An Interview with Cornel West on Occupy, Obama and Marx

This interview with Dr. Cornel West was conducted following the Oxford Union Debate on November 22nd 2012.

SR: Why are you here speaking in favour of the Occupy Wall Street movement? 

CW: The Occupy movement being the major public response to a 30 year class war against poor and working people, not just in the American Empire but around the world, that to have this space – this space has of course been consecrated by the Malcolm X’s of the world, the Desmond Tutus, and so many others who have come through here – it has a certain visibility, an international form, and so I figured it would be right.

SR: There have been some critiques of Occupy Wall Street from the Left: for example, that it failed to significantly engage with the labour movement and trade unions in the US or that its radically decentralized structure made it very difficult to arrive at decisions to accomplish particular objectives. And so moving forward, what are the lessons that we, as participants in Occupy and supporters of it, can learn from the movement?

CW: I think we have to draw a distinction between social motion and social movements. Social movements are very rare because they require a sophisticated level of organization, of leadership, of persons who are highly courageous and willing to actually pay a price. Social motion is very important because it helps shape the climate of opinion and that’s exactly what the Occupy motion has been all about – it helps shape the climate of opinion. But it was in many ways so heterogeneous, so diverse in all of its various voices and perspectives. What I loved about it was that there was a lot of respect. It wasn’t dogmatic, imposed from above, professional revolutionaries coming in with Truth (with a capital ‘T’) and imposing it on everybody. That’s what we were wrestling with in the 60’s and 70’s. You didn’t have that kind of thing this time around – and that was very important.

On the other hand, it was difficult to sustain it. But I think that the next wave of social activism will be among young people and it’s going to take a variety of different forms. I’m old school so I have to learn from young people – for example, about social networking to forms of democratic expression that I haven’t even thought of in that regard. I have a respect for the anarchists precisely because – though I’m not one – they have a powerful critique of concentration of power in the nation-state. And as a black man in America dealing with the repressive apparatus, you live under death threat every day from your own government. You know governments can be vicious – and that’s the history of black people in America. So then the anarchists say ‘we want democratic accountability, not just of the corporations (which, coming out of the socialist tradition, I accept) but we want to make sure that the government doesn’t have a concentration of power, especially instrumentalities of violence which can be brought to bear on dissidents, who are then criminalized and assassinated.’ And that’s very important. Yet at the same time, as a radical democrat or a deep democrat, in the end I’m not an anarchist but anarchism has some deep truths that one has to take into consideration.

PG: Cornel, you campaigned for Obama in 2008 but unlike many other critical supporters of the President, your critique of his policies eventually eclipsed your support as his first term unfolded. And as a result you’ve found yourself in confrontation with former comrades – but still brother – like Michael Eric Dyson, Al Sharpton and others, who remain allied to the Obama regime while purporting to be critical of it from within. 

CW: You don’t see too much criticism coming from either one of them though! (laughs). I think they’ve sold their soul for a mess of Obama pottage!

PG: Right, and it’s obvious that these confrontations have led many in the mainstream American press to denounce you, but even then your popularity among poor and working people in America and across the world continues to grow. How do you account for that? 

CW: Well, one important thing to keep in mind is that in the 65 events that I did, at each stop I would tell them that we must bring Reaganism to a close – McCain and Palin were the last moments of Reaganite policy (unregulated markets, indifference towards the poor, stagnating wages) – and that if Obama won, I would break dance in the afternoon and be his major critic the next morning. That’s how I ended every speech. And so I broke dance in the afternoon [when Obama won in 2008] because we did stop McCain and Palin. But the next morning I knew the social forces behind him (Wall Street and so forth) needed to be called into question. So when I went after Larry Summers, went after Tim Geithner, went after Gary Gensler and all the Wall St. folk who inhabited his space, his cabinet, Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, and so forth, they [his supporters] said ‘you’re turning on the President!’. I said ‘no, I’m just being consistent. I’m being true to what I said’. But then that’s where the demonization set in. But, you know, that goes with the territory.

PG: Was there a break-dance this November? 

