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Interview with Tom O’Brien: One Marxism, MMT, and the Eurozone Crisis.

Tom O’Brien is the host of the From Alpha to Omega.  This interview was completed just before the Cyprus banking crisis and thus was not mentioned. 


C. Derick Varn: Your podcast topics seem to vacillate between sort of “left” Keynesianism and more traditional Marxism, what in your experience of the Irish economic crisis led you to see the two as more complimentary than it may seem from a distance?

Tom O’Brien: The current crisis from an Irish point of view seemed to have been caused by a massive buildup of private debt, aided and abetted by the usual neo-liberal deregulation and regulatory capture.After the crisis erupted, we also found out about the flaws in the monetary architecture of the Euro – how it operated like a gold-standard and prevented national central banks from funding their government expenditures. My reading on the topics of debt and monetary matters led quickly to the current work of radical Post-Keynesians, who predicted this monetary crisis as early as 1992 – the famous British economist Wynne Godley laid it all out in an article for the London Review of Books. The work of Steve Keen, on the acceleration of the growth in private debt as an accurate predictor of crisis was also particularly important in understanding the Irish situation. The Post-Keynesian view of why such debt bubbles occur, is the Hyman Minsky view that stability is itself destabilizing. That seemed a little convenient and not as convincing an argument as Marx’s ‘Tendential Fall in the Rate of Profit’, which gives a more direct causal explanation as to why there was such a shift from industrial capitalism to financial capitalism and outright speculative behaviour in the western developed economies. This, I think is probably closer to the real root of the problem, and works well as explaining the current neo-liberal experiment, which can be seen as a massive drive to basically increase the rate of profit. The work of the radical post-Keynesian school seem to have developed important insights into the nature of money, that might have very important implications for Marxist economics,and indeed for those seeking to understand how to alleviate the current Eurozone crisis.

C.D.V.: Do you think that Keynesian or Post-Keynesian insights are limited to circulation problems?

T.O’B.: As a non-economist, I would have to say that what I see as the main Keynesian / Post-Keynesian insights are the stabilizing effects of government deficit spending, the role debt plays in the boom-bust speculative cycle, and the ‘Chartalist’ or ‘Modern Money Theory (MMT)’ school which tries to describe the workings of our modern floating fiat currencies. The standard Keynesian deficit spending insight, when allied to the MMT school of thought, lead us to radical conclusions as to what we can achieve in capitalist economy. They shine us to a path where government deficits don’t matter, where the economy can be managed to grow in a reasonably smooth fashion. It could also lead, I am tentative to state, to a scenario where the falling rate of profit can be endlessly jacked up in nominal terms, and thus help to avoid that Marxist crisis of capitalism. Convincing these individual, isolated, ideologically hide-bound capitalists of the merits of these policies for the system as a whole, has been something pretty difficult to achieve for these Post-Keynesians, as their policies play more into the hands of the workers and the industrial capitalists than the financial capitalists currently in charge of the system. However, even if all the Post-Keynesian insights were put into play, all they would in reality likely achieve would be the stabilizing and speeding up of the existing capitalist system, enabling it to chew through all our dwindling natural resources at a quicker pace than ever. Their insights say little about the alienation of workers, the meaninglessness and arbitrariness of capitalist production, or the inherent exploitation of the capitalist mode of production.

The Karl Marx credit card.


C.D.V.: What role do you see social democracy as having in the current EU crisis?

T.O’B.: That’s a very difficult question. It seems most of the social democrat type parties across Europe have been in bed with the financiers for years now. In the UK Tony Blair and Gordon Brown let the city run riot, so they could fund their health and social spending increases. In Greece we see how the Socialists have imploded over their support for Austerity and inability to stand up to the ECB and the Germans. In Ireland we have seen the perennial party of power, Fianna Fail, lose 75% of their seats. The neoliberal mindset seems to be as deeply rooted in the social democratic parties as in those of the conservative/right parties of Europe. With the parties of both the left and the right in Europe essentially offering the same unwanted medicine to the people, we are likely to see major radical political changes in the make-up of our politics in the coming years. It seems pretty doubtful that Social Democrats can survive as power political parties in their current form unless they break from their bank-friendly policies. The policies of the ECB/IMF/EU troika are a huge destabilizing force in Europe, and the likelihood is for years more of depression-like economic performance. But if South America is any guide, it may take decades until we have the formation of new dominant left political movements capable of taking power.

C.D.V.: Have your opinions on this fiscal matters changed since you began your podcast?

T.O’B.: Not since I started the podcast, no. But over the last 3-4 years I have read a great deal about monetary matters, the design of currencies, and the role of money creation in societies. I have been interviewing a lot of the best people on these matters about their work on the show. I must say, however, that the Modern Monetary Theory people do have a reluctance to talk about the risks of endless stimulus. They say that deficits don’t harm us once there is the raw materials and human labor to absorb all the issued debt/currency, but talk little about what are the limits to these very raw materials. Most of the good scientific research I see, like the Limits To Growth studies, which show major problems in the coming decades and probable economic collapse, point towards the likelihood of catastrophic resource constraints in the near future. I often find myself wondering: ‘What Marx would have made of the likely coming material conditions?’

C.D.V.: Do you think there is an ideological blinder on that part of MMT?

T.O’B.:I do think there is an ideological blinder in MMT on this issue. But it is far from just MMT economists who ignore the likely upcoming resource crunch. The net energy we receive from our oil, gas, and coal production after getting the stuff out of the ground and into our cars and homes is dropping steadily. More and more of our oil and gas is coming from difficult to reach places, and we have to put more and more energy in, to get our new energy out. This should be a very stark warning to us that our economic system is about to undergo tremendous strain. It should be noted, that the Soviet system’s oil production peaked in the 1980′s, which is likely to have played a very important role in the collapse of Soviet Union. Indeed, Egypt’s oil production peaked in 1996 and became an oil importer in 2007, so I think we can expect many more of the Middle Eastern power structures to fray as the energy surplus from oil and gas production begins to drop.

We must realize that just because when we ran out of trees for firewood we could use coal, does not mean we can easily find ourselves a new energy resource. In fact it means just the opposite – that we have one less energy source left to exploit. Economists are acting like the beer-drinker who thinks there will always be more beer in the fridge, because for the last 6 times he went to get a beer there was always one there. Just like the beer-drinker, they won’t be too happy when they find out all we had was a six pack. None of the existing replacement renewable energies look like they have the ability to scale up to meet this challenge. Economists assume that technology will rescue us, but this is a pretty big assumption.

It’s fairly easy to see that the dominant schools of economic thought largely reflect the interests of those in power, so we can’t expect the high-priests of capitalism to preach too loudly about the contradictions at the core of their belief system.


C.D.V.: Well, many green thinkers also accuse most Marxists as being blind to the resource depletion issue. There are some strong exceptions, I think, including Marx himself, but in general, this has been the case for reasons that don’t have anything to do with capitalism. What do you see as a valid answer to resource problems?

