Rethinking Marxism 20 Years After the Berlin Wall
By Chris Spannos at Nov 10, 2009
Last weekend I attended the 7th International Rethinking Marxism Conference, November 5-8 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Yesterday, November 9th, marked the 20 year anniversary of East Germany's decision to allow its citizen's to visit West Germany in what would become the dismantling of the Berlin wall, symbolizing the cumulative effects of the failed apparatus of an oppressive Soviet system and the spread of global capitalism. I have to admit some disappointment reflecting on the billions of lives affected by these historical changes -- those who fought and died for what they felt would be socialist -- but which wasn't -- and in turn were forced to live with the legacy of Stalinism and Soviet intervention -- and what seemed to me the underwhelming character of last week's conference. These reflections lead me to ask "what has been rethought?"
While a simple conference can't be held accountable for our need to find alternatives to all past and present problems, we should be able to form some opinion about the usefulness of conferences held at universities where hundreds of people attended, many flying in from all over the U.S. and perhaps some internationally, many of them the presenters themselves, and offering concurrent sessions for three full days, and with perhaps many thousands of dollars and considerable university resources employed to bring it all together, along with tens of book and magazine publishers and tables who all flew and shipped their stuff in, before everyone goes their separate ways back to their lives.
How were things rethought?
Well, many papers were presented, sometimes as many as six or more on a single panel. Papers were delivered, mostly, with few exceptions, by the presenter reading them. Once the ideas of one paper were conveyed, it was on to the next presenter. And on and on till all the presenters were done. Some panels had so many presenters that there was very little time for comments and questions between panelists or session attendants. Other panels had only a few of the presenters scheduled in the program so had much time afterward. And still more panels had to compete with others happening at the same time, as is common among conferences, but had very few attendants and so a smaller set of ears to listen to the presentations.
Overall, very few panels were organized or designed to facilitate an interactive exchange of ideas between all attendants. One such panel that had a promising format was organized around Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri's latest book Commonwealth where Hardt presented a few core ideas in a short period, and two respondents replied, and then Hardt reacted to them, and then it was open to the audience to ask whatever questions they wanted to whoever they wanted. Hardt delivered his ideas very clearly, and even though I disagree with him, he presented his logic and it was easy to follow. The two respondents ranged from clear and easy to digest at first to totally incomprehensible academia in the end. During the presentation, as I do at most conferences and events, I often try to pay as much attention to the audience as I do to the ideas being presented. This audience, probably well over a hundred people, was listening very attentively and I could see many scribbling away on their notepads for the first five to ten minutes of each presenter's talk. Many others, not writing frantically, had voice recorders held in their hands to catch the audio. However, soon after momentum built I scanned the audience and saw more than a few eyes glazed over and some closed, heads down, limp wrists with recorders propped up on elbows and laps, and pencils and pens no longer scribbling away but dangling loose between fingers. And suddenly, when the speaker concluded, the audience would snap back to life and applaud appreciatively without missing a beat.
I had to wonder if people were really paying attention or if they just wanted to pay attention so bad that they were able to convince themselves and others that what was being presented was worthy of their attention even if it was beyond them or bored them. Of course, it is also very possible that it was just me that didn't get it yet I asked some friends afterward and they had a similar reaction explaining "I didn't understand a single word that woman said." And "I didn't understand word one of that guy's presentation."
Likewise, I experienced this same affect at other panels, for example one organized by the International Gramsci Society on "Gramsci: History, Biopolitics, and Literature." I sat through the first presentation on Gramsci's biopolitics knowing I was likely in for a doozy while expecting the one to follow, "From Theatre Criticism to the Prison Notebooks," to be potentially useful. The first presenter read his paper verbatim, launching words, that when combined turned into un-digestable bricks, across the room while attendants moved quickly to catch and decipher them on their notepads. But I have to say, I don't believe more than a tiny fraction of those there followed it, could repeat it, or even explain its meaning. I know I couldn't. So either I am a moron, or the message was, rethinking is not for people like me.
This effort to decipher and take notes typically lasted for a few minutes until either exhaustion or the impossibility of the task set in. Then everyone, even those who initially appeared to be trying to get something out of it, sat silent for the next 15 minutes with looks on their faces that could have either indicated a coma or hypnosis. Honestly, I know it may seem like I am exaggerating for effect, but, really, I'm not. That's what I saw. I can't manufacture this stuff - it was there. In any event, at each panel, as soon as the verbal hieroglyphics ended the crowd would, to my amazement, clap approvingly. This is a phenomena that I think should be thought about and changed. Although it does not pertain only to this conference, but I think also to much academia, I think a Left conference such as this should be ashamed to allow these types of interactions to occur. At any rate, I stayed about 5 minutes into the next presentation only to realize it was more of the same, just not as bad, before leaving. I have to wonder what Antonio Gramsci would have thought were he in the room.
What was rethought?
Many workshops and panels focused explicitly on the Economic Crisis examining clearly the decline of manufacturing and rise of debt from last century to today, as Rick Wolff did, as he always does, clearly and compellingly. Other's focused less clearly on the creation of surplus and where the point of appropriation took place, and still others, as mentioned above, on the "biopolitics" of this or that thinker. I gave a presentation delivering a non-Marxist explanation of exploitation and offered an alternative for a classless society ala participatory economics.
Overall, I felt that the real economic crisis, the one affecting the working class in their everyday lives, the one where the vast majority of people have no control over where or how they work or over the productive process, was obfuscated easily as much or even more than it was explained. I got an early taste of this the night of the opening plenary when a slide show with illustrations of graphs and curves offered with narration a psychoanalytic understanding of economic production and consumption complete with naked butts superimposed on the graphs and fitting the curves. I had to wonder if the producers of this show were serious or joking and came sadly to the conclusion that it was likely more the former and less the latter.
Please understand, the problem wasn't that people were too intellectual, were thinking too much, were too radical, etc. etc. The problem was, people weren't thinking at all, nor intellectual in the positive sense of trying to explain and explore real ideas in a manner that communicates to others, nor radical in the sense of trying to pose alternatives and means of attaining them.
After the opening plenary, many in the audience urged an explicit discussion of the need for revolution in the U.S. and wanted to know what workplace democracy could look like after capitalism. I thought this was very promising and indicative of what I might expect for the rest of the weekend. However, there were very few panels that spoke of revolution or the strategy to get there, with exception of the Bring the Ruckus panel which was one of the clearest ones I heard.
The other panel that I attended that was pretty good was on the Marxism of C.L.R James.
However, I must say that the timing of this conference, coinciding with world historic events 20 years ago such as the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, State Socialism, and the Cold War offered a fine opportunity to have a frank discussion about what we want beyond both capitalism (neoliberal and otherwise) and 20th Century Central Planning as characterized by the Soviet Union. There could have been much more focused discussion -- serious discussion, innovative discussion, committed discussion -- not on currencies or more ethical business or market socialism, but on replacing corporate hierarchies, markets and central planning, as well as state or privately owned productive assets, with better alternatives addressing not only economy but race, community, gender, sex and politics. I think the opportunity was unfortunately missed.