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Politics of the contemporary student Left

Pam C. Nogales C., Carlos J. Pereira Di Salvo, and Laurie Rojas

Platypus Review 15 | September 2009

[PDF]  [Video Recording]

At the Left Forum hosted by New York’s Pace University in April of this year, a panel discussion was held on the subject of Politics of the Contemporary Student Left: Hopes and Failures. Organized by Alex Hanna of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), the panel consisted of Pam Nogales of Platypus, Carlos J. Pereira Di Salvo of USAS, and Laurie Rojas of Platypus. What follows is a transcript of each panelist’s formal presentation and the subsequent Q&A session. Video of the panel discussion is available at the above link.

Opening remarks:

Laurie Rojas: What does it mean to be part of the radical student Left today? My political practice is informed by my participation in two very distinct organizations: the Students for a Democratic Society [SDS] and the Platypus Affiliated Society [Platypus]. Platypus began as a reading group at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in May of 2006. Its primary aims are to develop an understanding of the reasons for the historical failure of the Left and to clarify its present and future necessity.

In 2008 I joined the new SDS, for which I organized discussion groups across Chicago campuses on immigration rights. I also helped to coordinate SDS’s participation in the May Day immigrant’s rights rally, so that for roughly nine months I worked for SDS on an almost daily basis. At first, I thought I was in Platypus to do theoretical work that my “out in the streets” practice in SDS would complement. I was hardly alone in misunderstanding the relationship between theory and practice in this way. In fact, the most significant obstacle I found in my experience with youth politics in SDS is the fact that we have all naturalized the idea that leftists are either intellectuals or activists. This division cripples revolutionary practice as well as revolutionary thinking.

In Chicago there is a protest or a rally everyday, but it is becoming increasingly difficult to figure out what these protests are for, or what effect they have. Of course, I would be the last to deny that there have been certain “successful” campaigns, rallies, and sit-ins, such as the recent action at the Chicago Window and Door Factory, in which more than 200 laid off workers refused to leave the factory until they received the two months of salary and benefits that were due to them. But how does this “success” weigh in comparison to the general situation of unions in the U.S.?

Among my friends, colleagues, and comrades who attend as many of these events as possible, there is a widespread and deeply rooted anti-intellectualism. It seems that the more protests each attends the more prone he or she is to tell me that Platypus does not do anything, to which I reply, “Since when did thinking become understood as inaction?” My experiences in SDS convinced me that this form of anti-intellectualism, which we have inherited from the past, has led to our generation’s depoliticization, whether in the form of activism or passivity.

The new SDS was founded in 2006 and is currently one of the largest political student organizations in the country. I was the master of ceremonies for the New SDS 2008 National Convention, which I have come to understand as a microcosm of the contemporary young Left: As a result of a series of interrelated problems, the convention was an organizational disaster. These problems include, first of all, SDS’s lack of formal leadership or any sort of official national structure. Directly related to this, vague but powerful sentiments of “anti-authoritarianism” undermine any attempts to organize. It is therefore common that the de facto leaders of SDS are met with resentment for their “tyrannical” willingness to take on responsibilities. An overwhelming obsession with proceduralism coupled with the constant fear of being “un-democratic” makes it nearly impossible to arrive at even the most basic practical decisions. At the same time, leading concepts of the group’s current foundational documents, not to mention its historical legacy—concepts such as “revolution” and “democracy”—are largely left at the level of empty abstractions. Their actual clarification has hardly any place within today’s SDS, so that whatever political conversations do occur often prove to be frustrating. One suspects this is the reason for a tacit agreement to avoid ideological conversations. The result is predictable enough—whisper campaigns against individuals who dare to speak openly about their ideological positions.

Although the convention concluded with the formation of an interim leadership and an organizational structure, I came to recognize that the organization as a whole had already proven incapable of achieving its own goals. I was especially disillusioned when I observed a widespread reluctance to address the unresolved problems of the original SDS of the 1960s. In particular, there was a lack of interest in—or perhaps a fear of beginning to address—the most basic question facing the organization: What is it that we are trying to change, anyway?

In place of any serious discussion of aims or strategy, SDS tends to proliferate innumerable “direct action” campaigns, which entail the planning of various interventions or the enacting of civil disobedience. In the absence of effective leadership and long-term goals, these campaigns amount to a politics of acting out, an unreflective and compulsive desire for “agitation” and “resistance.” The new SDS has become nothing more than an umbrella organization for participating in activism and resistance without strategy or goals. The activism-for-its-own-sake in SDS indicates that it “refuses to reflect upon its own impotence,” as Adorno once said of the student activism in the 60s.

