Greg 00:02 [Intro] As Toni Morrison has put it, “The destiny of the 21st century will be shaped by the possibility or collapse of a shareable world.” Welcome to our podcast where we explore the history, theory and practice of democratic socialism with our guide, Big Mike. What can we learn from the past to help us create a better, more shareable world in the future?
Greg 00:32 All right. We’re getting to be old hands at this. I think we can just dive right in.
Mike 00:36 Oh we’re ready, you’re on?
Greg 00:38 Yeah.
Mike 00:39 So you have this—
Greg 00:41 Well, I think the topic at hand is something like, well, how do we change — we’ve been talking about culture in its deepest and widest sense as what we’re up to as a society and what stories we tell about what we’re up to. And so we talked about focusing on—on that storytelling aspect, right?
Mike 01:06 Right, on narrative, we’re gonna talk about a little bit, right?
Greg 01:07 Uh-huh. Yeah, so—
Mike 01:19 Well, I think that narrative is a concept that we use a great deal or people use a great deal when they talk about literature, or in common—well not-so-common speech, but the narrative of this, the narrative of that. But actually a narrative is much more than a um, story. It does much more than a story. Uh, and one needs to think about all the things a narrative does all the ways it functions to create the world that we live. Notice I didn’t say the world that we live in—the world that we live. So I want to make a distinction there to begin with. There is a world we live in which consists of the trees and the stones and the rocks and the people and—peanut butter and all those wonderful things that surround us, including our bodies and ourselves. That’s not the same thing as the world we live. The world we live is fashioned out of all those things, all the material objects that surround us and all the things in my head, but organized in such a way that they make sense to me. And that idea of making sense is an extremely important idea. When the world ceases to make sense to me, I will be judged by the world to have lost my mind. Notice the—the expression I—that we use in English. “I will have lost my mind”—to lose one’s mind, as if that mind that I had is not my brain, the physical object, it is that constellation of signposts that tell me what the world that I live in every day is all about and therefore tells me how I should behave in that world depending upon what objectives I want to achieve. Now, once I’ve said that, it doesn’t take too great a leap of the imagination to move on to the idea that if I’m going to change the world, and God knows we have to change the world or it’s going to change us into non-existence, if I’m going to change the world that I’ve got to change the lived world, I’ve got to change those signposts.
Mike 03:44 I’ve got to change those signs that tell me what the world is all about, out of which I make sense. If I lose my mind, I’m in the insane asylum, but we’re on this side of that. We’re still in the world in which the world we live in has meaning, whether we’re aware of it or not, we function in the world as if it has meaning. That’s the lived world. Again, not the same as the real world, but it’s what I make out of the real world. Now, what do I do to make it out of the real world or rather what is it that makes in me the real—the lived world? Well, one of them obviously is education. That’s a major practice, the single—probably most important or second most important institutionalization of the process of creating in me one lived world as opposed to another lived world, another—
Mike 04:37 That’s why education in China would be different from education in the United States and what Chinese children learn in school is different from what I learned in school and another obviously important, maybe even more important, institutional form is the family. And notice that the family is also very different in different cultures, in different societies. In our society and contemporary America, the family gets more and more often reducible to a two person plus children household, right? The nuclear family. In other societies the family’s conceived of as very broad—may include aunts, uncles, cousins, even strangers who are adopted into the family and become real members of the family institutionally, structurally, not by blood necessarily, but obviously the institutional and structural relationship takes precedence over blood in such situations. And there are many examples that we can find in anthropology of such things. The narrative is the story that I tell myself—and I’ll explain what I mean by story in a moment–the story I tell myself—and the story others tell me—to set up the signposts to create in me the signpost that the culture, the economic system, the political system wants me to see as my lived world, as what is normal.
Greg 06:07 Right.
Mike 06:08 So if I’m going to change the world, I’ve got to change the concept of what is normal. And I only do that by changing the narrative. So I’m going to tell you a story. There’s a little fox and the little fox is wandering, wants to go out wandering in the forest. He wants to go visit his grandmother and mother Fox says, you stick to the paths in the forest that I’ve shown you don’t go wandering off among the trees. There might be other animals out there that—you stick to the path, and here’s a basket of nuts which we collected where you can take to your grandma. So the fox dies out and being a little fox and not having yet learned the narrative successfully or not on the uh—as it’s moving down its path, it runs into this strange creature walking on two legs, not four, and it’s red instead of brown and it says, Oh, come home with me and so forth.