T.O’B.: One of the core insights Marx gave us into capitalist economies is that capital always seeks to grow through productivity increases. Growth is the eternal mantra of economist from both the right and the left. Now with our resource constraints in clear sight, the options left to us are pretty stark. We either have to drastically cut our consumption levels, or our population, or maybe both. The distribution of how those resources are spent are extremely inequitable as well. But such a vast reduction in consumption levels would create absolute havoc for those who own the means of production, so it’s unlikely they will voluntarily give up control. They still might get lucky, some new energy source could materialize  or the science could be flawed. So, I expect we will see those in charge of the current system just plough along merrily with their fingers crossed until we get to such a stage as the conditions get so bad and they are overthrown, or the whole global system of production kind of peters out. But the problem with any such new system that comes into power, is that it will have to be based on a new kind of production not based on growth, and most likely not based on value production. There is quite large scope for theoretical work on how such a system would work. Many of the left-movements today speak of a ‘Green New Deal’, which doesn’t deal with the core expansionary drive of capitalist production in the slightest. Robin Hahnel has an interesting new book, Of the people, By the people – The Case for a Participatory Economy, describing how such a participatory economy could work, which is well worth the read and does a fine job of talking of how such a system could work. It offers little though, in how we should work to get there. When it comes to the demographic problem, the only country I know of with a vastly reduced population today compared to 1840 is Ireland, and that only happened through that oh so benign a mix of imperialism, famine, and mass emigration. It doesn’t bode well.

C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

T.O’B: I would like to point to some of the tentative positive political ideas that are starting to take shape around the world at the moment. The emergence of the Occupy movement globally, the Indignados, and the 5-Star Movement in Italy all in their own way are pointing to failure of our liberal representative democracies to work for their citizens. It’s starting to become more and more obvious to more and more people that the corporations and the banks control their politicians and stand in the way of the radical change that is needed. I think there is a great desire for a sustainable society where wealth and power is equitably distributed. Hopefully these movements are the sparks that will fire the neurons of those involved to come up with new theoretical works that can help us to lay the foundations of the new societies that we seek.



C.D.V.: I find the last bit interesting, if you would forgive a one last follow-up: What exactly do you see as the promise of the 5-Star movement?

T.O’B: Over the last 150 years we have seen many nationalist revolutions succeed. Some of these new governments may even have enacted fairly radical policies, like the welfare state or land reform. But over the years, as the original revolutionaries grew old and left the political stage they gradually became replaced by a managerial class of politicians, lacking the political spine of their predecessors. Countries like Ireland, for example, experienced a new wave of career politicians, of varying levels of corruption and a willingness to suck up to the capitalist class to gain power. The citizens of these countries have learned that the problem wasn’t just that they didn’t have self-determination as a colony, but that the structure of society and it’s political superstructure also plays a critical role. In the words of The Who – ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss’.

The 5-Star movement, is essentially expressing what a hell of a lot of people in the capitalist west think of politicians – they are a bunch of lying, power hungry, money grabbing, turn-coats. And they are sick to death of it. This is a real blast against the political superstructure, if not, perhaps, the base-structure of production. I see in this the germs of a possibly revolutionary change in how we govern ourselves. Noam Chomsky always talks of how power is terrified of real true direct democracy, because those in power can’t let people actually vote as they wish. Even redneck republican voters in the US. when polled on individual issues are basically social democratic in nature. I don’t think that the 5-Star movement is perfect in its structure, or that I agree with it’s policies – I don’t know enough about it to have a definitive opinion, but I think it does shows us exactly where the political pulse is right now - decentralized structures of power devoid of politicians and their games. It seems to be a return to the libertarian socialist tendencies of the past. It is also a rejection, I believe, of the old vanguard party model of the radical left parties, and left-theorists out there should be taking note.

Interview with Greg Sharzer on Localism

Greg Sharzer has a Ph.D. in Political Science from York University, Toronto, Canada, where he studied political economy and social movements. His activism includes participating in anti-poverty, trade union and migrant rights campaigns. When not thinking about politics he enjoys cycling, films with subtitles, gourmet coffee and all the other trappings of a petty bourgeois lifestyle.  He currently lives in Seoul, South Korea.


C.Derick Varn.: Why do you think Localism rears its head so regularly in times of capitalist crisis?

Greg Sharzer: I think it’s a natural reaction to defeat to turn inward and try to control what’s around you. Marx describes it happening in the 1850s, as a reaction to the defeats of the 1848 revolutions. Workers can’t overthrow the state, so they form cooperatives and try to make life a little easier for themselves. Some believe that they don’t need to overthrow anything: that their alternatives will form a critical mass and carve out spaces away from capitalism.

The psychological imperative to form a virtue out of necessity is understandable; but I think it’s incumbent upon us as historical materialists to critique it. I don’t think this means denouncing localists as naive, utopian, etc.: many share our dislike of the symptoms of capitalism and are therefore potential allies. But localism, as I argue in No Local, is a fundamentally petty bourgeois phenomenon – it can’t solve the problems it identifies, because it harkens back to an ideal pre-capitalist time (that never really existed in the first place.) Particularly during a crisis, we have to assert some home truths about capitalism: that capitalist firms have to grow – or at least, shrink less quickly – than other firms or die; that the problem isn’t one of scarce resources but of irrational and unequal resource use; and that, far from retreating into some mythical local space, we have both the chance and the tools to create a truly international workers’ movement.

There’s no lack of things to be angry about, and there are plenty of mobilized people willing to give a systemic critique a fair hearing. It may be the case that, due to the degeneration of the workers’ movement, localist ideas will gain greater traction; but that just makes the task of promulgating Marxist arguments all the more pressing. If we’re smart about our interventions, we can have results. I think Syriza in Greece is one example of this.

C.D.V.: You have been in South Korea for the past few months.  What do you think South Korea can teach us about Global capitalism?
G.S.: South Korea can teach us how flexible capitalism is. Ultimately, we know that capitalism can’t solve the crises of profitability, overproduction and ecology that it creates. However, it’s very good at using the raw materials it has at hand to graft itself onto, and shape new societies. Two features of South Korean society illustrate this dramatically for me.

One is the sheer pace of change. In the developed world, we’re used to decay and stagnation. Infrastructure gets repaired, at best – no new public goods are built, and a lot of existing public goods, like health care and transport, are abandoned or given to the private sector. It’s like capital’s collective leadership has given up trying to create the necessary conditions for accumulation and is just engaged in warfare between its various fractions and with the working class. Now, clearly this happens in South Korea – president-elect Park wouldn’t be talking about chaebol reform otherwise – but it remains striking how much South Korean capitalism, freed of longterm institutional barriers and prior infrastructure, can remake space.

The ongoing development of Korea’s high-speed rail network, and the continuing expansion of the metropolitan Seoul subway, are two examples. I’m often struck by the comparison with Toronto, where I lived on and off for 20 years, during which time successive governments failed to build an extra five subway stops. They’re finally doing so, to be open by 2015 after many years of construction. A developmentalist state appears to be much more willing to respond to the needs of accumulation. This isn’t a straightforward process: Park Bae-Gyoon, whose work as a critical geographer I’ve recently encountered, writes on how different coalitions vie for investment in their corners of the country. The outcomes of development aren’t inevitable: but the state appears firmly committed to shaping and reshaping South Korea as a regional hub for capital. That this is possible, and even seen as desirable by a firmly neoliberal government, puts paid to the notion that capitalist crisis means stagnation, or that Keynesian stimulus is necessarily a progressive phenomenon.