In his “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx wrote, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” The point today would be to invert that phrase, to say that in order to change the world we need to understand it. Or, rather, to say that one cannot be attempted without the other.

Carlos Pereira Di Salvo: I would like to give a critical assessment of the anti-ideological perspective of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) in which I argue that this “anti-ideology” actually conceals a profound, unquestioned commitment to identity politics. I conclude with the argument that this commitment is a crucial factor in USAS’s inability to develop a progressive and critical labor politics.

One of the central concepts USAS advocates is the idea that campaigns, not ideas, are what really matter. This position is stated explicitly in their “Principles of Unity,” in which members are informed, “We do not impose a single ideological position, practice, or approach; rather, we aim to support one another in a spirit of respect for difference, shared purpose and hope.” This is also a palpable feature of conferences, where any attempts to put forward issues of ideology or theory are routinely stonewalled. Consequently, USAS produces organizers who think that ideological debates are a waste of time, and that “organizing” is what really counts. This does not mean that USAS claims to have no principles at all. In fact, their “Principles of Unity” contain many political ideas. But these are stated so vaguely as to offer hardly any guidance; they amount to rhetorical Rorschach inkblots onto which people can project their own political positions.

The trouble with the non-ideological or anti-ideological position is its incoherence. As was stated when the group was founded and has been reaffirmed at conventions and meetings many times since, the organization exists to address a certain social problem. Like other social justice organizations, USAS presupposes a theoretical analysis in the very identification of the problems they set out to solve as well as in their proposals for how these problems can be solved. This presupposed analysis is necessarily informed by a social theory—that is, by a theory of how society works. Yet the analysis is always left implicit.

Since the anti-ideological perspective is not a position on which one can build an organization, what, then, is the specific perspective that actually informs USAS organizationally? Although largely a vague and loosely related set of pronouncements, the “Principles of Unity” nevertheless have a unifying theme: postmodern identity politics. Thus it reads, “We struggle against racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and other forms of oppression within our society, within our organizations, and within ourselves.” This is a relatively definite expression of consensus activist ideology, though, as we shall see, there are other aspects of that consensus less clearly expressed.

So what? Why is postmodern identity politics problematic? To answer this, we have to look at the role this politics plays in the organization. This role could be characterized in a number of ways: as a perspective informing the analysis of the causes of the problem of sweatshop production, as a perspective on how to effectively organize ourselves to address the problem, or perhaps as some other thing entirely.

It is fairly clear that identity politics does not inform USAS’s analysis of the problem. Not even USAS believes that the problem of sweatshops is primarily a problem of discrimination on the basis of identity. It is, at the very least, a problem of inequality and exploitation, although I would argue it should be understood as a phenomenon of the present stage of global capitalism, one that cannot be eradicated without challenging the entire social structure. Sweatshop workers are not primarily victims of racism or sexism—even though most of them are in fact women of color—and they are certainly not victims of “classism,” whatever that is. They are victims of neoliberal capitalism’s drive to accumulate wealth by finding the cheapest possible supply of labor. In the apparel industry, the rise in sweatshop production in the Third World was a direct result of the phasing out of a protectionist system of quotas called the Multi Fiber Agreement, which was dismantled throughout the 1990s and early 2000s following the Uruguay Round of GATT negotiations.

So if identity politics is not used by USAS to grasp the problem of sweatshops per se, then maybe its utility lies in helping students think about how to organize themselves in order to effectively address said problem. I think this has a little bit more traction. Integral to USAS’s structure and to the structure of its conferences are the so-called “anti-oppression training” and the “caucus system.” I will not describe these at length because they are staple elements of the Left today; suffice it to say that about half the conference time at national conventions is devoted to anti-oppression and caucuses. Moreover, the organizational structure includes representation of the Womyn/Gender Queer, Queer, People of Color, and Working Class caucuses.

The justification for this structure given in the “Principles of Unity” is that each individual, and particularly each American college student, harbors racist, sexist, heterosexist, classist attitudes, and is privileged by the unfair outcomes these attitudes create in society. These attitudes, it is further believed, plague our organizing efforts. By fighting the “-isms” in ourselves, we are said to become better able to fight them in society.

So what does this all have to do with sweatshop workers hundreds of miles away, whose primary problems are extremely low wages, extremely long working hours, physical and verbal abuse, and awful working conditions? After all, this is the specific problem USAS constituted itself to address. From the perspective of sweatshop workers, all that matters is that we act as effective “allies,” that we bend the arm of Nike by hitting them where it hurts (university licenses, market share, and public image) so that the workers’ efforts to organize are not undercut by capital flight. It is obvious that workers—and I have spoken with some personally about this—are looking to USAS to play this specific role.

