Meet the Leftist Philosopher Running for Senate in Georgia
Philosopher Richard Dien Winfield has spent his career studying concepts like truth, justice, and freedom. Now he wants to put these principles into practice by bringing an agenda of Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and full employment to the nation’s capital.
- Interview by
- Meagan Day
Richard Dien Winfield is a philosopher. A professor at the University of Georgia, he’s served as president of the Society for Systematic Philosophy, the Hegel Society of America, and the Metaphysical Society of America. He’s published nearly two dozen books, sporting titles such as The Intelligent Mind: On the Genesis and Constitution of Discursive Thought and Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit: A Critical Rethinking in Seventeen Lectures.
And now he’s running for US Senate in Georgia.
Winfield is running on a platform that will be familiar to the American left: Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, stronger worker and union protections, paid family leave and free childcare and elder care. But his campaign places a special emphasis on full employment, a demand that was once of foremost importance on the Left and has in recent decades slipped from view.
Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Winfield about his campaign, his political vision, and how a life of philosophical inquiry has prepared him for politics.
The theme of your campaign video is that the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement remains unfinished without a commitment to economic empowerment. Near the beginning it features a recording of Martin Luther King, Jr saying, “It’s much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee a livable income and a good, solid job.”
You seem to have a strong perspective on the relationship between racial justice and economic rights. Will you elucidate that perspective for us?
The only rights that are specified in the Constitution are property and civil rights, meaning rights of civil legality and rights pertaining to participating in representative government. Much of our history has been occupied with various kinds of civil rights struggles, trying to have the rights that are in the Constitution applied consistently and not restricted in effect to white heterosexual men of property, as they were originally. But the triumph of these various civil rights movements has made it more clear than ever that we need to secure not merely property and civil rights, but household and social rights, which have been completely ignored by our republic since its inception.
Throughout our history it’s been recognized, particularly at moments when civil rights struggles are on the verge of victory, that they are not sufficient. This happened of course at the end of the Civil War, when the newly-freed slaves demanded in effect their right to a livelihood, which in the plantation South could take the form of becoming a small land holder with livestock, or “40 acres and a mule.” It also involved a demand for public education. Our Constitution has no right to education, no right to livelihood. It also has no right to health care, no right to housing, no right to civil legal representation, to any of the things that you need in order to escape domination both in the household and in society.
If you cannot escape those blockages of opportunity, you cannot exercise your rights as an equal citizen. And so, seventy-five years later, you had [Franklin Delano Roosevelt] calling for a Second Bill of Rights raising the rights that I just mentioned. They became inscribed, thanks to Eleanor Roosevelt and others, in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which the United States was a signatory, but none of it was taken up by Congress.
Martin Luther King, Jr said, and he is not often enough quoted as saying, that “if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness.” It was for this reason that he launched the Poor People’s Campaign, the anchor of which was the demand for the right to work, namely a federal job guarantee to wipe out unemployment and poverty. This was dropped from the Democratic Party agenda officially when Bill Clinton ran for president.
This was a key demand that I raised in my first race, when I ran for Congress two years ago. Bernie Sanders also spoke about this demand in his second presidential race, but not as vocally as I think he should’ve.
I’ve noticed this special emphasis on full employment in your campaign literature. I think you’re right that Bernie Sanders started to talk about this in his most recent presidential run, but didn’t quite go all in.
He usually mentioned it in the context of the Green New Deal, which is good because it links it to popular climate politics, but it has also historically been a standalone demand for the Left, for good reasons.
In the twentieth century you saw the Left embracing the crucial importance of the full employment demand. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom demanded a federal jobs guarantee. Albert Einstein devoted a portion of his essay “Why Socialism?” to the necessity of full employment. It seems to have fallen by the wayside a little bit.
Can you say more about why you emphasize the demand for full employment?
The polarity of employee and employer is the decisive relationship in a civil society that has abolished slavery. The logic of competition requires firms to grow and consolidate, to remain competitive, which means you end up with the great mass of individuals being employees of a much smaller number of larger and larger enterprises. Some people seek livelihoods as small entrepreneurs or landlords, but if you fail, the one thing you have left on the basis of which you can seek some kind of livelihood is your labor power. The ability to sell that labor power in order to attain a livelihood is the anchor of economic independence.
Because the market does not ever guarantee full employment, the government has to step in to make up for the inherent failure of the market. In doing so, it can also provide all kinds of goods and services that the market is not providing, but that we need. In our case, we need to build green infrastructure, expand all our public services, improve the quality and facilities of our schools, provide health care and broadband for all, and access to the arts and sciences.
And of course full employment is decisive for ending both racial and gender disadvantage. You cannot put an end to the school-to-prison pipeline unless people, as they come out of school, have a decent job awaiting them, ideally serving the common good. You cannot put the brakes on mass incarceration either until everyone has a legal way of earning a living. You can’t empower labor unless you have the tightest of labor markets, which only full employment can guarantee. Without full employment you can’t lift the fear of firing, without which you can’t fight for your rights on the job.
