Andrej Grubacic Interviews Michael Albert
In a rather unusual left publishing event, Michael Albert, Mandisi Majavu, Mark Evans, Jessica Azulay, and David Marty have simultaneously released three books that together compose a set meant for social activists - which are also the first entries in a new publishing project called ZBooks. The three book set is called Fanfare for the Future, and I had an opportunity to askMichael about it.
1. Fanfare for the Future addresses theory, vision, and strategy. What are some of its key attributes? Where did it come from, its lineage? What possessed you all to do this?
Fanfare tries to provide concepts, vision, and strategic insights that will be useful to folks in their organizing for a better society. Its key attributes are that it is succinct, accessible, and relevant to contemporary needs. Fanfare came from a lot of points of origin. My own trajectory leads back to the new left of the 1960s. The rest of the authors are much younger. Mandisi has been active as a student and organizer in South Africa. Mark is a nurse and union activist in the UK. Jessica has built alternative institutions and done community organizing in the U.S. David is very active in the Spanish movements of the past few years. All of us are currently involved, as well, in trying to build the International Organization for a Participatory Society, IOPS, and I think it is fair to say that Fanfare has been written and refined in the hopes it will serve just that type of endeavor.
What possessed us, then, was the usual desire to do something worthy for social change, and the feeling that this was a timely moment for a contribution of this sort.
2. Regarding the first volume, is it really a theory of society and history? That seems ambitious at any length, much less for a short book. What distinguishes the contents of Occupy Theory from other ways of looking at society, or are its formulations already familiar to leftists?
Occupy Theory certainly does not provide a full theory of society and history. I myself think there is no such theory, actually. We know way too little about people and their interrelations to posit a whole encompassing testable theory of societies or history. However, Occupy Theory does offer theory in the sense the word is more typically used, which is as a label for a collection of concepts plus associated analyses of their interrelations, which are all together able to be used by activists in assessing their circumstances, desires, and options, including generating limited but nonetheless important predictions.
What distinguishes Occupy Theory's concepts, I think, is mainly three things, and then, of course, much more in the details.
First, the conceptual toolbox that Occupy Theory advocates is written clearly and pegged to actual needs arising when trying to understand societies and historical trajectories. The book's degree of accessibility is, sadly, not particularly familiar to leftists. More often, those who write "theory" make it incredibly dense and obscure either because they are caught up in nonsensical ideas divorced from reality and reason, or because they have good ideas but have to dress them up with ridiculous language for their own academic advancement.
Second, the approach in Occupy Theory rejects elevating any single side of life, such as economy, as more central to understand and more "at the base" that we must attend to. Instead, Occupy Theory focuses comparably on kinship, culture, polity, economy, ecology, and international relations. More, it urges that while of course particular individuals will at times focus their own personal efforts more on understanding or organizing in one sphere of life than others, still, we all ought to become conversant with all of them, and, indeed, we all need to utilize the concepts attuned to all sides of life, and even more so for concepts clarifying those sides of life we don't know very well by our own experience. The framework helps with all this by offering new concepts quite different than those familiar to leftists, particularly regarding the interrelations of the influences of each aspect of society on the rest and on historical possibilities. So I would say this theme of Occupy Theory is partly very familiar to leftists nowadays, but also that the book offers some useful additional insights and correctives that are less well known.
Third, regarding the economy, Occupy Theory offers concepts that most other left explorations not only do not use, but ignore or overtly reject. What I have in mind is the idea of three rather than two centrally important economic classes: owners, workers, but also what the book calls the coordinator class. The last resides between labor and capital and its economic position involves a monopoly on empowering tasks conveying, by that means, relatively great income and power. The coordinator class is high level managers, engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc.
This innovation is therefore that the conceptual toolbox of Occupy Theory broadens economic analysis with awareness of this new class and its interrelations which turns out to have major implications for analysis - for example, of markets and the division of labor, even profit seeking, not to mention culture, etc. - and also of both vision and strategy, where avoiding this class ruling a new economy even after capitalists are unseated becomes a central concern. All this is different than other familiar anti capitalist approaches - even though the roots of the viewpoint in Occupy Theory extend all the way back to Bakunin and other early anarchists.
3. Fanfare doesn't stop with a conceptual toolbox. Occupy Vision addresses what you think we who oppose current injustices ought to be fighting for. What areas of life does the second volume of Fanfare address? And does it really, for each area that it addresses, provide a blueprint for a better future?
Occupy Vision has a full chapter each on polity, kinship, culture, economy, ecology, and international relations, and before those, one on values for society. In no area does it offer a blueprint and, in fact, it rejects the very idea of doing so. We don't know enough to blueprint a better future and, even more important, it not our place to do so.
Rather, what we want is a situation in which future people can determine their own fate in what we call a self managing way, which means each person has a say in outcomes proportionate to the degree he or she is affected. The visionary task becomes conceiving core institutions that facilitate that happening but that don't reach beyond that aim. Occupy Vision's proposed institutions are minimalist in the sense of being the minimum structures necessary for attaining self management without hierarchies of circumstance and power between groups. They are also, however, maximalist in that they seek for future people to be able to self manage in a context of solidarity, diversity, and equity - without class, gender, race, or other elite rule.
