One-Day School On Progressive Activism Held At MIT: A Report

by Basav Sen

Political education can be useful, fun, and rewarding for both veteran
activists, who periodically need a forum to exchange ideas, and
relative newcomers, for whom it is a window to the excitement as well
as the sobering realities of progressive activism. The One-Day School
on Progressive Activism, which was held by the Coalition for Social
Justice (CSJ) at MIT on Saturday, September 16, achieved the right mix
of discussions of principle and ideology with the nitty-gritty of
organization. By blending seriousness of purpose with humor, the CSJ
made the School both highly beneficial and enjoyable to attend. The
participants numbered about fifty, with the largest contingent being
MIT students and staff, but with representation from Boston
University, Harvard, Wellesley, and other campuses, as well as from
outside of academia. The level of interest was quite intense.
	The event started with a talk given by Michael Albert, an MIT
alumnus, of Z Magazine. He gave a broad overview of the challenges
facing progressive activists today: challenges which arise from the
structures of hierarchy, domination, and inequality in
society-particularly from the strong reaction of forces of the
privileged against all gains made by the disadvantaged in the recent
past. He started by challenging the notion that injustice arises from
individuals who happen to be inherently corrupt due to their genes,
and gave the alternative view that it arises from inequalities in
social institutions.
	As particular examples of structural inequality, Albert
mentioned the exploitation inherent in capitalism-that some own the
means of production and others work for them, which is an unequal
situation resulting in the owners exerting greater control over
outcomes than the people they employ. He distinguished the middle
class of bureaucrats, managers, and scientists from the working class
and the owning class—a very important distinction, missing from too
much of Leftist analysis. Another element in his analysis that is
often absent from classic Leftist thought is the idea that the
inequality resulting from a capitalist economy and the corporate
institutions it creates is not merely economic, but also inequality of
access to decision-making, control, and power.
	To increase the relevance of his theme for the largely student
audience, he made a detailed critique of the role of education in the
service of the elite, providing a touch of humor with his anecdotes of
his student days at MIT. He observed that Harvard trained the
eliteclass, MIT trained the intermediate technocratic class, while
lower-level white collar workers were trained by community
colleges. This could be seen from the differing environment at
Harvard, MIT and community colleges. Harvard has plush buildings,
paintings lining its hallways, and classrooms and dining halls
resembling corporate boardrooms. "Harvard is a finishing school for
the rich. What you get at Harvard are connections; what you learn at
Harvard are manners; the rest is fluff," commented Albert.
	MIT, by contrast, is strictly utilitarian in its appearance
and atmosphere, with drab paint on the walls. Community colleges are
often gymnasiums partitioned into huge, noisy classrooms, reminiscent
of a factory floor. At MIT, the emphasis is on producing graduates who
are strong on analytical skills but weak on ethics, unconcerned about
the effects of their solutions to technical problems on people and the
natural environment. Most MIT graduates have only two criteria for
working on a problem-that it be technically challenging and that it
pay a lot of money!
	Albert gave the example of bombs shaped as toys that were used
during the Vietnam war to maim children, rather than kill them (by
keeping them alive, unable to fight, the children would drain the Viet
Cong's resources). Technically these weapons were a challenging and
creative concept that needed immoral engineers to design them.
	High schools, observed Albert, trained the masses to obey,
conform, and tolerate boredom, which is their lot in a production
system in which they are cogs in a large machine and have to perform
tasks devoid of originality. Humans in the present system have to
learn to accept their dehumanization.
	Regarding the institution of the market, Albert said that it
was based on the principle of people trying to swindle each other,
producing "the most grotesque form of egotistic individualism." He
traced sexism to the gender inequality institutionalized in the family
and kinship relations, and racism to the rationalization that a
dominating culture needs to justify its exploitation of another
cultural or ethnic group to itself.
	As an illustration of the rationalizations for racism, he said
that a privileged white person might like to believe that the poor
Black person living on the "wrong" side of the railway tracks is poor
because of genetic inferiority, rather than because of institutional
structures from which this privileged white person benefits. This
rationalization is a way of avoiding the guilt that would arise from
accepting the truth about how one benefits from an unjust system.
	He gave examples of how the institutions and their resultant
inequalities are interconnected; in the market system, competitiveness
requires all employers to internalize beliefs about the inequalities
between men and women embodied in the family system by paying women
less-otherwise the employer goes against the deeply held prejudices of
the workforce. (In my opinion there is more to capitalism's support of
gender inequality - it is a convenient tool to play groups of
exploited people against one another to prevent the bonds of
