All posts by Bruce Lerro

My Love Affair With Books: Self-Education From Greaseball to Street Intellectual

Adjuncts of the world unite!

Between the worlds

Throughout all my formal studies, I continued to be an artist model and it wasn’t until I began teaching in college that the paths of teaching and modelling crossed in irreconcilable ways. My first teaching gig was at New College of California in 1988, teaching Soviet Personality Theory, a course that I made up. About the second week I was teaching there the booking secretary of the Model’s Guild offered me a modelling job in the New College Art Department. The possibility of students in an art class turning up in my Soviet Personality Theory class was not a prospect I wanted to consider. At that point I realized that I was at the end of the line of my modelling life. From that point on, while I was expanding my part-time teaching work, I also took part-time work as a psychological counselor, working in halfway houses for two years. Throughout it all I continued to read about two hours a day, come hell or high water.

The directors at the halfway houses didn’t know what to make of me. Here I was with a masters degree in counseling. Shouldn’t I stop reading since I was done with school? If I was going to read, the least I could do was read books in my field. But here I was reading Stephen J. Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny, Bohm’s Causality and Chance in Modern Physics and Bergson’s Creative Evolution. After a while I would hide the books, so I didn’t have to explain myself.

“Open your mouth and keep your clothes on”: becoming a road scholar

One of the best things about teaching in liberal arts schools was that they respected interdisciplinary learning. I transformed all the reading and note taking I had done into courses, which the liberal arts department welcomed. My first course was Visionary Adult Development in which I was able to present dialectical operations as a fifth stage of cognitive development beyond Piaget’s formal operations. I used biographies of James Baldwin and Malcolm X as my case studies. To the cultural studies department I presented a class on Cultural Evolution from the Stone Age to the Present. Did I have a degree in this? No. Did the chair of the department care? No, because she knew I was knowledgeable after I showed her my bibliography: Leslie White, Julian Steward, Elman Service, Marshall Sahlins, Marvin Harris, Gerhard Lenski. I loved them all long before Cultural Evolution was even a twinkle in my eye.

One time I found a textbook in a used bookstore called Environmental Psychology. This was a subject I had never seen covered in any of my college work. It was about the impact of physical space on people’s psychology, including the size of rooms, the height of the ceilings, territoriality and how people react to natural disasters. I loved this stuff. For the better part of two years I read three or four textbooks and a number of experts such as Irvin Altman Yi-Fu Tuan and Robert Sack. I knew when I was ready I would propose it as a course and it would be accepted, which it was. I also taught more traditional courses like Cross-Cultural Psychology and Social Psychology but my favorites were always the courses I made up.

The Seeds of my first book: From Earth Spirits to Sky Gods

Just around the time I began teaching at the liberal arts school, I began to develop an interest in tribal and ancient societies. I loved Engels’ book, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State but felt Marx and Engels had been too sweeping in their lumping together tribal spirituality and the “Great Religions”. After all, I reasoned, if hunter-gatherers were egalitarian, than their spiritual practices must have been different than those of the Great Religions which emerged after the development of social classes. I read F.M Cornford’s From Religion to Philosophy; E.R. Dodd’s The Greeks and the Irrational; Eric Havelock, Geoffrey E.R. Lloyd , Gilbert Murray, Jane Harrison, Bruno Snell, James Breasted, Mircea Eliade along with the work of Jack Goody, among many others. As I read, I began to develop a course which I called From Earth Spirits to Sky-Gods. I taught the class about five times before my lecture notes got so big that I realized I had the basis of my first book. I worked on that book for twelve years.

Following my passions

Over the years, I have not been shy about contacting authors whom I admired.

Some of these folks welcomed the contact and others didn’t. In the early 1990s, I began to become interested in the world-systems theory of Immanuel Wallerstein. There was one particular world-systems theorist, Chris Chase-Dunn whose work I really liked. Chris was the most unpretentious academic I’ve ever met. I asked him some penetrating questions about his work through email. After a while he said “you ask a lot of questions. What are you working on?” When I told him, he asked me to send him the manuscript. About two years later he wrote me a letter of recommendation to Lexington Press which convinced them they should take my manuscript. Did Chris ask me what my credentials were? He did not. He understood that I was an interdisciplinary scholar and saw from the manuscript I had something important to say. About a year later he asked me if I wanted to write a book with him. I was paralyzed. This guy was relatively famous, at least in world-systems circles. He had PhD in sociology. I expressed my reservations and I told him I had never even taken a sociology class. He shrugged it off. He said to me “in world-systems theory we are all trespassers.” Around 2001 we began writing a book together, a book that was called Social Change: Globalization From The Stone Age to the Present which was published by Paradigm Publishers.

Power in Eden

In the early 1990’s a feminist student of mine took my From Earth-spirits to Sky-Gods course, loved the class but complained to me that there was not enough discussion of the the lives of women between the Stone Ages and the Axial Iron Age. This led me to the work of Janet Chafetz-Salisman, Peggy Reeves-Sanday, and Christine Ward-Galley. Between 2000 when Earth Spirits was published, and 2005 I worked on a manuscript that later turned into my second published book, Power in Eden. I sent my former student my 410-page copy. Inside the cover I wrote to her, “Are you happy now”. We had a good laugh.

You are a Street Intellectual

At the university, you don’t come across too many working-class people. But at one university I had a student who was a fireman. This guy liked me enough to take two or three of my classes. One time the guy took me aside and told me how much he appreciated me as a teacher. I tried to say that there were many good teachers at the school. He was having none of it. He said, “you are not like the other teachers. You don’t talk like them. You don’t act like them. You ought to be on a street corner on Mission street, agitating for the revolution.” “Well, what would that make me”, I asked. You’re a street intellectual, that’s what you are”. I looked at him, speechless. I’ve never forgotten this. It is the greatest compliment I’ve ever received about my work.

From Universities to community colleges

About 13 years ago, after a steep decline in the capitalist economy made it very difficult to teach in liberal arts universities, I bit the bullet and applied for part time community college teaching. The prospect of teaching 18-21-year-old students after 14 years of teaching older adults in night school was something I dreaded.

When I was interviewed for the job, the chairs of the psychology and the sociology departments couldn’t believe that I had written two books on my own without being forced to. “Why would anyone want to write books if they weren’t forced to by the department? How could I have had the time to write books on the salary of an adjunct?” These were exactly the kinds of academic questions that drove me away from school 36 years ago.

While they thought it was very impressive that I had written two books that crossed about six different disciplines, they did not want me to maintain my interdisciplinary focus once I began teaching. Community colleges are much more narrow in focus than the universities and they insisted that I could not teach in areas in which I had no degree. So I spent most of my time smuggling my interests into the classes anyway. I used to create two syllabi. One was what I called the “family values” syllabus which was what I gave to the administration. The other was the “X” rated syllabus which I gave to the students which contained what I was really going to do in the class.

To give you one example, I taught a class called Psychology of Modern Life

This was supposed to be a class about how to apply psychology to everyday life. This included working on yourself psychologically while touting the humanism of the field of psychology. But after I watched Adam Curtis’ Century of Self, I realized there was another side to psychology, a very deceptive side. So I developed a course called Brainwashing, Propaganda and Rhetoric: Dark Psychology in the 20th century. This lead me to study Cults, advertising, nationalism and sports as propaganda. I studied the work of Robert J. Lifton, William Sargent, Jacques Ellul, Erving Goffman and Serge Moscovici. I did this for nine years before the administration found out what I was doing. Part of the reason I was able to do this is that the students never complained to the administration about what I was teaching.

Capitalist economic violence against adjuncts

Between 2007 and 2014 I taught a class at one university called The History of Psychology every semester. As usual, I started out with an established textbook but became increasingly critical of it. My lecture notes kept getting fatter and fatter as I brought in material on the history of the senses, cognitive evolution in history, the history of eating habits, James Hillman’s work on polytheistic psychology, along with work on the history of mental illness and crowd psychology. In 2013 I requested that the department make my manuscript available for students to purchase. I was turned down because it hadn’t been published as a book yet. So much for academia supporting the work of scholars. I worked on my book another year, a book called Forging Promethean Psychology. Six months before the class was to begin, I was told by the department that I was being “bumped” from teaching the class. Why? There were the usual budget cuts. They were cutting classes and the full-timers had to teach the remaining classes that were left. So I had a book for my class, was all dressed up and nowhere to go.

Conclusion

Generally, the movement of my intellectual life began by passively reading books and taking notes on them. As I began to discuss some of my reading and wrote papers when I went back to college, I started to apply my reading. Once I began to teach classes the relationship between reading, speaking and writing got reversed. In my later years reading was done in the service of speaking, writing, and teaching. However, I still read in many subjects like the sciences, which I will never write books about or teach.