A job guarantee is also a necessary component of Medicare for All, because we need to guarantee employment to anyone who might lose their job in the private for-profit insurance industry or among the bloated clerical staffs of health providers. Likewise you can’t have a Green New Deal justly unless you have guaranteed employment to anyone whose livelihood depends upon the fossil fuel industry, in one way or another. And you can’t have comprehensive immigration reform unless you really can ensure that giving legal status to all immigrants will in no way undermine anyone’s job prospects, which can be accomplished with a job guarantee.
So full employment really is of decisive significance around the board. But you have to think of it as tied to two things, which I think many who have spoken about it have neglected. It has to be tied to fair wages, and to fair equivalent replacement income to anyone who cannot work owing to disability or retirement. A fair income is not $15 an hour, which is a poverty wage and an invitation to homelessness. You need at least $20 an hour, and you have to also change the minimum wage so it keeps pace with national productivity gains as well as inflation, so that we put a halt to the widening income inequality.
Full employment alone doesn’t fulfill our right to health care. It doesn’t fulfill our right to empowerment on the job. It doesn’t fulfill our right to balance work and family, to have access to education, to have access to housing, to have access to legal care. So more has to be added to it. But none of these other rights can really be fulfilled without it.
I should add, I think one of the reasons why there is a resurgence of fascist movements in every developed country is that none of these countries have guaranteed employment, including all of those countries ruled by social democrats that have much better social safety-nets, including guaranteed health care, free higher education, and very beneficial unemployment benefits. They’re being inundated, as one would expect, with refugees from around the world. And although people have all of these amenities provided to them, nonetheless their jobs are at risk, and they are then susceptible to appeals to demonize the new waves of immigrants who are led to blame for their economic insecurity, which would be overcome if they had guaranteed jobs.
Now, automation is proceeding apace and it’s going to continue. But that does not mean that there are not always going to be robot-proof jobs that require a human touch, or that we can’t create more. There is no shortage of worthwhile things for people to do and to be paid decently for. Also, there’s no requirement that the workweek be forty hours, or that one be limited to a one-month paid vacation, which we should have if we want to follow every other developed nation.
What else is on your platform besides a federal job guarantee, Medicare for All, and a Green New Deal?
If we’re going to uphold all of our social rights, that requires completely transforming labor relations as they stand in the United States. The framework of the Wagner Act is just not viable. Labor has lost power to the point that we are left with about a 6 percent unionization rate in the private sector, 10 percent overall. Meanwhile in the public sector, many unions have been stripped of the right to strike and the right to even engage in collective bargaining. And the right-to-work states are proliferating.
So what I’m proposing is we need to have automatic union elections in every workplace without union representation. There have to be regular elections, and mandatory collective bargaining with rights to strike for all unions at all enterprises, public and private.
We also need to address the tyranny of corporations, including the way they’re structured. Public share-issuing corporations are the dominant form of profit-seeking enterprise because they have access to the greatest capital, and firms need to have the greatest access. Corporations are governed currently in such a way that investors and CEOs are exclusively dictating what is done regarding automation, selling off assets, sending jobs abroad, and so forth.
To change this we need to have worker codetermination, meaning 50 percent of the seats on corporate boards should be held by non-managerial employees elected by their peers. This will transform how corporations operate. They won’t be paying super-salaries to CEOs. They won’t be selling off assets just to pad the stock portfolios for investors. They won’t be sending jobs offshore, wrecking communities with the same abandon. And of course they also won’t be using their monies to promote candidates who are working against the interests of the mass of the American people.
I think these are fundamental, game-changing proposals that I don’t think any major party candidate is advancing, nor are many people in the labor movement taking them up as far as I know. But it’s about time they did.
This is a hypothetical question, but I hope it will reveal something about your political perspective. If you had all of the power in the world right now to be able to address the coronavirus pandemic and the associated economic crisis, where would you begin?
First of all, it has to be an international effort, because you can’t resolve the pandemic just in one isolated nation. There’s no way you can be an island against pandemics, against climate change, against nuclear armaments, and the like. Everything has to be done on a world scale.
We completely neglected preventive measures in the United States. The Center for Disease Control and various organizations that were supposed to be on the lookout for new pathogens all had their funding cut or taken away. So we have to mobilize internationally to ensure preventative measures, isolating those kinds of pathogens in animals that are likely to make the transition to humans. We also have to stockpile adequate personal protective equipment, testing equipment, etcetera, and be prepared to contact trace and isolate.
If we lose control, as we did in the United States, and have to have a shut down of non-essential work, then we have to provide a livelihood to everyone who is in that position. And we have to provide resources so other countries, which have far fewer resources than we do, can do that as well. India, for example, had a draconian shutdown which left hundreds of millions of poor laborers completely destitute, not living month to month but day by day. In desperation they had to stream back to the countryside from the densely populated cities, spreading the virus all over India. We need to ensure that nations have the ability to have a federal job guarantee, to put everyone to work who can be put to work safely, and have equivalent replacement income to everyone else, thereby keeping people in their homes. And you should also have moratoriums on evictions, foreclosures, and utility bills.
