By Michael Albert. This article was first published on ZNET.
All around we see an incredible amount of anger at the defining institutions of society, particularly government and corporations.
One might expect so much dissident anger to produce a tremendous opportunity for activists with carefully developed analyses and commitments. One might expect long time left activists and newcomers too to unleash tremendous energy aimed at developing lasting mechanisms for change.
And indeed, we have seen some of that. Syriza’s rise in Greece and that of Podemos and Die Linke in Spain and Germany and most recently the French uprisings, the Corbyn and Sanders trends in the UK and the U.S., resistance in Chile and Turkey, and turmoil in many other parts of the world have pledged themselves to last. So too have the Occupy uprisings, and, more specific to the U.S., the Black Lives Matters uprisings. But mutual aid among all these phenomena and more are sparse and the pledge to last too often turns out to be just a pledge.
Are we working sufficiently to help the rising resistance solidify into lasting, effective, left progress? My guess is many would say they are doing just that, and certainly some are. But is it enough? And what form does it take?
Sadly, the more experience we radical leftists have, the less energy we seem to be feeling, and the less our focus seems to be on doing what is most needed not merely to pursue very particular local agendas, but to create lasting mechanisms for change beyond local issues. Instead of addressing what is needed now, when we muster energy to engage at all, too often we seem to be saying the same old things about capitalism, racism, and so on, but little that aids innovative possibilities.
We warn that elections typically soak up too much time and resources. We then write effusively about elections often emphasizing what our readers already know from countless other sources. Do we write enough write about what is different and hopeful? Do we write too much about how horrible so and so candidate is – or even, and this is worse – how horrible so and so’s voters are. How often do we repeat how horrible such and such a party is, but without teaching anyone who is reading us anything new?
Sanders you should do this, Sanders you should do that, say people who often have little or even no idea what circumstances and means Sanders has available. Far less often do people say, here is what I will do that is different, and here is how I hope it will help. Which long-time left activists acknowledge the obvious – that we haven’t accomplished remotely what Sanders has regarding raising consciousness and awareness and values and feelings – even as we call for the importance of doing just that.
The point is, the ease with which we on the left who have not built the kind of lasting organizations and structures that would, if they existed, be able to help the Sanders outpouring (and other upsurges) develop in lasting, sustainable, directions, blame him, them, or broader social relations…for the Sanders outpouring not doing so, which outcome we simply take as inevitable. But Sanders is just who he is. He is doing way more than any of us could have imagined him doing. Likewise, social relations are what they are. They obstruct any positive developments and there is nothing new in noting that. The more relevant fixable shortcoming seems to me to be, us. Organized, aware, experienced leftists haven’t been ready to advance current potentials.
Here is a personal example from just moments ago that I think bears on the problem noted. The example doesn’t point to Sanders, the police, mainstream media, or corporations – but to us as a possible site of shortcomings. Of course there are many other critically important factors we could point to as well, but let’s consider this one.
I work at Z Magazine, ZNet, and ZCommunications, plus diverse related endeavors that change over time, like the summer school we did for many years, or an online school, or trying to create new tools for social media, and many other efforts. I have done these things, with Lydia Sargent and Eric Sargent, for 30 years, and before that for 10 years our focus was South End Press. And here is an email I just got – and it is quite typical and really just an instance of an endless stream of similar communications that occur all around the left, and of an even larger reservoir of such views that are never put on paper, but flourish nonetheless.
Here, then, is the whole of a letter I received:
Why don’t you make your zmag articles public? How can you expect social change if you don’t make your info accessible for the general public? I mean, if your goal is to help the poor, why do you make it hard for them to read your stuff? I used to be a fan, but no more. You people have become part of the problem.
I think this letter manifests two of the many problems that plague us and particularly our prospects for working effectively together in sustained ways, and that, luckily, are entirely within our power to relatively quickly rectify.
First, setting aside the actual details, the critic reflexively dismisses people he should consider allies without thought or evidence. Second, and now accounting for the details, the critic reveals a more recent component of left difficulties, which is the notion that there is no pressing need to actually support left communications and even that doing so or seeking such, is retrograde.
Here is the reply I sent to the critic – with minor clarifications for this article.
Basically you are asking, why can’t we work, full time, for nothing at all. Do you really not know why? Before concluding that we are part of the problem – presumably meaning that we don’t really care about getting out information, we just want to aggrandize ourselves – did you think to yourself, wait, why is this the situation?
We at Z have tried over and over to actually solve financial problems of the left – proposing and even undertaking various projects designed to get fellow leftists to each recognize everyone’s situation and collectively address it. We have done that at great cost to our own efforts. Virtually no one responds. Virtually no other operation tries anything but saving themselves either with ads or with big donors or by their staffs working for nothing – all three of which are real problems when writ large.
