Blog: Dispatches from the Left Forum, part I

Whenever I go to any leftist gathering, whether it’s an anti-G8 rally, an alter-globalist european symposium or an academic conference, I always feel like running with open arms to every person who crosses my path and shouting “God am I glad to see you!” I usually manage to refrain myself though, but I must say that this time, at the Left Forum, it is particularly hard. First,everybody is evidently in a good mood because of the current wind shift–and quite astonishingly friendly and united–it’s a little bit like Antioch alumni around the the time of the first Business Plan, if you can still picture it. Second, you can tell from the program that we all have a lot in common: panels hold names ranging from Seattle-generation hipster buzzwords (“From the barrio to the barricades: visions for a better world,” “Is another world really possible?”) to more old-fashioned stuff (“Beyond Capital’s Crisis,””Class struggle and the crisis: from workers to capital and back again” and Marx, Marx, Marx.) There’s also some more specific panels about campus activism, foreign policy, economic development, radical media, latin american examples, anarchy, global warming, race and gender, and yes, here and there, Obama.

Since between twenty and thirty 2-hour panels happen simultaneously at every time slot, you can imagine it’s quite difficult to choose. I decided to adopt the Groupie Strategy: my main criteria, then, is to go see the people I know; I have my list of the People-I-Just-Can’t-Miss. This morning, for example, I went to a discussion about Joseph Schwartz’s book “The future of democratic equality: rebuilding social solidarity in a fragmented America” because (drumrolls) Gayatri Spivak was there.( Now, the fact that I usually understand about a third (on good days) of what she writes is in no way a deterrent to my adoration. Students of Isabella’s will understand this feeling, I am sure.) The first speakers summed up Schwartz’s book–one of the main theme being the rebuilding of solidarity–“solidaristic politics”– in the US both as a moral and an intrsumental force. This “solidarity of citizenship” would be expressed in rainbow coalitions in which unity would be found among different groups, while preserving each one’s distinctiveness (Textbook alterglobalism, but okay…) A public philosophy should also be created, it was argued–and this is where Schwartz became controversial for the panel– as he accused post-structuralist thinkers to have given up on influencing public discourse and thus having abandoned the frontlines of the struggle against inequality. Corey Walker, Brown University Professor, critiqued that view by positing that 1) politics of identity were “always already a condition of any politics” (We, the people… who is included in the we? he asked) and that 2) our political imaginations were limited by the “citadels of western thinking”, and the limits of that thinking, sealed too early, needed to be pushed back–and new categories created… an activity of the poststructuralists! There was a visible rift, on the panel, between the two old-school marxists, talking about very concrete measures, and the two poststructuralist advocates, who advocated for placing the political fight on another level–the usual tension between the urgency of the socio-economic situation and what it requires as immediate answers, and the skepticism over an over-used proven-to-fail system–and the seemingly never-ending process questioning it would imply.

Then Spivak finally spoke, and, I must say, I could not repeat word for word what she said, or even weave an argument in a linear way. Not that I wasn’t listening to her every word, but I think even if you were there it wasn’t all linear and coherent. (I think she’s queering the idea of coherence, as Chelsea would say…) She is very elliptic, (if not ADD..) going from one idea to the next quickly– expecting you to get an idea in a sentence and then move on, as in “i’m going to drop an intellectual bomb on your every 5 seconds and then change the subject: deal with it”. She’s definitely one of the most charismatic, lively, interesting, funny speakers I ever saw. So, in about 14 minutes, she talked about: learning Chinese, Education, Criminal Capitalism, High school children, the falling bottom of the global South (“and they’re not in trouble because of poststructuralists you know”), she made fun of Derrida, Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs and the french media, she mentioned the system defeating Obama, short-lived mobilizations around crises, European centered masculine humanism, the failure of poststructuralists to pay attention to industrial capitalism, their inability to get tenure so quit accusing them, Communism in Bengal, Union politics, the world social forum, Dubois, Eric Foner, and the intellectual subaltern. Memorable quotes include: “Education–that’s where you build solidarity, that’s where I begin.” “To be equal is not to be the same, we can’t refuse this double bind.” and “Poststructuralists are a blip in the machine. They’re interesting, I like them, but….”
During Questions and Answers, I walked to the microphone shortly after Norman Birnbaum asked his question– and asked about the prospects for solidarity-building education in the current global context of the corporatization of Higher Ed, etc… Spivak said she signed the Antioch petition even though she rarely signs anything, really, and called Marx to the rescue, in a mid-weary, mid-esoteric way. Meanwhile, Colombus-Lawyer-Gerry- Bello-friend Bob Fitrakis had spotted me in the audience and came up to me afterwards to talk about Antioch.

