Canadian Dimension Interviews Michael Albert
This Fall Michael Albert went to Canada for some talks and did an interview with the excellent Canadian Magazine, Canadian Dimension. Here is an essentially verbatim transcript they prepared for publication in Canada.
CD: How is Z Magazine doing? Where does it stand in terms of reaching an audience -- have you reached a plateau beyond which you can't go?
MA: Well, I think there's lots of potential, but I do think that getting larger requires more money. Z reaches people who want to read Z, and they find it. Or it reaches a subset of the audience that has found some other progressive thing via mailing. So, for instance, we'll mail to The Nation's mailing list. But, we can't mail to a non-existent mailing list. We can only operate within the rubric of people who have become involved with some Left periodical or organization or whatever. And I think there's a much bigger audience than that, but to reach out to any larger audience would require an expenditure that we don't have. So in the absence of getting some more money, it's not clear that we can get too much larger unless some horrible thing happens, at which time everything on the Left would grow. But, one doesn't want to hope for that ...
CD: You've proposed creating a federation of progressive magazines, distribution outlets, and so on; an alternative media network.
MA: It certainly would be desirable if various alternative, progressive media institutions in both the US and Canada found a way to reduce redundancy without having to submerge their identities. This kind of solidarity sharing of resources would be good, but it's rather hard, partly because these various institutions have to a degree differing agendas, even though to the mainstream they may look like peas in a pod. And another impediment is that they're just so damned strapped. It's very hard to give time to getting together when getting together only promises returns down the road. Well, meanwhile, you're taking away from just surviving. So it becomes difficult. We've had good response to that proposal, although, as you might expect, most of it was from people who want to start up, not from established institutions.
CD: What is the state of class consciousness in the US? From up here it looks as if there has been a remarkable development in the last few years, certainly more so than in the recent past. Is that true?
MA: Well, it depends who you're talking about. The left, that is, people who consciously see themselves as left in some fashion or another have left class behind. And it's pretty abysmal. You can sort of chart it this way I guess: in the United States there's a remarkable capacity to take any good idea too far, to take good ideas and carry them off a cliff. Coming out of the late 60s there was a critique of economism -- the conception that sees everything in terms of economics, and that class is the only thing that matters, and is the only way that we can understand anything else -- a critique which I think was very healthy and good and which I was a part of. But it went so far as to say that "race matters, and gender matters, and maybe even power matters, but who the hell gives a shit about class?" And that really penetrated the left, I think, and so now and for a long time, the awareness of class, among the people who call themselves leftists, has been really down. There's a second reason for that. The phenomenon I just described would be described by many people, but this next one may be idiosyncratic to me. The class consciousness of the left has never been a very healthy class consciousness. Not the class consciousness of a working person, but the class consciousness of the self-described left. It has often been a coordinator consciousness, a consciousness of administering the well-being of others; a consciousness that is associated with Leninism and central planning and so on. And it has never really been a movement whose flavour and culture was welcoming of working people. It rather was a movement that was more like business school. So, it isn't that hard to jettison attention to class when attention to class on the left has never been that constructive. As for the rest of the country, there I think there is an increased awareness of class, but too little. I mean, basically there's a war going on. There's always a class struggle in any capitalist country, clearly, but sometimes it gets particularly vicious. There's a war going on in the United States, in which haves are trying to amass more at the expense of have-nots, i.e.: capital at the expense of labour. And that's been going on now for quite some time, and it's leading to an awareness that there's an enemy, that there's somebody out to get us, that there's somebody out to do us harm. But the remarkable success in the US of capital has been to translate a lot of that anger into anger at the government, which is why you see these right wing groups, like the fascists, and the militia -- they often have a very significant working class base. There's a real anger there, and it's a real consciousness that the down and out are being put upon, and that more and more is being taken away. But that anger gets directed at the government, not at corporations. Corporations don't exist in the US. When I'm out giving talks, one question I'm often asked is "Is there any room for hope?" And what I usually answer is this: if you could go get Joe Hill or somebody, some organizer from 50 or 70 years ago, and you could bring them back, and give them a week to look around, and then ask them if there was any hope, they would say "What the fuck is WRONG with you people? This is an organizer's DREAM! What is your problem? EVERYBODY out there is angry. EVERYBODY out there doesn't trust authority. EVERYBODY out there doesn't trust the rich. EVERYBODY out there wants a change.
