Platypus Review 15 | September 2009
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.
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
Platypus Review 13 | July 2009
On April 23, 2009, a panel discussion titled Left Behind: The Working Class In The Crisis was held at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The panelists were Abraham Mwaura of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, who has worked as an organizer at the Republic Windows and Doors Factory; Aaron Hughes, representative at the International Labor Conference, Arbil, Iraq, and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War; James Thindwa, Executive Director of Chicago Jobs with Justice; and Chuck Hendricks, an organizer for the labor union UNITE HERE. The following transcript represents only a portion of a more extensive and wide-ranging discussion. The comments edited and published here chiefly address the historical relationship between the labor movement and Left politics as a whole, the relevance of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) in current organizing practices, and the state of international labor today. These were not the only themes the panelists discussed and the Platypus Review encourages interested readers to listen to the complete recording of the event available at the above link.
Regarding the Historical Relationship Between Labor and the Left:
Chuck Hendricks: I think that, broadly speaking, the Left and the labor movement were in an uneasy alliance in this country from the 1870s until the 1940s. With the Cold War, that alliance was broken. Socialists, communists, and anarchists, were, in some cases, chased out; in others, they fled; some simply went their separate way. The ideological Left abandoned the unions and the unions abandoned the ideological Left. And it has stayed that way for the past sixty years. Nevertheless, it is an oversimplification to say that the traces of that history have vanished. There are many union leaders today, from the shop steward to the top leaders of certain unions, who have very radical ideas about the economy and politics. While they may not call themselves socialist or communist, the idea of struggling against capital is still unmistakably present. The vision of what is truly accomplishable is what is lacking. When organizational capacity, the anger that drives us to organize, and the vision of what is possible are reintegrated, we will again have a Leftist labor movement in the United States. But we are not there now. In bits and pieces within labor, it is coming back together. But there are leaders in the labor movement that regard their function as essentially that of the Human Resources department for the bosses. Corporate unionism retains its grip on the movement. There are parts that do not want to do anything-that, frankly, have been stuck in their ways for fifty years. But, as I said, there are parts that really want to fight. The labor movement will have to figure out whether it wants to remain the stagnant labor movement of the 1960s or become more assertive like the labor movement of the 1930s. It remains to be seen by people in the unions whether or not working class leaders develop a vision and the drive to achieve it.
Abraham Mwaura: Our history has been surrounded by mistakes on all sides, from the sectarian Left, the communists, and the socialists to the House of Labor, the labor establishment. The constitution of my own union makes clear that we do not discriminate based on political beliefs. So, yes, there were many individuals in leadership who were active communists and belonged to Left parties. But the assessment that that is what our union was, or that that is what labor was, even at the height of communism and Left power in this country, is a mistake in my view. In regards to my union, it is a common outsider's perspective. But on the inside, the Communist Party and sectarian Left pushed our union to join with the House of Labor in order to fight off McCarthyism. But, had we chosen to go in that direction, we would have ceased to exist. This would have meant a loss to the labor movement as a whole, because it would have lost the last national union with rank-and-file militancy left in the country. Of course, now the IWW is organizing. But in terms of national unions, there would be no CIO, no militant rank-and-file led unions left, had we chosen to liquidate ourselves into the House of Labor at that time. So the attacks were coming from both sides, and the mistakes made were massive all over.
There is a story told over and over again in our union of GE's president at the end of World War II stating, "Our country has two giant enemies. The Soviets abroad, and labor at home." Then began in earnest the collusion between government and industry to squelch labor. Industry heads understood clearly that the problem was not really communism so much as labor. I think that is key to understanding what that time period was actually about. It was about class war first, and Left ideology second. We need to be careful in moving forward to reestablish Left politics in this country and to understand that that was what it was about. Those in power at the time were clear that it was a fight between industry and labor. It was never, or at least not in the beginning, about the communists at home.
The reason Left politics grew in our union was because of the tradition of militant struggle. That is what ultimately builds leadership and the capacity for political analysis: engaging people in militant, aggressive struggle against the boss. Against the boss, against the mayors, against the city halls. That is what builds leadership and, ultimately, people's politics. That is how people get engaged in radical politics, radical being an understanding of problems from the roots. As a Left union, we believe this is how we actually move people's politics. Militant, aggressive struggle against the boss is the key to moving forward.
Regarding the Relevance of the Employee Free-Choice Act (EFCA) to the Labor Movement Today:
Mwaura: EFCA to us is not a cure-all. Though we are putting a lot of resources into it and moving our members to ensure that this legislation gets passed, we also have no delusions about it. Still, it is an opportunity to build political power among the working people in this country. We need to understand that it is only a means to an end, that of rebuilding workers' power. It is really worker and community power, as we cannot separate those workers from the communities in which they live. The EFCA is one way to reopen the road to workers' power. We are far behind the rest of the industrialized world in terms of labor law that actually protects people when they choose to organize. We want good, living-wage jobs. The only way to really demand this is if we have power. Worker power is acutely tied to economic recovery. In the 1930s and 40s, the economy improved with increased union density. As union density increased, so did wages, so did working conditions, so did the standard of living. That has to be what happens again. Otherwise, we will fail at more and more bailouts, and the workers will suffer. We see EFCA as a crucial means of achieving true economic recovery, one that means worker recovery as well.
James Thindwa: Too often we fall victim to false choices. The Employee Free Choice Act is not a panacea. So the question is not whether it should be pursued or not. It is really about where we place our emphasis. The debate should be about priorities, about how much time and effort should go into ensuring the passage of the EFCA. But there is no denying that corporate strategies over the years, elaborate strategies to undermine labor unions, to undermine the right of workers to organize, have been very effective. 8.5% of the workforce in the United States is unionized, 11% if you throw in public sector workers. At the center of this de-unionization are the elaborate strategies corporations have pursued to undermine workers' right to organize. One out of five workers gets fired for trying to join a union. The penalties have become so miniscule, so negligible, that for most employers, penalties for violating labor law, penalties for firing workers who are trying to join a union, have just become another cost of doing business. There is no real deterrent. But union organizing is a fundamental right, a part of the constitutional right to associate and to free speech. These are rights at the center of democracy itself. We have to take seriously the effort to free workers to be able to form unions and to join unions without fear of reprisal.
If the Employee Free Choice Act fails to pass, that failure should prompt reflection on the relationship that labor has cultivated with Democrats in Congress. The amount of money that labor unions give Democrats should already have produced a cadre of leaders in Congress who are out front and talking about this everyday, cultivating other members of Congress, and building leadership. Really, the Employee Free Choice Act should be in the DNA of members of Congress who are getting union money. So, if EFCA does not pass, labor unions should consider whether it is really wise to continue to make this type of investment when we get so little for it.
I am disturbed by the premise that struggle needs to be hard and bloody all the time. If I have to run five miles, and a car stops by and picks me up, I do not have a problem riding in that car so I can get to my destination faster. We need to punish employers who get in the way of workers organizing. One out of five workers get fired for trying to organize. If you stop that from happening, you are not making the worker lazy. You are eliminating some of the impunity with which the employer class operates. There has been a cycle of impunity in which the employer class has done all kinds of nefarious things. For instance, they show these vile videos that suggest that labor unions are subversive or somehow un-American. This is antithetical to what most of us think of as democracy. Getting rid of that and easing the process of organizing is not going to spoil workers into thinking, "Great! Now I don't have to struggle anymore." But struggle is not an end in itself. I think we need to be careful with that.
Hendricks: I am not against EFCA. On the contrary, I want it to pass. But there are problems with EFCA. For example, one of the provisions of EFCA is that there will be binding arbitration. Right now, one problem unions face when they organize is that roughly half the time if a union wins an election to gain recognition, still they do not get a contract. This means they go through these massive fights and win recognition, yet this does not translate into palpable improvements in workers' day-to-day lives. The EFCA's provision for binding arbitration means that if an employee does not get a contract within a year, her contract will go before a judge, who will decide what the employee wins for the life of the contract. While I am aware that this is a compromise people fight for, I think it has a capacity to create a situation where unions come to rely on the courts. It is important that we do not give up our collective power to judges and politicians. I want people to have a better life. I was fired for organizing a union when I was 19. I think that it does really matter that the power we have as workers comes from ourselves, and not from the law. When I was young, I read a book called The Labor Law for the Rank-and-Filer. In this book, it talks about how the law can be a shield, but your union is a sword. The union is a weapon you can use to fight, the law is something you can defend yourself with. And we need better laws in place to defend workers' rights. But we cannot rely on that alone. And it makes me nervous whenever unions do so little actual organizing. I want to build a movement where we fight as workers, relying chiefly on our own power and our own ideas, not on the law. Because the law can too easily change. Our organized union strength will always prove our most reliable support.
