[S10 E21] New
On this week's show, Prof. Wolff presents updates on how pandemic and capitalism are combining to worsen social divides in the US. Special guest Cornel West joins the show to talk about (1) how pandemic + economic crash are affecting US society and (2) the prospects for social change.
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Transcript has been edited for clarity
Welcome friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, debts, incomes, our own, and our children’s.
And I’m your host, Richard Wolff. I want to talk to you today about the pandemic. You all know what that’s about. What I want to stress is the pandemic, as it interacts with capitalism, the economic system we live under which makes that pandemic impact us in very special ways that need to be understood. So let’s go through a list. First, in this pandemic, what capitalism is doing is putting more of a burden on lower wage workers than on higher. Let me give you simply one statistic from the Federal Reserve. Of Americans, making under $40,000 a year, 40% lost their jobs in the last 6 weeks. That’s way worse than people earning more than that. At the top, the CEOs, the highest paid people, get a lot of public relations benefit out of taking, graciously, pay cuts. They didn’t lose their job. They took a pay cut. Public relations departments of corporations are letting out that they are having problems with their profitability, because of accommodating the coronavirus pandemic. Please be aware, those at the bottom are suffering the most, and those at the top are suffering the least. Or to say the same thing in biblical language, the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer.
And why do I say “richer”? Because people in the stock market, that is 10% of shareholders, own 80% of the shares, they’re doing reasonably well. They are getting richer. The rest of us are getting poorer. Let me drive it home some more about how capitalism makes the pandemic impact us unfairly and unequally. Women, the bulk of the workers in the service industry, have been hurt more than men, in terms of lost jobs. Black and brown people have been fired more than white people. And in a kind of sickness that really defies description, the homeless in America, the hundreds of thousands, if not more, homeless are being told, like the rest of us, to be safe in this pandemic. It’s important to stay indoors and wash your hands frequently. They tell that to homeless people who can’t do that. There’s something so wrong there, I really don’t allow myself to get into it.
Then there’s the disorder in our government. We have cities doing one thing, states doing another, and the government still doing something else. They can’t seem to get together. Nationalism is big in Washington, so the United States is going at it alone and not coordinating with other countries. The evidence is overwhelming. Arizona, for example, is allowing people to eat inside restaurants. They’ve opened their casinos. Next door, California is doing neither of those things. This makes it crazy, because you allow, of course, whatever disease there is to move easily in a disorganized society.
And I’ll tell you something that you may know from your studies of history. When leaders are incompetent and chaotic, and can’t their stories straight, when the federal and local and regional can’t be coordinated, when we can’t coordinate one nation [with] another, it’s the beginning of the end of a system. These are all symptoms and signs of a system disintegrating. And now another dimension of the same story. President Trump recently referred to himself as being like a wartime President at war with corona. Well, you know, during war, Mr. Trump, you may not remember—I’m being kind here—in World War II unity was so important, as it could be and should be during a pandemic. We didn’t allow the market to work. You know why? Because markets favor the people with the most money. They get the best and the most stuff. So we had rationing. We handed out cards to the American people. We did that. And you couldn’t get a quart of milk or a gallon of gas without a ration card. And ration cards were distributed to people according to their needs, not according to how much money they had. That’s what a wartime President could and should do. That’s what unity requires. That’s what President Roosevelt did. None of that is happening now.
We are not fighting this pandemic unified. We are letting it divide us further than ever. And here’s a story that somehow, for me, captured it all in a sharp way. The story of New Orleans. It recently fired its garbage collectors. It was paying them $10.25 an hour. But the workers said they needed protective equipment, because garbage is full of coronavirus, or at least it can be. And they wanted an increase in pay to $15 dollars an hour as hazard pay for the dangers of their work. For their reward they were fired. But that’s not the end of this unspeakable story. New Orleans replaced the workers it fired by arranging contracting for labor instead from the prison inmates from nearby Livingston Parish, inmates paid $1.33 an hour instead of the $10.25 they had paid the garbage collectors. And those inmates, you guessed it, had to work without the protective equipment and of course without any hazard pay. So much for our unity, solidarity and compassion for the essential workers like those collecting the garbage. Prisoners. In other countries those are called slave laborers. And the fact that they are overwhelmingly black should leave no ambiguity at all about what is going on here.
