Platypus Review 56 | May 2013
Last autumn, chapters of the Platypus Affiliated Society in New York, London, and Chicago hosted similar events on the theme of “Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis.” The speakers participating in New York included Loren Goldner, David Harvey, Andrew Kliman, and Paul Mattick. The transcript of the event in London appeared in Platypus Review 55 (April 2013). What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that PAS-NYC hosted on November 14, 2012 at the New School. A full recording of each of the events held in this series can be found on the media section of this website and a recording of the event can be found by clicking the above links.
Loren Goldner: The title of my talk tonight is “Fictitious Capital and Contracted Social Reproduction.” It is important to note that as we convene tonight, there are general strikes across the southern flank of Europe, the miners’ strikes in South Africa, and at least 50 strikes a day in China. While we convene to talk about the crisis, there are people in motion trying to do something about it.
Marx writes in his Grundrisse, “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labor time to a minimum, while it posits labor time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.” Unpacking that one sentence can get us very far in understanding the crisis and the history of at least the last hundred years.
Capital can be broken down into Marx’s categories: surplus value (s), variable capital (v), and constant capital (c). Within constant capital there is a breakdown into (i) fixed capital, which refers generally to machinery and tools, and (ii) circulating capital, which refers to things such as raw materials.
With these categories I would like to address the question of fictitious capital, which I define as claims on the social wealth and social surplus that correspond to no existing social surplus. The origins of fictitious capital are the advancing productivity of labor in capitalism, which is an anarchic system, one that is constantly devaluing the constant capital invested by the capitalist class. Capital volumes 1 and 2 describe a pure capitalist system, in which there are only two social classes: the wage-labor proletariat and the capitalist class or the bourgeoisie. Other classes enter the picture, for instance peasants, in the long historical chapter on accumulation. But Marx is trying to set up a pure model and then move on to the more everyday appearances of the system.
Value is defined in Marx as the socially necessary labor time of reproduction; I want to emphasize the “re-” in reproduction. For, in the opening chapter of Capital, Marx talks a lot about the value of a commodity as the socially necessary labor time embodied in it, but later moves to social reproduction. There he is talking about an expanding system in which the early definitions are superseded.
Capitalists themselves tend to have only a vague idea of use-value. As they are running a society into the ground, say in the contemporary debates on infrastructure, capitalists come to a recognition that use-value plays some kind of a role. But, by and large, individual capitalists are interested in profit of which use-value is a mere by-product. One aspect of recent capitalist history that is important to emphasize is that the tremendous incomes that a part of the capitalist class gets from the sale and rental of buildings of all kinds has long superseded the total amount of profit directly derived from industry. This is important to understand for the contemporary situation.
There is another category that doesn’t attract the attention that it should: what I call “capitalist consumption.” Capitalist consumption does not refer to the consumption of the capitalists themselves, not the yachts in the Hamptons and the Malibu lifestyle, but the consumption of all the hangers-on of the capitalist class. Marx has a colorful formulation, in which he refers to king, minister, professor, and whore, as different embodiments of the hangers-on. But I would expand this category quite a bit to include state bureaucrats—let’s not forget that 35–40% of U.S. GDP goes to state expenditure at the local, state, and federal level. In 1950 there were ten workers for every manager; today there are three. The military police, prison system, and the biggest single group the so-called FIRE (Finance-Insurance-Real Estate) sector, which represent the interest and ground siphon of surplus value, all of these elements enforce capitalist social relations. We also have the total wage bill, which is comprised of more than the pay packets or checks, but also everything that goes into education and training. The military has increasingly assumed this role over the last thirty to forty years in the U.S. with the collapse of a lot of vocational schools.
Though an incomplete picture, all the above points to different ways in which capital in crisis transfers variable and constant capital to a surplus, as a way of saving itself. In the United States and most countries in crisis over the last 40 years, we see the non-reproduction of labor power—just think of the fact that almost 40% of all high school students in NYC don’t ever finish high school.
Also important, perhaps more important, is primitive accumulation. This Marx defines as the separation of petty producers from the means of production. There is a lot of debate about whether Marx simply meant the expropriation of the English peasantry in the late-17th early 18th century. But I think primitive accumulation is a permanent feature of the capitalist system. In this respect, I follow aspects of Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital, which included chapters with examples of this process from the nineteenth century. I don’t think one has to go along with all of Luxemburg’s reasoning to recognize the mobilization by modern capital of labor power outside of the subsectors of the world economy, more specifically the peasantry of India, China, Latin America, and Africa. All kinds of people who are not wage workers are recruited to the wage labor system, after another subsector has paid their reproduction costs.
In short, what keeps this proliferation of fictitious capital afloat in all the forms that I have just described, is a general process of non-reproduction: both of labor power and of aspects of constant capital, such as infrastructure—concerning which, for instance, the American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that it would cost 2.3 trillion dollars just to bring things to a standard level.
David Harvey: I had an interesting experience in May when I was in Istanbul, where I was giving lectures and hanging out with social movement people. Istanbul is a boomtown and it is quite incredible what is going on there. Turkey is growing around 7% a year. There is talk of a new bridge across the Bosporus, and the population of Istanbul will grow from 18 million to 40 million in 10-15 years. Meanwhile, Athens, two hours away by flight, is a catastrophe. Argentina was a disaster in 2001–03, but by 2004 it had reneged on its debt and has been booming ever since. China in early 2009 had lost close to 30 million jobs due to cuts to export industries. Yet by the end of the year it recorded a net loss of 3 million jobs, which means that they created 27 million jobs in nine months, through expansive urbanization—basically, a huge infrastructure project. The bankers in China obeyed the orders of the Central Committee to lend. The huge labor absorption in China stands in contrast to the 7 million net jobs lost in the same year in this country. Why? For one thing, you have this stupid form of austerity here, whereas, in effect, there was a Keynesian expansion program in China. Argentina did very well, too, because it started selling all its agricultural commodities to China. It is now one big soy plantation for the China trade. How are we to create a theoretical apparatus that can encompass these incredible differences, as well as the dynamics that created them?
I tried to do a little of that in the Enigma of Capital, analyzing the ways capital flows. As Marx puts it, every limit and barrier has to be overcome. But as you surpass one crisis, it just manifests somewhere else. It has moved from the U.S. and the property markets, impacting consumers in China, and then spun over to the financial sector, creating sovereign debt problems, as in Spain. It is in Iceland, then Dubai, and then Greece. If you don’t have a theoretical framework that can understand the rapidity of these moves then you cannot really encompass what is going on. The crisis tendencies of capitalism are never resolved, but simply moved around from one space to another and from one sector to another.
That the crisis moves around like this poses great difficulty for organizing. The huge anti-capitalist movement in Argentina in 2003, with its assemblies, strikes, and factory takeovers, resembled a revolutionary movement. But five years on, everything is back to normal. One political disaster follows after another. Something that looks like a revolutionary movement can suddenly rescind itself. The result is that the class struggle is very volatile right now. If we were in Bolivia in 2003–05, we would be looking at El Alto, which was in revolutionary mode, but now that Eva Morales is in power you have a mix of indigenous thinking and neoliberal compromises.
I take seriously Marx’s argument that crises express the internal contradictions of capital. However, here can be a tendency, when we come across something we don’t fully understand, it is tempting to chalk it up to the “internal contradictions of capital.” What do we really know about the structure of internal contradictions within the capitalist mode of production? When does a contradiction become an absolute contradiction and generate a crisis?
I went back to Capital, and there are 17 internal contradictions specified therein. To give you one example: The basic contradiction is between use-value and exchange-value. One place to look at this is housing, which has a use-value. But many people who dwell in houses don’t rent, but become incorporated into home ownership—and this use-value is sold as a commodity. This became very popular toward the end of the 19th century, when it was seen as a way of stabilizing society. Home dwellers eventually became homeowners who would use their house as a form of saving. This became critically important in the Great Depression, when all of the financial reform was about encouraging home ownership amongst the working classes. It was once famously said that the savings and loans societies and building societies across Great Britain were the best defenses against Bolshevism. Or to put it the other way around: debt encumbered homeowners don’t go on strike.The incorporation of the U.S. working class as homeowners in suburban locations turned them into very conservative people. They became the defenders of property rights and defenders of capitalism rather than its essential enemies. Prior to this unlike they had been part of a conscious political project during, say, the 1930s.
Around 1980, housing became something else, not simply a form of saving, but a form of speculation. Homeowners became much more concerned with improving the exchange-value of their house. You would stretch a bit to buy a house for $200,000 , improve it, and sell it for $300,000 in a couple of years. The Savings and Loan Crisis of the late-1980s and the housing crash of 2008 led to foreclosures and a crisis of exchange-value, which in turn led to some people being denied the use-value of their house. This conflict between exchange and use-value has evolved historically and has culminated in the current crisis.
This can help tell us what an anti-capitalist politics should be about: namely, that we do not want housing that is vulnerable to the exchange-value calculus. We want housing to be secured as use-values that everyone can access. The same is true of education, healthcare, and water supply. In other words, what you do is say that the contradiction led us into this crisis, but we have a particular political stance now which would roll back neoliberalism’s drive to privatize all those things, gearing them toward exchange-value accumulation.
Andrew Kliman: “Do different interpretations of the crisis really recommend different political strategies?” That this question has to be asked is a sign of the irrationalism and elitism in which much of the left is mired. If you think the masses need you to lead them step by step to a more advanced consciousness, like pieces on a game board, how they understand the crisis is unimportant. But how this vanguard understands the crisis is not important either until you have the allegiance of people, so gaining that allegiance becomes the all-important task—appealing to them where they are now, providing sound bytes about Wall Street, neoliberalism, and the one percent. Similarly, if you think that people can change society by spontaneous activity alone, or by a spontaneously arrived at consensus, understanding how capitalism functions becomes unimportant. Activity becomes all-important, the possibility of unintended consequences is dismissed, and rational argument is seen to lead only to disagreement and disunity.
I begin from a different starting point. Many lack information and access to ideas, but they want a real solution to the ongoing economic malaise. They are not going to rise up unthinkingly without first knowing what they are trying to accomplish and what actions can reasonably accomplish it. Finally, actions have unintended consequences, as the many failed revolutions and failed utopian experiments attest. The road to the present morass was paved with good intentions. This suggests the need for severely rationalist politics. We have to be oppressively aware that some supposed solutions to our economic problems seem good on the surface, but won’t work, or will only worsen the crisis.
When I set out to write The Failure of Capitalist Production, I found some things about the present day crisis that counter the traditional account on the Left about the causes of the recession. First, the turning point of recent U.S. economic history was not the rise of neoliberalism, but what transpired in the 1970s, with the slowdown in economic growth, the relative increase in borrowing, global financial instability, decline in the growth of U.S. public infrastructure development, and so forth. This alone casts doubt on the political determinism of the conventional left view that the reversal of neoliberalism is the key to solving our economic problems.
Contrary to what the conventional left account suggests, I also found that the rate of return on investments, the rate of profit, of U.S. corporations did not rebound under neoliberalism. It fell from the mid-1950s through the early 1980s and never recovered in a sustained way. National corporations' foreign investment also trended downward. This has to do with the long-term slowdown in the growth of productive investment or what is called the rate of capital accumulation. The conventional left account claims that slowdown was caused by financialization: Corporations diverted profits from production to financial uses. But I found that there was no such diversion. Almost all of the fall in the rate of accumulation had taken place by 2001. Between 1981, when Regan took office, and 2001, the period of neoliberalism, U.S. corporations invested a bigger share of their profits in production than they did between 1947–1980. Productive investment absorbed a bigger share of their surplus than it had before. So the slowdown in growth of productive investment is real; however, it was not caused by the difficulties in absorbing the surplus, but by the relative lack of surplus or profit in the first place.
For U.S. corporations, the entire fall in the rate of accumulation or productive investment between 1948–2007 is attributable to the fall in their after tax rate of profit. I have found that even though there has been a rise in income inequality in this country, which is real, profits did not increase at the expense of wages and benefits. The share of corporate output that employees receive did not change, nor did the share of the net national product that the working class was able to buy. Workers’ income enabled them to buy the same share they were able to buy before, without going deeper into debt. Redistribution from wages and benefits to profit didn’t occur, and thus was not the cause of the debt build-up. There was a build up, but for other reasons.
The underlying causes of the Great Recession, at least in the U.S., are the long-term fall in the rate of profit. This is what led to a long-term slowdown in productive investment, which in turn led to a slower growth of output and income. The slowdown in income growth led to ever rising debt burdens, as did government policies that repeatedly kicked the can down the road by throwing even more debt at the problem and encouraging private borrowers to do the same. This led to a series of burst bubbles and debt crises, culminating in the Great Recession. The recession was triggered by a financial crisis. There is no denying that. But if the financial issue was the only aspect of the problem, the economy should have rebounded smartly long ago, since the financial crisis in the U.S. had been quelled by the end of 2008. But there has been no such rebound anywhere in the world and that is mainly due to the profitability and debt problems that remain unresolved and to the political consequences of those debt problems, especially for the future of the Eurozone.
What are the political implications of this analysis? First, neoliberalism did not cause the changed trends in the economy. Financialization didn’t cause profits to be diverted from production. So people who want a broad multi-class alliance against neoliberalism, replacing the bad capitalists with the good capitalists, who want investment in production and for jobs to be created—this isn’t going to solve the problem. Productive investment is not going to rebound until profitability problems, debt problems, and the associated lack of confidence remain unresolved.
Debt forgiveness can help people in debt and in debtor countries but it is not going to solve the economic malaise. To reverse the malaise, the debt problem has to be solved in a way that boosts lenders’ confidence that they are going to be repaid, not the opposite. If lenders are forced to forgive some of the debts, they are going to learn the lesson that they should not lend, or that they should lend at much higher rates, and we would have no solution to the crisis. There has not been redistribution in the United States of wages and benefits for profits, so while reduced inequality is certainly going to help those at the bottom, it is not going to solve the economic crisis. Profit is the fuel on which capitalism runs. The problem that capitalism is facing is that it has been low on fuel for quite some time and any redistributionist measures that siphon off even more fuel are not going to help to stabilize capitalism, but will do the opposite.
I do not think that there is any progressive or leftist solution within the confines of capitalism. Within the system the problems are going to be solved—if they are solved—by addressing the profitability and debt problems. So I would like to suggest that we stop thinking about solving the crisis and instead assist peoples’ ongoing struggles to protect their incomes, jobs, and homes. Concessions were won during the Great Depression, they can be won again, even though they will not solve capitalism’s problems and, in fact, might even make them worse. Concessions are nevertheless worth fighting for and supporting. We need to offer the prospect of a socialist way out of the crisis. It is a real historical possibility. Struggles have been accelerating throughout the world and the problem has been the Left’s response—or lack of response. In the fall of 2008, the notion that capitalism had failed was common in the mainstream media, but it went nowhere because almost all of the Left moved in the opposite direction. The Left tried to downplay the severity of the crisis. It didn’t so much as echo the conclusion that capitalism has failed. That was an enormous lost opportunity and explains a lot of what this panel is meant to address.
Paul Mattick: “What does it mean to interpret the world without being able to change it?” This is not particularly mysterious. Changing the world requires the collective action of very large numbers of people. This does not mean, as the guiding questions for this panel suggested, that capitalism is a system devoid of human agency. Human agency keeps capitalism going, as people go to work, go to school, buy and sell goods. The process of social reproduction is carried out by active, conscious individuals. The existence at various times of social movements against that reproduction attests to other directions for that human agency. The misery the social reproduction process generates explains those movements and with them the various efforts to understand the system that constitute the history of socialist thought. As Marx observed long ago, it is social being that, practically speaking, determines the consciousness, not the other way around.
The most profound understandings of capitalism will lack any practical importance unless what used to be called the broad masses of the people are engaged in social transformation in ways that lead them to find those understandings useful. Marx’s own thought provides an excellent example. His brilliant analysis of capitalism was for the most part not even read, much less understood or acted on, in the heyday of Marxist movements. It was, after all, of little relevance to the social democratic projects of the regulation of the market system in Western Europe and the construction of state capitalism in Russia.
Today, with the disappearance of the historical left, Marxian ideas have become largely an academic specialty. On the other hand, what seems an increasing interest in those ideas, inside and outside the academy, attests to a growing discomfort with the existing social system, especially since the start of the current depression in 2007. It is not impossible that some of those presently engaged in interpreting the world may some day get a chance to participate in changing it. It may be hard on a thinker to discover how little brilliant interpretation shapes history, but there is a positive side to this situation. If the proletarian revolution required a firm grasp of Marx’s Capital with, for example, a correct understanding of value-price transformation by the aforesaid broad masses, it is hard to imagine how that revolution could ever get going. Luckily this is not how social movements happen. They happen when large numbers of people find the existing state of affairs unbearable to such a degree that they are willing to risk the comforts of ordinary life, not to mention life itself, to try something new. Then they look around for ideas that might help them understand what is happening to them and what they can do about it. Social theory can help explain how such situations may come about, but it cannot be expected to produce them.
Crisis is a term used very loosely. I like to remember its original meaning: a turning point. A crisis coming after a period of prosperity initiates a period of depression, thus it corresponds to what on the other end is called a recovery. In this sense the crisis of 2007–08 is over, but the depression lingers on despite all the official talk of recovery. Of course the downturn, like all developments in capitalism’s history, is uneven in its effects. The weakest are hit hardest. Small businesses are crushed in Greece while Germany is still doing fairly well. As Detroit is depopulated, housing prices rise in Brooklyn and Paris. For this reason, the social effects are likewise uneven, although this also reflects the strengths and weaknesses of local traditions. Quebec students defeated an effort to increase university tuition while American students have been unable to prevent similar developments. Such movements, like the mass demonstrations in Lisbon and Spain that have so far held back somewhat the assault on the Iberian working class, have so far remained sporadic, localized, and limited in their challenge to the capitalist economic order. For this reason, we cannot really speak of social or political crisis at the present time.
This economic crisis and the downturn that led into it are like earlier episodes of the same type in the history of capitalism since the early 19th century. But like each of those predecessors they have novel features. Crises manifest deep-rooted problems in profitability in the capitalist economy, which discourage investment and create unemployment and market gluts. They are overcome as the depression acts to shift capital values and labor costs downward. The devaluation of capital makes possible higher profit rates and so a revival of economic affairs. The last major downturn of this type, which began in the 1930s and led into World War II, was so destructive in its effects on capital values as to make possible the 20 years of prosperity known to economists as the golden age. But even this prosperous period required constant infusions of government spending to maintain low levels of unemployment. When the golden age came to an end in the mid-1970s government borrowing and spending was further increased. More and more government policies also facilitated the expansion into the 21st century of the credit necessary for the debt-based version of prosperity that lasted despite continuous debt cresses, stock market crashes, currency exchange crises and decades of depression in Japan. The failure of all this to restore the profitability of capital can be seen in the flow of money from capital investment to speculation, which offers high short-term profits, at least for the well-placed or lucky. As capital flowed into speculation instead of productive investment, producing the effect of temporary prosperity by means of a series of bubbles, working class living standards were maintained by the massive growth of consumer debt, culminating in workers’ participation in the mortgage bubble in the early 21st century. Like the growth of state debt and the welfare state, the difficulty we see today in doing away with them registers the decline of the private enterprise economy.
Despite its dynamism and the gigantic increase in the productivity of human labor that it has achieved since the early 19th century, and despite the disappearance of political and social barriers to its spread in the course of the 20th, capitalism has not been able to generate the quantity of profit production needed to incorporate much of the world’s population into its modern industrial form. The failure of the non-financial parts of the economy to expand sufficiently showed itself in 2008 in the near collapse of the whole Rube Goldberg device of cantilevered finance. For the same reason the massive increase in government spending that avoided a return to depression conditions after the mid 1960s led not to a steady flow of profits from the now primed pump, but to today’s increasingly problematic state deficit.
From the viewpoint of the Marxist theory of capital accumulation, it is precisely the avoidance of depression conditions that have prevented a new transition to prosperity since the end of the post-war golden age. The desire to avoid a full-blown depression, still, as of late-2012, prevails among the global ruing class. Although smaller scale businesses have been pushed into bankruptcy, the European Central Bank along with the International Monetary Fund and Federal Reserve Bank of the U.S. are printing money to keep afloat the banks and hedge funds, whose investments powered the recent expansion of the euro and dollar zones. At the same time, one sees in full force the will to extract as much as possible from the world working class by cutting wages, including socially administered segments of the wage such as pensions and health insurance, along with the elimination and privatization of government services with attendant cuts in public employment. This is held somewhat in check by mass expressions of anger; austerity has not progressed as rapidly, for example, in Spain or Italy as it has in smaller and weaker economies, like Ireland or Greece. Is this to say that the current crisis cycle has moved capitalism to the point of breakdown, in the sense of self-destruction? No. Because today, as in all earlier moments, capitalism’s fate hangs on the willingness of human beings to engage in the difficult struggles needed to overthrow existing relations of social power and create new forms of production and consumption.
In its current condition, capitalism promises economic difficulty for decades to come. Waves of bankruptcies and business consolidations for capitalist firms and increasingly serious conflicts among economic entities and even nations all center around who is going to pay for the system’s survival. The mass unemployment and material deprivation that Marx predicted as the long-term outcome of capitalist development have become features of the world economy. That is not permanent, but it will be with us for an extended time, together with the havoc promised by the ongoing ecological catastrophe. It is not inconceivable that this could lead to social and political convulsions that would deserve the name of crisis.
LG: David, I would eventually like to hear about the 16 or so contradictions that we didn’t address yet. But first, regarding the housing bubble that began in the 1980s right up to 2007–08, it seems to me this was a response to a deeper crisis of profitability in the system as a whole. It was part of a wider attempt to solve the crisis by putting consumption power in the hands of people with supposedly appreciating assets, i.e., their homes. Andrew, I agree about dating the crisis to the 1970s. You mentioned that there has been no fall in real wages for American workers. I don’t want to argue much over statistics, but the disappearance since the 1960s of the one-paycheck family means that, with these same levels of income, the possibility of one paycheck reproducing a family of four has become nearly impossible. Marx mentions in Capital, and this is often neglected, that the wage of a worker is not just to reproduce the worker but also to produce the next generation of workers. The rise of the 2- and 3-paycheck family is a sure sign of a contraction of social reproduction. Paul, I would like you to elaborate more on the devaluation represented by the crisis of 1929–45, or 1914–1945. At those times a phase of destruction did lay the foundation for the post-war boom, so why do you think that is not what is going to happen now? What we have seen the 1970s is a kind of substitute World War III, in that there has been tremendous destruction on a world scale. Do you think that social revolution is a possible outcome of the crisis?
DH: I was a little confused by your understanding of fictitious capital, Loren. I understand it as the capitalization of any income stream, which can then be brought to the market and sold in stocks and shares. What’s striking about Marx’s analysis is that this is where he comes back to the question of fetishism. Why it is it that the fetishistic character of the credit system can produce circulation of fictitious capital? That leads into an interesting question as to why capital actually tolerates the insanity of the credit system, which is a Pandora’s box out of which all kinds of nasty things jump, including the speculative waves that we have been experiencing.
Andrew, I too date the origins of neoliberalism to the late 1960s and early 1970s, particularly the market crash of 1973, which was followed then by what I saw as the major dual experiment in neoliberal politics: One was in Chile, of course, in 1975, and also of course in the New York fiscal crisis. The notion of structural adjustment that would later become a shibboleth within the IMF after 1992 was first experimented with in 1975. The origin of neoliberalism was not technical. It was a class project. To those who argue that neoliberalism is over, I say the class project is going very well, in fact the upper classes have benefited from this last crisis. In many ways they have consolidated even more wealth and power.
AK: When I say that the real wages and benefits of American workers have increased in place and their share of income hasn’t fallen, I am talking about the real wages per hour, and this is not because per family they are working more hours. What Paul has said, about the empirical basis of the claim that there has been a diversion from production to finance, the evidence actually points to the opposite.
My other comment though is that the actual contradiction, as Marx argues, is between use value and value, not use-value and exchange-value. The two factors of the commodity are use-value and value. Exchange value is just a form of appearance. It seems like a kind of abstruse theoretical point, but I think it goes deep into the question of what we need to do, which is to get rid of the law of value, the economic laws that compel producers to produce at low cost because time spent producing stuff that you don’t need above the social average does not count.
PM: We don’t see the kind of massive devaluation of capital that took place during the Great Depression and the Second World War because the nature of the capitalist economy relentlessly pushes people in that direction anyway. Hence every government’s move in the direction of austerity, cheered on by capitalist pundits, who at the same time are reluctant to destroy the debt-based structure supporting the fictitious capital that had sustained the appearance of prosperity over the last 30 years. Capital has become much more centralized and concentrated in the last 50 years and much more globalized. The only hope for capitalism, you could say, for capitalism would be massive devaluation, even though they don’t want to do that, hence the endless pussyfooting around austerity and bits of stimulus.
Q & A
Do you think that U.S. hegemony is at an end, and if so, what is to come? Is neoliberalism at an end? What will replace it?
DH: As far as military power is concerned, the U.S. is hegemonic, absolutely! But is it financially and productively hegemonic? In many ways it seems more decentered. We are getting regional hegemons like China in the Far East, Brazil in Latin America, and so on. In some parts of the world neoliberalism never really got started. Latin America has been anti-neoliberal for some time now, adopting (broadly speaking) a more Keynesian approach. Neoliberalism was a political project, which had diverse structures deeply embedded in some parts of the world and not in others. The reaction against it is also uneven. Is this the end of capitalism? Certainly not. But the interesting question is what kind of capitalism will follow—a plutocracy, or something rather different?
AK: While certainly the U.S. has military might that is unrivaled, there is an argument, which I think should be taken seriously, that in the financial sphere and the economic sphere, the U.S. was never hegemonic. Regarding neoliberalism, I don’t accept that the economic direction is determined by politics and ideology. I think it is rather the reverse. Consider that Henry Paulson, the neoliberal Treasury Secretary, pushed for a massive bailout. Those in power will do what is pragmatic, muddling through to keep the system afloat, whatever their ideological inclinations, if they think that is what it takes to save capitalism.
PM: Neoliberalism never really existed as much more than an ideology. The greatest prophet of neoliberalism in American history, Ronald Regan, also was the greatest Keynesian. The move toward austerity does not significantly decrease state involvement in economic activity. We don’t know what the outcome of any period of social and economic crisis would be. The historical record is that so far only small minorities of people have tried to overthrow the existing system of social relations. It's possible that in the future much larger numbers of people might be moved in a similar direction and they might be large enough to succeed in doing it.
How is listening to a panel like this, with four white males telling us things we already largely know, helpful to us in overcoming the crisis? Why was nothing mentioned about rights, gender, or the family? Why were these treated as side issues?
One implication of the crisis of neoliberalism is that there is no alternative and that this absence of alternatives has to do with the collapse of the centrally planned economies. Would socialism entail the creation of a democratic, globally planned economy?
LG: I am really sorry that I was born a white male and spent 40 years studying capitalist crisis. I think the question of the disappearance of the one-paycheck family—though I am no fan of the bourgeois nuclear family—is one key aspect of the contraction of social reproduction. This can lead to a fruitful discussion of some gender issues.
If one looks over a 200-year period—from the very labor-intensive capitalism that existed in the early 19th century to today—there is no question that there has been a long-term trend towards the rise of constant capital and the diminution of variable capital, albeit with a lot of fluctuations along the way. The credit system was necessary to uphold the value of different claims to wealth well past the time they otherwise would have collapsed due to lack of profit. The goal of socialism is, as Andrew said, the abolition of value, the destruction of the regulation of social production by socially necessary labor time.
PM: Participating on a panel like this is not a radical activity. It does not change the world. It does not undermine anything. As a group we are interested in the subject, but I see no reason to describe that as a radical or revolutionary activity. I generally refuse to be on a discussion that does not include at least one female. This time I would have refused, but, the truth is, I deal with a lot of the crisis literature, but I don’t know any women who are writing about the subject. I would say that issues of race and gender, while of importance or interest politically, are quite irrelevant to the question of the nature of the world economic downturn. They have no bearing on it. This is an extremely, highly abstract feature of capitalism. If you had total gender equality and total racial equality in every nation in the world, you would still have economic depressions. If we would begin to talk about political responses to the existing economic situation, then we would have to start talking about gender, race, nationality, and many other social categories. I think it has to be faced, as a sociological fact, that Marxist theory is a male business, like ham radio operators or tropical fish keeping. It’s a hobby for white males. There is a history behind that sociological fact.
AK: I would also have liked a more representative panel. But, on the question of planning: If you are going to overcome the law of value, you have to have planning and at some level it will have to be centralized, for practical reasons. To have a world economy, it has to be coordinated. It doesn’t have to be coordinated by bureaucracy in an oppressive manner. Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel have done really good work about how you can have, in a sense, central planning, without anybody being controlled.
If it is difficult to conceive of the end of capitalism, this probably is an indication that there is not currently a force capable of challenging it. If that is the case, what is the interpretation of capitalism for? Do you think that, in the early 20th century, when there was a burst of revolutions, that the issue of anti-capitalism was clearer?
PM: We have now had 300 years of capitalism. It seems like it has always been there and always will be there. The problem is still the same and the solution is still the same. Unless people figure it out, they will suffer wretchedly. Since people are not completely nuts, it’s possible they will be pushed to the point that they say, “We have to do something about this.” If they want to, they certainly can.
LG: Forty years ago, the most advanced notion of revolution on the radical left was the idea of seizing the factories and establishing worker’s councils. But looking more deeply into Marx, one of the things that always struck me was that as capitalism evolves, it illuminates things in Marx that people didn’t notice before. Let’s take the unpublished sixth chapter of volume one of Capital. It has this very powerful description of the transition to an embodied technology that self-expresses a social relationship of capital. Most early 20th century Marxists did not even know this chapter, but the evolution of capital now makes it stand out. As for the early 20th century, I think it is very important to understand that the overwhelming majority of Marxists and revolutionaries at that time were statists of one kind or another. There was a belief that if it wasn’t a question of seizing the existing state, it was a question of setting up another state that would essentially continue capital in a different form, as in the Soviet Union.
DH: Value is a social relation. As such, it is immaterial and objective, as Marx makes very clear. It therefore needs material representation, money, which depends on exchange-value. But the representation of value, the money form, does not truly represent it. Value is socially necessary labor time on a world scale. The problem is that its representation is such that private persons can appropriate its sociality. As a result, this social power can be accumulated by an individual and a class. This representation of value in the money form is a perversion of what value is really about, and this is a contradiction. If you want to abolish classes and the individual appropriation of social value, then you have to come up with a money form that is anti-accumulation. This is a very interesting idea. Marx says that the money commodities are gold and silver for the very simple reason that they do not oxidize. They do not rot or disintegrate, but retains its character. Therefore, you can accumulate and save value. If you had a form of money that dissolved, you would end up with a very different kind of society, because money would aid circulation but would not facilitate accumulation. Perhaps we should start inventing new forms of money that oxidize!
What we have to do is stop the accumulation of wealth and power in private hands. One of the ways to do that is to revolutionize the money form. I know someone is going to say, “Marx objected to Proudhon’s attempts to do this,” but Marx is sometimes unfair to Proudhon. Some of the stuff about alternative currencies, which the Marxist left usually renounces as anarchist, is actually worth considering.
What are the political implications at stake in the contradiction between use-value and exchange-value?
AK: This is not the essential contradiction of capital but a form of its appearance. The internal contradiction of capital is between use-value and value. It is not just a question of Marx being fair or unfair to Proudhon; there is a question of whether or not you can fundamentally alter the nature of the system by regulating markets or messing with money. Marx puts forward a very detailed argument—in section three, chapter one of Capital, volume one—about why attempting to change the system by abolishing money, while keeping commodities and commodity production intact, is like getting rid of the pope while keeping Catholicism otherwise in place.
The Left set about downplaying the crisis of 2008. Howard Zinn remarked in The Nation, “It is sad to see both major political parties agree to spend 700 billion dollars of tax-payer money to bail-out huge financial institutions." Populists like Zinn were focused on, “Why are we enriching the bankers?” while failing to see that the system was hanging in a balance. The financial system could have collapsed in September-October of 2008. But the Left didn’t want to say that it wanted that to occur. Yet it hated to admit that keeping capitalism afloat required the implementation of something like TARP. The Left was thus unable to put forward a reasonable response in light of the widespread opinion that capitalism had failed.
LG: What does the non-reproduction of the working-class mean and what is the role of the revolutionary left? I think we saw a very good example of this in the most radical days of Occupy, which took place on the West coast, where you might say a “precariat” or a large pool of casual workers began to form an alliance with more traditional, older organized workers, the West Coast Longshoreman Union. This culminated with the attack on the Longshoreman in the fall of 2011 and carried over into the spring of 2012. I do not advocate the formation of a vanguard party. Someday, a political party will emerge, but in the meantime what is possible and necessary is a network of people, like those in Occupy, that are spreading an analysis of the fundamental crisis of the system, putting forward the claim that there is no exit short of a socialist-communist alternative to the capitalist mode of production. As Marx says in the Communist Manifesto, the involvement in this or that struggle is not the question of victory or defeat, but of building the unity of the working class. I think that’s what briefly emerged, in Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco, at the time of the Longshoreman struggle.
PM: The non-reproduction of the working class is a misnomer. What one should say is that the value of labor power is declining or being pushed down. A smaller percentage of the world’s population is becoming necessary for the working class. You can send half the people in the United States to college but you only need to employ eighty percent of them. The others will become part of the “precariat” and go on to work as baristas or scrabble for some other kind of wage-labor, or go to Vermont and to make goat cheese. In Greece now, there are no jobs for people, but globally the working class is reproduced. As Marx expected, the reserve army of labor increases over time. China is an interesting example where, in the last 10 years, there has not been one new job in manufacturing, according to ILO (International Labor Organization) statistics, partly because the southern edge of China, where foreign manufacturing and assembly platforms are constructed, is using the latest technology with extremely high productivity.
Historically, socialists have proposed answers even beyond capitalism, pointing to the reappropriation of technology. What happened to that socialist imagination?
LG: Technology as such is not capital. Capital is a social relationship and in the case of, say, the port of Rotterdam, where some infinitely small number of longshoreman are unloading ships in the biggest port in Europe, this shows how capital has marginalized much of the working class through technological innovation even as it depends upon the value of the reproduction of labor power as its standard for exchange. It is only a socialist-communist society that can strip away that value form and use technology for its unrealized use-value.
PM: I feel I have to defend the honor of the socialist past. The idea of the abolition of labor and the abolition of the working class was the prime idea of much of the socialist movement of the 19th century and it was particularly dear to the heart of Marx, who looked to a communist society in which people would do as little work as possible through the egalitarian use of technology in order to maximize free time. This was the Marxian utopia: The freeing of time for everybody by abolishing the class of workers. Through the generalization of labor, the hours of labor would be shortened and everybody would do as little work as possible. This is a very old idea that Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue celebrated, and it is one that all socialists should follow. |P
Transcribed by Daniel Jacobs and Konstantin Kaminskiy
. Karl Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Penguin Books, 1973), 706.
