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From SDS to Life After Capitalism: Z Mag Founder Michael Albert on Activism, “Parecon” and a Model for a Participatory Society

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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]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s a question that’s been posed to social movements for years: We know what you oppose, but what’s your alternative? My next guest is considered one of today’s leading thinkers on that very question. Michael Albert has been writing and speaking on his concept of an economic and social vision for decades. He’s the founder of Z Magazine and its sister website, ZNet, as well as co-founder of South End Press. He’s the author of numerous books, including Parecon: Life After Capitalism and Realizing Hope: Life Beyond Capitalism. Now he’s written another book. It’s called Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism, a Memoir. We welcome you to Democracy Now!

MICHAEL ALBERT: Thank you very much for having me. It’s a pleasure to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to be here in Boston and to talk to you. Well, Michael Albert, this is a very personal and political book, your memoir. Why don’t you talk about how you got involved in politics?

MICHAEL ALBERT: Well, a long time ago—too long—I went to college at MIT here in Cambridge. And the introduction to that school, most people would say it wasn’t really political, but it was a defining moment for my life. I was in a fraternity there, and it’s a long story, but the dramatic element of it was that during rush week there’s this division between fraternities and dorms, and the fraternities were trying to recruit people. And you would go and you would spend a while being rushed, which meant you would go and spend time at the fraternities.

And we discovered months later, after we had become members, that we had been deceived, that they had tapped phones and bugged rooms, and the idea was that the fraternity would sort of give you what you wanted. So if I said, “Well, I really like it, but there’s not enough physics,” or “I really like it; there’s no tennis,” or “I really”—whatever it was that was missing, the next morning I would get, if they wanted me. If they didn’t want me, I would have been ushered out quickly, you know, into the alley to go away. And you didn’t hear about that until about six months later, when you went through a long process of becoming acclimated and near friends, and everything rests on it, and everybody just rolls with it. You know, they just go with it.

And months later, over the summer, I was sort of horrified that I had just rolled with it and gone with it and accepted it, and I rebelled against it. And that was the first really, I think, break with authority, break with regimentation, break with the norms around me. And from then on, it was a direct line. That was the ’60s. I was in the class of ’69, and so within a year I was in the movement, and within a— it was like generations—

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean by “the movement”?

MICHAEL ALBERT: Well, in those times, time moved very quickly. So you would be aroused by civil rights, or you would be aroused by the war. You would be aroused by something. You would become politicized, meaning you would become a dissident. You would just become opposed to the injustices that you saw around you. And very quickly, your life changed. Very quickly, you developed an understanding of what was going on that had been dramatically different than anything you felt before, and you might become part of an organization. In my case, I became part of a group called SDS, Students for a Democratic Society, that was at MIT, and of the antiwar movement, and of movements around other kinds of focuses.

This is actually recurring now. SDS chapters all over the country are growing up, and it’s a very important phenomenon right now. That’s partly why I wrote the book, to try and convey something of our history to people who are doing it again.

AMY GOODMAN: Ultimately, you were expelled from MIT?

MICHAEL ALBERT: Yeah, I was. I had become—I guess “prominent” is the right word. Actually, those fraternity guys had had me earmarked to become, four years later—that’s how incredibly regimented it is—four years later, they thought I would run for president of the whole student body. Well, I quit after my freshman year the fraternity. But four years later, I did actually run for president of the—ironically, and I won. And I was one of the leaders of the actions and the demonstrations and so on. And so, they did indeed throw me out, on ridiculous charges, mostly because they didn’t know all the things that I did do, which would have been, from their point of view, legitimate charges. They just sort of made things up. But they did throw me out, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: What did that mean for you to be expelled from the university?

MICHAEL ALBERT: Well, for me, it didn’t mean much, in the sense that it’s a little like being expelled from a cesspool. I mean, in other words, from my point of view, MIT was a place that had many virtues, in the sense of teaching people and being an environment that was in some sense comforting for some, at least. But in other senses, it was a factory that was producing thoughts and also technology that was used in the Vietnam War.

So, some of the things we opposed were multiple targeting of nuclear weapons. They had helicopters that they were stabilizing, and they said they were stabilizing them so that they could fly over Detroit and give weather reports. So actually we snuck in and discovered that they were stabilizing them so that the machine guns wouldn’t jerk the machine too much when they were shooting peasants in the countryside of Vietnam.

The worst thing they were working on, we didn’t know about, and in some sense for me it’s probably personally lucky, but, in any case, it was smart bombs, the bombs that came visible to the public’s eye much, much later in Iraq, the bombs that literally were targeted like a missile was targeted. That was first being developed at MIT in those days, and it was actually used at the end of Vietnam War to bomb the dikes.

The idea there was, if we have to leave, we have to send a message. And the message is, if you oppose the United States, if you try to extricate yourself—a country—if a country tries to extricate itself from the network, the imperial network that uses their resources and their energies and their humanity and their economic output to benefit the United States, instead of the people of the country, if you try to extricate yourself from that, we’ll punish you. And we’ll punish you so harshly that the net result will be horrific.

So, in leaving, we had to do as much as we could to ensure that what emerged after we were gone wouldn’t be a model, wouldn’t be exemplary, wouldn’t be fulfilling. And so, what we did is we produced as much internal opposition and hostilities as we could, and we wrecked as much of the country as we could. And the final stage of that was these smart bombs.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about Vietnam?

MICHAEL ALBERT: Yeah, this is all Vietnam, in those days, although it carries over.

AMY GOODMAN: Why do you say you were personally lucky not to know?

MICHAEL ALBERT: Well, imagine you were on the campus at the time. You’re very radical. You’re very revolutionary. You’re very fired up. You’re angry. You’re young. You want to do something. It turns out that it’s probably the one moment in history, or in recent history in the United States, where an act of destruction would have had a dramatic effect. There was only one place where these smart bombs were being developed, and there was only one operation that could yield them and could generate them in such a way that they would be used to blow up these dams and flood the countryside in Vietnam. If it had been destroyed, it would have prevented it. It would have actually had an effect. So it wasn’t like blowing up a bathroom or something like that. It was having a tremendous effect on the lives of people, had that thing been destroyed.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, there was a bombing at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, that killed a science graduate student.

MICHAEL ALBERT: Yeah, and much of those—I mean, I think that kind of activity is horrendously flawed, not just in the ways that people might think of, but even from the point of view of trying to accomplish some broader end, because it alienates people, it diminishes the support that exists, it tends to push people away from dissent instead of into dissent, independently of the horrific effects on somebody who gets caught in the crossfire or something like that. But this particular kind of act would have been effective. It’s a sidebar to the history that I experienced, really.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break. When we come back, I want to ask you about those years, because that is—


AMY GOODMAN: —where you met Noam Chomsky—


AMY GOODMAN: —and were deeply affected by that relationship, both with him as professor and then as friend—


AMY GOODMAN: —for this past 40 years. We’re talking to Michael Albert, and his book is Remembering Tomorrow: From SDS to Life After Capitalism, a Memoir. Stay with us.


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 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. And 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, and 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—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. They wouldn’t—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.


AMY GOODMAN: Michael Albert, you mentioned ZNet, that that’s what Wahlberg was looking at.

MICHAEL ALBERT: Oh, sorry. I didn’t explain.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the magazine—and we only have two minutes left—the magazine and the Internet, the website.

MICHAEL ALBERT: After South End Press, Lydia Sargent 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: Yeah, yeah, 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.

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