- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
There is only one Cornel West. For years, Professor West has been one of the sharpest minds on the American left, and perhaps our greatest moral critic of capitalism and inequality.
A scholar in the Harvard Divinity School, West began his political life in the tumult of the civil rights movement — becoming a Christian radical and later a socialist who served for years as a chair of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Part activist, part political philosopher, West remains a singular voice in the wilderness of American politics and brings an indispensable compassion to the position of public intellectual.
In a recent conversation with Daniel Denvir for his Jacobin podcast, The Dig, West discusses Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, the Bernie Sanders campaign, and the power that can be generated when regular people are brought together in common cause. You can listen to the audio version of the episode here and subscribe to Jacobin Radio here.
Should we start?
You know something, on Election Night, I decided to read Dostoevsky. A Gentle Creature, 1876. A spiteful man, sickly man, and so on. And then at the very end, man . . . I could even read it to you, this is how the cat goes off, this is how he ends the whole thing. He says,
Inertia, all nature, people on Earth are alone. That’s the calamity of it. “Is anyone really alive?”, shouts the old Russian hero. No one responds. “I’m no epic hero but I too shall”, and no one responds. They said the sun animates their universe. The sun will rise and look at it. Is it not a corpse? Everything is dead and corpses are everywhere. Only people existing around them is silence, that is what the Earth is. People, love one another. Who said that? Whose behest is that? The pendulum ticks on insensible, horrible. And it’s two o’clock in the morning, her shoes are standing by her little bed as if they expected her. No, seriously, when they take her away tomorrow, what on Earth am I going to do?
That’s how he ends it, man.
He ends it with the question, what am I going to do?
What am I going to do? It’s Lenin’s question, Chernyshevsky’s question, man. What am I going to do? In the depth of the loneliness, the emptiness, that polar night of darkness and harshness that Max Weber talks about in The Vocation Lectures, the politics vocation. The iron cage in which we’re all caught, that’s a modern condition, that’s a human condition. That’s Dostoevsky, 1876, man.
Cornel West, welcome to The Dig.
Oh my brother, I salute you and the work you’re doing, Brother Daniel. It’s been, what, seven years ago we were together in Philadelphia with Brother Christopher Phillips, of the Socrates and Democracy Café. And we get a chance to get together again, what a moment.
What do we do with this coalition being led by a Democratic establishment that has proven itself utterly incapable of decisively defeating this ever more radically right-wing Republic Party? Is this a sign of liberal weakness? The bankruptcy of neoliberalism? Conservative strength? Or all of the above? Or something else entirely?
You see the rot at the core of the system’s embracing of the neofascist wing of the ruling class, which is Donald Trump and company. And the neoliberal wing of the ruling class, which is Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. The reason some of us argue against Trump, in the form of a vote for a milquetoast, mediocre, centrist Biden — who’s head of a rotten Democratic establishment — is because we’re trying to stop the American march toward fascism. So that was part of the anti-fascist coalition.
Fascism, as you know, calls into question the very possibility of any kind of radical Democratic politics, across the board. But there is still a difference between a neofascist catastrophe and a neoliberal disaster. Now, it looks as if we’ll be wrestling with a neoliberal disaster. That’s another way of saying that the rot is there, it’s just that with Biden, the rot proceeds much more slowly.
And so we still have to have mass mobilization, we still have to have serious social movement, motion and momentum. Streets, jails, pressures on Democrats in the House. Certain kinds of alliances with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. But I think we can conclude that the Democratic Party is simply unable to serve as an institutional vehicle for serious struggles for truth and justice. That’s the conclusion right now I think we have to draw.
That’s why I’m spending a lot of time with Brother Nick Brana and Sister Nina Turner and with Marianne Williamson and the others with the People’s Party. But I think the crucial point here is that we’ve got to be able to have a politics of solidarity. What I mean by that is that all the talk about identity, racial identity, gender identity, sexual orientation identity, is crucial, it is indispensable, but in the end, it must be connected to a moral integrity and deep political solidarity that hones in on a financialized form of predatory capitalism. A capitalism that is killing the planet, poor people, working people here and abroad.
The neoliberal versions of identity politics are exactly what Brother Adolph Reed has taught us for the last thirty years; it’s a form of class politics. And if we don’t understand that, we fall right in the trap of what we underwent with Barack Obama. And we can’t fall in that trap again.
What do you make of the dynamic in this country, where we have extreme racist Republicans who either deny that racism exists or, even worse, assert that the true racism is against white people? And then we have Democrats peddling this form of identity politics that you’re talking about, which is all about recognition and representation, all while pushing for nativist economic security and foreign policies that are fundamentally racist. What is it about this dynamic?
