Detail of the mural "Educación o Esclavitud" (Education and Enslavement) in Buenos Aires, by Néstor Portillo. Photo: Wally Gobetz

Activism and vision: an interview with Michael Albert

  • May 24, 2016

Anarchism & Autonomy

As one of the pioneers of the alternative media landscape in the US, Michael Albert shares his vision and strategy on how to move forward on the left.

Vincent Emanuele: Can you tell me a bit about your experiences as a young activist? How did you become involved with political movements?

Michael Albert: I was radicalized in the 1960s. I happened to be attending MIT at the time, which is primarily a scientific-technical school. I was there to study physics. The war in Vietnam was raging. The Civil Rights movement was in full gear and concern about these trumped what I was doing at university. Had it not been for these movements, I would have focused on my “career.” Instead, I became politically involved with stopping the war and pursuing campus changes, though my activism quickly branched-out to other topics, and eventually to media projects and answering the question, “What do we want?”

Were people in your family political?

Everyone is political in one way or another, but in the sense in which I think you mean it, no, they were liberal, not leftist or radical, much less revolutionary.

So the people you grew up with, they didn’t have a problem with your activism? They weren’t opposed to your being involved with social movements?

They were upset at my leaving behind career possibilities. But they supported my pursuing my beliefs. So, there was, I guess, ambivalence.

When I think about it, while I was in high school there was a glimmering of attention to social movements but little more. The Civil Rights movement was starting to gain attention but it didn’t filter into my daily life. Some from my town were traveling South to work with the movement but I didn’t know them, or even know of them, at that time. I think the first real political interaction I had, political and social thinking beyond the immediate, was listening to Bob Dylan and pouring over his lyrics and their meaning.

When did you leave university?

I was in the Class of ’69 but was thrown out before that for political activities.

So you were bounced from college?

Yes, I think I may have been the only person who has ever been thrown out of MIT, which was where I went to college, for political activities. I was notorious at the time. To give you a feeling, one of the things I did was run for Undergraduate Association President. That was president of the whole student body, not just one particular year. And I ran on a surprising platform: First, no more war research. And that was a big deal at MIT because the university was built around war and technological research. We demanded a $100,000 indemnity to the Black Panther Party. Another demand was to open the campus’ lab and other resources to the local community and particularly poor and working class neighborhoods. Open admissions. Real student power over campus life – no requirements. Our platform went on and on. It wasn’t just uncompromising, it was wildly beyond anything anyone at MIT had ever seen in campus relations. And it wasn’t what is called an educational campaign. We ran to win, and we did.

It was a fiasco for the faculty and the administration as they had together actively tried to prevent my being elected. Once elected, I used all the resources I could access to create political activism. Eventually, powers that be had to try to quell things, so along with other repressive options, they got rid of me.

Of course there are many dimensions to the times but one interesting one was that later, MIT, like many institutions, likes to have an image that’s different than reality. They wanted to be able make the argument that MIT went through the 60s in a more mature manner than some of their counterparts. In order to credibly say that, they had to take me back. So, somewhat later, they contacted my father and told him they would give me a degree if I did a few academic requirements, but I refused. Not negotiating with the devil was my mood. I used to call MIT Dachau on the Charles, imagine the president of the whole student body doing that routinely, noting that it’s victims were Vietnamese, not Jews, and abroad, not domestic, but still incinerated.

Still, it turns out, MIT wanted so bad to clean up their image from the 60s that they just gave me the degree, or sent it to my parents. To see behind the largest you might note, among many other facts, that within hours of throwing me out they called the draft board in my hometown to get me reclassified in hopes I would disappear not only from their campus, but their city, too. My lottery number was too high though. It was all a travesty, as most dealings with major institutions are.

So, you’re a student at MIT. You get booted from the university for political activities. It’s the late 1960s, early 1970s. You’re a young man without a degree. What did you do for work at the time?