The question, then, is this: Does anti-oppression training make us any better at being good allies? I would argue that it does not. The kinds of tactics USAS employs in order to pressure universities and corporations, like phone and letter campaigns, mock actions, non-violent direct action, and so on, are not more effective when they are executed by people with guilty consciences about their privilege, than when they are executed by people who give no thought to this. The consciousness raised by anti-oppression training simply does not enter into the strategizing for campaigns. Diverse groups such as my own at Purdue University, where the majority of members were in fact women and people of color, are not necessarily more effective allies than groups such as Indiana University’s, which was predominantly white and male during the period of my involvement.

If it is unclear whether anti-oppression makes us better allies to workers in the apparel industry, why is so much time spent on this stuff? Why has it not been rejected organizationally in light of challenges to it at recent national conferences? The reason, I would suggest, is anti-oppression training is used to convince students that workers, merely by virtue of being workers, are more progressive than themselves and their own organizations, and that therefore we ought to declare solidarity uncritically with their struggles. This attitude goes hand in hand with the idea that ideological debates are pointless, and that it is not our place to say, on the basis of some analysis or the other of this society, what the appropriate political responses ought to be in light of a certain situation or problem.

This is not to say that there is necessarily much to be criticized in the organizing efforts of Third World sweatshop workers. But there is one recent American case that particularly highlights the problems that derive from USAS’s uncritical relationship to the labor struggles it attempts to support.

Many of you may be aware of the unfolding fratricide between the UNITE! and HERE sides of UNITE! HERE, and of the ambition of SEIU [Service Employees International Union] to absorb either one or both of the sides once the dust settles. This is a case in which we might expect a student movement primarily concerned with labor issues to have an open discussion and maybe even formulate a position. Instead, a contact in USAS’s inner circle informs me that posts relating to these issues were deliberately deleted for over two weeks from the listservs of the organization, and that the top leadership are loath to take a side. In fact, only recently did an email with a few articles on the issue go out, the purpose of which seems to have been more to obfuscate than to educate. This is but a single instance of how USAS’s anti-ideological attitude constrains the organization’s ability to champion an independent and progressive labor politics. The organization’s anti-ideological stance serves to maintain internal organizational divisions according to ascriptive identities rather than political factionalization. This actively inhibits the political education of members and undermines the organization’s efficacy.

The recent period of flux in USAS provides a valuable opportunity for reflection regarding USAS’s potential as an organization. The significance of this question should not be underestimated: Consider that at least five former Purdue USAS organizers in the past six years are now with major unions. Hence, as a large recruitment ground for union organizers, USAS is a potential resource for a desperately needed renewal of the American labor movement. USAS’s current uncritical workerist stance will not produce the kind of organizers needed to meet this challenge.

If identity politics is abandoned, what is there to take its place? Well, prescribing is always harder than critiquing, of course, and I do not know that there is a politics ready-made at present that can take the place of identity politics. But I can at least say that part of the challenge will be for USAS to foment an organizational culture capable of producing such a politics by seriously engaging theoretical debates and formulating political positions. Central to this, in my view, will be the inclusion of discussions on the nature of capitalism, imperialism, and neoliberalism into its conference agenda.

Pam Nogales: I would venture to say that it is unclear whether or not the recent wave of occupations [at the New School in the spring of 2009] is a step forward for the student Left. Watching the video documentation of the April 13th emergency assembly held at the New School, I realized that much of what I had found compelling about student politics in New York is at risk of being absorbed into the murky waters of protest politics.

During the emergency assembly Pat Korte, a radical student member, delivered a partial critique of the students’ response to the recent turn of events. Korte noted that present political activities should not be limited to ousting the school’s President, Bob Kerry, but ought rather to challenge the corporate structure of the university. Student radicals, he felt, should not accept uncritically the overarching structure of the institutions in which they are enrolled. But as the meeting progressed, Korte’s comments quickly faded into the background. Reports and condemnations of police brutality added to the already festering outrage that dominated the question and answer session, and in a manner of minutes the critique of structural limitations, the context in which someone like Bob Kerry functions, became obscured by immediate concerns.

I wondered if this was an unconscious exclusion, a temporary amnesia in part caused by the blatant misconduct of the New School administration. I should say that I do not take police brutality lightly, and the fact that the New School administration has threatened the students with imprisonment for conducting a teach-in at a campus building is an action that should not be allowed to pass unnoticed and unchallenged. But it is precisely because I sympathize with the defense of those students’ rights to organize, and because I oppose police brutality and incompetent university administration, that I would like to see a coherent challenge that does not confuse the question of limitations of the current structure for the source of the structure’s unfreedom. This is a very important distinction for me.

