December 22, 2017

Review: RPS/2044: An Oral History of the Next American Revolution

An Oral History

Let me first make explicit a few disclosures: I have known and interacted with Michael Albert of Z Communications in one capacity or another for more than twenty years. I've been a moral and financial supporter of Z projects for many years, I have written for Z Magazine in the past, I'm an alum of the Z Media Institute (class of 2005), and I even once helped with tech support for the Z website. Most critically, I have openly supported, and continue to support, the economic vision of participatory economics that Michael Albert co-invented, going so far as to help organize groups and events advocating the vision. If I sound like I have a horse in this race, I admit it: I do.

I bought and read a print copy of Michael Albert's most recent book -- his first work of fiction, RPS/2044: An Oral History of the Next American Revolution. The book is an imagined memoir twenty-seven years from publication date (2017). A group of activists in the year 2020 launch an organization called Revolution for a Participatory Society (RPS), which formulates itself along the norms of participatory economics and related participatory society projects (hence the group's name). That is, RPS is anti-sexist, anti-racist, and anti-classist, and establishes institutions to that end -- particularly the participatory economic institutions of balanced job complexes, remuneration for effort and sacrifice, and self-managed worker and consumer councils. In the subsequent quarter-century from its founding, RPS then devotes itself to activist efforts for a better future and along the way extends its institutions across many spheres of (presumably) American life. RPS largely succeeds in its efforts, improving America and the world along the way. The coup-de-grace for RPS comes with the 2044 U.S. elections when an RPS-aligned activist is elected President of the United States.

RPS/2044 situates itself among a number of novels that relay a future history via after-the-fact first-person interviews. One of the most well-known of these, from an explicitly activist tradition, may well be Edward Bellamy's book Looking Backward. But in the course of reading RPS/2044, I was constantly comparing RPS/2044 to Max Brooks' novel World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Like RPS/2044 and Looking Backward, World War Z is a post-hoc history told from interviews that serves as a strident social commentary of its time. It might not be fair to RPS/2044 to compare its story of grassroots organizational activism over the course of two-and-a-half decades with a horror novel about zombies that was later "adapted" into a Hollywood movie. But the two novels are, in outward form and in putative purpose, similar enough to illustrate what I perceive to be the weaknesses of the novel RPS/2044.

The voices of the characters in World War Z sound believable: the ex-soldier sounds like an ex-soldier, the mentally disabled woman sounds like a four-year-old, the blind Japanese warrior sounds like a blind Japanese warrior. The voices of the characters in RPS/2044 -- eighteen of them by my count, all activists aligned with RPS -- all sound like Michael Albert, to the extent that the same style and sentence structure can be found over and over again among ostensibly different people. This doesn't help with giving the reader a sense of the variety and diversity that a novel like RPS/2044 promises.

Then there's the matter of the details, or lack thereof, in RPS/2044. From World War Z, I can recall specific names and details that comprise the ghastly but engrossing tapestry of its story: the fraudulent anti-zombie vaccine Phalanx, the televised Battle of Yonkers where a massive stream of zombies from New York City routed the U.S. Army in a "certifiable grade-A clusterfuck", the Beddeker Plan -- named for South African government official Paul Beddeker -- which threw most of humanity as cannon fodder against an onslaught of zombies in an attempt for political elites to buy time for a solution (news flash: it didn't work). From RPS/2044, we learn of a Shadow Government that's aligned with RPS (and which Michael Albert himself has proposed in real life over the years), but damn if I can find many (any?) details of what it does or why it was formed or what specific problems it faced or what specific victories it won or how it survived as long as it did. There are two RPS conventions referred to in RPS/2044, but so much is unsatisfyingly omitted: What was the agenda of the convention? Were there any splits or tensions to address? Were there interlopers or agents provocateur? Hell, I don't even know in what cities the conventions were even held. Sure, we know of some details like the names and some biographic detail of the authors at play, but so much about RPS' story over twenty-four whole years is never stated or even hinted at.

At this point, you, the reader of this review, may be thinking, "Lighten up. Complaining about such things is just quibbling. It's the substance of the story that's most important." To which I would say, I'm afraid worrying about things like voice and details and other "little things" does matter, and the big reason why is what psychologists refer to as "narrative impact". It's the idea that stories have the power to change minds, and ultimately change the world. This is no doubt a big reason why fiction is repeatedly used as a vehicle for political activism, regardless the format, and I surmise it's a reason why Michael Albert wrote RPS/2044 in the first place. But research about narrative impact tells us that stories change minds when those stories successfully transport their readers or listeners into the narrative, thus reducing the counterarguments that skeptical or neutral readers are bound to bring. Does the reader identify with the characters? Is the reader bound with emotional involvement? Is there a perception of realism? It's these things that makes stories successful vectors for political activism, and I hate to say it but it's what's sorely lacking in RPS/2044, and why I fear it won't gain much of an audience beyond the choir of converted participatory-society activists.

And that's a crying shame. RPS/2044 and the substance behind it needs and deserves a wider audience. It's not enough to complain about classism -- you need a viable alternative to put in its place, and RPS spells that out with a coherent framework, much as Michael Albert has for the bulk of his career. RPS/2044 is animated by a tangible frustration that everyday people have, and probably a great many the understanding that what activists have been doing hasn't been working and that something else, some other way of thinking, is necessary. What's more, RPS/2044 offers a number of clever, pertinent activist ideas that can be -- will be? -- gristle for current and future activist movements. That alone merits me giving the book three stars. And Michael Albert gets another star for one more reason: He set out to write a novel and actually finished the darn thing. Where so many activist efforts lay in limbo, unfinished, (and I certainly count myself among the guilty in this regard), this book, for all its flaws, actually got done and is out there for folks to read and consider. May we follow in this example.