It's a question that's been posed to social movements for years. We know what you oppose, but what's your alternative? Michael Albert is considered one of today's leading thinkers on that very question. He has been writing and speaking on his concept of an economic and social vision for decades. Albert is founder of Z Magazine and its sister website Znet, as well as co-founder of South End Press. [includes rush transcript - partial]
He is the author of numerous books, including "Parecon: Life After Capitalism" and "Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism." His latest book is called "Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism, A Memoir."
- Michael Albert, founder of Z Magazine, Znet and co-founder of South End Press. He is the author of numerous books, his latest is, "Remembering Tomorrow: A Memoir."
AMY GOODMAN: We're talking to Michael Albert. He founded ZNet and Z Magazine and South End Press. He is author of the book, Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism, A Memoir. We’re talking about his early years. Noam Chomsky, your meeting with him, his influence on your life?
MICHAEL ALBERT: Well, I had two kinds of interaction with him at the beginning. One was like anybody else: hearing him speak at a rally or a demonstration or something like that. The other was actually taking a course from him, because I was at MIT, and he taught a course that was about American policy and ideology, and so on. And then, later on, I sort of taught a section of it with him. He had a profound effect on me, of course, as he has on many, many other people. In my case, it was partly to just see such a mind at work, to see what it meant to think clearly, to think in a disciplined way, and so on. But it was mostly something about the integrity, something about the honesty, the calm demeanor, the concern, and so on.
One example was, Weathermen was a group that was engaged in activity at the time. It was a part of SDS, not a part I was belonged to, but they wanted to recruit me. At a particular moment, I went into Noam's office, and I asked him about it, this recruitment effort by them and whether -- you know, how I should relate. Noam was loath to give people advice about what to do in their life or about strategy.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what the Weathermen were.
MICHAEL ALBERT: The Weathermen were a very -- they were the most militant, most violent wing of SDS. Their analysis was a bit peculiar. I don’t think we need to go into details.
But in any case, so I asked him about that, and he was very loath to do that, but in this particular case -- we were already pretty close, and he -- you know, he didn't want me to make an error, so he did make a suggestion. And he sort of said very quickly, he said, “They're wonderful people. They're great people. They're moved well. I mean, their motives are good. Some of them are going to die. Some of them are going to hurt others. They're going to have very little effect on the well-being of people around the world because of what they're doing.” And in a phrase, right, he captured what was there, and his advice was important. I don't think it was definitive in my choice not to join, but it certainly would have been a big factor.
One little other apocryphal story -- there are lots of stories about Noam. We were in Poland at the time of the uprising in Poland, and we were in a room with some people, and one particular moment in time there was some discussion of linguistics, because one of them was a linguist, and I was describing, you know, Noam's theories from having talked to him. And then, later on, there was a discussion about activism and dissent and anti-capitalism, and somebody was asking about the views of this guy Chomsky. And once again, I was describing, you know, what his views are, from personal experience. At one point, somebody asked me, “How could you possibly know both Noam Chomskys, the one who was the linguist and the one who was the political person?” And later -- I mean, of course, it was hysterical. It was the most cosmopolitan group you could imagine inside Poland. And later, I realized it wasn't so dumb. It made a lot of sense. That is to say, it was much more likely that there was this odd coincidence that there were two people, one a linguist and one a political person, who had the same name than that there was one person who was doing both these things. There's lots of stories about Noam.
AMY GOODMAN: You left, though. You left MIT. You had been studying physics. And talk about the founding of South End Press and moving on to Z.
MICHAEL ALBERT: Yeah, I would have been a physicist, that's true. The war and everything else sort of made that impossible. Later on, we founded something called South End Press. It was an attempt to create a publishing house, a book publishing house -- still exists, still going strong -- that would present books about race, gender, class, power, international relations, the whole gamut of things that affect people's lives in a fundamental way. And our intention was to create something that would also embody in itself, in its organization and its structure, the values that we had. And this was late ’70s, about ’77, ’78, when we were doing that.
We formed it. It was a hard road, but we did create it, and it had those two aspects. The books were of the character that I describe, trying to provide some information, some vision, some ideas about strategy that would help people to change the world, and whose vision, whose structure, embodied the values. Meaning what? It meant that we were a collective, but a collective in a sort of special way. We had a division of labor that was designed so that each participant in South End Press would have, by virtue of their activity in the press, comparable circumstances, comparable empowerment to participate then in the decisions and in the editorial side of the press. So members of the press -- there was no such thing as somebody who was a secretary or somebody who was cleaning up or somebody, for that matter, who was an editor or -- people had a mix of responsibilities. And the mix was such that their overall work experience was empowering and was equitable. And that later became a part of the economic vision that's called participatory economics, or parecon, that you had mentioned in the introduction. And South End Press weren’t alone --
AMY GOODMAN: Explain parecon.
MICHAEL ALBERT: Capitalism is a horrific system. Capitalism is a system that breeds an environment in which dignity is robbed, in which people are out -- nice guys finish last, in the words of a famous American baseball coach, or in my more aggressive formulation, garbage rises, meaning it's a competitive environment in which you care about others, you suffer. If you violate others, you advance. It's an environment in which there's about 30 million poor people. There's about seven million homeless people and seven million empty hotel rooms. There's war, and so on.
