- Interview by
- Grace Blakeley
Cornel West is one of the most eloquent and provocative voices on the American Left. A scholar in the Harvard Divinity School, he began his political life in the tumults of the Civil Rights Movement – becoming a Christian radical, then a socialist and ally of the Black Panther Party.
But his career stretches far beyond his academic career as a philosopher or political life on the Left, with cultural engagements from musical collaborations with Prince and Talib Kweli to an appearance in The Matrix series. He has also had a career in broadcasting, hosting numerous radio programmes and now a podcast, The Tight Rope, with Tricia Rose.
In this recent conversation with Grace Blakeley for her podcast A World to Win, Cornel West discusses the US presidential election, the Black Lives Matter movement – and the importance of spirituality to radical politics.
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You said in a recent interview, “with the neo-fascist gangster in the White House, we have to be part of an anti-fascist coalition.” Do you think that an anti-Trump coalition can be successful? And do you think a Biden presidency will deliver anything approaching the change that the United States needs right now?
We’ve got to be consistent in our critique of empire, of capitalism, of patriarchy, of homophobia, transphobia, and male supremacy, and white supremacy. And, how we do that is to hold onto our intellectual integrity, and our political courage: telling the truth about Donald Trump, neo-fascist, the gangster, his collaborators and facilitators. He is pushing the country toward genuine fascism: wholesale disregard of the law, the rule of big military, the rule of big money, Wall Street, and Silicon Valley. He is crushing workers, marginalising women, scapegoating Mexicans, and Muslims, and Jews, and Black, brown and indigenous people.
Now, I think with Biden what you have is someone who can stop the quick move toward American fascism. That’s very important – but his neoliberal rule is still going to be tied to Wall Street, tied to capital, tied to militarism, tied to Africom, to deeply reactionary policies in the Middle East with Netanyahu and so forth. We don’t want to lie about Biden. We don’t want to follow any illusion, simply because we’re confronted with such an ugly fascist Frankenstein figure like Trump. So we’re really between a rock and a hard place, which is usually where the Left is in the last 50 years.
A recent poll from CNN shows support for the Black Lives Matter movement has dropped since June. A majority still support the protest at 55 percent, but that’s down from 67 percent in June. Does that concern you? And is there any way you think we can reverse it, or is this all just part of Trump’s strategy?
I think it’s part of Trump’s strategy. There’s been a wholesale attack on the Black Lives Matter movement to characterise it as a terrorist movement, as a hate movement. That’s a sign of success. That means you actually constitute a substantive threat to the status quo, not just to the police using their power to murder folks but connecting it to a critique of Wall Street power, and Wall Street crimes. Connecting it to a critique of the Pentagon power, and Pentagon crimes. In that sense, the intensity of the attack is a sign of the degree to which you constitute a threat to the status quo. And I think that’s very much where we want to be. We just have to counter those lies with some truths, and create some kind of countervailing movement, institutions, journals, as well as individuals on the ground.
I want to get your view on the pandemic. There’s a poll that NPR did showing that the pandemic is widening the racial wealth gap. 60 percent of Black households, 72 percent of Latino households, and 55 percent of native American households have faced serious financial problems since the pandemic began; next to 36 percent of white households. We know the unemployment crisis, the evictions crisis, and the actual burden of the disease as well, are all being felt hardest by Black and Latino Americans. So, how can people organise their way out of this deep and pervasive crisis?
That’s why we have to have a critique of the system, and alternative visions and ways of being that sustain our resilience in the face of the system. As long as we have isolated issues, as long as we remain in our silos, and remain in our respective spaces without solidarity, we don’t have a chance at all. So, it’s so easy to fetishise race or gender as an identity and not connect that identity to a critique of a predatory capitalist system, which would allow us to recognise the degree to which we have to have a strong solidarity with working people, and poor people. We must not isolate those identities so that we lose sight of the integrity and the consistency of our critique of predatory capitalism.
You have had an incredible, wide-ranging life and career as a philosopher, activist, public intellectual, artist, and moral figure for U.S. society. You obviously spent your writing career in the academy, studying and teaching philosophy and theology. What made you want to study those big ideas to begin with?
I come from a very loving West family. The highest honour I’ve ever had is being the second son of Irene and Clifton. I’ll never be the human being my father was, he died 26 years ago. My mother’s still alive, 88 years young, with the elementary school named after her. She and dad really provided so much love and support; it freed me up, because I was very much a gangster growing up. I was beating people up all the time. I got kicked out of school for beating some kid up for refusing to salute the flag. My great uncle had been lynched, and they wrapped him in the flag, so I associated that flag with something very ugly and vicious.
