The Left Forum: So Right in So Many Ways

This coverage of the just-completed Left Forum will endeavor to describe a moment in time when a passionately humanistic group of people achieves critical mass in both weight of numbers and ideas.

Left Forum attendees crowd around booksellers.

The Left Forum is a 2 ½ day event that took place from March 16-18 at Pace University in New York City. Attendees, who hailed from all over the world, could select from more than 400 sessions involving more than 1400 speakers. Many come from academia, think tanks, human service organizations, government, and myriad other groups far too numerous to mention. What binds them together, however, is a keen understanding of how their pieces of the world work…or don’t work. That’s what makes the Left Forum so very, very special; it’s impossible to attend without feeling a profound sense of shared humanity, coupled with a deeper understanding of how insensitive our political and economic institutions are to human suffering, and how committed those institutions are to maintaining the status quo.

Before going on allow me to share a frustration; attending Left Forum is like going to a buffet where everything on the table is something you like: you can’t eat everything. So, I’ll give you a taste of Left Forum by sharing some of what I savored.

Michael Moore speaks to Left Forum crowd.

Michael Moore speaks to Left Forum crowd.

Worker Cooperatives: Building a Solidarity Economy

The first session that I attended focused on the cooperative business model, the appeal of which is the more egalitarian and democratic distribution of the rewards of labor. Not coincidentally, this is the goal of the Occupy movement. The overarching message of this session was that cooperatives defend workers’ rights against the power of concentrated capital, while creating more satisfying and productive work places. Speakers not only shared their own experiences in building cooperatives themselves, they also provided resources for those interesting in starting cooperatives. Some of those references follow:

Grassroots Economic Organizing Collective
The Working World
The Democracy Collaborative
Resources for the History of Worker Cooperatives in the United States


The Crisis of Right-Wing Populism: Europe and the U.S.

The speakers:
Jan Kavan, former Foreign Minister, Czech Republic
Walter Baier, economist and coordinator of the European Network “Transform”
William Tabb, Queens College, CUNY
Abby Scher, Institute for Policy Studies

Each Left Forum session was scheduled to last for one hour and fifty minutes. This session could have been twice that. The European speakers started off by painting a scary picture of European ultra-nationalism. In speaking of the Czech Republic, Mr. Kavan said that democratic institutions were under great pressure from the far right, a group that gets considerable support from an entrenched, right-wing media establishment, and Mr. Baier doubled down by saying that the right-wing, fascist threat throughout much of Europe required more than a polite response.

In his comments on right-wing politics in the U.S., William Tabb referred to work done by the popular psychologist Jonathon Haidt in which he posits a 5-part moral matrix. You can read more about in his book entitled “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion.” It’s also the subject of a talk which is available on the web.

The five parts of the matrix are: (1) Harm/Care, (2) Fairness/Reciprocity, (3) Ingroup Loyalty, (4) Authority/Respect, and (5) Purity/Sanctity. Liberals tend to respond to the first two, and conservatives to the last 3. Since people also tend to aggregate into groups attracting like-minded people, and groups tend to reinforce a shared world view, ideological conflict is inevitable. Tabb used this paradigm as a backdrop for his comments relative to the Occupy Wall Street movement which, he notes, derives its power and popularity from the egalitarian notion that we are all hurt by the 1%, thereby enabling OWS to bridge the matrix divide.

Abby Sher closed out the session with fascinating observations about the Tea Party in which she rejected the notion that it is a populist movement since it restates long-held Republican views. She also defined Glenn Beck’s enormous role in setting the Tea Party agenda, and in positioning President Obama as “not one of us.”

Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West speak at Left Forum.

Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich and Frances Fox Piven at the 2012 Left Forum

Bio: Distinguished Professor Frances Fox Piven received her Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. Before coming to the Graduate Center, she taught at Boston University, Columbia University, New York University Law School, the Institute of Advanced Studies in Vienna, the University of Amsterdam, and the University of Bologna. (more

Bio: Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is the Class of 1943 University Professor at Princeton University. He graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton. He has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris. (more

Every convention or conference that I have attended had a session that featured so-called stars who made attendees feel good about themselves, and happy that they spent the money to attend. Such a session at Left Forum was to have brought together Cornel West, Barbara Ehrenreich and Frances Fox Piven but, due to a family matter, Ms. Ehrenreich was unable to attend. A disappointment for sure, professors Piven and West were, nonetheless, up to the task of captivating the standing-room-only audience. However, unlike the vacuous, feel-good messengers of most conferences and conventions, Piven and West spoke passionately about the poor and the marginalized, thereby reaffirming the left’s awesome and urgent responsibility to provide a voice for those who need one.

Professor Piven, the octogenarian whose career has earned Glenn Beck’s ire, framed many of her comments around Michael Harrington’s 1962 book entitled “The Other America,” in which he linked the structural and cultural aspects of poverty. In this latest battle in the culture war, she said, the right seeks, once again, to decouple these factors thereby placing the responsibility for poverty on the poor and the culture they, allegedly, support.

Following Dr. Piven, Cornel West eloquently attacked the right’s “everything is for sale” view of America. He also delivered a phrase that captured both the reason for Left Forum, as well as the entire political left when he rhetorically asked, “Who would want to live in a world where we do not have righteous indignation for the misfortune of others?”

Indeed, Dr. West, indeed.

Author’s note: As we plunge deeper and deeper into the 2012 political debate, we will hear politicians on the right speak about how so-and-so rejected the culture of poverty and achieved success. Nice story, but it’s like promoting war because some soldier survived without a scratch. His or her good fortune does little to sweeten the tears for those less fortunate…and very dead. 


Brian McCabe graduated from college in 1967, cutting his political teeth protesting against Viet Nam and for civil rights. Over the years he’s vacillated between tolerant of and angry at American politics and politicians, as well as the undemocratic nature of capitalism. Right now he is in an angry phase as America drifts toward theocracy and/or fascism (pick your poison). Brian lives in Republican north Jersey where, as he notes, even birds don’t have left wings. “You should see how they fly around in circles until they fly up their own butts.” He blogs at Liberaloutpost, and you can follow him on Twitter.




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