Marxism 2007: Day Four (Sunday)

“Cuba after Castro” was a great talk, with one small problem: it wasn’t about Cuba after Castro. The speaker, Mike Gonzalez, focused most of his talk on Cuba under Castro, and spent only the last few minutes talking about Cuba after Castro.

It wasn’t the only speech at this conference to disregard its advertised topic, however, and the effect was not fatal. I learned a lot about the way power is wielded in Cuba, and the achievements and failures of Castro. It was probably the most balanced analysis I have heard: Cuba has become such a potent symbol of liberation that people on the left are often reticent to criticise it, particularly because there are plenty of people on the right lining up to do so. But Gonzalez struck the right balance, for me, of giving credit to Castro, Che Guevara and the rest for their tremendous achievement in liberating Cuba from the oppression of US-dominated capitalism, while not shying away from criticising the failures of the Castro regime in power.

His main area of criticism was the economy, and particularly the growing divide between the poor who subsist on inadequate state salaries and the elite who, through access to the tourism industry or other external-facing sectors, live a comfortable middle-class existence. The result is a dual economy, with two separate currencies existing side by side. The poor buy what basic goods they can in pesos, while foreigners and rich locals use a dollar-linked currency to buy luxuries (and even some non-luxuries like medicines – the basic drugs can be bought in pesos, but more specialised ones are only available in the dollarised currency which ordinary workers have no way of obtaining).

Of course, the main reasons for the hardship are the collapse of the Soviet Union, which reduced Cuba’s productive capacity by 35%, and the US blockade. But Gonzalez argued that Cubans could potentially have accepted the hardship if it had been shared more equally among the whole population. Much worse than being poor is being poor and seeing others around you growing rich and living a good life. If ordinary people had a say in how Cuba was run, that would help too. But the reality, according to Gonzalez, is a highly centralised state mechanism with little power in the hands of the people and few avenues for legitimate dissent and criticism.

Again, he was clear about the reasons for this. In the context of US hostility and CIA assassination attempts, perhaps Castro felt he had no choice but to be suspicious of his enemies, and in the context of extreme economic hardship he took the decisions he felt necessary for the sake of survival. But the resulting Cuban state, while it deserves its status as a beacon for anti-capitalists and anti-imperialists around the world, is not something to be emulated in its specifics by the newly-emerging socialist states in Latin America or others that may appear elsewhere.

Next up was Tony Benn with a strange speech. I enjoyed it immensely, and felt it to be very clever, but then I looked at my notes and realised there was no real argument as far as I could see on the topic of “The left in power – possibilities and prospects.” Whereas Mike Gonzalez in the first speech had chosen to answer a different question from that in his speech title, Tony Benn appeared to be answering no question at all.

I suppose it was more of an inspirational speech, a rallying of the troops, than anything else, so perhaps I shouldn’t quibble. It certainly got the crowd clapping and contained some memorable lines, none of which will be as funny in cold type as they were with his excellent, rich delivery. I agreed with his plea for more unity among the left, when he read out a long, long list of all the parties: Socialist Party, Socialist Workers Party, Workers Revolutionary Party, Communist Party of Great Britain, Revolutionary Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist), etc, etc, all in the rushed undertone of a mortgage advert warning that your-home-may-be-at-risk-if-you-do-not-keep-up-repayments-on-a-mortgage-or-other-loan-secured-upon-it. He then talked about the Workers Weekly, a publication that calls for unity on page one, and then denounces other leftist groups on pages two, three, four and five. Splintering and infighting is a real problem on the left, and it was good that he mentioned it.

He also talked about the need to talk less about ideology and more about meeting people’s actual needs. For example, he remembered being told by Pat Stack of the Socialist Workers Party that “Capitalism is oppressing us, and we need to smash the state.” His response was that if an old woman came to him and said her husband had just died and she needed his help in finding a bungalow to live in, he could say to her “Capitalism is oppressing you, and you need to smash the state.” And she would reply, “That’s very interesting, Tony, but what are my prospects for a bungalow?”

The speech was full of this sort of thing, and it worked extremely well. Probably not worth reproducing too much of it though – it’s one of those cases where “you had to be there.”

Slavoj Zizek’s speech was the opposite. It would probably have helped a great deal not to be there. When Zizek writes in the New Left Review, I can take my time and digest his arguments on dialectical materialism at my leisure. When he is barking into a microphone at 100 miles per hour, ruffling his hair, picking at his shirt, stroking his beard and rustling his papers, it becomes more difficult. Given that I had worked a ten-hour night shift and come straight to the conference without any sleep, it was all a bit too much. About halfway through the speech, I lost the thread completely for a few minutes and just sat there letting the isms wash over me at lightning speed and not even attempting to fit them together. So this account will be somewhat fragmented and perhaps downright false representation of what Slavoj Zizek said at Marxism 2007. I’m hoping that a transcript will be produced at some point, although I doubt it: not even the most skilled stenographer could type that fast.