. Howard Zinn, “Spend the Bailout Money on the Middle Class,” The Nation, October 27, 2008, available online at < http://www.thenation.com/article/spend-bailout-money-middle-class>.[
Platypus Review 55 | April 2013
Last summer, the Frankfurt chapter of the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted the latest iteration of “The 3Rs: Reform, Revolution, and Resistance,” a series of events for which speakers were invited to reflect on the contemporary state of anti-capitalist politics. Similar events were previously hosted in New York in 2007 and Thessaloniki in 2012. Panelists included Thomas Seibert of Interventionistische Linke, Janine Wissler of Die LINKE/Marx 21, Norbert Trenkle of Krisis, and Daniel Loick from Goethe University Frankfurt; Jerzy Sobotta moderated. What follows is an edited and translated transcript of their conversation, which was held on June 25, 2012, at Goethe University Frankfurt.
Thomas Seibert: I don’t believe that the Left is at a historical low point today. The Left reached a nadir in the nineties, which was a depressing time, when many former leftists abandoned the Left. This has been reversed today, especially since 2011, since the return of a protest form that was thought to have become historically obsolete, i.e. of insurrections based on people rallying in public squares. Then they stay there and demand the overthrow of the government.
Let me begin, however, with a definition: resistance is rebelliousness and revolt. I see resistance as located in everyday life, in small matters such as sabotage at the workplace, skipping work, or located on an even smaller scale. You can also detect resistance where the political unconscious comes into play: people get sick by the thousands, for example, and mental illnesses have increased by 40 percent in Greece in the past months. The most determined form of resistance in its classical form occurred in Tottenham, England, in 2011. These sorts of riots are a central pillar of collective resistance, that is, rebelliousness and revolt.
Many people who see resistance as their approach to politics do so because they have turned away from such concepts as reform and revolution. And they do so to avoid posing the difficult questions that arise from the issue of reform and revolution: Are we confronted with a totality? Do we arrest this totality? How do we overcome this totality? There is a tradition on the Left that simply evades such questions that have supposedly become historically obsolete; these vexations are instead replaced by a notion of resistance, which is limited to specific aims, rather than at the social totality. This idea is evident since the 60s, in the work of Michel Foucault, and has appeared again and again since the 80s-90s. Such approaches no longer pose the question whether the whole, which is to say capitalism, can be abolished. This is seen as too complicated, unattainable, or simply theoretically wrong-headed. This is where this micro-political resistance comes in.
Yet, such politics are misguided, I believe, and for a very logical reason: If this is your conception of politics, you reaffirm your position as reactive to the problem of oppression, which will always go on.
About reform and resistance I would just say: No specific strategy and no specific form of protest have definitely failed historically. It is naïve to say that this or that has definitely failed, and if someone says something has failed, I would like to know what, specifically. Let’s take parliamentary politics: Some say the reformist approach has definitely failed, as has the attempt to seize power and thus change society, and so too have spontaneous revolts and guerrilla tactics. All of these strategies have failed, that is true, but I would still say that how these different strategies address the question of social transformation—the abolishment of present forms of domination and exploitation and of present forms of subjectivization—remains central. I aim at the simple formula: “by any means necessary.” Although, of course, I would say that some things have been tried and should no longer be applied.
The question of a revolutionary rupture needs to be posed in a differentiated manner. We know that we are faced with various forms of domination and exploitation, and some of these will certainly not be overcome by means of a swift revolutionary rupture, such as in the case of overcoming patriarchy. Still, the abolishment of capitalism will entail the suspension of the logic of capital, however long you take that period of transition to be. Thus, I don’t believe we can do without a conception of a revolutionary rupture.
Let’s pose the matter of reform, revolution, and resistance more concretely by acknowledging that everything begins with resistance. The Left has to have a positive relation with emerging revolts, without saying, of course, that it approves of them in principle.
Norbert Trenkle: I would like to stress the need to overcome the conception of resistance as micropolitics, and instead refocus on the totality. The terms “reform” and “revolution” have become deeply infected by the logic of capital. In fact, they are a reflex of the consolidation of capitalism, and for that reason no longer useful for the supersession of capitalism. Their meanings have changed too: Reform today means the cutback of social rights, of the rights of workers, or in other words, a thorough economization of society. And revolution implies nothing more than the overthrow of some authoritarian regimes to make way for free markets or, at best, an attempt to introduce democratic rights.
By this, I don’t mean to say that these terms have simply become suffused by neoliberal dogma, although they are rather closely connected with the social process of bourgeois society, in that they are subjected to the historical trajectory of the continued expansion and permanently revolutionizing means of production. However, this basic process has become a metaphysically bloated conception of philosophy of history, particularly in its classical formulation, with its emphasis on progress. Marxism, on the other hand, already regards bourgeois society as a transitory phase, directed toward a higher social formation. “Reform” and “revolution” stand in the tradition of this conception of progress and refer to it. Despite the fact that those two terms are antagonistic, they both share similar points of reference and are closely related, since they both imagine that the historical process is pushing them forward. We need to liberate ourselves from this metaphysical conception of social transformation as it is infected with the real metaphysics of bourgeois society.
By real metaphysics I mean that our actions are already anticipated by unconscious processes, or in other words, what Marx calls the “fetish,” a reification of social relations which rules over people. Liberation or emancipation can thus only mean a liberation in terms of the unconsciously presupposed that rules over people although they are their own social relations. This also implies that emancipation cannot be formulated with metaphysical or historico-philosophical categories.
Bourgeois-capitalist society has reached its limits. This, however, is not a historico-teleological interpretation but the result of the immanent contradictions of capitalism. This process does not point into some beyond, but rather to the fact that the limits have been reached. We are at a point at which we are forced to confront the question of what will follow next, since we are in a situation in which the whole of capitalist society has been formed through these contradications, and not only in its objective structures but also in its structures of consciousness. This means that there are no prerequisites for emancipation that we can relate to—these prerequisites have to be created first. Likewise, there is no presupposed “us,” no prior subject, but this “us” has to be created first through our reified consciousness.
The question of tactics and forms of protest poses itself anew once we become aware of the limits to our own consciousness. The same is true for the problem of immanence and transcendence, or, in other words, what kinds of immanent demands can be raised while at the same time pointing to the transcendence of this society. Neither the tactic nor the form of protest is the problem but rather the question what our cause is all about. First, there needs to be a negative identification of the liberation from this reified process, and secondly an appropriation of material wealth. The crisis of bourgeois society has emanated from the paradoxical fact that this society is too rich. Therefore, the answer to the question of what our cause is all about is access to material wealth and an emancipation from this form of value, for only then can forms of actions and tactics be determined anew.
Daniel Loick: I am afraid that I am a representative of exactly these Foucauldian micropolitics of the post-68 generation, with its insistent stress on everyday concerns, to which Thomas and Norbert are so fundamentally opposed. Frankfurt is where Helke Sander, at the delegate conference of the SDS, helped establish a new phase of the feminist movement. We can still learn from the speech she delivered and from the feminist politics of the generation of ’68. The feminists pointed to the fact that a change in economic relations does not necessarily result in a change of gender relations. Rather than merely relieving women in private life, for example by organizing education in a solidary or collective manner, it meant the opening up of a new area of political struggle. Previously private matters were now understood as political. What resulted from this new conception of politics was the fact that social transformation was no longer thought of within the same confines of reform versus revolution.
Let me therefore put these 7 theses up for debate:
1. Let’s put an end to economism: There is no primary or secondary contradiction, no base-superstructure relation, or real subsumption, or social totality, no deduction from the economy, or reducibility, no determination, and certainly not “in the last instance.” Capitalism, sexism, racism, neo-colonialism, anti-semitism, and many other processes of marginalization, exploitation, and oppression all compose an ensemble of forms of domination. They are interrelated, of course, at times promoting each other, at other times opposing each other. However one can never deduce the temporal or logical priority of one of these elements.
2. No division into “political politics” and “everyday politics”: Reproductive and nurturing labor needs to be made visible and distributed fairly. Our daily lives are a terrain for political struggle. The private sphere is neither subordinated nor of secondary importance to political struggle. Demands for a just organization of housework and child-rearing, and for solidary care are not merely meant to present women or other excluded persons with equal access to the sphere of “real” politics; it’s rather the other way round so that men and other privileged people are forced back into the sphere of “real” politics.
3. No fear of your own success: Progress in the fight against a relation of domination is not invalidated by the fact that it does not come about at the same time with success in the struggle against all forms of domination. The feminist revolution of 1968 is not less revolutionary because capitalism was not abolished at the same time. That is not to say that our own success cannot be integrated and domesticated or that individual forms of liberation in the end cannot have an ambivalent or ironic outcome. Those who claim, however, that post-68 forms of liberation have not really changed anything, or, even worse, have been the harbingers of post-Fordist or post-modern labor relations, merely continue the privileging and prioritizing of transformations of a so-called “base.” Those purporting the priority of some totality are really always only concerned with some part, namely the economy, and only a certain part of the economy.
4. No “tabula rasa” and no catharsis: Since we face a multitude of relatively autonomous forms of domination that are not congruent with one another, it follows that the idea that one simple “rupture” will radically alter reality is unrealistic and misleading. There are always several fronts at which we need to fight, several alliances or enmities. The term “revolution” either needs to be given up upon entirely or reformulated in such a way that it can include the heterogeneous temporalities of emancipatory movements.
5. There are no longer any barricades: We must not conceive of all forms of domination in the same way that we conceive of capitalism. Some forms of domination constitute antagonistic oppositions; some are intimate and run through our own bodies (such as gender dualism). There are militants within bourgeois institutions and enemies in my bed. Some demands can be put into rights, others require changes of attitude; some struggles aim at changing a material regime, others at a cultural or symbolic one. Relations between parents and children are a relations of domination. But these relations cannot be solved by the guillotine or through tax incentives that reduce them to problems of economics. Such issues can only be adequately resolved through the recognition of specific needs of the subaltern.
6. Put an end to aniconism: We need to develop and establish new relationships in the here and now. These forms of how we want to live need to be tried, reflected upon, revised, and published. There is no reason why we need to wait for the day after the revolution. We can begin now.
7. Occupy your life: What is truly exciting and encouraging in global protest movements that we are currently witnessing is precisely that they take seriously the specific aesthetics of existence which rest in activism. It seems that, from the beginning of the Occupy movement, discussions about the organization of our everyday lives have played a major role; from the beginning the activists have not pushed aside the cultural dimension of protest, but rather affirmed it. In almost all documents from Occupy, the experience of living together collectively is emphasized, the experience of sleeping in tents, of debating, gathering, and the emotions and affects related to it. Occupy rejects the interpellation of a personified addressee or the fiction of a grand social subject. And as a side effect, Occupy showed that activism need not be ascetic or sad, but that there is a lot to win even today, once we set up together a new and defiant life.
Janine Wissler: Far from having reached a historical nadir, the contradictions today loom so large that, on the contrary, the Left and anti-capitalist politics should be able to relate much better to the social consciousness than was the case during Fordism. That is, in times of huge growth rates, when many parts of society could, in one way or another, get something out of the growth, when there was an actual improvement of the quality of life, the contradictions in the system are less obvious. It seems obvious to many people that our current social and economic problems will never be solved if the prevailing power and property relations remain intact. The Occupy and Blockupy protests, the latter with about 25,000 participants, are great developments. However, I also argue that, especially in Germany, social movements have had great difficulties gaining a foothold.
I would follow Thomas’s definition of the term “resistance.” There are different forms of resistance, which can be concerned with single issues, can be long-lasting, can be very individualized, or can take place on a mass scale in the shape of social movements. It is the task of the Left therefore to endorse these kinds of resistance and to lead them in a way from the concrete to the universal. It should be made obvious that it doesn’t make sense in the end to just fight the symptoms of a sick system. How can you put an entire system into question though? It doesn’t work to merely win reforms and improvements step by step and then hope to arrive at a better society. Reforms can be taken back; indeed, the last few years in particular showed that advancements once gained can be taken back, so that the universal does have its limitations.
In the last few years and decades struggles for positive reforms have not had priority, rather we have only witnessed defensive struggles, which were meant to impede political setbacks. There were no mass protests that raised demands which pointed beyond the status quo. We can see this in struggles within higher learning or at workplaces. It seems that the fight for positive reforms has retreated into the defensive and the term “reform” has been perverted completely. If you think of reforms today, you think of deterioration, and not of anything positive.
If we do talk of reform and revolution, however, reformist parties should be criticized for never raising the issue of what stands in the way of social movements and for never properly addressing what keeps people from fighting for their interests together. The reason for this oversight is that the dominant principle within reformism is that you make policies for people, as their proxies. The idea seems totally lost that you can fight for self-emancipation, i.e. that people can engage in politics by fighting for their rights themselves, by making policies on their own.
I concur with the critique of economism. Nevertheless, it is actually important to discuss how exploitative and oppressive regimes are interrelated, and how they condition one another. I also agree with the sentiment that the fights against racism and against the oppression of women are independent struggles. It would, of course, be wrong to deduce everything out of the class struggle. We do need to consider where we can find correlations. I, for example, cannot imagine how women are supposed to be free in an unfree society and vice versa. That is why Daniel’s arguments seem absolute. There are seemingly naturally objective reasons why it makes sense socially that women are not equal to men, but if you get rid of the economic reason, you erase the objective foundation of inequality. We need to reflect on how we can link the struggle for the equality of women with the fight for a better society. History has shown that it was precisely during times of revolutionary upheavals that women were able to gain the most rights. Think only of 1918 when women gained the vote. Those were times when you had progressive developments and revolutionary situations all across society. Thus, we need to discuss those issues alongside one another without regressing back to the old debate around secondary contradictions, as such debates are harmful to the Left.
TS: I feel thrown back into the old debates of the 70s. Back then, I always used to say the same things that Daniel said just now, and they were always the vantage point of my politics. But we are in the year 2012 now; we have accumulated a lot of experience since the 70s.
There was a time when politics was defined as what the party does against the state and capital, always under the leadership of men, and everything else remained part of the private sphere, at best a secondary contradiction, to be dealt with after the revolution. To counter this, the dualism of micro- and macro-politics was introduced, which defined the entire micropolitical field as an area of resistance. All the old questions remain, though, and you’re not an economist if you stress that. There are different forms of domination, and they all follow their own logic. Of course, capitalism is not the only system of domination. But it is an essential one (but certainly not the only one) that runs through all the other ones. If you deny this fact, only the left-liberal position remains, which at best aims at taming the anarchy of capitalism.
Let me introduce the old, “evil” Leninist dualism of trade unionism versus politics. Trade unionism includes everything we accumulate spontaneously in our everyday lives, which is then articulated, e.g. in union demands. This was to be done away with and replaced by what the party dictated. Looked at from today’s point of view, this is of course a flawed position. However, there is a moment contained in it in which we can rediscover our experiences of the last 30 years: The division into trade unionism versus politics also meant the division of those who could not see beyond their own interests, who could only focus on their specific grievances, and were unable to offer more resistance. Lenin coined the term economism for the labor movement of his time, but you can also speak of a trade unionism of women, the youth, the sick, and of ecologists—it is a real problem that needs to be transcended. You need to move beyond this and constitute yourself as a political subject. I believe that those who set out to oppose the SDS have themselves been corrupted and gotten stuck in a specific trade unionism of their own. That doesn’t diminish their activities. Still, we need to ask how an entire generation could become saturated with questions of better child daycare and changed gender relations, which have all changed so dramatically. And, once again, we need to re-pose the question of the political subject who arises to fight in the name of all.
NT: Naturally I reject the accusation of economism. Driving this sort of attack is a truncated understanding of capitalism and its underlying features. It makes a difference whether I speak of a capitalist society whose basic process is the logic of the value form, or whether I say, “Everything is determined economically.” Those are entirely different things. There is a historically specific character to this society which is comprised in this way of being constantly “driven,” of this compulsion to constant acceleration, this necessity of always overthrowing everything, including the means of production, and penetrating all of society with capitalist relations. In no way is this merely an economic relationship, but relates to the most intimate human relationships, in other words, to the way in which people interact with one another. When we speak of subjects who understand themselves to be in constant competition and who have to act accordingly, then we’re speaking of human beings who are forced to objectify the world and themselves. We can observe this at its most obvious in the fact that I need to sell myself day after day as the commodity labor power. But things reach even farther: the need to objectify yourself and face the world as an objective process, i.e. facing something that is objectively alien to you—that’s something specific to capitalism, and which penetrates all forms of domination that persist in it. In other words, it’s not just about some sort of “economic process,” but rather about something that preconditions all social relations, and is thus also not easily grasped as it operates prior to everyday relations and actions. That’s reflected in the way people think about society. For example, the construction of a collective subject such as “the nation” is a form of metaphysics, i.e. when I identify with a meta-subject and I consequently submit myself to it. In this close way of looking at things we realize that it naturally does not have anything to do with economism but with the way I behave toward this society.
The “perverseness” of the term “reform” that Janine talked about expresses itself in the fact that the historical process which expedited reforms and allowed greater latitude within bourgeois-capitalist society has exhausted itself. The shift of the dynamic of capitalist accumulation to the financial markets has taken place because it saw in this move a strategy to avoid this underlying crisis of capitalism for a few decades. Not only has the latitude been narrowed, but the balance of power has also shifted in a way such that what once was meant by reform, i.e. gaining social rights and leeway in labor relations, does not work anymore. That’s what is meant when we talk of the “perverseness” of the term “reform.”
DL: I’ll grant you this: I, too, support the abolition of capitalism. What I find problematic, however, is the deduction of some kind of priority of the economic sphere before all other forms of domination, be they of a temporal or of a logical nature. The autonomy of struggles means that there are various autonomous, overlapping spheres that mutually influence one another, but there is just no prioritization. The belittlement of micropolitics overlooks the seriousness of those forms of domination and how difficult it is to change things on a small scale. Have you ever tried changing yourself? This is the toughest thing of all!
Foucault did not refuse to face the totality. He simply answered this challenge differently, by opposing the brand of Marxist thought that was dominant in the Communist Party of France, which took as its basic premise the category of the social totality. It was this that Foucault countered with the belief that micropolitics were heterogeneous and constituted local power relations which you have to resist locally as well as globally.
There are two dangers for the Left: corruption and conformity. The institutionalization of the Left can cause it to lose and betray its own ideals. That is what it needs to look out for and develop mechanisms to counter. The second danger is that of conformity or Stalinism. This is what Foucault opposed. When Thomas says, even after all the experience of avant-garde politics, that we should strive to achieve socialism “by any means necessary,” my alarm rings! The concept of the political needs to be reflected on critically; the experiences of Stalinism as a temptation for the Left demands reflection. We do definitely exclude some “means!”
JW: I believe that even struggles for the most minor improvements, such as better child daycare, are absolutely legitimate and necessary. The question is rather whether we stop at those.
In her essay “Reform or Revolution,” Rosa Luxemburg makes clear that she does not confront those matters as contradictions. On the contrary, in the fight for reforms we sow the seeds of a new society and the consciousness that this other society is possible, even though, to be sure, Luxemburg also explains how it does not suffice to only fight for reforms. Contemporary power relations as well as property relations are intertwined and the Left cannot lead struggles based on a conception of capitalism that detaches one from the other.
Q & A
What role do you ascribe to the political as a way to engage history, as a means to learn to understand things in a new way, such that the object of critique is itself changed and thus also our own understanding of this object of critique?
TS: The political does have a dynamic of its own. You would be mistaken, though, to assume that the political process can put everything into a new direction without being embedded in the restraints demanded by politics. I think that the political process contains the unpredictable, the non-deducible, the unexpected and surprising, sudden openings that no one is expecting. The political considerations of the comrades in Cairo only a few months or even a few weeks before the events in Tahrir Square took place within an entirely different horizon than after fall of the Mubarak. Everyone thought the Mubarak regime would last forever, that they would have to essentially adapt to this world dominated by Mubarak, and this was especially true for the left in Egypt. When the events in Tahrir Square unfolded, the Left, which until then still had been marginalized, was suddenly agitating in an entirely different context—this is the momentum of the political and it goes beyond mere “resistance.” At the level of the relationship between the micro- and the macro-political, the question arises, “What kind of rupture within your life exists once you decide to remain the political subject after having certain experiences?” If I take a historical look back at my own life I can definitely say that a giant part of my generation has been corrupted.
NT: The Greens, like Die Linke or any other party that tries to change anything by engaging in the political process, face structural constraints. When you take the case of Die Linke joining in on austerity measures when they were in a coalition government in Berlin a few years ago it had to accept the budgetary logic of sustaining only that infrastructure which can also be paid for. This is what happens once you enter into politics. That way, I am already wrapped in all the constraints that define capitalist logic, and all of this is the case in a time in which I have less leeway politically because capital accumulation is faltering. Soon we are left with the so-called “pragmatists” who accept systemic constraints and execute them. That is how a political class emerges which is nothing more than an operative of this logic, which is to say, of the logic of financial feasibility and the fact that this money necessarily is taken from capitalist accumulation.
JW: Nevertheless, you do need to look at the social configuration of the Greens. They neglected the social question from the beginning. I agree that the Greens in a way are the expression of the demise of a movement, and that they conformed in face of institutional constraints to coalitions, parliaments, and governments by really believing they could change the system. The Greens were able to achieve much more and impact consciousness far more by means of extra-parliamentary activities than what they were able to accomplish during the years they were actually governing. Once the Greens entered into parliament, they accepted constraints, budget consolidations, and the rollback of the welfare state, while appearing politically helpless.
However, there are also important reasons why Die Linke exists as a parliamentary force, since in its absence, the Right would be able to gain all the more at the polls. It would have been interesting to see what would have happened if SYRIZA had become the strongest party in Greece. You cannot explain SYRIZA’s success at the polls without taking into consideration the mass movements of the last two years in which there have been 17 general strikes in Greece. It does make a difference whether you can count on mass movements as a government to get through reforms, or whether you can’t, and in Greece, SYRIZA could have gone the road of accommodation in a coalition with PASOK. However, they could have also begun to fundamentally question things and dispossess the Greek ruling class, and this could have initiated an entirely new conversation in Europe on the fiscal compact and the so-called “rescue measures.”
TS: It was good that SYRIZA did not win the elections! They would likely have not survived a victory because they would have been faced with constraints early on. All leftist forms of politics—the new social movements and the old ones, social democracy, Marxism-Leninism, anarchism—are responsible for some parts of the historical failures of the Left; yet they also have elements that I wouldn’t want to forgo. And then there is the possibility that projects such as SYRIZA, which is something else entirely, can emerge. SYRIZA is a new constellation and its platform is of a leftist social democratic nature, in which post-Maoists, post-Trotskyites, anarchists, and upright left social-democrats can participate. This has never existed historically, and it’s extraordinary, which is cause for optimistim.
Shouldn’t we ask, “What is to be done?” rather than argue over whether the Left was dead? Would this not be a way to address such issues more productively? Isn’t the end of latitude within capitalism a chance to develop politics independent of it?
NT: Indeed, I think that the term “reform” cannot be applied, for instance, to the governments in Latin America. Chavez’s regime does not achieve the political goals it sets for itself, and it is also, as is commonly known, pretty corrupt. What is much more interesting is the space it has opened up for social movements. On the political and institutional level, questions over how to finance things will always come up. Such questions never arise on the level of grassroots politics. There you can say: We don’t care how things will be financed. Instead, we just take the houses, the land, the resources and use it according to our needs. And we organize. I wonder what different sorts of latitude are opened up here. Can you still speak of politics in this case? At any rate, you definitely can’t talk of reformist politics here—it is something totally new.
JW: Look at the movements in the Arab world, the mass movements in southern Europe, and then look at what’s happening in Germany with regard to the crisis. We are immediately faced with the problem that the economically strongest country in the Eurozone has a level of class struggle that is incredibly low. This naturally has something to do with the fact that the strategy to counter the crisis in Germany was entirely different than in southern Europe. Germany did the opposite of what is expected in the south. Here, we went the way of social partnership, which is part of the problem too: In Germany we have the fewest strike days, whereas our unions are the most powerful ones in Europe, and still wages are decreasing. But it should be Germany where protests and resistance against enforced austerity measures and cutbacks are staged. What we are seeing now reminds me of the structural adjustment programs of the 1980s that occurred in the Third World, which, in the end, entirely disempower people.
What’s supposed to have changed so substantially such that there is no more leeway in capitalism, as Norbert claimed? And how have reforms become impossible? Isn’t the logic of capital he talks of as old as capitalism is?
NT: If we measure the growth of productivity in material goods, we have seen a four- to six-fold increase in the last 30 years, but under capitalist conditions people have become dispensable en masse. Due to this enormous increase in productivity the dynamic of accumulation, which pushes capitalism forward, has been undermined. That is why we have seen this shift to the financial markets. Capitalism today can only sustain itself by the accumulation of fictitious capital. That is the reason they say, “There is no alternative.” Central banks have to pump money into the markets and states jump to the rescue when banks are threatened to collapse because this dynamic of fictitious capital needs to be sustained. And this is what is so dramatic about the changes that have been wrought since the 1960s and ’70s.
This dynamic of fictitious capital cannot be sustained forever. Yet every time the Left debates wealth, this debate takes place in the category of money, which is a key point and needs to be debated. Those so-called mandatory spending cuts result solely out of the necessity to sustain the accumulation of (fictitious) capital. However, capitalism increasingly uses up future value in the present to sustain production, and this is precisely what has reached its limits. This is what presents itself symptomatically as the necessity to cut spending. Now is the historical moment in which we need to broach the issue of the kind of wealth we want.
TS: Whether reformism is possible now or not cannot be derived out of any analysis of the momentum of capital, no matter how refined it is, since the fact that reformism was possible in the 20th century was essentially the result of the October Revolution. Capital always resisted concessions, but the October Revolution terrified the bourgeoisie so much that they were suddenly willing to make concessions after all.
What I would expect from a reformist project in the 21st century is that it would have to brace itself for the permanence of an autonomous contradiction from society and accept it as such. This would be a reinvention; it would be a project that tries to acknowledge the autonomy of the street and the autonomous self-organization of people even in moments of conflict. For that you need a solidary communication of people from both camps—the moderate and the radical left. Never before was the dialogue between these camps led in such an open, multifaceted and solidary manner, and on such a long-term scale, as is the case today. There are radically left organizations, such as the Interventionistische Linke, who still work on the problem of how to establish the autonomy of all, and if we succeed in establishing dialogue on a long-term basis, then we have a model for such a reformist project.
What this can achieve, however, will depend on whether people will revolt, just as the October Revolution was such a revolt, and opened up the possibility to spread—as it did, as a matter of fact—despite repeatedly failing. The October Revolution inspired anticolonial movements that ultimately led to the collapse of colonialism. This was the essential reason why we had reforms in Central Europe. This presents an option for us to pursue. Otherwise I’d suggest we just retire for a while and think—for example, by reading Adorno.
How important is Adorno’s critique of the ’68 generation’s understanding of resistance and of their actionism? Is it perhaps more topical today than it was in 1968?
DL: This conflict took place in a situation in which all were partly wrong. On the one side you had students protesting at lectures and erring fundamentally in their assessment of Adorno and of the actions they took against the Institute for Social Research. It sucked just as much, though, that Adorno called the police. We can learn something of the relationship between intellectuals and social movements: Both need to be part of a social transformation. For that you need space and time to think, and this is what Adorno was doing in the face of the pressures of the street. But of course he was wrong in his assessment of this movement.
However, I do think the accusation of pseudo-activity is wrong. What’s the prefix “pseudo-” supposed to mean? You can explain it by a conception of society as a dominating totality, so that nothing short of its complete abolition can be counted as “real” activism. Such a conception is wrong, and this is where Adorno erred. You have to give him credit, though, in that he himself never complied with this verdict. Adorno did involve himself in politics. Not only did he give lectures and write texts, but he also intervened just as much in practical politics, such as in his stances on pedagogy. This is a specific kind of politics, namely a reformist one. This is what Adorno pursued, while opposing an activist kind of politics. He did so for various reasons we can debate. We could ask whether he assessed the situation adequately; he said the time for this sort of activist politics was over and that we needed a different kind of politics. Here, too, I disagree with him. Nevertheless, Adorno had some important criticisms that I think are still valid. But the term “pseudo-activity” is unwarranted, and it’s not helpful for today’s struggles.
TS: Although I appreciate Adorno, I thought his criticism of the student movement was mistaken then, and still is. He was incapable of accepting what was happening in front of his own eyes. On the subject of pseudo-activism: This aspect is the most important one when you evaluate the question of how to become a political subject! If things are the way they are, you need to take the right to hold off, instead of getting lost in pseudo-activism. My background is in the non-dogmatic, post-Leninist, half-Maoist left of the 1970s, and from a certain point onward I was surrounded by Greens and Autonomists. I allowed myself to withdraw from those discussions and to think, because I thought that which was being offered did not resonate with me for various reasons. However, when, in the early 1990s, neo-Nazis set fires to several buildings that housed asylum seekers, it became clear to me that I had spent enough time thinking and I needed to be active again. Thus, there are times of pseudo-activism, and it’s part of being seriously political that one avoids simply becoming entangled in activism. Yet, if you back out completely, you stop being a political subject.
JW: What’s important is not whether we have arguments on the Left, but whether a concerted effort or praxis emanates out of such an argument, for it makes little sense to argue unproductively over things if we cannot reunite in the end. This is where we need to ask, “What is it that we can actually agree on now, and what is the task for the Left today?” |P
Transcribed by Gregor Baszak, Markus Niedobitek, Nicolas Schliessler, Jerzy Sobotta. Translated by Gregor Baszak.
. See Platypus Review 4 (April 2008) at </2008/04/01/the-3-rs-reform-revolution-and-“resistance”-the-problematic-forms-of-“anticapitalism”-today/> and Platypus Review 53 (February 2013) at </2013/02/01/the-3-rs-reform-revolution-and-resistance-the-problematic-forms-of-anti-capitalism-today/>.
Last autumn, chapters of the Platypus Affiliated Society in New York, London, and Chicago hosted similar events on the theme of “Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis.” The speakers participating in London included David Graeber, Saul Newman, Hillel Ticktin, and James Woudhuysen.
The original description of the series reads: “Panel Description: The present moment is arguably one of unprecedented confusion on the Left. The emergence of many new theoretical perspectives on Marxism, anarchism, and the left generally seem rather than signs of a newfound vitality, the intellectual reflux of its final disintegration in history. As for the politics that still bothers to describe itself as leftist today, it seems no great merit that it is largely disconnected from the academic left’s disputations over everything from imperialism to ecology. Perhaps nowhere are these symptoms more pronounced than around the subject of the economy: radical political economy has witnessed a flurry of recent works, many quite involved in their depth and complexity; similarly, recent activism around austerity, joblessness, and non-transparency, while quite creative in some respects, seems hesitant to oppose the status quo mantra,“There is no Alternative,” with anything but nostalgia for the past, above all for the welfare state. At a time when the United States has entered the most prolonged slump since the Great Depression, the European project founders on the shoals of debt and nationalism. If the once triumphant neoliberal project of free markets for free people seems utterly exhausted, the “strange non-death of neo-liberalism,” as a recent book title has it seems poised to carry on indefinitely. The need for a Marxist politics adequate to the crisis is as great as such a politics is lacking.
And 2011 now seems to be fading into the past. In Greece today as elsewhere in Europe existing Left parties remain largely passive in the face of the crisis, eschewing radical solutions if they even imagine such solutions to exist. In the United States, #Occupy has vanished from the parks and streets, leaving only bitter grumbling where once was seeming creativity and open-ended potential. In Britain, the energy and anger of 2010 Student Protests and the 2011 London Riots, both, in the eyes of the Left, expressions of a shafted generation’s response to a crisis, has now somewhat dissipated. Finally, in the Arab world where, we are told the 2011 revolution is still afoot, it seems inconceivable that the revolution, even as it bears within it the hopes of millions, could alter the economic fate of any but a handful. While joblessness haunts billions worldwide, politicization of the issue seems chiefly the prerogative of the right. Meanwhile, the poor worldwide face relentless price rises in fuel and essential foodstuffs. The prospects for world revolution are remote at best, even as bankers and fund managers seem to lament democracy’s failure in confronting the crisis. In this sense, it seems plausible to argue that there is no crisis at all, but simply the latest stage in an ongoing social regression. What does it mean to say that we face a crisis, after all, when there is no real prospect that anything particularly is likely to change, at least not for the better?”
What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation that PAS-London hosted on December 1, 2012 at Queen Mary College of the University of London. A full recording of each of the events held in this series can be found at: </2012/12/01/radical-interpretations-of-the-present-crisis-london-12-1-12/>
Hillel Ticktin: First I’d like to thank the organizers and Lucy Parker. I think it is a good idea to have debates of this kind in order to bring the Left together.
I follow Marx in defining crisis as a situation in capitalism where all the contradictions come together. From that point of view, this really is the first crisis since 1945. Today the situation is very grave; it’s hard to say anything else. A number of Keynesian economists are calling it a depression. Just taking the statistics that appear in the newspapers—GDP growth or even the intended standard of living—it is worse in Britain now than it was during the Great Depression. It’s not worse in the United States, but it is pretty bad, and could get worse. So, there is no question of where we are. We are in a crisis.
The system itself does not know where to go, but we might begin thinking about the future in terms of a few possibilities. The crisis, or important aspects of the crisis, could in principle be resolved; we go back to where we were. I think this outcome is extremely unlikely. Another possibility is that the crisis carries on the way that it is now, with one problem arising after another, one attempt at dealing with the contradictions after another. It is not a coincidence that in Britain, the United States, France, and Germany, we have such weak responses from the government. They simply cannot deal with the real social tensions that now exist throughout the world. It is also possible that the polarities in the contradictions intensify to the point that society actually disintegrates. This is what happened from 1922 onwards: A significant portion of the population was forced to go outside the towns and grow their own food. Of course, the most optimistic possibility is that it we move over to the new society.
Those are the possibilities. Just stating them indicates where we are today. It is as barefaced as that. To understand that, we simply have to go back to understanding the background—the historical background, in fact—of capitalism over the last 150 years. Capitalism itself is not inherently stable. The working class, in principle, becomes increasingly powerful as capitalism develops, if not in theoretical, ideological terms, then nonetheless in terms of its actual position in society. To see this, we have only to look to the period after the Second World War, in which the mechanisms of capitalism were deliberately contained. Commodity fetishism and the reserve army of labor, however, could not be contained. They could not control the working class, a situation that led to the 1960s and ’70s, and then the pulling of the rug.
In volume three of Capital, Marx discusses crises of banking and so forth, and in every instance there has been a monetary crisis. If we look even in the past 50–60 years, the downturns always ended this way. There is a tremendous pile-up of money that cannot be invested. That is why we had all the discussion around money, the question of confidence, etc. Today you ask bankers, or anybody in the economy, “What’s the problem?” They say, “Confidence.” This should alert us to something terribly wrong about the word “confidence.”
