Creating and sustaining progressive alternative institutions is not easy. It could be a book publishing project, a think tank, a food co-op or a bookstore. It could be a weekly periodical, a local or national organizing project, or a county or state electoral campaign. It could be a local tenants or welfare rights organization or a national ecology organization. It could be a neighborhood drop-in center, a citywide health clinic, or a national anti-war movement. It could be a small summer school, a medium-sized strike support committee, or a huge union. And it could be, as well, a grassroots or citywide radio station, or even a national radio network, such as Pacifica. But whatever it is, any progressive alternative institution has to utilize people who socialized within and imprinted by our existing society, has to navigate rules imposed by mainstream institutions whose requirements subvert our values, and has to operate with limited means under harsh pressures. Not surprisingly problems often arise, ranging from budget deficits and personal disputes, to shortages of resources, time, or energy, to structural inadequacies in changing contexts. An alternative progressive institution will not always operate without friction and problems, and to have impossibly high standards can lead to improper recrimination and depression.
But these facts of life in the complex and oppressive world that progressive institutions inhabit do not justify their ignoring progressive aspirations and aims. Three broad areas of our activities give rise to opportunities for hypocritical backsliding then rationalized by improper claims about what “has to be”: race, gender, and class.
(1) Our institutions are not yet racism free, but this doesn’t give a license to whites to establish and celebrate a racist division of labor or a racist culture within a labor movement, think tank, or any other creation of our efforts, nor justify whites defending racist advantages with an excuse that this is a hard world that demands some compromises much less with a racist argument about the differing capacities of different communities. Any white constituency within a large progressive alternative institution behaving thusly would quickly and rightly encounter an end to its claims to legitimacy. We know that while it is difficult to overcome racism and it is self-defeating to get knee-jerk about accomplishing miracles overnight, it is also a central part of being progressive to sincerely and aggressively battle racism in our projects. Anything less is hypocritical, immoral, and imposes self-defeating limitations on our work.
(2) Our institutions are not yet sexism free, but this doesn’t give a license to men to establish and celebrate a sexist division of labor or a sexist culture within a civil rights movement, a monthly periodical, or any other creation of our efforts, nor justify defending male advantages with an excuse that this is a hard world that demands some compromises, much less with a sexist argument about the differing capacities of men and women. Any male constituency within a large progressive alternative institution behaving thusly would quickly and rightly encounter an end to its claims to legitimacy. We know that while it is difficult to overcome sexism and it is self-defeating to get knee-jerk about accomplishing miracles overnight, it is also a central part of being progressive to sincerely and aggressively battle sexism in our projects. Anything less is hypocritical, immoral, and imposes self-defeating limitations on our work.
(3) Our institutions are not yet classism free, but this shouldn’t be a license for an elite possessing capital or managerial prerogatives to establish and celebrate a classist division of labor or a classist culture within an abortion rights movement, a radio station, or any other creation of our efforts, nor justify defending class advantages with an excuse that this is a hard world that demands some compromises, much less an argument that some folks have more right to decision-making power than others. Any managerial, ownership, or fund-raising constituency within a large progressive alternative institution behaving in such a fashion should quickly and rightly encounter an end to its claims to legitimacy. We should know that while it is difficult to overcome classist dynamics and while it is self-defeating to get knee-jerk about accomplishing miracles overnight, it is also a central part of being progressive to sincerely and aggressively battle classism in our projects. Anything less is hypocritical, immoral, and imposes self-defeating limitations on our work.
(1) and (2) above are overwhelmingly established, as well they should be but (3) is not only not established, it is generally deemed a juvenile or utopian excess. This failing with regard to class is devastating to the morality and outreach capacities of our work.
In the case of racism and sexism, due to the good work of anti-sexist and anti-racist activists, there is very little confusion at least about the principles involved. For someone in a progressive alternative institution or project to get up and say “we need to have a racist or a sexist division of labor and a racist or a sexist environment and culture in our institution” would be greeted with incredulity, concern about mental stability, and finally, if necessary, derision and rejection.
On the other hand, in an overwhelming majority of our progressive alternative institutions and projects, it is the norm for those wielding most decision-making power (and often some others as well) to openly assert that “we need to maintain a corporate-style division of labor and environment and culture in our institution,” and their doing so is seen as a sign of maturity and sober seriousness, rather than of hypocrisy and subordination to repressive attitudes or self serving ambition. This asymmetry of awareness and action about race and sex on the one side and class on the other has many roots, none of which, however, abrogate the simple insight that our attitudes about class have a lot of room for growth, to say the least.
