Thursday, May 24, 2012

Left Forum 2012: Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

The Left Forum is always a mixed bag but even if some panel discussions turn out to be duds, there is always enough there to warrant the time and money spent. Apparently about 4000 other lefties agree with me, at least based on Stanley Aronowitz’s announcement of registration figures at Friday night’s plenary. What follows are my impressions of various workshops I attended with no pretense of objectivity. In fact they will be highly opinionated so please be forewarned.

To start with the best, After the Crisis, is a New New Deal Possible? Do We Want One? was just what I hoped it would be: a debunking of the FDR presidency in the spirit of chapter 13 of Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States”. Ironically, the participants were all from the economics department of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, a city college nominally geared to training cops. I am not sure how this came about, but the school apparently has a fair share of leftists. Michael Meerpol, who recently retired from the economics department, had been the chair of a lecture series on social justice with my good friend Paul Buhle a recent guest. Perhaps there’s a certain cachet in having socialists on a faculty of a school with an ostensible reputation for being politically backward. The Mormon-oriented University of Utah also has an economics department with a bunch of Marxists, including the good Hans Ehrbar who hosts the Marxism list.

The first speaker was Ian Seda-Irizarry, a graduate of the U. of Massachusetts, another haven for left scholarship. Ian is a Marxmail subscriber whose dissertation on the Latin music industry in New York sounds like just the thing that can be turned into a good book, unlike the usual sterile credentials-earning exercise.

The talks, delivered from notes, were a model of concision and clarity, qualities missing from many others I heard over the weekend. My suggestion to any of my readers who plan to be a featured speaker at future Left Forums is to not read papers and if you do so, please try to make eye contact with your audience and to pause between sentences occasionally as if you were speaking one-on-one otherwise you will put people to sleep.

The last speaker, who is in the audience, was Josh Mason, an URPE member who teaches at William Patterson University and who speaks in favor of a new New Deal. Again, that’s another good idea. When you stack a panel with speakers who agree with each other, it is counterproductive. Marxism is based to a large extent on dialectics, a Greek word for dialog involving opposing different viewpoints.

One of the points that had the biggest impact on me during the workshop was made by Eric Pineault, the chairperson who teaches sociology in Montreal. In drawing a contrast between the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Great Recession of today, Pineault referred to the different forms that the attack on the working class took. In the 1930s, the problem was obviously massive unemployment but today working people are being crushed by debt much more than by joblessness. He used the term debt peonage to describe the problems faced by millions as they confront home foreclosure and collection agencies trying to get a worker to pay for a huge Visa or Mastercard bill.

In the 1930s, layoffs in a place like Detroit or Chicago would affect workers as a social layer. Since this was at a time when workers tended to live near the factory and even walk to work in many instances and when they hung out at the same saloons or parks, they tended to think in terms of joint action.

But today someone in debt will tend to see themselves as an individual whose adversary is another individual at a bank or a collection agency. Since going into debt often strikes people as a personal failing, they will also tend to blame themselves rather than larger social and economic forces. I was reminded of this the other day when I was speaking to a very old friend about my age who hasn’t worked in a couple of years. Not only is the job market poor, he has developed Parkinson’s, an ailment that will make getting hired as a salesman even harder. It doesn’t matter how good a salesman you are (and my friend was great at this) if your hands are trembling. That is the reality of a fucked-up system that places so much emphasis on appearances.

To keep a roof over his head and to pay for other basics, he has gone into debt—owing over $40,000 on various credit cards. He now pays $300 per month, the minimum required. At this rate he will be paying until he dies and have not made a sizable dent into a debt that mounts steadily as he continues to dip into Visa or Mastercard to pay for food or other necessities. This is the same treadmill that millions of other Americans are on, with no end in sight. We might be living under advanced capitalism, but the social relationship is not that different than the one described in B. Traven’s novels. Fortunately, there are no debtors’ prisons today—at least for the time being.

I was reminded of this at a panel discussion on Capitalism in India: Glitter, Commodities, and Blood presented by Sanhati, a network of academics and activists committed to social justice in India, and chaired by my friend and fellow Marxmailer Taki Manolakos.

