Society’s Pliers

How Many People?

By Michael Albert

 

How big is the choir? How many more people have left values and hopes though they are not able to act on them? How many people with just a little explanation and prodding would be in this camp and on the road to activism?

These are fair questions, it seems to me, to which no one has compelling answers. A group of folks recently put on the internet a web site that wants to find out. It is called Organization to Liberate Society or OLS for short (and you can find it at: www.olsols.org or through ZNet at www.zmag.org). OLS wants to tally the choir, and to help grow and mobilize it.

Part of OLS’s appeal is that this organization shouldn’t be saddled by being identified with individual founders, but this is difficult to accomplish. People will want to know origins, yet origins, as you will see below, are irrelevant because originators have no special place in OLS. Okay, I was involved at the outset and know the others involved and the people maintaining the site. Beyond that, however, no one wishes to be labelled founder or any other such thing. Think of OLS as anonymous if you want, or, better, as the creation and possession of whoever participates. My own role is like anyone else’s: advocate.

The OLS site begins: "Are you tired of the rich getting richer and everyone else paying for it? Of the government being an appendage of the Fortune 500? Of not being able to have an effect on health care, education, your job, the economy, laws, and our culture? Of so much hypocrisy, injustice and just plain commercial rot? So are we. And as many as we are, as angry at injustice as we are, and as good-hearted as we are, if we can just get together we can make a big difference..."

The next thing you read is: "Imagine an organization with a million members that grows at an accelerating rate. It has a program that stems from the needs and insights of its membership and it pursues its goals with vigor, creativity, and determination. It has an inclusive, participatory, democratic structure evolving in accord with its agenda and principles. And, finally, its values and aims are congenial to anyone concerned about creating a truly humane society. Would you rejoice that such an institution existed? Would you lend it some of your energies? If you would join when it was large and effective, would you join just a little earlier, to help create this type organization?" OLS is for people who are "tired of national political organizations that are forced by their conditions to spend nearly all their time trying to determine or refine a program and structure, but which are (a) too small for these to actually matter much, and (b) tired of having no way to know the size of the total community of people with broadly progressive values in the U.S., much less to reach it in a timely and effective manner."

The OLS idea is to recruit, recruit, recruit until there are a million members, and only then to settle on national program. "The defining features of political organizations are generally their principles, structure, and program," reports the OLS web site. "OLS has five defining principles which the organization pledges to act on.… OLS begins with virtually no internal structure—only a membership list and this web site. What it becomes will be up to the people who make it real. Existing members promote and otherwise argue on behalf of OLS’s principles and enlist new OLS members, creating local organizations and local program as they choose, until we are one million members strong. Then OLS will be large enough to decide on a more complex and ambitious national program and to develop needed supporting organizational structure."

The site includes ideas about how to recruit, and how to form local chapters and it has forms with which to sign up online. OLS’s principles as stated on the site:

"In essence," the site tells us "a society will benefit to the extent we can reduce oppression and increase solidarity, diversity, equity, and democratic participation and influence. If you agree with the principles already, and you would feel good about arguing on their behalf and telling other folks about OLS so they might join, then please … add your name to our membership tally and make our project yours too."

Would anybody who reads Z balk at these principles? Oh, we each might write them a bit differently, sure, but wouldn’t you sign on? I would, and I did. But who else would? How big could the tally grow? My neighbor is an ex-marine. I think he might sign on with a little consciousness raising. I am sure my mail carrier would. Just in case those looking at the principles find them confusing, the site explains them further: "As we understand the principles, and as we intend their meaning, to disagree with the first principle suggests that:

The principles do a nice job of capturing what it means to be progressive or left at the broadest values level. So it seems to me that a tally of folks agreeing with these principles sufficiently to sign on as an "OLSer" could indeed become an on-going tally of "the choir." And it also seems clear that recruiting new people to the principles and the organization by raising consciousness wouldn’t be preaching to the choir, but expanding it.

The site also has a bunch of questions and answers about OLS that are very instructive concerning the logic of the project. Here are just a few of those, to give an indication.

Question: "How come my priority—militarism, AIDS, animal rights, workplace democracy, health care, police brutality, voter apathy—isn’t an explicit part of the principles?"

