Left Forum 2013! You’ve all been DYING to hear my thoughts, I’m sure! This is how I pretend I’m not a loser at a keyboard screaming into the void. So stay faithful and true, my hypothetical audience.
First and foremost, I faced two fitting contradictions. (1) The Left Forum was about “Economic and Ecological Transformation,” and I could not economically afford the hotels in the area. (2) The Left Forum was about “Economic and Ecological Transformation,” and a ridiculous storm was halting me from getting there until almost a day late. So the forum, whatever its other shortcomings, was topical. I was broke, and messed-up nature was messing me up in turn.
Also I should preface that this was my first Left Forum, and previously the only comparable things I had attended were the National Conference on Organized Resistance (NCOR) in DC when I was an anarchist teenager, and the ISO’s Socialism national and regional conferences. I went to a lot more of the ISO’s stuff, maybe a total of seven or so, and I will write about how the Left Forum and the ISO events compare elsewhere.
So my trip up is already complicated by things like sleep (I work night shift) and I was made late to my train because apparently towns change the names to streets without Google Maps ever being informed. But after hours of white-knuckle speeding in which I used Sith mind domination on police officers in order to evade tickets and infinite train boredom, I arrive.
Oh, the sheer dark side power of New York City! I’m sorry Philadelphia, maybe I’m not meant for you. In Philly, despite it being one of America’s top five largest cities, it still has really no place where there is a continual flow of foot traffic, just spurts of pedestrians here and there. In lower Manhattan, I could literally not find a sidewalk that was not uncomfortably crowded. It was hard to find a place to walk, the subways were more crowded, people kept bumping into each other, and I got this sense that everyone was just slightly more pissed off than they are anywhere else. Like when I ask people for help they give it, with seeming good intentions, but curtly and gruffly like I sort of annoyed them by even asking even though they know I mean no harm. Also I heard possibly almost as much Spanish and unidentified Asian being spoken as English, and I’m sure that kind of cross-cultural mish-mash in an environment that’s already a pressure cooker can really piss off the white racists and lead to all sorts of hostility and tension. When I asked some New Yorkers about the city’s sinister air, they began trying to justify and explain it, and I had to clarify, no – I like it.
So it’s a short walk from the World Trade Center PATH stop to Pace University, home of the Left Forum. And oh no, it begins. These fucking people start bombarding me with “literature.” Literature, so much fucking literature shoved in my face that I took it all home and had a fire in my backyard. I’m not kidding, I just did that today. Most of it was just a “Maoist” (Bob Avakian) analysis of this or that, so much of it was socialist newspapers that all say the same shit and I already read on the Internet anyway. I’m there on a mission to promote socialist convergence so I don’t want to offend people by refusing their papers, but deep down I just really do not want their fucking papers, and most of the time the “deep down” part of me won out.
There was an unfriendly “volunteer” making me wait too long to even get the door and get my nametag which would allow me in and out of the door. My nametag was premade which sucked, because I wanted to write Saturn instead of my real name because really most people at the Forum who already knew of me know me as Saturn because Internet.
Oh yeah – I met a lot of people in person who I have only known via Facebook or whatever. Pretty much none of them looked precisely how I expected, even though Facebook has pictures. Weird.
The way the Forum was organized was curious. Often times each panel was organized by one of the specific Leftist groups. This was odd; rather than it being a united forum, this often made it feel as if it was just a bunch of meetings by individual groups which happened to be in the same building, with much of the self-segregation of the Left persisting. That would be an overstatement, though; it had more cross-pollenation than really any event I’ve ever seen. Especially at North Star panels, since North Star doesn’t really have members and just tended to host people of various opinions.
