This is part six of a six part interview. It deals mainly with the IOPS experience, Venezuela, alternative media, and some music lyrics. As to the other parts, they will be linked, below, as they are published…
Thought & Deeds 6: Venezuela, Media, Music…
You have been mentioned as an ally of the Bolivarian Revolution. The Z site addresses it more than most other operations do, and personally, I thank you for that. You have been there a few times as well, I even saw some pictures of you and Professor Chomsky with Chavez. You have interviewed prominent people there and you have written about it a lot. While I’m quite happy about it, what was your motivation to do so?
I think of all the places on the planet, Venezuela may well have the most potential for seriously revealing possible paths into a better future – especially of those places where I or Z can get ample information.
As you say, I have written a lot about it, so I won’t go on much, here. To me, perhaps it suffices to point out that Venezuela’s current efforts are a historically very unusual, and arguably unique, endeavor. Though it took off via electoral victory, winning the presidency, and winning, as well, many but not all other positions in government, it appears highly committed to actually replacing that typical form of political decision making with what the Chavistas call communes, which are just federations of what everyone calls local councils or assemblies. This is quite advanced, not just in hopes, but in deeds.
The Chavistas also seem committed to workplace relations that emphasize workers’ influence and control. Yet, at the same time, they are intent on not setting off a violent civil war, and on not simply imposing relations from the top down. All in all, it is a pretty remarkable combination, which is remaining firm even while under heavy threat, and the advances to date have been major and promising of more.
So for those reasons, plus ready access, naturally Z has paid attention. I actually think the more pressing question is why have so many other leftists paid such scant attention or even no attention, or even been utterly dismissive. And I am talking about going beyond trivial coverage of crises and the like, or threats from outside, to looking at what is actually occurring inside Venezuela to discern innovative policies and structures, as well as instructive problems.
I can only guess, but beyond typical left cantankerousness, I suspect the answer is that people dismiss and even dislike what is going on for precisely the same reasons people ought to pay very close attention to and arguably like what is going on. That is, the prominent electoral elements, the commitment to avoiding violence and trying to avoid top down impositions even while using the government as a lever for change, and the fact that there is a leadership nationally that is on the side of participatory change, as well as the nature of the opposition. These features make some dismiss or dislike what is happening, but others of us see in these features hopeful lessons perhaps applicable elsewhere. What is being done that could be done better? What is not being done that could be? What are the lessons, suitably generalized, others, outside Venezuela, can take?
Do you have criticisms of the Bolivarian Revolution, while still thinking it’s so important and valuable?
Yes, and I have written a lot about these too. Mostly, while I think the commitment to non violence and democracy has been in many ways incredibly admirable, I also suspect, tentatively, from a distance, that it has led to some poor choices – too little change of media institutions, too little replacing of old leaders, locally, with new ones. I also think a major problem has been a lack of clarity. There is such incredible focus on today’s events, on the current or on upcoming elections, and they have incredible numbers of elections, that there isn’t enough attention to clarifying longer term program such as developing and sharing clear vision so that people can be better involved and better attain desired ends.
On the one hand, for example, recent opposition activities clearly evidence U.S. and Venezuelan domestic right wing priorities – dynamics that go with the territory of seeking change. On the other hand, however, after over a decade, the fact that a significant sector of young people can still be widely and aggressively opposed to the changes – even if the numbers are exaggerated in the media – is very troubling.
Does it mean these youth have something about their genetic make-up that has made them immune to learning and developing in ways compatible with the interests of all people in Venezuela, instead of merely the wealthy, as well as themselves hoping to be wealthy in the future? Not at all, of course.
Does it mean there is something about their situation, their home life and schooling, that has fostered these beliefs and commitments and entrenched them? Clearly the answer to this is yes, but I don’t think it is enough of an answer. Rather, it seems to me that the process of the Bolivarian movement and project communicating with these young people, and with many other folks as well, has been deficient.
I suspect the cause of that is partly that the movement hasn’t taken the time and given the resources needed to reaching out to young people who disagree, and to folks with non Bolivarian views more generally. There are neighborhoods that are largely or wholly opposition, for example – and I am not talking about rich people’s enclaves. I think Bolivarian organizers should try really hard to reach people, especially the young, but I think that that is not the case, and that instead Bolivarian activists shy away from these locales. Some might say they just don’t want to waste time on folks who are so opposed – but we are talking about 40% of the population – you can’t write that off as elites, or rich, or whatever else. Most should be with the revolution, but are not. For most it is due to prejudices, fears, misconceptions, etc. It all should be subject to communications.
