On February 26th, I interviewed Ajamu Baraka for my podcast. Baraka is a veteran grassroots organizer whose roots are in the Black Liberation Movement and anti-apartheid and Central American solidarity struggles. He is an internationally recognized leader of the emerging human rights movement in the U.S. and has been at the forefront of efforts to apply the international human rights framework to social justice advocacy in the U.S. for more than 25 years. He is a National Organizer for the Black Alliance for Peace, whose activities we discussed.
Baraka has taught political science at various universities and has been a guest lecturer at academic institutions in the U.S. and abroad. He has appeared on a wide-range of media outlets including CNN, BBC, Telemundo, ABC, RT, the Black Commentator, the Washington Post and the New York Times. He is currently an editor and contributing columnist for the Black Agenda Report and a writer for Counterpunch.
What follows are excerpts from our conversation, edited for clarity. You can listen to the entire interview here.
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume: [In terms of foreign policy], it seems like this last election was just Trump or not-Trump and so there was no discussion about how a Biden administration might be different.
Ajamu Baraka: There really wasn’t. Within the context of the bourgeois press, during the so-called debates, the number of minutes devoted to foreign policy was less than one hour, total. But yet you see that once the Biden administration takes power, some of the first initiatives that they engage in have foreign policy implications. So it’s really incredible that, because of the weight of responsibility that the executive has, that there was so little conversation around foreign policy…
The result was that basically Biden got a pass and there was no real discussion in the campaign and even among civil society. There was an assumption that you just had to get rid of Trump and everything would be just fine. It would be a return to normal. No one talked about what did normal look like and whether what was so-called normal was really in the best interests of not only the people of the US but the people in the global south, who find themselves constantly in the cross-hairs of aggressive US policies.
Sonnenblume: It seems like one untouchable topic these days, both in politics and in civil society, is the US military budget, which as we know takes up over 50% of discretionary spending. It’s obscene. It’s ten times as much as Russia’s is. It’s more than the next ten countries combined. When the conversation comes up of, “How do we pay for Medicare for All?” that’s the perfect opportunity to be like, “Let’s cut that military budget” but then it never comes up…
Baraka: One reason people are not talking about it is because, again, there seems to be bipartisan consensus that the military would get not only what it wants, but even more so. When Donald Trump came into office, that first budget he submitted to Congress included a $54 billion increase in military spending. It’s very interesting because Donald Trump just didn’t know how to filter himself so every once in a while he would say something that was brutally honest, so be blurted out that he thought that that $54 billion was in fact crazy. At first, even Democrats were raising questions about the increase, until a couple months later, I guess they got the memo, and all of a sudden it went quiet. And not only did they give Donald Trump $54 billion increase, they increased it by almost another $30 billion that first year. So that’s been a bipartisan consensus…
The issue we have, as the people, is to make that an issue. To in fact demand that our resources are redeployed to address the objective human rights needs of the people. Because who is benefiting from this 750 billion, or really, over a trillion dollars, spent on defense? It’s the fat cats making the money. These military-industrial complex executives. Everybody’s making money off of this but the people. The people are the ones suffering, so we have to demand that they reduce the spending, that they close down these over 800 military bases worldwide, transfer those resources back to the people. Back to providing housing. Back to providing some decent healthcare. Cleaning up the environment. Creating a first class educational experience for our young people.
But as long as the interests of the rulers prevails, then you’re going to have this obscene behavior, this obscene budget…
We are trying to make people aware of the fact that we have this [global military] basing system, these command structure, and we’re asking a very simple question: Whose interests are being carried out with this enormous expenditure of the public funds? To have these troops, to have these bases that are being built in various parts of the world. Is that helping your family to get a better education? Is that helping you to have some healthcare? A rec center in your community? Do you have access to more capital if you want to start a business? Where is the emphasis? And see, those questions—if the Democrats had been raising those kinds of questions, or pursuing policies that were more in alignment with working class people and the lower elements of the middle class (what we call the petite bourgeoisie)—perhaps the conditions would not have been in place that would have allowed Trump to win the presidency.
