Dr. Roberts discusses a contemporary vision for justice and its application to the first half of 2012.
Even a brief look at the political events in the first half of 2012 has the potential to create an enormous sense of urgency for those concerned with social change and progress. But given the stakes, from the case of Trayvon Martin to Occupy Wall Street and President Barack Obama’s re-election bid, it’s the responsibility of the press to provide an intensely close look. In many respects, the mainstream media fails to do this on account of endless reasons; some marginal and aesthetic, while some are structural and dangerously institutional.
This requires one to ask different questions—a set of alternative questions—to find the most meaningful answers to such important questions that are raised by the political circumstances of the moment. In fact, this generation has a responsibility to ask different questions that lead to substantive answers if it is truly serious about social change and democratic initiative.
To find such answers, I interviewed Williams College’s Dr. Neil Roberts, a rising political theorist and the co-editor of both the CAS Working Papers Series in Africana Studies (with Ben Vinson III) and a collection of essays (with Jane Anna Gordon) on the theme, Creolizing Rousseau. Dr. Roberts hails from Brown University and The University of Chicago, and frequently gives lectures at universities and colleges around the globe. He is currently working on two books this academic year: Freedom as Marronage and A Political Companion to Frederick Douglass.
Dr. Roberts’s most recent work focuses on the intersections of Caribbean, Continental, and North American political theory with respect to theorizing the concepts of freedom and agency. The application of his analyses to the dilemmas that we face as a society is especially intriguing, and can’t help but make one wonder why such critical intelligence and analytic depth is missing in mainstream media discourse. Furthermore, context is crucial to gaining a realistic vision of society’s future, and Dr. Roberts’s immensely important work on political freedom provides a basis for the context around defining this central component of democracy.
That’s why it was so thrilling to get his insight.
William Shaub: Dr. Roberts, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us. I’d like to begin with a question on how the conservative media has handled the Trayvon Martin tragedy. Upon first glance at the story as it hit the national spotlight, conservative commentators had very little to say with regards to taking a position on the tragedy; but as The Nation’s Chris Hayes points out, they literally felt compelled to take the opposite position of the liberal press regardless of how objective the story was. For example, Bill O’Reilly saw Al Sharpton take a “provocative” stance, and therefore O’Reilly felt the need to take a position opposing Sharpton. Is this a poor excuse for the conservative press to invoke racial tension (as it usually does), or do you believe there is a genuine disagreement between the two sides on the Trayvon tragedy?
Neil Roberts: Let me begin first with thanking you and the staff at The Firebrand magazine for inviting me to offer my views on a series of important, poignant questions. On the question of the Trayvon Martin case, I see this as a crucial event in late modern American political history. I say an event and not merely a tragedy because the shooting of Martin by George Zimmerman has focused national and international attention, rightly so, on a set of interrelated issues long known among the population, and yet all too often disavowed. That the shooting occurred nearly twenty years after the acquittal of the police officers in the Rodney King case and the subsequent Los Angeles riots marks the dual degrees of progress and institutional inertia facing the country today.
With regards to commentary in the conservative media, it is not a priori the case that there is always flagrant racial bias. Certainly, though, we cannot ignore instances of this as pertains to representations of Trayvon. We observe this, for example, in Geraldo Rivera’s appearance on Fox News, wherein Geraldo avowedly defended the act of persons walking to the other side of the street when she or he sees a black or Latino youth approaching wearing a hoodie. The hoodie is not the problem; it is the being wearing the hoodie that is a problem. This phenomenon is a reminder of W.E.B. Du Bois’s famous 1903 distinction in The Souls of Black Folk between a problem people and a people with problems. Hannah Arendt’s writings on the Jewish question, Frantz Fanon’s ruminations on the racial gaze, politics of recognition, and the Look, and Jamaican philosopher Sylvia Wynter on race and black existence echo similar categorical divisions. For Geraldo, the black and Latino male youth walking towards one with a hoodie on is intrinsically a problem and a moment of existential racial angst. What struck me were not only Geraldo’s false premises, but also the lack of interrogation by the Fox anchors on his conclusions.