Various things. I was painting houses for a while. Which I rather enjoyed but was not good at. One of the jobs I did was overseeing a computer for a modest sized business, very late at night. Sounds like it was maybe challenging, but it wasn’t. I would sit in this little room and wait for an alarm which would tell me when to switch a giant disc, so it could go from running payroll to running, inventory, or whatever — which I would do without any knowledge of what the hell I was doing. The thing was huge, but not as efficient as an iPad is now. My activity was totally rote, done by following a checklist of steps, none of which I understood. And of course I had no say over anything. The one nice thing was it was a night job. It took little of my time. I was alone, no boss on site, and would read or bring in a small TV and watch a ballgame, or sleep.

Somewhat later, I also went to the Harvard Ed School thinking I might get some kind of associated job. That too was absurd. Got a Masters Degree for learning essentially nothing at all for a year. Then, we started South End Press. Since then, I’ve been working with radical media.

South End Press precedes ZCommunications? How did it come about?

Yes, SEP came before any of the other media projects. I had done a book, which Lydia — the woman I was and still am with — and I worked on physically. It’s one thing to write a book but its a completely different thing to produce a book. Having completed it, we suddenly had a skill and we felt like the sort of politics we came up with in the 60s — which emphasized race, gender, class, and power and their interconnections, all without prioritizing any one over the rest — could use a publishing house. We got some people together and just started doing it. Knowing lots of people to tap for books was pivotal. Back then, publishing was much harder work than now because we didn’t have desktop tools for it. Preparing a book was a much much more laborious project. For about ten years Lydia and I and others built South End Press.

What other leftwing publishers were around at the time?

Monthly Review preceded us by quite a long time. Paul Sweezey and some other folks had been publishing for years. Other than them, and some quite doctrinaire political party related operations, I don’t think there was another left publisher of a similar broad focus sort, though that may be my bad memory forgetting. There were some later, but not at the time. SEP was different both in focus, and even more notably, at least in my opinion, in its policies and collective internal organization.

Lydia and I eventually moved on to Z Magazine and the various activities associated with Z Communications. South End Press was very much dependent on support from Noam Chomsky’s book sales and a few other writers like Bell Hooks, who also sold a lot of copies. There were plenty of people who wrote great books, but only a few sold in large numbers. Financially, it was always a struggle and that remained true for Z, and still persists today.

Tell me about Z Magazine and Z Communications.

Yes, Z Magazine began in the late 1980s. It was a print monthly and still is. It has the same political priorities as South End Press did, but Z was trying to develop a persistent audience with whom there could be closer and more frequent ties, as well as to reach more widely. Beyond the print, we went on the internet very early, too, before there was a worldwide web. This began during the dial-up age of operations like American Online, for example. Then, we attempted to incorporate more projects within the Z umbrella and of course to diversify in light of the emergence of the world wide web. Some of our projects were successful and others were not.

Were you ahead of the game when it came to technology? And did this come from your interest in science and physics?

It depends what you mean by “ahead of the game.” Bill Gates was ahead of the game. So, in that sense, no, I wasn’t ahead of the game! But I guess you could say yes, in some other senses, we were. In the days of dial-up, we had to provide someone with a disc by slow mail including software they would put on their computer to connect with us.

So, if you wanted to do your internet through ZMagazine, I think we called it “left bulletin board system” (labs) and then “left online,” that would mean you would get from us a floppy disc, which is what the container then was called, that had software on it. You could use the floppy to dial by phone into our operation. From there, you could do rudimentary email and also engage with forums we provided, then called a bulletin board, and content we put up. I had to code the program we sent to people. So for that, the technical background was of some use.

Z Communications still exists; I still receive Z Magazine every month in the mail; and there are a ton of sub-components to the ZNet website. I think anyone who comes to ZNet will immediately notice the diverse components available to the audience. What do you think makes the collective project of Z so much different from other leftwing media sites and projects?

