A panel discussion organized by the Platypus Affiliated Society, held on March 19, 2011 at Left Forum, Pace University.
Panel Abstract: This panel will focus on the aesthetic tropes that activists use to express political dissent. Theatrical gestures such as street art (e.g., glamdalism), dance parties (e.g., Funk the War), or costumes have found their way into protest tactics. Simultaneously, many contemporary artists create 'activist' or 'social' art by pulling off media pranks against the government or corporations (e.g., Yes Men), reenact past protests (e.g., Mark Tribe or Sharon Hayes) and other forms of public performances. What are the historical roots that contribute to the use of current aesthetic interventions in political protests? In what ways do they expand or limit the possibilities for protests to transform the social order? How does experimenting with aesthetic and artistic sensibilities influence our political consciousness and practice? Political thinkers and art-activists will address these questions in order to make sense of the various forms of protest today.
Chris Mansour - Parsons School of Design, Platypus Affiliated Society
Jamie Keesling - 491
Laurel Whitney - Yes Men
Marc Herbst - Journal of Aesthetics and Protest, Reclaim the Streets
Stephen Duncombe - New York University
The Platypus Affiliated Society in New York organized a moderated panel discussion and audience Q-and-A to critically evaluate the widespread assumption that the election of Barack Obama presents an opportunity for today’s Leftists. Asking how opportunity can be distinguished from opportunism, Platypus invited several intellectuals and activists to publicly think through the foreseeable pitfalls and potentials posed by the passing of the Bush-era into the age of Obama.
Chris Cutrone (Platypus)
Stephen Duncombe (author of Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy)
Pat Korte (New School SDS)
Charles Post (Solidarity)
Paul Street (author of Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics, 2008)
Platypus questions for panelists
1.) Many people across the political spectrum—including those who claim to be on the Left—assume that the election of Obama represents a symbolic vindication of the struggles of the Civil Rights movement. But is the implied conception of the Civil Rights movement really adequate to this history? Pivotal Civil Rights intellectuals and leaders, including Bayard Rustin and even Martin Luther King Jr., advocated the use of political force against the economically structured social inequality of American race relations. As Rustin put it: “Negro poverty…will not be eliminated without a total war on poverty.” This vision clearly lost out—indeed, Rustin saw even purportedly radical declarations of “Black power” as both a conservative naturalization of the racial difference the movement had tried to eliminate and a rationalization of powerlessness. Today, changing the racial composition of the powers-that-be, celebrating diversity, and pursuing sanctioned reform and institutionally-given power are seen as the limits of what the Civil Rights Movement imagined or pushed to achieve.
2.) What are the roots of this historical forgetfulness? What critique can we offer to the reduction of the Civil Rights movement to symbolism and status-quo powers? And how might such a critique help foster popular political energy against the structural inequalities that remain intact in American Society?
3.) Organized labor was a major constituency of the Obama campaign, and put much effort into working for an Obama victory. For instance, the “Change to Win Coalition” mobilized the political power of six million workers represented by seven unions, it organized teams to knock on doors, make phones calls, distribute information, to rally for an Obama victory. However, even during the campaign Obama made statements, specifically about teachers’ unions, which revealed that he didn’t consider himself as squarely in the camp of organized labor. More recently he has said that he intends to bring all parties to the table, including labor and the interests of Capital, to seek solutions to the financial crisis. With this in mind, to what extent should organized labor see in Obama a “partner” in the struggles of the working class to secure improvements in their bargaining position? Furthermore, how can the working class take advantage of the limited opportunities presented by the Obama presidency without losing the degree of independence needed to push beyond what seems possible under the administration. What can be done beginning under Obama’s presidency to reverse the assault on organized labor which has characterized the past several decades and to put the working class into an active and not passive or defensive position? What is the agenda of labor regardless of the president?
4.) The vacuous phrase “Wall street vs. Main Street” was effectively used by the Obama campaign to portray the class divisions made perceivably more acute by the current economic crisis. How should this opportunistic rhetoric be addressed? And how should criticism of capitalist class-society and its crises be promoted without simply condemning the “greed” of Capitalists and heralding the altruism of the “working people”? What can be done to deepen a public understanding of class dynamics and to counter the ideological confusion produced by the crisis and its management.
5.) The politics of Anti-Iraq-War dissent, coupled with Anti-Bush-Administration disapproval, has driven Leftist organizing for most of the past decade. These politics have cemented a bond between political bedfellows who seem to share little more than the deep-set reliance on the quantification of “opposition” through mass-demonstrations and disapproval polling, and the cynical belief that practically anybody is better than Bush and the Republicans. Indeed, it often seems like the only thing that has held together groups with deeply conflicting principles and social visions has been a general “anti” stance towards the current regime. However, Obama’s administration threatens to dissolve this arrangement by meeting, at least in part, many of the rallying demands of the “movement”—for instance, by closing Guantanamo Bay, settling on a scheduled withdrawal from Iraq, curtailing some of the gross war-profiteering, and becoming less hostile to the U.N. and more careful with “global opinion.” If Obama’s presidency does diminish the efficacy of Bush-era “anti” politics, can you foresee a new arrangement of principles and criticisms which could create a more successful oppositional force? What could this Left stand for? How might it be capable of fighting against the causes of war across presidential terms, specific military campaigns, and nationally bound politics?
6.) Rather than hysterically celebrating Obama’s election as the “beginning of a new age” or cynically dismissing it as a meaningless display of “celebrity politics”, how do we determine what is really new versus what is left wholly unchanged in the present political moment? What are the actual and significant new developments the Obama presidency represents—or may represent—for the Left? This seems to be deeply affected by how we understand the election in light of the continuing weakness and obsolescence of the Left as a social force. How is Obama’s election part of a more general historical trajectory, characterized by the loss of political possibilities and the decline of a Leftist politics? And what might be done today to buck against that trend?
7.) To what extent is Obama or anyone in his administration free to transform socio-economic conditions in the United States? To what extent are they—granting them even the best of intentions—bound to preserve and reproduce these conditions? How should a Left begin to clarify and aim to overcome this present limitation? And how might it address this problem of constraint so that the task to overcome the limitations of social agency is made clear and may point toward effective political action? In other words, what would the Left need to become to end capitalism in 10 years?
A moderated panel discussion and audience Q-and-A on problems of strategies and tactics on the Left today, held on November 6, 2007, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Panelists: Michael Albert (Z Magazine, author of Parecon: Life After Capitalism), Chris Cutrone (Platypus), Stephen Duncombe (Gallatin School of New York University, editor of Cultural Resistance Reader), Brian Holmes (Continental Drift and Université Tangente), and Marisa Holmes (new Students for a Democratic Society).
"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)