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A discussion on Democracy and the Left held at Goldsmiths, University of London, on March 28, 2019.

Speakers:

Benjamin Studebaker (Cambridge University, What's Left podcast)
Marjorie Mayo (Emeritus Professor, Goldsmiths University)
James Heartfield (Independent author, Spiked!)
Adam Buick (Socialist Party of Great Britain)

Description

Corbyn, Sanders, Trump, Brexit, and the gilet jaunes among others have all claimed the mantle of democracy, but what does it mean for the Left? Our panel will be held on the eve of the planned (at the moment!) date for the UK to leave the EU.

This panel will be part of an international series put on by Platypus on the same theme, addressing the democratic movements which have been taken up by both the left and right in recent years.

Questions for panelists:

  1. What is the relationship between democracy and the working class today? Do you consider historical struggles for democracy by workers as the medium by which they got “assimilated” to the system, or the only path to emancipation that they couldn’t avoid trying to take?
  2. Do you consider it as necessary to eschew established forms of mass politics in favour of new forms in order to build a democratic movement? Or are current mass form of politics adequate for a democratic society?
  3. Why has democracy emerged as the primary demand of spontaneous forms of discontent? Do you also consider it necessary, or adequate, to deal with the pathologies of our era?
  4. Engels wrote that “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is”. Do you agree? Can this conception be compatible with the struggle for democracy?
  5. Is democracy oppressive, or can it be such? How would you judge Lenin’s formulation that: “…democracy is also a state and that, consequently, democracy will also disappear when the state disappears.”

7:00pm / 30 November 2016
London School of Economics

Speakers (in order):

Adam Booth (writer and activist with Socialist Appeal and the International Marxist Tendency)
James Heartfield (Sp!ked / Author of 'An Unpatriotic History of the Second World War')
Patrick Neveling (SOAS Development Studies, Utrecht University Cultural Anthropology)
Paul Demarty (Weekly Worker / CPGB)

Panel description:

The Left has for over a generation – for more than 40 years, since the crisis of 1973 – placed its hopes in the Democratic and Labour Parties to reverse or slow neoliberal capitalism – the move to trans-national trade agreements, the movement of capital and labor, and austerity. The post-2008 crisis ofneoliberalism, despite phenomena such as SYRIZA, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring and anti-austerity protests more generally, Bernie Sanders's candidacy, and Jeremy Corbyn's Labour leadership, has found expression on the avowed Right, through UKIP, Brexit, the U.K. Conservatives' move to "Red Toryism" and now Donald Trump's election. The old neoliberal consensus is falling apart, and change is palpably in the air. Margaret Thatcher's infamous phrase "There Is No Alternative" has been proven wrong. What can the Left do to advance the struggle for socialism under such circumstances?

Some background:

In the 1960s the Left faced political and social crises in an era of full employment and economic growth. Departing from official Communism, which had largely supported the development of the welfare state in industrialized capitalist countries, many on the Left challenged the existing political order, of Keynesian-Fordism, through community organising on the principle of expanding individual and collective freedom from the state. Against Keynesian economic demands, many of these Leftists supported the Rights efforts, to integrate formerly oppressed identity groups into the corporate professional-managerial class. Since the 1970s, the significance of the fact that all these aims were taken up, politically, by the Right, in the name of ‘freedom’, in the form of neo-liberalism is still ambiguous today.

Some on the Left have understood this phase of ‘neo-liberalism’ to be continuous with the post-war Fordist state, for example in Ernest Mandel’s conception of “late capitalism” and David Harvey’s idea of “post-Fordism”. The movement of labor and capital was still administered by the Fordist state. Distinctively, others on the Left have opposed neo-liberalism for over a generation through a defence of the post-war welfare state, through appeals to anti-austerity and anti-globalisation.

How does this distinction within the Left between the defense of the welfare state and the defense of individual freedom affect the Left’s response to the crisis of neo-liberalism? Why has the Left recently supported attempts to politically manage the economic crisis post-2008, against attempts at political change? How can the Left struggle for political power, with the aim of overcoming capitalism and achieving socialism, when the political expression of the crisis of neo-liberalism has largely come from the Right, and Trump won the election in November?

Panellists in order:

Hannah Fair, climate justice activist, doctoral student, Red Pepper writer

James Heartfield, author of "Green Capitalism"

Ru Raynor, anti-aviation activist at Grow Heathrow

Wood Roberdeau, Lecturer in Visual Cultures, Goldsmiths

The awareness of a growing planetary climate crisis in the 1990s appeared to coincide with a change: the final collapse of the traditional forces of the Old Left (communism and social democracy) and the consolidation of what many characterize as neoliberalism. For many green thinkers and activists, the political strength of the Right in the 1990s stymied any meaningful attempt to regulate greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. But the global reach of climate change also generated sustained international resistance, which appears unified in its opposition to fossil fuel extraction. For Klein and climate justice activists, the combined weight of this resistance could “change everything” when coupled with the “erosion” of neoliberalism’s credibility, particularly in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, and the assessment that climate change is inextricably bound up with capitalism (i.e., that climate change cannot be regulated or solved using “greener” forms of capitalism, but would require a “system change”).

