Influencing the Right, Part VI

There’s more to come … rdj

— Mariann talks about “getting it back.” We won’t. She’s right. …

I am not so interested in what has failed to work. I face that everyday and become mired in it if I watch the news. I am interested in experiences people have had that worked – that fostered dialogue and change …. What are your thoughts? Alice —

Alice – as usual – asks the key questions about the once-and-future sds/Ragstaff members. Here is my contribution to add to Mariann’s and Dennis’ earlier postings.

First – what happened 30 to 35 years ago? We had an impassioned and educated movement started. Then it disappeared. I remember various discussions with Doyle, with Greg and Carol, with Howard and Barbara, with David, and with others wherein we declared that we were in the struggle for the long-term. Yet most of us settled our strike and went back to work. Few of us who refused to settle tried to maintain a presence in any kind of organizational framework; we went off on our private missions.

And there are plenty of reasons: Cointelpro was effective (you’re not paranoid, if someone is actually trying to get you); the ideological and political struggles in sds looked more like bull shit than teen spirit; we did not have the best support system imaginable, as Bill Meacham implies in his Memoir; and, frankly, we were kids – privileged, middle-class kids at that.

Most of us drifted into some variant of normal middle-class life: job, mate, kids, and related joys, frustrations, responsibilities, extravagances. I’m not apologizing, and I don’t expect anyone else to do so. The opportunity that we missed, however, was to try to maintain and build some kind of organization. No kidding. It could have been a Tuesday night sewing circle or a debating club, but we screwed up when we let each other drift away.

And I dislike giving PLP credit, but that was exactly what they were telling us in 1968-1969. They told us (those of us who would still talk with them) to pair off, get jobs, burrow into the community, but keep the study group – if not the party membership – going. Of course, it’s as easy as shooting an armadillo in a culvert to point out that they failed to take their own advice, but nonetheless their line was correct – at least the part about keeping contact in a political context.

We split up, and here we are – hopefully, getting back together – but, only after letting the Genie back out of the bottle. And he is a Mad Genie – in both senses of the word. Well – better late than totally senile.

So much for preface – the last part of Alice’s posting above asks about the current national mood regarding the war in Iraq. How did we get here? Blogs have been important; but I suggest that there is a strong – but relatively quiet – residue of knowledge and opinion from the Vietnam era. Maybe as many as 60% of our population feel that that war was somewhere between a mistake and an imperialist adventure. Due to reticence imposed by concerns related to job security, by residual paranoia, and by a desire to avoid the turbulence that we once embraced, we – by and large – left the baddies and the crazies in the field all by themselves.

I don’t know how it is/was where you are/were, but out here in the Pacific NW it didn’t take long for us to get back into this fight. Nor did it take long to win the fight. OR and WA are blue (and green) states in the best sense of the expression. (What do you say about that, Mariann? David told me that you were out here for some fairly long period of time.) Somebody wrote to The Oregonian yesterday that the count in Letters-to-the-Editor for the last so many months was 103 against Bush and his war vs. 3 for …. Is that an important statistic? I think so.

Let me tell you how I think we got there, because it speaks to the earlier portions of Alice’s posting. Maybe it’s the water, but out here we think that we can practice democratic principles, such as discussion of political theory and policies, and screw you if you can’t take a joke. We’re all doing the job, mate, kids, etc. thing; we almost all like life and the world; generally speaking, we like people. Is that different from where you live? If it is, maybe some of us should be migrating to certain chosen locations to maximize our strength – gerrymander by migration rather than by changing boundaries.

If not – if your area is similar to my description of this area – then it’s simple. Live life per the kinds of principles that we all know and respect; know and respect as many of your neighbors as you can; say your piece with well-researched data and modest tone when the opportunity arises; write and submit your piece occasionally to the local newspaper or …. (One thing additional related to the first two lines of Alice’s piece – most kids are easy to involve, even if you dislike their music and their attitude. Does take patience – no doubt about that. [Best thing about us males getting older is diminishment of testosterone levels. Helps with the patience thing.])

After that, the only missing piece is organization. We screwed up last time. Are we ready to rectify the situation? sds anyone?

Paul Spencer

I have read some pretty thoughtful posts on this line about the New Left and what became of it–and of what that might mean today–and I hope to read more of them. I need leadership today!

It occured to me that I could contribute to the discussion by telling what happened to PL types. I know the fate of most of those who were in Leninists circles at UT. In general, I think we became Leninists because we saw that there was more to be done than ending the war in Vietnam — and that the Movement wasn’t going to end that war, either. We saw graduation coming and we saw the need for years of protest, resistance, struggle–call it what you will. We threw ourselves into the Leninist parties, looking for a structure and a tradition that the New Left didn’t have, something that would sustain and guide us for the rest of our lives. Marxism convinced us that only a revolt by the working class, spurred by economic motives, would give anything decent a chance. Though the parties defined the w.c. too narrowly, I do not know of any ex-Leninist in the UT crowd who has repudiated that idea, except for a half-dozen former Spartacists who became neocons. Most of us still believe that.