Well, it’s one where you can see the distinctive features of the rot in the American systems — denial, evasion, avoidance, a preoccupation with narrow conceptions of identity, status, and no serious questioning of, again, the financialized form of predatory capitalism. Capitalism has been predatory from the very beginning. But right now, it’s a Wall Street Senate. And without a focus on that particular force that is behind so much of the frustration, desperation, wage stagnation, spiritual crisis of depression, escalating suicides, self-violation, self-flagellation, people blaming themselves for their inability to flourish in their lives. The structures and institutions of our present moment of predatory capitalism pose such tremendous burdens. Spiritual burden, economic burden, political burden.
It’s a very difficult time to be alive. It’s an exciting time to be alive, but it’s a very difficult time to be alive, there’s no doubt about it.
What do you make of Trump winning a larger share of black and Latino votes? Trump and the Republican coalition are obviously extraordinarily racist, but does this election force us to rethink how racism functions as a dynamic, evolving force in American politics?
Yeah, that’s a wonderful question, Brother, wonderful question. Keep in mind that when I was in Charlottesville, getting spat at and cussed out by neofascist gangsters, I saw a black brother marching with them. David Duke is Catholic, and yet the Klan began as anti-black, anti-Jewish, and anti-Catholic. In this kind of upward mobility American style within the American right, they often get more adherents who were themselves a target. Black folk, Jews, Catholics, they’re human beings, they decide to be neofascist, they decide to be right-wing. Because human beings make choices far beyond skin pigmentation.
Like Clarence Thomas. I mean, he was a beautiful black man, aesthetically. He chooses to side with the powerful, he chooses to side with the wealthy. He chooses to justify and rationalize policies that crush the weak and the vulnerable. So we shouldn’t be surprised that there’s always been a slice of conservatives and reactionaries in the black community, in the brown community, women, and so forth and so on. You know?
Part of the sickness when it comes to white supremacy in the election is that one would have thought that the number of white brothers and sisters voting for Trump would have gone down after four years of seeing his gangsterism manifest on so many different levels. We know our white sisters aren’t going to vote for Trump. But this time their vote is higher. And with the white brothers, it’s a majority. It’s a little lower than last time around, but it’s a majority. And you say, oh my God.
Now, not every person who voted for Trump is a racist. We have to understand that. He’s got a significant following among the racists. But everyone who voted for him isn’t motivated solely by racism. They’re people looking for an alternative to a rotten neoliberal status quo. That’s why Bernie Sanders was crushed by the neoliberals. Bernie presented an alternative to a rotten neoliberal status quo, and these voters are looking for somewhere else to place their vote.
So when Bernie’s pushed out, then they swing back to Trump. And it’s rooted in this very deep contempt that so many fellow citizens have for neoliberal elite. Not just contempt for politicians — contempt for the neoliberal elites in corporate media, the neoliberal elites in universities, the neoliberal elites in churches and synagogues and mosques. There’s a tremendous contempt for neoliberal elites, because they have been so hypocritical, and self-righteous, and arrogant.
And unfortunately, we on the Left, we’ve tried with every fiber of our being to provide some alternative to the rot in the neoliberal rule. But we could not pull it off within the context of electoral politics. On the streets, meanwhile, we had the largest manifestation of protests in the history of the empire! What impact does that have on the neoliberal rulers in the establishment Democratic Party? Just small little symbolic decorative changes — “put on a little Kente cloth and bring in some more black people and brown people in the name of diversity, and inclusion, and equity.”
No serious impact. And, of course, now we’re being charged as being the culprit.
Rahm Emanuel is saying, “This is the year of the Biden Republican.” Oh please, that’s like looking for the number of black people in the National Hockey League. They spent one billion dollars for one seat. And we were saying, no, you’re going to have to try to bring in some of the more progressive folk behind Bernie. Who, for the most part, were held at arm’s length. And they were still dubbed as socialist, even when they didn’t do that, even when they marginalized Bernie’s people. So it was just very clear that the corporate wing and the establishment of the Democratic Party, they have very, very little interest in speaking to the needs of poor people and working people, very little interest.
I want to ask you about the role of the Black Lives Matter mobilization in this election. Because Trump 2020 was really about law and order and against Black Lives Matter, in the same way that Trump 2016 was about building the wall and was against Mexicans, Central Americans, Muslim immigrants. Different themes, same logic. It appears to have worked for Trump and Republicans more than most people thought it would, based on the polling prior to the election. But on the other hand, I saw today that Democratic voter registration had been way down throughout the early pandemic. And then after George Floyd’s murder and the mass protest that followed, the Democratic registration exploded. So what does this all reveal?
I didn’t know that. That’s fascinating. I mean, one thing to keep in mind is that the American style of fascism — the rule of big money and the rule of big military, waving the flag, to ensure the imperial underclass hierarchy’s in place — will always have a white supremacist public face as well as a male supremacist public face. Now it’s going to be homophobic and transphobic, too. But given the history of the nation, and given the role of white supremacy in shaping the nation, that white supremacy is going to be the major public face.
