This is the first half of the transcript of my interview with Adolph Reed Jr.,
Reed was recently a guest on Bill Moyers, discussing his article in Harpers about the problems with the left.
Adolph Reed Jr.
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This is the first half of the transcript of my interview with Adolph Reed Jr., transcribed by the podcast published here.
R.K.: And welcome to the Rob Kall Bottom Up Radio Show, WNJC 1360 AM out of Washington Township Reaching Metro Philly and South Jersey. Also available on iTunes as a podcast under my name, Rob Kall K-AL-L or at opednews.com/podcasts and the sponsor is opednews.com. My guest tonight is Adolph Reed Jr. He is a professor of Political Science at University of Pennsylvania. He is the editor of Race, Politics and Culture: Critical Essays on the Radicalism of the 1960s and Without Justice for All: The New Liberalism and our Retreat from Racial Equality.
He's been a columnist for The Progressive and The Village Voice, and has written frequently for The Nation and he has a feature article out in this month's March issue of Harper's, Nothing Left, The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals. Race and 20th-Century American Political Social Thought Power, Culture, and American Cities and Labor and the Left in Postwar American Politics. Welcome to the show.
A.R.: Thanks for having me, I'm quite happy to be on.
R.K.: I should add you just recently were on the Bill Moyers show, too. So, in your article you describe a desiccated hollowed out vaporous left. That's pretty brutal.
A.R.: Well, I don't know. I mean, I assume that you and the regular listeners, um you look around and what one sees from perusing the landscape is that we've lost a heck of a lot. I mean I, granted 1944 is a long time ago but I've been rehearsing lately that in a Roper Poll about a month before the 1944 Presidential Election, 68% of Americans, or respondents said that they would not support a political and economic system no matter what it's called that didn't guarantee to every person who was willing and able to work, the right to a job.
And when you think of how far we've come since then for instance, it's been a long way. And there's no question whether we've made progress, a lot of progress along many dimensions but I think one of the reasons that we've wound up where we are now is that the victories that we've won have largely been won in the context of a larger framework of defeat.
So that we've, and the nature of that defeat ultimately has been disconnecting the notions of a just society from ideals of economic equality or political economic justice, economic security for the entire population.
R.K.: Well okay, a couple things. One, what you just described as what the 68% of the people wanted back in Roosevelt's time is very similar to what E. F. Schumacher described in his book, Small is Beautiful and his chapter on Buddhist Economics. The idea that economics for the people is one where everybody has an opportunity to work.
A.R.: Right. Right. That's true. I mean, it's funny, I haven't thought about Schumacher in a long time and haven't really thought about him in that context but I think that's right.
And I mean, the idea, the next year, 1945 the Senate passed, it failed in the House the Full Employment bill that would have mandated the Federal Government to take action, to make full employment the cornerstone of American Economic Policy which included a mandate to take action through public spending and jobs programs, public works employment if the unemployment rate hit 3% going upwards with an eventual goal of you getting it down to 2%.
That's a far cry from today as I understand it economists are talking about the 6%, even with the funny way that they count unemployment now as a natural threshold of unemployment for our economy.
R.K.: Yeah and I just did an article within the last two weeks that economists are kind of talking that we ought to get used to the idea of that level of unemployment. That's the new reality.
A.R.: I saw that too and it's a heck of a thing. But of course, and that says everything about political power, right? Because that's what shapes, ultimately, common sense that prevails among elites.
I've also often noted, I must admit impishly, that progressives interest got more from Richard Nixon than we've gotten from either Clinton or Obama and it's not because Nixon was on our side, but it's because the social forces in labor movements, civil rights movements, emerging women's movements were social forces that he felt he needed to respond to in some way or, in other words, were strong enough that he felt he needed to respond.
And there was also, you know not as much unanimity, or not any unanimity as we experience now among the corporate strata, that it's a go for the guts basically.