The test of the idea was to go into factories and try to organize the w.c. The plan was to restore the Left unionism of the late 30s and the 40s. It didn’t work. The w.c. didn’t listen. We were disillusioned.

In PL — I won’t speak of the other groups, because I know less — the response was to blame the failure on ourselves. The workers didn’t rebel, the internal discussions decided, because “you didn’t sell enough copies of Challenge.” We blamed the failure of our movement on each other. It was a I’m-more-moral-than-you game.

By the mid-seventies, people who had gone the Leninist route were peeling out of the parties, though usually, we went from one party to another. In all of them, I believe, were found an arrogant power structure. We began to dislike that structure that one had once sought. It had its advantages–efficiency–but it had its drawbacks.

By the start of the 80s, I’d say, none of wanted to go back to SDS formlessness and none of us wanted to stay in the Leninist orb. I know of only one person who stayed in PLP, one who stayed in the SWP, and one who is still with the Sparts. This is out a universe at UT of maybe 100.

Old enmities lived on among us and between us and those whom we once called the “right wing” of SDS, i.e., most of the early Rag crew. But more than anything, I think, we felt defeated. In wanting to transform the nation, we had bit off more than we could chew.

I don’t think that many of us started taking smaller bites. Very few of the ex-Leninists became Democrats or signed-on to the “act locally, think globally” point of view. We instead began lives of daily by minor resistance, and we continue like that: separated, alone, skeptical of everything.

There’s an Argentine movie, “Common Ground,” in which a character says something like, “Marxism is only a private moral attitude, suitable for deployment in the kitchen.” Any Marxist would protest the idea of “moral,” in theory, but the line is pretty accurate.

The fall of the Soviets disturbed a lot of us, but convinced very few of us that socialism is a bad idea. Most of us still believe in something that we’d call “socialism,” though the definition of that word would not be the same as it was, for anybody. Were we together again, I don’t thnk we’d agree about what “socialism” would mean.

I speak of the ex-Leninists, not for them.

I can’t draw many lessons from all of this, except one: we were born at the wrong place, in the wrong time. As a professor I have come to know various students who are retracing the footsteps of all of us New Leftists, “right-wing” and Leninist. My heart goes out to them, but I have not been able to provide good advice. In any case, like most student radicals, they don’t seek any advice. They are young and are going to change the world!

Dick J. Reavis

I’d rather not be so stand-offish. After all, my blood flows in your veins, in a manner of speaking.

In Texas (Longhorn Machine Works, Economy Furniture, Farah), labor laws take forever to get enforced. If you break the strike, you will have a good job with benefits exceeding those of the person whose job you took for four or five years and maybe permanently (because a lot of union members get starved out).

If I can’t appeal to you on the basis of your class interests, then all I’ve got is the short-sight argument that the union will eventually win–something that is not at all clear as a matter of fact now, with Repugs appointing the NLRB, the hearing examiners, and the judges.

Steve Russell

But by not being specific enough, I think you limit our options for thinking, but…

If you’re talking about a strike today at one of the plants that you mention, it seems to me that you could win by convincing a scab that other jobs exist and that he could survive in the interval–if the union would insure him a job when it won/wins the strike. You could tell him that it’s in his long-term interest that the union win.

If the union could not guarantee a future job, I´d say that you’d have to talk to the union. The problem is that unions are unions in some sense against the unemployed. They can only win the loyalty of the unemployed if, through other initiatives, they are representing the unemployed.

An analogy is this…during the Black Panther era, a lot of police departments tried to hire a lot of informers. They did find too many. But hundreds of people refused the role because though they were not Panthers, they sympathized with what the Panthers were trying to do and with their general social vision.

As far as I know, the AFL-CIO has always lobbied for the interests of the unemployed. But as far as I know, ever since the McCarthy period, the AFL-CIO has not agitated for the interests of the unemployed — or for else. Unions must have aims beyond that of higher wages and benefits and better rules for their members, or they lose. They have to represent the short- and long-term interests of the whole of the working population, not just the membership.

Dick J. Reavis

Re: self-interest vs. reason and other higher order motivations.

I think I know where Brother Reavis is coming from – the proletariat – loosely and globally speaking. Check out his description of San Pablo Macquiltianguis “high in the pine forests of Oaxaca’s Juarez range” where “(n)early half of the town’s children died before the age of 5, usually of infectious diseases, malnutrition, or dehydration, and . . . people lived in dread of droughts, which inevitably came.” (In “Conversation with Moctezuma”, Wm. Morrow & Co, 1990, pp. 235-8) Dick spent some time in this obscure and remote village where the first language is Zapotec. He wrote a lot about such places during the several years of his career he spent as a journalist on the back streets of Mexico. His subjects were very often blocked from higher order motivations by the continuous intervention of material self-interest in its most intense form – physical survival.

