An Assault on the Mind


AntiNote: The following is an extended excerpt of a radio interview, edited for readability.

On 8 March 2014,  Chuck Mertz of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) talked to educator and author Henry Giroux about neoliberalism’s role in the gradual perversion of public and higher education as well as of the dominant media culture.

“I don’t think we need to educate people to simply abide by the rules.  We know where that goes.”

For the first time since embarking on this project of providing print versions of podcast interviews—something we view as filling two crucial needs of a still inchoate alternative media landscape: putting collaboration before competition (for we will not overcome dominant media culture by imitating it), and amplifying voices nearly unheard outside of a niche but revolutionary format—we have received specific transcription requests for this interview.

It is not only because of these requests that we present Henry Giroux’s fiery rejoinders from last week—it really is top-drawer stuff—but we do want to demonstrate our responsiveness to this kind of input.  This extends also to other ‘services’ we try to offer on AntiDote.  Content in both English and German appear on this platform, and while we are a small collective and can’t provide all articles in both languages, we consider translation part of our work.  If there is anything in one language that you would like to see in the other, please don’t hesitate to put a word in.  We can be reached at antidote[at]riseup[dot]net or on our Facebook page, or tweet at us @AntiDotePharma.

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Looking forward to hearing from you.  Enjoy.

Chuck Mertz:  On the line with us right now is Henry Giroux.  He is author of the new book Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education.  He holds the Global TV Network Chair Professorship at McMasters University in the English and Cultural Studies department.  Good morning, Henry.

Henry Giroux:  Hi Chuck, how are you?

CM:  Good!  It’s always great having you on the show.  Your most recent books include Disposable Youth: Racialized Memories and the Culture of Cruelty, and Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future, but we have you on today to talk about your newest book over at Haymarket: Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education.  How much impact do you think the neoliberalization of higher education will have on the kind of activists that you wrote about in Youth in Revolt: Reclaiming a Democratic Future?  Could it undermine—or energize—the potential for young people today to revolt?

HG:  Well, neoliberalism has had an enormous impact on higher education in a profound number of disturbing ways.  First, it results in the defunding of higher education: as corporate taxes are lowered and state budgets have fewer resources, one of the first victims tends to be public and higher education.

Second, we’ve seen the impoverishment of professors all over the United States.  Out of 1.5 million university professors, 1 million are adjuncts.  We’ve seen the notion of the university as a democratic, public sphere being transformed.  A managerial class that defines itself as CEOs wants to run the university strictly as a business, as an adjunct to corporations—a kind of training center.

Third, we see an enormous amount of corporate money being flooded into the university.  We see college students being dumbed down with curricula that replace education with edu-training.  And we’re seeing an enormous amount of money being redistributed upwards to an administrative class that’s being expanded amidst this huge bureaucracy, while faculty are being cut or being put on part-time positions.

Whether that will inspire students to redefine what it means to take the university seriously and revolt, and not allow themselves to be put into massive debt as tuition increases…hopefully it’s a rallying point.  Students are suffering as a result of the attack on higher education.

But if you don’t mind, I want to say one more thing.  We have to understand that this attack on the university has a long history.  One of the things that frightens the Republicans and the rightwing in the United States is what happened to the university in the 1960s.  Christopher Newfield has written brilliantly on this.  They simply do not want to allow the university to repeat what happened in the ‘60s, when students didn’t want the university to be turned into a corporation.  When they were fighting for free speech.  They were fighting against racial segregation.  Women were fighting for feminist rights.  Ethnic groups were fighting to expand their curriculum in ways that were more inclusive.  That posed an enormous threat to the Right, they have never forgotten it, and they are doing everything they can to make sure it never repeats itself again.

CM:  President Barack Obama gave a speech at the General Electric gas engine plant in Waukesha.  The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported on January 30th that the President said, “folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”  So how good of a worker are you when you do not have any background in the humanities, the kind that leads to critical thinking?

HG:  You’re not really a worker at all.  You’re somebody who is hostage to wage slavery.  When you define work as simply a set of skills—many of which become outdated as time goes on—and you don’t suggest that work is something that also has to be understood politically, economically, and theoretically as a set of meaningful relations, then you don’t provide workers with the tools to understand the nature of their exploitation, the nature of how power works around questions of labor, the relationships between labor and the larger society, what it means to hold corporations accountable for the great injustices that they do.

School? Prison? Complex.

