At the risk of being boring, I think I should probably say something about this depressingly formulaic 'rebuttal'
of my comments on reformism
. For those who are not far left geeks, what follows will undoubtedly look like the proverbial bald men fighting over a toothless comb. But, to stretch the metaphor unacceptably, I am only fighting for the comb in order to prove that I neither need nor want the stupid comb, and that it's worthless. I hope that's clear.
i.) Molyneux complains that I imply that we can only "really" be revolutionaries when
there is a revolutionary agency available, which is only the case in revolutionary situations. He worries that I'm trying to obscure the need to "build the revolutionary party in advance of the revolution". Setting aside the questionable use of the definite article here, this isn't quite what I said, or what I
think. It is surely obvious that I was describing the huge gap between what revolutionaries are 'subjectively' committed to, and their 'objective' day to day actions. This was the point of the Macintyre quote. It doesn't mean that one cannot be 'subjectively' committed to revolutionary socialism, and that one cannot organise with that in mind, outside of a revolutionary situation. Indeed, I think it's important that people do so, to connect their day to day actions with a longer-term perspective and strategy. That's why, in the same interview, I stressed the need for a revolutionary pole within a reconstituted left. I'm for revolutionary parties. I'm just not for authoritarian, bureaucratic, hierarchical sects which cover up rape allegations. Molyneux's remarks on Marx and Trotsky, and subsequently on Cliff and Harman, are therefore beside the point and a complete waste of time.
ii.) Molyneux suggests that, by saying that revolutionaries fight for reforms that will strengthen workers in advance of any revolutionary situation, I am sliding toward "the notion of a 'left government' opening the way to socialism, which is a classic left reformist idea". There's something incredibly clumsy in Molyneux's formulation, but I restrict my counterpoint to this: any government, left or right, could potentially be compelled to deliver reforms which strengthen the working class. It depends on the context. And obviously, we fight for such reforms irrespective of the government in power. In that sense, Molyneux might as well accuse me of sliding toward the notion of a Tory government opening the way to socialism. This isn't to say I am not in favour of left governments. I think that, where they can be achieved, it would be a step forward in most instances. A left government in Greece, for example, would have been better for the working class than an NDP-led coalition government. And since Molyneux and I both come from a tradition which has long argued that a Labour government is generally more advantageous for workers than a Tory government, I don't suppose this point is particularly controversial. However, it is to say that it is wrong to conflate the question of beneficial reforms with the question of governmental power, and doubly wrong to conflate either with the question of a transition to socialism - which, in the interview, I explicitly link to the development of a revolutionary situation.
iii.) Molyneux says that the key difference between reformists and
revolutionaries is not in whether they advocate and fight for reforms,
but "HOW we fight for reforms (by
emphasizing the self-activity and combativity of the working class) and
what perspective (with the perspective of preparing for revolution)".
This is all very well as a couple of abstract and rather vague
principles. However, I'm sceptical that for most of the time
this results in revolutionaries doing anything that is fundamentally
different in their daily practice to what any decent left reformists
would be doing. There are, as far as I'm aware, no axioms for how
revolutionaries conduct political struggles, which necessarily depends
on the context, the means to hand, the available alliances, and so on. For example, in its various engagements in Stop the War, Defend Council Housing, United Against Fascism, etc.,
has the SWP fought for 'reforms' in a way that is fundamentally
different from that of left reformists with whom they were allied? I
don't think so. (In fact, from what I've heard some of the SWP's recent positions in UAF are tactically to the right of its left reformist allies in terms of the accent placed on self-activity and combativity.) Perhaps they should have done, but that can only be determined by a careful reading of the concrete situation.
iv.) Molyneux complains that, by suggesting that the revolutionary-reformist dichotomy is often used in a moralising, guilt-tripping manner, I am simply evading the need for political clarity on this distinction. I would reverse this charge. I think Molyneux knows very well that the term 'reformist' is used as a polemical epithet, and that in such situations the one thing it helps avoid is political clarity. It is not always that the term is incorrect, but rather that it is used to explain away substantive political disagreements or claim a cost-free moral advantage over someone who has fallen out of favour. This was certainly the case when certain people suddenly, clawing at their breasts and fainting with shock, discovered that George Galloway or Owen Jones was a reformist. It can also be used in a way that helps obscure difficult and precarious political judgments. I think of the Syriza debate
, when the issue of reformism was raised in a formally correct
manner, but in such a way as to obscure the fact that concretely
all the proposals were in fact reformist. The question was which reformist option would most likely advance the aims of the working class, and the oppressed.
v) Molyneux, currently a leader of the Irish SWP, experienced a sad decline in the context of the British SWP crisis. This is not a point I want to labour. I simply invite readers to look up his article defending the Central Committee against the opposition, which was then used in the run up to a National Committee meeting to rouse the hardcore defenders and frighten the moderate opposition. It represented, as I said at the time, a stunning capitulation to bureaucratic irrationality. In the context of that same crisis, one of the ways of attacking the opposition was to say that, yes, they may claim to be opposed to the way the leadership handled rape and sexual harassment allegations, but that is merely a cipher for their break with 'Leninism'. What better proof of this than that it involves the infamous reformist Seymour, who is secretly planning to go off and form a British Syriza?
And this brings me to that toothless comb I mentioned earlier. It's been a few months since I and others left the party. We have our own organization now, and are pursuing our own objectives. In the context of the SWP crisis, we had to have a big fight over the real legacy of Lenin, Trotsky, Cliff and Harman. Because that's how the leadership chose to handle a rape scandal - with shop-soiled accusations of apostasy. The guiltier they were, the louder the accusations. That fight was useful in some ways, because it meant many of us read widely enough to understand the difference between the lived experience and ideas of such figures, and the sterile dogmas of the party in its present state. But we no longer have to have that fight. We'll discuss Lenin, Trotsky, the IS Tradition, and all the rest of it, in our own way and on our own time: not with an eye to orthodoxy, or fighting pointless battles with other organizations. Because the prize offered as an inducement to engage in this fight, the claim to absolute revolutionary rectitude, was always a toothless comb. And that's how it stands with me in this discussion: if John Molyneux wants this useless implement, he can have it.
