Saturday, March 15, 2008

Cracks in the Edifice?

So here I finally go. Originally I wanted to blog live from the last Left Forum, exactly one year ago, if only because hardly anybody else did. Left Forum emerged in 2005 from a split with the Socialist Scholars Conference over strategy, governance, and personalities, according to reports.

While the Left Forum describes itself as the largest annual gathering of leftists in North America, and presumably in the world, it not only gets no coverage in the mainstream media, but is not even mentioned in the leftitst media. Last year, all The Nation did, was to announce it. Interestingly, while it called it 'one of the country's premiere progressive events,' it did not cover it at all. Neither did any other leftist media.

Why is that? Is it because of a lack of resources and/or a lack of professionalism in promoting it? After all, it does not take very much to post a news release. Or does it accurately reflect just how marginal the left remains, both in the US and globally?

At last year's opening plenary, Cornel West openly admitted that the left simply lacks the resources, in terms of finances, personnel, and infrastructure generally, to move beyond its marginal status. This however did not keep a number of panels and participants to enthusiastically debate how best to organize the revolution, and how to decide who should be part of the leadership once the movement reached critical mass. This kind of attitude always reminds me of Seymour Lipset's famous remark they overcompensate their political irrelevance with excessive rhetoric.

In any case, last year's motto was 'Forging a Radical Political Future,' and this year's theme is 'Cracks in the Edifice.' In both cases, there is a palpable sense of frustration with 'the system,' and a great desire to change it radically, and not only 'superficially' through reforms. Understandably, given the socialist background, the ultimate goal is not merely to reform capitalism and imperialism, but to overcome them. However, the main thrust of the contributions is one of criticism, protest, and resistance, and unfortunately there is very little on what to do, and especially on how to do it in a strategic sense. There frequently is a big disconnect between big picture analysis and criticism, and punctual and sporadic initiatives and activities on the ground.

Yesterday evening's opening plenary featured speeches by Tariq Ali, Adam Hochschild, Mahmood Mamdani, and Naomi Klein. They were encouraged by Left Forum to identify 'cracks in the edifice' and specifically address how to use those opportunities to bring about change. As was to be expected, with the exception of Hochschild, they were primarily critical.

Ali spent most of the time criticizing US foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and ended by pointing out that the regional cooperation in Latin America could serve as a model for the Middle East.

Hochschild drew parallels between the late 18th century, emphasizing abolitionism, and today. He highlighted what today's activists can learn from that movement, focusing on the importance of new organizing tools and on never giving up ...

Mamdani criticized the Save Darfur campaign for egregiously exaggerating mortality rates, according to a 2006 study by the General Accounting Office. All of the $14 million spent by a professional advertising company on the campaign was spent outside of Sudan. His larger criticism was that Americans prefer to feel good by doing something about Darfur, however inadequate, instead of risking to feel guilty by organizing against the Iraq occupation. He emphasized how remarkable that discrepancy is, and concluded by insisting that Save Darfur has become one of the biggest obstacles to progress in Darfur. He is currently working on a book on this subject.

Klein declared that key points of the conservative ideology, especially concerning the economy, have been discredited by developments over the past 35 years, and especially most recently. This crumbling of neoliberalism opens many opportunities, but unfortunately she did not go beyond exhorting the audience to take on these forces and resist them. This is the same mode in which she wrote her most recent book, The Shock Doctrine.

Leftists tend to be strong on analysis and criticism, but weak on strategy. This is one of the main reasons why the left has not made more progress. This year's Left Forum would be a great opportunity to engage in what is known as SWOT-analysis: Systematically identifying the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, both of and for the left, and of and for its adversaries. This would be an important first step towards formulating and implement realistic and effective strategies. Regrettably, not a single one of the 116 or so panels seems to do this, at least not in explicit terms.

Of course it is so much easier to ridicule Obama's rhetoric of hope and change, and deride his record. Fortunately, some pointed out that the left also has itself to criticize for failing to build a movement that would lead to more genuinely progressive and viable candidates.

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At Thu Mar 20, 03:01:00 PM, Blogger 1000myths said...

Is the leftist movement really relevant in the 21st century? By that, I don't suggest that the social and economic problems of the first half of the 20th century have been solved but instead I wonder if the leftist movement can really achieve any significant change without re-inventing itself from the ground up.
The leftist movement in the U.S. and elsewhere was the doomed union of intellectuals and the workers. If there ever was a marriage arranged in hell certainly the worker/intellectual coupling is it.

Workers work and intellectuals - intellectualize. Theory and "ideas" vs. picket lines and organizing. No wonder most of America's factory workers and truckers became Republicans while the intellectuals theorized.

Maybe what the leftists need to be born again is a real, gut splitting, pencil selling dpression but this time let's keep the intellectuals in their towers


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