The second feature which I find fascinating is how capital treats the existing social-cultural terrain. It’s not true that capital has to destroy previous forms in order to impose a bland, homogenous corporate version of globalization. Rather, capital is clever – or just rapacious – enough to take pre-existing forms, commodify and sell them back to the Korean working class.

The impact of the pace of change appears, naturally enough, to be a level of anxiety about the future among Koreans themselves. 30 years ago, Korea was largely a peasant society: today it’s a highly industrialized, fully capitalist one. From a relatively insular place – a peninsula effectively made into an island by the Korean War, as a friend told me – Korean capital is successfully globalized, to the extent that other poor countries are sending experts to study its development model.

But rather than eliminating old cultural forms, this process has reinvigorate them. For lack of a better term, I’m calling this ‘neoliberal hybridity’: the ability of capital to reinvent, repackage and sell the culture that capital’s very presence has eliminated. For example, I went to a friend’s wedding, which was billed as traditional. And indeed it was: bride, groom and families wore traditional Korean hanbok, the groom asked for the bride’s hand in marriage from her mother, and the bride was bundled into a box to be carried to the reception afterwards. This all took place in a lavish, traditional Korean home… on the fifth floor of Lotte World, a giant mall run by a chaebol. Everything had been reconstructed as a better version of an old Korean home. You could buy souvenirs and rent outfits; the house was painted in wonderfully bright colours which would never fade, since they’re not exposed to the elements; the acoustics were marvelous, since there was no wind. After the reception, you could go shopping at a luxury department store or visit a multistory indoor theme park shaped like a giant dome – all within the same building.

Later I asked the (Marxist) groom whether he found it strange that such a traditional ceremony could take place in such a contemporary place; he responded, “Capital will sell anything.” It struck me that the reason capital can sell history back to a people is because it’s constantly undermining that history. What it takes with one hand, it gives with the other – and makes a profit on it. We see the bolstering of cultural forms to the degree that they’re threatened, while at the same time the progressive elimination of any claim to authenticity those forms once had.

Whether this is new or not – postmodernism has been around in many guises for decades – it’s something that I think we in the west could learn from. Used to a more sedate pace of change – or, less charitably, the slow decay of our society – our cultural changes are easier to handle. Those of us with a cosmopolitan bent can believe we delight in absorbing new forms. I think it’s easy to forget that, when those changes are sudden and intense, there can be an equally intense desire for the past, which capital is only too happy to commodify.

This applies to Korean culture; but, I’d argue, it also applies to localism in the west. Nostalgia, or more fundamentally, fear of the future, can be channelled into either giant malls or farmers’ markets by capital. As Marxists, our task is to be as rigorous as possible about our political economy and the strategic questions that flow from it, lest we fall prey to that kind of easily-commodifiable desire for stability. We may lack the resources and creativity of capital, but we don’t have to solve its crises, and therein lies our advantage: we can focus our energies on resistance.

C.D.V.: Do you see localism as having a romantic or even reactionary characteristics?

G.S.:  Localism absolutely has a romantic side. This is clearest in the idealization of rural life and small communities that pervades localist literature. And this has political consequences as well. In No Local, I identify localism as a form of petty bourgeois politics: a desire to evade the class struggle and find a ‘small’ way out. But Marxists have long argued there is no opt-out, no neutral ground. By trying to impose a false harmony on the irreconcilable antagonisms of capital and labour – neither left nor right but small – localists in fact serve the needs of capital. They disorient the workers’ movement by suggesting confrontation can be avoided, delaying the necessary strategic thinking that needs to happen to build the fight-back. The only people who benefit from this are the capitalists, who find potential opposition directed away from making demands on the state and corporations, instead turned inwards towards self-help.

This romantic idea isn’t new: one of the things I find so depressing about localism is it rehashes debates that were settled 150 years ago. Take the famous passage from the Communist Manifesto, where Marx takes on the localists of his day. Note that he’s sympathetic to denunciations of capitalism’s excesses:

This school of Socialism dissected with great acuteness the contradictions in the conditions of modern production… It proved, incontrovertibly, the disastrous effects of machinery and division of labour; the concentration of capital and land in a few hands; overproduction and crises; it pointed out the inevitable ruin of the petty bourgeois and peasant, the misery of the proletariat…

But Marx was a historical materialist: for him, social organization was based on a specific mode of production, a way of organizing how wealth is produced and used. That form – capitalism – already dominated. The property relations that buttressed small, local production had disappeared. To try and recreate them meant imposing an old form on new content – the proverbial bolting the stable door after the horses have fled:

In its positive aims, however, this form of Socialism aspires either to restoring the old means of production and of exchange, and with them the old property relations, and the old society, or to cramping the modern means of production and of exchange within the framework of the old property relations that have been, and were bound to be, exploded by those means. In either case, it is both reactionary and Utopian.

Marx saw the writing on the wall: petty bourgeois forms of production would persist but would never dominate the economy again. The rise to power of capitalism meant the end of small-scale ownership, of production for use, of artisanal production as a means of social production. This was fast disappearing by 1850; to promote it meant being “reactionary and Utopian”, an unworkable politics of nostalgia.

He was being a little triumphalist when he predicted petty bourgeois socialism’s demise: “Ultimately, when stubborn historical facts had dispersed all intoxicating effects of self-deception, this form of Socialism ended in a miserable fit of the blues.” It appears that, like the petty bourgeois themselves, localist politics make peroidic comebacks – in times of crisis, as your previous question pointed out, and then they serve a purpose.

To take one example, the Wall Street Journal recently posted a feature on up-market chicken coops and garden tools. Aside from showing that capitalism will commodify just about anything (for those willing to spend $258 on a shovel!), it speaks to the nostalgia driving localism: ‘“It’s what I did with my grandmother—the chickens, the gardening, the canning, the bees,” Ms. Zimmerman says. “It is my Zen—a memory of what made me feel safe and good and warm.” And jars of homemade honey make great gifts, she adds.’

I want to emphasize that this is a completely understandable, emotional reaction to turmoil: if the world is beset by crisis, go back to an imagined past – your own or what you’ve read about – where things were simpler and in balance. Or, put more historically materially, a time when fewer aspects of daily life were commodified, and there was more room for ‘independence’. The WSJ focuses on those willing to pay top dollar for this petty bourgeois fantasy, but of course that’s not all localists: many are poor, trying to save money in their own lives and be gentler to the earth while they do it. There’s no shame in being romantic! – except that, as a basis for political strategy, it fails to understand how the capitalist economy works and what to do about it. The only reason localism is prominent now, is because of the continuing paucity of alternatives posed by the workers’ movement and the revolutionary left. The pull of romantic anti-capitalism is a symptom of our historical weakness.

C.D.V.:  Why do you think Marxist organizations have been so ill equipped to offer an alternative in the developed nations?

G.S.: The failures of Marxist organizations have been cast in particularly sharp relief lately, thanks to the ongoing crisis of the SWP. Its mishandling of rape accusations against a leading member, in a way that would make Stalin blush with flattery, have led, first of all, to the trauma of the woman raising the issue and the distress of those trying to support her. In turn, this has led to right-wing smears in the media against the entire project of Marxism and to dogmatic defences of ‘Leninism’ by the party leadership.