It’ll be against black folk especially, the enslaved, the Jim Crowed and Jane Crowed on the past. And you can see how Trump’s dominant tendencies feed directly into this analysis. Now, on the other hand, when there is a countervailing force like Black Lives Matter, it could be the best of the trade union movement, it could be the best of the feminist movement, it could be the best of the anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic movement. And that’s who were out in the streets.
Black Lives Matter was a united front, it was an act of magnificent solidarity of people from all walks of life, concerned about the public lynching of Brother George Perry Floyd Jr. You saw a hunger and thirst for alternatives to the status quo. And when the Left cannot present a credible vision or a believable program, some will swing to the other alternative — the neoliberal status quo. Or to a neofascism that poses as populism and is contemptuous of neoliberalism. You see, Trump’s program was based very much on xenophobia — and the support of the military, the embrace of Wall Street — but also on contempt of the neoliberals. Media especially, but not only the media — the university and so forth and so on.
When Trump was critical of the neoliberals, he was demonstrating that he understands people’s concerns about neoliberal arrogance, and neoliberal condescension, and neoliberal haughtiness that hides and conceals its own structures of domination, its own operations of power. And that’s where the Left hasn’t intervened in the name of truth and justice.
And you live in Cambridge, so you’re familiar with those signs that read, “in this house we believe,” on houses that probably cost a half million, at least, in neighborhoods that exclude affordable housing, where children go to segregated, mostly white schools.
That’s true. Some people in Cambridge say it’s the socialist republic of Cambridge, because it is so progressive. But you also got neoliberal elements as well as the more left-wing elements in Cambridge. And, of course, you have leftists in the universities, where usually there are a lot of radical gestures being made. But it is a neoliberal university, there’s no doubt about that. In terms of corporatization, its commodification and so on, and the discourse that takes place within it.
But we’ve got some wonderful people, I have magnificent colleagues at Harvard, on the one hand. And they would be the first to say that the presence of the Left at Harvard is not as strong. The presence of progressive liberals, major. The presence of right-wing conservatives, not too strong. And that’s how so many of the Ivy League schools operate these days.
You made that comment about the role of empire and neoliberal globalizers in shaping American politics. And I’m thinking, a sort of an on-the-fly hypothesis, that Trumpist nationalism and civilizationalism is so complex because it’s what’s most fundamentally racist about Trumpist politics. But it’s also, in its civilizational and nationalist guide, maybe what makes Trumpism more multiracial or open to involving more people than we had previously imagined.
Yeah, but I think it differs from group to group. I mean you’ve got this massive toxic masculinity that just cuts across different communities, different skin pigmentation, different colors and classes. And that kind of patriarchal posing and posturing has very deep roots in American culture. You know, John Wayne didn’t just have white fans. You know what I mean? That’s one way of putting it right there.
Or take some of these big wrestlers — you got folks posing and posturing as this big toxic masculine so-and-so. And the young boys of all different colors and neighborhoods and communities get socialized into that. You see? So that patriarchal dimension cannot be downplayed. And I would argue, when it comes to the plight of precious trans folk and gay brothers and lesbian sisters, that the homophobia cannot be downplayed. It cuts very deep, even though there’s been some wonderful breakthroughs. It still cuts very deep. And there’s deep homophobia and transphobia in each one of our communities. It’s in our churches, it’s in our mosques, it’s in our synagogues, it’s in these public spaces. But in the end, if we’re not talking about predatory capitalism, brother, we are very much missing out on what sits at the center of it.
I was having a wonderful dialogue with my dear brother Tom, last night, of ADOS (American Descendants of Slavery) and Sister Evette, who are concerned about reparations. And I very much support reparations, I have for forty years. But even if black people were able to get the kind of reparations that the movement is calling for, predatory capitalism’s still in place. So it’s still an unjust system. It’s still deeply unfair, and the asymmetric relations of power at the workplace would still be in place.
You have to have workers lifting their voices and shaping their voices, the kind of thing Rick Wolf has been talking about. That is also indispensable, if we’re talking about unleashing possibilities for everyday people. And that’s what it’s all about.
Now I tell you, the grim questions, the skeletons that sit in our closet, are, do we as a species even have the capacity to avoid self-destruction? Given the levels of greed, especially at the top. And the contempt for working people and people of color. Does America, as an empire, even have the wherewithal, culturally, politically, to undergo fundamental transformation before it self-destructs? And then, of course, given the history of white supremacy, do we really have a majority of fellow white citizens who have the capacity, the cultivated capacity, to really affirm the dignity and decency of black people? Those are all three questions that sit in the closet. And if we don’t have an affirmative answer to those, that’s it, man.