I gave a version of this speech to the International Socialists Network meeting, 'Crisis and Unity' on Saturday. There will be some video clips posted online, but we were sadly not able to record the whole thing.
A few years ago, I think it was after Richard Barnbrook was elected to the GLA, we had an anti-BNP march through the centre of London. I remember meeting a grumpy blogger and journalist named Dave Osler, who remarked on how disappointing the turnout was. I said "yeah, I was hoping that for something like this we'd get 10,000 people out". He raised his eyebrows and said, "funny you should say that, Louise and I were just saying that's what it would be in Socialist Worker." Get home. Log on, go to the Socialist Worker website, front page. 10,000.
So the first step that we need to take, the first skill we need to develop before we can go anywhere, is that capacity which George Orwell characterised as a “power of facing unpleasant facts”. Now, don’t lie to me – I know everyone in this room has at times felt the need to sell that really shit protest, that grim picket line, that by-the-numbers vigil, the demo that is about as populous as the Antarctic and every bit as lively, as a raucous and joyous moment of class defiance. Or, if you won’t admit to that, you’ll at least admit to having seen your protest reported in Socialist Worker and said to yourself, “fffffffffuck off!”
This tendency to talk up the prospects of a given moment comes from what seems to be a benign impulse, and perhaps even a savvy one. We recognise that the prospects before us depend in part on people’s subjective appraisal of the situation. If they are pessimistic, we wager, they’ll fall out of activism, and go and buy a lottery ticket – or, fuck it, a hundred lottery tickets, because if you’re gonna be a sucker… If you can keep their spirits up, remind them constantly of the resistance and struggle that is built into the system, that never goes away, that keeps open the possibility of new radicalism, then they’ll stick around and sell a paper or two. God help us if anyone actually sells a paper though. It’s a bit like the Jehovah Witnesses’ reaction when someone actually opens the door and lets them in – “fucking hell, really? No, there’s something not right about this. This situation is scaring me.”
The problems with this approach are manifold. First, a little exaggeration or embellishment has a tendency to slip into outright falsification. Second, this kind of easy, cheap realpolitik, this casual relationship to the truth, tends to be replicated in other ways – less palatable ways. Maybe one day you find out you’re the one being spun a line, for your own good. (Parenthetically, during the faction fight we often had recourse to the term ‘hacks’. It was understood you didn’t have to define this term – you’d know it when you saw it spraying spittle-lather all over you at point blank range. I think a pretty close definition is someone who knowingly, cynically, cooperates in being systematically lied to for their own good.) Third, the more you relentlessly accentuate the positive, the more you’re obliged to construct dogmas to rationalise the falsehoods and lend them some theoretical coherence. Finally, of course, it just stops being convincing for all the reasons I’ve mentioned. People stop listening. They may work with you, they may respect you personally, but they don’t consider your analysis reliable. In which case, every advantage you thought you’d obtained from consistently putting a smiley face on it has been lost; and a great many other things are lost as well.
What does facing unpleasant facts mean today? I think it means a few things. Obviously, the centrally unpleasant fact for many of us is that we have just left a party whose leadership systematically covered up and lied about rape allegations, and protected the accused from any serious investigation. Without wishing to reiterate what has already been said in earlier sessions - the question of rape apology and sexism on the Left - it seems obvious that there's no iron wall between gender and other issues. And some the causes of failure in one area - dogma, sectarianism, hierarchical culture, all smothered in a chipper, 'can do' attitude - can easily contribute to failure in another. For those of us who left the SWP a few months ago, for example, we have hitherto completely lacked a conceptual schema by which to understand what’s happened to us, the Left, and the working class in the last thirty or forty years as a result of neoliberalism. I think Neil Davidson, who is still a member of the SWP, has been working to remedy that situation. But we have to be remedying it as well.
There was a moment when the sages of what became the SWP in 1977 spotted a trend that others on the Left were denying: the tide of solidarity was receding, and the right was gaining. After what had been an industry-led upturn driven, it seemed fitting to declare that over and announce a downturn. Manifestly, the schema of a ‘downturn’ turned out to be totally inadequate to capturing what would become the transformation of the class structure, the state, representative democracy, popular culture and subjectivities, by neoliberalism. A whole shift in capitalist civilization was taking place, against which various orthodoxies were set up only to crumble.
In our tradition, we have tended to treat neoliberalism as simply the spread of market forces and market values, predicated on extreme, atomic individualism – which actually concedes important terrain to the neoliberals. For example, the idea that there are such things as ‘market forces’, and not just various different types of markets embedded in various cultural and political forms; the idea that the values of neoliberalism can be derived in any simple way from some eternal ‘market’. It doesn’t work that way. Worse still is that our understanding of the downturn was always tempered by a tendency - I put it no more strongly than that - toward a catastrophist fundamentalism. No matter how bad things are for us, capitalism is always weak, in crisis, hurtling towards its final, self-consuming crisis. For that reason, we understood neither the originality nor the robustness of neoliberalism.
If you want to begin to understand what happened, you have to go back and read Stuart Hall. You have to read Policing the Crisis, and 'The Great Moving Right Show'. Hall, whatever you think of his practical politics, grasped the breadth of the transformative project being undertaken by the neoliberals, the fact that it was a comprehensive attempt at constructing a new hegemony which operated as much on the level of culture, and ideology, and the techniques of governmentality, as on the level of industrial class struggles, and privatizations and so on.
