Donald Trump has stoked white nationalistic and misogynistic sentiments in the U.S., which, in turn, have raised issues of identity politics and class.
To plumb the nuances of these matters, Canada’s National Observer interviewed Cornel West, 67, one of America’s most prominent progressive intellectuals and a professor at Harvard University on the practice of public philosophy.
The author of 20 books, including Race Matters, Black Prophetic Fire and Democracy Matters, West is a larger-than-life presence in the American cultural and political sphere.
This interview has been edited for length.
Q: The election of Barack Obama in 2008 would have suggested that America had moved some ways down the road towards racial harmony. But you became a critic of Obama, saying he ran from the issue of race. What did his period as president represent?
West: Well, the positive was at the symbolic level: you had a wonderful symbolic indictment of white supremacy. You have a Black man, a Black family in the White House built by Black slaves. That's a symbolic indictment. And symbols do make a difference.
But the question was going to be what kind of substance would that symbolic indictment have? What kind of substance would Obama really have? Would he build on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and cut back on the militarism and fight poverty and bring strong regulation on Wall Street — beginning by sending Wall Street criminals to jail? Would he try to regulate the Pentagon's power? Would he send the torturers to jail in Abu Ghraib and other places?
And it was very clear, as soon as he got in, that he was going to be another neo-liberal and another Black version of neo-liberalism that we saw under (Bill) Clinton. He succumbed immediately to Wall Street and bailed them out while homeowners went under. Then he allowed the (U.S. military) torturers to go free. It's very clear the Pentagon's power was not going to be regulated.
"There's no guarantee whatsoever that fascism will not triumph in the United States," says @CornelWest
And so it was clear that you had a Black face now running the empire without any real substance in terms of dealing with wealth inequality, poverty, Wall Street power, Pentagon power. And, of course, he hardly said a mumbling word about the new Jim Crow — the mass incarceration regime, which is a major form of containing and suppressing poor Black people so that they go straight from school to the prison, with so many of them there for non-violent offences and so forth.
Obama was spineless in confronting corporate and military power
So it was clear that we got the symbolic indictment of white supremacy. And he's a brilliant Black man, a wonderful Black family, but when it comes to the substantive issues, the ones that are really sucking the energies out of the American democratic experiment — issues like poverty, militarism, white supremacy — he didn't come through, he was spineless.
And so you end up creating and enabling the possibility of a pseudo-populist, of a neo-fascist speaking to white working-class fears and anxieties in response to the failure of neo-liberal policies.
Q: Have the Democrats turned their backs on workers and labour and embraced Wall Street? And if so, what has been the consequence of that?
West: The Democratic party suffers from Wall Street captivity, which is a way of talking about big-money donors shaping the destiny of the party. And that's why Brother Bernie's (Sanders) campaign, which is not only a matter of his policy but the fact he didn't receive a penny from the traditional big-money donors at the Democratic party, (terrified) the corporate wing in the party.
But then they all came together — Obama and Clinton and company all came together and said: "No, we neo-liberals must unify, because under no conditions can Bernie Sanders win our nomination."
And Bernie was the only one standing for working people and poor people.
Democratic party establishment wanted Sanders to go down
And so it was very clear that the establishment and the Democratic party wanted Bernie to go down. Some of them have said they'd even vote for Trump as opposed to Bernie. That was very clear in terms of their class interest.
And so that's where we find ourselves, between a rock and a hard place. We gotta choose between a neo-fascist gangster, who's a catastrophe, and a neo-liberal disaster in Biden, whose policies helped create this situation.
But we gotta be part of an anti-fascist coalition against Trump at this point, there's no doubt about it.
Q: When Obama got elected, it was the beginning of the credit crisis. Coming out of that, the rich got even richer while working people continue to struggle. So by 2016, you have a situation where American workers are worse off. Trump uses racism to help get elected...
West: And even his fascism on Muslims, his demonizing of Muslims, has a racial inflection to it, actually.
Q: So while Trump inflamed racial tensions, was it made worse due to the underlying tension caused by economics?
West: That's a fundamental dimension of it, absolutely. But the other dimension has to do with the spiritual decay, it has to do with the culture.
What has happened in the wholesale commodification of American culture is the gangsterization of American life. And people saw in Trump a gangster who wins.
So a lot of people who voted for Trump, they knew he was a gangster, they know his history of casinos, they know his history of landlordism in New York, but they just wanted a winner at that point. You see, that's spiritual decay. It just reached a point where might makes right, greed is good, indifference to suffering people is rewarded. That's what they saw in Trump.
America plagued by spiritual decay
So, at that point, all the moral and spiritual dimension drops out — that's what I mean by identity with no integrity. And see, that has permeated and poisoned American culture in a very, very deep way. You could almost call it a certain kind of nihilism.
And Trump was very upfront about that. He has been very clear — life is survival of the slickest, and he's obsessed with one commandment: "Thou shall not get caught."
