Jan 08

On Neoliberalism, Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West

THIS Op-Ed at Truthout should be required reading. When you cut through the who, to the heart of the debate, the actual record of results, good policy is good politics.

Too Terrified to Enter an Arena of Ideas? The Debate Over Cornel West’s Critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates
Thursday, January 04, 2018
By Ejike Obineme, Truthout Op-Ed


The ideological battle between Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West is the most recent example of how our society remains too terrified to enter the arena of ideas to sort out differences and push fellow contemporaries to think deeper about the implications of their work. Important disputes among public intellectuals, we are told by many in the movement, must be done in private. To many, it may seem that West’s target, in his article published by the Guardian, “Ta-Nehisi Coates is the Neoliberal Face of the Black Freedom Struggle,” is Coates himself, but upon closer inspection, and in context of West’s political trajectory for the last several decades, it’s evident that his real crosshairs are located squarely on the nucleus of neoliberalism.

Unfortunately, any attempt toward public discussion that involves a direct, ideological confrontation is quickly reinterpreted (mostly by liberals) as nefarious, disruptive and an attempt to self-righteously and selfishly reassert one’s self in the public sphere. And yet it is certain ideas going unchallenged that has led to this new era of neo-fascism and 21st century neoliberalism.

Ideas, however, don’t magically drop down from the sky. Instead, they are produced and reproduced by culture, systemic structures and people of great influence. Coates is a best-selling author who has on many occasions praised, with much adoration, Barack Obama, former commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military. West’s disagreements with Obama are well-known, and whatever the genealogical makeup of his antagonism, history has certainly offered evidence to suggest that West’s critique of the 44th president may have some merit.

May have some merit??? May???!!! Ejike Obineme almost lost me there. But it’s worth reading on. He goes on to make the case as well as Cornel West himself.

For instance, Obama’s track record, especially in terms of his foreign policy, is clear. The Obama administration has substantially expanded drone warfare, deported more than 2.5 million immigrants, modernized the surveillance state and enriched multinational financial institutions in ways his predecessors could have only dreamed. He did all this with charismatic smiles and well-timed platitudes loaded with perfunctory, heartfelt promises of progress and diversity. Commemoration and alignment with Obama’s presidency through Coates’s recently published book, We Were Eight Years in Power, is to offer, at least implicitly, an apologia for the crimes committed on his behalf.

This gets to the heart of the problem for democrats who claim to support the social and economic justice movement. And who claim to support electoral victory. Credibility.

When you count the guy called “the first black president“, we were Sixteen Years in Power. There’s a record of the rich getting richer, status quo and struggle at best for everyone else. A record of supporting global capital over labor. A record of intervention, “exceptionalism” and unaccountability.

Coates’s inability to mount a persistent, forceful critique of Obama is much of West’s gripe with the man who in 2015 became one of the recipients of the MacArthur “Genius Grant” award. The absence of analysis on gender, sexuality, class and the horrors of US imperialism suggests Coates’s politics travel no further than his own identity. It raises a fundamental question: Why is it suddenly permissible for the head of the US empire to bomb thousands of human beings across the globe just because, as Allan Boesak, author of Pharaohs on Both Sides of the Blood Red-Waters writes, “the pharaoh looks like us”?

The aftermath of West’s article (internet chatter and various hot takes) confirms a theory long suspected: Public intellectual life has yet to recover from the days of McCarthyism and COINTELPRO, and has atrophied to an almost non-existent reality. Historically, the moral growth of a country has been measured by its ability (or failure) to bring into civic consciousness the plight of the silenced, oppressed and unremembered. The raison d’être for the intellectual, as Edward Said puts it in his short book Representations of the Intellectual, is to “publicly … represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten and swept under the rug.”