Republic Windows & Doors factory workers and supporters rally in front of the Chicago headquarters of Bank of America, December 10th, 2008.
In Response to a Question Regarding the State of International Labor, Mr. Hughes Gives an Account of His Work in Iraq:
Aaron Hughes: Humbling is about all I can say of my experience of returning to Iraq to participate in the first international labor conference held in Arbil. The conference took place thanks to U.S Labor Against The War, which organized for more than a year to put it on with the goal of bringing together as many labor constituencies in the country as possible. Since the invasion, we have helped Iraqi workers establish a new constitution that provides for their rights. However, the U.S occupation authorities and the new Iraqi government have carried over Sadaam Hussein's laws in regards to organizing, essentially denying workers all rights. In 2006, they froze all worker funds, and seized their assets. Yet, despite this, Iraqi workers continue to organize, and they are winning.
The oil workers in the south, a federation of over 25,000 workers, have the strongest union in Iraq. They went on a massive strike and kicked the British military and Halliburton subsidiary KBR out of their oil fields. The electrical workers in the central part of the country are another large, organized labor federation. When the U.S. military took over their power plant, and told workers that they could not bring their supplies to the power plant, the workers said, "We need our supplies to maintain this plant." When the military says that it does not matter, that it is a security threat, the workers went on a massive strike. They received calls from the central government, telling them to stop, because they are angering the U.S government and American soldiers. But they kept fighting. Why? Because they are fighting for their communities. Because they have seen how many other power plants have been shut down and blown up over the last six years of this occupation. They kept fighting, and they won. Eventually, the U.S. military left their plant.
There were over 200 representatives from all over Iraq at the Arbil conference. They came from many different sectors of the economy, including the Iraqi oil and gas industry, port facilities, electricity generation and distribution, construction, public sector transportation, communication, education, railroads, service and healthcare industries, machinist and metal-working sectors, petrol and chemical industries, civil engineers, writers and journalists, food, tailors, and students.
There were also multiple women's unions represented at the conference. These workers came together and expressed the following demands: 1) the rights granted to them by the International Labor Organization and by their national constitution; 2) no ethnic or sectarian government; 3) an end to the U.S. occupation; and 4) cessation of the privatization of the public sector, the granting of national assets to foreign corporations, and the bringing in of third-country nationals as esentially slave labor.
Thindwa: We are at a crossroads. Capitalism is discredited. Neoliberalism is discredited. But I worry that we are unprepared for this particular moment, unprepared to seize the opportunity it offers to put forward credible alternatives. But I also know that there are a lot of minds engaged. People are coming out to forums like this one, which are happening all across the country. We are having a large meeting on May 2nd here. I'm part of a group called Arc 109 that is bringing people together to imagine a different world, and to think strategically about how we capitalize on this moment by energizing each other and pushing for progressive, radical change.
Hendricks: While it is great to be able to have forums like this and to discuss our political ideas and aspirations, I think that the work required to fundamentally change the world is really very daunting. The most that I can say is I hope that each person who comes here takes it upon themselves to find their role in doing the organizing that is necessary. A lot of the talk has been about community and outreach, and how people outside of unions can play a role, and that is true. People outside of unions can be a large part of fights for worker power. I would encourage you all to find that place in the labor movement, whether in a union or a community organization, where you help to perform the difficult work that needs to be done to build worker power.
Mwaura: I agree that we are at a crossroads. The one word of caution I would state is that we have to be aware of the scale of the force we are up against. Neoliberalism has been shown not to work, to have unsurmountable contradictions within itself. But it is also a beast that has changed forms by absorbing and subverting the work we have done and gains we have won in the past. We need to be smarter. We need to be united, I think. If we are going to rise to this challenge, we need to clear our heads, be forthright about who are enemies are, and unite. |P
Platypus Review 11 | March 2009
I was intrigued to find in The Platypus Review #7 a commentary by Chris Cutrone on the U.S. role in world politics. I found it more sophisticated and original than anything I had previously come across in the mainstream media either here or in Europe.
Before launching my machine, I would like to situate myself. I'm a foreigner, philosopher of sorts, and not a student any more (That means I'm old.). I have lived in the US for only two months. I come from Finland, a country which is in many senses the exact opposite of the U.S.: tiny, internationally insignificant, linguistically isolated, and culturally homogeneous. Our religious right-wing - indeed any extreme right wing - is trifling. In fact it would not be too great an exaggeration to claim that Finland has politically incarnated, for the last fifty years or so, the wet dream of U.S. left-of-center Democrats.
American patriots, both Republican and Democrat, tend to cherish the idea of the U.S. being the shining beacon of morals and democracy on Earth. I have yet to encounter a single soul outside the U.S. who would agree. Rather, the U.S. is considered an unequal, structurally racist and imperialist banana democracy with its too-short-a-step from slavery to the partial successes of the civil rights movement, the lack of equal general education, the lobbyist-controlled corrupt governing, the semi-open ballot sabotage, the state of exception-power of the executive branch, the reprehensible CIA-coups and the unilateral military interventions.
The idea of the U.S. being the ultimate power fighting for democracy on the global scene is doomed to sound obscene. If there were elections in Belarus an international delegation of electoral monitors would be sent. Why would the same not be done with regard to the U.S.? Just think about Florida in 2000 - and it is not the only possible example.
Last but not least, there has always been, from the European point of view , a lot more conservative whining about the excesses of the welfare state than genuine and stable welfare state structures in the U.S.
It must be underscored that this attitude does not stem from any irrational "anti-Americanism". Firstly, the harshness of the European criticism is the obverse of the fact that the U.S. is regarded as one of "us"; as a country from which we are supposed to expect more. Secondly, the rest of the world does appreciate America, only on different grounds than the U.S. patriots do, namely for "aesthetical" reasons.
What I have stated thus far compresses exactly the received Europeanish pseudo-progressive wisdom that Cutrone wants, in his article, to reject, or at least call into question. His point of view, certainly, is not that of an American patriot. Instead, Cutrone points out that the Left in general has been confused and self-contradictory in its opposition to U.S. imperialism. Furthermore, Cutrone emphasizes that Europeans in particular have been self-righteous, double-faced and irresponsible regarding the role of the U.S. in present-day global capitalism. As for the U.S., the anti-war rhetoric of the Democrats, claims Cutrone, has been unprincipled and opportunistic.
Cutrone asks, what and on what grounds does the anti-war movement actually oppose? Is it opposing any "imperialist" intervention whatsoever? Or any unilateral intervention by the U.S. ? Or any intervention that fails or is not efficient enough? And is the argument that the US should not "spread democracy" supposed to be a progressive or a conservative argument?
The real reason for the occupation in 2003, according to Cutrone, was that Iraq had become a failed state. Sooner or later, someone had to intervene. This is where the Bush administration comes in: in doing what someone would have had to do anyway, it ultimately acted "responsibly". U.S. companies surely have profited from the intervention but some capitalists would have profited anyway, so why bother? All the other options concerning Iraq would not have been less "imperialistic" or "capitalistic". And what if the Bush policy succeeds? Then what will the basis for opposition to U.S. "imperialism"? These are good questions, and all too easily ignored by the inverse self-aggrandizement of the Europeans.
Francis Fukuyama has formulated a critique of the Iraq war which is based on the notion of its "necessary" failure - necessary, because there was no plan for the day after.
Fukuyama labels the brand of neo-conservatism he does not want to subscribe to (any more) as "Wilsonianism minus international institutions." Invented by Reagan, this doctrine has undergone a revival in the Bush administration. Against this doctrine Fukuyama advocates "realistic Wilsonianism"; the notion that the spreading of democracy cannot rely on naked military force but has to take into account the local cultural factors, the specific history and the developmental phase of societal institutions of the country in question. Fukuyama 's argument is not opportunistic, although it is based on the Iraq war being a failure. He makes a systematic Straussian point.
I venture to outline a basic intuition behind a typical European counter-reaction to the Iraq war. It boils down to three points: firstly, the Reaganist-Bushian doctrine is not just unilateral but exceptionalistic; secondly it has a nationalistic agenda, which if necessary, is covered up by downright lies and finally it is counter-productive. These points are well-rehearsed, of course.
The doctrine is unilateral, because it disregards international law. As Fukuyama puts it: the Bush administration had made it clear that the U.S. would not be bound by what the Security Council did. Also, the notion of pre-emptive war is not only a fundamental revision of the Westphalian tradition of international law but also a tacit endorsement of U.S. exceptionalism. Many countries face terrorist threats - Russia, China and India, for example - but if any of these nations announced a general strategy of preventive war as a means to deal with terrorism the U.S. would undoubtedly be the first to object.