Well, we’ve come to the end of the first part of today’s show. Please remember to subscribe to our YouTube channel. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, and be sure to visit democracyatwork.info to learn more about other Democracy at Work shows, our union co-op store, and the two books we have already published: “Understanding Marxism” and “Understanding Socialism”. And lastly, a special thanks to our Patreon community whose invaluable support helps make this show possible.
And now, very special, please stick around for the second part of today’s show. We’ve got a very special guest, Dr. Cornel West. He’s a longtime personal friend of mine, as well as someone who really doesn’t need much further introduction. He is a leading intellectual, he is a leading theorist, a leading moral voice, and a leading activist. Any of those qualities is remarkable in a single person, all of them in Dr. Cornel West makes him someone I’m especially proud to bring on, to talk with me and with you on the next part of today’s Economic Update.
WOLFF: Welcome back, friends to the second half of today’s Economic Update show. As I promised you at the end of the first part, this is entirely now devoted to a conversation between myself and my long-term friend, a man I admire more than I can say, Dr. Cornel West. We are, of course, at different locations as all these kinds of interviews have to be now conducted. So first and foremost, welcome Cornel. Very glad to have you.
WEST: Well, my brother, I’ll tell you, I have wanted to be on this show, and you’ve tried to get me on the show for a good while. I’m glad to be here now and I want to salute you, my brother. We go back now almost 35–40 years in social status with Stanley Aronowitz, Fredric Jameson, and Steven Resnick. I’ll never forget him. I was saying that, I just… You are the most important, influential socialist, left, Marxian public intellectual. And you’re putting a smile on Paul Sweezy’s face as well as Harry and Didi Magdoff. You remember those most wonderful, kind memories we have of brother Harry and sister Didi around Monthly Review, my brother.
WOLFF: Alright that’s very kind of you, Cornell. Thank you, and I feel the same. I admire enormously this combination I find in you: of an activist, of an analyst, of an intellectual, and a moral force all combined. It is an honor and a pleasure to speak with you. So let me jump right in. What do you think, given all that you’ve thought and done, and all that you now see—even if it’s at an electronic distance—what do you think about the unspeakable failure to prepare for this virus, to now cope with it, to overlay the horror of the disease with an economic crash? What is the sense you would make of what this all means?
WEST: I think we’ve become more and more undeniable that we have overwhelming evidence of the madness, failure of the American capitalist system, hand in hand with the feeble democratic experiment called the USA. What I mean by that is, the 3 pillars: financialization of capitalism has led to not just Wall Street greed, but a level of unaccountability of capitalist, of economic elites going hand in hand with a militarized US nation state, externally manifested in attacks on Venezuela, advances in Africa, drone drops [inaudible] wars still taking place. But internally, having to do with mass incarceration, the massive militarization of local police departments and the commodified culture where everybody is for sale, everything is for sale, and militaristic metaphors, militaristic vernaculars and films, and videos, and movies, and culture across the board. So that what is left, there are few countervailing voices, figures, movements, and institutions, which at the moment we can see, but as well, I think, we’re moving forward to full-blown neo-fascist moment, but those voices, those figures, those movements, those institutions that are countervailing are very important. And that’s precisely why I began with your longevity and your integrity as a public intellectual. You’ve been a countervailing force against this capitalist failure, against the commodified culture, against this militarized nation state, all tied to “money, money, money, profit maximizing, profit maximizing”, but holding out for a democratic, public oriented, people centered way of being, let alone public policy that speak to the needs of ordinary and everyday people.
WOLFF: Is it your sense that the country is falling apart? I notice that people on the right, people on the left, people in the middle, there’s more and more of a growing sense, or so it seems to me, of a kind of all things falling apart. Some kinds of certainties that we thought were certainties, aren’t, assumptions are not, obviously our daily lives are all in turmoil. Do you see this producing a kind of reckoning with this system, a kind of opening up of options that have been closed off before?