I appreciate you saying that but I think, honestly, it’s much less different than it once was. At one time it was very, very different because we offered options people wanted that others just weren’t into dealing with. We still do that to a degree, but now the audience doesn’t use those features as much. Hence, I wouldn’t say that the site distinguishes itself on those grounds as much these days. But I think that there are still two things that distinguish Z from many other outlets.

First, we put a lot of emphasis on vision and strategy. Yes, we talk about what’s happening in society, why things are bad, how they got this way, and so on. But we also spend a lot of time answering the questions: “What do we want?” And, “How are we going to get it?”

I think our emphasizing those two themes distinguishes us from many other outlets. Another thing we’ve done is to try and address many left problems for the benefit of not only Z, but for the larger alternative media landscape.

Can you give me an example?

Actually there have been many over the years. But, for instance, everybody has trouble with money, to use one example. So one way you could think about that problem is just to seek your project’s or institution’s survival in a difficult context. How do we raise funds? Any left institution like Z or South End Press has to concern itself with this question in a pretty central way. It is serious, of course, because without proper funding many good ideas and organizations simply disappear. So one way to raise money is to solely think about fundraising month by month in an individual manner. But another way is to try to solve the problem of finances more broadly and sustainably for the left or for alternative media as a whole.

As far as I can see, we’ve spent more time than anyone else trying to solve the general problem, not just getting funds for Z, today, but as I mentioned before, for the entire left and for other alternative media projects, sustainably. We try hard to contribute ideas and projects to that cause. We have made little progress, regrettably, but you only have to succeed once. This goes for other issues as well. For example, we’re trying to create organizations and institutions that can be used in real organizing efforts, and by activists who wish to use such platforms. Likewise, we have tried to solve the social media problem, not just for us, but for the left as a whole. We want to not only further alternative media projects but entire political movements.

That’s why so many activists write for Z, which is different as well. I read a lot of stuff from Jacobin Magazine. They often have excellent articles. But when I go to the author’s bio, more often than not these people are PhD candidates or college professors. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with this, but it can be intimidating for working class authors. I enjoy reading articles from union reps and grassroots environmentalists and so on. Sometimes, institutions on the left replicate some of the same structures we see in society’s dominant institutions. People feel like they don’t have a voice unless they are a so-called “expert.”

Dealing with what you raise here is actually, in many ways, at the heart of what Z tries to do. Everybody on the left has an analysis of racism, sexism, authoritarianism, capitalism and so on. How do they hurt us. How do they persist. Serious leftists try to understand these phenomena on a serious level. Then comes, what do we do about these issues? What would it look like to have something better? How do we get there? Whether we are talking about movement groups or organizations or media outfits, these matters are addressed by all, at least to some extent and often with great energy.

But there is a dimension of it all that is rarely talked about, I think. We all pay attention to hierarchies of race and gender, and also to what is called the 1 percent and the rest of us, divide. But another centrally important division among people has to do with the character of the work we each do. Does our work empower us? Or does our work disempower us? I think what you were addressing was that those in empowered positions — doctors, engineers, financial officers, lawyers — also have to hold credentials, or proper training. People tend to think that the training is essential for the work, and some of it is. But mainly what’s going on is that the training gives these people legitimacy that justifies their power and status and especially, lack of access to the training keeps others out.

The intimidation you note has to do with this dynamic and to real differences in power, income, status, etc. The coordinator class is what I call empowered workers. It exists between labor which is below and capital which is above. The coordinator class, which is roughly 20 percent of the workforce, monopolizes empowering positions in the economy. Working class people do the remaining disempowering and obedient tasks. You might say, so what. But it turns out, if you spend your work day in disempowering positions that exhaust you, reduce your social connections, deaden your soul, even, and convey to you little critical information, it affects how you’ll feel and what you are prepared to do for the rest of your day. And likewise, if your work give you critical information, social connections and skills and confidence, etc., again, it affects your capacities and inclinations too.

