‘Rethinking Capitalism’

This weekend I attended bits of the ‘Rethinking Capitalism’ conference at UC Santa Cruz. The conference was the brainchild of UCSC politics professor Bob Meister and received the financial backing of Stephen Bruce, a former hedge-fund manager and employee of Lehman Brothers.

So that’s your first contradiction right there. Bob Meister has endeared himself to the student movement with his penetrating analysis of privatization and financialization at the University of California—you can read his incendiary “They Pledged Your Tuition” series here, here, and here. But he was only able to make this conference happen with the support of a major player in the world of finance capital itself.

The conference had its moments. I thought the Thursday evening panel—“Derivatives and the Capitalist Crisis,” with Robert Brenner, Prabhat Patnaik, and Randy Martin—was pretty interesting. The consensus view seemed to be that the rise of derivative markets represents an attempt to paper-over the declining profitability of manufacturing in the US, and that the crisis that began in these markets is likely to drag on for some time.

I missed all of Friday, but returned on Saturday for the roundtable discussion “Rethinking Capitalism by Rethinking Marxism.” To be perfectly honest I was in and out of the room due to responsibilities at the Haymarket Books table, but a couple of things jumped out at me.

First, any attempt to ‘Rethink Marxism’ is really going to need to move beyond a panel featuring mostly white men over the age of fifty. Thanks to the economic crisis, interest in Marxism is on the rise in the academy. The various post-Marxist/postmodernist-type speakers at the conference definitely seemed to be on the defensive, and there was a sense of a major intellectual shift taking place. But it doesn’t help the process if Marxists confirm every negative stereotype put forward by feminists, queer theorists, and critical race scholars over the last twenty years.

Secondly, any revival of academic Marxism will need to root itself in the actual social struggles taking place in and around the university. A number of student activists attended the conference and several of them asked questions along the lines of: “how does this theory help us build the struggle against the budget cuts?” The answers they received ranged from the impenetrably abstract to the frankly disdainful. I get the feeling that the American professional intelligentsia is more disconnected from social movements and the working class than at any time since the 1950s.

There are honorable exceptions to this rule: History of Consciousness professor Gopal Balakrishnan produces some very useful, politically-engaged scholarship and had excellent things to say at the conference, and Literature professor Rob Wilson made several impassioned pleas for relevancy from the floor.

It was a good day at the Haymarket table: the new Historical Materialism series attracted a lot of very positive attention and we sold several hundreds dollars worth of books.


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