Well, what are some possible answers to those questions? Like, where do we look for hope? Because I’m particularly thinking about my younger comrades out there. A whole generation of young people were radicalized by Bernie. And they got very hopeful, very fast, about making big changes that theretofore seemed totally impossible, but they are now confronted with this deeply bleak picture. Do we assemble hope by pointing to things like Arizona turning left, young people in general turning left? Or is hope something more ephemeral, that we have to cultivate for the long haul? A sort of faith, secular or otherwise.
Mm-hmm. Well, one thing is, I mean, I go back to my own traditions of black folk. Our anthem tries to lift every voice. And you have to lift every voice in the face of all the hatred that comes at you. You’re dishing out the love voice, from John Coltrane, to Martin Luther King, to Fannie Lou Hamer, to Stevie Wonder. With all the trauma coming at you, you got to dish out the wounded healers. All the terror coming at you, you got to dish out the freedom fighters from Harriet Tubman to Malcolm X, from Frederick Douglass to Ella Baker. All we can do as human beings though, brother, is not just be echoes — that’s cowardly and conformist — we got to be voices of courage and vision.
And in the end, with the need for our identities to be grounded in integrity and solidarity. We have each other. I got Daniel, Daniel got me. You know what I mean? And you got your identities, I’ve got my identities. We can come together in terms of our visions of a new world, our analysis of predatory capitalism, and our critiques of white supremacy and male supremacy, and the way in which empire connects with that predatory capitalism. Keeping track of the humanity of trans and others.
And then, in the end, act courageously and say, we are going to be in solidarity. And that’s all we’ve ever had in human history. I mean, thank God for Mike Davis and the others, who raised their voices to provide us with tremendous insights, visions, data, arguments, stories, and narratives of the past. Now most of the folk who raise their voices in the past, they paid a major cost. But that’s why we need each other. Brother Daniel, Brother West, are we willing to pay the cost? Are we willing to hold on? Are we willing to be constant and consistent, all the way through?
Very important. You know what I mean?
You keep circling back to that politics of solidarity.
Absolutely. So, in that sense, there’s never a guarantee that what we’re trying to do is something we can pull off. But there is a real possibility if we can fortify ourselves. Now, we’ll always have disagreements, and strategic battles, and tactical battles. But if our vision and our analysis is in place, then we know we’re headed toward the empowerment of those who are called the wretched of the Earth, or, from my own Biblical tradition, “the least of these.”
I’m building on the genius of Hebrew scripture. Not all the genocide and the patriarchy and so forth. But that genius that says that steadfast love is going to focus on the orphan, and the widow, and the fatherless, the motherless, the poor, the persecuted, the subjugated, the exploited, the oppressed. You see, this is one of the great gifts of Jewish brothers and sisters to the world. And it applies to them like anybody else. Because it’s a high standard, it’s a high moral and spiritual standard that’s bigger than all of us. But it is a gift we build on and say, yes, that is worth our energy, our vitality, how we look at the world, how we feel, how we act.
That’s what it is to be a revolutionary, or a radical, or somebody who wants to be decent enough to fundamentally transform the structures of domination that are coming at us.
I feel like what’s most shocking to people is that the election results could be so close after Trump presided over the worst year in many American’s living memory. How can it be that this pandemic solidified support for Trump among so many, to the extent that he could actually expand his base? Not enough to win, it seems, but expand it. Is it that Trump’s handling of the coronavirus perversely normalized the pandemic? And so what should have been this false choice — between getting the pandemic under control and boosting the economy — turned into, for many people, a zero-sum choice between lockdown and reopening? Or is it the deep racial and class disparities, and how the pandemic’s health and economic crises have been experienced? How has COVID shaped this week?
You know, there’s just so many factors that go into this. It’s the same kind of denial as the denial of predatory capitalism. The denial of America as an empire and its 800 military units around the world. The denial of the centrality of white supremacy in the shaping of how America developed. And all these forms of denial just get extended to the denial of the vicious impact of the pandemic. It’s the Disneyland sensibilities, the Peter Pan orientation, you see, that you can be fifty-five years old and try to convince yourself you’re Peter Pan because you never want to grow up.
It’s just a certain kind of psychic immaturity and spiritual refusal to mature. And then you always fall back on your political options. You only got two: neoliberalism, which is dead as a doornail, or neofascism, which is so exciting. The rallies; its oppositionality. It’s subversive to the liberals: “The liberals hate us, that makes me feel so good. Ooh, CNN and MSNBC really hate us. So, oh, I feel so good because I know how limited they are.”