At the same time, you have to provide health care to everyone, with all the costs covered. In our case, I think the easiest way to do that is to extend Medicare to all uninsured people right now, and then expand outward until you have Medicare for All. This also has to be done internationally. Of course, it is being done internationally in most developed nations. And it’s on paper in most other nations, but they don’t have the resources or they haven’t devoted the resources to make those programs effective. But as a matter of self-protection and basic humanity, we have to make a worldwide effort to ensure that all of these things happen.
What problems do people in Georgia face that might be solved through politics?
Georgia, like all the Southern states, has a larger African American population than in the rest of the country, close to 30 percent. And although there’s a large black middle class in Atlanta, there is severe poverty among African Americans here. There is also severe poverty among other people of color, and among a section of the white population. There’s a very small union presence here. Wages tend to be low, due to some degree to the policies implemented under Dixiecrat one-party rule and the Democrats who followed in their wake after the Civil Rights Movement. Social services are more restricted in Georgia. There is great social inequality, and an absence of access to health care, to decent education, to higher education, and the like.
In Georgia, as everywhere else in this country, if you’re an employee, it’s almost impossible to run for any significant office because you have three strikes against you: you’ve got to give up your job to run, which means you lose all income, you lose your benefits, and you’re not likely to get your job back. From my experience as a candidate, people not only can’t run, they also do not have the opportunity to become informed about the issues and candidates. Broadband does not exist in many areas. The press is disappearing. People don’t have time, they don’t have access to transportation.
There’s widespread vote suppression on the part of the current Republican administration, but even those voters who can manage to register and get to the polls often find themselves coming there with little opportunity to know what they’re voting for. And many times, of course, the establishment candidates have nothing to say about what they stand for anyhow. Their message is entirely about who they are as a person, and identity politics is contaminating both the Republican and the Democratic Party at the expense of any serious policy discussions.
Georgia is facing all of the problems that are afflicting America: great social and economic inequality, no serious attention to the climate crisis that is coming our way, and lack of access to all the services we need to exercise our freedoms like health care, decent housing, and access to all educational levels. There’s also a crisis in the criminal justice system. You have mass incarceration in Georgia, to a greater degree than many other areas in the country, and it disproportionately involves people of color.
I believe I’m the only candidate in the nation who’s saying we need to get rid of plea bargains entirely, which are the highway to mass incarceration. And I believe we need something like Legal Care for All, meaning we’ll do for legal services, civil and criminal, what Medicare for All does for health care access. We need to get money entirely out of the justice system. Fees are proliferating to support mass incarceration, and I think this takes a great toll on the people of Georgia, as it does elsewhere in the nation.
Increasingly it appears that the American electorate thinks being a billionaire businessman or a celebrity is a suitable prerequisite for being a national politician. What about your background as a philosopher makes you suited for governance?
We’re living through a perfect storm, where as a matter of survival people have to think about justice. To meet the pandemic, and meet the economic collapse that we are facing largely due to the mismanagement of the pandemic itself, we have to do things that are really a matter of fulfilling what social justice demands. Of course this requires us to think about what justice is.
Like many, if not most, young people in the United States growing up in the sixties, I had political interests from an early age. But I had enough theoretical uncertainty that I wanted to really make sure I knew what justice was. And to deal with that seriously, I had to turn to philosophy.
I myself was interested early on in my undergraduate career in what I think is the most radical project to deal with these issues, which is that of Hegel, who takes most seriously the need to think autonomously and to not operate on the basis of any givens or any presuppositions, and to recognize that what alone has legitimacy is self-determination, both in regard to theory and practice. So that means when you think about ethics, it’s a matter of conceiving: What are the institutions of self-determination?
I had a lot of shoulders to stand on, but they hadn’t completed the job, and I set out to do that. So for the last forty years, that’s what I’ve been doing. I’ve filled libraries with more than a score of books, which have attempted to address all these issues. Alas, the books are not read by very many people, although I think they deal very explicitly with issues like political and economic justice.
I first ran for Congress two years ago. I also wrote a book in between my campaigns. It’s a book of political policy, not a book of philosophy, spelling out in greater detail than I do on my campaign website what agenda we need to follow. It’s called Democracy Unchained: How We Should Fulfill Our Social Rights and Save Self-Government. And I have a podcast called “America Unchained,” which airs every week. In politics, I’m dealing with, to some degree, a greater array of issues than I have in philosophy. But I’m applying philosophical principles, and trying to deal with the issues seriously in a way that I hope will speak to the public.
I wouldn’t say that I don’t have any more books to read. But when you turn to politics, it’s not just a matter of speaking about principles of justice. You have to immerse yourself in the data, in the history, and try to identify policies that can feasibly win a following and move us in the right direction, toward the way things should be.