“Decolonial” dead-end: Houria Bouteldja and the new indigenism beyond Left and Right

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Remember back when Jacobin was promoting Vivek Chibber? Interviewing Walter Benn Michaels? Publishing articles by Adolph Reed? When Bhaskar Sunkara first introduced the journal in 2011, he explained that while “Jacobin is not an organ of a political organization nor captive to a single ideology,” its contributors could all generally be considered “proponents of modernity and the unfulfilled project of the Enlightenment.”

How distant those days seem now. Lately, the semi-quarterly periodical has taken more particularist turn. Today, it published a piece by the “decolonial” critics Houria Bouteldja and Malik Tahar Chaouch, representatives the Party of the Republic’s Natives [le Parti des Indigènes de la république] in France. Bouteldja and Chaouch condemned the “vague humanism, paradoxical universalisms, and the old slogans of those who ‘keep the Marxist faith’,” saying that these fail to grasp the new material reality of race’s intertwinement with religion in the West. Essentializing indigenous difference, and blasting the establishment politics of the so-called “white left,” the authors resuscitated the worst of 1960s Maoist rhetoric regarding not only the Third World — this relic of Cold War geopolitics — but also marginalized peoples of Third World descent living in First World nations. (A hyperlink embedded in the article refers readers to a collection of essays by all the usual suspects: liberals and ex-Maoists such as Alain Badiou, Judith Butler, Georges Didi-Huberman, and Jacques Rancière).

Calls for “national unity,” especially of the sort called for by the French state following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, are no doubt reactionary to the core. It is important not to lose sight of this fact when raising criticisms of Bouteldja and Chaouch’s argument. This is not what is at issue. What is at issue here is rather the compatibility or incompatibility of revolutionary Marxism with their decolonial worldview. Framing their activism in terms of a rupture with the status quo, the authors wrote:

Despite its marginalization and relative weakness, political anti-racism has succeeded in giving rise to a significant Palestine solidarity movement, putting Islamophobia at the heart of public debate and building various mobilizations of the descendants of postcolonial immigration. This marked a break with the ruling parties and in particular the white left.

Adolph Reed has already convincingly demonstrated the poverty of anti-racist politics, so I won’t reprise his argument here. More pertinent, at present, is the way Bouteldja and Chaouch characterize their relation to the “white left,” and to the radical Left more broadly. Jacobin, which once saw its mission as bringing about “the next left” (echoing Michael Harrington), presumably provides a platform for leftist discourse and debate — everyone from Marxists to anarchists to left-liberals and market socialists. Do Bouteldja and Chaouch really fall along this end of the political spectrum, however?

Not if you ask them. To her credit, Bouteldja at least harbors no illusions when it comes to her convictions. (One cannot say the same of Jacobin’s editors, who chose to publish her coauthored piece). She rejects the Left-Right distinction, an inheritance of the French Revolution, as a colonial imposition. “My discourse is not Leftist,” Bouteldja declared in an address last year. “It is not Rightist either. However, it is not from outer space. It is decolonial.”

Politics proposing a “third way” — a supposed alternative to the venerable categories of Left and Right — is nothing new, of course. Third Positionism has flourished for over a century now, from fascism to Peronism and beyond. Nevertheless, there is a certain novelty to Bouteldja’s claim that Left and Right are inapplicable to indigenous politics, as a foreign set of values foisted upon them from outside. Indeed, this is a rhetorical gesture several times, with respect to a number of different political and intellectual traditions.

Marxism? Enlightenment? Universalism? Rationality? All inventions of the decadent bourgeois West, apparently. Continue reading

Piketty and Marx: Or, why no one needs to read anything

Less than a week ago, Jacobin magazine enumerated a list of nine canned responses criticizing the French neo-Keynesian economist Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Zachary Levenson gave us the guide for “How to Write a Marxist Critique of Thomas Piketty without Actually Reading the Book.” It ranges between Marx and Piketty’s radically different conceptions of capital to the latter’s conflation of derivatives stemming from finance and industry. “Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a long book,” Levenson writes, sympathizing with his readers, “and you just don’t have time in your busy schedule to finish it and formulate a materialist critique.” Don’t worry, he urges, “we’ve got you covered.”