There were segments of the corporate universe especially in the industrial sector that still had, were fine with the idea of collective bargaining and with union representation and something like welfare capitalism and over the course of the 70's and the 80's, for a variety of more or less complex reasons, the nature of the game changed and they went completely on the offensive and that's also kind of where we are now.
R.K.: Now it's interesting. You say that the progressives had more influence of Nixon than Clinton or Obama and you tell Bill Moyers that the left as a significant force for shaping terms of debate has been gone for awhile. And in your article it suggests that maybe the 80's that we kind of lost that?
A.R.: Well I think that's probably right. I don't want to stake too much on my own personal narrative, but I know it was an experience of a lot of people. I mean, I'm an old guy. I'm a product of the social movements of the 1960's, basically, and people like us who had been, among other things, those who connected with the social welfare state in one way or another; I mentioned Frances Fox Piven as a key person in this, but there were many others, too.
I spent most of the 70's trying to develop the democratic and egalitarian critiques of the American social welfare state. Reagan gets elected in 1980 and all of a sudden we find ourselves then in a position where we've got to do an about-face and defend the existing institutions, right, against a right wing agenda that wanted to undercut that was impelled by arguments for radically cutting all forms of social protection. I mean, I hesitated on that because it actually got worse after Reagan.
So, it's kind of like a deer in headlights thing. I, for instance, focused my politics on electing Mondale, a lot of good that did, and then Dukakis and then even Clinton the first time around and I think it's really with... so, in that sense I think... and it's true in the labor movement also because this period that I'm describing is also the period of the most intense imposition of concessionary bargaining on trade unions and, by the time you get to the end of the 80's, just about to a point where employers are basically demanding that workers go out on strike to give them an excuse to break unions.
I lived in Chicago for most of the 90's and it was during a period when one of the big labor fights was a hundred miles or so away in Decatur, Illinois, where there were three major employers who either were struck, or locked out the workers at the same time. Some listeners may remember your Caterpillar, Firestone Rubber, and Staley starch, cornstarch, and it was clear then and, I mean, the apparatus of union busting by the early 90's was in complete sway and we've been in that position ever since. So what we've been doing, to cut to the chase, increasingly since the 1980's, and especially by the 90's, is trying to negotiate the best possible terms of surrender or best possible terms of defeat.
And I think what sealed the deal on that was the emergence of Clintonism which had its roots in the formation of the democratic leadership council as an agency of conservative, southern and largely southwestern, but other economic conservative democrats that formed in the party in the aftermath of Mondale's defeat, to craft a re-organization of the democratic party and its principles in ways that were consistent with the imperatives of what we would now call neo-liberalism. And Clinton really was the consolidation of that.
R.K.: You know, you talk about neo-liberalism, neo-progressivism, neo-progressives. What's the difference between a neo-liberal and a neo-conservative?
A.R.: I'll say this, and I've come to this after a lot of reading and thinking and reading of the natterings about neo-liberalism. I'll say two things about what neo-liberalism is: one, as a definition, I like what the geographer David Harvey characterizes it as a combination of two things. One of them is a utopian free-market ideology.
The other is a practical program for radically regressive income transfer, upward transfer of new wealth and income and, as Harvey points out, when the two conflict, when the two principles conflict you can guess which one takes precedent. But another way that I think may be more helpful, and I think most helpful, to think about neo-liberalism as an historical phenomenon is that all it is really is capitalism that has eliminated effective working class opposition.
This is the world as we saw it before the insurgencies of the 1930's and this is where some tendencies among capitalists have what they've yearned for all along and, if there is such a thing as a natural state of capitalism, and I don't think that quite works because I don't believe you can really ever separate the principles of the economy from the broader social structures, but hypothetically, if there was such a thing as a natural condition of capitalism, this is what it would be.
