to Socialists

Until now… men were living both dispersed and at the same time, closed in on themselves, like passengers in a ship who have met by chance below decks with no idea of its mobile character and its motion. They could, accordingly think of nothing to do… but to quarrel or amuse themselves… Hitherto, in spite of external forces whose influence is to bring them together, the relations between spiritual atoms seem to be governed by an inflexible internal repulsion…. The more planetary ties tend to force us together, the more do we feel the need to disengage ourselves from one another.

— Teilhard de Chardin.

The purpose of this article is to criticize the non-Leninist left in the United States for failing to provide its population with answers to three questions which every world religion provides answers: a) what are we? b) where did we come from? c) where are we going? This does not imply that the left must become religious. It only means that world religions have learned over thousands of years what draws people to them and, given the small numbers of people who are leftists, we could learn much from religion. I exclude the Leninist left because their theories are less susceptible to my reservations. I call the left in the United States “myopic” because right now it is not rooted in the past and it is afraid to project a vision of the future.

The Rise and Fall of Deep Futures on the Left

Today non-Leninist socialists are mired in the present. To them, only naïve liberals would dare to suggest that any futurist social life could be planned. Only naïve liberal educators, scientists, engineers and technocrats who sit on committees within the United Nations would actually produce such blueprints that never see the light of day.  By the 1970’s it would seem that a major activity of left wing social scientists would have been to use the data in the field to construct models for a socialist future. This has not been the case. For 40 years leftist academics, acting as culture vultures, have drowned out any futurist planning schemes in a screeching cacophony of claims that projecting socialist futures was imperialist, oppressive, hopeless and out of date. David Schweickart, Michael Albert and Erik Olin Wright are three exceptions to the rule. Among non-socialists I still find that Buckminster Fuller and Oliver Reiser had breath-taking command of many disciplines and organized them in the service of a planetary civilization. Teilhard de Chardin is at his poetic best when describing the “noosphere” that the Russian Vernadsky coined.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the political left had a deep perspective about both the past and the future. Not only were the workers fighting capitalist owners of the factories in the contemporary world, but theorists like Fourier, St. Simon and Edward Bellamy projected possible socialist futures. Before Marx went on a tirade against socialist planning, it was at least a tolerated activity for intellectuals.

Rise and Fall of Deep Pasts on the Left

Theories of progress

By the latter half of the 19th century, whether they identified with a liberal Enlightenment, Marxism or even anarchism, most theorists thought that the past was on their side. They speculated that human history did have a direction, and that direction was “progress.” Progress meant that human societies were gradually getting better using the criteria of material wealth, a more expansive morality, and less superstition. All social institutions would soon to be governed by collective reason. Many of the first wave of anthropologists in the 1870’s through 1900 categorized human societies as progressing in several areas. These include moving from savagery to barbarism to civilization (Morgan) and in the evolution of law from law based on status to law based on contract (Maine). According to Durkheim, societies were evolving from mechanical to organic solidarity. For Marx, human history could be organized as moving from primitive communism, to a descent into status and class societies and through crisis, possibly to advanced communism.

Cultural relativism

The second wave of anthropologists, led by Franz Boas, rightly challenged the theory of progress as racist because if the latest societies were the best, then European societies were like adults, agricultural civilizations (most of whom were not white) were like adolescents and the remaining tribal societies in Africa were like children. This scenario worked very well if you were an imperialist or a missionary in the Gilded Age.

The theory of cultural relativism weakened the comparative nature of science in anthropology. According to cultural relativists, no anthropologist could make scientific judgments about how societies evolved in relation to each other because each society was thought to be unique. Who are we to say that one society is better than another? This was the argument of the “Culture and Personality” theorists like Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. Two world wars, a major economic depression and fascism buried the idea that social evolution could be characterized as progress. Whatever the direction of human societies, they certainly were not getting better. Among the thinking of cultural relativists, societies, if anything, were getting worse.

Leninists hold-outs

Meanwhile, Old left Trotskyists and Stalinists continued to believe that there was something like progress going on in social evolution in spite of everything. However, after World War II, it became still harder to stand behind the theory for progress. What made things worse is that the Leninist left failed to update Marx and Engels’ theory. Instead of sensitively incorporating what anthropologists have found about pre-industrial societies in the past 130 years, they continued to hold as sacred a sketch Marx and Engels’ drafted while anthropology was still in its infancy.

New Left anarchists

As for the anarchists, with the exception of Murray Bookchin and maybe a few others, the rebirth of anarchism in the 1960’s was accompanied by a surrender of the idea that the material wealth produced by capitalism was a necessary condition for socialism. The rise of the ecology movement furthered the conviction that the expectation of abundance was a sin and we needed to make do with less. Greens, anarcho-primitivists and individualist-anarchists entertained degenerative romantic notions of social evolution. By the 1960’s when the New Left rejected the Old Left, they embraced cultural relativism and have, with rare exceptions, never questioned it.