I also think, again quite tentatively from a distance, that the cause is not just low prioritization, but includes that most Chavistas who might talk to young people and others who are in or may become part of the opposition have a regrettably un-compelling message. Having values is not enough. Values won’t convince. The absence of clarity about that is being institutionally sought for Venezuela – about what institutions would, on accomplishing them, mark success – and about program and its underlying values and logic, has itself been a cause of there being an un-compelling message.
So you think that in Venezuela too, more and better shared vision and strategy would have mattered?
Call me crazy, or monomaniacal, but after a decade of controlling the executive branch and building tens of thousands of councils and communes, I think the population should be not 55% or 60% or even 70% pro Chavista, but more like 80%, even with foreign meddling. And I do think, if that observation is even remotely true, while of course the disruptive and destructive actions of Venezuelan capitalists and of right wing political formations and of U.S. meddling are involved, so too is weak outreach and communication by the Bolivarians. Perhaps program too has been at fault, but, ironically, I think much less so. In the battle for hearts and minds, so to speak, the Bolivarians have had good program, what they have had too little of, is, talking with opposed people’s hearts and minds.
The Bolivarian revolutionaries are trying to do good things – that’s the program. And they try to win elections. But they don’t set as a goal getting a vote of 75% say, which would mean going into opposition turf and organizing, rather than just staying out and getting 52% or 55%. And they don’t have as a priority having all Chavistas, and ultimately all Venezuelans, understand and participate in conceiving future aims, which would mean clarifying and adapting, becoming adept with and also sharing vision. What if that was as high a priority as overcoming illiteracy was, years back?
Let’s talk about media now, if you don’t mind, considering Z, both on paper and online, you have clearly devoted a lot of time to media. Has there been any effect of your work on the four spheres of social life, and your work on parecon and parsoc, in particular, on your views on media?
Yes, those involvements have affected my priorities for what to communicate. And they have also guided my understanding of what structural features alternative media – even with all the pressures and constraints we confront – should try to incorporate to both do its media functions well, and also be something worth emulating.
To me, the editorial signpost says, address what is wrong with society and international relations, and so on, and do that in ways that highlight race, gender, power, and class dynamics, but that also address and spur others into addressing vision and strategy, and not just passively, but with major public efforts at participation in evaluating, refining, and improving what is offered.
I have worked at South End Press, then Z Magazine and ZNet, now including ZBooks and ZVideo, and also at the Z Media Institute, and I think in every case, hard as they often are to act on, those advisories have been guiding our choices of content.
And as to structure, while these projects are quite small, which actually makes it harder rather than easier, we have tried to pay attention to those advisories, too – equitable remuneration, self management, balanced job complexes, etc.
You previously mentioned that writing was not one of the things you have a personal inclination for. Following that line of reasoning, haven’t you had or do you have doubts about doing media work?
Yes, sure. I have never had doubts that the content we were and are delivering, was worthy. Nor have I had doubts that useful information, analysis, vision, and strategy are critical to convey and to try to foster discussion of, etc. But I have had doubts about whether doing it has made sense – despite the supporting logic. The reason is the very low level of material support for such endeavors. There are times when it makes you wonder, perhaps some other activity would work better.
And because of that, I have tried some other activities – most recently the attempt to develop what we called WorldSocial – arguably still media, but a different kind – but no such effort has gotten a lot of support, or even enough support to persist.
Can you say just a bit more about the Telesur Project you are currently involved with? And how does the Telesur project relate to your work at ZCommunications? Will we ever see or read “Miguel Albert en español” even?
Telesur is, of course, a kind of Latin American news institution. It is a bit like Al Jazeera and Russia Today, and also First Look, I suppose, in that it is large scale. Telesur Spanish is primarily video, a TV station, with text as well – but Telesur English, at least at the outset, will be a more typical internet media operation, with text, multimedia, etc., all online.
For Telesur English, I will be working on an Opinion section which is initially planned to have 60 original articles a month, appearing starting in July. I have to line up the writers, schedule and elicit their submissions, handle the records, etc. The writers will be paid for the essays, and Z will be paid for the services of handling all this, and the material benefits will be very helpful to all involved. Likewise, this inducement of worthy essays plus their very visible distribution will enhance communications. And it is highly likely that the material generated specifically for Telesur English will wind up translated to appear, as well, on Telesur Spanish. So, all in all, this is a very good thing, I believe, for Z, for Telesur English, for Telesur Spanish, and in general.
I hope this is not too delicate a topic, but how bad is the money pressure on Z – and on other operations like it? Have you tried to solve this problem? How can others help if they wish to do so?
It is a bit like for any other small business in the U.S. in that you must constantly look out for the budget and be sure you are in position to keep functioning. On the other hand, given the political ghettoization of the left, there are obstacles alternative media faces that most businesses don’t face – and some advantages as well. The latter is the political desire to help that many people feel. The trouble is, that desire to help, materially, has diminished over the years, not just for Z, but in general. I think that trend is in considerable part due to the impact of the internet, and some beliefs the internet has generated.
