Reform and Revolution at Left Forum 2013
This year’s Left Forum, held from 7 to 9 June at Pace University in lower Manhattan, was a rather impressive conference, one that arguably lived up to the Forum’s self-ascribed description as the “largest [single] gathering in North America of the US and international Left.” Rather justifiably, this year’s theme at Left Forum was “Mobilizing for Ecological/Economic Transformation”; a great number of the panels and plenary sessions exhibited during the weekend reflected this dual sense of urgency well. As is to be expected from a large-tent meeting of “civil libertarians, environmentalists, anarchists, socialists, communists, trade unionists, black and Latino freedom fighters, feminists, anti-war activists, students, and people struggling against unemployment, foreclosure, inadequate housing, and deteriorating schools,” though, the diversity of voices presented at this year’s Left Forum included some perspectives that were more palatable than others. In this sense, the Forum exemplified the long-standing tensions among leftists between agitating and mobilizing for reform as against revolution, and vice versa. While I reiterate my admiration and respect for most of the speakers and intellectual positions I encountered during the Forum’s weekend, it should be clear which perspectives I found to be more legitimate, as the reader progresses through this report-back I have made of the particular events I attended over the Forum’s three days.
The Forum’s double theme of ecology and economy were met with considered reflection during the Forum’s very first event, its opening plenary, which took place Friday evening. Nancy Holmstrom, the session’s chair, emphasized the historical progression reflected in the Forum’s decision this year to take up ecology as central to its theme—an unprecedented step in the conference’s nearly decade-long history. She observed clearly that climate change and the environmental crisis writ large first and foremost threaten the lives and livelihoods of people of color, women, and the working classes, especially for those who reside within “less-developed” contexts. Recalling Earth First’s slogan that there can be “no jobs on a dead planet,” she gently rejected the (anti)catastrophist line formulated by Sasha Lilley and co. which makes it taboo to speak of impending ecological doom out of fear of alienating the populace at large, hence driving it even further from the radical political engagement that would be necessary to avert the self-destruction impelled by capital. Though Holmstrom claimed that there are likely deep-seated denial mechanisms governing much of popular thinking on the environmental crisis, she optimistically pointed to recent findings which exhibit greater concern regarding these matters. In this way, she invoked a specter of optimism and affirmation for the remainder of the three-day event.
The plenary proper began with an intervention by Christian Parenti, author of Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (2011); he entitled his talk “What Climate Change Implies for the State.” Quite plainly, he here asserted that the Left should adopt a strategy of recovering and reclaiming the territory of the State, “reshaping” it toward the end of an all-out short-term mobilization to resolve the threat of climate destruction. Noting the situation to be “bleak” and perhaps even “apocalyptic,” Parenti warned that it already may be too late to prevent self-propelling catastrophic climate change and the Venus effect that Jim Hansen writes about: a 1000-year period of unchecked warming that delivers Earth into a Venus-like state that would destroy all possibilities for life. As against this, however, Parenti claimed a short window of opportunity during which we might still have the chance to respond effectively to the climate challenge, by mandating progressive 10% reductions in carbon emissions annually. Returning to his initial comments, Parenti insisted that the means to this end must be the State; complaining that the neo-liberal turn in recent decades has erased statist strategies from left-wing thought, he rather strangely then proceeded to theorize that the State’s primary role within the emergence and stabilization of capitalism has been to facilitate the exploitation and destruction of nature by capitalists. Somehow, apparently, this same mechanism could be used totally to invert this fundamental role he sees within the forseeable future: developing his idea of a “shadow socialism” as reflected in the history of the State apparatus (a thesis he takes from a forthcoming book), Parenti listed the numerous contributions the U.S. government has made to industrialization and expansion following 1776: the building of canals and railroads; the opening-up of vast tracts of land (no mention of genocidal policy vs. indigenous inhabitants of said lands); support for the rise of aviation, public education, the New Deal; and the prosecution of warfare. He then argued that the U.S. contribution to climate catastrophe could be brought under control simply by applying the 1970 Clean Air Act: in his words, “we’re [just] waiting for numerous rules from the EPA.” Parenti proposed a vision whereby the Post Office mandate its entire ground-fleet to switch from conventional engines to electric ones, suggesting that this would reduce the general price of electric cars and so help that transition along…. Naturally, no consideration of the theory of State or regulatory capture was made by Parenti, and it remains unclear what his suggestions mean practically: vote Hillary in 2016, or what? In closing, he acknowledged that his recommendations were clearly very far from radical or revolutionary, but he insisted that the Left desperately needs to come up with “realistic solutions” to the climate crisis, and that any strategy of merely “being outraged” or “invoking the righteousness of our cause” will fail totally.