But you know – and I don’t want to scandalise anyone here – you also have to read people working outside the Marxist idiom. People such as Foucault, who understood a number of things about neoliberalism that we never really did – something that is now being recognised by a number of radical writers. He read the neoliberals when few others did. And he understood that this was not identical with neoclassical economic dogma; nor was it a recapitulation of classical 18th Century liberalism; and nor was it ‘the market society’. He understood it as a comprehensive project for transforming society, right down to the micro-physics of self-hood. He wrote that neoliberals sought to install new techniques of ‘self-government’, that is disciplinary means, using incentive and punishment, of getting people to accept the idea of themselves as entrepreneurial agents, enjoying the thrill of risk.
We see this with the way in which welfare and the penal state is re-organised. It doesn't necessarily reduce the costs of expenditure, but it does attempt to fundamentally change people's behaviour - for example, if you have a small child, don't just stay at home and look after her. Outsource the childcare to a minimum wage babysitter, and go out and bet on various opportunities on the market. Take a few jobs, buy some shares, reinvent yourself with new clothes and a new body, take a flutter in a casino - the revival of gambling under neoliberalism is not coincidental. If you're not very good at this, then we have bureaucratic punishments, the casual sadism of everyday life, the pleasure of mocking and humiliating the wretched - the rise of the bear-baiting show, exemplified by Jeremy Kyle, is also not a coincidence.
Now people don't change suddenly into Thatcherites; they don't wholeheartedly swallow the neoliberal dogmas. But it gradually forms part of the fabric of their everyday experience: and the structure of incentives and punishments makes you a mug not to adopt certain neoliberal behaviours - turn your house into an asset, treat your body as a saleable commodity, refit your personality according to the needs of buyers on the labour market, and so on. (You see this increasingly with Facebook, where employer-friendly profiles show constantly exuberant, happy, sociable, well-connected people - fuck 'em.) It shapes culture not just in the sense of representation - films, literature, popular science, and so on - but in the Raymond Williams sense of 'ordinary culture', the anthropological sense, the way people live.
So when we look at polls that say that over 70% of people support welfare cuts, we know that this doesn't mean they fully subscribe to the neoliberal project - its exoteric doctrines are too riddled with crudities and contradictions for that to be true. But we also know that they are profoundly affected by neoliberal governmentality, and the conception of themselves and everyone around them as entrepreneurial agents; and thus the conception of 'the market' as the almighty information processor and distributor of just rewards and punishments.
And we should see this as part of an ongoing, long-term project. If you think about the way student loans have been deployed, and the way the education system is being financialised, this is designed to impose a new kind of disciplinarity - even though the higher education system remains a state apparatus, it comes to be experienced not as a public good, but as a commodity that enhances your entrepreneurial self. And the more that is reinforced, the more it undermines - at an ideological level - the division between producers and consumers; the idea is that we're all producers, and we're all consumers. Some of us just happen to be more successful than others. Hence, the basis for 'class consciousness' is eroded.
Failing to understand the success of neoliberalism as a comprehensive political, economic and cultural project, and failing to understood its long-term hegemonic character, means we fail to understand the type of conjuncture we're in, and the true balance of class and political forces. It means we're always reactively adapting to trends, being wise after the fact, sometimes long after the fact. This is why we have been so ill-placed to respond to the financial meltdown and its various sequels, and did not anticipate or understand the reasons why neoliberalism would not merely survive the global recession but return with a vengeance. It's why it was a shock to see so much passivity in the face of the recession and the cutbacks in employment - although, to be fair, even Mervyn King declared his surprise at that. It's why it was surprising that so much of the austerity agenda was either embraced or faced with resigned acceptance. It's why it made no sense when people seemed to accept the shift of blame from the system, from capitalism, to the poor: naturally, it was the bad entrepreneurs, the people who took risks and failed, that had caused the crisis. It's why, when there are precious few signs of struggle, and what struggles do happen seem not to respect the patterns we are used to, we have no explanation. It's why it was possible to talk of a 'rank and file' strategy in an era with no rank and file; as if the major radical struggles would take place among a militant cadre of public sector trade unionists in a traditional strike pattern, forgetting that the last great success for our class took the form of the poll tax riots. As if we could magic a rank and file into existence.
We need a fundamental reappraisal of the neoliberal era and its effects, and we need to be capable of responding by reconstructing from the micro-level up forms of solidarity and collectivism; forms of refuge from the savagery of everyday neoliberalism; and opportunities for collective action.
The next unpleasant fact that we have to face is the serious diminution of the left's infrastructure over the decades. I don't want to rehearse what we all already know - the decline of trade unions and their bureaucratisation, the decline of the Labour Left, the disappearance of several left-wing organisations and publications. And it's not just the Left; there has been a general withering of popular voluntary associations, the decline of politics as such, and an increasing privatisation of social life. You know, we can talk about the rise of social movements, and I agree that has been an extremely important fact of the last forty years or so. But the striking thing about these movements is that they rarely leave much behind. They rise, there is a moment of euphoria, of expanded possibilities - and then the ruling class, the state, the police and so on, adapt, change tactics, find ways to shut it down, and there's little to show for it. None of the successes are institutionalised, while the losses leave a psychic residue that warns people off.
Now if your aim is to be a small, mobile and adaptible group of theoretical and practical leaders, a sort of out-sourcing firm for left-wing protest movements which can take up the burden of theorising and organising a given movement - you know, "don't you worry about blank, let us worry about blank" - then that's not necessarily a problem. As long as you brand yourself well - and I must say that parties which talk about panache, flair and striking while the iron is hot, have done a better PR job than those which talk about 'being an interventionist party' - then you can corner the market each and every time. But that is, as I hope I'm making clear, a specifically neoliberal division of labour; and it's a model we need to resist.