Disempowering, alienating tasks don’t give people a sense of social inclusion or creative capacity. The coordinator class gets these attributes from its actual tasks and thus is in the dominant position, and tends to defend all the benefits, material and social. Z has been trying to help build social movements that recognize this dynamic because if we don’t recognize it, we’ll end up building movements that, as you mention, replicate at least this aspect of the dominant society to the detriment of 80 percent of the workforce. Within the movement, college degrees and credentials more generally shouldn’t mean a thing. Of course knowledge and skills matter, but they should be dispersed rather than held tightly by a few. To ignore the coordinator/worker relationship is very harmful and leads by default to a left that implicitly or explicitly defends coordinator relations, a left that ’s very limited in what it will say, do, or challenge.

Put differently, often left organizational choices, rhetoric, credentialism, and even program — mostly by what it ignores — perpetuates the notion that 20 percent of society is suited to making decisions while 80 percent of society is somehow more intrinsically suited to obey. People take that as if it is some kind of given due to human nature or some natural law. But in fact, it is merely a rationalization for injustice. It is no more true that 80 percent should obey than that women should be at home while men dominate society, or that property owners should dominate non-property owners. While people tend to be sucked-in to accepting rationalizations of injustice, they should be understood, critiqued, and overthrown.

I’ve seen this within the NGO-world. The people who run these organizations come from very specific schools, universities, cultural backgrounds on so forth. Often, they are completely out-of-touch with working class and poor people. I’ve sat in workshops where I’ve been lectured about privilege by someone who has more privilege than anyone else in the room. These people always come from the credentialed class. They have all the right connections. I’ve seen these divisions tear apart major NGOs and on a smaller scale, local organizations.

The universities, like Harvard and the rest — the irony is that to a great degree they are just a kind of finishing school. You actually used the term connections. Well, that’s what you pay for when you go to a Harvard or Yale or whatever. You learn how to conduct yourself, how to play the roles of ruler rather than ruled, what is okay and what isn’t — and you make contacts.

Of course, graduates want us to think that they are using their vast knowledge and special mental faculties, which are simply beyond the rest of us, but that’s nonsense. What’s really happening is that people who are going to be masters of the universe are meeting other people who are also going to be masters of the universe and making the right connections, while learning how to wear suits and high heels. And that’s what people are really paying for.

As to the rationalizations, it is easy enough to see through them, with a little effort. Fifty years ago, if you put all the physicians in the US in a giant football stadium, you would see something striking: they would be almost entirely male, for example. If you were to ask them about that, the male physicians would probably tell you that they deserved to be in those positions and that women simply weren’t smart enough to perform the same tasks.

Even worse, lots of women, locked out, would agree with the rationalization — not all, but quite a lot of women. After all, they would say, they are in the stadium, we are not, they have the skills and knowledge, we do not. They belong, we don’t. And it seems to explain the situation.

But let’s fast-forward to now: Medical schools are now a little over 50 percent women. Sexism, at that level, for now, is much less. So the rationalization is seen to be ridiculous. Now, let’s suppose you ask the same question to today’s physicians — some of whom would be black, Latino, gay, female — and you ask about people who are outside the group. What’s the reply? That the people who aren’t doctors or surgeons aren’t capable of it. They aren’t smart enough. But now we are talking about class. But the answer is just as much a mere rationalization as was saying women couldn’t be doctors, earlier.

So you primarily view these phenomena as being not only changeable, but also socially driven, not biologically or scientifically driven?

I couldn’t be a doctor. I would faint, for one thing. So of course we all have inclinations, talents, and so on, that preclude our doing some things. But what I am saying is among those who are now working class, doing rote and obedient labor, some could be doctors, some lawyers, some engineers, some scientists, and so on — just like among women 50 years ago, not all could be surgeons, but all could be fully functioning citizens including doing empowering tasks.

I’m saying that it’s no more true now, the claim that working people couldn’t be doctors, couldn’t do empowering work, as were the claims years back that women couldn’t perform those functions in society. It was a social structure that blocked women, then, a structure that kept women from using their individual talents in diverse ways, including becoming surgeons as well as other things, and that instead confined them to an oppressive position that restricted their options.

