Monthly Archives: November 2018

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11/14 Miguel Robles-Duran

 

Lead Bloggers: Emily, Matthew and Anna

I. Main Interests

 

Robles-Durán started the lecture by sharing his background, noting that he works and teaches outside his official appointment. Even though he started his career with architecture, he is interested in it only from the standpoint of a practitioner dealing with consequences of capitalism. His work is influenced by David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre’s Production of Space. Robles-Durán emphasized the need to develop a transdisciplinary perspective for the analysis of space, thus challenging the deterministic and myopic orientation of the academia. He outlined the areas of his interests, some of which were addressed in the lecture and the Q&A section: Anti-speculative (i.e., anti-capitalist) development; Politics of scale; Commons, collectives, shared infrastructures; Development of urban unions; Economies of use value within urban processes; Spaces for political infiltration; Radical representative strategies. The focus of his lecture was on the emergence of supranational agents of neoliberalism and their influence on urbanization.

II. The non-democratic urban world of supranational dominance

When we talk about the beginning of neoliberalism, what is commonly missed is the fact that parallel to privatizations, deregulations and other processes of neoliberalization, there were also changes on a global scale reflected primarily in multinational trade agreements. With the fall of the Iron Curtain, we saw the drafting of the first series of international treaties (NAFTA in 1992, EU in 1993) and the process of internationalization of everything. Governments were working together across the wide array of and regardless of their ideological positionalities. In a short period of time, these agreements created border-crossing commercial lines, with a logic that superseded that of the nation-state. Based on these developments, Robles-Durán posed the following question: Why is it that, regardless of political developments on the local level, the urban trends and patterns have been the same?  One can easily observe that since the 1990s, cities around the world has gone through a similar transformation. Robles-Durán proposed to search for the answer in the creation of new supranational institutions accompanying neoliberalization and outlined four conditions that made this global restructuring possible.

Reformed supranational institutions

  1. Reform of old institutions, such as IMF and World Bank, that function as a consensus apparatus and depositories of neoliberal knowledge, coerce states into accepting treaties and dictate the reconfiguration of space.
  2. Supranational surveillance, benchmarking & promotion of neoliberalism. Organizations like IMF would need institutions to supervise individual states, benchmark and peer review their progress and change to prescribed standards. OECD is an example of this monitoring type of organisations that also function at supranational level.
  1. National governments as the agents of supranationals. The first two institutions operate invisibly, removed from the local level; they are regarded as consultant or bank agencies, with no threat to democracy. However, these institutions enter nation-states and coerce them into operating as agents of international organisations, implementing neoliberal agenda. Thus, we cannot direct our resistance against national institutions, since they were forced to become agents of a specific kind of capitalism.
  1. City governments as opinion shapers. On a local scale, city governments act as agents of transformation. Cities are prompted to become more competitive by OECD and other supranational agents. Cities work together for this purpose, creating networks and alliances. These still operate on supranational level because laws under agreements between cities occupy different space than conflicting laws of sovereign nations.

III. Supranational demands & transformation of territories:

Robles-Durán outlined the demands put forward by these supranational agents that lead to transformation of territories at different scales:

  1. At global scale, more legal control is given to privately defined supranational organisations, in many cases bypassing constitutional conventions and democratically structured political jurisdiction. They redefine continental and transcontinental trade blocks through the drafting of new corridors, directing the flow of labor, natural resources, manufactured goods, food, services, etc.
  2. At city scale, treaties encourage urban centers to become more competitive by providing incentives and infrastructure to attract international manufacture, trade, and business hubs. Two types of urban development forced by supranational institutions have become most popular:
    1. Competition between cities of low-cost sourcing, which entails a reconfiguration of territories for low-cost manufacture;
    2. Competition between aspiring headquarter cities.

Mass consultancy agencies (independent of IMF and OECD) define these two types of cities (manufacturing and global cities), e.g. UN-Habitat, Deloitte, PWC. They pass down a neoliberal agenda from IMF to city mayors, thus intersecting all scales and shaping new laws that override local laws.

