Outreach is the Key
The Satya Interview with Michael
Michael Albert co-founded Z Magazine and Z Net, a Web
site and electronic commentary service. He is the author of numerous
books including Looking Forward (with Robin Hahnel) and Stop
the Killing Train. Here, Michael discusses with Catherine Clyne
his newest book, The Trajectory of Change: Activist Strategies for
Social Change (South End Press, 2002), and shares his thoughts on
progressive activists and how they can be more effective.
What did you set out to accomplish with The Trajectory of Change?
Well, the truth is I didnt actually create this book, even though
I wrote it, of course. The publishing house, South End Press, and in
particular my editor there, Anthony Arnove, read the title essay and
wanted to build a book out of it. I provided a set of related essays,
and they ran with it. My hope was that the collection would help people
with the very difficult task of building effective social movements.
In the book I tried to identify what I think are key obstacles to movement
success, and to present thoughts about overcoming those obstacles.
So far, what kind of responses have you received?
Not too much. Some folks have written that they are enjoying and benefiting
from the book; there have been some very positive reviews. But beyond
that, I honestly dont know the reaction. Writing a book like
this is often an act of faith. Even after it is written, published,
read, it is often impossible to have a good idea of the impact.
One of the primary issues that you discuss is the failure of progressives
to reach out to new audiences, bring them in, and keep their involvement
sustained. What initially drew you into progressive issues, and what
kept you committed?
I am 55, so it was quite a while ago, and in very different times. I
was radicalized in part by hearing about the civil rights movement,
in part by my own reactions to college elitism, in part by the music
and spirit of the times, and, of course, by my involvement in the anti-Vietnam
War movement; and then other related projects, later.
What I saw, heard, and read, and then later what I did, moved me out
of my preferred life pathI would have been a physicistand
into radical politics. I think thats the combination that affects
most people, so it helps if what people see, hear, and read have enlightened
values and radical insights, and if the work they then do continues
to inspire and empower them.
Does the current political climate and war mongering magnify the
urgency of your call for progressives to mobilize and strategize?
Well, the issues are certainly important now, but they are always important.
At any moment there are very visible violations that jump out at us;
but beyond that, all the time there is a grotesque status quo which
includes extensive poverty, indignity, alienation, and suffering. Of
course current war mongering and the war that may ensue make immediate
organizing urgentbut one of my points is that while we need to
respect urgent situations and engage in timely crisis organizing, we
mostly need to sustain constant organizing motivated by positive aspirations.
On the journey toward progressive change, what are some of the specific
victories you can point to that indicate change is possible?
You can look at human history as one gargantuan slime pit of repressive
and violent abuse. But you can also read it as a steady development
of insights into what it means to be human and as a slow but steady
struggle to fulfill our potential. I prefer the latter view, in which
victories include such things as abolishing slavery, transcending the
disenfranchisement of women, curtailing child labor, ending Jim Crow
racism, developing unions and a limited work week, and so onthrough
the victories of labor movements, womens movements, civil rights
movements, gay and lesbian movements, anti-authoritarian movements,
anti-war movements, and most lately the anti-corporate globalization
movement, among others. Is there much still to be done? Yes. Of course.
There is a world to be won. But there is no reason whatever to think
that we cant do it.
In your book you stress that diversity is a crucial part of the progressive
movement, and urge activists to reach out and work with different groupseven
if they have major disagreements. You mention all of the different
struggling against oppression, with the exception of those working
against animal exploitation. Why the omission?
I am not sure I have an answer to that other than that for me, when
I talk about social movements to make the world better, animal rights
does not come into my mind. I honestly dont see animal rights
movements in anything like the way in which I see womens movements,
Latino movements, youth movements, the anti-corporate globalization
movement, labor movements, and so on. I have a parrot; I would be very
very upset were anyone to mistreat it. But, for whatever reasons, that
doesnt propel me to spend time concerned about the mistreatment
of animals the same way that I spend time concerned about wage slavery
or war or racism or rape. This could be a serious failing...but in
answer to your question, it is the case.
And, as a follow-up: The language used to describe human forms of
oppression and the goals of activists are often applied to advocacy
on behalf of animals (like exploitation, liberation, forces of oppression
being systemic and social in nature, etc.) as well. What are your thoughts
on this? Do you see areas of common ground between these struggles?
Are there areas in which you dont?
