Occupy political change. Report from Communism: A New Beginning? conference in NYC

| October 21, 2011

It was one of those ‘snap to attention' statements. Political theorist Jodi Dean was asked, "What is the point of theory?" Her response? "It is to provide weapons." Dean was speaking metaphorically of course, but the quote resonated. The world we find ourselves in needs a theory that can cut through the leaden fog that says we have, for better or worse, the best world we can hope for.

The statement loomed large over a New York City conference, which took place from Oct. 14 to 16 and was sponsored by Verso Books, titled "Communism: A New Beginning?" If it seems surreal for there to be such a symposium 20 years after the official obituary of communism was written, it has been brought back to earth by the swirl of events surrounding Occupy Wall Street, Tahir Square in Egypt, riots in London, and heroic protests in Syria. Once again, the matter of "can the world be different", is a pressing question.

The event was held in New York's Cooper Union, with the 200 available tickets selling out almost immediately. There were attendees -- and virtual participants via a live feed -- from all over the world. Most of them are avid readers of the works of conference participants, who along with Dean included; Bruno Bosteels, Susan Buck-Morss, Frank Ruda, Étienne Balibar and Slavoj Zizek. French philosopher Alain Badiou, who was ill, was not able to attend but had his statement read to the conference.

The conference was illuminating and provocative, though there were parts that were challenging and even a bit dense. That is the nature of the beast. Unfortunately, too often the major questions on how to realize a radically new society resides with the intelligentsia, especially those in academia. In this, some work harder than others to make difficult stuff popular. That said to even try is commendable -- an expression of a certain commitment toward breaking through. In that respect a story Zizek -- the Slovenia philosopher who is among the most important thinkers around today -- told of how the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawn once gave a talk to a group of workers. In a self-deprecating style he said, "I'm not hear to lecture, I'm here to learn from you." Zizek noted their response. "Fuck off, you are making fun of us -- you have the duty to tell us what you know!" There is a need for such intellectual work.

What is striking is how young the audience is for this thinking. While there was a sprinkling of older people, most -- a mix of men and women, though men predominated -- ranged from their 20s to their early 40s.

Why they came is not just a matter of intellectual curiosity. The sense of changing terrain and perhaps opportunity is deeply felt. As the conference convened last Friday, the ongoing Occupy Wall Street actions in Lower Manhattan were threatened with eviction. When the session began Saturday morning, OWS was marching from Wall Street through Washington Square Park, with the NYPD riding them along the way. By day's end OWS had reached Time Square at which point many in the conference joined them.

As a result, on Sunday the comments and presentation were full of cross-referencing with the movement out in the street, with an emphasis on the need and role of theorists. Zizek pointedly noted that when Bill Clinton goes on television attempting to embrace such actions, watch out. "We have to learn not to dialog with some people." In his provocative style he meant people need to break away from the dominant ruling framework in forging a new path. These were similar to statements he made to the Occupy assembly in Zuccotti Park just days before.

The conference invoked the word "communism" critically -- though realizing a world held in common stood as the question seeking answer. In its (historically) short life this theory (and its multitude of interpretations) has been problematic, even horrific. Yet as speakers pointed out, that doesn't mean capitalism -- the dominant world system -- is good. Put another way just because you do not have a ready solution does not mean you don't have a problem.  

Despite fantastic scenarios of a world functioning without labor it remains the case that the fruit on our tables comes from hands muddied and bloodied in the fields, the chips in our computers are powered by minerals extracted by miners toiling and dying way beyond an early age in the Congo, and the call centre operators in Bangalore are lucrative because of the unemployed multitudes in Delhi. This is a world in which the socioeconomic system has developed the ability to do great things, yet is incapable -- and violently resistant to -- do so in any manner that is not profitable, regardless of the consequences. There is a need for something else.

Coming home from the Occupy Time Square demonstration -- this reporter boarded a subway. Before the doors could close six or eight members of a brass marching band, that had also taken part in the demonstration, got on. They were fully equipped and decided to strike up the band. There was trombone, flute, flugelhorn, saxophone and drums playing an evocative mix; maybe a gypsy dance or some East European melody. The passengers, in New York this means people from everywhere, and band members were fused and elevated in the moment -- music has this effect. The episode captured something of the wild mix of the weekend's events, the actions in the street and the intellectual imagining. In the words of Badiou, "The world can be otherwise."

Aaron Leonard is a writer and freelance journalist. He is a contributor to truthout.org, History News Network, rabble.ca and other publications. He is based in New York City. His writings can be found by clicking here.

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