CD: So how do you account for the current inertia?
MA: If you look from the mid-'60s to now, what has the Left been doing, in a broad sense of the term? It seems to me that in the past thirty years what the left has been doing is explaining how everything is broken -- explaining how and why everything hurts -- and they've been doing that over and over and over. And when you did that in 1962, 1963, even up to the early 1970s, you were talking to audiences who thought everything was fine, who thought that the only reason any pain existed in their lives was because of them; everybody else was doing fine. People didn't even know there was poverty; there were actually books published exposing the existence of poverty. And when the women's movement started, it was a revelation that others suffered. And that led to an upsurge of energy, and to a desire to do something, and there was no reason to think you couldn't succeed. Everybody had hope, and so these big movements were born. At that time, our behavior worked. But if you do it for thirty years, after a while you succeed -- and we have succeeded, I think. Decades ago, people thought that doctors existed to provide health care, that corporations were concerned with the health and well-being of consumers. People thought that lawyers believed in justice -- this is true -- and that the government was a benevolent institution. And as those things crashed, people got mad, and now nobody believes any of that shit any more. There is a very different consciousness now. Nobody thinks that doctors are out for anything but money, or that lawyers give a damn about justice, and nobody thinks that the executive of a corporation is concerned with our well-being.
CD: So there's a kind of nihilism.
MA: And it's as much our fault -- on the left -- as anyone's. After years of saying what's wrong, what do we say about vision, what about strategy? Nothing. Not a thing, just hour after hour, month after month, year after year, of "Here's how bad it is, and here's how strong they are." I don't even think there are many Leftists around who think we can win. There are a lot of people who want to fight the good fight, who want to be on the right side, but I don't know many who actually think we can win anything. Well, what is that? After a while, you might as well go to the beach. Internally, there's a pessimism -- so while class consciousness may go up, the belief that you can actually accomplish anything is very low.
CD: Is it not also true that there has been an incredible blitz from the right, an orchestrated campaign?
MA: Sure, and it has some effect. It doesn't convince you that the fact that you can't afford to live well is pleasant -- they don't bother trying to convince people in poverty that their poverty is pleasant -- but what it can do is make you feel that it's your fault, it can make you feel that you're inadequate because you suffer. If you're going to make a revolution in China, when they had a revolution, you don't have to convince people that starving is painful -- they know that. What you have to do is convince people is that you can deliver rice, and some dignity. What are you going to have to do to make a revolution in North America? It's going to take more than the promise of rice and dignity. You have to convince people that: you can fight city hall, and win; and that if you do win, you'll establish something better, and not just replace the old boss with a new boss. And the left has done almost nothing on either of those two fronts. We've done something in terms of fighting, and we've won some fights, although we have a remarkable capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
CD: That's always been one of the complaints about Chomsky, for example, that he has fantastic analysis, and nothing positive.
MA: Well, he says "This is what I do, and I do it well, and I don't do the other well." Which is fine -- especially in his case, because he does it so well that it has a tremendous effect on people -- except that nobody does the other. Very few people are providing future vision. And think about why: if you have to choose between writing something about vision and strategy, and writing about how everything is wrong, it's not hard to figure out which of those things is most likely to leave you looking stupid. It's very hard for us at Z to find any submissions that are at all visionary.
CD: But are you talking about these issues on the collective?
MA: At Z there are only three of us, but at, say, South End Press, there's no time. You probably have the same experience at Canadian Dimension -- you do the thing, and then how much time is there left to actually talk about politics? South End, however, actually embodies some radical principles in its structure, which is based on the principles that me and this other fellow, Robin Hahnel, developed. So you could look at the response to that. Really, it's a sad situation we're in now, as radical economists. URPE, the Union of Radical Political Economists in the United States is now largely pro-market. I think that's pathetic. Really pathetic, in the sense that two or three decades ago almost all radical economists would have been market abolitionists. Now they're not, and there's no explanation, no reasons given for why all their analysis was wrong. They don't do that because they can't do that, because all of their analysis was right. So why are people now pro-market? Because if you say you are against markets, you are branded a lunatic in the academy. So you don't say that. And after a while, you can't believe differently.