But if there’s a silver lining to this pitch-black cloud, it’s that a principled minority are taking the opportunity to link the scandal to a broader critique of left organizing. Tom Walker, Richard Seymour, China Mieville and others have suggested that Leninism is a method, not a blueprint for the future. Lenin can teach us about the nature of capitalism and the rapacity of the ruling class – but how to become a clandestine party under a Tsarist dictatorship, or how to be a tight cadre organization in the midst of civil war, are less relevant lessons.

This debate gives me cautious hope that Marxists organizations haven’t failed in the First World* – or at least, they’ve failed in useful ways. It’s true, we haven’t made the revolution. However, a revolution has too many variables to predict in advance. Even in hindsight, the political, economic, cultural, historical, etc. factors that create a revolutionary movement are hard to understand. We can learn from the past and apply those incomplete answers to an even more incomplete present. (And it’s worth adding that although the revolutionary record in the Third World is certainly better than the First – most were brought down by the low level of material development and the resulting idealism of revolutionary elites, leading to corruption and dictatorship.)

So, given that context, where did we go wrong? I think Marxists applied lessons from the past too mechanically, modelling revolutionary groups on what appeared successful in Russia, China, and elsewhere. This led to inflating the successes of those revolutions, becoming blind to their failures, and a lack of attention to understanding the First World variety of capitalism. Some Marxists have tried valiantly to understand what’s different about developed capitalism – I’m thinking of those inspired by Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, the James-Dunayevskaya groups, the Situationists – but often they were split off from workers’ and social movements, for reasons outlined succintly in Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism: the retreat into academia and the rise of successful reformism.

I think those groups had valuable pieces of the whole, while circumstances prevented them from influencing the broader movement and putting those pieces together. That’s the main reason for a mass revolutionary party in the first place: to bring the uneven experiences of the class’s vanguard fighters together, to learn from each other. Marxists weren’t together and failed to learn those lessons. We didn’t understand the Cold War as a major contributor to reformism and got sidelined by social democrats; we didn’t understand the significance of the ‘new social movements’, a particularly egregious failure considering how seriously earlier socialists took movements against sexual, gender and racial oppression. And this separation from the bulk of social movements meant that Marxists were powerless to lead the opposition to neoliberalism when its cold winds blew into town, atomizing and institutionalizing what remained of the 60s and 70s upsurge.

On one hand, many critical leftists are learning these lessons. On the other, context matters. It’s not an accident that, post-WW2, there was a layer of trade union bureaucrats able to provide real material benefits to their members, in the process splitting them from more exploited sectors of the working class. Why make a revolution when there’s tangible evidence that things can get better if you don’t rock the boat? I don’t think austerity breeds resistance – there’s nothing more demobilizing than poverty and unemployment. But the opposite may be true: the historical compromise between labour and capital, involving labour relinquishing control over production in return for regular raises, may have led to communism appearing obsolete. That’s not strictly a battle of ideas – rather, it’s a way to explain how the material world is being re-organized. Marxists could have the most logical critique of capitalism, but that wouldn’t mean much when capitalism appears to be making everything better, at least at home.

In fact, considering these pressures, I’d say that Marxists did pretty well; we rescued Marxism from the cold, dead hands of Stalinism and experimented with any number of different organizational forms. We broadened our theory, and re-acquainted ourselves or learnt anew about women’s liberation and gay liberation. Yes, we have lots more to learn, but my point is that the record is not one of constant defeat. We were outmaneuvered but did the best with the small forces at our disposal, making plenty of mistakes along the way. Now, when our forces are scattered and marginalized, those mistakes become magnified.

What can we do better? We can question and resist oppression in broader society, and if necessary in our own organizations, if we’re lucky enough to have those organizations. This doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel: there’s plenty of evidence that building mass, democratic, militant social movements are what build people’s confidence to transform capitalist society.

We need to retain political organization by socialists, whether that’s called a party or something else. This is a major weakness of all localist theory, left or right: it believes economic and political spaces can be detached from broader political economy. Then, when small-scale experiments achieve even the slightest success, they’re either coopted or destroyed by the state and capital. (It goes without saying that small-scale experiments that challenge nothing at all, like community gardens or farmers’ markets, are allowed to exist in perpetuity, unless they raise land rents.) Independent, from-below political organization helps fight that coercion and cooptation, by posing the question of resistance and how to win reforms. Marxists should be proud of that legacy.

The past is important, but so is the present. We face attacks from all sides – capitalist austerity, fascist reaction, and so on – and we have to learn how to organize through fighting back. These questions are always concrete: we can only answer ‘how to build a revolutionary party’ while we’re figuring out how to fight the cuts, oppose Zionism, fight for indigenous liberation, and so on. Done right, those movements pose broader questions of how to overturn oppressive power structures. At this point, Marxists become relevant – not as bearers of a programme, but as historical investigators and political strategists. We can say to those activists, “We know in broad outlines how capitalism works; can you help us to refine and correct that picture? Can we help each other to fill in the gaps?” I think that if a modest, questioning Marxism emerges out of the present political and economic crises, then there’s hope for our tradition, in both the First and Third Worlds.

(* I’m using the old ‘new left’ terminology of First & Third here because I still think it’s the best way to describe imperialism, as an unequal relationship of whole regions subject to combined and uneven development. I think “developed/underdeveloped” risks sounding neutral, while “Global South/Global North” lacks precision.)
C.D.V.: What do you see that is concerning you about the “left” in North America after Occupy?

G.S.: I think the Occupy movement had a kernel of truth in it: the desire for direct action and a willingness to organize and protest differently. The left’s failure to have any significant impact on imperialism in Afghanistan and the Middle East, and the intense disillusionment with the Democratic Party after Obama’s first election, led to a novel circumstance: an upsurge in radical anti-establishment sentiment and absolutely no organizational or political place for it to go. As a response to the usual ‘marches to nowhere’ of the Left, Occupy’s willingness to question traditional organizing was a welcome development. Any leftist group worth its salt was at Occupy, not because it agreed with everything the movement did – there was lots to disagree with, from the voluntarism and moralism to the drug abuse and even murder that marred some Occupys – but because serious leftists know a new movement comes from struggle, and it’s not up to us to dictate the forms that struggle takes. A formally correct leftist criticism, about the lack of revolutionary organization and trade union focus at Occupy, was sectarian and irrelevant in that context. Our task was to debate and participate in the many real questions Occupy posed, from the meaning of work to the occupation of native land, and many groups deserve praise for that engagement.

It’s true that without ongoing organizational expression, Occupy was doomed to fail. But we should get no joy from pointing that out. Rather, I think the task is to harness that energy to the more concrete, place-based struggles that continue to erupt after Occupy. The Quebec student strike of 2012 is the best example: it took a bread-and-butter issue – tuition rises – and married it to the sweeping social criticism of Occupy. Thanks largely to its socialist organizers, the strike was able to identify the context of tuition rises: neoliberalism in education and commodification in society at large. The strike was neither economistic nor flaky: it was a recognition that the working class is open to both leadership over ‘real’ issues and radical change. To oversimplify and continue the food metaphor, if a strike is the ‘bread’, and Occupy was the ‘roses’, the Quebec student strike, and its radical leadership, gave Quebec students both.