3. Corridors that work outside the logic of any nation state. While nation states continue to financially support urbanization, through classic channels like fiscal redistribution, in order to become competitive players they have to offer more development resources and focus on finding and opening spaces for  private investment.

Since the 90s, cities have been trying to fit the same formula of becoming competitive, imposed on them by the same consulting agencies: innovation, promotion of entrepreneurship, creation of business environment, creative class. This homogenization can also be seen in architecture, as it came to physically represent processes of capitalism, and construction of the same cultural attractions, such as museums.  Additionally, Robles-Durán notes that this type of benchmarking and metric making has proliferated, even penetrating the logic of cities attempting to resist the neo-liberal agenda (i.e. ranking of municipalist achievements). The result leads Robles-Durán to define urbanization as the “representation of capitalism in space.” Following this definition, he suggests we need a new way to read cities, wherein we consider their temporal and historical aspects, and recognize the ways in which their boundaries as political territories are eroded.

Q&A

During the Q&A portion of the talk, Robles-Durán further articulated both the consequences of embedded neoliberalism in urbanization and potential strategies for intervention and course-correction.

The first question was on the role of prominent urban academics and theorists in legitimizing and perpetuating tropes and systems of global cities, namely Saskia Sassen (here is a link to an article by Sassen that provides an overview and introduction to her concept of “The Global City”). Despite her affiliation with academia and critical research, Robles-Durán situates Sassen and her ilk (particularly Richard Florida) as beholden to the supranational, non-democratic global organizations that perpetuate and disguise extractive strategies for capitalist accumulation. Being an academic, even being a part of the “Left,” does not preclude complicity in these structures and systems. Cities are coerced by these organizations into compliance by heeding strategies of remaining “globally competitive.” Florida’s “Creative Class” has arguably wrought an incredible amount of damage on urban democratic institutions, practices, and landscapes, mainly because its elegance and simplicity were so attractive to cities struggling to revitalize following the financial crises of the 1970s and the deindustrialization of the Global North. Robles-Durán argues that “creative” is really a metaphor of exclusion: upon adopting these strategies to attract both capital and residents, cities made a conscious decision of who and what urban territory was for.

Another question related to strategies of anti-capitalist contestation, namely pedagogical tools, which dovetailed the previous discussion of academics and researchers in urbanism. Robles-Durán urged a broader view, reminding us that “capitalism thinks in centuries.” Shifting the logic of understanding phenomena of change will take time, but it is critical to initiate it now. Younger generations are conscious that something isn’t right, but they lack the tools and language to articulate it–most educational preparation is not grounded in dialectical critiques or comprehensions. Challenging and dissolving arbitrary and anachronistic disciplinary boundaries is another strategy to cultivate new perspectives and critiques, and could empower students to consider problems and processes more comprehensively. His final comment related to scale–engaging with individuals, organizations, institutions at a scale that can match that of supranational institutions.

The role of the traditional nation-state vis-a-vis development (both economic and physical infrastructure) structured the remainder of the talk. The nation-state, historically, provides the capital, vision, and execution of development strategies (and all of the attendant risk). Following the neoliberal turn, however, nation-states began contracting out these roles privately and globally, providing funding but limiting interference with the broader visions and goals of these strategies. This model isn’t limited to infrastructure; it’s reflected at a smaller scale in housing development and employment training to cultivate space for accumulation and labor discipline, outside the aegis of democratic institutions. There is no space for community-driven development because there is no other option: supranational, global institutions curate restructuring at a global scale by subtly coercing nation-states and cities to toe the line– Amazon did this quite effectively, and with little protestation from smaller scales of governance.