Similar in scope and orientation were the comments made by former presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein, the second speaker for the opening plenary. Describing her discourse as “political medicine” of sorts, Stein called for a generalized exercise of the power of ordinary people against “the 1%.” Listing the numerous recent popular upsurges seen in North America—for example, the international day of action against Monsanto, ongoing strikes by fast-food workers, student agitation in Montreal—she held out the hope that a popular movement from below might arrive “just in time” to stave off environmental breakdown. Inverting the infamous posturing of the Iron Lady, Stein declared that climate science shows us that no alternative exists but to break with the status quo—as illustrated in the half-million who perish annually from climate change, the thousand children dying every day. Expressing concern that megadroughts are now the “new normal”—she mentioned the raging wildfires seen to the north of Los Angeles in May, and alarmingly worried that the “livestock needed to feed humans” would be imperiled by future heat-waves, even if air-conditioned human spaces were not (no veganism here)—Stein called for systemic transformational change to be effected at an “emergency rate.” The means? For her, the option remains the Green New Deal she had formulated during her presidential campaign, which would create 25 million jobs, stop oil wars, codify the rights to work and to unionize, cancel student debt, and provide Medicare and free tuition for all. She noted that she sees what might be an “unstoppable force for change” in the 1/3 of black males administered by the criminal-justice system, together with the presently unemployed and the millions of essentially “indentured servants” who graduate from college highly indebted. Noting that the “real catastrophe” is the myth of powerlessness, Dr. Stein called on us all to assert our power in the streets and in the voting booths.
Certainly the most stimulating of the three interventions at the opening plenary came from renowed world-systems theorist Immanuel Wallerstein, who spoke last. He began by asserting that, like organisms, all social systems have lives, and that the capitalist system will not—cannot—possibly survive much longer. (When this claim was met with resounding audience applause, Wallerstein, ever the scientific Marxist, quickly clarified that such a declaration was simply a factual statement, rather than a projected desire.) Stipulating that the general hope of humanity is to achieve “relative democracy” and “relative egalitarianism,” Wallerstein noted that there exists no democratic State in the present world-system, and that no such State has ever existed. Counterposing the “spirit of Davos” with the “spirit of Porto Alegre,” he hypothesized that the capitalist world-system will inevitably be altogether replaced by another system (or a multiplicity of systems) by 2050; Wallerstein calculated that the odds are approximately 50/50 for the egalitarian and democratic Geist to win out against hegemonic power. Hanging over the chance for revolutionary social transformation, however, are the “three imponderables” Wallerstein soberly identified, all of them outgrowths of the logic of capitalism: environmental crisis, pandemics, and nuclear warfare. The first of these is associated with the inherent operation of capitalism, claimed the professor: for capitalists to internalize the externalized environmental costs of production, profit and hence growth would be impossible. Similarly, he argued, the specter of pandemics finds its basis in highly unequal access to healthcare, while the possibility of a “Dr. Strangelove” event precipitated by some particular “nut” grows more likely under Wallerstein’s prediction of expanding nuclear proliferation in the coming decades, as the acquisition of such weapons responds to defensive needs amidst the imperialist onslaught. Wallerstein clearly declared the “figures” on climate change to be “devastating”; the question is whether the imponderables will explode before the conclusion of the stipulated transition to more humane social systems by 2050. Endorsing the Andean conception of sumak kawsay (buen vivir, or “good living”), Wallerstein argued that economic growth should be seen as cancerous rather than virtuous, and he insisted that future civilizational change will require a decline in overall standards of living—if these are to be measured by “wealth” in commodities. In conclusion, the point for Wallerstein is for us to reflect rationally and carefully on our values, and on what realities we want to preserve, and which we would like to jettison. He closed by emphasizing that no solution is possible within the strictures of the capitalist world-system.
