Electoral politics are a longstanding problem for the U.S. left. In recent decades, a number of parties have formed as an alternative to the Democratic Party: the Labor Party, the Green Party, and now, the Justice Party. However, these parties risk becoming little more than networks of activists or pressure groups on the Democratic Party, and it still remains unclear whether a serious electoral challenge to the Democratic Party is possible.
Many progressives blame the “first-past-the-post” structure of U.S. elections, contra labour-friendly parliamentary systems; yet others insist that this procedural focus is misplaced. Leninists charge some quarters of the Left with misunderstanding the proper relationship of the party to the state; but for many, it remains unclear how State and Revolution bears upon the present. Most activists grant the desirability of a viable party to the left of the Democrats, but why exactly such a party is desirable-- to win reforms? to spread emancipatory consciousness?-- is contested as well.
These are old questions for the American left-- as old as Henry George, Daniel De Leon, and the 1930s American Labor Party, perhaps the high point of independent electoral politics in the U.S. This panel will investigate several contemporary approaches to electoral politics to draw out the theories that motivate Leftist third parties; it will also ask how the historical achievements and failures of third parties bear upon the present.
Nikil Saval is an editor at n+1, and a co-editor of Occupy!: Scenes from Occupied America (Verso, 2011). He is currently writing a history of office design and white-collar work.
Lenny Brody is an activist, student of political change, printing industry worker, and descendant of union organizers. He fought with Martin Luther King, Jr. in the civil rights movement and refused induction during the Vietnam War. Mr. Brody has been active in local elections and in the Dennis Kucinich campaigns. He is a member of the Justice Party National Steering Committee and is working to build an independent political movement that will empower the victims of the current economic crisis.
Jason Wright, a contributor to the IBT's journal, 1917, began his career on the left in support of the Democratic Socialists of America. Breaking with DSA in opposition to the 1991 US invasion of Iraq, he spent several years in the Revolutionary Workers League. Disenchanted with the RWL’s mindless hyper-activism, Wright undertook a study of Trotskyism. He concluded that the Revolutionary Tendency of the Socialist Workers Party represented the continuation of Trotskyism and joined the IBT.
Katie Robbins is an activist and member of Healthcare-NOW! NYC and Healthcare for the 99%, a working group of Occupy Wall Street. Katie was national organizer with Healthcare-NOW! from 2008 - 2011 during the national healthcare debate. With doctors, nurses, and other advocates, she was arrested in May 2009 in the Senate Finance Committee asking for single-payer healthcare to be considered as a solution to the healthcare crisis when it was systematically ignored by policy makers.
Science and technology are intertwined with the transformation of society. For at least two centuries, reformers and revolutionaries have grappled with the question of how technology-- first machinery, later cybernetics and robotics-- might lead to the end of compulsory work. The end of compulsory work figured prominently in the voluntary communal experiments of the Occupy encampments, yet the Left as historical attempts to grapple with this question are often forgotten by today's activists. The possibility that technology may free us from labour finds expression in a range of figures: 19th century utopian socialism, Marx and the revolutionary Marxists, postwar sociologists such as Daniel Bell, New Left thinkers such as Andre Gorz, futurists such as Jeremy Rifkin, neo-Marxists such as Moishe Postone, and anarchists such as Bob Black-- to name just a few. When the New Communist Movement tried to organize the remnants of the U.S. industrial proletariat in the clutch of outsourcing and-- more significantly-- automation of jobs, it confronted this problem head-on; and today we, too, occupy this post-Fordist reality of chronic unemployment. This panel will explore how contemporary figures on the Left understand technology's promise and why it remains unfulfilled-- why the vast majority of our species remains forced to experience unemployment as scarcity and misery rather than as abundance and freedom.
George Caffentzis is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, Maine. He is a founding member of the Midnight Notes Collective. He is the author of many books and articles on money, machines and capitalism. His e-book, "No Blood for Oil!" can be downloaded gratis at radicalpolytics.org.