We need an infrastructure: which means we need to seek to create a convivial, democratic, organisation or ensemble of organisations with a genuinely mass base. I really mean 'mass' here. If we're not trying to build mass organisations, then I'm afraid we're wasting our time. Why do we need that? Well, there are practicalities: we need something that can raise and handle money, because more and more of the things that make left-wing activism possible cost more and more money (like rooms in Universities, maybe) - that's neoliberalism for you. But more than that, we need to overcome the privatization of social life, to provide a bedrock of collective activity against which neoliberal ideology and practices consistently break. I think we need forms of grassroots popular organisation, organised around the axes where people become politicised, whether it is education, housing, sexism, Islamophobia, council resources, or whatever it happens to be. We need Left Unity and the People's Assemblies to be oriented toward this objective.
And we are so far from being where we need to be. There is a tendency for some to see the internet as providing a substitute infrastructure. And in a way, it does provide unprecedented opportunities. It breaks the ideological monopoly of the state-capitalist media. It reduces the costs of long-distance sharing of information. It certainly undermines hierarchies based on secrecy - something we have every reason to know about. But you know, I don't know if you're read Paul Mason's book, Why It's Kicking Off Everywhere. My speech was going to be about Why It Isn't Kicking Off Everywhere - then Turkey happened. Bastard. But in his book, he interestingly describes the sharing of information on the internet as 'memetic' - that is, analogous to the spread, reproduction and selection of genes in the biological world. The good ideas survive, the bad ones get winnowed out - purely through the format of individuals associating on an autonomous basis through the network. And he says that for many activists, this structure of networked individualism has provided a rough replacement for representative democracy.
Now there's a problem here. The meme idea is more closely modelled on the metaphysical conception of the market that I mentioned earlier, than on any pattern of democracy. Nor does the selection of information in this pattern necessarily mean that good ideas win - because the internet, like every other technology, is articulated on existing hierarchies - economic, political and ideological class structures; and because this so-called 'memetic' structure, with its 'trending topics' and so on, favours short-term 'buzz', and the rapid and sometimes superficial assimilation of ideas, it lends itself to well-packaged, emotionally potent PR winning out, rather than good ideas. It's not an infrastructure in and of itself, much less a parallel democracy; so we of course need to finally get to grips with the internet and its implications for practice, but we should not succumb to the consolatory notion that a technology will make up for all that we've lost.
One last unpleasant fact. We have a tendency to talk about 'resistance' and a 'rising tide of struggle'. Even where that's not merely fanciful, by itself, that won't save us either. The absences and short-comings I've mentioned above are long-term and structural, and have to be rebuilt over the long-term. You know, there's a tendency for people, when faced with unpleasant facts, to say "can people stop being so pessimistic, look at Turkey" or "look at Greece", or "look at Occupy", or "look at Egypt". Back in 1998, shortly after I first become a revolutionary socialist, I remember it was "look at Indonesia". But these expressions of struggle and turbulence, magnificent and welcome as they are, are by no means adequate to the scale of the capitalist offensive; and by no means register in the balance of global political struggles in the way that decades of neoliberal success have. They are flashes of resistance in a long-term process of neoliberal transformation, where it is becoming particularly brutal and unjust - and thus far, the neoliberals, the austerians, whatever you want to call them, have not lost a single serious battle. Not one.
The lineaments of a neoliberal solution are very well advanced, the patterns of politics and representation that are emerging have started to congeal and take on a more settled form. We've lost so much time when the situation has been in flux. What we're digging in for, in this context, is a long process of reconstruction and realignment - in which the flashes of resistance, wonderful as they are, provide opportunities to further that reconstruction, but aren't themselves necessarily the beginning of a global reversal of fortunes that we need. To stress: we have to re-orient away from reactive politics, mobilising defensively in response to the latest offensive, with its concomitant theoretical vacuity and defensiveness; and toward patient, long-term work on every level. That's how we will begin to rebuild.
May 29, 2013
Dear friends and comrades,
We are writing to you about the Platypus Affiliated Society, in the hope you will be dissuaded from future participation in this organization's activities. Platypus presents itself as a student group organizing public fora (including its publication, the Platypus Review) for the purpose of "interrogating and clarifying positions" on the Left towards the "practical reconstitution of a Marxian Left." However, in reality the group is defined not by its identification or solidarity with the Left, but by its strategy of, in the words of founder and president Chris Cutrone, “making war on the existing 'Left'.” Thus, Platypus public fora are not intended for productive dialogue, but rather serve as opportunities for Platypus to discredit the scholars and activists on the Left whom they have, in bad faith, invited to participate.
The strategy underlying Platypus' activities is detailed in the attached statements by Cutrone. Here, Cutrone outlines Platypus' identity as a “combat organization” fighting to “hasten the disintegration and dissolution of the ‘Left’." Platypus, Cutrone writes, seeks to “degrade our interlocutors into ever more untenable positions, until, finally, we hope, they abandon any self-conscious commitment to the Left....This will leave the field to us alone.”
Thus, Platypus conceives of itself as in direct antagonism with the Left they hope to demoralize and disorient, and the activist movements they hope to erode. Importantly, however, this is not on the basis of any explicit positions, which Platypus, disingenuously, claims not to take. Rather, the organization's opposition to the Left is a foundational antagonism, in which Platypus posits the Left as the fundamental obstacle to a renewed Marxist politics and defines itself against that Left in its entirety — regardless of what leftists say or do.
Cutrone's introduction to the Left came as a member of the Spartacist League, and his project inherits the Spartacist tactic of undermining and caricaturing other leftists. Crucially, though, Platypus' unique brand of anti-leftism is distinguished from even the most sectarian tendencies on the Left by its unprincipled character, making it categorically different from the ultra-leftism of tendencies that criticize the Left on the basis of program, positions, or concrete analysis.
This unprincipled character of Platypus' anti-leftism in turn leads it to import reactionary ideologies into its “hosted conversation” to use in attacking the Left.
For instance, in combating left anti-imperialism Platypus highlights the arguments of right-wing pro-imperial tendencies that claim to be on the Left (e.g. the anti-Germans). In this sense, Platypus sees nothing problematic about incorporating liberalism and imperialism into its political project in order to attack the Left — from the right.