The more than 350 panels offered at Left Forum 2013 began on Saturday morning. During the first session, my comrades and I presented on the “Theory of One-Dimensional Society, the Specter of Climate Collapse, and Prospects for Social Transformation.” We began the session by showing the infamous calving event off the Greenland ice sheet as captured in the 2012 film Chasing Ice; the film-maker’s juxtapositioning of the ice break-up with scaling of a similar event in lower Manhattan proved rather instructive, given the physical location of the event. As chair, I introduced the panel and opened by presenting and briefly evaluating Herbert Marcuse’s theory of the one-dimensional society, as developed in One-Dimensional Man (1964) and previous essays: essentially, that monopoly capitalism is unique as a social system in that it largely erodes the function of the imagination and hopes for a better reality by promoting instrumental reason in place of critical rationality, in addition to the mass consumerism which creates artificial needs that tie subordinated classes into the Establishment, with the resulting empirical failure of the proletariat to smash capital. I did however note limitations to the application of Marcuse’s theses in the present day, given for one that American-style capitalism is surely failing to “deliver the goods” to the general population of the U.S., given soaring poverty rates and other indicators of social hardship, and in light of well-established public-opinion polls which demonstrate significant differences in orientation among U.S. residents in comparison with established governmental policies on a number of issues, environment among them. I then questioned whether the issue was a matter of providing a practical opening for popular, dissident opinion to be expressed in policy-making; aligning myself with Takis Fotopoulos and Max Horkheimer (at the latter’s most optimistic), I theorized that the worrying apathy exhibited in the U.S. main on the climate and a number of other pressing matters could perhaps well be overturned with the advent for example of workers’ councils and community decision-making structures. Next, my comrade Jani Benjamins invoked Jacques Ellul and warned of Western “technique” which has essentially colonized the entire world, directing everything to the end of production; he quite sensibly observed that historical considerations show clearly that the presently overdeveloped social relations seen in capitalist societies are very far from necessary or desirable.
My friend Sky Cohen then intervened, commencing his presentation with a clear repudiation of the main thesis of Catastrophism: he asserted that it is precisely because we are not dealing with the horrific realities of climate change that we remain apathetic, and that it would be entirely unproductive for radicals to isolate ourselves from the conversation, as the authors of that volume would seem to suggest. He noted the trajectory of human population growth from 2 to 7 billion over the past century, not to promote any Malthusianism, but rather to warn of the immense number of persons considered by hegemonic power as “surplus populations” whom these power-groups effectively expect to be sacrificed to the altar of growth and profit. Sky then mentioned the negating studies showing a 90% decline in Caribbean coral reef cover and mentioned the ongoing droughts in the U.S., as well as the frightening wildfires that have raged in southern California. Given prevailing trends, Sky cautioned, hundreds of millions of Southern peoples are likely to be displaced from their homes over the coming decades; in light of what seem to be the new (disastrous) ecological constants, he expressed his impatience with the often “hyper-utopian” hopes projected by many anarchists against the very real trends tending toward annihilation. He mentioned the 3500 deep-water oil wells scattered around the globe, questioning to what degree a successful post-capitalist revolution could effectively avoid the ecological disaster represented by each such oil-rig, and he tragi-comically noted that, while the Keystone XL pipeline meets with legitimate resistance, the largest oil spill in history—the highway and transportation system of the U.S.—is met without question, and in fact is celebrated and embraced. Lastly, Quincy Saul declared his agreement with many of the previously made points, asserting that we must as a movement tell the truth, even if the prospect of mobilizing to avert catastrophe seems a desperate one. He noted that most people remain entirely untouched by the goings-on at Left Forum, and indeed that the one-dimensional society pervades even (and especially) so-called activist spaces. Quincy declared boldly that there exists no real left or climate movement in the U.S., and he asked why it is that we are failing to accomplish anything in these terms. The specter of extinction—including human extinction—he asserted, is not primary in our minds, yet he observed that the work of an anti-capitalist movement has seemingly never been easier, for to continue with economic growth obviously implies suicide. Painting the panorama as a largely “ghastly” one, Quincy nonetheless declared that we must not succumb to despair or cynicism, but rather seek to build revolutionary movements amidst the likely go-ahead that will be given to projects like Keystone XL, and advocate a generalized reduction in consumption levels to approximately those now enjoyed by the middle classes of presently developing societies.
For the second session on Saturday, I attended the panel “Jean-Paul Sartre Revisited in a Time of Crisis,” chaired by Elizabeth Bowman of the Center for Global Justice and the Radical Philosophy Association. Professor Joseph Catalano of Kean University spoke first, presenting among other points Sartre’s famous argument that the world’s state is as it is because of the way we are—that is to say, that we tolerate the hegemonic powers which oversee generalized destruction and brutality, and hence we confront the world we deserve. Catalano claimed Sartre as postulating that, if millions perish due to poverty and war, it is our own responsibility; he also clearly established Sartre’s belief in the presence of radical evil, particularly among the most affluent classes, who exhibit hatred for common people in their desire to uphold their privileges amidst mass social misery: capitalists “love to kill.” Bowman spoke next, focusing her comments on Sartre’s unpublished manuscripts on ethics from the mid-1960’s. She opened by noting Sartre’s reaction to the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, which was to claim that humanity could either continue on its present path or destroy itself entirely. Developing from his anxiety regarding nuclear warfare, Bowman argued, Sartre then came to conclude that each person must assume zir responsibility for the fate of human history; echoing Immanuel Kant, Sartre came to hold that, in whatever action we take, we present a maxim by which we believe humanity should act in general (“Morality and History”). According to Bowman, Sartre’s vision of a future society importantly features an absence of power relations, and he argues that this society should be developed autonomously rather than by diktat—that is, not at the behest of a Party. Bowman concretely asked how it is that we might get everyone collectively to decide to stop shopping, so as to bring down capital, and she pointed via Sartre to the problem of self-subordination to given social systems: noting Sartre’s enthusiasm for the Algerian Revolution, she cited Sartre’s belief that social change will come about when the chance of dying in struggle against the system becomes less than that of dying by continuing to follow the orders handed down by the system’s administrators.
