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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?


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.