A moderated panel discussion hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society on the interrelation of capital, history and ecology, held at York University on January 15, 2014.
The Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen recently characterized the period marked by the start of the industrial revolution in the 18th Century to the present as a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. This periodization is meant to capture a change in the history of the planet, namely that for the first time in history its course will be determined by the question of what humanity will become.
This event will focus on different interpretations of why the Left has failed to deal with the deepening crisis of the Anthropocene through the 19th and 20th Centuries and how and if this problem is interrelated with the growing problems associated with ecological systems across the earth. While Karl Marx would note that the problem of freedom shifted with the industrial revolution and the emergence of the working class - the crisis of bourgeois society that Marx would term capital - the idea of freedom seemed not to survive the collapse of Marxist politics in the 20th Century. We seem to live in a world in which the fate of ecological systems seem foreclosed, where attempts at eco-modernization seem to emerge many steps behind the rate of ecological degradation. For many, degradation of the environment appears a permanent feature of modern society, something which can only be resisted but never transformed.
This panel will consider the relationship between the history of capital and the Left—and thus the issue of history and freedom - and how it may be linked to our present inability to render environmental threats and degradation visible and comprehensible, and by extension, subject to its conscious and free overcoming by society.
A teach-in held on September 17th, 2013 at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, led by Brian Schultz. An introductory teach-in on the development of human history from a Marxist perspective.
A panel event held at the New School in New York City on November 14th, 2012.
Transcribed in Platypus Review #56:
The present moment is arguably one of unprecedented confusion on the Left. The emergence of many new theoretical perspectives on Marxism, anarchism, and the left generally seem rather than signs of a newfound vitality, the intellectual reflux of its final disintegration in history. As for the politics that still bothers to describe itself as leftist today, it seems no great merit that it is largely disconnected from the academic left’s disputations over everything from imperialism to ecology. Perhaps nowhere are these symptoms more pronounced than around the subject of the economy. As Marxist economics has witnessed of late a flurry of recent works, many quite involved in their depth and complexity, recent activism around austerity, joblessness, and non-transparency while quite creative in some respects seems hesitant to oppose with anything but nostalgia for the past the status quo mantra, “There is no Alternative.” At a time when the United States has entered the most prolonged slump since the Great Depression, the European project founders on the shoals of debt and nationalism. If the once triumphant neoliberal project of free markets for free people seems utterly exhausted, the “strange non-death of neo-liberalism,” as a recent book title has it, seems poised to carry on indefinitely. The need for a Marxist politics adequate to the crisis is as great as such a politics is lacking.
And 2011 now seems to be fading into the past. In Greece today as elsewhere in Europe existing Left parties remain largely passive in the face of the crisis, eschewing radical solutions (if they even imagine such solutions to exist). In the United States, #Occupy has vanished from the parks and streets, leaving only bitter grumbling where there once seemed to be creativity and open-ended potential. In Britain, the 2011 London Riots, rather than political protest, was trumpeted as the shafted generation’s response to the crisis, overshadowing the police brutality that actually occasioned it. Finally, in the Arab world where, we are told the 2011 revolution is still afoot, it seems inconceivable that the revolution, even as it bears within it the hopes of millions, could alter the economic fate of any but a handful. While joblessness haunts billions worldwide, politicization of the issue seems chiefly the prerogative of the right. Meanwhile, the poor worldwide face relentless price rises in fuel and essential foodstuffs. The prospects for world revolution seem remote at best, even as bankers and fund managers seem to lament democracy’s failure in confronting the crisis. In this sense, it seems plausible to argue that there is no crisis at all, but simply the latest stage in an ongoing social regression. What does it mean to say that we face a crisis, after all, when there is no real prospect that anything particularly is likely to change, at least not for the better?
In this opaque historical moment, Platypus wants to raise some basic questions: Do we live in a crisis of capitalism today and, if so, of what sort — political? economic? social? Why do seemingly sophisticated leftist understandings of the world appear unable to assist in the task of changing it? Conversely, can the world be thought intelligible without our capacity to self-consciously transform it through practice? Can Marxism survive as an economics or social theory without politics? Is there capitalism after socialism?
1. Do we live in a crisis of capitalism today and, if so, of what sort — political? economic? social? Is capitalism basically the same in its “laws of motion” and can it be grasped equally well today as it was by Marx? What difference, if any, does the collapse of the socialist workers movement make for our understanding of capitalism?
2. Why are sophisticated leftist understandings of the world seemingly unable to assist in the task of changing it? Conversely, is the world intelligible despite our incapacity to transform it politically? Can the Left survive as an economics or social theory? Is our work more “difficult” today in theorizing capitalism, or of a completely different kind than it was for past generations of leftist intellectuals?
3. Many on the Left welcomed the #Occupy movement in 2011 because, above all, it responded to capitalist austerity in its slogans and characterized itself in class terms. Did #Occupy betoken a renewed salience of class? How did #Occupy and other movements worldwide differ from the political response — whether by the new social movements or other political expressions — to the crisis of Fordism beginning in the late 1960s and crystallizing with the Oil Crisis in 1973?