And, you see, in the end, these two positions become parasitic on each other. The neoliberal becomes parasitic on the neofascist, and we can’t even get a left-wing alternative. And yet it’s still something we have to oppose on the ground practically. And we even have to have these brief alliances with neoliberal centrists in order to push back the fascists. But we have to be very honest and candid about the degree to which the neoliberals, at the top, are still very much part of a ruling class that’s crushing poor people, that’s crushing working people with its greed, its indifference, its callousness toward social misery. It is denial to think that somehow those chickens won’t come home to roost. To think that somehow you’re not going to reap what you sow, given that kind of greed, and indifference, and contempt, really, for so many poor and working people.
But then there’s also the cultural issue, you know, of abortion, and same-sex marriage, and so forth. And so there’s so many different variables here, we don’t have an overarching analysis of this. I just read Simon Reid-Henry’s book, Empire of Democracy. He takes a stab at an analysis of the reshaping of the West after the Cold War. And he does a decent job, but we need to keep track much more closely of the role of the financial elites and the practices of predatory capitalism than he does. But he does a decent job.
But we still need more thinking about this to help us to see more clearly. Remember that wonderful moment in Max Weber’s Science as a Vocation where he says that one of the roles of the thinkers and intellectuals is to provide intellectual clarity? How do we see what’s going on behind the surfaces and the appearances? How do you keep track of the various cliques and formations within the ruling class? Because we’re at a moment now where the ruling classes are at each other’s throat.
The neoliberal wing of the ruling class is at the throat of the neofascist wing of the ruling class. But large numbers of Americans choose to do what? Have nothing to do with it. How many millions refuse to vote? That’s another kind of option, too. It’s not just the three options of neoliberal, neofascist, and radical democratic socialism. A large number of our fellow citizens said, forget it. You know, “the whole thing is professional wrestling, it’s already set up. I’m just going to go about my business.” And what does that do? It reinforces the structures of domination, reinforces the status quo in the form of a symbolic rejection.
I was recently talking to Wendy Brown about just that, and about how neoliberalism and empire has really remade human subjectivities. And something that we don’t talk about enough when discussing the roots of Trumpism is nihilism. We’re talking about fundamental ways of being in and relating to the world that have been profoundly deformed. But the flip side of that is this newly resurgent left, which emerged, I think, in large part from the contradictions between Obama’s promise and the dismal reality of his governance.
What do you make of this long-standing bipartisan consensus around the American idea? Fracturing into so many pieces, both the nihilism on the Right, and the resurgent socialism on the Left.
And yet, somehow, Biden, this human embodiment of a senescent liberal establishment politics, has emerged as the president to preside over what comes next?
Well, I mean, I’m glad you raised that issue of nihilism. I’ve been wrestling with this throughout my own work — the nihilism in black America race matters. Nihilism manifests in the three fundamental tendencies of militarism, of authoritarianism, and of free market fundamentalism. In 2004, I was already arguing that these are the dominant forces that are being pushed on us. But nihilism is not just on the Right. It’s among the neoliberals as well.
And it’s among the ordinary liberal voters who say, I agree with all of Bernie’s policies, but it’s just not possible.
Well, I wouldn’t call that a nihilism, though. I would call that . . .
More of a pessimism?
Yeah, that’s more of a pessimism, or a misplaced kind of realism, which takes the form of a narrow kind of opportunism. People these days call it pragmatism, but it ain’t got nothing to do with William James.
Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmatism was always visionary. It comes out of [Ralph Waldo] Emerson. Emerson is visionary. But practicality, or opportunism, or careerism, is market driven. So anytime you see the journalist — the mainstream journalists calling for pragmatism — they just telling them, “Let’s be opportunistic.”
And usually, this allows them to pursue their careers and remain well adjusted to a status quo that they refuse to submit to serious critique. But it’s true that the nihilism at the deeper level simply says that, in the end, might really does make right. That, in the end, any talk about integrity, honesty, decency, morality, or spiritual vision that authorize an alternative to the present are childish. Now, that’s where your analysis and what I’m talking about really feed together in a beautiful way. You see?
Because what they’re saying is, any of us who provide some alternative are naive, need to grow up, are utopian. You know, as if the slave on the plantation, who has a dream of overthrowing slavery, somehow needs to grow up. No, no, no, no, he’s got a very serious dream that’s rooted in his material condition. He just doesn’t have the collective wherewithal right now to act on it. And that’s how human history proceeds, forward and backward.
What kinds of dreams? What kinds of alternatives? Fascism is an alternative, because there are fascist zones in the history of the United States with slavery, and Jim Crow, and Jane Crow. But fascism taking over the whole nation, taking over the whole empire, that affects everybody on vanilla sides as well as chocolate sides. That would have been new. And a lot of people have been debating about this in terms of, “well, we got fascism in America from the very beginning.” Fascist zones, absolutely. There’s no doubt about that. You can’t talk about the history of black people without talking about fascist zones in the imperial democracy, in the white supremacist democracy.