These basic questions of whose interests are being served by these policies are the kind of questions that have to be raised on the liberal part of the equation. Because they’re being raised among the radical right and you see a radicalization taking place that culminated in terms of behavior on Jan. 6th.
So there’s a real disadvantage on the part of liberals because they have surrendered their political positions to the neoliberal bourgeoisie and they have disarmed themselves politically and ideologically. As a consequence, they have ceded significant ideological space to the radical right. They’re playing a game that’s very dangerous. Not only are they losing, but all of us are losing as a consequence.
Sonnenblume: You made a reference to neoliberalism being a form or expression of neofascism. I heard you speak about this recently, I believe it was on Black Agenda Radio, and this was new for me to think of it this way. [See Black Agenda Radio 1/25/21.]
Baraka: …What you see is this dangerous coalition of forces, of ruling class forces—Silicon Valley, the military industrial complex, the corporate media companies that control 90% of news and entertainment, and elements of the state: the intelligence agencies—you see the foundation there. We already have the dictatorship of capital. If we want to think about the liberal bourgeois process, it provides a shell for the dictatorship of capital. The shell is not becoming almost an impediment for the neoliberal bourgeoisie. So they are slowly conditioning the US population to accept open fascistic kinds of rule. That’s why they flaunt democracy. That’s why Biden can talk about how he wants to center democracy and human rights, but then turn around and support fascism in Haiti or right-wing elements that are trying to take power in Venezuela.
So not only do I talk about neofascism as having a neoliberal character, it’s important to understand that within the context of the global system, for many years this fascism that we have in the US has been disguised. Because you can have forms of democracy, of democratic practice, at the center, while the connected economies and societies that the empire was connected to, are basically fascism.
When we look at these relationships from the point of view of the oppressed, of the colonized, we say: “Someone explain to us how we didn’t have fascism.”
So for me, I’m hoping that people are alerted to this friendly fascism that’s being developed because in many ways it’s more insidious because it’s not being recognized. So for four years they had us fixated on the theatrics of Donald Trump with his incoherent and clownish behavior, while they were systematically tightening up the national security state, the conditioning of the population to accept an Orwellian-Big-Brother-doublespeak-newspeak kind of environment. It’s very troubling what’s unfolding now because elements who you think would be hip to it, and in opposition, they’ve been helping to go along with it. Just yesterday, the Nation jumped on this whole Facebook thing and called Mark Zuckerberg a danger to democracy. Why? Because they want to engage in even more censorship. To me, it’s kind of crazy.
Sonnenblume: You’ve made a point about this particular topic of social media before, where you’ve talked about how our public space has been privatized.
Baraka: Exactly. It’s been privatized. It’s been colonized. And as a consequence it’s becoming more and more difficult for alternative information to be disseminated. Look, they’ve been wanting to do this for quite some time. Ever since they saw the possibilities and the dangers of the internet and social media. You might recall that at one point, they were attacking what people were referring to as “citizen journalists.” That they weren’t authoritative. That they were just making things up, blah blah blah. It’s always been a concern that information not approved by the authorities would be disseminated and be the source of real political opposition in this country and throughout the entire West. But they never had the nerve to engage in open censorship. But with Russiagate, they had that opportunity to begin laying the ideological foundation and they did it and they did it with a vengeance. So now, four years later, you can have the Nation calling for censorship and no one bats an eye.
Sonnenblume: Within the context of decolonization, do we need to dismantle the United States?
Baraka: Well the short answer is, yes.
Because the United States is a settler-colonial project, a settler-colonial state. It’s had a continuity since 1791, once the new constitutional process was finalized, and that process just basically resulted in the consolidation of the power of the colonists that were on the land since 1619. Even with the Civil War, there’s been continuity, because the US national state won that conflict with the Confederacy. The very fact that the material basis of the US was the conquering of this land and then the confinement of Native peoples to concentration camps that we refer to as “reservations,” provides not only a moral critique but it provides a moral foundation for how a just resolution has to look.
That is, we can’t just be saying, “I’m sorry” and that’s it, or even reparations whatever that’s supposed to be, but it in fact has to be a dismantling of this power, a dismantling of the settler-colonial state.
