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Historical Materialism Sydney 2016: Populism, Capitalism and…the Alternative?

by Gareth Bryant on August 16, 2016

Update: Call for papers deadline extended to Friday 16 September

The fifth annual Historical Materialism Sydney conference on new Marxist research will be held at The University of Sydney Business School Abercrombie Building on the 25th and 26th of November, 2016

Call for papers: Populism, Capitalism and…the Alternative?

In recent years there has been a resurgence of populism on both the right and the left in response to the spiralling excesses of neoliberalism. Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, and Corbyn’s Labour in the UK have, with varying degrees of success, mobilised the rhetoric of anti-austerity in order to appeal to a majority in Europe that has seen its standard of living fall while that of the wealthiest has remained stable or improved. Meanwhile, the refugee crisis has offered fresh opportunities for right-wing parties and groups to try to blame the fallout from the Global Financial Crash of 2008 on minorities and the marginalised, defending the interests of ethnic majorities as legitimate in the process. Populist rhetoric has also been on conspicuous display in the current US presidential campaign: Donald Trump’s slogan ‘Make America great again’ appeals to a mass of American voters who have lost out to capital’s relocation overseas, while Bernie Sanders has managed to make the word ‘socialism’ acceptable in mainstream American political discourse by focusing on the corruption of elites and a ‘rigged’ system. In a socio-economic climate increasingly dominated by precarity, inequality, and anxieties of all kinds, the politics of populism seem to be the order of the day.

2016 - HM Sydney WebHowever, despite the trenchant character of recent populist critiques of contemporary capitalism, populism has frequently proven itself incapable of advancing a progressive alternative. The organisers of the Historical Materialism Sydney Conference 2016 therefore invite proposals for papers and panels that investigate the nature of populism past and present, and especially its contemporary relationship to capitalism and prospective alternatives. A number of questions shape our enquiry: are populism and capitalism necessarily opposed? To whom does populism address itself, and what does it reveal about the dynamics of class societies? Is populism an inevitable feature of representative democracies? In a recent piece in New Left Review, Alberto Toscano, paraphrasing Fredric Jameson, claimed that the majority of the left today finds itself in the paradoxical position of seeking to defend social democracy tooth and nail only to prove it cannot work. With this in mind, we ask whether populism can help us think beyond capitalism, or whether it is part of the logic of the system itself.

As we consider these emerging political formations and trends, HM’s Sydney Conference this year will be joined by Esther Leslie, Professor of English and Humanities at Birkbeck College, London. Leslie’s work addresses Marxist theories of aesthetics and culture. Her most recent book is about the art, science and politics of liquid crystals, as a new and fluid phase of matter.

In addition to this year’s focus, HM Sydney welcomes proposals within the historical materialist tradition on any theme, from all disciplines and perspectives on Marxism.

The conference will take place in Sydney on 25th and 26th November 2016. Please send proposals for papers and panels to by 2 September 2016. Proposals should be no more than 250 words. Papers should be 20 minutes long, and panels may include three speakers.

Keynote speaker: Professor Esther Leslie, Birkbeck, University of London

Leslie liquid crystalsEsther Leslie has research interests in Marxist theories of aesthetics and culture, with a particular focus on the work of Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno.

Other research interests include the poetics of science, European literary and visual modernism and avant gardes, animation, colour and madness.

Her books are Walter Benjamin: Overpowering Conformism (Pluto 2000), and Hollywood Flatlands, Animation, Critical Theory and the Avant Garde (Verso 2002), Synthetic Worlds: Nature, Art and the Chemical Industry (Reaktion, 2005), Walter Benjamin (Reaktion 2007), and Derelicts: Thought Worms from the Wreckage (Unkant, 2014).

Her translations include Georg Lukacs, A Defence of ‘History and Class Consciousness’ (Verso 2002) and Walter Benjamin: The Archives (Verso, 2007).

Her next book is on the poetics and politics of liquid crystals.

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Gareth Bryant
Gareth Bryant is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Economy at the University of Sydney.

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