Two years ago some smart leftists here put together an event called the Battle of Ideas, and the mix of provocative themes, well-run panels and competent speakers worked out well. I was invited to speak at a couple of sessions in the third Battle at the end of October and was happy to find its organizers threading a sane course past the rocks on which left-organized confabs usually founder: viz., endless mastication of the obvious, marked disinclination to address any new ideas, overblown preachments to the converted. In fact, on the surface at least, this didn’t seem like a particularly “left” affair, which probably explains why that weekend a thousand people were milling around the Royal College of Art, next to the Albert Hall.
Waiting for my first panel (“Digital Commons: Does New Technology Add Up to a New Sphere?” My answer: no), I thought back forty years to what these days would be called a signature ’60s event, namely, the Congress on the Dialectics of Liberation, held over two weeks in July 1967 in a magnificent railway repair shed known as the Roundhouse, built in the 1840s in north London. There was nothing circular about those proceedings. It was full-tilt forward to revolution, personal and political.
The Congress was convened by radical psychiatrists led by R.D. Laing and David Cooper. They believed that the violence done to what they saw as those socially victimized persons termed “schizophrenic” or “mad” had common features with America’s imperial violence, at that time being unleashed on revolutionary Vietnam. The affair featured big names and big themes: Herbert Marcuse, Paul Sweezy, Paul Goodman, Stokely Carmichael, Gregory Bateson.
The night before his address I cooked dinner for Mr. and Mrs. Marcuse on behalf of the New Left Review editorial committee. Marcuse was sharing lodgings with Goodman and denounced the latter’s habit of leaving the bathroom door open as he stood in his underwear, brushing his teeth, “flirting his buttocks.” Marcuse twitched his behind in parody of the licentious author of Growing Up Absurd as, slightly shocked, our group waited to continue with probing questions about the Frankfurt School. “Too much civilization, not enough Eros,” Mrs. Marcuse muttered wryly.
Next day Marcuse admonished the large crowd, many of whom had taken up permanent residence in the Roundhouse, “We have been too ashamed, understandably ashamed, to insist on the integral, radical features of a socialist society…. If this qualitative difference today appears as utopian, as idealistic, as metaphysical, this is precisely the form in which these radical features must appear if…socialism is indeed…the leap into the realm of freedom–a total rupture.”
What seemed to seize the crowds at the Battle of Ideas forty years later were not grand visionary sweeps, like those of Marcuse–history has sidelined these for the nonce–but deflations of what one may term rhetorical, politically correct “mini-progressivism.” One panel I eagerly attended, “Recycling Is a Waste of Time,” featured a German, Thomas Deichmann, describing the insane recycling regulations now beleaguering the citizenry of Frankfurt. The case for efficient incineration, he asserted, was overwhelming. Most recycling is an utter waste of time, economically unsound and without benefit for the environment. “We should,” he counseled urbanely, “be thinking of more interesting things.”
Julia Hailes, “sustainability consultant” to companies such as Marks & Spencer and Shell, author of The New Green Consumer Guide, listened tautly, as did Julie Hill, author of A Zero Waste UK, who gazed at Deichmann as though he were a lead battery in a baby’s bath. Hailes mimed, with as much enthusiasm, albeit less satirically than Marcuse forty years earlier, the pleasures of tossing foil into one kitchen bin, a metal bottle top into another, plastic into a third. Recycling, she chirped, made her feel good.
They didn’t carry the crowd. A man described sorting green, clear and brown glass into three bins, only to see them all dumped into the same truck. A woman seized the microphone: “I go to the dump with my kid each week to take the rubbish there. Then he goes to school and they do their first day trip, and where do they go?” She paused for effect. “To the dump!” The crowd roared. Mind you, this wasn’t a mob of hee-haw Limbaugh-type reactionaries, deriding all collective social efforts to improve the planet. In this and other sessions, their indignation stemmed from a sense that along the road from the grand visions of ’67 to the pious sustainability mantras and globe-survivalist waffle of our own phase, the vision of human liberation expressed by Marcuse had collapsed into variants of resource management and nannyism, with irksome rules and protocols, none of which had anything to do with onslaughts on capitalist ownership and control.
In 1989 I did some interviews on environmentalism and socialism for Z Magazine with left economist James O’Connor. Jim described what he’d told a fellow in the newspaper recycling business: “If you set up a recycling project where your outfit helps to create the conditions to organize social relations of production that make sense, that have to do with fraternity, equality, liberty and justice, etc., etc., then I’ll recycle my newspapers. Come and tell me when you have done that.
: What do you do with your old newspapers?
: Throw them in the trash. What do you do with yours?
: Throw them in the trash. Back in Ireland with my mother we leave them out for the man from St. Vincent de Paul who takes them away for some charitable purpose, thereby maintaining social relations in the sorry state they are today, imploring the poor to pray for relief from heaven. And, needless to say, the poor people of my hometown are very glad to have St. Vincent de Paul bail them out in their hour of need.