But Democratic practices and rights and liberties, even when they apply to a small group, are still precious. It’s just that — at that particular moment in history — it’s predicated on the domination of others. It’s predicated on the subjugation of others. But the rights and the liberties themselves, we want that for everybody. And the same would be true in terms of a certain level of prosperity. We want everybody to eat, we want everybody to have food, we want everybody to have a decent house.
Everybody should have a quality education, everybody should be able to raise their voices without thinking that the police is going to snatch them off the street and so forth and so on, you see. This is where the Bill of Rights becomes very important, even though early on, it was applied only to a small group. And we have to say that over and over again, to make sure that we provide clarity, intellectual clarity, moral clarity, in what we’re willing to live and die for. Let’s be very honest about that.
And this is where the arts come in, brother. That we’re at a moment now, where people will more and more look to artists to provide a certain kind of wind at the back for those trying to provide alternatives to the neoliberal status quo. Which seems to be, now, coming back in place, if Biden in fact ends up winning.
We’re talking at a time where it’s still up in the air, but it looks like it’s moving in that direction. It’s still very grim, even if he does win, because of the same structures of domination — the same blindness, the same refusals to engage poverty, to take seriously what the working class in all of its various expressions and colorations is going through. And to what’s going on around the world. AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) in Africa is expanding. We’re going to get United States support for the occupation in West Bank, in Gaza, and so forth. Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu will still have a very strong alliance. May not be as cozy as with Trump, but it will still be an alliance.
We have to take a stand in that regard. We’re going to have to be honest about the plight of Jews in Russia and in France, and in Pittsburgh, in terms of escalating hatred of Jews. We’ve got to be able to have a solidarity again — a politics of genuine solidarity that’s rooted in vision and analysis of radical Democratic possibility. And that’s what I love about Sister Wendy’s work. She and Judith [Butler], I mean, they’ve got to be two of the greatest intellectuals in one household that we have in the country, I’ll tell you that right now. And that’s a beautiful thing, that’s a beautiful thing.
Speaking of intelligentsia. You’ve had quite an experience over the years with liberal Democratic intelligentsia in general — and black intelligentsia in particular — over the past decade. What have you learned from the whole experience that might help us better understand the nature of a liberal establishment and the position of the Left, and the black left in particular?
Yeah, I mean, there’s an inconsistency, there’s an inconstancy. You know? There’s a hypocrisy that you get among too many liberal intellectuals. That they get deeply concerned when their close friends are being treated unfairly, or their voices are being suffocated. And they’re right, their friend ought not to be treated unfairly. I think nobody ought to be treated unfairly. But when folk outside of their stable are treated unfairly, they don’t say a mumbling word.
Marc Lamont Hill has threats to take his tenure away because of his critique of a vicious Israeli occupation, and his solidarity, as he understands it, with Palestinians. Where are the libertarians? Where are they? I mean, my dear brother Robbie George, you know, a conservative brother, traveled the country. He was willing to take a stand. He said, “Look, Brother West, I’ll go with you to march to support Marc Lamont Hill.” And he’s got a very, very different view on Israel. And me and Marc don’t agree on everything, but we got deep solidarity.
But at least Robbie George is a serious conservative with integrity enough to say, we’re going to defend his rights, we’re going to defend his liberty to raise his voice. He was stronger than most of the liberal intellectuals when it came to Marc Lamont Hill. And that’s true for the black liberal intellectuals, too. They didn’t their raise voice. Oh no, no, they don’t want to be tarred as being antisemitic. Oh God, no way. Next thing you know, they’ll be in Hitler’s camp. You know, “How did I end up here? I was just trying to defend liberty, now they got me antisemitic, now they got me supporting Hitler.” Well, this is some sick stuff. You got to be clear, constant, about what you are saying, why you are doing it, and the stances that you take. You still can be misunderstood, but you have to be clear and consistent in that sense. And liberal intellectuals are not known for their moral consistency or their moral courage.
In both 2016 and 2020, in the Democratic primaries, we saw much of the black establishment — and many, many black voters, too — line up behind Hillary Clinton and then Biden. I think this is a discussion that’s often either avoided or oversimplified. I don’t hear many very interesting engagements with the question. Which is, why haven’t Bernie’s left social democratic challenges broken through with so many black voters? Obviously, many young black voters supported Bernie, but not enough, and he had very little support from older black voters. Is it something about the reality of the state of black politics? Or failures of the Left? Or both?
Well, I think we all have to look to ourselves; take some responsibility. Sister Nina Turner and Brother Danny Glover and I — we did hundreds and hundreds of events for Brother Bernie. A lot of them in black communities. And we were still unable to get the breakthrough. So you get this paradox, you get the most progressive candidate running for president of a major party in the history of the empire, and the most progressive voting bloc refuses to vote for him. And if they had, he could very well be president. See, now that’s a serious, serious issue.