Dr. Fred Block is Research Professor of Sociology at UC Davis with interests in economic and political sociology. His work focuses on "hidden" industrial policy - U.S. government support of the commercialization of new technologies, despite the prevailing belief that technological and industrial advances are best left to market forces. He has authored books and articles including âSwimming Against the Current: The Rise of a Hidden Developmental State in the United States" and "Rethinking Capitalism."
Carl Davidson is currently a field organizer and national co-chair for Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism. Together with Jerry Harris, he is author of "CyberRadicalism: A New Left for a Global Age," a collection of essays of the impact of computers on Marxism and socialism. Davidson is a national board member of the Solidarity Economy Network. He lives near Pittsburgh and is also a member of Steelworker Associates, a community action arm of the USW.
Walda Katz-Fishman, a scholar activist and popular educator, is professor of sociology at Howard University and was a founding member and former board chair of Project South: Institute for the Elimination of Poverty & Genocide. She serves on the U.S. Social Forum National Planning Committee and is active in the bottom-up movement for equality, justice and democracy. She is a founding member of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America.
PLEASE NOTE: Due to technical difficulties, the first twenty minutes of this panel were not captured onto video. We apologize for the inconvenience. The first twenty minutes as well as the full audio for the panel can be found in the audio version above.
Held at Left Forum 2012 at Pace University, New York on March 18, 2012
Hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society.
Phil Aroneanu (US Campaign Director, 350.org)
Alex Gourevitch (Postdoctoral Research Associate, Brown University)
Nicholas Mirzoeff (Professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, NYU; OWS Education and Empowerment WG)
Peter Rugh (OWS Environmental Solidarity Committee)
Brian Tokar (Director of the Institute for Social Ecology)
Occupy's protests against oil companies and pipelines are rivalled only by those directed against banks and financiers. By any standard, environmentalism is a prominent part of the ongoing Occupations. Yet what stands out against the background of protest is its apparently novel way of thinking about environmental politics. Activists no longer view sustainability as being achievable in terms of regulation or international negotiations, but rather focus their efforts into spontaneous acts of resistance and prefigurative politics. Perhaps this augurs more than just frustration with accelerating environmental degradation, and points instead to the disenchantment of past environmental politics. Occupy's emphasis on local-scale and decentralized activity, for example, seems to draw into question the desirability of a project for large-scale social transformation previously advocated by eco-socialists. Dissatisfaction with the present also appears to take the opposite form, Left environmental scepticism by groups such as Spiked Online. To complicate things further still, many radical environmentalists do not even consider themselves to be Leftists in the first place.
This panel explored how all these manifestations of contemporary radical environmentalism and consider to what ends they lead. It will consider what it would take for the next phase of Occupy to move beyond the failed environmental strategies of the past, and lift the horizon of what is possible.
1. Although Occupy began with a call to reduce income disparity it quickly became a gathering point for a variety of contemporary discontents, of which climate change was but one prominent example. While most would concede it has yet to become a movement that is more than the sum of its parts do you think it is heading in that direction?
2. The vision of transformation for many Occupiers was utopian and looked to prefigure social transformation in the life of the encampments. So, for example, a common response to something like accelerating greenhouse gas emissions was to create a low carbon lifestyle in the camp. What do you think about such initiatives? It seems to us such prefigured approaches are hardly new and seem to come out of the period when environmentalism first emerged - the 1960s and 1970s. Why do you think such approaches still persist when these previous movements failed to transform society sufficiently, achieving minor reforms at best alongside highly localized rural and urban spaces in which committed activists practice decades of self-abnegation? If the stakes are now global ecological crisis, is this scale of change enough?
3. A flip-side of the previous question is that since environmental degradation has accelerated it has forced many activists into crisis mode, in which a constant stream of campaigns and initiatives are being massed against an impending environmental tipping point. While this sense of emergency is powerful, allowing for large-scale international movements to emerge overnight, can it just as easily function to prevent reflection on the effectiveness and aims of the movement? Where is the space to think and be critical about environmentalism in the present?