The latest example is Idle No More, which displays many of the same characteristics: a focus on the brutal realities of native life in Canada, with a willingness to experiment with new forms of protest and make ‘maximum’ demands that would require vast changes in the state and capital to carry out. It’s been successful to the degree that it refused to be limited to partial demands: while resolutely local, Idle recognizes the shared circumstances of indigenous localities, linked by national state oppression and exploitation by international capital. You can’t get either more grounded, or more visionary, than that.

So, that’s where I see the future of the left after Occupy. Participating in, and if possible, leading the many struggles against austerity across North America, while recognizing that new approaches are needed to engage new activists, across generations. I’d be concerned if utopianism or business unionism predominated; but Maple Spring and Idle No More are hopeful signs that radicalism can be grounded in real-world struggles.

C.D.V.:  Anything you’d like to say in closing?

G.S.: A friend of mine put me onto these timely t-shirts. I think they’re a cautious sign that the sheen is starting to wear off localism. A backlash was inevitable, particularly when localism is taken up by the well-off and lifestylist petty bourgeois. That backlash can degenerate into a right-wing populism directed at so-called cultural elites, or it can be an opportunity to question how capitalism works and what resistance is. The localist project was bound to be popular as an end-run around the contradictions of capitalism, a wish-fulfilment for those who want to believe in a non-contradictory modernity, that we can deal with the capital-labour antagonism by avoiding it. Of course that was never going to happen, but it takes time for the evidence to accumulate that piece-meal reforms – local consumption, local farming, local money – don’t have any impact on capitalist crisis. The longer economic turmoil continues, the more the evidence begins to mount. So people are searching – not necessarily for answers yet, but at least the right questions. If growing your own chickens doesn’t change the crisis in food production, doesn’t end factory farming and doesn’t alleviate hunger, what will? If providing community garden space doesn’t boost nutrition for poor communities, why not? If, despite your best efforts, the world is still getting rapidly worse, that can be disillusioning for activists, not to mention terrifying. But in that case, there are two options: abandon any attempt to change the world – in which case, localism will become a fall-back, ‘at least I’ve got mine’ pre-occupation of the comfortably afflicted – or go deeper and explore how the economy and ideology really work. I hope that my critique of localism can contribute to the latter process. So that when thousands of localists realize that their fresh vegetables and farmers’ markets make them feel better but do nothing to stop economic and ecological decline, they won’t give up; instead, they’ll move beyond localism to struggle.

Beyond Warm and Fuzzy Socialism to Vague and Hazy Socialism?: An uphill sentiment that signifies what exactly?

Recently, Jacobin has published ‘s recent words at the  Young Democratic Socialists conference. While I am thankful to Sunkara’s coining of the phrase and clarification of the concept “anarcho-liberal,”  I have watched both Jacobin under  Sunkara develop positions on market socialism or a refusal to denounce the Democratic Party which could be best be called “Marxo-liberal.”  By which I mean not the acknowledge that Marxian politics takes the  classical liberal project of 17th and 18th century outside of its own regression, but a failure to recognize the difference between the two tendencies entirely.   While I admire Jacobin for putting Marxian ideas back into wider circulation, it cannot be ignored that its flirtations with Neo-Keynesian-ism and other “feasible socialist” answers which aren’t actually all that feasible, nor its willingness to publish strawmen characterizations of Marxist economics which use basically liberal arguments, in, irony of irony, an issue called: Liberalism is dead.

This said, Sunkara’s recent talk at YDS was interesting:

Socialists don’t believe people should be held hostage to accidents of birth. We believe in a society with equal respect for all, one that will bring to fruition frustrated Enlightenment values of liberty, equality, and fraternity.

Perhaps, socialists do just hold these principles: after all, the Sunkara’s publication is called Jacobin and not anything related to the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd internationals. But whatever socialist vision Sunkara is pushing, it is a fundamentally liberal one. It is actually the motto of the bourgeois revolutions that brought us the current systems of production.  For focus on equal respect for all, however, is telling.  Perhaps quoting Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program will illustrate exactly the point that Sunkara is missing:

Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption. But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form.

Hence, equal right here is still in principle – bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case.

In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.

But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.

But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

Sunkara’s focus, like that of the Social Democrats which refuse to truly oppose the Democratic party, is essentially in this mode even as he critiques (obliquely) the traps of social democracy.  Equal respect in every sense is even weaker than equal right.  We can end with another section of the Critique of the Gotha Program:

 Vulgar socialism (and from it in turn a section of the democrats) has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation has long been made clear, why retrogress again?

Indeed, why?  We have been through the principles of the Jacobin’s before.  They were good, but necessarily unfinished and continue to regress to points resembling prior social structures.    But let’s go back to Sunkara, who does seem to feel a tension in his own words and goes back to something like a classical Marxist form:

But importantly, I think these “warm-and-fuzzy” goals have to be rooted in class antagonism.

Creating a society built around different values requires a revolutionary transformation of our socioeconomic order. These shifts, a radical extension of democracy into the social and economic realms, are not only desirable, but possible. The roadblocks to their implementation aren’t technical ones, like they’re often portrayed to be, but rather rooted in the political resistance of those who benefit from the exploitation and hierarchy inherent in class society.

It’s important that the socialist message be wedded to moral and ethical appeals, but it can’t lose track of this antagonism against the class that makes even tepid social democratic reforms hard to envision in the 21st century. Yet there’s also the second half of that antagonism, the identification of the class and social forces capable of challenging capitalism and pushing us towards a better social order.

Any future society would build off the wealth and social advances of capitalism itself, but to accomplish this mission we need structures different than the ones capital can create. We need political parties, cultural organizations, a radical labor movement, and other currents of the exploited and oppressed.

Sunkara then calls the basic principles of the Enlightenment project “warm and fuzzy.”  I would note the blood on the guillotines of his magazine’s namesake revolution.  His call here is classic Marxism, and something that the feel good notions in Social Democrats in the America tend to do: ignore class conflict for the sake of social order.  Sunkara’s reminding them of the stakes, and this is a smart thing to do.  That’s an uphill battle, and even within his own publication he sometimes loses that fundamental insight. That said, it’s nice to see him remind the YDS of it.

This is sentiment; however, is just a sentiment.  In a public conversation with Ben Campbell, he pointed me to some other problems when he stated:

General sentiment seems nice, but it is quite short on detail. So when Bhaskar [Sunkara] says: “Participate in the slow and patient construction of class power through organizations capable of challenging that system.”What organizations is he actually talking about? The DSA? Jacobin magazine? He has certainly been quite explicit about the fact that he opposes the “slow and patient construction” of a political party that would challenge the capitalist party that he currently supports (The Democrats). So what is he even talking about here? Who knows.

Second, we would need to hear more from Bhaskar   [Sunkara] about why social democracy “fell into a trap” and “lost track of a structural critique of capitalism”. What were the structural and institutional factors that caused this to happen, and how will Jacobin avoid them? Because this general “trap”, of attempting to increase influence by progressively watering down program, seems to nicely fit to Jacobin’s current trajectory.