CW: God, no! He’s had four years and he’s proved himself to be a Wall St. President, he’s proved himself to be imperial to the core, he’s proved himself to be a war criminal. And you have to call that for what it is. And people say ‘oh you hatin’ ’ and I say ‘I’m a Christian. I hate the deed; I don’t hate the person’, because he has the potential to change. Malcolm X was a gangster for a long time; he was wrong, he changed and he became a great freedom fighter. All of us have the capacity to change, you see. And so in that sense, you know, as a Christian, ‘you love your enemies’ which means you better have some! (laughs) Because if you take a stand for poor and working people, you gonna’ have some enemies! That was part of what Jesus had in mind – if you go through life with no enemies, you’re probably not living a good life. You’re going to have enemies if you take a stance. And, the question about loving them is not sadomasochistic: you’re not loving your oppressors because they’re beating you down but because they’re still human beings and you know you have the capacity, inside of you, to actually engage in those same kinds of vicious forms of revenge, envy, domination, hatred and so forth. And therefore that allows a self-critique within your own soul. But, you know, I don’t want to get too theological here but the point is that it’s been a challenge. But what’s interesting now is that more and more people are coming around. I gave a talk in San Francisco with 4,000 people; in New York, 3,000 people. You think, ‘wow, this thing is getting bigger and bigger and bigger!’.

PG: Right, and the enemies grow apace. 

CW:Absolutely! In this recent moment with the Middle East, you see it so very clearly that US policy is imperial to the core and Obama is right at the centre of it. And yet he puts up with these criminal massacres of precious folk. That doesn’t mean you have to be pro-Hamas – Hamas has gangsta’ proclivities too, but they’re a resistance movement against occupation. No mention of the occupation at all in the US discourse. That’s a sign that they’re hiding and concealing a fundamental reality that not just Hamas but the Palestinian people are wrestling with. My God, I am against occupation no matter what! The sad thing is that if it was Palestinian occupation of Jewish brothers and sisters, Hamas would probably be heroes in America. In that case, I would be in solidarity with my Jewish brothers and sisters. I wouldn’t be supportive of Hamas’ attack on innocent people but I would be calling for an end to Palestinian occupation of Jewish brothers and sisters. But that kind of double standard, that’s the hypocrisy that needs to be pointed out.

SR: On Democracy Now!, with Amy Goodman, you referred to Obama as a ‘Rockefeller Republican in blackface’. Can you explain why that description is fitting? 

CW: Well because discourse in America has moved so far to the Right that Romney is far Right, and Obama is centrist. And a Rockefeller Republican in the 60’s and 70’s was in many ways very much what Obama is now. He’s calling for cuts with little bit of revenue increase with the tax from the well-to-do, but it’s going to be very modest, he keeps saying. There’s no serious talk about a massive investment, private or public, for jobs, for decent housing, and for education. And his foreign policy is not only continuous with Bush but in some ways even worse.

PG: For that much, Rockefeller Republican would’ve been sufficient. So, why ‘blackface’?

CW: Well, because he’s a black man. Because, you see, a black face in America makes a difference. Race matters in America. You can get away with a lot. Just by being black, people just assume you’ve got some connection to folk catching hell. Because when you get to New York, as soon as you get there, just go to the chocolate side of town and see the levels of social misery: the 50% of unemployment amongst young people, the 20% unemployment for everybody, the 40% of young kids in poverty, and so forth. So with a black face, they just figured that Obama must be progressive. Not necessarily! Clarence Thomas? No! Barack Obama is much more progressive than Clarence, but he’s in the centre. He’s a centrist.

PG: So you mentioned race. And it’s clear to everyone that, among other things, the relationship between race and class is fundamental to any understanding of US society in the present. You manage, more than many other critics, to hold the two categories together very well – affirming, on the one hand, the irreducibility of race to class, how the suffering of Native Americans, Blacks and Latinos is about more than just exploitation, while maintaining, on the other hand, that poor and working whites have little in common with white elites and so are indispensable to the struggle against racism as well as capitalism. What do you find to be the challenges of thinking in this way and are you ever tempted to cast one category, race or class, as the more decisive political force?

CW: Well, I think it shifts from historical context to historical context. I don’t think that history has any kind of essentialist narrative that always reflects the relation between race, class, gender, empire, region, and nation. All of these various categories have to be dipped in space and time, which is to say they have to take historical forms. And so various moments, for example slavery in 1860’s, it’s fairly clear, that’s racialized. They’re workers, but it’s racialized because it was white supremacist slavery. And so the issue of race split the country right down the middle – barbaric civil war, 750,000 now dead but it was still a class issue (as Dubois points out in Black Reconstruction). It was still a class issue but it took a racial form. And more and more these days, race is taking a class form because you’ve got a black middle class that is often times indifferent to the black poor. I’ll give you an example: that if middle class brothers and sisters, who I love deeply, were going to jail at the same level as Black poor brothers and sisters going to jail, who I love deeply, we’d have a different kind of black leadership. A qualitatively different kind of black leadership. Because the mass incarceration of America is class incarceration, for the most part. And so in that sense, you see my god the class divide is much deeper now than it was before and therefore you have to raise those issues in the name of justice, in the name of truth and in the name of love, because it’s not a matter of hating the black bourgeoisie, it’s just hating their cowardice, it’s hating their indifference, it’s hating their complacency. It’s hating the fact that somehow they think their child has more weight and value on the moral scale than Jamal and Latisha on the block. And that to me is just wrong.