And now the same is true for working people. If working people go through school, learn how to endure boredom, and how to take orders, because that’s what public school teaches working people — that’s the primary lesson and achievement of public education, to get people ready to fill slots in which they must obey and endure boredom — then of course when they apply for a job it looks like they can’t do anything more. And then their work will be tedious and disempowering and the effects on them will make the rationalization that they are incapable of doing anything more seem still more true. It’s not a matter of incapacity, though, it’s a matter of subjugation.

Suppose the left understood that. Let’s take a hypothetical leftwing media group. The same way the media group would say that they don’t want a sexist or racist hierarchy within their workplace, they should also say that they don’t want a class hierarchy within it. That would mean that they wouldn’t want have private ownership of alternative media by some capitalist owner. But it would also mean they would not want to have a division of labor that causes 20 percent of the people working at the media institution to do all the empowering work and the other 80 percent to do all the rudimentary work. It would mean they would want to divide work in a way that has everybody doing a fair share of empowering work. And, thus empowered, everybody should be involved with decisions, not just formally, but fully and really, because our circumstances prepare us to participate effectively. The left doesn’t have all that. If it did, it would be a much better place.

And I think working people can see and feel this just like women can see and feel undertones of sexism, or blacks or Latinos can feel racism. And it quite naturally means working people don’t find left organizations and movements congenial to them.

Do you think participating in decisions is something human beings want? In other words, do you think the average person wants to make political, economic and ecological decisions on a regular basis, or what some call a participatory democratic process?

Again, suppose we went back 50 years and asked women if they wanted to be surgeons. A great many would be scared of it. A great many wouldn’t even give themselves a shot. Apply the same sort of thinking to today’s work. If you ask someone, “Do you want to be a participant in the decisions that impact your life?,” it may be a perfectly sensible response to say “no.” In other words, if the institutions remain unchanged, participating in decisions means you’ll have to make decisions about yourself that are despicable.

Take the workplace as an example. If your workplace has to compete on the market, compete for profit, cut costs, and on and on — do you want to be a participant in its decisions? Do you want to rubber-stamp what the institutions dictate? To do so means oppressing yourself — unless, of course, you occupy a big office, air conditioned, and so on, while other suffer not the shop floor. For a worker on the floor, the decision would be alienating, so it’s perfectly reasonable for people to say they don’t want to be involved. For the owner or coordinator class person, the decisions which market competition and profit seeking require are self serving, so welcome.

To try to see what people might really want we can do a thought experiment. Right now maybe 50 percent of the population bothers to vote, so you are right that at the moment most — way more about day to day decisions — aren’t too interested. But suppose God comes down to Earth and says, “We’re going to hold an election. The campaign will run for four months. If a candidate lies, I am going to turn him or her to stone. More, if a candidate is elected, I am going to guarantee that his or her program is implemented.”

So, anything the candidates say will be true, and, if elected, they’re going to do, they have to do or they will perish. In this election, if you vote, you’re voting for the truth. If your side wins, its program is going to be implemented. Now, how many people would vote? The 50 percent who usually show up? I’m saying that 110 percent of people will show up to vote. People will come out of the woodwork to vote. Because it clearly matters.

The point is, when we ask questions about what humans want or what people will do, we always have to talk about the context. With current elections, or institutions, is one thing. With new ones, could be a very different thing.

Tomorrow, if you were to go into a prison and look in the commissary, you’d probably find nothing that you wanted. Yet, if you were a prisoner for six months, and you went to the commissary, you would make very carefully calculated choices about what you would purchase or wouldn’t purchase. Because those are your options, and they would matter.

Okay, so if we have to assess lying candidates, but much more importantly, if the structures behind that candidates that constrain anything they can do anyway — that’s one context. And if we confront the possibility of real change, that’s another context. And this does tell us something about what the left has to do. It has to make people aware of alternative possibilities and their roles in bringing those alternative possibilities about. If we don’t do that, we’re not going to get very far. Once we do that successfully, we’ll get very far.

