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 Black Politics in the Age of Obama

MICHAEL DAWSON | CEDRIC JOHNSON |  MEL ROTHEMBERG

 

An edited transcript of the event was subsequently published in issue 57 of the Platypus Review. A full recording of this event is available at our media website.

Monday, May 6th at 6:30 PM

University of Chicago | 1116 E 59th St

Harper Memorial Library, Room 103

The reelection of Obama presented a problem for the American left. Lost was the hopeful rhetoric of transforming society for the better, and as it became clear that Obama’s administration had returned to“politics-as-usual,” the left began to cynically appraise the purported gains made in his first term. Not the least of these was the claim that we live in a“post-racial” society. From Abolitionism to the Civil Rights Movement, the issue of racism was and is a defining one for the American left. As social life in the United States has reproduced itself through various social and ideological transformations, racism seemed always to reproduce itself in and through those transformations. And, surely not without merit is the contemporary left’s skepticism regarding America’s supposed achievement of a“post-racial society.” Yet, any talk of race in the current age must account for the fact that America’s first black president was twice elected by substantial margins. If anti-Black racism subsists, it clearly does not have the same relationship it once did to capitalism and society in general. This panel will investigate the how the left understands the concept of race in contemporary politics, and how this concept can, should, or will maintain of political significance for a future renascent left.

Questions:

1) There have been numerous theories of race and the manner in which racism has become society’s second nature. To be sure racism still exists; at the same time, the US has twice elected President Obama. Is there a theory adequate enough to explain this discrepancy between the apparent racism of American society, and the election of a black president?

2) In the 1960s, many on the left began to revise analyses of poverty solely based on class, adopting one that relied on the concept of race to explain the uneven distribution of wealth. Since this time, some progress seems self-evident, as minorities are now capable of holding lucrative leadership positions in large corporations and the highest offices of government. At the same time, glaring economic disparities persist on the basis of race. How is the concept of class relevant to discussions of race today? How are race and class related, and in what sense should we understand them?

3) Historically, going back at least to the “free labor ideology” of the mid-19th century Republican Party, the black question has been posed as a question of the emancipation of labor, with the radical Republican project being inherited by American socialists, the CPUSA, and New Deal labor leaders such as Adam Clayton Powell and Bayard Rustin. Similarly, at least viewed negatively, the crisis of the American labor movement and the concomitant disintegration of even the prospect of an American labor politics seems to crucially condition, if obscurely, the growing opacity of the black question in America.

4) Also since the 60s, a debate has arisen within the discussion of race, namely a rift between nationalists and integrationists. The former argue that the latter would have communal identity and black cultural particularity liquidated, while the latter argue that the former ghettoizes black political aspirations and misses the possibility to realize the potential of society as a whole. Today, is there a radical potential in either of these approaches? Which is more relevant to the concept of race in our society today?

5) In both of his election victories, President Obama was championed as a victory against the racism of the US populace. By the same token, Obama has been criticized by the left for adopting the policies of his predecessors. How does the contemporary left process this alleged victory against racism, in light of Obama’s acquiescence to politics as usual in the US?

6) The black question historically, though perhaps it has perhaps been most thoroughly politicized in the U.S., is by no means a strictly American problem. Rather, the legacy of racism seems to pervade global society today. And, indeed, from the galvanizing effect of English labor solidarity with the Union to the worldwide preoccupation with the Civil Rights movement, politicization of the black question in American has always been of the greatest political significance worldwide. So what now does the seeming marginalization of the black question in America tell us about the international situation the left faces today? How has the contemporary resolution, in the most conservative possible way, of the black question conditioned international leftism in our time?

Video will be forthcoming!

A panel event held in Chicago at the University of Chicago on May 6, 2013.

Transcripted in Platypus Review #57 (Click on banner to see):
theprweb1 (16)

The reelection of Obama presented a problem for the American left. Lost was the hopeful rhetoric of transforming society for the better, and as it became clear that Obama’s administration had returned to “politics-as-usual,” the left began to cynically appraise the purported gains made in his first term. Not the least of these was the claim that we live in a “post-racial” society. From Abolitionism to the Civil Rights Movement, the issue of racism was and is a defining one for the American left. As social life in the United States has reproduced itself through various social and ideological transformations, racism seemed always to reproduce itself in and through those transformations. And, surely not without merit is the contemporary left’s skepticism regarding America’s supposed achievement of a “post-racial society.” Yet, any talk of race in the current age must account for the fact that America’s first black president was twice elected by substantial margins. If anti-Black racism subsists, it clearly does not have the same relationship it once did to capitalism and society in general. This panel will investigate the how the left understands the concept of race in contemporary politics, and how this concept can, should, or will maintain of political significance for a future renascent left.