Questions

  1. It is important to consider anticapitalist strategies under the framework of scale–scale is what has leveraged capitalist hegemony globally. What have global examples of resistance looked like historically, if at all? What issue do you see as meaningful and potent juncture for solidarity?
  2. Following on question 1, after the “alterglobalization” movement, we have largely seen critiques of globalism in mass-media captured by the far-right (i.e. Brexit).  What should the framework of a so-called “left exit” of supranational/technocratic institutions (Lexit), premised on left wing demands rather than nativism, look like today?
  3. While accepting Robles-Durán’s argument about the power that supranational institutions came to have over nation-states in the course of the neoliberalization, is it possible, at the same time, to incorporate into this analysis the role of individual hegemonic states in creating and maintaining these supranational institutions? For example, in The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire (2012), Leo Panitch and Sam Grindin emphasize the role that the US has played in coordinating the management of global capitalism and restructuring of other states, both through its military and financial institutions. How would this argument complicate our thinking about strategies to combat global forces of neoliberalism?

 

Open Discussion 11/7

Lead Bloggers: Zachary, Stephen and Leo

Professor Gilmore wasn’t able to join us on 11/7, so the seminar participants decided to open up the room for discussion and reflection on the lectures we’ve heard so far from Professors Harvey, Katz, and Robotham. Broadly speaking, we discussed the possibilities and constraints of melding anti-capitalist thought and action. Among other things we touched on the perennial reform v. revolution debate; the prospect of building organizations and broad coalitions for anti-capitalist movements; political education and consciousness; and the role of traditional electoral politics.

Several students voiced concerns over the limits of “reformist” proposals. One student recalled Prof. Robotham’s support of social wealth funds, to which the class had responded with broad skepticism. Wealth fund managers have a fiduciary duty to produce growth/profits. Given this, even public employees’ pension funds (so-called “workers’ capital”) have accelerated gentrification and private infrastructure development in cities around the world. Another student interjected that such reformist proposals might, in fact, “create the conditions for organizing.”  Partial public ownership of private companies would open up questions of short- and long-term investment strategies, potentially providing opportunities for political education and mobilization. If nothing else, ordinary people might learn more about corporate structure and financial planning. Education of this sort would, potentially, allow people on the Left to spread their analysis. Millions of people experience the degradations of capitalism, but may not have a specific analysis or platform to articulate opposition to it. Fights for or around social wealth funds – or, as Professor Katz suggested in her lectures, a shorter work week – might give the Left an opportunity to build through action.

In an attempt to rectify the reform/revolution split, one student offered up a working definition of capitalism: a mode of production in which the work to produce the things necessary for people to survive is market dependent and  involves the exploitation of the labor force. Acknowledging the difficulty of breaking this market-dependency in the short term, this student urged us to consider the kinds of organizing that might be possible to improve working people’s lives in the short term and simultaneously build class power in the medium- and long-term to oppose counter-revolutionary assaults such as capital strikes or attacks on the currency with mass unrest, general strikes, and so on.

At this point, Prof. Maskovsky intervened to ask how we can continue to have an anticapitalist disposition without falling into calling other initiatives reformist. In his view, there is not only one place from where we can attack capitalism. In fact, he reminded us of Harvey’s argument according to which there are at least seventeen places/moments that are ripe for disruption in contemporary capitalism. These opportunities could even extend if we were to include among them the potential for anti-capitalist action in the realm of social reproduction, as suggested in Prof. Katz’s lectures. Prof. Robotham extended this point to suggest that instead of concentrating in resolving the endless debate between reform and revolution, we should acknowledge that we are in a moment of transition to other forms of political and economic organization, which nature hasn’t yet been figured out. In his opinion, the “central contradiction” of capitalism, is the one existent between the forces of production and the social relations of production. The contemporary Right agrees with the Left that capitalism is broken in this regard. For the Right, however, the solution is more capitalism and greater repression. It is incumbent upon the Left, Robotham stated, to struggle to realize its own solutions to the contemporary crisis.

But how should we fight to win? We discussed the importance of building organizations and broad coalitions in order to realize anti-capitalist action. One student cited Rose Braz and Craig Gilmore’s (2006) “Joining Forces” about a coalition of abolitionist, anti-racist, and environmentalist activists in rural Central California who organized to stop the construction of a new prison. This example shows how ostensibly different groups (young Latinos in rural CA threatened by police, prisons, and pollution; environmentalists fighting for the Kangaroo Rat; the NAACP; and so on) might come to recognize their common interests and power by engaging in concrete political struggles over decidedly non-revolutionary issues, such as the use of public debt. One student raised the successful, on-the-ground organizing of SNCC in rural Southern counties as an example of how the Left might work to create urban-rural coalitions, with a different student concurring and arguing that the Left needs to remedy its current lack of proposals for rural economic development. Another student argued the Left might have a lot to learn from mainstream political parties, who have managed to create extensive coalitions composed of (ostensibly) different people who all identify with a common political platform.