So, I think in some then, I would say that what neo-liberalism is, is ultimately capitalism that has no restraint from any other antagonistic social forces. Now, in contrast with neo-conservatism, I think that's an interesting issue as well because, as I've said in the article, I think what we've come down to now, and this might be one of the ways to think about the distinction between democratic or left neo-liberalism and the republican neo-liberalism, is that we have two parties that are basically most fundamentally committed to giving priority to the financial sector and the investor class right across the board.
The democrats sort of buttressed, or laced that commitment with a conviction in, or with an earnest support for multi-culturalism and new diversity and the republicans laced their neo-liberal commitments to a firm opposition to multi-culturalism and new diversity and I think that distinction is not meaningless. Some of my critics have tried to characterize me as being dismissive of it, as I've said in writing, I think that for most of us who consider ourselves progressive, it's a hands down matter as to whether the democratic version of neo-liberalism that is open to multi-culturalism and diversity is preferable to the one that actively opposes it.
But that said, what that means is that for, I don't know, 80% of the population, hypothetically, 80% of the time, 80% of the things they're concerned about fall within the domain that both parties agree about; access to healthcare, housing, economic security, affordable education, you know, secure in old age, etcetera.
This is the kind of thing that most Americans are mainly concerned about most of the time and of those issues, which are only weakly connected to the struggles over multi-culturalism and diversity, there's not really any solace or base of support for most of us from either party.
R.K.: Now you also mention the idea of neo-progressives. What's the difference between a neo-progressive and a neo-liberal?
A.R.: I don't know. I'm not sure I can recall having made that reference, but perhaps I did. I don't know. I mean, I think I'm not sure what I would say about that. I guess I would say that what's happened is that what it means to be on the left has changed and evolved pretty remarkably over the last thirty years or so, right?, and it's possible now to be considered a progressive without any particular commitment to an ideal of a downward economic redistribution.
R.K.: The word "redistribution," now that, I just wrote a piece, I've been doing a series of articles about how we need to de-billionairize the United States. That billionaires are dangerous, they're abnormal mutants, and examples of giantism which are freaks of nature and when I wrote it, I got a comment from somebody who believes he is a progressive I think. He says, well, that's redistribution of wealth and that's Marxism. What's your take on redistribution and how that fits into the left?
A.R.: Well, let me give you a little allegory. Years ago, I was involved from beginning to end with effort to build an independent political party rooted in the labor movement here and one of the programs that we adapted at our founding convention in 1996 was a demand for a constitutional amendment that would give every resident the right to a job and a living wage that we tagged at a certain rate in 1995.
So I was visiting friends in California. One of my friends was a professor at a community college in the interior and she asked me, just on a lark, so I went to visit her class and she asked me to give a presentation about this to her students. Young people, mainly college aged, largely working class background and so I did and one student said that he felt that I was trying to bamboozle him because I didn't call this program, I didn't describe this program, as socialist and he claimed, I don't know whether he was trying to bait me or not, but he claimed that if I did identify, admit that it was socialist, he might even support it.
So I said to him well those are terms that don't have any real meaning for people at this point. Nobody really knows what you're talking about if you say socialism and what we say is this: there are two simple propositions. One is that, with regard to this program, every person who is willing, able to work should have the right to have a job and that everyone that has a job who works for a living should have enough to live on. I said if you want to call that socialist you can call it socialist.
You can call it Keynesian, you can call it reformed capitalism, you can call it Christian Duty, and I said you can even call it Teddy Pendergrass, (that was the name of a pop singer at that point) if you want, but it comes down to the principles and this is what I think has happened with how all of us, as you say, even a lot of people who consider themselves progressive- labels have come to take the place of thinking and argument, right?
So, somebody says well that's Marxist, and you know, I mean Marx also believed that the Earth revolved around the sun, so is that Marxist too? Is that then a Marxist belief? And the levels of income and wealth distribution in the US throughout the post-war period were much more, much less attenuated than they are now. It's possible to have significant income differentiation and differentiation of wealth and at the same time avoid having people homeless in the streets, to have a stable floor below which people can't fall and simultaneously as you point out eloquently to avoid the pathology of this giantism.
