Alan Gilbertinterviewed by Richard Marshall.
Alan Gilbert is a groovy political philosopher in Denver. He knows the Occupy movements and the Arab Spring are significant. He murders oppression and injustice. He thinks about Marx and Rawls a lot.
3:AM:How did you turn out as a political philosopher? Were you fighting against injustice as a boy, or was this something that you grew into from other initial interests?
Alan Gilbert:Richard Gilbert, my father, was the first Keynsian economist in the United States and taught at Harvard before entering the Roosevelt administration as an advisor. He set much debated targets for guns and butter in early World War II which were vastly exceeded in the event. As a young man, he had been a Marxist of sorts, sympathetic to the Wobblies and free speech fights. When I was growing up, however, he was a Vice-President of Schenley Industries and then – when he could no longer stand it – an economic consultant in New York. But he was then recruited by former colleagues from Harvard to become the head of a Harvard-World Bank advisory group to the dictator Ayub Khan in Pakistan.
We once watched a TV news report on the nine black children in Little Rock entering Central High with the mob surrounding them. The New York Timeshad run a photo of a dissolute white teenager, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, kicking a black teenager on the ground. The newscast showed the national guard standing there, one man breaking ranks as this was going on, and hitting the racist with the butt of his rifle. My father cheered; and so did I. He used to appall my older sister by telling her and her husband that if he were in South Africa under apartheid, he would be a communist… My mom, Emma, was less political, but she had grown up in an anarchist community led by her father and mother (Russian emigres) when she was a kid. So there was lot in my family that prepared the way, despite their direction (liberal Democrats), for me looking at injustice deeply. When we went to Pakistan, there were six servants in an American household. Taj, the bearer (head servant), read and wrote three languages (better than most of the Americans there…), had one son whom he was helping to go to medical school. My father commented to me on the perversity of a regime that condemned so talented a man to this.
The summer of my first year at Harvard, I went with the international group of advisors to then East Pakistan where we toured a jute mill owned by the Adamjee family, one of the twelve families which dominated the economy and government of West Pakistan. I was friends with Ashraf Adamjee as a freshman at Harvard. It was the monsoon, 100 degrees outside and wet as we drove by the shacks of the workers, and a Dutch economist – Wouter Tims - pointed out that prices had tripled in the last seven years, wages had not risen. Inside the mill, it was dark, the racket of the machinery loud, the Pakistani supervisor/guide jabbering at us with his spiel, but as we began to see, all the workers were young women (probably 20-30 years old) and no one had 10 fingers on their hands… I think we were all nauseous. When we went outside, my father said to me: “This is what Marx called primitive capitalist accumulation. It’s been a hundred and fifty years and capitalism can barely show its bloody hands in daylight.”
The experience of seeing Pakistan and the American military/government/capitalist presence in the midst of so much poverty – we would go to the Indian ocean and be surrounded by a thousand boys running with the car and yelling “baksheesh, sahib” – give us some money, sir – and there weren’t enough drops in the Indian Ocean – or money in the pockets of individual Americans - to aid them (my father tried to, as an economist, and other people did). At Harvard, I went on a freedom ride to Chestertown, Maryland the week after the sheriff had led a mob throwing a young woman through the glass window at Woolworth’s (we were lucky to miss the attack). I didn’t go on Freedom Summer, but my classmate from Walden School in New York, Andy Goodman did, and was murdered in Philadelphia, Mississippi along with James Cheney and Michael Schwerner by another mob led by the sheriff. I became active in the first movement against the Vietnam War since I had seen what the US was in Pakistan and Thailand and reading some French histories of the war – Bernard Fall, Denis Warner, Jean Lacouture – made it all too clear.
Academically, I took social studies – an interdisciplinary program where I worked with Stanley Hoffmannand Barrington Moore– and did a lot of literature, French and German as well as English. I took Government 1a with Carl Friedrich and found it so vacuous and boring – “constitutionalism is effective, regularized restraint” was his mantra - that I didn’t take political theory (Government 1b). But social studies focused on social theory, and we spent several weeks reading Marx and Weberalong with Smith, Durkheim, Freud, Humeand others. With Moore, I did more work on Marx, heard I.F Stonetalk about the Vietnam war, met Marcuse(a friend of Moore’s). I was in the very first anti-war movement, the May 2nd movement, and had the experience of debating McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor and former dean of arts and science, about Vietnam (it was Harvard). I asked Bundy: “How does the US expect to win a war against a successful peasant revolt, trying to restore the landlords?” The audience cheered; Bundy assured us that he knew things that were not public… He didn’t.
I then went to the London School of Economics in political sociology, studied for a year with Ralph Miliband(I am amused by the peregrinations of David and Ed, particularly given parliamentary socialism, a fine depiction of the limits of the Labour Party, short of mass revolt). I had a close friend at the Ecole Normale in Paris and spent much of the winter there going to seminars by Althusser, and meeting many of his very clever Maoist students. Althusser had just written about Montesquieu’s discovery of the new terrain of a theory of history and I found this – in addition to reading Capital– exciting. I decided to go back to Harvard as a graduate student rather than stay in England mainly because I wanted to fight against the war in Vietnam. I also wanted to learn Chinese, but came back late to intensive Chinese and ultimately switched out. I took some Chinese government courses which were sadly air-headed (but we got to look at the hidden library including CIA documents on the Chinese revolution and agriculture – one, written by a smart analyst, had a brief subsection on the issue of justice, saying drily: “There is no problem of social justice, as we understand it, in Chinese agriculture.” Of course, this judgment proved somewhat superficial).
I also took a course in early modern political theory with Michael Walzer who was my advisor. At the time, political philosophy was the only breath of life in political “science,” a pretty dim field (as Moore and Marcuse and Miliband had shared with me). I also worked with Dita Skhlar, who gave me a reading course on Montesquieu and then Aristotle(and so, I began to take up Greek political thought). At the same time, I met Hilary Putnamand John Rawls, talking with them at lunch in Harvard Restaurant about the events at Harvard and Althusser’s views of the transformation in modern chemistry and Marx’s analogies to it in Capital. I also met Dick Boyd. In SDS, there were lots of philosophy graduate students. So I spent a fair amount of time, becoming acquainted with what philosophers were thinking – many very creative adaptations of scientific realism (see Alan Garfinkel’s Forms of Explanation, the best book still, I think, in philosophy of social science, and Norm Daniels’s early writings on Rawls, for example). I would be thrown out of Harvard as a leader of the Harvard strike for two years and readmitted by majority vote of the faculty (some people voted “no” and I am afraid that though it hurt and I value the many good things about Harvard and the people who teach, work and study there, I have also always taken it as a compliment). Eventually, I did a year at Cornell in the philosophy department on philosophy of science and ethics, working with Boyd, Nick Sturgeon, Richard Miller and David Lyons, among others, on an American Council of Learned Societies grant.
Thus, my way to radicalism and to democratic theory was through visual, visceral and personal experience of injustice, coupled with a deep introduction to social theory, and then working my way back into political philosophy with a large tincture of contemporary philosophy. In a way, the inter-disciplinarity of social studies especially helped; I have never looked at these issues through the lens of one discipline or taken a prevailing point of view, even when it is attractive to me as scientific realism was at the time or alternately Marxian theory – but only, as I argue in my first book Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens, with a much larger element of politics and possible creativity (that real possibilities or in technical terms, counterfactuals are much broader than most people, tempted by Marxism, think) - without a lot of skepticism. But that political philosophy and social theory are attractively and intensely critical of American militarism and racism, I have never had much doubt.
3:AM:You make great links between contemporary politics and earlier periods. So one really interesting case was where you looked at Leo Strauss' letter to Karl Loewithin the 1930’s where Strauss "defends, against Hitler’s anti-Semitism, the politics of the Right – fascist, authoritarian, imperial." You draw a connection "with the many Straussian neoconservative advisors to and publicists for the Bush-Cheney administration." You wrote this in 2009. Now this is really cool, but is there a danger that drawing on such history and the ideas of thinkers like Plato, Hobbes, Rousseau, Marx etc. will become increasingly irrelevant as contemporary societal arrangements (and technological innovation) transform our ideas about what it is to be human, happy, empowered etc, as some philosophers, such as Alex Rosenberg, argue?
AG:In 'The Iliad, the poem of force', Simone Weiltraces the impact of extreme violence in proving the mortality of even great warriors and on reducing other humans to objects. The poem also, as she notes, does not take sides, often focusing on the humanity of each person. In the wars of the 21st century, children are often the primary casualties. And the wars now often have an automated (drones) and privatized (mercenaries; not announced to the democracy) character. But war needs to go out of style and we need great movements from below to do that.