So a lot of my problems with Left Forum were summarized by this one panel, “Occupy and the Future of the Left.” It involved Frances Fox Piven, who wrote a good book once and has this great thesis about how disruption and attack are necessary but is pretty much a useless academic who IMO has writings which can too easily be interpreted to mean a dismissal of organization. It also involved Joe Schwartz, a Temple professor I’d frequently encountered at Occupy Philly who is consistently the best speaker of whatever events he’s at simply because he discusses the standard of living and class warfare in detailed, empirical, statistical terms (see Red Meat). Schwartz also made fun of Stalinists by saying his mother was such a ridiculous hardliner, that she thought the only thing wrong with the USSR was Gorbachaev.
Present was none other than Bhaskar Sunkara, editor of Jacobin magazine, who is a fine fellow but honestly I was a little disappointed with. I think that deep in his heart he is a revolutionist but he turned out to be much more of a Social Democrat in person than he ever seems to be in his writing. (Ah, hell, maybe I was just hoping that and his writings totally give it away.) But the real disappointing thing was, despite his/Jacobin’s call for socialist regroupment AKA a re-merger, he seemed pessimistic in general. He did not seem to think the forces exist to even bother with such an attempt, which is the opposite of my own opinion.
Partially implied and partially explicitly stated, it seems the only “solution” he really offers is some kind of socialist entrance into the Democratic Party, which is actually not a solution, but our biggest problem. Sunkara also pissed me off by saying “I don’t have the answers, and I wouldn’t trust anyone who claims to.” He wasn’t the only one to say that – many other panelists and academics said the same useless shit. You know what? We sit here and listen to you for hours. In fact in some cases you’re a professor who gets paid to have answers for society, and what’s worse, not just paid to do that, but paid by public tax dollars. We sit here and patiently listen. You get paid. What, do you think you’re being cool and hip with your non-committal stance? FUCK YOU, I DON’T TRAVEL FOUR HOURS TO HEAR PHILOSOPHICAL WANDERINGS, I DO IT TO GET SOME ANSWERS. I DO IT BECAUSE SOMEONE SHOULD PROVIDE ME WITH A PLAN FOR ACTION, THAT AS A CONSCIOUS BEING I CAN JUDGE AND ACCEPT OR REJECT FOR MYSELF. YOU USELESS TURD. This is not really directed at Sunkara but the whole of the Left Forum.
Let me be clear, however, that Bhaskar was actually a fairly funny fellow and certainly not the biggest disappointment of the panel. One of the biggest disappointments was the hyper-authoritarian format which Sunkara actually opposes, as he brought up on a different panel. It was Question and Answer, meaning that after an hour of listening to four different panelists talk, every single question (or typically comment as people gave the rules the finger) was followed by panelist response – sometimes all the panelists. At this panel, only seven people from the audience spoke!!! But, as for Sunkara’s shining moment: when some sectarian from the audience (more on them later) started screaming at Sunkara about how Social Democrats (which seems to include all socialist groups but the speaker’s own) are the spawn of Satan and other stupid epithets, and went on to list the Social Democrats’ historic crimes, Sunkara said in a completely even voice and straight face, “Actually you’re forgetting the worst thing we’ve done. We killed Rosa Luxemberg.” I think me and my friend Tom were the only people in the audience who understood that Sunkara was trolling and burst out into hysterics. Oh, world…smh.
However, the worst part of that panel was none of that. It was this one piece of shit guy from the magazine Tidal, which seems to be the literary incarnation of Occupy Wall Street’s NYC remnant. Having lost its mass character, Occupy is now a roach infestation of the worst type of verbose, pretentiously-worded anarcho-postmodernists.
Of course, it also happens to be that one of my college roommates, Mike Tracey, ran a lame leftist magazine that I really should not have helped start. And of course this roommate also liked making political speeches in extremely pretentious language with lots of aimless meandering, and had annoying politics, and of course, of course this guy looked EXACTLY like my roommate Mike Tracey down to that fucking beard, and I really had to double check to make sure it actually was not him. But apparently no, the world just makes copies of certain kinds of people, and I have yet to meet my own clone (besides my father), but I am sure when that actually happens we will see what happens when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force.