4. Does one have to read Occupy Theory to read Occupy Vision?
No. It would be quite helpful and I think it was necessary as a basis for conceiving Occupy Vision. I also think as movements develop we should all be able to undertake visionary and strategic conception and evaluation. But to just read the book, now, for example, there is sufficient summary of the earlier volume in it to allow that without difficulty.
More generally, reading an interview like this will hopefully be quite congenial. Reading a careful and long essay might be less pleasant in some respects, and take longer, but one could also via the effort come away with greater mastery of the concepts and analyses. The same holds for reading a book rather than an essay. So, does one have to read it first? No. Do I think it would be a good idea and help for a person to do so? Yes, I do. That is why they are volumes in a single series, Fanfare.
5. Can you give more of the flavor of what Occupy Vision provides, perhaps by summarizing its view for some area, say economy or kinship?
The overall aim is called participatory society and it is a composition of preferred critical structures in each sphere - thus in economy and kinship, but also in polity and culture, plus innovations regarding ecology and international relations - all brought into mutual accord in the form of a whole society. Occupy Vision doesn't provide a blueprint, however, in that no area it discusses is specified beyond the minimal features essential to avoid structural violation of core values such as self management and equity, and, indeed, to insure that favored values are attained.
So, for the economy, the problem becomes how do we do production, consumption, and allocation - with what institutions - such that there is no class division causing inequity, there is solidarity among actors, workers and consumers collectively self manage outcomes, and there is equitable as well as not wasteful and ecologically aware allocation.
The solutions the book offers are that we use workers and consumers councils using self managing decision making procedures, balanced job complexes where everyone has a comparably empowering work situation, equitable remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of socially valued labor (but not for output, power, or property), and collective, cooperative, negotiation of inputs and outputs by producers and consumers instead of markets or central planning. That is the institutional heart of it, the rest is describing the features more fully and making a case that the institutions are both viable and worthy, as well as understanding the very broad range of diverse outcomes they permit.
Similarly, for how we arrange living units, care for the young, function in sexual unions, and so on, the problem becomes doing all this without generating sexist or heterosexist or ageist or other hierarchies, and consistent with the values we hold dear. This element of vision is less developed, but the discussion reveals the issues and poses some strong possible outcomes having to do with typical household relations, divisions of responsibilities, etc.
6. You and others, myself included, have put forward these type ideas in broadly similar form in the past. What distinguishes the new approach?
The big innovation, even for those familiar with past formulations of the main ideas, is the third book, which goes beyond prior discussions of strategy in many ways. But there are also innovations of presentation and application in each of the first two books, regarding theory and vision. Having all three areas of concern dealt with a single flowing whole is itself new. And the talents of the particular authors and the editing and refining they brought, gives the presentation a new tone, new insights, etc.
7. The third volume moves on to strategy and tactics. What does Occupy Strategy cover? Is it a prescription for how to win a new world? What is original or different about it?
General matters about thinking about strategy and tactics. Issues of the agents and the organizations and method of revolution, possible paths, etc. It is certainly not a recipe or prescription. It emphasizes that both strategy and tactics are contextual, not something we preordain for all times and places, but it also examines many, seeing how they fit together and what contexts they fit, and so on.
8. Can you tell me some of the specific topics addressed in Occupy Strategy, to clarify what the book deals with?
Well some are agents of revolution, issues of power and organization, issues of violence, reform, and decision making, dealing with difference and sectarianism, different related mindsets, different plausible paths toward revolution - electoral, constructivist, and insurrectionary - and much more.
The book examines these types of issue by examining examples in some contexts, by trying to see the abstract attributes at stake, etc. And it also offers a kind of logic of revolution as well as an organizational entreaty culminating the whole of Fanfare.9. Was there anything special about the current period that led the five of you to undertake this project? What are you hoping will happen with the books? Who do you hope will read them and what impact would the books have to have, for you to feel they have succeeded?
I think there were two things. First, there was the emergence of resistance and rebellion in many forms around the world in the past few years. Indeed, the books pay tribute to that via their titles, Occupy this, Occupy that - in which the term "occupy" serves, however, as a verb, and means, roughly, lets all collectively lay claim to theory, vision, and strategy to fulfill our desires.
Second, there was an emergent desire to create an international organization focused on these type aims, which has, indeed, been under construction for about five months, the International Organization for a Participatory Society, or IOPS.
So I think the motivation for Fanfare was twofold - provide conceptual, visionary, and strategic ideas that might be useful for the movements around the world, on the one hand - and provide a careful and very accessible statement of ideas, aims, and methods that might be useful to members of IOPS as it begins to cohere into a real and active organization.
We hope, therefore, that the books will find their way into the hands of people moved by the Occupy movements, and really anyone concerned about attaining a better world, and prove useful to them. We hope it will also become important and effective reading material for IOPS members.
There are two ways, I would say, the books can be a large success. The most obvious is that lots of people read, cogitate about, understand, discuss, and finally adopt as useful the contents however they have been refined or augmented by the process.
The second is that the same process unfolds and, while the contents aren't found worthy enough to be widely adopted, even with refinements, they do push folks to produce or find a framework that is suitable and that does give the left shared views.
It is the shared views part, that is the aim. Of course the authors feel the views in Fanfare can and should be what is shared, with refinements, but I think we would all be equally happy if Fanfare's formulations were proved by exchange and testing to be insufficient, but ones that were better were adopted and became widely shared.