3rd Wave of anthropology “Improvised Evolutionists”

At Darwin’s centennial in 1959, a number of anthropologists expressed dissatisfaction with cultural relativism because it lacked a comparative understanding of how human societies are linked to history, to population pressure, resource depletion and ecological crisis. Leslie White tried to understand the evolution of culture through increasingly complex methods of harnessing energy. Elman Service and Marshall Sahlins also argued that there were patterns of culture linked to harnessing energy. Julian Steward saw cultures as adaptations to ecological settings. Marvin Harris presented a theory of cultural materialism in which population pressure and resource depletion were the real driving forces behind cultural evolution. In his book Cannibals and Kings, Harris traced this recurring pattern as he moved from hunter-gatherers, to simple and complex horticultural societies, to agricultural states to industrial capitalist countries. The work of Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse) is only the latest version of this third school.

All these “improvised evolutionists” (my term) argued that while characterizing the evolution of human societies as “progress” is obsolete, neither are they satisfied with liberal, humanist, cultural relativist ideas, which describe societies as accidental configurations that have neither rhyme nor reason.

From Socio-biology to Evolutionary Psychology

After World War II, it was thirty years before any biological explanation of human behavior would be tolerated in the social sciences. These conditions were made worse by the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology. His initial effort was to study human societies as they are compared to other animal societies. The problem for socialists arose when he reduced the dynamics of human societies solely to biological explanations.

What most of the left paid no attention to was the growth of a Darwinian evolutionary psychology which was much more willing to consider the active role of human culture in understanding human behavior. Darwinian psychology suggests that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature was formed in hunting and gathering societies 100,000 years ago. Many new human problems have come about in the last 10,000 years as we moved into social configurations such as horticulture, agriculture and industry, which were far from the conditions under which our human nature formed. Today “evolutionary mismatches” can explain many current conflicts between males and female over mating strategies, obesity, anxiety and rise in divorces.

Furthermore, the bio-evolutionary theory David Sloan Wilson and E.O. Wilson have argued that altruism has a basis in natural selection, which goes far beyond Hamilton’s original formulation of “reciprocal altruism”. Christopher Bohme has provided significant evidence for the egalitarian nature of chimp societies. If Marx and Engels were alive they would have been thrilled with these findings. So would the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, whose book, Mutual Aid, is a precursor to current evolutionary emphasis on the power of cooperation in natural selection. But for the relativist left, harnessing our biological and social evolutionary deep past is forbidden territory.  Relativist leftist theories rob humanity of our deep social history and our connection to biological evolution.

The Human Need For A Theory of Origins

The overwhelming majority of people on this planet are religious. As I said at the beginning of this article, we need a story about what we are, where we have been, and where we are going. If we don’t provide one, the organized religions and cults will be more than happy to continue to oblige. Humanist academic leftists may be proud of their existential anguish and post-modern shift shaping, but no one outside liberal universities would be happy with this scenario. Improvised evolutionists and evolutionary psychologists provide a theory of social origins that has a scientific basis and provides hope. Here then, is how I would put together a mythological story about our origins.

Prometheus Rising

If human beings stole fire from the gods, as the legend of Prometheus tells us, are we capable of taking that fire and lighting our own way or shall we give fire back to the gods?

For most of history this was not a choice for humanity. People in hunting and gathering and simple horticultural societies were content to work as little as possible and live off the land. Slowly their populations rose, their resources were depleted and they had to work harder and longer to support themselves.

With the rise of states, agriculture and the division of labor between mental and physical labor, there arose the first of a long series of contradictions. On one hand, there was a greater abundance of food, greater control over ecological uncertainties, and a specialization of knowledge. On the other hand, there arose the first social classes where life was good for about 10% of the population and very bad for 90%. These 90% produced enough food and other necessities to end the conditions of social scarcity for them. However, like a sleeping giant, they did not realize their own power.

Then, for the first time in history, the story of Prometheus became a pertinent issue for humanity. Between the rise of agriculture 5,000 years ago, to the dawn of capitalism in the 16th century, for the most part, the vast majority of humanity continued to renounce its own power and give it back to the gods through the form of kings, aristocrats, and ecclesiastical elites.

With the rise of capitalism, more and more of those in the galleys began to feel their own power. Some of those in the middle of the class hierarchy even turned on their masters. The results were mixed. To some extent working conditions got better, and for brief moments of rebellion those at the bottom felt their power.  However, due to lack of material resources, lack of confidence and organizational skills, they continued to give the fire back to the gods.

At the same time capitalists themselves faced a unique set of problems.  They wished to accumulate as much wealth as possible while enforcing submission on the lower classes. Yet they had to teach the lower classes the collective creativity necessary to problem-solve on the job. Capitalists have never been able to control how these workers used their creativity, especially when they used that creativity to organize against those same capitalists.

The 19th and 20th centuries were the first time that workers took fire from the gods and ran with it. The Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish revolution involved hundreds of thousands of people. They stole the fire and ran with it for weeks, months and even years.

Since the second half of the 19th century the capitalists have faced increasing economic instabilities. Like all ruling classes, they were incapable of managing the systemic crisis they created and like most people so far, they could not think beyond the next generation.

There is now raging an epic battle between the world capitalist class – incompetent, myopic, ignorant of their own system, incapable of ruling – and an erratic lower class caught between wanting the Promethean fire for itself on some occasions yet painfully renouncing their own power on the other.