After several students spoke up at the emergency meeting, an older man who introduced himself as a student protester at the 1969 University of Chicago sit-in gave his word of advice. He cautioned the students that they should veer away from the critique of capitalism, an inquiry that in the past, according to him, led to the Stalinist mumbo-jumbo that eventually fractured and destroyed the New Left. What we are fighting here, he said, is the malignancy of those in power, a malignancy that is still spreading. A loud applause followed. This incident points to a dominant trend in today’s student Left: A vague and ill-defined anti-authoritarianism that effectively inhibits student politics. It also highlights plainly the way this problem represents an uncritical repetition of the past.

The vague anti-authoritarianism so many leftist organizations share has led to ideological incoherence and to a student Left that exists as a tenuous unity quickly running up against its limitations. Without discussion and debate of the content and meaning of political activity, occupations and protests serve only as a means for coordinating more occupations, more protest, more agitation, which are, by the sheer fact of happening, supposed to galvanize a political consciousness in onlookers. The content of this politicization is rarely called into question; it is expected, rather, that the struggle itself takes care of ideological problems. Ideological debate soon dissolves into the question of whether or not one is willing to “fight the good fight.”

It would be unfair to cast the entire student Left in this light. There are those like Pat Korte who will say that the development of ideas is an integral component of developing a radical culture. And yet there is little room in the movement for this kind of activity. There is little follow-up on the kind of organizational work necessary to foster an examination of history, an analysis of political positions, and the development of theory.

Old political problems are still with us. They are the stuff that our perspectives are made out of, whether we are conscious of it or not. It is incumbent upon those of us who call ourselves leftist to inquire into the nature of our ideological inheritance and into the meaning of our political activity. Neglecting this necessary work of political practice means simply relegating our politics to our instinctual responses to current conditions, and ultimately tethering ourselves to the barbaric immediacy of our present. Historical consciousness was meant to tackle exactly this problem of the limitations of political shortsightedness. Although the idea of historical consciousness has prompted a great deal of confusion, there is no serious political alternative today.

The conscious struggle against the limitations of the present is shaped by three defining approaches to our reality: what is possible, what is necessary, and what is desirable. The radical features of our politics are defined and redefined by how we deal with these questions. That which is desirable can appear as an impossible goal, unrealizable under present conditions. That is why it is necessary for political practice to push the boundaries of what is possible, so that our politics do not become a slave to the present.

But how, in the absence of an international Left, can one fight for an emancipatory politics? How we approach this bleak reality is the first question we Leftists today should ask ourselves. We are the inheritors of a failed politics, and how we make sense of this failure necessarily shapes our political goals, our ideological perspectives. If we shy away from this task it will lead only to confusion. The principle of uncritical inclusivity that seems so important for student leftists today assumes that all ideological work is done in people’s private time. The political perspectives of individual members are pushed aside for the good of the organization as a whole, even while it remains unclear how this extremely fractured whole will move forward without an in-depth inquiry into the nature of its politics. “We must be realistic in our utopianism,” as C. Wright Mills put it. We must put forward a thorough understanding of what we are actually against. We must ask, What are the defining features of our present forms of unfreedom?

Platypus does not define itself in terms of organizing protest strikes or building coalitions. We have worked with groups that do this kind of work, and although that work is necessary, our project is different. Our work is geared toward the ideological clarification of the most striking political condition of our time: the absence of an international Left. We believe that this inquiry is the necessary groundwork for rebuilding an emancipatory politics in the present. This ideological work is carried out through public discussions, reading group meetings, film screenings, and interventions, activities that require an organizational structure adequate to long-term goals. What we would like to foster in the current student movement is a culture of debate and discussion. We would like to see students participate in the clarification of their political positions. And we would like this debate to affect the direction of the movement. The student movements, whether consciously or unconsciously, affect the conditions in which a radical politics develops. It is both the context and the force for its efficacy. Only if the student Left directs its activities towards conscious realization of this development will it advance the struggle for freedom.

After the panelists’ presentations, members of the audience were invited to ask questions.

What lies behind the mindless actions that characterize the student Left today and the false positivity that it entails?

Nogales: I think there is a belief that agitational activity will somehow bring in those who have been standing on the sidelines, who have thought about being political but have not gone all the way. There is a mistaken belief that growth in numbers alone will somehow create a better politics.