Deepankar Basu, another good Marxist economist ensconced at U. of Mass., spoke on peasant suicides, a problem that Sanhati has devoted much attention to.  During the discussion period, with Eric Pineault’s comments on debt peonage fresh in my mind, I asked Deepankar if the epidemic of suicides might be related to the phenomenon noted earlier in the day. Was debt peonage in India leading to mass suicide rather than mass struggle for the same reason that debt-burdened workers in the USA were tending to seek individual solutions?

A bit of research this morning turns up some evidence that connects the two societies. From a blog post by Barbara Ehrenreich on July 28, 2008:

Suicide is becoming an increasingly popular response to debt. James Scurlock’s brilliant documentary, Maxed Out, features the families of two college students who killed themselves after being overwhelmed by credit card debt. “All the people we talked to had considered suicide at least once,” Scurlock told a gathering of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys in 2007. According to the Los Angeles Times, lawyers in the audience backed him up, “describing clients who showed up at their offices with cyanide, or threatened, ‘If you don’t help me, I’ve got a gun in my car.’”

India may be the trend-setter here, with an estimated 150,000 debt-ridden farmers succumbing to suicide since 1997. With guns in short supply in rural India, the desperate farmers have taken to drinking the pesticides meant for their crops.

Dry your eyes, already: Death is an effective remedy for debt, along with anything else that may be bothering you too. And try to think of it too from a lofty, corner-office, perspective: If you can’t pay your debts or afford to play your role as a consumer, and if, in addition – like an ever-rising number of Americans – you’re no longer needed at the workplace, then there’s no further point to your existence. I’m not saying that the creditors, the bankers and the mortgage companies actually want you dead, but in a culture where one’s credit rating is routinely held up as a three-digit measure of personal self-worth, the correct response to insoluble debt is in fact, “Just shoot me!”

For reasons I can’t quite fathom—maybe it is just psychological—I decided to check out a couple of workshops run by the ISO. Unlike the New Deal discussion described above, the comrades felt no need to include a point of view opposed to their own. Despite everything that Paul Le Blanc has written, I strongly doubt that they are open to the idea of a multi-tendency left organization since their actions suggest a preference for something far more homogenous if not quite so stifling as the American SWP of yore. The SWP of my youth would have been as open to the idea of publishing an article in the Militant that went against the party line as they would be to running ads for tobacco (even though Iskra did in Lenin’s day.)

Their workshop on Evo Morales was chaired by Jefferey Webber, the author of a book titled From Rebellion to Reform in Bolivia that the ISO speakers agreed with, but in terms probably more extreme than anything Webber has ever written. One of them, a young man named Jason Farbman who compared Morales to the former dictator Hugo Banzer, felt compelled to repeat a Facebook comment on a confrontation between the Bolivian police and a protest of the disabled:

The handicapped BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF THE COPS. The cops only covered themselves with their shields. They didn’t do shit. The handicapped went loco, BUT REALLY LOCO. Hardcore, they were blowing up firecrackers in [the cops'] faces and [the cops'] helmets barely protected them. They threw real rocks at them…

I should add that after I forwarded a London Review blog post about this incident to Marxmail, Richard Fidler, a long-time subscriber, offered this comment:

“Cambio dwelled on the injuries sustained by the police and blamed the violence on a group of infiltrados posing as disabled people….

“As evidence of the violent infiltration, Cambio unveiled a photograph of a man in a striped sweater standing in front of a policeman in riot gear, accompanied by the caption ‘Activist beats up policemen at disabled protest’. Below that were two more photographs, purportedly of the same man protesting against the TIPNIS road.”

The story says nothing about Cambio alleging the disabled themselves attacked the police — which would be pretty incredible to begin with.

It would have been nice if the ISO had invited someone with a different perspective, one like Frederico Fuentes whose critique of Jefferey Webber the ISO was nice enough to print in their magazine. (My guess is that Fuentes’s membership in the Socialist Alliance in Australia gave him the clout necessary to get a hearing.)

As I pointed out in the discussion period, there has been an ongoing debate about these questions and recommended that people check out Fuentes’s and Roger Annis’s responses to Webber (I mistakenly referred to Annis when I meant John Riddell, who works closely with Annis–and Richard Fidler as well.)