Featuring:
Michael Dawson
Cedric Johnson

Platypus presents:

“White-Skin Privilege”?

 

Join Platypus in a discussion of the possible significance of the black question for the reconstitution of an American Left. As a prelude to a wider panel discussion, Mel Rothenberg will address the theoretical underpinnings of the white-skin privilege thesis originally formulated in the 1970s by the Chicago-based Sojourner Truth Organization, of which Rothenberg was a member.

Mel Rothenberg is the author ofThe Myth of Capitalism Reborn: A Marxist Critique of Theories of Capitalist Restoration in the USSR.

 

Friday, May 2nd at 4:30 PM

Wilder House | 5811 S Kenwood Ave

 

Recommended reading:

White Blind Spot

Interview of Mel Rothenberg conducted by Platypus on Radical Minds (WHPK–FM Chicago)

 

Image shown in header is from Aaron Douglass’s “Aspriation” (1936)

 

 

NEW YORK (featuring Loren Goldner, Paul Mattick, David Harvey and Andrew Kliman): Listen HERE

CHICAGO (featuring Raymond Lotta, Joe Persky, David Ruccio and David Schweikart): Listen HERE

LONDON (featuring David Graeber, Saul Newman, Hillel Ticktin and James Woudhuysen): Listen HERE

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?

 

London Panelists:

David Graeber (author, Debt: the First 5000 Years)
Saul Newman (author, From Bakunin to Lacan)
Hillel Ticktin (co-founder, Critique: Journal of Socialist Theory)
James Woudhuysen (contributor to Sp!iked magazine)

Questions for panelists:

1. Do we live in a crisis of capitalism today and, if so, of what sort ― political? economic? social? Is capitalism basically the same in its “laws of motion” and can it be grasped equally well today as it was by Marx? What difference, if any, does the collapse of the socialist workers movement make for our understanding of capitalism?

2. Why are sophisticated leftist understandings of the world seemingly unable to assist in the task of changing it? Conversely, is the world intelligible despite our incapacity to transform it politically? Can the Left survive as an economics or social theory? Is our work more “difficult” today in theorizing capitalism, or of a completely different kind than it was for past generations of leftist intellectuals?
3. Many on the left welcomed the #Occupy movement in 2011 because, above all, it responded to capitalist austerity in its slogans and characterized itself in class terms. Did #Occupy betoken a renewed salience of class? How did #Occupy and other movements worldwide differ from the political response–whether by the new social movements or other political expressions–to the crisis of Fordism beginning in the late 1960s and crystallizing with the Oil Crisis in 1973?
4. How does the present crisis compare with past crises of capital? What might we expect to be the duration of the present crisis? Is there an end in sight? Or are we witnessing the “terminal crisis” of capitalism? How do we know? If not the end of capitalism as such, does the present crisis at least signal an end to neoliberalism? If so, what will take its place?
5. How do your political views influence your understanding of capitalism and crisis? In what sense is economics as a science or discipline independent and autonomous from those politics? How do you avoid the danger of your theory from simply confirming your politics, rather than allowing our understanding of present circumstances to help push beyond our present political impasse?
6. At different moments of its unfolding the crisis has been differently expressed in different locations – a sub-prime mortgage crisis in North America, then a sovereign debt crisis in Europe, and now in a still different form in China. What is the extent of the present crisis and how has it been distributed globally? Unevenly? What does globalization look like in a period of prolonged crisis? Is the era of US hegemony at an end? If so, what will take its place? How is/was American imperialism connected to first Fordism and, later, post-Fordist capitalism and how does the new capitalism challenge a new American Empire-led global
(re-)organisation?

[vimeo https://vimeo.com/54842231]

PLEASE NOTE: Due to technical issues, only the first forty-five minutes of the talk were recorded.

A discussion led by Platypus Affiliated Society member Spencer A. Leonard on the current economic crisis, longue-durée social change, and the Left. This teach-in was an introduction to the some of essential problems to be explored in the Chicago iteration of the "Radical Interpretations of The Present" panel on December 3rd, 2012.

In 1999 the prominent social theorist Moishe Postone published an artile entitled "Contemporary Historical Transformations: Beyond Post-Industrial Theory and Neo-Marxism" in which he interrogated the two predominant theories of the social change that had been formulated in the 1970s by Daniel Bell and Ernest Mandel. Today we live in what would seem like a historical moment far removed from the economic boom of the late 90s, but how much has society really changed from the one Postone described just over a dozen years ago?

The "Contemporary Historical Transformations: Beyond Post-Industrial Theory and Neo-Marxism: article discussed can be found here.