Mike 07:05 You get the point. So the little fox goes home and gets eaten by grandma Eloise, right? She cooks him up for dinner. The point is that in that story, the one I just told you, what is—what has a positive valence for the fox is other foxes and human beings are in negative eyes, in little red riding hood, which is our human version of the fox, it’s human beings that have a positive valence and we stay away from foxes. That’s a very, very simple and childish example.
Folktales, children’s stories are ways in which these signposts are set up. So that’s very important. So one of the things that a narrative does, it establishes, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable, who is acceptable and who isn’t acceptable, by the way, it displays the characters in the story for us. That’s extremely important. It divides up both human beings and it divides up other phenomena and it tells us what’s good and what’s not good. Uh, but it does much, much more than that. Uh, it tells us, for example, um, such things as what are causes and what are effects. So you look at any story and no story is simply a story of one event and then a second event and third—then a third event. Events in a story, whether that story is the story of the biological origins of the human race or whether that story is a story of the generation of volcanoes in the islands of Hawaii—all of these stories or the story of little red riding hood, all of these stories have established relationships of cause to event.
Mike 09:10 Yeah. And if I told you the story of the human race, which, which, uh, starts out and says in the beginning there was this Wall Street businessman—and then as time went on and we went through this, the, the, the, the, the—ages, uh, he grew hair and he began to walk on all fours instead of on two and shed his clothes, you’d think I was a little crazy! You’d think that the ape is not necessarily an advance on the Wall Street businessman, although I’m not sure that he isn’t an advance, but you know what I’m trying to get at. So we establish what is natural and what is—what is the relationship of cause to event. That’s very important. And I said, we established what is natural. We have a category of narratives. We have whole areas of literature and films and whatnot that are not natural.
Mike 10:01 I don’t mean they’re anti-natural, but what I mean is that they, they describe worlds that don’t exist, right? And when we read them, however, when this becomes very important, uh, when we read about these worlds that don’t exist, we, we can through the exercise of the faculty of all imagination, adopt the positions that those narratives give us and look back at our own. Of course the most, the first most important science fiction story, right, like that, was Thomas More’s Utopia. It was written in the 16th century in which he describes a place that doesn’t exist as a way of looking back at the society that did exist in his age and saying, “listen guys, we’ve got to change things ‘cause this is not good.”
Greg 10:52 Right.
Mike 10:54 And we can do it. So narrative is extremely important. And if I want to set out to change the world, I have to rethink the narrative. And that means rethinking everything right? Notice how different that is from the—the narrative of say, reform. So suppose I’m an editor and you bring me a story, a novel, and I’m going to read it and tell you how to improve it. I could say to you, you ought to strengthen the male character, or you ought to strengthen the female character or you—you ought to smooth out the dialogue between the children. I can give you all kinds of little suggestions like that. That’s reformism: the fundamental structure of the narrative stays the same. And all I’m trying do is make it smoother, uh, so the reader will, will buy it more easily. Yeah, right? I’m going to buy the narrative of capitalism much more easily if there is less inequality in capitalism. So as the editor of the capitalist narrative, I’m going to say to you, let’s pass some laws in Congress for a little bit of redistribution of the tax burden. On the other hand, I can tell you, like I said, this is just nonsense. I’m never going to be able to sell this book. It doesn’t make any sense, right? It’s irrational. It’s—it doesn’t tell a good story. It doesn’t do anything. Start again. Right. I’m arguing that we have to start again. So I’m going to give you another example.
Mike 12:35 I think the narrative that is very, very much at the heart of our political system and our economic system is a narrative that was established in the, uh, in the period of the enlightenment by Locke, by Rousseau. The narrative that we today call the—the, the, the social contract. What is the social contract narrative? It starts out and says in the beginning there are all these isolates. You were over there and he was over there and he was over there and she was over there. All these individuals lurking around in the forest and they are going at each other. They are scrambling for a root or for a barrier for what have you, right there, they fight over that fish in the river. And finally a wise man comes along and says, “Hey guys, I’m going to call a meeting. I’m going to build a camp and I want you all to come to the campfire.” They all come to the campfire and he says, “look, wouldn’t it be much better if instead of struggling as isolated individuals in the forest, each of us fighting against all the others, we got together and created some kind of law and order among us. We’ll each have to give up a little bit of independence, but we’ll share more and we’ll be able to defend ourselves as a group against, those were still further out there and want to get us.” Everyone claps, “Yeah, let’s do it.” And modern society is born and the law, the political system, all those things that come out of that narrative.