And the question for me was always, starting right at the beginning in 1968, ’67: what do we replace it with? If we're about changing this fundamentally, then we have to be about not just better values, people controlling their own lives, equity, justice, diversity, solidarity, we have to be about institutions that would make those values real. So parecon or participatory economics is a model --
AMY GOODMAN: You made up the word?
MICHAEL ALBERT: Yes, and it's not a brilliant choice, I'm told. It's an economic system, a set of institutions to accomplish production and consumption and allocation, stuff that makes up economics, and to do it in a way that the act of doing it gives people control over their lives, gives people solidarity with others, gives people an equitable share of the social output, gives people a range of options that's fulfilling. And so, the institutions that make it up are the key to it, and it represents an answer to the question, “What do you want?” It represents a rejection of the idea that Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister, put forward: TINA, “there is no alternative.”
The reason I thought this was important, just to answer one -- I mean, why do that? You know, why spend so much time trying to figure out an alternative to capitalism or, for that matter, an alternative to patriarchy or an alternative to race division and racism, or an alternative to authoritar-- why do that? The reason was because right from the beginning, when I was organizing at MIT, and very much through the present, it seemed to me that there were two primary obstacles to a given person becoming active in trying to create a better world.
One obstacle was ignorance of the reality, ignorance of the injustice. And that was the primary obstacle in the ’60s. So when movements in the ’60s unearthed truths about the world that said that the injustices or the pains that people felt were injustices, they were systemic violations, people got angry and thus arose the movement.
But there was a second lurking obstacle, and that was the feeling that there was no alternative. That was the feeling that when the organizers said, “Come join me in the movement against Vietnam War,” it was like saying to somebody, “Come join me in blowing against the wind. Come join me in organizing against gravity. Come join me in organizing against aging.” It was a hopeless task, right? And so, why should the person do it? So the more evidence we had for the injustice, it didn't matter. It's like piling on evidence that cancer hurts, and then saying, “Join me in a social movement against cancer.” It's not the evidence that's wrong. It’s -- the person feels like “What you're asking me to do is silly.”
And between those two obstacles to participation, it seemed to me that over time it was the second one that grew huge, the belief that there's no alternative, the belief that there is no way to win, no way to beat city hall.
Recently, just -- I hate to run on a little bit. But recently I saw a movie, Shooter. I don't know whether you’ve seen it yet. At the beginning of the movie, there’s a scene and Mark Wahlberg -- and, I mean, it's a big Hollywood movie. Mark Wahlberg, the star, is looking at a computer screen. He’s looking at ZNet, so, you know, in front of millions of people. And a lot of people have written me about this and asked me, “What the hell?” And basically, you know, I think some of the people, politically, obviously did it intentionally. It was on for a long time. You can’t not do it intentionally.
But the message to me was different. The rest of the movie includes very, very graphically: the United States foreign policy is motivated by aggrandizing wealth for the few, by oil, by resources, by power. It’s very evident in the movie, as it is in much of popular culture. And the message to me was -- it could have been Democracy Now! on the screen. It could have been lots of things. The message to me was, if everybody in the United States actually looked at these things, they wouldn't disagree. It's not as if people -- in 1960 they would have been horrified. But now, this massive movie says it's oil -- nobody walks out of the theater cursing at the director, saying, “That was a lie. I was manipulated.” Nobody feels that way. Everybody takes it for granted. But they also don't walk out of the theater and say, “This is all unjust. I will now go demonstrate. I will now go join an organization which is devoting itself to changing these wrongs.” And I think the obstacle is the feeling that doing that is comparable to becoming part of a social movement against cancer or gravity or something like that. So you need the vision to overcome that obstacle. But Thatcher was right: TINA is a big obstacle to building social movements for social justice.
AMY GOODMAN: “There is no alternative,” TINA. Michael Albert, you mentioned ZNet, that that's what Wahlberg was looking at. Explain the magazine -- and we only have two minutes left -- the magazine and the internet, the website.
MICHAEL ALBERT: After South End Press, Lydia Sergeant and I -- we had been involved in creating South End Press, and then we sort of split off -- not a bad split, a positive split -- to create a new institution. It was called Z Magazine. The idea was to have more of a community of people who would have a sustained connection to the magazine. Then later, again -- in the early days, even before the web -- we did ZNet, a website, which still exists: www.zmag.org, sort of a huge website. We do a summer school. We do all these things with the idea --
AMY GOODMAN: Z Media Institute in Woods Hole --
MICHAEL ALBERT: Z Media Institute, yes.
AMY GOODMAN: -- where you’ve trained hundreds and hundreds of young people from around the world.
MICHAEL ALBERT: Yes. And the idea is simple. The idea is basically to spread information that's valuable, spread hope that's essential to becoming active, spread tools for becoming active, spread vision, and so on, in trying to develop an effort to produce a better society and a better world.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Michael Albert, I want to thank you very much for joining us today and for this memoir, Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism, A Memoir."