Rosenberg has telling comments on the harmfulness of the Chicago school of neoclassical economics during the collapse of 2008. In a way, my critique of Strauss and his influential political followers advancing executive power or tyranny is similar, i.e. concerned with the truth of argument and present-day impact (though of course Strauss’ arcana, though at least as politically and morally ugly as neoclassical economics, are more obscure…). But the thought you mention is a piece of speculation so far removed from the brutal realities and dangers of today as, in the most important respect, to be fairly idle.
The US is the leading militarist power in the world and will be, even broke, very hard to stop. The US has for instance 1280 bases abroad; France its leading “competitor” has 5 in former French colonial Africa. Even Obama, the anti-“dumb” Iraq war candidate – the war was one of aggression, crimes of torture to the fore, and to call it merely “dumb” is to say something, unfortunately, at best ambiguous and, prima facie silly – is waging aggressions or occupations in 6 countries, not counting Iran. The use of drones in Pakistan, irrelevant to taking out Bin Laden, has murdered many civilians – called “collateral damage” by the killers – created justified mass hatred of the US, and turned a nuclear power into, increasingly, an enemy of the US. The addiction to war and the forces in imperialism/capitalism that lead to it – particularly given US dependence on militarism as the main productive and innovative part of the economy (creating both the internet and drones for murder abroad/internal surveillance) – will be hard to turn around. If one adds in the speculative casino of finance capital – it has always been parasitic, but with derivatives it now beats the band for perversity (Goldman Sachs advised and made loans to the Greek government and simultaneously took out derivative bets that the Greek government would fail, driving up interest on renewing loans) - and the encouragement of consumer and student debt, one sees the causes of economic collapse.
On the other hand, mass nonviolent movements from Tunisia and Egypt to Greece, the indignados in Spain, student and worker protests in England and Occupy are having an increasingly large effect in the world (regimes are far more often falling, in revolutionary situations, by nonviolence today than by armed struggle). This is a great, potentially civilizing countermovement. I appreciate the aspect of the question on Strauss. His influence in the United States was to create a group of students/reactionary politicians to push the idea of executive power (authoritarianism, tyranny) in place of the checks and balances in the Constitution. From Carl Schmitt– “he is sovereign who makes the decision in the state of the exception” (the first line of his 1923 Political Theology) through Strauss’ May 1933 letter to Karl Loewith on the “principles of the Right, fascist, authoritarian, imperial” to commander in chief power – the leading thought of Cheney and his Straussian advisors like Bob Goldwin and Mike Malbin – the lineage, once one looks, is clear.
The sentence you mention, however, was mistranslated by Scott Horton (and by me, in advising him) and Eugene Shepperd. We all assumed that the phrase “meskine Unwesen” referred to Hitler. But Michael Zank and William Altman have pointed out that the Italian/French meskine often means miserly and is used in reference to Shylock and Fagin. What Strauss meant is that though the German right will not accept even Jews who are pro-Nazi, it still is the only “dignified” way to fight the modern, in Nietzschean terms, “Jewish” reality of the last men. This is pretty startling because it makes vivid Hannah Arendt’s wisecrack to her friends about Strauss - “he wanted to join a party that wouldn’t have him because he was a Jew.” Strauss was blown away by Heidegger (see his posthumous Introduction to [Heideggerian – the word is the editor’s] Existentialism.) He was through the 1930s and long after emigrating to the United States sympathetic to and active in furthering anti-democratic and belligerent politics (working against Brown v. Board of Education, advising Charles Percy, an ambitious Republican, that Cuba should be taken out after the Cuban missile crisis and a near miss for nuclear war). So the case is a really dark and interesting one of the dialectic between reactionary thinking and politics.
Obama is the American President and quite reactionary (strengthens executive power, removes some forms of torture but then ignores the crime of torture and even tortures Bradley Manning, and the like). But the anti-democratic movement in the American elite has been shaped to a considerable extent by Strauss’ ideas (not simply: that he would have supported the Iraq War as a way to advance Americanism by conquest is not obvious – even though his politics was even darker than this – and torture is not something, as opposed to the destruction of “the last men,” he hinted at). The key element is executive or commander in chief power – authoritarianism – coupled with the need for unending war and an appeal to “Evangelicism”… (Strauss had no political sympathy for toleration or the separation of church and state). The contrast with Obama or Clinton shows that the Bush period uniquely established torture and indefinite detention in violation of the rule of law and created a circumstance which will be hard to reverse. Obama, in ordering the murder of American citizens abroad – Awlaki and his 16 year old son – far from the field of battle and without a gesture at judicial procedure, has extended this further. There is a bipartisan police state regime, in Yale constitutional lawyer Jack Balkin’s idiom, increasingly emerging in the US and it will take a major movement from below, on behalf of the rule of law, to reverse it.
In this context, it is very important to distinguish serious conservatives who believe in habeas corpus– that each prisoner must have a day in court and not be tortured – as the center of the rule of law and imperial authoritarians (Straussians, neocons – all the Republican candidates for President except Ron Paul). In America, what are misleadingly called “conservatives” in the corporate press are usually the latter, whereas the British Tories opposed proposals for longer detentions when put forward by Labour. Over the past 10 years, I have often found myself in alliance with conservatives like Scott Horton, Andrew Sullivan and even Bob Barr to defend habeas corpusand to oppose torture (my former student Condi Rice, was sadly one of the leading war criminals in the last administration). Much of my writing, for instance, Democratic Individuality, sketches the core of all decent political positions, liberal, conservative, radical. The prohibition against torture, enormously eroded in this period, is, as the Law Lords, said, absolute, and the nonpartisan core, since the Magna Carta, of all decent politics.
3:AM:Democratic Individualitytook a position arguing against moral relativism. You write: "An ethical point of view has its own integrity and depth, features not to be explained (explained away) in sociological, anthropological, or semantic terms. Whatever the intricacies of moral argument, relativism cannot be right." You put Nazis and slavery up there to make this point appealing. But for some, this attractive position is indefensible. So how would you defend your anti-relativist position and why is it so important, give that for many your general moral and political position is attractive and seems defensible even if it is relativist?
AG:Relativism is the thought that since ethics differ historically and people have often been abused for who they are (gays and lesbians, for example) or beliefs they hold that do not harm others by “moralists” (for instance, bigoted Churches of all sorts), ethics has no coherence. There is much truth in the idea that moralisms have harmed people enormously – i.e., the Catholic Church in the new world was genocidal toward indigenous Americans, pro-slavery and cultivated the Inquisition. That these objectionable facts, however, require an inference to meta-ethical relativism is doubtful.
The problem for relativism is threefold. First, the objection to moralisms – don’t force your views down other people’s throats – is a moral objection. It seeks to defend the freedom of individuals by opposing tyrannical practices and institutions. It does not suggest that the rammers really have a “moral” point of view which can be justified compared with the obvious and reasonable objections of those who suffer the coercion. Properly understood, this thought suggests a politics and a society which furthers the cooperation and freedom of individuals and toleration or the absence of coercion about matters of conscience.
Second, relativism is the position that there is nothing in ethics: it is to be explained by beliefs held at a given time, for instance, sociologically, or reduced to other, psychological terms such as what a superego supposedly mandates. Since there is nothing in ethics, one must seek some other idiom, a sociological, anthropological or psychological one, to reduce so-called morals into. But if we ask the relativist what morals are, he can give no coherent answer. Morals are, for example, merely what the prevailing powers say they are – for instance, the Nazis are moral. If we ask further, what count as moral views, the answer here, too, is that anything may count, for instance, the dominant societal view, the view of a class or ostensibly incommensurable views of clashing classes or beliefs held by individuals. Meta-ethical relativism has no way of explaining what the moralviews in a given context are. Put more generally, the skepticism that any moral view is true can be turned on the claim itself. What makes something moral according to a moral relativist? Can the moral relativist’s view of morality be true? The argument is, surprisingly, self-refuting. Thus, the many considerations that help give rise to relativism – that so-called moralities (moralisms) often harm people and are, at least in important respects, false – need to be given a contrasting and coherent meta-ethical explanation.
Third, Aristotle suggests that we can ask: what is a good life for humans? and arrive at some straightforward answers, for instance, that Nazism is not or, to disagree with Aristotle, that there is no “natural” slavery. Chapter one of Democratic Individualitytraces debates of modern liberals and radicals with Aristotle. Those debates, however, acknowledge that the question he asked is a good one and that many of his judgments – that aggression is bad – are right, even though it questions others: that slave-hunting is a form of just war or that bondage can be justified (see Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, book 15). Further, relativism has obscured the real character of these debates which are often driven not by underlying moral standards, which at a certain level of abstraction are uncontroversial, but by social theoretical/biological or empirical claims.