So this guy spoke so pretentiously and meaninglessly, and the little that came out clearly was so fucking stupid and politically useless or counterproductive, that I really want to just take his head and smack it on his podium again and again, and I think the audience near me knew I felt this way. Sometimes in the past I felt this way about Mike Tracey, and the whole thing felt oddly like home. The redeeming quality, though, was that a woman from the audience resembling Roseanne Barr started screaming at him that his magazine is sectarian because it only allows a strictly horizontalist perspective, whereas she and, as she rightfully claimed, many people in New York’s working class would have preferred a more clear, efficient, majority-democratic structure that would allow 9-to-5ers to actually participate. She made this rant clearly and articulately and with furious indignant righteous justice, to audience applause. It felt like the assholes who ran Occupy into the ground finally getting their comeuppance. Apparently her project is called OccuEvolve.
Let me again state that the Q&A format is really horrible and undemocratic. The panelists get to talk enough; other than perhaps a closing at the end, the rest of the time should belong to the audience forming its own democratic dialogue, with comments not questions (which must inherently revolve around the panelists). Because of the harsh limit on the amount of audience speakers, half of the few who squeaked in ended up being screaming sectarians there only to denounce everything.
Those freaking sectarians need to be physically driven out of the movement. Also I’m not sure if I classify the Avakianist RCP in the same category, but it’s pretty close. I’m really just not sure if anyone can take the Left seriously if there is actually a group walking around talking about their glorious leader Bob Avakian. Seriously, they never even stated why Avakian was so great; they just dropped his name a lot and hoped it would stick? I understand if you have some attraction to Maoism; Mao was a pretty serious dude who came to power over a whole giant country, and Maoism has some interesting theories which make it unique from any other school of Marxism. Okay I get that. But this whole unsubstantiated promotion of Avakian just makes you look god damn ridiculous, and makes the rest of us look ridiculous too, for even standing near you or breathing the same air. I think the Left needs to be beaten into a shape that will cause the working majority to actually identify with it, and that beating may sometimes have to be literal. These people need to go away, and to feel like it’s not physically safe for them to come back, it’s the only way.
Back to reality: I was going to stay at my cousin’s, and he was going to let me into his place. Well my cousin fell asleep. I called him four times and couldn’t get in. I started panicking and looked for hotels in the area. The only one within walking distance was $220 per night for last-minute walk-ins, which a $9/hr slave such as myself simply cannot do. I seriously considered finding an alley to sleep in. Finally I just started yelling up at my cousin’s window until it woke his him up and he let me in. The transaction was fast. I gave him the promised beer. He showed me around. I showered, otherwise hygiened, and slept. I woke and left before he was even awake. So it goes.
A lot of the rest is really incidental and episodic. I’d been handling out Socialist Convergence Campaign quarter-sheets that say “We need an American SYRIZA!” During a third party strategy panel, a guy sitting next to me grabbed one and wrote on the back “I am in NY SYRIZA.” I gave him the that-makes-literally-no-sense-face until he explained to me that he’s Greek and NYC has a SYRIZA chapter for Greek immigrants. He took my number, word up. I met a lot of the North Star crew, and had a really great conversation with Dario. I was really impressed by Tim Horras’ knowledge of third party history, too; really it was beastly.
I also met Carl Davidson, whose event I had sort of accidentally trolled on Facebook, but we could at least be civil. He is/was way too much of a Democrat for my liking but made a good point about how the Left is going nowhere until every leftist knows what a precinct captain knows: everyone in your neighborhood, their names, their birthdays, their problems, whether they are registered to vote, if they’re not registered how likely is it you could get them to register, “plus/minus/zero” (are they for your/against you/neutral)? Despite my disagreements with a good deal of his politics, he dropped a quotable that really sums up where I am in politics and life: “We can’t achieve socialism through elections, but we can only achieve it through elections, that is, by utilizing them and exhausting them in the eyes of the public.”