solidarity from forming across gender lines; the same is true of
	The fourth structure that Albert analyzed, after the economy,
the family, and cultural and ethnic groupings, was the state. He
effectively distinguished nominal democracy, in which citizens can
vote, from true democracy in which they have actual control over
decision making, and said that the difference arose because the state
in its decision-making function worked like a corporation, with power
being proportional to investment. Hence, it defended the interests of
the rich and powerful at the expense of the human rights of everyone
else. He gave the further example of welfare cuts, which arose neither
out of inherent cruelty nor out of the desire to save what is actually
a trifling amount of money, but to disempower people by worsening
their living conditions and making their struggle for survival more
intense, thereby making them easier to exploit for profit.
	A very welcome feature of his talk (missing from some
progressive analyses) was the emphasis on meaningful solutions rather
than on problems alone. He distinguished the progressive agenda from
the liberal agenda as examining the institutional causes of injustice
and trying to remedy them by changing and if necessary dismantling the
institutions, instead of merely alleviating the symptoms of
injustice. He said that change resulted from pressure on the ruling
elites, rather than on trying to convince them through moral
persuasion, because their actions were based on the rational pursuit
of self-interest rather than mere moral bankruptcy. Change results
when the political and economic costs the elite incurs by not
implementing change become unbearably high.
	Albert concluded with a critique of the elitism present in
sections of the Left, who are disdainful of working class
cultures. Further, he critiqued the exaggerated expectations some
progressive activists have of themselves and of others, in terms of
degree of activism and of freeing oneself from prejudice. He denounced
the trend of ignoring class issues in sections of the New Left. While
he welcomed the rising awareness of the inequalities embodied in
patriarchy, heterosexism and racism, missing from traditional Left
analyses, saying that emphasis on these issues should not be at the
expense of class issues, but should coexist with them.
	In reply to questions, Mike refuted the notion that reform of
any kind is useless and that we have to wait for "The Revolution."
While not disputing the need for revolutionary change in the
structures of oppression, he said that certain reforms were essential
merely for people to survive. He also presented very effective
arguments against the neo-liberal idea of a market-based society as
the inevitable outgrowth of human nature, by citing the values of
community treasured by societies worldwide.
	On a similar note, he observed that the greatest weakness in
the Soviet state-capitalist model as an alternative to capitalism was
its failure to recognize the importance of culture and of
communities. Albert also stressed the importance of building
non-hierarchical communities of progressive activists, to prevent the
dissipation of activism in power struggles, and more importantly, for
progressive people to form an emotional identification, a space of
their own outside the oppressive system in which they fight.
	The next speaker was Nicole Newton, a veteran activist in the
struggle against hate groups. She dealt with very practical issues of
organizing protests and rallies, emphasizing the moral responsibility
of protest organizers to inform all participants in advance of
possible legal consequences and of the nature of the planned
action. Also, she stressed the importance of knowing the law and
breaking it consciously rather than unknowingly, if that was the group
decision. To deal quickly with legal problems that may arise, she
strongly recommended having a lawyer available (as part of the rally,
ideally) and of videotaping the event to have a record of any
high-handed police tactics.
	Newton's speech was interspersed with her personal experiences
of fighting the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups, and the history of
Take Back the Night marches. Her passionate discussion conveyed the
heady excitement of being involved in causes that many of us believe
to be right. At the same time there was a strong note of caution and
of keeping the sobering realities in mind.
	After Newton's speech, the participants broke into parallel
sessions in which participants had to reply to questions regarding
their personal experience with prejudice of all kinds. These sessions
provided for some very candid observations about the situations one
encounters in everyday life, and our own shortcomings in dealing with
them. The restricted time format, however, prevented extended
discussion of issues, which lessened the emotional release provided by
the opportunity to openly state one's experiences to a
non-judgmental group.
	Three strategy sessions followed on coalition building,
recruitment and outreach, and publicity. I did not attend the last
named session. The first session dealt with the mechanisms for
building student-labor coalitions, and the second session attempted to
address two issues that plague activist groups: lack of participation
and the inability to arouse and sustain interest.
	Overall, the School provided for an excellent day, not the
least part of which was the opportunity to meet other persons
dedicated to progressive causes in different ways and to learn from
them and enjoy their company. One wishes, as always, that the numbers
participating were larger! 

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