I dont have many thoughts on it, to be honest. Of course the dominant
institutions in society are most influential in both what is done vis-a-vis
humans and what is done vis-a-vis animals; thats why we call them
most dominant. So, if one wants a change in either realm, one has to
address those institutions; thats something in common. And an
animal rights movement which is also concerned about the humans who
work on farms or in labs or other relevant sites, is one that I feel
sure I could get along with fine.
At the same time, I dont think there is a very good analogy, to
be honest, between oppression of humans and that of animals...but that
doesnt mean that the abuse of animals is justified. I dont
see why it must be analogized to the abuse of people for it to be credible.
I admit to not liking the analogies. At the risk of perhaps annoying
some of your readers, but in the interests of honest disclosure,
when an animal rights activist takes the analogy to its extreme and
says, as I have often heard, that they think the killing and eating
of cows is the same as the killing and eating of humans, using the same
termsmurder, holocaust, etc.for each, I have to walk away
lest my dismay lead to something unconstructive. My antipathy to those
formulations is more or less: If I take your words at face value, then
when you walk down the street past a restaurant, for you it is as if
you were walking past a place that was killing and serving humans to
eat, in which case you are a horrendously callous and cowardly person
for not reacting far more emotionally (not less) both in terms of pain
and resistance. But, in fact, I dont take the words at face value.
I dont think people really mean them and really feel that what
is done at a chicken farm deserves the same terminology as what is
in carpet bombing civilians, say, or in concentration camps. I think
[use of] the words is instead manipulation and provocation, and as
undermine the intent of the animal rights critic using them, rather
than make [the argument] more compelling.
That said, again, a large-scale discussion of animal rights and ensuing
action is probably more than needed, in many respects, but it just
doesnt strike me as being remotely as urgent as preventing war
in Iraq or winning a 30-hour work week, or overthrowing capitalism
which, by the way, I think would be most beneficial to any animal rights
commitments that emerge).
In 2000, the Green Party made quite a splash, drawing thousands of enthusiasts
to huge political rallies. What happened to that energy? What are some
of the ways that the Green Party has failed to sustain that momentum?
What do you think needs to happen to get the ball rolling again?
My own view is that that energy and spirit was largely squandered.
It seems to me that the only alternative to this view is to say that
energy was phony and would have dissipated regardless of what was done
to nurture it, and I dont believe that. There were roughly three
million people who voted for Ralph Nader, and probably another seven
million who preferred him but voted for Gore out of fear of Bush. Thats
10 million voters, plus or minus a few million.
I think that we should have formed a shadow government with capable
progressive people at every post...and it should have provided counter
positions for virtually every major issue and policy choice and crisis
behavior for the years until the next election. It should have taxed
those 10 million concerned citizens, lets say, an average of $1
for low-incomes and $10 or more a month for high-incomes; and instead
of being just a source of money to fund activity, all those folks should
have been incorporated into local means of ongoing celebration, education,
and agitation. If all this had been done, think where we might be now.
There could be as much as $25 million a monthor even more with
steady growthcoming into progressive causes, and millions of
people actively involved in building an ongoing grassroots presence
plus an evolving counter politics and program through which people
could advocate about everything from the economy and ecology, to the
terror and household issues.
Would we necessarily have achieved all that if we had tried for it?
Perhaps not, but I suspect we would have done quite well.
What is your greatest hope for the future of this country?
In the short-run, that we prevent and roll back the horrors the Bush
administration has unleashed; curbing war, restraining and then unraveling
corporate globalization, continuing to dislodge racism and sexism,
the lot of working people and the poor. In the longer run, that we
build movements of sufficient size and commitment to not only win important
reforms but to transform societys defining institutions.
Your greatest fear?
This is not something I think about.
What advice can you give people who are just waking up to the myriad
of progressive issues, who feel compelled to do something but feel
in the current political climate?
To see the world as it is, is very important. But to exaggerate and
then be overwhelmed by the obstacles it presents, has no positive implications.
Think of a professional sports team in whatever sport you know something
aboutbasketball, baseball, soccer, whatever. If the team views
its opponents inaccurately, it will make horrible mistakes and lose;
it has to see them as they are. But if the team whines and bleats about
its opponents strengths, again it will be doomed.
Changing society for the better involves struggle. Of course we would
rather it be a cooperative venture with everyone wanting success, than
a contest with many opposing our success. But we cant look at
the playing field of social struggle and then despair because there
are lots of things to do, or many obstacles to overcome, anymore than
we can expect to succeed in any undertaking with that self-denegrating
mindset. And succeed we must, if there is to be a better world.
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