Yet many of West’s detractors have rushed to Coates’s defense, saying that he is just a writer and never asked for the albatross of the public intellectual. While this may be true, when one is catapulted to the heights of public intellectual discourse, one must be mindful of the impact of one’s words and actions, or lack thereof. Useful here is Antonio Gramsci’s conception of the “organic intellectual,” a thought leader, a deputy of culture, an organizer of ideology who crafts and disseminates specific interests of a given sector in society — an emergent personification of class agency. That is to say, Coates cannot simply choose to speak for himself as a private individual. His words have consequences and he has, despite his attempts at abdication, been given the moral and political authority for formulating ideas that have real material impact on the dominant culture.

West also condemned Coates for a failure to categorically repudiate the financial oligarchy and the philosophy of late capitalism. This silence on capitalism may come from a refusal to acknowledge its devastating effects all around the world. Capitalism has left at its feet impoverished nations, perpetual war, mass wealth inequality and a global climate catastrophe that scientists now believe has led to an ongoing sixth mass extinction.

The latest flavor of capitalism is neoliberalism: an intense wave of economic policies, initiated by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the ’80s, that is marked by deregulation of market economies; acceleration of free enterprise; weakening of trade unions; dismantling of the Keynesian state (income assistance, public housing, health care subsidies, etc.); expansion of the security state (military, prison and surveillance); and erosion of democratic processes and institutions. However, with this specific political-economic shift came a neoliberal ethos that ushered in a specific cultural formation and gave way for a new set of personal identities and behaviors.

At its core, neoliberalism is a celebration of the free market and a belief that it possesses in itself an elegant way to facilitate human progress. Neoliberals, although unknowingly, encourage the replacement of human values for market values, including individualism, wealth-accumulation and competition. For Black people, the civil rights movement and its integrationist strategies may have played a role in the embracement of such ideas from a society that not too long ago was heavily invested in the enslavement, and then later, legalized political and social exclusion of African-descended people. After all, with assimilation comes the adoption of cultural and structural values, the most noticeable of which — incessant consumerism and devout entrepreneurship — puts profits before people and individual comfort before social equity.

Economist Robert Reich covers this in his movie Saving Capitalism. One way or another inequality (inequality being short for social and economic justice) is going to have to be addressed. If the Democratic Party continues on the path of Clinton Obama “Corporate Friendly” economics, pretending that they have meaningfully addressed the problem, they’re doomed. Like it or not, Hillary shared the same last name as Bill, and worked for the Obama administration’s agenda as Sec State. As horrifying and regressive as candidate Trump was, candidate Clinton was not likely the best candidate to put forward to represent positive change.

Neoliberalism, additionally, cultivates an obsession with commodities, productivity and disposability; consumerist logics that travel far beyond shopping centers and the workplace and find their way into personal relationships, how we craft our social circles and the way we assign value to our peers — appraisals that are often determined by income or expected earning potential. Human values of kindness, love, compassion and the need for communion with others are eventually reduced to mere afterthoughts in the wake of our market-driven culture. Could this be what West’s critique of Coates ultimately means? Is it possible that anyone who talks only of their oppression while simultaneously memorializing a centrist president — who embraced the ostensible virtues of business supremacy and worked to modernize warfare against Black and Brown bodies internationally — embodies a political individualism that cannot be separated from the neoliberal culture of the day?

No matter what speculations one can posit or ascertain as to West’s intentions for publishing the aforementioned article, it has undoubtedly unleashed a debate that needed to happen in the open. It has provided an opportunity for people to learn new vocabulary not yet firmly planted in the mainstream’s lexicon, and to challenge our politics and those of others in order to develop a shared, more far-reaching analysis. More personally, West comes from a long line of intellectuals from the African diaspora that took up the mantle of resistance, and he now hopes to secure its survival — and its integrity — in the coming generations. For the Black radical tradition is an unrestrained program that, once initiated, quickly moves past the confines of its own anatomy and seeks out international solidarity and commits itself to building a multi-identity, multi-issue social justice coalition for all those who are unjustly treated.

But wait, There’s more!

There’s an important debate to be had. It’s not about Coates vs West. It’s about policy.

Click through and read the whole piece. Share with friends and family.

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