In other words, one cannot look at the crisis simply as a technical crisis of banks. It is not. One necessary result of any crisis is the extension of credit to a breaking point. So one has to look not only at the banks, at credit or whatever, but also at the underlying aspects. The only issue to be discussed regarding banks is how they delayed the moment in which the crisis actually hits. People involved in finance wanted to enrich themselves, and did so. Of course, that endeavor became almost a criminal enterprise in itself, but it did so precisely because there was a pile-up of money. This was unavoidable once they decided that they would not go for growth, but instead would raise the number of unemployed people. We have to look at the crisis in terms of its form, but also in terms of the underlying class struggle. We have to bring together these two aspects.
It eventually became necessary for the capitalist class to effectively pull the plug on the Bretton Woods settlement—the Keynesian settlement—and try to get back to the 19th century. That is what they were trying to do under Thatcher, but they did not fully succeed. They are now trying to go the whole way. The essential basis of the crisis lies in the class struggle.
The capitalist class is not confident and it will not invest, so we have a pile-up of money. Take one bank, the Bank of New York Mellon. It has 27 trillion dollars in deposits just sitting there, not invested. They charge people for depositing money in the bank. You would have thought, given the needs of the world’s population, they might have dreamed up a few investment ideas—like trying to save the planet—but they are not interested. They lack confidence. They are convinced that, if they invest, they will not get a sufficient return or might even lose their money completely, which is perfectly possible, of course. So we are stuck. The only way they will invest is if the government guarantees the investments will return with sufficient profits for the next 20 to 50 years. The only way the government can do that is through what the right-wing demands all the time—as in the case of the Republican party, of the Christian-Democratic party in Germany, and of our Tory government—the abolition of welfare benefits, taking us back to the 19th century. But 19th century capitalism is impossible! We can’t have people in workhouses. The whole project they are putting forward is absurd. Many people say, “the whole project is crazy. It’s impossible.” It is impossible. But they have no other way out, so they are going on with it. That is where we are.
Saul Newman: My approach is somewhat different than Hillel’s—it’s more theoretical, a bit more philosophical, and less economic perhaps. I was asked to comment on whether or not this is a crisis. I would say the following: While capitalism has always been crisis-ridden, indeed, we can even say that crisis is the very motor of capitalism, the limit that allows it to reinvent itself. What’s different now is that I think this moment of crisis has become our common horizon. Crisis and indeed even catastrophe have become part of the symbolic order of capitalism. We live without a foreseeable future. We no longer plausibly look forward to the restabilization of capitalism or the return to life as normal.
There is an abyss confronting us. It is now impossible to think in the long term, to make forecasts and predictions. So this crisis is not simply economic, it is political: The failure, the nihilism of our political institutions is visible to all. The crisis is also social: We are confronted with the limits and the impossibility of a certain way of life, a certain form of identity, through which we had hitherto established a kind of familiarity or stability within capitalist social relations. The very way in which we see ourselves—as one who consumes, who invests, who plans for retirement—is now thrown into chaos. We simply can’t see ourselves in the same way. So the real crisis, from the point of view of capitalism at least, is that people have stopped believing in it. They have stopped having faith in it. People no longer believe that the system will resurrect itself. We see this quite clearly in the levels of consumer spending, which leads to a crisis of investor confidence.
Governments and financial systems want things simply to return to normal. They want to perpetuate our continual enslavement to the financial system through debts and consumer spending in the hope that it will kick-start the economy again. But this plan is not working. This crisis is much more serious than all the crises and crashes that have occurred before, and may prove terminal, because it is a crisis of desire. However, this crisis of desire cannot be addressed separately from the environmental catastrophe looming ahead of us, as a rapacious capitalism turns our increasingly barren world into wasteland. Any attempts to restimulate the economy will eventually run up against the limits of an exhausted material base. Yet, in the face of all this, I feel strangely calm, even welcoming the end of the storm.
The word “crisis” in Greek means a situation that has reached a decisive moment, specifically the turning point of an illness, after which either rehabilitation or the death of the patient will follow. We’ve come to see that there is no rehabilitation, no life, no future in the continuation of capitalism. Indeed, it might already be dead, and cannot be brought back to life through artificial means. What capitalism cannot survive is a crisis of desire, the possibility of a different form of subjectivity emerging in which the libidinal drives are no longer directed towards work and consumption for their satisfaction. For us, for humanity itself, recovery does not mean the recovery of capitalism, but rather the recovery of life and its autonomous organization beyond capitalism. It means, in other words, recovery of the future.
What will take capitalism’s place? Who can say? This is a time for invention, for experimentation, for new forms of autonomous self-organization, modes of exchange, new ways of being together. We can no longer look to the state for salvation. The state is a broken husk, an empty shell. The crisis means that we will have to build new networks of mutual assistance and cooperation. It’s time to stop lamenting the crisis and being angry with the government, which is an irrelevant puppet at this point. It’s time to start preparing for the future.
I have been asked to comment on changes since Marx’s time. Obviously, there have been many structural transformations—the shift to post-industrial capitalism in the West, the fragmentation and displacement of class identity, the emphasis on consumption rather than production. The collapse of the socialist workers movement has not made the overcoming of capitalism impossible. On the contrary, it may well be the condition for it. The fact that now there is no privileged revolutionary agent, which was always an illusory promise in any case, means that we need to reconsider the whole project of revolution and instead begin thinking in terms of insurrection.
I was also asked to comment on whether a certain kind of analysis of the world as it is can bring about any kind of change. All the sophisticated leftist analyses in the world have been unable to bring about any change because they are unable to account for the libidinal economy of capitalism, the way it organizes, intensifies, and constructs desire and enjoyment, what we may call jouissance in psychoanalytic terms. This is why the Marxists’ analysis of ideology in terms of truth, distortion, and “false consciousness” never worked. Our perpetuation of the capitalist system was not because we could not see things for the way they were. Rather, it is because our desire and our whole subjectivity were implicated in it because at some level, perhaps even in a masochistic sense, we enjoyed it.
What will finally enable us to see beyond capitalism is not when we finally see it for what it is, but when we no longer enjoy it. Or, in other words, when there is a vacation in our libidinal economy, in our whole subjectivity, such that we become invested in something else, we become invested in ourselves, perhaps for the first time, beyond the miserable category of the liberal-individual or homo economicus. The means by which we might transcend capitalism does not lie in developing a more scientific analysis. Marxism, of course, always had the aspiration of being a science. But what we require is the invention of new modes of subjectivity, new ways of life no longer channeled by, and conforming to, economic rationality.
As for Occupy, I do not see it as a class-based movement. It was certainly nothing like the socialist labor movement in the classical sense. The Marxist and socialist Left have no right to claim it. Indeed, what was surprising and generally innovative about this movement was its radical break with the politics and identity of the past. Rather than being constituted by class identities, it was a politics of what we might call “post-identity”: heterogeneous singularities that are not defined by a class background or by a kind of work, but that gather together and spontaneously arise magically around a common desire to create something different, to create an autonomous space in which new relations between people can emerge. These relations would no longer be based around fixed identities. This, not class identity, is the condition of insurrection today.
What was striking in Occupy was the absence of the usual modes of communication and representation. There were no demands, no programs, and no revolutionary blueprints, just the coming together of singularities without anything in common apart from a desire to create new relations and subjectivities. The mode of communication, on the contrary, was completely innovative, decentralized, and gestural. Lastly, there was no party, no centralized leadership, no form of representatives, no Lenin waiting in the wings to take over state power. Those times are over. The vanguard has fallen from its privileged place in revolutionary politics. It’s completely defunct. This is the time not of revolution, but of insurrection, the creation of autonomous spaces and relations and new collective intensities. Occupy gives a glimpse of the possibilities of the insurrection today.
David Graeber: The last panel I saw here ended with a comment that we have to create a situation in which the ruling class is actually afraid of us. One of the paradoxes of where we are now is that the ruling class is, in fact, terrified of us. We are the ones who don’t actually perceive it. Almost everything we see around us, politically and economically, has emerged from that fear. The people running the system are obsessed with whether we can imagine an alternative, precisely because they realize that no one actually believes in the viability of the system anymore. So we’re their greatest threat because at the moment there is something that seems like a viable alternative and no one has any reason to keep reproducing a system except a very small percentage of the population that no one particularly likes.
I like the analysis of the two cycles of post-war capitalism, which argues that the crisis we are in now, as of 2008, is a crisis of inclusion. According to this argument, in the immediate wake of World War II, there was a Keynesian convergence of strong wages with high productivity. Welfare states provided the basics of what Communists were asking for, at least white working class Communists in North Atlantic countries: “We will cut you in to a certain degree on the deal.” You can see this with all political struggles through the 1970s, with more and more people wanting in on the same deal, saying, “Well, what about us?” This was the case with excluded minorities in the Civil Rights Movement in America, working class elites in the global south, up to and including feminism.
At a certain point it breaks. Capitalism cannot work by offering a reasonable deal to the majority of the working class. It gets to a point where politically it cannot resist a certain level of demand. Then the whole thing falls apart and it has to start all over again. So in the 1970s the Keynesian system broke. Wages stagnated or went down. There was a huge extension of credit on all levels, from mortgages to 401(k)’s in America to the extension of microcredits to spur development in the global south. This crisis of inclusion comes to a peak in 2008, not insignificantly around sub-prime mortgages. The system falls apart.
This crisis really isn’t over. I was talking with somebody at the Federal Reserve the other day. He said, “Give it another two to three years, and there will be another 2008, except much worse, unless we do massive mortgage cancellation, and we can’t get that through politically.” The small percentage of the ruling class that actually cares about the long-term viability of the system has mostly taught itself to look at a two or three-year horizon. Those who take a longer view are scared shitless. They don’t know what to do. So how did this come about?
What’s actually going on in this last, post-1970s phase of crisis, is an obsessive prioritizing of the political over the economic. That is what neoliberalism really means. I recognized this at the IMF protest in 2002. It was after 9/11, and we were all demoralized and depressed. We showed up there—300 anarchists and some 5000 police. I talked to someone who was at the IMF meetings. They said everyone who had come for the IMF meeting went home demoralized and depressed. The cops essentially shut down the meeting. Then I realized that it is more important to the police that 300 anarchists go home feeling like shit, than it is that the IMF meetings actually happen. What does that tell you about how important they think we are? Almost everything they do is in a preemptive mode, even the war in Iraq. Why did they lose it? Because they were so obsessed with getting over the “Vietnam syndrome.” Make a war that could not be resisted at home. To make sure there was no effective anti-war movement, they calculated, “We have to make sure there are very few American casualties.” But in order to ensure that, they had to adopt more brutal rules of engagement, like killing children in Iraq. This alienated people so much that they don’t want the war, but the rulers don’t care. Ensuring the anti-war movement didn’t get off the ground was more important than winning the war.
It is analogous to what’s going on economically. Almost all the economic moves that we identify with neoliberal capitalism, such as the creation of precarious labor, for example, do not actually translate into more efficient labor. Even the mortgage crisis, and the increased dependence of everyone on debt, to some degree is one of the major answers to break the labor movement. Alan Greenspan actually admitted this at one point. If you have a mortgage you’re in debt and can’t really strike. It’s one of the mechanisms for bringing wages down. So they put all their cards on the political side. In the meantime, the weight of all these mechanisms to destroy alternative sources of vision—the capping of the educational system, for instance—put us in a paradoxical situation where the system is crumbling all around us. It doesn’t even claim to do the things it used to do. The one victory they can achieve in this war on the imagination is that no one can imagine anything else.
What we really have to do—and this is one reason why Occupy movement took the strategy that it did—is shouting in their face that there are other values and ways of existing that are possible. I mean, really, that’s all you have to do at this point, if you do that on a sufficient scale, because the system has entirely delegitimized itself. This explains the extraordinarily militaristic reaction to a bunch of people sitting around in a park.
James Woudhuysen: I’m very pleased to be here. I’d like to thank Platypus, who brought the weather with them. It’s sunny out there. It is nice to see people reading the Financial Times on the Left. I disagree with most of what’s been said today but I think this panel’s atmosphere of judgmental tolerance is the right one.
First, I’ll address one of the questions Platypus put to us: “Do we live in a crisis of capitalism today and, if so, of what sort—political? Economic? Social?” It is perhaps most strikingly a political crisis, because the capitalist class has no forward vision, no plan for growth, and not even a plan for raping the planet, as a lot of our ecological friends seem to think. Is it an economic crisis? Certainly. But while it’s all very well and good for Hillel to talk about the Great Depression or the 19th century, neither of those periods really saw what’s happening in Asia today, which hasn’t been discussed so far. Part of what we are seeing now is a crisis of innovation in the West. (There is a crisis of innovation in the East, but not to the same degree.) That is one way this crisis presents a new problem. It’s quite different from what happened in the 1930s or the 19th century. Is the crisis social? I think the unprecedented social factor of our time is the aversion to risk. I heard from our postmodernist friend that ideas were risky. That was fun to hear. I thought we were here for ideas!
Are capitalism’s laws of operation the same today? They’re the same-ish, in that the accumulation of the three things I’ve talked about—political stasis, innovation slow-down, and state-regulated risk aversion—have turned quantity into quality. So, the laws of operation are similar, but there is new stuff that really needs to be addressed.
I like Hillel’s remarks about the banks not being responsible for the crisis. I’m sure Hillel will go further in looking at the cash hordes of IT companies, of energy companies, and of pharmaceutical companies. They are really not that different from the banks. They are increasing their cash hordes, by refusing to invest in the future. They are lowering their research and development, which in the case of energy is extremely weak, while the Asians are increasing it. The extremely high level of risk aversion speaks to a subjective crisis that, characteristically, is not being addressed by the Left.
So then we come to the question, “Why do seemingly sophisticated leftist understandings of the world appear unable to assist in the task of changing it?” Well, I don’t know if they are sophisticated. At any rate, I’m delighted to hear the old canard from Saul here, who I would have thought knew better, that Marxism is partially about false consciousness. I urge you, go to Marx’s work. You will never see the phrase “false consciousness.”
As for the notion Saul has raised, about resources being exhausted: I don’t know whether you have read the papers or not, but various kinds of “peak oil theory” have disappeared in the last few years because so much oil is being discovered. No water is leaving the planet, sunshine has not been decreasing, not even in England. We have an enormous amount of energy that, with practical innovations, we could do a lot with. I don’t see a resource crisis. One thing we need to do is to address consumer issues, but not in an anti-consumerist way. I say, “Let’s hear it for refrigerators! Hooray for the fridge!” We need to take up issues like the fridge, not because they are a part of false consciousness, but because they are a part of popular consciousness. The Left is characteristically—as on Asia, as on innovation—unprepared to take up consumer issues except to concede to green and liberal sentiments.
As for intelligibility, the world is no less intelligible than it was before. With the new tools we have, it is difficult, but not impossible, to comprehend the world. But it has always been difficult. Albeit not completely so, our world is different from the past. The aforementioned crisis of risk aversion shows how capitalism today is very different, but so do seemingly mundane things like how parenting is now regarded as risky, leadership is seen as toxic, computers can catch viruses, obesity is an epidemic, and the widespread sentiment is that we all need to “nudge” our way along with the state.
The Occupy movement is the end of the old social movement, not a revitalization of it. It brings to a close the era of John Kennedy Galbraith, the era of Democratic Party dissent begun by Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, by Herbert Marcuse, Jane Jacobs’s Life of American Cities and Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions. The period from 1957 to 1963 was also the period of Vance Packard, who believed that advertising, the waste of packaging, and the exhaustion of the Earth’s resources were the big problem. Occupy is the final culmination of that bourgeois tradition of dissent. The early dissenters were much more eloquent than Occupy will ever be. That’s why Occupy cannot bother to introduce any demands—something that Saul applauds, but I put down to a lack of ideas. The Occupy agenda, insofar as it has ideas, is all about greed. For me, that shows us the Left’s commonalities with Obama and Cameron. “The root of all evil is the love of money.” That is an insight from the Bible, and I thank Occupy for repeating it.
Another question asks, “Is today’s crisis different from the crisis of Fordism beginning in the late 1960s and crystallizing with the oil crisis in 1973?” Fordism is a concept pioneered by the Euro-Communist wing, the Marxism Today wing, of the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1980s. I think the view that we really have an oil crisis in the 1970s, rather than the early beginnings of the innovation slow-down that I have talked about, indicates that our sophisticated left-wing is not so sophisticated.
One of the main errors being made here today is indicated by the question, “Does the present crisis at least signal an end to neoliberalism?” Apart from Asia, there is one thing that hasn’t been mentioned here today—just a small thing, maybe you noticed it—the Leveson Inquiry. It shows that liberalism, not neoliberalism, is the main problem that we face today. The liberal desire to regulate the press is something that should concern us much more than Cameron’s reputed neoliberal tendencies. As a general point, we should also keep in mind that there’s no such thing as economics in Marxism; there is, rather, a critique of political economy.
Platypus also asks, “How do you avoid the danger of your theory simply confirming your past?” I think that is a problem. I’m always surprised how events seem to confirm my theories and yet things turn out much worse than I had ever surmised. We are in the era of predictable surprises. I like to think I know how bad things are going to get, but capitalism always surprises me.
What about the end U.S. hegemony as an outcome of this crisis? This is why I think discussing Asia is important. If you are not following the Senkaku Islands dispute between Japan and China and considering America’s role in that, then you can’t give a proper answer to this question. So, in this panel’s atmosphere of judgmental tolerance, I would urge more discussion of Asia and the Leveson Inquiry. The striking thing about the Senkaku dispute and the exercise of U.S. power now is that it is not a war for resources, any more than the Iraq war was a war for oil. Resources play a role, but they are not central. What is striking about events in the China Sea is the arbitrariness of international relations today, which reflects the fact that the ruling class has had no clear project for the 20 or 30 years following the wrap-up of the Cold War. In this respect, U.S. hegemony is in decline, but not in the sense of classical imperialist decline. It is more arbitrary and dangerous than that. We need to understand how this is a subjective crisis, not just one driven by the conventional search for raw materials or new markets. There is all of that, of course. Those old laws are still operating. But there is a whole lot of new stuff in there now which we need to comprehend, without imagining that we are very sophisticated.
Well done, Platypus, for understanding that the Left has been dead for a long time. You’re a bit late to the party, though. Some of us, I fear, attended the funeral a lot earlier. Nevertheless, if you want to join in now, realizing that we’re at the end of a period and not yet at the beginning of a new one, then I’m sure we can have a great time discussing these points.
HT: The question isn’t really what’s going to happen to Asia. It is quite clear where Asia is. China is not going to take over the world. Its level of productivity is below that of the United States by any criterion, and the Chinese economy is in tremendous trouble. It’s much more likely to disintegrate than thrive. So, we confront the same basic problem we have had for the last 150 years: capitalism in decline. Just look at Apple, the biggest, most important packaging company in the world today. It doesn’t invent anything. But what’s the issue? The question of innovation was, of course, discussed in the Second International. This “crisis in innovation” is not as new as you might think.
The rate of growth has been lower in the last 30 years—but, again, so what? The fact is that the vast majority of the people in the world don’t have enough. It isn’t a question of absence of resources but of inequality and the inefficiency of capitalism itself. Capitalism is unable to supply the needs of the majority of people and that applies to this country as well. In some areas of Scotland there is no point in cutting pensions because most people die before 65 anyway.
Capitalism can be overthrown. The forms of the future society are here. We can see in the present a future society run in the interests of the majority, a planned society run from below, in which the people take part in the planning and the antagonistic forms which exist today will be abolished. Still, despite what some here are saying, the majority of the people have no hope. The reason is because of what happened in the Soviet Union, which proclaimed itself socialist, but was actually the exact opposite. It was an absolute disaster. At the same time, people see that social democracy has failed. They have seen what the Labour Party has become. So where do you go, politically? The central issue today still is, How do we attain the level of production required in order to guarantee a good life for all people? To fulfill this task, you need a political party to take power.
SN: I think we probably all agree that we are living in a moment of crisis, one that is probably insoluble. What system of social relations can we move into? Is any alternative possible? You mentioned one possible path is to move into socialism, but what would that look like? Would that involve a revolutionary period? How can that be imagined today? The notion of class struggle was important in Hillel’s talk, but how do you reconcile that with the way class identities have shifted, fragmented, or become blurred? It’s clearly not the same kind of class dynamic today that existed in the heyday of the Marxist-socialist movement.
I liked David’s paradoxical formulation that neoliberalism is really about the predominance of politics over economics, and not the other way around. I also liked your idea of the power of movements like Occupy. These movements, the opportunities we have, are quite remarkable. This is not a time for desolation and gloom. On the contrary, it’s a time for some kind of political confidence.
James, the notion of false consciousness was Engels’s, not Marx’s, but you wouldn’t deny that Engels is central to Marxism. The notion of ideology and ontological distortion is central to Marxist politics, which has to explain why the working class, despite the objective conditions, does not revolt. I’m making what I take to be an uncontroversial point about how we can no longer sustain this notion of ideology, nor of the ontological. We do see reality, but we have a libidinal attachment to it.
Is there no environmental crisis whatsoever? Not a day goes by where one does not hear about the environmental crisis. Is that all a big conspiracy? I’m not sure of James’s position respecting the liberal regulation of the media. Are you for or against it? I think we can say that society has retreated to the media and to what may be called “communicative capitalism.” We shouldn’t necessarily be too worried about the regulation of the press, because power now lives with the media. It isn’t in the hands of government anymore.
DG: In different ways, I find myself in strong agreement and equally strong divergence from everyone. For example, I agree that capitalism has gotten to a point where it can no longer produce meaningful innovation in the way it once perhaps did. Now it’s the opposite. I think this is one of the key signs that it is in crisis.
The situation reminds me of a seminar I did in New York where I described what I take to be the changing class alignments that made the Occupy movements possible. The declining rate of profit and the financialization of capital creates a system whereby government and finance become so deeply intertwined that one can hardly tell the difference between them, and the whole thing becomes a means of rent extraction. The plight of an indebted college graduate, which 20 or 30 years ago probably would not have deeply moved the heart of the average transit worker, has become something people do identify with, because people with student loans can’t do what everybody else is doing, namely, liquidating their loans through default or otherwise.
When I gave this talk some Marxist sectarian came out and said, “I disagree with everything you say. It’s not greed. It’s not about greed.” I said, “What are you talking about? I never mentioned greed once.” Another person said that the whole idea of the individual as the only locus of politics is absurd. It is like people carry around in their pockets this prepackaged idea of what they are supposed to say. No matter what you say or do, they’ll just throw it at you. I’ve been to a thousand Occupy meetings and I don’t remember hearing the word greed once. Where is this criticism that Occupy is fixated on greed coming from?
I also don’t think that we are just better singularities at this point. It is more complex and we don’t necessarily have a language for it. There are new class segments and new forms of social alliances that are happening. The most important job for theory at the moment is to think through this, now that the party form is not going to be the way we represent ourselves or imagine social alliances. We need to think hard about what is happening now.
JW: I’m not saying there is no more innovation. There is innovation. If you look at pharmaceutical companies, they are still spending on research and development, but they are cutting budgets. Innovation hasn’t ended, but there is an innovation crisis.
Now, you’ve had the misfortune of going to a thousand meetings of Occupy, David. I’m sure you may never have heard the word greed, but I put it to you respectfully that the critique of bankers, with which Hillel began, is all about their executive pay, their bonuses, their greed. This has nothing in common with Marx’s political economy, if we want to be classical about it. Also, the hostility to consumption, the hostility to fridges by the Occupy movement—that too is hostility to greed. Again, I say: “Let’s hear it for fridges!”
Hillel said that people have seen through the Labor Party, they understand how bad it is. I think that is only partially true. Saul says we can see reality, but we have various libidinal attachments. When you say this, speak for yourself. It seems to me you’re hinting at the Green trope that the masses are guilty of false consciousness because they desire a new fridge. I don’t think that’s fair. When you say that power has shifted to the media from government, there is some truth in that. But you then go on to say that you are indifferent to press censorship. We face in this country the most serious challenge to the press that we’ve ever had. We face government regulation under the guise of independent regulation. This “independent regulation” would put the government in a position to police all of the left publications that we see here today.
Hillel, you say there’s always been a crisis and the age makes no difference; it is always the same crisis we are in. That seems a bit biblical to me. You know, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. As for life expectancies, thousands and millions of Scots are living longer lives. The same is true even in large parts of sub-Sahara Africa. The health of the population has qualitatively improved. That’s not to say the cup is not damaged in many places. But I think the problem that we face cannot be compared with the return to the workhouse that Hillel warns us of. We must understand what has changed, and that includes those things that have actually changed for the better.
Photograph from RIPC-London taken by James Heartfield. From L-R: Lucy Parker (moderator), Hillel Ticktin (with microphone), Saul Newman, David Graeber, and James Woudhuysen (not pictured).
Q & A
Regarding Asia, we should be focusing on the social movements currently taking place there: the big strike movement in China, the movement of landless laborers in India, the strike movement in Kazakhstan. The future of Occupy will be determined by how it relates to such movements outside the richest counties. Second, aren’t the “resource crisis” and “innovation crisis” two sides of the same coin? Just as capitalism alienates the relationship between humans, it also alienates humans and the planet they live on. James, you are right that the amount of fresh water has not changed in the last 30 years, but the way that industrial agriculture misuses that water in order to produce hamburgers for North American teenagers is a problem. The vast majority of R&D money in pharmaceutical companies is spent to produce drugs for unhappy people who live alienated lives in the First World instead of on generic drugs to save millions from early death in sub-Saharan Africa. Shouldn’t this so-called innovation crisis just be seen as the capitalist crisis?
Saul, you said that Marx was dealing with a more industrial class, whereas today we’re dealing more with office and service workers. But the core social relations between the working class and the exploiters have not changed, and this still empowers the working class to overthrow the system. Our power is the same as it was in Marx’s time. You also questioned what a socialist society would look like. But Marx specifically said he is not going to provide a recipe for the future of the revolution, because capitalism shapes your mind such that we cannot picture in advance what a socialist society is going to look like. Rather, you have to learn through struggle. We have to try for a revolution and learn, on that basis, what a socialist society would look like. You say, “Insurrection instead of revolution.” But isn’t insurrection what we have in Greece right now? That isn’t going anywhere. People can occupy the streets and the squares for a bit. But the next day the police will be back and oppositional energy will be dispersed. All the ruling class has to do in a crisis is stay where they are. An insurrection that fails to make a revolution will get nowhere. Movements eventually collapse in on themselves if there is no forward momentum, no actual establishment of goals and aims.
As to whether we are in a depression or not, doesn’t that hinge on more than purely economic figures, but on the place of a workers’ movement within it? Yet, we have no organized labor movement to speak of in Western countries. How does that figure in to your assessment of the overall situation?
HT: Does a depression in some way hinge on the ability of the working class to organize itself in order to take power? No, I don’t think that is why a depression takes place. I have followed Marx in defining depression in terms of all the contradictions of the system. One has to look at the system itself, its objective structures, and not just the subjective aspect. Today that structure is cracking. The next step is for the working class to take power.
Marx did use the word false consciousness. Commodity fetishism is that false consciousness. It’s very clear the way I use it. But once the class comes into existence as a class, the society dissolves. That has to be our aim: for the class to come into existence and the society to dissolve.
Depression is a collapse of the structure because the contradictions cannot be dealt with. At present, the mediating forms are failing to mediate; the structure begins to fall apart. The fact that the working class cannot act is unfortunate, but it seems to me we can explain it. Such an explanation would begin with the terrible disaster that was the Soviet Union. We would also need to address imperialism and the long, continuing subjection of the Third World. The breakdown in structure—and it is a structure—is taking place no matter what subjective feeling we have about it.
You cannot simply have an insurrection. There is a social structure, and it will defeat the insurrection before it even begins. This is one of the worst things you can dream up. Look at how many people have been killed in so-called insurrections. The last thing we want is tens of millions more killed, like the 50 million killed in China. Even in the national liberation struggles that the Left has supported, millions got killed. I’m not saying one shouldn’t take power. One should fight to take power, but an insurrection is crazy. That is the last thing we should be talking about.
SN: My point is not there aren’t classes anymore. It is true that classes contain different kinds of subjectivities now than they did in Marx’s time. But my point fundamentally is about the political expression of class. In movements like Occupy, class is not the key factor. It’s not the key identity. The very fact that you had people coming together from different classes and groups indicates that there is already a move away from strict class identity. Today, there is not the sort of direct relationship between class and politics that was always presupposed in Marx’s theory.
I also do not wish to say that socialism is impossible, but I do want to know what socialism, as imagined in Marx’s theory, might look like. The point you make about Marx not laying down a blueprint is true. Indeed, in my initial remarks I put the emphasis on experimentation. We do not need to have a vision of what socialism would look like for us to entertain the possibility of it. The point is an open-ended project, whether we call it socialism, anarchism, or autonomy. Certainly that project cannot, it seems to me, take the form of the revolutionary seizure of power and the use of authoritarian state power to build socialism. This brings me to the whole notion of revolution and why insurrection is something different. The whole logic of “revolution” is that it is a grand event led by the working class, but it’s not really the working class. It is the revolutionary vanguard that seizes state power and uses it to build socialism. That project is completely discredited by historical experience. It leads to exactly the kind of bloodshed Hillel was talking about.
So what is an insurrection? Insurrection is not an event, and it has to be seen as more than simply violent clashes with the police. The insurrection is an ongoing project of autonomy, an ongoing project of people choosing to live in new kinds of ways. What’s interesting in Greece at the moment is not so much the clashes with the police but all the various distributive and exchange networks that are emerging with the collapse of the state. To me that is what the insurrection is about: the ongoing process of elaborating and experimenting with new forms of exchange and new forms of cooperation.
DG: One last point on greed. When people in the workers’ movement in the 1860s or Marx’s Communist Party chanted slogans, they never actually said things like, “the organic composition of capitalism will inevitably lead to the acquiring of profit.” Slogans bring up specific issues in specific ways, starting a conversation where you can bring in your entire analysis. Slogans don’t simply quote the analysis.
I agree that the innovation and environmental crises are the same. One of capitalism’s great claims is that, even if things are terrible in numerous ways, at least it is creating meaningful technological advances that will eventually make make peoples’ lives easier and better. I don’t think capitalism can make that claim anymore.
Two things have happened. In the late 1960s and early ‘70s, many decided that Marx was right about the organic composition of capital. There was talk of robot factories and the end of work, no more manual labor. The Situationists got everyone excited. The ruling class freaked out. There was a very self-conscious movement. There was a conscious shift away from space age technology that would compete with the Soviet Union because that was no longer seen as a threat. They put resources into medical technology, information technology, and finally military technology. Though we don’t have a cure for cancer, we have Ritalin and Prozac. These enable people to remain vaguely sane in the context of a crazed intensification of work that the information technologies made possible. So it’s all about technology that the researchers control. On the other hand, it is also true that, with all this money they’ve been pouring into the military, you would at least expect to have giant killer robots shooting death rays from their eyes and stuff like that. God knows they were working on it! But they haven’t been able to do it. A basic breakdown comes from corporate managerialism, tantamount to a generalized war on the imagination. This is happening on all levels, and has ultimately hobbled even the development of technologies that would benefit the ruling class.
JW: This is the first time I’ve heard false consciousness made equivalent first to commodity fetishism and then to Ritalin and Prozac. The questioner was entirely right. The social exploitation is the same even if the specifics have changed. One thing that hasn’t changed is the Left’s overestimation of itself. David said that the ruling class is scared of 300 anarchists and Saul is out to convince us that the autonomous spaces opened up by Occupy amount to an insurrection. But if you look at the code of conduct that the London Occupy movement insisted on, you had to raise your hand before you could speak. You could make no genderist or sexist remarks, nor say anything really that would not go down well in polite society. That overestimates the Left’s influence as well as its independence from bourgeois ideology. The adoption of a politically correct agenda by Occupy, its proceduralism regarding how you conduct meetings, and the belief that just because the four of us have the same type of genitalia, we have all been engaged in willy waving—that itself is bourgeois ideology. It confirms for me that the Left is very much self-absorbed and has no influence. We have been witnessing the death of the Left for many years.
I mentioned that the laws of motion are the same as before but with a lot of new stuff on top. I tried to hint at the new stuff. Politically it is bizarre to hear that the big problem with the pharmaceutical industry is that it makes drugs for unhappy First Worlders. In my view the pharmaceutical industry is not innovative enough. Ten years after the Human Genome Project we still cannot buy any personalized medicine off the shelves at Boots! That speaks to the crisis of innovation. Lenin himself observed that R & D was being socialized before the First World War. That was around the time the first commercial laboratory to investigate pure scientific principles was founded at General Electric. That is what happened in that period of imperialism. Today you face a situation where a pharmaceutical company doesn’t want to innovate, but rather invests in doing marketing, distribution, production, a little manufacture, and above all dealing with state regulations. They don’t want to develop the kind of drugs that we need in either the First or the Third World. They don’t want to invest in genetically modified trees like the Brazilians do, because nobody wants genetically modified anything in Europe. Genetically modified trees would be a great carbon sink. They grow in seven years, not seventy. But they don’t want to do that in the West because they are too risk adverse. They were not that risk adverse in the 1930s. FDR, for all his faults, said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” We don’t hear that from Ed Miliband or David Cameron.
I didn’t think that I would have to make what I regard as the basic Marxist point that there are still two classes in society. One is the ruling class, and one is our class, and we still sell our labor power even if the nature of that exchange has changed to a certain extent. I would challenge the idea that the seizure of state power is not the way to go and that revolutionary parties are no longer one of the essential tools for change. I would say the exact opposite. But to use your words, you said there is an ongoing project for autonomy, an ongoing project for choosing to live in different ways. Can you clarify that? It sounds very wishy-washy to me. You talked about different networks in Greece, about delivering food and so on. It made me think of Golden Dawn giving out food, though I assume that is not what you were referring to. But that’s really what the Greek working class is being reduced to. Seizing power is the only way to change the situation. There is a lack of revolutionary leadership in Greece just like there is around the world.
HT: It’s absolutely true that the majority of society sell their labor power. They are the working class. It doesn’t matter if they are white-collar or blue-collar. It is also true that there are now more white-collar workers than blue-collar workers. But so what? They sell their labor power. The relationship remains the same. What has changed in the world (and I’m rather surprised that no one’s taken it up) is, of course, that we don’t live in a competitive society. Despite all the propaganda about competition, about how everybody has to compete with everybody else, about how everybody is a unique independent atom who has to fight everybody else in order to exist—which is the way the government puts it and the Labour Party doesn’t oppose it—in spite of that, the world is highly integrated. Society is more integrated than ever. In terms of the economy, what we see is an increasing degree of noncompetition. This is what explains the risk aversion being referred to.
When the government forces competition it is not really competition the way Adam Smith understood it in the 18th century. All it means is three or four firms all collude together. So, there is no incentive to produce new inventions. In this sense, capitalism is not supplying what it is supposed to. But of course it wouldn’t do that. What is capitalism about? Making everybody feel happy? Since when was that the case? Since when was it the duty of capitalism to feed everybody? Or, because someone brought it up, since when was it the duty of capitalism to keep everybody healthy?
