A Debate on the Crisis

On November 14, the Platypus collective organized a well attended debate in New York City. The theme of the meeting was: Radical Interpretations of the Present Crisis and the speakers – Loren Goldner, David Harvey, Andrew Kliman and Paul Mattick jr- were all known for their writings on this subject from a Marxist perspective. That sounded promising, but the actual debate was somewhat disappointing.

One reason was the format. Four speakers were too many for such a complex subject as this. It could only have worked if the moderator had focused on their implicit (and sometimes explicit) differences. Broadly speaking, the panelists shared the same basic outlook: they all situated the cause of the crisis in the value-form, believed there is no solution to the crisis so that it will deepen and lead to devalorisation. But they differed on the role of fictitious capital and financial bubble-formation in the development of the crisis, on the effect (and even the existence) of the decline of wages in the past decades, on the need for theory and political organisation, and on what would become of the value-form in a revolutionary society. All interesting subjects but they were touched upon only in passing. Instead of focusing the debate on them, the moderator added new subjects to the mix: the future of ‘neo-liberalism’, American hegemony, etc…subjects interesting enough to debate in their own right, but it made the conversation hop from one topic to another without deepening any of them.

Some of the blame has to go to the panelists themselves. They did not succeed in effectively connecting their theoretical exposés with the actual life experience of their public; with the worries, hopes, desires and struggles of real people. The tone was mostly observant, detached. As a result, the debate came across as quite academic. This was reinforced by the moderator who adressed the panelists with ‘professor’ or even ‘doctor’. None of them objected. They accepted their roles of ‘doctors’, experts, specialists. Precisely the division of labor that is engrained in capitalism and that must disappear with it.

Mattick was the most detached. In answer to a question of a young woman, on why the panelists were all older white males, he said Marxist theory is “a hobby for white males, like keeping tropical fish”. Nobody challenged him on that, except for Goldner indirectly, when he defended the need for theory and political organisation, which today, according to him, should take the form of ‘networks’. Harvey centered his talk on the dual nature of the commodity and the insanity of commodity-fetishism. We wanted to applaud him for that, but then he went on to say, the basis of value is social labor and we don’t want to abolish that. Therefore, the issue is to find a material representation that can’t be accumulated. He speculated what that could be and sided with Proudhon in his dispute with Marx on this issue. Only Kliman criticized him on this, making clear that tinkering with money isn’t abolishing the value-form and thus neither abolishing capitalism.
Kliman focused on the fall of the rate of profit, which in his view is the real and only cause of the crisis. To make that point, he argued that financial speculation did not increase vis-a-vis productive investment between 1981 and 2001 and that profits had not risen at the expense of wages in this period. He said that when the crisis broke out in 2008, the left blamed it on financialisation and ‘lost a real opportunity’ to explain what it really was about. It wasn’t clear what ‘left’ he was talking about.

Throughout the evening, there was much talk about “the left”, especially by the Platypus-people, without ever making a distinction between the capitalist left and the pro-revolutionary left;, even though that is vital. Know your enemy, especially when he’s disguised. The (capitalist) left did not miss an opportunity when it blamed the crisis on greedy Wall Street bankers, it used an opportunity to advance its state-capitalist agenda.

S.

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