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You are here: The Platypus Affiliated Society/Election 2012: An interview with Cornel West

Election 2012: An interview with Cornel West

Watson Ladd and Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 51 | November 2012


Last May, the Platypus Affiliated Society hosted a conversation on the campus of the University of Chicago between Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA and Cornel West, a veteran member of the Democratic Socialists of America, the co-author of The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto (2012), and Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. Watson Ladd and Spencer A. Leonard circled back to that conversation on their radio show Radical Minds on WHPK (88.5 FM) with an eye on the upcoming U.S. elections. What follows is an edited transcript of their interview with West on October 23, 2012.

Watson Ladd: What are the failings of Barack Obama’s presidency that prompted you to publicly criticize and distance yourself from the administration and the Democrats last year? As you pointed out last year, in an interview by Roland Martin, looking at the country today what we see is mass incarceration, mass unemployment and underemployment, and poor quality public education. Does Obama deserve to lose the election for betraying his campaign promises? If not, how can he be held accountable?

Cornel West: I appreciate that question. I always like to begin with an analysis of the system under which we live. It is a system that allows for vast wealth inequality: 1 percent of the population owns 42 percent of the wealth and the top 400 individuals have wealth equivalent to the bottom 150 million. It is a system that was in place, of course, before Obama came on the scene. It has been in place for a long time. It has been tilting toward Wall Street. It has been tilting toward the powerful and the wealthy, whereas workers have been engaged in tremendous sacrifice, wrestling with stagnating or declining wages. And then, of course, we have the poverty tied to the prison industrial complex and new Jim Crow.

I should say that I am using the criteria Martin Luther King Jr. talked about at the end of his life: Keep track of the poverty tied to the wealth inequality; keep track of xenophobia, not just anti-black racism but anti-brown, anti-yellow, anti-red, anti-Jewish hatred, anti-Muslim hatred, anti-Arab hatred, and, of course, also homophobia and sexism, and keep track of militarism. King would have us ask, How is any candidate, of whatever color, doing in terms of militarism? King’s last criterion was materialism, which has to do with the quality of life and with the obsession with material possessions and commodities. On those four criteria the Obama administration deserves to be seriously called into question. Granted, Mitt Romney would be much, much worse. So, we really have a choice between the catastrophe that Mitt Romney would bring about, and the disaster that we have now with Barack Obama. I think disaster is better than catastrophe. So, if it is a question of the two lesser evils, Obama is certainly better than Romney. But the important point here is how do we create honest, serious analysis of the system under which we live and try to create some social movements to attack those problems.

WL: You often describe your politics as most concerned with poor and working people. Will Obama do more for this segment of society than Romney? If Obama would do more, then why should we not vote for him? If there is no difference, what is the way forward for democracy?

CW: In terms of actual lives lost and marginalized if not wasted, in terms of those numbers Obama would do better than Romney. Romney’s policies would make things even worse than the disaster that we are wrestling with now with the Obama administration. So there is a difference, just not a major difference. Both parties are tied to big money—big banks and big corporations—so that neither is talking about poverty or the new prison industrial complex and new Jim Crow. Neither candidate is talking about critique of the drones dropping bombs on innocent people, which is an integral part of our foreign policy now. So again, my critique is of the system. If we have to choose, then Obama is better. But in the end we are going to need a fundamental social change of the system under which we live.

Spencer A. Leonard: I was recently listening to your interview with Revolutionary Communist Party Chairman Bob Avakian on your syndicated radio show Smiley & West. You have been keen to bring voices from the far Left forward on your show. How do you understand the marginalization of socialist and Marxian politics in the present? Relatedly, you are a long time member of the Democratic Socialists of America: In what way does the DSA point the way forward? And does the DSA or indeed anyone on the Left, including your Maoist interlocutors in the RCP think about taking power and assuming responsibility for the direction of society? If not today then in the next few decades, sometime in the lifetime of those of us who are alive and capable of thinking about these matters? What in your estimation is necessary to make the events of 2011—Occupy and the Arab Spring—a turning point for the Left in which it regains the historical initiative out of the accumulated decades of social and political regression?

CW: As a deep democrat and revolutionary Christian I believe that it has to be a democratic process. At the moment we are a long way from that. Now we are just trying to keep alive the critique of capitalism, the critique of imperialism, and the critique of white supremacy. We have such a dumbed down public discussion that nowadays people hardly even engage in a serious critique of the system, in any guise. We have got a long way to go to create a social movement for the kind of fundamental transformation that I would like to see, the kind that Martin King, Michael Harrington, and others on the democratic left were talking about.