I have never seen myself as an academic. Even at the world-systems conferences I attended, and with which I had great sympathy, I never felt at home. I have always felt academics were pompous, and out of touch with real life, especially the full-time academics. I’ve always seen my work teaching as empowering students. I never cared much about what the other teachers thought and I’ve frankly been disappointed at how lacking in intellectual ambition most of the college teachers I’ve met were.

Over the years I developed a library large enough to cause tension in my relationship, with books spilling out of every room and stuffed into closet shelves. When I stood at the counter at Moe’s Books in Berkeley three or four years ago, I said to the guy at the counter, “If I ever get a divorce, I could see the reason in print: ’cause of divorce: too many fuckin books in the house’”. I still remember Niccolo Machiavelli’s quote:

When evening comes, I return home and go into my study. On the threshold I strip off my muddy, sweaty, workday clothes, and put on the robes of court and palace, and in this graver dress I enter the antique courts of the ancients and am welcomed by them, and there I taste the food that alone is mine, and for which I was born. And there I make bold to speak to them and ask the motives of their actions, and they, in their humanity, reply to me. And for the space of four hours I forget the world, remember no vexation, fear poverty no more, tremble no more at death: I pass indeed into their world.

Through break-ups, aggravation with socialist organizations and financial insecurity I have never lost the feeling that there is nothing like sitting in my library reading while listening to classical music and drinking a cup of coffee.

• First published at Planning Beyond Capitalism

My Love Affair With Books: Self-Education From Greaseball to Street Intellectual

Bruce Lerro with one of his latest books

Only sissies read books

When I was growing up there were no books to speak of in our house. My Italian-American parents were middle class: my father was a self-made commercial artist; my mothers’ father was a shoemaker; and my father’s father was a bartender who deserted the family. In other words, we were middle class without the culture that usually comes from being middle class. My neighborhood sandlot baseball friends were working class and the Catholic school I went to was working class. Most of the parents of the kids I hung around with were either firefighters or cops – not many book readers here. My love affair with books began at 20 years old and is inversely proportional to my interest in school. When I was in school, I had no interest in books. It was only after I dropped out of community college that I became interested in reading.

“Now dat’s the blues” says Fat George of Rivoli Records

I was a great follower of rhythm and blues music throughout my teenage years, listening to the black stations, WWRL and WLIB in New York. I worked in music stores for a couple of years which first made me appreciate the blues. After I quit school and moved out, I began to look for books on the blues in local bookstores. I remember going to Yankee Stadium one weekday night and finding myself sitting in the upper deck reading a history of the blues while barely looking up at the game. Something was changing.

“Looking Backward” and my socialist baptism

In early 1970 one of my co-workers in a wholesale music store invited me to move in with him and his friend who lived in Brooklyn, a couple of subway stops from Manhattan. My co-worker, Bob Bady, was clearly from an upper-middle class background. One time on a break he said to me he was a socialist. I said I didn’t know what that meant. He says “have you ever heard of Edward Bellamy’s book Looking Backward?” I said “no” and so he whipped out a paperback version and handed it to me. “Let me know what you think”, he said. I think he saw me as his personal project. Here I am, a greaseball with a pompadour reading a book about socialism. My friends and former teachers wouldn’t have believed it. After reading this book I knew I was a socialist. Bob dragged me to all the marches going on at the time and reading Bellamy’s book gave me a sense of where all this could lead.

My first heroes: James Baldwin, Richard Wright and Malcolm X

Because I lived so close to Manhattan and because I already worked in a music store in Times Square, I began to poke around in bookstores downtown, specifically the great Strand Bookstore and the 8th street bookstore in the West Village. By the following year, Bob had moved away to go to college, (probably graduate school) and so I was on my own in terms of reading. Given my past and present interest in the blues, it was a natural fit to gravitate toward black authors. I read James Baldwin, and two or three of Richard Wright’s books. But the book that was most riveting for me was Malcolm X’s autobiography.

Searching for mysteries without any clues: reading eclectically

I started out reading eclectically. I picked up psychology books, history books, books on philosophy, which I could not understand, and an abridged version of Das Kapital which I put down about 3 minutes after I pulled it off the shelf. I really did not know where to begin. I had no system. I read a little bit of Lenin but had no understanding of the relationship between Leninists, social democrats and anarchists. It wasn’t until I stumbled on GDH Cole’s History of Socialism that I began to put the pieces together.

I worked for UPS on the graveyard shift unloading trucks in Long Island City from 11pm to 3am. I read faithfully on all my breaks and on the train going to work and coming home. The other workers did not know what to make of me. My parents must have wanted to shake me and say “who are you and what have you done with my son”.

In and out of VISTA in seven days

Later that year I was accepted into VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program in Atlanta. On the bus for one of our tours, I cornered one of the presenters who seemed more radical. I expressed my reservations about VISTA which he confirmed by saying: “it’s all liberal bullshit.’ I knew I was at a crossroads. I really couldn’t go back to New York as it represented the old world.

About six months earlier I had met a young woman named Stephanie on the train on my way to work at the music store. Stephanie was visiting from Berkeley. She gave me her phone number and told me if I ever travelled to the West Coast that I would have place to stay. So when I left Atlanta, rather than return to New York I decided to hitchhike to Berkeley.

Busted in Topeka Kansas with “communist” material

On my way through the south I remember reading Ray Ginger’s biography of Eugene Debs. Travelling in that part of the country in 1970 was pretty dangerous for people who looked like me (perceived by others as a hippie,) so after experiencing both southern hospitality and southern hostility, I headed north on I-65, and then West on I-70. Some guy in the military gave me a ride to Topeka, Kansas where he was stationed. I was stuck on a ramp onto I-70 because it was illegal there to be on the interstate hitchhiking. After 6 hours of not moving and having a few beer cans thrown at me, I decided to take my chances and get on the interstate. I was not there for 10 minutes before a cop arrested me and took me to the jail. Before I went to my cell, the cop asked me to open up my knapsack. I was very nervous about this but not for the reasons you might suspect. He looked almost excited; anticipating that he would find out I had some pot, which I didn’t have. However, instead he pulled out three books: The Essential Lenin; The Writings of Che Guevara; and an anthology of writings by anarchists. He looked at the books, shook his head and then said “Just as I thought, ‘commuist’ agitator (intentional misspelling to capture his pronunciation). After about 6 hours in jail I decided to pay the $100 fine and get out of there. My books were not returned.

Cowhand intellectual in Eastern Oregon

On the road again a year later, I am travelling east on US-20 going from Corvallis Oregon, to Denver. I had met Ellie two weeks earlier when she picked me, along with two other guys up in her pickup truck. We stayed on her dad’s farm for a week – which I’m sure he was thrilled about. Anyway, she must have been looking for a way to get out of Corvallis and ran away with me to Denver after the other two guys left for the San Francisco Bay Area. Well, our hitchhiking through Eastern Oregon wasn’t going very well. Finally, as the sun was going down, two guys in a pick-up truck who looked like rednecks offered us a ride. We both hesitated but we were desperate, stuck in the middle of nowhere. They drove about two miles and then made a left on some dirt road. Not good.

These two guys start building a huge fire in the middle or what appears almost as a desert, and then they started drinking. We sit with them at the fire looking at the long cast shadows of the tree branches. Uh oh, is this the end? They only seem to want to talk to each other. Once it was in the neighborhood of 9 pm, we felt enough time had gone by to say we were going to bed. We put out our sleeping bags about a quarter of a mile away and tried to get some sleep. They were talking too loud for us to do that. So, I decided to go back to the fire and talk to them. One of them was so drunk he just fell asleep in the sand. Then the other one who looked like a cowhand began to talk to me.

I was amazed that he started talking about books to me and how lonely it was to not have anyone to talk to. He started talking about Marx. I couldn’t believe it. Then he asked me what I had read, which I was very careful about. He looked about five years older than I was so he must have felt he had the authority to tell me what to read. On the back of my road map I scribbled Dostoyevsky, Notes from the Underground; Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra; Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth”. I have since read all three, but every time I read one, I thought of him. What I really needed was a reference librarian to help me to prioritize my reading and in what order to read my favorite author’s books. What I was doing was unsystematic but my passion for reading was kindled and just kept going, and I figured that it would congeal later on.

