[lbo-talk] Platypus: what we are, what we do, and why

Sean Andrews cultstud76 at gmail.com
Fri Apr 9 08:24:18 PDT 2010

I'll admit to having been slightly interested in this project a few weeks ago. One of the editors showed up at a panel I was on at the Cultural Studies Association conference in Berkley. The panel was on Marxism and Cultural Studies and the editor (I forget his name) handed me and my co-panelists some copies of the paper and asked if we'd want to participate in the project. I checked out some of the issues and recognized it as a fairly perfunctory set of discourses, nothing all that unique, and one that is mostly a lot of navel gazing about what the left is or should be. I am all for working out good theories and sharp critiques, but much of this paper seems really solipsistic and overly concerned with appearing to have all the answers about what the left is (in this case, dead) and what that, therefore, means for the rest of us. This is ironic since they also claim to have a certain openness to their politics and ideas--talking about public forums, writing in their broadsheet, etc.

On Tue, Apr 6, 2010 at 16:22, Christopher Cutrone <ccutrone at speedsite.com> wrote:
> Practice:
> We organize public fora on various topics of relevance to the Left, and an open-submission forum-in-print,
...Our own articulations aim to raise questions and to provoke discussion and debate rather than offer analysis,
> let alone programmatic or properly political positions.

Here I'm struck by the similarity between some of the early actions of the New Left, but also a very distinctive discontinuity. The continuity is in the idea of holding some sort of public forums, where people can read and respond to new critical accounts of current circumstances. The early New Left Review, for instance, evidently had a large number of little reading groups around the UK where the public could come and discuss ideas and strategies. Hall claimed that his split with the NLR came when he could no longer get behind having the journal run by an editorial committee, as opposed to having the content generated in a more democratic way. This was both a fallible position on the role of the journal and the purpose of generating ideas and a basic denial of the fact that he and Cultural Studies as a disciplinary discourse, went on to have a sort of basic position on the role of ideas. In other words, the journal NLR would have been interesting as an open-submission kind of project, but much of that was precisely because there were a wide range of other leftist organizations around to offer "programmatic or properly political positions." And having it be completely open would have significantly compromised the "New" part of the review. It made sense to have some editorial control over the journal and some explicit positions in terms of ideas if only to create some space for that discussion--a set of positions organizing that field. The paper I presented at that forum, among other things, criticized the early New Left--and especially cultural studies--precisely for this lack of a coherent set of explicit ideas about politics and economics.

A really sketchy version of the paper is here: http://overlynuanced.blogspot.com/2010/03/new-left-and-next-new-conjuncture.html

The gist of this was that, at the time, in the early 1960s, there was a general sense that nothing could be changed on the front of the economic system--monopoly state capitalism was there to stay. But there was still some hope for a renewed push for socialism, if only people could be inspired to see the alienating effects of this system.

In the Hall essay from the most recent NLR, which I quote in the post above, there is the sense that material poverty and class division could no longer be counted on to drive people to socialism--the welfare state, in other words, promised some inoculation from the lever of material difference that Marx had usually predicted would be part of the impetus to workers movements and socialism. I'm sure this line of reasoning is fairly familiar to most everyone on this list, but in brief the sense was that a more productive line was to talk strictly about alienation from that which is "directly lived"--i.e. the lack of agency in both the monopoly capitalist workplace and in the mass mediated public sphere.

Thus, while the shift to what Perry Anderson called "Western Marxism" was surely related to the fact that few of the people involved in it were actively engaged with the workers movement, it also had a sort of strategic logic to it: people are unlikely to feel materially desperate in the short run so we should, instead, focus on the more general idea of human liberation and individual freedom. As Woj, David Harvey and many others have pointed out, this already has within it the seeds of the shift to a more libertarian/neo-liberal vision

On the other hand, for Hall to say that it would be better to not have a strong set of positions also presumes that having no position is not also a position. The focus on democratic process over proclamation is one thing (and it eventually morphs into a specifically American kind of fetish) but it is overlayed with a denial of politics or structure in general, which is, in itself, a fairly conservative position to take in the grand scheme of things. In the words of Howard Zinn, you can't stay neutral on a moving train. There seems to be a continuity here in the Platypus project and the worst kinds of deficiencies of the New Left. More importantly, those deficiencies were, at the time motivated by real material, strategic and intellectual concerns--the welfare state made people less likely to realize capitalism was evil and the other leftist parties were both more powerful and more doctrinaire. In other words, those deficiencies of the New Left were somewhat excusable in hindsight: to repeat them at a time when the neo-liberal reform of the state is cresting (and possibly gathering energy for yet another wave) and the organized and vocal left is virtually absent seems at best useless and at worst a type of black propaganda that would prevent even the nascent lever of material desparation from resulting in any leftward traction.