To summarize, the history of humanity can be understood as a long spiral. The anarchist, Fredy Perlman, waxed poetically that humanity once was much and had little (tribal societies); then had much but was little (life in agricultural and capitalist societies). We have the possibility now of having much and being much. We aspire to be a flicker in the fire of Prometheus, which will take the fire from the gods and light our own world, having much and being much:

… and now, as the normal effect of growing older, we have just opened our eyes. The boldest of us have found our way to the deck. They have seen the vessel that was carrying us along… They have realized that there are boilers to be stroked and wheels to be manned…. they have savored the sweet scent of the Western Isles, over the curve of the horizon: it ceases to be the restless human to and from the same spot. It is no longer a drifting—it is a voyage.

— Teilhard de Chardin

 

Bruce Lerro has taught for over 27 years as an adjunct Professor of Psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to the four books he’s written, found on Amazon. Read more of his articles and get involved at Planning Beyond Capitalism Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at mailto:goethe48@pacbell.net

Scaling the Heights and the Depths: Why Bio-Social Evolution and Futurology Should Matter to Socialists

Until now… men were living both dispersed and at the same time, closed in on themselves, like passengers in a ship who have met by chance below decks with no idea of its mobile character and its motion. They could, accordingly think of nothing to do… but to quarrel or amuse themselves… Hitherto, in spite of external forces whose influence is to bring them together, the relations between spiritual atoms seem to be governed by an inflexible internal repulsion…. The more planetary ties tend to force us together, the more do we feel the need to disengage ourselves from one another.

— Teilhard de Chardin.

The purpose of this article is to criticize the non-Leninist left in the United States for failing to provide its population with answers to three questions which every world religion provides answers: a) what are we? b) where did we come from? c) where are we going? This does not imply that the left must become religious. It only means that world religions have learned over thousands of years what draws people to them and, given the small numbers of people who are leftists, we could learn much from religion. I exclude the Leninist left because their theories are less susceptible to my reservations. I call the left in the United States “myopic” because right now it is not rooted in the past and it is afraid to project a vision of the future.

The Rise and Fall of Deep Futures on the Left

Today non-Leninist socialists are mired in the present. To them, only naïve liberals would dare to suggest that any futurist social life could be planned. Only naïve liberal educators, scientists, engineers and technocrats who sit on committees within the United Nations would actually produce such blueprints that never see the light of day.  By the 1970’s it would seem that a major activity of left wing social scientists would have been to use the data in the field to construct models for a socialist future. This has not been the case. For 40 years leftist academics, acting as culture vultures, have drowned out any futurist planning schemes in a screeching cacophony of claims that projecting socialist futures was imperialist, oppressive, hopeless and out of date. David Schweickart, Michael Albert and Erik Olin Wright are three exceptions to the rule. Among non-socialists I still find that Buckminster Fuller and Oliver Reiser had breath-taking command of many disciplines and organized them in the service of a planetary civilization. Teilhard de Chardin is at his poetic best when describing the “noosphere” that the Russian Vernadsky coined.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the political left had a deep perspective about both the past and the future. Not only were the workers fighting capitalist owners of the factories in the contemporary world, but theorists like Fourier, St. Simon and Edward Bellamy projected possible socialist futures. Before Marx went on a tirade against socialist planning, it was at least a tolerated activity for intellectuals.

Rise and Fall of Deep Pasts on the Left

Theories of progress

By the latter half of the 19th century, whether they identified with a liberal Enlightenment, Marxism or even anarchism, most theorists thought that the past was on their side. They speculated that human history did have a direction, and that direction was “progress.” Progress meant that human societies were gradually getting better using the criteria of material wealth, a more expansive morality, and less superstition. All social institutions would soon to be governed by collective reason. Many of the first wave of anthropologists in the 1870’s through 1900 categorized human societies as progressing in several areas. These include moving from savagery to barbarism to civilization (Morgan) and in the evolution of law from law based on status to law based on contract (Maine). According to Durkheim, societies were evolving from mechanical to organic solidarity. For Marx, human history could be organized as moving from primitive communism, to a descent into status and class societies and through crisis, possibly to advanced communism.

Cultural relativism

The second wave of anthropologists, led by Franz Boas, rightly challenged the theory of progress as racist because if the latest societies were the best, then European societies were like adults, agricultural civilizations (most of whom were not white) were like adolescents and the remaining tribal societies in Africa were like children. This scenario worked very well if you were an imperialist or a missionary in the Gilded Age.

The theory of cultural relativism weakened the comparative nature of science in anthropology. According to cultural relativists, no anthropologist could make scientific judgments about how societies evolved in relation to each other because each society was thought to be unique. Who are we to say that one society is better than another? This was the argument of the “Culture and Personality” theorists like Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. Two world wars, a major economic depression and fascism buried the idea that social evolution could be characterized as progress. Whatever the direction of human societies, they certainly were not getting better. Among the thinking of cultural relativists, societies, if anything, were getting worse.