The kind of reasoning here is what Gilbert Harmancalls inductive inference to the best explanation. The reasons one can give against bondage or the subjection of woman are much clearer, for example, than the foolish claims of racists and patriarchs, and much more obvious to most of us than quantum mechanics. As for the importance of the debate about moral truth, it is Socrates in the Meno who shows that any slave can prove advanced theorems of Greek geometry under questioning (and has the capacity to do so, contrary to slave-owners’ views and also the Aristotelian apology for “natural” slavery). This egalitarian insight and a willingness to act against the powerful on the basis of such insights have long been the source of decent changes in public life. The idea that such changes are no different, morally speaking, from, say, murdering Socrates or the reign in the American South of the Ku Klux Klan/Democratic Party is false.
We want a moral argument and a meta-ethics which will justify a wide plurality of individual choices (those which do not harm others) and which rule out the coercion or deprivation of freedom of individuals. Relativism is a gesture at the first thought, but belies the second. In addition, social explanations, for instance, Marxian ones, have rightly emphasized that oppressive arrangements continue for long periods of time. But at least a central component in the argument that people persist against great odds in fighting slavery, for example, is that slavery is wrong. There are many other aspects of explaining why, say, John Woolman or John Laurens or Gabriel or Thomas Peters fought against slavery during and immediately after the American Revolution but that the institution is an abomination is a large part of this. This is a theme of my new book: Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independence.
3:AM:Interestingly it seems that you want the discovery of a moral nature to sustain and ground your position when you say that "we have learned enough about human nature to rule out the ancient justification of slavery and to identify that institution as abusive and corrupt." And you write about "a general capacity for moral personality" being generally overlooked by contemporary arguments against moral objectivity that overstress the significance of the choice between other goods that sustain relativist arguments. So do you position your Marxist, non-relativism as a form of naturalism, where naturalism is understood in terms of the processes of scientific investigations?
AG:Yes and no. What I think is that we have learned, historically, that slavery is not a part of a good life for humans. That is of course a naturalistic point. But as Lincoln also said wonderfully, “although volume upon volume has been written to prove the good of slavery, I have yet to meet the man who wants to take the good of it by becoming a slave himself.” This is both naturalistic and a fine example of contractarian reasoning. The naturalism - as Thomas Hobbessays look into yourself, no one wants to be murdered or enslaved - is part of and gives life to, as Rawlsrecognizes in the abstract, the contractarianism (alternately, the moral judgment supervenes on facts).
Interestingly, Rawls’ original position illuminates core moral judgments about the evil of slavery during and after the American Revolution. In Black Patriots and Loyalists, I emphasize this connection (I shared some examples with Rawls before he died). For instance, three farmers in Western, Massachusetts, who participated in the Shays rebellion – revolutionary farmers who had been promised that they would keep their land by George Washington as part of their joining the Continental Army and who rebelled against the banks, their creditors, who took the lands – wrote to oppose the Constitution in 1787: “Just imagine that your daughter went to the brook to fetch some water, and was kidnapped into bondage for her whole life…” One used the pseudonym 'Consider Arms.'
Similarly, the artisan Gabriel Prosser who led Gabriel’s revolt in 1800 which would have burned down the wooden city of Richmond but was prevented by a big storm and a betrayal, was captured and hung. At his trial, Gabriel said, “I have only to say what George Washington would have said if he had been arrested by the British. I have but one life to give for my country and am a willing sacrifice in her cause.” What I call democratic contractarianism in the form Rawls offered it is a very good theoretical account of such formulations.
In Democratic Individuality, I argued for moral truth or moral objectivity with regard to examples of this kind (again, this is a naturalistic point). As I noted, Aristotle asked a plausible question: what is a decent or a good life for humans? He crystallized or further theorized the question of Socrates in book one of the Republic: what is justice? That question means at the least, something more than what is called justice around here. The latter in a strident or wolvish form is Thrasymachus’ “justice is nothing but the advantage of the stronger” which is, of course, approximately true for the predatoriness of all class societies (the speciesism of the formulation toward wolves, for which I apologize, mirrors Plato’s description). But the point can just as easily be made about the working women in the Adamjee jute mill I saw in East Pakistan (now Bangla Desh). In Democratic Individuality, I defended a worked out version of moral realism. I still think this argument is right, and of course, naturalistic arguments in philosophy of science are often realist ones and much of what Brian Leiter pointed out in your recent interviewis right (though since Platonic or Aristotelian ethics supervenes on facts about humans – in those cases, moral facts - perhaps not quite the line of demarcation he draws). Having said this, I think that truth (or perhaps approximate truth as scientific realists use the term) is the point. But perhaps from long experience in the social “sciences” where pseudoscience is widespread (consider that today in psychology, IQ testing and its continuing links to eugenics is widely adopted, the idea of the unconscious scorned) and you will see some of my doubt. More theoretically, moral realism emphasizes that some important judgments about the good life for humans are true, at least enough to rule out tyrannies, aggressions and genocides, inter alia. I see little difference between Hilary Putnam’s current views – he agrees with moral realism - and mine on this matter (which was not true at the time I wrote Democratic Individuality, cf. chapter 4). So it depends precisely what’s at stake in the argument about naturalism.
Another way of putting this issue is that some people hope for a materialist reduction of thinking to brain chemistry. But that seems to me, if determinist, misguided… Naturalism has plausibility against various reactionary religious views. But those are not the only kind of religious views (cf. Martin Luther King’s or Thich Nat Hanh’s) and one had better watch out for large intellectual quests on behalf initially of serious and important judgments (logical positivism in Vienna), which in the overall execution, produce something considerably less promising. If everything must be reduced to sense data to be “true,” what about the epistemological assertion that everything must be reduced to sense-data…? And not only fairness but even other minds, electrons, and medium size physical objects may be on the wrong side of the “metaphysics filter” fashioned by proponents of this view. On the conflict of goods example, an especially important one to me since I am, in many respects, a eudaemonist, let us take Sartre’s case of a young man torn between joining the resistance or caring for his dying father. As Charles Taylorpoints out, the man does not imagine as plausible moral choices being “overwhelmed by these dire circumstances” and going to the Riviera until it is all over, or taking a job with Vichy. What makes a conflict of goodsa hard case or clash of goods is precisely core underlying moral standards (killing is bad, helping one’s dying parent is important). To see this point does not require a notion of a universal capacity for moral personality. But the latter is just a general way of putting the central idea that all humans are by nature (and thus must make themselves) free.
3:AM:Brian Leiter, in that interview you mention, lamented approaches to Marx that offer a philosophical reconstruction of historical materialism in its least interesting form (namely, as functional explanation, rather than in terms of class conflict) and as a call for a moralistic change in the consciousness of individuals, regardless of historical circumstances. He linked this approach to the work of G.A. Cohen. I guess one thing Leiter and others have noted is that on attitudes to issues like racism, wimmin, gays, etc the plutocrats are happy to be enlightened. But it might be argued that these issues have been used to prevent traction for arguments against economic inequalities. What’s your take on all this and on Marx?
AG:“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle” is the first sentence of the Manifesto(Engelsadds a footnote about original communism, and actually, the latter is realized, for example, in the women-led egalitarian regime of old Crete and old Europe, and of indigenous peoples). This sentence is right, has contributed to striking historical explanations (see Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, for example) and is the core of Marxian social theory. While I liked Jerry a lot and admired the care with which he produced arguments, I agree with Brian that functionalism misses the heart of what Marx and radicalism more generally are about. Jerry himself was raised, as he once explained to me, by a mother who was a section organizer in the Communist Party of Canada; the mom and Jerry, each in different ways, had trouble with the Communist leadership, and Jerry’s Marxism was remarkably apolitical.
On the points about morals, Brian is perhaps here too much a Nietzschean. Nietzsche argues that there is such a thing as “master morality.” But this is a form of enslavement and exploitation of large numbers of people and the idea that this is an “ethic,” looked at in terms of consequences for people’s lives, is a bad joke. Nietzsche was a brilliant psychologist and writer, but his idea that all ideas of justice from below are mere products of resentment is not serious. And despite his opposition to gutter anti-semitism, his idea of the Jewish slave revolt in morality leading to the “last men” founded European fascism – the first section of Genealogy of Moralsis, sadly, mostly a diatribe against alleged Jewish vindictiveness, long term cunning and deceit, and even a “stench” supposedly emanating from the last men - and has had horrific consequences. The “last men” became, for example, the leading idea of Heidegger as a Nazi and is a theme song of Leo Strauss and his political followers.