Still, the most glaring example of the U.S exceptionalism is not the case of Iraq. After demanding that the Serbian war criminals should be submitted to the International Criminal Court, the Bush administration demanded that the governments of the EU agree to a blanket exemption of all U.S. citizens from the jurisdiction of the very same court. How irritating can you get?
Against Cutrone's claim that the cause of the occupation was not oil, but the fact that Iraq was a failed state, I'm inclined to repeat the standard anti-war criticisms. What about the control of Iraq oil fields, taking Iraq out of OPEC, breaking the anti-Israeli Arab front, weakening the Saudi oil monarchy and attempting to provoke a regime change in Iran? How do these sound for reasons? And although it could be said that Iraq was a failed state from the beginning, it managed to create a series of relatively successful, though certainly authoritarian, regimes between 1958-1991. It was the Gulf War that ruined the state of Iraq. Again, the U.S. is cleaning up the mess it has itself created.
The original justifications (weapons of mass destruction, links to al-Qaeda) the Bush administration gave for the occupation evaporated. Bush himself gave them up and fell back to the general human rights-argument. Well, why not? The key question is, however: how are the potential object countries discursively hegemonized as the most urgent countries to be intervened in? When the world is being asked whether it endorses a particular intervention or not, the decisive justifying step for unilateral action has already been accomplished. When the question "would you endorse an intervention in Iraq?" is on the agenda everywhere, the intervention is already justified. "Saddam is a terrible dictator, so..." "Yes, but on the other hand..." Why just Iraq, out of all the undemocratic states in the world? Why not Columbia?
Now, do these points form a coherent whole? Well, yes. It is not contradictory or opportunistic to oppose exceptionalism and to claim that the interventions are by and large counterproductive as far as the first argument is regarded as the primary one.
But what have I been doing here? Arguing like the ultimate liberal democrat, presenting well-wishing arguments for international co-operation? Have I forgotten that the maintenance of order in global capitalism is and remains "a bloody business", as Cutrone puts it?
Well, maybe. But is this to say that nothing matters until the revolution comes?
I fully agree that the mainstream European critique is double-faced: the USA is doing the dirty job for the European states while they can retain the position of a Hegelian beautiful soul. And Cutrone may well remind me that he is not actively endorsing the role of the U.S. in the scene of international capitalism, he is just realistic. The Left should acknowledge the facts of the situation, make correct analysis and then conquer the situation, if possible.
But this is exactly where my (or Zizek's) central question regarding Cutrone's reasoning comes in. His basic presupposition is that the hegemonic position of the U.S. in global capitalism is a fact - a fact to be understood, analyzed and for the time being accepted, but definitely not whimpered about. But are the "undiminished capacities" of the U.S. really so indisputable?
I think Cutrone's argument testifies to his perverse Wilsonianism. What if the military tours de force of the U.S. are the obverse of its impotence? Has the U.S. not been, until the recent financial crisis, the ultimate consumer of the world economics? As its economics and financial institutions have been dependent upon being trusted by the rest of the world, maybe the overspending and growing indebtedness of the U.S. have made feats of strength a necessary prop for maintaining that trust? Perhaps we have been witnessing a series of ultimately fake military interventions by the U.S. against adversaries known to be weak in order to maintain its continuing financial credibility? Now that the bubble has burst, shouldn't we just face the fact that the era of the U.S. is just over?
As is well known, the U.S. is constantly fighting against the dangers it has itself created. The examples have been cited ad nauseam by the anti-war movement: the Taliban, Bin Laden, Saddam etc. were all originally backed and financed by the U.S. Not to mention that the Iraq intervention has accelerated the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran and has made Iraq, instead of Afghanistan, the training ground and operational base for jihadist terrorists. What if all this has not just been unwise or contra-final but bears testimony to a certain Hegelian cunning of reason instead? Maybe the apparent counter-productivity of the US-interventions - the fact that they tend to strengthen and even constitute in the first place the very enemies supposed to be eliminated - tacitly serves as a guarantee that the military power of the U.S. will be needed forever?
I may be carrying my point about the non-intentional conspiracy too far here, but perhaps the conservatives did not even want (on the level of Rumsfeldian "unknown knowns") to win the recent presidential elections. I mean, what has the Republican strategy been after Reagan? To let the debt rise to the utmost and then send for the Democrats to deal with it. Enter Obama... |P
Platypus Review 10 | February 2009
The following interview was conducted as an email exchange between Andony Melathopoulos and Terry Glavin in December 2008. Terry Glavin is a Canadian journalist, an outspoken critic of the anti-war movement's call to withdrawal foreign troops from Afghanistan and a founder of the Afghanistan Canada Solidarity Committee (afghanistan-canada-solidarity.org).
Andony Melathopoulos: You just returned from a trip to Afghanistan and have been busy writing about your experience in the Canadian news media and, most recently, in an online piece in Democratiya ("Afghanistan: A Choice of Comrades," Winter (15), 2008). What are the main points you are trying to convey in your writing?
Terry Glavin: If I'm trying to convey any position of my own about Afghanistan, specifically, it arises from the one firm conviction I have reached in my investigations over the years, which was confirmed over and over again in Afghanistan. And it's this: What we in the "West" say to ourselves about Afghanistan - the way we talk about Afghanistan - really matters. And the implications of the "troops out" position - the spectre that this position might actually succeed, has an enormously corrosive impact on Afghan society.
It's why I'm convinced that the worst threat Afghanistan faces is not the threat of "re-Talibanization" by the theocratic fascists who like to say to the West, "You have all the clocks, but we have all the time." It's from the clock-watching West, and the "international community," which should be saying, unequivocally: "We're staying as long as we're needed and wanted, period. We won't abandon Afghanistan again, ever."
AM: Like you, Fred Halliday and Christopher Hitchens have taken unpopular stands against the anti-war movement. This has been in response to their former comrades in the New Left Review and the Nation for crawling "in bed with the forces of reaction" (Hitchens). Is the Canadian "Left" bedding down with these same forces? Was forming the Afghanistan Canada Solidarity Committee an attempt to provide a positive internationalist response to the anti-war movement?
TG: When the Solidarity Committee came together, we were all in agreement that rather than contribute to an already infantilized conversation, we wanted to try to change the public conversation, and we've seen real successes in doing that. We wanted to provide space for Afghan-Canadian voices, and to make the "progressive" case for engagement in Afghanistan. Our founders were mainly from the left, but we were more than happy to welcome Liberals and even Conservatives, especially of the old "Red Tory" kind. In that way, it's a pretty classic popular-front approach. Our founders included women's rights activists and several left-wing writers and academics, but also a former federal Liberal cabinet minister and two former federal Conservative cabinet ministers. What surprised me, quite frankly, was just how much support there was for the sort of position we were staking out, across the board.
Perhaps less like the U.S, but certainly much like the case in Britain, Canada's "anti-war" movement has indeed crawled into bed with the forces of reaction. I mean this not in some oblique or metaphorical way, but quite specifically. The main "anti-war" organizations in Canada have nurtured fraternal ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, with Hezbollah and Hamas. You can look it up for yourself. When the head of the Canadian Labour Congress refers to the Taliban as the Afghan "resistance" and the New Democratic Party (social democrats) fields "star" candidates who call the Taliban mere "dissidents," you know that something rather unusually toxic is at work.
As for Fred Halliday's analysis, let's remember what his invocation of Spain in the 1930s, in the Afghan context, is about. I don't cite the cause of the international brigades in Spain merely as a spirited call to arms, but rather in the light that Halliday casts on the current situation. Just as Spain served as a proving ground and a crucible of the horrors that were to follow, Afghanistan has provided a training ground and a crucible for a kind of fascism that has been unleashed throughout Central Asia, the Maghreb, and the Levant, to say nothing of the relatively minor horrors it unleashed on New York, Washington, Madrid, and London.
I am offering the observation that history has repeated itself, and is repeating itself, and there is no shortage of isolationist "pacifists" and Little Englanders on the left, and no shortage of Charles Lindberghs, animating the "anti-war" movement today.
AM: How did you first become interested in Afghanistan? Is there a defining moment or incident that drew your attention there?
TG: A few years ago, when I was still writing my column for the Georgia Straight - which claims to be North America's oldest "alternative newsweekly" - I found that the conventional left-wing polemics on the question of Afghanistan simply couldn't be sustained by resort to facts or argument from anything vaguely resembling a working-class, internationalist standpoint.
Most importantly, I started talking to Afghan emigres, and to women who had done progressive work in Afghanistan, and soon realized that the entire "Left" argument was, in a word, a fraud.
I dealt with this rather gingerly at first, writing only about the obvious challenges Afghanistan presented in a Canadian context, and relying on Afghan emigres to provide whatever opinions were necessarily asserted in whatever I wrote. But I quickly understood that even in this, I had transgressed into the heretical.
