The closing plenary of the 2013 Platypus International Convention, held from April 5-7, at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Transcripted in Platypus Review #58 (Click below to see):
“Program” and “Utopia” have for well over a century now sat in uneasy tension within the politics of the Left, in tension both with each other and with themselves. Political programs tend to be presented in the sober light of practicability — straightforward, realistic, matter-of-fact. Social utopias, by contrast, appear quite oppositely as the virtue of aspiring ambition — involved, unrealistic, exhilarating. Historically, then, the two would appear to be antithetical. In either case, one usually offers itself up as a corrective to the other: the programmatic as a harsh “reality check” to pipe-dream idealism; utopianism as an alternative to dreary, cynical Realpolitik.
Today, however, it is unavoidable that both program and utopia are in profound crisis. For those Leftists who still hold out some hope for the possibility of extra-electoral politics, an impasse has arisen. Despite the effusive political outbursts of 2011-12 in the Arab Spring and #Occupy — with their emphasis on the identity of means and ends, anti-hierarchical modes of organization, and utopian prefiguration — the Left still seems to have run aground. Traces may remain in the form of various issue-based affinity groups, but the more ambitious projects of achieving sweeping social transformation have been quietly put to rest, consoled with the mere memory of possibility.
Meanwhile, longstanding Left organizations, having temporarily reverted to the usual waiting game of patiently tailing popular discontents with the status quo, until the masses finally come around and decide to “get with the program” (i.e., their program), have experienced a crisis of their own: slowly disintegrating, with occasional spectacular implosions, many of their dedicated cadre call it quits amid demoralization and recriminations. What possibilities might remain for a Left whose goal is no longer utopian, and whose path is no longer programmatically defined?
A panel held on April 6, 2013, at the 2013 Platypus International Convention at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The emergence of modernity was accompanied by the emergence of labour, its discontents, and the expression of these discontents. From the late 18th century to the present, these expressions have assumed many and often opposing forms, and these in turn have been absorbed by many and often opposing interpretations. The transformations of these discontents and of labor conditions throughout this, from the Chartist movement of the early 19th century through the socialist movements under Owen, Proudhon, and Bellamy at the end of the same century, to the mass strikes of the early 20th century, the emergence of the formally recognised and contractualised unionism of the mid to late 20th century, and the later periods of deindustrialization and neoliberalism, have in turn produced manifold interpretations of the role of the working class in society, as well as of the destiny of the labour struggle among other struggles in history. These interpretations differ most critically in their consideration of the relation of the labour struggle to the struggle for an emancipatory politics, that is, the constitution of the Left, and to the struggle for emancipation ultimately, that is, the pursuit of Utopia.
This panel will consider the development of these interpretations throughout history by exploring interpretations of labour on the Left in the present. We seek to interrogate both the relation of labor to other struggles on the Left and its once-Utopian visions of a world fundamentally transformed. We ask our speakers to engage not just with the labor movement, its limitations and prospects as they are today, and with the experience they have of it, but with the labor movement as it once was and as it could be again.