Modern academia in the US and Europe has gravitated to the idea that science and philosophy are really value-free or relativist (from ordinary social science to postmodernism, the same stale arguments get made, if, as in the case of Weber’s Politics as a Vocationwhich dismisses moral truth in a sentence – roughly, states have pursued diverse ends, therefore a state must be defined in terms of means, violence and “legitimacy” and there is no such thing as justice - there is anything that deserves to be called an argument. One has but to ask Weber the question: is a state that protects the physical security (lives) of all its citizens morally superior to one that wastes large numbers of lives?, to see that the intelligence of Weber’s intuition is in inverse proportion to its enormous influence in social “science.” Recall my experiences about Pakistan or Vietnam or segregation above or more broadly, look at history from the point of view of those who are oppressed (take colonialism or the bringing home to Europe of it in Nazism): saying that it is hard to give factually-based moral reasons for opposition in such cases is false.
But of course, the old Marxian point – and confusion – about this (see chapter six of Democratic Individuality) is that one can object as much as one likes to the horrors of inequality, and without a serious radical movement from below, the drones will go on sailing out, the derivative market will strangle Americans, the English, Greeks, Spaniards, and Egyptians. So the explosive changes this past year, down to Occupy right now, are pretty promising. Marx had the idea that practice was primary (the 11th thesis on Feuerbach, the pivot of my book on Marx’s Politics: Communists and Citizens). We need to learn from these movements and to participate in debates about their direction. Really, the fate of the planet is at stake (militarism and global warming will, among other matters, make the planet largely uninhabitable in perhaps a century, with a lot of horror in the interim, if we do not change this system). The end of your question raises problems, however. Yes, identity politics has its weaknesses, and sometimes people in the elite take these things up (Mayor Bloomberg of New York was good on the Islamic center and fighting anti-Arab racism, good on gay marriage, but is hideous – Mr. 1% - about Occupy Wall Street). Sometimes they believe in the struggles; sometimes they are also mean to divert deeper understandings and struggles.
But on the face of it, the struggle of blacks and women and gays is against fundamental social and political inequalities. So the real question is the outlook which informs the struggle, one of internationalism and connection with the struggle of others, seeking to change a radically unequal system of power, as opposed to one of division, “identity,” and in important respects, weakness. Further, this tension is true with every struggle from below including ones which strike even more obviously or generally against economic inequalities. For instance, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration supported the National Labor Relations Act which legalized industrial unions. But the driving force behind this law was the Flint factory sit-in (“sit-down strike”) and the San Francisco general strike, led by the longshoremen and Harry Bridges (in fact, these nonviolent movements were threatened and attacked by the police and the National Guard). Similarly, FDR enacted unemployment insurance and social security, largely because of demonstrations by the Communist-led unemployed councils, uniting the jobless and those with work, and part of the elite was, not unwisely, worried about revolution. Surely, these struggles from below have something important to do with defeating inequality, but even radical and effective movements against it are subject to a) winning important reforms or concessions – genuine victories - and then b) relenting or dissipating for a time or being deliberately deflected. But the further development of capitalism eventually undercuts gains temporarily won (consider the wages and conditions of public school teachers and trash collectors in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Indiana or the disappearance of the American middle class). Along with the illusions Marx describes in Capital(roughly, commodity fetishism) and as Brian rightly adds, the complexities of individual psychology about which Marx has nothing to say, this tension in political movements is something that helps the predatory few – Wall Street, Romney – revel while many suffer.
To highlight what is radical in a class approach to these matters, let us focus on racism. As Marx says in Capital, “Labor cannot be free in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” No progress in a class movement can occur without taking on the attacks on and interests of the most oppressed. White workers, startlingly for those who identify with a prominent race or status, have an interest in fighting racism. But the Civil War, Marx says, gave rise, dialectically to the new labor movement for a shorter working day (the movement that culminated in the Haymarket massacre in 1886 and the foundation of May Day by the Second International in 1890). So the fight against racism is the chief aspect of internationalism and of creativity in the American labor movement. The class movement is thus propelled by the issue of fighting racism and this is pretty important compared to seeing such struggles as a “diversion from the class issue…”
Similarly, Martin Luther King was a leader of the nonviolent civil rights movement, and moved, in the last year of his life, into creating a poor people’s movement. Fighting against the worst oppression and trying to build a movement against the oppression which affects a much larger number is a) intensely politically connected and b) morally insightful. Yes, rebellions in American cities contributed to civil rights from below, but arguably the nonviolent movement and all the exposures of injustice also created a climate in which the Civil Rights Acts came to pass. President Lyndon Johnson, one of the great war criminals of modern history (the genocidal war against Vietnam), nonetheless, was forced by this movement, against his own past history of racism and in the setting of the Cold War (where the Russians and others could use pictures of police dogs sicced on children in Birmingham to show the face, to other nonwhite peoples, of capitalism) to come to terms with black and white struggle from below. Johnson fought for passage of the bills. My friend Vincent Harding was close to King in the movement and knew most about Vietnam. He wrote the first draft of King’s speech 'Breaking the Silence', April 4, 1967, a year to the day before King was murdered supporting a sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis (the slogan of the strikers, “I am a Man,” says something really important about inequality). That speech named what many in the movement already believed; that civil and social rights could not be won, racism could not be successfully fought, without speaking out against “my government, the most violent government” in the world.
Injustice is very hard to fight. To begin with one burning issue is likely to lead to connections to or entanglements with other issues, to recognize that this system is, globally and domestically, a web of interconnected harms, and that even those who move on one issue can sometimes be distracted or even enlisted to oppress by shifting the focus to another. Cries for war against an external “enemy” have always been the last and best resort of a criminal elite. The idea of democratic internationalism (see Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?) is that all these struggles against oppression are or might be linked. That was also, once upon a time, Marx’s idea in the International Working Men’s (sic) Association, and it was the idea that King gave noble words to, especially in the last year of his life. As another way of putting it, divisions among workers, for instance, the pitting of American workers against Mexican immigrants, is one of the great secrets of capitalist domination and pushed, Marx says with regard to the Irish in England in 1870, “through press, pulpit and comic paper.” So the aim is not to pit one movement or group of people against a “class” movement, but to offer a Marxian or radical account of internationalism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, and to discuss with others in order to achieve common insight inside a movement (i.e. not hostilely). There needs to be a willingness to learn from others as opposed to putting across a “true” viewpoint (all the destructive rhetoric about “petty bourgeois” consciousness or “revisionism” and the like, not that there aren’t real and important issues to be clarified through discussion. But as a great lesson from King and Gandhi, name-calling is not a way).
To put it in Marx’s and Engels’ language in the Manifesto, communists defend the interests of the working class regardless of nationality. That means if American soldiers are being transported to murder people in the Middle East, one doesn’t just fight against inequality in America, but also, as it becomes possible, opposes anti-Arab racism, fights to bring the troops home, to end or diminish militarism, and diminish inequality at home. Occupy is at a very beginning stage, but has raised – or has the promise of raising - these issues in a novel way and with a lot of democratic political inventiveness. Its way of posing the basic issue of inequality – one that has transformed the political dialogue – is “we are the 99%.”
I often say I am a radical democrat (I have also learned from the nonviolence of King and Gandhi). One of the things I mean by this is that we have to maintain and advance the true understandings achieved in the long struggles of the past, but learn also from novel and unexpected mass movements like Arab spring, the Greek rebellion and Occupy. For instance, the new democratic procedures of Occupy – resistant to hierarchy as well as popular but also elite publicized “leaders” and even specific demands – are part of that learning. So is an inclusive democratic or class insight which must reach out to involve the most oppressed (say, more of the black and latin teenagers trapped in the immense American prison/probation complex).
3:AM:You have distinctive arguments about how the political left should respond to the contemporary context of Globalisation. Certainly it seems as if there is a democratic deficit in the operations of the USA, of China, India, and Russia. Africa, the Middle East, Israel, Indonesia and North Korea are all examples of the different ways this deficit is working out. Your anti-imperialist position is described as "democratic internationalism from below". You ask a key question in your book, Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?In answering the question, you have four positions that offer answers: idealists, realists, neorealists and Marxians. The latter three see off idealists, but you say your "argument begins only at this point." You answer the question "cautiously but negatively." Can you say something about this, in particular, why you find realists and neorealists less satisfactory positions as compared to Marx.