What I began to see quite clearly - and it was the Afghanistan debate that allowed me to see it, was that in the main, the "Left," on such an epochal question - and related as it was to the rising challenge of Islamist barbarism throughout the Middle East, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia - was simply not on the side of progress, was not on the side of emancipation, was not on the side of "peace", even. Not in the matter of Afghanistan, obviously and certainly. The "Left" had retreated into a sort of parochial isolationism, and there was no role for a journalist like me except to reassure the "Left" of its virtue, assist in the construction of comforting falsehoods, and otherwise engage in the regurgitation of platitudes and pieties.
AM: Clearly the anti-war movement is a different kind of Left than the one you have in mind. Can you tell me a little about where your politics come from? How did you come to the Left in the first place?
TG: When I was a kid I was quite intensely informed by the Irish republican politics in the community, and the Chile solidarity work after Allende was killed, and I was drawn to the Revolutionary Marxist Group and the League for Socialist Action and such Trotskyist groups. But when I got older I noticed it was the old Communist Party warhorses who were always doing the heavy lifting. Not the dizzy ideologues from the universities or the Soviet apologists, but the party's union men and women. You could count on them. For anything. The party was a disgrace, but the partisans were good people. It was like the church in that way. Nobody takes the Pope seriously but when you get in a jam it's the Knights of Columbus you'll be wanting, and they're always there for you. And that's what's really got working people to the point we'd reached by the time I came of age, with all the relative comforts that were available only to the wealthy just a century before.
One of the things you notice about the international volunteers in the Spanish war, for instance, perhaps especially in the enormous Canadian contingent, was a distaste bordering on outright hostility to ideological and party-line considerations, and a searing, gut-felt duty to one's comrades in struggle. The precipice where most people in the world stand today, in so many respects - natural-resource exhaustion, food scarcity and famine, failed states, the implosion of capital markets, entrenched tyranny, slavery, and so on - is no less all-devouring than the abyss the Spanish people faced. Where much of the "Left" appears to be encumbered by a sense of nostalgia or parent-envy, standing in the shadows of its predecessors, I tend to see the conditions humanity faces today as every bit as daunting and terrifying as the conditions faced by our parents' and grandparents' generations, and requiring a stiffness of resolve no less martial. I don't know why we would expect anything less of ourselves today than our predecessors gave of themselves in Spain all those years ago. But the "Left" today calls us to much less. The most charitable thing one can say of the so-called anti-imperialist "Left" is that it summons us to neutrality, to indifference, to the antisocial pathology of "minding our own business."
AM: I am uneasy with the idea that the problems of the "Left" can be solved by simply developing a stomach for getting our hands dirty. Maybe the problems with the "so-called anti-imperialist 'Left' " are not primarily that they lack duty or stomach, but rather, their theory is inadequate, or frozen in the past. Isn't the pragmatism that you deem to be a necessity only so because there is no workers' movement and because there is no theory to navigate even a nascent movement?
TG: I think I might be uneasy with it as well, because developing a stomach for dirty hands alone won't help the Left, and I don't say it will. I'm not in the least bit uneasy about placing a good degree of trust in the basic instincts of ordinary people when they are committed to coming to the aid of their fellow human beings.
I don't know that I simply assign "pragmatism" in the place that I would prefer to see, say, a robust proletarian internationalism, but neither am I certain that a revivified global consciousness needs to wait for a "new" or rearticulated theory, or that any of us need to wait for a revivified democratic-socialist internationalism in order to be able to think clearly or act as effectively as our means allow. At the same time, action without something at least approaching a theory by which to navigate is just as useless. The "anti-globalization" movement might be the most vivid example of such uselessness, although I'm not even sure that its global pow-wow circuit antic-making can be considered "action" except in the symbolic sense. So maybe that's not the best example. The World Social Forum, then. There you go. There was a kind of "theory" that animated its proceedings. Where did that get us?
So rather than simply retreating into theory, maybe the best use intellectuals of the "Left" can make of themselves on this aimless voyage is to strip away and jettison all the ideational-package flotsam from the anti-imperialist, anti-globalization, anti-war, and counterculture "Left", and see if anything remains.
AM: I am sympathetic with your characterisation of the theory of the "Left" as incoherent and its practice as powerless. You don't, however, seem prepared to "jettison" the example of the Canadian volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. Why does this hold a key to a revived internationalism for you? Doesn't the persistence of this historical imagination only prove that the "Left" has never really been able to overcome, or work through, the failed Popular Front tactics of the 1930s? Doesn't this just emphasize how the "Left" is both afraid of taking power and of working for common goals - and by common goals I mean creating a common ideology?
TG: I think I've dealt with the business of "ideology" as far as I'm comfortable in doing, but I am not prepared to simply "jettison" the instructive example of the Canadian volunteers in the Spanish War. I don't know that I'd go so far as to say it holds the "key" to a revived internationalism, but it certainly does set a standard, and a similar popular-front strategy is not doomed to failure at all. In the 1930s, Western armies were not arrayed against Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. Today, the US, NATO and ISAF is in the fight in Afghanistan, and with the exception of the Americans' disgraceful appeasements of the Pakistan military and intelligence complex, the armies of the West are, in fact, on the right side. I really think it's important to acknowledge that, to get over it. The Taliban are not the Vietcong. The Sixties are over. It actually is possible for the American military to be on the right side of a struggle, and as some wag said, "It would be lovely if the Nelson Mandela Appreciation Society had the means to take on the job, but until that happens, I'm afraid we're going to have to settle for the 101st Airborne Division."
AM: In your Democratiya piece you describe the forthcoming Obama presidency as articulating the words that Afghans want to hear most: "We will not leave you. We will not betray you. We will not abandon you". What is it about Obama's approach that makes you think that the U.S. will finally make a serious sustained effort to rebuild Afghanistan?
TG: America's conduct has been far more callous and filthy and duplicitous and disgraceful and foolish than we have time or space to consider here, and yes, in a perfect world, perhaps Donald Rumsfeld would be brought before an American court, tried before an American judge, and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in an American prison. But we're living in the here and the now, in the real world, and all I have to go on as far as the new American president is concerned is his word. I have no cause to doubt what little he has actually said on the subject because it is in America's interests to proceed as Obama has given the world to believe he will proceed. I haven't heard him say America will "finally make a serious sustained effort to rebuild Afghanistan," in such a direct way. And this is what we do have cause to worry about.
Afghans need to believe they will not be abandoned again. They have to be convinced it is true, otherwise they will have all the fight and the hope drained out of them, and they are already reeling from enough dashed hopes. Look at how it came to pass that America returned to Afghanistan in the autumn months of 2001 and you will see why so many Afghans rejoiced just as we did here in Canada, especially here on the west coast, in December of 1941, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. There was jubilation up and down the coast, and there were bonfires. We celebrated, but not because of the terrible thing that had happened to America, but because after two years allied with the British, fighting the Axis powers in Europe, Canadians knew that at long last, America was in the fight. It had become in American interests to join the fight.
You don't need to consult your Hegel to know that from contingency comes opportunity, and after September 11th, Americans were drawn back into the fight in Afghanistan, and anyone who imagines that this was a bad thing simply hasn't been paying attention, and anyone who would wonder why so many Afghans rejoiced has not been paying attention.
Here's what we have cause to be worried about. It is precisely that President-elect Obama will fulfill his promises to the American people efficiently and cost-effectively by striking some sordid arrangement with the three main chains of command within the Taliban in order to get at al Qaeda. 'Give us al Qaeda and we'll cut you loose,' an Obama White House might well propose. And where is the American Left that could prevent or forestall such a squalid betrayal, or mount even a minor protest rally about it? There is no such American Left. It doesn't exist.
With millions of Afghan refugees fleeing to Iran and Pakistan and Tajikistan, and all the schools shut down and the newspapers and radio stations shuttered and looted, the American "Left" would experience something of a frisson. Noam Chomsky would trace the consistent trajectory of American conduct in the region. Cindy Sheehan would mumble something about maybe not challenging Nancy Pelosi again four years down the road. Amy Goodman conduct some brain numbing interview with Tariq Ali, and in the pages of The Nation, Tom Hayden and Naomi Klein might write opposing essays. Klein could gloat over the front-row view we've all been given of American capitalism's true face revealing itself in Afghanistan. Hayden could take the contrary opinion: No, Obama is one of us, he's bringing the troops home, let's get high.
So, for now at least, we're left with all this "hope" and "change" stuff. For now, it will have to do.
AM: You make a distinction between the intervention in Iraq and the intervention in Afghanistan. You only support the intervention in Afghanistan. Why?