But whatever all the causes may be, on balance, from when we first started South End Press to today, there has never been a time when there wasn’t extreme pressure and tension regarding keeping going. And that pressure stems from and rests solely on issues of money.
And yes, we have tried to solve the problem, not just for ourselves, but for alternative media writ large, numerous times and many ways. WorldSocial – the effort to create a progressive social media operation, was an example. There have been others, too, over the years – but none that have succeeded.
Could other people help solve this problem?
Well, sure, but also maybe not.
For example, the audience of progressive media could easily solve the problem. It is probably a few million people worldwide, and certainly one million. So suppose they were ready to donate, on average, just $10 a month each – some more, some less. That would be $10 million a month for alternative media and with a good mechanism for distribution of the resources among the many providers, that would solve the problem, I think, all over the world. One could imagine a group of folks trying to propel that, too, very notable writers – who, after all, use alternative media.
Diminishing that down, in scale, to just Z, the same thing holds. We don’t know how many people use our sites but let’s say 100,000 people, though at times it could be considerably more. Suppose they were each willing to donate $1 a month, on average, much less $10 a month. Goodbye to the money problem for us, and for quite a few others we would aid with the large excess, too.
Some other examples? I have recently been urging First Look to address this need. And I have tried with the Venezuelans, via various plausible scenarios, for years. A long time back, we undertook to create something we called ShareWorld, and came very close to success, which would have solved the whole issue, again, for all alternative media. Before that, there was a software project. I have also tried to influence donors to work together, media outfits to do so, etc. So, yes, I have thought since I got involved with alternative media that a high priority, and even arguably the highest priority, needed to be solving the cash problem not for one operation, but for all.
Sadly, I am not aware of anyone else who has thought similarly and has tried or is trying to deal with it on a similar scale, for everyone. Instead, as best I have been able to discern, each outfit looks out for itself – in tried and true market driven fashion. The result, again, in tried and true fashion for markets, is a clash and jangle that uses what resources do surface less than optimally, and that surfaces way fewer resources than are needed. The problems associated with bill paying plague the left now, and have done so for decades, limiting projects and skewing behaviors. And that is with alternative media just operating at a relatively small scale, much less growing as much as is needed. There is a sense in which a participatory planning approach for alternative media resources is needed, now.
Here is a quite ironic twist on this. I suspect mainstream media – and I mean the big outfits too, faces a very similar problem. With Google and Facebook, etc., taking more and more advertising budget funds, and with audiences thinking everything should be free, they face a big squeeze on revenues, too. One solution rearing an ugly head is super rich people becoming, if you will, patrons of economically unviable media – those recent purchases by some very rich folks. Another scenario would be government making media largely public.
But, in tune with the thinking about, I suspect before long someone is going to realize that cable companies are pretty doomed, TV is in trouble, magazines are doomed, etc., if things don’t alter, and they will try to get virtually all media, even music and film, etc., magazines, newspapers, and so on, under one umbrella. The user pays $100 a month, or whatever, and has free access to everything. The umbrella entity distributes the proceeds to the participating providers. We will see.
When did you last work in the field, doing so-called grassroots organizing? Do you feel there are problems now, with the approaches people take to it?
It depends what you mean by grass roots organizing. Many would include writing, say, or facilitating communications by others, or organizing gatherings – for example, one on a large scale I worked on at a WSF event – and many on a smaller scale – or trying to create projects or organizations, and so on. If all that counts then the answer to when I last did that kind of thing, would be minutes ago, I guess. But if grassroots organizing means to you – as it means to me – literally, systematically going out and talking with folks who don’t agree with you in a sustained and organized way, to build a campaign or to entice membership in some on-going organization or project or movement, it has been a long time since I have done that, especially in any really energetic way.
And since I don’t do that now, it is hard to gauge problems that others may be having, but, if I had to weigh in on that, from outside, I would say that nowadays there is too much emphasis on hurling messages through cyberspace – especially short messages – and not enough emphasis on face to face discussion and building ties and trust.
As odd as it may seem, I tend to agree on this “clicktivism” issue too, despite IT being my bread and butter. Can you elaborate your specific views on the matter?
A lot of folks look around and see a lot of activity and say, hey, aren’t Facebook and Twitter great. We called people out for our demo using them, after all. Well, I don’t think about it that way. Facebook and Twitter are tools, and they can certainly be helpful, (as are web sites, blogs, email, roads, banks, etc.). But the issue is always to compare what is happening to what is needed, or perhaps to what might be happening with different approaches.