AG:A difference with Brian Leiter with whom I often agree: there is a dialectical relationship between naturalism or realism and moral/political arguments. Idealism is a little like what Brian styles anti-naturalism. It is a catch all for often very different views, a division created too easily by a line of demarcation favorable to one important aspect of one position. Nonetheless, let us take up this terminology for the sake of argument, and consider internally great power realists’ misguided formulations about ethics and about the real interconnection of international and domestic politics. Realists and neo-realists in international politics are good at assessing the power motivations which lead to or sometimes check important conflicts. Older realists, like Hans Morganthau, depict themselves as having a moral argument – he certainly did on the Vietnam war which he attacked along with the American foreign policy which spawned it as “a coherent system of irrationality.” Properly understood, I suggest, realism is, in fact, the claim that pacifists and moralists would disarm against a great enemy, and cause inadvertently the unnecessary deaths and oppression of many thousands of people. Realists conceive their argument as a power-theory critique of moralism, dismissing in kind a misguided ethical approach to international politics. But in this debate, the realist actually insists on saving lives. Ethics, as I pointed out earlier, is about preserving human life as well as a good life. Thus, if realists are right about the facts, realism is a moral critique of moralism.
Neo-realists trick up realism with additional, misguided philosophical (empiricist) slogans. For instance, a realist says that great power politics should be left to diplomats and not a democratic populace (see George Kennan, American Diplomacy). That is a comprehensible political argument, though mistaken, even from Kennan’s point of view, about the Vietnam War and what he names “our military-industrial addiction.” For in the Vietnam case, the anti-War movement, not the diplomats, represented “the national interest.” Neo-realists, however, appeal to a supposed methodological doctrine of a separation of levels, radically distinguishing the powers of international politics from the particular regimes of comparative politics. This is an epistemological overlay obscuring real political arguments, and is deceptive and self-deceptive. Neo-realism, for instance, ignores obvious counterexamples such as the US-British alliance which ate Iraq in 2003 and thus shaped its “domestic” politics. But my argument on democratic internationalism starts at just this point. It grants, for the sake of argument, international contention of powers and then asks a question (to begin an internal critique): what would be the effect on democracy (or a common good among citizens) at home of such rivalry? The answer is: a devastating one. I suggest that in all inegalitarian regimes (all capitalist ones at minimum, but many “socialist” ones as well), leaders will have a motivation to wage war or intervene abroad in order to build popularity (nationalism) and choke off movements for reform or revolution at home.
On this view, citizens of the intervening country, i.e. America in Vietnam or Iraq, have common interests (in their lives, freedoms and wages) across national borders with the people aggressed against – democratic internationalism from below. Realism and neo-realism do not see this because a) their view assumes a common interest of citizens in most of the government’s policies (harmful impacts on most citizens are eccentric on this view, not the norm), b) has no clear idea of a common good and is misled to think that its own view does not deliver moral judgments, c) arbitrarily disconnects international and domestic politics, and d) does not think about reform movements from below and how foreign interventions or aggressions may undermine them. But as I also point out about Vietnam, or in the writings of Robert Gilpinand Robert Keohane, realists and neo-realists, nonetheless, trace how the prevailing policies of the state harm most citizens. Democratic internationalism is thus a more consistent and broader account of what is good in realism and neo-realism. In addition, note the importance I attributed earlier to Rawls’ original position. Rawls told me he liked what I call in Democratic Individualitythe integrity of ethics – that one may ask what a decent life is for humans and find, through inference to the best explanation, important answers. For instance, there are true or objective answers to the question who is aggressed against and who is carrying out self-defense, who is hurt – most citizens – or helped by belligerence and how oligarchic or militaristic elites use nationalism and aggressions abroad to stifle protest at home.
In his interview with 3:AM, Brian Leiter worried about whether Nietzsche’s vision of creative genius being stifled by democracy is right. There are reasons to worry. Still, democratic tribunes can be ingenious - Lincoln or John Brown or Frederick Douglass or Walt Whitman or Thoreau or Emerson, for example. While I like some features of Nietzsche and Heidegger (the latter has helped spark deep ecology, for example), they have no monopoly on brilliance. In fact, as Brian says (in relation to Foucault), they have amazing foibles and prejudices themselves, arguably in Heidegger the main moral and political point about his works and life… Clarity about the integrity of ethics also helps to ward off quasi-democratic outrages like the murder of Socrates or the depredations of the Ku Klux Klan. Democracy when it protects the rights and well-being of each has moral merit or illustrates, in Rousseau’s language, a general will. But democratic decisions can also simply be a destructive or tyrannical will of all (i.e., segregation laws).
On the last issue raised by your question, the meaning of my book’s conclusion, that international politics can but need not constrain democracy - a cautious but negative response to the book’s title Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?– I might suggest today that illustrated by Arab spring and Occupy, democratic internationalism from below points a mutually inspiring way forward.
3:AM: We are living at a time when inequality seems to be a huge issue. Can you explain your arguments about equal basic rights and their "inescapable precondition for any decent majority or distribution of income."
AG:The point of my book Democratic Individualityis that ordinary people have waged an ages-long fight from below for recognition as human. The basic equality or human rights of every individual is not given by the command of kings and founders dressing their authority in religion (even Cromwell), but only on the basis of fights from below. To argue that slavery is not part of a decent life for humans is just to recognize and underline this point. Every further fight against racism, sexism, colonialism, wage-slavery and the like, extends these same arguments and recognitions. The best contemporary (last 40 years) political theory stresses, with John Rawls, the priority of the equal basic liberties or rights of each individual. This insight follows from Rousseau’s notion of a general will as a will to equality (a will mandating equal basic rights), it was alive in Marx’s concern for and participation in the democratic revolutions of 1848 – ones for formally equal rights – with the great caveat that there must be a sufficient degree of social equality (equality in the distribution of basic goods) so that the rich cannot dominate and pervert the government, making it an oligarchy – as modern parliamentary regimes are – rather than a serious or deep or participatory democracy. In this respect, majority rule (what Rousseau calls a will of all) is not enough. For such a will can be based on limited suffrage and be disenfranchising of and stigmatizing toward large groups within the population (women, the un-propertied, segregation, and the like). Ideally, I mock this point as a (fortunately merely potential) self-undermining or self-disenfranchising majority rule, in which the women disenfranchise the men, the minority women get together and disenfranchise the white women…and in the suffrage of the last 3, 2 disenfranchise 1…).
In America and the world, the necessity of a greater social equality is now showing up in the opposition of the 99% to the twin parties of the 1%. In broadly speaking Greek or Hegelian terms, a decent regime is one which facilitates the pursuit by each individual of what she decides is a good life, being able to change her mind, so long as she does not harm (mainly physically, i.e. criminally, perhaps also psychologically) others. What Rawls means in A Theory of Justiceby the priority of the equal basic liberties is the restriction of inequalities allowed under the second or difference principle, ones that seem to benefit the least advantaged. For even those allowable economic inequalities are ruled out if they permit the rich to dominate and pervert the equal basic liberties upheld in the first principle. It requires little wit to see that you and I and Rupert Murdoch do not have an equal say in setting the public agenda of America or England; as a wealthy reactionary Australian dominating the media, he has had far greater effect. Given the apt desire to rule out oligarchy in the light of the first principle, Rawls’s argument may be startlingly more egalitarian than it appears to be on the surface, and as I wrote in 'Equality and Social Theory in Rawls’s A Theory of Justice' (Occasional Review, 1978), rightly understood with a modestly realistic social theory, more egalitarian than Rawls himself thought. He was inclined in social theory to what might be called an instrumental Marxism (i.e, the reason the US engaged rapaciously in overthrowing other democracies in Latin America was the influence of particular companies like United Fruit to strike at Jacopo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 or ITT at Salvador Allende, September 11, 1973).
This was Rawls’ response to my questioning him on an initial enthusiasm for the democratic peace hypothesis (see Rawls’ Law of Peoples, p. 53 and not quite correct citation to Allen (sic) Gilbert by an editor who helped with the notes – it was his last book). Interestingly, even as Rawls retreated from the difference principle, he strengthened the argument against oligarchy (for instance, Law of Peoples, pp. 46-50). His basic intuition about equal liberty, given the dangers of oligarchy, was thus radically egalitarian socially. Today, the mainstream political atmosphere in the United States is one of triumphant though failing oligarchy with such hatred of “government” and decency that this obvious connection of equal liberty and social equality is currently – temporarily – stigmatized (Occupy is very helpful in pointing beyond the corporate ideology).