And that process of dismantling the settler-colonial state and the colonial system requires a decolonization of one’s consciousness. It goes hand-in-hand. That process of decolonizing one’s consciousness is a process in which you root out the ideological foundations of white supremacy. In this society—in this white supremacist, settler-colonial society—everyone who was born—no matter what your ethnicity, nationality or race or whatever—you are subjected to it, and become in essence a white supremacist. It’s part and parcel of the DNA of the US experience. You are taught white supremacy from the very first moments… It’s so pervasive, it’s not even recognized. It becomes just common sense.
So you have to go through a process of purging oneself. Of not seeing Europe as the apex of civilizational development, of understanding that there are other people on this planet who have civilizations, who should be recognized and respected, who have value just as much as the lives of Europeans. You have to rid yourself of Euro-centrism because it’s so pervasive you can’t even see it. So the process of decolonization structurally requires a simultaneous process—maybe even a prior process—of decolonizing one’s consciousness, decolonizing knowledge, decolonizing the very basis of being.
That is the simultaneous process we need to engage in, in this country, and throughout the Western world, because the very notion of modernity, of what is human development, has to be re-thought. Part of that re-thinking is part of the decolonization process. De-centering Europe. De-centering the entire process of modernity.
Sonnenblume: So this makes me wonder: To what degree is the modern technological and industrial state dependent on white supremacy then? Because the wealth that makes it happen comes from these structures. We look at our phones and our other technologies and it’s a colonial and white supremacist process that’s extracting those materials. We know about the child slave labor that’s happening in Africa. Is it even possible to have modern life without it? Can we make a cell phone without colonialism, I guess I’m asking?
Baraka: That’s a very important and profound question. The relationships of colonialism are such that they when they are separate, there has to be a change in what we consume, how we consume, how we relate to nature. That’s part of the process. Now we can’t turn back the hands of time. We have these industrial processes, but right now those industrial processes and the technologies being developed are such that they are almost instruments against collective humanity.
So part of the decolonization process is to take hold of those technological innovations and industrial processes, and reorganize them in a way that makes more sense, that helps to elevate life, and to protect life. And that means a lot of profound changes. For example, what that might mean for these megacities that we have? Can we continue to afford these megacities? When we take hold of the industrial base, maybe we will be able to reorganize agriculture in a different way that will allow people to leave these cities and go back to the countryside and engage in small plot farming, for local and national markets.
The whole logic and rationale of capitalist society has to be looked at in a new way. There are a number of movements that are in fact doing that. That make an argument that we’ve got to completely reorganize every aspect of society if we’re going to be able to survive, because one of the obvious contradictions and consequences of the industrial processes we have is that we’re basically destroying the ability of human beings to sustain themselves on this planet. Mother Earth is going to survive. She might be altered in many ways, but we are the ones who are going to destroy our ability to live on this planet.
So until we’re able to seize power from this minority of the human population that is invested in production processes and social relations that force all of to have to work for them, that put profit over the planet, and over people, then that kind of irrational production will continue, to our detriment. So we have a vested interest in a global revolutionary process.
The major contradiction that Marx identified was between the capitalists and the workers. And that’s a continuing contradiction, but at this stage of monopoly global capital and the irrationality of these processes, the major contradiction today, in my opinion, is between capitalism—the capitalist class—and collective humanity. We have to take power from these maniacs if we’re going to survive. So there’s an objective, material need for us to recognize that we have an interest in taking power back from the capitalist class if we want to survive for ourselves and for our children.
These are the kinds of things we have to look at. When we take power, what kind of societies do we build? That is the other part of the conversation, because you have some people that will argue that there’s some models being developed that represent how a post-capitalist society might look. Well, maybe. But there’s some things in some of these models that some of us don’t want to follow. So what would be created remains to be seen.
But we’ve got to find a new kind of ethical framework, a framework that is based on cooperation, based on equality, based on rationality and decency. I think we will collectively be able to figure out how to reorganize society in ways that will ensure we can survive and live as decent human beings in a new kind of world. I think we can do that.
Listen to the entire interview here.