On the other hand, some of us have had the luxury of contemplating the relative quality and political correctness of various philosophical motivational frameworks while ensconced in ivy-covered buildings. But, Gavin, as you said, “It pays the bills around here”. That sounds pretty self-interested.

Good to see a little testosterone still flowing out there, but I don’t think this is an either/or situation. Inevitably, most people are going to be primarily motivated by self-interest, religious fundamentalists notwithstanding. It’s hardwired in us all to a large degree. By fortune and talent, others will marginally transcend such considerations. We must just hope that those with the prerogative to transcend, us among them, will provide good leadership to those who are trapped in the mundane and perspective to those who are not.

David Hamilton

If an unemployed black man in Oakland refuses to snitch on the Panthers for cash, hasn’t he just referred to some value beyond his immediate self-interest?

There is a degree of abstraction you can adopt in referring to “self-interest” that makes the concept useless for discussing tactics, kind of like the law & economics nerds who take such a broad view of “costs” and “benefits” that they can make their paradigm fit everything but at the same time it fits nothing. I mean, Gandhi would say he was pursuing his self-interest when he starved himself and went to jail. My own colorful arrest record, of which you are probably aware, was nothing so noble: I was darn well aware that I was getting hurt but was willing to put up with it for the cause, not because I thought it was somehow in my interest to suffer.

So, if you mean “self-interest” in the sense of an individual who is engaged in building the kind of society he or she wants to live in, then we do not disagee about anything significant. I take it you do not turn your considerable talents to writing romance novels because you do not consider producing romance novels to be the highest and best use of your talents? In making that judgment, you are without a doubt referring to some value you are ranking above “standard of living.”

I doubt that you and I are better people than the ones we want to bring along. I think everybody wants to believe that there are times when it’s right and necessary to sacrifice self-interest to some greater good. Indeed, the chicken hawks running US foreign policy had for a while convinced most Americans of exactly that. We call them “chicken hawks,” of course, because the sacrifice they demand always comes from other people.

Steve Russell

I expect that, if my survival were constantly at stake, I’d be self-interested in all matters, just like the people of San Pablo Macquiltianguis.

My point was that self-interest is a poor principle around which to organize collective political action. This is especially true for peoples so utterly oppressed that their survival is constantly at stake. How do you engage in collective action when finding something to eat is far more imperative?

Finally, David, where you write “some of us have had the luxury of contemplating the relative quality and political correctness of various philosophical motivational frameworks while ensconced in ivy-covered buildings,” you engage in ad hominem attack. You should address my argument, not my job.

I’d expect something like this from Bill O’Reilly, not from you. You disappoint me.

Gavan Duffy

I think we’re defining self-interest too narrowly here — as meaning something that will necessarily exclude or conflict with the interests of others. That is how self-interest gets expressed in a young child, but as we mature we take on more sophisticated approaches. We begin to understand that continually trying to maximize our self-interest is frequently counter-productive. (Mom sends us to our room, or we’re shunned by our friends, or we wind up in jail.) And so we turn to strategies for optimizing rather than maximizing our self-interest.

This usually takes the form of mutually beneficial actions, e.g., sharing rather than stealing. But sharing doesn’t mean abandoning our self-interest. To the contrary, it’s likely to give us a better net benefit than the alternative. Over time this strategy is extended beyond our families and close friends to larger and larger groups. This is a positive thing. It works for us personally, and it works for society at large.

Through socialization, personal experience, critical thinking, the influence of groups, adopted belief systems, etc., many of us continue to refine this optimization strategy. I may move from being simply law abiding to a more abstract respect for justice for all (which could include a refusal to obey unjust laws). It begins to look like I’m adopting some unselfish attitudes. Again, this is positive. But, again, this is not at the expense of my self-interest. It’s just another step forward in the optimizing thing. It also expresses my learning that feelings, and not only “things,” are valuable to me. I adopt a value system based on my more sophisticated understanding of mutually beneficial behaviors. When I conform to that value system, I feel good. If I make some unusual sacrifices that are consistent with that value system, I may feel very good indeed. And if I violate my values, I feel bad. It is not in my self-interest to violate my values.

People tend to call an act “selfish” if it opposes their own value system, and “unselfish” if it accords with their value system. At the end of the day, basically everything we do is founded in selfishness — no matter that it may be prettily dressed up as moral or ethical. But, hey, this can be okay. Let’s try to keep ramping up those mutually beneficial acts.