TG: Because the distinctions and differences abound. To be painfully specific, the way I would prefer to put my answer to your question is that I wholeheartedly support "intervention" but not necessarily "the intervention" in Afghanistan, and I would have preferred to at least cautiously support an intervention in Iraq, but certainly not "the intervention" as it was conceived and prosecuted.
In the case of Iraq, I found myself on the "no war" side in a specifically Canadian context, or maybe I should say a not-American context, and for reasons that are different from the main anti-war justifications and arguments abroad in 2003. By this I mean two things.
Firstly, I wouldn't have opposed American intervention owing to any squeamishness at the prospect of Americans coming home in body bags from Fallujah, for instance. After all, why shouldn't they be the bodies of Americans? I know this sounds cold, but if any soldiers had to die in the "liberation" of the Iraqi people, it would be hard to argue, given the history of American complicity with the entrenchment of the Baathist regime, that it should not be American soldiers.
Secondly, in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, when the debates and arguments really counted, the nature of the decision facing Canadians was wholly different than the decision facing Americans. For Canadians, the questions were: Why should we sign up as a junior partner in a very risky, largely unilateral war, a war of such a massive scale? Why would we sign up with the Americans in the invasion and overthrow of a UN member state, without a clear UN mandate, with world opinion mainly against the idea? Why would we join in an Anglo-American war on evidence that was at best shaky, for purposes that were at best shadowy, and in the absence of any framework for multilateral consideration about which tyranny to invade in the world, and when, and under what agreed-upon grounds?
Afghanistan is almost a mirror-image opposite of the circumstances and trajectory that have prevailed in Iraq. To begin with, Afghanistan re-entered the public consciousness in 2001 as a thoroughly rogue state, with diplomatic recognition only from the Taliban's sponsor (Pakistan) and the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates (the home states of the deranged oil millionaires who helped bankroll them). Afghanistan's seat at the UN was occupied by the Taliban's arch-enemies, the Northern Alliance. The country had been cleaved in half by war and savagery, and every year, the territory under Taliban control was churning out thousands of Chechen, Filipino, Kashmiri, Algerian and Moroccan jihadists to be dispatched to their assignments around the world from well-funded training camps. A quarter of the population was scattered to the ends of the earth as refugees. Almost a third of the unfortunates who remained in the country were on the verge of starvation. The Taliban were hated by the people, the entire, war-blasted place was a humanitarian disaster of the first order. Deposing the Taliban was going to be like a walk in the park. Intervention? What took you so long? What's not to like?
As I have persisted in noticing, for some years, what the Afghan people have been very clear about in respect of what they actually want, and what the "Left" has been arguing for in the rich countries of the world, are diametrically opposed. What the "Left" has been saying, among other absurd things, is troops out. In a baker's dozen's worth of polls I am aware of, the Afghan people consistently and overwhelmingly say they want democracy, peace, security, and jobs, and they want and need international forces to help them achieve these things. Troops in.
So I am forced to decide. And I've made my decision.
AM: This decision seems an accommodation to the fact that an international Left does not exist. Is the decision for one intervention over another any more a decision than the anti-war movement's "decision" to end either war; are not all these "decisions" ultimately determined by the realities of U.S. power? You suggest multilateral actors (e.g. 39-nation ISAF) and the U.N. are capable of overcoming this reality but this doesn't seem consistent with the example of Afghanistan, where the desired U.N. and multilateral attention occurred only after it was in the U.S.'s interest (i.e. following a direct attack). Moreover, I am unsure why you think that multilateral actors and the U.N. are a desirable counterweight to the U.S. Do you think they are agents of the Left? Do you think they are able to pose a challenge to the present system of global capital? Do you think they are a vehicle for developing a worker-based internationalism that can meaningfully challenge and overcome U.S. power?
TG: I don't think any of these things. But I do think that contingency produces opportunity, you work with the cards you're dealt, and sometimes, history will happen to deal you a decent hand. Helplessness and powerlessness are the worst kinds of illusions, and here's how Afghanistan is not like Spain: we don't need to arm civilian volunteers and get them there. Our soldiers are there already. They're well-trained, and fairly well-paid. In Afghanistan, teaching a single girl how to read her own name is a revolutionary act, and $1,500 in Yankee currency employs a teacher for an entire year. Is the "Left" so bankrupt that it can't even do this?
To more directly answer your question, I would go so far as to suggest that, with some "ifs" engaged, then yes, we could even be deciding which military interventions were necessary and useful to the cause of human progress, and which ones were not. It is quite easy to imagine circumstances like that as being well within the realm of possibility. But in order to wield that degree of influence in democratic societies, it would at least help somewhat if we rededicated ourselves to universal human progress, democratic egalitarianism, and freedom from slavery, misogyny, illiteracy and obscurantism. If these things are possible, then yes, "multilateral actors" and the UN could indeed be agents of the Left," and even US power could be harnessed in the cause of the historic mission of the Left, and the irrational occupation with overcoming "US power" might be seen for the irrelevant distraction that it usually is.
I will concede to you, and to Platypus, that in order to even imagine such things, it may first be necessary to give in to "the desire for a tabula rasa, for a start from scratch," as the Platypus statement of purpose puts it. I would further concede that this may well require that the living dead of the "Left" as we now know it should be put down, eliminated, rejected, and jettisoned.
Fine by me. Avante. Allons-y. Let's go. |P
Platypus Review 9 | December 2008
To the editors of the Platypus Review:
I am not now, nor have I ever been, either a Maoist or sympathetic to Maoism. I am also not a member of SDS. I was outraged however, by the blatant red-baiting of Rachel Haut in a recent Platypus Review Interview and disturbed that it seems to have gone unchallenged by PR. Rachel Haut was quoted as saying: “To say that the Maoists can be part of the ideological debate would mean to condone them being in this organization, which is something I don’t do. In the New York City SDS I have spoken numerous times with SDSers who are not Maoists about having the Maoists or certain kinds of anarchists in our organization, because both sides hurt us. If we want to build a democratic society, and we want to be relevant, both of these opposing forces are working against us. There are varying degrees of anarchism, definitely, as well as varying degrees of socialism. But, I think ideas that conflict with our vision and our goals need to be clearly defined and excluded before we can actually start talking about our ideological differences formally as a national organization.”
Essentially, what Rachel Haut is saying that first one needs to exclude people whom one disagrees with, so that after the organization has been ideologically purified, one can “actually start talking about ideological differences” when there aren’t any anymore. This is an attitude worthy of a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution!
Aside from general considerations of democratic principle, such an attitude is extremely dangerous to those who consider themselves leftists. I am reminded of a famous old radical cartoon I once saw. A cop is beating up a striking worker, who protests “But I am an anti-Communist”, to which the cop replies “Anti-communist, shmanti-communist. I don’t care what kind of communist you are.”
—Richard Rubin, October 2008
. . .
Laurie Rojas responds:
Rachel Haut’s comments during the interview printed in September 2008 Issue of the Platypus Review did not express my views, or those of the editors of the Platypus Review. I should have made this explicit at the time. Haut’s red-baiting went unchallenged during the interview, and that should not have been the case.
I disagreed with Haut when she said, “I think it is inappropriate to have conversations about ideological differences when we still have Maoists in the organization.” As the interviewer, however, I (wrongly) thought it indecorous to challenge her position at that point.
Beyond this, I continued the conversation because it made manifest a profound and worrisome behavior I had encountered in SDS during my participation in the 2008 National Convention: the promulgation of whisper campaigns against individuals that appear to have defined ideological positions, coupled with an unspoken agreement to avoid ideological conversations. The first two days of the convention were plagued by disputes about the decision-making process that had clearly ideological undertones, but were never expressed as such; instead, there were numerous interruptions that chastised the decision-making process as “undemocratic” — a vague blanket term that anybody, no matter what side of the argument they were on, used to legitimize their discontent.
Furthermore, I did not directly challenge Haut’s redbaiting because at the time I considered it an anachronistic, ill-informed gesture used simply to avoid a political conversation about the long-term goals of SDS. Haut’s red-baiting had no concrete grounding, and was fully devoid of actual relevance to political practice in the present; it was mostly justified by the historical reputation of Maoists. It was never made clear why Maoists would pose such a grave threat to SDS. What is then, the real “danger” posed by a Maoist, or any “red,” today? The only explanation given was: “[Maoist] ideology is in direct opposition to building a democratic society.” “Democracy,” although vaguely understood, is the only goal all SDSers can agree on. Yet it is also the main weapon some use to show contempt for other members of the group.