But when I came into intellectual growth, it was both rooted in the church – I’ve always viewed myself as a revolutionary Christian, in the legacy of Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer – and I worked closely with the Black Panther Party. So I already had a critique of capitalism, and a critique of empire, and a critique of homophobia and patriarchy, because that’s what we talked about in the Black Panther headquarters. I was teaching in the Breakfast Program. I was teaching in the prison, Norfolk Prison, where Malcolm X was. I could never join the party because I was a Christian and they were deeply secular. And that was fine. They had strong critiques of the church, I can understand that. But I had my own understanding of God and Jesus and struggle and revolution. So we remained very close, but I couldn’t join.
By the time I went to college, I was exposed to this magnificent wave of ideas and the life of the mind. I fell in love with so many of the towering intellectual figures. It would be Marx, it would be William Morris, it would be William Hazlitt, it would be Virginia Wolf, Raymond Williams, and then Edward Said. All of these folks meant so much to me. I was within the academy, so I was studying with John Rawls and Hilary Putnam and Stanley Cavell and Martha Nussbaum and Martin Kilson and Preston Williams, and then off to Princeton with Richard Rorty and Sheldon Wolin. These were towering figures who just opened up intellectual life and shattered a lot of my parochialism. I always remained a kind of Jesus-loving free Black man, concerned about poor and working people. But it allowed me to become part of a larger conversation. C. L. R. James and Du Bois and Nkrumah and others, and Nandy and Becker in India, Sister Roy from India. So I was having a great time. I have a good time in the life of the mind, but I always try to use it as a form of weaponry for empowerment and ennoblement of vulnerable people, no matter who they are.
I do believe that there’s a lot of heterogeneous elements in the Hebrew Bible of genocide and patriarchy that we have to hold at arm’s length. But there is this notion of ‘chesed.’ The highest form of being human is to spread loving kindness and steadfast love to the orphan, the widow, the fatherless, the motherless, the oppressed. And so I’d always believed that if I was going to be part of what Moses was concerned about, which was deliverance and liberation, that I had to have a profound critique not just of Pharaoh, but the system that held Pharaoh in place. That’s why I’ve never been that deeply impressed by the Pyramids, because working and poor people could never be buried inside. They could build the Pyramids, but they could never be buried inside them. So I have a deep critique of Pharaohs, whatever colour they come in, whatever gender they are. Even when they have magnificent technological edifices, when you really look at the system, you say, “No, I’m with the poor people, the working people who built the Pyramids.” And they are forever pushed out, forgotten, rendered invisible. That’s who I’m in solidarity with.
I did first learn that in a serious way from Hebrew scripture – to be in solidarity with the oppressed. Similarly so with Jesus coming into the city, running out the money changers. Who are the money changers in the American empire? Wall Street, Pentagon, White House, Congress, Hollywood, all of them in the same place. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, all of them in the same place. Jesus runs them all out. And that’s the reason why he’s put on a cross and crucified by the most powerful empire of the day. So in that way, there is what I call a prophetic spark in that Hebrew scripture; from Jesus, from Muhammad in his own prophetic way, that leads toward a Malcolm X, for example. Even a lot of my secular brothers and sisters, who I love very dearly, they would have to acknowledge that even their deep solidarity with oppressed peoples, once they demythologise the stories, comes from this love, care, concern for the vulnerable that was carried within these religious institutions, even as those religious institutions tended to violate. And that’s what R.H. Tawney said, in the British tradition, he’s always been a hero of mine – The Acquisitive Society, Equality and Religion and the Rise of Capitalism.
That really resonates with me. I would consider myself a Christian and a socialist. As would one of my great heroes, Tony Benn. It just seems obvious to me that you don’t get collective social transformation without some form of spiritual transformation – whatever religion, whatever spirituality it comes from.
You have to be honest about that because, you see, one of the ways in which capitalism reproduces itself is the commodification of everybody and everything – to create those hollow men that T. S. Eliot was talking about, to create these morally vacuous, spiritually empty creatures, whose sense of being in the world is to be titillated by the bombardment of commodities. So they don’t have assets to these non-market values, like deep love, deep justice, a deep solidarity, service to others, taking a risk in being of service to others, being with, not over and above, but alongside others.