Immediately, people are going to ask, “Where is this happening in the world today?” Can you give us some real-world examples of political movements putting these principles and values into action?

To a degree, all movements do some of this. I don’t really know how to answer that. The women’s movement, starting in the late 1960s and early 1970s, had tremendous success because it spoke to its constituency — women, and receptive men too — in a manner that revealed a reality that hadn’t been perceived and fully understood before and because it proposed steps to improve the situation. The same can be said for the Civil Rights movement and the gay and lesbian movements, and so on.

It’s been less successfully true, however, when it comes to the economy and the polity. The left has done a less successful job at describing what we want and how our role can bring it to pass. It was more obvious with gender, race, and sexuality. And that’s not to say that those ills are over with or that they’re easy to deal with. It is just to say that more has been achieved regarding them, than regarding undoing class hierarchy, say.

I think part of the reason why we don’t see as much clarity and success regarding the economy is because the left really doesn’t know what it wants. The left isn’t clear about what it wants for the polity either. In fact, the left has baggage that often keeps us from getting to those truths. Some of that baggage, as we talked about earlier, is the belief that there is a subset of people who are competent and capable of making serious decisions, and then the rest are not prepared to do so and should follow. That baggage gets in the way of people providing an effective critique of, and program for, a different economy and polity.

Can you make this a bit more concrete?

In Argentina some years ago, due to economic turmoil, many factories were taken over by their workforces. This wasn’t so much the workforce rising-up against the owners as much as it was the owners leaving failing operations. The workers basically said, “You’re not selling this; we’re taking it.” So, they would occupy the buildings. And they would take over the factory operations and start running it.

So I’m sitting in a room of about 50 or 60 workers who had come from occupied factories. This wasn’t just one factory, but maybe 30. I was invited there to speak about the economy. I suggested that first people should go around the room, introduce themselves and talk some about their experiences and struggles. By the sixth of seventh person, it got very depressing. At first, it was up-beat. But when they started telling their stories, the situation got very truthful, very fast. People even started crying. I had to stop the process not least because everyone had the same report.

Indeed, just before ending the reporting, a woman stood up and said, “I can’t believe I’m going to say this but maybe Margaret Thatcher was right: maybe there is no alternative to capitalism.” After all, “we took over our factories; the owners left; the high-ranking individuals fled; we equalized incomes; and we created a democratic council to run the business. And, we succeeded! We created a viable business model out of a failed industry.” But even so, “all the old crap is coming back.” Even with all our changes, “the alienation is coming back.”

So, I had to give my talk and I naturally emphasized their concern. My intervention was to suggest that the problem was that they kept all the old divisions of labor. They had a new person, a working-class person who had no prior credentials or training, take over as Chief Financial Officer, and other such positions or tasks. The person, without relevant schooling, sometimes even barely able to read, would learn the job and do it well, so they also proved that working people were definitely capable of performing these tasks.

Yet, they still had just some people doing the authoritative empowering jobs while others performed rudimentary tasks. When the dust settled, as time passed, they had the same hierarchy as they did before around the division of labor. And that’s why all the old crap was coming back, because of the tension, authority, alienation, and power dynamics associated with the arrangement they unknowingly had maintained. What was needed instead was to create a new division of labor which empowered all workers by having every worker have a fair share of empowering conditions, a system where everyone could usefully and confidently participate in meaningful decisions.

This aspect was missing in their efforts and it’s also missing in our efforts in the US, which does a great deal of harm to our prospects of creating a more just society and meaningful existence.

Vincent Emanuele

Vincent Emanuele is a writer, activist and radio journalist. Vincent hosts the weekly radio program “Meditations and Molotovs,” which airs every Monday @ 2:00pm (EST) on the Progressive Radio Network. His writings and interviews have appeared in Z MagazineCounterPunchTruthOutteleSUR EnglishAlterNet and various other progressive outlets.

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