Here we turn to brothers and sisters and the Black Agenda Report, and Glen Ford and Margaret Kimberley, and Nellie Bailey, and Brother Danny, and so many others. Or the Black Alliance for Peace, and Brother Ajamu Baraka and company. They’ve been telling us for a long time that there is a neoliberal hegemony of black leadership that keeps black people, to a certain degree, pacified. And it keeps them sleepwalking when it comes to Wall Street issues, when it comes to issues of Pentagon militarism, when it comes to issues of AFRICOM, when it comes to issues of 800 military units around the world.
And that black neoliberal hegemony in the black community cuts very deep, it really does. Because black people are convinced that, like most Americans, there’s no alternative to neoliberal leadership other than the Republican Party. And so they remain captured and locked in over, and over, and over again. And those who are cast as somehow willing to break out of the neoliberal mold are the right-wingers. And they get a whole lot of visibility — Kanye West, and Sister Candace [Owens]. And all these folks say, “Look, we’re tired of the neoliberal Democratic Party plantation, we want to go to the neofascist plantation that could lead toward internment camps.” You see? So you say, dang, what a choice between a rock and a hard place.
Henry Highland Garnet, right there in our dearly beloved city of Philadelphia, gave a speech in 1841. He said, “Black people, never confuse your situation for that of the Israelites of the Old Testament, for us, Pharaoh is on both sides of the bloody red seas.” And for so long, black people have had the pharaoh of the Republicans, the pharaoh of the Democrats. The Democrat pharaoh is better, small p. The pharaoh of the Republicans, a little bigger p. Then here comes Trump, the fascist p. Ronald Reagan was reactionary, but he wasn’t a fascist the way Trump is.
Now the good news is that the younger generation is deeply concerned about breaking the back of the duopoly. And we’ll see what kind of openness they have to the People’s Party. We’ll see what kind of openness they have for any alternative pre-party formations as well.
Well, that’s my next question. How do you see Black Lives Matter, in this whole massive explosion in black political radicalism right now, impacting the black politics status quo and all of its various regional, generational, religious class divides?
Well, I think Black Lives Matter, again, is a stage in the black freedom movement. The black freedom movement has always been confronted with the fundamental challenge of being co-opted by the status quo with big money and big status and big position. And, of course, Black Lives Matter has got big money coming at it from NGOs and various other liberal and neoliberal elites. Some progressive elites, they aren’t neoliberal, but they still have money.
When they’re not co-opted, they provide some kind of alternative, but the question is, how long will that alternative be able to sustain itself? Oftentimes, it becomes a target of vicious repression at the hands of the neofascist policies of the liberal state. That’s what COINTELPRO was, that’s what FBI surveillance was. Because for the genuine love warriors and the genuine freedom fighters, who constitute a threat to the whole system, America has a long history of killing, assassinating, murdering, trashing, creating mayhem for them.
We can go on and on in that regard. Black Lives Matter is going to reach its own fork in the road and see which way it goes. Now, if in fact we can somehow have a stronger wing of the black freedom movement — the Black Lives Matter that’s not co-opted and then has solidarity with other serious left groups — then we got a chance to bring some serious power and pressure to bear. And that’s where the threat actually is.
Because in the end, the fundamental threat to the status quo is a genuine political solidarity, rooted in an integrity that calls for the fundamental transfer of power and resources, from the ruling classes to everyday people. And you always hope and pray it’s not a violent thing, but the violence is always already a part of it. Because it’s institutionalized before you even start the dialogue. Police and others are committing various kinds of violations too often. But that’s the question of the great Sheldon Wolin, his great book on fugitive democracy. He was very pessimistic about this kind of thing.
Ernesto Cortez said, well, I got to stay local; I got to stay the civic organizing. The public organizing and the political organizing has to be rooted in neighborhoods, because there’s too much money and power at the national level in the empire. That’s what the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) is about. Jeffrey Stout has written the great classic on this, Blessed Are the Organized. That ought to be much more well read, in terms of the centrality of organizing for alternatives.
You see, the young people who are concerned about organizing, that’s the book to read. And he’s there with IAF, he’s there with those folk who are on the ground. And Black Lives Matter, magnificent organizers, they got the spirit of Ella Baker. And that’s a very different kind of spirit than the spirit of a Martin King. King is magnificent, we love him, and he gives these great speeches and things. But he’s in and out of town, Ella’s on the ground, and she’s transgenerational.
And she got that spirit, you can’t organize without having the right kind of spirit. You got to get your soul intact to get fortified. This ain’t no three-day demonstration, this is a year, this is a life commitment. And I think we do have a chance. Because in the end, it’s going to be as Noam Chomsky says, “On the global level, it’s internationalism or extinction.” If we don’t have solidarity around the world, then the elites at the top, with their greed, will blow up the whole planet, given the ecological catastrophe. And nationally, it’s going to be solidarity or self-destruction.