4. A trend in the politics surrounding climate change in the US attributes inaction to the interference of Republicans or the influence of Big Oil on the Democrats. The inference is that if extra-legislative political pressure was brought to bear on Democrats they would be forced to act responsibly. In your mind has this strategy worked in the past, and if not, why do you think it might it work now? Do you see any dangers of this kind of approach ultimately funnelling into Democratic electoral success while accomplishing little of the social transformation necessary to meet on-coming environmental challenges?
5. There appears to be a conservative character within the 99% that becomes visible through environmentalism. On one hand conservative forces appear to oppose many environmental initiatives auguring significant popular support. On the other hand the environmental movement frequently brings together disparate political threads, including conservative figures such as the Republican Governor Dave Heineman of Nebraska who opposed the Keystone XL Pipeline or the Carrying Capacity Network which uses the logic of ecological economics to bolster anti-immigration policies. Furthermore, there are some groups that identify with the Left who are openly hostile to environmentalism, such as Spiked Online. How do you account for the emergence of all these counter-posing forces in the present?
6. The history of the Left and the connection of capitalism and the environment also raises the possibility of human freedom, in its social and natural aspects, in a way that is historically unprecedented. There is ambivalence towards this history that can be witnessed in contemporary environmentalism. Eco-modernizers, on the one hand, affirm the powerful dynamic of capital reproduction bringing about a decentralized low-carbon future, while eco-pessimists romantically reject this dynamic. Would you agree that both these responses are as much a part of modernity as environmental degradation? If so, what would it take to move beyond the perpetual seesaw of affirming or rejecting the present?
The two historical precedents for #Occupy are Seattle in 1999 and Paris in May 1968. The 1960s and 1990s saw the rise of anarchism against otherwise predominant liberal, social-democratic and Marxist tendencies. One difference in 2011 is democratic discontents in a period of economic crisis, whereas the mid- to late-20th century crises of the Fordist state and alterglobalization took place in periods of prosperity. How does the history of two preceding historical generations of the Left inform the present movement, and how might the present movement go beyond them? How is this a time for renewal on the Left? What might be the challenges for continuing Occupy Wall Street during deepening crisis and in the time of a general election in the U.S.?
Brooke Lehman is a faculty member at the Institute for Social Ecology and a longtime activist. She is on the Board of Smartmeme, the Brecht Forum, and Yansa, and spends most of her time organizing with Occupy Wall Street.
Dave Haack is an organizer of Occupy Your Workplace.
What began as an exhilarating dawn of possibility in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt has turned, a year later, into a sobering revelation of limitations on change and deepening dangers ahead. How has the Left received the democratic upsurge in the Arab world, and how can greater progressive potential be realized? How does the Arab Spring fit into the rising uncertainty in global politics, and how can a conservative reaction be avoided? What are the needs to be met, and how is the Left able (or not) to provide a critical contribution to the course of unfolding events?
Siyaves Azeri is the spokesperson of the Committee of International Relations of the Worker-communist Party of Iran. He is also a post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Philosophy, Queen's University, Kingston Canada. Azeri has taught as an assistant professor at Koc University in Istanbul; he has also taught at University of Ottawa and as a guest lecturer at Istanbul Technical University.
Maria Rohaly is a coordinator for Mission Free Iran, an international organization that emerged during the 2009 uprising in Iran to amplify the demands and struggle for the goals and objectives of the revolution: freedom, equality, and humane society. These objectives are the line that divides the revolution from the counter-revolution in Egypt, Iran, Syria, Tunisia and beyond. Mission Free Iran places special emphasis on the radical demands of students, workers, refugees, and fundamentally women. Mission Free Iran recently launched a special campaign to save Sakineh Ashtiani, the Iranian who was to be stoned to death on basis of allegations of adultery.