Leninists hold-outs

Meanwhile, Old left Trotskyists and Stalinists continued to believe that there was something like progress going on in social evolution in spite of everything. However, after World War II, it became still harder to stand behind the theory for progress. What made things worse is that the Leninist left failed to update Marx and Engels’ theory. Instead of sensitively incorporating what anthropologists have found about pre-industrial societies in the past 130 years, they continued to hold as sacred a sketch Marx and Engels’ drafted while anthropology was still in its infancy.

New Left anarchists

As for the anarchists, with the exception of Murray Bookchin and maybe a few others, the rebirth of anarchism in the 1960’s was accompanied by a surrender of the idea that the material wealth produced by capitalism was a necessary condition for socialism. The rise of the ecology movement furthered the conviction that the expectation of abundance was a sin and we needed to make do with less. Greens, anarcho-primitivists and individualist-anarchists entertained degenerative romantic notions of social evolution. By the 1960’s when the New Left rejected the Old Left, they embraced cultural relativism and have, with rare exceptions, never questioned it.

3rd Wave of anthropology “Improvised Evolutionists”

At Darwin’s centennial in 1959, a number of anthropologists expressed dissatisfaction with cultural relativism because it lacked a comparative understanding of how human societies are linked to history, to population pressure, resource depletion and ecological crisis. Leslie White tried to understand the evolution of culture through increasingly complex methods of harnessing energy. Elman Service and Marshall Sahlins also argued that there were patterns of culture linked to harnessing energy. Julian Steward saw cultures as adaptations to ecological settings. Marvin Harris presented a theory of cultural materialism in which population pressure and resource depletion were the real driving forces behind cultural evolution. In his book Cannibals and Kings, Harris traced this recurring pattern as he moved from hunter-gatherers, to simple and complex horticultural societies, to agricultural states to industrial capitalist countries. The work of Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse) is only the latest version of this third school.

All these “improvised evolutionists” (my term) argued that while characterizing the evolution of human societies as “progress” is obsolete, neither are they satisfied with liberal, humanist, cultural relativist ideas, which describe societies as accidental configurations that have neither rhyme nor reason.

From Socio-biology to Evolutionary Psychology

After World War II, it was thirty years before any biological explanation of human behavior would be tolerated in the social sciences. These conditions were made worse by the publication of E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology. His initial effort was to study human societies as they are compared to other animal societies. The problem for socialists arose when he reduced the dynamics of human societies solely to biological explanations.

What most of the left paid no attention to was the growth of a Darwinian evolutionary psychology which was much more willing to consider the active role of human culture in understanding human behavior. Darwinian psychology suggests that there is such a thing as human nature, and that human nature was formed in hunting and gathering societies 100,000 years ago. Many new human problems have come about in the last 10,000 years as we moved into social configurations such as horticulture, agriculture and industry, which were far from the conditions under which our human nature formed. Today “evolutionary mismatches” can explain many current conflicts between males and female over mating strategies, obesity, anxiety and rise in divorces.

Furthermore, the bio-evolutionary theory David Sloan Wilson and E.O. Wilson have argued that altruism has a basis in natural selection, which goes far beyond Hamilton’s original formulation of “reciprocal altruism”. Christopher Bohme has provided significant evidence for the egalitarian nature of chimp societies. If Marx and Engels were alive they would have been thrilled with these findings. So would the anarchist Peter Kropotkin, whose book, Mutual Aid, is a precursor to current evolutionary emphasis on the power of cooperation in natural selection. But for the relativist left, harnessing our biological and social evolutionary deep past is forbidden territory.  Relativist leftist theories rob humanity of our deep social history and our connection to biological evolution.

The Human Need For A Theory of Origins

The overwhelming majority of people on this planet are religious. As I said at the beginning of this article, we need a story about what we are, where we have been, and where we are going. If we don’t provide one, the organized religions and cults will be more than happy to continue to oblige. Humanist academic leftists may be proud of their existential anguish and post-modern shift shaping, but no one outside liberal universities would be happy with this scenario. Improvised evolutionists and evolutionary psychologists provide a theory of social origins that has a scientific basis and provides hope. Here then, is how I would put together a mythological story about our origins.

Prometheus Rising

If human beings stole fire from the gods, as the legend of Prometheus tells us, are we capable of taking that fire and lighting our own way or shall we give fire back to the gods?

For most of history this was not a choice for humanity. People in hunting and gathering and simple horticultural societies were content to work as little as possible and live off the land. Slowly their populations rose, their resources were depleted and they had to work harder and longer to support themselves.

With the rise of states, agriculture and the division of labor between mental and physical labor, there arose the first of a long series of contradictions. On one hand, there was a greater abundance of food, greater control over ecological uncertainties, and a specialization of knowledge. On the other hand, there arose the first social classes where life was good for about 10% of the population and very bad for 90%. These 90% produced enough food and other necessities to end the conditions of social scarcity for them. However, like a sleeping giant, they did not realize their own power.

Then, for the first time in history, the story of Prometheus became a pertinent issue for humanity. Between the rise of agriculture 5,000 years ago, to the dawn of capitalism in the 16th century, for the most part, the vast majority of humanity continued to renounce its own power and give it back to the gods through the form of kings, aristocrats, and ecclesiastical elites.