No doubt: there’s plenty of truth to such a list, conceived as it is in parody. Many self-proclaimed Marxists are quite eager to dismiss the latest fad in social liberal economic thought, and counterpose the trenchant historical critique offered by Marx to the dry data analysis offered by Piketty. Who hasn’t heard some of these scripted objections bandied about by “radicals” who clearly haven’t read the book?

Yeah, from the blurb on the back it may seem a tired rehashing of Keynesian commonplaces (now almost a century old). Granted, it might appear that Piketty merely “repackages the commonly known as the expertly known,” as one reviewer has put it, by treating observations of inequality under capitalism as if they were earth-shattering discoveries. But does that really justify all the unlettered pedantry of the Marxish commentariat? Shouldn’t people read Capital in the Twenty-First Century before issuing a judgment? Continue reading

Conversations on the Left: What is to be done?

Bhaskar Sunkara, James Turley, & Ben Blumberg

Platypus Review 57 | June 2013

On April 18th, 2013, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a conversation at New York University between Bhaskar Sunkara, the editor of Jacobin, James Turley of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and Ben Blumberg of Platypus, to discuss the differences and similarities between their organizations. What follows is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Tri Logos

Bhaskar Sunkara: It is impossible to deny that the Communist Party of Great Britain’s (CPGB) Weekly Worker is an important publication. It is a publication that is right about many things, without a doubt more right than their peers on the British left, and their ideas deserve more engagement, so I am very pleased that Platypus has us together on this panel. There is no regular party publication on the American left that comes close to the Weekly Worker’s competence, especially considering the small size and resources of the CPGB. They have been consistently against the perversion of democratic centralism and lack of accountability by the leadership in groups like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). I have been reading it for a couple of years and I think they have a really nuanced view of Trotskyism’s legacy. They also have a solid critique of Eurocommunism and other coalition politics. What I like most of all is their openness about their small size and their limited influence as an organization. For someone like me, who has been around the Left and its posturing, we at Jacobin think the Weekly Worker is far more refreshing and useful than organs that herald the coming of every new socialist movement as if it is going to resurrect the Left. Platypus’s approach is also sometimes useful on this point. Jacobin doesn’t share the same politics, but only because we are operating in different contexts. We aim to reach a different audience. Jacobin, as a political project, is a publication that cannot substitute for the role of a political organization or the role of a party. It also cannot have the uncompromising and coherent vision and perspective of a propaganda group. And it is subject to lots of different pressures and forces — such as the market and the petty-bourgeois culture of writing and publishing.

Our different orientations affect whom we are trying to reach. Jacobin was always two projects. It is something of an intra-left project: emphasizing a Marxist perspective towards organization building. But our main project has been an outwardly directed one: engaging with American liberalism. We have always been geared towards the general public. We are liberals articulating radical ideas and we do so in a way that is clear and accessible. If we have any measure of mainstream success, it is intentional. We have sought to be a terrain for deep theoretical debates. It has been said that we are visible reminders of a long-forgotten socialist tradition, which would define us politically somewhere in between Leninism and the Democratic Socialists of America. One result of this is that the level of politicization of Jacobin’s readership is not quite the same as the level of politicization of our editors, and you could probably say there is a lot more political parity between the readership and the editors of the Weekly Worker and the Platypus Review.

James Turley: The CPGB is not a party. It doesn’t exist; it is a name. The name comes from the older official communist party that has since wound up. The name represents an ideal that we look towards. The far left is divided into small propaganda circles and some of them deny that they do propaganda. The SWP would be a good example; the International Socialist Organization (ISO) is another. They think they are talking to the masses, but it is bad propaganda reaching a mass audience. The CPGB identifies openly as a propaganda group and so probably would the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) or the Spartacist League. So there is a very similar landscape out of which the CPGB of the 1920s was formed. The original CPGB was formed from one wing of the Socialist Labour Party, which was a kind of syndicalist sect, and the large majority of the British Socialist Party. At that time, it was a far-left Marxist sect rather than the mass party form that existed in continental Europe. Along with the South Wales committee, their forces together totaled about four to five thousand. If you add up the people in Britain today committed to some form of socialist revolution, you get a ballot figure of about five thousand. After 70–90 intervening years we are, in a sense, back where we started. That says something about the 20th century. Continue reading