And of course, Dr Martin Luther King, himself democratic socialist, there’s another great example. There’s so many. The early Reinhold Niebuhr, who wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society, was a democratic socialist. We’ve got a whole wave of these folk who played such an important role in trying to keep alive some sense of deep love and justice. But also the love of beauty. Because I come from a people whose dominant forms of spirituality – after 244 years of the most barbaric form of modern slavery; you can’t learn how to read or write, you can’t worship God without white supervision, the average slave dies at 26 years old – was love of the beautiful. You raise your voices, you steal away at night, in ring shouts, holding hands. And you’re singing these beautiful songs, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot and Wade in the Water, God Go Trouble the Water.
It was not just the illogical; it was artistic. It was a way of holding on to something beautiful in the face of terror and trauma. The kind of thing that Rainer Maria Rilke reminds us in his poems, how the beauty becomes itself a source of resilience in the face of terror and trauma being institutionalised decade after decade after decade, so that music becomes fundamental in your life. Arts in general become fundamental in your life. And so the connection between love of truth and love of beauty and love of justice, and for me, love of God, are all intertwined.
You talk about the idea that inherent within any concept or formation, there is the seed of its opposite. You see that, obviously, in a lot of religions. Definitely in early Christianity. But also in socialism and its analyses of capitalism, which posit that capitalism is full of contradictions that will ultimately lead to its own destruction.
Karl Marx became one of the great secular prophets of the 19th century, because he had not just a concern for the suffering but an analysis in his Critique of Political Economy of which structures at the workplace create asymmetric relations of power, of bosses and workers, of capital and labour; that struggle, that class struggle, that class tension, that class conflict.
Here Marx is very close to the best of the romantics, he wants individuality to flower and flourish. Remember that wonderful description in The German Ideology. He can’t stand the specialisation, bureaucratisation, domination of ordinary working people. He believes their lives have the same value as anybody else’s life. It’s a radical democratic sensibility that cuts against the grain.
Marx and Engels were on the run from the ruling classes, hunting them down. And we’re living in a moment of contradictions now – ecological catastrophe, the economic catastrophes. The contradictions can be regional, as you point out, in the EU. They can be tied to the nation state. They can be regions within a nation state. All of these forms of capital over labour. And they’re shot through with various forms of patriarchy and white supremacist practices.
In The Age of Empire, brother Eric Hobsbawm reminded us about imperialism. The American and Soviet empires emerged after 1945 with the de-centring, and over time, the complete undercutting of the British Empire, the empire upon which the sun never set. Who would have thought that empire would end? They all thought it would go on and on. The Portuguese thought that for a while too, and the Spanish. Well, now the American empire is undergoing its decay, its decline. You have to be able to keep track of the ways in which predatory capitalism is connected to these imperial units and these nation states and these regional regimes and organisations, and also how it seeps through every nook and cranny of our hearts and minds and souls.
It creates the commodified way of looking at the world, of manipulation, of domination, of stimulation, of concern about transaction rather than communion. It’s almost the Martin Buber, I-Thou versus I-It. That I-Thou that Marx was concerned about in the manuscripts of 1844. How do you actually have ways of transcending these forms of alienation in the workplace, species alienation, personal alienation? These are rich and indispensable notions for any serious talk about empowering everyday people at a moment in which greed is just running amok in its institutional and structural forms.
You mentioned the American empire. I want to know what you think are the implications of America’s imperial role in the capitalist system for the structure of American society.
Well, Reverend Martin Luther King used to say, “When you drop bombs on Vietnam, they also fall on ghettos in America.” They also fall on poor whites in Appalachia. They fall in the barrios of our Spanish speaking brothers and sisters. They fall on the reservations of our precious indigenous brothers and sisters. There’s a direct connection between militarism abroad and not having resources for jobs, housing, healthcare, education, and with the militarisation of the domestic context.
That’s what we’re dealing with right now with these police. The police have always been major threats against vulnerable peoples, especially Black people, but wholesale militarisation took place under neoliberal rule, where the police departments began to look more and more like military units in Baghdad. You go for a misdemeanour and you get a militaristic response. There’s Breonna Taylor – in the middle of the night, they come in banging her door down as if she’s a member of the Mafia and she’s committed some crime, like she’s actually killed somebody. They’re looking for a little bag of drugs and end up killing her with no accountability, no responsibility whatsoever. So there’s a direct connection between foreign policy, which is imperial activity, and domestic policy, which is corporate-centred and -driven.