With the rise of capitalism, more and more of those in the galleys began to feel their own power. Some of those in the middle of the class hierarchy even turned on their masters. The results were mixed. To some extent working conditions got better, and for brief moments of rebellion those at the bottom felt their power.  However, due to lack of material resources, lack of confidence and organizational skills, they continued to give the fire back to the gods.

At the same time capitalists themselves faced a unique set of problems.  They wished to accumulate as much wealth as possible while enforcing submission on the lower classes. Yet they had to teach the lower classes the collective creativity necessary to problem-solve on the job. Capitalists have never been able to control how these workers used their creativity, especially when they used that creativity to organize against those same capitalists.

The 19th and 20th centuries were the first time that workers took fire from the gods and ran with it. The Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish revolution involved hundreds of thousands of people. They stole the fire and ran with it for weeks, months and even years.

Since the second half of the 19th century the capitalists have faced increasing economic instabilities. Like all ruling classes, they were incapable of managing the systemic crisis they created and like most people so far, they could not think beyond the next generation.

There is now raging an epic battle between the world capitalist class – incompetent, myopic, ignorant of their own system, incapable of ruling – and an erratic lower class caught between wanting the Promethean fire for itself on some occasions yet painfully renouncing their own power on the other.

To summarize, the history of humanity can be understood as a long spiral. The anarchist, Fredy Perlman, waxed poetically that humanity once was much and had little (tribal societies); then had much but was little (life in agricultural and capitalist societies). We have the possibility now of having much and being much. We aspire to be a flicker in the fire of Prometheus, which will take the fire from the gods and light our own world, having much and being much:

… and now, as the normal effect of growing older, we have just opened our eyes. The boldest of us have found our way to the deck. They have seen the vessel that was carrying us along… They have realized that there are boilers to be stroked and wheels to be manned…. they have savored the sweet scent of the Western Isles, over the curve of the horizon: it ceases to be the restless human to and from the same spot. It is no longer a drifting—it is a voyage.

— Teilhard de Chardin

 

Bruce Lerro has taught for over 27 years as an adjunct Professor of Psychology at Golden Gate University, Dominican University and Diablo Valley College in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has applied a Vygotskian socio-historical perspective to the four books he’s written, found on Amazon. Read more of his articles and get involved at Planning Beyond Capitalism Follow us on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at mailto:goethe48@pacbell.net

Intergenerational Socialist Solidarity: Face-to-Face vs. Facebook

Orientation

What does it mean to be a political agitator in the 21st century? Until about a year ago, political agitation for me was inseparable from face-to-face interaction in one-on-one group settings or in making or listening to a public speech. This was the foundation for building and sustaining political solidarity. But is there a place for agitation on Facebook? After all, in political Facebook groups there is discussion about what is going on in the political economy but how much do these discussions contribute, if anything, to building socialism. Is it “just talk” which doesn’t lead anywhere, or does Facebook discussion move people to then take action in face-to-face settings? Is participating in Facebook political discussions an incipient form for political activity or is it a distraction from it? While face-to-face agitation is clearly superior in terms of getting anyone to commit to anything, face-to-face is limited in its reach. The Facebook group Jill Stein Dank Meme has about 50,000 members. The reach of Facebook is overwhelmingly superior to face-to-face.

My other question has to do with whether intergenerational solidarity can be built better through face-to-face encounters or on Facebook. In face-to-face interaction, status indicators of class, race, gender and age are present. You can find out where the person lives, what kind of work they do, and who their friends are. Knowing these things both can provide the deepening of political relationships as well as boxing them in. But on Facebook this kind of information can be somewhat suppressed. In terms of building political relationships does relative anonymity work for or against building an intergenerational political community? I do not have answers to these questions, but I do want to share my experiences in with both settings and then draw some tentative conclusions.

In the first section I want to show the power of face-to-face intergenerational influence by telling a story of the impact of three encounters I had with the anarchist Murray Bookchin in the early 1970’s. In the last section I will discuss my own fledgling influence over young socialists on Facebook over the past few months. In order to show the power of face-to-face interaction, I need to talk about the class and political implications of my first 22 years before meeting Murray as a testament of how powerful face-to-face can be.

From grease ball to proto-hippie

I am no red diaper baby. I was born to a conservative Italian Catholic family in 1948 in Brooklyn. My mother’s father was a shoemaker in a tiny store on Bushwick Avenue. He had no employees. My father’s side of the family was very poor (“on the dole”, as they used to say). His own father deserted them and his single mother, along with six other siblings, raised him. My father’s side of the family resembled some of the old James Cagney movies: his brothers were all petty criminals — numbers runners, betting on the horses, loan sharks – and the women joined the convent to pray for the men. My father had drawing talent, which he cultivated despite his family making fun of him. When he was 17 he took his pen-and-ink sketches into Manhattan and some of the commercial artists took him under their wing. He was the only one on his side of the family to “make good”.