Anyway, I’m fairly certain about the first part. The topic was “Tolerance as a political category” and thankfully he did actually start by talking about tolerance as a political category. His central point was that the liberal view of racism as a question of tolerance is false and ridiculous. Martin Luther King Jr. never demanded tolerance; he demanded equality. Similarly feminists never demand tolerance from men; they want equality. For the liberal multiculturalists to demand tolerance is retrogressive; it implicitly validates the racist view that people from different ethnic groups are fundamentally irreconcilable, and all you can do is “tolerate” them.

From this he moved on to the culturalisation of politics. His idea was that in contemporary liberalism, societies are depoliticised and cultural issues are seen as the only valid ones. Further, culture itself is privatised and made into a set of personal idiosyncrasies, divorced from the history that created them. Real, vibrant, politicised culture is seen as dangerously close to fundamentalism; far preferable is a shallow identification with “culture” in the form of certain harmless customs, while remaining disconnected from the roots of those customs and happily immersed in capitalist universalism.

After that I’m afraid it all gets a bit vague. I know that he talked about four principal antagonisms within capitalism, which I think were biogenetics, intellectual property, slums and ecology. I think his point was that as capitalism moves beyond physical exploitation into areas where knowledge becomes as important economically as physical labour, the notion of private property becomes increasingly problematic. Hence the struggles to put patents on indigenous farming techniques or crop varieties, even to patent genes themselves, to own the stuff of life itself, to expand exponentially and deny the implied limits on private property.

On slums, he said that the slums are essentially a blank spot in many countries as far as the state is concerned, a no-go area. This, he said, creates an opportunity. If the 19th century was about politicising the industrial working class to defeat the bourgeoisie, and the 20th century was about awakening the rural populations of Asia and Africa, the 21st century will be about organising the masses of excluded slum dwellers. He saw Venezuela as a precursor to this: Chavez derived the bulk of his support from the slums, and it was the slum dwellers who defended him against the US-sponsored coup and restored him to power.

Then he talked about the ecology of fear. I think his point was that in opposing the environmental depredations of capitalism, ecology can become deeply conservative, reflexively opposing all change and progress and demanding a return to a state of natural harmony which Zizek said is mythical. He talked about the connections between environmentalists and conservative US creationists, saying that it was a natural link to make: both believe in the perfection of nature, either as designed by God or by nature itself. Both, he believes, are misguided. The lesson of Darwinism is that Nature doesn’t exist — at least, it certainly does not exist as a static, perfectly balanced thing that we humans messed up by our greed and folly. It has always changed and evolved, and will always do so. Fear of apocalypse and attempts to regress to a mythical golden age of natural harmony are not, he said, the best way to deal with the real environmental problems we face.

So, lots to chew on, and as I said I’m sure he said a lot more that I didn’t manage to absorb. Although it was quite challenging to listen to, I much prefer this kind of speech to one that tells me what I already know or is just cheerleading for a cause I already believe in. There is a lot to think about here, and I am very much looking forward to reading his book “Welcome to the Desert of the Real”, which I should be soon getting as a freebie for re-subscribing to New Left Review.

He also made an interesting point at the end, when he was asked an asinine question by some Socialist Worker guy who was “troubled” that a Marxist philosopher would give a speech without mentioning Marx’s theory of surplus value. To me, that encapsulated the difference between the rigidity of an activist who takes one idea and repeats it ad nauseam, and a philosopher who tries to break new ground. One thing that “troubled” me about the whole weekend was the tendency of some (by no means all) of the speakers to be trapped in a time warp. It’s still 1848 and the industrial working class is still predominant and Marx is still a god whose writings must be preserved on tablets of stone and memorised in all their infinite perfection and passed on in reverent tones to other eagerly attending comrades.

Zizek’s polite response was that, essentially, the world has changed just a little bit since Marx wrote Das Kapital. It had even changed by the end of Marx’s life, something he recognised in his later writings when he acknowledged that the labour theory of value breaks down when knowledge becomes a primary source of value. For example, he said, if you apply Marx’s theory strictly to the relations between an imperialist power and a Third World country, then theoretically they are exploiting us. Unfortunately he got shouted down at this point by someone in the crowd who misunderstood, thinking Zizek was saying that Third World people are indeed exploiting us, rather than pointing out a flaw in the theory. So I didn’t get to hear him explain what he meant – will have to go back to Marx and try to work that one out.

Zizek said there was still a lot to be learned from Marx, but that we must resuscitate his theory of value for the 21st century, and nobody to his knowledge has done that yet. He said it’s not enough to say that we know the world is unfair and we know what we have to do; theory, he said, is important. We have to understand the world comprehensively and develop a new theory of how to change it – basically someone needs to write a Das Kapital for the 21st century. You can adapt Marx to fit new situations, but you’ll end up distorting his theories so much that it raises very serious problems to which we don’t have solutions yet. I think he sensed that all of this was a bit too pessimistic for the true believers in the crowd, and so he threw out a line about the enemy knowing even less than us, about Bush being stupid and about his stupidity being symptomatic of a “structural stupidity” in the ruling class in general. So the crowd was won back and he got his huge round of applause.

