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.
A roundtable discussion with students and activists either directly involved with Occupy Wall St. or who are closely following the #Occupy movement.
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?
Although participants at Occupy Wall St. have managed thus far to organize resources for their own daily needs, legal services, health services, sleeping arrangements, food supplies, defense against police brutality, and a consistent media presence, these pragmatic concerns have taken precedent over long-term goals of the movement. Where can participants of this protest engage in formulating, debating, and questioning the ends of this movement? How can it affect the greater society beyond the occupied spaces?
We in the Platypus Affiliated Society ask participants and interested observers of the #Occupy movement to consider the possibility that political disagreement could lead to clarification, further development and direction. Only when we are able create an active culture of thinking and debating on the Left without it proving prematurely divisive can we begin to imagine a Leftist politics adequate to the historical possibilities of our moment. We may not know what these possibilities for transformation are. This is why we think it is imperative to create avenues of engagement that will support these efforts.
Towards this goal, Platypus will be hosting a series of roundtable discussions with organizers and participants of the #Occupy movement. These will start at campuses in New York and Chicago but will be moving to other North American cities, and to London, Germany, and Greece in the months to come. We welcome any and all who would like to be a part of this project of self-education and potential rebuilding of the Left to join us in advancing this critical moment.
The Platypus Affiliated Society
Phil Arnone is a grad student in NYU's Draper Interdisciplinary Program. He has been active in the anti-war and alter-globalization movements since high school; was an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society and a member of United Students Against Sweatshops while completing his undergraduate studies at the University of Mary Washington, where he was a student organizer for the campus living wage campaign which successfully won a living wage for all University workers in 2006. After college he worked as a boycott organizer for UNITE HERE, the hotel and food service workers union. He has been active in the Occupy Wall St. movement, and is working on linking up existing workers' and immigrants' rights organizations to OWS and connecting the OWS protests to the ongoing struggles throughout the city.
Jackrabbit began his political awakening as an anarchist in Philadelphia in the late 80s where he was a squatter and volunteered at the Wooden Shoe infoshop for many years. After hitchhiking across the US and Europe he finally ended up in San Francisco where after many years he would eventually obtain a Bachelor's in International Relations at San Francisco State University. Currently he works at a marketing agency in midtown Manhattan. Jackrabbit is a member of the Politics and Electoral Reform working group at OWS and is also involved with the inter-occupation communication initiative being developed at OWS.
Chris Maisano is a public librarian in Brooklyn, rank-and-file activist in DC37 Local 1482, and chair of the NYC local of Democratic Socialists of America and in solidarity with Teamsters art handlers' union at Sotheby's. He is a contributing writer for Jacobin. Maisano is part of the OWS Demands Working Group.
Lisa Montanarelli has been active in antiwar protests, community health activism, LGBT rights, and a variety of other causes since the late 1980s. She worked for California Prevention Education Project (Cal-PEP), providing HIV street outreach to people of color, sex workers and homeless youth. After earning her Ph.D. in comparative literature at U.C. Berkeley and teaching college level, she became more deeply involved in community health education—teaching for San Francisco Sex Information, and—as a hepatitis C patient for over 20 years—facilitating workshops for patients and healthcare providers. She co-authored The First Year Hepatitis C: An Essential Guide for the Newly Diagnosed and three other non-fiction books. Lisa is a member of the OWS Education and Empowerment and Think Tank Working Groups and helps the Coaching Working Group by interviewing occupiers and blogging at visionaries.co. She is also active in the Stop Stop-and-Frisk movement, and through the Interdependence Project. Montanarelli facilitates meditation sessions for OWS at Liberty Plaza.
Jordan Morrel has been at Occupy Wall Street for four weeks. At OWS he has served as a facilitator for the General Assembly, and has focused on Sanitation, Mediation, and having conversations with people about such typically taboo subjects as the connections between capitalism and democracy in the United States today, and the radical idea of building society based on respect, not fear, of each
other. Jordan grew up in San Francisco, where he was a mental health and substance use counselor, worked at a non-profit volunteer-run collective "Bike Kitchen," and participated in Food Not Bombs, Reclaim the Streets parties, Critical Mass, and other silly activities. He plans to stay in NYC indefinitely.
Laura Schleifer created the word 'artivist' to describe her life's purpose as an artist-activist. A NYC based writer, theater artist, and NYU Tisch grad, her work has spanned the Middle East, where she performed for Palestinian and Iraqi children on a theater/circus tour, to an NGO in Nicaragua, where she taught English through the use of theater, to off-Broadway, where she's performed her socially conscious songs and monologues at theaters throughout New York with the Theaters Against War network, and worked with homeless and at-risk youth as an Artist Mentor. She also served as Outreach/Panelist coordinator at this year's Left Forum conference, and and organized and chaired a panel on whether the USA should owe amnesty to undocumented immigrants fleeing from U.S. imperialism. Her original feature screenplay, The Feral Child, was a Sundance Screenwriters Lab finalist, and her short play, Toyz in tha Hood, lead to a NYC arts grant for the First City Theater Co. She also writes for several publications, including Looking Glass Magazine and The Leftist Review. Laura is currently developing a homeless 'survival guide' website at wheninneed.org. Schleifer is part of the OWS Alternative Economies Working Group.
***Unless otherwise stated by the participants, their comments today do not necessarily reflect the overall opinion of their respective Working Groups.