A conversation on the Left

A moderated panel discussion 

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Image: Image by Augustine Kofie,
with text added by Ross Wolfe

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WHO

James Turley (CPGB)
Bhaskar Sunkara (Jacobin)
Ben Blumberg (Platypus)

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WHAT

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Recently, a series of exchanges between the Communist Party of Great Britain (PCC), the International Bolshevik Tendency, and the Platypus Affiliated Society has unfolded, mapping a field of positions and historical perspectives whose contours trace some of the most provocative contemporary perspectives on Marxism, socialism, and democracy.

With this public forum, speakers will take stock of the points of convergence and divergence that have emerged in order to push the conversation further on key issues such as Left unity, neo-Kautskyism, factionalism, Trotskyism, sectarianism, Leninism and Bolshevism, democratic organization, and political program.

WHEN

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April 18, 2013
7:00-9:00pm

WHERE

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NYU Kimmel Center, Room 904
60 Washington Square South
New York, New York 10012

WHY

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For the self-criticism, self-education, and, ultimately,
the practical reconstitution of a Marxian Left.

21st century social-democracy? On Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Frase’s “The Welfare State of America” and the election

The Welfare State

Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Frase of Jacobin recently co-authored a social democratic manifesto entitled “The Welfare State of America,” in which they conclude:

THE ROAD TO SOCIAL DEMOCRACY

The Left must not only defeat austerity and preserve the social safety net; it must do so in such a way that assembles the forces necessary for more fundamental transformations in the future.

This vision should be premeditated. We can’t go back to the post-war golden age of the American welfare state, but we can build a system in the 21st century that embodies what people remember most from that era — an overriding sense of freedom. Freedom to give their children an education without rival. Freedom from poverty, hunger, and homelessness. Freedom to grow into old age with pensions, Social Security, and affordable and accessible healthcare. Freedom to leave an exploitative work environment and find another job. Freedom to organize with fellow workers for redress.

These memories are somewhat false ones: The welfare state has never been so universal. But the appeal of such a society, combined with the political strategy needed to make it a reality, will pave the way for the institution of a new set of economic and social rights to complement our bedrock political and civil rights.

Ugh.  From Chavez’s “21st-century socialism” to Sunkara and Frase’s “21st-century social-democracy.”  Not to mention the fetishization of the welfare state, and its national(ist) specification to “of America.”

Obviously I oppose the austerity-mongering politics of neoliberalism.  Equally obvious should be that I’m not as optimistic as Bhaskar or Peter about the prospects of social democracy repackaged for a new century.  They make the salutary concession that the welfare state was never universal, that the New Deal coexisted with brutal and demeaning Jim Crow laws.  But I don’t really view a reformist platform as any more viable in the present than a revolutionary platform.  Reformism and revolutionism seem equally utopian today (and I would say that their apparently equidistant impossibility is related).   Though I’m sure Bhaskar and Peter would insist, following André Gorz, that they are simply advocating a series of “non-reformist reforms.”  Rosa Luxemburg had a much more accurate formulation for this, but one I think the authors would reject: “revolutionary reforms,” or demanding what reforms were available while constantly insisting upon the need for dramatic social transformation.  And in fact the reason so many reforms were acquired in the first half of the twentieth century was symptomatic of the fact that social revolution seemed to be a concrete possibility.  Unapologetic neoliberalism is only possible where there is no fear of revolutionary reprisal.  I’m more or less in agreement with Spencer Leonard’s take in the 2001 section on “The Decline of the Left in the Twentieth Century”:

The abandonment of emancipatory politics in our time has not been, as past revolutionary thinkers may have feared, an abandonment of revolution in favor of reformism.  Rather, because the revolutionary overcoming of capital is no longer imagined, reformism too is dead.  As the task of achieving human society beyond capital has been abandoned, nothing worthy of the name of politics takes its place, nor could it.  The project of freedom has now altogether receded from view.