I hoped the interview would be treated as symptomatic of tendencies in the Left today whose public manifestation would help clarify our situation. In other words, I let Haut’s opinions stand because they were in some way representative of problems and dangers facing the young Left today, especially in the new SDS. As an “umbrella organization,” SDS has attracted members with a wide spectrum of opinions. But because ideological conversations about the political goals of the organization have not been a central part of SDS — mostly due to the fear of splits — its members end up grouping themselves into social cliques. Fragmentation occurs under the auspices of petty interpersonal disagreements instead of political disputes with practical and political consequences.
The larger problem, however, is that the majority of people in SDS can only organize actions in frustrated reaction to the deplorable situations in which they find themselves. They can only protest their helplessness, and have no clear idea of how their actions relate to long-term goals of gaining political power to effect real social transformation.
The absence of concrete political aims produces a politics of “acting out,” an unreflective and compulsive desire for “agitation.” With this orientation, the new SDS does not stray far from its predecessor, the original SDS. Activism- for-its-own-sake is an indication that the organization “refuses to reflect on its own impotence,” as Adorno once said of the student activism in the 60’s. The concepts of “revolution” and “democracy” are abstract ideas in SDS whose emptiness leaves them useful only as bludgeons for crushing dissent.
The counterposing of thought and action, the kneejerk anti-intellectualism, the taboos behind political ideas, and the impulse to resist indiscriminately hierarchy and leadership, has left SDS powerless. But worse than that, because of this deep political dilemma, many members are insecure and quick to accuse others for not being “with the movement.” The perverse tendency to “purge” is a result of fear, a dearth of ideas, and the unwillingness to discuss the meaning and direction of the group. When things are not going well—blame the “foreign elements.”
The bitter truth about Wright’s cartoon is that all kinds of Marxists are still cast under the same blinding light. It would do us well to remember: everybody has an ideology. Being anti-ideology is one of the oldest ideologies in the book. The question is why should those who are believed to have defined ideological positions invoke a desire to squelch, to expel, to purge?
This anti-ideology sentiment, an anachronistic residue of the anti-Stalinism of the 60’s, is more pervasive — if less explicit — today, without any “anti-anti-communism” clause to block its path. The irony is that in a post-USSR world, the Stalinophobes unknowingly become practicing Stalinists. If one considers the pathologies created by political powerlessness and the unwillingness to engage with ideas, red-baiting can be understood as a naturalized form of ideological purging; real authoritarianism masked as “the defense of democracy.” |P
Platypus Review 8 | November 2008
A rejoinder to Peter Hudis on "Capital in History"
Historical consciousness articulates the problem of what “ought” to be with what “is.” The question is how the necessities of emancipatory struggles in the present relate to those of the past. The tasks revealed by historical Marxism have not been superseded but only obscured and forgotten, at the expense of emancipatory social politics in the present.
Dunayevskaya and post-Trotskyism
The problem with Raya Dunayevskaya lies in the belief that there has been any real theoretical or practical political progress since the failure of the revolutions of 1917-19. This imagined progress is explicitly or implicitly assumed in all “Trotskyism” and post-Trotskyism.
Contrary to the prevailing views of post-Marxism, the high-water mark of progress in the movement for human freedom was in the practical politics and theoretical self-understanding of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolsheviks in Russia and Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacists in Germany. We have not progressed beyond the horizon of such political practice and its theory, but only regressed and fallen below this threshold. We urgently need to attain its spirit anew.
For the past half century, revolutionary “Left” politics, Marxist or otherwise, have remained stuck in the antinomies of “spontaneity” and “organization,” “participatory democracy” and “vanguardist” politics, etc. Meanwhile, the historical moment of 1917-19 and its protagonists in thought and action remain enigmas to us.
A repressed historical fact: neither Lenin nor Luxemburg was a “vanguardist” or a “spontaneist.” These and other phantasies —indeed, any apparent resolution to, and progress beyond, the genuine political problems of social emancipation beyond capital revealed in 1917-19— are pernicious illusions.
Dunayevskaya never properly registers the problem of regression. The most problematic assumption is that coming later means knowing better. But newly emergent forms of “resistance to capital” might be symptomatic of regression, and thereby not point beyond capitalist social relations any more — and perhaps far less — than proletarian socialism did in the early 20th Century. It is not a matter of such new forms of politics expressing advances in social-political consciousness, but rather the effects of the horizon of a Marxian anticapitalist politics slipping away.
Hudis’s conception of capital as the domination of living labor by abstract labor leads to his equating all forms of resistance to capital as forms of “living labor’s” protest against and purportedly immanent attempt to overcome capital.
Such an analysis finds “new” forms of anticapitalism in the social movements of the 1960s “New Left” (e.g. women’s and gay liberation, black power, anti-colonization). The ”New Left”, however, actually represented a turning away from the problem of capital.
Why? Because only through proletarian socialism does the problem of the “contradiction” of capital —the self-contradictory character of proletarian labor in both its “abstract” and “concrete” dimensions— come to light. For capital is not merely the abstract dimension dominating the concrete, “living” dimension. It is rather the ways the abstract and concrete dimensions are related through market or state forms. Capital is the mode of self-relation of the proletariat and its consequences as a social-historical totality. All forms of “resistance to capital” constitute its reproduction in an on-going way.
Proletarian socialism, on the other hand, is the movement that reveals the self-contradiction of capital most explicitly and intensely in its reproduction. Other symptomatic forms of coping with the capital dynamic do so only more obscurely. Only proletarian socialism, the most acute manifestation of the self-contradiction of capital, concretely points beyond it.
We need a proletarian socialist politics to manifest the problem of capital for us, so that we can begin to formulate a politics for getting beyond it.
The degree to which an approach such as Hudis’s attempts to be more open-minded about social struggles and their relation to the problem of capital, it actually conceals more than it reveals. Capital is a form of life, however “alienated,” and not just a form of domination “over” life. Hence, one cannot take the position of “life” against capital, of “living labor” against “abstract labor,” without naturalizing capital at another, deeper level.
Marx’s political vision: the “dictatorship of the proletariat”
Recognizing capital as a form of life also means recognizing the truly radical difference between a post-capitalist society and the society of capital. It is, in fact, too radical for us to really foresee, despite humanity’s struggle to realize it over the course of more than a century. To clarify the relationship between the historical present and a possible future, it is helpful to consider Marx’s political thinking on socialism.
Marx’s understanding of socialist politics is expressed most clearly in his notion of the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” For Marx, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” is not merely the overcoming of abstract labor by living labor, but rather the highest expression of their contradiction in the subjectivity of the commodity form.
Further, it expresses the contradiction of the democratic will of the producers in both their particular-“concrete” and “abstract”-general social dimensions. For example, the “participatory”-democratic ordering of the site of production will conflict with the more abstract “representative” democracy of political forms at a more general social level. In fact, the political circumstances of socialism would likely produce social conflicts, and hence politics. In a sense it would be, by comparison with the present, the first time in which authentic social-politics can be practiced.
In this sense, the “dictatorship of the proletariat” marks the end of politics as we know it, and the beginning of politics in a new and more advanced sense, with the working class and its activity helping to point beyond the social dynamic of capital. I disagree with Hudis that historical revolutionary Marxist protagonists such as Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky adopted a fundamentally different conception of the future of politics than Marx. Each of them, to the contrary, recognized the necessary leading, “vanguard” role of the working class in the attempt to democratize, or bring under conscious human control, the social process set in motion by capital.
The dynamic of capital does not evaporate through the activity of the working class. Quite the contrary, it is through this activity that capital, as Marx understood it, comes into being. Through the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” however, the working class plays the necessarily leading role globally in addressing the problem of capital and its effects. In other words, it is the political means by which the social problem of capital is revealed so that it can begin to be overcome.
The proletariat then becomes for the first time, in Lukács’s Hegelian-Marxist terms, the subject-object of (its own) history. At the same time, the proletariat as a class begins to cease being the self-contradictory “subject-object” it is today under capital. The proletariat, when these conditions are met, becomes itself for the first time while ceasing to be what it has been — constituted by and reconstitutive of capital — and thus begins to overcome and abolish itself.
The most potentially “participatory” concrete form of democracy, that of “the producers,” must be recognized as the highest expression of the subjectivity of the commodity form, the subject-object relation of the proletariat with its own social activity of labor — and not as its “negation.”
Hence, evading or otherwise abandoning Marx’s conception of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” means abandoning the struggle to overcome capital. We need to remember what this actually meant by way of studying the most developed expressions to date of such a politics. We must remember the tasks of the past still informing our present by recalling what it was that revolutionary Marxism sought to accomplish, despite its historical failure.
Remember the future!