As one important example, Platypus' opposition to left solidarity with Palestine leads Cutrone to the following, decidedly non-leftist, conclusions:
Now I am going to say something for internal consumption only (this is perhaps a "closeted" position): At this point, the only hope that the Palestinians have is in and through Israel, precisely as a "settler colonial state," not independent of, let alone opposed to it. Just as the only hope for Native Americans has been through integration into the U.S.
Of course the degree to which the U.S. was racist it failed as bourgeois society -- as is true of Israel today. Now, precisely the problem is that Israel doesn't "want" the Palestinians. So the Palestinians are indeed quite vulnerable. But the rational kernel of such racism is that "they are not like us," i.e., the recognition and rejection of non-bourgeois forms of life. We must defend this rational kernel of bourgeois subjectivity obscure to itself, rather than the Ben Lewis et al.'s perspective of assuming everyone is always already bourgeois, anthropologically. They're not.
Bourgeois society is a fragile achievement, not natural. It is a society, not an individual matter.
And it is the only possible basis for progress in freedom.
As an organization Platypus conceives of itself as possessing an understanding of history that positions it — and it alone — at the center of a world-historic revival of the Left. This historical consciousness resides above all in Cutrone, who serves as a guru figure for Platypus as the organization's “chief pedagogue.” Platypus seeks to capitalize on widespread dissatisfaction with the Left to direct recently politicized young people, especially undergraduates, away from the Left, and to progressively instill in them an extreme hostility towards it, based on loyalty to Cutrone's historical narrative alone.
Since Platypus defines itself in opposition to the Left, it cannot be considered a part of the Left. While at present the organization’s size and influence are relatively unsubstantial, the group is likely to continue to grow and engage in increasingly destructive behavior — so long as leftists continue to participate in its “conversation.” As the project depends on the good faith of the very same Left that they "make war" upon, we encourage you to consider a policy of disengagement, by declining to participate in their public fora, including the Platypus Review. We invite those who agree with this sentiment to contact us to have their name added to this letter.
Ben Campbell, editor of The North Star; former member of the Platypus Affiliated Society (*)
Bruno Bosteels, Professor of Romance Studies, Cornell University; author of The Actuality of Communism, and Marx and Freud in Latin America
Sebastian Budgen, editor, Historical Materialism (*)
George Ciccariello-Maher, Assistant Professor of Political Science, Drexel University; author of We Created Chávez: A People's History of the Venezuelan Revolution; former member of Bring the Ruckus
Jodi Dean, Professor of Political Science, Hobert and William Smith Colleges; author of The Communist Horizon and Democracy and Other Neoliberal Fantasies
Andrej Grubacic, Associate Professor of Anthropology, California Institute of Integral studies; author of Don't Mourn, Balkanize: Essays After Yugoslavia (PM Press)
Doug Henwood, editor, Left Business Observer; author of Wall Street and After the New Economy
Deepa Kumar, Associate Professor of Media Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, Rutgers University; author of Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire and Outside the Box
Alexander Locascio, DIE LINKE Berlin (*)
Andrew Loewen, editor/publisher, Briarpatch Magazine (*)
Scott McLemee, New Politics editorial board (*)
Charlie Post, Professor of Sociology, Borough of Manhattan Community College; author of The American Road to Capitalism; member of Solidarity (*)
Nina Power, senior lecturer in philosophy, Roehampton University; author of One-Dimensional Woman
Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist
Jason Read, Professor of Philosophy, University of Southern Maine; author of The Micro-Politics of Capital: Marx and the Prehistory of the Present
Richard Seymour, author of American Insurgents, The Liberal Defence of Murder, and Unhitched
Sherry Wolf, author of Sexuality and Socialism; member of the International Socialist Organization (*)
Carlos Rivera, Maosoleum
Brian Holmes, art and cultural critic, author of Escape the Overcode: Activist Art in the Control of Society
* organizational affiliations are intended for identification purposes, and do not imply organizational endorsements
Chris Cutrone's 2010 Presidential Report, excerpt (emphasis added):
Especially for those new members of the organization, i.e., those who have joined since last year's 1st annual convention, but also for long-standing members, it is important to lay out (and reiterate) the purpose and structure of our organization.
Platypus is a combat organization. It exists to make war on the existing ("dead," fake/pseudo-) "Left" and to overcome it. In this we are no different from any political organization, whose goal to exert power over the course of human events. How we do so and why we do so the ways we do, i.e., how we justify our activity to ourselves, is an integral part of how we understand our own project.
First, it is necessary to dispel any illusions about Platypus as an organization. It is not a group of people, but an activity in which people participate. Platypus is a project, and like any project, it is defined by its on-going activity. The transformations of Platypus as a project are to be found in the transformations of its activity. Platypus is only Platypus the degree to which it is doing Platypus activity or Platypus work. Because Platypus exists in a changing (set of) historical circumstance(s), to do what it will and must do it must necessarily change its activities over time, both as a function of changing situation, and the development of itself as a set of activities.
So, we are not defined by the people in the organization, but rather by what these people are doing. When people (especially the most active members) change what they are doing, the project necessarily changes. The issue is how is our project going to control and guide rather than fall victim to such inevitable changes in members' activity in and around Platypus?
I emphasize that we are a combat organization waging war on the "Left" because it is helpful and instructive to regard Platypus not as an entity or fixed structure but rather a campaign. The issue is not maintaining structure so much as maintaining mission. We are on a mission. Members' individual activities and personal orientation towards this mission can and should change, but the mission needs to be preserved. This is a matter of organization. We are not a group of people who need to be structured as a community, but an activity that needs to be organized in order to achieve its goals.
What are our goals? The destruction of the existing "Left." How are we trying to do this? By attacking the "Left" at its weak point, which also happens to comprise its defining point, its historical consciousness.