Social democracy and the reestablishment/renovation of the welfare state would obviously be a progressive program from where we stand right now.  I don’t think it’s anywhere close to sufficient, and the fact that social democracy and “evolutionary socialism” represented an adaptation to rather than an overcoming of capitalism (and thus, at least historically, signaled a shift to the Right) shouldn’t be forgotten.  Advocating a rebranded version of bourgeois-liberal social democracy as represented by Bernstein, Kautsky, or Keynes (though the figures they invoke are Cloward and Piven) seems to me just as false as neoliberals like Hayek or Friedman caricaturing classical liberals like Smith and Ricardo.  To his credit, these are subjects that Bhaskar and others (Jason Schulman,  Adrian Bleifuss Prados, Chris Cutrone) explored a few years ago on Chris Maisano’s The Activist website in Sunkara’s Nietzschean “Beyond Good and Evil,” Schulman’s  “The Current Relevance of an Old Debate,” and again in Sunkara’s “The Crisis: Marx, Lenin, Keynes, and Us.”  These were discussions that I actually found much more interesting than the recent manifesto about “The Welfare State of America,” not out of some fascination with historical trivia, but because the political implications of these debates are actually much far-reaching.

Jacobin certainly has DSA tendencies within it, and certainly Bhaskar has always been upfront about his membership in the DSA and sympathies with its politics (though I’ve spoken with one of Jacobin‘s editors who is convinced he’s a Trotskyist).  Bhaskar’s told me that the Jacobin collection that’s coming out in a few months from Metropolitan publishers is going to have an explicitly left social-democratic bent, but apparently he’s planning to spell that out openly in the introduction he’ll write for it.  Peter Frase has also been clear as to his ties to the DSA.  But one member, even a chief editor, does not a magazine make.  They’ve published diverse viewpoints, from (pseudo-)anarchists like Malcolm Harris to autonomists like Salar Mohandesi and Asad Haider from Viewpoint to cultural/market socialists like James Livingston of Politics and Letters and even to Castroists like Louis Proyect of the Unrepentant Marxist blog.  It’s very inclusive.  Even if it were just an organ of the DSA, at least they’d be staying fairly honest about the prospects of overthrowing the state, abolishing capital, etc. I’ll take that over militant posturing that pretends like revolution is just around the corner.  Chris Maisano, for example, is a really interesting guy to talk to, and a really great guy in general.  He’s also fully aware of “the limitations of democratic socialism.”  As he wrote in a 2010 piece:

the fundamental limitation of social democracy, or “socialist capitalism” as Michael Harrington more accurately described it[, is that it’s] a compromise between socialism and capitalism, but one that’s made on capitalism’s terms. As Harrington pointed out decades ago in his book Socialism, “the fact is that as long as capitalism is capitalism it vitiates or subverts the efforts of socialists…In fact, capital fights back, it does not meekly accept the programming of social democratic ministers…economic power is political power, and as long as the basic relationships of the economy are left intact, they provide a base for the subversion of the democratic will.”

This doesn’t mean that social democracy is somehow bad — I’d give my right arm and possibly a couple of other vital organs if it would turn the United States into a social democratic country.  It just means that in spite of its many virtues — virtues that Judt is correct in celebrating — social democracy cannot be an end in itself but a way station toward a more fundamental transformation of society.

This is the sentiment Sunkara and Frase echo in the last line of their article:

Even greater democratic horizons lie beyond [the welfare state].

To be honest, I don’t understand the affinity either Sunkara or Frase feel in their historical association with Jacobinism (via the magazine they edit, Jacobin), as their politics seem to me as anything but revolutionary in the sense of the Jacobin club.  Still, an article like this is helpful in terms of prompting reflection and debate. Continue reading

Malcolm Harris, “pseudo-celebrity,” and kulaks

“Écrasez l’infâme!”
[“Crush the infamous!”]
— Voltaire

So it looks like I am coming really late to this latest piece of juicy gossip concerning Malcolm Harris and Rachel Rosenfelt of The New Inquiry, appearing largely on Doug Henwood‘s wall. I have no idea whether there is any truth to these claims, or whether this is a fabrication (with Harris, you never know, it might just be a publicity stunt). Mark Ames of the eXile wrote up a scathing, albeit rambling, indictment of Harris on the Not Safe for Work Corporation — preserved in its entirety here.