Crashing at the Roosevelt Street Commune

Backtracking to my first hitchhiking adventure from VISTA, when I arrived in Berkeley from Atlanta ten days after I started, I found Stephanie’s house on Roosevelt Street. She was walking towards me talking to a friend. When she saw it was me she couldn’t believe it. We started jumping up and down together. She made good on her offer and I spent the next week crashing in her commune in a reconverted garage where I slept. The books around the house were what you would expect of a hippie household in 1970. A copy of Ibsen’s Enemy of the People on the coffee table was accompanied by Herman Hesse’s Damien on the kitchen table. Stephanie and her friends were more spiritual types than political. I went to one of her meditation weekly sessions which was open to the public. After the talk I asked her if you could be spiritual and a political radical at the same time. She answered carefully and said no. When I asked her why, she said that being spiritual meant no violence and that they couldn’t go together. I wasn’t satisfied with that and thought that they could be synthesized. A great deal of my reading and joining groups from council communism to neo-pagan Tree of Life groups was dedicated to making them work together even though everyone else must have thought I was nuts.

Telegraph Avenue and Moe’s Books

One of the first things Stephanie’s roommates insisted that I do is go to Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue. The next day in the late morning I made a trip up there. Telegraph Avenue was then, as it was for many years, a “freak show” with all the positive and negative connotations that follow. I went into Moe’s and was floored by the variety of radical literature. After having read on the history of socialism, I was curious about anarchism and anarchists. Right on the counter, as if it was it were a best seller, were Kropotkin’s revolutionary pamphlets; a biography of Bakunin by EH Carr and James’s Joll’s book on the history of anarchism. Berkeley then was filled with grouplets of leftists all claiming to know the truth. In retrospect most of these groups were rigid and not very open to learning from each other, but for an eclectic like me just starting out, it was exhilarating to flit from group to group. Once I got a beat on the history of socialism, I knew what the centerpiece of my reading would be: socialism and radical history.

My nine-month six hours a day reading program

By this point I was in love with reading but could not imagine going back to school because of my bad experience with it. Also, I had no idea that I could find work which involved the kind of reading I was doing. So, I decided to develop my own reading program. I wanted to read more about socialism but I wanted to read in an interdisciplinary way. So I set up a program for myself, which usually had five categories of books from different disciplines. Besides socialism and radical history I read on psychology, philosophy, anthropology, mythology and the history of science.

I asked my parents if I could move back with them from the Fall of 1970 to the Spring of 1971 while throwing myself into my reading program. They said “ok”, hoping that a stay at home might allow me to become more “normal”. During that time, I would work for UPS unloading trucks at night. During the day I spent about 6 hours each day reading, taking notes and writing down my impressions. I did this from September to May. Every day I would take my books and notebooks to different libraries. In those days not all the old radical books were available in paperback. I remember reading Emma Goldman’s Living My Life in the Brooklyn Library every Tuesday afternoon before taking the train to Long Island City to work. My favorite place was to go to the 42nd Street Library in Manhattan and sit at those big oak tables and chairs. As I sat there it was hard not to feel like I was part of history.

I had a section in my reading program called “radical biographies” which included reading biographies of Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Louise Michel, Enrico Malatesta, Rosa Luxemburg, Victor Serge, Alexandra Kollontai and Vera Figner. Another category was in psychology. I read the work of Erich Fromm, Karen Horney and Wilhelm Reich. I was also curious about philosophy. I wanted to read in this field, but wanted a socialist take on it. Maurice Cornford wrote a three volume communist introduction to philosophy, which clarified the difference between ontology and epistemology as well as the major schools within each field. I also became interested in Art History and tore through the four volumes of Arnold Hauser’s Social History of Art.

Self-educational study group with neither carrots or sticks

In 1975 I spotted an ad for a reading group on Nietzsche in the local hippie newspaper, Open Exchange. I had read Thus Spoke Zarathustra but never dreamed anyone else would be interested in Nietzsche. To paraphrase Tammy Wynette, we liked Nietzsche when Nietzsche wasn’t cool: This was long before the postmodern rage over Nietzsche. I never met such a mix of people—a high school teacher, a printer, a carpenter and a welder. Together for a year we met at each other’s houses every two weeks and we tore through most of Nietzsche’s work in English. Every one of these folks was a self-disciplined, independent thinker who did the reading every week without any carrots or sticks. I remained friends with two of them for years, long after out group ended.

I have to say that one of the very best things about socialists is that we are, for the most part, self-taught. We read even when no one is forcing us. Many of the socialists I’ve met know more about history, economics and politics than many college instructors who had degrees in the field. We formed reading groups and studied together because it was important for the revolution that we did so.

Social Evolution as part of cosmic evolution

Throughout the mid 70’s, my focus continued to be radical theory and radical history. But by the late 1970’s it was clear that the wave of 60’s radicalism was fading and I became interested in larger issues. I thought that socialism needed to be grounded in something larger and evolutionary. A Marxist comrade of mine who was studying yoga under the disapproving eye of other comrades in our group felt the same way I did. He whispered to me I should study Teilhard de Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man. From here it was a short step to Henry Bergson, Lloyd Morgan and the emergent evolutionists and then to Bertalanffy’s General System Theory and the work of the little known Oliver Reiser, especially his book, Cosmic Humanism. This culminated in the work of Buckminster Fuller. I loved Utopia or Oblivion, Critical Path and Nine Chains to the Moon and I was amazed by how someone trained in the natural sciences and a military man (the U.S. Navy) could be a social visionary.

Western spiritual traditions

It was also in the late 70’s and early 80’s that I discovered Wicca. The Neo-pagan movement was well under way, largely a product of the women’s movement’s rejection of the Judeo-Christian tradition. My favorite book at the time was Starhawk’s Spiral Dance, which pulled together pagan traditions along with a “how-to” guide in practicing magick. I never joined a group because I did not trust people to turn these practices into New Age mumbo jumbo. But I did develop a practice of my own. I’ve always found magick to be a very practical system for changing consciousness through the uses of imagery, music and dance.

I also became interested in esoteric spirituality and read books by and about Rudolf Steiner, Aleister Crowley, Dane Rudhyar for astrology and the work of Ouspensky and the Gurdjieff people. I knew all these traditions could not be easily integrated with a socialist perspective but I never gave up trying to bridge the worlds. I joined groups and participated in associations, never quite feeling at home anywhere, always being afraid of being “found out”.

“Shut-up and take off your clothes” — my 12-year life as an artist model

Throughout my 20’s, which were roughly during the 1970’s, I had worked as a proletarian, unloading trucks, driving a forklift and working as a page in the library. There was a deep division between what I was doing in my work life and my luxuriant growth in intellectual curiosity. After a crisis in which I left the Bay Area for three months, when I returned in the summer of 1978, I was determined that my work life should reflect more of my skills and interests than it had been.

As my relationship with my father began to improve in my late 20’s I “allowed” myself to admit that I really was interested in art. I began taking art classes at City College of San Francisco. This, of course, justified a twist in my reading towards the arts. One day in a figure drawing class the model did not show up. The art teacher started to pull out of the cabinet some materials for us do draw a still life. I went over to her and volunteered my services. “You will pose for the class?” she asked. I said “yes” and she said “of course, you can keep your clothes on”. I was having none of it and insisted that I be nude like all the other models we had had. She reluctantly agreed.

I posed for the class and had a great time – gestures, five-minute, then 10 minute than three 20 minute poses over three hours. At the end of the class the art teacher came up to me and said I was pretty good at it. The next time we had a model, I asked them what was involved in becoming a model. I found out you had to audition and that they had auditions twice a year. Two months later I auditioned for the San Francisco Models’ Guild and got in. For the next twelve years I worked all over the Bay Area – about five gigs a week. The pay was pretty good (by today’s standards, maybe $30 dollars per hour). Through it all I read on Muni buses and Bart trains to and from modelling gigs. One way or another, I managed to read my books on the average of about two hours per day.

Capitalist fundamentalism drives me back to college    

With the capitalist economy contracting by the early 1980’s, it was becoming more difficult to make a living as a model, along with teaching a Baseball For Beginners class that I offered through an alternative education newspaper. When I first got involved with my new girlfriend, she was very impressed by all the reading I had done, but then she started seeing possibilities for me. One time we were in Golden Gate Park and I was describing to her a table that I hand-wrote which contrasted the characteristics of ancient cities as opposed to industrial cities. She said to me something like, “you are wasting your knowledge on one person. You ought to be teaching”. I had been told this before but I dismissed it by mistakenly thinking that I needed a PhD to teach college. Besides, I hated school.