Yet amidst the proliferation of activity--from blocking pipelines, to campus fossil fuel divestment campaigns, to blockades to stop hydraulic fracking and mountaintop removal coal mining projects and protests at international climate talks--it remains unclear how climate activism might lead to something different. U.S. Democrats, for example, appear poised to benefit from discontents around inaction on climate change regulation (in spite of advancing neoliberal reforms in the 1990s under Bill Clinton). In the E.U., climate activism has taken a back seat to antiausterity, as governments responsible for the strictest austerity are largely credited with leadership in decarbonizing their economies. In fact, while an agreement overhauling the Kyoto Protocol seems increasingly likely at the Paris Conference of Parties (COP 21), the same cannot be said about the prospects for “system change.”

The focus of this panel is to consider what remains unchanged by the climate crisis. For there seems to be a continued problem of how discontents under capitalism become readily integrated into new forms of capitalism; a process whereby we unwittingly contribute to the perpetuation of capitalism without intending to. We ask panelists to consider how we might arrive at a post-carbon future from the Left (i.e., in a manner that generates greater consciousness of what capitalism is and how to potentially overcome it). What would a Left response to climate change look like? How does this differ from the Right?

 

A book talk by James Heartfield on his book, 'An Unpatriotic History of the Second World War', held at the Inaugural European Conference of the Platypus Affiliated Society on Saturday, July 19th, 2014 at Goldsmiths College, London.

Powerpoint slides used in presentation: UnpatrioticHistoryoftheSecondWorldWar

A panel held at the Sixth Annual Platypus International Convention on Saturday, April 5, 2014 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Panelists:

Jon Bekken (Anarcho-Syndicalist Review)
James Heartfield (audacity.org)
William Pelz (Elgin Community College)

Description:

The First International (1864 - 1876), or International Workingmen's Association, was founded in the long shadow of 1848, amidst Polish and Italian national liberation movements and the upheaval of the American Civil War. As an organization it pushed against the limitations of radical Republican politics (in both its European and American iterations). It was the first to present the need for an organized body of the international working class in order to develop the political forces capable of challenging industrial capitalism on the world's stage. The recognition of the global nature of capitalist society, coupled with a critique of radical democratic politics of the second half of nineteenth century -- both from an Anarchist and Marxist perspective -- make up the political content of the First International.

Any history of the First International in the present is necessarily informed -- consciously or unconsciously -- by the experience and assessment of the Marxist Internationals in the twentieth century. A critical history of the First International today would have to be part of a larger reflection on the origins of Marxism and the mid-nineteenth century shift in leftist political practice (the transformation of both its means and ends). In assessing this history, one discontinuity immediately presents itself: unlike the history of the Second, Third, and Fourth International, the First International was composed of largely heterogeneous political tendencies, including (but not limited to) British labor reformers (including Chartists), Polish radical republicans (in opposition to Russian Tzarism), Italian supporters of Mazzini (for national unification and the end of the papal state), German Lassallean radicals (followers of Ferdinand Lassalle), et. al; at the center of these ideological differences was the conflict between Marxism and Anarchism (with Marx and Bakunin in the foreground). While the First International is known as the moment of this infamous political split, it remains the task of leftists today to specify what this historical division on the Left might mean for the present. In this spirit, this panel asks: what is at stake in the history First International? And how might it help us advance an understanding of the tasks of the Left today?

The First International died "almost unnoticed" (as one historian has put it) four years after its transfer to New York. In 1924, when Karl Korsch raised the specter of the First International, it was to make sense of the shortcomings of the Second International. His mention of this brief organizational experiment provided the historical distance from which to reflect on both the theory and practice of Marxism. Today, the historical regression advanced in the twentieth century has left us with a diminished capacity to assess the historical tasks of the Left, thus limiting the imagination for a future emancipatory politics. In this impoverished present, the history of the First International, and its contribution to the problem of freedom in the Age of Capital, can help us deepen our understanding of the meaning and tasks of the Left today. Perhaps then we will finally be able to give the First International a proper burial.

Questions:

1. What is the political climate at the birth of the First International? How was the organization's political horizon shaped by the revolutionary efforts in Europe 1830s onward? How did this climate inform the composition of the First International? What common vision of social revolutionary practice (if any) was shared by its members? Despite its ideological heterogeneity, what held the First International together?

2. A current trend on the Left today is a push for local engagement (sometimes presented as "think globally, act locally”, in light of such a development how do we understand the attempts by the First International to organize globally? How did this international scope help the First International advance a politics against capitalism? What if anything is left of this tradition? In what ways does it depart from its nineteenth-century iteration?

3. Does Anarchism in the nineteenth-century present us with a different set of problems than present-day anarchism? (If so, in what way?) How does the Marx-Bakunin split in the First International help us understand the content of Anarchist politics? What does it illuminate about the relationship between Marxism and Anarchism? What are the different perspectives of history and freedom held by Anarchists and Marxists (in what way are these meaningful)? Lastly, how were both Marx and Bakunin (and, we might add, Proudhon) critics of the radical democratic tradition in the nineteenth-century? And where do their critiques differ? How does this difference shape their political practice?