In other words, you turn people into cogs, you turn them into data.  This is really a pathetic argument for stripping education not only of its ideals, but of its most important capacity: to give people the tools, the knowledge, the modes of literacy they need to be actively and critically engaged citizens.  This is an attack on citizenship.  This is a form of depoliticization.  That’s what it is.  It’s a mode of education that has been transformed into training.  It is designed to depoliticize people and make them stupid.

CM:  How bad is that for the economy?  When I’ve talked to people who hire people, they say that they do not want to have people who have an undergraduate degree in business and then an MBA and then maybe even a Ph.D. in business.  They don’t want a person who just has a background in business.  They want people who have some other general knowledge background.  A lot of schools believe that you should not have an undergrad business degree, you should only have an MBA process.

Last week when we were talking to Adolph Reed, he said he wishes the same would be the case for journalism; people should have a background in history or sociology or anthropology—something within the humanities—before they get a degree in journalism, which would be a graduate degree.  How much does only wanting workers to be non-critical thinkers, just to be workers, just to be chasing the degrees that could pay the most—how much does that undermine our economy here in the United States, by putting people in positions where they may not be the best-trained or best-educated, and may not be able to compete with other countries?

HG:  There are businesspeople who are very smart about what it means to hire people who have the capacity to think.  Because they take chances, they take risks.  And they have faith in workers who can work with them collaboratively.  But the people who own the commanding heights of the economy have no interest in that whatsoever.  I don’t think that Bill Gates has any interest in modes of education that would make people critically literate.  I don’t think the Koch Brothers, who practically run the economy—if not the system itself, politically—they don’t have any interest in people who can think.  Major politicians strike me as zombies who are practically brain-dead, or certainly dead ethically—they live in a dead zone of the ethical imagination—they have no interest in expanding the capacity of people to think and be critical.

Remember Santorum’s famous speech, when he said the Republican Party does not need intellectuals?  “We don’t want them, that’s the last thing that we need.”  I think that sums up well what we’re talking about here.  We’re talking about a division around what it means to construct somebody who is either a citizen, critically engaged, who takes the principles of democracy seriously, or someone who doesn’t: someone who is willing to live in a society that is becoming increasingly more authoritarian, and is willing to simply abide by the rules.

I don’t think we need to educate people to simply abide by the rules.  We know where that goes.  We’ve seen it in Argentina in ‘73.  We saw it in Chile, we saw it in Nazi Germany, we saw it in Italy.  Hannah Arendt had a wonderful expression: at the root of all totalitarianisms is the inability to think, a kind of thoughtlessness that grips the populace.  That’s what we see in the country today.

You can say to me we have businesspeople who want critical workers, but these are the same people who want to lower corporate taxes and not fund public education.  These are the same people who sponsor a celebrity culture that has become so banal it’s the laughing stock of the world.  These contradictions need to be taken up in ways that suggest a larger consideration of what exactly is being supported here, politically, economically, educationally and culturally.

CM:  You write, “four decades of neoliberal policies have resulted in an economic Darwinism that promotes privatization, commodification, free trade, and deregulation.  It privileges personal responsibility over larger social forces, reinforces the gap between rich and poor by redistributing wealth to the most powerful and wealthy individuals and groups, and it fosters a mode of public pedagogy that privileges the entrepreneurial subject while encouraging a value system that promotes self-interest—if not an unchecked selfishness.”

This week, Forbes came out with a list of the world’s billionaires.  ABC World News Tonight reported that of those billionaires, two thirds said they were ‘self-made.’  What’s wrong with privileging personal responsibility, promoting self-interest, rewarding the best and brightest by giving them most of the money?  Isn’t that the kind of system that makes the U.S. the world leader in billionaires?  And not just billionaires, but apparently, Henry—lucky us—self-made billionaires.

HG:  That has to be the biggest lie since the Virgin Birth.  It’s really hard to believe that anybody can take seriously the notion that we have a level playing field and that we ultimately have to bear responsibility individually for all the choices that we make, when we have such massive amounts of inequality in this country.  The United States ranks in the top third in the amount of inequality in the world, among the advanced industrial nations.  We all know that.

“When you handcuff ten-year-olds because they’ve had a temper tantrum in the classroom, that suggests something about the way any respect for the social, any respect for relationships, has begun to collapse.”

What we’ve failed to realize is that we’re not just talking about individual choices, we’re talking about choices within specific relations of constraint.  As a working class kid, I had a choice:  I could become a priest, or I could become a policeperson.  That was it, those were the choices.  To argue that wealth doesn’t provide enormous opportunities—and wealth now is so rigidly defined that very few people really have the kind of privileged opportunities that these people suggest come automatically—is one of the great lies of neoliberalism.