The lack of details is vital, and not just for such a short speech.  What class organs exist?  With the majority of the working population not attached to liberal trade Unions (and the leadership of those unions often suspect themselves and stuck in a “at the moment” mentality and fear of competing organizations), with the Democratic party reflecting the more amiable face of a capitalist managerial class, with most Marxist organizations in the US consisting mostly of either students or academics, and with no attempt to party a multiple tendency party or even some alternative organizations to either the NGO or the  majority party caucus or Taft-Hartly limited Union emerging themselves, what exactly does this mean?

Finally, Sunkara ends with this sentiment:

In the development of such a strategy in the 20th century, radicals fell into two traps that seem different, but are actually related.

  1. The pursuit of short-cuts: from syndicalist fantasies about general strikes ending capitalism overnight to more brutal attempts to stimulate change by imposing socialism-from-above.
  2. But also the other extreme. A gradualism that yielded useful reforms, but lost track of a structural critique of capitalism and the role of socialists as not the administrators of the capitalist state, but rather the identifiers and heighteners of class antagonisms.

We must find an alternative — both patient and visionary, pragmatic and utopian — and fight against austerity, pushing this world to and ultimately beyond social democracy.

This stuff about socialism from above is strange to me as well, but I suppose it’s crypto-anti-vanguardism and placating the audience. Very few Leninist believe that it would be easily possible to impose socialism via coup without support of the working class and probably the other non-capital owning classes as well.  It would also be very hard to do in a multi-ethnic country without involvement of most so-called “minority groups,” and it would definitely not be possible without women. No one thinks that it can be imposed by conspiratorial organization alone unless they have delusions of grandeur and a massive misunderstanding of modern military power.  So we are left with a paper Lenin.

The road out here must be based on more than sentiment pointing to a new paradigm. It must even be more than just a critique of currently existing bad ideas and weak politics.  This vague notion of returning to an alternative organization that is beyond social Democracy, and, by implication, beyond other currently existing Marxist formulations, and yet also completely consistent with the aims of bourgeois revolution seem, at best, trying to have it both ways, and at a worse, sound and fury signifying a hazy that is so vague it does not yet even have the power to haunt.

Why retrogress again, indeed.

Divided and Uneven Liberal Identity

The certain power of people who identify as “liberals” to have an ideology that still mirrors the society they critique because of two basic assumptions is pretty telling; although not in the simple double-think or hypocritical way that so-called “conservatives” often accuse them of belying    It is not that these marginally richer working class (called middle class in the US) are bad or crypto-racist necessarily even if they often blindly do benefit from such exploitation, but they are often blind to the structures they assume could be fair. Even terms like privilege imply that it is just systemic unfairness that could be reformed out, and not something that is fundamental to the structure of economic situation itself. After all, privilege is granted and can be taken away without fundamental social change at the roots of production.   You can deprivilege an ethnic group in feudalism for example (the dominance of say the Anglo-Saxons by the Normans) but not change the fundamental social structures of the society.   These unconscious assumptions are hidden within the language of many liberal “radicals” who adopt the nomenclature without fundamentally doing historical work to see the development of the idea at hand.   This gives even progressive liberalism a limitation that tends to be conservative under stress: It’s fundamental assumptions are in line with a “progressive” notion of the present to be managed into improvement without fundamentally changing the structure of class, and thus not deeply changing the nature of race or gender.  (Read the recent discussion in mostly liberal magazines about the end of men, which does not discuss that the pay for women while improved is still off and that benefits of middle class society are disappearing for lower income “middle class” including things like marriage without liberating the work load on single mothers, etc.)

In short, the mistake is that they actually assume the world as it is could be tweeked into something ideal without radical (and thus violent in some fundamental sense even if no blood is spilled) change, and thus they read the current into the past when trying to understand it.  Recently, more or less liberal sociological work by people like Jonathan Haidt read a fundamental separation of political ontology into determined psychological framework ignoring that historically these divisions are very modern.  For example, many liberal narratives about the South Eastern US ignores the history of populist and even progressive politics in the South: William Jenning Bryant was the presidential candidate of the “Solid South” after all.  Keynesian redistribution is assumed because that is all managerial tax policy, and no look at how fundamentally un-equal the work structure would be even under Keynesian redistribution schemes and how dependent semi-capitalist social Democracies actually are on exploited labor in countries that are not social Democratic.  The problems of the EU make this abundantly clear.

Many “Leftist” critique of liberalism actually accept fundamental liberal categories (Keynesian just needs to be more radicalized, the state is enemy but it could be run by more leftist technocrats to the benefit of all,  the assumption of nation-states as somehow real national actors) and just try to push them further.  This in a way makes sense because the origins of left-liberals and Democrats have an ideological genealogy that is on the same spectrum of bourgeois politics out of a mostly European framework.  Even “radically” “non-Eurocentric” radical liberal critiques (such as say Judith Butler) still fundamentally use categorical terms which are out of European thought itself (“the other” for example being a primary one).

In this, the self-identified radical or even the self-identified moderate liberal, can be somewhat forgiven for reflecting the divided and uneven nature of semi-capitalist liberal modernity.  It sees the world as “it is” but the world as it is is a reflection of the structures in which our economic and political lives are limited.  But while they can be forgiven, as long as they do not recognize the fundamental structural impossibility of their project due to the nature of representation and production, they are often their own enemies and the enemies of the very social improvement they advocate. Keynesianism does not work without outside exploitation of labor to give grist to the mill of the welfare state’s production capacity. Mutliculturalism doesn’t work unless one has a definition of culture that is purely ideal and thus involved with tolerance and tokenism of native languages without any respect for their own development or separation from the traditional ideologies of their society.

Many of my “liberal”–and remember I realize how confused this term is in North America, but also in Europe (which often denies the liberal origins of most contemporary social Democracy after the say 1930: Was it not the German Social Democrats, the former party of Marx, who removed minimum wage laws in Germany)–friends actually do see these contradictions in the paradox of Obama’s actual governing record, or the realization that most neo-liberalization of the US economy was actually accelerated under Bill Clinton.  They see it, but still holding on to the theories and social categories of soft psuedo-Marxian analysis of a re-distributional (which is really just radical Keynesianism often), sociological categories which have idealist modes of ideology, and notions the vague “system” is “systemically unfair” (instead of doing what it logically must do to maintain itself as a mode of production and distribution) limit how they can address the problem, and so the march continues and economic cycling and stagnation maintains itself.

David Harvey on May Day with my comments

While I have always been seriously in agreement with Emma Goldman, which is that I don’t want to be part of a revolution where I can’t dance, but I don’t confuse revolution with dancing. I always am skeptical, then, as I have been since 1999 and the anti-WTO protests of treating protesting like a carnival. These seems like the politics of counter-spectacle, which is to internalize Debord’s set-up and then, of course, invert the whole enterprise. But aside from that minor dispute with Harvey, I mostly agree with him here.

There has been a disturbing exurban trend in Left thinking that mirrors the landscape until recent history. Urban centers are beginning to thrive again, and even mid-sized cities may see a small boom, and in terms of ecological efficiency, this is probably a good thing. Something I have always taken anti-civilization ground to task on: without a mass die-off of proportions unheard in human history, there is no way for post-civilizational organization to work in anything that is not massively ecologically depleting. Cities, however, do work efficiently. If there is any abomination in my mind, it is the suburban arrangement, which about consumer in lieu of production to a degree of space that really does not make any sense.