Mike 14:14 Now the important thing about that narrative is the idea that it starts with individuals, the natural state of humankind, according to our founding—and I’ll use this word, our founding bourgeois narrative, because after all the enlightenment was the period in which bourgeois culture begins to emerge. That the, um, the founding, the, the, the primary idea of that narrative is that what’s natural as the individual. And we come together as individuals and we freely give up a little bit to gain a lot to live in society. But suppose that I start a new narrative. So both I argue that a new society is going to require a new social contract, a different social contract, and instead of individuals, we talk about communities. Just start there that what is the agent, what is the primary actor of the new social contract? It’s communities or perhaps it’s all mankind sitting around together.
Mike 15:15 All of a sudden God created people. God didn’t create Adam and then Eve, all of this, you know, we could, we could rewrite the Bible, say God created people and the people get together and they’re all together from the beginning and we don’t even start with the idea of individuals. We start with the idea of groups. We would end up with a radically different kind of social contract. So the wise man calls all the groups together and they get together and they talk and say if we cultivate the land together, we’ll be able to produce greater crops than if each of us is trying to cultivate the land separately.
Greg 15:45 Right.
Mike 15:46 Or if we cooperate in making shoes, we’ll have more than enough shoes than each of us trying to make shoes and cook and hunt and fish—it doesn’t work. So we have a radically different narrative of the emergence of society and of the economy and of now.
Mike 16:04 It’s interesting that the reductio ad absurdum of the bourgeois social contract of the Lockean, Rousseauian social contract, the reductio ad absurdum was produced by one of the pillars, stars of neoliberalism, of the ultimate in contemporary capitalism and that was Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister of Britain and she says, “There’s no such thing as society. There are only individuals.” It’s a shocking statement. It’s a scandalous statement. What she did was throw out the entire narrative of the social contract except for that initial stage of these individuals all struggling in the forest. I think this question of narrative then is really very crucial. And we experience, we experience this attempt to change the narrative in our daily lives. For example, if one takes the whole conversation today about sexuality, about gender assignment, all that whole area, uh—sort of the founding spiritual narrative of the West is the Bible, Adam and Eve and, and, and the extreme right-wingers who want to prevent gay marriage or fight against homosexuality, always go back to the Bible and with good reason because the Bible is the story that sets up all of this, right?
Mike 17:35 And the struggle to—to rethink gender assignment is a struggle to edit very profoundly the narrative that the Bible sets up. Like it’s rather unfortunate that, that we—it’s a, it’s a good observation rather to think about the fact that a lot of people who are fighting in favor of, um, free choice and in favor of freedom of gender choice, etc., uh, try to find passages in the Bible that they can use to support their case. That shows how powerful a narrative is—that even the opponents of the, of the main narrative need to use that narrative to, to, uh… so I think that this, this question of, uh, of rethinking the narrative from the very beginning is absolutely central to our—I want to give you one more example. Uh, I, once I had an opportunity and I, I, I did not succeed at it, but I tried to persuade, uh, some people to think about teaching human biology as part of the, of environmental studies.
Mike 18:48 Suppose I start with teaching children about their bodies, not from the point of view of here’s the heart and here’s the lungs. It’s over. But
this is the impact that whatever happens in the environment is going to have on this part of your body. So they begin to see their body not as unique in the world, but rather they see their bodies as part of the environment and are going to want to—that should lead them to want to rethink their relationship to the environment. They need to save the environment in order to save themselves. My health is not dependent just on my taking medicines—it’s also dependent on the environment. We rarely make that connection in our discussion of the environment. We do when the environment is poisoned with too much, uh, atomic waste or something like that. And we see it as disease, but that’s usually manmade change in the environment. But we need to reconceptualize through a different narrative, the relationship between the environment and our bodies if we’re going to really create an environmentally intelligent world.