Because what it fails to take into consideration are those systemic, structural, ideological, cultural, and economic forces that actually bear down on people in such a way that their choices are so limited, their opportunities are so narrowly defined, that it becomes almost impossible—in this rigid racialized class system that we have—for people to move up.  We have enormous numbers of studies on this, that social mobility in the United States is actually diminishing.  Middle-class wealth has been wiped out—we know that.  We know that workers’ wages have been frozen for twenty years.

So we have to ask ourselves, where is the wealth?  Where is the wealth that makes possible the opportunities and the mobility that give people a real chance to better themselves?  It’s in the upper 1%.  That’s exactly where it is.  So if you really want to talk about individual responsibility, we have to ask ourselves: why is the upper 1% so irresponsible when it comes to sharing resources that would allow 99% of the population to live a life with dignity, with some prosperity, with quality healthcare, to be able to say we live in a democracy?

CM:  Here’s what you write in your book Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education: “Once set in motion, economic Darwinism unleashes a mode of thinking in which social problems are reduced to individual flaws, and political considerations collapse into the injurious and self-indicting discourse of character.  Many Americans are preoccupied less with political and moral outrage over a country whose economic and political system is in the hands of a tiny exorbitantly rich elite than they are with the challenges of being isolated and surviving at the bottom of a savage neoliberal order.”

This reminds me of when we interviewed Dana Becker back in October.  She’s the author of One Nation Under Stress: the Trouble With Stress as an Idea.  In Dana’s book, she argues that the diagnosis of stress individualizes all of society’s problems, as if they are that person’s fault for not conforming, not that the system has problems.  The stress that many of us suffer is due to our horrible system, not the failings of us as individuals.  This diagnosis of stress then disempowers us from working together to change what’s wrong with the system because we believe there’s something wrong with us.  After all, Henry, the Unites States of America is the greatest nation ever, so if we have any problems with it, it must be our fault.

...for better or worse
…for better or worse

HG:  Thank you so much, it’s really such an important issue.  When you collapse the public into the private, when you claim that private troubles have no connection to larger social considerations, what you do is focus on the personal in ways that obscure what’s really at stake: ideas, ideologies, the nature of change, the realities of power, and the evisceration of those critical faculties that really would allow us to connect personal troubles to larger social and public considerations.

C. Wright Mills was brilliant on this, as you know.  He said if you really want to understand the nature of fascism, totalitarianism, and authoritarianism, look at the way social problems are individualized.  Look at the way there’s a shift away from understanding larger systemic causes, for instance, and reducing them to individual responsibilities so that we say, ‘if there’s massive unemployment in the country it must be because people are too lazy to want a job.  If people are on food stamps, it must be because they refuse to work for food.’

It’s not just ideologically false, it’s also symptomatic of a culture of cruelty that no longer wages a war on poverty, but wages a war on the poor.  It’s symptomatic of a culture that no longer addresses social problems, but criminalizes the effects of those problems.  For instance, when you handcuff ten-year-olds because they’ve had a temper tantrum in the classroom, that suggests something about the way any respect for the social, any respect for relationships, begins to collapse into a circus in which people who really believe in this kind of respect—or people who are the subjects and objects of it—become objects of incredible scorn.

Let’s take one example.  In the richest country in the world, the Republicans who are endlessly cutting corporate taxes in any way possible—50% in the last ten years, as you know—they actually want to eliminate $40 billion from the food stamp program.  Thanks to Obama’s own neoliberal sensibilities, they ended up eliminating $8 billion per year.  Imagine: half the people on food stamps in the country are children, and 30% are the elderly.  How can we justify that in the name of individual responsibility?  How do you justify that without recognizing that it represents a flight from any sense of what democracy means, from being able to provide the protections for those who need it most: the poor, young people, the elderly?

It seems to me what we have a country that’s at war with the public.  They’re at war with workers, they’re at war with labor unions, they’re at war with women, they’re at war with young people.  We have a country that’s been taken over and hijacked by extremists.

“Public schools are under assault in ways we have never seen in this country.  And it’s not because they’re failing, it’s because they’re public.”

CM:  You mentioned individual responsibility.  Individual responsibility and personal freedom seem to be the driving themes of many on the Right.  I saw the founder of Tea Party Patriots the other day on TV.  She was going through their platform, and the first thing she said was, “we have to protect personal freedoms.”  Individual freedoms is what she was stressing more than anything else.  Obviously you and I believe that we should have personal or individual freedoms, but at what point does that go too far, into an extremist level?  And how can that be bad, being an extremist who is for personal freedoms?