OLS answers: "To create an organization with a list of principles specifically naming everything anyone with a good heart and humane orientation favors would be unworkable. The aim with OLS, instead, was to assemble a list of enough positive values and aims to make for a meaningful commitment—no more, no less. Consider your main, more detailed agenda items. Ask yourself if you think a person who agrees with and works for OLS’s five principles would also support your focus or be open to doing so, at any rate. We bet the answer is yes.

"And there is another reason for the broad principles, as well. When an organization forms around a list of short term aims, it may be very well suited to working on those. But, more often than not, when the aims are accomplished, the organization lacks purpose and dissolves. By organizing OLS around a list of principles, very broad in scope and focus, we orient ourselves to an indefinite future and to a continually altering and diversifying program, not a fixed agenda that ends at some fixed point in time."

Question: "A million people? Are you folks serious? How the hell are we going to reach a million members? Especially with no money and no organization and no national agenda beyond recruitment? No stars, no names, no nothing. You folks are stark raving mad."

OLS answers: "Yes, a million members, and that is only as a start. This is no joke. Trying to make society a more fulfilling and just place for humans to live and interact is not easy and certainly serious. Envision lots of periodicals and grass-roots organizations and student groups and unions and other institutions becoming organizational supporters of OLS and urging people to join. Imagine many public speakers and radio personalities and performers and writers in diverse publications becoming OLS members and taking every sensible opportunity to tell folks about the five principles and urge their membership. And, most important by far, imagine you and other members each talking to friends, neighbors, relatives, school mates, and work mates about OLS and urging them to join. This is organizing. And it can work..."

Question: "If I join an organization I want to have co-members who I can talk with and get support from. How does that happen with OLS?"

OLS answers: "OLS members put brief bios and contact information into the membership database and onto this public site. The member’s comments and info are even organized by region. So it is no problem to meet in person with (or interact online with) other members and to organize whatever types of interactive support networks, discussion groups, or even social and other activities together you might seek. You can create local chapters and develop programs to fight for, as well.

"And for an OLS member who doesn’t have a computer to see the whole list, well most likely they will know someone who does have a computer, at work or at home, and they need only borrow its use for a few moments, or, better yet, organize that person into OLS. And if they don’t have access that way, what better place to go to hook up and to talk to others, than the public library’s computer room?"

 

Question: "Who are the hidden leaders of OLS? And why are they hidden?"<D>

OLS answers: "There are no hidden leaders. In fact, there are no leaders, period, other than you and all other members. There are the people who first had the idea, and the people they talked with, and the people in the next circle, and the people who read about it and joined, and the ones who joined after browsing to the site, and so on and so forth. And every one of these people is in the membership list and listed here in the public site, at least once there are 100 others, as well.

"And no person anywhere in this group has any more say than any other about what is happening—except with regard to maintaining this web site. But the people doing that function were chosen by the first group. So the first members are the temporary leadership, in that very very limited sense, of making sure the web site stays online, putting names on the membership list, entering people’s bios and other data from the forms people fill out. Recruitment, the key work of OLS until it reaches a million members, is done by all, as each sees fit."

Question: "What about changing the Principles, or changing the membership goal or the decision to hold off on program until it is reached. Who would make those decisions?"

OLS answers: "No one. That is, these are not available options. OLS is founded on the basis of supporting the five principles and recruiting members until the one million mark is reached. Everyone joining agrees to that. It is our pledge to one another. So, that is what OLS and its members will do. Only upon reaching its first goal, a million members supporting the five principles, does the option of OLS having new national goals as well as detailed national structure and program, arise. Everyone whose experience with OLS or conditions in their communities or life leads them to want OLS to change in some way, has a clear mandate. Build OLS. Create local OLS chapters and give them the qualities you favor. Along the way, by all means talk about innovative ideas for national program, structure, and adapted principles."

So is OLS feasible as a tally and even as an organization? Well, I think there is tremendous sympathy for liberatory values and beliefs nowadays, largely invisible due to the absence of vehicles of broad unity, particularly one that has some flash, some originality, and none of the baggage that comes from too close identification with too few people. Can OLS become such a vehicle? I don’t know...but maybe. OLS is problematic, sure, like anything new and different, and it may not come to much, but I will go back to www.olsols.org in a month and if I see a few thousand names, I am going to get excited about it and work hard to make it succeed.

What about you? Will your name be there?