The political thought and action bound up in the revolutionary moment of 1917-19 comprise a complex, rich heritage we neglect at our peril. This heritage, that of Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky and theorists in their wake, such as Lukács, Korsch, Benjamin and Adorno, is in the form of a set of problems to be worked through and not ready-made solutions. In order to recognize these outstanding problems of capital we must remember the future whose horizons of possibility informed the politics of the best traditions of revolutionary Marxism. Despite the limitations of Marxism as a historical movement, we nevertheless remain within the horizon of the history of capital and its social effects, whether politics today recognizes it or not. Hence, apparently paradoxically, it is by recognizing the horizons of possibility of capital as revealed in the past that we may recognize the limits humanity needs to overcome to realize its potential, emancipated future.
For example, in the earlier Marxist movement of the 2nd International (1889-1914), the women’s liberation movement took place as an integral part of the struggle for socialism, to which it was neither subordinated nor from which was it separated. Such Marxist socialists as August Bebel and Clara Zetkin, among countless other, now-forgotten, participants in this movement, achieved profound insights into the relation of traditional gender roles and sexuality to the radically changed circumstances of modern capitalism. They recognized how capitalism both drew upon and radically reconstituted, on a new and different basis, such “traditional” oppressive aspects of society. Furthermore, they recognized the obstacle to women’s emancipation capital had become and thus the fundamental connection between women’s and sexual oppression and other problems in modern society. It was only because of the subsequent degeneration and conservatization of this movement, due to a series of failures and defeats, that a separate “feminist” movement had to come into being in the course of the regression of the 20th Century. Embracing the history of feminism thus amounts to naturalizing and adapting to such defeat and lowering the horizons of social politics.
Over-attentiveness to newly emergent — though concrete — forms of “resistance” to capitalism amounts to chasing our tails in the present and tailing after the effects of capital. Such over-attentiveness does not broaden but narrows our horizons; it does not, as Luxemburg demanded, engage, seize hold of and attempt to guide, in however limited ways, the changes in and of capital, so that we might get beyond them. “Resistance” in the present represents attempts to cope with and thus catch up with the social dynamics of capital. And the terms of such resistance have only worsened over time with the waning and disappearance of proletarian socialist politics.
Far from pointing to a post-capitalist society, such forms of social struggle under capital actually represent the limits of the present and its future, but only in obscure form, and thus not the actual breadth of the horizon of a potential future of and beyond capital. They express not the potentially new future beyond capital, but only the trailing edge, the wake of the newly emerging past in the present.
The post-’60s “new social movements” such as feminism and other forms of politics of social identity have expressed reconstituted forms of participation in capital. Not “getting beyond” the working class as might have been thought, such movements have opened the way to new and reconstituted forms of proletarianization. Moreover, they have done so in ways that have obscured the problem of the social totality in which they have taken place — the central role of the working class in the reconstitution of capital. The illusion is that such new forms of politics mean getting beyond the necessity of proletarian socialism, when in fact they have meant the avoidance of this task.
Such purportedly post-proletarian forms of politics have represented new forms of capital in an already-captured future of the present. They do not help us recognize the actual necessary tasks of a politics in, through and beyond capital. Only a proletarian socialist politics could do this. We need to remember the horizon of this politics, or remain forever trapped, knowingly or not, by its unfulfilled potential and betrayed possibilities. |P
El Lissitzky, Lenin Tribune (1920)
Platypus Review 8 | November 2008
“Far from expressing a sequence of never-ending progression, the Hegelian dialectic lets retrogression appear as translucent as progression and indeed makes it very nearly inevitable if one ever tries to escape regression by mere faith.”—Raya Dunayevskaya
It may seem ironic that a moment so typified by the crisis of capital calls for a serious critique of the crisis on the Left; however, in the present moment it has become impossible to take on the crisis of existing society without facing the limitations found in prevailing leftist responses to it.
The Left’s response to the financial crisis and bailout provides a case in point. One might suspect from reading the radical press in recent weeks that the government bailout of global financial institutions represents a hidden acknowledgment on the part of devotees of the free market that the socialists have been right all along. After all, has not the federal government stepped in to regulate and oversee financial institutions on an unprecedented scale? Is not the Republican Right up in arms over the specter of “socialism” that now haunts the Federal Reserve? Has not “Main Street” finally woken up to the need to impose greater state control over Wall Street? Lost in all this, of course, is the simple recognition that state intervention is as old as capitalism and is as integral to its dynamics as the market. “State intervention” and “market anarchy” are not and never have been absolute opposites. The Left, however, caught in a superficial understanding of capital and transfixed by the sudden use of the “s” word in the media, deludes itself into believing that it may one day be able to ride to victory on the backs of state intervention in the economy —even though Bush is leading the charge.
In light of this, Chris Cutrone’s (Oct. 2008) “Capital in history: The need for a Marxian philosophy of history of the Left” is a refreshing contribution to re-thinking today’s crises because of the way it confronts the poverty that defines most radical discourse. I agree that the main problem is “the commonplace view of capitalism as primarily a problem of exploitation.” Many frequently often overlook that capital is a unique social form of domination defined by the logic of abstraction —viz, capital is congealed abstract or value-creating labor. The relationships established through modern labor are not merely exploitative but alienating. Capital as a social form is defined not by individual or state ownership of property but by the domination of concrete, living labor by abstract, dead labor. Capitalism cannot be annulled without abolishing capital, and capital cannot be annulled without creating non-alienated human relations at work and in society as a whole.
My main disagreement with Cutrone’s article concerns the basis of the ”historical consciousness” needed for orienting us towards capital’s transcendence. I agree that Marx held that the “proletarianization” of society —the consolidation of industrial capitalism and the universalization of wage labor— does not necessarily point to capital’s transcendence. Marx certainly did not conceive of socialism as industrialized labor “coming into its own.” I nevertheless argue that the internal dynamics of capitalism generate the means by which capital can be overcome. There is a marked difference, between the proletarianization of society and the proletariat’s effort to overcome the existing society by resisting the domination of concrete labor by abstract labor. The overcoming of this distinct form of domination, however, requires the self-abolition of the proletariat as a class. That goal can be reached only by uprooting capital from within through the self-activity of the proletariat and other social forces that resist and seek to negate the value form of mediation.
There are ways to consider the overcoming of capital without the participation of the working class, but they tend towards disconcerting conclusions. Take the case of Proudhon: Marx did not consider him a representative of “proletarian socialism” despite the fact that a significant section the French workers’ movement followed him. Marx considered him instead as an exemplar of petty-bourgeois socialism, since Proudhon’s critique of capitalism centered on exchange relations instead of the domination of abstract labor. Marx held that proletarian socialism, in contrast, aims to abolish wage labor —and hence capital. In retrospect, I’d argue that Marx’s critique of Proudhon brilliantly anticipated the totalitarian “socialism” that defined the 20th century. What led to the latter was not the affirmation of the subjectivity of the proletariat but rather its denigration in the name of state planning and bureaucratic control over industry. Instead of hearing in the workers’ resistance to the despotic plan of capital a drive to surmount the domination of dead over living labor, the planners and revolutionary-intellectual “leaders” turned their attention elsewhere —to the “miracles” of modern science and state-imposed “planning” from above. The fetishism of the commodity was replaced by the fetishism of state-planned value production. In doing so they lost sight of the cognitive source that could point the way to capital’s transcendence.
At issue today is whether we can develop a viable conception of capital’s transcendence by turning our attention away from a vital source of radical critique —the internal resistance that arises against capital. Capital is not a onedimensional entity. Though it based on the domination of dead over living labor, it cannot exist without living labor. Capital constantly runs up against an internal contradiction: it seeks to deny the human even as it remains dependent on the human in the form of living labor. No matter how hard it tries, capital cannot avoid encountering resistance. This resistance provides the material basis for our ability to criticize capital. If proletarian resistance marks not the potential negation of capital but its “fullest realization,” what is the source of our own critique of capital? What gives us the right to claim insight into what capital is “really” like if it swallows up everything opposed to it? As Hegel taught us, the ability to criticize a phenomenon depends on existing in some sense beyond its limits. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be able to see it as a problem in the first place.
We here encounter a major stumbling bloc in radical theory. An array of radical thinkers, from Lukacs to Adorno, affirmed the “totalizing” character of capital. However, they never succeeded in explaining what enabled them to gain privileged insight into the “real” nature of capital if it is a totalizing subject that annuls all internal efforts to transcend it. Lukács sought to respond to the problem with his famous theory of “imputed class consciousness.” Whereas the workers, according to this view, are trapped within the alienated horizon of capital, “the party to lead” directs the masses to victory by instructing them as to what is really going on. But what gives “the party” this privileged access to truth? Lukács never adequately resolved the problem. Lenin was honest enough (in What is to be Done?) to rely on Karl Kautsky for an answer. He quoted Kautsky’s view that “socialist consciousness” is a form of scientific insight that transcends the standpoint of those trapped in the capital relation. Yet where did Kautsky get his notion that “the vehicle of science is not the proletariat but the bourgeois intelligentsia”? From Ferdinand Lassalle, whom Marx lambasted as a “workers’ dictator.” As I see it, Marx had a distinctly different conception of the relation between spontaneous struggles and historical consciousness than most “Marxists.” In this sense I would agree with Cutrone’s statement, “Unfortunately, beginning in Marx’s own lifetime, the form of politics he sought to inspire began to fall below the threshold of this critically important consciousness of history.”