Next on the Sartre panel was Bob Stone, who reflected on Sartre’s 1964 Rome lecture at the Gramsci Institute which examined the idea of an “integral humanity.” Stone explained that Sartre found two contemporary political models particularly inspiring for action: the French Resistance to Nazi occupation, and the Algerian Revolution. Both attempts began as clandestine means to awaken the working class to its task of liberating humanity from oppression altogether, as through individual assassination campaigns, yet they developed later into centralized armies. Stone spoke to the “negative totalizers” which radically threaten the present continuation of Sartre’s hopes for universal human emancipation, with nuclear war and ecocide being the most dire of these. Indeed, recalling Günther Anders (though not mentioning him by name), Stone described humanity itself as a whole as now being the oppressed, against Marxian analyses which privilege consideration of the proletariat: we all are the “us-objects.” Stone’s concept of these “negative totalizers” stressed that these are human creations and hence contingent realities that can be reversed; he called for a new Bastille, and optimistically asserted that, thanks to technology, humanity presently has a better capacity to coordinate generalized uprisings than was the case during Sartre’s lifetime: if between 10 and 40 million protested the impending Iraq invasion on 15 February 2003, then surely these same persons (and more) can organize a global general strike! Lastly on this panel, Matthew Ally spoke to socio-ecological perspectives on Sartre, examining the intertwining trends of anti-humanism within much of environmentalism and the anti-ecological sentiments seen in much of humanism. Though Sartre clearly cannot be reclaimed as a pioneering ecologist—as Ally noted, Simone de Beauvoir is on record as having remarked that Jean-Paul much preferred the concrete world of cities to nature, and Sartre himself wrote in his 1965 manuscripts that the natural world must be “subjected [...] to human desires without reciprocity”—his toxic anthropocentrism, instrumentalism, and exceptionalism remain important philosophical residues which continue to necessitate interrogation and abolition today.
During Saturday’s lunch break, noted anarcho-syndicalist and linguist Noam Chomsky gave a public address at the Forum. Sadly enough, much of his commentary constituted repetition of many of his other recent speeches and articles (see, for example, here), so if the reader is familiar with these interventions, little new will be presented in this brief summary of his talk. Nonetheless, to share: Chomsky analyzed what he calls “really existing capitalist democracy” (RECD), which contradicts substantive notions of democracy—participatory, direct, and so on—and in fact mirrors mainstream liberal-democratic theory, which (like Leninism) holds that the general populace must be excluded from decision-making processes and regimented so as to support the status quo, or at least refrain from interfering with it. Following some initial comments on the current state of U.S. politics, which Chomsky cautiously warned to bear resemblances to late Weimar Germany, he asked how the future fares under continued conditions of RECD: doubtlessly, highly grim. The two “dark shadows” which threaten the future are those of environmental catastrophe and nuclear war. The first such threat is “obvious,” one that is being exacerbated “enthusiastically” by the advanced-capitalist settler-colonial societies on the one hand and, says Chomsky, resisted on the other by so-called “primitive” societies. Each day’s environmental indicators as reported in the press show the “lunacy” of RECD, which for Chomsky in fact represents its self-described “rationality.” While Chomsky warned that there exists no “guardian angel” to ensure that the material conditions for decent survival not be utterly destroyed by capitalism, he did note that the U.S. public is close to the international norm in its expression of concern for the environment and advocacy of measures to prevent its collapse, as revealed in public-opinion polls. With regard to nuclear war, Chomsky alarmingly mentioned that this specter came close to conflagration just two years ago, during the covert operation to assassinate Osama bin Laden: Obama had ordered the SEAL team sent to kill OBL to use all necessary force to escape, even and especially if such force would have to be directed against the Pakistani military, which of course was not apprised of the clandestine strike beforehand. Chomsky asserted that war could well have resulted, had the SEAL team been located, and that this war could have surpassed the nuclear threshold. That it did not was a matter of luck.