On the question of drugs, no one mentioned antibiotics. Why are we not producing antibiotics? We all know they are running out. The answer from the companies is, “Well, if we went on spending money on antibiotics, we would cure everybody and we couldn’t sell drugs then.” The same argument is given for malaria. If we cured people of malaria, we’d no longer sell the drug that cures people of malaria. That is the nature of modern capitalism. Of course for the capitalist, capitalism is simply a means of making money. Accumulation takes him over. It isn’t that he is greedy. It is the nature of the system: “Accumulate, accumulate,” as Marx says, “that is Moses and the prophets.” No other law dominates us in that way, and this has remained true.
A question about laws of motion has been raised. The term actually goes back to the time of Adam Smith. Not that he used it, but one of his correspondents did. It is a general term, as it were, not just Marx’s. As we talk of the laws of capitalism, well, what is it that now exists? A society in which the government continues to play a crucial role. It’s not just a question of GDP, or about how this economic indicator is at 50% in France and at 40% here. Obviously what one is talking about is how we have become a more social society, one in which the majority can exert control. That has to be the ultimate aim of every human being. We can have a genuinely human society controlled from below, not from above.
SN: The problem that we have faced is that capitalism for a certain period of time kept us happy. It had certain vested interest in keeping us happy. That’s why it produces Prozac. We had a whole way of life based on overstimulation of the senses. Now this artificially infused happiness isn’t working anymore and we are experiencing generalized psychological breakdown. It seems to me depression and anxiety, for instance, are symptoms of this aspect of the crisis. This is why it’s precisely not a question of ideology but of our libidinal attachment to the very system that has enslaved us.
To my mind there is nothing is more wishy-washy than the idea that there is this apparatus called the state that you can seize. What does the revolutionary seizure of power look like? It is simply unimaginable today. Power has become dispersed, networked, and globalized. You lament the failure or the lack of revolutionary leadership in Greece. I would point to the absurd role that the Greek Communist—Stalinist—Party plays. It actually defends parliament against the anarchists, because they take themselves to be the only ones who can pronounce when the time is ripe for revolution. This is what the Communist Party has always done. They say, “We’re the ones who will tell you when it is time to revolt.”
DG: To my mind the problem in Greece is that there is way too much revolutionary leadership—37 different parties, all of which hate each other.
I want to address the question of whether the basic structure of exploitation and extraction has changed. In the U.S. at this point, I think 11% of profits come from anything related to industry. Most of that’s bullshit, too, because General Motor’s profits, at least until 2008, all came from financing and not from actually making cars. Calling that industry rather than finance is deceptive. So there’s been a change in where corporate profits come from. That is echoed by a change in how people actually relate to capital. Less and less is being extracted from wage, and more is directly taken. When I was in college they used to say that feudalism was a direct juro-political extraction of surplus whereas in capitalism it occurs indirectly through the wage. Today roughly 20% of the average American household income is being taken away directly. That is a change in the structure of capitalism that is going on right before us, one that explains a lot about the changing forms of opposition to it.
JW: There’s been a lot of discussion about pharmaceutical innovation, and that’s refreshing really. Hillel says they won’t sell antibiotics to people because that would make them too healthy. On the 70th anniversary of the Beveridge Report, I would reassure Hillel that the social legislation the report led to, as well as the legislation passed by Lloyd George after the Boer War, was quite concerned with the health of the population. It might not sound good to say it, but they needed a supply of labor power. What’s new about the situation is that plenty of so-called leftists will tell you that, because taking antibiotics will make you resistant to them, we should get into homeopathy, “natural medicine,” and all these other things the Occupy movement endorses. So it’s a bit of a problem to say, “It’s the same old capitalism, why aren’t you delivering antibiotic innovation?” It is the Occupy movement itself saying that we’ve had too much innovation.
I’m struck by how the other speakers took up a position of skepticism toward unhappy people getting pharmaceuticals. It was Richard Layard of LSE, founded by the Webbs, who advanced the happiness agenda. It is David Cameron who has wanted national wellbeing to be more important than gross domestic product. But Saul here wants to say that we’ve got mentally ill people because of the drugs. Ed Miliband raises the question of mental health, not with respect to himself (which would be worth discussing), but as “a real issue for Britain.” Such views don’t need attacking. They are simply the far right. A certain independence from liberalism is the main task facing the Left today. |P
Transcribed by Houston Small and Daniel Jacobs.
. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin, 1990), 742.
A roundtable discussion
Platypus Review 44 | March 2012
Late in 2011, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a series of roundtable debates on the #Occupy Wall Street Movement. Speakers at the event held on December 9, 2011 at New York University included Hannah Appel (OWS Think Tank Working Group), Erik Van Deventer (NYU), Nathan Schneider (Waging Nonviolence), and Brian Dominick (Z Media Institute), with Jeremy Cohan (Platypus Affiliated Society) moderating. The original description of the roundtable reads as follows: “The recent #Occupy protests are driven by discontent with the present state of affairs: glaring economic inequality, dead-end Democratic Party politics, and, for some, the suspicion that capitalism could never produce an equitable society. These concerns are coupled with aspirations for social transformation at an international level. For many, the protests at Wall St. and elsewhere provide an avenue to raise questions the Left has long fallen silent on: ‘What would it mean to challenge capitalism on a global scale? How could we begin to overcome social conditions that adversely affect every part of life? And, how could a new international radical movement address these concerns in practice?’” What follows is an edited transcript of the event. Complete video and audio are available online by clicking the above links.
Protesters occupy the grounds of St. Paul’s in London, autumn of last year. Their encampment has since been removed.
Jeremy Cohan: Though in question, it seems as though #OWS is here to stay, with its capacious symbolism—“We are the 99 percent.” Is it fair to say that the #Occupy movement has entered into a “Phase Two”? If so, what is the nature of this new phase of the movement’s development? To expand: How has the occupation been forced to adapt to a changing set of conditions on the ground? What sorts of fresh difficulties do these new conditions pose for the occupiers? A moment of crisis can often be a moment of opportunity. What direction do you feel the movement should take in order to remain viable and relevant?
Hannah Appel: First of all, I disagree with the idea that the capacious symbolism of #OWS which has enabled anarchists, Marxists, and liberals, is only a temporary strength and will be eclipsed by a need for a narrowing of ideology. Liberty Square was fundamentally a place of experiment. David Graeber and others have referred to this kind of experimentation as “prefigurative politics.” What does it mean to make something new in the shell of the old? What does it mean to provide free school, free food, and free education? Another question about “Phase Two” is what will post-park places of experiment look like?
#Occupy, narrowly conceived as the occupation of space, is not over in Phase Two, but we also want to think about prefigurative politics, not as they are narrowly related to space, but as they are related to the imagination. How do we begin in Phase Two to think about the intersection of capitalism and racism? What would popular control of the financial system look like? What would it mean if personhood were less mediated by credit scores? How do we democratize economic analysis? All of these questions that have been posed from the beginning of #Occupy Wall Street come to the fore in Phase Two.
Eric Van Deventer: From the opposite direction, I would say that what needs to come out of this is an independent movement of the working class in this country, and I don't know what specific relevance occupations will have in the future of that. Foreclosure occupations are not really occupations. Yet that is exactly the kind of economically significant intervention that this movement can make. But the occupations of public squares don’t necessarily have the character of an attack on economic reproduction; they're highly symbolic. Occupations should not be regarded as the distinctive or necessary characteristic of any future action.
Symbolically, #OWS offers people an opportunity to discuss, to develop politically, and to articulate different ideas. These are all very important, but the strategy to prefigure democracy through structures that we set up voluntarily in a park is not the society I would like to see in the future. I would not like to participate in meetings for hours on end unless there's something important being settled. I don't think a lot of people have the time to do that. We need to allow people to participate who are not committed in that way, or who do not have the capability to be committed in that way, otherwise #OWS will become a self-selecting community. The movement needs to develop more clarity in terms of its politics. It needs to sharpen the ideas people have and understand the contradictions between different viewpoints.
JC: As one commentator notes in issue 41 of the Platypus Review (PR 41), there are striking similarities between the #Occupy movement and the 1999 anti-WTO protests in Seattle: Both began in the last year of a Democratic presidency, were spearheaded by anarchists, were motivated by discontents with neo-liberalism, and were supported by organized labor. What, if anything, makes this movement different? How is it a departure from Seattle? What are the lessons to be learned from the defeat of the anti-globalization movement?
Brian Dominick: It is key is that, although the similarities are quite profound, the differences are where the advantages are. From about day three of #OWS, the council meetings, decisions by consensus, and the aspiration for direct and open democracy, picked up exactly where the anti-globalization movement left off. There is a perfect continuity there. The difference is that with #OWS, we see a movement, with only a minimal understanding of where it was heading, taking off and expanding in ways beyond what anyone could have believed in their wildest imagination.
EVD: Much of the continuity with the WTO council protests is in the focus on the intolerable world economy, and in that the registered discontent would be found in as broad a group as possible as a means to affect social change. But in order to change things, which ought to be our objective, we need to work through actual means of leveraging structural power in this society, which fundamentally comes down to class power; we should be looking to the working class.
JC: Some have characterized the #Occupy movement as sounding the tocsin for “class war.” Others recognize the fact of dramatic inequality, and want the #Occupy movement to spearhead a set of economic reforms. Others see #Occupy as transforming something beyond the confines of the “economic.” These perspectives point to radically different directions for this movement. Would you characterize this movement as “anti-capitalist”? Should it be? And, if so, what is the nature of these “anti-capitalist” politics? In what way does the #Occupy movement affirm or reject the political ideas of anti-capitalist movements before it?
Nathan Schneider: My anecdotal demography suggests that some people identify as anti-capitalist, some people don't, and a lot of people just don't know. That we haven't even been able to say the word anti-capitalist for however long and the fact we are able to have that conversation now is really vital.
BD: Again, I don't really want to say what #Occupy is, but I do think #Occupy will at some point figure out its stance vis-à-vis capitalism. The slogan, “we are the 99 percent, they are the 1 percent,” obviously has had major resonance: It's a great rallying cry. The concern is that the movement doesn't recognize that there are more than two classes, or, that class is a bit different from how much money you have or make, but that it has to do with the relationship to the means of production and it has to do with access to power. There is in our society, and there could be in any future society a coordinator class, a class that has tremendous power that doesn't necessarily make as much money or have as much wealth as the 1 percent. There are shadows of this class inside #Occupy. We know there are different levels of privilege. We know that looking at 99 percent as a monolith and not talking about race, gender, or the different gradations of privilege within a movement is going to be the biggest enemy of #Occupy—it can't just be the 99 percent versus the 1 percent.
EVD: I don't think at this point that #Occupy could be an anti-capitalist movement. We might agree that the majority of the movement subscribes to anti-capitalism, whatever that might mean, but #Occupy doesn't include any processes for developing that. To be opposed to capitalism would require that somehow you are part of a process that has the potential to overcome capitalism, which I think is possible through socialism. And people advocate different kinds of anti-capitalism, but many don't exist on a global scale or don't have an anti-capitalist worldview which includes a planned economy aimed at the overcoming of the tyranny of the market, the blind determination of structure, and the anarchy of production. For #OWS to be anti-capitalist in some way it needs to be contributing to such a development. It is developing consciousness in certain ways, however it is not preventing capitalism from operating.
I don't agree with the way others are theorizing classes, but I share some hesitation about the term the 99 percent. By speaking for the 99 percent the movement accepts the least common denominator, only uses language that everyone can immediately accept, and claims to speak for people it doesn't; it thus binds itself to demagoguery. It is not clear, for example, that the 99 percent are the same ones who would benefit from the overthrow of capitalism.
HA: There's no way that any of us, let alone anyone in the world, can speak for #OWS as a whole, to say that #OWS is anti-capitalist. “Ethnographically,” I can say people's orientations to capitalism vary widely. I want to hold many kinds of capitalism in tension. There are all kinds of ways to think about revolution, to think of capitalism as a theoretical and historical concept, but there is also capitalism in particular since the beginning of the neoliberal era. It’s very important to understand the specificity of capitalism in the last several decades, and that capitalism is very different from before.
If right now we could do meaningful campaign finance reform, fight for the separation of corporation and state, that would revolutionize the way we’ve been living in capitalism. However, it would not revolutionize it the way socialists want it to be revolutionized. One of the scary things about revolution is that it seems so big, so far away and certain orientations make it seem unattainable. I think one of the things #OWS is doing is opening up what the revolutionary imagination could be and asking what revolution would be like. What do small forms of revolution look like that don't necessarily allow capitalism to stage its own death just to be reborn afterward in a stronger way?
One division that emerged early on among the occupants concerned the need to call for demands. Some took issue with the content of the demands, arguing that if these are to be truly “representative of the 99 percent” they cannot assume a radical stance that would alienate a large section of the population. Others worry that demands focused on electoral reform or policy would steer the movement in a conservative direction. Some call into the question the call for demands in the first place, as these would limit, even undermine, the open-ended potential for transformation present in the #Occupy movement and could only close revolutionary possibilities.
JC: What, if any, demands do you think this movement should be calling for? And, more importantly, what kind of social transformation would you like to see this movement give rise to?
BD: Everyone reacted when the media asked about demands and everyone said we don't know what our demands are yet, or that we don't want to make demands. Movements typically start in one of two ways. They start with objectives and demands, which might come with legislative proposals that are fairly specific, or they demand rights that are not necessarily specific but concrete and understood. Those kind of movements pick up speed very quickly, get a lot of people involved, and it’s easy to articulate what the goal is, and they often achieve a lot. The other kind start with objectives that are fairly complex, which have more to do with structural change in the defining institutions of society. These movements are much harder to get started, they're much harder to get people involved in, and they don't catch fire very quickly.
With #Occupy is strange. It is a movement is on fire from day one and it’s not clear which of the types of movements it is, because the objectives aren't defined yet. Well, #Occupy is at that stage where participation is there, and the greatest advantage is that the objectives aren't known. What #Occupy is right now is an active group of people just starting to form objectives and tactics that are not just symbolic, but can create ways where you can start evaluating progress.
EVD: Demands are viewed differently by those in favor of them and those critical of them. The #Occupy movement makes demands all the time, as do all movements. The #Occupy movement demands an end to police brutality, which is what the Oakland port blockade was about. When the people were kicked out of the park, there was a motion put in to invalidate that order. There was a demand on the courts that the people should have the right to occupy the parks. When homes are given back to the people who have resided in them, that is a demand: The people have the right to continue to occupy their homes regardless of what foreclosure proceedings happened. Demands are a way that the movement communicates what it wants and it doesn’t have anything to do with asking power whether it concedes something. It expresses an intent to do something and in this way it overlaps with what you’re probably talking about in terms of objectives, but many of the people who are in support of demands don’t at all see it as a request.
If the #OWS movement starts issuing demands about particular bills in congress which are supported by Democratic legislators, it will be very easy for these politicians to co-opt the movement. But the absence of demands also raises the possibility that the movement will be co-opted. If we really don’t want the movement to be co-opted, which I think is of paramount importance, it is important to issue demands that will sharply differentiate the movement from the Democratic Party or the labor bureaucracy.
HA: Is #Occupy about systemic change? I obviously do not speak for the #Occupy movement, but it would be my hope that #Occupy is and will be about systemic change. Exactly how that will come to be articulated is, I think, a question of process.
Shepard Fairey’s #Occupy poster, based on his earlier Obama “Hope” image, proved controversial within the movement he sought to advertise.
NS: A lot of what this movement has done is produce a radicalizing experience. People come to the occupations and you don't hear anything about either Sarah Palin or Obama, they talk about their needs and hopes for their lives and families. There was a lot of value in not bringing the movement's message or orientation towards government and instead focusing the orientation towards the movement itself.
The documents produced by the consensus process of the general assembly are important to consider. The first document was, “Principles of Solidarity,” a document about what we stand together for as a community. The second one was a declaration, which was a call for occupations around the country and around the world. Again, they're not addressing government. It's saying government isn't what matters first of all. All these documents complained about things in government and the banks and so forth, but they addressed the people, assuming one another as the audience for this movement.
JC: What would it mean for #Occupy to succeed and can it?
EVD: Well, it hasn't defined any conditions for success so it can't really be evaluated to see if it has succeeded. It has succeeded in politicizing many thousands of people. It hasn't disrupted Wall Street to any great degree. It hasn't disrupted capitalism. It has disrupted the Port of Oakland and it may do so again. It's successful on those grounds, but in regards to the success of the movement, it needs to decide on the various visions of what it should do and evaluate success based on those things.
BD: I would like to see #Occupy continue to bring different people out of the various woodworks. #Occupy has accomplished a tremendous amount just by reminding us that there is energy. I don't think that major reforms are right around the corner but I do think the energy is there and the energy is the main ingredient of the first major step to make change.
NS: I think that this movement—and I do think movement is a fair term—is predicated on having watched other movements across the world change things and exercise the power of people in large numbers against the power of interests that are far too comfortable and far too powerful. What needs to happen for this movement to fulfill the hope that made it possible in the first place, that made these kids feel it was worth getting beaten up by the police, and what needs to happen if we want people to really take notice, is to follow through by bringing about serious positive change in the structure of power.
HA: For 13 weeks #Occupy has succeeded, but that's not to idealize it. There's really difficult stuff that we all continue to deal with. To the extent that we're all marginally sympathetic, I consider us all occupiers. When I say we, I'm not referring to some magical group I'm a part of and you are not—I’m referring to all of us who consider ourselves marginally sympathetic and critical. One of the key goals of the Platypus Affiliated Society has been the openness to criticism and even antagonism in the process of politics and I think #OWS is really bringing that to the fore for a lot of people.
And now going forward, I think that #Occupy will succeed if it recognizes that what we are dealing with is fundamentally global. This is a global movement and I think there is growing understanding of that within #Occupy. We've had visitors not only from the Indignados and others, but there is tremendous dialogue between Egypt and here.
Q & A
It’s interesting how emotional moments of interaction between the protestors and the police really energize the movement and bring many people into it. How do you the panelists think that tension will define or figure in the future of #Occupy Phase Two?
BD: I write extensively on this issue of police interaction with the protestors. A lot of people come out and say it's an injustice. It also has the effect of waking up those who are privileged and don't realize cops will beat you for any reason, as a large portion of society already understands. But the clashes with the police are a major distraction.
As a street medic during the anti-globalization movement, I was out there doing street medic work and constantly observing, watching, and dealing with the results of police interaction with activists. I strongly caution people from considering that interaction with police fuels a movement. I also caution people from thinking that police reaction to you has anything to do with the level of success. Police and mayors do not react to movements because they are threats to elites. It's possible they do, but not necessarily. I'm not a fan of the police and I'm not a fan of the idea that they are our interface with elites. I'm also not a fan of the idea that police are part of the 99 percent. I don't know where they fit in, but they're not going to come around anytime soon, they're institutionally opposed to what we're doing because of their allegiances with the 1 percent, yet it doesn't mean that any relations we have with them are conveying a response from the 1 percent except that they are the first line of defense.
On the question of models of social transformation: One of the popular tropes that emerged during the two months spent occupying Liberty Plaza is that many of the participants were working together to build a small scale model of what the future might look like. These occupants were looking to create a vision of the sort of society, in miniature, in which they want to live. Some radical thinkers of the past, by which I mean Marx, criticized this tactic of social change. Such authors have put forth the criticism that to build these castles in the air, utopians are compelled to appeal to the philanthropy of the bourgeois heart and purse. Applying this criticism to #Occupy Wall Street, doesn't one have to accede that most of the services provided at Liberty Plaza were still dependent upon donations which came from the society of exchange? If the means for the provision of these services are, in at least some sense parasitic, does this in any way compromise the legitimacy of such allegedly prefigurative communities?
NS: There is truth to that, the extent to which the general assemblies have a pretty hard time figuring out what to do with the half a million dollars or more which has come in, a lot of the people from within are really concerned about this and hope that, insofar as this is a prefigurative society, it isn't really that dependent on donations.
HA: I agree wholeheartedly with that critique and I also agree with what #Occupy is doing. I do not think those are mutually exclusive. I actually love Marx, but I think, historically, the biggest danger of certain kinds of Marxist politics is that they understand Marx in a certain way to the exclusion and detriment of every other possible strategy. They think that any strategy which isn't exactly aligned with an originalist interpretation of Marx—and I use that word intentionally—only looks like it is destabilizing capitalism when it is not. I don't think it is necessarily clear what it would look like to get to something like a Marxist revolution.
Whether foreclosure action is wonderful or it is only a gesture, private property is one of the cornerstones of capitalism. Putting people back in their homes is saying people should be able to own the homes instead of the banks. I'm not saying this is a radical critique of private property. But at the same time, the banks own those homes. Those people are effectively squatting those homes. There are more radical critiques of capitalism accidentally occurring in the #Occupy movement than appear to an originalist Marxist.
EVD: These actions are often ethically admirable. It's very positive that people are spending their time in this way, but it can be a distraction that diverts energy from political organizing. We should be aiming for a society in which the provision of goods and services is socialized at the highest standard, in the most sufficient way, which is something that individuals can't do, and can't voluntarily organize in small groups to do, which means that you need to seize the means of production. It means that you need the capacity of corporations organized in a different manner, in order to organize society differently. On the question of finance, it's perfectly apparent. In finance there’s already socialization of capital on the highest level and you would need to take charge of it on the highest level. There's no in-between step—you could provide loans to people, but that doesn't do anything about the power of finance as it exists. I think prefiguration is fine, but I'm not sure there's any way that you can see it as a bubble sort of merging into a larger sub-society, which will then be resistant to capitalism—I think capitalism would be able to overcome any such "bubble."
HA: I understand and am sympathetic to that argument, but without either romanticizing or abstracting something called a working class, it doesn't at all "distract" from political organizing, but it is political organizing. We've mobilized more so-called working class people—that’s a category I'm not comfortable with—in the context of political action. If at a certain point, on a grand scale, we are able to seize the means of production, that would be thrilling, but first what it means is a certain form of politicization—a certain form of political discussion that is inchoate. What I'm saying is that the means to mass mobilization aren't already known, but I think from participation we mobilize something a Marxist might call the working class.
BD: I do think there's a bit of a false dichotomy between these two ideas. The idea that this is a microcosmic prefiguration of society on a farm or in a park somewhere—that’s a straw man, something that people can decide to exercise as part of their activism, which is what #Occupy Wall Street did. The idea of the human mic, an interesting thing to watch for the people involved, it’s very empowering and it drew a lot of people in, versus the idea that we need to seize the means of production, that we need to take over the power of politics—I think that's also, in a way, a straw man or at least a bad idea.
The idea is that we can go into communities, build institutions, be engaged, participate in democracy on a small scale and build upward from the ground and challenge the top all at once, and that we do not need a vanguard to swoop in, take over the White House, and nationalize the means of production. We can seize the means of production on a small scale. We can build small institutions. I think we get dichotomized and that nobody here is advocating any of these things, except that we need to be engaged now, not waiting and just having discussions hoping we have that power someday down the road. We take it now where we can and look to take it down the road where we can.
On the double-edged sword of the openness of #Occupy: On the one hand, the whole advocacy for keeping it open is that the labor bureaucrats thus cannot co-opt us, but on the other hand, this openness is a way for the labor bureaucrats to stand for all this stuff they have no right to claim for themselves.
HA: That was an excellent point—that is a way that the lack of demands or lack of a clear ideology allows certain kinds of depoliticization. It allows the luster of looking like you're allied with #Occupy Wall Street but doesn't ask you to follow through. However, I think there's a certain form of leverage there. The union president has come out publicly and said "I am with #Occupy Wall Street," and you say, “Okay, here's the plan.”
To follow up on the question about what would it mean for a movement to succeed, I was wondering about the flipside of the coin. What would it look like if it were to fail? Not only in the most general terms of dismantling or fizzling out without having achieved social transformation, nor in terms of co-optation, which has been raised. What obstacles and dangers does the #Occupy movement face strategically, politically, and organizationally?
BD: The failure of the movement would mean it has failed to evolve. There are stages and we've said that we don't know what success would look like. But what what failure looks like, I think, is to take those steps, in evolving to the next stages. We're kind of at square one. Most movements make it to square one at some point. This movement has a really early and solid step on square one and has time to evaluate that and move forward, and not making it to square two would not exactly be something disgraceful but would be, as it goes, failing to evolve.
EVD: The problem that faces #OWS is in many ways the same problem which has faced social movements in the US for the past hundred years or so, which is that they get co-opted to one of the mainstream democratic parties, specifically the Democrats. If #OWS failed to take this opportunity to make clear its differences and divorce its constituencies from their historic support of the Democratic party, that would be a failure. If in 2012, a substantial fraction moved towards campaigning for the democrats and if others do not succeed in making very clear what is wrong with that, it will be a failure. In terms of the evolution, there may be evolutions in the framework of #OWS. If not, there will surely be other movements. There are important things that have to happen very soon. There has to be great growth of this kind of movement, but also a clarification. |P
Platypus Review 40 | October 2011
On May 19, 2011, Platypus invited Carl Davidson, formerly of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Guardian Weekly, Tom Riley of the International Bolshevik Tendency, and Mel Rothenberg, formerly of the Sojourner Truth Organization, to reflect on “The Marxist turn: The New Left in the 1970s.” The original description of the event, which was moderated by Spencer A. Leonard at the University of Chicago, reads: “The 1970s are usually glossed over as a decade of the New Left’s disintegration into sectarianism, triggered by the twin defeats of Nixon’s election and the collapse of SDS in 1968–69. But the 1970s were also a time of tremendous growth on the Left. The embarrassed silence retrospectively given to the politics of this time contradicts the self-understanding of 1970s radicals’ finally "getting serious" about their Leftism, after the youthful rebellion of the 1960s. After a decade of searching for new revolutionary agents, and faced with the reordering of global capital towards post-Fordism, the 1970s saw a return to working class politics and Marxist approaches, in both theory and practice. The conventional imagination of the 1970s as the long retreat after the defeat of the late 1960s occludes an understanding of the political possibilities present in the 1970s. Our contemporary moment provides an opportunity to rethink the politics of this period. The collapse of the anti-war movement and the disappointments of the Left's hopes for a reform agenda under Obama have exhausted the resurgence of 1960s-style leftism that took place in the 2000s. The reconsideration of Marx in the wake of the current economic crisis, which parallels the neo-Marxism of the 1970s (if much attenuated by comparison), raises the question of the possibility of a Marxian politics that could fundamentally transform society. Therefore, in this panel discussion we will investigate the neglected significance of the legacy of 1970s-era Marxism for anticapitalist and emancipatory politics today.” Full audio is available online by clicking the above link.
Mel Rothenberg: The big question behind this topic is whether it’s possible to build a viable, significant movement nationally and internationally in this period. I do not know the answer, but I am certain that the failure to build a significant socialist movement over the next decade will mean the deterioration of environmental, social, and economic conditions to an unprecedented level of barbarism and misery for the vast majority of the world’s people. Such a catastrophe will not wipe out modern society, but it will be unlike what any of us would wish on our children, and many decades of social conflict will ensue. What is at stake in discussions like this therefore is very high.
In terms of my own experience on the Left: I was a red diaper baby. My parents were Jewish immigrants who came from Poland and Russia in the 1920s as teenagers. The revolutionary rhetoric and activity of the Communist Party attracted them, and they stayed reds for most of their adult lives. My father first became a union organizer, then a union official, and spent a year in jail in Pennsylvania convicted of “anarcho-syndicalism” in the 1920s. My parents represented the core elements of the communist movement of the 1930s and 1940s: working class activists for whom the Russian Revolution represented the hope of emancipation. Their decisive political experience was in the trade union movement and the movement opposing fascism. The central political values which grew out of these movements were, first of all, a belief in the leading role of the working class; second, a belief in the international character of the struggle; and, third, a hatred of militarism and racism. After World War II they became increasingly disillusioned with the Soviet Union and then with the Communist Party. My father, along with many other comrades, left the party in 1939 to protest the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. They returned when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, which resumed its United Front policy against Fascism. In any case, by 1948 my parents had left the Communist Party and become extremely critical of the bureaucratic repressiveness, the police-state character, and the lack of democracy in the Soviet Union.
I entered the significant social movements of the 1960s, first with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) picketing Woolworths in Berkeley in the late 1950s, one of the earliest campaigns in the Civil Rights movement, then in Chicago with the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which played a leading role in the fight against school segregation in the early 1960s. When I started college in 1951, at the height of McCarthyite anti-communist hysteria, I had absorbed the central political doctrines of my parents’ period of activism but also their rejection of “totalitarian communism.” I was a radical Democrat who shared the social-democratic rejection of revolution and belief in piecemeal reform as the key to social change. The politics of SNCC, SDS and the peace movement fit in with this. However, the worldwide revolutionary upheaval that began in the mid-1960s pushed against this reformism. Everyone is aware of the mass uprisings from Paris to Beijing, from Chicago to Los Angeles, all in the midst of a war engulfing Indochina and rebellions in Africa against Portuguese colonialism and the apartheid regime in South Africa. The radical leadership of the Civil Rights movement, now that it had realized its initial aims of ending legal segregation, turned more favorably to the revolutionary black nationalism, African Marxism, and anti-imperialism of Fanon and Nkrumah. The leadership of SDS constituted the radical wing of the anti-Vietnam war movement—actively identifying with the Vietnamese and the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Disenchantment with the liberalism of the Democratic Party led to the search for more fundamental change. That was the background of the 1960s that led to the turn towards Marxism and radicalism in the late 1960s and 1970s.
I was buffeted by these forces and currents. In the fall of 1969 I went to Paris and spent a year as a visiting math professor. While the wave of revolutionary activity had ebbed by this time, the Maoist students were still active and dynamic. I took the opportunity to study and read their theoretical works, which were at a higher level than what was available in America. Along with many others, I was at that time won to a Marxist revolutionary politics. When I returned to Chicago I became involved with the Black Panthers support group and within a year I joined the Sojourner Truth Organization (STO), a Maoist collective. By that time, the most radical elements of the movement had turned to party building. Many joined small collectives, some of which, STO included, later became larger, even national organizations. I joined it largely because they took the issue of working class organizing seriously.
STO was led by people who had experience in point-of-production organizing. Some came out of the old Communist movement and were very sophisticated in this respect. Most of the organization was involved with plant-level organizing. I left STO after about four or five years because I didn’t believe that they were making progress. The involvement in organizing workers was successful, but marred by some very serious mistakes characteristic of the broader Left, the most fundamental of which was their over-assessment of the revolutionary potential of the U.S. working class in that period.
Mao had convinced us that revolution was in the air. That is why Sojourner Truth and other groups went into the working class. We thought the workers were ready for revolution, that they were going to break with their traditional unions. There were formidable working class struggles in the 1970s in a number of industries—mining, steel, auto. The unions all had radical caucuses organized by leftists who had come out of the earlier movements. The conviction that the 1970s would be a period in which the industrial working class turned to the Left was not entirely mistaken, but it was seriously overestimated. The divisions within the working class, particularly racial divisions, were underestimated. When the working class movement encountered the full resistance of the social and economic order to a working class advance, they went into retreat. Revolutionaries were stranded. The failure to involve broad sections of the working class in party building and the Marxist movement was the basic failure of the 1970s and its legacy remains. Any movement that seeks to overcome the current impasse must overcome that legacy.
Tom Riley: It’s important to recall the close connection that existed between the New Left of the 1960s and 1970s and the Old Left of the 1930s and 1940s. The Communist Party (CP) and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) were, of course, the two largest groups, the CP being considerably bigger in the 1960s. Both played important roles in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements. But the manner in which they had influence was subtle as well, and certainly few New Leftists read The Daily World or The Militant. Much of their influence came indirectly through more militant split-offs: Progressive Labor, the Communist League, Workers’ World, Workers’ League, and the Spartacist League. Such groups brought a lot of the CP’s or SWP’s politics with them. Some had a direct and lasting impact on the New Left. Like Mel, many New Leftists were red diaper babies, including Bob Avakian, Noel Ignatiev, Mike Klonsky, Kathy Boudin, and many others. These people knew something the rest of us did not. There was a real continuity. The SDS itself, which became the main organized forum for student radicalism in the 1960s, originated as the youth group of a social-democratic wing of the Old Left. Even the Panthers, who initially had no connection whatsoever to the Old Left, were pushed by murderous FBI repression into the orbit of the CP.
I first became active in 1969. In fact, the first demonstration I ever went to was in Chicago, called “Days of Rage.” It seemed to us then as if the movement was just going to continue broadening and deepening until one day we arrived at the revolution. The high point of the New Left came in May 1970, when millions of students were on strike across the country, closing down almost every campus in America in a protest against the killing of students at Kent State and Jackson State. Everybody in the New Left with any sophistication at all was well aware of how the strike by French students in 1968 had spread to the working class general strike involving 10 million workers. American workers didn’t follow the French example, but the May and June events in France had a lasting impact on the consciousness of the New Left.
By 1971, however, it was pretty clear the movement was losing momentum: SDS had disappeared, state repression neutralized the Panthers, the ruling class had pretty much decided to get out of Vietnam because the draft army was starting to come apart. At home, the war was hugely unpopular, as well as expensive. By the early 1970s, the movement had created a layer of people, perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 young Americans, including thousands of combat veterans, who may not have openly identified with the communist enemy we were supposed to be fighting, but who were serious on some level about their own subjectively revolutionary commitments. On May 23, 1970, at the height of the student strike, Mao Tse-tung issued a statement in which he declared, “Nixon’s fascist atrocities have kindled the raging flames of the revolutionary mass movement in the United States. The Chinese people firmly support the revolutionary struggle of the American people. I am convinced that the American people who are fighting valiantly will ultimately win victory and that the fascist rule in the United States will inevitably be defeated.”
It’s hard to exaggerate how inspiring it was that Mao, our hero and the scourge of the bourgeoisie all over the world, would predict our inevitable victory. So imagine our shock when, less than two years later, Richard Nixon, the world’s leading imperialist pig, was invited to Beijing. He turned up quoting glibly from the Red Book as Mao hummed “America the Beautiful.” It was a traumatic experience for us Maoists. Red China was aligning itself against Soviet “social imperialism” which, according to Peking Review, had recently become “worse than Hitler.” China’s earlier support for reactionaries like the Shah of Iran and Madame Bandaranaike, both of whom had wiped out thousands of leftists in their own countries, was something that Maoists were uncomfortable with, but which many managed to ignore. A wholesale reconciliation with U.S. imperialism, on the other hand, no one could ignore.
There were different responses. The true believers thought, “Well, if Mao did it, it must be okay. Maybe it is some sort of trap for the imperialists.” Some said, “Maybe China is still a revolutionary country, but the leadership for some reason has adopted a counter-revolutionary foreign policy.” Others wondered the degree to which China was ever revolutionary. Mostly there was a lot of confusion and demoralization. This was at a moment when the broader movement was already winding down, while, at the same time, the more serious of us were beginning to coalesce around the idea that if there was going to be a socialist revolution in the United States, it would first be necessary to build a revolutionary party like Lenin’s or Mao’s.