Professor Robotham suggested that the strategy from the left should be to encroach the traditional norms of the rule of law and accumulate the political forces that make reforms possible. In this sense, the left should embrace and defend democracy and align their projects and strategies with those of the Democratic Party. This suggestion echoed a comment made earlier in the lecture by Prof. Maskovsky, for whom democracy today, unlike other moments in the history of the United States, is challenging capitalism in that it opposes its authoritarian turn. In this scenario, the defense of democratic values could be understood as a revolutionary stand. To develop this point, Prof. Robotham posed questions about how the Democrats and the Left might consolidate and expand their respective bases. For his part, Robotham argued the Democrats cannot win with only their base. He recalled his previous comments about the potential for expanding the democratic base to include affluent suburban women who are disaffected by Trump. This idea was met with some resistance from the class, with one student noting that targeting traditionally Republican suburban voters (over both rural and urban voters) was already the strategy of Clinton’s failed 2016 campaign. Jeff registered some concern about what the Democrats might have to compromise in order to gain support from rural whites. The question of whether the Left should struggle within the Democratic party or form their own party was raised but left unanswered.

Considering our wide-ranging discussion, we propose the following questions:

  1. How should we think about building for the transition from capitalism? How do we distinguish between reforms that build towards a transition and reforms that merely prop up or strengthen capital’s hegemony?
  2. Professor Robotham suggested that by concentrating in giving answers to the contradiction existent between the means and the relations of production, the left would be able to build broader political alliances and gain the vote of rural working-class population. Is this political strategy sufficient to attract this type of vote? What about the conservative values in terms of race and gender that strongly shape the political sensibilities of the Republican voters, or more generally, of conservative middle classes in Latin America (as in the case of Brazil)? Should the left temper or abandon its claims on racial and gender equality and concentrate on economic differences on the name of electoral success?
  3. What, in your understanding, is the contradiction between the forces of production and the social relations of production? What opportunities for anti-capitalist movement are presented by this contradiction?
  4. What should be the anti-capitalist stand on democracy?
  5. What kind of organizing, around what kind of issues, should we envision to knit together otherwise different communities and spaces into powerful coalitions (urban/rural, for example)? To what extent should we rely on already-existing organizations (labor unions, political parties, non-profits, and so on)?
  6. How should the Left spread its anti-capitalist analysis to oppose right-wing elites like Bannon and grassroots populist movements? What is the role of art and other cultural practices in political education?

References:

Braz, Rose. “Joining Forces: Prisons and Environmental Justice in Recent California Organizing.” Radical History Review 96, 2006: 95-111.

Harvey, David. Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. London: Profile Books, 2014.

10/31 Don Robotham

Colin, Marty, and Hugo

We are living in a dangerous moment. The forces on the right are on the march. They have a unified message and a clear leader, a political and economic program, and the power of the state. The left and progressive movement is outraged and defiant but not acting with the same cohesion. We are in for a very long haul and need to think strategically, not only in this country, but in Brazil, Eastern Europe, Turkey, the forces are simmering in Germany. But while these dynamics are not confined to one country, it is important to think about the specifics and particularities in every instance.

Marxism as a form of historical materialism:

Like other bodies of thought, Marxism has both a broad general value and simultaneously the specificity of arising in a specific time and place. Marx and Engels studied the development of capitalism in Western Europe, particularly in Britain. But the achievement of Marx transcends time and place. Marx was able to extract the fundamental core of the capitalist system which reproduces itself wherever capitalism goes. At the heart of the matter, the capitalist system is based on private ownership of the means of production and the exploitation of wage labor. This is a universal feature of capitalism, and a whole system of contradictions develops out of this.

