CORNEL WEST: “Don’t sell your soul for a mess of pottage”

JAMIE WEBB chats with Cornel West about racism, the War on Terror and Jane Austen’s ‘constancy’.

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Cornel West’s reputation as loquacious philosopher, Americo-sceptic sociologist and prolific writer on race, gender and class has secured his place as one of America’s leading intellectuals. Before his talk at CRASSH, we caught up with Wall Street’s loudest critic. Here’s what he had to say:

Cornel West, the coolest man in America

Firstly, racism. How do you solve it? Is affirmative action the way?

We always want to begin with a fundamental commitment to justice for all, fairness for all. The black movement has never been just an interest group matter and therefore, affirmative action should never violate the rights and liberties of other people.

Do you believe the US is more racist than Britain?

They are very different.  In Britain, it is easy to be in denial about black suffering because class is so central. Britain still has to come to terms with racism. We’re not talking about individual prejudices of white persons for the most part, we’re talking about the effects and outcomes of various mechanisms in place because of the denial of race in British society.

Explain your negative views on President Obama.

He’s too tied to Wall Street: he’ll bail out banks but he won’t even think about bailing out homeowners. We still have 20% of American homeowners underwater, 5 years after the financial catastrophe, and the banks are doing what? They are break-dancing, partying every night: the levels of executive compensation are ridiculous. I mean, Obama looks very good relative to John McCain, relative to Mitt Romney, and Sarah Palin…

What about Ron Paul and the libertarians? That’s a tradition you seem to have a lot of sympathy for.

I agree with Brother Ron Paul about 9% of the time; he’s a very strong libertarian and I love that, but he has no critique of the big banks and multinational corporations. He rightly believes in keeping track of concentrated power in the public sphere, but what about concentrated power in the private sector? It lacks what the great Jane Austen called ‘constancy’. I had an interview yesterday with Julian Assange, someone whose stand against the autocratic side of the US nation state I would support.

Can Jane Austen’s ‘constancy’ fix everything?

But what about the charges facing Assange in Sweden?

If he could go to Sweden without the US intervening he’d go in a minute. Assange isn’t a US citizen, but they’d still take him anyway. The US has that kind of power when they want to get you! Can you imagine the Obama administration exerting that kind of energy to find out the torturers of the Bush administration? But for Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, John Kiriakou – the whistleblowers – you get this focus and repression. But no doubt, if the charges from the sisters in Sweden are true, they have to be taken seriously.

How do we allow the notions of growth and progress in Capitalism to go forward?

Capitalism is not just one single abstraction: there’s Capitalism in Sweden, with negligible poverty levels. Yet, the US has this kind of empire Capitalism where the greed is out of control – 42% of the profits go to the banking sector. We have stagnating wages and unequal distribution of resources. Workers need their dignity affirmed in terms of the role they play in producing the wealth. People talk about growth all the time, but what about fair growth?

Sweden’s got it all worked out

What would you have wanted the reaction post 9/11 from the US government to have been?

We should let the foes know that by attacking our way of life, with liberty and democracy at the centre, it will only be further affirmed, not eroded. We won’t curtail liberties in order to fight, because then what are you fighting for? They win! You don’t reinforce the fear that results in scapegoating whole communities when it’s just certain individuals that are the problem. FDR understood this: “The only thing to fear is fear itself.” Bush didn’t understand that. And the same people that ran Bush’s counter terrorism strategy are now running Obama’s…

What would the one piece of advice you would give to Cambridge students who are going out into the world and want to make a difference?

Be of good cheer, be courageous, be hypersensitive to the suffering of others and don’t sell your soul for a mess of pottage.

Having shown his gratitude to ‘Brother Jamie, the Mancunian’, his next stop was News Night. Naturally, The Tab came first.