In terms of Iran, Chomsky sensibly proposed that a rational alternative to the controversy over uranium enrichment and U.S./Israeli threats of attack would be to establish a nuclear-weapons free zone in the region (NWFZ), yet he noted that progress toward this end was subverted most recently when Obama cancelled the December 2012 conference on the subject that was planned to be held in Helsinki. Chomsky similarly positioned U.S. anxiety over China’s expansion of its military in its governing assumption that it owns the world—as reflected in the question posed among mainstream thinkers of who “lost” China to revolution in 1949. Chomsky closed by noting that soon there will be celebrated the eight-hundredth anniversary of the Magna Carta, which famously included the Charter of Liberties as well as the Charter of the Forests—the latter, less well-known, endorsing the idea of commons as against private depredation. In contrast to Garrett Hardin and other capitalist apologists, Chomsky asserted that it is the indigenous who protect the Earth’s systems, and that the Latin American example of “liberation” from the “lethal grip” of imperialism via the Pink Tide governments that have arisen over the past decade should prove inspirational. Channeling Martin Luther King, Jr., Chomsky ended by observing that while one trend in human history tends toward oppression and destruction, its inversion—which Chomsky implied to carry more weight—seeks justice, freedom, “and even survival.”
It is a pity that I arrived late to the panel I chose for the subsequent (third) session, “A New World in Our Past: Using Anarchist History Today.” My lateness meant that I missed all of James Birmingham’s presentation on anarchist archaeology (or anarchaeology) and most of Cam Mancini’s words on current Wobbly (I.W.W.) strategy. However, I did catch the comments made by Wayne Price, author of The Value of Radical Theory (2013) and Anarchism & Socialism: Reformism or Revolution? (2010). Price gave a historical analysis of the most recent sustained anarchist upheaval in the United States, which took place during the Sixties (which in fact amount to the years 1955-1975, as he claimed). The various experiences of anti-authoritarian left groupings during these decades showed, in Price’s estimation, the often large impacts that small groups of radicals can have—Price compared the legacy of the Sixties to that of the radical abolitionists before the Civil War. He shared the seemingly little-known fact that there was registered more opposition to the Vietnam War among working-class persons than on college campuses, and he examined the dialectical process whereby the shattering decolonization efforts undertaken by Third World masses called into question the priorities of many middle-class students and activists within the U.S.—yet the successes evinced by these national liberation forces often served to legitimize Leninist and Stalinist ideologies among U.S. radicals, to the detriment of anarchism. Price foresees another economic crash on the horizon, one that will bring about generalized suffering, and he predicts that a future mass-movement will be a combination of the class-struggle radicalism of the 1930’s and the New Left of the 1960’s. Concretely in these terms, he mentioned the 2005 transportation workers’ strike in New York City, which effectively shut down the city: if this model were to be replicated, supported, and intensified, he argued, its effects on finance capital could be considerable! For his part, the panel chair Adam Quinn shared some of his findings from research into historical anarchist-immigrant communities in the U.S.: he hypothesized that many such immigrants espoused anarchist philosophies both because of their previous exposure to strong anarchist movements in their mother countries (e.g. Italy and Spain) as well as in response to their experiences with the worst aspects of the statist bureaucracy in the U.S.. Mentioning the recuperation by secular Jewish anarchist-immigrants of traditional Jewish holidays, Quinn envisioned similar proposals for leftists today, toward the end of expressing greater joie de vivre. He also regulated Price in the question-and-answer period, when the latter misrepresented the neo-Zapatistas’ original attempt to catalyze a social revolution throughout Mexico with their January 1994 insurrection.