Anyway, Barbara kept up the pressure as only people in relationships can do. Finally, I stumbled upon Antioch University, which had a branch in San Francisco. The major draw for me was not just that it was a left-wing school, but that it gave me credit for prior life experience. That meant that if I went to school and took 9 units a quarter, I would have a Bachelor’s degree in a year. The cost of the school was reasonable so, I decided to do it.

Taking classes in psychology produced a crisis for me because I was expected to read “their” books. This conflicted with my own “real” reading program. I didn’t have enough time to do both. At first, I was conscientious and did all the required reading (this lasted only a couple of weeks) and ignored my own, real reading program. But I soon realized that I was so far ahead of the expected knowledge base in school that I could skim the readings because I had already read so much psychology on my own. This was a great relief to me. In one class I took on personality theory, I knew most of the material. Fortunately, the school was open to students doing directed studies. So I invented my own independent course, “Personality Theory And Social Class”. I did this kind of thing in other classes. For my class in Child Development I did a cross-cultural and historical comparison of childrearing practices.

Change of occupational plans: from shrink to college teacher

I started my college life thinking I would be an art therapist, but watching how much fun my developmental psychology teacher, Valita, was having changed my mind. I watched her animatedly talking about research, popping Pepsi after Pepsi, answering questions, being challenged and challenging us. In addition, the students in the class were older, working people, not like the students I was in class with during the day at the community college I dropped out of. This was a cool scene! I noticed on Valita’s syllabus that she had an MA after her name, not a PhD. So, I went up to her on the break and asked about it. Once she told me all you needed was a master’s degree, I thought to myself, “shit, I can do that”. I asked her if she was full-time and she said no, and said she didn’t want to be. I asked why and she said “I just want to teach students, I don’t want to get caught up in faculty politics. I go from school to school and it turns out to be full-time anyway. I just like it, me and the students”. I hugged her at the end of the class and thanked her for unintentionally providing me guidance.

So once I graduated in 1984 I enrolled in a master’s program, since I had come to realize that I could be a student and not abandon my real reading program and just continue it. At the master’s level there were only two teachers who gave me a run for my money: a developmental psychologist and a social psychologist.

Liberal arts universities had a reputation for grade inflation, so you didn’t have to do much work to pass the class. I got used to this and continued to read what I wanted. Well, the developmental psychologist I had for a directed study really tore apart the first paper I wrote. I was shocked and then I got mad. “I’ll show this mutherfucker” I thought to myself. The next paper I wrote was called Social Atomism in Developmental Psychology. It was a criticism of how the field of developmental psychology had a very liberal (rather than socialist) understanding of what it meant to be social. My teacher loved the paper and 18 months later after I graduated, I had it published in a radical psychology journal. One of the best things I got out of my undergraduate program was getting teachers to read what I had written. Having to write papers taught me how to write and, as it turned out, these became the seeds of my own later books and articles.

After four or five weeks of a course in social psychology, I approached a teacher who seemed to be a closeted Marxist. I expressed my frustration with bourgeois orientation to psychology and asked her if there were any Marxists psychologists. She told me about Klaus Riegel who made an argument that dialectical operations was a fifth stage of cognitive development beyond Piaget’s formal operations. More importantly, she told me about Lev Vygotsky and socio-historical psychology. One of the best things about being in school is getting help in orienting yourself to a field. Without Noelle’s help, it might have taken me years to find Vygotsky. But here she was giving me a reading list. I was a socio-historical psychologist all along, only I didn’t know it!

She also told me about Alexander Luria and his work showing the historical and social nature of perception, identity and cognition. Luria studied the transformation of peasants during the Russian Revolution and how their cognitive processes changed as they moved from the country to the city. In fact, Noelle encouraged me to travel to Nicaragua to make a similar study, since they were undergoing a revolution. While I never took up her suggestion, it didn’t stop me from making a special study of socio-historical psychology. Fortunately, the Communist Party in San Francisco had a bookstore regularly stocked with books coming from Russia that were translated into English and not easy to find elsewhere. I read the work of Leontiev, the work of S. L. Rubenstein, and Valsiner’s Developmental Psychology in the Soviet Union.

In 1986 I graduated with a master’s degree in psychology. The funny thing is I had no idea of what my grade-point average was until I got something in the mail after I graduated. I could have cared less. What mattered to me was the classroom dialogues and the chance to have an audience for my writing.

In Part II I will cover my teaching life as a “road scholar”, a “freeway flyer”, in which I established a dialectical relationship between teaching, writing and reading that I could never have imagined.

• First appeared in Planning Beyond Capitalism

Re-enchanting Socialism: How Not To Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater

Summary of Part I

In part I of this article Facing the Music I began by arguing that religion very skillfully uses propaganda to convince people they should behave in a docile way relative to elites. It uses architecture, statues, rites of passage, liturgy, sacred music, pilgrimages, holy days, visual symbols and techniques for altering states of consciousness as a means for introducing and sustaining this docility. Though nationalism and sports have different ends than religion, surprisingly the techniques used to induce loyalty are very similar. Nationalism and sports have been built on a religious foundation. The work of Anthony D. Smith is devoted to showing how nationalism has used religious techniques to start and sustain itself. Also, George Mosse’s book Nationalization of the Masses discusses similar themes.

In the case of sports, whether it is through the personal experience of participating in a team sport or following a professional team as a fan, these games often create “flashbulb memories” that are remembered, retold and spread to friends, acquaintances and workmates.

My claim in Part I was that:

  • The socialist movement has failed miserably to understand how religion, nationalism and sports inspire and sustain the interest of the Yankee population over months and years.
  • But even worse, it makes little attempt to use the techniques of religion, nationalism and sports to draw people to it.

In part, the failure of socialists to understand what religion, sports and nationalism give people has to do with whether the socialists are from Protestant or Catholic countries. Historically, Protestants condemned all image-making, singing, dancing and sensual gratification as degenerate Catholicism. Whether they are aware of it or not, I think socialists who live in Protestant countries have unconsciously internalized Protestant cynicism about pageantry and ritual. They think it is nothing but smoke and mirrors since it creates illusions.

On the other hand, Catholicism has been the mothership from which most of the religious techniques are derived. This impacts how people in Catholic countries relate to nationalism and sports in their countries. Furthermore, in Catholic countries, even socialists who are anti-clerical atheists have some appreciation of collective theatricality as being important to socialist gatherings. This can be seen in Spain or Italy on May Day.

I The Means By Which to Enchant Socialism

The importance of remembering the big picture

Religion at its very best invites people to remember the big picture. On a micro level that means that amidst the petty aggravations of the week-day world, there is Sunday, a time for reflection. What is the reflection designed to do? To answer three questions:

  1. What are we?
  2. Where have we been?
  3. Where are we going?

These questions are designed to encourage people to remember that:

  1. The whole (God) is greater than the sum of the parts (human individuals).
  2. The whole is in all the parts.

Optimally, at a micro level, on Sunday, religion is designed to guide people as we descend into the detail of another work-week. In temperate climates in the West, at a macro level, we have religious holidays throughout the year (rather than the week) which are ultimately grounded in the four seasons.

If as socialists, we want people to stay with us despite all distractions of capitalist commodities, despite all the distortions or marginalization of our work, despite the repression we have to deal with, doesn’t it make sense that we try to rejuvenate socialists? We remind them by answering the big questions in our own way:

  1. What are we? Socio-historical beings who shape and control our destiny for better or for worse.
  2. Where have we been? We are a young movement which has many proud moments – the French revolution, the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution and the Spanish Revolution, to name a few.
  3. Where are we going? We are moving in a direction of communism where all resources are collectively owned.

Isn’t it worth reminding people of these questions and answers, if not weekly, at least seasonally? Why can’t socialists have quarterly seasonal celebrations just the way religion has various Catholic, Jewish or Muslim holy days?

Celebrating revolutionary holidays and socialist heroes

On average, there might be ten holy days per year for Catholics. Nationalism, at least in Yankeedom, has close to the same. Sports has opening day, the All-Star game and the World Series as temporal markers. Does socialism have any “holy days?” We have May Day. But we have many more days than that if we take the time to collect and display them. Recently we bought a 2019 calendar of radical labor history which is filled with labor strikes and revolutionary events every month throughout the year. Conservatively speaking, there are at least five major radical strikes and revolutionary dates per month. Why don’t socialists commit to a project of celebrating clusters of these holidays four times a year? Why aren’t these days celebrated the way May Day is celebrated?

