A panel event held on November 14th, 2012, at Dalhousie University. The first iteration of our "Democracy and the Left" international panel series.
Matthew Furlong (Foundation Year and Contemporary Studies Programme, King’s University)
David Howard (Historical and Critical Studies, NSCAD University)
John Hutton (student activist, Dalhousie)
Clare O’Connor (Toronto activist and author)
From the financial crisis and the bank bail-outs to the question of “sovereign debt”; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street; from the struggle for a unified European-wide policy to the elections in Greece and Egypt that seem to have threatened so much and promised so little — the need to go beyond mere “protest” has asserted itself: political revolution is in the air, again.
At the same time, the impending general election in the U.S. seems, by comparison, to be a non-event, despite potentially having far-reaching consequences for teeming issues word-wide. Today, the people — the demos — seem resigned to their political powerlessness, even as they rage against the corruption of politics. Hence, while contemporary demands for democracy to politicize the demos, they are also indicative of social and political regression that asks urgently for recognition and reflection. Demands for democracy “from below” end up being expressed “from above”: The 99%, in its already obscure and unorganized character, didn’t express itself as such in the various recent elections, but was split in various tendencies, many of them very reactionary.
Democracy retains an enigmatic character, since it always slips any fixed form and content, since people under the dynamic of capital keep demanding at times “more” democracy and “real” democracy. But democracy can be like Janus: it often expresses both the progressive social and emancipatory demands, but also their defeat, their hijacking by an elected “Bonaparte”.
What is the history informing the demands for greater democracy today, and how does the Left adequately promote — or not — the cause of popular empowerment?
What are the potential futures for “democratic” revolution, especially as understood by the Left?
Questions for panelists to consider:
What would you consider as “real” democracy, as this has been a primary demand of recent spontaneous forms of discontent (e.g. Arab Spring, Occupy, anti-austerity protests, student strikes)?
What is the relationship between democracy and the working class today? Do you consider historical struggles for democracy by workers as the medium by which they got “assimilated” to the system, or the only path to emancipation that they couldn’t avoid trying to take?
Do you consider it as necessary to eschew established forms of mass politics in favor of new forms in order to build a democratic movement? Or are current mass form of politics adequate for a democratic society?
Why has democracy emerged as the primary demand of spontaneous forms of discontent? Do you also consider it necessary, or adequate, to deal with the pathologies of our era?
Engels wrote that “A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is”. Do you agree? Can this conception be compatible with the struggle for democracy?
How is democracy related with the issue of possibly overcoming capital?
Is there a difference between the ancient and the modern notion of democracy and, if so, what is the source of that difference? Does “real” democracy share more with the direct democracy of ancient polis?
Is democracy oppressive, or can it be such? How would you judge Lenin’s formulation that: “…democracy is also a state and that, consequently, democracy will also disappear when the state disappears.”
A panel discussion with audience Q & A on the problematic forms of "anticapitalism" today.
Held on Wednesday 13th June, 7pm at the University of London Union (ULU), Malet Street, London.
Clare Solomon (co-editor of Springtime: The New Student Rebellions (2011); President of the University Of London Union in 2010)
James Heartfield (active in extra-parliamentary Left for thirty years; author of The 'Death of the Subject" Explained (2002), and the forthcoming Unpatriotic History of the Second World War (2012)).
James Turley (member of the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) for five years, and a regular writer for the Weekly Worker; co-editor and contributer to Red Mist, a blog of Marxist cultural commentary)
Matt Cole (organizer, researcher, editor, writer, Rousseauist; Kingston University)
Laurie Rojas (founding member of the Platypus Affiliated Society, editor of the Platypus Review).
"[After the 1960s, the] underlying despair with regard to the real efficacy of political will, of political agency [. . .] in a historical situation of heightened helplessness [. . .] became a self-constitution as outsider, as other [. . .] focused on the bureaucratic stasis of the [Fordist/late 20th Century] world: it echoed the destruction of that world by the dynamics of capital [with the neo-liberal turn after 1973, and especially after 1989].
The idea of a fundamental transformation became bracketed and, instead, was replaced by the more ambiguous notion of âresistance.â The notion of resistance, however, says little about the nature of that which is being resisted or of the politics of the resistance involved â that is, the character of determinate forms of critique, opposition, rebellion, and ârevolution.â The notion of 'resistance' frequently expresses a deeply dualistic worldview that tends to reify both the system of domination and the idea of agency.
'Resistance' is rarely based on a reflexive analysis of possibilities for fundamental change that are both generated and suppressed by [the] dynamic heteronomous order [of capital]. ['Resistance'] is an undialectical category that does not grasp its own conditions of possibility; that is, it fails to grasp the dynamic historical context of which it is a part."
- Moishe Postone, "History and Helplessness: Mass Mobilization and Contemporary Forms of Anticapitalism"
(Public Culture 18:1, 2006)
1. Since the 1960s, and especially since the 1990s, struggles for social, economic and political emancipation have been conceived less in terms of structural reforms or revolutionary transformation and more in terms of "resistance." How do you define âresistanceâ and how do you understand its role in possibilities for social change?
2. One powerful way "resistance" has been conceived has been in terms of "culture" and practices of âeveryday life.â How do you understand the implicit (if not explicit) distinction thus made of politics directed at society as a whole, from the more apparently mundane concerns and stakes of quotidian existence?
3. What, in your understanding, are the reasons for and the consequences of this historical shift away from movements for reform or revolutionary politics, to tactics, strategies, and self-understandings in terms of "resistance?"
4. Where do the new forms of politics of âresistanceâ point, in your estimation, for social-emancipatory possibilities, today and in the future?
5. What kinds of change do you envision on the horizon of present social concerns? How do you imagine the potential manifestations of such change?
6. What can and should those on the Left and those interested in working towards social emancipation do, tactically and strategically, in view of such possibilities for change?
A moderated panel discussion and audience Q&A on problems of strategies and tactics on the Left today.
Baolinh Dang (Proletarian Revolutionary Action Committee- Revolutionary Students Movement),
Cam Hardy (Platypus),
Megan Kinch (#Occupy, Toronto Media Co-Op), and
Jim Stanford (Canadian Auto Workers).
"After the failure of the 1960s New Left, the underlying despair with regard to the real efficacy of political will, of political agency, in a historical situation of heightened helplessness, became a self-constitution as outsider, as other, rather than an instrument of transformation. Focused on the bureaucratic stasis of the Fordist, late 20th Century world, the Left echoed the destruction of that world by the dynamics of capital: neoliberalism and globalization.
The idea of a fundamental transformation became bracketed and, instead, was replaced by the more ambiguous notion of 'resistance.' The notion of resistance, however, says little about the nature of that which is being resisted, or of the politics of the resistance involved.
'Resistance' is rarely based on a reflexive analysis of possibilities for fundamental change that are both generated and suppressed by the dynamic heteronomous order of capital. 'Resistance' is an undialectical category that does not grasp its own conditions of possibility; it fails to grasp the dynamic historical context of capital and its reconstitution of possibilities for both domination and emancipation, of which the 'resisters' do not recognize that that they are a part."
- Moishe Postone, "History and Helplessness: Mass mobilization and contemporary forms of anticapitalism" (2006)