As I pointed out in my talk on the legacy of the 1970s Left today, existing organizations and tendencies on the "Left" are not distinguished in properly political terms, i.e., they do not separate and oppose people (in their activity) at the level of different goals and differences over how to achieve them, but rather at the level of how they understand their activity in social-historical context, how they differ regarding how they imagine the world, and how they imagine the ways the world has come to be how it is, and thus how and why it might (be) change(d).
We orient our activity around the refounding of what we call a "Marxian" Left, because we think that key aspects of Marx's own insights (shared by his best followers) into the course of human history, how "capital" is situated in this history, and how it might be changed in an emancipatory direction, have been lost. This means that "Marxism" has in fact become the most virulent species of anti-Marx-ism. But we don't think (as, e.g., the Spartacists, or even Moishe Postone, the Marxist-Humanists, et al., do) that this is primarily because of or has taken shape in the ways that people may have come to take different "positions" than Marx and the best Marxists had, which could be easily (naively) chalked up to necessary historical changes and hence innovations, but rather more obscurely, in the ways that self-understandings and the very meanings of categories, and what we may call the "social imagination" and "historical consciousness" have changed, subtly -- and regressively -- to the detriment of consciousness and agency.
So we wage our war in a very peculiar way, and necessarily quite differently than any of our ostensible predecessors/precursors may have done so. We wage it, not deceptively or stealthily, but rather indirectly. We try to hasten the disintegration and dissolution of the "Left," by constantly raising the question of the (Marxian) Left (i.e., emancipatory politics within and beyond capital), and thus provoking reactions that inevitably throw off-kilter and degrade our interlocutors into ever more untenable positions, until, finally, we hope, they abandon any selfconscious commitment to the Left. We try to hasten the abandonment of Leftist and Marxist politics in favor of something else. This will leave the field to us alone. That is how we will win.
But we need to carry on this fight in a myriad of various ways and in different fields/on different fronts. For this we need an ever-wider diversification of activities. For this we need new members, and new opportunities for participation from existing members, drawing upon the (changing) interests and resources among our membership.
We also need to carry on this fight in a variety and increasing scope of domains, hence we need geographic diffusion, and thus more members/participants.
These are the "only" reasons why we need to grow as an organization in terms of membership. We need to permeate, in terms of locations and existing conversations, the global "Left" as much as possible, with the radical interrogation of the question of the "Left" for our time -- and from the most radical
possible, hence from a specifically Marxian perspective on capital.
Our ability to do this is conditioned by the historical moment in which we emerged as a project, i.e., as an organized activity. We need to recruit people not to an intellectual community so much as to a project -- a war on the existing "Left," in which we will build the theoretical and practical resources to refound a Marxist politics.
Because we think that the existing "Left" as an *activity* is "dead," this means we must intersect it rather than replace it. We don't want to be doing what they are doing, at all. We want to be doing not something better, but rather something different. What this will look like down the road of our project in terms of actual practical politics we cannot say for certain. But we can say what it will not be: what the existing "Left" does. So we only need experience on/with the existing "Left" to learn negative lessons, of what not to do.
We do, in fact, want existing "activists" to stop doing what they are doing. But how can we achieve this? Not directly, but rather indirectly. (And perhaps, therefore, not to "stop" them so much as transform their activity.) We want to affect people at various levels of remove. Some activists we want to stop being activists and join our project directly as members of our organization. Other we merely want to affect, however slightly, in their existing activity. This is less a matter of principle regarding species of activism (i.e., we don't want to stop ant-war protesters, but only modify the activities of labor organizers), and is really more case-by-case, with individuals. We don't need everyone to join Platypus, but we need as many as possible to pay attention to our project.
Chris Cutrone's 2011 Presidential Report (emphasis added):
I am writing with a report on the "how" and "when" of Platypus as a project. [Benjamin Blumberg will be reporting, on behalf of the Organizational Committee as a whole, on the "what" and "why" of Platypus.]
Platypus is a declaration of war on the existing "Left." We must recognize what it is that we are doing in order to do it properly and to best possible effect.
Our goal is to effect the maximum degree of transformation of the "Left" today: "The Left is dead! -- Long live the Left!" This is a statement of intent as well as an observation of fact. The present "Left" must "die" in order that a real Left might live. We want to perform an indispensable role in bringing this about.
The primary and to date only political action Platypus has taken is forming itself as a collective membership and organization. The essence of "politics" is the formation of social groups for the purpose of exercising power over events and thus the course of humanity. Platypus is a way and medium for relating to the world that we seek to change. We must recognize the politics of Platypus.
Platypus is an army on a campaign and its members are soldiers. The tools we develop are weapons in the hands of the membership.
There are many ways of conducting warfare, that is, of exercising political power. Our chosen campaign involves certain forms of combat. For instance, the Platypus Review is a key weapon in our arsenal. Members' neglecting to use this weapon we place in their hands is tantamount to deserting the army in the midst of combat. Your comrades are counting on you to fire your weapon, otherwise you're leaving them in the lurch. We are a combat organization, but our discipline is specific to the kind of warfare we are conducting. Our campaign is concerned with affecting the world in certain ways, for which we are crafting methods -- that is, weapons.
Our war involves peculiar forms of combat, specific to our historical moment, but is nonetheless war. "The pen is mightier than the sword" is a classic phrase of bourgeois society to which our forebears such as Lenin, who, when asked in a Soviet survey, described his profession as "journalist," certainly subscribed.
But we are not in a position to intervene as prior Marxist political projects have done. We are closer to the Frankfurt School than the Bolshevik party but there are important differences we have with the former as well as the latter. Moreover, we aim to do more than the Frankfurt Institute -- in fact more than the Bolsheviks were able to do. We are indeed in a position to embark upon trying to do so, if we leverage our particular historical situation properly.