Pereira Di Salvo: There is a lot of Situationist thought in these circles that actually convinces people that the moments when you are holding the signs are the moments when capitalism is being ripped apart. This is very dangerous; if you think that those are the moments when you are really free, then nothing is ever going to change.

Do you think that a lot of this anti-authoritarian identity politics is really a mask for, in many ways, right wing impulses, and basically anti-Marxist impulses?

Rojas: Anti-authoritarianism is definitely bound up with anti-ideology. It is something we have inherited from the 1960s New Left, but even they dealt with it more directly and self-consciously than we do today. At the SDS convention there were people with serious political disagreements, but there was no space dedicated to addressing or clarifying those disagreements. Instead, participants carry away from these conventions altogether obscure notions of what traditions and concepts such as anarchism, Marxism, ideology, and democracy might actually mean.

I wanted to point out two things. First, anti-ideology is a form of ideology. Secondly, groups like the Black Panthers actually put revolution on the table, and this gave a lot of impetus to other political movements at the time. We need something like that now, an actual revolutionary movement.

Nogales: I agree that anti-ideology is itself a kind of ideology, but I am puzzled by your claims regarding the Black Panthers. It seems that what you are calling for is greater militance in the movement. But I would say that consideration of the substance of one’s own politics is a necessary step that should come before posing any political demands, militant or otherwise. Many people in the Radical Student Union at the New School do in fact look to the 1960s for the content of their politics, but they are unwilling to actually work through that past. So there is an unconscious inheritance that causes them to prioritize certain tactics and goals without first thinking about what those priorities actually entail and whether they are appropriate.

What is the state of student movements and radicalism globally? What kind of international student movement currently exists?

Pereira Di Salvo: I do not think that there really is any sort of international student movement or that students have much contact with one another on a global scale. I will speak to my own experience at Purdue University, where there was an interesting division of labor by which one organization took upon itself the task of having ideological debates, of taking ideas seriously and debating them earnestly. This organization debated the relevance of what USAS was doing, and every single person in this organization also belonged to the USAS group. We were very critical, we wanted to change things from within USAS, but I think we ultimately failed to articulate that well enough. Our critical positions did not make an impact. I am hoping that my future involvement with USAS will in some sense try to address these failures.

Rojas: There are definitely things going on with students internationally. There are student rallies and protests in Iran, there are anti-authoritarian groups in Germany, and there is a Facebook group for an international student Left. But what do these things amount to? I am a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, which in my experience has a pervasive anti-activist and anti-political atmosphere. This makes it very hard to be “political,” to present oneself as a political person. What I might be calling for is a radicalization of intellectuals. That is what I would like to do on my campus: politicize these students who are very smart, who read the same things I read, but do so apolitically. On some campuses there is a widespread fear of politics. So there is the matter of dealing with anti-intellectualism within activist groups, but there is also dealing with anti-political impulses within intellectual circles.

When you are trying to build a movement in the United States or internationally, where the majority of the workingclass are people of color, immigrants, and gays and lesbians, is it not necessary to address the relationship between white skin privilege and these oppressed groups? The problem is that the reaction to the type of postmodern identity politics manifested in USAS turns into a reaction against all identity politics. Do you not need some form of identity politics to fight racial oppression, sexual oppression,and so on?

Pereira Di Salvo: I would hate it if people came away from here thinking that I think fighting racism and sexism is a waste of time. That is not at all the point I am trying to make. I am arguing that the primary problem that USAS constituted itself to solve was the problem of sweatshops. In that context, the primary problems that workers are dealing with relate to their situation as workers. They face cases of sexual discrimination. For instance, women who work in sweatshops are often forced to undergo pregnancy tests. These are obviously problems and I think USAS should denounce such practices, but denouncing the violations that female sweatshop workers face as women is not going to change the fact that they are working in sweatshops and that sweatshops exist. So we have to get down to what the problem really is about. This does not mean that we keep silent on issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation, it just means that we have to take seriously what our goal in USAS is and we have to work backwards from that.

In terms of theoretical investigation, when you speak of the “failure” of past revolutions, do you not risk starting from square one, and thereby overlooking the tremendously emancipatory dimensions and achievements of those earlier revolutions?

Rojas: When I say “failure,” I mean it in the sense that we still live under capitalism. The Left has not overcome capitalism, and until we have done so, we have ultimately failed.

Pereira Di Salvo: Yes, we need theoretical investigation, and yes, we are not starting from nowhere. I do not think that any of us has suggested otherwise. But as Laurie said, the project of the Left is, or ought to be, the overcoming of capitalism. We have failed in this task so far, and I think we have to take that failure very seriously. This involves looking at our history critically. |P

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