What about socialist heroes and heroines? Baseball has Cooperstown. Musically, we have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the Country Music Hall of Fame. Why is there no socialist Cooperstown Hall of Fame? Do we have no socialist heroines or heroes to put into this Hall of Fame? Just in Yankeedom alone, off the top of my head I can name a few – Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Kate Richards O’Hare, Carlo Tresca, Mother Jones, Sacco and Vanzetti. Why hasn’t the socialist movement seen fit to celebrate their birthdays the way religion celebrates its saints days and nationalism has its presidents days? During the French Revolution, busts of Rousseau and Voltaire were paraded through the streets of Paris. Why then can’t we celebrate regularly and seasonally the birthdays of our heroes and heroines?

But isn’t this too costly?

One reasonable objection is the time and the cost of doing this. A sympathetic skeptic might say “You are not considering that religious institutions, political organizations and the owners of football teams are extremely wealthy. They have the money to pay people to work full time to create productions for these holy days and patron saints. Socialists do not have this kind of money.”

This is a good point. We know that it takes a great deal of effort to put on, say, a socialist conference on a national level. The cost of roundtrip plane fare alone makes this difficult. But is the same thing true at a local level? Celebrating socialist heroes and special days can be done locally in major cities. The important thing is to celebrate them all at the same time on a given day so that people living in big cities can see and share their presence in other cities.

We don’t have time

Another objection a socialist might make is to say, “look, it is enough to get people together to coordinate their efforts around a campaign like the fight for $15 dollars an hour” or a 35-hour workweek. We can’t afford to add to that these celebrations.

This way of looking at things separates content and form. It says specific campaigns (the content) and the celebrations (the form) are separate processes. But do they have to be? Whether or not people are pressed for time and money, the content and form should be part of the same process. It is true that at socialist conferences there is time for recreation, but recreation is not ritual.

If we are to make room for reenchanting rituals that means there is less time to discuss specific socialist current events. I would argue that it is worth it. We must consolidate and support other socialists through renewal and replenishment techniques. In fact, the content of various campaigns should be organized so that they are a sub categorical expression of the historical celebration of revolutionary memories and the celebrations of socialist heroes. I’ll discuss this more later in this article.

Singing and dancing

Of course, the mighty Internationale heads any list of music. Any of you who have seen the movie Reds will remember the scene of Jack Reed talking to Russian workers as the Internationale swelled in the background and the red flags flew. However, we have much more than this song. Some of the best radical songs in the world came out of the Industrial Workers of the World songbook. Why aren’t these songs sung on a regular basis throughout the year by socialists, not just Wobblies? Do socialists dance? Well, of course we do, but not as much as we could. As Red Emma Goldman once said “If I can’t dance to it, its not my revolution”

Rites of passage

The socialist and communist movements used to have youth groups which initiated them into socialism. People of different ages were given very specific tasks to do relative to up-coming campaigns. There were socialist children’s magazines and books. In his book Ritual, Politics and Power, David Kertzer points out that the communist party in Italy once competed with the Catholic Church over the right to baptize. They did something similar at funerals, according to Kertzer:

“Comrades carry bright red flags, baring the name of the deceased’s party section as well as those of neighboring sections…A local party official delivers the eulogy which, rather than extolling the deceased Christian virtues, pays tribute to his or her dedication to the Communist cause.” (Ritual, Politics and Power, 118)

Socialists badly need to get re-involved in rites of passage once again: socialist births and baptism, coming of age rituals, socialist marriages and socialist deaths. We can’t cede this to religious traditions.

Making pilgrimages

In San Francisco, once a year in July there is something called “Laborfest”. This is a month-long series of movies, talks, panels and plays held at various locations around the city. A comrade of mine would give a walking tour of downtown Oakland and revisit some of the various scenes of the General Strike in San Francisco. Between 50 and 100 people attend this walk every year. Most major cities in the United States have their version of special places connected to labor strikes. Why aren’t they celebrated? There could be Laborfests in every major city in Yankeedom.

Sacred sites and new calendars

In her book Romance of the Communist Party, Vivian Gornick reports that one of her interviewees told her of a cooperative housing development called United Workers Coop Association consisting of two five-story buildings, each a block square. There were club rooms, meeting halls, a library, nursery schools, a community center, a print shop and an auditorium. People read, talked, held meetings, danced and flirted. It was a little city within a city. Janet Biehl, Murray Bookchin’s biographer, tells a story of how these places were a substitute home away from home for Murray. The buildings stayed open to the wee small hours of the morning. Why can’t we have these kinds of sacred sites again?

During and after the French Revolution, the leaders created a revolutionary calendar to symbolize the breaking with the old world. Capitalism is failing badly. Don’t we need to get busy with drafts of a new world socialist calendar?

We can’t afford to own these buildings

One objection to this “sacred site” renewal might he the cost of owning, let alone renting a building in a downtown metropolitan area. It is true that the cost of renting or owning city buildings is much higher than fifty or seventy years ago before the gentrification of cities drove out working-class people to the periphery. Still, there are liberal fellow travelers or even upper middle-class socialists who might be in a position to buy buildings through a joint pooling of funds. If these socialists withdrew their money from “socially responsible investments” for the project of building at least semi-permanent socialist centers, it would be a huge advance. With the newfound sympathy and support for socialism in the US among people under 30, those upper middle-class socialists could really make a difference by investing their money or their inheritance in a sacred home for socialists. Is that too far-fetched? I hope not. It is hard to sustain a movement when you don’t have a home you can call your own.

Bringing it on home

To summarize, what we need is designated times of the year, perhaps every season, in which socialists in every major city come together, sing and dance across generations, celebrating “holy days”, the birthdays of the great socialists. At the same gatherings, there is time allotted to celebrate rites of passage and make pilgrimages to the scenes of the great labor struggles in that city.

II Fertile Ground: The Unexplored Relationship Between Materialists and Pagans

Cranky materialists, dry as sawdust

A number of years ago I joined the Humanist community of San Jose. This was an organization for people who hated religion and were either agnostics or atheists and met every Sunday morning for a lecture, discussion and lunch. They were classical left-wing Enlightenment people: pro-science and pro-technology. They looked at religion as deception by religious authorities, errors in human cognition and ignorance or emotional insecurity of the population. For Humanists, as for the Protestants, all music, dance, ritual and imagery would lead you down the road to religious enslavement. It was difficult to have any kind of ceremony – lighting a candle or burning incense – that was not dismissed as superstition.

Unfortunately, many Marxists are cranky materialists as well. While denouncing all the religious holidays, they find themselves isolated and lonely around Christmas time. They see through the commercial side of Christmas, they might not even like Christ, but they haven’t built the institutions to replace it. The winter solstice has meaning for human beings and we must give it up. Marxists need neo-paganism, only they don’t know it.

While neo-paganism is a diverse movement, it is safe to say that what it shares with materialists includes:

  • A belief that the material world and matter is good, rather than an illusion or a reform school for sinners;
  • An appreciation of this life, rather than an afterlife;
  • A sense that nature is self-regulating and not in need of divine intervention; and,
  • A belief that nature and society are evolving as opposed to being created once and for all.

What pagans have that most materialist Marxists, at least the Protestant ones, lack is a sense that ritual, singing, dancing rites of passage and all the rest are not superstitious illusions but important ingredients in what makes us human.

Greek mythology in the service of re-enchanting socialism

In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses all had strengths and weaknesses. In addition, they were in charge of a specific domain of human life. So, for example, Aphrodite was the goddess to go to in matters of love. Hermes was the god of travel and he would be consulted before taking a dangerous journey. If a socialist group wanted to get behind a campaign around building mass transit or lowering the cost of public transportation, if they were operating within the Greek mythology, there would be a celebration or a ritual around the god Hermes. All the major areas of human life were covered by the various gods or goddesses: agriculture, industry, family life, friendships, the arts, sciences, physical health, everything. Pagans would have rituals before and after these activities.

Typical areas socialists are interested in are democracy in the work place, harnessing energy, technological innovation, transportation, city life, food production, housing, water, education, circulation of products (money, wages, financial planning), child care, health care and mental health. Every one of these areas can easily be connected to the 10 or 12 gods and goddesses that exist in Greece or in other parts of the world. In the case of May Day, there is a clear relationship with the pagan spring festival and International Workers Day. We can easily connect up the other areas of socialists’ interests to the gods and goddesses.

The same thing could be done with socialist heroes. The characteristics of socialist heroines and heroes can be mapped onto the gods and goddesses of Greece. The value of using an already built-up pagan system is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. I am intentionally drawing on Greek mythology because many socialists may object to using any of the symbols and artifacts of Catholicism. Pagan traditions are full of rich history and they can be easily connected to the wiccan feminism that began in the early 1970’s. Relatively speaking, socialism is a very young movement, not even 200 years old. We should take an existing system which has been in place for thousands of years and use it as our skeleton.