Theorists are not leaders: Whose pretending we are? Occupiers need to self-criticize.

I recently engaged in a mirror “clarification” with Jehu at Re: The People. I don’t comment on Occupy much because I am not on the ground and I already see the battle over the narrative of Occupy beginning, which means things could be looking down for Occupy. In mainland Europe, we are seeing a rising tie of both the left and the far right, so the wages of failure are clearer in Europe where “austerity” is nearer, and the Keynesian impulse looms but without clearly articulating the way forward in the E.U.

Things are dire and thus tensions are high: Theorists aren’t going to save anyone either, but then who ever thought they could? Jehu’s attack on the Marxist academy seems predicated on a power they frankly do not have. He is right about the faux respect many pay to Occupy while treating them as children, although this is also true of most of the anarchist thinkers. One must demand self-consistency as this is the only way these things are worked out.

There is a place for thinkers and theorists, but the place is not to think for the “Working class” or whatever the subject of change will be within the majority of the population. Their job, in so much as they have one, is to put ideas on offer for people to adopt. If we actually had faith in our theories and their ability to change the material base, then that is what we would do. However this means treating Occupiers, and indeed, the population as a whole honestly, and being willing to look at failure.

Honestly,I have seen this shit before from both the activists and theorists, plus the hostility inbetween. In Seattle in 1999, I saw people tell me (while I was there) that the anti-G8 protests were a success, and yet when I went to Sea Island just a few years later after 9-11, no one was there. Policies have gotten worse, and inequity increased? When every objective failed,how could Seattle had been a victory?

We do not need to deceive ourselves: In Europe, there is a rising far right tide in central and Southern Europe and France, and the left has earned that and the liberals have caused it. Zizek is right that more thinking is needed,but he is probably wrong about the acting. One must think and act in tandem. But this requires urgent and public self-criticism and not of the liberal scapegoating of anarchist variety. One cannot make excuses for failure.

We learn by doing and thinking together. So the hostility to academicism and the hostility to actionism, both plaguing the increasingly nebulous and unrelated ideologies that make up the spectre we denote with the left, privileges sides of a dialectic instead of sublating in it praxis (or theoria in the traditional sense of the word).

The fact that we keep using theorists as proxies for leaders both in our polemics against said theorists and the occupiers puts us too as people who seem bent on not learning. Zizek is not pretending to be a leader: He is like the red court jester that is enabled to speak because he success with youth makes him not particularly dangerous. Zizek isn’t pretending to be leader,and we should not be pretending he is either.

The Left Which is Not One, Part 3, Part 1: Anarcho-liberals, Liberal Reactionaries, Neo-Keynesian Pseudo-Leftists, and Occupy

These consist of two conversations held between “communists” (of a few different varieties, Marxist and Non-Marxist) about Occupy. I have edited them and changed some names to pen-names. I, however, am not altering the arguments. My own gloss is that while I thought Occupy was a movement of hope, my fears that the left wouldn’t not take it’s inevitable failure as a wake-up call to break with a lot of the prior models of politics and offer a real political alternative seems to have been confirmed. That said a lot of the “self-critiques of Occupy” but its left-liberal all-stars are vapid.  The participants in this discussion range from British Trotskyists who lived in China for a while to Iranian American Syndicalists to heterodox Canadian Marxist to American Zizekian scholars to American expatriate living in Asia and Europe. All of us have some first hand experience with Occupy, and many of us have been active in politics for many years.

This conservation came in response to Ilyse Hogue’s article, “Occupy Is Dead! Long Live Occupy!” and David Haack’s “The New Left Zombie is Dead, Long Live the Left!”  The Haack article deliberately sounds like Platypus Affiliated Society’s “The Left is Dead, Long Live the Left” while Hogue article probably does not.  Haack’s article and Hogue’s seem optimistic in the extreme, practically Haack’s assertion that Occupy returned to being focused on the working class and against lifestyle politics. The New Left actually said similar things when the founding of the New Communist Movement out of Maoism in the 1960s.   The focus on process, pre-figuration to the exclusion of post-figuration, and “the movement IS the message” are all children of the New left shift.  Regardless, I’ll end my editorializing here.   Here’s the conservation:

Skepoet:  Oh really? Now, as a heterodox ‘pode [Editor's Note: Member of the Platypus Affiliated Society], I find this slogan interesting, but “the movement lives on”? For how long, and for what purpose?

Douglas Lain: The death of Occupy will be the birth of a whole new series of NGOs, nonprofits, and political careers. Long live Occupy? No thanks.

Arya M: Occupy has accomplished its mission for first step of revolutionary change, and that was to raise public awareness and unity against the corruption elements of our socio/political environment. It in my opinion has accomplished its goal and can now peacefully dissolve. The next step must now be to formulate a political organization with strict inherent political goals, visions, and objectives. Occupy had none, its only goal was to raise public awareness and that has been done. Now we must unite behind strict ideas and goals, the instigation of political revolution being one and and an unwavering one. Step 1 has been completed, now we must act on step 2.

Wait, Doug, that is what the liberal/Democrats wish to do to the Occupy Movement. To use it to serve the interest of the already established political order, as nothing more than a reformist group. We on the radical left must make sure that we must save the legacy of the Occupy Movement as the earliest start of revolution.

Douglas L.: Raising public awareness of inequality was not the aim of Occupy. The awareness was there or Occupy would never have happened. Uniting behind strict ideas and goals is the tricky part, and it was what Occupy aimed at. However, Occupy was an anarchist movement and so it took the ideas and goals as something that would arise organically from mass action. I don’t know how these ideas and goals will arise. They cannot arise organically because they aren’t organic. Neither can they be imposed by a few, because they can’t succeed in this way either. I’m working for a rupture.

Arya M:  Perhaps because Occupy was established by the Anarchist-leaning magazine Adbusters, the notion that Occupy was Anarchist seemed to have came out. But by the first week of Occupy there were many more liberals and even centrist who came to show their “support” the basic principals of the movement. And because without a truly strict ideology to lead the Occupy Movement it became very easily mutated to a front for the liberals to exploit. This is why a new movement or political organization needs a strict manifesto detailing exactly their unwavering objectives. I’ll give you an example of how Occupy has now become a front for the liberals. In January 20 of this year, Occupy protesters staged what they called “Occupy Congress”. sounds great doesn’t it? What was the goals of it? To get liberal minded lobbyist to support their cause of greater transparency in the economical realm…. I am not joking. This is why Occupy has accomplished its initial goal and why we must now move on to greater things, to step 2.

Douglas L.: The idea we need to unite behind can’t be imposed because it can’t be a mere idea. For it to be a progressive step it has to be something that takes the place of Value, but that is not mistaken for a natural truth. Democracy isn’t up to the task of providing us with such an idea because ideas that ate arrived at democratically are marked by human will and debased, but it must also be seen as a mere contrivance or product of our collective will if the new idea is to be something other than a mystification.

Arya M: And that is why I am stuck at step 2. Some form of organization thought has to be formed as the main leader for revolutionary actions, it must be seen to the American people as the sole honest group that actually has a difference of position to the political status quo. How do we do that?