All that said, the only thing people interested in our content have to pay for is recent Z Magazine content. And if you wait a little, that too becomes free. Donate monthly, a low amount, and it is available free immediately.
At any given moment roughly 99.99% of our content is immediately free, and you can get the rest too with no delay if you plunk down a periodic small donation…but you think all information ought to be entirely immediately free.
So, ask yourself this – if you think that the small part of our operation that is not immediately accessible other than to donors needs to be immediately accessible to everyone – do you donate to help make that possible? I do. I donate my life, my work time, and what would be my income if I chose to work in any other place.
And yet you say, we are part of the problem. I think you ought to reconsider that, not with a reflex reaction that parrots some silly things that various people now seem to routinely argue, but by actually trying to make a case for your views, with some evidence.
He replied. And here is the whole of it.
Uh, no. I don’t think those with money will stop buying your mag, if you let poor people have free access to your articles.
“Basically you are asking, why can’t we work, full time, for nothing at all.”
Now you sound like a typical right winger. If you want to make moola, go into banking or sell crack. If people want the tangible magazine, they can buy it still. It’s a shame that you see social justice as a business opportunity to make a quick buck. Like I said, you are now part of the problem.
I have a kind of obsession. I feel that when I get email it is my responsibility to reply, and so I virtually always do. And I also think I ought to not just be paternalistic and say, sure, you are right, of course, and have a nice day, or thanks for your comments we will study them later, but to offer what I actually think. And since I think a great many people have views close to those the emailer enunciated, I add here, my follow up reply:
You don’t have any real idea, do you, of our choices – and yet you leap to say we are part of the problem.
Since the magazine is just a fraction of the content we provide – there is the minor problem of paying not only for it, but for the site. And since sites make it easy for people to think they are getting good information for nothing (or more accurately for enduring ads and having their lives bought and sold which few, even on the left, seem to consider a problem) people begin to cancel their subs so that keeping the print alive for those who want it also requires funds beyond what those who want the magazine will pay for it. So there is the difficulty of getting funds for the site and also for the print magazine. And we have tried permutation after permutation of ways to do it – other than taking ads…that is.
Here is a point you might wish to ponder.
You are telling folks who have given their lives to left activism and information dispersal that they are part of the problem, and you make that incredible leap without asking a single question, without the slightest serious investigation, and despite knowing virtually nothing at all about their actual situation. Doesn’t that give you pause?
Doesn’t it give you pause that these people you now call part of the problem built South End Press, first, working 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, for years, for room and board, all living and working in the same place to make that even doable? People who could easily have earned a great many times more, working far fewer hours?
Of course we have tried every imaginable combination of providing free materials and materials for payment to find a mix that can work and keep limitations minimal.
It is sad that someone who is apparently left in values and thoughts, at least to some degree, comes up with what you seem to be saying here.
I wonder, as well, why you think it is okay to charge for a print magazine. Is it because of the cost of the paper? The delivery? Do you think, however, that the work should be done with no income? Online material has different component costs, bandwidth, programming, etc., but also labor. Perhaps you think leftists don’t need to eat.
Suppose you have a job and get income. You work, let’s say, a forty hour week. You think it would be far more socially valuable for you to do left media, or organizing, or whatever. So you quit the job you have, or could have, perhaps it was really high paying, or perhaps really interesting and suited to you, and you begin to work full time at the socially valuable pursuit instead.
Should you do that, without income, until you expire, after not very long, assuming you don’t have some independent support? Did you make that choice? If you didn’t, why not?
Activists and media workers too often make essentially that choice about our part time efforts, or we accept modest income from full time left pursuits, and as we age even opt for social security and no income – but honestly, none of this is something for any activist to brag about or even just think desirable or admirable. Left activists should instead have a good solid income to live on. Left activity should not have to be a sideline pursuit even for a young person just entering, and certainly not for people with families. That left work can’t provide good incomes is a horribly harmful failing, not a virtue. And that there are people on the left who think otherwise is pretty incredible.
I think the above exchange displays some factors bearing on issues entirely within our means to alter that I think severely diminish our prospects of generating sustainable left structure and organization and even activist movement.
1. An utter disdain for the actual conditions of work of people on the left from, yes, other people on the left.
2. A more specific belief that left communications need not be supported, and even should not be supported because information should be free.
Apparently, we should all use Twitter and Facebook only, relying on or even celebrating massive multinationals who are taking over communications in ways debilitating not only to substance but even to our attention spans and of course vastly expanding surveillance – while independent media operations beyond those venues dwindle and disappear. We should all watch substance unravel into minuscule messages swamped by tsunamis of noise and overseen by gigantic centers of power.
So, is there a connection between the attitudes fueling the email I received on the one hand, and the problem of left insularity and incapacity to become more diverse, collective, and solidarity on the other? Does our style of engagement with others contribute to the left’s inattention to developing sustainable effective mechanisms for large scale lasting change?
You tell me.