I have no doubt many pagan socialists like Starhawk have already stepped forward to connect political activity with pagan rituals. There are many more processes to be connected and many more people are needed. Any socialists who have an appreciation for theatre, interior design and social psychology should step forward. Socialists rightly have no need of God, but we do need the gods and goddesses. More earth, less air; more water, less air; more fire, less air.

• First published at Planning Beyond Capitalism

Singing The Internationale

Facing the music: religion, nationalism, and sports have enchanted the working class; socialism hasn’t

Orientation

Religion, nationalism and sports as propaganda for the ruling class.

In the closing section of my course Brainwashing Propaganda and Rhetoric: Dark Psychology in the 20th Century, I ask my students to compare organized religion, nationalism and sports, not only to determine the kind of propaganda they are (black, gray or white), but also the devices and artifacts that are used. This includes the use of architecture, statues, rites of passage, liturgy, sacred music, pilgrimages, holy days, use of visual symbols, language manipulation and techniques for altering states of consciousness. The world religions have used these processes for at least 3,500 years to exploit, control and distract people from their misery on earth and direct us instead to variations of ‘you’ll get pie in sky when you die’.

The history of nationalism over the last 400-500 years has closely followed the techniques of organized religion. In fact, I think it is fair to say that nationalism is more powerful than moderate and liberal religion in motivating people. I doubt whether most people of liberal or moderate religion in the West would sacrifice their life for their religion. But at least among the working class who sign up for the military, nationalism can motivate people to fight and die to kill strangers in other countries who share the same social class.

Sports, as opposed to religion or nationalism, is a more joyous escape from the difficulties of life. If I were a betting person, I would bet most Americans might go to the barricades if the AFC and NFC championships were not televised. A championship playoff game such as the World Series could certainly outdraw any religious or patriotic ceremony in TV ratings. And what is the result? Who wins the game ultimately has little effect on the lives of the fans. Yet they continue to watch. This is some mighty potion going’ on. Do the socialists understand it? Do we use similar techniques to win the working classes to socialism? Not on your life!

Qualification

I am certainly not claiming that religion or nationalism has the same hold on people in the 21st century that they did in the 20th century. At least in the western countries, there has been a steady decline of interest in religion. Nationalism certainly does not have the grip on Europe that it did in the 19th and 20th centuries. Still, in spite of this decline, both carry enormous power.

I   Socialists’ Failures to Come to Grips With Enchantment

It’s not enough for socialists to simply claim that religion, nationalism and sports are examples of “false consciousness” for the working class.

I would think that socialists, being social, would be hip to what is going on with these propaganda techniques. Sure, you may find cultural critics beginning with the Frankfurt School who will bemoan the lack of taste among the masses and state how all religion, nationalism and sports produce false consciousness. But this is a very mechanical and unnecessarily bleak understanding of the potential of the techniques used in these areas to light a fire under the working class. We must not only point out the manipulative nature of enchantment, but we need to be dialectical and ask how we could use these techniques to promote socialism. After all, the construction of a sacred space (whether a church or a ballpark), a dramatized story, ritualized gestures, and the use of music and the arts to alter consciousness is not just naïve superstition. It is part of our bio-evolutionary heritage to be interested in these things. The alternative to the alienated enchantment of sports, religion and nationalism is not de-enchantment, as so many dry-as-dust socialists seem to think. We must build a “this-worldly” pagan enchantment that is a foundation for socialism.

Socialists’ failures against nationalism and religion

Three examples should give you the picture. The first is the famous one of socialists before World War I. The socialist parties in Europe and, to a lesser extent in the United States, were very confident that the workers of the world would unite to oppose the war. After all, the workers understood that they had no fatherland, right? Wrong. Not only did working class people kill each other after being whipped up to mass hysteria, but most of the socialist ministers, some of them great intellectuals like Kautsky, Plekhanov and Kropotkin got emotionally caught up in defending the fatherland. Socialism as a political movement of internationalism was no match for nationalism.

The second example is of Germany in 1933. During the depression in that country, the Socialist Democratic Party (SPD) was the strongest socialist party in the whole world. Economic conditions were bad. Great time for a revolution, right? What did the socialists do? According to the mass psychologist Wilhelm Reich, they simply fed the masses boring statistics about their condition. However, the Nazis understood that there is a charismatic side to people, a side that likes mythology, drama, pomp and circumstance, doomsday scenarios, scapegoats, black and white answers and promises of redemption. Goebbels and the Nazi brass understood mass psychology while the socialists were buried in the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

My last example is about the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is one of the most horrendous institutions in the West in the last 800 years. Its officials committed every one of the “seven deadly sins” time after time as they tortured heretics and witches. They’ve made deals with royalists and military dictatorships and they have made peace with capitalists long ago. The Catholic Church has a record of child abuse that spans centuries. Yet many U.S., Italian, Spanish, French and all the other people in Catholic countries continue to attend mass and support the Church financially. At the same time, the socialist parties that actually do want to create heaven on earth with workers could not ever get masses of people to come to meetings once a week. People are too busy for that. But they are not too busy for church. How can this be?

The issue here is not that the working-class is stupid or that they are victims of false consciousness. Rather, I believe the issue to be:

The Church must be doing many things right to continue to collect their revenues and get people to attend in spite of being seen as the world’s first international terrorist organization.
Do the socialists understand this mass psychology? No, they do not.
Do the socialists think that the techniques of religion, nationalism and sports could be used to mobilize people for socialism? Ah, what?

Marx did not understand religion and nationalism

Marx said some very riveting things about religion. Among other things he saw the construction of “god” as an alienation of human creativity. But at the same time he believed that religion would wither away under communism as people’s material conditions got better. Clearly this has not been the case. Neither was Marx very dialectical about how religion could be used by socialists. With the exception of liberation theology, socialists have not understood how to transform all the ingredients that go into “cooking” a religious experience and mythologize a socialist story complete with music, ritual, mythology and patron saints. The closest instance of socialists doing something like this is May Day in southern European countries. It used to be that people made costumes for May Day and gathered together while wearing those costumes, sharing food and singing The International. All these things gave it some of the sweep and drama of religion.

The extent to which the Communist Party tried to outlaw religion is revealing in how little they understood it. All this did was to make it more attractive by burying it underground. Socialists also did not understand that nationalism would not disappear under socialism. During World War II Stalin needed to refer to the “Great Russian Fatherland” (hardly a call to socialist internationalism) in order to inspire and join people together through hardship.

Neither did socialists understand that race cannot be reduced to social class.

Again, Marxists’ general approach is that race will only preoccupy people when capitalists use race to keep people from uniting as a class. But once workers gain class consciousness, the issue of skin color will dissolve in people minds. This has not been born out in experience. In addition, because of Marxists’ cynical attitude towards evolutionary psychology they have yet to make current in their theory the fact that ethnocentrism goes all the way back to hunter-gatherers. While ethnocentrism and racism are not the same thing, ethnocentrism is present enough to see that the skin color of people does matter around the world and that this was present long before capitalism existed.

Marxists cannot explain how sports have charmed the working class

A number of years ago, Noam Chomsky commented on how amazed he was by the intelligence of working class people when they called into a sports talk program the Monday after Sunday’s NFL games. Their analysis of what plays didn’t work, what plays could have worked along with the strengths and weaknesses of the players was astounding. But then he pointed out how all this intelligence goes away when the same people are then asked to make a political analysis of the current events in their lives – working conditions, wages, war. The working class is mute when asked to explain how and why capitalism is failing. The question is not why working class people have cognitive compartmentalization, separating sporting events from their everyday life. The question is what does sports offer people that makes them so involved? Have socialists asked themselves what would have to happen to make working class people be carried away by socialism the way they are by sports?

As many of you know, a number of years ago the Seattle Seahawks played the New England Patriots in the Superbowl. The Seahawks were losing but had a great drive going at the end of the game. With about 90 seconds left and the ball on the New England one-yard line, the Seahawks quarterback decided to pass the ball rather than hand it off to Marshawn Lynch who had a great game. The pass was intercepted. I knew the next day in my brainwashing class, this was what they wanted to talk about. It wouldn’t have mattered if the stock market crashed. Why is this? Unless students were betting on the game, they had no material stake in the outcome. Still – most of the men in the class were very involved.