The world is a monstrous mess. Economies are collapsing and people are suffering from poverty even more than usual. Wars rage. Climate devolves with serious prospects of absolute calamity. Is there activity? Yes. Is much of it abetted by and even centered on online interactions? I think this is a bit exaggerated, often, but, okay, yes.
But is it plausible that had that cyber approach not so dominated people’s priorities – so that it was still used, but only ancillary to direct sustainer face to face organizing – there would be more activism, and it would lead to lasting structures and movements winning more gains? I think it is.
What about trying to create new projects and organizations? God knows you have started gazillions of things. What’s the reason for all that?
The reason is that the aim is not to have a particular project, and have it last year in and year out, but not diversify, not grow, not spin off more endeavors.
The question makes good sense if each left effort is viewed the way we might view a typical small business or other undertaking. Such an endeavor is typically a lone effort to do something useful and make an income by it, and so on. In that case, the criteria of judgment is just looking at it, at its product, at its longevity, and so on – and not beyond.
But if we view any radical undertaking as having meaning only in light of the overall situation of society and movements to change society – as being a revolutionary, for example, requires us to do – then our norms should change.
One operation staying alive isn’t the goal. Winning changes in ways that lead to winning more changes is the goal. So, hitting a plateau of achievement and then preserving it, is better than simply dying off, sure, but it is still much less than needed – and so I constantly try for more.
I know from your memoir, Remembering Tomorrow, that music has a pretty important place in your life. Who has mattered to you, besides Bob Dylan?
I take it you mean politically and socially, not simply because I liked or have even been moved or inspired by their music, and if so, no one has been as meaningful to me as Dylan, but the Beatles and Stones, from those formative times, and Bruce Springsteen and the Clash, from later, certainly had impact, as well as many others.
Some lyrics, I wonder what you think, of them – “What’s love got to do with it, got to do with it?”
Che Guevara claimed it was the essence of being a revolutionary. He was posing – I think – being motivated positively, for example by love of humanity, or even of specific people, against being motivated by anger, or even by hate. Che was a smart fellow. But I don’t think that is what the song is conveying.
What about: “War, huh, what Is It good for? Absolutely nothing?”
This lyric, while given a powerful and positive anti-war meaning by the music that went with it, and by the times, when read literally is in my opinion quite wrong.
War is actually very good for many things – for elites. It is good for arms dealers, for example, but more broadly, for those who wish to instill fear, and who profit from the extraction of wealth from others. If it really was good for nothing, it would be a whole lot easier to eliminate.
How about: “The machine guns are roaring
The puppets heave rocks
The fiends nail time bombs
To the hands of the clocks
Call me any name you like
I will never deny it
The sky is erupting
I must go where it’s quiet”
This is a Dylan lyric. The song is Farewell Angelina. The thing about his lyrics is that different people will hear different content, often. I thought then, and I still think this was Dylan singing to Joan Baez and basically apologizing for leaving social struggle behind, in essence apologizing for retiring from any movement connection.
I think the lyrics are brilliant. I believe we in the movements of the sixties appeared to Dylan as puppets heaving rocks and even fiends nailing time bombs to the hands of the clocks. We had a movement he felt he had to escape – to find some quiet. I think we should have listened to him, not only when he said precisely what we wanted to hear – masters of war, the times they are a changing, the ship is coming in, and so on, and on – but also, in this case, when he said something very critical of our efforts.
It is possible, and I believe it was true, that the features of our activism and mindsets that repulsed Dylan were repulsing thousands and even millions of other people too, and that had we realized that non defensively, perhaps we could have fixed it. I think the insight remains incredibly germane today. And the disinclination to think seriously about it is, sadly, still predominant.
Finally, what do you think are the most important or critical tasks for revolutionaries to accomplish in the next five or ten years?
You opened by asking if I was a revolutionary, and what that meant. I indicated that for me it meant the norm against which to assess ideas, prospects, plans, etc., is always trying to attain fundamentally transformed social institutions.
No one ever knows, in advance, for sure, what is most important for that purpose in some period – still, my opinion would be that in five or ten years, pretty much to have hope of attaining a new society short of nearly apocalyptic collapse of the societies we now live in, we will need to have built at least one massive international organization, with national and local chapters, with millions of participating members, that has clear vision, broad program and strategy, and that is heavily and tirelessly engaged in winning gains now and developing consciousness, commitment, and organization able to win more gains tomorrow, and finally to win a new world.
To me this seems so obvious that I am intensely frustrated by the fact that so few on the left feel it as an urgent priority. It was why we tried and are still trying to establish the International Organization for a Participatory Society, and why I find it so frustrating and hard to comprehend that notice of that effort, whether it be supportive or critical commentary about it, is very nearly entirely absent from alternative media. Perhaps that will change, I surely hope so.
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