CD: So what do you say, Michael?
MA: I'm a market abolitionist. I don't have any problem saying that.
CD: You just mentioned one economic vision -- participatory economics, developed by you and Robin Hahnel. Can you tell us what that is?
MA: A friend and I, Robin Hahnel, have tried to argue in favour of a kind of economy that we think would really fulfill what nearly every leftist says when they're asked what values they'd like to see in an economy. It's a system that emphasis these values: solidarity; diversity; equity -- meaning not just material conditions, but also circumstances, so you don't have some people working fulfilling, empowering jobs, and others working bad ones; and self management, which means you have a system of decision making, a system of allocation that guarantees that each person can influence decisions to the degree that they're affected by them. And we've developed a rather comprehensive model of this participatory economy, as well as critiques of other alternate economies that have been put forward. And the only ones that have been put forward, in a substantial fashion, are what's called market socialism, as in Yugoslavia, and what's called centrally planned socialism. At least, you can call them that, but if you do you can't say that socialism means workers in control, because in those kinds of economies workers weren't in control of anything. Instead, a class of people -- an economically defined group -- that you can call managerial class, or coordinator class, have access to decision making power not by virtue of owning a deed to property, but by having a monopoly on skills and decision making -- and they run the show. That's not the kind of an economy that I want, but it is the kind of economy that a lot of people on the left have historically wanted, largely I think because it reflects their class interests. I am not a Marxist, but lots of ideas in Marxism are very powerful, and one of them is to try to understand how political positions are derived from the economic interests of groups that hold those positions. Intellectuals are a part of this coordinator class, and they also are in charge, in a lot of ways, of much of the discussion on the left.
CD: To return to this notion of class consciousness, one of the things you said is that working people direct their anger toward the coordinator class, yet that's where they most want to go. That must be increadibly insidious.
MA: It is. To me it's one of the saddest and one of the most indicative things about capitalism. A working class family -- and anyone who is part of a working class family knows this from experience -- does have tremendous class consciousness of a certain kind. It's centered around people in their lives who have power over them. Most working people in North America have not only never encountered a capitalist, they've never even seen one, or even been in the vicinity of one, except maybe unknowingly. No interaction with them whatever. Yet on a fairly regular basis they have interactions with this other group of people I'm talking about: doctors, lawyers, academics. People who define the character of their lives, and who have a relative monopoly on decision making power and on information, and who see themselves as superior.
And working people describe to you their reaction to the coordinator class in the same terms that women talk about men, or blacks in my country talk about whites, at least when they are talking about their anger. They'll say that this group of people thinks that they're stupid, and sees them as inferior, and just assumes as a matter of course, that they will get more, etc. So when the Right comes along and wants to drum up anti-liberal bias, what do they do? They identify liberalism with intellectual elites. And it works like crazy. So much anti-communist sentiment in the US was, I think, a healthy reaction by working people to a shitty system. What was called communism in the United States was, for working people, their worst nightmare: it was the lawyer or the academic becoming the government and the administrator of the economy. If the Left can't address these feelings and concerns of working people, then how can the Left possibly organize working people? How can the Left be a working class Left in the way it's a feminist or an anti-racist Left, if it isn't even aware of these feelings of working class people? And then the point that you made -- working class people spend their lives wanting their kids to become that. They spend every day working to make their kids become what they hate most. And that's very sad.
CD: So how does the Left develop a working class movement?
MA: The left understands that you can't form a movement organization, or a movement institution, and institute inside it patriarchy. Now we don't know exactly how to do that yet, but certainly nobody consciously wants it there. Nobody would celebrate it, much less set it up deliberately. Nor would we set up apartheid inside our organizations -- if a Left organization consciously did that, everybody would be nauseated. Now look at class: institution after institution on the left has job structures, financial arrangements, even distribution of income that are barely distinguishable from what exists in the society at large. Few of the funding mechanisms of Left organizations are as progressive as the income tax. There is no awareness that replicating class hierarchies is even an issue. Why is that? I think it's because most people on the left don't believe in racism, don't believe in sexism, but they do believe in intellectuals running the show. And in only a few people getting to be intellectuals. "Intellectuals" here meaning "coordinator class."