Greg 19:52 Boy, I have all sorts of questions. Um, so one thing that you, you kind of just mentioned along the way, um, and I, this is something I think about from my point of view in religious studies. There’s a—you know, Peter Berger, the sociologist of religion and he wrote a book called The Sacred Canopy, but this idea that, um, and he—he sets this out as just an observation about human beings that they, they seem to want, they seem to need to have their stories inscribed in the universe as such. They need to, they need to appear as natural, as given, as authorized by, as, as you know, as not written, as not created by human beings. So the Bible for example, is, is an authority about the story. That’s part of what people like about the Bible is that they have an authoritative source. And so to put yourself in a position where you are challenging the old stories and hopefully coming up with a new one, uh, is scary in terms of the change that’s coming. But it’s also I think unsettling to people to think that you could just write a new story that is not out there to be found.
Mike 21:07 That kind of thinking has two aspects to it. One aspect is that I observed from our growing older—I’m growing older. I have never met anyone growing younger. So I observed from the fact that I’m growing older, that there’s a beginning and an end and we want to know about our beginnings. I can accept that. But to say—that’s, that’s probably universal. Although there are cultures in which they don’t have origin myths as a system of thought. Buddhism does not have origin myths. It has end myths, right? And the end is nothingness. That’s another subject, isn’t it? But the point is that Buddhism doesn’t have origin. It’s—various cultures within Buddhism do. But Buddhism as such, unlike Christianity, unlike Judaism, unlike Islam, Buddhism doesn’t have an origin. Second, the—the beginning—to say that it has to be outside the narrative.
Mike 22:19 Let me see if I can say what I’m going to say. What Peter Berger argues is that it seems to be human to need some kind of extra-human legitimation of human existence. I think that’s what—so I refer you again to Buddhism. That’s, here’s a whole world of millions and millions of people. They don’t have any extra-natural God-like legitimation for human existence. What is is, and we want to negate that because there’s something fantasmic about it, something not quite right about it. So we want to, we want to use our, our lives in order to diminish our hold, our, our being controlled by material reality or by our passes. All of those kinds of things. Uh, they, they represent the negation of this idea that we need an extra-natural legitimation of our existence. Um, from the Buddhist point of view, there is no legitimation of my existence. My existence itself is—to use the word incorrectly, but I’ve got to use it just for the moment. My existence itself is somehow illegitimate is a consequence of bad things like being controlled by my desires and by my desire for peanut butter, things like that. Right.
Greg 23:43 But you also know that, that, I mean—I know what you mean about Buddhism philosophically, but culturally speaking—Buddhist culture sacralizes things. They, they draw attention to certain values by creating sacred places, sacred people.
Mike 23:58 Oh, of course.
Greg 24:00 And so they’re saying it’s—the way stories get their power is to say that the story is sacralized. It’s not, it’s not just been invented.
Mike 24:09 Well, I think it’s much more complicated than that expression puts it. The story may be sacralized in some way but the question is—what is the origin of that? Where does that come from? In the Western narrative by and large, this is a very powerful narrative. Uh, we start out at some point in the desert, in the middle East, with this idea of a God creating, and that’s a kind of common thing around the middle East. Uh, the God who steps into the beginning—creates the beginning that’s repeated twice in the Christian story because then Jesus comes into history and changes history and so forth and so on. Um, that’s a very, um, I will argue this, that’s a very different mentality than the mentality of a system of thought where the story creates its own sacrality. In other words, I tell you a story and that place is sacred to me because of the story I’m telling you about it.
Mike 25:19 It is not because, “Oh, there’s a God who appeared there,” but I’m telling you a story, so I know it’s a story and it’s probably a pretty fantastical story. We’re all in on the secret. It’s a story. There is no question of belief in an extra-historical or extra-human source of all of this. One day when I was much younger, I was sitting on the, um, the roof of a building in a Pueblo in Southwest US with a little boy, and he was reading the geography of—we were sitting on top watching a, a ceremony and uh, and all around us were these mountains in New Mexico and Arizona and there were caves and he was telling me all about the geography of the place that cave over there, that cave over there. The whole thing was alive—because of the stories he told me about the, about something that happened, but none of these things were because God decreed it. None of these things were outside the story itself. But the, the, the, the monotheistic religions, the origin of the story lies outside of the story itself. And that’s what legitimates the story. And in turn the story legitimates that place outside the story, that sacralizes the story. That’s why—that liberates me to look at the scriptures as literature. Otherwise I can only look at them as scriptures.
