A panel event which took place the University of Kings College in Halifax, Canada, on October 9, 2013.
Howard Epstein (outgoing MLA for Halifax Chebucto)
Judy Haiven (Solidarity Halifax, Saint Mary’s University)
Alex Khasnabish (Halifax Radical Imagination Project, Mount Saint Vincent University)
This Nova Scotia election season saw an array of positions on the Left concerning the outcome that might follow from the victory of the NDP. Among them, there were some who openly supported the incumbent Darrell Dexter as the lesser of evils, others who opposed him by casting a vote for another candidate, and still others who followed the abstentionist line by not voting at all. Many of those who voted for the NDP did so under the assumption that the they were a broadly center-left party with vaguely social-democratic tendencies, who might be pushed to reverse neoliberal policies and stave off measures of austerity. Some, while generally less optimistic, endorsed the NDP on the premise that organizing a mass movement against capitalism would be easier with the NDP in power. Others argued that the NDP had done nothing to deserve reelection, offering no hope for either change or progress moving forward. The rest, who took no stance either for or against any party, chose instead to eschew electoral politics altogether.
Now that the election is over we are afforded a brief chance to critically evaluate the prospects for the Nova Scotia Left’s transition into the next term. What is different today from the time of NDP's historic win in 2009, when the election seemed like a departure from the course taken under previous Progressive Conservative and Liberal governments? More recently, how are we to regard the Left's renewed focus on parliamentary politics (not only in Nova Scotia, but also in Quebec) when only a year earlier such politics were often deemed obsolete in light of the extra-parliamentarianism of Idle No More, the Quebec student strike and Occupy? Did the last four years since the election and last two years since the 2011 upsurge that started with the Arab Spring, signal progress or regress for the Left? How would the terrain have shifted for the Left with another term under the NDP vs the Liberals? Will government social programs and infrastructure deteriorate yet further? Or will legislative reforms breathe life back into the moribund welfare state? Should we, in fact, take for granted the idea that keeping the Liberals and Progressive Conservatives out of office promises a better environment in which the Left to organize? What does the future hold for a Left caught in the stale air of the status quo?
The second of a panel series, to subsequently be held internationally in Chicago, London, and Toronto in Fall 2013. The first event was held in conjunction with Rethinking Marxism in Amherst, Mass.
Thanks to Mark Cunningham (https://www.youtube.com/user/fwmarkc) for providing the video recording.
A moderated panel discussion and audience Q&A with thinkers, activists and political figures focused on contemporary problems faced by the Left in its struggles to construct a politics adequate to the self-emancipation of the working class. Hosted by the Platypus Affiliated Society.
Dalhousie University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada
Co-sponsored by the Halifax Radical Imagination Project:
"Capital is not a book about politics, and not even a book about labour: it is a book about unemployment." - Fredric Jameson, Representing Capital: A Reading of Volume One
"...the misery of being exploited by capitalists is nothing compared to the misery of not being exploited at all." - Joan Robinson
"The error consists in believing that labor, by which I mean heteronomous, salaried labor, can and must remain the essential matter. It's just not so. According to American projections, within twenty years labor time will be less than half that of leisure time. I see the task of the left as directing and promoting this process of abolition of labor in a way that will not result in a mass of unemployed on one side, and aristocracy of labor on the other and between them a proletariat which carries out the most distasteful jobs for forty-five hours a week. Instead, let everyone work much less for his salary and thus be free to act in a much more autonomous manner...Today "communism" is a real possibility and even a realistic proposition, for the abolition of salaried labor through automation saps both capitalist logic and the market economy." - Andre Gorz
It is generally assumed that Marxists and other Leftists have the political responsibility to support reforms for the improvement of the welfare of workers. Yet, leading figures from the Marxist tradition-- such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky-- also understood that such reforms would broaden the crisis of capitalism and potentially intensify contradictions that could adversely impact the immediate conditions of workers. For instance, full employment, while being a natural demand from the standpoint of all workers’ interests, also threatens the conditions of capitalist production (which rely on a surplus of available labor), thereby potentially jeopardizing the system of employment altogether. In light of such apparent paradoxes, this panel seeks to investigate the politics of work from Leftist perspectives. It will attempt to provoke reflection on and discussion of the ambiguities and dilemmas of the politics of work by including speakers from divergent perspectives, some of whom seek after the immediate abolition of labor and others of whom seek to increase the availability of employment opportunities. It is hoped that this conversation will deepen the understanding of the contemporary problems faced by the Left in its struggles to construct a politics adequate to the self-emancipation of the working class.
1. How do you characterize work and employment as a political issue in contemporary society? What is wrong with unemployment? And/or what is wrong with work?
2. A distinction is often drawn between "work" as purposeful human activity (presumably existing before and after capitalism), on the one hand, and "work" in the sense of labor in capitalism, where the worker undertakes purposeful activity for money under threat of material scarcity (typically in the form of wage labor), on the other hand. Is this distinction politically relevant when thinking about work? In a free society, would work manifest in one or both senses?
3. If the widely observable phenomenon of overwork and unemployment is a necessary feature of capitalist society, why and how is this so? What kinds of social necessity, in the present organization of the world, do you take to be underlying this phenomenon? Then, given your understanding of the nature of this necessity, what would it mean to radically transform it?
4. In the history of the Left, what examples do you regard as informing your attitude towards the politics of work and unemployment today, and what is relevant about these touchpoints?
5. Historically, the left has sought to remedy the problems of overwork and unemployment, through various means: full employment; a guaranteed minimum income regardless of employment; and/or shorter working hours for those employed. Which of these, if any, do you consider to be adequate responses, and how, if at all, should the Left pursue them?
6. If the abolition of wage labor should indeed be a goal of emancipatory politics, what forms of politics or concrete demands should be pursued to attain this goal? How do we get from "here" to "there"?
7. Given the breadth of issues and struggles pursued by the Left historically and today--race and racism, gender equality, environmental concerns, globalization, militarism, etc--what is the relationship between the politics of work and the broader project of social emancipation? Exactly how central or peripheral is the politics of work to social emancipation as such?
8. Where do you find the most promising attempts by the Left to address the issue of work and unemployment, today? What makes this contemporary work relevant and propitious?
9. What role, if any, do you assign to political organization, such as an actual or potential political party, in working to progressively transform contemporary relations of work and unemployment? What should be the relationship between any such organization and the working class?
10. A century ago, these questions were consciously taken up by a politically constituted workers movement in which socialists and Marxists participated. Today, discussions of this topic risk becoming utopian in the a-political sense. How, if at all, has the decline of workers movements and the death of the Left circumscribed our ability to engage the politics of work in the present?
At the fifth annual international convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society, speakers from various perspectives were asked to bring their experience of the Left's recent history to bear on today's political possibilities and challenges as part of the "Differing Perspectives on the Left" workshop series.