In These Times ran an interview with Adbusters'Kalle Lasn a few days ago. Here are some excerpts from the interview with my responses.
Lasn's primary engine runs on an opposition between the old left and the new left. Most of the time it isn't completely clear what this means. In the interview, he presents Occupy as a continuation of 1968, so the new left looks pretty much like the new left that has been around since the late 60s. The interviewer positions Lasn as a kind of Situationist (cue Bookchin criticism of neo-Situationism), which may be inaccurate insofar as Lasn's views seems an amalgam of various trends, particularly embrace of digital media, leaderlessness, horizontalism, multitudes, swarms, mystical thinking (cue Bookchin again--I was too quick yesterday to say that mysticism wasn't a problem), and insurrection.
Lasn's response to a question about Occupy:
A power struggle is going on in the movement, between the old vertical type of a Left and a new young Left that has social media at its finger tips and isn’t so enamored with the old wolf pack mentality but is ready to do things in a much more horizontal way without leaders – sometimes even without demands. The question is: In this tussle between the old Left and the new Left, who will win? And if temporarily the old Left triumphs then we’re in for a hard year this year and possibly even next, but bit by bit this movement does herald a new Left. This movement has made the Left cool again.
I agree that there is a power struggle going on (which is always the case in movements and parties and can be a source of energy and innovation). I find the opposition between a wolf pack and social media pretty interesting in that nature looks bad and technology looks good or, attacking and eating other animals is bad and connecting on social media is good. Back to the interview (interviewer question in bold):
How does one build counter-hegemonic power and get beyond “crowd sourcing,” which is really what the Occupy general assemblies are?
In the next few years there will be what I call a “meme war” – a war of really big ideas within economics. Will we be able to pull off a paradigm shift from neoclassical economics to this new ecological or bionomic or psychonomic discipline that is bubbling underneath the surface? Will we be able to change our current dysfunctional marketplace into one in which the price of every product tells the ecological truth? Will we be able to impose Robin Hood taxes and dismantle this global casino with more than $1 trillion a day flushing around the system in derivatives and credit default swaps and other financial instruments?
If we on the Left try to figure out what these meta memes are and start fighting for them, then we will get somewhere. If we fall back on the old ways of doing things, then capitalism is going to swallow us whole.
First problem: arguments are more than memes. They are ideas backed by reason and evidence. Lasn diminishes the challenge and the sort of significant work involved. Second problem: Lasn misrepresents the economic problem of neoliberal capitalism as a division between neoclassical economics and the "new ecological or bionomic or psychonomic discipline that is bubbling underneath the surface." Now maybe I just don't know what he's talking about, but it looks to me like the sort of stuff that is usually wrapped up as complexity theory, with all its talk about emergence and swarms and self-organization and criticality (I talk about this in the first chapter of Blog Theory). It's the same set of ideas part of New Economy thinking, which isn't opposed to neoliberalism at all but was a primary carry of it, especially insofar as regulation is bad and free flow is good. Thomas Friedman, after all, is like the poster boy of horizontality--The World is Flat.
Where does power over the distribution of societal resources fit into this equation? How is the Occupy movement going to redistribute wealth from the 1% to the 99%?
Quite frankly, the question you ask betrays the fact that you are quoting the old Left. The way to fix the problem may not actually be a straightforward approach of passing some laws and taking some money from the 1% and giving it to the 99%. Maybe we have to have a more sophisticated approach where we don’t play out this kind of class warfare idea. The change has to be deeper. If we can finally ram through this Robin Hood tax, which a lot of people are for in Europe, and make it very high, not just a .01% but a 1% tax on all financial transactions, then that will be a deep-down transformation of casino capitalism, and all of a sudden the Robin Hood tax would collect trillions of dollars every year and then we the people of the world could start arguing over how to spend that money.
Lasn is too sophisticated for class warfare, which is just another way of saying that he is on the side of the sophisticated (or as Corey Robin has called them, the "fancies"). That is, he is denying that our current economic situation is the product of class war, capitalist attempts (largely successful) to roll back the gains made by the working class from the 30s through the 60s. The thing is, Lasn's answer here seems inconsistent--wouldn't "ramming through" a 1% tax on all financial transactions be a tool of class warfare? On the other hand, why is that tax a "deeper change" than the abolition of private property?
Isn’t the legislative process needed to enact or “ram through” redistributive policies like the Robin Hood tax?
Once you do that, you’re accepting the status quo. Maybe the real job is to launch a third political party in America that is initiated on the Internet, gets million of signatures, and then has a convention. Maybe the task of changing the political landscape of America with a third party is a way smarter move than what the Tea Party did with the Republicans, and what so many people are saying we should do with the Democrats. The trick for the political Left is to think deeper. Instead of thinking, “Hey, let’s pass a law that legislates the Robin Hood tax,” let’s change the political landscape.
Take, for example, the idea we launched last year. In the general assemblies we have a microcosm of a democratic process that’s magical and beautiful. It works and this is a metaphor for how America should work.
Love the idea of a third party--The Common Party or The Party of the Commons. Why on the internet? Lasn is using the model of the Pirate Party (Sweden, Germany). I need to learn more about what they've done. I'm skeptical that "initiating it on the internet" is the key or the most fundamental question for creating a new party; that seems to me to place means way before ends (which is a problem with process-oriented approaches over all). Lasn is right to say "change the political landscape." But this change isn't magical (whether it's beautiful seems to me to be an aesthetic question that gets us off track). That we can't fully determine or predict outcomes doesn't mean that they are the products of magic. I'm also not convinced that GAs are a metaphor for how American should work--it depends on what the tasks at hand are, on what we want to do.
. . . Change finds its bed within a culture with big ideas that resonate with people. There has to be a sort of mystery and magic to the whole thing and so far the Occupy movement has been very good at operating on that deeper level. Somewhere along the line we will have to pass laws . . . But there are a lot of meta memes that we have to conjure up . . .
I'm starting to wonder about the "deeper level" Lasn so persistently invokes--is it magical? Conjuring memes doesn't strike me as democratic--it strikes me as a kind of manipulation that wants to avoid reason, argument, exchange, critique. I worry about the magicians of culture who want to create a big affective charge. The sorts of political organizations that rely on mystery and magic are generally either fascistic or secret societies.
The Occupy movement has been committed to developing actions and strategies through consensus. How do the “tactical briefings” issued by Adbusters fit into that process?
This tussle over what we should do next is something we should all get involved in. When we put out that call [in the January 25 “Tactical Briefing #25”] for 50,000 people to descend on Chicago [on May 1, ahead of the NATO summit], people in Chicago said, “You haven’t been talking to us. How dare you do this. You haven’t been part of our meetings.” I say, “To hell with them.” We want to put out a tactical briefing, and you can take it or leave it.
Horizontalism looks like the assertion of will. Anyone can say whatever they, issues calls for whatever they want. Cooperation and coordination, are possible through social media, but not necessary. To hell with those who don't want what we want. At this point, it's hard to see the difference between the new left and a wolf pack.