The next panel I went to was much less impressive, I must say. It was called “Secularism and the Radical Imagination,” and I went so that I could make up to Iveta for my post-secularism essay being late by making it cutting-edge. There were, however, very few of us in the little classroom on the third floor of Pace University, to listen to the panel of CUNY Grad Students who gave their talks. The presentation was quite disappointing–content wise, it was really nothing you wouldn’t get in a handout Iveta would give you –secularism as false neutrality/tolerance, in reality very much based on christianity, double standards with islam, etc….Worst than the bland content, the delivery was either terribly boring– or the late-twenty-something grad student was unbearably pretentious, arrogant and, really, not that smart. This kindof thing is always a little reassuring however; former admissions director Angie Glukhov, who is now at University of Dayton always says that Antioch students could wipe the floor with the grad students she admits to UD– it’s quite reassuring (thinking about our uncertain shaky futures, Nonsters…) to know we could do the same with some CUNY grad students. (Sorry Frances Horrowitz…(ps it’s not too late to salvage us..!))

At 3 PM, the classroom for the future of Palestine after Gaza was so full I had to migrate to the end of the hall, to Africa and the Crisis of Global Capitalism. Panelists were editors or journalists for independent media covering African news and devoted most of their presentation to ridiculing the new york times and presenting alternative versions to popular newsstories about Africa. The East Congo conflict, for example, presented as “tribal wars” by the mainstream, is, Milton Allimadi argues, a well-planned project for Western companies to plunder raw materials in the region–and the guerrillas are not guerrillas but hired “corporate finance terrorists.” Another issue: Somali piracy, suddenly on the forefront when it’s nothing new–whereas the toxic dumping of western corporations on somali shores, or illegal fishing in somalian waters are hardly mentioned. Rosalind McLymont told the story of the group of women in one of Uganda’s poorest slums who, when they heard about Hurricane Katrina, broke and sold rocks to raise up to one thousand dollars, and called the american embassy in Uganda to give them the money for the victims. She put this kind of generosity in an asymetric parallel with the “Bono-style notion of aid” manufactured in the west.

What comes after Neoliberalism? was the title of the last pannel of the day, and, even though I was exhausted, I owed it to SANE to attend. First panelist was a member of the Berlin-based Rosa Luxemburg institute. He posited that neoliberalism was “still ruling but not leading anymore” and presented a pretty standard version of the different alternatives we could expect to surge out of the crisis: a public sector new deal, a green deal, the risk of authoritarianism, scandinavian-style Keynesianism etc… To tell the truth, he was not an exciting enough speaker to catch my attention for very long after 7 hours of lecture. But Walden Bello certainly was. He started by emphasizing that the crisis of neoliberalism preceded the financial crisis, that ever since Seattle, the paradigm shift had started to happen and was starting to reach mainstream consciousness–through mass movements but also ruling class intellectuals (Soros Stiglitz Sachs). The financial crisis only confirmed and precipitated the neoliberal crisis of legitimacy. He predicted that the alternative model that was likely to emerge would be a “global social-democrat agenda,” traces of which had already been seen at the G20. The crisis would continue to be blamed on extreme neoliberals, bad apples and some practical mistakes, and everything would be done by states to preserve and salvage the system as a whole. How successful would such a plan be? The methods of the 30s might not be applicable in a society that has, because of thirty years of neoliberal hegemony, lost a lot of the structures needed to implement keynesian reform, and there was always the danger of authoritarianism. Like other speakers, he emphasized that the crisis of neoliberalism was not going to automatically benefit the left. Interestingly, he mentioned Sarkozy as an example of straying towards that kind of authoritarianism: while declaring the end of free-market fundamentalism, the french president was going towards the far right, having co-opted most of the extremist national front electorate (I believe this is far-fetched, though I would love to use that argument against Sarkozy–his anti-immigration, law and order agenda was put in place way before the crisis, it is based on a political discourse that has been circulating in france for years and years, and he certainly hasn’t seemed to tighten his grip recently at all, quite the opposite.)

Walden Bello concluded by calling for a stronger left, that would shift the social-democrat agenda to the center, where it belongs. Other speakers, at the opening plenary and elsewhere, made the same call: when Paul Krugman is depicted as the radical left by the mainstream media, we’ve definitely got a problem. A strong, imaginative, bold, uncensored left should focus on bursting its self-containing bubble to reach the mainstream and build strong public support. A strong civil society is indispensable in a post-neoliberal society.

More tomorrow. It’s really warm in New York.

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