On June 4th, Decipher City was fortunate enough to attend (as both spectator and presenter) the Society for Socialist Studies Conference at the University of British Columbia, located on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people. The theme of this year’s conference was “Circuits of Capital, Circles of Solidarity.” While hardly specific, this theme proved to be a catch all for a number of critical and related issues, specifically: “fossil capital, climate crisis (and beyond), populisms, socialist feminisms, finance and rentier capitalisms, intersectional inequalities, critical pedagogy, queer socialisms, [and] indigenous liberation…”
On the afternoon of June 4, we attended was entitled ‘Intersectional inequalities and the Role of the University.’ The first speaker, Patrick, Teed discussed the recent profiling and detainment of a black member of the Black Canadian Studies Association at the conference, and segued into a discussion about the history of the university and its participation in structures of settler colonialism as well as neoliberalism. What are universities meant to do, and who do they serve? “Who am I displacing in my willful act of being here?” he asked. The second presenter, Gerry De Montigny, discussed the concept of ‘the university’ from a materialist perspective: universities, he points out, are chairs and desks, buildings and hallways, cafeterias and carpets. They are “an assemblage of other people’s labor” –that is to say, people other than academics. Other people’s labor drives the machines that produce and groom students–yet the irony today is that college students are a form of surplus labor. De Montigny postulates that college is now a form of ‘warehousing young people’ and that, in some great irony, students ‘pay to put themselves on ice.’ Finally, Gizem Çakmak, a phd student from York University and leader in the CUPE 3903 (a union of contract instructors) talked about her participation in the strike of 2018 and the severe consequences for student activists on campus as a result of their union action.
The second panel–Ecosocialisms and Environmental Politics–was largely a discussion about the need for ecological management at the local level that addresses the customs, history, and motives of indigenous people. The first paper was a discussion of the ongoing flooding of the Quill Lakes in Saskatchewan and how a combination of factors (misinformation, red tape) contribute to an inability to diagnose the cause of continued flooding in the region. The second presentation by researchers Deborah Dergousoff and Aikokul Arzieva was entitled “Organic ‘Aimak’ Villages: An alternative for development.’ The two presenters met at an American University of Central Asia in Kyrgystan, where Dergousoff was a visiting professor. Arzieva discussed the history of Kyrgystan labor, and the country’s transition from predominately rural sustenance farming and animal husbandry to factory work under the Soviet communism. After the fall of the Soviet Union, citizens began returning to local practices of ecological stewardship, at the same time as the influx of aid agencies, foreign investors, and a growing tourist population interested in the recent commodification of traditional Kyrgyz life. The presenters discussed the tensions between these actors and the challenges of both documenting and utilizing traditional sustainable practices. The last presentation, “Sensibility Factors Advancing Climate Justice’ by sociologist Sandra Turbay. Turbay and a group of other researchers surveyed famers producing in arid climates around the world and found similar agricultural techniques in these basin areas. Turbay discussed the different knowledge systems that govern strategy and choice in the marketplace of food productions in these regions, and how ‘cognitive injustice’, a lack of acknowledgement of the importance of traditional knowledge in maintaining area ecological services, was a feature in many of the study regions.
The third panel was entitled ‘Capitalism, Imperialism, Racism–How Shall We Overcome?” Both presenters, neither of whom selected the panel title, found the latter premise–how shall we overcome–to be rather missing the mark in the conversation about historic, culturally-rooted, generations long racial injustice. The first presenter, James Parisot, discussed his recent book How America Became Capitalist: Imperial Expansion and the Conquest of the West. Parisot has done some interesting archival work on the conversations around imperialism and empire on the frontier; however, from his presentation at least, it appears that some additional work on the racialized elements of frontier capitalism, such as the treatment of Maroon communities and the buffalo soldiers, may be in order. Serendipitously, the second presenter, the sociologist Mike Ma, had chaired our panel the previous year when we attended the Carceral Cultures conference at Simon Fraser University. Ma’s current research focuses on harm reduction in Surrey, a suburb outside of Vancouver. His research group provided substance users (approximately 100) with a 41 question survey on aspects of their identity (race, home and employment status) as well as their patterns of use, and type of drug. What Ma determined in his initial round of questioning was that indigenous people, while constituting only 2% of the population of the Vancouver area, represented 25% of the users surveyed. Ma’s research on this topic, which began after the municipality of Vancouver declared a state of emergency because of a spate of fentanyl related overdoes and deaths, is starting to pull the curtain aside on a number of important issues: specifically, the suburbanization of poverty, the connection between trauma (particularly racialized trauma) and substance abuse.
While we can hardly do justice to the breathe of the papers presented at this event and can only speak to a few panels, in general the work was engaging and important, and the speakers authentically engaged with the problems they identified. There is always the concern–especially for us, as independent scholars–that these events will simply be meet-and-greets for the career academic professional, who is looking to promote a book, pick up a teaching gig, or chase down a grant. That is to say–these events can sometimes feel insular and exclusive. Thankfully, this was not the case, and we were pleased to see how clearly the value of work done in the (often much criticized and de-funded) field of humanities was directly relevant to our lived experiences, as well as some of our most pressing social and policy concerns. As we shared a beer at a fantasy-themed bar with political scientists and sociologists from Montreal, discussing the Occupy Movement and our experience with the Democratic Socialists of America, it really felt like we were in the right place–for now, anyway. While conferences till remain exclusive events, open only to those scholars with the time and money to attend, it is good to engage in conversation with people that want change to happen and are ready to discuss they way our current models of consumption, education, and work culture contribute to the problem–and what their role in these cultures might be.
Header Image: “Coke Salish” by Sonny Assu. The image is a riff on the Coca-Cola logo, the text replaced by “Coast Salish”, the group of tribes that traditionally inhabited the land in and around Vancouver, Seattle, and Victoria. To learn more about Sonny Assu, check out this review of his life and work: https://www.vancouverisawesome.com/2011/06/09/the-opening-sonny-assu/