The party-building orientation went hand-in-hand with a turn to the working class. A lot of small leftist collectives spread across the country. I was a member of one of them called the Workers’ Group. We had about twenty politically serious members with significant experience. We had a two-point basis of unity: first, no existing Left group was worth joining. Second, capitalism had to be overthrown and replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat, which deterred the social democrats. Implicitly there was a third requirement: a proletarian job.
I eventually worked as a meatpacker. We had the charmingly innocent notion that, by sinking roots in the working class, we would somehow be able to hammer out a common program among ourselves on the basis of our experience in the class struggle, rather than reading books and quarrelling about what went on somewhere else. Of course, this did not work out, and within a year or two former members of the Workers’ Group splintered to a variety of different groups, mostly Maoist, but some became Trotskyists, as I did.
The New Left’s turn to the industrial proletariat and the idea of the vanguard party marked the end of the New Left since it represented a return to the core precepts of the Old Left. Neither the pro-Democratic Party unity mongering of the CP nor the peaceful, legal suit-and-tie socialism of the SWP appealed to anyone I knew. But suddenly a lot of the old disputes seemed to be relevant again. Brother Davidson contributed an influential pamphlet “Left in Form, Right in Essence” that combined criticisms of contemporary American Trotskyist groups with arguments recycled from Stalin’s purge trials. (The Spartacist League replied with “The Stalin School of Falsification Revisited.”)
Much of the debate between Trotskyists and Stalinists revolves around the question of whether the workers’ movement can find allies among the progressive capitalists, such as the Democratic Party in America, or whether the workers’ movement has to remain independent of the bourgeoisie. The “good cop–bad cop” Democrat-Republican division provides a very useful mechanism for maintaining capitalist rule. As Malcolm X put it, when you keep the Democrats in power you keep the Dixiecrats in power, and if you put the Republicans in, you get pretty much the same thing. This is why Marxists often refer to them as the twin parties of racism and imperialist war.
As it happens, I first came to seriously consider the question of the role of the progressive bourgeoisie after reading a publication by STO critical of the call by the Revolutionary Union, now called the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), for a United Front against imperialism. STO argued that there could be no progressive wing of American capitalism, so there is nothing to unite with or vote for. That made sense to me, and it still does. The idea of politically supporting the Democrats was introduced, of course, in the 1930s as part of the Comintern’s “Popular Front.” In countries like France and Spain, the CP sought to participate in Popular Front governments with democrats and progressive capitalists, whereas in the U.S. the CP didn’t have the weight to make a direct approach to the Democrats for an alliance. So the Popular Front meant voting Democrat under a banner of “unite against the right.”
In 1905, in the preamble to their constitution, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) stated flatly that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” That proposition has always separated revolutionaries from reformists, Bolsheviks from Mensheviks, and Trotskyists from Stalinists. In the 1970s many of the cadres who went in with the intention of importing revolutionary politics were soon swept up in supporting various oppositionist formations that existed in the unions. Many of these had as their main activity suing the unions in the interests of democratic reforms. But class-conscious militants do not, and cannot, as a matter of principle, appeal to the bosses’ courts to settle differences in the workers’ movement. That was the policy of the Wobblies, the Communist Party, and of the Trotskyist movement.
Very few of the thousands of young New Left militants who went into the unions succeeded in recruiting significant numbers of workers. One who did is Jack Heyman, recently retired from the International Longshoremen in the Bay Area. Three years ago this month 25,000 longshoremen along the west coast closed down every port from San Diego to Seattle on May Day. They were protesting the continuing American occupation of Iraq. That was significant, and it was big news on the west coast, though I bet it got little if any coverage in the Chicago Tribune. The union militants who carried out this action did so in defiance of both the shipping bosses and the government labor arbitrators who declared it to be an illegal action. They also had to contend with the obstruction of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) bureaucracy who were concerned that it might make trouble for the Democrats in November. Still, the strike was exemplary in that it constituted the first strike ever conducted by American workers against an American imperial military adventure. It did not, unfortunately, signal an historic shift in class forces, but it did show what can be achieved by the intelligent intervention of serious militants with coherent class-struggle politics. Most of the Left ignored it, or downplayed it, either because they no longer regard the organized working class as a potential agent of social transformation or because of political hostility to the people at the core of it, because they were Trotskyists.
In 1967 Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky’s biographer, addressed New Leftists in Binghamton, New York, as follows:
You call yourselves New Left not because you have a new philosophy, but because you want to be distinguished from the previous generation of Marxists. You think that your elders have done badly and you want to make a new start. This sounds very tidy. New people make a new beginning, and call themselves [the] “New Left.” But in what sense are you new people? You are young. Young people can be very old if they start with very old ideas….If you just announce this is the end of ideology, you start from their own bankruptcy…
The best cadres of my generation ultimately recognized that, if we want to move towards socialism, there is no alternative to developing social consciousness in the working class. Those who looked for shortcuts, other ways of doing it, ended up as radical liberals or worse.
In the 1970s our generation renewed the Left and the workers’ movement, but we contributed very little that was new. Almost everything was learned or rediscovered from those who had gone before us. In his autobiography, My Life, Trotsky wrote that, upon being converted to Marxism, “I had a feeling that I was joining a great chain as a tiny link.” I had exactly the same feeling in 1973 when I came over from Maoism to Trotskyism. I believe to this day that the struggle to create a viable, mass, working class, revolutionary Leninist party in this country and internationally, though extremely difficult, is nonetheless possible. I believe there’s no other way out.
Carl Davidson: I started out with no connection to the Left. I was a culturally alienated kid from a working class family, living in a working class town in the late 1950s—so, I wanted to be a beatnik. A steelworker veteran of the Korean War handed me a copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems at a pool hall in the town where I grew up in 1959. That was the first piece of left-wing literature that I ever saw. After that I read everything that Jack Kerouac wrote. When I finally lucked my way into college, my rebelliousness led me to identify with the kids from SNCC and the anti-war movement. People around me at that time read French existentialists—Sartre on “Marxism and Existentialism” and Camus’s The Rebel. Then I read Erich Fromm’s Marx’s Concept of Man (1961) that contained large sections of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844. The ensuing study of Hegel was actually my entrance into Marxism. It came from trying to make sense of this huge institution that we were all alienated from that was racist and tied to the war machine. I read Marx’s Capital and other books by Marx to try to understand what it was, exactly, I was alienated from.
Regarding students, there was a pamphlet at the time saying, “student is nigger.” I knew that wasn’t true. Some people said students were the new workers. I knew that wasn’t true. Some people said, “we’re the intelligentsia,” to which I replied, “not in the way that it used to be, because we are children of the working class, not the bourgeoisie”—at least, this was the case at the school I attended. My first efforts at Marxism were dedicated to thinking through a theory of where students fit in to the productive process. I wrote a number of pamphlets for SDS trying to understand knowledge as a commodity. This was tied up with opposition to the war because of the war machine’s presence on campus. Parallel to the question of the war was the upsurge in the Civil Rights movement. These kids on the front lines in the South were our heroes. John Lewis came up to my apartment when he was raising money for SNCC. Eventually I went to Mississippi myself. That was the crucial turning point in my life, the point where I became a revolutionary, walking through Mississippi, sleeping at night in small cottages, going to out-of-the-way, rickety old churches for mass meetings with sharecroppers talking about Black Power, watching that electrify the audience, fighting with the Ku Klux Klan, getting tear-gassed and beaten by the Mississippi Highway Patrol. By the time I came back from that, I was a different person.
There came a time when SNCC addressed the young white students, saying, “Your time down here is over. It’s time for you to take a trip back into white America. If you want to fight racism, there’s plenty of it back there. We need a division of labor.” I took that seriously. I went back north, joined SDS, and became part of the national leadership after about a year or so. We tried to develop Marxism by viewing the student as a constituency in its own right and understanding its connection to the wider society. At the time of the student strike at Columbia in 1968, there was a group of us who tried to develop this into a whole picture of the new working class, drawing upon some French neo-Marxists like André Gorz and Serge Mallet. We wanted to put it out in a paper called the Port Authority Statement, to supersede the Port Huron Statement, but it was never published.
Then in 1968 the shit hit the fan. January, the Tet Offensive, then the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rebellion in 180 cities, and tanks in front of SDS headquarters on Madison Street. Everything was in flames around us. We had to make sense of a huge, mass revolt that was taking a national form, but half of our organization took the position that all nationalism was reactionary, including the Black Panther Party. We knew that was wrong. I knew from my experience in the South what Black Power was and what it meant to those sharecroppers. Of course, our opponents were claiming to be communists. So, we had to enter Leninism through the door of the national question, by studying national liberation struggles in order to understand the dynamic of the Vietnamese and the Chinese Revolutions, and the black question in this country. After SDS fell apart, we formed another group called the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) and worked in different collectives. We had long debates on the question of agency and finally settled on the working class as the agent of change. We also come to realize that all of our models were led by a communist party, but the Trotskyist parties were insanely left, and the CPUSA was too right. So I was with the trend that said, “When there is no communist party, the first task is to build one.” And to be a real communist party, workers have to be involved; it has to be built in the factories. So, that’s what my comrades and I did at the beginning of the 1970s.
I joined the October League in 1976. They sent young people into factories all around the country to build an organization. Once it developed a core of young workers who had been recruited into the organization, it opened up and brought in intellectuals like myself. When the October League fell apart in 1981, I joined the League of Revolutionary Struggle until it fell apart, sometime in the late eighties. The time from Mao’s death to the exposures of what Pol Pot was doing in Kampuchea, up until the end of Gorbachev, constituted a crisis in socialism. Eventually, I reassembled my old cell in Chicago, and we spent the next 16 years reconsidering everything, trying to work out a new position. But that’s another story.
MR: I disagree more fundamentally with Tom, for while our experiences are perhaps not so different, the conclusions we draw from them are. When I was in STO, it was serious about working class organizing. The conclusion I drew when I left was that a working class socialist movement had to emerge in a different way. It was not a matter of explaining Marxist ideas to workers who will then become revolutionaries. Revolution has to grow out of experience, and community, and one’s own culture in a very deep way. In the 1970s this was not going to happen.
Where would a revolutionary working class movement come from today? I think it would somehow have to emerge from the workers themselves. I am not saying this could happen without intellectuals, since I agree that there’s a necessity of building a party, an organization of revolutionary intellectuals. In that sense I am a Leninist (although, in this matter, Lenin followed Kautsky). But the issue is whether in fact the revolutionary intellectuals are the people that somehow bring socialism to the working class by serving as direct organizers of socialist activity within the working class. The intellectuals bring to the working class a broad conception of political issues, not the question of the immediacy of the class struggle. The daily grinding oppression of workers is something that the workers know better than any intellectual. So there’s a kind of ambiguity, even with Lenin, on this issue. A movement for socialism cannot be built purely on the basis of the industrial proletariat, and never has been. Still, I would argue that the movement for socialism cannot come from missionaries, intellectuals, and students going into the factories and promoting Marxism. It would need deeper sources. I will only add that the failure of the trade union movement in our time is worldwide. The situation is more dire than at any other time in my life.
TR: On Lenin’s proposition that intellectuals have to organize and recruit for Marxist ideas: A few scattered intellectuals criticizing this or that signify nothing unless they are able to make a connection with the fundamental forces in society, with those who might benefit from creating a new society that does not consist in a worldwide political order likely to result in inter-imperialist war, which, if it happens again, means there probably won’t be a lot of pieces to pick up.
The Spartacist League opposed the Vietnam War by going into the working class and calling for labor strikes against the war. It never happened. After the Pinochet coup in 1974, the Spartacists in longshore unions wrested enough support for a boycott of Chilean cargo for one day, on one ship, for one shift. Flash forward—the Spartacist League goes crazy and walks away from the unions. Yet, in 1984, one of them again succeeded in stopping cargo bound for South Africa. For eleven days they stopped this ship. After three court injunctions, the cops come and bust them, which led to a shutdown of the entire West Coast in 1999 in solidarity with Mumia [Abu-Jamal]. This is not a series of random coincidences. There’s a chain, a line of continuity that we are trying to keep alive.
CD: Yet the vast majority of workers participating in such actions probably also vote Democratic!
For the last several years, I’ve been spending all my time organizing in an entirely blue-collar milieu, and I believe that we have to build two types of interlinked organizations at the same time. First, an organization that can unite a progressive majority of the workers in our country. For that we use the PDA, the Progressive Democrats of America, which is not affiliated with the Democratic Party. Second, we also build an organization that can unite a militant minority, the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. Step by step, I am trying to build a group of workers who form a militant minority, but it is the interplay between those guys and the broader group that enables us to have anti-war actions every week, to take part in the mobilizations in Washington D.C., and getting union guys into office. How does this fit in with Trotskyism, Stalinism, or Maoism?
Spencer Leonard: How did your assessment of the 1970s change in retrospect? How do you view it now within the long history of the American and the international revolutionary movement?
MR: In the late 60s we all thought there was a real possibility for revolution in the United States. There was a revolutionary wave around the world, so that our task in the United States where there was no revolutionary party, was to make it. Most of us thought of ourselves as Leninist organizers.
And although we never succeeded, a major concern of mine and of STO’s was the overcoming of the racial barriers in the United States. White skin privilege and the divisions between black and white were extremely sharp. We felt this was the major barrier to working class revolutionary struggle. Different organizations tried to deal with this in different ways. Some Trotskyists went back to the old Socialist Party position whereby socialists have nothing in particular to offer blacks or people of color—they should become union men and socialists like everybody else. The Maoist view was that black workers constituted a special category of workers and that this involved a national question that had to be integrated with a working class perspective. And nationalism was a very strong current among black workers; the Panthers and the Muslims had more of a following than did the Marxists.
TR: In every organization I’ve ever been in the black question has been understood as key for working class revolution in the United States. That was true when I was a Maoist. It didn’t change when I became a Trotskyist. Moscow had a hand in foisting the “Black Belt” theory on the American party and this disoriented it significantly. It’s our view that blacks in the U.S. are not a distinct nation, but rather a color caste that have been forcibly segregated. It’s not a matter of simply “unite and fight,” but that the class interests that bind workers together can transcend the sectional differences that separate them.
I was very impressed by Weatherman. There were no Weathermen where I was from, but my friends and I were RYM II-ish. We were Maoists because Mao was our leader. You would read the Red Book, threw rocks at the cops, were arrested, and supported strikes. But as I started reading histories of the Russian Revolution to try to figure Marxism out, I was quite open to the idea that it all went wrong with the Workers’ Opposition when Lenin and Trotsky clamped down on Kollontai’s syndicalist faction within the Bolshevik Party, though eventually I came to a different conclusion. Everything was up in the air: Stalin was good, Stalin was bad, Russia became capitalist when Stalin died as Mao taught us, or perhaps not.
CD: Looking back, I sum up my insight in one word: waves. Light moves in waves, gravity, water, everything moves in waves. So do social movements. They have ebbs and flows. We were in the middle of an ebb in the 70s, but we did not know it, since we thought it was always onward and upward. So when the wave that peaked around 1970 started to recede, we were caught out in left field. It’s very important to make adjustments. One has to know when to cast the net out and when to haul it in.
Another thing that I learned is that the South is a national homeland for African-Americans. This was not completely imposed by Zinoviev. A number of African-American comrades were involved in devising that theory. The African-American revolt of the 1960s had a national character. African-Americans are an oppressed nationality, and have the right to self-determination. I still believe that.
What explains the shift towards Marxism if the Left was politically in decline in 1970s?
Today we are seeing a decline in college attendance by the sons and daughters of the working class. How does this change things from what the three of you experienced?
CD: When I went to Penn State, my tuition was $1500 a year, so if I decided to drop out of school and go run around the country organizing against the war, nobody’s mortgage was at stake. I had no $50,000 student loan burden. The conditions under which the first wave of the baby boomers went to the newly expanded state universities and community colleges were new. It was relatively easy to get into school, and when you got out, it was relatively easy to get a job. The conditions that students face today are different. But the characterization of students as a multi-class stratum still holds.
We are now paving the road as we travel. I have learned that every revolutionary victory that has been won has broken the mold of the one that went before it. So you can’t pick up some formula from 1917 or 1905 and think you are going to repeat it today. There is not a single revolution since 1917 that could copy what the Bolsheviks accomplished.
MR: When I was a student at the University of Michigan, I worked in an auto plant, which was possible then. It’s not possible today. As to the first question, it is true that there were more people in the 70s who thought of themselves as revolutionary Marxists than there were in the 60s, but in the 60s there was a much bigger mass movement of people who thought of themselves as radicals of some sort. That is what reached a culmination around the world in the late 60s.
TR: The changing character of the student population is part of the generalized assault on working class living standards since about 1970. So why was there an expansion of post-secondary education in the United States to begin with? Because of Sputnik. The Russians were getting ahead, communism was going to win, so we had to invest in teaching our working class kids. Now there is no money for education, healthcare, or anything else. This is because STO and the Spartacist League and the October League failed to build large, powerful communist movements but instead quarreled among each other.
As regards the contrast between the 60s and the 70s, there was no difference when I was going to high school in the 1960s between smoking dope, having sex, and growing long hair and going on demonstrations and being gay.
The 60s ran until 1971 or 1972. After that came the turn to Marxist party building, the working class, etc., which exhausted everyone. You could feel the Left decomposing.
I completely agree with Carl about 1917. But 1917, which happens to be the name of our publication, is a special case. It is the only time that a politically conscious working class led the masses of the exploited to expropriate the capitalists. Prior to 1917, Marxism was seen by intellectuals as nice in theory. The Bolshevik experience shows how it is possible to recruit people, build cells, and intelligently address what the workers are concerned with. The IBT attempts to continue that work as best we can. And in our edition of Trotsky’s Transitional Program we have incorporated a lot of historical background on trade union work up through the 70s that has been exemplary. Where STO went wrong, in my view, was not in attempting to bring Marxism to the working class, but in thinking they were going to create new unions.
To achieve socialism, the working class has to acquire political consciousness and has to act in its own interests. Outside of that, you can overthrow capitalism, as happened in Cuba, in China, in Albania, and various other places, but you cannot set out on the path to consciously achieve a classless society. That is impossible unless the producers have political consciousness, unless they themselves understand, participate in, and drive the process forward. It takes leadership, but leadership that is organically part of the class. Lenin’s conception is that the party is the most self-sacrificing, the most revolutionary-minded and the most far-seeing element of the class itself. To me nothing is achievable without that. But I can’t show that we’ve made a socialist revolution yet so therefore the proposition remains to be proved. |P
Transcribed by Ryan Hardy and Jacob Cayia
. Originally published in the Guardian weekly (1973). Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/critiques/guardian/index.htm>.
. Originally published in the Workers Vanguard no. 22–30 (1973). Available online at <http://www.bolshevik.org/history/Other/falsification.html>.
. Isaac Deutscher, Marxism in Our Time, ed. Tamara Deutscher (Berkeley, CA: Ramparts Press, 1971), 65.
. Leon Trotsky, My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970), 99.
. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/fromm/works/1961/man/index.htm>.
Platypus Review 35 | May 2011
Last November Platypus hosted a roundtable discussion between Alan Goodman from The Revolutionary Communist Party USA, and Richard Rubin from Platypus entitled “Marxism and Israel: Left Perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” at Hunter College in New York City. Panelists were asked to speak on the role the Left has played in the development of Israel, the Left’s analysis of the role of American intervention in the Middle East, and what a critical Marxian approach to the conflict currently looks like, compared to what it might look like. What follows is an edited transcript of the event. Full audio of the event can be found at the above link.
Alan Goodman: I am a correspondent for Revolution newspaper, which is the voice of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA. I will be speaking to the questions, but in some ways “what are the questions?” is part of the problem. A special issue of Revolution undertook an in-depth exploration of the nature and role of Israel in the world today by asking the question whether Israel is a “bastion of Enlightenment or enforcer for imperialism?” Even people who have profound disagreements with us actually agree that these are the accurate terms of debate, and I think that as we begin to think about the genesis of Israel, the question of legitimizing or delegitimizing Israel comes down to the fact that, objectively, Israel is not a legitimate state.
Let me start by sharing an experience I had at Columbia University: Someone who was selling our newspaper said “If you can tell me which state in the Middle East has nuclear weapons, I’ll give you a free copy of this paper.” My immediate reaction was alarm, wondering how we were going to pay for all the copies we would have to give away because Mordechai Vanunu (as well as Jimmy Carter) had long since confirmed that Israel had about 120 nuclear weapons. It was or is the world’s worst kept secret in a sense. Here is the awful part: many answered “Iran, I think.” We explained to them that Iran’s nuclear program is on the verge of developing weapons-grade nuclear material, while Israel has a sophisticated nuclear arsenal. And then the response was that many people felt a lot more comfortable knowing that Israel has 120 nuclear weapons than they were knowing that Iran might get one or two.
Our main article had a thorough argument that there wouldn’t be a viable Zionist movement as we know it, and certainly no Israeli state, were it not for the sponsorship of colonial and imperialist powers. Perhaps the biggest misconception that I find when I engage with the international community around the history and nature of Israel is the general narrative that, due to the atrocities done to the Jews in World War II, they should have a country of their own where that can never happen again. There is a coincidental convergence between the end of World War II, the coming to light of some of the crimes of the Holocaust, and the founding of the state of Israel. The fundamental driving force behind the establishment of Israel was Great Britain. Sir Ronald Storrs, the first British military governor of Jerusalem, wrote that England’s support for the Zionist enterprise was one “that blessed him that gave as well as him that took, by forming for England ‘a little loyal Jewish Ulster’ in a sea of potentially hostile Arabism." This exemplifies how the world powers have looked at Israel, not being driven by a desire for justice.
Israel has carried out terrible crimes on behalf of U.S. imperialism, but very little is known about these crimes. In the 1980s Israel was a vital force behind the genocidal killing of up to 200,000 Guatemalan peasants at a time when the U.S. was grappling with Soviet-backed resistance movements in Central America. Perhaps a better known, but still generally kept secret, is Israel’s tight relationship with apartheid South Africa. One can’t understand the nature of Israel without understanding the nature of its global imperialist sponsors, first Britain and then America. Bob Avakian, the leader of the RCP has said that, “After the Holocaust, the worst thing that has happened to the Jewish people is the state of Israel.” One of the things that is clearly underlying this is that Israel is something which was done to the Jewish people. In the introduction to our special issue of Revolution we pose this challenge: “The state of Israel is projected to the world as an outpost of democracy and tolerance in a sea of intolerant Islam bent on its destruction. To be considered a credible mainstream voice in U.S. politics, academia or the media, one must present Israel as a frontline of defense against Jihad and a critical fortress defending our way of life. What is the essential nature of Israel? How does one understand the paradox of a country founded to make up for a great crime, but that itself commits great crimes? Answering these questions is not about ‘competing narratives’—the question here is, what is true, and what is just? To get into this, we will examine the history of Israel to understand the actual dynamics that led us to today's situation.”
Responding specifically to the question of the history of the Left and its relation to Israel, it hasn’t been one of our better moments. Bob Avakian has done a lot of work to excavate the experience of Russia and China when they were socialist countries, during the brief, sixty-year period when one or both were socialist, and during that time those countries mainly supported national liberation struggles around the world. It’s recently been documented by the UN that the Soviet Union actually helped supply arms to Israel. As part of what we refer to as Bob Avakian’s “New Synthesis,” we put a lot of emphasis on the need for the next stage of the world communist revolution to take a radically different approach to the relationship between the interests of existing socialist countries and the world revolution. You’ll find throughout this synthesis, in economics and every realm, putting the world revolution first.
I am arguing two points. One, by objective standards of legitimacy, Israel was built on ethnic cleansing. The inhabitants of Palestine have been terrorized and driven out of their country. They have a right to have their country back. Secondly, the essential nature of Israel is that it is an instrument of, and an enforcer for, imperialism. The stakes of this in the world are tremendously high; many people are very upset and outraged by Israel’s crimes. We have to appreciate that around the world there’s a whole different perception than in the U.S. We here in America have to break the vicious cycle of “McWorld vs. Jihad” by taking a clear stand against our own government and starting to think, not like Americans, but in the interests of humanity.
Richard Rubin: My esteemed teacher and friend, the late Eqbal Ahmad, who was himself a close friend of Edward Said, once remarked many years ago when speaking on the difficulty of addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that the first thing one must bear in mind is that one is dealing with two communities of suffering. Furthermore, each is a symbolic representative victim of two great crimes. The Jews, although by no means the only victims of Fascism, are the archetypal victims of Fascism. The Palestinians, although by no means the only victims of colonialism, or even the worst victims, have also, like the Jews, with their particular fate, become the archetypal representative of a colonized people for many around the world. The intersection of these two communities of suffering leads to many pitfalls of discourse. I will not be addressing such issues here, however, and you must take my sympathy for all victims of oppression for granted. Rather I will address, as much as is honestly possible, the question of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Marxism. This is by no means a self-evident perspective, and it is one that is generally avoided even by professed Marxists who, when they speak on the issue, usually say things that are identical to what many non- and anti-Marxists say. So is there, then, a Marxist perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict?
To begin to address this question, I will draw your attention to two articles that both purport to offer such a perspective, although they come to radically different conclusions. One is an article entitled “Bastion of Enlightenment or Enforcer for Imperialism?” that appeared recently in Revolution, the newspaper of the RCP USA, which we were just hearing about. The other is an article entitled “Israel and Communism” that appeared in the Platypus Review in issue 28, written by Initiative Sozialistisches Forum. The latter, which is a translation from a German article that appeared in 2003, will strike most American readers as by far the more exotic and strange of the two. Indeed, to many it will seem not a document pertaining to the Left at all, but rather a manifestation of neo-conservatism. The deep origins of the Antideutsch current, from which the “Israel and Communism” article is written, are in German Maoism. The article is premised on an acceptance of Marxist categories and written in a Marxist language close to jargon. While superficially the “Antideutsch” article and the Revolution article appear to be polar opposites, I would like to claim that they actually stem from a similar methodology and misconception of the Left. To make this point more clearly, let me refer you to the following passage from the Revolution article: “In the aftermath of World War II, the U.S. emerged at the top of the imperialist world order, in a position to dictate terms to both defeated rivals (like Germany and Japan), and allies (like Britain and France). Around the world, the U.S. moved to supplant old colonial powers and swallow up or encompass their spheres of influence. But other important forces also emerged out of World War II. For a short time, the Soviet Union and China formed a socialist camp that confronted the imperialist world. And another major factor on the post-war political stage was a powerful wave of national liberation struggles throughout especially Asia and Africa against the weakened colonial powers of Europe and Japan.”
Yet in 1948, as we just heard, the Soviet Union under Stalin’s dictatorship supported the creation of Israel, and the socialist camp mentioned above provided significant, some would argue decisive, material aid to Israel. Furthermore, many articles appeared in the communist press at the time hailing the Israeli struggle as an anti-imperialist one. Arab communist parties, which were small, but which did exist in several countries—particularly Egypt and Iraq—loyally opposed the intervention of the Arab armies and supported partition. Additionally, the Israeli Communist Party took an extremely patriotic line during the war, at one point even criticizing Ben-Gurion in their newspaper, Kol HaAm (Voice of the People), for being an agent of British imperialism and not conquering even more Arab territory than he did. So in 1948 progressive and communist opinion was much closer to that of the Antideutsch article than to that of the RCP article. While nowadays anti-Zionist Jews are assumed to be on the Left (although in fact the largest group of anti-Zionist Jews are actually found among the ultra-Orthodox), this was not the case in the mid-century.
What has remained structurally constant however, despite this great shift in loyalties among progressive public opinion, is the insistence of stating the question in terms of which nationalist cause to support. That is, the essentially internationalist character of revolutionary Marxism has been subordinate to the logic of national liberation, even by those who claim to be revolutionary Marxists. This is true just as much of those who claim to be in an anti-Stalinist or Trotskyist tradition as it is of Maoists. I would argue that if there is any political lesson to be learned from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is that national liberation for oppressed peoples can be a delusion. After all, the deeply tragic character of Zionism stems from its Janus-like character. To the Palestinians it was and is a colonial settler movement, but to the Jews Zionism presented itself as a movement of national liberation for an oppressed people. It is customary to focus on one side of this (the colonial settler side) to delegitimize Zionism, and the other (the national liberation movement) to legitimize it. But I am emphasizing that both are integral to it.
Conversely, it will be argued that I am neglecting the distinction between the respective nationalisms of the oppressed and the oppressor. To this response one must simply pose the question of whether the nationalism of the oppressed can actually liberate the oppressed people. There is the sentimental notion that oppressed peoples, through their resistance to oppression, liberate themselves. Posed in this way, one has little need to think about the politics of resistance, only to support resistance. In fact, however, resistance, even heroic resistance, cannot end oppression unless the material and social forces to overcome it are present. It is questionable, for example, whether in the whole history of humanity there has been more than one successful slave revolt. It was neither John Brown nor Denmark Vesey who ended chattel slavery in the U.S. but the Union Army of the northern bourgeoisie. It was not the Warsaw Ghetto uprising or the heroic struggles of Jewish partisans that ended the Holocaust, but the material superiority of the Allied armed forces, particularly the Red Army. Israel is a successful advanced capitalist state with hundreds of advanced nuclear weapons and an immense economic and military superiority to the Palestinians. Only a politics that bridges the national divide and breaks the loyalty of masses of Israeli Jews to “their” state can in fact bring liberation to the Palestinians. To pose the need for such a politics will in the present moment seem utopian. It is counterposed to all the political forces on the ground in Israel-Palestine: the Israeli state, of course, but also the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. Nor, truthfully, does it resonate with any but a handful of Israelis or Palestinians. At present, all politics around the issue are formulated in terms of the acceptance of the bourgeois nation-state. This is true not only of the explicitly right-wing politics (in both Jewish and Arab versions) but also of the so-called “two-state” and “one-state” solutions. In a deep sense, 1948 is the last and deepest legacy of 1848.
AG: I definitely want to respond to what Richard said, because I don’t agree with it. We live in a country where we can discuss all kinds of things, but our standard of living is built on a system that ravages the rest of the world. Those cars outside are fueled because regimes like that of the Saudis cut off the hands or the heads of people who protest. There’s a tremendous amount of resentment around the world and it’s not because they hate us for our freedoms, it’s because every time Uncle Sam shows up you have Abu Ghraib, you have mass graves, you have torture chambers, and Israel plays a foundational role in propping up that world system, in particular on behalf of the United States. There are challenging questions in terms of understanding the nature of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, and there are different class forces among Palestinians. In Benny Morris’s book 1948 he describes some Zionist atrocity and then he’ll say “But a crowd of angry Arabs clubbed a Jew to death.” You can’t understand the world that way; that is relativism and there is both a methodological and a moral problem with that. Let me pose the moral question another way: You’re living in Tony Soprano’s house, and there’s some screaming in the backyard because Tony’s out there beating somebody. Now, do you say to yourself, “Maybe the guy Tony’s beating is kind of a thug himself?” Or do you say, “This house is built on gangsterism that kills and tortures people?” So my point is that we have to confront the nature of the world we live in, and what responsibility that poses to us. These are basic questions of both epistemology and morality.
RR: I would argue, again, that the relationship between imperialism and Zionism is a complicated one, as seen in the case of British imperialism and Zionism, for example. Theodor Herzl originally imagined that he could “buy” Palestine from the Ottoman Empire, which was naïve of him, because he didn’t really understand Ottoman politics. The support for British imperialism and an alliance with imperialism was of course crucial to the success of the Zionist enterprise. However, the relationship was somewhat fraught and there was a kind of mutual betrayal on both sides. When the British spoke of a “little loyal Jewish Ulster,” they did not really foresee an independent Jewish state. So ultimately Zionism did in fact come into conflict with British imperialism. There were two rebellions against British imperialism: There was the Arab revolt, which you could call the first intifada in 1936–1939, in which the Zionists sided with the British in helping to suppress it. While that is a legitimate anti-imperialist revolt, one also has to realize that it had a very right-wing and problematic leadership. Then there was the Zionist revolt. After the Palestinian leadership had been largely crushed by the defeat of their revolt, there was a Zionist revolt against the British in the immediate aftermath, which led the British to turn Palestine over to the UN—the partition resolution.
The relationship between Zionism and imperialism is such that Zionism structurally needed an external ally because the alliance with Britain was always fraught. If you look at the Israeli attitude, for example, during the Suez crisis, there was still a lot of hostility between the Israelis and the British. It’s worth bearing in mind that the commander of the Jordanian Army who was later fired was in fact a British officer. There was a direct connection there, and this was part of the way progressives justified to themselves that the Israelis were fighting against British imperialism. All of this shows how one needs to problematize these narratives of anti-imperialism and national self-determination. As a patron of Israel, the U.S. has been, clearly from the Israeli standpoint, the most beneficial because it is the one with which there is the least conflict. It is an alliance that especially deepened after 1967 and 1973. In other words, what I want to emphasize here is not the specifics of the narrative but the fact that, in a structural perspective, I think that U.S. support for Israel is, overall, rational. Having said that, it does not follow that the craziness that goes on in Hebron every day is simply a manifestation of imperialism. Not everything in the world that goes on is directly a manifestation of imperialism. For example I don’t think the U.S. pushed Israel into the 1967 war, just as I don’t think the Soviet Union pushed the Arabs into that war. That war happened because of specific local circumstances, and it turned out to be a great success for Israel.
I don’t think that the U.S. or Israeli lifestyles are actually built on the fact of imperialist oppression. That is, that the majority of the population in these countries materially benefit. It’s not the case that the majority of Israeli Jews materially benefit from the oppression of Palestinians. There are a lot of Israeli Jews who are preoccupied with many other political questions than Palestine. So there is a similar class conflict to that which exists in other advanced capitalist countries. I don’t think one can just say that the people living in Sderot are economically privileged, or that they’re better off than people in Gaza. The total logic of capital doesn’t explain, for example, what goes on in Hebron, nor does it explain the shift in Palestinian politics from secular nationalism to Islamism and the rise of Hamas. There are many ideological factors than can operate within the totality of capital, and I think Marxism poses that capitalism generates opposition to it. People are not totalitarian robots programmed into capitalist ways of thinking. So, this idea of totalitarian capital, I don’t see how one could understand it this way.
Q & A
Since when does Marxism talk about morality? Richard gives a fair reply to Alan’s problematic history of what is happening in Israel, and Alan responds by giving a loaded argument about how we’re supposed to be anti-Zionist. I don’t see how this perspective is Marxist in any way.
