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 racism.) 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!