You’d think an academic conference – attended by people with the willingness to think and criticise, and a hunger for a transformed world – would be looking at the questions of what what went wrong, of how the ‘revolutionary’ fervour of “1968” gave us not the new Jerusalem, but the new Las Vegas. ‘Neo-liberalism’ (see another post on this – there was a good presentation at the conference on why not to use the term) is in the ascendant. Life may be much better for ‘minorities’ (women, people of colour, non-heterosexuals – especially those with citizenship) than it was 50 years ago, but if you can read a Keeling Curve and the emissions trajectories, you know that on the seriously big item – climate change – ‘we’ failed.
But academic conferences have – like any human gathering – unspoken (even unconscious) rules and routines. Some people, the chosen, sit at the front and read out things they have written (god forbid they ever simply film themselves doing this and put it on youtube). Everyone else since in dutiful rows, and waits for the opportunity to stick up their hand to ask a question. Sometimes those questions are self-serving, or sycophantic, or mini-speeches because they couldn’t get the organisers to let them sit at the front, or they did but didn’t get enough of a feed when they were at t’front.) There are short breaks, during which time people who know each other (and perhaps like each other) catch up. Newbies are basically left to fend for themselves. This goes on all day (or all week. Sometimes a day can feel like a week).
I spent parts of Friday and Saturday at one of these things. My wife, far smarter than I, skipped the whole thing. I am not so smart.
I asked the same question twice. On Friday I said words to the effect ‘Assuming that you are right about the benefits of decentralisation, horizontaility’ etc, and given that this critique of high-energy mass society was made by Murray Bookchin, Lewis Mumford, Barry Commoner and others as far back as the mid 60s- Gregory Bateson warned about climate change at the 1967 Dialectics of Liberation Congress – then how come we lost? Not ‘what can we do differently’ because I think we are fucked, but ‘what did we do wrong?’
I got two answers
a) we used money
b) but there is an eco-village in Spain with 900 people.
[I genuinely don’t think I am being unfair to the people speaking. They will probably disagree]
Yesterday I offered the panellists a magic wand if they could change on thing about the culture of the left that makes it so unwelcoming to new people.
Two of the three panellists engaged
The first said we need a better understanding of the social circumstances/viewpoints, so that we (some Gramscian Trotskyist elite?) “can intervene”.
The second said she wasn’t sure, but that she’d like to see “us being more generous to each other”, that we should be more serious about ideas, and that activism was affected by the tyranny of the busiest (my term) – that the ‘correct position’ was being decided by whoever did the most activism (“what would you know, you’ve not been at the last 3 rallies”).
While I have a lot of sympathy for this critique, I was also able to imagine someone who was between placard-painting and flyer-printing sneering ‘so, you’re saying that the main change to the left is that you- you ivory tower layabout – need to be in charge and then everything will be fine? Srsly?’
So what is going on with the silence about examining the failure of the ‘left’? Why are movement intellectuals not engaging?
Let’s get rid of some potential answers;
- They are not smart enough to examine the problem. No.
- They don’t believe there is a problem. No, they mostly do. You talk to them in private, and many concede things are stuffed.
- They don’t believe we can do anything about ‘left’ culture. This would be odd, and incoherent, given they are trying to change broader culture, a much bigger task.
I think there is something far more depressing going on. A critique of the left and its cultures and rituals would cost friendships and career opportunities. A critique of how we do things would be an implicit (or explicit) criticism of the ways of doing of our friends, allies and ourselves had used for years/decades. That would be very very confronting, even if delivered in the mother of all praise sandwiches. And the opportunities to speak at conferences , rallies, meetings etc would dry up. You’d stop getting invited to parties. You’d be labelled a splitter, a sectarian, mentally unwell.
It is far safer, therefore, to denounce MultiNational Corporations, Capitalism, NeoLiberalism, Tony Abbott, David Cameron etc etc etc, than to take a look at ourselves and go ‘hmm’ what have we been getting wrong, all these decades.
“What is to be done?” as someone once said (I forget who).
My basic line is that the only way to keep pressure on elites, and open up policy-making space that neoliberalism and bureaucracy have been shutting down systematically [there never was a golden age] is to build movements that grow, learn, organise and win.
For work not to fall on a small group that becomes overworked, bitter, cynical, factional, you need constant influxes of new people, and ways for everyone to fit their activism around the fluxs of life (children, jobs, parents, hobbies).
To do that, you need to make a movement organisation credible, welcoming and a space where busy and/or not terribly confident people can feel that they have at least a toe-hold.
However, most movement events are pretty unwelcoming for ‘newbies’ (the old hands simply cannot see this, they are the proverbial goldfish that says ‘what water?’) and there is the old problem of the only way to be involved is to come to endless meetings that ramble, that offer no opportunity for ‘legitimate peripheral participation’.
A couple of VERY simple things that could have been done at the Historical Materialism conference, for literally no money and very little time-
Keep the speakers to time (if we can’t share out an hour equitably, why should anyone believe we have the global answers?!)
Have a two minute ‘speak to the person next to you’ thing at the start of each session, making it easier for newbies to get chatting during the breaks.
Have a ‘before we go into questions, turn to the person next to you. If you have a question you want to ask, get feedback, hone it’ thing. This will increase the number of questions from, for example, women.
Will these things get implemented? Almost certainly not, because I am clearly just some crazy malcontent. So it goes.
A short video about ego-fodder