HG:  I think that you can’t talk about personal freedom when it becomes synonymous with a kind of rabid individualism and harsh competition that replaces all notions of the public good and all forms of solidarity.  You can slice it in a couple of ways.  The Right says, “we want freedom from interference.”  That’s how they define freedom.  And they collapse it into a notion of radical individualism, or what I would call rabid individualism.

But there’s another kind of freedom, and that’s a freedom in which we not only assume a certain sense of individual responsibility, but we also define freedom as the freedom to shape the world in which we find ourselves.

When you privilege personal freedom and personal rights over social rights, when you say that personal freedom has nothing to do with creating the conditions that enable people to act on a whole range of capacities—that would broaden the possibility of freedom in ways benefiting not only the individual, but society at large—you have a very different conception of freedom.

Their notion of freedom lives in a desert of organized cruelty.  Their notion of freedom is, look, freedom is about self-interest and screw everybody else.  That’s not freedom, that’s slavery.  That’s a form of political slavery.  That’s an excuse for people to do anything that they want in the name of freedom, without having to take seriously questions of justice, social responsibility, and the public good.

CM:  We’re trained, we’re educated to be patriotic.  How much does that patriotism, that love of country, undermine our ability to recognize and rise up against what you see as the “larger forces that control or constrain our choices and the lives we are destined to lead?”

HG:  I think any notion of patriotism that becomes synonymous with blind obedience is a prescription for fascism.

CM:  That pretty much sums that up.

When it comes to what you call this economic Darwinism that unleashes a mode of thinking in which social problems are reduced to individual flaws, you write that “it makes it all the simpler for neoliberalism to convince people to remain attached to a set of ideologies, values, modes of governance, and policies that generate massive suffering and hardships.  Neoliberalism’s best trick is to persuade individuals, as a matter of common sense, that they should imagine themselves as solitary agents who can and must live the good life promised by capitalist culture.”

This is a re-phrasing of Baudelaire’s line, “the finest trick of the devil is to persuade you that he does not exist.”  How successfully do you think U.S. culture has been convinced that the devil of their problems doesn’t exist and that they themselves are the problem?

“Let’s be clear about what the dominant media does.  The dominant media is there to provide an audience for advertisers.”

HG:  This is something that a lot of people fail to realize.  Some critics of neoliberalism seem to think that it is simply about economics, that it’s simply about the redistribution of wealth upward, away from the middle class and the poor, and that it assumes the only obligation of citizenship is to be a consumer.

But neoliberalism is about more than that.  It’s also a mode of education.  It produces particular notions of what a citizen is, of which desires matter.  Since the 1970s—and especially once Reagan came into office—it has put in place a cultural apparatus that is enormously powerful.  It includes all the dominant media, who have relentlessly—relentlessly—pushed the assumption that profit is the essence of democracy; that anything that has anything to do with the government is in some way erroneous and should be condemned; and that the market basically should not only control the economy but the whole of social life.

What we see here is an ongoing attempt to educate the public that undermines the very notion of what it means to live in a democracy.  And they’ve been enormously successful.  You can’t turn on the television, you can’t go to a movie, and not see this theme of the individual overcoming, you can’t escape this particular notion of what it means to succeed in America.  You can’t go to a film without in some way catching what I would call blatant racism, or the increasing celebration of police, or the surveillance state.

It becomes difficult to live in a country where the range of ideas about what democracy means is so narrow.  A democracy is not a corporation, and citizenship is not simply about shopping and buying.  Celebrity culture is not the height of what it means to be successful.  Idiocy is not a virtue.  And yet these themes are pounded into us over and over.

And now this assault on rationality, reason, civic literacy and civic courage is being waged against the schools.  Public schools are under assault in ways we have never seen in this country.  And it’s not because they’re failing, it’s because they’re public.  Higher education is under assault not because it’s failing, but because colleges are not corporations.

This is really an assault on the mind.  This is really an assault on the educative nature of being alive to democratic impulses.  The Left has never taken that seriously.  They don’t understand that education is central to any viable definition of policy, or that the appreciation of what it means to change ideas—what it means to persuade people to think otherwise, in order to act otherwise—has largely been lost.