The American people didn't see this and say: "Oh, this is the only way we're gonna get out from under this crisis." And we end up with the road to fascism.
I'm not an endorser of Biden, but I'm fighting to have people vote for him because we've got to stop this march towards American fascism.
Q: The left's analysis of racism, sexism, homophobia is that these are ideologies used by the wealthy to divide workers as well as make profits. If you can pay a woman 60 cents for every dollar you pay a man, the wealthy profit from that. Do you agree with this analysis?
West: I think that's one part of the truth. The other part of the truth is that there are psychic wages of whiteness, to use W.E.B. Du Bois' language. And that has to do with self-conceptions and self-understanding, and that's not reducible simply to a class analysis.
There is a dimension of culture that's not reducible to just a Marxist analysis. So the Marxist analysis is partly right, but the other side of this thing has to do with these very deep fears and anxieties and insecurities that have to be confronted.
And white supremacy provides a narrative to deal with these fears and anxieties. And that white supremacy might be used by those at the top, but it also has its own dynamic, a very strong dynamic going back hundreds of years.
America is, as you know, like Canada, a settler-colonial enterprise and you try to get some democratic possibilities out of its imperial expanse vis-a-vis Indigenous Peoples and, in the United States, being built on African slave labour.
White supremacy is mobilized to make sense of fears
And so you have very deep racist and white supremacist sensibilities that people can easily mobilize in order to make sense of their fears. (But) it then creates a difficulty of class solidarity, of human solidarity.
See, the sad thing is that there is so much talk about identity politics. It's just so narrow because there's no stress on integrity and solidarity of race. You can have narrow identity politics, like white supremacist politics in America, which is just racial politics and gender politics, mainly male and white.
It has no moral integrity and doesn’t have any political solidarity that cuts across race to deal with the suffering of others.
But the dominant orientation in the country was one of a narrow identity. So what happens oftentimes, you get a countering of that narrow identity with another narrow identity from below.
You think it's just all Black people who somehow are gonna be on your side, which is certainly not the case.
We saw that just the other day with Daniel Cameron, the very sharp Black attorney general (of Kentucky) who rationalized the white supremacist murder by the police (of Breonna Taylor). Same with Clarence Thomas.
So the Marxist analysis is indispensable, but it's inadequate because it doesn't come to terms with culture. And yet, if you only talk about culture without the Marxist analysis, you're going to end up with neo-liberal politics (where) identity is just a matter of allowing Black people and people of colour and women to move further up the imperial and class hierarchy with the same ugly class exploitation at its centre.
Q: In regards to identity politics and its discussion in the United States, what about it concerns you? Should it be a different debate?
West: I think it ought to be a very different debate down there.
If you talk about any identity, whatever it is — racial identity, gender identity, religious identity — the crucial question is, what is the moral content of that identity? Does it have integrity, honesty, decency?
And then the second question is, what are its political consequences? Does it generate solidarity or does it generate Balkanized groupings? And if you can't meet those two criteria, what is the moral identity of your content and of your identity? What are the political consequences?
Any identity that precludes integrity and solidarity is gonna be gangster-like. It's gonna be Trump-like, you see. And so what happens is, there's not enough talk about integrity and solidarity. And if we don't get those two in … it's just raw power against each other.
Q: The term "cancel culture" that has emerged, where does it originate? And what about it worries you?
West: Well, it originates from a deep hatred of neo-liberal elites who have been hypocritical, who claim that they support rights and freedom of speech, and yet when it comes to the rights and freedoms of speech of people who they disagree with, they haven't come to their defence, you see.
So it's very myopic and I think it lacks integrity. I think any defence of cancellation culture lacks integrity and solidarity, that's why I reject it.
Cancel culture stems from hatred of neo-liberal elites
But I can understand where it comes from. They figured that, well, you've really just cancelled us. So that as trans people, you don't really care about our voices when we get crushed, you don't come to our defence.
So all this abstract talk about free speech is just empty talk and ... therefore, I don't even need to listen to you. I can dismiss you. And so I understand its motivation. It’s just that it does not meet the integrity-solidarity test that I was talking about before.
So you have to be able to bring critique to bear on the hypocrisy of the mainstream and the status quo.
But I don't believe in cancellation because, of course, if you got to rule with cancellation, you cancel somebody else and very soon, you'll get cancelled yourself. And you can get that kind of reciprocal mutual cancellation going on and on and on and on. That's like an eye for an eye and everybody's blind after a while, nobody can see nothing.
Q: I always think America just doesn't like discussing class. The idea that there are classes — there's a working class, there's a wealthy class — does the absence of that discussion in America hurt the left?
West: Oh, absolutely. It's been stronger now than it ever was. Of course, I've been around for a long time, my brother. And we've got a young generation under 30 who think more favourably about socialism than they do capitalism. That’s unprecedented.
So issues of class are actually much more explicit these days. People are much more willing to talk about it these days, but still not enough.