I had good conversations with members of Socialist Alternative and the Green Party, one of whom promised to give me training in the law and process of working in elections, and made an NJ contact with the Greens that way. I had some awkward run-ins with New York ISOers, the tendency I just recently quietly exited, but it was more awkward silence than any kind of hostility. My old organizer Shaun Harkin had a nice chat though. He ran an apparently awesome panel on Thatcher and the Irish which I had to skip because of a third party strategy panel, but for anyone wondering from my old school TCNJ, Shaun Harkin is still a babe, and let me be clear that I’m a straight guy…mostly…except when I’m around Shaun Harkin… I learned some disturbing things about climate change, like the OECD says that even though capitalism is actually lifting some of the global population out of poverty, the environmental catastrophe which is inevitable with our current CO2 emissions will wipe out any such gains by driving 2-3 billion people back into deep poverty. I got to see an old acquaintance Mike McCabe also tear Occupy’s silliness a new one and put forward a better, more realistic model for how to build the Left. He mocked consensus: if it can’t manage a movement, or even a single decision, how can it manage a society? He described its time-consuming, impractical nature as a “dystopian utopia.”
But still, something was missing…
I was hoping that more people at the Left Forum would identify with the strategy I was putting forward. Actually no, I was hoping for more – I was hoping that people who had previously made noises about regroupment or convergence before, like Jacobin and North Star, would bring it up first and I could be a voice in support.
No, turns out that nobody brought it up, I always had to break the ice, and in the tiny 90-second increment I was typically given to speak, I could never really bring it up in a sophisticated way. This caused many people to dismiss my introduction of socialist convergence as “oh just another noobie who would feel good if everybody got together” and not as an actually complex position based on the need for socialists to project visibility and the historical irrelevance that results from their fragmentation, a rift that cannot be healed by merely collaborating in movements.
The darkness bless Jodi Dean for being the only one who backed me up in person. Read her piece here.
Pretty much every group that I hoped would bring up regroupment either didn’t even bring it up, or worse, as in Sunkara’s case, actually made the ridiculous claim that a third party would be premature. Of course the speakers of the existing socialist groups either said the same thing or trotted (perhaps Trot-ted) out the tired old line that groups with different ideas and methods can’t work together.
One of my SCC compatriots has helped me come to a certain conclusion about that. Socialist leaders say “build movements” as if to say “never you mind the big picture, little grunt, leave that to the experts.” This is comparable to the method of union bureaucrats who tell their organizers and members to focus on doing organizing work and to never question anything strategic such as organizing style, or party politics issues like the Democrat alignment.
It is an emphasis on struggle, which seems productive but goes ultimately nowhere without the right kind of organization to carry it to an expansionist, confrontational, or revolutionary conclusion.
It is an emphasis on just building their current organization, instead of questioning where that whole project is going – isn’t that just supposed to be a subfaction of some larger formation, and not forever remain a freestanding organization unto itself? It’s it completely ridiculous to think it will bloom into a mass party by itself, rather than just being a catalyst for one?
So the strategies provided by the entire combined panelists of the Left Forum involved the following three ideas: (1) reject the horizontalist silliness of Occupy (2) build movements (3) build one of the existing fragmented hyper-opinionated socialist groups.
I agree with the first two, anyway, but they still don’t answer the question of organization. In fact the first two are so obvious to anyone who has been in the movements that they hardly even need stating. Across the entire Left Forum, really then, the question of strategy went entirely unanswered. All in all, the leaders failed to lead.
The only remotely sane line being put forward came from the Green Party, who is at least trying to fill the vacuum even if it’s with liberal-progressivism, and Socialist Alternative, who is also at least running in elections, even if they’re probably trying to become The Electoral Alternative themselves with the other socialist groups in tow and not as partners. Still, their ambition does us all good by actually getting the race for socialist electoralism kicked off.