CM:  Last week we were speaking with ProPublica’s Julia Angwin.  She was talking about the surveillance state and how much of our own personal information we give up voluntarily, and how the surveillance state is not just the government spying on us, it’s a lot of marketers spying on us.  How much of the neoliberal war on higher education is self-inflicted and not caused by some big bad nefarious corporate cabal?  How much is the success of neoliberalism simply due to people, well, believing in neoliberalism?

HG:  When you live in a country that privatizes everything; when you live in a country that so emphasizes individual responsibility that it eventually develops into a full-blown addiction to narcissism; when you develop modes of education that tell people the only thing they should really care about is themselves; then you live in a country where people have a relatively narrow range of choices about how to define themselves.  Ideology is smothering.

So I don’t blame people, per se, for taking that ideology up.  I place the blame on a system that doesn’t provide them with alternatives.  I’ve just written a paper on the surveillance state and the notion of paranoia and my point is, look, we’re not just talking about the state, we’re talking about corporations who are actively engaged—endlessly—in mining data.  They’re probably more dangerous than the NSA, because there are no checks on them.

But people willingly give up that information.  Privacy is no longer something that we cherish.  Young people today want to make an exit from privacy.  Everything is about performance; everything is about putting yourself on display.  The public has been so emptied out of meaning that the only purpose it really serves now is for one to indulge one’s own narcissistic fantasies.

There are many young people fighting that.  We know that.  But there are many young people who choose this deadening, brain-damaging culture of consumerism and performance and display, and allow themselves to be simply turned into a commodity.  Again, these are signs of the power and success of the neoliberal ideology in the United States.  It’s undermined a whole generation of young people who really have no concern with privacy—and in many ways have no concern with freedom.

The real attack by the surveillance state is not on privacy, it’s on freedom.  It’s an attack on dissent.  It’s about what’s happening to people like Snowden and Jeremy Hammond and a whole range of alleged traitors who reveal corruption and then get punished for it.  Meanwhile in the United States people who have engaged in actual torture, or have swindled the system of billions of dollars—or both—are labeled as heroes.  That’s a contradiction that we need to address, and understand the ideological forces that promote it.

CM:  Henry, one last question for you, and as always it’s the Question from Hell—the question we hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience will hate your response.  In your writing you always touch on the media.  You always do some very good media criticism. You write in your book, “in media discourse, language has been stripped of the terms, phrases and ideas that embrace a concern for the other.  With meaning utterly privatized, words are reduced to signifiers that mimic spectacles of violence designed to provide entertainment rather than thoughtful analysis.”

What people really talk about at the water cooler isn’t the wars that are being ignored across Africa, even if they did know about them.  What audiences want are the personal interest stories, the stories on entertainment that the media provides.  So do TV ratings prove that what audiences really want isn’t to be knowledgeable of the world around us, but instead to be distracted from their job and daily routine in this world we are building on neoliberalism?

HG:  Let’s be clear about what the dominant media does.  The dominant media is there to provide an audience for advertisers.  That’s what it does.  It’s not concerned about educating people critically.  There are exceptions.  We all know that.  And there are exceptions in Hollywood.  But the point is they’re exceptions.

But I think the idea that people get what they want—and people only want things that are personal, only programs that are fun—I think that’s an effect, that’s not a cause.  That’s something that’s produced by the media and then the claim is made that “that’s really what people want, we just give them what they want!”

They don’t give people what they want.  That’s insane.  They have the power.  They decide what gets put on television, they decide what’s going to be distributed.  And they decide on the basis of the people who sponsor those programs.  Which limits, in many ways, what can be said.

What we’re talking about here is a systemic limitation of what can be said, heard, and seen.  Call it what you may, but simply stated it’s just corporate propaganda.  That’s all it is.  And to claim that the responsibility for that ultimately lies on people, who never hear alternative positions…

I’ll give you an example of where this idea gets challenged.   When I first started writing for Truthout, there was the assumption that nobody should write a piece more than five pages long, because no audience would read more than five pages online.  So I started asking major intellectuals all over the country to write major pieces, but just make them accessible—rigorous, but acceptable.  Clear.

Those pieces generated more audience responses than the news, than the entertainment pieces.  And people were shocked.  What I’m saying is that there’s an audience out there that is desperate for something substantial.  Desperate for real conversation.  Desperate for programs that take up real issues but in a way that combines art with politics and insight.  There’s a hunger, there’s a void.

That void exists because the culture celebrates a celebrity culture that’s basically stupid.  Who cares about the Kardashian sisters?  I mean, really.  Is that all we have to show?  In a culture that is bereft with enormous contradictions and social problems?  Give me a break.  And to say that people are responsible for that, that it’s “what they want,” when they have absolutely no power over what is being produced, distributed and circulated?  That’s just a silly argument to me.