Mike 26:53 We all get a little disturbed though when people do that and when people—right, right. You and I have taught pieces of the scriptures often enough to know that people really get upset if you challenge something, even if you reinterpret within some school and another school thinks the scriptures say… But a story told by a little four year old boy about that cave. He could have used any words. It’s the story, the telling of the story.
Greg 27:20 I agree.
Mike 27:22 And that’s the distinction I want to make.
Greg 27:24 But I guess—but then if we’re thinking about the challenges that face us now, it seems like there are features of the current story that are taken to be sacred like individualism. It’s not—to question a certain kind of individualism that we’ve inherited in this historical moment is to challenge a sacred story, not just a story.
Mike 27:50 I agree. To me that says much more about the huge weight of our narrative on my soul, on my shoulders, than it does about the validity of the story itself. In other words, we are so tied down by this narrative. We are so much the prisoners of this story we tell and retell and retell that we can’t escape the idea that the basic building block of human society is the individual. And yet if I look at the sentence I just uttered, I see how fake that is. The basic building block of human society is the individual. But if I’m an individual all alone on a desert Island, there’s no society. Society requires two people. I cannot as an individual be a building block of society. We together collectively can. So the basic building block of society is we the collective, not me, the individual.
Mike 29:06 So there’s a, there’s a grammatical or at least a logical, um, contradiction in the very heart of the statement about individualism that we are accustomed, we’re accustomed to make, but that we never talk about that. Rarely do we sit in 10th grade civics somewhere and say to the, the, the, the men and women in the 10th grade, look guys, what’s wrong with this individualism stuff? How can the individual be the building block of a society? Margaret Thatcher was right. If you are an individualist philosophically you cannot have very much pretensions to being a social animal. You can only be a social animal in society, not all by myself on the desert island.
Greg 29:51 Right. Well, so there’s another thing your—what you were saying before reminded me about—I know you care about this, um, this is taking a couple of backwards steps, but you talked a bit about education as a, as acculturation. So education as learning the stories of the society one is in, but I also know you think, uh, it’s education serves the important role—a good education—of exposing you to the multiplicity of stories that can be told.
Mike 30:21 Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And I think, I think that is very, very much at the heart of the dilemma of education. We, by the way, and I think this is a terrifically important thing to think about. We today have escaped the dilemma by reducing education basically to skills and notice how more and more in the past decades, the kind of debate over education that even John Dewey in the 1920s would have raised. Like what is the relationship between education and democracy? How do we build education for democracy? We’ve reduced that, we don’t talk about that, or we may pay it lip service in some civics textbooks, but fundamentally our education is not looking to create democracy, it’s looking to create skills and increasingly in our age or your children and my grandchildren’s age, that means computer skills and a reasonable but not good command of English. Because after all you can go on the computer and correct your English on the computer and so forth and so on.
Mike 31:34 Values are rarely talked about in our education system. So when you go to educational conferences, you know what people talk about—the hardware of education. Yeah, but where are the raging debates over the values of education? So yes, on the one hand, an important value and important purpose of education is to convey the culture from one generation to another. That doesn’t mean that when I convey to my children or my grandchildren, my culture, that my culture is the same as the culture that the 13th century had, because things change over time and I’m a 21st century old man, not a 13th century old man. Right? I still see, in other words, I still see things differently than my grandchildren do. They are ahead of me or behind me, depending on how you think about progress, but, but I’m sure not 13th century, nor are they.
Mike 32:29 Nonetheless, part of the educational values that I am arguing for is the idea of alternatives. So, and frankly, if you go back a hundred years in America, there was a lot of our education that was about alternatives. I mean, that’s why you had John Dewey arguing for democratic education. What does it mean? Nobody today raises that question. If I sit down with my grandchildren, I say, what would a democratic education be that would force them to ask them questions? We start talking about what is democracy and so forth and so on. We don’t do that anymore. Yeah. So yes, I do believe that education is important. Look, I’ll take a, I’ll take a step back.