As I argue in chapter eight of Democratic Individuality, in relation to this problem, Ronald Dworkin suggests equal resources over a lifetime, David Levine (Needs, Rights and the Market) and I suggest equal incomes. Either of these proposals are perfectly consistent with the existence of markets and Hayek’s insights into the difficulties of (some aspects of) planning, those that do not concern basic public and moral goods like (genuine) defense and policing, fire departments, the postal service, education, health care. The extraordinary corruption of America can be seen in the privatization of these things; Bush sicced Blackwater on the world, and the current occupation of Afghanistan has seven Xe Corporation mercenaries, not subject to any law and not spoken about in the corporate press or Congress, for every 3 soldiers… I am in favor of democratic (the equal basic rights, participation from below point) individuality. Each person can use her income to pursue a good life in the market and change her course in life so long as she doesn’t (fundamentally, physically) harm others. Some lives require more in terms of wealth than others; Yitzhak Perlman could probably use a Stradivarius whereas a scholar just needs books and libraries (today, the web provides some of this). So there would have to be supplementation through trainings or competitions in particular fields – not everyone can or would want to be an airplane pilot, for example. But the point here is that a basic economic egalitarianism is a derivative principle from the notion of the equal basic rights of each person. More strikingly, it is motivated by the thought that the government should not be the property of the rich. That is the great demand of Arab spring, the Greek uprising, the indignados, the struggles from below in England and Occupy. How to realize a democratic regime institutionally is, as of this last year, no longer utopian but a leading topic – one beyond just stopping the bleeding, the unemployment, foreclosure, debt-slavery (of students in the United States, but with steeply rising costs elsewhere) and the like - of useful public debate.
3:AM:An interesting idea that you discuss is that of Morgenthau’s "academic-political complex". This names the constraint that power places on the social sciences. You give as examples "the execution of Giordano Bruno, the prosecution of Galileo, the Scopes trial" and you say that "if much contemporary political ‘science’ has peculiarly thinned itself, then perhaps a need for mainstream debate to license or conceal imperial policies, to serve the powers-that-be, particularly during the Cold War, has been an important cause." I take it that you believe this is still prevalent even as the Cold War has ended. Could you tell us about this? I guess I’m thinking here of the arguments about C.P Snow’s ‘two cultures’ and how convenient it is for plutocratic power for academia to turn away from humanities and focus increasingly on the hard sciences. Obviously the hard sciences are dead important, but the suspicious realist, neo-realist, Marxist presumably looks at this situation and doesn’t buy the story that this is all about the search for truth. The Occupy movements are similarly challenging corporate and plutocratic realities. You write in your blogthat these protests raise serious questions about the role of academics, universities and students. You cite Henry Girouxasking whether Universities are merely ecological dead zones that have abandoned concern for the public good. Can you say something about all this? What can be done?
AG:Universities are increasingly being oriented toward work and the sciences, dispensing with the humanities. Little of this has anything to do with truth, but rather with the university’s subordinate role in America in what I call the imperialist war complex – the military-industrial-congressional-think tank “expert”/academic, media, intelligence complex. I write about and teach Socrates as the first civil disobedient, emphasizing the importance of questioning (for him and us) in philosophy and anything that deserves to be called a democracy. In contrast, contemporary education is hierarchical or authoritarian – rests on a teacher or “expert” lecturing to others, with at most a few questions; students are expected to take notes and tell the teacher on exams what the teacher thinks (with perhaps some originality around the edges). I think education way back into its beginnings should be about empowering each person to find her own way, what interests her. A teacher should be an advisor or mentor in mutual explorations of topics, not an authoritarian fount of knowledge (obviously, teachers or mentors know a lot about topics, but mutual regard and the idea of being helpful to each person should govern what she does). One can, nonetheless, begin such education late – I mainly teach graduate seminars, inviting students to connect with a topic, revise the topic or even the syllabus according to their interests and the like (this can sometimes make life amusingly difficult for me; several years ago, a brilliant Palestianian student Hazem Salem said in a contemporary political theory course: “No body else here will teach me Heidegger.” We discussed it and so, though I hadn’t studied Being and Timesince I was a junior in college, I dove in. I became very interested and learned that “being toward death” as authentic vorlaufende Entschlosseneit(running ahead resolution) meant also, for Heidegger to go to war and die for the fatherland and the Nazis (he wanted a “repeat” of the World War…). Hazem read even further in the book and realized that the section on historicity is key to understanding Heidegger’s fascism (in fact, as I have shown on my blog, Heidegger was already in 1927 covertly pro-Nazi). Other students contributed as well. If one were invited from the start to find her own way, each student would be much more self-motivated (my younger children go to the Jefferson County Open School in Denver, an experimental school which for half a century has done some approximation of this kind of education), the organization of university education would be very different. Even in the physical sciences, what Newton or Planck or Einstein discovered (and how each discovered it) is quite different from just reproducing mathematically today’s understandings of it. Still, an approach through questioning, getting students to take on the arguments for themselves, is likely to be, in its own variant, often a better form of teaching here, too. For about what is new, each of us has to figure it out, not just reproduce the findings of others.
In the current American context, the Occupy movement has come to campuses through debt slavery. As a 26 year old woman said to an Occupy Denver gathering, I did just what I was told, went through school, took on $150,000 in debt, graduated, got a job, and now I am laid off, the clock ticking on the debt, no way to pay… Several years ago, I had two graduate students tell me in the same afternoon that they were $100,000 in debt for a master’s degree in international studies from the University of Denver. The tragedy of this is hard to find words for. One, a not very political woman who wanted to do something morally important and alive, had gone to Dahisha refugee camp in the Occupied Territories. There a five year old had thrown rocks at her. She had gone back to her host family and the sister had come out and told the boy – “not all Westerners are bad.” They had gone home with him; his father had been in the first, nonviolent intifada, released long enough to conceive him, and then put back in jail (17 years). She wanted to go back and work in the camps there – an activity which, if encouraged by the US government, would undercut or counteract, to some extent, otherwise justified Arab hostility to the US. Instead, she took a job, unhappily, in the State Department. The other wrote a very good short story and the draft of a novel for me about Palestianian nonviolence and about the conflict (with insight into all) between the Palestinians and the Israeli guards and settlers. He is currently working in a French restaurant in Denver, the debt ticking. This debt-slavery is not sustainable. There needs to be and will be a fierce movement to create or restore serious public financing of higher education (as in more civilized countries).
Universities are run by prestigious trustees who are wealthy, mostly businessmen, some politicians, rarely, an upwardly-oriented academic. While some university leaders have vision, the movement toward career training, and toward brutalizing those who work in universities has gone far. There is thus a movement to undermine tenure, hiring adjuncts (often minorities and women) at very low pay for teaching more classes. In addition, the Koch brothers and the imperial authoritarians (so-called Republicans) are intent on privatizing colleges and want to destroy state universities as well as K-12 education. In Michigan, where they have laid off half the teachers this year, teachers have classes of 60 instead of 30, and can only “warehouse students” as one put it on National Public Radio. This is part of the new inequality or third-worldization of the United States and Europe on behalf of bankers and finance capital – Romney has just been discovered to be a symbol of this predatoriness at Bain Capital, but Papandreou is just as good... As one further aspect, Harvard Occupy has united with custodians, protesting along with them to force Harvard to negotiate. It has marched over the special mistreatment of a disabled work, Melvin Byrd. The unity of the 99% on campus as opposed to the 1% - the trustees – is something for Occupy to aspire to. We need both a big public movement from below and every step toward creating decent education that any individual teacher has the courage to provide. The two reinforce each other.
3:AM:Currently there is the ongoing uprising in Syria and a massive state constriction of that uprising as the latest phase of the so-called Arab Spring. An interesting feature has been the way the West has only selectively and in a very limited way supported certain aspects of the revolution. So with Libya there was military support, but nothing in Syria and elsewhere. What do you make of these uprisings? Do you find parallels between these Islamic movements and Marxist ones important? Would you characterise them as Islamic even?
AG:These revolutions are democratic movements, largely nonviolent, in Tunisia and Egypt, against massive oppression – military dictators sustained by imperialism. The US was on the wrong side of these movements, giving $1.3 billion per year in military “aid” to Mubarak, for example, for 29 years, largely in order to sustain Israel as an outpost of American imperialism in the Middle East (the increasing development of a quasi-fascist administration there with increasing expansion into the occupied territories, however, has placed Israeli policies decisively against any element of a common good/genuinely national interest in the United States which is to restrict the settlements, seek a two state peace and try to foster, for the first time, decent relations with ordinary Arabs; the Israeli government’s policies also endanger ordinary Israelis who would probably like to live in peace and not to be looked upon aptly by everyone who values human rights as oppressors). Now, the US tried to hold on to Mubarak long into the revolution. Hilary Clinton reprehensibly fought for this policy. Obama finally moved to support and protect the democracy (his six minute speech when Mubarak fell, focused on the power of nonviolence, was admirable). But the US is still sustaining military tyranny.