CM:  Henry, always a pleasure.  Great to have you on the show.

HG:  Thank you so much, it’s always such a pleasure to be on your program.  I’m delighted.

Transcribed and printed with the permission of This is Hell! Radio.  Listen to the full interview here:

“The World We Live in Is Created by Slavery”


AntiNote: The following is an extended excerpt of a radio interview, edited for readability.

On 15 February 2014,  Chuck Mertz of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) talked to Greg Grandin about his recent book The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New WorldGrandin asks us to acknowledge, reexamine and confront the legacy of slavery—in all its historical forms but in particular the brutal example of the trade on the Middle Passage—in our assessment of current political, social, and economic relations and institutions.

Looking out from Antidote’s home base in Europe (where a torrid and nearly unchallenged ascent of racist ideologies across the Continent can truly no longer be denied), and Switzerland in particular (where a referendum tightening immigration policy passed last month, accompanied by an across-the-board denial that the vote had anything to do with racial discrimination), we are moved to remind our readers that the philosophical lessons Grandin sets out are applicable not only in North America, as so many here—not without an air of relief and reproach—seem to think, but everywhere.


In the 1770s the Spanish began to use phrases associated with today’s society—they began to privatize and deregulate the slave trade.

Chuck Mertz:  On the line with us right now: Greg Grandin.  Good morning, Greg.

Greg Grandin:  Good morning.

CM:  Greg is the author of The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom and Deception in the New World and one of my very favorite guests.  He is the author of a number of prize-winning books, including Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history as well as for the National Book Award and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award.

You know what, this is a good place to start this conversation: how much do you and I, right now, benefit from our history of slavery?

GG:  The modern world that we live in is created by slavery.  Oftentimes the national discussion about reparations focuses mostly on the negative effects of slavery in terms of uncompensated wages that some people have calculated at a trillion dollars, counted in today’s currency.  Other people focus on the post-Abolition harm done as a result of discrimination, the exclusion of African Americans from the New Deal or from mortgage programs that would have benefited them.

But I think that focus obscures the way slavery contributed to other institutions.  Medicine, insurance, what we know of as modern Christianity and modern international law come out of defending slavery, fighting against slavery, or trying to reform slavery.  Modern philosophy, the way we think of the individual, is a result of slavery.  Brooks Brothers, the plush clothing company from New York, had its start selling coarse clothing to slave plantations.  The insurance company Aetna got its start underwriting slaves and slave voyages.  So there are ways in which we benefit just in the way that we live our lives and the institutions we live our lives through.

CM:  So here’s the thing—a friend of mine once told me that he didn’t believe in reparations for the descendants of slaves because he didn’t enslave people and he didn’t benefit from it because he isn’t from the 1850s.  This happened 150 years ago.  It doesn’t have anything to do with him.  What would you say to somebody who says that there shouldn’t be reparations because they aren’t benefiting from slavery?

GG:  Well, look, there’s a lot of technical questions about trying to seek social redress, or redress through the court system.  How would you define the claimants, how would you define the defendants, how would you define the damages?  These are real questions that would need to be answered.

But I think that in this country, the way we deal with our past is often through litigation.  And it is the debate over reparations which forces these questions onto the agenda, and forces us to confront the reality of how much wealth and value was created through slavery.  And the wealth and profits generated from slavery went well beyond just the cotton that slave plantation owners sold to Britain or the sugarcane that slaves cut.  It capitalized banks, it capitalized insurance companies in the North.  The North’s economic diversification and industrialization were financed by slavery.

And that’s just in economic terms.  Again, the institutions that we live our lives through—the churches, the universities—were shaped by the experience of slavery.  Centuries of buying and selling human beings and transporting them across continents, across oceans, created the modern world.  And it is through the reparations debate that these issues are addressed and confronted.

CM:  Before I do any research for a guest, Greg, I try to think of the most general questions that are often based on the most horrible opinions in the world.  One of the things that seems always to be brought up in the discussion of slavery is the complicity that Africans had in the slave market, that the slaves were being sold off by Africans.  What do you say to those who blame Africans for slavery, who say that they were complicit?

GG:  Well, two things.  One: it is true that slavery was the normal condition of social relations for millennia.  The idea of individuals buying and selling their labor as free men and women in the free labor market is a new thing, coming out of the Age of Revolution and the Enlightenment.  The kinds of slavery that existed were different in Africa, different in Europe, different in the Middle East, in Russia, in Asia.  There were different degrees and variations of forced labor.