5 thoughts on “Marxism 2007: Day Four (Sunday)

  1. I’d say you understood Zizek’s arguments extremely well – especially for someone who thinks he had trouble following them.

    We discussed his meeting more than any other in my regional branch, and though we agreed about what Zizek said, we disagreed greatly about what the audiance said.

    I thought Chris Harman’s contribution was a vapid and perfunctory restatement of the SWP’s usual line on the need to build the revolution (ie recruit members), but other’s thought he tore Zizek to shreds.

    But maybe I’m biased – Zizek’s presence was the factor which finally decided me to attend this year.

  2. Zizek was one of the few speakers that had something new and thought provoking to say and I think he was on point with his comments about Marxism. Thought the poor man was going to get lynched by the mob.

    Apart from the first commentor who really connected with Zizek’s points on culture and tolerance, all the others just wanted to hear themselves speak.

    I got sick of hearing Chris’s broken record comments in some of the forums I went to. That anyone would think that he tore Zizek to shreds by reciting the same old same old makes me laugh hysterically.

  3. I followed a link here from the Marxism list to read about Zizek but I want to say a word or two about Mike Gonzalez. I would take anything he says with a grain of salt. His articles on Cuba are distinguished–so to speak–by their tendency to cherry pick. They are basically a compendium of all of Cuba’s failings but with not a single word about its accomplishments. For example, Cuba is a virtual showcase for sustainable agriculture but you wouldn’t know that from anything written in the SWP press. It is also breaking ground in fighting homophobia. For those interested in an alternative to Mike Gonzalez’s myopic presentation, I recommend this piece I wrote about 10 years ago in a debate with an SWP’er:

    http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/state_and_revolution/cuba.htm

  4. One thing that “troubled” me about the whole weekend was the tendency of some (by no means all) of the speakers to be trapped in a time warp. It’s still 1848 and the industrial working class is still predominant and Marx is still a god whose writings must be preserved on tablets of stone and memorised in all their infinite perfection and passed on in reverent tones to other eagerly attending comrades.

    This is a disappointingly average set of put-downs, and I sense you know better. Firstly because the industrial working class was never predominant, although it is globally much more prominent today than it ever was. Secondly, because Marx was never a God. Thirdly, because this dreary old religious metaphor is drawn directly from cliche-vaults of anticommunist literature, from The God That Failed onward. So, some of the comrades might be a little bit basic and unsophisticated in their handling of theory: this is always going to be the case, and it doesn’t do to pile on the invective simply because of the accumulated emotional and intellectual bias that has been generated against marxist activists in particular.

    Zizek’s polite response was that, essentially, the world has changed just a little bit since Marx wrote Das Kapital. It had even changed by the end of Marx’s life, something he recognised in his later writings when he acknowledged that the labour theory of value breaks down when knowledge becomes a primary source of value. For example, he said, if you apply Marx’s theory strictly to the relations between an imperialist power and a Third World country, then theoretically they are exploiting us. Unfortunately he got shouted down at this point by someone in the crowd who misunderstood, thinking Zizek was saying that Third World people are indeed exploiting us, rather than pointing out a flaw in the theory. So I didn’t get to hear him explain what he meant – will have to go back to Marx and try to work that one out.

    Zizek’s comments on this are interesting, but the trouble is that the logic is difficult to follow, and the use of terms isn’t very clear. *How* does the labour theory of value break down when knowledge becomes a primary source of value? What qualifies it as a “primary” source of value, and what is meant by this? How does it follow that the Third World exploits imperialist states?

    I appreciate you saying that Zizek didn’t get the chance to clarify, and this is no doubt the reason why it looks like a set of non-sequiturs. On the other hand, Zizek can be terribly lazy and haphazard with the facts and with theory, especially when he is in the mode of a contrarian. And he himself runs the risk of becoming outmoded and cliched when he insists that marxist theory must be updated to the 21st Century, as if marxist theorists have somehow been reluctant to traverse the corpus from time to time and introduce innovations, and as if it was a dangerous and disturbing thought that Marx’s original insights need updating or revising from time to time.

    If people say (as per comments above) that Zizek is a bourgeois poser, that is probably because he frequently is that. His position on the Third World and Europe’s Muslim population is actually miserably condescending, and his recommendations (re Israel-Palestine, a European counter-power, Yugoslavia, anti-statism) err on the side of liberalism. I am not in favour of dismissing him, but to champion him as a rigorous thinker whose insights are being unfairly dismissed by boneheaded activists is far too generous.

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