These uprisings inspired others because of their startling democratic and nonviolent character, and the initial protests, largely done by young people and workers – there has been a huge strike wave in Egypt, a very important role for women who often brought their families to picket lines – swiftly and shockingly brought down the regimes. Though nonviolent, this explosion of political creativity, set Europe as well as the Middle East spiritually afire – the indignados in Spain, the Greek workers, and students and workers in England – and has sparked Madison and Occupy. The Islamists held back initially, but have benefited in Egypt from the recent elections. But one should not call these movements or the impact Islamic. Many people, particularly working people and farmers, learned from the revolution. One of my students talked with people in the countryside, and told me that in a meeting, one of the peasants spoke, self-consciously in the vein of Marx’s Class Struggles in France, of “revolutions as the locomotives of history.” Perhaps this radical impulse will take time to gather strength. The people who made Tahrir Square a symbol of democratic revolution are much less organized than the Islamists, who, except for the young, moved in once others had risked everything…Nonetheless, there is likely to be a continuing fight for democracy from below – what we might call a radical democracy with social demands and demands for participation - throughout the region.
Note, however, that the near-fascist government of Israel, with some popular support, seeks, against the interests of ordinary Jews (consider the new movements against the costs of housing and against the barbaric spitting on an 8 year old girl by “orthodox” settlers) to launch a new “Iraq” aggression against Iran. Obama has not been tempted by this so far, but the Republicans, Ron Paul excepted, are in chorus about launching such a war. It is a great danger that the US or Israel, in conducting such a strike, will produce a far larger and more dangerous war in the Middle East and deflect the impact of domestic movements for change, including inside Iran. I should note as well that Israel grotesquely supported Mubarak to the last against democracy (Egypt had helped make Gaza a “large open-air concentration camp” in the apt words of my friend Tom Farer). In this respect, Obama’s policy of welcoming and even naming the power of nonviolence, despite the US’s retrograde military role, stands out as something decent among American imperialist politicians. In America, Jews are about 80% against the Iraq aggression/occupation and against a potential aggression in Iran (they are second only to blacks in opposition to these wars). There is a growing divide between those who honor the prophets, speak truth to power, oppose the Israeli government’s policies, and want a decent agreement with the Palestinians, and an elite, supported by the fanatic Christian right, which backs Israel as a restrictively Jewish state (increasingly, an orthodox and male-dominated state), one which treats Arab Israelis as second class citizens and which is engaged in a second expansion or transfer. Sadly, the right is strong in Israel and among the settlers.
As a jew by ethnic origin (a “scion of an accursed race” as my grandfather J.J. Cohen, the anarchist once wrote of himself), it is particularly important to me to fight against the oppression of Palestinians. Edward Saidin Orientalismpoints out that the racist European ideologies against Jews and Arabs are exactly the same (German “scholars” wrote about the supposed rigidity and lack of creativity in the languages). More than in South Africa, there is a threat of regional war and in the mid-term nuclear war (Israel has several hundred nuclear bombs). So the need for a nonviolent and multiracial movement to stop Israel and produce a two state solution (or if this fails, a single democratic state guaranteeing equal basic rights to every citizen) is a pivot not just for the Middle East but for the future of humanity. The renewed movement of Palestinian leaders to a nonviolent campaign against the occupation – the boycott and divestment campaign - is striking and hopeful, and will draw broad support, including over time, in Israel. Desmond Tutu’s No Future Without Forgivenesstalks about the possibilities of Truth and Reconciliation, of nonviolent healing in a post-revolutionary setting.
3:AM:You talk about the "anti-democratic feedback" to explain the increased militarism and inegalitarianism of current policies of the USA. Can you explain what you mean by this and give examples of how it works? Of course, military intervention has been a huge feature of first world politics. You see war as an enemy of the people and support the anti war demos and ask questions as to what should be done when governments commit their citizens to actions against their will. Even John Lockesupports revolution when he writes "if a long train of abuses, prevarications, and artifices, all tending the same way, make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie under and see whither they are going, it is not to be wondered that they should then rouse themselves and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may secure to them the ends for which government was first erected." Do you find a new feeling of political hope in the current protest movements against militarism?
AG:The last eleven months, from Arab spring to massive uprisings against austerity in Greece and Spain, to Madison and Occupy has been dazzlingly heartening. Today one speaks and writes in the midst of (as a participant in), learning from, in conversation with great popular movements and a renewed sense that revolution is possible. Note that mass nonviolent change has accomplished a great deal in the world, and that while Locke is right that revolution is justified, the idea of revolutionary violence is a very limiting alternative. It is limiting especially in that it is hard to get people to learn how to kill and that its effect, as opposed to stopping the oppressors and changing the regime, is often to give them a political out: very unequal violence by the Israeli state against Palestinians is treated in America and Israel, as an “equal” or “responsive” violence. In contrast, it will be very difficult for brutal oppressors to discredit Palestinian and international nonviolence in this way. In addition, one does not breed the enmity in the relatives of those killed and others which comes inevitably from slaughters – as Mao once said, “revolution is not a tea party…”. The price of admission to ordinary demonstrations (part of insurrectionary movements as well) is much lower, and many more come to participate and learn.
The goals of such a movement need, however, to be very radical (at the least, to turn to America: the financial “industry” produces nothing though it brought down the world economy and its reign needs to be ended), but there is nothing particularly radical about violence. This is, however, a subtle issue – compare the Chinese Communist revolution with Gandhi’s independence movement, and one may well conclude the former was more promising as a social revolution in spite of its now rather obvious failures. But what is most promising about these new movements in their mass nonviolence – and of course the Western intervention in Libya with guns against Qaddafi’s murderousness was in part meant to bend this movement, to seize control of it…
On anti-democratic feedback, the early American government had one party, the Federalists, with John Adams as President, advised by Alexander Hamilton. They trumped up the “XYZ” affair with France in which the French government supposedly tried to corrupt American diplomats to pass the Alien and Sedition Acts. The latter made criticism of the President a capital crime, and jailed the Irish and Scottish editors of pro-Democratic Republican newspapers (the Democratic Republicans were the party of Jefferson and Madison). The Federalists opposed two-party competition in the United States, seeking to erect Adams as a monarch. As Jefferson put it in a fine democratic internationalism formulation: “The friendless alien has been selected as the safest subject for a first experiment; but the citizen will soon follow, or in fact, has already followed, for already has a Sedition Act marked him for its prey.” Here those who wanted lively public discussion and feared monarchy – they rightly styled Adams an “Angloman” in this respect – saw vividly the need for the empowering or citizenship of immigrants. In turn, Adams embroidered hostility to the French Revolution with anti-radical ideology – the charge of being “Gallomen” - against Jefferson and Madison to try to suppress anypolitical alternative, to jail dissenters and immigrants, to prevent the emergence of a second party. This is a paradigm case of what I call the anti-democratic feedback of global politics on democracy.
In turn, sympathy for the democratic revolution in France, though not some of its excesses, stimulated democracy and radicalism in the US as elsewhere: the victory of Jefferson in 1800, and more strikingly, the impact of the French Revolution on Saint Domingue and vice versa. When three Saint Dominguen representatives came to France in 1794, the Bordeaux slave-traders tried to have them arrested but failed. After hearing them, the Jacobin-led National Convention voted for the freeing of all slaves in the French colonies by acclamation (in his worst political moment, Napoleon reversed this). This is what I call the democratic feedback of international politics.
Or take 9/11. The threat of “Arab” or “Islamic” terror and the US aggression against Afghanistan was accompanied domestically by the reactionary Patriot Act (it allows, for example, the secret surveillance of people who borrow books from public libraries and forbids librarians to reveal the surveillance or speak out against it). This was accompanied by torture including for Jose Padilla, an American citizen, accused of seeking to plant a “dirty bomb” but after three and a half years and being reduced, in his lawyer’s phrase, to a “chair” unable to speak coherently about himself, “convicted” on minor charges. Illustrating anti-democratic feedback, there has been a steady attack on civil liberties across two administrations now. For instance, Obama has licensed the murder of American citizens with no judicial proceeding and far from the field of battle (Awlaki, father and 16 year old son) and signed the NDAA (the National Defense Authorization Act) with a proviso that the President may indefinitely detain American citizens whom he deems “enemies” without any judicial proceeding (Obama says he won’t do this himself, in a signing statement, but the next President has the “law” on the books). Sadly, it is a stretch to speak, once again, of the rule of law in America – or of America, as a “land of the free” for any part of the population any longer…
3:AM:Your new book Black Patriots and Loyalists: Fighting for Emancipation in the War for Independencecame out in March. Can you say what the thesis of the book is and if there are political lessons to be learnt from this history?