II  Bad Taste: A Communist is Swept Away By Baseball

Flashbulb memories of my performance as a baseball player

When I was about 7 years old I used to play a ‘let’s pretend’ game. I laid out 4 rags I’d gotten from the garage and placed them in a diamond form which represented the bases. The bases were about 45 feet apart. Then I looked at our house and took my batting stand and let my imagination take over. The scene is no doubt familiar to many of you. It is the last of the 9th inning, we are losing by three runs. The bases are loaded and there are two outs. Then I swing and hit the ball – tsssssch! “ As Mel Allen was saying in my head “there is a high fly ball deep to right center. The centerfielder is at the track. It is going, going, gone”. Then I would trot around the bases. As I got older I played a great deal of hardball and I hit home runs, but never quite experienced the situation I imagined when I was seven until my last year of playing.

In 1968 our team from Brooklyn got into a playoff game at Victory Field which was one of the fanciest fields around. My girlfriend Rose Nuccio let it be known to me that this was the last time she was coming to my games. Sunday was her only day to sleep in. “Besides” she said, “you are 0-8” (referring to my performance in the last two games.) She brought her sister Miriam along with her for this game. In the top of the first inning I am up with two guys on base and two outs. The left-handed pitcher, Rick Honeycutt, throws me a high inside curve ball.

“Tshrush”! I tomahawk the pitch and the ball really does head for the right centerfield fence just like in my fantasy 13 years ago. As I watch the ball head for the fence time and space seem to contract. It’s as if I were in my backyard 13 years ago. The ball lands on the tennis courts on the other side of the fence scattering everyone. I am so out of it that as I make my rounds of the bases I miss first base. The coach has to get me to touch the base. As I round second I see Rosie and Miriam jumping up and down screaming like two young Italian gals will. The look on Rosie’s face as our eyes met was like a melting ray of sunlight that united our eyes. I missed third base too. Finally as I headed for home most everyone on our team came out to home plate to meet me. It was as if we won the World Series. I disappear in a mass of teammates at the plate.

I have told this story in my psychology classes as an example of a peak experience. I also use it in my brainwashing class to show how powerful sports can be in moving people. Virtually every time I tell the story I cannot help but become teary. I’ve seen students cry even though they know nothing about sports. Unless socialists can find a way to create this kind of drama, not occasionally but as part of a regular seasonal sequence, we will continue to be marginalized.

The lure of professional baseball: the return of the hero Ken Griffey Jr. to Seattle

My last example is about a baseball player many of you know. Ken Griffey Jr. was a great home run hitter for the Seattle Mariners for about 10 years. For whatever reasons, I believe he asked to be traded to Cincinnati, where he played for about another seven years. Probably because he was a left-handed hitting center fielder like I was, and because of his grace I liked him and followed his career. Then I heard he was traded back to the American League, to the White Sox. The following year he was traded back to Seattle. How would the fans feel? Would they hold a grudge because he left? I knew they wouldn’t. I wanted to see the homecoming so I watched the game when he came back to Seattle. The fans made signs and were screaming for him. They must have given him a 5-10 minute standing ovation. Tears streamed down my face. I wasn’t even a Seattle fan! What was going on was not a baseball game. It was the return of a god to his home ground.

Movie stars, musicians and sports figures are our gods and goddesses. These celebrities have happily replaced priests and military generals as our heroes. Like gods and goddesses, they enter into sports mythology complete with the stories of great World Series, great stories of betrayal (by playing for another team) drug scandals and homecomings. The people of Seattle understood that when they came to this game they were participating in the final days of a great sports god, and this mattered more than who won this particular game. If socialists cannot figure out that this is what is going on with sports fans and, even more importantly, how to use this energy for our purposes, we will continue to be marginalized.

III Socialist enchantment needs to happen before the revolution

Socialism has certainly had its events that could be claimed as peak experiences or even religious experiences. Anyone who had participated in a revolution knows these moments are euphoric and unforgettable. Anyone who participated in the Occupy Movement will not soon forget it. And those centrists fools who think that Occupy “is over” will be in for a rude awakening as their spastic, decaying capitalist system will continue to undergo more nervous breakdowns. These breakdowns will only produce more “Occupies”.

But what about budding socialists who have never had revolutionary experiences? What do we have to offer them in the way of inspiring collective experiences before a revolutionary process begins? Throughout the year baseball has its opening day in April; the All Star game is in July; the World Series in October. Religion has its holy days peppered throughout the year. Nationalism has its holidays – President’s day, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day and Thanksgiving. What is missing under socialism is a similar pageantry of rituals, joining in song and dance along with regular places to meet and celebrate. All of these things build a theatrical stage scaffolding for extraordinary revolutionary events. I am not talking about practical, political meetings. Theatrical stage sets might inform the practical but they are the celebration of the socialist tradition regardless of specific political or economic events that might be happening.

Socialists understand enchantment during and after revolutions, but before the revolution too many socialists are disenchanted crab apples. In part, this is because of a sad lack of yearly seasonal rituals that keep the fires burning between one revolutionary generation and the next.

Lastly, religion, nationalism and sports all have ways of linking the important events of the year to the lifetime of the individual. Catholics have confirmation at roughly the age of nine; Hispanic Catholics have quinceañera around a girl’s 15th birthday. In sports an individual might visit Cooperstown (Baseball’s Hall of Fame) for their birthday. Nationalism has its pilgrimages to the Washington monuments in the summer. What does socialism have to offer? Is it possible to have something like my baseball flashbulb memory tapped into some systematic experience that could be given to socialist children or adolescents? Would it be possible to have an experience of socialism before the revolution, which is similar to whatever it takes to make the fans wave their signs, scream for 10 minutes and become emotionally spent when their hero comes home and is paraded through the streets? Boy, does socialism need some of that potion. We need some Love Potion Number 9.

In Part Two we’ll explore in more detail what this might look like.

• First published at Planning Beyond Capitalism

Is Shocking People Revolutionary?

Image from Maria Online

White popular musicians rebelling against appearances

Recently I attended two music concerts in one of our local parks that were billed as a combination of soul, rhythm and blues and blues. The musicians were all white.

I am not going to argue that white people playing this kind of music is “cultural appropriation” and that they should not play it. There are wonderful white musicians historically and contemporarily who have played in all these musical forms. What I am more interested in is the appearance of the band members. Historically, music, like all the arts originally came out of sympathetic magical practices. In preparation for a magical ritual, the participants had clothing made for them or they made the clothes themselves. In addition, each participant had a very specific role. The ritual was intended to draw a line in the sand and say “what is going on here is beyond everyday life and we have to look and dress accordingly.”

In western religion, singing in church was and is accompanied by a choir who had roles to play and dressed according to their role so they distinguished themselves from their audience. Historically, when black musicians began to play secular music, they continued to carry forward the same things they did in church. They dressed for the occasion. Their dance moves and the outfits were choreographed with the background singers dressed in the same color. The lead singer would be dressed in a color that might be analogous or complimentary to the background singers. If any of you remember the Temptations, the Miracles, or Gladys Knight and the Pips you know what I am talking about. In the 50’s and the early 60’s the white Rock ‘n’ Rollers also dressed up for their performances: the groups Danny and the Juniors, Dion and the Belmonts both did this.

But somewhere in the late 1960’s white rock bands decided that dressing up for performances was somehow giving ground to the Establishment. So, the band members began to wear any old clothes: tee shirts, jeans, sneakers, anything that would level their relationship to the audience. In addition, each band member dressed in a way that was not coordinated with what the other band members were wearing. They made an extra effort to tell the audience, and especially whom they deemed the authorities, that they didn’t give a fuck about clothes or roles. However, the band still had to play roles, because, of course, they were specialists in what instruments they played. But as much as they could, they were rebelling against the concept of taking appearances seriously. I cannot track what has become of popular music since then because, frankly, I lost interest in the kind of music that was being played. But if my recent experience in the park is any indicator, there are at least some white musicians who operate with this same code of appearance fifty years later.

I am not trained as a musical critic but I spent three years working in music stores in Times Square in New York City and this job required you to become familiar with different types of music. In addition, many musicians came to our store and gave us tickets to the Apollo theater in uptown Manhattan so I’ve seen many musical acts. I was about 20 years old and working in a music store at the time the changes in appearance of the white musicians were taking place.

The western rebellion against appearances in philosophy

The predominant western tradition has been at war with the value of appearances for most of 2,500 years. Plato characterized appearances as deceptive, shallow, temporary and lacking of substance, while reality was true, deep and eternal. Socrates attacked the Sophists and rhetoric for very similar reasons. Mainstream Christianity, at least in theory, has seen the preoccupation with appearances as a sign of the devil’s work, associated with idolatry. A true Christian got beyond the surface appearances of this world to discover the true source of reality – God – on a transcendental plane. The major philosophers of the west have been hostile to appearances, whether it be Descartes, Kant, Bradley and to a lesser extent, Leibniz, and Hegel. Those who have taken appearances seriously have been few and far between, (Hume, Locke) and the Enlightenment philosophers.