Carl Dix and Cornel West at Mandel Hall, University of Chicago, May 7, 2012. Photo by Julia Reinitz

As to the other half of your question: It is impossible not to bring in communists, anarchists, and others critical of capitalism, critical of imperialism, critical of white supremacy, critical of anti-Jewish or anti-Muslim hatred, and so forth. We have to have a robust, uninhibited dialogue, conversation, and context where we come together, fight together, and struggle together. As you know brother Carl Dix and I have been to jail many times. He is a revolutionary communist, I am a revolutionary Christian. We are very honest about our disagreements as well as about our work together.

When it comes to seizing power, that is a whole different conversation. It is much further down the road, and I am on the democratic side of that no matter what.

SL: Whether poor or working people are or are not “better off” today than they were four years ago is very much an open question. What seems less uncertain is that millions of poor and working people, especially black people, will vote for Obama in the election. What does it tell us about the nature and limitations of anti-racism today and the nature and limitations of our political system?

CW: A large number of my black brothers and sisters have such a protective disposition toward President Obama that when they see white supremacist attacks on him, when they see certain reactionary elements within the Republican Party assaulting him, they come to his rescue. They want to support him and to ensure that he is in no way touched. But there has been a shameful silence in black America about the loss of wealth of the black middle class, the 40% of the black children who are struggling every day, and the declining wages of black workers. There is hardly serious talk of those kinds of issues, hardly any serious talk about the new Jim Crow among black leaders. They all rally around the President. I have been very critical of that silence. I support the President against white supremacist attacks against him or his precious family. But I return to Martin Luther King Jr.’s criteria—poverty, militarism, xenophobia, and materialism. I try to build on them and therefore I have ended up being a strong critic of the system the President heads.

: To take up some of the themes of your discussion with Carl Dix on this campus: Millions of Americans languish in jail as we speak and when they get out, few will rejoin society. Public education is poor, and even a high school diploma or college degree is not leading people to good jobs. The military seems the last refuge of the American welfare state. How are endemic joblessness, mass incarceration, militarism, and the education crisis linked? What does it mean politically that Americans trust one or the other party of Wall Street to lead them out of this crisis?

CW: We have got to be able to begin to see the interconnection between Wall Street, the military industrial complex, the corporate media multiplex which turns its back on poor people by downplaying the plight of working people, which talks about the “middle class” as if that is the only sector of the population worth talking about, and which refuses to engage the tremendous power and wealth of oligarchs and plutocrats both on Wall Street as well as in corporate America. Making these connections is very difficult, connections between the hyper-incarceration, Depression-like unemployment and underemployment rates, low quality housing, low quality schools, etc. And we end up with fellow citizens who are suffering, in deep pain, but not exposed to any alternative analysis or alternative views of the world so that they often times fall back into their sleepwalking despite their wounds, their bruises, and their scars. But right now they are awakening. What brother Carl Dix and I were talking about is a fundamental awakening around the issues of poverty, mass incarceration, and unemployment.

WL: How do you understand the relation between racism and capitalism in America?

CW: You have to tell a historical story of how it came to be that capitalism was generating such tremendous wealth in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries based in the New World very much on black and slave labor. For the first 300 years, five Africans came to the New World for every one European. Those five Africans were there primarily to be used as commodities to make the wealth in the cotton fields, sugar fields, and rice fields of the plantations. So, at the very beginning, you have slavery as a fundamental pillar, if not the fundamental pillar, of capitalism taking off in the New World. White supremacy became, of course, the major justification, rationalization, or ideology to justify that kind of dehumanized treatment of Africans. Indigenous peoples were already here and we know the original sin of the European explorers was their interaction with indigenous people that lead to genocidal attacks and assaults, spreading diseases, and so on. But the American Indians did not become the basis of the economy. It was primarily the African slaves who served as the basis of the economy. So we are dealing with this legacy, and the history becomes very important. That is why Carl Dix and I always talk about how you have got to look backward to get a sense of where you have been before you look forward. We have to allow the best of the past to stand at our back in our fight back against injustice to make the world a better place and the future different than the present.

SL: With the struggle of the abolitionists against slavery ultimately culminating in the Civil War in the 19th century and then again in 1920s and 1930s with the campaigns of the Communist Party, the history of the American left and the struggle to overcome racism are intimately bound together. The same can be said of the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th century. How do you think that that is changing? I don’t want to affirm the idea that racism has come to an end in the United States, but surely it has changed. Also, in some ways that legacy has become an obstacle inasmuch as people lack a vocabulary for talking about injustice except as racism. Is racism a category we know how to use adequately anymore?