The first session of the Forum’s third and final day saw an especially exciting panel, hosted by Social Medicine: “Health Care Struggles in Embattled Communities: Critical Historical Lessons, Political Continuities—Black Panther Party, Harlem; Young Lords, Lincoln Hospital/South Bronx—and Beyond.” This event began with the words of Professor Alondra Nelson, author of Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (2011). Beginning with the projection of the famous image of Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton dressed in leather jackets, with the latter brandishing a shotgun, Nelson declared that the leftist romance which has focused on the Black Panther Party’s (BPP) armed self-defense campaigns has in fact served to eclipse its efforts to promote justice in healthcare. Indeed, Nelson shared that the BPP’s 1972 revision of its original ten-point platform included new demands for “completely free health care for all black and oppressed people” as well as “mass health education and research programs” designed to “give Black and oppressed people access to advanced scientific and medical information.” In this sense, the BPP’s vision was not limited merely to a sort of welfare-state improvement in access to medical care, but rather based itself in the chance to develop self-determined healthcare systems. Nelson importantly situated the BPP’s strides in calling for revolutionary medicine within the established history of racism in the medical sphere as directed against blacks, from the Black Cross Nurses’s association, which was to form the basis for the health-care infrastructure of the new nation-state envisioned by Marcus Garvey, to Fannie Lou Hamer’s denunciations of sterilization campaigns as well indeed as the medical neglect to which Huey Newton was subjected after being shot by police in 1967. The professor also mentioned international influences on the BPP’s health activism: the examples of Che Guevara and Frantz Fanon, in particular, as well as the Maoist barefoot doctors campaigns, with which BPP militants were well-acquainted from their frequent visits to Red China. Nelson noted that, at its height, the BPP was running campaigns that claimed to be testing tens of thousands for sickle-cell anemia, and that it stipulated that it have a clinic operational in each of its national chapters; additionally, she explained that the Panther’s newletters often straightforwardly presented scientific and medical information, without any sort of patronizing simplification. She closed her presentation by noting that the BPP’s health-care activism lives on through such examples as the Carolyn Downs Medical Center in Seattle, as in that of the Common Ground clinic set up in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
After Nelson, Cleo Silvers spoke, having been a participant in the world-historical takeover by workers of the Mental Health Services department of Lincoln Hospital in the Bronx in 1970. The occupation lasted just under a month, said Silvers, and this has been the first and only time such a thing has happened, at least within the U.S. Shepard McDaniel of the People’s Survival Program then spoke to the role played by the Lincoln Detox Program in the occupied hospital, an initiative that sought to use acupuncture and other holistic methods to stem the tide against heroin abuse in the local community. One audience member stressed that the Panthers’ health-care model has been fruitfully reproduced in many other contexts, especially on the global level—e.g. among the Zapatistas.
Following the Panther healthcare presentations, I attended another excellent panel: “Political Ecologies of Developmental Terrorism: Neo-Liberalism and People’s Resistance in India,” as organized by the Sanhati organization. Partho Ray opened by discussing agricultural and environmental matters in India, following the turn to neo-liberalism taken by the Indian State in the late twentieth century. He observed precipitous ecological decline with the onset of trade liberalization and the attendant shift to cultivation of cash crops, together with the introduction of genetically modified seeds owned by Monsanto and co. As has been noted on these pages recently, Ray estimated that 300,000 Indian agriculturalists have taken their lives over the past two decades due to indebtedness, failed crops, and increases in the prices of farming inputs. He warned that, while U.S.-India cooperation on nuclear matters is infamous, the less well-known joint Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture seeks explicitly to propagate the U.S. agricultural model in India, where some 70% of the population is involved in agricultural production—the KIA board, Ray reports, includes such luminaries as Walmart and Monsanto. As against these trends, Ray pointed to the development of ecological alternatives within the janatana sarkars established in the regions of land liberated from governmental control by Maoist rebels. Speaking to nuclear energy policy in India, Rajeev Ravisankar observed that the toxic origins of nuclear power in the country—the erection of the Tarapur reactor in 1963—were helped along by Bechtel and General Electric; he finds the development of nuclear-weapons capacity by the Indian State to be little more than an exercise in nationalist chauvinism, particularly with the 1998 expansion in such capacity, as overseen by the BJP. Ravisankar rightly noted stark inequalities in India’s turn to nukes: while the development of nuclear power and arms prove highly profitable to the wealthy, and project images of virility to boot, it is ordinary Indians who must suffer from the effects of nuclear waste, mining for thorium and uranium, and the specter of accidents. Ravisankar warned of present plans to construct the largest nuclear plant in the world in Jaitapur (9000 MW), and he explored the controversies over the ongoing Koondankulam project in coastal Tamil Nadu in detail. Ironically enough, plans for the Koondankulam plant were first agreed to in 1988 between Rajiv Gandhi and Mikhail Gorbachev—this, two years after the Chernobyl catastrophe! The heroic mass-resistance exhibited in recent years to the planned Koondankulam plant seeks physically to block the designs of the “rich capitalists, multinational corporations, imperial powers, and global mafia,” in the words of S.P. Udayakumar, in favor of the well-being of humans and nature alike—no matter what the State says, accusing protestors of being manipulated by foreign powers!