AG: Morality has always been part of Marxism, but it is a hallmark of what Bob Avakian and the RCP are bringing forward to put more emphasis on morality. Frankly, the experience of the Marxist movement up to now has been a bit expedient on questions of morality. And a lot of what Avakian has argued is that there has to be a struggle to objectively define a morality that corresponds to the interests of humanity, and then to hold ourselves to it when it appears to get in way of our objectives. By analogy, if one sees a woman getting raped, one doesn’t ask, “How do I understand this without taking sides?” If you understand it, you will take sides. There’s a distinction between the people who have suffered the most and the people who are oppressing and exploiting them. I think it’s valuable to deconstruct it because through this process we can actually understand the nature of Israel as coming down to morality. It is a basic point of Marxism that the economic foundation of capitalist society defines societal morality. The society we live in perpetuates a dog-eat-dog dynamic, which is an expression of economic relations. When Marx and Engels talk about religion they describe it as the “soul” of a soulless world, and in a lot of their writings they talk about the reflection of economic relations in how people look at their relationships with others. I find it rather incredible that we don’t seem to have some common perception that the reason we’re walking around with iPhones has something to do with the wave of suicides in the plants that make them. Marx came about at a time when the peasants got driven off the land, and a class arose that represented, historically, the potential for humanity to transcend class society. Now, our critique is that Marx saw that too mechanically by equating proletarians with the historic mission of the proletariat as a class. But from that perspective, if it all boils down to the Maoist “right to rebel against reactionaries” then it’s not counter-productive to try to understand the role that Israel plays in the world today. I think if we can’t start from, “What is Marxism and how to apply it?,” we have to start from what’s real and what’s true. If Marxism turns out not to be true, then so be it.
RR: I think that there is a moral dimension to Marxism. I’ve never been a Zionist, and as such am very much aware that the Palestinians are oppressed. I’ve been to Palestine and I’ve seen that Hebron is a hellish place. I’m also very much aware of the history of Jewish oppression. I know people personally who have undergone extreme suffering, both Palestinians and Jews, and removing oneself from a moral position is a way of trying to understand that. Opposition to imperialism is not a moral category, but a political and analytic category. Israel as an “apartheid” state is framed moralistically. So the question is not, “Is Israeli oppression of the Palestinians as bad as apartheid?” To me that’s not the question. What is objectionable about that terminology is that it’s very bad sociology, since the political and economic logic of apartheid and that of Zionism are radically different. Therefore talking about it loosely in terms of the “struggle” is confusing.
I think one of the things this has shown about specifically Marxist points of view on Israel-Palestine is how easily the discussion gets formulated in terms that really have nothing to do with Marxism. In terms of the question of morality, it’s the question of how one conceives of political strategy. I’m not so interested in behaving morally—I’m interested in the possibilities for human liberation for Israelis and Palestinians, but also human beings in general, because you can’t separate these 10 million people who are Jews and Palestinians from everyone else on the planet.
Concretely, the situation in Israel-Palestine is miserable and it’s getting worse. If it’s not heading towards an immediate catastrophe, it could, down the road, lead to regional nuclear war, or worse. There really isn’t a revolutionary Marxist politics in Israel-Palestine aside from a handful of intellectuals, as is the case everywhere. Currently, the formulation of the politics is within a liberal context, but the liberal context and the way it’s formulated around the one-state solution won’t triumph. If, for example, a one-state solution were to be taken seriously, we would have to stop calling for an independent Palestinian state, and the Palestinians would have to say to the Israelis, “Annex us, give us full citizenship rights,” and thereby try to transform the state of Israel into a bi-national state.
I would like Richard to expand on what he identified earlier as the bourgeois nation-state, in terms of the one-state or two-state solutions.
RR: In terms of the one-state solution, a lot of one-state politics are just fraudulent: people talking about a one-state solution who don’t even really believe in it. But to the extent that you take it seriously, the advocates are talking in terms of the bourgeois nation-state. People like Ali Abunimah are anti-Marxists. I’m not saying that pejoratively—Edward Said was an anti-Marxist, and that’s the proper analytical description of their liberal political positions. The only context in which a one-state program might succeed would be in the context of a radical transformation of social relations, in other words, if it were framed in a Marxist context. But the question of one-state vs. two-state is really not the issue, because if you have a bi-national political movement committed to Arab-Jewish socialist co-existence and the abolition of existing social relations, then whether you end up with a federation or two socialist states or one bi-national state is a secondary consideration.
I wouldn’t say it’s the question of taking one side or another. It’s erroneous to understand it as just Israelis vs. Palestinians. The problem is with formulating a radical response, but even Palestinians and Israelis who believe in genuine equality and co-existence formulate their positions not in a radical context, but an essentially liberal context. One can say that’s very understandable given the circumstances in which they operate. Part of the problem, however, is that I’m trying to formulate a politics that really can’t exist, because there aren’t the people on the ground to formulate such a politics. I’m not arguing about which is the oppressor nation, and which is the oppressed. The question is how you understand that fact of an oppressed nation and an oppressing nation politically, which I think is what the real difference is. If we are really talking about the way the world is set up, then there is the specific history of capitalism in its organization of the nation-state, and the fact is that some nation-states have played an unequal role in terms of the development of capitalism. It has not developed equally across the planet. But if you’re talking about a revolution in the United States or western Europe, then that would abolish the world capitalist system, and one consequence would be the abolition of the nation-state. The same does not apply to the possibility for socialist revolution in a third-world country. I think we have a false opposition: the totality of capitalism vs. the theory of imperialism; that is, Alan’s claim that our standard of living in the U.S. is directly dependent on the exploitation of third-world countries. |P
. Tony Cliff, “The Jews, Israel and the Holocaust,” Socialist Review 219, 1998. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1998/05/israel.htm>.
. “Bastion of Enlightenment … or Enforcer for Imperialism."
Platypus Review 32 | February 2011
On November 8, 2010, Platypus hosted a forum entitled “Which Way Forward for Sexual Liberation?” moderated by Jeremy Cohan at New York University. The panel consisted of Gary Mucciaroni, professor of political science at Temple University; Sherry Wolf, author of Sexuality and Socialism and organizer for the International Socialist Organization; Kenyon Farrow, executive director of Queers for Economic Justice and author of the forthcoming Stand Up: The Politics of Racial Uplift; and Greg Gabrellas of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the event. Full audio is available online at the above link.
Gary Mucciaroni: One of the questions for this discussion has an interesting hook: “Why do we have Gay Pride Day instead of Sexual Freedom Struggle Day?” First, I think gays and lesbians have linked their cause to other non-gay groups also seeking sexual liberation. The gay liberation phase of the movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s drew inspiration from the sexual revolution that was going on at the time, and lesbians played an important role in the women’s movement, which was in part devoted to emancipating women sexually.
However, it is true that we have a gay rights movement, but not a broader sexual emancipation movement. Why? Gays and lesbians obviously have a community and a shared set of experiences, which includes being targeted by discriminatory laws, so they naturally see themselves as having more in common with each other than with other people, most of whom are seen as part of a heterosexual majority that has oppressed them for centuries. As for people who are not gay or queer, I think they tend not to reach out to gays and lesbians to form a broader movement because they don’t have a sexual identity, as such. If they do have grievances in the area of sexual emancipation, they tend to deal with them outside of politics, because sex is private, for the most part. You can be subversive sexually without being political.
It should also be said that gay rights are not just about sex and overcoming a denial of sexual freedom. The Right has always sought to portray gays and lesbians not only as sexual deviants, but also as exclusively sexual beings. A straight person who does not follow sexual mores might be labeled a pervert, but you don’t have categories like “homosexual” that reduce their humanity solely to their sexual preferences. To view the LGBT movement as fighting only for sexual freedom is superficial and potentially plays into the hand of the Right.
Hoping President Obama will push for gay rights, protesters march in October of 2009.
This gets at the internal politics of the Left. People often say the Left ought to stand for universal values, and identity politics are exclusionary. But promoting the interest of identity groups is not necessarily at odds with universal values. The LGBT rights movement has fought for equality and freedom. What could be more universal than those values? There is also the concern that identity politics displace class struggle. I don’t think we should promote identity politics at the expense of class concerns, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can do both at the same time.
In most countries, the Left has tended to be more supportive of gay and lesbian rights and sexual liberation than other parties. Nevertheless, I don’t think we should exaggerate the importance of the Left. There are other reasons why gay rights have advanced faster in some places than in others. The first factor is religion. In Canada, Northern Europe, and in Europe generally, religion is not as strong politically or socially. The courts in these countries, and particularly in Canada, have also been more assertive than courts in the U.S., where Republicans have dominated the federal bench. In other countries, LGBT movements have gained more traction because they have benefited from simpler human rights policies, whereas in the U.S. the LGBT movement has had to contend with a complicated civil rights jurisprudence in which racial and gender groups who had supposedly “immutable” characteristics were given legal preference. It has been difficult for gays and lesbians to fit in to this legal framework, which is one legacy of the Civil Rights Movement.
I sympathize with the criticism that same-sex marriage is a narrow focus. Organizations that want to go beyond marriage propose reducing the importance of marriage as a civil status and striving for a more inclusive notion of the family, rather than making marriage the primary qualification for rights and benefits. Other kinds of families, such as adult children taking care of parents, single parents, and so on, deserve social recognition and support. Of course, this raises the question of whether we want a completely unrestricted definition of family when there are arguably ethical reasons for deciding that some forms of family might be inherently unjust—polygamy, for instance. Nonetheless, I mostly agree with the “beyond marriage” arguments, although I don’t know how politically realistic it is to mobilize all these other family groupings. These do not constitute identity groups, generally, while gays and lesbians obviously do. There is a permanence to sexual orientation that does not exist in other kinds of relationships. Adults take care of their parents for a phase of their lives, for example, but do not remain in that role. Gay marriage could be one step on the road to a more inclusive family policy, and I think that’s what we should see it as—an incremental step. At the same time, I don’t think it is sensible to wait until a radical, comprehensive change in family policy comes about.
As for whether the struggle has progressed or not, I think that depends on how you look at it. Forty states have banned gay marriage, so by that reckoning it seems to be a failure. On the other hand, five states recognize gay marriage, five states have civil unions, and two states recognize out-of-state gay marriage. Ten countries around the world recognize same-sex marriage, and about eight have civil unions. No one would have expected this 30 years ago. The main limit in the U.S. is the religious Right and fundamentalism. Capitalism does play an important role, because U.S. capitalism creates such a mobile society that there is concern about social disintegration, and gay rights come to be seen as a threat to social integration. But the religious Right is the real culprit.
On the whole, the courts have played a constructive role in getting the issue on the agenda and forcing action. Some say we shouldn’t have gone through the courts, as this created a horrible backlash. This may be true, but if the courts had stayed on the sidelines, I’m convinced that little or nothing would have been accomplished. Others argue that courts don’t work because they tend to be conservative and wait for public opinion to catch up, but this is not always the case. The majority of the states that repealed sodomy laws did so through the courts, for instance, even as public opinion remained divided. Besides, public support for same-sex marriage today is getting quite large, especially for people under 50. It is not that big of a leap for the courts to declare same-sex marriage constitutional.
Sherry Wolf: With respect to reformist demands, such as same-sex marriage and no discrimination against gays in the military, radicals need to distinguish between reformism and the fight for reforms. The fight for reforms is something revolutionaries and radicals have always engaged in. Otherwise, we leave it to the liberals, who drive the struggle into the ground. It doesn’t make sense, as movements erupt, to abandon the field of battle to the people with the lowest-grade politics who aim only for the immediate demand.
I have not heard serious leftists today debate about whether we ought to involve ourselves in building unions or fight for decent labor contracts, even though we all understand that the point of unions is to renegotiate the terms of our exploitation. However, reforms like equality in the family or workplace are often held to a different standard. But it is completely consistent to think the Federal government should not discriminate in the military, the nation’s largest workforce, while at the same thinking that nobody should serve in this miserable institution that spreads war, misery, and empire. One can hold these positions at the same time.
We need to engage with others as they move Left. We are in a moment when this movement is on the ebb, and you see the rise of conservative “Gay, Inc.” sorts, who were utterly uncritical of the military funding bill which passed with the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” It is unacceptable among people who aim to build the broadest level of solidarity among people—whether gay, bisexual, transgender, and of whatever nationality—to say that we are willing to gain rights behind the backs of our Iraqi and Afghan brothers and sisters.
The dominant forces unnecessarily narrow the question of sexual liberation to those issues—“Don’t ask, don’t tell” and DOMA [Defense of Marriage Act]. Nevertheless, for the first time large contingents of LGBT folks have been participating in mass demonstrations on May Day following the National Equality March. You also have the sit-in and factory occupation at the Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago. This largely black and Latino workforce solidarized with the LGBT movement. This past June, LGBT contingents were protesting apartheid Israel’s actions following the flotilla massacre in Gaza. These are concrete examples of how you can develop solidarity on the ground.
In San Francisco, activists rally to protest the murder of homosexuals in Iraq, May of 2009.
If the Left does not get involved in these struggles, we abandon the field of battle to people with politics that are far to the right. If anybody had asked, “What are the fights you want to have out there, in terms of LGBT rights?” I never would have said, “Oh, please, can it be military and marriage?” But we on the Left are not accustomed to the luxury of picking our battles. They hit us—you either involve yourself or you don’t.
Over the last 30 years, academic theory has decided the working class no longer exists. It ignores Marx’s understanding that nurses, teachers, service and office workers, and baristas are rendered workers by their relation to production. But the power of workers identified in the Communist Manifesto remains. By deleting the working class, these theorists rule out class solidarity along with the possibility of ending oppression. Identitarian politics came to replace the working class, leading to an individualistic framework that accommodates the system and sees transformation in individual life choices. Pat Califia put it brilliantly: “We can’t fuck our way to freedom.” I support people doing whatever they choose, but I do not think that is liberation. There are real material constraints on our lives.
Historical materialism holds its currency to this day: It is our social being that determines our consciousness, not our ideas that shape the world. We get up early, prepare lunch or get the kids off to school, go out to work—or to find work, more likely—then, after a long commute, we spend the next eight or ten hours doing soul-sucking labor, and we still have to worry about affording health care, child care, anything. These are not ingredients for sexually liberatory experiences in day-to-day life, they are ingredients for exhaustion.
Restructuring our individual lives does not challenge the status quo. Nor does the attempt to instill another sexual hierarchy mirroring bourgeois morality—“They say the missionary position is best, we say fist-fucking.” We have to go back to Wilhelm Reich and Alexandra Kollontai, who in the early 20th century insisted on the interconnection between the transformation of the material conditions of our lives and liberating our sexuality. It is not just LGBT people who are oppressed, or repressed, in society today, where the average length of sex is six minutes. We all have a fight for sexual liberation on our hands, which will not be won without the transformation of the conditions we work and live under. It’s impossible to extricate the struggle for sexual liberation from the larger material struggles against austerity measures, racism, Islamophobia, and all the noxious crap specific to the ruling class’s attempt to have its way.
Our fights and our demands for immediate rights—including leisure time to explore ourselves and our bodies, and to raise questions in a forum like this—cannot be disconnected. The current moment, though often described simply as a rightward shift in the U.S., is actually a politically volatile moment. We are witnessing a political polarization. Their side, obviously, is mobilizing its base. Our side is not as well organized. We have quite a bit of work to do. The 29 million people who voted for Obama in the last election and sat it out at the midterms are disgusted and disaffected. Many are absolutely terrified, and some of them are organizable. That’s the job of the Left: to give people direction, hope, and organization.
Kenyon Farrow: I don’t want to debate the utility of marriage itself. However, the use of same-sex marriage as a central issue in the LGBT movement, along with “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” is not a natural occurrence. Why this issue? Why now? Why is funding going into this issue and not others? In 2008, the 40th anniversary of Stonewall, marriage was widely proclaimed to be the next step for gay rights in a natural progression of politics, but this is ridiculous.
Sex and sexuality is seen as a private issue, but it is not. I don’t think the state or the community has the right to determine the sexual expression or identity of consenting adults. But the state and, sometimes, institutions like families and communities, try to control different kinds of sexuality or different racial or sexual groups. I have even found that, though it ranges from progressive to radical, the Left can be just as sexually conservative as the right, in terms of policing certain kinds of sexual expression. Either way, when a group’s sexuality is brought into question, it is public.
For example, the phrase “baby momma,” which targets single black and Latino poor mothers as “welfare queen” did in the 1980s, allows the state to demonize low-income women in order to remove welfare benefits from those women. Even saying “baby momma” brings a certain image to mind. The state operationalizes itself to target and control the sexual and reproductive rights of poor women, mostly black and brown. They are maligned in the press on the basis of their sexuality, how many kids they have, whether they know who the fathers are, and so on.
Another category today is the “sex offender,” or the “sexual predator.” Those legal definitions are not just about people who have committed acts of rape, child sexual abuse, or incest. It is being expanded to other criminal offenses involving sexuality. In Louisiana, women convicted of prostitution are now targeted with a 200-year-old “crime against nature” law. Though it was put on the books to target queers, this law is now being applied to prostitution charges, so that prostitutes can be designated as sex offenders by the state. This goes on their record, jeopardizing their access to jobs and to welfare for at least ten years. So, I challenge the idea that sex is private. For many communities, sexuality is policed and made very public.
If we are talking about the LGBT movement, which grew out of a sexual liberationist politics, the question for me is, Why hasn’t that movement made overtures to these communities? Certainly, in the black community, marriage has never solved the socioeconomic problems that the LGBT movement claims marriage will solve. For a lot of people, the narrative is that LGBT is white. One really has to think about what gay marriage would mean for black queer folks, particularly in low-income communities. Considering how race corresponds to access to material resources, it is unclear how same-sex marriage could work for black LGBT people. Given the widespread lack of health insurance among black people, or the fact that health insurance isn’t even an option for those trapped in low-wage jobs, getting married to a partner—same-sex or otherwise—does not ensure access to health care.
People argue that they’ve seen black, Latino, and poor people at protests. That may be true, but as executive director of an organization that does not do marriage work, I often hear LGBT funders question the validity of the work we do with the black community. Meanwhile we are in a national crisis of queer youth homelessness, yet no funding is rolling in to secure access to housing. Clearly, some communities do not have access to discussions about the privacy of their bodies and sexuality, or about their reproductive rights and health. The fact that the movement is
arguing that same-sex marriage will somehow address these issues across the board reflects a shallow understanding of the problem.
Bash Back! Milwaukee, from Milwaukee Pridefest 2008.
Greg Gabrellas: Two opposed, and seemingly irreconcilable, stances claim the mantle of a radical position on gay politics. Although occasionally dressed up in the language of class struggle, socialist parties of all stripes remain practically indistinguishable from mainstream liberal advocacy: support of same-sex marriage, the extension of hate crime legislation, equal pay, and civil rights. Against this allegedly assimilationist orientation, self-described queers demand more radical and expansive politics. Instead of lobbying for equality, queer politics aims to fight against “heteronormativity,” “white privilege,” and “the marriage-industrial complex” by dropping banners from megachurches and vandalizing the Human Rights Campaign. To the socialist Left, such activism appears counter-productive. To the queer activist, the demand only for equality amounts to accommodation and domestication.
Despite apparent differences, both the socialist and the queer stances share unquestioned assumptions about sexuality and how it matters to the Left. For both, sexuality defines us as a minority dominated by a straight majority. The state, culture, and even language itself contribute to our shared experience of shame and otherness. Although socialists and queers disagree about what defense entails, they agree that it is the Left’s role to defend sexual minorities and their sexuality. Many see the defense of rights as fundamental, but even if not—“We’re here, we’re queer, so get used to it.” Give us tolerance, accept us for who we are, or at least leave us be. These are common slogans licensed by common-sense assumptions. But they are wrong, and, worse than wrong, they obscure the problem of sexual freedom and naturalize the incapacity of the Left to address its implications.
Sex is old, but sexuality is a distinctly modern phenomenon. Sexuality as a sphere of life distinct from all others only begins with the great revolutions wrought by capitalism. The accumulation of capital tore apart traditional ties, breaking the bond between peasants and their land, brutally forcing people into the labor market. Denied common land, peasants fled to cities seeking jobs. But with this change and attendant violence came the possibility of fashioning a sexual life free from the traditional community and its rigid customs. Terrified at the force and the freedom made possible by capitalist modernity, many sought order and restraint, hoping to control the sexual disorder proliferating around them. This was no conspiracy against the masses. As the development of capitalism wore on in the 19th century, with cyclic economic collapse following ever more destructive wars, many workers were confused and disoriented. Lashing out against the alleged destroyers of the family seemed a reasonable means to restore a better, if mythical, order of society. This was not simply a bad judgment, or a case of bad attitudes. Rather, it must be understood as a misrecognized attempt to master capitalism through social control.
The relationship between capital and sexuality goes deeper. Class rule before capitalism was a straightforward, brutal affair. But under capitalism, the abstract form of work itself constitutes domination. Wage laborers produce the very thing that dominates them. Thus, the form of the work is alienated—it is not our own. In way of response, we carve out wholly subjective space: sexuality, personal life, and marriage. It is not simply that our workaday selves are unhappy, or that some of us dislike our jobs. What matters is whether we make ourselves, and the conditions in which we live, or whether they are made for us. Capitalism is unique in that, while the combined powers of humanity make and remake the social world with ever increasing frequency, as capital continues its process of ongoing creative destruction, we make ourselves and our world only behind our own backs. Our sexuality is a way of trying to organize this confusion, to bring reason and dignity into human affairs. It doesn’t matter if this means faithful monogamy with vanilla missionary-style sex once a month, or wild orgies at the local bathhouse. What matters is its meaning: that it is ours—our pleasure, our pain, our selves.
Sexuality is a form that freedom takes under capitalism, but like all forms of freedom under capitalism, it remains incomplete. Early bourgeois philosophers like Hegel embraced sexuality in their own way. They recognized that modern marriage, as a union of free individuals, was in tension with the blind play of interests in civil society—a haven in a heartless world. Such a perspective on the emancipatory kernel of modern marriage was shared by those who advocated free love, an ideology that sought the reform of marriage by making divorce legal and abolishing the coverture laws that subsumed the rights of women under those of men. How could marriage represent a free union of individuals if one partner had the civil status of a slave? Not surprisingly, advocates of women’s rights were also largely advocates of civil rights for freedmen and opponents of child slavery. Both exponents of free love and politicians of free labor, before and after the American Civil War and Reconstruction, drew from a common stock of bourgeois political theory. Many, like Frederick Douglass, Victoria Woodhull, Wendell Philips and Sojourner Truth, made common cause in their long, reformist careers.
If sexuality emerged as a symptom of capitalism, then the revolutionary Left sought to push the symptom to its highest consciousness, seeking to expose through class struggle the contours of an otherwise opaque reality, along with its possibilities for transformation. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sought to examine how sexual relations were transformed under capitalism while also sustained in their most oppressive forms, and how they might be superseded by a change in the mode of production. August Bebel, the cofounder and longtime chairman of the German Social Democratic Party, authored a landmark monograph on the close relationship between socialism and the struggle for gender rights. He was also the first parliamentarian in history to champion the decriminalization of homosexuality. The Bolshevik revolution of 1917 decriminalized divorce, homosexuality, and abortion. Sexuality was not just one plank on the program, an issue dealt with by a multi-issue party. Rather, sexuality and its emancipation were understood to be intrinsic to the process of revolution itself. The Left exposed the bourgeois ideologists, the holdovers from free love, not for “privileging gender” over something called class. Instead, they criticized bourgeois spokespeople for being bourgeois—for evading the tasks of freedom by prescribing more abortions for the poor, rather than the abolition of the system that made them poor.
The Left’s critique was not moralistic, but historical. Over time, the politics of free love had turned into its opposite. From a critique of the present order, looking toward a transformation of sexual relations, it became a defense of the ways sexuality remained unfree in the new order. This desire to cling to the past and avoid facing an uncertain future, this fear of freedom, has characterized both reform and revolution in the 20th century.
Today there is no Left in a position to make revolution, nor even to realize comprehensive social reforms. Although the contradictions of capitalism remain, they are now invisible, and seem unsolvable. Politics, once the vehicle to achieve self-knowledge, now just confirms us in what we already know. Sexual politics becomes a way of tolerating each other; radical activists create “safe spaces” and teach each other to be more “sex positive.” Sexual politics is a kind of compromise formation, formed by the recognition of the necessity for change when fundamental change is blocked. Hence its antinomical character: bourgeois rights versus radical queer freedom, same-sex marriage versus anti-marriage.
Radical queer activism seeks legitimization in the history of the 1960s, when revolution appeared to be in the air. But no revolution materialized, and proponents of liberation unreflectively drove their politics to their logical end point in accommodation and liquidation. The consternation about the mainstreaming of the LGBT liberation movement is beside the point. The liberationists of that movement did not supersede, but fell back upon old leftist formulations derived from Third World anti-colonial struggles, and demanded the abolition of the family as the simple and straightforward negation of the right-wing socialist, and later Stalinist, emphasis on preserving the integrity of the proletarian family.
But such activism does not, and cannot, overcome the situation that generates our need for family life in the first place—a situation that propels the contemporary movement for same-sex marriage. It is not the responsibility of the Left to be for or against same-sex marriage. The question of sexual freedom is not reducible to civil rights. The future of sexual liberation lies in the recovery of a Marxian approach to history: to understand ourselves and the history of the Left as an ongoing, unfinished attempt to change ourselves in the struggle for freedom, rather than simply the struggle to free what is already there. If we turn to history it must not be in an effort to find a usable past, ready-made, but in order to critique the impasse of the present.
The Left is handicapped by its history in ways that elude its grasp. The death of the Left in 1960s militancy was a peculiar phenomenon, and gay liberation must be understood within this context. As an entire movement self-destructs, no intellectual or political actor can escape the clutch of regression. Political discourse coarsens and petrifies, as analysis hardens into a set line. The gay liberation movement recognized this problem in its own way by attempting to elaborate a historically novel theory of liberation that would help alleviate the moralistic death grip of Cold War liberalism. But gay liberation as a political movement failed to raise historical consciousness—the contradiction of freedom and domination under capitalism—to the level of practical knowledge. To raise historical consciousness would have required the advance of an international socialist movement poised to make the revolutionary transformations necessary to achieve sexual freedom.
It was precisely this task that liberationist rhetoric evaded under its cloak of “group consciousness” and “group power.” It is precisely the task of any future Left to take up the call for sexual freedom, not as an identity politics, but as an emancipatory politics seeking to fulfill the highest promises of modern capitalist society and establish the material grounds for happiness. Far from prescribing the future, the Left must push on the limits of possibility under capitalism, without once reneging our responsibility to establish the necessity of political revolution. Engels had the right idea in his description of people in a free society: “Once such people appear,” he wrote, “they will not care a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion, conformable therewith, on the practice of each individual—and that’s the end of it.” It is up to the Left to abolish punitive morality and establish the grounds for human sexuality to flourish. To the proponents of both queer theory and gay domesticity, the Left must respond as Trotsky wrote of the Fourth International, against Stalinist counterrevolution in his day: The task is to sweep away “the quacks, charlatans, and unsolicited teachers of morals. In a society based upon exploitation, the highest moral is that of the social revolution.”
Q & A
It’s hard not to think of the Civil Rights Movement when talking about gay rights. Even though poverty and segregation rates are as bad as they were in the 1960s, that was a period of radicalization. These struggles did not lead to international socialism, but clearly they were steps toward equality. Just because a given demand isn't going to solve all the problems that motivate us, I don’t think we can be dismissive of those fights.
GG: I certainly would not dismiss those movements, especially the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power. Those movements went somewhere—namely, they helped pave the way to where we are in the present. Black Power was largely victorious as an ideology for thinking about race and community politics. As Sherry pointed out in her remarks, the Left largely acquiesced to conservative politicians who established policies punitive towards poor and working-class people in the name of “racial empowerment.”
The pressing question is this: What should define the Left’s basic orientation toward the world? For many decades, the Left’s answer has been to participate in social movements as they are, in hopes of using them as vehicles to build consciousness and lead the movement to something else. Socialist organizations have been attempting this strategy for decades. Why hasn’t it worked yet? I’m definitely sympathetic towards the possibility of a reinvigorated workers movement and socialist politics, but the Left has ceded so much ground that today it is incapable of formulating its basic orientation towards problems like sexuality.
SW: The role of people who aim to change the world, and not just think about radical ideas, is to engage with real forces and struggles. We can’t get around the human material that capitalism has bequeathed to us. We can’t wait around for a more race-, class-, sex-conscious mass population to come about in order to move forward.
Two hundred folks in Boston, largely black and brown, who were initially fighting evictions largely out of their own self-interest, built a fertile movement that in some cases reversed the tide of foreclosures and evictions. Leftists in Chicago used that as a model and won a moratorium on evictions. Is it big enough? No. But this is where we are. Our job as radicals is to be involved in concrete struggles. I chafe at people who say, “I put the best four years of my education toward revolution and it hasn’t panned out.” We are looking at global forces and a Left that was obliterated in this country. A reborn Left will need us to get involved, sometimes in very partial reforms, in order to have an impact on them.
GM: I agree with what Sherry is saying about how we have to engage people on the basis of how they live their daily lives, in what may appear at first to be mundane struggles. That’s what people relate to, rather than doctrines and theories.
KF: I don’t distinguish organizing work from my work with shelters. I don’t feel like I have to divert from my politics. Otherwise it is patronizing; I would rather be blunt and say, “I'm not going to do that because it violates my politics.” You want to be involved where people are in their work and struggles, but at some point you have to make political choices. Projects of the mainstream LGBT community, like marriage, came from something. They’re not as spontaneous as they're painted. There was funding and strategy that set these things up in a particular way.
There is a lot research around relationship configuration and HIV risk. I’ve heard the argument that what the U.S. needs is same-sex marriage, as this will go some way to decreasing HIV risk among gay men. I think, “Tell that to the married woman in South Africa.” You have to question those kinds of politics creeping their way into supposedly objective research. I say, “Let’s talk about you, rather than my community that you feel is problematic.”
One part of my political approach is to engage critical thinking about popular culture on my blog. I focus on the stuff people are actually being informed by, to raise questions about sex in a way that is not being dealt with by dead white man theory.
How do you see the last 20 years? In terms of sexual issues as well as general inequality, do you see it as offering progress or as a period of defeat or stasis?
SW: I’ve been an organized socialist since I was 18, and I have never seen a larger audience for left-wing politics and theory than in the last year. The number of people who are finding Marxists.org and reading things is great. It is a welcome development because superficially reading news items and taking action has shown itself to be insufficient. This generation is facing a lifetime of couch surfing and debt. This is not a game. The early lifestyle politics typical of the social justice movement 15 years ago are falling by the wayside and class politics are now back on the agenda.
GM: I think there has been a lot of progress in the last 20 to 40 years in terms of sexual politics, but much less so in the area of material, class struggle. I’m glad to hear that things might be improving, but I grew up in a time when unions were much stronger than they are today. Sexual politics have gotten a lot more progressive—just look at the sexual revolution and the changes in family law over the last 30 years. But on the economic side, the inequality keeps getting worse. The efforts of the Left to organize can’t keep up with that. If this latest catastrophe in capitalism that began with the 2008 crash doesn't reconstitute the Left, I don’t know what could.
GG: When we talk of the past 20 years, I think that certainly no substantive gains by the Left have been achieved, but something of great importance has been lost: its basic orientation towards freedom. The failure to take stock of a very long period of degeneration on the Left is indicated by the gay liberationist writings themselves, much of which was Third Worldist and infected by Stalinist, conservative ideologies throughout the 1960s–1980s. That this goes unrecognized as a history of self-defeat bespeaks a failure to take ownership of history as something the Left has been active in making. As Adolph Reed, Jr. once wrote, “the opposition must investigate its own complicity.” That’s something the Left has failed to do. If we are going to change the circumstances in which politics operate, we have to begin by investigating how we ourselves have been complicit in maintaining those circumstances, in the past and present.
The problem with the Left in the 1960s and 1970s was not the tepidity of demands, but the legacy of McCarthyism. There weren’t a lot of radicals around to help get these movements off the ground, because the Left had been largely wiped out. Today, I have conversations with people who don’t support marriage equality struggles and I tell them how radicalized the movements are. They say, "Fine, but that's not how I want to spend my time." It seems like an impasse. Are we trying to convince people to do things they don't want to do? How do we work together to ensure that we do not separate movements?
SW: There's certainly no dearth of things that need to be fought for. I have zero interest in pounding away at someone who says, “Sorry, it’s just not my issue.” Whether you want to throw yourself into it to a certain degree is another question. People gravitate towards the kinds of activism that makes sense to them. The massacre of the flotilla brought together people who never imagined themselves getting involved in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in Israel. It’s great. Arabs and Jews have been building this movement. People who were only involved in that have now encountered activists with broader politics on the Left. Muslim activists are side-by-side with LGBT activists outside of Fox News. When has that happened? Never! That’s a step forward.
There is racism and Islamophobia among the LGBT movement, as there is homophobia among the religious. Politics bridges these divides. That’s why I think teach-ins and educationals, in a moment like this, are as important as mobilizing people on the streets.
KF: Well, I'm never going to a same-sex marriage march. I don’t want to cross that political line. But there is the issue of lopsided funding, which I’ve brought up before. I can’t get the same kind of funding that others do. Organizations that provide funding say, “Nobody cares about people on welfare,” but they are funding marriage. There are many communities not being engaged. They may not have exposure to political theory, but I think they are interested politically. I prefer thinking about those folks. The gay marriage people find a black minister to talk on camera about support for same-sex marriage. Half the black community doesn't go to church. Nobody at all is talking to the people that have a stake in sexual liberation because of the way they are targeted by the state. That is the crux of the issue.
GG: I think this is a conflation of roles. In the contemporary imagination, an activist is someone with a dosage of political education who goes out and talks with people about issues. They try to connect struggle A with struggle B. But I don’t see, for example, what queer activists have to gain in terms of advancing a project of social freedom by supporting a strategy of sanction. I don’t see what the Palestinian people have to gain by the queer activists’ uncritical support of strategies and political forces that are right-wing. This idea of the activist is misleading. The point of the Left, at least as Marx saw it, was not simply to “be the movement,” but to provide a ruthless criticism seeking to clarify the most radical potential of the movement.
It’s simply untrue to say that there were hardly any radicals, revolutionaries, or Marxists in the 1970s. There were tons of Marxist-Leninist cadres of all types. When they weren’t trying to organize, they were having debates about whether or not Mao was dead. You can’t let these radicals off the hook. Their political approaches were wrong or misguided in a number of ways. The roots of those problems stretch back in history and involve a lack of social imagination, or at least a lack of clarity. We need to recover that imagination. Regarding sexuality, the Left’s imagination of freedom has been reduced to merely breaking taboos about having sex and saying dirty words in public.
SW: I think people living in this country, an empire financing the wholesale destruction of the Palestinian people, actually do have a stake in solidarizing with Palestinians and activists fighting against apartheid Israel. I am interested in winning over LGBT activists and people in the same way the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa in the 1980s radicalized a whole generation of people like me.
How should the Left respond to an issue like homophobia in Third World Countries?