CW: Absolutely. During slavery, of course, the language of racism was primarily one of white supremacist enslavement of black people. Then you break the back of slavery, and here comes slavery by another name, it’s called Jim Crow and Jane Crow, American terrorism. That was the case up until the 1960s. We broke the back of Jim Crow, but since then a new Jim Crow has begun to emerge in a very intense way. The prison industrial complex is tied to poverty, the transformation of neighborhoods into ghettos and “hoods” from which the middle class has escaped. And yet we continue to use the language of racism as if it were still tied to the old Jim Crow, which was a matter of citizens’ rights and of the vote, a matter of gaining access to public space with dignity. But now it is a question of dealing with race as tied to issues of economic injustice and class, and dealing with gender in the plight of women and children. If we use the language of the old Jim Crow, we are primarily talking about voting, if we’re talking about the new Jim Crow we’re talking about prisons and this must lead to discussing structures and institutions in our economy, in our community, and in the mass media. The media today does not even allow us to raise the issue of all the suffering tied to prisons and police brutality. Why? Because we are citizens. Of course one can raise the question: But those who go through the new Jim Crow, are they citizens? Can felons vote? In most cases, no. Can felons get access to jobs and housing? In many states, no. So we need a new language of talking about racism that is not tied to the old Jim Crow. Martin Luther King Jr., Freddy Hampton, Abraham Joshua Heschel, Dorothy Day, Philip Berrigan, they broke the back of the old Jim Crow. That was progress. But here comes a new Jim Crow in the same way the old Jim Crow came right after slavery.

WL: In your interview on Big Think, you spoke of the 1970s and 1980s as a time when the majority of intellectuals embraced neoliberalism while you, Michael Harrington, and Stanley Aronowitz were still reading Lukács. Lukács and the Marxist tradition more generally are absent from intellectual life today. What has happened on the Left to occasion the intellectual bankruptcy of the present? What blocks the intellectual recovery of the history and legacy of the Left? In this context, how do you understand your role in publicly debating Carl Dix on U.S. campuses and in inviting Bob Avakian of the RCP on to a nationally syndicated radio show?

CW: The marginalizing of dissenting voices has gotten worse. When I was coming along in the 1960s and 1970s, we had Noam Chomsky, William Appleman Williams, Philip Foner, Herbert Aptheker, Angela Davis, Herbert Marcuse, and we could go on and on and on. We have a number of voices these days, but there is not a lot of exposure to the traditions of critique, be they socialist, communist, anarchist, or whatever. Even G.K. Chesterton’s distributism, which is very critical of capitalism as a system, is hardly heard these days. Yet it is something very needed because we are at such a level of crisis. I do not actually believe that any school of thought has a monopoly on truth. When I say I am a deep democrat and revolutionary Christian that means that I try not to be rigid and dogmatic when it comes to analysis. I like to be flexible and fluid. I am looking for all different kinds of intellectual, moral, and spiritual weaponry in order to fight for justice.

It is necessary that we get a variety of voices including those who have direct systemic critiques of capitalism. And of course Lukács in History and Class Consciousness already talked about everything for sale, everybody for sale, ubiquitous commodification, which meant that it is all about the market, all human value reduced to the market price. In 1923 he is talking about this. Almost 100 years later we see what he was talking about in very concrete terms before our very eyes. In a society in which everybody is for sale it is very difficult to sustain our integrity and our concern for the truth, especially the truth about injustice. So you end up with intellectuals and academicians who are basically up for sale. They will sell out in a minute. They will sell out to the right: It could be the Heritage Foundation or any other institution. They will sell out to the center, or, say the neoliberal MSNBC.

It is a matter of simply trying to be honest and saying, “You know what, if we are going to tell the truth about suffering in our society and in our world, then we are going to have to have a systemic critique of capitalism and imperialism that does not turn away from drones dropped down on innocent people, that does not turn away from the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the Chinese occupation of Tibet, or the Moroccan occupation of the Western Sahara.” It is a matter of being honest, bold, and fearless. When the market is so pervasive and people are selling out to the highest bidder then the issues of integrity, truth, boldness, and fearlessness collapse. This is what we have seen in the academy among so many intellectuals.

SL: In your generation there was an intellectual left that came to occupy the American university system. How is the landscape being reshaped for the new generation of would-be leftist intellectuals?

CW: It is hard to say. I just spent some wonderful time the other night with Black Agenda Report. They had a big fundraiser at the Riverside Church. These are important intellectuals with courageous visions and voices, none of whom or very few of whom are in the academy. Still, when I think of new spaces, what will be the lines of socialization for new thinkers and intellectuals, I think it’s going to be so complicated in the next five to fifteen years. It may come through film, may come through hip-hop. There might be a hip-hop renaissance around Lupe Fiasco, Brother Ali, and others that brings new voices in by exposing them to alternative analyses and alternative visions, and the quest for alternatives to this nightmarish world in which we find ourselves. But it is very hard to project, it really is, just like it’s hard to project what the catalyst for the next social movement will be.