My parents understood that while economically they were middle class they really were not culturally middle class. They hoped to bridge the gap by sending me to Catholic schools—grammar school, high school and college. When we moved from Brooklyn to Jamaica, Queens they did not know which neighborhoods had Catholic schools that were middle class. The grammar school they sent me to, Saint Nicholas of Tolentine, was in a working class neighborhood. Most of the kids I went to school with were Irish or Italian and their parents were butchers, firemen or cops. Class conflicts arose between how my parents wanted to raise me against the expectations from these kids. I had the same situation when I played baseball in the sandlots. In both cases I got my first taste of what Erik Olin Wright called “contradictory class locations.” In both cases working class kids won. You either learned to fight or you were ostracized, shunned or tormented as only children can do. Like most people of my generation, I can testify that Catholic grammar school was hell on Earth. Holy Cross High School wasn’t much better. For twelve years I received about 30 hours a week of authoritarian propaganda along with another two hours on the weekend. By my junior year the cracks were starting to show.

Thanks to “Murray the K” of WINS radio station, I got exposure to rhythm and blues music, which besides baseball, was an island of sanity. I used to go to the Brooklyn Fox Theater which was predominantly working class. Then I stumbled across three rhythm and blues stations—WWRL, WLIB in New York and WKJR, in Newark. I used to go by myself to the Apollo Theatre in Manhattan to catch some of the acts.

When my parents enrolled me in a Catholic community college it was the last straw. I dropped out of college, moved away from home and back to Brooklyn. I went to work in music stores in Manhattan, including the famous Colony Records, for a couple of years. By this time it was 1968, the Attica riots, the Anti-war and Civil Rights movements were coming to a head. Thanks to a few of the political “freaks” in the music store I finally made the transition from “Flatland” to “Spaceland”, as mathematician Edwin Abbot called it.

After about a year I applied to VISTA to avoid the draft for the Vietnam War. Then I received a letter from VISTA inviting me to their training program in Atlanta. I “decided” to go (as much as a 20 year old “decides” anything). I lasted a week. There was one of the VISTA orientation leaders who I really liked. On about the fifth day of training, our group was on a bus with him heading for some workshop. I cornered him on the bus and asked him some very pointed questions. He admitted to me he was a Communist and this was all reformist crap. That was all the reassurance I needed.

By force of circumstances that would require more space than I have, I spent the next two years hitchhiking around the country with a six-month stint in Denver Colorado. Once I began hitchhiking, I started to develop an interest in reading. I didn’t have a mentor to teach me the order in which to read things. So when I settled in Denver, I developed my own six month reading program in which I read about 6-8 hours a day five days a week, in addition to holding down a part-time job as a library page in the Denver Public Library. I read about the history of socialism, the elite theory of Mosca and Pareto, McNeill’s Rise of the West, Mumford and Wilhelm Reich – who was white-hot at the time.

Despite being enthralled with my new self-education, I was lonely. I attended some of the demonstrations in the city, but they all were about single issues. I wanted to find a socialist group which could frame these issues, but I didn’t know where to look. All the books I read were about anarchism as a historical movement. Woodcock’s history of anarchism claimed that anarchism had its day. I didn’t quite believe that. Weren’t there contemporary anarchists?

I made friends with people who had a radical bookstore in Denver. There was some anarchist literature in the bookstore, but it seemed like there was a current anarchist organization that was writing about contemporary issues. One guy, Tuggie, was very friendly to me. He told me about their collective, but I really did not know what the next step was. I felt that there was some secret code I had to decipher to “join the movement”, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I was too embarrassed to ask.

In any event, Tuggie showed me a book called Post-Scarcity Anarchism by Murray Bookchin. I tore through that book in three days. “This guy must be alive!” I thought. No more dead anarchists for me! I found out Murray lived in New York. I packed my stuff and moved back to New York and stayed with my parents till I could find a place to live.

First Encounter with Murray

Some time in January of 1972, feeling very lonely, I decided to see if I could find Murray in the phone book. Part of me thought “If you were a famous anarchist, would you have your phone number in a phone book?” Hell no! But desperately I poured through the Manhattan phone book anyway. I couldn’t believe it! There was his name in the book. What the fuck! Now for the real test. Do I have the nerve to call him up? There was something about the way Murray wrote that book that made him seem approachable. After about an hour of pacing around in the kitchen, I picked up the phone and called. Of course, I hoped no one would answer to let me off the hook. But someone did answer. It was some kid about my age. “Can I speak with Murray?” I said, my heart racing. The kid said “sure”. After a few seconds of talking behind the scene, Murray came on the phone. “Murray, you don’t know me,” I blurt out, “but I read your Post Scarcity Anarchism book and I want to be part of this. I’m pretty isolated now. Can you give me some direction?” He asked me if I wanted to come over. What the fuck! “Yeah! Where are you?” He gave me his address. It was something like 2nd Avenue and East 6th street. I told him I lived in Jamaica, Queens and I would be there in about 45 minutes. I left the house and probably ran the entire five long blocks to reach the subway.