"Hosting the conversation" is our form of political intervention and combat. Hosting the conversation is a political act, based on who we invite to our conversations as well as how we craft the topics. It is a subtle but nonetheless real form of warfare. As Foucault would have us recognize, discourse is power. For we seek not merely to destroy but to conquer -- to lead. We want to break the bad "Left," and this means breaking -- interrupting, hopefully permanently -- the bad "Leftism" of individuals, not leaving individuals broken.
This means saving people from themselves as much as this is possible. The "Left" today amounts to the inmates running the insane asylum.
This is what it means to say that we aim to "provoke and organize the pathology of the 'Left'," or to perform psychoanalysis on the "Left," to render it as coherently objectifiable symptomology as possible, so that it might be "cured." Our at times severe treatment of the "Left" is borne of compassion not inhumanity. -- One difference from psychoanalysis perhaps is that we largely perform "group therapy."
Regarding our convention this weekend with the sectarians roaming our halls, this should be apparent. Like Freudian psychoanalysis, this is an art not a "science" (in the colloquial sense of a sure practice) -- the art of war. It requires experiential as well as experimental knowledge. It calls for exercise of flexible and case-by-case -- instance-by-instance -- judgment, in the Kantian sense, meaning proceeding without sure concepts of our objects. As Adorno would be the first point out, however, the historical regression that renders our project necessary is first and foremost characterized by the erosion of the faculty of judgment. We are not immune to and are indeed the product and part of the barbarism we seek to combat and overcome. Judgment requires education -- experience.
This means that our essentially "pedagogical" project is at least as much about learning as teaching. We "host the conversation" in order to educate ourselves as well as our target audience and milieus. We thus engage in an activity of indirect effects, for ourselves as well as others. We seek to concretize the problems of ideas (ideology) on the "Left." But we do so in the hopes that this will dispel the bad and raise to greater self-consciousness and thus improve the good ideas.
We emphasize the problem of the "Left" at the level of ideas (hence the importance for us of Kolakowski's "Concept of the Left") because we have deliberately taken on the work of intellectuals and the role of theory in the death of the Left and its potential rebirth. We think bad ideas inhibit and defeat practice.
But this raises certain difficulties of our project that are unavoidable. It means that our campaign is particularly daunting and thus inhibiting for our members. Our project -- our form of combat -- requires long and hard training. And training requires discipline.
We are self-disciplined through our organization. No one enjoys, exactly, being disciplined. But it is nonetheless necessary. Leadership in our organization is about exercising the discipline of training. And this training itself requires experience -- it can only take place the degree to which the organization as a whole and its individual members are active. We can only facilitate and not make our members become more active. We can only provide opportunities and not ourselves as an organization initiate the activity of our members. We can only invite opportunities for our members to be trained.
Their training is up to them. If members choose to resist training, they wash out, as in any disciplined program. Of course it is tempting and natural to blame the trainer or suspect the regimen -- the resent the coach and the discipline -- while undergoing the process of training. Trainers must be patient, but their patience can only last so long as it is not necessary to move on to other trainees who are waiting.
Trainees must volunteer and offer themselves up for training.
This goes for not only our own membership but our target milieus and those with whom we are trying to engage in the conversation we are hosting. We can only invite their participation and thus make them available for our leadership, which we can only perform with their assent, and only the degree to which they are willing and able to participate. Our leadership will be manifest only at the end of a process, but an openness to learning is a precondition for the process to begin. Training is an engagement, meaning it has two sides. No one could possibly teach themselves a martial art without making a fool of themselves when it came to actual combat.
If members drop the regimen of training that has been established through our prior organizational experience, they drop their own process of learning and abandon the project, as surely as if they decided they no longer agreed with the ideas we are trying to promulgate. By dropping the regimen of training one drops membership in the project.
Platypus is not only if primarily about learning ideas. It is about being trained in political practice, a peculiar form of political practice but one nevertheless that will open onto other forms of politics.
Hosting the conversation is in fact a way of conducting our own training, and doing so publicly, and inviting others to participate in a self-learning process that is nonetheless guided and disciplined.
Such discipline in our project is leadership. The leadership is composed of those who are most disciplined in our project. Our leaders are those who have excelled in this discipline and therefore can instruct others in it and take part in actively transforming (meaning, modifying, not altering) the discipline as needed. The goal of leadership is to bring our project to the point at which further transformation is possible and necessary. Eventually, our aim is to be able to raise the question of the desirability of changing the project, the question of what it would mean for our project to qualitatively develop and transcend itself. This will be the next political moment in our project, after our founding moment. We are nowhere near there yet. Premature change would mean abandoning not transforming our project. So, how we do things is in fact what we are as a project.
We have developed methodologies and protocols for our activity -- a training regimen for our members, to which all are subject in our project. Our project is experimental, but it is precisely experimentation that requires strict protocol to be effective.
-- Chris Cutrone, President, the Platypus Affiliated Society
Chris Cutrone on Imperialism and Palestine 11/22/12
Now I am going to say something for internal consumption only (this is perhaps a "closeted" position):
At this point, the only hope that the Palestinians have is in and through Israel, precisely as a "settler colonial state," not independent of, let alone opposed to it. Just as the only hope for Native Americans has been through integration into the U.S. Of course the degree to which the U.S. was racist it failed as bourgeois society -- as is true of Israel today. Now, precisely the problem is that Israel doesn't "want" the Palestinians. So the Palestinians are indeed quite vulnerable.
But the rational kernel of such racism is that "they are not like us," i.e., the recognition and rejection of non-bourgeois forms of life. We must defend this rational kernel of bourgeois subjectivity obscure to itself, rather than the Ben Lewis et al.'s perspective of assuming everyone is always already bourgeois, anthropologically. They're not.
Bourgeois society is a fragile achievement, not natural. It is a society, not an individual matter. And it is the only possible basis for progress in freedom. It is necessary to think (but not necessarily to come out and say) such things now in ways not necessary for Marx, Lenin or Trotsky. But we must emphasize the necessary basis for bourgeois emancipation, even as it disappears from under our feet. This is what the "Left" cannot abide, and hence why it is "dead."