There will be a lot of pressure for the Left — especially community-based nonprofit organizations and the political wings of organized labor — to help prop up an ailing and weak Biden administration. How should we on the Left position ourselves for a likely lame duck hobbled by a Republican Senate? My gut sense is that we need a strategy, but that also a big part of the Left’s job is going to be responding to crises — like the possibility of mass uprising that we can’t entirely anticipate. Mass uprisings that, given recent history, seem likely to occur.
Mm-hmm. Yeah, you see, I think that we have to engage in a very subtle dance between the inside and outside. We’ve got to get concessions, because people are starving, people are unemployed, people want to gain access to health care and educate their precious kids. So we’ve got to get concessions from the rotten neoliberal rule. Because it was everyday people who pushed them over, it’s everyday people who stopped the march against fascism. Biden didn’t stop it; it was the everyday people who pushed him over, disproportionately, working people, and black, and brown, and progressive middle class. Those are the ones who pushed Biden over. And, of course, black women and the black men played an important role, disproportionately.
But, see, that’s just the inside. But if we bank on the inside, we’re headed toward even deeper disappointment. The outside is not just protest, hitting the streets and going to jail. It’s the creation of — or the revitalization of — left institutions, from political parties, to pre-party formations, civic organizations to music groups to athletes and entertainers.
And it can’t just be symbolic protests, it must provide resources for Left institutions and structures. And that’s not on the inside, that’s on the outside — to make sure that they don’t get co-opted, that they don’t get diluted and seduced into the glitz of the establishment, of the status quo. And I think we have to make it a major, a major priority. We really do. I mean, this could be, you know, the last stand of the neoliberal elites, as it were.
And if we can’t seize this moment to provide a strong credible option and alternative to our fellow citizens — let alone the world — there will be extinction at the international level, self-destruction at the domestic level, and we’ll all go under. And that’s what it is to live at this particular historical moment. It’s an unprecedented moment. It’s a moment of unbelievable suffering, and misery, and despair, and disappointment. But it can also be a moment of tremendous breakthrough, and joy, and resilience, and resistance. And in the end, a moment demanding the kind of fundamental change required in order for all of us here and abroad to live lives of decency and dignity.
That does prompt one follow-up. I think we often take it for granted that people know what we’re talking about when we talk about organizing. But what is it to organize, to be organized, to be an organizer, to build real left organizations? Because what I find is that our society, the system we live under, disorganizes us. And by no means do people necessarily know what you’re talking when you’re initially trying to organize them, and organize them into becoming organizers.
I mean, I could give my own experience with the prisons, where . . . there was a while where I was banned because I was too radical. And so I would go in on Sunday mornings, and the brothers themselves would organize in such a way that our teaching could still go on under the aegis of church services. So there’s a tremendous capacity of ordinary people to engage in their own forms of organizing, if they are so moved. If they are so motivated. If they see that there are real possibilities that they themselves had not even imagined, because they hadn’t yet come together. And so that’s a very small, small, narrow example. But it’s an important one, because the self-organization of everyday people is something that has yet to be fundamentally tested. This is why the arts are so very important, man.
See, James Brown’s band was the self-organization of oppressed, hated, black poor and working-class people that generated levels of beauty that the whole world had to recognize. That’s true for The Temptations, it’s true for The Emotions, it’s true for Curtis Mayfield’s band. See, it’s in the arts that you get people who have been spit on, who organize themselves, sustain themselves year after year with hardly no money and produce things that take us to places we know not of. And that’s just one small little example of the tremendous genius and talent of so-called everyday people. That’s what democracy’s all about. That’s a threat. That’s why they try to co-opt the music, co-opt the entertainers, co-opt the artists. What does art and music do? Bring folks together in a lot of different ways, man.
A Jewish brother in Minnesota, he hears the blues. I’m going to change my name, I’m not Robert Zimmerman no more, I’m Bob Dylan, god dang it. When you see what I got to say, my song and my voice over against the black blues folk from Mississippi, and New York, and Chicago and so forth, going to be part of that cacophony.
And that’s part of the crucial artistic and cultural expression of everyday people, that goes hand in hand with the larger collective expression of everyday people. And in that sense, you know, I think that’s one of the real moments in the incubation and possibility of unleashing radical democratic sensibility. Raising voices . . . Ordinary people raise their voices, brother. They’re not going to choose poverty. They’re not going to choose getting mistreated at the workplace by the bosses. The women aren’t going to choose being manipulated by men. The gay brothers and lesbian sisters, they’re not going to choose being dishonored by the straights. The trans going to walk around with their backs straight, with smiles on they faces, with their own style. And we ain’t even got to the global thing yet.
They ain’t going to be putting up with no neocolonial rules. No neocolonial regimes, mm-mm. Unleash that possibility.