I am not arguing that grasping the role of spontaneous forms of resistance —especially at critical historical turning points— solves the problem of articulating a viable alternative to capital. That is only where our work first begins. Once theory listens to the voices of the “wretched of the earth,” it becomes imperative to fully develop a conception of a different world that is implicitly contained in them. There is no substitute for being philosophically responsible to history. Although narratives of resistance serve as an important antidote to begin thinking past the capital relation, they are by no means a sufficient condition for constituting an alternative to capital.
The problem that we face today is that the absence of a philosophically grounded alternative to capital negatively impacts the revolutionary potential of ongoing forms of resistance by producing diffidence about the ability to fundamentally change the world. Why should masses of people be expected to rise up against the totalizing nature of capital if radical theorists cannot even manage to point to a viable alternative to it? This is not a mere rhetorical question. The breakdown in projecting a viable conception of socialism represents the greatest failure of Marxism. In this day and age does anyone really expect “the masses” to “storm the heavens” when all that is offered them in the “new society” is to remain imprisoned by the tyranny of the factory clock?
We cannot adequately challenge today’s regression by leaving a gap between “is “ and “ought”—between our critique of capital and our conception of the alternative to it. One reason why many leftists settle for halfway houses and partial solutions is that alternative views that leave us with an unresolved “ought” are so unpersuasive. Just as the educators need to be educated, so we who subject the Left to criticism must examine whether we are living up to the historical task of projecting a viable alternative to its shortcomings. |P
. See The Power of Negativity: Selected Writings on the Dialectic in Hegel and Marx, by Raya Dunayevskaya, edited by Peter Hudis and Kevin B. Anderson (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2002), p. 330.
. For more on this, see “The Death of the Death of the Subject,” by Peter Hudis, Historical Materialism, 12 (3), pp. 147-168.
. This argument rests on the claim that “Soviet”-type societies were state-capitalist. For more on this, see The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State-Capitalism, by Raya Dunayevskaya, edited with an Introduction by Peter Hudis (Chicago: News and Letters, 1992).
. See Marx’s letter to Engels of April 9,1963: “His attitude is that of a future workers’ dictator.” For a detailed discussion of how Lenin’s organizational concepts owed much to the views of Kautsky and Lassalle, see “Developing a Philosophically Grounded Alternative to Capitalism,” by Peter Hudis, Socialism and Democracy, 19 (2), July 2005, pp. 1-8.
. The assumption that workers are incapable of achieving class or socialist consciousness on the basis of their struggles at the point of production was not held by many of the greatest Marxists, such as Pannekoek and Luxemburg. For a discussion of Marx’s understanding of this problem, see Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy of Revolution, by Raya Dunayevskaya (Lanham: Lexington Books, 1991).
Platypus Review 8 | November 2008
Dessie lives in the neighbourhood of Woodlawn, three blocks south of the University of Chicago, with her father and four cats. Her apartment is part of Grove Parc Plaza, a Section 8 development project built in the late 1960s, but like many public housing residents across Chicago, Dessie doesn’t know how much longer she will be able to hold on to her home. Last year, Grove Parc was threatened with foreclosure by the Department for Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and despite an organized and vocal campaign by the members of the Grove Parc Tenants Association to save it, the future of the complex is still in doubt. Right on the edge of a campus too small to contain increasing numbers of students and faculty, and only a short walk away from the proposed site for the 2016 Olympic Stadium, Grove Parc’s land is prime real estate, and over the past few years residents have found themselves caught in an intensifying crossfire between the city, the university, and HUD. If there is a front line in the fight against gentrification, Dessie is on it.
Laura Schmidt’s (2007) article, “Taking issue with identity: The politics of anti-gentrification,” raises an interesting question. If I, a white, middle-class graduate student, choose to join Dessie in the fight against gentrification, what am I fighting for? “The discourse of anti-gentrification politics,” Schmidt writes, “…seeks to keep those who are poor in their place, and those who are rich in theirs.” Since Dessie has lived in Grove Parc, she has seen damp collect on her ceiling, had drugs sold in the vacant apartment below hers, and heard gang violence take place outside her window. If I lend my support to the campaign to save Grove Parc, am I really doing Dessie a favor? According to Schmidt, the local focus of anti-gentrification activism has given rise to the “objectification of anti-captialism into identity”. Since gentrification often involves the replacement of one ethnic group with another, activists have taken to declaring certain neighbourhoods a “natural” space for one particular ethnic group and opposing any development on the grounds of protecting that identity. This, Schmidt argues, serves only to obscure the real issue. Gentrification is a consequence of poverty, which in turn is a consequence of capitalism. If I really wanted to help Dessie, I would recognize that “in order to transform the inevitability of gentrification, capital must be overcome”.
Schmidt’s critique of the politics of anti-gentrification is misleading in many ways, not least concerning the motivations of those opposed to the displacement of people like Dessie. Nevertheless, the fundamental question posed by her article —when we fight gentrification, what are we fighting for? —is one that cannot be ignored. I think there are two different ways to answer it. The first is this: the assumption that gentrification is simply an inevitable product of a capitalist society is one that the developers hovering over Grove Parc would like us to make, but it is not warranted. Neighborhoods can be revitalized without being gentrified. The current state of Grove Parc is not a consequence of the natural function of capitalism, but of the dysfunction of under-funded bodies like HUD that have mismanaged the nation’s public housing stock whilst pouring taxpayers’ money into the hands of badly-vetted proprietors. A reformed and better funded HUD would prevent the crumbling neglect that makes poorer neighbourhoods so vulnerable to gentrification and dislocation. On this view, far from seeking to overcome capitalist society, anti-gentrification activism simply demands that government do the job it is supposed to do.
That is the first answer. I think that it is good as far as it goes, but on the most fundamental level it gets us no further than Schmidt’s critique of the politics of gentrification or the developers’ mantra of progress through capital. What all three approaches have in common is the understanding of gentrification as a purely abstract phenomenon. There is nothing wrong with this in principle; indeed, for those on the receiving end of social upheaval, understanding one’s own struggles as part of a wider context can be illuminating and empowering. What is generally forgotten, however, is that there is no such thing as the view from nowhere. Any account of social phenomena, however abstract, is rooted in a particular situation, and cannot be understood apart from the particular interests and relationships that characterize it. For me to offer an analysis of some problem of yours is not for me to take up a perspective outside of our relationship, but to add a new element to it. With this in mind, let us be clear about the context in which this essay is written. The possible foreclosure of Grove Parc is Dessie’s problem, not mine. As Schmidt points out, I may well hear about it in an organic coffee shop built when the last wave of gentrification rolled through. Dessie would take my comfortable, middle-class existence any day, and I know because she’s told me. If my solidarity with her is based on some vaguely-imagined identity politics that wants to preserve the ghetto for the blacks, she’d be better off without me.
The fact is, however, that I have reason to stand alongside Dessie that is entirely self-interested. Gentrification is just one symptom of a sickness that has taken hold of modern urban society: we have become strangers to one another. If we students think that our comparative wealth and mobility leaves us unaffected, we are deluding ourselves. To live in a neighborhood patrolled by one of the world’s largest private police forces is not healthy. To move within a culturally homogenous bubble is not healthy. To be afraid of crossing a street only a few blocks from where you live for fear of the people on the other side is not healthy. Like all the worst sicknesses, you can carry this one a long time before you realize it.
That is why I began this article with Dessie. I refuse to treat her merely as a statistic because I believe that people like me looking at people like her in that way is a big part of the problem. Dessie is far from being an anti-capitalist. If she places any value in the preservation of Grove Parc, it is because that is her home, and she has had to fight for it. The main reason that I stand with her is because I have learnt that I cannot separate my own self-interest from hers. In a way, then, our common action, our not being strangers to each other, is a kind of critique of our society, but one that is laid out in practice. One might say of opposing oneself to gentrification what Wittgenstein said of philosophy, that it is “not a theory but an activity”. The task for us privileged students is not to pretend that we don’t like hanging out in Wicker Park and drinking organic coffee, but learn how our lives are tied up with those of our neighbours. It is possible, as Schmidt suggests, to see gentrification as a “local-level rallying point for anti-capitalist practice”; however, if we want to be true radicals we are going to have to get beyond that perspective and learn how to see it as Dessie’s fight to keep a roof over her cats’ heads. |P