But as you know, America is known for its adolescent disposition when it comes to evils. America views itself as innocent, so it really doesn't want to talk about empire, doesn't want to talk about Indigenous Peoples and dispossession of land. It doesn't want to talk about race until it explodes. Then it doesn't want to talk about class. And, too often, (it) doesn't want to talk about gender and sexual orientation.
Americans have an adolescent disposition so they ignore country's problems
So that there's this sense of America viewing itself as innocent in the face of different kinds of evils. And for me, class exploitation is as evil as white supremacy, which is as evil as male supremacy, is as evil as homophobia and transphobia, is as evil as anti-Jewish hatred or anti-Muslim hatred or anti-Arab hatred.
America as a culture has a Peter Pan sensibility in terms of growing powerful and growing wealthy but refusing to grow up — there's a childish attitude toward the world, a Disney World-like view of everybody just bouncing on Main Street with a smile, rather than class hierarchy crushing poor and working people. Or gender hierarchy crushing women. Or white supremacy crushing Black people, Indigenous people.
But Bernie (Sanders), I think he's an unprecedented American politician in terms of putting democratic socialism and class on the agenda.
Q: The concern that America is drifting towards some form of fascism, how real is that?
West: Oh, it's very real. It's very real.
I called Trump a neo-fascist gangster about five years ago and people were coming down so hard on me. Now they're using the same language, given the fact that he's calling into question legitimacy of the elections. He's got mechanisms of suppression of the vote.
Trump is a neo-fascist gangster
We know he's got a disregard towards rule of law. He talks about law and order: it's a joke because he's been running from the law for the last 40-some years trying not to get caught. He's already defunded any regulation of corporations when it comes to the environment and workers' rights and so forth. So you've got all the elements in place of an American-style fascism, there's no doubt about it.
Q: What would American fascism look like compared to German or Italian fascism?
West: German fascism had vicious, vicious forms of anti-Jewish policies as its public face, whereas the United States would be white supremacy targeting Black folk and brown and Indigenous — but especially Black folk. (For example), the Klan and neo-Nazis and others, those who we confronted in Charlottesville, as you know. But those would be the real public, visible faces of American fascism.
But there would be some similarities in terms of the militarism, the narrow patriotism, the scapegoating of the most vulnerable, the degrading of others in such a way that you unite your white right wing over the non-whites.
What American fascism would look like
The big difference would be that Italian and German fascism did not take place in the context of a declining world empire. So that the Germans and the Italians, they had their empires, but they nowhere begin to compare with the U.S. empire.
And so when you have a declining empire, which is undergoing its particular form of marching toward fascism, there's going to be some elements there that are very different.
Q: If Biden wins and if he somehow manages to actually get into the White House — because that's not entirely certain at this point.
West: Exactly, if we can get Trump out.
Q: Would Biden, given his track record as a neo-liberal and selling out working people — can he really fix anything? Will things really change?
West: No, no, I don't think he'll fix the problem. All he'll do is simply be an impediment toward a move towards fascism. I think that he'll be a garden-variety neo-liberal politician.
Now, he could surprise us: you know, he could be like LBJ or FDR. He could, but I don't think he will.
When you look at the people he's got around him right now, it's the same old neo-liberals recycled from Obama and Clinton — the same group. They lack vision, they lack courage, they lack imagination, but they're not fascists. So we just have to regroup as serious substantive progressors and leftists and go at Biden tooth and nail.
But we've got to get Trump out.
Q: The strength of the progressive movements at this time, are they strong enough to kind of prevent fascism or even to deal with neo-liberalism? Or are they still too weak and divided?
West: I think at the moment we're too weak and divided.
There's no guarantee whatsoever that fascism will not triumph in the United States. There's no guarantee whatsoever that the American people have the wherewithal — cultural, psychic, political, civic wherewithal — to prevent fascism. It's an open question, a very open question. And it may be that the American empire has reached its structural limit and its cultural and spiritual threshold so it no longer has capacity to deal with multiple catastrophes without a fascist option being chosen.
Q: Is there too much attention paid to trying to win elections as opposed to organizing?
West: At times, yes. It is a kind of fetishizing of the vote. Voting is very important.
Electoral politics are very important, but we know the larger forces behind electoral politics take us right back to corporate power, take us right back to military-industrial power. And if you don't attend to those social forces behind electoral politics, then we just end up being locked to a very myopic analysis and shortsighted issues in politics.
But you know the deeper question is: does the human species really have the cultivated capacity to avoid self-destruction given the ecological situation?
Q: Yes, that is the question.
West: If our greed and our hatred and our avarice and our contempt for one another cut so deep that we'd rather have the whole planet go under than to treat each other with some kind of decency, then that's the question of Jonathan Swift and the late Mark Twain: that human beings were just the kind of species that didn't have what it takes to avoid extinction.
And that's a serious question. It's not a question to end with, but it's something that we've gotta prove to be wrong in our lives that we live, in our organizing that we do, in how we treat one another.