SL: In 2010 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s election to the White House and we are now swiftly approaching the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. Americans when polled still rank Lincoln as the greatest president in the country’s history. What does it say about American democracy that Americans view as their greatest elected official a man whose election was most inextricably bound up with the country’s descent into civil war? While of course no one wants violent social conflict, what sort of democratic conflict is needed in America today? What are some of the divisions in this society that political leadership needs to pry open today?

CW: Lincoln emerged at a moment of intense political polarization. The very fact that most Americans view him as the greatest president gives you some sense of the degree to which the issues of both race, capitalism, and class still sit at the center of American life. Lincoln was dealing with levels of poverty, dealing with levels of racial domination, and dealing with a highly polarized public life. As we know, he could not hold it together, and it collapsed into a violent insurrection to overthrow the U.S. called for by the Confederacy. You saw some courageous things on Lincoln’s part in terms of trying to listen to Harriet Beecher Stowe and Frederick Douglass and to respond to the abolitionist social movement. Lincoln was not himself an abolitionist, but he responded to them. On the night side, of course, there was the suspending of habeus corpus and a lot of other things during Lincoln’s administration. But I think it is understandable that Lincoln looms large. What is fascinating to me is that 150 years later we have not generated a leader that most Americans would in any way compare with Lincoln.

WL: This October, Fischer v. University of Texas came before the Supreme Court, a case about affirmative action. The statistics for black educational attainment and black poverty in Texas are appalling both in themselves and in comparison with the rest of the nation, and yet we have entered into a world in which attempts to remedy this fact play out entirely in terms of diversity, rather than, say, economic justice. How did we get into this place? Is it desirable? How do you see our way out if it isn’t?

CW: I think you hit the nail on the head. You can see how far we have moved to the right—by right I mean relative indifference to the injustice visited on poor people, especially poor people of color—now that diversity has become the justification for any serious affirmative action policy in our colleges and universities rather than justice. Diversity, of course, is very fragile. It is the last straw, the last reed, right? Now that the Supreme Court has taken up this case, there is a good chance that that last straw and that last reed will be destroyed, and we will lose affirmative action and find ourselves going backward. We saw this in the 1870s, 80s, and 90s in the Jim Crow response to Reconstruction. Here we see it again. It shows the degree to which our ruling classes at the top, our oligarchs and our plutocrats are so organized and so mobile. They are much more concerned about their own interests than they are about the public interest. They cannot project a long term vision of access to quality education for everyone including poor people in order to strengthen our democracy. Once we lose that we are in even more dire straits.

SL: You were quite active in the Occupy movement and spoke at a number of different occupations. What was your sense of the Occupy movement when it began? I mean, everyone was waiting for a response to the crisis, but how did you view the political form it took? How do you think the election year, the coming election, played into the demobilization of Occupy? And is there any legacy of it, or did Occupy fail to produce any lasting effect?

CW: It was a magnificent emergence. We saw different voices and different groups emerge and put their bodies on the line. Hundreds, even thousands of us went to jail. It was a wake up call accenting corporate greed and wealth inequality. Certainly, it had impact on the public conversation. But it was the emergence not so much of a movement—because that requires something very organizationally grounded and sophisticated—but of a social motion and momentum. There was a variety of different voices and people in that motion and momentum: anarchists, liberals, progressives, Marxists, anti-poverty activists, feminist, anti-homophobic, anti-racist activists, and so forth. Of course, this never took an organizational form or infrastructural form that was highly visible. I think a lot of it now is just on the down low. It is underground, but it can re-emerge in other forms very quickly and may very well emerge again. Who knows?

But most importantly Occupy did force the mainstream to acknowledge that the Tea Party was not the major form of social motion. The Tea Party had big money from big oligarchs and plutocrats, so they had tremendous impact on the Republican Party, which is the conservative version of oligarchic rule. The Obama White House was certainly very ambivalent, it made certain symbolic gestures, but it never wanted to come too close. The Democratic Party is the neoliberal version of oligarchic rule. They did not know what to do for a while. They did not want to be tarred with those feathers in a campaign that was geared toward white moderates and white independents. So, with white moderates and white independents in Ohio and Florida and a few other states tipping the balance, as it were, Occupy became more and more obsessed with the election. It became very difficult to sustain the discussion on corporate greed and wealth inequality that we really need to have.|P

Transcribed by Tom Carey