Douglas L.:  How are such liberals produced? And if we take our politics to be more radical we should ask how our politics are produced.

Arya M: Liberals are produced through the dual dichotomy of our two-party system, those who see that the problems within our social structures can also be solved within them. Radicals are the ones who say it is the social structure itself that is inherently the problem. We are radicals on the left, I would take you to be one as well.

Douglas L.: But how is it that we come to be? And how do these liberals come to be?

Arya M:  What do you think? I am as curious to know what you think?

Douglas L.: I hoped you knew. That way I wouldn’t have to think too hard. Now I’ll have to think and get back to you. I like asking the hard questions better than answering them.

Arya M: The definition of “liberalism” and “radicalism” is a constantly changing one, constantly changing in relation to the attitudes, society, politics, etc of the nation. Had you been a liberal back in 1850 in England your goal would have been merely to gain voting rights for all men, something so naturally normal today would have been seen as the liberal action. Whereas a radical would demand for the whole change of the British political and social structure, something still viewed as highly radical today. So sometimes the definition changes and sometimes it stays the same, depending on what is the norm.

Skepoet: I’ll know I’ll be defined as a typical ‘pode on this one, but I do not think Occupy is anything to write home about at the moment. It is dying the non-death that 1999 protests and the 1968 protests did, it will divide into more neo-Keynesian liberalism and lifestyle poltiics rather quickly as these moves do. There are two reasons for this in my point of view. The lessons of the limitations of the new Left, although obvious, are refused for fear of taking responsibility. I wrote about that in my blog post, The Left Which is Not One, Part 2. This is a denial of responsibility for the failure of the left to truly offer something beyond either critique: post-Stalin Marxism (failed), post-Mao Sino-Marxism (has become neo-liberal), left-liberalism (deluded and failing on its own terms), and lifestyle anarchism. Anarchist thought still is too afraid of power and responsibiltiy to offer a coherent answer: what anarchists so far offer is either revisions of Marxims that have been tried (and have failed in the in past), process orientation avoidance of politics, and just rejection of the current. Marxist, so far, however, have offered even less than that. Mostly sectarian rambling, and vanguard posturing.  Two, the theoretical framework within the left is incoherent, but no one outside of sectarians want to point out that pan-left utility wouldn’t even be leftist at this point given the extreme contradictions within groups. The third element isn’t a fault of Occupy: Most left forms of organization are based on differnt labor models and social strata than currently exist, and Occupy did try to address this but incoherently for the pior reasons. I said Occupy would fail, but how it failed mattered. It is failing the wrong way at the moment.  It can still go the right way, but I fear that Doug is completely right.
Liberalism is much more constant than it appears. This nominalism is a cop out. I strongly suggest dialectics and genealogy.  Lusurdo’s Liberalism is quite helpful here as are the books by Jonathan Irvine Israel’s on the Enlightenment.  There is a surprising consistency to liberalism even though as the modern period continues, liberal modernity has broken up into several different strains of thought.

Hence my instance that we most strike at the root (genealogy) and move forward (dialectical negation of negation) at once. I have been returning to Hegel and Nietzsche and studying systems and integral theories as well as pointing out the flaws there. I also think I need to rethink modern organization and labor strategy. So it’s be a theoretical and practical gap.

On liberals, liberal ideology is a deliberate process formation that comes through dominant educational institutions in alignment with acceptable opinion in our economy and culture, but it is also partly set apart by inborn temperament.  It emerges out of Enlightenment thinking and scientific thinking as well as capitalist modes of production.  It’s sort of feedback structure of culture and economics.  Still, the temperamental element is what splits liberalism up into the two camps we see in the Anglo-American world: liberals and conservatives. Jonathan Haidt did some good research here. SO there is liberalism as a orientation and liberalism as an ideology, and these are vastly different things. Liberals, of course, like to confuse them so to obscure the question and naturalized the totality of their ideology. Radicals can be of a liberal or conservative temperament, but think through the various contradictions to get at the “Root” of the problem. Radical comes from Radix, meaning root. What produces us seems to be harder question to answer: My suspicion is that we don’t know.  We can’t. Our outs point out.

Paul B.:   The article seems like a compromise between the Platypus orientation towards critique of the historical Left for its delusions about its own strength, and hence of the possibilities of social transformation, and the felt need to be ‘positive,’ without which there is the fear that the article wouldn’t gain a hearing.  Maybe the better way is just to be ruthlessly clear about things – rile people up and push them towards clarity, which is the pre-condition of the Left’s possible revival.

Skepoet:  Speaking of Platypus.  The Review published a David Haack piece which seems absolute to be the same kind of apologetic for Occupy.  I would love to believe that Occupy has been a real Oedipal break from the “New Left,” I think Haack is actually mostly just wishful thinking here.  Let me give you an example:

Occupy Wall Street has freed us from the grips of the New Left and the paralysis that has prevented the arrival of a new movement aligned with the present. Occupy presents an opportunity to once again relate to our moment. This has occurred in two intertwined ways: tactics and culture. Culturally, all it took was for the Occupy movement to target Wall Street with populist rhetoric. The movement made the simple complex, and as a result it created a pluralistic and deeply egalitarian space. The simple phrases exemplary of this approach are “Occupy Wall Street!” and “We are the 99 percent.”

These two slogans were enough to end the cultural focus of the last 40 years. A myriad of different sub-narratives appeared under them, awe-inspiring in their multiplicity. Occupy is not just another call for a less socially sadistic culture with the class dimension drained out of the analysis—characteristic of most of the New Left and the whole period after it. It has an economic and populist focus that has galvanized a cultural shift in America. This could happen because the dam that had kept the alien narrative in place was not strong enough to hold back the weight of the economic recession in addition to Occupy’s novel tactics. Discourse and conditions finally met once again after a 30-year disconnect.”

This reads like bullshit. I saw evidence of inordinate amounts of privilege talk and liberal politicking. Furthermore, no workable alternative has yet emerged.

Paul B.:  It is. I doubt whether Occupy has really ended ‘the cultural focus of the last 30 years,’ a claim that one hears and reads all the time. It sounds like a fine case of people believing their own publicity – which came in a torrent in every shape and form that the Internet and new social media would permit. ‘I want to believe.’   A better comparison is with the 1930s. How did unionizing succeed in the US then? What are US unions doing today? More pointedly, what are union militants doing today?

Skepoet: They are shilling for the Democratic party and 80% of the American workforce is outside of Unions. Hostility to Unions as self-interested labor aristocracy is common–not just among Occupy or the New Left, but among, well, almost everyone.

Paul B: I understand that, I think, but isn’t it true that in the 1930s huge numbers of people unionized? Is there any potential for that today? Is there anything to be learned from studying the period?  I mean even if it is a question of organising outside of the big union bodies.

Skepoet:  The industries are different, Paul. I wish this were not the case. There is no reason why they can’t unionize, but those models won’t work for it.

Paul B: Yes, I see that. But there must be some lessons that can be learned. Now, like then, it will take a great deal of audacity.

Skepoet: Lessons can be learned, but not by mimickry. This has been a bad Marxist tactic for a while and one that ignores the Hegelian conception of time. Furthemore, I don’t see many of us taking those kinds of risks at the moment.

(To be continued)


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