Because you're absolutely right, I couldn't agree with you more. What can... who needs a billion dollars, right? And I think that we've seen the pathological character of the society that permits and that privileges and lauds actually great concentrations of wealth like that just in the last month or two with all these clowns proclaiming that trying to tax their income is the equivalent of sending them to Auschwitz.
They lose perspective. So yeah, I mean I apologize if that was too long winded and round about response to the question but-
R.K.: No, this show does the longer rhythms so it's just fine.
A.R.: Okay, great.
R.K.: You said our politics have been hollowed out and it's one of the sources of the collapse of the left. What does that mean?
A.R.: Well, I mean, let's think about it for a second. Go back to 2008, or even more recently, well yeah, actually let's start out a little closer to home. Wendy Davis in Texas became a star in the MSNBC world and then in the salon.com, Huffington Post world, etcetera. People were talking about, got behind the idea of her gubernatorial candidacy and possibly a redeemer of Texas and bringing Texas into the blue state camp and so forth and so on, even though nobody knew anything about her.
The only thing that anybody knew about her was she apparently has a strong bladder. So now she's running for governor and it turns out that the big thing that she did was to back away from the issues that she stood up and fought for, right? And, you know, I don't mean that to consign her to the netherworld, but I think the problem is that we've kind of lost site of a fundamental reality about politics.That is that any politician, especially in a system like ours where candidates are basically free agents to some extent, that the politicians are going to be holograms created by the social forces that they have to be accountable to, or that they consider that they have to be accountable to, and we've fallen into a position of, I think, confusing politics with, well, first of all of reducing politics to electoral politics, to the electoral realm, and then confusing the electoral realm with something like American Idol where you're just voting for an individual and it's a bizarre thing.
I mean, now I will go back to 2008, because Obama had never really been identified with any progressive left of center political initiatives or programs at all in his career and all that he'd offered, but what he'd done was offer himself, the narrative of his own biography as an alternative to, or as the sensation of a progressive politics, right?
I mean, the fact that he had the parentage that he had, had the upbringing that he had, that he had the accomplishments that he had, were related endlessly frankly as the equivalent of a progressive politics, right? And certainly I can understand why many people were enraptured basically by the notion of his being the first black president, right?
Or first president publicly recognized as black. I've heard the Warren Harding stories too. And that's understandable, I mean it's understandable that people would consider that a nice thing, right, or a benchmark of some sort, but that's all there was with Obama and his identity was the substitute for this.
And we've seen this, it's not just about Obama. I do happen to have had the good fortune just the blind accident to have lived in the state senate district that he emerged in and having been very close and very much involved in the politics in the district so I got to see the shaping of Obama from the very beginning, but it's true about others.
R.K.: Let's stay on that for a minute because I've spoken with Greg Palast about that and he says that shaping very much involved the Pritzker billionaire family.
A.R.: Oh absolutely. If I thought about it, I would have sent you the concluding paragraph of a column that I wrote in the village voice in January of 1996, that's about Obama and I didn't mention him by name because nobody would have known it. This was just as he was being elected to the state senate and it was clear, I mean, I described him as, I think, a foundation and corporate confection. His base was among the Hyde Park liberals at the University of Chicago and Pritzker and that element. That's where Obama came from.
R.K.: Okay, so wait, Hyde Park liberals at the University of Chicago? That means something to you but maybe not to most of the listeners and readers. What does that mean?
A.R.: Oh true. It's kind of a combo of... well what it basically means is upper status anti-machine daily type liberals and there's the longstanding joke about Hyde Park was where black and white joined hands against the poor.
R.K.: Against what?
A.R.: Against the poor.
R.K.: Against the poor, ah.
A.R.: And I mean the University of Chicago...
R.K.: Neo-liberals in other words?