AG:Sixteen years ago, I started working on blacks escaping and soldiering in exchange for emancipation during the North American Revolution. After many downs - nothing like entering a new field, the writing of history, and in America, its most sacred area, the Revolution, and telling a tale in which blacks from below liberate themselves, but, nonetheless, most escaped to and were taken to freedom by the Crown. As a lifelong anti-racist, this story is threaded from the introduction – a dedication to my grade school classmate and friend Andy Goodman, murdered during Freedom Summer, along with James Cheney and Michael Schwerner – and concludes with the defiant speech of Gabriel, a black artisan who almost led the burning down of the wooden city of Richmond in 1800. Gabriel likened himself and his cause to George Washington (Washington would be a greater leader if one could liken him to Gabriel or Toussint L’Ouverture). The story is of how courageous individuals, with insight into the wrong of slavery, travelled lonely paths to move the mountain. For instance, John Woolman in the 1750s among Quakers began with a refusal to write wills which bequeathed slaves and then walked throughout the South talking with Quakers about the evil of holding men in bondage. John Laurens was the scion of an influential slave-owning family in South Carolina, whose father was a Christian opponent of slavery in the abstract but also, when blacks rose up, stuck at them viciously. John studied Rousseau in Geneva in the early 1770s, and came back the leading elite abolitionist in the Revolution. An aide to Washington, his name is on the Laurens proposal, passed by the Continental Congress in 1779, freeing 3,000-5,000 blacks in South Carolina and Georgia in exchange for fighting. Thomas Peters was a prince in Africa, kidnapped and sold into bondage in South Carolina and branded twice for trying to escape. Peters then succeeded, fought as a sergeant in the Black Pioneers, went to Canada with the defeated British and led a movement among those not given land for redress. He travelled to London, and became the leader of a democratic expedition to and experiment in Sierra Leone. The book explores how through many such stories, then and afterwards, individuals contributed to forging the movement which finally outlawed bondage in the Empire in 1834 and rose to a crescendo in the American Civil War. Often small or not initially determined efforts which achieve, over time, deeper purposefulness can have a great effect.
Today, I believe that such efforts, for instance Michelle Alexander’s (author of The New Jim Crow) can make such a difference about the system of mass incarceration in America, focused on imprisoning black and latin teenagers for being caught with marijuana. The US has 8 times as many prisoners as in the 1970s, 2.3 million, 25% of the world’s prisoners, and another 5.1 million on probation, lives ruined, barred from getting a job or living in public housing or voting. 50% of the increase in prisoners is for marijuana, 80% of these for possession… In talking about the book in the US, I will connect these issues, and precisely the point that it is only individuals taking up the struggle in the darkest conditions which ultimately moves the mountain. In Britain, the police murders of Afro-Caribbean young people strike me in a similar way (I hope to be in London in early June).
Secondly, the book also breaks down statistically every list of black troops or muster roll of black settlements I could obtain from the Revolutionary period, revealing, among other matters, that many more blacks escaped to Canada with the Crown than has previously been thought. A third theme of Black Patriots and Loyalistsis the importance of democratic contractarian reasoning, roughly what is theorized in Rawls’s notion of an original position, in condemnations of slavery at that time and in the growing movement against it.
A fourth theme is how real moral and historical advance is often possible during a period for which historians too easily deny it. As a result of military competition for recruits between the Crown and the revolutionaries, the dynamic of freedom (if all men are free, why not black men and women, too?) and widespread sentiment that bondage was an abomination, particularly in churches (Samuel Hopkins named it “a sin of crimson dye”), gradual emancipation occurred in the North during the Revolution and over the next quarter century. The revolution for Independence in the North, in this respect, resembled Venezuela’s. In the South, many of the same forces were at play as the Laurens proposal showed. Further, in every other independence movement in the hemisphere, at least gradual emancipation occurred (in Saint Domingue, the uprising of the slaves in 1791, defeating the French including Napoleon, as well as English and Spanish colonialism, made Haiti in 1804). Only in North America does independence not lead to gradual emancipation. I offer this account of historical possibilities to oppose a more economic determinist Marxian vision that only by the time of the Civil War, and not during the Revolution itself, was abolition possible.
A fifth theme is the centrality of blacks – and the issue of emancipation – to both sides in the Revolution. The best fighting unit on the Patriot side was the black and Narragansett indian First Rhode Island Regiment. Whereas mainly white militias served for 10 months, members of this regiment mostly fought for five years. At the concluding battle at Yorktown, walking around the field, Georg Daniel Flohr, a German private fighting with a French unit allied with the Americans, recorded in his diary that most of the corpses on both sides were “Mohren” (Moors). No one taught me (or anyone I have met) that startling fact about Yorktown. This story of two revolutions, one for independence, one for emancipation, working often at odds, but on the American side at Yorktown together (the First Rhode Island and other black regiments led by John Laurens and Alexander Hamilton conquered the two strategic British redoubts, deciding the battle) is a different way of seeing the War, one based on unexpected, powerful evidence.
I started this project while working on the Federalist Papers in the context of Shays Rebellion (of poor farmers who had served in the Revolution and returned to find their plots indebted and threatened) and the Alien and Sedition Acts. As an anti-racist, I thought I should look into what the slaves had done, even though I surmised that there would be a few uprisings, but basically it was the slave-traders – the Crown – against the slave-owners (the Patriots). I then read Gary Nash’s Race and Revolutionwho says, however, that “a gigantic number of slaves escaped to the British and were freed in exchange for fighting.” He gives five reasons why gradual emancipation might have occurred throughout the country (the military competition, what I discovered to be the central causal mechanism, not among them), but then after a page and a half, turns away. Where he and others had not probed (British emancipation of the most oppressed is the Revolution’s “dirty secret,” as Nash later put it), I stopped.
If anything like this is true, I realized, the way we think about the American Revolution is false. Barrington Moore had long ago taught me that only the Civil War was a revolution, but plainly, the American Revolution was a much more interesting and complex social revolution, often clashing with the political revolution, than had been thought. Because I lived with this question for several years, I found marvelous documents in thirteen research libraries in the US, England, Canada, France and Spain. Seeing the right question within the material opened things up. Once again, a certain kind of Marxism, for instance even so sophisticated an account as Robin Blackburn’s – in the Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, he writes dazzlingly on the interplay of the French and Saint Domingue/Haitian revolutions – debunks the vast escape and recruitment of blacks during the American Revolution and argues in a foolish, economic determinist vein that slaveholding was “quickly restored” after the War. He ignores even the gradual emancipation that occurred in the North (analogous to the Venezuelan independence movement). Having the right questions and seeing the political dynamics afresh enables a very different radical account, I think one much more sophisticated and open to experience, one that highlights the real and intense class conflict over bondage.
3:AM:It seems we need smart thinking as the issues of our world become more complex and more pressing. Chomskyspoke to the Occupy Wall Street protests. In an interview here at 3:AMthe economist Diane Coyleput her hopes in reclaiming the innovatory spirit of social and technological invention to overcome the present nightmares. Who are the contemporaries you find enlightening? Are there particular books that you think readers here at 3:AMwould find useful?
AG:Here are six books and two speeches or essays: Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness(the most advanced experience of nonviolence as a way of healing without murderousness the most horrific social and political divisions – apartheid). A nonviolent movement has not continued in raising demands for South Africa’s poor, but it could. Barbara Deming, Revolution and Equilibrium– a brilliant internal critique of Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earthwhich should be read along with it. Martin Luther King, 'A Time to Break Silence', on Vietnam but just as relevant today for the American/British imperial aggressions in Iraq, Afghanistan, and for the US in Pakistan. Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedomshows many startling things, including the role of tolerance in ancient Muslim (Akbar in India) and Buddhist regimes (Ashoka) and how literacy and cooperatives for poor women lead to a drop in infant and under-five mortality, more egalitarianism, and longer life expectancy. Edward Said, Orientalism– a classic or defining work on imperial racisms toward the East… John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, especially on civil disobedience and conscientious refusal (sections 53-59). Maria Rosa Menocal,The Ornament of the World, how Arabs brought ancient Greek culture as well as a far more advanced civilization to Europe. I would also recommend the poetry and literary essays of Adrienne Richand Denise Levertov, among many others. And the Eyes on the Prizefilm series about the civil rights movement, in particular numberomens one to ten (10 is on the final year of King’s life) are uniquely powerful. Each episode is 55 minutes; several can be found on Youtube.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Richard Marshallis still biding his time.