And, meanwhile, if we’re willing to recognize our essential selfishness, maybe that recognition will take some of the edge off that dangerous self-righteousness.

Dennis Fitzgerald

Dennis and Dick seem determined to deny any virtue in their social (as distinct from individual) interests. But it seems to me that calling everything people want just an extension of self-interest dodges the question of how to deal with this issue rather than explaining it.

In each individual, and in each society, there is an interplay (a dialectic, if you will) between selfish and social impulses. At this time, the social impulses need support — we should not let concern about self-righteousness keep us from acknowledging and celebrating altruism when it emerges from the muckpile of fear and greed.

Part of the weakness of contemporary American-liberal rhetoric is that it is so busy arguing that being good is in everyone’s self-interest that it reinforces the selfishness that it is trying to cure. To many, gated communities will seem safer and cheaper than remaking society so that everyone succeeds. This may even be true for most Americans (that’s the neocon analysis).

While there are several important enlightened-self-interest arguments to be made (e.g., global warming), they will have much more political impact when they are made by people like bankers (who have a broad but selfish view since they own part of everything), not by weirdo commie/hippie intellectuals, even if that’s who did the research that uncovered the problem.

Of course, even in America there is still plenty to do in organizing and supporting the working-class interests that Marx accurately identified as the primary opportunity for egalitarian political action. But Marx was not himself from that class (nor were my union-organizer parents, nor is ragstaffer/union-organizer Glenn Scott, or historical social-impulse heroes such as Shaw and Ruskin). Even the effective organizers who come out of the working class have broadened their vision well beyond narrow class interests.

These people have an impact because they convey the altruistic “hunger and thirst after justice” (Ruskin) that shows the people they interact with that such a broader vision exists. Or, as Gavan puts it, that they have higher impulses. That these impulses can lead to the more rewarding and authentic life Alice mentions is true (although they also can lead to a firing squad), but that does not keep them from being higher. We should wave this flag, not apologize for it.

Hunter Ellinger

One sentence from Ellinger’s post is especially of interest to me:

“Part of the weakness of contemporary American-liberal rhetoric is that it is so busy arguing that being good is in everyone’s self-interest that it reinforces the selfishness that it is trying to cure.”

Perhaps it is only a matter of a careless word choice, but I would say that I hope that I am not trying to “cure” the “selfishness” of other people, because that would put me in the position of wellness, or of a doctor.

Other people are not stupid and probably have good reasons for not regarding me as their superior; I take it that everyone on this list would agree to that!

The gated communities point is a sharp one, I agree. But I’d say that Ellinger, as have others on the list, regards self-interest in the terms that the System has taught us, i.e., immediate self-interest, I’ve got mine Jack, to hell with you. I think that the System defines self-interest in pretty short-sighted way, as benefits those who run in.

I do not live in a gated community and wouldn’t want to. The idea that extremes of wealth should create societies in which some people need guards and bodyguards is repellent to me, not because I am moral, but because I don’t like to feel distanced from people. I would argue with people who live in gated communities than we have accepted a society which imprisons them, too.

Circumstances could exist in which I would live in a gated community, and in a sense, we all do: the United States is gated today. We don’t feel that we’ve chosen to live here, but what about immigrants who come here? (I am thinking of a student of mine whose mother won’t let her return to Trinidad for fear of crime. Am I regard her mother as immoral or as a mother who worries about her child’s safety?) Is their morality to be questioned? The point is that gated communities are not long-term solutions to the problems of human coexistence.

Two considerations underlie everything I say on this issue:

1. I have for years watched activist movements and participated in them. At some point and in some campaigns, I began to feel humiliated. I would today not, for example, sign a petition asking Bill O’Reilly to do anything. That seems like begging, to me. Bill O’Reilly is clearly not a friend of my interests. The only thing in my interest is that he be discredited or removed, somehow brought low.

If I ask Bill O’Reilly to do something decent, I am only showing my weakness. I’d rather spend my time developing the strength to remove him. When we have enough strength, we don’t have to ask for anything.

2. Perhaps those of you who never defended the Soviets do not have this problem, but it seems to me that the great horror of the Soviet Union was that crimes were committed in the name of the people, so much so that the very idea of socialism is now discredited.

Let each person speak for himself/herself, I say! If we can sell some sort of future socialism on personal or self-interest grounds, it won’t become tyrannical like the Soviets did.

Everybody who plays games has no choice but to accept their rules. The rules are that you look out for yourself and your own team and when your team wins, that’s hard luck for the losers. If you lose, it is bad form to complain that the referees were unfair, or that the other team had superior advantages, and one sure doesn’t ask the other team to share its advantages. We are not going to get any social justice by expecting our enemies to adopt “reason” or “truth” or altruistic motives.

We are going to have to outplay them on the field of politics.

Dick J. Reavis

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