KF: I don’t know about the Left broadly, but I have struggled to determine ways to support work happening in the Caribbean and Africa, for instance. I have heard from people in those regions that foreign solidarity people get the attention and funding, while the people with fewer resources and less access to media are ignored. Outside organizations get the glory, especially when those organizations are white-elite identified NGOs. Even though they are trying to help, they fuel those states’ claims that gayness is white. It can actually further homophobia. So I build relationships with organizations that reach out to me, and I try to figure out what kind of support I can offer from the outside. I figure out how to move resources or get press for them outside the country.
SW: I agree with Kenyon. That dynamic of NGO-ization plays into the hand of elites in Uganda, who say that homosexuality is a white, imperial abomination being imposed on Africa. The role we play here is to stop collusion of our own government in these things, while the role of the Republicans and the right wing in this country is to be the architects of this noxious legislation in other countries.
GG: I disagree. Right-wing ideologies aren’t simply exported from the United States. Reaction to capitalism is global. We can’t let the right wing in other countries off the hook simply because they receive funding from religious or fundamentalist organizations, or because they have been propped up by the U.S. government.
The Left over the past half-century has been hobbled by nationalism, even when dealing with issues of equality here in the U.S. I think the gay rights movement is profoundly implicated in this narrow focus. But the hardcore, sectarian left has also undermined itself through an inverted nationalism, which assumes that everyone else’s nationalism is progressive and good, as long as it’s opposed to American nationalism. There are homophobic discourses and politics the world over. If our only way of trying to counter this is by supporting struggles operating in conditions that are extremely regressive politically, in which free speech and basic civil liberties like freedom of expression are suppressed, then the Left will not actually be able to deal with a problem like homophobia in Third World countries.
To me, the only way to even begin to address this problem is from the perspective of international socialism. If that perspective seems hopelessly utopian, then we still need to think about what would it actually take to realize worldwide the minimal reforms that gay activists take for granted. It would take a lot more than the strategies that have been pursued by gay and queer radical organizations.
KF: You should not assume that de-racialized international solidarity, of the kind you have just described, Greg, is neutral. You can’t assume that, just because you have a particular political orientation, your strategy is what people need. There is homophobia that exists in a range of places around the world. People are working under conditions formed by massive amounts of racism and imperialism from political, missionary, and NGO organizations. For an outside organization to say, “This is our political bent, buy it or kick rocks,” is completely ridiculous.
Why is the Left so silent on supporting global transformations, while conservatives are willing to rush to Uganda, for instance, to maintain order?
SW: The American left is tiny and multifaceted. Opposition to various ongoing wars is one focus of the Left. But we’re talking about such small numbers that what the Left has to do in this country, right now, is grow. Unless we have a critical mass, we cannot have a decisive impact internationally.
GG: The problem cannot be reduced to the question of the Left becoming big enough. At different points in time, the Left has been large enough. Its small size and marginal status are neither accidental nor incidental. The question is: What has brought us to where we are today, and what has been the role of the Left in that history? From the 1960s through to the present, the Left has supported cause after cause that ultimately leads to its own liquidation. It throws support to various right-wing nationalist regimes. It runs completely counter to the interests of sexual freedom, or any kind of freedom, for that matter. What is needed is a thorough reconsideration of this history and, with it, reconsideration of what the Left is. Until then, the way forward for the Left remains unclear, as does the reason for people to commit to being leftists in the first place. |P
Transcribed by Brian Worley
. Patrick Califia, Macho Sluts: Erotic Fiction (Boston: Alyson Books, 1988), 15.
. See August Bebel, Woman Under Socialism (Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2009). Originally published in 1879, sometimes translated as Woman and Socialism. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/bebel/1879/woman-socialism/index.htm>.
. Friedrich Engels, Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, reprinted in Marx and Engels, The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1978), 751. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1884/origin-family/index.htm>.
. Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (Atlanta: Pathfinder Press, 1973), 107. Available online at <http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/tp-text2.htm>.
. Adolph Reed, Jr., “Black Particularity Reconsidered,” Telos 39 (Spring 1979): 71–93. Available online at <http://libcom.org/library/black-particularity-reconsidered-adolph-l-reed-jr>.
Platypus Review 31 | January 2011
On Saturday, November 20, 2010, Platypus hosted a panel entitled “The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today” moderated by Chris Mansour at The New School for Social Research in New York. The panel consisted of Philosophy Professors J.M. Bernstein (The New School), Lydia Goehr (Columbia University), and Gregg Horowitz (Pratt Institute and Vanderbilt University), and Chris Cutrone (Adjunct Assistant Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism, School of the Art Institute of Chicago), member of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of the event. Full video and audio is available online by clicking the above links.
J.M. (Jay) Bernstein: Some 25 years ago, I asked Terry Eagleton and Fredric Jameson why two revolutionary Marxists spend so much time talking about Jane Austen. They replied, “Because that’s where the bourgeoisie have pitched their tent.” I felt that answer was true, but also insufficient. If the bourgeoisie have a stake in high culture, as one of the ways society reproduces itself, then it makes sense for Marxists to critique the practices that constitute high culture. But, beyond the issue of social integration, what stake do Marxists have in art?
Chardin, The House of Cards (1735)
The Marxist story runs something like this: By a certain moment, everyday life in modernity had become formed by the reduction of use-values to exchange-values, the fungibility and exchangeability of all material artifacts, the rule of technology, the rule of bureaucracy, the domination of capital markets, and the disenchantment of nature. Now, if you were Adorno, you would say that all of this amounts to the hegemony of instrumental reason over all forms of human reasoning. You would further say that art, in becoming purposeless, could become a refuge for another form of world address. Artworks are not fungible, not replaceable by one another, and not quantifiable. Rather, artworks make a claim on us simply by virtue of their material complexion, their ordering of sensual materials.
Modern art—I see modernism as the extension of modern art—is the attempt to think through this moment. First and foremost, the autonomy of art from politics, from science, from all the functions it might have in the world, was a world-historical calamity. Modern art begins as a kind of disaster. To understand the meaning of art is to understand the nature of that disaster. Art was taken out of the world and deposited in this realm where it has to make sense of its practice wholly in terms of itself. The puzzle of modern art is this functional emptiness that is nonetheless a form of content. First for Friedrich von Schiller, then for Adorno, the autonomy of art became a sort of opportunity. I think you can read all of modern art, right through high modernism into certain versions of postmodernism, as having embarked on the same project.
Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus (1601)
Yves-Alain Bois, along with all the writers who are part of what I will call “the aesthetic,” agree in one way or another that the primary gesture of modern art is the tearing away from materials, ideologies, and formalisms. At first—that is, with Dutch Realism in the 17th century, as with Caravaggio and, later, Chardin—this tearing away is emancipatory. It frees art from religious and related forms of reference, allowing representations to become immanent in gesture, rather than exemplifying some presumptively eternal idea. It is here that we see art becoming autonomous. In this respect, modern art was part of the secularizing of the world, but with this secularization came the idea that a wholly secular world could be infinitely valuable. Thus, with secularization came the project of sacralizing the everyday, but in a wholly secular way.
However, this project became increasingly harassed and defensive as modernity itself became an ideology, a series of forms of closure and domination. At that moment modernity ceased to be the emancipator, and became a problem. I would place that moment somewhere around 1848, with the failure of the bourgeois revolutions, though of course for some, notably Rousseau and Schiller, modernity had become a significant problem much earlier.
The notion of decoding, for Yves-Alain Bois, is broadly what Jacques Rancière means by the shift from the representational regime to the aesthetic regime. It is what Adorno means by the retreat of form in the face of materials that are in-formed, and what Gilles Deleuze means by the shift from representation to sensation. All of these I take to be riffs on the notion of purposefulness without purpose, which has this thought behind it: What painting provides is an account of our conviction in, and connection to, the world through visual experience. With modern art it became natural to find the authority of painting in its capacity to demonstrate how objects have a more than instrumental call on our capacity to live with them. That thought is fully there, for example, in Dutch Realism and in the tradition of the still life. By placing physical things in the visual environment and purifying them of any uplifting or instrumental features, by just letting them be there for our visual inspection, art returns us to this world. It allows us to be present to ourselves and for the world to be present to us.
Van Gogh, Chair (1888)
This is both enthralling and a disaster, because it means that everyday life has begun to disintegrate. I think of Van Gogh’s Chair (1888) as an eloquent moment connecting the dignity of the mere thing with the dignity of paint on canvas. Van Gogh’s moment is just that, a moment in which object and canvas speak to one another, each lending the other its authority. In the very moments of art’s so-called existential emptiness, of its not being about the world, there is the appearance of the world. This is art’s power.
Philistines hate art for that moment of emptiness. This moment, at one level, is irredeemable. But this moment of emptiness is art’s moment of fullness. Modern art imbricates and provides a refuge for a disenchanted but affirmative materialism in which objects could be meaningful in themselves, and not just in what they are useful for. These objects are sources of compelling experience amidst a world of sensory bombardment. They are a promise of happiness.
Though this promise is wildly different from Benjamin to Adorno to Rancière, these thinkers all avow some version of it. The promise is often taken to be insufficient as, after all, artworks are not life. What they promise is a different future, and in so doing artworks threaten to leave our present evacuated. This is the central difficulty of all modern art practices: If art has no other power than its mere presence, the attempt to provide it with political significance from the outside is always bound to fail. Art can only have what it offers, namely the salience of visual experience, by embracing the difficulty of that moment of protest by allowing for visual fullness.
Having said that, I need to return to where I began. This moment of protest in art only has cultural significance if the world cares about culture. I take the problem of the present not to be that art has gone awry, but that culture has gone awry. The bourgeoisie has discovered that capital can reproduce itself without social integration. Capital can get on very well with a dispersed, fragmented, wholly disarticulated cultural domain. The difficulty of modern art, in my judgement, is this: How can art address the problem of cultural weight when the bourgeoisie has disavowed it altogether?
Lydia Goehr: To Adorno critique is not the promise of happiness, nor the promise of freedom. It is always immanent critique, the turning of thought back upon itself. Asking the question, “What is critique?” might indicate that we have raised the very notion of critique to a concept. In that respect we fetishize the concept of critique, just as we have fetishized the concepts of “happiness,” “life,” “history,” and so on. Critical theory is about the immanent critique of our language, which is to say, the language of our thought and the language of our concepts. Language is our concepts, our concepts are our social logics. The way in which we think through thought is by producing a challenge to that which has authority over us, namely our concepts, like “personality,” “narrative,” and “subject.” The paradox, or the extreme difficulty, of doing immanent critique is that we have to use the tools that are the subject of our critique, so the critique always has to turn back on itself as an ongoing process. In that sense it has no external objects, although it is constantly mediated by the objects that are antithetical to our thinking—namely, things like works of art.
The real difficulty is that you can never break out of the thinking about thinking. You are constantly confronted by the things that have most authority over you, namely the concepts you are actually implying. I want to illustrate this by one example I like to use from the field of music. When we perform a musical work there’s this idea of Werktreue, of being true to the work. We know that the work has authority over our performance insofar as we are performing a work, but Adorno suggests that the way we are true to a work is precisely by being untrue to it. What he meant was that, insofar as we perform the work against its grain, by not just trying to replicate it, but by playing with it, we challenge the authority that the work-concept has over us. To be true to the work ends up being untrue to the concept of the work. Performance of music, then, becomes a way to redeem something about the musical work, if the musical work is resisting the concept under which it falls, namely the concept of “a musical work.”
This is the way that some of the so-called “social truth content” comes out of critique: It exposes the authority that concepts have over us. My suggestion is that one way to think about critique is in terms of looking for ways in our thinking to break the authority our thinking has over us. In that sense, there is nowhere to go outside of our own capacity to think.
Gregg Horowitz: I started really thinking about this panel around ten days ago. At the end of every day, it was almost tomorrow, which meant that the thoughts were already too late. I only found my way out of this conundrum through this extraordinary document that has been published in a recent issue of the New Left Review, of a discussion between Adorno and Horkheimer in 1956, which Gretel Adorno recorded.  They discussed what it would mean to rewrite the Communist Manifesto. And I thought—that’s a thought about today. It is visibly a thought about today. For such a project, you would think the main themes in connecting up the past, the present, and the future, would be something like this: The past was the revolution, the present is actually existing socialism, and the future depends on whether actually existing socialism points in a meaningful way to a socialism worth endorsing. But that’s not what they talk about. Rather, the past is the party, understood as an audience whom a writer interested in socialism might address. Marx, after all, begins the Communist Manifesto with an address to the party. The future, then, is a question of who would care about the writing. And the present, it turns out, is largely a matter of motorbikes. This is Europe in 1956, and youths are riding on motorbikes all over, making pestiferous noise. The question kept occuring to Horkheimer and Adorno, “Why does everybody love motorbikes?” Now this seems to be what it means to think about the present: thinking about the sound of motorbikes roaring in your ears as you think through the party, on the one hand, and whom to address, on the other.
If our future is anywhere, the thought usually goes, it will be in the present. No other future can matter other than the future that is here in the present. This self-conscious entrenchment in the present reminds us that critical theory, both as it was articulated but also, more importantly, as we have to receive it, was not simply a response to social regression, but a symptom of social regression. As Adorno said, philosophy carries on because its moment of realization was missed. For philosophy, as for critical theory, something has migrated into the realm of thought that is somehow not at home in the realm of thought. In this sense philosophy is struck by the same regression that critical theory takes itself to be reflecting on.
To put this point in a more general register, thinking is not self-determining, but is always shaped by the practices out of which it emerges and to which it instinctively tries to return. The more it is frustrated in this endeavor, the more insistent it is to return. The idea that thinking is not self-determining represents the decay of a certain image of philosophy. At that point one wants to assert that the whole project of spinning a system of thought out of concepts is now simply behind us. It is for this reason that we can say that Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud remain the central background figures, because they sought to think through, not the future completion, but the radical incompleteness of philosophy. That philosophy, of all disciplines, would be radically incomplete implies that all practices are radically incomplete. No thought, no practice, can cordon itself off from the social world of which it is a part. Critique wants to get behind the veil, to get to the bottom of things from which we can start over in the full light of truth. But precisely this impulse, this thought, has to be treated as symptomatic—it ends up inhibiting thought.
We always start exactly where we are. This is neither to say that nothing of the past is left, nor that everything is so thoroughly mediated that the origin has disappeared. Rather, there is no starting over because nothing of the past ever goes away. The urge to start over attests to a learned distrust in our capacity to remember, to sustain experience. Memory is weak, and in response to this weakness the feeling arises that things are going away, and we want to get back to the things themselves. This weakness is crucial to reflect on. For it is not in the strength, but in this moment of memory’s weakness that the past rises up in the light of that future which we cannot determine in the present.
All understanding of the present has to start with the acknowledgement that we are not the future the past had in mind and that, for this reason, in some sense we stand in the way of the future the past had in mind. I do not know how to sustain this thought for long—it hurts. One task that we can pose to critique, insofar as we turn against ourselves in this moment of weakness, is to unlock another future—perhaps another modernity.
I am putting to critique the task of understanding the present, but to understand the present is to grasp it as if it has already passed away. In the dialogue between Adorno and Horkheimer, Adorno makes the comment that the horror of the present is that we live in a world where we cannot imagine a better one. To say that we live in a world where we cannot imagine a better one is to say that we cannot see this world as one that has passed away. We cannot see the present in the light of a future that the present does not intend. The standard line is that, for critical theory, to grasp the world as past has meant totalizing the world, or seeing it from the point of view of its completeness, with nothing falling outside the totality. But this is a limited conception of totalization. It is not merely that nothing falls outside, but that anything that does fall outside of the totality is a harbinger or an ambassador of a different world. This thought has been susceptible to a religious interpretation that I am going to do everything I can to avoid. Totalization in this respect is the precondition for opening up the cracks through which the light of the future can shine, right now, on the past and the present. Horkheimer says in his dialogue with Adorno, “I don’t believe things will turn out well.” And by “things” he means everything. But the thought that things might turn out well is indispensable. Nothing falls outside but the thought that something in the present does shine a light on the past.
With regard to art, I agree with Jay that modernist art has been taken up as a kind of self-overcoming of the present. Modernist art is not the future—Heaven forbid—but, rather, it is the light that shines from the future onto the past, the light whose uselessness is what the present does not yet know how to make use of. Adorno only articulated this thought retrospectively. That is, Adorno felt that the moment of modernist art’s capacity to be this light had already passed. Modernist art had been absorbed by the culture industry.
The contrast between the culture industry and modernist art is often articulated so radically that absorption is thought of as cancellation. But absorption is not the same as negation. Rather, I think of absorption the way I think of how, when you wash your dishes, the sponge absorbs the odor of what is being discarded. It is retained in trace form. The inevitability of the absorption is clear once the demand for a different future has been articulated. Once made, that demand is already on the way to becoming a commodity. What we need is not a demand for another future, but for another past. We need the paradoxical demand of a past that will steer us toward a future that we cannot anticipate. From this it follows that no art practice can ever be “subversive.” Art practices can be subverted, but no art practice can ever be subversive. Art is, and should be, too much in love with experience in the present to ever be subversive. For any art that is worth taking seriously, absorption in the culture industry seems inevitable.
However controversial this statement may be, I believe critical theory has before it now the task of demolishing the false overvaluation of art, in order to save us from the idea that art will save us. Perhaps critical theory is tasked with helping us to expect less of art. At one point in this exchange between Horkheimer and Adorno, Horkheimer says, “The more eager one is to break the taboo, the more harmless it is…. One must be very down to earth, measured, and considered so that the impression that something or other is not possible does not arise.”  What Horkheimer calls for here is a toning down of the rhetoric, because with every moment of melodrama in the effort to cancel the present moment, we render the weight of the present moment insignificant. It becomes the occasion for a spectacular display of pathos, which Horkheimer is trying to resist. Perhaps what we should drive toward, critically, is lower expectations for art, so that we have an opportunity to experience, not our distance from, but our proximity to, what is better—though this proximity is also a kind of distance, and what is better remains obscure.
Chris Cutrone: The scholar of Benjamin’s and Adorno’s work, Susan Buck-Morss provided a pithy formulation for defining the tasks of both art and criticism in the modern era: “[Artists’] work is to sustain the critical moment of aesthetic experience; our job as critics is to recognize this.”  Two aspects of Buck-Morss’s formulation of the work of artists need to be emphasized—“sustaining the critical moment” and “aesthetic experience.” The subjective experience of the aesthetic is what artists work on, and they do so in order to capture and sustain, or make available, subjectivity’s “critical moment.”
Adorno, in his 1932 essay “The Social Situation of Music,” analogized the position of modern art to that of critical social theory: The role of both was to provoke recognition. Adorno further warned that there could be no progress in art without that of society. His posthumously published but unfinished monograph Aesthetic Theory can be considered to have at its center, organizing the entire discussion of the modern experience of art, the theme of the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of art. In this, Adorno was elaborating in the aesthetic realm his thesis in Negative Dialectics, that philosophy and critical theory were both necessary and impossible, simultaneously.
What does it mean to practice art in an epoch of its impossibility and continuing necessity? A clue can be found in Adorno’s claim in Negative Dialectics that “philosophy lives on because its moment of realization was missed.”  Adorno’s treatment of philosophy and art is modeled on Marx’s treatment of capital. The potential for a dialectical historical transformation, in which capital would be simultaneously realized and abolished, became for Adorno the question of what it would mean to simultaneously realize and overcome the aspirations of modern philosophy and art. What would it mean to overcome the necessity that is expressed in modern practices of art? The Hegelian thought figure of art’s attaining to its own concept, while transcending it through a qualitative transformation, was mobilized by Adorno to grasp both the history of modern art and the desire to overcome its practices.
The Hegel scholar Robert Pippin, in his response to the journal Critical Inquiry’s 2003 forum on the current state and potential future for critical theory, described postmodernism as a repetition of the “Romantic recoil” from modernity.  Specifically, Pippin pointed to modern literary and artistic forms as derived from such Romanticism, of which postmodernism was the mere continuation, but in denial of its repetition. And Pippin pointed out that such repetition is in fact a “regression,” because consciousness of the historical condition of the problem had grown worse.
Hegel posed the question of the “end” of art. He meant by this not the cessation of practices of art, but rather the ability of those practices to make the activity of “Spirit” appear in a self-contained and self-sufficient manner. While religion had been superseded by art, art had come to be superseded by “philosophy.” By this, Hegel meant that art needed philosophical interpretation to be able to mean what it meant. Art needed criticism in order to be itself. This was a specifically modern condition for art, which Hegel addressed in a rather optimistic manner, seeing art’s need for criticism as a hallmark of enlightenment rather than a disability or liability.
But Adorno took this Hegelianism with respect to art and turned it from an explanation of art’s historical condition to a critique of those historical conditions. Like Marx who had turned Hegel on his head, or put Hegel back on his feet, Adorno inverted the significance of Hegel’s philosophical observation. Where Hegel had, for instance, regarded modern politics as the realm of reflection on the state, and by extension the self-objectification of civil society in the state, Marx regarded the modern distinction between state and civil society as expressing the pathological necessity of capital, in which the self-contradiction of capital was projected. Adorno similarly addressed the complementary necessities of art and criticism as expressing a self-contradiction in (aesthetic) subjectivity.
As Adorno put it, however, this did not mean that one should aspire to any “reconciliation” of art and philosophy, nor of theory and practice. Just as Marx critiqued the Left Hegelians for their Romantic desire to merely dissolve the distinction between state and civil society, so too did Marx and Adorno alike regard this separation as the hallmark of freedom. In a late essay, “Marginalia to Theory and Practice” (1969), Adorno attacked “Romantic socialism” for wanting to dissolve the distinction and critical relationship between theory and practice, maintaining that, by contrast with traditional society, the modern separation of theory and practice was “progressive” and emancipatory. So too was the separation in meaning between art, as non-conceptual knowledge, and criticism, informed by theoretical concepts.
Adorno, like Marx, looks forward, not to a return to a pre-modern or pre-capitalist unity of theory and practice, nor to a reconciliation of form and content, as had been the case in traditional culture, but to a qualitative transformation of the modern division of meaning in art and criticism, in which each would be simultaneously realized and abolished as presently practiced. The problem is that, rather than being raised to ever more acute levels, there was already in Adorno’s lifetime a retreat from the productive antagonism, the dialectic of theory and practice, or in this case art and criticism.
Adorno drew upon and sought to further elaborate the approach of his friend and mentor Walter Benjamin, who argued in his 1934 essay “The Author as Producer” that no art could be of correct “political tendency” unless it was also of good aesthetic quality.  Furthermore, Benjamin argued that every great work of art “either founds or dissolves a genre.”  As Benjamin put it, the work of art that fails to teach artists teaches no one. Artists do not “distribute” aesthetic experience, but produce it. New art re-works and transforms, retrospectively, the history of art. Benjamin argued that there could be no progress in society without that of art, for necessarily involved in both is the transformation of subjectivity.
The history of modern art, as Benjamin and Adorno recognized, presents a diverse multiplicity of practices, none of which has been able to come to full fruition. Benjamin described this poignantly in his Arcades Project as “living in hell.”  Benjamin and Adorno’s thought-figure for such historical consciousness of modern art comes from Trotsky, who pointed out, in a June 1938 letter to the editors of the American journal Partisan Review, that the modern capitalist epoch displayed the following phenomenon in its historical course:
[N]ew tendencies take on a more and more violent character, alternating between hope and despair. The artistic schools of the [first] few decades [of the 20th century]—cubism, futurism, dadaism, surrealism—follow each other without reaching a complete development. Art, which is the most complex part of culture, the most sensitive and at the same time the least protected, suffers most from the decline and decay of bourgeois society.
This was because, as Trotsky put it,
The decline of bourgeois society means an intolerable exacerbation of social contradictions, which are transformed inevitably into personal contradictions, calling forth an ever more burning need for a liberating art. Furthermore, a declining capitalism already finds itself completely incapable of offering the minimum conditions for the development of tendencies in art which correspond, however little, to our epoch…. The oppressed masses live their own life. Bohemianism offers too limited a social base.
Trotsky said of art that, “a protest against reality, either conscious or unconscious, active or passive, optimistic or pessimistic, always forms part of a really creative piece of work. Every new tendency in art has begun with rebellion.”  And not merely rebellion against existing conventions of art, but against the conditions of life in capitalism.
But what, then, would be a “liberating art?” Adorno addresses this in terms of the aspiration for “artistic autonomy,” or the self-justification of aesthetic experience. This is related to how Kant described the experience of the beautiful, in nature or art, as the sympathetic resonance the subject experiences of an object, which thus appears to embody “purposiveness without purpose,” or a telos—an end-in-itself. Except, for Adorno, this empathy between subject and object in Kant’s account of aesthetic experience is not affirmative, but critical. In Adorno’s account of the modern experience of art, the subject recognizes not the power of experiential capacities and the transformative freedom of the human faculties, but rather their constraint and unfreedom, their self-contradictory and self-undermining powers. The subject experiences not its freedom in self-transformation, but rather the need for transformation in freedom. Adorno emphasized that the autonomy of art, as of the subject, remains under capitalism an aspiration rather than an achieved state. Works of art embody the striving for autonomy that is denied the subject of the modern society of capital, and thus artworks also embody failure. Hence, the history of art furnishes a rich inventory of failed attempts. This is why this history remains unsettled and constantly returns. Modern works of art are necessarily failures, but are nonetheless valuable as embodiments of possibility, of unfulfilled potential.
The constrained possibilities embodied in modern art are, according to Benjamin’s formulation, approached by the subject with a combination of “desire and fear.” Modern artworks embody not only human but “inhuman” potentials—that is, the possibilities for the qualitative transformation of humanity, which we regard with desire and fear. They thus have simultaneously utopian and dystopian aspects. Modern artworks are as ambivalent as the historical conditions they refract in themselves, “prismatically.” But it is in such ambivalence that art instantiates freedom. It is the task of theory, or critique, to register the non-conceptual while attempting to bring it within the range of concepts. As Adorno put it, the aspiration of modern art is to “produce something without knowing what it is.”  In so doing, art acts not only on the future, but also on history.
Modern artworks find inspiration in art history. This is the potentially emancipatory character of repetition. Artists are motivated by art history to re-attain lost moments by achieving them again, but differently. Artists produce new works that, in their newness, unlock the potentials of past art, allowing us to re-experience history. But this work on history is not without its dangers. As Benjamin put it, “even the dead are not safe” from the ambivalent “progress” of history, because this history unfolds in capital as a “mounting catastrophe.”  The history of modern art, like that of capital more generally, furnishes a compendium of ruins. The simultaneously progressive and regressive dynamics of history find their purchase in this: that historical forms of experience and consciousness inform present practices, for better or worse. It is the work of critique to attempt to better inform, through greater consciousness, the inevitable repetition in the continuing practices of art, and thus attempt to overcome the worst effects of the regression involved in such practices.
In the Hegelian sense adopted by both Marx and Adorno, the greater consciousness of freedom is the only available path for freedom’s possible realization. Consciousness is tasked to recognize the potential that is its own condition of possibility. This is why Adorno and Benjamin addressed works of art as forms of consciousness. Art can be ideological or it can enlighten, provoking consciousness to push itself further.
The dialectic of art and criticism is necessary for the vitality of art. The self-abnegation of criticism, on the other hand—the disenchantment of consciousness that characterized “postmodernism”—has clearly demonstrated the barrenness of such abdication of responsibility on the part of critics and theorists more so than artists, who were thus left at the mercy of poor, unclarified concepts. The challenge posed by modern critical-theoretical approaches to art has been warded off rather than engaged and pushed further.
Artists’ work continues to demand critical recognition, whether the critics recognize this or not. What such critical recognition of the work of history taken up by art would mean is what Marxist aesthetic theorists like Adorno and Benjamin pursued, and from whose efforts we can and indeed must learn. For a new condition of art has not been attained, but only an old set of conditions repeated, without their repetition being properly recognized. The relation between art and social modernity, or capital, continues to task both art and theory. Art is not merely conditioned by, but is itself an instance of the modern society of capital. But, like society, for art to progress, theory must do its work.
LG: Chris, you seemed to read Adorno’s distinction between regression and progression as if progress is simply the bit we want, but it seems to me that Adorno’s point was that the progressive and the regressive are two sides of the same coin, both of which lead to catastrophe.
CC: In Benjamin and Adorno’s philosophy of history, which they are deriving from Marx, capital is simultaneously progressive and regressive. Capital progresses through a kind of recursive movement, and so they understand overcoming capital as also completing capital. Benjamin and Adorno take up the concept of Aufhebung—the sublation, the realization through negation, or the self-overcoming—to articulate this “completion.” Art, far from being outside capital, is part and parcel of capital’s historical movement. Art moves historically through a “progress,” if you will, of progress and regress—like capital. Of course, this raises the question of emancipation. Colloquially, progress is usually thought of in these terms: “Are we making progress? Is progress progress? Or, is it actually progress in domination, in which case it is not progress?” I feel that an unfamiliar aspect of Benjamin and Adorno’s thought is an idea they take from Marx, which complicates the relationship between progress and regress: Capital moves through a process of the discontents capital itself produces. The opposition to capital that these discontents engender form the basis for the reconstitution of capital in a new form, though there are important differences in the form these discontents take. You can have a system of discontents that advances capital in one way, or in a completely different way.
To take perhaps the most dramatic example, I’m sure we are familiar with the anti-totalitarian idea that communism and fascism are simply two sides of the same coin. In a way, for Benjamin and Adorno, fascism was the necessary doppelgänger of communism, in that both communism and fascism had an ambivalent relationship to the progress and regress of capital. Nevertheless, one could distinguish between communism and fascism, as Benjamin and Adorno themselves did. One could distinguish between how the contradiction of capital is being pushed through communism versus the way it was being pushed, in a more obscure manner, through fascism. One salient point here would be Wilhelm Reich’s argument, in “Ideology as a Material Force” (1933), that Marxists had failed to recognize the progressive character of fascism, which of course did not mean that Reich found fascism “progressive.” Rather, Reich meant that fascists were more in tune with the ambivalent progress and regress of capital than the Marxists were. The Marxists, in a sense, were helpless in the face of the progress of capital—therefore, the ambivalent progress of capital took the form of fascism rather than communism in Germany.
GH: Of course, after 1848, modernity becomes not the solution, but the problem. However, I resist a certain version of the argument which posits that, since modernity is the problem, there must be something which is not modernity that provides, if not the solution, at least the answer. The full secularization of history entails that there is nothing outside history. So I think modernity has to be the answer to the problem it raises. In my remarks I held up what I am calling “another modernity,” which I acknowledge to be only a sort of marker. It is possible we may have to make out this other modernity by figuring out, again, the difference between communism and fascism, though I find this possibility a bit dreadful. However, this would mean withdrawing from the language of disaster and catastrophe—a withdrawal I would justify on the basis of Adorno’s resistance to pessimism. Pessimism is the conviction that things will inevitably get worse. But, for Adorno, it is the dark gift of history that this is false. The only gift of having survived 1945 is the dead certainty that things cannot get any worse. From this anti-pessimistic thought, I think there must emerge something like an anti-catastrophic line of thinking.
JB: You would have to think past Adorno to do that, though. I keep pointing back to early modern art, and to what I have called the “secular sacralization” of the everyday. I do this because one of the things Adorno thematized, but did not see in the art he loved, was the burden of giving everyday life the intensity and fullness of satisfactions once found in religious forms of life. Adorno and Benjamin were overly impressed by the sacred, or the messianic, and this was their worst temptation. If they were alive now, I fear they would be doing political theology, which is the worst thing to happen in political thought since Carl Schmitt. As I see it, Adorno’s anti-representationalism ultimately led him to think of what was utopian in distorted ways.
Bartolomeo Manfredi, Cupid Chastised (1613)
CC: Your critique of Benjamin and Adorno points to the difference between understanding modernity as post-Renaissance, versus understanding modernity as post-1848. Art after 1848 is about disenchantment, secularization, and sacralization of the everyday, but in a fundamentally different way than the art from the Renaissance period through the Romantic period, up until the time of Hegel. This difference hinges on the difference between Kant and Hegel, on the one hand, and Marx, on the other, which should not be understood simply as a difference in thinking. Rather, it is a matter of the real historical difference between the pre-1848 and post-1848 world, which makes it necessary to pose quite differently the question of Enlightenment, disenchantment, desacralization, and resacralization.
Jay, I think you have posed art as occupying a space outside capital, outside modernity, representing a romantic response to the instrumentalization of the world. I believe there were elements of this in Lydia’s remarks as well. In contrast, I think Adorno and Benjamin challenge us to see how art also becomes instrumental reason, in the sense that art is an instrument of capital. It is not as though there is reason that is used instrumentally, and reason that is not used instrumentally. Rather, reason becomes instrumentalized by capital so that the Enlightenment becomes a more ambiguous phenomenon after 1848. There is a reversal of means and ends after 1848 such that one can no longer understand capital as the advance of Enlightenment, but can only see the Enlightenment as the means of capital. Rather than “non-conceptual knowledge,” Adorno and Benjamin see art as part of the reason of capital, but also, therefore, as bearing the ambivalence of capital and potentially making that ambivalence recognizable.
A similar difficulty, which came up in Gregg’s presentation, is getting beyond an understanding of emancipation in terms of cracks or fragments in society. This conception of emancipation traces back to a kind of Romantic Counter-Enlightenment, from which Marx and, thus, Benjamin and Adorno, would have to be distinguished. I take great issue with the claim that Adorno and Benjamin were enchanted by the sacred. Like Hegel, they were tasked with understanding continuity and change in the desacralization of the world. Hegel had to account for the ways that religious metaphysics remain with us in spite of, and even through, the disenchantment of the world. Kant and Hegel understood this in the sense that religion was a prior form of reason, but I do not think they argue for a Romantic re-enchantment of the sacred against the disenchanted world. Marx, Benjamin, and Adorno certainly do not.
LG: This treats Adorno and Benjamin as if they are producing a theory of society or a theory of art in a traditional sense—that is, taking a step back, coming up with a theory, and then imposing it upon society, art, or capitalism. What Adorno and Benjamin share in their writing is precisely this turning back on themselves to ask how, actually, does one write about this. They always turn back on the structures of thought and writing.
CC: I don’t think I implied that Adorno and Benjamin felt they could step outside their object of critique. They consider their own thinking symptomatic of capital, which means that they understand their own opposition to capital as itself being a symptom of capital. In this sense the only difference they could establish between their own thinking and others’ was the measure of self-clarification and self-awareness they achieved, which is an issue of the philosophy of history. There is a difficulty in understanding what opposition to capitalism means. The usual approach is to look at how capital breaks down—to look for apparent cracks, which provide the grounds for “resistance.” This is the typical language of the Left in the late 20th century, down to the present. In contrast, Benjamin and Adorno follow from Marx in recognizing that it is not the case that capital moves by a smooth logic, interrupted by moments of collapse representing something outside of capital. Rather, part of what makes capital an “alienated” logic is that it is no logic at all; it reproduces itself not in spite of, but precisely through breakdown, resistance, discontents, and a host of contingent or “spontaneous” factors.