Romantic Rebellion Against The Enlightenment

The Enlightenment and the Renaissance were two intellectual movements that appreciated the magnificence of nature, whether expressed through science or through art. Neither were interested in the above, the beyond, or the transcendental. They made clear distinctions between form and content in art. In terms of clothing, the Enlightenment, while rebelling against of foppishness of aristocratic appearances, still believed in the importance of clothing because they were linked to roles people played. Like those in the Renaissance arts, Enlighteners valued the power of illusion, whether it was in perspective painting or in creating distance between the stage and the audience in their plays.

The romantic rebellion in the early 19th century was a new kind of rebellion against appearances. The importance of a person’s inner essence required that they dispense with roles and appearances in order to get to the essence of the person’s soul. When they did that they were being “sincere”. The romantics were about tearing down boundaries: the boundaries between form and content; picture plane and reality; stage and audience; roles and inner state; the objective world and the subjective world. This boundary trampling characterized modern 20th century music, the symbolists, the Dadaists, the surrealists and the abstract expressionists.

Romanticism and the Early New Left

Beginning in the early1960’s the New Left rebelled against the Old Left in a similar way as the romantics rebelled against the Enlightenment. Identity politics, with the focus on individual experience, replaced class politics; the “subjectivity” of the situationists replaced the economic analysis of capitalism. Infinite diversity replaced unity. By the mid 1970’s to call for unity within diversity was seen in some sense as imperialistic. From the Frankfurt School, to postmodernism, boundaries between disciplines or genders were all signs of the Old World. But to rework the title of James Hillman’s book One Hundred Years of Therapy and the World is Getting Worse, we’ve had One hundred years of Romanticism and Capitalism is Getting worse.

The rebellion against appearances and roles of the musicians in the introduction to this article is part of a larger New Left movement rebellion against the Old Left and a continuation of the romantic rebellion against the Enlightenment. But here is the problem. It is one thing to wear whatever you want if you are content to exist for your entire adult life at a university as a professor or work with a liberal non-profit which prides itself in “diversity”. If all the members of the New Left wanted was some kind of “lifestyle” politics, than there wouldn’t be a problem. But there is a big problem. The New Left socialists are increasingly cut off from mainstream Americans and capitalism is getting worse for 90% of the population.

The New Left and the Shock Value of Appearances

The New Left in the US understands that it must reach sectors of the population that are not on board with its romantic roots. For almost 50 years the New Left has ignored its working class and dismissed them as stupid, bought off, simpletons and Archie Bunkers. What is its strategy? To shock people. So, by the multiplication of half shaved – fluorescent colored hair, body piercings and tattoos along with compulsive black attire, it tells the authorities and mainstream Americans to drop dead. The problem, however, in the case of the working class, is that you are telling the same people you need to make a revolution with to drop dead. It would be naïve to think that working-class people in the United States, at least in their thirties, do not also color their hair, have tattoos and more. However, the working class is also composed of people in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s who are still working, have the power to stop capitalism with strikes and boycotts, and they don’t particularly like all the New Left garb.

On the one hand New Lefters think appearances are phony and don’t really matter. In true romantic style, what is of substance to them is an inner essence beyond those appearances. But on the other hand, in trying so hard to rebel against traditional appearances they develop a new set of counter cultural appearances that they work very hard to maintain, scrupulously crafting the appearance that “appearances don’t matter”.

The psychology of shock value

As a social psychologist I say the desire to shock people by appearances is not a desire to extend and move people to join in a common project. Rather it is a haughty, in-your-face “we don’t give a shit what you think” stance. I also have suspicions that the people this hostility is really directed at are not as much the general public but the bankers, and other elites (whom they naively imagine are paying attention). Just as likely as a target, this shock therapy of appearances might be directed at their parents. Given the age of the people who are in the business of shocking people, I see this as a developmental issue of people in their late teens or early 20’s. I would be happy to admit I was wrong if I could find a substantial number of people over 40 who continue to dress this way.

You have to meet people where they are if you expect to take them where you want to go

Let me use my own experience as an example. I have been a “full-time” adjunct college teacher for 27 years. I have taught in universities: mainstream and alternative. I’ve taught for the Air Force and the Navy, I’ve taught in prisons and I’ve taught in community colleges. All these students have a great deal of differences in how they expect their teachers to dress. I also have my own agenda about how I prefer to dress. My goal in teaching is to appear in such a way that gives students a sense that I respect the role I am in, and gives them clear messages that the role I am in has something significant to do with what I am wearing.

I have had about 1-½ years of training in figure drawing and color theory based on the Old Masters approach. From studying the Old Masters, I came to appreciate earth colors – yellow ochre, olive green, burnt sienna, burnt umber – and I try to incorporate these colors into how I dress. I also like two-toned shoes, like the old-fashioned wingtips. I also like to wear the caps that were commonly worn in the 30’s by the working class. I also wear colored bandanas which I have been wearing all my adult life. Lastly I have a pirate earring, which I started wearing ten years before other straight men invaded the earring departments in the early 80’s.

So, compared to most college teachers, my appearance is outside the norm. At the same time, I always wear a sports jacket, sweaters and cotton or wool pants. Although I like all these things, I am also aware that that they fulfill the role of a respectable looking teacher. Overall, I’d say I look more like a musician in a soul band than I do a college instructor, but because of the sports jacket, sweaters and pants, I get a pass. I’d say I am unusual enough not to be seen by students as “establishment” but not so “out-there” that students or faculty don’t know what to make of me. My message to students is something like “I have my own life and tastes but still intend to play my role as a teacher.”

Other instructors, especially at community colleges, don’t see it that way. Many of the male teachers go out of their way to look as much like the students as possible so that an outsider cannot easily tell from walking around the campus who is a student and who is a teacher. These teachers keep up with students not only with scraggly beards, colored hair, nose rings, tattoos and earrings, but they sometimes out-do them. I can only guess that it is confusing to students that these same people who act like they are showing solidarity with students, then act like authority figures who discipline them for lateness, absences, missing papers and low grades.

Shocking people is cross-culturally individualist

Cross-cultural research shows that 80% of the world population, mostly outside the U.S and Western Europe, are collectivist. “Collectivism” means that the needs of the group come before the needs of the individual. Collectivists very clearly link up clothing worn to the role that is being played.

The problem for those teachers who are wearing clothes that confuse or deny their role is that the people from other parts of the world who are their students as sojourners studying abroad lose respect for them. I base this on both cross-cultural research and my experience as a college instructor. Secondly, they are likely to put off college students within their own country who are in the military. The military is a very clear collectivist institution within the individualist U.S with the ranks, clothing and roles that goes with it. Lastly, these individualist teachers who are on a “shock mission” are also confusing and turning off first and second-generation students who come from collectivist countries and are immigrants and refugees. If these liberals or socialist teachers think they are “building solidarity” they will be doing so in spite of their appearances.

The dilemma for New Left

Since the middle 50’s when the Socialist and Communist parties were destroyed in Yankeedom, the New Left has existed on the margins of student life and identity politics with little relationship to the working class. Whether they be social democrats or anarchists, if they wish to reach the 60% of the poor and working class, most of whom don’t vote, they must be careful about how far out they go. These are matters of degree. There need to be some concessions in appearance that imagines what these classes think is normal. Appearances have to be sensitive enough so people don’t have to withstand your appearance in order to listen to you.

Conclusion: Appearances as a means – not an end

Talking about socialism and capitalism is easier now than it has been in well over 70 years. So to the New Leftist I say – “Why make these conversations more difficult because people are put off by your appearance?” I am not proposing which part of appearances should be changed. It is not a question of picking a part of identity and saying, “don’t wear this or that”. It is more a question of quantity and intensity of the hair color, body piercings and clothing that matter.

The heart of Christmas is the Christmas tree. The tinsel and the ornaments are subordinate. Past a certain point, if there is too much tinsel and too many bulbs on the tree, the tree becomes lost in the shuffle, or as the Christians might say, the meaning of Christmas is lost. Talking about socialism and creating a new society is like recognizing we are part of the Tree of Life, the tree whose sap produces all the wealth. We must focus on strengthening the tree, not on becoming preoccupied with the decorations. Our appearances must invite people to come and look at the tree of socialism and it must be an invitation for them to stay and get lost in its branches, twigs and leaves. The New Left is mired in tinsel, bulbs, and darkness and this must change if it is to ever join a working class which will mobilize without them.

• First published at Planning Beyond Capitalism

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