I reached his address. It was kind of a beat-up apartment building, but nothing was going to stop me. A young kid answered the door. I think his name was Joel Whitehouse. Very friendly, he said “are you Bruce?” I nod nervously. He directs me to the kitchen where Murray must have been holding court. There must have been about three kids my age. Murray asked me some questions about myself. I was able to convey to everyone that I was serious about anarchism, that I had some experiences that qualified me, including some LSD trips which I’m sure met with approval from the other kids, if not Murray. The whole time I was there all of them made me feel that I was welcome and that I was part of something larger. Most of the time was spent with them telling me places I could go to get plugged in. That was the best 90 minutes of therapy I ever had! I don’t remember if I hugged Murray or not. Being Italian it wasn’t far-fetched, but I think I was too much in awe of him to do that.

Romance among the anarchists

Within the next day or so I started to volunteer at the War Resisters’ League. I did phone calling, leafleting and general office work. People were very nice to me but I could see that there were tensions between some of the volunteers. What came as a shock to me (and which I’ve never gotten over) was how miserable leftists treat each other over the slightest theoretical differences. I thought leftists would embody the new world we wanted to create in how they lived and treated each other. I guess I was too much of a psychologist or process junkie to understand that a lot people join the movement for reasons other than to just build socialism, as Eric Hoffer argued.

At one of the War Resisters League meetings I noticed a woman named Susan. I first worked with her one-on-one as a volunteer. She was very kind in explaining to me how things worked. Now at the meeting I saw her power to articulate things at a higher level in a group meeting. I become even more attracted to her. We continued to build a relationship. Finally after a couple of months, I asked her if she had a boyfriend. “Yes”. I was disappointed, but not surprised. Then she said “are you asking me out?” “Well I was going to” I said, “but you are taken”. “My boyfriend and I do not have a monogamous agreement”, she responded. This confuses me. “You mean you want to go out with me even though you have a boyfriend?” “Yes”, she replied.

Now I am really turned on and petrified all at the same time. We fooled around. A week or two later she told me her boyfriend, Jack, who lives in the West Village, is looking for a roommate. “Would you be interested?” she asks me. Whaaaatttttt?? “Yeah,” she said, “I told him about you and he’d like to meet you.” So this is what Emma Goldman went through, I thought to myself. “OK, I’ll meet him”. I meet Jack and like him very much. Nothing between Susan and me is mentioned. I say I need to think about being his roommate. I have to figure out whether I want to go on as a threesome and jeopardize my potential living situation with Jack or do I want to be safe, stop seeing Susan and just work on building a stable home-life with Jack. In one of the few sane decisions of my 20’s, I decided on the second course. Susan seemed to take everything in stride when I explained that I am in over my head. I continued to volunteer with War Resisters League, go to demonstrations with Jack and Susan and others and work for United Parcel Service at night unloading trucks.

Second Encounter with Murray

At UPS I worked a graveyard shift: 11 at night till 3 in the morning. I took the train home from the Long Island City plant back to the village, got to sleep about 4:30 AM and was up by about noon. One day in the late morning I was on 6th Avenue in the West Village around 8th Street where the great basketball games go on, and had just come out of a supermarket. I saw an older guy walking toward me. It looked like Murray. “Could it be? I haven’t seen him since I met him a couple of months ago at his place. It is him!”. I didn’t expect him to remember me because I figured I was just one of hundreds of lost hippies looking to him for direction. But I was also happy to see him because I was in a much better place psychologically, and wanted to show him I turned out okay and was no longer a basket case.

“Murray, remember me? You invited me to your house a couple of months ago?” He looked at me hard, and then said “yes” after pointing his finger at me a couple of times. “How are you doing now?” I rolled my eyes and said “I am in such a better place now. I volunteer at the War Resisters League and I live in the West Village with another anarchist roommate. I work at UPS at night unloading trucks.” After a pause, I looked him straight in the eye and said “you really helped me Murray”. “Well, good” he said. That was the last time I ever spoke with him directly. In retrospect, I wish I could have said “I’ll never forget you”, but I had no way of knowing it would be the last time.

Third Encounter with Murray –

One of the benefits of working with the War Resisters League was that I also found out about radical events around Manhattan. One event was a book club meeting, which I think was sponsored once a month on a Thursday night by the Libertarian League. I had never heard of this, but one of my comrades told me about it. When he told me Murray Bookchin was going to speak, I was ecstatic. Two weeks later I came upon this sturdy one or two story red brick building. I got there 30 minutes early to look around. There were these wonderful old people, but they were not like the old people I was used to: cranky, complaining about their children. These people were warm, offering me cookies. They were like my Italian grandparents, but they were radicals. Around me I could hear others arguing about the Spanish and Russian Revolutions. I remember someone telling someone else he knew Lenin was full of it even before the Bolsheviks took power. However, I began to feel uncomfortable when the number of old people in the room kept growing. I began to feel out of place. Then Murray came in and immediately started talking with the old-timers. Slowly, close to 7:00 some people my age began to drift in. Murray ambled to the lectern at about ten minutes after seven and began speaking. Within about 10 minutes the place was packed. People were standing around the perimeters. There were now many people my age, naturally late.

I was riveted by what Murray had to say, but I was also able to take a step back and notice what was before me. This was a truly intergenerational event that I had never seen before. Well, of course, I did: when I was in church as a child with my parents. But this was no church like I had ever seen! It was better than any church. My eyes moved around the room. I saw old people listening, young people listening and the room was electric.