However, we would be remiss if we did not point out, at the conceptual and public opinions levels, the areas of genuine disagreement surrounding views on the Martin event. I invite your readers to consult several studies conducted on the ongoing Martin case conducted by the Pew Research Center that detail cleavages among those living in the United States. These cleavages cut across racial lines, political party affiliation, and ideology. One notable distinction that Pew accounts for is “news interest” versus “new coverage.” While the Martin event continues to lead the nation in news interest, there has been a radical reduction in news coverage. The circumstances of the case should and will be tried in a court of law. In the meantime, we can still have discourses about the implications of the Martin event for notions of justice, freedom, equality, humanism, and citizenship.
WES: Despite the 2012 elections generating the polarizing rhetoric that has come to characterize the American political system, how important do you believe an Obama victory is to social change in the long term? Was Marx correct in arguing that maintaining the liberal establishment will have the effect of diminishing the “radicalization” of the public and therefore social change?
NR: So there are actually two questions being asked here, each important: the first on the effects of campaign 2012 on long-term social change; and the second on political liberalism and social change. On the first: the twin pillars of change and hope were the organizing principles of then Senator Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign. Young voters in particular—registered Democrats, Independents, and even youth raised in Republican households alike—gravitated to the idea of a leader who aimed to refashion the Presidency to account for social movements and citizens desiring another world beyond the policies of the George W. Bush administration. The sales of Obama’s books, Dreams from My Father and The Audacity of Hope, skyrocketed. Campaign rallies visually looked more like mega-music concerts, a point reenacted in the HBO film on Sarah Palin, Game Change. Change and hope were in the air.
By the 2010 mid-term elections, many young voters and older sympathizers became weary of the change movement even as they still supported Obama, were happy to have the nation’s first black President in office, continued to rate Obama high on likability, and held out hope amidst ambiguous change on war policies in the Middle East and North Africa, Guantanámo Bay, and the economy. For 2012, it is clear (and Obama never hid this when running back in 2008) that Obama is a political liberal, certainly with unique qualities, affect, and a style of leadership in comparison to other liberal politicians. Obama is a liberal, not a socialist—as libertarian Tea Party adherents would suggest— and far from a Marxist.
Obama in my estimation is a liberal social democratic, by which I mean a leader concerned with social inequalities in America and measures needed to rectify those inequality gaps. Health care reform—probably Obama’s most impressive political victory, which now is under juridical scrutiny by the Supreme Court—is exemplary. Compared to the other Presidential candidates running, Obama positively rejects the decadent war on women’s futures and the rolling back of reproductive rights and a woman’s right to choose. Also, although Obama’s economic policies face challenges following the 2008 market collapse, they hold greater promise than the other Presidential candidates. I would like to see Obama definitely declare support for gay marriage and end the war in Afghanistan. On the whole the stronger candidate for the country’s prospects long-term is clear, weaknesses notwithstanding.
On the topic of liberalism and social change: one witnesses criticisms from the right and the left. The German jurist Carl Schmitt, who would become a National Socialist, asserted a trenchant criticism of liberal political thought during the Weimar Republic as a prelude to the rise of Nazism. Karl Marx, writing in the wake of G.W.F. Hegel and Hegel’s dialectical philosophy of history, criticized the ways in which classical Western liberalism in polities including Great Britain led to a form of conservatism. The émigré economist Friedrich Hayek’s neoclassical theories composed in the US mirrored this category of thought that rebuffed the label conservatism, but paved the way for free market policies that stifled emphasis on the plight of the rural and urban poor.
So yes, there are critiques from left and right of what you call the liberal establishment. But let us not forget the rise of Occupy Wall Street and the movement’s brilliant motto of the 99% mobilizing against plutocrats in the 1% income bracket. All this has occurred within the framework of a liberal polity. Time will tell, yet it does mean that social movements can push for change from the ground up. Perhaps it is about reorienting our notions of who the agents of change are; e.g. the Head of Government and/or everyday people.
WES: Speaking of the 2012 campaign rhetoric, is it dangerous or perhaps appropriate for the American public to perceive that it is legitimately participating in political democracy by simply casting a vote for Obama or Romney?