Despite these universally applicable core relations, the way capitalism developed in Britain is not the same way it developed in China, Egypt, Brazil, Argentina, etc. In each case, specific features vary across contexts. Japan, Russia, China all tried, for example, to allow capitalism to develop without the old elites losing their position. In the U.S. context, the Civil War had widespread destruction of the old plantocracy in the South. As capitalism began to emerge in the post-Civil War period it was relatively less racist, and then it’s reversed. And this then brings racism into the center of the political and economic history and life of the U.S. It’s a very distinctively U.S. development, very specific to how the U.S. develops. But it’s capitalism, and the broad features of capitalism in the U.S. are no different from the broad features of capitalism anywhere else.

But it’s absolutely crucial, especially politically, to understand what is historically specific to each capitalism, to study, in each instance, which political alliances are generated. It is critical to get away from Eurocentrism in our thinking; Eurocentrism affects Marxism too. This requires us to recover the historical agency of actors in different historical contexts. We can’t apply Manchester to China, or what unfolded in the U.S. to Egypt. To practice a science of the concrete means to be able to take the core features of capitalism and see how they are deeply inserted in the historical specifics. If we aren’t able to do this, we won’t be able to move the political needle. It is not possible to connect with people simply with an abstract theory. It is impossible to apply Marxism in a mechanical way, without deeply grounding it in historical specifics.

But that is not to say we should create a new Marxism. There are general truths of universal importance. Marx’s 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte is the classic example; it can’t be read often enough. In it we see the distance between an abstract grasp of theory and the concrete application with surprising and creative results. Lenin and Mao both grasped this. Manchester or Dutch development can’t be mechanically applied to Russia or China. We need to deeply embed our analysis in a historical way.

Marxism as a dialectical materialism:

This is an old Hegelian story, that of the contradictions, but it is a crucial part of Marxism. It is not a positivism. We can think of dialectics as a “pro” and “con” which inevitably arise out of a particular political situation, in which the two sides are actually irreconcilable within the existing frame of things. If the “pro” is the future, or the historical future struggling to emerge, and the “con” is the past, or the past embedded in the present, we can see the dialectical present as the irreconcilable fight to the end in which one side is going to prevail. This is a deep historical process in which the irreconcilability of the positions drive a process of political and social transformation, out of which a new political and social regime emerges.

This type of dialectical analysis which is directly derived from Hegel is formulated in idealist terms. That is to say, this is a struggle in consciousness, in ways of thinking. So there’s a dialectic between old and new ways of thinking, and the issue is which way of thinking will prevail. In Hegel’s case, will the new liberal French perspective, which Hegel supported, prevail, or will the old German feudal way of thinking prevail. For Hegel, this process is at the core of things, the struggle of ideas, so the dialectic is in the ideological realm. It’s a dialectic in literature, poetry, music, art, philosophy, theory. Marx then took that, and while he agreed, he said the real root of the dialectic is the contradictions in the mode of production.

So he took what was an idealist interpretation of contradictions, and said that these contradictions are materially based and embedded in a set of material relations, and in this case between the ownership of the means of production and the development of the forces of production. That then this concept is so Hegelian it has an ironic cast to it, for Marx argues that, quite unintentionally in the pursuit the developing capitalism and expanding it, the system itself lays the foundation for its ultimate downfall. Because there is a necessity in these contradictions in which capitalism necessarily develops in such a way that it also creates the political forces which will overthrow it.

For Hegel and Marx, this dialectical conception of history is a profound mixture of both a tragic and an optimistic conception at the same time. In other words, victory here is eventually won at a tremendous, unspeakable price.

On social wealth funds:

If one of the challenges to anti-capitalist action is that the left has no clear leader, perhaps a more significant one is that the left has no clear program. One example of a program the left might take up more broadly, as a way to propose rather than just oppose, is the macroeconomic management instrument often known as a “social wealth fund.”