There is an undigested Romantic legacy, in the wake of 1789, of positioning oneself, along with all humanity, under the treads of history. This tends toward a one-sided understanding of capital as instrumental reason, whereas in fact Adorno and Benjamin, like Marx and Hegel, are actually trying to overcome a Romantic rejection of modernity. Trying not to fall on one side of that Romantic rejection is hard without seeming to speak from some kind of objective view outside of the phenomenon, but I think that is primarily an issue of style and presentation.
Q & A
In your comments, Gregg, you said that returning to the distinction between fascism and communism seemed dreadful. But what hope for the redemptive power of art, or even of thought itself, exists outside of the hope for socialism, a movement that the revolutionary Marxist tradition understood as the attempt, for the first time, to put social relations under the dominion of social consciousness?
GH: My expression of despair was only at the prospect of having to frame the problem that way. The articulation of socialism necessarily involves the retrieval of the emancipatory moment of “actually existing socialism.” But what must we return to in order to retrieve this emancipatory moment? I don’t have an answer to that, but if there is an answer afoot, we need to hear it. Several times in the last month I have heard the following remarkable thought—and when I say remarkable I simply mean I want to know more—that Khrushchev represented an actual breakthrough, from which we might retrieve a different practice of communism. That is the kind of thought that I do not know how to make use of, even in trying to think about what you and I share, which is a view of socialism as the horizon of emancipatory political practice.
Jay, in your remarks you have described our culture as being problematic in its relation to art, which I took to mean that we have a “wrong culture.” What do you mean by this?
JB: “Wrong culture” would be optimistic. I am interested in how the culture question has lapsed. It was standard even in the 1960s to articulate how system integration, the way in which various institutions make capital reproduction possible, required social integration, whereby people would have harmonious beliefs, values, and ideals. At a certain moment, capital recognized that this was not strictly necessity, and that people did not actually need a whole lot of ideological forming. My claim is that an image of radical culture was parasitic on the idea that there was a dominant culture. There is no longer a coherent dominant culture against which to mount a critique that could push forward the formation of an alternative political will. This is what requires us to rethink the notion of critique.
CC: I think the world appears to lack a common culture holding the system together because the common culture that exists is poorly recognized. Counterintuitively, I think there are a great deal of assumptions shared by Islamic fundamentalists, Christian fundamentalists, postmodern bohemians, and so on, but these common assumptions go unrecognized and unremarked. These assumptions have become ideology in a classic sense. The task would be provoking recognition of this commonality in order to make legible the unity of the opposites in our world, rather than thinking that we live in some sort of cultural plurality that resists any attempt to understand it as a totality. That this appears to be the case is simply an artifact of our failure to understand it. One could just as well make a plausible argument, from the standpoint of the 19th century, that the world was being held together without a hegemonic culture in 1830, 1848, or 1870. The task would be to find the hegemonic culture that is there, but which is completely naturalized.
LG: But are we talking here about culture with a small C, or Kultur with a capital K?
GH: I had a version of that question in mind. In a review of the Anselm Kiefer art show that appeared recently in the New York Times, Roberta Smith hauled out of the dustbin of history a critical concept you almost never see anymore: She referred to Kiefer as a “middlebrow painter.”  The concept seemed archaic to me. Even though it was clearly meant as a slander, “middlebrow” had none of the negative charge it used to have. Suddenly there was, in the concept of middlebrow, a whiff of democracy. It sounded optimistic, as though it is something to aspire to. So, I don’t mean to imply by this that Anselm Kiefer is a great painter or anything, but reading this review of his work suggested to me that, whatever might come to count as a common culture, it is definitely not going to be culture with a capital K—it is not going to be a matter of cultivation, in that sense.
JB: With respect to what I am calling the breakdown or the loss of culture, I am thinking about what goes on, for instance, in Philip Roth’s novel American Pastoral, which captures how ideality or hopefulness is no longer available as something that could be transformative. It is not simply “ideology,” or a series of false beliefs, that make a culture, even with a small C. There has to be a notion of ideality. That notion, which appeared in Germany under the phrase “critique of pure cynicism,” really has its American moment now, and it is that difficulty I was pointing to.
LG: From that, it follows that the real confrontation now would not be between critical theory and capital, directly, but between critical theory and democracy. This is really where the issue is for politics.
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring (1913)
CC: The word I want to introduce into the discussion is “kitsch.” Maybe we now have kitsch culture and kitsch politics. There are interesting parallels between Clement Greenberg and Benjamin and Adorno. It is interesting that Greenberg foregrounds the question of democracy by treating avant-garde and kitsch as symptoms of democracy. But in this way Greenberg also raises the question of the relationship between capital and democracy. The culture industry was a concept that Adorno meant to embrace high art as well. Schoenberg and Stravinsky were also a part of the culture industry. In that respect I think one has to see how avant-garde and kitsch practices subsist on a common ground and how Schoenberg and Stravinsky are two sides of the same coin. Adorno certainly was not just a partisan for Schoenberg over Stravinsky, which is how Adorno is usually read.
A few of you tonight have touched upon the concept that an artwork is not successful unless critique is doing its job. But what is critique’s job description, so to speak, in relation to art today? And what should it be?
Beethoven, Symphony 5 (1804–08), I. Allegro con brio
LG: It is not that art will not function unless critique does its job, but that critique is this ongoing process of rethinking what is being asserted. One of the reasons Adorno admired Schoenberg was that he thought you could not reduce Schoenberg to whistling, and this meant that in some way Schoenberg was not assimilable by the culture—in its form it would always rub up against culture. If you understood what it was that made Schoenberg so difficult and so unassimilable, so unwhistleable, you could perhaps understand again what was amazing about a Beethoven symphony or even, in my view, a Puccini opera like La Bohème. This is where I think even Adorno got himself wrong, in that he made too many blanket statements about the kind of music that was subsumable by this society. The real resistant potential is to try and listen to Puccini as a great composer, not to listen to Puccini as a composer under the conditions of commodification.
Puccini, La bohème (1896), O soave fanciulla
CC: I don’t think Schoenberg was unassimilable—if anything, his work was assimilated. But I also do not think that Adorno thought Schoenberg was unassimilable, and so I don’t think unassimilability is what Adorno valued in Schoenberg. Adorno talks about Schoenberg and the culture industry in terms of “the inevitable” versus “the incomprehensible,” as a sort of antinomy within a historical moment of the culture industry. Inevitability and incomprehensibility are, to Adorno, two aspects of the same thing. The operation of capital is not comprehensible by individuals but it is clearly socially assimilable. In this sense, capital is inevitable and incomprehensible. What Adorno valued about Schoenberg was that, in Schoenberg, you cannot escape that simultaneous inevitability and incomprehensibility as easily as you can escape it by putting on Puccini, for instance, or Stravinsky, who gives you the comprehensible sublime.
In your comments, Jay, you have proposed the everyday as a different route to go besides the messianic or sacred. But how is the everyday supposed to get beyond all the problems you have raised with shareability, for instance? Doesn’t everydayness run into all the same problems we run into with culture?
Schoenberg, Erwartung/Expectation (1909)
JB: I think the everyday has always been the question for modern art. Whatever we might mean by modernity, it has to be the thought of a wholly secular form of life. What we don’t know is what shareability is going to look like. That is something art practices will need to invent, in the sense of figuring out, as they go along, variations on this idea of immanent sharebility, which comes out of the practice itself and yet remains a practice. What makes art particular, at least for me, is that it bears this burden.
I think the theme of the failure of postmodernism to advance historical consciousness has not been fully fleshed out. What is it about how postmodernism saw art that has left us with less access to historical self-awareness or consciousness?
CC: There have been assumed but, unfortunately, naturalized and invisible categories we have used in discussing art and critique, and I think the invisibility of these categories points to problems of historical consciousness. In a sense, we necessarily read figures like Adorno or Benjamin—or, as I pointed out before, Marx—in terms of categories that they themselves wanted to transcend. One thinks of how the classic postmodernist art critics, the October group, separated the avant-garde from modernism. I do not think critics like Benjamin and Adorno, or Clement Greenberg for that matter, would have accepted the opposition of the avant-garde to modernism in the way that postmodern critics superimpose on the history of modern art. Similarly, the relationship between Romanticism and modernism has been a troubled one throughout our discussion. To the degree there has been a critique of Adorno and Benjamin, the critique was of a residual Romanticism they purportedly exhibit. That they appear to retain a Romantic understanding of modernity is itself a signal of how much influence postmodernism, and particularly postmodern art criticism, has exerted on how we think about modernism. Thus, for instance, modernist art becomes a kind of secular religion. A return to these figures as points of reference—especially Adorno, as someone who anticipated but preceded emphatic postmodernism in art criticism—is salient today precisely to the extent it allows us to estrange ourselves from these kinds of rhetorics. We should resist the notion of Adorno and Benjamin as mandarin intellectuals and holdover Romantics, and we should resist a Romantic conception of modernism, whether we use that term positively or negatively. I say this in hopes of at least pointing to how our discussion bears the damage that has been done by the way we talk about art after postmodernism. Our discussion bears the traces of an abdication of criticism over at least the last 40 years, since Adorno’s time. In all the ways we have talked about the modern work of art—in terms of whether modernism is finished or unfinished, how it subsists, how and why it is still necessary, and so on—I think we have been forced to concede something. |P
Transcribed by Andony Melathopoulos
. Susan Buck-Morss, reply to “Visual Culture Questionnaire,” October 77 (Summer, 1996), 29.
. Theodor Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), 3.
. Robert Pippin, “Critical Inquiry and Critical Theory: A Short History of Nonbeing,” Critical Inquiry 30:2. Available online at <http://criticalinquiry.uchicago.edu/issues/v30/30n2.Pippin.html>.
. Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” Reflections (New York: Schocken, 1986), 220–238.
. Walter Benjamin, “The Image of Proust,” Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969), 201.
. Walter Benjamin, “Paris, Capital of the 19th Century: Exposé of 1939,” The Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1999), 14–26.
. Leon Trotsky, “Art and Politics in Our Epoch,” <http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/06/artpol.htm>.
. Theodor Adorno, “Vers une musique informelle,” Quasi una Fantasia (New York: Verso, 1998), 322.
. Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, 253–264.
. Roberta Smith, “A Spectacle with a Message,” The New York Times, November 18, 2010. Available online at <http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/19/arts/design/19kiefer.html>.
Posted below are two videos from the day-long symposium, What is Critique?, held on November 20th, 2010, at Parsons, the New School for Design, New York. The first video is from the afternoon panel,Â The Art Critique: Its History, Theories, and Practices. This panel consisted of Tom Butter, Simone Douglas, and James Elkins; it was moderated by Laurie Rojas. The second video is documentation of the evening panel, The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today. The panel consisted of J.M. Bernstein, Chris Cutrone, Lydia Goehr, and Gregg Horowitz; it was moderated by Chris Mansour. Both videos can also be found at http://streamingculture.parsons.edu/the-art-critique-its-history-theories-and-practices/.
The Art Critique: Its History, Theories, and Practices
The Relevance of Critical Theory to Art Today
What is Critique? was a day-long symposium that consisted of two panel discussions with artists, critics, teachers, and students and investigated the role that art critiques and criticism play in art production. The first half of the day focused on the nature and function of art critiques as a form of criticism and pedagogy. The latter part of the day was a panel discussion addressing the relationship between critical theory, art production and reception. More information can be found at http://newyork.platypus1917.org/critique/.
Platypus Review 25 | July 2010
On January 30th, 2007, Platypus hosted its first public forum, “Imperialism: What is it—Why should we be Against it?” The panel consisted of Adam Turl of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Kevin Anderson of the Marxist-Humanist group News and Letters, Nick Kreitman of the new Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), Danny Postel of Open Democracy, and Chris Cutrone of Platypus. What follows is an edited transcript of this event; the full video can be found online at the above link.
The question of imperialism remains obscure on the Left. In light of the continued failure of the anti-war movement to end the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan, along with the decline of anti-war protest in the wake of Barack Obama’s election, it seems that the critique of imperialism has not been clarified, but only become more impotent in its opacity. Consequently, the Platypus Review believes that this panel retains its salience.
Adam Turl: To Marxists, imperialism designates the circumstance whereby economic competition among major capitalist countries, driven by finance capital, large banks, and big corporations, leads to political and military competition. This takes the form of an indirect competition for colonies, zones of influence, and trade networks. Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq—it was not just about seizing oil, but controlling the access to oil of potential competitors to America, such as China. So “imperialism” is not just about bad foreign policy, but the necessity for a ruling class driven by competition to pursue such policies. But what force in society can oppose imperialism? My position is that working class people in the United States, whether they work at an auto plant or in an office, have the power and the interest to oppose imperialism.
Unfortunately, most of the 1960s New Left argued that large segments of the American working class benefit materially from imperialism. I do not believe this argument was ever correct, and it has only grown more implausible with age. The costs of imperialism are borne not only by those that the U.S. oppresses abroad, but also by working class people here at home. The benefits of imperialism are almost entirely accrued by the very wealthy here and by tiny groups of collaborators abroad.
Protesters at an anti-war demonstration.
Working class people identify with imperialist ideology only to their own detriment. It has been a great weakness of the U.S. labor movement that much of its leadership since World War II has identified with the economic interests of major U.S. corporations, ultimately leading to a massive decline of labor rights in America. Although corporations have reaped huge dividends, workers have benefited from neither the theft of Iraqi oil, nor the exploitation of workers around the globe—quite the opposite, in fact. More than 60 percent of the U.S. population has demonstrated repeatedly in polls that they oppose the occupation of Iraq. Imperialism breeds anti-imperialism: The crisis in Iraq, along with the economic crisis facing millions of workers here at home, has bred opposition to the war.
We face this common situation of having to build an anti-imperialist Left. As American workers begin to question the war, is there a Left to offer a position on the war and imperialism that makes sense? Without this, people will believe the commonsense answers pushed by Democrats, who say the war in Iraq is a policy misstep, rather than part of an imperial project in the Middle East connected, among other things, to America’s support of the occupation of Palestine. The Left needs to be rebuilt, and this means creating as large an anti-war movement as possible. With the debacle in Iraq our rulers are facing something of a crisis; now is the time to seize this moment to organize against the war.
Kevin Anderson: Imperialism is a system by which powerful, competing nations are driven to dominate and exploit weaker ones. It is not simply a conspiracy, but a social and economic process rooted in the very structure of capitalism. Modern imperialism seeks to dominate the globe in order to secure markets, cheap labor, and raw materials, a process analyzed by Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg.
Imperialism also has a concrete political and military aspect, but military control is necessary only to secure the access needed for economic imperialism to operate. Imperialism seeks to open up other societies to the penetration of capital, making direct occupation unnecessary and thus uncommon today, which is partly why even some pro-imperialists consider the war in Iraq reckless.
Finally there is cultural imperialism, which has dominated academic discussions of imperialism. Everything from Indiana Jones to the way colonized peoples are typically portrayed legitimates economic and political imperialism. Even elite cultural institutions, such as art museums, in the way they organize artwork—e.g., Egyptian artifacts in the basement and French paintings on the top floor—can reflect a fundamentally racist ideology assuring people of their cultural superiority and right to dominate.
Imperialism strengthens capitalism, but it always engenders resistance. Working people have to fight imperialist wars and thus pay its costs, so they resist; naturally, those directly subject to imperialism also resist. Forms of resistance vary, however, from progressive and emancipatory to reactionary: Take Pat Buchanan, who opposes the Iraq war strictly on isolationist grounds, so as to avoid involvement with “inferior races.” Imperialism is sometimes opposed by reactionary interests abroad, too, from Al-Qaeda to Serbian nationalists. Of course, generally, imperialism is opposed by progressive movements. It is important for anti-imperialists here, and those in countries directly oppressed by imperialism, to be willing to work together. Today, various U.S. organizations support Chiapas and Bolivia. Such progressive anti-imperialists must continue to oppose imperialism, but must also avoid supporting reactionary forms of anti-imperialism. It is not enough to say simply that the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Nick Kreitman: Most anti-imperialists today have no program. At the anti-war marches they organize, groups like United for Peace and Justice advance no concrete alternatives. They simply hand you a sticker reading “Troops Out Now.” They do not elaborate on what they want after troop withdrawal, and therefore do not connect this struggle with the question of realizing a more just society. Of course, sovereignty should rest solely with the Iraqis. Yet, even as the war continues, the number of people turning out for protests dwindles because, at least in part, they can see no solution.
The Left needs to resume the responsibility of political leadership, which includes identifying and presenting alternatives to U.S. foreign policy. Only then can we overcome apathy. Unfortunately, the Left has failed to elaborate on what could be done, on what a new Iraq might look like, just as, in the 1990s, we failed to articulate a position on how the U.S. should engage Serbia, which misled people to believe we supported Miloševic.
We need people to articulate alternatives in the long term and to form concrete plans in the short term to end the occupation. Some are interested in this work, but they have not been trying hard enough to lead the movement, to provide solutions that will help us connect with people.
Danny Postel: The Balkan Wars of the 1990s proved confusing for those who, like myself, came of age politically during the Central America solidarity movements of the 1980s, and who were thus anti-imperialist as a matter of course. As Yugoslavia became engulfed in violence, the paradigm inherited from the anti-Vietnam War movement proved insufficient to understand what was happening. Kevin Anderson and I argued that anti-imperialism was obscuring what was critical at that moment. Unfortunately, support for Miloševic on the Left was all too real, drawing in leftists as prominent as Michael Parenti—who helped organize the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Miloševic—as well as Diana Johnstone, Michel Chossudovsky, and Jared Israel.
Many on the Left in the 1990s were led down a dark alley, a situation analyzed thoughtfully in “Against the Double Blackmail,” an essay by Slavoj Žižek written around this time. There, Žižek argued that leftists needed to oppose both Western imperialism and its false antithesis, ethno-fascist gangster capitalism, which does not represent a form of resistance to but, rather, the mirror image of global capital and Western empire.
Since September 11, one can witness in dismay the return of this tunnel-visioned anti-imperialism that had deeply confused the Left about the Balkans. A critical stance toward myopic anti-imperialism has lost ground given the brazenness of the new era of global imperialism represented by the Bush administration. Despite this resurgence of U.S. imperialism, the example of Iran clearly shows the limitations of adopting imperialism as the sole organizing principal of leftist thought. Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad often employs the language of anti-imperialism, to the confusion of people on the Left. Some even admire him for it, especially when someone like Hugo Chavez embraces Ahmadinejad, the front man of Iran’s far right, as a “revolutionary brother.”
This is further confused by the fact that the emancipatory demands of Iranian dissidents tend not to be expressed in the idiom of anti-imperialism, but in terms of human rights and secularism, which are undeservedly dismissed as “mere bourgeois rights” by too many Marxists. The Iranian struggle is indeed anti-imperialist, but not to the exclusion of other issues. Student radicals publicly denounced Ahmadinejad for embracing David Duke at a global Holocaust conference at Tehran University [in December 2006]. Those students are saying their struggle is two-fold: It opposes imperialism and internal authoritarianism. Similarly, our struggle should be two-fold. We should struggle against imperialism, to stop the U.S. from attacking Iran, but we should also struggle in solidarity with emancipatory forces in Iran. Anti-imperialism is only half of our equation. It signals what we are against—but what are we for?
Chris Cutrone: Platypus takes its name from the animal because of its incomprehensibility, its resistance to classification. Like our namesake we feel that an authentic Left today would go almost unrecognized by the existing Left or, if recognized, seen only as a living fossil. We focus on the history and thought of the Marxist tradition, but in a critical and non-dogmatic manner, taking nothing for granted. We do this because we recognize our present, the politics of today, as the consequence of the Left’s self-liquidation over the course of at least a generation. It is our contention and provocation that the Left, understood in its best historical traditions, is dead. It needs to be entirely reformulated, both theoretically and practically, at the most fundamental levels.
The issue of imperialism provides a good frame for investigating the present international crisis of the Left. Though problematic for the Left for some time, the issue of imperialism has taken on particularly grotesque forms more recently, losing whatever coherence it had in the past. Today, it betrays symptomatically the Left’s dearth of emancipatory imagination. The present anti-war movement continues to struggle against the latest war by misapplying the template of the Vietnam War and the counterinsurgencies waged by the U.S. in Latin America. There, the U.S. fought against progressive agents for social change. The same cannot be said today. In addition to confusing the past with the present, the Left now tails after the crassest opportunism of the Democratic Party, for whom the more dead in Iraq, the more they can marginalize the Bush administration.
The Left has abdicated responsibility for a self-aware politics of progressive social transformation and emancipation. Instead, U.S. policy and the realities it grapples with are opportunistically vilified. Thus the Left shirks serious reflection on its own inconvenient history, its own role in how we got here. The worst expressions of this can be found in the intemperate hatred of Bush and in the idea, unfortunately prevalent in some leftist circles, that the U.S. government orchestrated the September 11 attacks.
We in Platypus recognize that leftist politics today is characterized by its despair over the constrained possibilities of social change. Whatever vision for such change exists in the present derives from a wounded narcissism animated by the kind of loathing Susan Sontag expressed in the 1960s when she said, “the white race is the cancer of human history.” The desire for change has become reactionary. The Left has devolved into apologetics for the world as it is, for existing social and political movements having nothing to do with emancipation. Thus the Left threatens to become the new right. Many who consider themselves leftist dress up Islamist insurgents as champions of national self-determination. One recalls Ward Churchill calling the office workers killed on September 11 “little Eichmanns of U.S. imperialism,” or Lynne Stewart, the civil rights attorney, saying that Sheik Abdul Rahman, who orchestrated the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, might be a legitimate freedom fighter.
The Left has lost its basic orientation towards freedom, a problem going back at least as far as the 1930s. The perspective the Left once had on the question and problem of freedom has become occluded in the present. Consequently, the Left has largely decomposed into competing rationalizations for a bad reality that the Left, in its long degeneration, has not only failed to prevent, but actually helped bring about. The sooner we stem the rot on the Left the better, but first of all we must recognize the depth of the problem. This is why we in Platypus are dedicated to investigating the history of the Left’s demise, so that an imagination for social emancipation can be regained anew. The Left can only survive by overcoming itself. Seriously interrogating the received political categories on the Left, not least of all imperialism, is essential to establishing a coherent politics with any hope of changing the world in an emancipatory direction. The enemies of social progress have their visions and are pursuing them. Some are more reactionary than others. The only question for us now: What are we going to do on the Left?
Kreitman: At times, the Left can degenerate into supporting ethnic fascism. We should not idealize Muqtada al-Sadr or the Iraqi Islamic Party. We need to figure out how we are going to help a democratic, socialist Iraq emerge out of the current mess. If this just means leaving, that is what we should do. But is pulling out going to solve any of Iraq’s problems? Or will it just give the next president a pretext to return in five years? We need to identify who our allies are and how we can affect U.S. policy to provide the best of all possible outcomes in Iraq.
Turl: With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformations in China, anti-imperialism certainly became more complicated. Nonetheless, opposing the imperialism of one’s own country still overlaps naturally with political support of organizations and countries resisting imperialism. There are two mistakes made by the Left. One is to associate any and all opposition to U.S. imperialism with progressive politics. The other is what Noam Chomsky writes about in Military Humanism, his study of Bill Clinton’s interventions in Bosnia and Serbia, which actually found support from so-called leftists. The 1990s broke the post-Vietnam reluctance of the U.S. to invade.
I disagree with Chris: I think the Left has more to do than examine our mistakes and despair. The Left is about a process taking place in society, about people radicalizing and struggling against injustice. We need to be engaged with those struggles around the world. There are debates going on in Venezuela today about what the future of that movement should look like. The Left should engage in these debates although, in the U.S., our most important obligation is to stand against our government telling anyone what to do in Venezuela.
Anderson: My interest has always been problematizing what the Left is doing. What alternative to capitalism we offer is connected with the critique of the Left, by the Left. Most would take issue with Ahmadinejad’s comments denying the Holocaust, yet many leftists think talking about such things will distract from organizing the next protest. However, every time we do not explore these critical questions, we lose a chance to clarify what our alternative to capitalism actually is. We imply that our political vision may resemble the world desired by any of the forces opposing imperialism, regardless of those forces’ politics. We have to explore the difficult questions of the Left even as we oppose the occupation of Iraq and affirm our solidarity with progressive movements.
Postel: To clarify, when I said we should be in solidarity with Iranian protesters, I do not just mean, “we Americans.” I mean, we on the internationalist Left: activists, people of conscience, progressives. Particularly in America, some leftists think that people outside Iran have no role to play in the Iranian struggles, because they come from an imperialist country. We do have a role to play: to ask people who are struggling, “What can we do for you?” and “How can we help your struggle?” In general, Iranian progressives do not want financial support from the Pentagon or think tanks. What they do want is the support of global civil society, from intellectuals, activists, leftists—that is, from people like us.
Cutrone: The Left is in a bad way when looking at the possibilities for developing a Left in Iraq. Regardless of intention, the U.S. forces in Iraq and the political process that they have protected—the emergence of an Iraqi state through elections—now stand between whatever possibility there is for an Iraqi Left, in the long term, and the immediate reactionary opposition from former Baathists, Islamists, and Shi’a paramilitaries. What does it mean to call U.S. policy “imperialist” when, on the ground, that policy is opposed primarily from the right? The Iraqi Communist Party put out a statement saying that, while they were opposed the invasion of Iraq, they now also oppose the reactionary military opposition to the U.S. occupation and the Iraqi government. In other words, they were opposed to the U.S. occupation, but it matters to them how the occupation comes to an end. For, under the current conditions, the U.S. being forced out of Iraq by right-wing sectarians would be a disaster.
The critique of the Left internationally is a form of participation and solidarity on the Left. The Left exhibits some of its worst features on the issue of anti-imperialism. It is constantly trying to figure out where the Left is, what existing group one can point to and say, “This is the Left.” Too often this involves dressing up as “leftist” more or less reactionary opposition forces. In so doing, the Left expresses a conciliatory attitude towards the status quo. Against this, I say the most salient form of support is critique, and this applies to the preceding historical period, as well: The role of the American Left during the Vietnam War should have been to critique the National Liberation Front (NLF) in South Vietnam and the North Vietnamese regime.
Q & A
First, the real job of the anti-war movement in the 1960s was not to criticize the North Vietnamese regime, but to stop the genocidal war in Vietnam, and the movement succeeded. These wars are not just about abstract issues debated in graduate papers. Imperialism takes real lives. The ISO, which I am a member of, never had any problems supporting the Sandinistas against the U.S. and Solidarity against the USSR, because we took for granted that nations have the right to self-determination. This means, first, that activists in the advanced world have to be anti-imperialist as a principle, for it is not just about stopping oppression: We should support struggles against the U.S. because, if the forces of imperialism are defeated and weakened abroad, we can better fight for socialism here. Let’s be clear: the “dark alley” mentioned earlier—it was Stalinism. It was the identification, for 60 years, of socialism with totalitarianism and Soviet imperialism. Our task is to redevelop the socialist tradition by unearthing that crap, to make socialism relevant to the millions in this country who want fundamental change.
Cutrone: About Vietnam, during the Tet Offensive the NLF and the North Vietnamese communist regime expended literally thousands of cadres attempting to get the U.S. back to the negotiating table. Is that a form of fighting for social emancipation we can endorse? More broadly, I’m not sure the anti-Vietnam War movement succeeded. To the extent the U.S. was “defeated,” this was surely a Pyrrhic victory for Vietnam in light of the lasting devastation it suffered. Moreover, whether America lost or won militarily, the anti-war movement definitely did not win, as Vietnam presents no repeatable model of social emancipation.
The Left “here” and the Left “there” should be seen more in terms of an integral connection and less as a distant solidarity, which is a bad habit we inherit from the 1960s anti-war movement, expressed today in the idea that somehow the U.S. being defeated in Iraq automatically translates into an objective victory for the Left. This simply is not true, unless you think more Democrats in office is a triumph for the Left.
Anderson: The anti-war movement of the 1960s, which I participated in, had collapsed by the time the U.S. pulled out. Soon after, we had Reagan as president. The greater transformations we hoped to make out of the anti-war radicalism just did not happen. This failure was not simply a matter of America being a big, bad, reactionary country. It was because of all kinds of mistakes on the Left, not the least of which being the near idolatry of Mao and the Cultural Revolution.
Turl: You are not going to get a defense of Maoism from me. But still, the anti-war movement of the 1960s forced America out of Vietnam, allowing the Vietnamese people to win. Regardless of the politics of the government in Vietnam that resulted, the U.S. had to remain on the sidelines until September 11. That is a successful movement. Did the movement create socialism? If that is our standard, it will deter our participation in struggles for justice that do not measure up, forcing us into a passive stance.
Kreitman: We on the Left should be wary of trumpeting self-determination as one of our values. In the wake of the 1960s radicalism, defending “national self-determination” sometimes meant that the Left simply threw support to the best armed groups in a particular country, rather than take their politics into account.
The major problem in the 1990s was not that people were cloaking anti-imperialist groups in undeserved left-wing colors, but that the vast majority of leftists were apologizing for U.S. imperialism by supporting U.S.-led “humanitarian intervention.” We cannot, as leftists, afford to cease our support of national self-determination.
Postel: Few leftists believed humanitarianism motivated these U.S. interventions, though some liberal centrists may have fallen for that line. Most of us had a complex position on Western intervention in the Balkans. We who supported the Kosovo intervention, myself included, took that position out of a conviction that the consequences, not the motives, would benefit the Kosovar Albanians, as the Kosovar Albanians themselves argued.
Turl: One must differentiate between the politics of the people ruling the countries bombed by the U.S., and the right of the U.S. to bomb people. We make this distinction all the time in the Socialist Worker. We don’t gloss over the politics of the resistance in Iraq, but we also steadfastly defend the right of Iraqis to resist a foreign occupation and its troops. If there were an occupation of Chicago, I would defend the right of hardcore Republicans to resist that occupation. I wouldn’t care that they were right wing.
This relates to the stance of the Iraqi Communist Party, mentioned earlier. If the U.S. troops stand between the Iraqi Communist Party and obliteration, that is only because the Iraqi Communist Party decided to collaborate with the U.S. occupation and, thus, with the biggest imperial power on the planet. It is untrue that the U.S. stands between reaction and the Iraqi people, or that the U.S. troops are defending a nascent democracy, or whatever the propaganda on the evening news says. Most sectarian violence is created or stoked by America. The U.S. deliberately established an Islamic government in Iraq; next, the U.S. consciously decided to stir sectarian violence after it became clear their proxies, like Ahmed Chalabi, did not have a base in Iraq. After that, the U.S. began siding with different sectarian groups, and it is only then sectarian violence escalates. The longer the U.S. military stays, the more sectarian violence there is going to be and the more reactionary Iraqi politics will become. The only solution is to pull out immediately so that the Iraqis can sort everything out themselves.
Anderson: Imperialism with a capital “I” lasted from about 1880 until around the 1950s–60s. However, rather than simply ending, colonialism has been replaced by neo-imperialism. So economic and cultural domination persist after political independence, which is why one cannot understand imperialism without talking about capitalism. But, when Lenin wrote his classic work on imperialism ninety years ago, there were five or six competing powers. Since then, capitalism has become simultaneously far more globalized and centralized. The nature of imperialism and capitalism has changed as a result of the emergence of state capitalism, exemplified by the total centralization of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany. Today, there’s one hyper-power: the United States. In many ways, what exactly these changes mean for anti-imperialism remains unclear.
Turl: Marx argued it is not consciousness that determines being, but being that determines consciousness. Our ideas are informed by the reality of our lives. This is true, yet this relation is also falsified in America: Propaganda is relentlessly pumped into this society to ensure the prevalence of ruling class ideology. Of course, such lies contradict people’s everyday experience. Some people start to see the growing contradiction between what they are told and what they experience. Going through a struggle, a strike or an anti-war movement, catalyzes this change in people’s ideas. A significant example of this process at work now can be seen in Venezuela.
In the 1990s we began to see a resurgence of the Left. Here in the U.S., we had the Ralph Nader campaign and the anti-globalization protests in Seattle. Towards the end of the decade labor activity increased, with the UPS strike marking the first clear labor victory for some time. But this leftward momentum was interrupted by the political fallout of September 11, which was not only a tragedy in itself, but a disaster for the Left. It gave Bush and the rest of the U.S. ruling class the opportunity to wage war. But this is all beginning to change. Millions of people are demanding their rights. As long as people are oppressed, they will fight back and challenge the system. The question now is how to organize that fight. In order to rebuild a Left, we need to oppose our government, the dominant imperial power on the planet, every time it invades, occupies, and murders.
Kreitman: The Left has been in decline for at least a generation, primarily because it has not offered compelling alternatives. In the 1980s, as factories in America closed, there was no Left articulating a new model of how to do things. Workers today are complicit in imperialism, even if it is not in their interest as workers, primarily because the Left really has not provided a compelling alternative politics.
Take the crisis in Darfur. There is mounting political pressure for the U.S. government to send in troops to prevent further genocide. That would be imperialist, in a sense, but the Left has not said what to do instead. So people begin to think it is a matter either of stopping genocide through U.S. military intervention or not stopping genocide, rather than seeing it as a question of how to stop genocide. We need a framework that remains critical of imperialism while also addressing the political issues of the day.
Cutrone: It is all well and good to invoke the slogan, “the main enemy is at home.” But what position should the Left take regarding reactionary forces outside the U.S.? There are falsifications in much of the talk about the violence in Iraq. No matter whose body count one uses, most of the death and destruction in Iraq has been wreaked by the (so-called) "resistance," not the United States. Starting in early 2005, the majority of deaths in Iraq have been due to either Al-Qaeda in Iraq blowing up Shi’a mosques, marketplaces, or (government) recruiting centers, or Shi'a militias carrying out "ethnic cleansing" against the Sunni. You will hear the statistic that 90 percent of the attacks in Iraq are on U.S. or coalition forces, but the phrase “coalition forces” includes the current Iraqi government, and sectarian violence represents the vast majority of the attacks against it. The Iraqi resistance has nothing to do with national self-determination, much less democracy. One has to be realistic about the goals and responsibilities of the United States. It is fair to hold the U.S. responsible for the security situation in Iraq, but it is certainly not the case that the U.S. is setting off bombs in crowded markets and mosques. Reactionary sectarian groups in Iraq are the ones doing that.
If we actually care about the democratic self-determination of people around the world, we cannot ignore the fact that in a place like Iraq the Left has no hope if the insurgency forces perpetrating most of the violence succeed in their aims. It is simply false to say that the U.S. has instigated or perpetuated most of the inter-ethnic violence. The U.S. has tacked back and forth between the Shi’a and the Sunni precisely in order to prevent one side from getting the upper hand and delivering greater violence upon the other. The Left must recognize reality if it wants to be able to change it. This is not to offer apologetics for the U.S. military, but to assert that we must oppose what the U.S. is actually doing, and cease deluding ourselves. To pretend America invaded Iraq just to kill Iraqis only serves to evade the greater political questions of our time. I do not support the United States; however, I strive to be as clear as possible about what I am opposing, and that I oppose it from the Left. |P
Transcribed by Brian C. Worley
. Susan Sontag, “What’s Happening in America?” in Styles of Radical Will (New York: Picador, 2002), 203. Originally published 1966.