Left Forum Notes

March 12th, 2006  |  Published in Uncategorized  |  3 Comments

This weekend was the 2006 Left Forum, the conference of anti-capitalist academics and activists from around the world, held in NYC. The Left Forum is a successor to the Socialist Scholars Conference, which ended two years ago under acrimonious circumstances that are utterly not worth going into. The Left Forum is almost identical in structure to the SSC, although somewhat different in its political scope: it encompasses a wider array of anarchist and autonomist currents of the non-parliamentary left, while leaving out some of the social democratic and liberal currents on the “right” of the old SSC.

I was surprised to find myself somewhat dissatisfied with this political shift. While I have no particular use for the political positions of people like Michael Walzer and Ian Williams, they do represent a real segment of the left, and having them around led to some real sparks flying at past conferences. In contrast, the anarchoid left tends to uphold individualistic and disorganized kinds of activism; rather than criticizing the approach of more state-oriented leftists, their general attitude is something like: “hey man, do your own thing!” This tends to cut off debate rather than sharpen it, which can lead to an efflorescence of empty platitudes.

Still, there were good things happening at the forum. What follows is a recap of the panels I attended.

Imperialism and its Future
Chair: Jomo K.S.
Panelists: Eric Reinert, Anwar Shaikh, Vivek Chibber
I don’t really know much about Jomo K.S., and I’ve never read his work–but his name is just amazing, and it always makes me want to go to his panels. How does one get a surname that is only initials? Can I have one? In any event, the panel was pretty good, if a bit unfocused–one of the problems with the Left Forum format is that you often get panels of people who know nothing except the title of the panel, and have to make their own guesses about what will be a relevant contribution. In this case, Professor Reinert (who teaches in Estonia) decided to use his time to criticize the left and right for basing their economic thought on David Ricardo. Huh? Fortunately, things improved rapidly, as Anwar Shaikh and Vivek Chibber gave solid takes on the meaning of imperialism. Shaikh’s big take-away point was that international inequalities are not the result of monopoly or some other deformation of perfect competition–a view associated with both neoliberalism and with much Leninist anti-imperialism–but in fact a predictable result of even the most perfectly free market. Chibber, meanwhile, made many great points, but the big one was the claim that capitals are still regional in nature–almost all of the Fortune 500 companies make most of their sales within their own geographical region. Thus, the idea of inter-imperialist rivalry based on the rivalry of different regional capitals is still very much operative. (But for a contrary view, see below.)

Crisis in Auto or Crisis in Health? Crisis in Capital or Crisis in Labor?
Chair: Leo Panitch
Panel: Doug Henwood, Thomas Sablowski, Frances Fox Piven, Sam Gindin, Marsha Niemeijer
Sometimes, panels at this conference will just have too many people on them for a space of two hours. Other times, the panel will be made up of people who all seem to be friends, cronies, and co-thinkers. This panel managed to unite both tendencies, but was nevertheless pretty good. With the recent struggles over job, wage and benefit cuts at the major U.S. automakers as a starting point, the panelists debated the future of the auto industry, its role in the capitalist economy, and the strategic choices facing auto workers unions. Sablowski, a German researcher, and Gindin, a former research director of the Canadian Autoworkers, were probably the most interesting of the bunch. Gindin argued that auto unions had to get beyond fighting concessions and talk about three big issues: instituting national health care in the U.S., managing over-capacity by regulating investment in new auto plants, and reducing working hours in order to preserve jobs. Sablowski drew attention to the political difficulties inherent in reconciling the particular intersts of auto workers with the general needs of the working class and the environment. The other panelists all had something to contribute to these general themes, although Niemeijer, a writer for Labor Notes, mostly just gave that publication’s typical answer to every problem in the labor movement: more militancy and more union democracy. She didn’t really grapple with the arguments of the rest of the panel, which showed pretty effectively why that’s not enough.

Marxist Views of China ‘s Contemporary Development
Chair/Panelist: David Kotz
Panelists: Cheng En Fu, Minqi Li, Richard Smith
I like to go to panels on China at the Left Forum, because they offer something you don’t get many other places: analysis of China’s political economy from a Marxist viewpoint, which is not sectarian or dogmatic in either a pro- or anti-China way. This panel had the added attraction of Mr. Cheng, from the “Marxism Research Institute” of the University of Shanghai. It so happened that the New York Times had just run a story that morning about Marxist factions in the Chinese Communist Party, which probably boosted turnout for the panel. Mainstream Chinese “Marxism”, it turns out, amounts to introducing some tepid social democratic reforms to ameliorate the worst effects of marketizing and privatizing the Chinese “socialist market economy”. Mr. Cheng did not criticize either markets or capital accumulation as a growth strategy. But the other panelists pointed out what’s wrong with this approach: Kotz argued that markets inevitably give rise to a new wealthy class that pursues its own class interests; Minqi argued that the cycle of accumulation makes recession and crisis inevitable, and Richard Smith–in the most devastating of the presentations–made it clear that it will be ecologically impossible for the mass of Chinese to achieve Western levels of resource use. It was clear that capitalism is not sustainable for China even in the medium run–unfortunately, it was far from clear where an alternative to the present strategy of rapacious development is going to come from.