Now of course that’s also true for the larger society. Can you imagine white young brothers and sisters going to jail at the same level as the black poor? Oh shoot, there’d be a White House conference every three days! Every three days! Oh my god, Suzy’s going to jail! Johnny’s going to jail! (laughs) One out of three whites incarcerated? Oh my god!

SR: There’s been a revival of Marxism: for example, commentators have noted that since 2008, sales of Das Kapital and the Communist Manifesto have risen. You describe yourself as a ‘non-Marxist socialist’. Can you elaborate? 

CW: I think that a Marxist analysis is indispensable for any understanding, not just in the modern world but for our historical situation. I think in the end it’s inadequate but it is indispensable because how do you talk about oligarchy, plutocracy, monopolies, oligopolies, asymmetrical relations of power at the workplace between bosses and workers, the imperial tentacles, profit maximizing and so forth. That’s not Adam Smith. That’s not John Maynard Keynes. That’s Karl Marx.

It’s inadequate in the end because of the cultural issues. You have to deal with death, you have to deal with dread, despair, and disappointment. You have to deal with anxiety, insecurity, fears and so forth. And Marx just didn’t go in that direction. And people say, ‘well, you can go with Freud’. Yeah Freud got some interesting things to say, no doubt about that. But it’s indispensable and, in the end, inadequate. But it’s a beautiful thing to see the revival of a Marxist analysis. I think Marx was the great secular prophet of 19th century Europe. And that makes a difference.

PG: One predicament a lot of students like us have been having is that we want to get involved in political struggles for emancipation of various kinds. But we find ourselves in the university, and there’s this sense that the University is somehow in contradiction with those struggles, that there’s a gulf between them. Of course, you have the Marxist notion of the unity of theory and practice, which suggests these things can’t actually be separated in a productive way. And then you have the French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser who argues that ‘philosophy represents class struggle in theory.’ In his view, academic disciplines within the university are themselves terrains on which struggles for emancipation must be fought. As a student, teacher and writer of philosophy yourself, and as someone who has maintained an active presence outside the university while still teaching within it, would you agree with Althusser? How important do you think it is to theorize our present predicaments and the means of overcoming them in relation to the more immediate struggles for better wages, shelter, food, status etc? 

CW: Well, I think firstly you need to have an analysis of your workplace, and the academy is a professional managerial site in capitalist society, with deep ties to the military-industrial complex (in the US at least) , with deep ties to a US government with contracts, and more and more of them being bought out by the powers that be.

Now, what happens to the Humanities is that it is more and more marginalized because its more about science, technology, computers, so the Humanities are left very much on the periphery in this regard. But I believe any context is one of struggle. After teaching in prison all these years, if they can struggle in prison, we can struggle at Oxford, or Harvard, Yale or Princeton, or whatever it is, you see what I mean! (laughs). But you just have to be aware of what the structural constraints are.

Now the wonderful thing about universities is that they have a self-understanding (whether it’s true or not) of robust, uninhibited critical exchange, just like what we had tonight. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s 1823 to have that space. And of course it’s very fragile: you know it still has its structural constraints, it’s not always going to be workable, and they’re going to have certain censorship that’s still functioning in various ways. But that means then that you’re able to think critically. And then you can use whatever results you have as a form of weaponry in the struggles that you choose. So I highly encourage one to be in the academy, if one is so inclined. I’ve spent a lot of time with hip-hop artists, and they say ‘we’re more free than the academy’. Oh really? Radio, video and recording industry all owned by the same oligarchs. Now, how’re you going to get a deal? And when you get the deal like Lupe [Fiasco], he gets a deal and then they try to push him out. That’s a different kind of context but it’s the same struggle because he’s trying to be real. They want him to do g-string records and everything else. And he says ‘well, I don’t want to sell out like that’ but he’s got to, you know, support his family.

PG: And then they sign Chief Keef.

CW: (laughs) Yeah we’ve got to pray for that Chicago brother! But he’s so young, he’s only 16, we gonna’ straighten him out!

Shozab Raza and Parmbir Gill are Oxford University graduate students of Anthropology and History, respectively.