NR: One has to be careful to differentiate legitimacy from appropriate or another related term. In many late modern democracies, a citizen of a certain age has the right to choose whether to vote or not. Therefore, in such a political system, you can opt to voice yourself politically either in another medium altogether or in complement to the casting of the ballot for a candidate. In 2012, this would mean deciding to vote for President Obama, Mitt Romney, a third candidate option, or not at all. That, to me, is entirely legitimate. The fugitive-turned-ex-slave Frederick Douglass, for instance, argued movingly in the nineteenth century for the importance of suffrage in the US while not being naïve to think that suffrage alone would ensure the solidification of freedom for historically excluded groups. Extending Douglass’s intuitions in part, Judith Shklar noted in the twentieth century that voting and earning are central parts of American citizenship. Political democracy, however, is something more than these suggestive principles.
Now, we can call into question whether a democracy (direct or representative) is the ideal form of government to live under. Sheldon Wolin in the contemporary period has done so; scores of fugitive slave intellectuals well before Wolin did so including Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Henry “Box” Brown, and Mary Prince; and others from the Western ancient world such as Plato to Zhang Shizhao in modern Eastern thought. Moreover, African-American philosopher and activist Angela Y. Davis has pointed out repeatedly that prisoners in several states have no right to vote, thereby making the citizenship status of the incarcerated second-class. De-carceration and abolition democracy are among the responses to prisoner disenfranchisement. Having said that, I recommend nevertheless that you exercise your voting ability if you have the capacity to do so.
WES: On a closely related note, is there a prevailing, yet false conception that pulling a lever once every 4 years is more than ratification of the power elite, or does the public know that it has little effect on policy changes within the bounds of the electoral system? It often seems like the population is aware of this, but feels powerless to fight it.
NR: Much of my answer here is covered above. But to underscore in slightly different language, I argue that the process of voting is one mechanism for agents to voice opinions in a democracy, not the singular channel. Why must voting be seen inherently as ratifying a power elite? If the candidates themselves all are elites, then of course one is voting for an elite. But one could vote for a candidate espousing non-elitist positions if said candidate were running among elites competitors. She or he may not win, but they could contribute to the process of change. At the local level in the US and in Presidential and Prime Ministerial races outside US shores, there are inspiring cases of persons voting into office candidates that do not represent a power elite.
You are correct that the United States power elite has a strong role in political outcomes. The Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission—arguably one of the most detrimental rulings since Dred Scott v. Sandford on American democracy—did not help alleviate this reality. The asymmetrical influence of Super PACs on campaign 2012 is undeniable. Deep down, though, I am an optimist and hope to convince others to be as well in spite of this! Looking towards developments in the Caribbean and Latin America, for example, provide interesting alternative futures.
WES: Do you believe that the long-term effects of the Occupy movement will change the way that people conceive of participating in politics and effecting real change? MIT’s Noam Chomsky has argued that it shouldn’t be necessary for democracy to happen in the streets, but if decision-making capacity cannot be found elsewhere, are the streets the people’s best option?
NR: This is a great question. I would amend the verb structure of the first sentence of it to read in the perfect tense rather than the future. The Occupy movements around the globe and Occupy Wall Street within the US have changed how people conceive of participatory politics through the recovery of a form of political organizing that for decades was thought no longer to exist. If Chomsky’s position indeed is that people should never have to take to the streets in order for a democracy to realize itself or to live up to its ideal state, then the two of us have a respectful disagreement and I would at some point enjoy a dialogue with Chomsky on this very topic. For me, democracy is a political ideal that we must work toward achieving and maintaining. If the state, agents of government, and corporations aligned with state actors alone cannot allow each inhabitant of the polity to experience the democratic life, then people should be able to express their views about what must happen for democracy to become a reality.