But what emerges with the Atlantic economy is qualitatively different in terms of the work that was demanded, in terms of the absolute treatment of people as chattel, in terms of the brutality, in terms of the equation of forced labor with skin color, in terms of the distances traveled and the massive number of people that were ripped out of their homes—12.5 million people by some estimates, and that’s probably a conservative estimate.

The second thing I would say is that European intervention in Africa disrupted social relations, communities, and balances of power and led to the wars and conflicts among ethnic groups that became a source of slaves.  So yes, it is true that like all social systems, people participating are complicit in different ways, but I think that we could step back and make a broader moral judgment about degrees of responsibility and degrees of oppression.

If we were really to consider the role of Islam in New World slavery, we’d have to realize that Islam was present at the creation of many of the institutions we think of as comprising the modern world.

CM:  What caused that particular slavery to become so brutal?

GG:  It had to do with the discovery of the New World as a source of resources for Europe under the system of mercantilism, the extraction of gold and silver—and mercury to amalgamate the gold and silver—and then eventually the creation of plantation economies in the Caribbean.  The demand for labor became exponentially greater than at any time in the past with the creation of the Atlantic market and the flowing of minerals and crops from the Americas into Europe.  The Atlantic market system was qualitatively different in terms of scale, in terms of the amount of wealth produced.

Slavery existed in the Americas from the early 1500s forward, when the Spaniards and the Portuguese brought the first slaves to the Caribbean, but it was really in the 1770s when they began to use phrases associated with today’s society—when they began to privatize the slave trade or deregulate the slave trade.

Spaniards were very frank about trying to institute what they called “Free Trade in Blacks” as a way of jumpstarting the colonial economy.  Prior to that, under the terms of Spanish mercantilism, slavery was horrible and brutal in all the ways we just talked about, but it was, at least in principle, tightly controlled by a strong state in which only a select number of monopolies had the right to import slaves into a select number of ports: Havana, Cartagena, and a few others.

But starting in the 1770s, there was a big push by Spanish-American merchants for a Free Trade in Blacks.  They wanted more “liberty,” and by that they meant more liberty to buy and sell Africans as they would.  And slaves started to pour into the Americas.  More Africans came into Montevideo—which is the starting point of the story that I tell in The Empire of Necessity—in 1804 than in any previous year.

This pre-dates what we think of when we think of slavery in the United States.  Slavery in the United States really gets going after the War of 1812 with the British, the opening up of the West, the invention of the cotton gin.  But all of the stuff that we think of as chattel slavery in its most brutal antebellum expression was going on for decades before in Spanish America.

CM:  As an introduction into this discussion of slavery, you use a Herman Melville short story that is spectacular.  It is a great example, a great way to get into the mind of the reader.  But one of the things you point out in your book is how this all happened during the Age of Revolution; this all happened during the Age of Liberty.  That is such an odd contradiction, for me, that slavery is exploding at a time when the ideas of freedom and democracy are also growing.

GG:  Fifty years ago a historian, Edmund Morgan, talked about the paradox of freedom and slavery in the Americas and how the idea of freedom was dependent on slavery in all sorts of ways.  Slavery, as we talked about, created the material wealth which generalized notions of freedom, independence and individualism, giving more and more people in the lower classes—white people—a sense that they had an interior life, that they had individual preference, they had individual rights.

And it generated the profits with which colonists were able to buy guns in order to fight the British and then, later on, the Spanish colonies were able to fight the Spaniards.  There’s all sorts of ways in which slavery and freedom were intertwined.

CM:  It always seemed that in K-12 history classes, slavery kind of existed in a vacuum.  But one of the things that you point out in your book is slavery’s effect on culture, on society.  How does one exist within a slave culture?

GG:  Well, just think about all of the works of culture and literature that were produced in either defending slavery, or protesting it or reforming it.  There’s all sorts of ways slavery was remarkably generative.  You mentioned Herman Melville:  there are ways in which Moby Dick itself was about the crisis that was confronting the United States in 1851 as it was careening towards civil war—the crisis over slavery, the crisis over expansion.  But Benito Cereno, the story that basically inspired the book that I wrote, is really wrestling with the problem of slavery.