Specific implementations of the general form differ, but the underlying idea is to challenge what we have already identified as the fundamental core of capitalism: private ownership of the means of production, through which labor is exploited. That exploitation is possible because the human heritage of innovation and increased productivity, which is ultimately the property of the public, has been stolen—that is, appropriated by capital. If the accumulation and increasing concentration of wealth is conditioned by this theft, it is further ensured by certain rights that have accrued to capital as a result of its power over the juridical apparatus. Any viable plan to socialize capital, to use capital for social purposes, must therefore involve encroaching on the rights of capital.

The social wealth fund encroaches on those rights and undermines private ownership by placing assets under the control of a public body. Very generally, firms are “taxed” in the form of stock, which is a representation of ownership, rather than being taxed in the form of currency paid to the state. Stock is a form of ownership, but also an asset that generates income through dividends. These dividends can be used to fund social services, which in some cases include universal basic income. The more significant intervention, however, is that a portion of dividends can be reinvested. In other words, dividends are turned into capital, but capital that is socialized since it is controlled by a public body.

There are, of course, many challenges to such a plan. Not least of which is that social wealth funds appear to be simply another technocratic solution to a fundamentally social problem. However, we should imagine these proposals as one way among many to build a movement by mobilizing people and engaging them in leftist causes, not as some ultimate solution. The term “social” obscures that social wealth funds have the potential to go beyond nationalizing or socializing assets. Rather, they are part of a broader struggle to subordinate capital. More problematic, however, is that in their current implementations these instruments often take the nation state as a given and so remain limited in their application to the problem of globalized capital. Since funds are modeled on taxes, they can only “tax” firms that are based in the country where the fund operates. However, funds can invest in publicly traded corporations outside their own nation-state, potentially extending their reach beyond these boundaries. The issue remains, of course, about who makes the decisions on which investments to make. Perhaps even more challenging is what happens when a national fund accumulates enough stock to significantly steer the decision-making process of multinational corporations. Given that the interests of nation-states are not always aligned, and given that national wealth varies widely among nations, such funds also have the potential to perpetuate certain inequalities in global decision-making processes.

Further information on social wealth funds: https://www.peoplespolicyproject.org/projects/social-wealth-fund/

Concluding remarks:

The far right has won elections by speaking in nationalist terms, and speaking to the anger people feel over the last 30 years of living under a neoliberal agenda that has exported their jobs, cut their wages, and continues to minimize their social benefits. The established left in the US failed to acknowledge and admit to their role in the continuing detriment of their working population’s lives.  Trump, on the other hand, mobilized this angry core.

Prof. Robotham stressed the significance of the current critique and attack of global capitalism coming from the right in U.S. politics, when it traditionally has been the left critiquing this global model. He sees the ultra right as pushing their agenda best, which happens to be anti global capitalism in many ways.  The ultra right is leading a pushback against global capitalism, currently within the framework of traditional conservatism, but this looks like it could fall further to the right into an explicitly racist state, which would lead to a crisis in democracy.

In response to these strong forces it seems the left stands divided and unsure what to do. The usual liberalism defensive position has been “listen, it’s not as bad as you think, or as bad as they say.”  That’s the stance Hillary Clinton upheld.  That’s not going to cut it anymore.  People are angry and the left needs to step up with a clear platform that connects with the masses.

Questions:
1. Marx’s dialectical and materialist conception of history helps us to think together the fundamental core relations of capital, which apply universally wherever a capitalist mode of production develops, as well as the deeply historically specific features of any particular instance of capitalism which emerge out of vastly different social and historical circumstances. But to what extent does Marx’s method of historical analysis, and the economic categories (such as labor-time) which inform historical and dialectical materialism, help us to understand non- or post-capitalist social formations? Is historical materialism a trans-historical social science or are its categories specific to capitalist societies? If the latter is the case, how might Marx’s conception of history be reconceived for a post-capitalist social order?

2. Professor Robotham stressed that the course of action of the left has to go beyond merely opposing the right. What economic proposals can the left present or utilize?

3. Another question this recent movement raises: Can a conservative, authoritarian project be fully realized within a bourgeoisie constitutional framework? (i.e. free press, free speech, freedom of assembly)