WEST: Well, I actually see both tremendous possibility and, at the same time, I experience profound sadness. The profound sadness has to do with the fact that the decline and relative fall of the U.S. empire is generating a deep sense of paralysis. At the same time, there is new possibility, because crisis is tied to opportunity, and we’re seeing a younger generation, for example, the acknowledgement of capitalist failure. We’re seeing in the younger generation the refusal to put up with racist and sexist and homophobic and transphobic sensibility. This is very different than was the case, let’s say 30–40 years ago, when we were coming along in our relative youth. So that’s specific. And especially younger generations’ willingness to even talk about socialism explicitly, without it being associated with the old Cold War degradation [of socialism] that we saw between 1945 and 1991. So it’s a juxtaposition. There’s a sadness, but also a possibility of bounce back. Now imagine, I come from a tradition of black people in America, and we’ve been on the neo-fascist face the U.S. experience from the very beginning, with the white supremacist slavery, various forms of torture and barbarism, and with the neo-slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, and now Jim Crow Jr., The New Jim Crow, to use the language of Michelle Alexander. Black folk have always been on the underside and the ugly face of the U.S. capitalist experiment, recognizing its failure from the “chocolate” side of town. But at the same time, black folk often say, “While we’re in barbershops, that we experience that every setback is a setup for a comeback. So you have to bounce back.” But bounce back is what I mean by countervailing, counter-hegemonic voices, figures, and institutions. And so even as we think things are falling apart, considering that [15:40 — inaudible] in the language of [inaudible] it’s also true that the bounce back is there and we got to push that bounce back as far as we can, down the road toward democratization, down the road to de-commodification, down the road to de-militarization in the name of truth and justice, my brother.
WOLFF: Alright, before I explore the possibilities and the opportunities with you—and I agree with you that they’re there together with the sadness—I want to explore what probably helps make you sad, which is, how do you understand whatever that proportion is of Americans that support Donald Trump and the current Republican Party in its reversion to so many horrors of the past of American history, whether it’s a third or 40% or whatever the number is, how do you understand, as you put it before, Jim Crow Jr. or all of that right-wing lurching that we see?
WEST: Well, one is that I’m not surprised at the ugly white backlash in a moment of deep crisis, because that’s been a cycle in American history. The ruling class wants to divide black and white workers, black and brown, black and red, black and yellow workers. We’ve seen that over and over again. I’m not surprised at the Wall Street greed. That’s been in place for a good while. What I’m most surprised by is my precious black people themselves. That historically we have really been the most progressive group in terms of our critique of militarism, the critique of injustice as it relates to discrimination, the need for some kind of serious multi-racial solidarity in some of the trade unions—think of what A. Philip Randolph and what others are trying to do in the 30s and 40s. And I think that the Black Agenda Report, and Black Alliance for Peace, and other organizations have been raising this question. But it’s the strong failure of the neoliberal black bourgeoisie that has stood in the way of the kind of movement that would generate the focus on what we’re talking about. Brother Bernie Sanders, he would be the nominee if the black boulders could break the neoliberal hegemony of black leadership in the Democratic Party. And Bernie Sanders, my dear brother Bernie, he’s no messiah, he’s not God, but he’s opening up the kind of possibilities that we need for the kind of worker co-op project that you’ve been talking about for so long with such insight and caring, my brother. He would open up the critique of the privatization of education, the privatization of healthcare, and the need for healthcare for all. So part of my sadness has to do with looking and seeing how black middle class leadership has betrayed the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., has betrayed the legacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, betrayed the legacy of Paul Robeson, W.E.B. du Bois, C.L.R. James, all those old great freedom fighters who were always connecting the critique of white supremacy with the critique of capitalism, with the critique of empire, with the critique of patriarchy. We’re in a moment now where this post-Obama moment is very difficult to get black leadership courageous enough and visionary enough to have the kind of critiques of capitalist failures that you put forward.
WOLFF: And why is, Cornel, why? Why is that happening?
WEST: I think that the black bourgeoisie is like any bourgeoisie. It’s a comment in of itself to empire and capitalism and a status quo that is unjust. And so, they may talk about the legacy of Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X, but they’re not serious about it. They want inclusion, they want incorporation, they want colorful, symbolic representation in a dying class hierarchy and imperial hierarchy, and think that somehow that’s the best we can do with black poor and black working, let alone all poor and all working people left out. And so they’re willing to become captains on this Titanic rather than transform the ship itself. And that’s what is sad to me. But I guess I could be surprised either though.
WOLFF: Alright, let me turn to the thing that I think you and I most care about. What are the prospects for a renewal of a real left in the United States? How do you see the Occupy Wall Street initiatives, the Black Lives Matter initiatives, Bernie Sanders’ two campaigns, pluses and minuses? Do you see something emerging here and where do you think it might go?