Following Ray and Ravisankar, Sam Agarwal described the “largest land-grab since Columbus” that is being prosecuted in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, an entity that was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000 explicitly for the purpose of facilitating mineral exploitation. There can be no doubt that Chhattisgarh is well-endowed in natural resources: its territory contain substantial quantities of tin, iron ore, uranium, and diamonds, all of which have stimulated the appetites of parasitical multinational companies. One of the major problems within this process is the fact that nearly a third of the state’s population is adivasi, or indigenous, and that most of Chhattisgarh’s mineral wealth is concentrated in regions that are themselves largely populated by adivasis, who observe collective notions of property. Indeed, Agarwal reports that a full 40% of the state’s adivasi population has been forcibly displaced in recent years to make way for mining operations! What is more, this mass-mineral exploitation also implies devastating deforestation policies, with an estimated 78% of forests in the state’s Korba district affected by mineral development. Agarwal argues that federal mining regulations are simply fradulent: the protections they stipulate are regularly ignored, and adivasi gram sabhas (popular assemblies) often meet with violence and coercion intended to grant consent to companies’ designs for surface mining. Furthermore, the salwa judum paramilitary militias are estimated to have destroyed some 644 villages, affecting over 350,000 adivasis. Despite these depressing realities, Agarwal holds out the hope that people’s power can work to block the continuation of mining devastation, as in the case of the Rowghat iron-ore mine, where the power of the Naxalite insurgency has effectively prevented the carrying out of mining. Finally, Siddharta Mitra explored similar issues as seen in the western Orissa mountains (Niyamgiri), where the Dongria Kondh people confront the London-based Vendanta corporation, which desires to mine bauxite from the highly biodiverse hills where they reside. As in Chhattisgarh, the process is plagued with fraud, whereby Vedanta on the one hand accepts the decisions of the gram sabhas of adivasis residing in elevations below those they desire for the mining, and the State on the other hand fabricates countless charges of sedition against indigenous resistors, and moreover besieges their communities.
Perhaps the most disastrous panel I encountered at Left Forum this year was “How to Solve the Israel-Palestine Conflict: 0, 1, or 2 State Solution.” First-off, no speaker on the panel even considered a no-state solution to the crisis, so I am unsure why that option was mentioned in the title. Beyond that, the panel (excluding the chair, who merely moderated) consisted of three Jewish Americans, two of whom defended at least in an interim period the existence of Israel, and only one Palestinian. Regarding the relative absence of indigenous Palestinian voices at the discussion, though, Norman Finkelstein (being one of the panelists) clarified that all Palestinians who had originally been invited to speak had refused to do so, and that the sole Palestinian present at the actual panel, attorney Lamis Deek, was a late addition. In his comments, Finkelstein reiterated the line he has developed in recent years, namely that while the mass-mobilization of Palestinians themselves to force Israel’s hand in ending the occupation is a necessary and critical condition of a just resolution, it is not sufficient, in that international public opinion must also support them. He argued that the question surrounding Israel-Palestine should not be framed as one associated with personal preferences, but rather pragmatism: the international consensus, to which the U.S., Israel, and a few assorted members of the Pacific island “mafia” constitute the only dissenters, is for a two-state solution. Finkelstein claimed that those who, like the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) campaign, claim to invoke international law for their cause cannot pick and choose which aspects of such law they desire to see implemented—international law as presently formulated supports Israel’s right to exist, in sum, and thus militates against contemplation of a one-state solution. Self-described lesbian socialist Sherry Wolf spoke next, showering praise on BDS for having aided in presenting a counter-narrative to ruling ideas on the Israeli State; among other things, she asserted that a two-state solution would enshrine the legal discrimination suffered by Arab Israelis. Generally, she expressed dismay at “realist” approaches to the conflict, such as those that favor two states; citing the example of the Egyptian Revolution, she stressed that, had the protestors begun from “practical” premises, Mubarak would likely still be in power! Professor Stephen Shalom followed, arguing that even if the Palestinians were to achieve a one-state solution, it would still be unjust, assuming it kept the capitalist mode of production intact. So while he hopes ultimately for a binational solution in the future, in addition to a revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and imperialism, Shalom feels that practically it is already difficult enough to achieve something approximating a legitimate two-state solution—meaning one that is not a mere archipelago of bantustans—and that mobilizing for one state would prove exponentially harder. Deek spoke next (last), noting that Israel is not fighting for its survival, but rather for the maintenance of the privilege of domination it exerts over the indigenous Palestinians. She declared passionately that Palestinians will not renounce their rights to return to the lands from which they were expelled 65 years ago, nor that they should be asked to do so. In her opinion, the present state of Gaza shows the future of a two-state solution; for her, the question should not be one of convenience, but rather justice.
The question-and-answer period for this panel was entirely a mash-up: a great deal of yelling, interruptions, mischaracterizations, evasions. Following his comments at the beginning of the panel, Finkelstein remained silent under the very end of the discussion period, when he remarked that any movement that seeks to engage a general audience would do well to invoke international law, and that posturing by making nice-sounding claims in a small room at the Left Forum is an entirely different matter.