Certainly I don’t want to perpetuate a baseless rumor. I’m all too familiar with the kind of deliberate distortions, smears, and empty insinuations that go on amongst knitting circles on the Left.

Still, the original write-up Rachel did promoting the talents of her young writer friend (I always thought he was her boyfriend?) is pretty shocking to read through, in terms of the ridiculous hyperbole with which she inflates his meager abilities and accomplishments:

From: Rachel Rosenfelt Date: October 25, 2011 1:04:42 PM PDT
To: …@gmail.com
Subject: Malcolm Harris

Kathleen,

It was great chatting with you yesterday! Here’s the write up on Malcolm Harris:

Malcolm Harris is one of the most talked about young writers today. He has been on the vanguard of the #occupywallstreet movement well before day one of the Zuccotti part encampment began. His social media savvy and tactics flips the equation when it comes to the so-called influence of media on the youth. With Malcolm Harris at the helm, we are witnessing a new media movement where it’s the youth that’s influencing — and manipulating — the mainstream media to enact what has become a global uprising of youth demanding the change that was promised to them in 2008.

As an editor at Sharable.net, Harris brought politically savvy coverage of the protest movements in Spain and Greece to the attention of the young digerati who would eventually work alongside Harris in New York City to facilitate the first planning meeting for #occupywallstreet. In the intervening months, Harris has earned the reputation he has today as the Naomi Klein of the 21st century, with his instant-classic article, “Bad Education,” which went viral in April of 2011 and remains the most cited article on the student debt crisis today (listen to Harris debate the issue on NPR here).

Once the occupation was underway, Harris’ article in the Jacobin Magazine, “Occupied Wall Street: Some Tactical Thoughts” spelled out a strategy that has since helped to give the movement the force and coherence it needed to self-sustain, even without the benefit of mainstream media attention. The turning point, however, was when Harris and a group of his collaborators posed as Radiohead’s manager, notified the media the band would play Zuccotti park, and caused tens of thousands of youths — as well as news cameras and big media attention — to turn out. Read Harris’ reflections on the tactic here.

Harris’ forthcoming book, (title TBD) is about the student debt crisis, global uprising, new media and #occupywallstreet (title TBD) and he acted as editor of the book, Share or Die: Youth in Recession.

He speaks for $5,000, not including travel and accommodations. Let me know if you have any futher questions. :)

Regards,
Rachel Rosenfelt

The Lavin Agency
Making the World a Smarter Place
rrosenfelt@thelavinagency.com
www.thelavinagency.com
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Follow me on Twitter:
http://www.twitter.com/TheLavinAgency
http://www.twitter.com/RachelRosenfelt

Now I have nothing against Rachel, who I barely know, but about this breathtaking bit of exaggeration (or delusion), Anthony Galluzzo hit the nail on the head: “That piece of fiction was the funniest thing I’ve read in years. She [Rachel] should drop the saloniste act and go into PR. Harris single-handedly fulfillled the dashed expectations of 2008: anarcho-Obama.”

Bhaskar summarized the incident in a blog post that appeared over at In These Times, while also providing something in the way of a critique of the “pseudo-celebrity” status some activists and commentators have attained through their involvement in recent political movements. The activist/analytic pseudo-celebrity, a term introduced in this context by Doug Henwood and then taken up by Bhaskar, finds its apotheosis in a figure like Malcolm. I have nothing really to add to their comments besides what Bhaskar already wrote about the significance of Harris’ insignificant but highly-publicized political persona to radical movements today. While I agree that this is whole affair is hardly a legitimate argument against Malcolm Harris’ politics or thought (does he have either?), I must admit that I’ve found this all is pretty funny.

Rather than try to ascertain the political content of this overblown hullabaloo, which I am convinced is zilch, all I have to add is a personal anecdote recounting one encounter (it feels more like a “run-in”) I had with “the Naomi Klein of the 21st century.” This may be a little gossipy, but oh what the hell: Continue reading