Imagine this intergenerational gathering as a gathering of trees. On the periphery were the old grandfather trees on their way out, yet soaking it all in, many, perhaps, feeling more confident that with Murray at the helm, the next generation couldn’t go too far off. At the core were us seedling trees, green and immature. At the center, at the heart, stood Murray Bookchin, spanning the generations, in his prime. That is one of my fondest radical moments ever.

Many people may disagree with all of Murray’s politics or some of it, as I do now. But few would deny that despite being 50 years old he had a way with people in their twenties, at the very time when Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman were saying to never trust anyone over 30. When I tell my story about my encounters with Murray to older anarchists they shake their heads and say that was typical of him. It was all in the setting of political organizing. He did not get this following because these people were his students. He was drawing people to him for 10 years before he was eventually given a professorship. Murray knew how to build intergenerational solidarity like no one I had ever seen.

I’ve been a college teacher for 27 years and I certainly have influenced students. I have learned to get along with people 40 years younger than I am, but this is not political organizing. Most of my students have to take my classes for reasons that have nothing to do with my political views or me. Murray drew people to him without having anything to hold over them like a grade.

From Face-to-Face to Facebook

At this time last year I had no Facebook page and was completely cynical about the whole operation. But last spring my partner and I hired a social media movement consultant, Susan, to help us with our political website, and she insisted we have a Facebook Page. Since my partner manages our website and already had her own Facebook account, I figured I’d leave it to her. It was only a casual comment by Susan that helped me change my mind about Facebook. She talked about people who went on Hillary’s page in order to “start up trouble”. Since she was no doubt a supporter of Clinton, I had to be delicate. I asked about what you had to do to make comments. When I found out how easy it was, my mind began racing. At the time I was very excited about the followers of Bernie Sanders as possible converts to socialism, but wasn’t sure how to reach them. Then I thought about Facebook. I searched for the most left-wing group of the Democratic Party, which seemed to be “Bernie or Bust” Facebook group. Posting on my partner’s Facebook account, I then began agitating for the Sandernistas to get out of the Democratic Party. As my posts were controversial and constantly generated responses, my partner began to insist that I get my own account. After a couple of weeks of arguments, I agreed. I lasted on Bernie or Bust until primary night when I was kicked off. I did this for two months until the primary was over. Then I switched to the Jill Stein Dank Meme group and tried to move people to make a more explicit commitment to socialism. Before any of you think I have become obsessed with Facebook and spend all my time there, I actually treat it as a job. I spend an hour every morning on it. This is part of my political commitment to agitate every day.

Is Intergenerational Solidarity Possible on Facebook? Is it Desirable?

I am very fussy about who my Facebook friends are. I examine their posts, look at their profile, and peruse the groups they belong to before deciding to accept their friend requests. As I said earlier, the status markers like class, race, gender, age, occupation and where they live are less easy to determine. What is even more interesting is that I don’t seem to care, since no one asks me about the kind of work I do or where I live, maybe it doesn’t matter to them much either. Still, one thing does stand out. Most of the “friend requests” I receive include their tiny profile pictures. They are not large enough to see clearly unless I go to their page. But when I look at their pictures occasionally I am astounded by how young they seem. Some of my Facebook friends look like they are still in high school, and I’d say most are in their twenties. I am old enough to be their grandfather, yet here we are pecking away. There is a group called “Baby Communist Support Group” which specifically helps young comrades to get their bearings. I have sometimes used my training as a psychologist to help people in this group with depression and anxiety in the similar ways that Murray helped me in my first encounter with him. What’s cool is that they don’t ask me for my credentials, nor do I volunteer them.

Is there such a thing as electronic intergenerational solidarity? The cynic in me says no. You have built nothing with these people. They know nothing about you and there is no continuity developing. It is true that when I have tried on occasion to take the next step: to send an email or have a phone conversation, it has not worked very well. Other than my partner – and 4 or 5 other friends that I know personally as well as through Facebook, I have not yet met a single one of my Facebook friends. If I never actually meet any of my Facebook friends, is that a sign the whole project is a failure? If we never talk on the phone or exchange emails, does this mean I am deluding myself? Most of all, if the fruit of all these electronic interactions does not result in the formation of joint political in-person actions, like founding a party and engaging in a strike does that mean I am not doing any “real agitation”?

Granted Murray Bookchin influenced many people, not just because of building face-to-face political relationships, but because he wrote books, made public speeches and attended conferences. Still he could not reach potentially thousands of people every day. I am no Murray Bookchin, but I have thousands of young people I can influence every day by investing at least an hour or longer if I choose. Am I co-creating intergenerational solidarity? Am I wasting my time? My conclusion is that Facebook is good for spreading seeds far and wide and talking people through the clarification and support stages of being political radicals. Face-to-Face work is for nailing down the time, place and circumstances and for building a political practice. However, all the political practice that develops can in turn return to Facebook for consolidating and spreading more seeds.

Since my story is experiential and I claim no expertise, I welcome your feedback either in direct emails or by sending me articles pertaining to the subject.