Sunday, April 19, 2009

Left Forum and New York

I realise that British readers are about ready to hit the sack at the moment, but as I write the Left Forum is just having its final plenary and the sun is blazing in Times Square (ghastly, tasteless place that it is). It has gone very well, with a very high level of debate and discussion, although it is sad to see that the only parties really present around the perimeter of the premises where the event is taking place are tiny sects with placards that look like a mixture of The End of The World is Nigh messages and Scientology posters. This perhaps speaks to a particular dilemma of the US left: huge numbers of knowledgeable, talented, committed people, but hardly any organisational presence. Sad to say it, even the ISO don't appear to have a stall (someone correct me by all means). This afternoon, I spoke alongside the excellent Samuel Moyn, who provided a detailed background to rights discourse and its entanglement with nation-states and the international order, and Rick MacArthur, the bon viveurish publisher of Harper's who interspersed his analysis with anecdotes about BHL et al. It was a really excellent meeting, well-turned out, and I think I went down quite well.

I also attended a luminous discussion on the financial crisis with discussions from Doug Henwood, Paul Mason of Newsnight, Robin Blackburn and Max Fraad Wolff. Wolff was the most entertaining and effectively hammered home the argument that there is no Main Street vs Wall Street, as in the pseudo-populist rhetoric of American politicians, but that the debt/speculation at the heart of the US economy was the basis of Main Street's ersatz sense of prosperity. The whole world economy, moreover, is integrated into that debt/speculation system, and would lose trillions in value if that system was abandoned (as it should be). Henwood, for his part, painted it black. The US economy is tanking, the ruling class is singularly lacking in the imagination or resources to reinvent the system, and the lack of a coherent opposition movement means that the system is likely to continue dragging on in an unpleasant way. He argued that there is a huge social crisis looming, though, since the system's legitimacy has been based on the spectacle of unprecedented levels of consumption, supported largely by debt. If the lower levels of consumption focused on essentials is a long-term development and the old system can't be restored, then there is potential for upheaval. Mason was particularly interesting with his diagnosis, and his suggestions (all hedged by the insistence, which raised laughter, that his appearance at the Left Forum by no means entails that he is personally left-wing). He argues that the Left has a unique opportunity to enforce a utility structure on the banking system, with low levels of profitability, complete transparency and effective socialisation in various forms. He argues that neoliberalism is finished and that, even though many politicians and their allies in capital are trying to manage any transition in as reluctant a fashion as possible, a renewed social democracy is ascendant.

New York is lovely, or at least parts of it are and, despite years of gentrification, there remains a certain community spirit with people chatting on the stoop and drinking out on the pavements, in the sun. The part of Brooklyn I am staying in hasn't entirely had the working class driven out, nor has it been ethnically cleansed yet, so it appears to be in an optimal state of diversity and well-being that will soon come to an end. The area is still alive with Obamamania, as is much of New York (or so one gathers from the Obama posters and kites proliferating in windows, restaurants, and small businesses). In fact, the advertisers seem to be exploiting Obama's popularity relentlessly. There is one insurance company advert which features a glowing face and the slogan: "Can one word move you? Yes!" As in 'Yes It Can!'. Well, it was a good branding exercise, so why wouldn't someone capitalise on it? I'll be back Wednesday with pictures.