And so the result, of course, is that you end up with a highly impoverished working class. You end up with spiritual bombardment coming at them and their children because they can hardly gain access to those non-market values like intimacy and vulnerability. You always have to be tough and willing to pose and posture like you’re ready to fight every second, because the terrain is the survival of the slickest. It’s almost worse than Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest, with Herbert Spencer, because survival of the slickest really is the amplifying of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic. Everything is ‘might makes right.’ Everything is ‘greed is good.’ Everything is ‘domination and manipulation.’ That’s part of the grimness of our world. That’s part of the icy darkness that Weber saw in his writings. He looked out, he didn’t just see disenchantment. He said there’s an icy darkness expanding with the combination of commodification, bureaucratisation, objectification and domination, all four of these creating this iron cage for the species.
I asked Chomsky the other day – we had a wonderful dialogue at the Progressive International – I asked Chomsky “What makes us think that we as a species even have the capacity to avoid self destruction? What makes us think that ordinary people have the capacity to determine their own destiny, this radical democratic vision?” All these are speculative questions, but they’re the skeletons hanging in the closet. We say, “Well, we don’t really know.” Look at the historical record. It’s a record of crimes and follies and greed, but it’s also a record of resistance to those things. Precisely because we can raise those questions, we become more fortified, we become more dedicated, we become more devoted to ensuring that we have some evidence that we as a species can avoid self-destruction.
We as human beings can govern ourselves at the workplace. We don’t need the bosses. We can have workers’ councils. We can have democratic deliberation. We can have democratic cultures in which we learn from each other in terms of jazz, hip hop, on the one hand, flamenco on the other, rebetiko on the other; the folk songs that moved Wordsworth in his early radical years, Robert Burns in Scotland. We haven’t even got to the Irish yet. But to have that kind of deep human coming together that doesn’t homogenise our specificity, but it uses our differences as a way of deepening communion and community, rather than deepening domination and subordination.
We’re sold an idea of representative democracy that always comes alongside capitalism. You have democracy in the realm of politics, but you’ve got to have free markets in the realm of the economy – they are separate and never the twain shall meet.
And there you see the hypocrisy. Because the liberals come along and say, “We are so concerned about the concentration of power within the political sphere. We’ve had monarchs and kings and queens. We must have rights and liberties. We must have equality under the law.”
Well, what about the concentration of power in the economy? With the oligarchs, with the monopolies, the oligopolies? They are just as dictatorial. So yes, we’re with the liberals in terms of making sure we don’t have kings and queens and unaccountable power in the political field. But you end up with these monarch-like entities in the economy, globally and nationally and regionally. So you can say to the liberals “Oh you’re not really serious about freedom, I see. You want liberty for a few. I thought you really believed in universality. You want selectivity tied to your class.” It would be true, as well, in terms of gender and race. Marx and the others who made this critique are indispensable voices.
Do you think that democracy can be a weapon against capitalism? Do you think that by deepening democracy, whether we’re talking about political parties, in our social institutions, in our economic institutions, in our workplaces, in our communities, that by deepening democracy we can start to actually erode the power of those monopolies, oligopolies, bankers, politicians and the ruling class over our lives?
I come from a black people whose anthem is lift every voice. Lift every voice. And when you get the voices of those Sly Stone called Everyday People in all of the decision-making processes and institutions that guide and regulate their lives, they’re not going to choose poverty. They’re not going to choose decrepit schools. They’re not going to choose lack of health care. They’re not going to choose rat-infested housing. Democracy from below takes seriously those voices as they’re wrestling with social misery and suffering, and allows them to shape their destinies in such a way that lo and behold, their children might be able to go to quality schools like the ruling class. That their mothers and fathers might have health care like the power elites. So democracy from below is a threat to any hierarchical power, be it in the political realm or the economic realm.
That’s where the rubber hits the road, where Eugene O Neill’s great indictment of American capitalist civilisation comes in, the greatest play ever written in the United States, The Iceman Cometh. He was an anarchist like my dear brother Chomsky. But he argued that, like Dostoevsky, that most human beings would choose greed over liberty, that they would choose even the possibility of joining the greedy at the top, rather than risking solidarity with the impoverished, because it looked like it’s too hard. It’s easier to think that somehow you’re going to be the next Gates or Rockefeller.
So you dangle that carrot – this has been very much an American project in terms of our distinctive form of individualism. But he and Dostoevsky, of course, have a critique of the species. They believe, in fact, that we human beings would rather choose authority over liberty. We’d rather choose to follow the pied piper rather than organise ourselves and run our workplaces. And part of the radical democratic project is to show that they’re wrong. But it’s a serious battle. There’s no doubt about it.