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.
The Occupy Wall Street movement (OWS) has altered conceptions of the international socio-political environment on the left, and has accordingly sent shock-waves throughout the realm of art and culture. In solidarity with OWS, artists took their work to the streets, creating on-site carnivalesque performances as forms of protest. Artists globally designed posters and logos to collectively construct the aesthetic appeal of the movement, and more significantly, diverse groups of artists organized to "Occupy Museums," such as the MoMA, the Frick Collection, and New Museum, critiquing them as as "temples of cultural elitism." Occupy Museums claims that the mainstream art world circuit is complicit in neoliberal capitalism and caters to the interests of the "1%." Overall, OWS has renewed a sense of political urgency within the art world that has up to now been relegated to the margins. This panel critically investigates the role of art and culture in the Occupy movement, and how OWS has affected the infrastructure of the mainstream art world. What role does art play in the political struggles that OWS seeks to accomplish? In what ways is OWS a resource for creating change in the way art is produced, received, and distributed? These questions, among others, will act as the touchstone for artists and cultural theorists to asses how art and politics affect each other as the OWS continues to take form.
Noah Fischer is a Brooklyn-based artist originally from north of San Francisco. He has exhibited kinetic art installations, photographs, and sculpture in New York, Europe, and India. He has also worked collaboratively with the Berlin-based performance group andcompany&Co. Noah initiated Occupy Subways and Occupy Museums in the first weeks of OWS. Noah is the curator of the No-Eyes Viewing Wall at Brooklyn Zen Center.
Maria Byck is a video artist and activist. She was part of the Congress of the Collectives at Flux Factory. With the Occupy Wall Street movement, she has worked on programming RevTalks and the Empowerment and Education Open Forum series, and collaborates with the live streaming media team. She is a member of Occupy Cinema and Occupy Museums. Maria has been a member of the Paper Tiger Television video collective since 2005. She has a Masters in Media Studies from the New School.
Ross Wolfe is a graduate student at the University of Chicago focusing on early Soviet history, Marxism, critical theory, avant-garde art and architecture, contemporary political issues (activism, anticapitalism, environmentalism), and radical utopianism.
OWS has put the focus on finance capital as a driver of inequality, and on the need for political action to address it. But what is the function of finance capital in the modern world, and how should our politics address it? This panel will bring together various Marxist and anarchist perspectives on finance capital.
Radhika Desai is Professor at the Department of Political Studies, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada. She is the author of Slouching Towards Ayodhya: From Congress to Hindutva in Indian Politics (2nd rev ed, 2004) and Intellectuals and Socialism: 'Social Democrats' and the Labour Party (1994), She edited Developmental and Cultural Nationalisms in 2009. She is co-editing Volume 27 of Research in Political Economy with Paul Zarembka.
Alan Freeman is co-editor of the ‘Future of World Capitalism’ book series and is a former economist at the Greater London Authority. He wrote ‘The Benn Heresy’ and co-edited two books on value theory and, with Boris Kagarlitsky, ‘The Political Economy of Empire and the Crisis of Globalisation.’ With Andrew Kliman he co-edits the new critical pluralist journal Critique of Political Economy.’
Andrew Kliman, a professor of economics at Pace University, is the author of The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession and Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital”: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency. He and Alan Freeman edit Critique of Political Economy, a new scholarly online journal. Many of his writings are available at akliman.squarespace.com and With Sober Senses, marxist-humanist-initiative.org/our-publication, Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s publication.
Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at CUNY's New York City College of Technology and author of Remaking scarcity: from capitalist inefficiency to economic democracy.