The decentralized structure of the Occupy movements is at the core of the phenomenon’s brilliance. I mentioned moments ago that Occupy has changed late modern politics through a return to pre-twenty-first century organizational forms. The formidable Trinidadian thinker C.L.R. James asserted in the wake of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution an amazing fact: the organic emergence during that revolution of Workers Councils. These leaderless collectivities of workers detested the totalitarian and state capitalist structure of Stalinism in the Soviet Union while at the same time formulating opinions on how best to organize workers, create a living wage, and enact change. To be clear, OWS is not a Workers Council movement. It is, though, an example of James’s belief, which I share, that people can organize safely and effectively, ultimately changing the fabric of the body politic for the better. The future of Occupy remains to be seen.
WES: When one conceives of attaining political freedom, the first things that come to mind are universal suffrage, human rights, etc. But from another perspective, one could go deeper and wonder, why shouldn’t people themselves control their own work? Do you believe that wage labor, or the concept of renting one’s labor and what Dewey would describe as control of one’s time, inhibits one from truly attaining political freedom in the most meaningful sense?
NR: In modern Western political thought, freedom arguably is reduced to either negative or positive thinking. Negative notions of freedom imagine freedom as the absence of a coercive or dominating force on an agent. Positive articulations of freedom, in contrast, assert freedom as the attainment of autonomy, generality, plurality, or the ability of a person to participate in government. Each type conceives of freedom as a static condition rather than a process; that is, we are positioned as either free or unfree.
But I ask: what if freedom is actually a process of flight from forms of enslavement, what beginning in the sixteenth-century Caribbean context was known in political language as marronage? What if freedom is not a static state, but a process of attainment that we are constantly striving to perfect and work towards? Obama’s speech on race calling for the consolidation of a more perfect union over two centuries after the Constitutional Convention was an unconscious acknowledgment of what I propose. Now, I fully accept that I could be wrong. But if I am correct, then this not only goes against prevailing ideas about how we conceptualize freedom. The idea that I have coined in my current work, freedom as marronage, pushes against cultural relativists who like to pose freedom as an ideal that Westerners have and non-Westerners don’t understand intrinsically.
I implore us to avoid reducing freedom to absolutes of labor or self-actualization or control. Freedom involves all of these operating at the same time. The key issue is to ascertain what forms of enslavement operate in any particular age and imagine ways to flee enslaving norms. Flight can—though need not be— about exiting a current physical landscape (e.g. migration). Changes to the constitutionalism within a society reflect non-physical structural reordering. Think of the United States in 1865, 1936, 1965, 1989, and 2008: each period marked a major achievement with the years that followed containing continuing acts of struggle, flight, and realignment. Flight is about the movement from a previous order to a new order that allows us all to flourish individually and together.
WES: Final question, and I want to thank you again for taking the time for this interview. Civil rights attorney William Kunstler famously remarked, “When we talk about justice in America, we’re really talking about justice brought about by the people, not by judges who are tools of the establishment.” Given the circumstances in the Trayvon Martin case, it’s indeed hard to imagine justice being implemented by a judge, especially given the fact that Zimmerman was recently released on $150,000 bail after giving so much as an apology for the murder. However, the establishment media is calling for de-politicization of the case because it’s concerned about “stability” and civility, which sounds awfully Aristotelian by any definition. Is politicizing issues perhaps a good thing, and even democratizing in a country that has accumulated what Paul Krugman calls a “democracy deficit?”
NR: The United States is governed by the rule of law and judges are an integral element of the judicial system structure. In spite of claims to the contrary, Trayvon Martin’s family–especially his mother—publicly stated in the sordid weeks of neglect in arresting and filing charges against George Zimmerman that the family’s main desire was procedural. They pleaded to have Zimmerman charged with the teen’s shooting and be placed on trail. The family did not cast doubt surrounding the role of judges in the proceedings, though as we know one judge so far has voluntary withdrawn from overseeing the case due to a conflict of interest. Certainly, judges are human and we must pay attention to potential bias in administering justice. For the Martin case, we must let the legal process take its course. What we can and should do beyond the courtroom—and this pertains to the political in our late modern times—is discuss and debate the implications of the Martin event for racial politics, justice, egalitarianism, and democracy. Our collective future demands nothing less.
For more information on Neil Roberts, visit his personal website at: http://sites.williams.edu/nr2.