4. How does the present crisis compare with past crises of capital? What might we expect to be the duration of the present crisis? Is there an end in sight? Or are we witnessing the “terminal crisis” of capitalism? How do we know? If not the end of capitalism as such, does the present crisis at least signal an end to neoliberalism? If so, what will take its place?
5. How do your political views influence your understanding of capitalism and crisis? In what sense is economics as a science or discipline independent and autonomous from those politics? How do you avoid the danger of your theory from simply confirming your politics, rather than allowing our understanding of present circumstances to help push beyond our present political impasse?
6. At different moments of its unfolding the crisis has been differently expressed in different locations — a sub-prime mortgage crisis in North America, then a sovereign debt crisis in Europe, and now in a still different form in China. What is the extent of the present crisis and how has it been distributed globally? Unevenly? What does globalization look like in a period of prolonged crisis? Is the era of US hegemony at an end? If so, what will take its place? How is/was American imperialism connected to first Fordism and, later, post-Fordist capitalism and how does the new capitalism challenge a new American Empire-led global (re-)organization?
// Co-Editor at Insurgent Notes; ┇ Author (complete archive of writings available here): — Ubu Saved From Drowning: Class Struggle and Statist Containment in Portugal and Spain, 1974-1977 (2000), — “The Sky Is Always Darkest Just Before the Dawn: Class Struggle in the U.S. From the 2008 Crash to the Eve of Occupy” (2011), “Globalization of Capital, Globalization of Struggle” (2012)
// Distinguished Professor of Anthropology and Geography at the CUNY Grad Center; ┇ Author: — The Condition of Postmodernity (1989), — A Brief History of Neoliberalism (2005), — “Why the US Stimulus Package is Bound to Fail” (2008), — The Enigma of Capital and the Crises of Capitalism (2011), — Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (2012)
// Professor of Economics at Pace University; ┇ Contributing author to the Marxist-Humanist Initiative’s (MHI’s) With Sober Senses since 2009; ┇ Author: — Reclaiming Marx’s “Capital”: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency (2007), — The Failure of Capitalist Production: Underlying Causes of the Great Recession (2012)
// Teaches Philosophy at Adelphi University; ┇ Former editor of the International Journal of Political Economy (1987-2004), frequent contributor to The Brooklyn Rail ┇ Author: — Social Knowledge: An Essay on the Nature and Limits of Social Science (1986), — Art in Its Time: Theories and Practices of Modern Aesthetics (2003), — Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (2011)
Join our "Does Marxism really matter?" on our Facebook event page.
With Pac Pobric, assistant editor of the Platypus Review, contributing editor, 491, contributor, On-
Thursday, September 20
// 7:00 pm
NYU Kimmel Student Center, Room 907
// 60 Washington Square South
There will be free food.
In the mid-19th century, Marx and Engels famously observed in the Communist Manifesto that a ‘specter’ was haunting Europe — the specter of Communism. 160 years later, it is ‘Marxism’ itself that haunts us.
In the 21st century, it seems that the Left abandoned Marxism as a path to freedom. But Marx critically intervened in his own moment and emboldened leftists to challenge society; is the Left not tasked with this today? Has the Left resolved the problems posed by Marx, and thus moved on?
Audio from our last teach-in:
A presentation by Platypus member Chris Cutrone on August 16th, 2011, at Communist University, which took place from August 17th to August 20th, 2011, at Goldsmiths, University of London. Video Credit: Communist Party of Great Britain.
What is progress if not the absolute elaboration of humanity’s creative dispositions . . . unmeasured by any previously established yardstick[,] an end in itself . . . the absolute movement of becoming?
* * *[T]he ancient conception, in which man always appears (in however narrowly national, religious, or political a definition) as the aim of production, seems very much more exalted than the modern world, in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production. In fact, however, when the narrow bourgeois form has been peeled away, what is wealth, if not the universality of needs,
capacities, enjoyments, productive powers etc., of individuals, produced in universal exchange? What, if not the full development of human control over the forces of nature — those of his own nature as well as those of so-called “nature"? What, if not the absolute elaboration of his creative dispositions, without any preconditions other than antecedent historical evolution which make the totality of this evolution — i.e., the evolution of all human powers as such, unmeasured by any previously established yardstick —
an end in itself? What is this, if not a situation where man does not reproduce in any determined form, but produces his totality? Where he does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming? In bourgeois political economy — and in the epoch of production to which it corresponds — this complete elaboration of what lies within man, appears as the total alienation, and the destruction of all fixed, one-sided purposes as the sacrifice of the end in itself to a wholly external compulsion. Hence in one way the childlike world of the ancients appears to be superior; and this is so, insofar as we seek for closed shape, form and established limitation. The ancients provide a narrow satisfaction, whereas the modern world leaves us unsatisfied, or, where it appears to be satisfied, with itself, is vulgar and mean.
— Marx, "Pre-capitalist economic formations," Grundrisse (1857-58)
Recommended background readings:
Cutrone, "Capital in history" (2008)
Cutrone, "The Marxist hypothesis" (2010)