2011 Left Forum Don't Take the Bait: The Left and Crisis A Social Text Roundtable

with Neferti Tadiar (Barnard), Micki McGee (Fordham), Randy Martin and Michael Ralph (NYU)


The recent financial crisis would seem to present precisely the opportunity that the left has been waiting for: a moment of reckoning when failure is undeniable and injustice unconcealed. Yet crisis — whether taken as the end, a critical juncture, turning point, or beginning — has not proven to be so ready or willing an object to think with or through. Indeed, for some whatever is meant by crisis seems to be decidedly over, while for others it is just getting started. Financiers continue to take crisis as their opportunity, while misery continues to be spread around. Whether this is an exceptional state of affairs or business as usual frequently escapes consideration. Perhaps the greater challenge, is how the left might see itself if crisis is taken as its mirror. Crisis and critique share an etymology, but how they might be situated or staged with respect to one another can prove elusive or simply taken for granted. Clearly, critique is implicated in what it takes as its object, but critique must not be taken over by criteria it cannot master.


If economic indicators are proclaimed to have returned to normalcy, does that send the left back to its cave to hibernate until the next calamity strikes? If crisis provides the proof that capitalism does not work, does that leave the left with nothing to say when the realm of profit-taking exchange, aka, the market, is humming along. And why would we accept this figure of capital’s aggregate wealth, particularly if it collapses what needs to be disaggregated in terms of capital’s internal strains and the effects on labor. Further, how does the financial crisis articulate with any number of other crises that could readily be named, of environment, race, education, population, sexuality, religion, publics, health, and violence — in ways that do not beg the question of how a critique of capital articulates with any number of other political engagements?


From another perspective, how does the left recognize its own critical agency and efficacy if it comes to understand itself through an account that may prove altogether hostile. Against a temptation to reduce all social expressions to technical instruments of measure, even to value radical initiatives, alternative approaches, counter-logics in terms of business criteria of best practices, value-added, or binaries of success and failure, what criteria should be applied for grasping the difference that a left is now, should and can be making?


This roundtable takes up two concerns. First, what traps ensue from a left taking an understanding of its own political significance and opportunity from the conditions of crisis. Second, what would it mean to find other means of valuing and evaluating the grounds and effects of left politics, occasions and opportunities?

Micki identified what has become a permanent state of crisis punctuated by plausible deniability. She noted the relative indifference exhibited by the global response to the Japanese disaster and invited us to look at a book called The Wave. One consequence would be to abandon the naturalization of time displayed in the notion of a cycle which underwrites many notions of perennial crisis. The temporality of disruption would then need to be grasped as continuous and expanding, an unpredictable chaos that also provides inherent if difficult to discern opportunity. We might then get beyond the tyranny of positive thinking as a cultural investment and recognize the baleful violence in the uses of crisis such as the war on women augured by audit regimes on reproductive rights but also the move away from demobilizing self-improvement evident in the public labor response in Wisconsin.

Michael asked us to consider the twinned genealogies of crisis and critique as evident in the torqued reception of revolution and its promise. He cited the example of Haiti so often spoken of in the tragic mode but also seen in terms of the leverage and volatility it has unleashed as a historical force that triggered the Louisiana Purchase. This prospect of ongoing revolution when we might other dismiss the incompleteness of an event beckons a treatment of the derivative logic by which other modes of debt and credit could achieve just valuation. He too noted the violence of conventional means of measure such as the credit score or the suggestion that Haiti bet against itself by investing in catastrophe bonds, but urged a linking of frameworks of rights, labor, and the mutual indebtedness figured in insurance as we consider the ongoing revolutions in our midst.

Neferti drew upon her work with radical social movement in the Philippines, where revolution and counter-revolution did not abate, as the triumphalist narrative of the North might have it. The human surplus that is the consequence of failing IMF/World Bank schemes have generated no shortage of counter-insurgencies and crisis that take the form of an unabsorbable excess. Still, we need to look at the limits of the standard formulation of crisis as event, which comes and goes, and as structure, which promulgates an iterative reproduction of forces of dominance. As such, we miss how things go on differently amidst the indifference to valuing them so. We also miss the speculative adventurism by which the lumpenproletariat of the South introduces contrary logics and possibilities. The ulterior moralism of the left needs to be met by a temperament more assiduous in its predictions.

Randy Martin