Black American philosopher Cornel West’s second public attack of black American essayist Ta-Nehisi Coates (an op-ed in The Guardian) is more disagreeable and embarrassing than his first (which appeared in the New York Times two weeks ago). West claims to have read Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, and came to the conclusion that Coates is pro-Israel and supports the bombing of civilians with drones. Because Coates expresses admiration for a black man who became something that was unimaginable for 96 percent of this nation’s history—a black president—he must be down with everything Obama did during his eight years in office. But Coates is not. And to be honest, West is being a bit of monster to outright dismiss the symbolism of Obama’s world-historical achievement.
Indeed, the only night I ever saw my father cry was the night Obama was elected.
My old man had not even cried for the death of his wife (who passed away in 2003), nor for his mother (who passed away in 2007). These events were expected, and as a philosopher, he prepared for them. But nothing prepared him for Obama. My father was born and raised in a racially segregated society, Rhodesia, that made the dehumanization of black Africans an official policy. When he went to college in the Deep South in the early 1970s, he saw and experienced the dehumanization of black Americans daily. I will even say that though he escaped the common fate of both black Africans and Americans, racism still broke the man inside. It left permanent cracks in the core of his being. And so, when he saw something he thought he would never see in his entire life—a black man becoming president of the wealthiest nation on the planet—tears flowed uncontrollably from these cracks.
A part of Coates’s book and examination of Obama attempts to explain the source of those tears:
Barack Obama’s victories in 2008 and 2012 were dismissed by some of his critics as merely symbolic for African Americans. But there is nothing “mere” about symbols. The power embedded in the word nigger is also symbolic. Burning crosses do not literally raise the black poverty rate, and the Confederate flag does not directly expand the wealth gap.
Why is it so difficult for West to grasp this? Why does he go out of his way to read Coates’s words outside of this obvious context? Obama did not throw out the moneychangers, but he never claimed to be Jesus. He was a political moderate and also neo-Keynesian, and not a post-Keynesian or a socialist. If he had been either, it’s hard to believe he would have become president in the first place.
Neo-Keynesian, by the way, are in agreement with neoclassical economists that markets produce the best possible world. But, unlike the neoclassicals (or so-called orthodox economists), they believe in market imperfections (sticky wages, asymmetrical information, imperfect competition, and so on), which can only be corrected by government intervention. Janet Yellen and her husband, George Akerlof, and Joseph Stiglitz and even New York Times commentator Paul Krugman are considered neo-Keynesian. Post-Keynesian begin with the belief that markets are imperfect, and then bring up class struggle and the absence of certainty in all matters relating to the future. Between Marxism and post-Keynesian thought is socialism. But here is the thing, which Micheal Hardt and Antonio Negri point out in their new book Assembly: neoliberalism attacks all Keynesians.
So, neoliberalism—which, as an economic program, rattled the 1970s with the force of an earthquake and fully emerged in the 1980s—is not an easy word to explain or pin on somebody. Is Obama the same as free-market fanatics like Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek, the fathers of neoliberalism? He is not. Is Obama like Jimmy Carter, the president who nominated Paul Volcker to chair the Federal Reserve? Yes, he is. (Volcker is responsible for dealing the death-blow to American Keynesianism in the early 1980s with soaring interest rates that weakened labor unions, and announced to the world that inflation rather than full employment was the government’s new priority.) Obama, like Reagan and Clinton and the Bushes, did not break with the tradition initiated by Carter.
Does Coates support a monetary policy that privileges the management of inflation? (He says nothing about this in his book. Nothing.) As for the oppression of Palestinians, which West mentions in his brief attack, any self-respecting neoliberal would tell you it’s a bad deal because the goal of this program is to include all humans in the market. This is why corporations like Amazon, Microsoft, Budweiser, and Apple are opposed to the Muslim ban and Trump’s “fuken” wall. The one thing the radical left has failed to appreciate profoundly is the cosmopolitan aspect of neoliberalism, which is why it caused so much confusion during the Brexit episode.
As a person on the socialist end of the left, who did you side with? The Neoliberals, who wanted no exit, or the white nationalists and racists who wanted the exit? Did West side with the white nationalists or the neoliberal cosmopolitans? And if the latter, does that make him a neoliberal? Of course, the deeper problem is the poverty of democratic institutions in the Eurozone, but that important issue wasn’t on the ballot. These difficulties must be considered carefully, or else a writer will generate more and more confusion as they throw the word ‘neoliberalism’ around.