Regarding racism and sexism, we progressives all properly understand that within our institutions and projects we have to define roles such that people filling them aren’t compelled to either oppress or be oppressed along race or gender lines. About class, however, we have no such understanding. If we did, we would see that within our institutions and projects we need to struggle--however difficult impositions from without and our prior habits and beliefs may make the task--to attain a division of labor and a system of decision-making that doesn’t relegate some people to obedience while elevating other people to authority, and that doesn't confine some people to poor conditions and lower incomes while bequeathing to others better conditions and higher incomes. We would understand the need for the producers and beneficiaries of progressive projects to exert control over decisions proportionate as they are affected by those decisions and, where appropriate, to be remunerated in accord with their effort and sacrifice, not their power. These understandings exist emotionally for a great many folks on the left, especially among those of working class background. But the understandings are not ratified in public principles nor are they operational in our organizational structures. More, those running our institutions from positions of relative comfort and empowerment and enjoying greater reward, rarely even give these concerns lip service. This current “class situation” is rather like the “gender situation” and “race situation” that existed before strong women’s and civil rights movements won changes in the world of progressive activism: it is a condition that goes unnamed and uncriticized, but which is nonetheless abominable, a storm waiting to explode, which, when it does, will hopefully take our class compalcency with it.
And now we come to Pacifica.
There is one very limited sense in which the current turmoil at Pacifica is a kind of unfair albatross unfairly plaguing Pacifica’s elites. That is, what they are guilty of is in its key and basic characteristics pretty much the norm throughout most progressive and left alternative institutions. So when Pacifica’s elites say that they feel put upon or unfairly singled out, they actually have a point. They are, as they sometimes complain, the brunt of criticisms and dissent which could equally be aimed in many other directions—for example at Mother Jones or The Nation, or at the Sierra Club or Greenpeace, or at the Teamsters (yes, it is the same issue) or The Institute for Policy Studies. And just like when the first movement men or movement whites to be confronted by women and blacks three decades ago felt “put upon” because they too weren’t doing anything that wasn’t commonplace and they were, after all, part of the good guys, so too for Pacifica’s leadership. But this is a complaint, however accurate, that as with that of recalcitrant whites and men before, no one has any reason to spend a whole lot of time contemplating.
What is worth contemplating, however, is that with whatever flaws and excesses it may embody, at Pacifica there has emerged an effort by employees and ex-employees and supporters challenging the legitimacy of typical corporate class structure residing inside a progressive alternative institution. Even if what is happening at Pacifica had no broader ramifications than the future of Pacifica itself, of course this conflict would be very important. Pacifica is the single largest U.S. media institution progressives have any positive relation to, much less any say over, so it’s future is certainly critical for everyone of good will. But what is happening at Pacifica is actually potentially much bigger than Pacifica itself because what is happening there could not only positively alter Pacifica, it could also impact more widely, just as the early efforts of movement women to challenge movement men and of movement blacks to challenge movement whites spread far more widely than its initial instances, and succeeded, at least to a considerable extent, over the past few decades.
The problem at Pacifica is not, firstly, that there are some leaders who have become enchanted with their own authority and oblivious to the stated norms and aspirations guiding the radio network, though that does appear to be the case. And it is not that these leaders have used their authority unwisely, capriciously, and even vengefully, though that too appears to be the case. And it is not that these leaders relate poorly to criticism, which is obviously the case, in triplicate. The problem is that Pacifica’s structure, like that of most progressive alternative institutions, replicates the class relations of typical corporate capitalist structures throughout our society, with fund-raisers sometimes replacing owners, but managers and other order givers in their typical autocratic roles. When those taking orders don’t resist their bosses, such structures appear stable and efficient, at least in some limited sense. But at no time are the structures just, at no time are they fulfilling (or efficient) for those who are disempowered, and at no time do they establish a context conducive to both the internal and external anti-classist policies and actions a left needs to nurture.
The crisis at Pacifica is simply that the classist foundations of one of our largest institutions have run just bit amuck and thereby incited its listeners and workers alike into resistance, in turn provoking repressive reaction, in turn awakening a wide array of aspirations, not always perfectly expressed or manifested, but rising to a pitch finally polarizing the elites—as always—into the most autocratic and authoritarian patterns imaginable in this context, perhaps even against their personal dispositions. The solution to all this is not band-aids, or a cooling off period, or even a redress of autocratic and wildly unwarranted decisions to fire various people, as positive as such partial steps could be. The solution is to restructure Pacifica in a principled and patient fashion and with a clear understanding that this undertaking isn’t merely to solve a Pacifica problem per se, but is, instead, an exemplary act, coerced by those occupying disenfranchised class positions, and aimed to provide a model for the entire world of progressive and alternative institutions of how to treat class issues with the same intensity and dignity and attention to progressive values as we at least most often try to do regarding structural matters of race and gender.
In short, rather than trying to dodge or crush the dissent or to ameliorate only the most immediate and most egregious causes of it, this is an opportunity to go to the heart of the class relations in our institutions and to embark on a struggle to correct them, just as people have in the past undertaken the continuing struggle of going to the heart of the race and gender relations in our institutions and correcting them.
To be radical is to get the bottom of things rather than being satisfied for what is at best superifical and temporary. I hope that in the Pacifica crisis some radical righteousness prevails.