WEST: Well, you know what I think of the [inaudible] and Phil Agnew’s, so many others but the younger generation. I think that they know that without massive opposition to the economic, political, and cultural status quo in place—the critique of capitalism and white supremacy and the empire—that people are not going to be able to live lives in dignity, and therefore, the younger generation, more and more, I think, is acknowledging the need for multi-racial solidarity, I see it in DSA. I see it among even the further left, you’ve got intra-left, [inaudible] and dialogs going on. It’s intense. And that’s always been the case, as you and I know. In the end, it’s got to be anti-fascist coalition against the gangster neo-fascist in the White House. And it’s got to be radically left, democratic opposition that brings together the cultural and social issue with the critique of capitalism at the center, and the critique of empire and militarism in Latin America, in Middle East, in Africa as its center. And I’m hoping that the legacies of the people that I talked about before, Paul Sweezy, and the voices and others, and I would add even Toni Morrison in terms of her serious left critique as a literary artist, can play a very important role here, my brother.
WOLFF: Is the word “socialism” coming back? Is the concept of an alternative part of what you see emerging?
WEST: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. But as you know, you and I go back so far, as with sister Harriet [Fraad] who I also have a great love and respect for just as I love and respect you. As a revolutionary Christian, brother, to me, a lot of this superficial talk about “ism” ought to be worn like a loose garment. What I mean by that is when people talk about “capitalism” they mean so many different things. What they really need to focus on is the ancient and magic relation of power and domination and exploitation at the workplace. When you talk about socialism, you’re really talking about the empowerment of working people for people, against any form of domination. So that there’s a moral and spiritual dimension that needs to be incorporated by the people that call themselves “socialists” or “anarchists” or what have you. So that the “ism,” I’m hoping, doesn’t get in the way. But thank God, people are now open to what the great Sheldon Wolin always talked about, and brother Stanley Aronowitz too, which is how are we going to make sure that the plight and predicament of the weak and vulnerable would begin with class analysis and embraces anybody catching hell that they’re at the center of our vision, of our analysis, and therefore we’re able to come together in mass opposition without this one narrow “ism” or narrow ideology, but rather a movement, motion, momentum, against the greed, against the hatred, the contempt, the indifference to the suffering of others, the callousness of the plight and predicament of the weak and vulnerable, that’s what really at the center of the left, of a genuinely progressive movement, not just in the American Empire, but all around the world. It’s got to be an international. Frantz Fanon was right about that.
WOLFF: Yeah, I think that one of the things that America is frightening me about. And I want your thoughts about it. There seems to be a growing effort, right at the top but spread through Republicans, Democrats alike, to scapegoat the Chinese at this point, to try to create another kind of Cold War mentality to justify—God knows what they have in mind—domestically by a scare program about evil Chinese. It’s kind of horrible, at least for me, to watch and I wondered what you thought.
WEST: Rick, you’re absolutely right. But this is part of the neoliberal wing of the ruling class. They started with the tragedy in Russia. We know that Russia is authoritarian and Putin’s a gangster, there’s no doubt about that. But it was a distraction from having to come to terms with what it meant to run such a weak and feeble neoliberal candidate in 2016, sister Hilary against the gangster Trump. Now you get the kind of scapegoating of the Chinese in both parties again, and recognizing though that Trump represents the neo-fascist wing of the ruling class, that the Democratic Party establishment represents the neoliberal wing of the ruling class, and then brother Bernie and others represent the progressive neo-populist wing, not even the Democratic Socialists, but the progressive neo-populist wing of the ruling class. But now what we’re trying to push out the gangster and therefore the question becomes how do we proceed in such a way that we don’t engage in the kind of xenophobia you’re talking about that we’re able to push out the neo-fascist gangster in the White House, Trump, but also tell the truth about the level of indifference, callousness for poor working people that you get in a neoliberal society. And it’s a different issue in terms of with endorsements and so forth. I respect people who are integrating [the] party or other left parties. I think that a vote for Biden, especially in those swing states would be important, but recognizing who you’re voting for. I come from a prophetic Christian tradition. But we have deep class analysis, we understand the relation of class, and race, and empire, and we always have been willing to come together. I remember you even ran for mayor in 1985. Didn’t we have a good time doing it, my brother?
WEST: Just standing right there next to each other, 35 years ago, man.
WOLFF: Yeah, that’s true.
WEST: And here we are again. Standing there together. Being consistent. Trying to have a constant. That’s why it’s such a blessing to be in conversation with you today.
WOLFF: I only wish we had more time, Cornel. We’ve come to the end. I want to thank you. I know you have a busy schedule, even in your sequestration like us, but it’s a joy to reconnect with you and to proceed as they used to say, in agreement as we go forward. Thank you very, very much for your time and your wonderful intelligence.
Transcript by Aleh Haiko
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