The closing plenary of the 2013 Platypus International Convention, held from April 5-7, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Transcripted in Platypus Review #58 (Click below to see):
“Program” and “Utopia” have for well over a century now sat in uneasy tension within the politics of the Left, in tension both with each other and with themselves. Political programs tend to be presented in the sober light of practicability — straightforward, realistic, matter-of-fact. Social utopias, by contrast, appear quite oppositely as the virtue of aspiring ambition — involved, unrealistic, exhilarating. Historically, then, the two would appear to be antithetical. In either case, one usually offers itself up as a corrective to the other: the programmatic as a harsh “reality check” to pipe-dream idealism; utopianism as an alternative to dreary, cynical Realpolitik.
Today, however, it is unavoidable that both program and utopia are in profound crisis. For those Leftists who still hold out some hope for the possibility of extra-electoral politics, an impasse has arisen. Despite the effusive political outbursts of 2011-12 in the Arab Spring and #Occupy — with their emphasis on the identity of means and ends, anti-hierarchical modes of organization, and utopian prefiguration — the Left still seems to have run aground. Traces may remain in the form of various issue-based affinity groups, but the more ambitious projects of achieving sweeping social transformation have been quietly put to rest, consoled with the mere memory of possibility.
Meanwhile, longstanding Left organizations, having temporarily reverted to the usual waiting game of patiently tailing popular discontents with the status quo, until the masses finally come around and decide to “get with the program” (i.e., their program), have experienced a crisis of their own: slowly disintegrating, with occasional spectacular implosions, many of their dedicated cadre call it quits amid demoralization and recriminations. What possibilities might remain for a Left whose goal is no longer utopian, and whose path is no longer programmatically defined?
A panel held on April 6, 2013, at the 2013 Platypus International Convention at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Today, to perceive the link between human society and the natural environment does not require that we engage in an effort of great abstraction. Indeed, environmental issues and problems are all around us—e.g., in erratic weather patterns and resource depletion, on the one hand, and reflected in advertisements and political discourse, on the other. What remains paradoxical, however, is the fact that the intensity and scale of societally-induced environmental degradation, which rose to historically unprecedented levels during the latter half of the twentieth century, is synchronous with an equally impressive increase in public concern for and attention to the biophysical world. Intuitively, one would expect wide-spread attention and concern—not to mention the increasing amount of intellectual energy both natural scientists and social scientists have devoted to analyzing the environment-society problematic with an eye toward ameliorating human-induced environmental destruction—to at least lead to a decline in the rate of destruction increasing. Yet, this has not been the case.
Similarly, although societally-induced global ecological despoliation has spurred a felt need for urgent action expressed on behalf of those on the Marxian Left, effective collective mobilization is virtually absent. During the 1960s, the Left became increasingly involved in environmental politics. Some of those committed to Marxism have even refocused their efforts to consider a Marxian understanding of the relation between capitalism and biophysical destruction. Yet, capitalism’s destruction of the environment continues unabated.
Environmental politics remain situated in an uneasy relation to the Marxian Left. On the one hand, the rise of the environmental movement in the 1980s, particularly in Europe, marked the sharp migration of people drawn to Marxism in the 1970s to Green politics. On the other hand, a common theme of environmentalism is to impose limits to growth, sometimes expressed in conservative sentiments against technology, urbanization and cosmopolitanism, things that the Marxian left historically took to be signals of progress. One gets a sense that environmentalism is not motivated by the utopianism that Marx sought to clarify in his own time, but a dystopia to which the Marxian Left hopes to mobilize in the service of Marxism. However, if the linkage between capital and ecological despoliation is itself historically specific, then by extension, the possibility of overcoming capital (and hence, the current nature-society antithesis) must be historically specific as well. This panel invites you to consider the relationship between a) the history of capital and the Marxian Left—and thus the issue of history and freedom; and b) the entwinement of capital and biophysical nature in history in ways that challenge us to scrutinize the present and the contemporary ecological crisis in particular.
At the fifth annual international convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society, speakers from various perspectives were asked to bring their experience of the Left's recent history to bear on today's political possibilities and challenges as part of the "Differing Perspectives on the Left" workshop series.
A workshop on Québec solidaire, with Roger Rashi, held on April 5th, 2013, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.