The 20th century, the century of struggles for "national self-determination," failed miserably, and utterly, and produced a world much worse than before: Israel-Palestine is a prime example of this ongoing failure.
This is what happens a minor irritation turns into a blog post.
I don't think there's much to talk about in this ridiculous debate about whether to 'ban extremists' from the television. The term 'extremists' is deliberately indeterminate; it can mean anything. You construct a norm around anything, and a sufficient deviation from that norm can be considered 'extremist'. Such a policy would be justified by the idea of depriving 'terrorists' of the oxygen of publicity as Mrs Thatcher once put it (or the helium of publicity, as The Day Today almost put it). But the principle could then be extended, with suitable modifications, to practically anyone. So anyone who is for democracy has to oppose it.
The only thing that struck me about the debate was the recurrence of this phrase, "the marketplace of ideas". This actually came chiefly from the government's 'independent reviewer' of 'terrorism' legislation, David Anderson QC, who has been widely quoted as an opponent of bans. What he said was: "I'm a great believer in the market-place of ideas, the good ideas drive out the bad." This struck me as a symptom, a surface appearance of a deeper discursive structure. Although the conceit was raised in this context to oppose
counterproductive repression, I should say that I think the immediate
ideological function of "the marketplace of ideas" is not to defend 'free speech', but
to suggest that speech should be regulated in and through 'the market', which is quite a different matter. It is not that bad ideas shouldn't be suppressed; it is that the state is the wrong mechanism for doing so.
Nonetheless, most people would take the appeal to "the marketplace of ideas" as a sort of obvious, common-sensical, and if anything slightly pious defence of 'free speech'. That fact alone signifies that ideology is working very efficiently. The metaphor - although as I'll suggest, it is a lot more literal than it might appear to be - is worth unpacking. On the face of it, it implies a naive belief that the struggle of ideas is like the struggle between firms, with the stronger destroying the weaker over time. Whereas the struggle between firms supposedly imposes efficient production methods and the correct allocation of resources, the struggle between ideas imposes rigor, stringency, and accuracy. In response to this, it might seem adequate to point out that neither process actually works that way. Firms thrive with all sorts of inefficiencies, and drive out all sorts of efficient innovation; stupid, erroneous and sloppy ideas prosper.
In fact, however, there are two ideas run together here; first the claim that ideological contest is a market - not 'like' a market, but actually a market; second, the claim that 'the marketplace' is a sort of pseudo-Darwinian mechanism for winnowing out weak and unfit ideas.
There is a hackneyed history of the "marketplace of ideas" conceit which traces its lineage to John Stuart Mill, or perhaps even Milton, as part of an evolving tradition of free speech liberalism. Mill did not use the term, and Millian liberalism has nothing to do with its current use. The deliberative discourse advocated by Mill did not, for example, involve the good ideas 'driving out the bad' in a competitive struggle, and I suspect Mill would have been wary of the majoritarian implications of such an idea.
The first, closest approximation of the phrase comes from Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who argued against the indictment of two communists in 1919 for distributing literature advocating the cessation of weapons production intended for war against Soviet Russia. Holmes, in his dissenting opinion, argued on the authority of the US Constitution that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market". The choice of metaphor underlined the author's fidelity to pro-capitalist, Americanist ideology.
The first use of the actual phrase is in a Supreme Court decision, which found in favour of a publisher's right to lobby politicians, arguing that "like the publishers of newspapers, magazines, or books, this publisher bids for the minds of men in the market place of ideas". In this use, the phrase is more literal than metaphorical - the "market place of ideas" referred to is literally an industry, a market; the ideas are packaged and sold. It subsequently became linked in legal discourses to the defence of democracy: the 'legitimizing myth'
that a thriving "marketplace of ideas" allowed members of the public to hold governments accountable.
"marketplace of ideas" conceit has a slightly different provenance. The conjugation of an ontology of 'the market' with what Philip Mirowski has characterised as 'thin evolution', is a product of neoliberalism. This specious market ontology begins with a construct, 'the market', which is quite unlike really existing markets. The market is an emergent order, a superior information processor, through which the fragments of knowledge dispersed among various agents are successfully aggregated. While agents are ignorant of the process - indeed, must embrace their ignorance and act exclusively on the basis of their self-interest, their rationally ordered preferences - the market 'knows' better than they what is good and what is bad. This logic is then extended into every sphere of life
, erasing the distinction between markets and non-markets.
This market order is then linked to the evolutionary order by means of a trope according to which the market is a pitiless 'selection' mechanism. It is a 'natural' order which 'selects' the correct information in a way that no 'artificial' order could achieve, but with necessarily brutal consequences for the losers. A typical thought experiment to illustrate this would be: suppose several commuters wish to drive across the United States. There are several roads they can travel, but only one has a petrol station (yes, it's called petrol because it is a liquid). Each commuter drives on the roads they prefer, on the basis of the partial information and preferences which they have. But the only ones who actually make it across the country are those who choose the 'correct' road. Those who, for whatever reason, act 'as if' they have the correct information, thrive. The others are taken out of the thought community. Too bad for them, but how else is progress supposed to take place?
This has little to do with the developing science of evolution. Even if the actions of 'the market' truly resembled 'natural selection', which they do not, there is a lot more to evolution than selection. (Although, as Mirowski also points out, citing Dawkins among others, one measure of the success of neoliberalism is the significant in-roads its version of 'thin evolution', laden with economic concepts, has made into evolutionary theory since the Seventies.) But it forms part of a complex and extensive ideological 'common sense', a 'theory of everything' in which brutal competitive struggle operates inexorably at every level of existence: it's just 'how things are'. That weltanschauung is the deeper discursive structure that seems to be adverted to here.