Mike 33:16 If I can convey the idea that education is about alternatives and choice, and I don’t mean choice between being an engineer or a physicist. I mean choice about how should one live the good life, what is good for society, those choices. If I can educate my grandchildren to think about those choices, then I open up the way for an alternative narrative to develop. But if all I tell them is it’s all about computers and there is nothing else and relatively—what’s this word they now use to describe what we’re supposed to educate them in? In science, technology, oh, STEM. STEM is all about that and nothing more than I close out the possibility for change. My idea is to open up the possibility for change, for rethinking, for reevaluation. We’re doing just the opposite.
Greg 34:10 Right. Well let’s see where, where—
Mike 34:14 Well, let me go a step further. Let me use an old Marxist argument. The state supports the capitalist system in education. That’s just what it’s doing. Look at the way we legislate education. I would legislate these exams, all the systems, in order to get money you have to go according to certain rules set down by the federal government, the state government, and so forth. So in the realm of the mind, the state is playing just the same role as Karl Marx assigned to it. It is in fact the, the, the bridge, the control factor over what way education goes. And even if you want to start a private school to get recognized, to have your degree recognized, you have to obey certain rules.
Greg 35:09 I’m not sure where, where best to go next, but I’m tempted to ask you, just to come back to the general big picture view of what, thinking about what new types of stories might need to be told. I mean, something you’ve mentioned a couple of times is to flip the script a little bit, as they say, about individualism. How would things change if you started from a communal perspective rather than an individualistic one? But is another thing or two you would say about if—as my editor of a new story about where we are, what elements need to be in that, in that story, the new story?
Mike 35:51 I certainly would probably start out, I mean that’s a challenging question, I have to think about it. But I’d start out by suggesting that maybe off the top of my rapidly balding head that um, for example, um, the things that I talk about when I talk about narrative, I would want to start talking about with kids in the first grades of school. In other words, I would try to sensitize them to the difference of telling a story from the point of view of an individual or from the point of view of a group. That’s number one. Number two, instead of having the kids—I’m talking about education ‘cause my mind is still there. And I don’t know if any of this is valid, but in any way play with it. Instead of having the kids sit down and write individual essays about this or that or even when they’re in the first or second grade, have them do it as a group so that the education becomes a way itself of learning to think together rather than thinking separately.
Mike 36:59 So what I’m going to do in my ideal school, which would probably never succeed, but I’m thinking about it now, you started me thinking about—what I might try to do is to get the kids to think of the story as their story. Each of them really existing only because that story that they’re telling together exists. Um, in other words, I would develop this, this, this—I would, I would try to develop techniques early on of breaking down individuality and increasing, um, their sense of being part of a class. By which I don’t mean economic class, but of social group. Let me give you—we do that. Certain schools have done that. In traditional Catholic schools in America and sometimes non-Catholic schools as well.
Mike 37:56 Kids were put in in, um, uniforms, kids were uniforms. You could often identify until—in my youth, you identified very often in schools, according to the uniforms, you’d see somebody walking down the street, she goes to St Joseph’s. Oh, he goes to whatever. Right. One way of explaining that used to be, well that makes it possible for people of different levels of wealth to coexist. So one kid doesn’t wear better clothes than one kid wears. Well, that’s true. But what it also does is diminish considerably. The idea that I’m an individual and I can express my individuality by wearing clothes that nobody else wears. So I have an aunt who, believe it or not, well late aunt, uh, spent some time in a nunnery in Canada. And one of the things that the nuns in that nunnery specialized in was very important in training future nuns was to, uh—they should all write in a certain script. They all had to write the way your greeting card script was, right.
Mike 39:05 And until her, I mean, she wasn’t Christian. That was, it’s a long story, but until her late eighties, she could still write in that greeting card script, why did they do it? And it was obvious why they did it—in order to diminish the sense of individuality. I shouldn’t be able to recognize you by your handwriting. There’s an awful lot of our daily culture that we don’t even think about as philosophically expressive in the material world of what individualism is all about. But we can consciously adopt practices that, that say, well, we’ve got to build solidarity is—what you and I have in common is more than what we don’t have in common. Let’s emphasized that in our, in our education. So I think there are very practical things that we could experiment with to do that. And that would shift the nature of the narrative. Have something like this idea of teaching kids biology in terms of, of, of the environment rather than just teaching them biology in terms of their own bodies.