The final event at Left Form 2013 was the closing plenary, which featured renowned Marxian ecologist John Bellamy Foster, German anti-systemic theorist Tadzio Müller, and Bolivian Vice President Álvaro García Linera. The mere fact that García Linera was invited to speak at the Forum remained a source of controversy throughout the three days of the conference, given his role in the violent repression of a May 2013 general strike targeting the Morales regime for its failures to live up to its supposed commitment to socialism and notions of buen vivir, not to mention a similar repression in 2011 of indigenous protestors opposed to the State’s plans to construct a highway through the TIPNIS park reserve. On the other hand, of course, the Forum’s organizers were seemingly pleased that Morales had in April 2010 hosted the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, as a counter-summit to the official negotiations that have meaninglessly been held by the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) for two decades now.
Foster opened his comments, entitled “The Epochal Crisis,” by noting that finance capital dominates the entirety of the world economy at present; he observed that economic growth rates within the Triad (U.S./Canada, Europe, and Japan) have been slowing down over the past decades, and likely will continue to slow in those to come. As was to be expected, he here restated his theory of Marx’s conception of the “metabolic rift,” whereby capitalist agriculture depletes the Earth’s soil of its necessary minerals—a symbol of its larger disruptive effects in ecological terms. Quite simply, Foster declared that the majority of production under capitalism is simply waste, and relatedly that it is the global South which bears the brunt of ecological exploitation today. He once again invoked his theory of the “environmental proletariat,” mentioning that China’s Pearl River delta is among the world’s most industrialized regions, yet, like Bangladesh, is threatened greatly by future sea-level rise. Foster speculated that, with the intensification of the effects of climate change, those proletarianized by capitalism will engage in mass struggle—left unanswered is the puzzling question of how it is that this “eco-proletariat” might intervene effectively, given that it will likely be far too late if it does not act, insofar as it can, before the ocean’s levels rise by several meters. He outlined a vision taken from David Harvey that calls for “co-revolutionism” between ecological and economic concern, and closed by stating that he was “honored” to present at the plenary with his co-panelists, whom he claimed to have “done more to advance” these visions than he had. Apparently the contemporary critique of “socialist” productivism escapes the good professor.
In my view, Tadzio Müller’s comments, which followed those made by Foster, were at once explosive and justified, proving in this sense to be a good corrective to the relative lack of criticality espoused by larger-name celebrities present at Left Forum, from Christian Parenti to Foster himself. Müller began by warning the audience that, rather than celebrate or engage in comforting left-wing delusions, “we do need to worry, quite a lot.” In general terms, he argued, humanity is losing, and “losing big”: though movements against austerity have arisen to combat neo-liberal designs in southern Europe, for example, they have had few successes in actually preventing such reactionary policies from being implemented. Similarly, claimed Müller, we cannot expect the miraculous transformation of millions of Euro-Americans to militant socialism; the ongoing economic crisis, which might have catalyzed such changes, manifestly has failed to do so. Given this negating state of affairs, Müller observed that the question is one of identifying a leverage point, as from physics: that is, given a limited ability of leftist movements to “project force,” such groupings should expend their anti-systemic energies in an effective manner. One concrete example Müller presented was that of the ongoing energy transition seen in Germany in recent decades, a development that was accelerated after the 2011 Fukushima disaster, when mass-mobilizations in the streets forced the rightist, neo-liberal Merkel regime to commit to the phasing out of nuclear energy over the short term. Today, a full 20% of the country’s total energy comes on average from renewables sources—and this figure can reach 100% on especially sunny days. Moreover, up to 2/3 of this energy is owned at the local level, rather than by large corporations. For Müller, renewable energy by its design inherently lends itself much more to decentralized notions of politics, and so in his opinion this development, which he terms the most positive socio-ecological transformation seen in any industrialized society, merits a great deal more reflection and, indeed, reproduction.
Then came the vice president’s turn to speak. Immediately upon taking to the podium, a large portion of the right-hand side of the orchestra seating exploded, holding up signs and banners calling for the release of prisoners arrested during the repression of May’s anti-government protests and condemning any yanqui intereference in Bolivia’s internal politics. García Linera continued with his prepared comments, unfazed, not even deigning to afford eye contact with his dissident compatriots, who by phenotype far more closely resemble the country’s indigenous majority than he. The VP droned on about the formal and informal subsumption of labor to capital, and other revelations he had supposedly come to in his years working by Morales’ side. I decided to leave prematurely, disgusted by his arrogance. As I exited the auditorium, there were his Escalades, loyally awaiting the return of the vice head of State.
Javier Sethness Castro is author of Imperiled Life: Revolution against Climate Catastrophe and For a Free Nature: Critical Theory, Social Ecology, and Post-Developmentalism. His essays and articles have appeared in Truthout, Climate and Capitalism, Dissident Voice, MRZine, Countercurrents, and Perspectives on Anarchist Theory. He is currently working on writing a political and intellectual biography of Herbert Marcuse.