Despite my recommendation to the audience that they check out what Fuentes et al had to say, my own view was different from both the ISO and the other side in the debate. I never thought that Morales was going to make a socialist revolution in Bolivia but welcomed the kind of changes that he was likely to foster. Perhaps they do not measure up to the ISO’s yardstick but nothing ever would, when you stop and think about it.

The competition, as I pointed out in my comments, is between a living social reality with all its contradictions and the ideas in the cranium of Ahmed Shawki, Tom Lewis and all the other people who write for the ISO press about how socialism should work. Living reality obviously can never compete with someone’s ideals. I had an uncle like that in Kansas City. No matter how many women my mom introduced him to, they could not match his ideal which was a combination of Betty Grable’s looks and Katherine Hepburn’s wit. He died a bachelor.

There was more of the same the next day at a workshop titled State and Revolution in the 21st Century: Is Lenin Still Relevant? that included Todd Chretien, one of my favorite ISO’ers who was fairly close to Peter Camejo. Another speaker was Sam Farber, who the ISO’ers dote on for some unfathomable reason. Farber has written loads of bullshit about Cuba in the ISO press that I have tried to clean up over the years, like the guy with a dustpan following the elephants in a circus parade. This is the same Sam Farber whose new book on Cuba Jefferey Webber blurbed as follows: “Samuel Farber’s work on Cuba has long championed revolutionary democratic socialism from below.” I can only wonder if Webber has ever read Farber since the Cuban-American professor emeritus much preferred the Stalinist party in Cuba to the July 26th Movement:

Last but not least, the PSP [Popular Socialist Party, the pro-Kremlin official party] was the only significant political force in Cuba that claimed to be socialist or Marxist and therefore stressed the importance of a systematic ideology and program for the development of strategy and tactics. Its ideology and program were tools used to win ideological support from radicalized Cubans seeking a systematic explanation of the country’s situation. This aspect of the PSP is even more noticeable when contrasted to the antitheoretical and antiprogrammatic stance of the Twenty-sixth-of-July movement.

Yeah, we know how important it is to claim that you are “socialist” or “Marxist” to stay friends with the ISO, a group for whom ideals loom so large. Who cares if the PSP’s socialism was compatible with support for Batista? That’s not half as bad as being “antitheoretical”, I suppose.

Farber’s talk took the form of a lecture to the Occupy movement over its refusal to formulate demands on the state. He invoked the history of the civil rights movement to instruct the anarchists, who would not be found dead in a workshop like this, that in order to achieve genuine reforms you have to put demands on the state. He was generous to a fault to the young people who risked police attack and other hardships to occupy Zuccotti Park but felt that for the need for their full development as revolutionaries they had had to take a different path.

Radhika Desai, a political science professor at the U. of Manitoba, was far more polemical than Farber, lacing her talk with references to neo-Proudhonism and anarchism that were practically spitted out. We learned from her that there were petty-bourgeois tendencies in the Occupy movement that had to be combated. She recommended that the young people who were getting their heads busted at Zuccotti Park find the time to read Lenin’s State and Revolution, a work that was recommended in the same spirit that a navy doctor used to recommend prophylactics to sailors on shore leave.

While the ISO is not nearly as batty on these questions as the American SWP (nobody could be), you can’t escape the feeling that they approach it in the same spirit that they approach Evo Morales’s Bolivia. Somehow the articles in their magazine that defend classical Marxism against reformism or anarchism are meant to change people’s behavior.

In reality groups or individuals only modify their actions when a positive example becomes prominent and accepted by the great majority of the left. That is why Lenin’s party became the party of the Russian working class, not because its words were so convincing but because they led by example.

Unfortunately for the ISO, this new movement has emerged with zero input from them or any other “classical Marxist” groups. It has all the problems you might expect to see in such a movement, including bouts of adventurism as displayed by the black bloc or fetishism over consensus, horizontalism and all the other pet schemas of the anarchist or autonomist movements. But whatever the problems of the new movement, it has reached ordinary working people in a way that no Marxist movement has done since the 1930s. For that they deserve our respect and our collaboration, not patronizing lectures from above.

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