Greg 40:11 Yeah. Yeah, absolutely, um—your description of the classroom though, um, just reminds me that part of what goes on in our culture and part of the challenge of changing the story, even—even an inch, is that for a lot of people, there are really just two stories. There’s individualism and there’s communism.
Mike 40:29 [chuckles] Right, right, that’s absolutely right.
Greg 40:30 And so even to hear you speak about the classroom in a more collective way for a lot of people it’d just be—”Oh yeah, we know what that story is.” That doesn’t work though. How do you think about that?
Mike 40:42 Well, I think—actually the truth is I’ve done a lot of thinking about that maybe because I think that one of the, one of the inhibitions from which the, or one of the things that is inhibiting the growth of the left today of the real left in my opinion today is the fact that its history is tainted by the communist experiment. And that’s the way I’m going to talk about it. The communist experiment. Um, you can go back to the, uh—well you go back to being in the 19th century and earlier, but let’s just start about the beginning of the 19th century. As capitalism began to develop in the West, a lot of sensitive people were aware of the fact that there was something really wrong about it. And some of them were capitalists themselves who understood that their workers were being demeaned and being turned into machines and they wanted to help them.
Mike 41:39 So we get everybody from Robert Owens onto collective attempts at utopian colonies in America and so forth and so on. Then at another point we could go into that and we should go into that in some detail. The, so the, the—there’s always been a recognition with the rise of capitalism that there has to be better ways of doing things. There have to be alternatives. It is true that the power of capitalist ideology, of bourgeois ideology, is so great that it has overwhelmed all the rest. But nonetheless, we have to rewrite the narrative so that we see it in a certain perspective. So part of that new narrative that I would write says one of these experiments was the communist experiment. The communist experiment lasted 70 years, more or less, and it was a terrible failure.
Mike 42:35 But just because the first heart transplant attempt failed doesn’t mean we stopped transplanting hearts. Now a transplant—heart transplant is not an uncommon operation, but what is the first person to try it after failing was—right? So we have to keep experimenting. And it is true that the first experiment of a heart transplant probably killed the patient just as the first—the first grand experiment, large scale experiment, uh, of social change, uh, killed millions of people, both in Russia and China. We have to be very aware of that. That has to warn us to try to figure out what went wrong and how to correct it. Just as the surgeon and I purposely chose a small thing like a heart as opposed the whole society to point out this thing just as the, uh, the surgeon has to sit down and say, what did I do wrong?
Mike 43:28 What mistakes did I make? That’s what the way we should be approaching quote communism unquote. There is another tradition. There are other traditions. And I, I often think of the kibbutz tradition in Israel, which actually starts somewhat earlier than the communist revolution in Russia—starts at the end of the 19th century, beginning of the 20th century ,and still lingers on and is not unsuccessful. In fact it was extraordinary as the, as well, without the death and without all the things that were accompanying communism. But we don’t look at it and we don’t look at it not for social reasons. We don’t look at it because of political reasons of people’s attitudes towards Israel—which has nothing to do with the social experiment or the kibbutz as such. Right? And there are colonies in America that we don’t write about or hear about, but have been in existence for a hundred years, that still preserve a degree of identity as a collective experiment, right? And these are things that we ought to be looking at. So if I were to, to, um, think about how I wanted to present history to the present generation of kids, I would maybe start out and talk about history as a field of experiment. And let’s look at the different experiments. Some succeed, some didn’t succeed, some experiments turned into monstrosities. Some experiments defeat themselves. What could be a worse experiment than one that devours itself, namely capitalist policies towards the environment. It’s devouring itself.
Greg 45:08 Well, good, ‘cause that seems to me, um, kind of where we want to head. I mean we don’t, we don’t need to make any promises about what comes next, but, um, it’s always been part of the plan to start to look at some of those experiments and the history, um, both for what they tried to accomplish in the moment, but also for what we might learn from them. So maybe, maybe that’s, we head to one of those, uh, in the near future.
Mike 45:37 Yeah, I think so. I think so.
Greg 45:40 [Outro] Thanks for listening to another episode of a shareable world. To find out more about this podcast, visit us at ashareableworld.com.