However, in addition, this sort of inexcusable repitition of the worst problems of the New Left is evidently compounded by a denial of one of the basic moves that made even Cultural Studies and especially the New Left Review, a worthwhile enterprise: the attempt to offer analysis. And Chris is certainly right: the platypus broadsheet does little of this. There is no analysis of the structure of the economy, the more basic issues affecting working people, and, as we can see in his catalog of their investigations, no mention at all of the category or issue of labor, muchless an engagement with people who are really considering it as a lived reality or a structural fact. With no analysis, all this becomes is a sort of empty exercise in cataloging and onanistically rehearsing theoretical positions on philosophical ideas: it is all the equivalent of sitting around and trying to decide on a name for your band before anyone has learned to play an instrument or even decided on the kind of music they would like to play. In other words, it may be an interesting theoretical project, but to call it a political project would be really stretching it. The Platypus is not alone and the people involved are certainly free to engage in whatever kind of discourse they'd like: but it is not really a useful enterprise in the current conjuncture.

As for the statement of their principles (again, a contradictory thing to include when one claims it is better not to take a position or outline a political project.)

> Theory:
> We think that the "Left is dead" and that, as a result, some important emancipatory thought has migrated to the "Right" (i.e., migrated to aspects of neoconservative and neoliberal thought), and hence we think that classical liberalism needs to be reappropriated by any purported Left, including any ostensible Marxist socialist politics. E.g., we think that Christopher Hitchens is as much a member of the "Left" worthy of (critical) consideration as is Tariq Ali, et al. We think that nothing can be taken for granted about the Left, and that "all bets are off" with regard to past, historical positions and programs of the Left, Marxist or otherwise. We think it necessary to cultivate debate on the very meaning of the Left at its most radically fundamental levels in order for the Left to be reformulated as an effective political force.

First off, the idea that the "Left is dead" is hardly new: it has basically been the same thing Cultural Studies has said for the past 30 years and it has become quite tiresome, especially at a moment when the right has so starkly polarized our lived reality according to their utopian fantasies of the market. In effect, this is to take the lack of a "class for itself" as evidence of a "class in itself." In the 60s it was easy to see the lack of the obvious sense of the latter leading to the lack of the former; today it is almost delusional to say that there is no structural imperative for a leftist politics--that the political and economic realities aren't especially keen to be given a fairly traditional leftist gloss in terms of class division and labor exploitation. The issue isn't the death of the left as a useful set of observations, it's the death of any organized set of movements with an actual leftist bent. To take the latter for the former--which is effectively what this statement above does--is basically misguided and, I would say, a fairly bourgeois way of seeing the current moment. To then compound this by saying that Hitchens should still be considered on the left is almost non-sensical. The later statements--obviously sympathetic to his new position--made about the threat of Islamo-terrorism are basically ridiculous. Sure there is a threat on some sort of level. But the same could be said of local militias in the US and other kinds of radical reactionary elements around the world. To rally around the military intervention of the US nation-state as the solution to these problems is a profoundly reactionary position--something I think Richard Seymour has thoroughly debunked over and over in book and blog.

To take this position or to say that we should re-appropriate the discourse of the Right seems to put the nail in the coffin of this as a useful enterprise. This is a thoroughly political position (despite the denial of one) and it does little to "cultivate debate on the very meaning of the Left" except to give a set of positions that help us to see what the left is not. The right has already been reappropriated--that was the whole enterprise of Laclau and Mouffe twenty, almost thirty years ago. It ain't gonna help today.

I'm much more on board with Bill Fletcher--having just listened to Doug's interview with him--who cuts through the bullshit and says plainly that Leftism is first and foremost anti-capitalism. The issue is not to divine the perfect position on what the left is but to try to organize around this basic proposition (as well as gender, anti-racism, etc.) and make this a more viable counter-hegemonic position in the general discourse of the body politic. If the Platypus had more of a platform for this kind of work, I think it would be valuable. Until then...


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