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September 2002
Progressives: Outreach is the Key

The Satya Interview with Michael Albert



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 didn’t 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 don’t know the reaction. Writing a book like this is often an act of faith. Even after it is written, published, and being 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 path—I would have been a physicist—and into radical politics. I think that’s 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 urgent—but 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 on—through the victories of labor movements, women’s 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 can’t 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 groups—even if they have major disagreements. You mention all of the different groups 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 don’t see animal rights movements in anything like the way in which I see women’s 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 doesn’t 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 honest 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 don’t?
I don’t 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; that’s why we call them most dominant. So, if one wants a change in either realm, one has to address those institutions; that’s 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 don’t think there is a very good analogy, to be honest, between oppression of humans and that of animals...but that doesn’t mean that the abuse of animals is justified. I don’t 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 terms—murder, 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 don’t take the words at face value. I don’t think people really mean them and really feel that what is done at a chicken farm deserves the same terminology as what is done in carpet bombing civilians, say, or in concentration camps. I think [use of] the words is instead manipulation and provocation, and as such, 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 honestly doesn’t strike me as being remotely as urgent as preventing war in Iraq or winning a 30-hour work week, or overthrowing capitalism (steps 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 the energy was phony and would have dissipated regardless of what was done to nurture it, and I don’t 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. That’s 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, let’s 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 month—or even more with steady growth—coming into progressive causes, and millions of people actively involved in building an ongoing grassroots presence and pressure, plus an evolving counter politics and program through which people could advocate about everything from the economy and ecology, to the war on 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, improving 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 society’s 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 overwhelmed—especially 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 about—basketball, 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 can’t 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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