A.R.: Exactly. That's exactly right. That's his base, it always has been. If you look at his first term, I was just thinking about this because I mentioned this in a response to Michelle Goldberg's dumb comment on my article in the Nation, if you remember his first term, you've got, well, I mean just to name some of the Chicago crowd. Rahm Emanuel, what was his Rabbi basically? Pritzker is now in administration. Austan Goolsbee, who was a professor at the University of Chicago, who never met a free-trade argument that he didn't like, and others.
You can go down the list. Arne Duncan, his former basketball player is leading the charge for the administration and I've got to underscore that preposition, for the administration against public education, public schools, and teachers unions all over the country.
R.K.: Let's break this down a little bit, okay?
R.K.: Let's talk about free trade.
R.K.: Obama is rabidly for free trade and the worst free trade agreements that we've ever seen; the TPP, Trans Pacific Partnership, and its counterpart the Atlantic one. Where does that fit in with liberalism and progressivism and the left?
A.R.: Well, here you go. I think that's a great question. One of the more revealing moments that I can think of in the recent months, or years, was I'm sure a lot of your listeners will recall the speech that Obama gave that was supposed to be about inequality. This was supposedly a landmark statement, it wasn't much.
It's like most of his speeches. It's much more gestures than content, but what struck me about it in particular is the same time that he makes the gesture towards being concerned with inequality, in almost the same moment he's twisting the arms of Congressional Democrats to get them to vote for the TPP which, I agree with you, is frightening in its scope and potential, and I think it's clear now, as Lori Wallach at Public Citizen, on whose board I've sat for sixteen years, have been arguing since NAFTA, that these trade agreements aren't about trade anyway and what they're ultimately about is consolidating corporate property rights trans-nationally which includes, among other things, driving down weight scales in the entire region covered by the agreement. It's like an accelerant poured on the fire of the race to the bottom.
And I think that that is particularly instructive with respect to the notions of equality and inequality under neo-liberalism, right, because it's completely... I mean, the way that Obama can give that speech in the abstract, where he bemoans the existence, or the problem of growing inequality and then at practically at the same moment in the concrete, lobby for a trade agreement that will deepen and intensify inequality probably on an exponential scale points to the contradiction at the core of democratic neo-liberalism.
There were gestures that we get but the reality all goes to the investor class. And again, I have a very good friend who is an English professor actively involved now in a faculty union effort at the University of Illinois in Chicago but who has made the point for years that the problem with a notion of justice and equality that is anchored fundamentally on narratives of standards of multiculturalism and diversity is that those notions would justify a population, or a society in which 1% of the population controls 95% of the resources but so long as half of the 1% are made up of women, 12% blacks, 12 -- 13% are Latinos and the appropriate numbers of gays and lesbians, it would be a just society, right?
R.K.: You know, let me throw one other thing out. I call my show the Bottom Up Radio show because I believe we are in a transition from a top-down to a bottom-up culture...
A.R.: Yes, I like that too, by the way.
Rob Kall has spent his adult life as an awakener and empowerer-- first in the field of biofeedback, inventing products, developing software and a music recording label, MuPsych, within the company he founded in 1978-- Futurehealth, and founding, organizing and running 3 conferences: Winter Brain, on Neurofeedback and consciousness, Optimal Functioning and Positive Psychology (a pioneer in the field of Positive Psychology, first presenting workshops on it in 1985) and Storycon Summit Meeting on the Art Science and Application of Story-- each the first of their kind. Then, when he found the process of raising people's consciousness and empowering them to take more control of their lives one person at a time was too slow, he founded Opednews.com-- which has been the top search result on Google for the terms liberal news and progressive opinion for several years. Rob began his Bottom-up Radio show, broadcast on WNJC 1360 AM to Metro Philly, also available on iTunes, covering the transition of our culture, business and world from predominantly Top-down (hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, patriarchal, big) to bottom-up (egalitarian, local, interdependent, grassroots, archetypal feminine and small.) Recent long-term projects include a book, Bottom-up-- The Connection Revolution, debillionairizing the planet and the Psychopathy Defense and Optimization Project.
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