A Tale of Two Meetings

I went to two meetings on Friday. The first was online and attended by representatives from housing campaigns in New York state. The second was in person, at The Peoples Forum, a venue for the progressive left in midtown Manhattan. As a more articulate person than me, who’d also been to both, said, there was a “cognitive dissonance” between the two I’ve been trying to piece together.

I’ve written already about the eviction crunch the US is coming to. That was the main subject of Friday’s first meeting. About 30 people were on the call, an indication of just how many housing campaign groups there are over here. You’d have a job to pull together a meeting of that scale and type from the whole of the UK. Many reasons for that, but one is the contrasting organisational cultures and traditions.

Over here, even the best and boldest receive serious money from big foundations, some of them backed by the very corporations the movement is working to challenge and overthrow. It’s too crude to say this leads automatically to incorporation, but it does lead to a professionalisation of activism that can become a problem.

Friday’s housing meeting was an illustration. There was no denial of the scale of harm that could be done to working class communities when the eviction moratorium ends at the end of August. But the meeting was presented with “options” for a response that were clearly inadequate to the threat and the main reason offered for this was a lack of “capacity” and “burn out” on the part of most of the organisations attending (who, it should be said, have mounted some magnificent and very successful campaigns in recent years – and of course, these are tough times). But these are luxuries tenants faced with homelessness can’t afford. This was made very clear by members of CASA at an earlier meeting, when tenants (who are not being paid to be at meetings) insisted on more urgency because they can’t just sit-back and let the eviction tide wash over them.

Which brings me to the second meeting (the podcast is here). Among the speakers were David Harvey (talking about his Anti-Capitalist Chronicles) and Vijay Prashad, who I didn’t know anything about, but was a very entertaining and engaging speaker. The discussion revolved around capitalist crisis and imperialism, but I think David is still having to justify his (unscripted and I think, misinterpreted) “capitalism is too big to fail” comments from December 2019. (which I commented on here).

Inevitably, when you’re talking about “big stuff” like globalisation, the smaller stuff can get lost. I’m sure, as Vijay said, that the agrarian and environmental crisis of India and Bangladesh calls forth the need for a “workers and peasants” alliance. But the use of that phrase indicates an obsession with movement labels that I’m not sure are relevant, at least not for the people in the Bronx who could lose their homes soon. Someone in the room (me) raised this disconnect, but it didn’t feel like those who seem to be part of a Communist Party revivalist movement, had much to say about it. David Harvey, by contrast, approached me afterwards to say he would try to pull together a few people to discuss what can be done to help build and support eviction resistance.

As one unacknowledged founder of this nation, Tom Paine, said, these are times that try our souls. There are no easy answers. But somehow, the theory and practice of activism need to be brought together and that can’t be done through organisational retreat or slogans.

David Harvey speaking at The Peoples Forum, 23rd July 2021

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