China, India and Capitalism in the Long Run
Chair: Vamsi Vakulabharanam
Panelists: Giovanni Arrighi, Beverly Silver, Leo Panitch, Gilbert Achcar
Since I’m a political mas ochist, the apocalyptic scenarios of the previous panel impelled me to attend another panel on China. This time, the general theme was one that is becoming a leftist perennial: is China in the process of displacing the United States as the hegemonic power in the world? Arrighi and Silver come from the World Systems Theory tradition, which has pioneered the sinocentric take on this question. So it was no surprise that Arrighi played up the significance of China in the world system, and Silver spent a lot of time talking about the political problem of make sure that the U.S. is “graceful” in its apparently inevitable decline from great power status. Leo Panitch then went to bat for his own trademark claim (with Sam Gindin) that “imperialism” is no longer a valid analysis of the relations between capitalist states. This is an intentionally provocative way of putting the issue, actually, since Panitch pretty clearly believes in something that you would have to call imperialism–that is, unequal and exploitative relations between core and peripheral countries. What he objects to is the idea of inter-imperialist rivalry; he claims that the interpenetration of first-world (North American, European and Japanese) capitals has made major schisms between those powers unlikely to impossible. Essentially, he’s reviving Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism”. I didn’t used to think much of this line of thinking, but as I listened to Panitch, I started to think he was on to something important. His insights have to be integrated with some of the facts about the dollar economy and the disarticulation of state and nation which I’ve addressed in earlier posts. But I’m not ready to make that synthesis yet. I do, however, hope Panitch gets on a panel with Vivek Chibber at a future Left Forum, since they are both very sharp and yet have apparently irreconcilable views about the nature of contemporary imperialism.

A Soldier’s Movement Against the Iraq War: Prospects and Challenges
Chair: Tod Ensign
Panel: Aiden Delgado, Jose Vasquez, Geoffrey Millard
After all the high-falutin’ theory, I needed some activist grit, and I was really curious to hear about Iraq veterans organizing against the war. This panel was sponsored by the amazing Citizen Soldier, and all of the panelists were Iraq vets. They were also, to a man, more organized and articulate than most of the academics; military discipline applied to public speaking, or something. There were some moving stories about the process by which these very different people came to their political radicalization; there was also some discussion of the culture class which prevents anti-war veterans from being incorporated into the peace movement. But perhaps the most interesting analysis came from Delgado, who broke down the process that a recruit goes through–from recruitment to training to deployment to homecoming to (maybe) radicalization. He identified the points of vulnerability where a soldier can be politically won over, and he noted that while a lot of energy is going into the small (2-300) core of actively anti-war veterans on one end, and counter-recruitment activism on the other end, there needs to be more attention paid to the training phase. That’s the point where a recruit is first introduced to the realities of military life, before they have been fully socialized into the culture of the military; Delgado argues that this is where soldiers are most amenable to anti-war politics. The trick, of course, is reaching them. He noted that all soldiers have government-provided email accounts, which are one way to get at them. Jose Vasquez also drew our attention to a new film which needs to get into the hands of as many recruits and soldiers as possible.

Those were the only panels I saw–I’ve learned by now that it’s best not to try to go to a panel in every session. I was also not that excited by most of the panels. Some of my favorite Socialist Scholars/Left Forum regulars, like Mahmood Mamdani and David Harvey, weren’t on panels (or weren’t on interesting ones). And there seemed to be a lot of panels that were kind of vague and pointless-sounding. But I was pleasantly surprised at the panels I saw. And of course, there’s always the book shopping. I got this and this, plus I subscribed to New Left Review at their special conference rate, mostly on the strength of this guy’s writing.


  1. gkurtz says:

    March 17th, 2006 at 10:26 am (#)

    Ahh, it’s almost like being there…except that I wouldn’t have gone to the China panels if you’d paid me.

  2. The Special says:

    March 18th, 2006 at 3:02 pm (#)

    Who runs this blog? It is quite excellent.

  3. Peter says:

    March 19th, 2006 at 12:09 am (#)

    Thanks for the kind word, and the link–your blog looks good too; I especially appreciate the Canadian Content. But who, you ask, am I?

    As Popeye once said: I yam what I yam. I run this blog on the principle of pseudo-anonymity. I make no effort to identify myself within the blog, but my identity is known to those who already know me from some other (non-Internet) context. That’s how I prefer it, for now.

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