This has to do with why I don't call myself a Marxist. I call myself a feminist because I think that feminism a a way of thought, a framework, an attempt to deal with reality, that's trying to understand gender, sexuality, and kinship relations, and to do so from the perspective of people who are oppressed by those things. I would call myself in some senses nationalist, or intercommunalist, because I think that's a framework that's trying to understand race relations from the perspective of groups who are dominated. I would also call myself -- in some sense -- an anarchist, and there for political reasons. And I critique all of those things because they aren't finished being developed yet, and they are all myopic, in some ways, in that they point to the importance of the one thing they're interested in, and try to understand everything in terms of, say, gender or race only, and I think that's wrong. Now when you get to Marxism, I have the same critique -- a criticism of its economism. Of its over-exaggeration or over-emphasis of the economy. But I also have another critique, which is that I don't think Marxism looks at the economy from the point of view of the workers, from the point of view of the worst off. One part of Marxism I really like is the idea of taking an ideology and examining it to see whose interests it serves. When good Marxists do that with bourgeois economics, they look at the body of thought, and they recognize that neo classical economics isn't all wrong: it examines the world, but its world view leaves some stuff out, and the reason it leaves stuff out is to serve a certain ideological interest. It just rationalizes the economy we have; nobody uses neo-classical economics to run their business. Now suppose you use the same criteria to look at Marxism. You can pile up all the books on Marxism on the planet, and I defy you to find -- with very, very rare exceptions -- a vision of what they want for the economy that doesn't serve the interests of the coordinator class. There's never been a Marxist party, much less Marxists in power, who have ever proposed anything for the economy that was not in the interest of a new ruling class as opposed to workers. A Marxist would look at that and say, "That tells us something."
CD: How useful is Marxist analysis?
MA: For some things it's very useful. Some of Marxism's critique of capitalism is very powerful in many respects. But here's an example of one way it doesn't work. One time I was trying to raise money from this guy I knew who was loaded, and he owned, among other things, a film production studio. And I asked him why everything is so goddamn slow, why everything takes so long to get done. And he described how the screenplay is sent in, and he can't deal with it all, so he hires these people who are kind of like vice presidents, and what they do is go out and make power for themselves. They have an interest in creating a situation in which they are indespensible, and therefore have power. They're the coordinator class, and he says he can't control them. In the same way, the capitalist needs mangers because he can't administer everything first hand. Well, Marxism doesn't have much to say about any of this shit. Why? Because there's a hole. The coordinator class is missing. The class that benefits most from Marxist theory is absent from the theory. So, I'm not Marxist because I'm socialist. That's the strange thing.
CD: Not that strange; there were socialists before Marx.
MA: True. But there were people who accurately predicted what would happen, that Marxism wouldn't lead to dictatorship of the proletariet, but of a bunch of intellectuals. And athey were right. So why didn't Marx recognize that, even though the ideas were in the air at that time? Could be because he was just wrong. Or it could be that even though he was a good person, maybe -- as he might say himself -- his ability to perceive the world around him was hindered by his own circumstances.
CD: I think you tend to read him back through Stalin and Lenin. Though someone like Mezaros reads him instead through Luxemburg.
MA: Here's why I almost never want to say anything about Marx -- I always talk about Marxism. One's a history of thought question, but the other's a political question.
CD: There is a serious reconsideration of Marx going on.
MA: But don't you find something strange about that? Imagine reconsidering Louis Pasteur, or reconsidering Einstein. Why would we have to do that? The textbook gets it right -- a science textbook doesn't have Einstein's theories different than Einstein did.
CD: Social theory is a bit different than scientific theory.
MA: Yeah, it's gobbledygook. Joan Robinson, the English economist, has this great exchange. She has one passage in "Why I'm not a Marxist," in which she says, If I'm at lunch with somebody who asks me a question about the way capitalism works, I'll take out a napkin and a pencil and try to figure out the answer, and I might figure it out or I might not. But if you do the same thing with a Marxist, they'll take out a volume of Capital, and turn to some page in it and try to find the answer. She says that's absurd. And she's right.