Historical Materialism 2010

This year’s Historical Materialism conference started a day after the biggest and most militant student demonstration in decades giving the speakers and attendees a more confident tone. A meeting on the media started with Ampuja taking apart the arguments that we live in a “network society” stating that it ignores Imperialism, Class and Oppression. The arguments of the network society associated with Castells propagate the idea that in the absence of social change “globalisation” has already fulfilled people’s demands for autonomy and control. While Freedman put forward convincing criticism of Chomsky’s “propaganda model” of the media that has become “common sense” among some on the left. The basic idea being that the media puts forward propaganda that dupes people into supporting the ruling classes in society. Freedman suggests that it ignores divisions among fractions of the ruling class that we can exploit. Using the Iraq war as example he states that the Daily Mirror supported demonstrations and printed its own placards increasing its sales in the process. Again using the Iraq war as an example the “public” do not always go along with what the media are putting out especially if there is a large movement saying the opposite.  A highlight was the meeting on Art which featured the carrot workers collective and Dave Beech. The Carrot’s (?) concentrate their attention on people who work in the cultural industry as interns. Interns often work for free and are expected to work long hours as Art is there “passion”. The hierarchy within the culture industry often means your “boss” is usually the last intern who has the attitude that “I went through it, so you will go through it and a little bit more”.

 Beech read out a manifesto on political art stating that art needs to be “twice political”:

“We don’t want the revolution, we want a million revolutions”  

The public does not exist for your art, “publics have to be won, earned”

“Political art must be the best art around, if it is not, it is not political enough!”

 Political art must fight on all fronts including the “armed struggle”.

He then answers a question of what makes a piece of art beautiful with “the march was beautiful” referring to the student demonstration the day before.

Further highlights included Farris’s talk on Marx’s On the Jewish question. Farris states Marx outlined that Jewish people were treated by states as though they were from an alien culture which refused to integrate into universal values. Sounding familiar yet. Farris draws the obvious parallels between how Islam is treated today and the way that Judaism was treated in the past. Marx refuses to make a hierarchy of religions with some seen as more progressive than others, as the target of Marx’s work Bruno Bauer did. Bauer suggests that it would be progressive if Jewish people converted to Christianity like Marx’s father had done. This has echoes in the way the new humanists such as Dawkins make a hierarchy of religion. During the pope visit Dawkins stated Catholicism was the second most dangerous religion, I wonder what number one is for him?

The two meetings that I attended on Feminism were mixed. Judith Orr gave a lively speech on contemporary feminism and Laurie Penny made frequent references to Gok Won to a bemused Historical Materialist audience. Lindsey German situated women’s changing role in society to the expansion of women’s employment after the Second World War and spoke about the centrality of the “nuclear family” to maintain women’s oppression. Nina Power made reference to the 1982 book the managed heart by Hochschild that studies the way women air stewards are expected to do “emotional labour” such as smiling, pretending to like the guests, flirting etc.

Gramsci was a frequent topic with Peter Thomas author of The Gramscian Moment usually chairing the meetings. Michele Filipini highlighted Gramsc’s notion of crisis which can be economic but also political or sexual. Filipini in the questions and contributions section then states that the term “Hegemony” should not be used anymore given the divergent ways it is thrown around. A debate on Gramsci’s concept of passive revolution was interesting. Neil Davidson defined passive revolution as “bourgeois revolutions from above” against feudal relations in which the masses demands are partially taken onboard without being centrally involved citing the examples of Scotland, Germany and Japan. The debate saw Adam David Morton became the first person to say that Alex Callinicos was being “playful”. Callinicos pointed out the different uses Gramsci makes of passive revolution both as bourgeois revolution from above and in reference to American Fordism and Italian Fascism, meaning that the term is both used for bringing in different social relations (Capitalism from Feudalism) and situations within capitalism (fordism, fascism). Callinicos highlighted the danger of extending the concept too far, something Chris Hesketh does by suggesting that the neo liberalisation of Mexico was a passive revolution. Morton also stated that neo liberalism could be seen as a passive revolution to restore class power for the rich.

Callinicos reacted by saying that the idea workers demands were incorporated into Thatcherism was around in the 80’s and was nonsense, neoliberalism is a brutal process of class war carried out by the state.  

A meeting on the recently deceased Daniel Bensaid revolutionary of 68 and the fourth international was difficult with many of his personal friends on the panel such as Stathis Kouvelakis and Sebastin Budgen. The talks focussed on Bensaid’s last published book Marx for our times. The opportunity for sectarianism was taken up by a member in the audience that said Bensaid was wrong about Russia being a degenerated workers state while ignoring the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. Another suggested that Bensaid should have read more Trotsky. Another low light included a talk on the failings of liberal multiculturalism that suggested that fascism should not be treated differently from liberal pandering to racism.

All in all this expanding conference should be in every Lefties calendar. Until next year the journals will have to suffice.

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