This goes back to your broader question: Melville himself, his position on slavery was complicated, but he was clearly an abolitionist (a small ‘a’ abolitionist; he didn’t trust the organized Abolitionists.  He equated them with the Jacobins in France: he thought they were dangerously naive and they were going to basically steer the American Revolution into the shoals just like he thought the Jacobins did the French Revolution).  He was clearly opposed to slavery.  But he didn’t write too much about slavery itself as an existing institution; he tended to write about slavery and freedom in metaphysical terms.

CM:  Let’s stick with Melville.  You write, “the pas de trois between the New Englander Amasa Delano,”—this is in the story Benito Cereno—“the Spaniard Benito Cereno and the West African Mori, choreographed by Babo and other characters, is dramatic enough to excite the wonder of any historian, capturing the clash of peoples, economies, ideas and faiths that was New World America in the early 1800s.  That Babo, Mori, and some of the rest of their companions were Muslim means that three of the world’s great monotheistic religions—Cereno’s Catholicism, Delano’s Protestantism, and the West Africans’ Islam, confronted one another on the ship.”  Why is the presence of Islam so ignored most times when we read anything about slave history?  How important was the presence of Islam for slaves?

GG:  Well, some historians estimate as many as 10% of all Africans taken from the continent were Muslim.  And they floated into all parts of the Americas.  In Bahia, Brazil, the largest urban slave uprising in New World history, in 1835, was led by Muslims and it took place in the holiest month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan, on the holiest day of that month, the Night of Power.  There’s autobiographies of slaves that were Muslim in South Carolina, in Virginia, in other parts of the South and in Latin America.  But the process of conversion to Christianity, be it Protestantism or Catholicism, was fairly relentless, and I think that the fact that Islam didn’t continue to exist as a cultural form within African American communities beyond the first or second generation of Africans is one of the reasons it’s ignored.

And another reason is obviously the problem of Islam in Western societies.  Islam is considered something on the other side of the fault line, part of a “clash of civilizations,” and if we were really to consider the role of Islam in New World slavery, we’d have to realize that Islam was present at the creation of many of the institutions we think of as comprising the modern world.

It turned out that the slaves were actually running things.  That they had risen up fifty-something days earlier, seized the ship, killed most of the Spaniards and demanded to be returned home to Senegal.

CM:  And we would have to realize that not only was this nation built on the back of slaves—but worse than Black slaves, they were Black Muslim slaves, and I don’t think that’s something that most of America wants to discuss.

You write, “a captain ready to drive himself and all around him into ruin in the hunt for a white whale is a well-known story, and over the years, Mad Ahab in Herman Melville’s most famous novel Moby Dick has been used as an exemplar of unhinged American power, most recently of George W. Bush’s disastrous invasion of Iraq.  But what’s really frightening isn’t our Ahabs, the hawks who periodically want to bomb some poor country, be it Vietnam or Afghanistan, back to the stone-age.  The respectable types are the true ‘terror of our age,’ as Noam Chomsky called them, collectively, nearly fifty years ago today.  The really scary characters are our soberest politicians, scholars, journalists, professionals and managers, men and women—though mostly men—who imagine themselves as morally serious and then enable the wars that devastate the planet and rationalize the atrocities.  They are a type that has been with us for a long time.”

This is something that Noam Chomsky also taught me.  What I truly believe is that it’s far scarier than anyone thinks it is, not because of some huge complex sexy conspiracy theory, but because this is the way of doing business.  That is what we are, from incompetent to greedy to willfully ignorant, to unfairly judgmental and keenly afraid, nearly always willing to be duped by fear, believing that our problems are inevitable.  That’s scarier than any big plan that some secret group has.  Are more of us frightened by this than conspiracy theories?  Are we more frightened by the process, the system that we live in, than conspiracy theories?  Or do conspiracy theories still win?

GG:  I mean, some conspiracies are true.  Iran-Contra was a conspiracy that was true.  But I think that conspiracy theories are a theory of power when power seems to be everywhere and it’s hard to pin down.  In much of the world you don’t need conspiracy theories to explain the way the people who are extracting the resources are being controlled by the laws of supply and demand, by economic calculations made in the stock exchanges of Shanghai and Wall Street and London.  These aren’t conspiracies, these are just the normal functionings of power.

But that extended quote is my way of comparing these two Melville characters: Ahab from Moby Dick—more famous, often taken as an emblem of unhinged American power—and Amasa Delano.

We’ve been talking around the set-piece which opens up my book, but it’s a fascinating story. Amasa Delano, a New England captain, a republican, a reformer—somebody who believes in the clarity of the modern world, that the modern world is a world of laws and institutions, and reason is dominant—boards a Spanish American slave ship in the South Pacific in 1804 and spends nine hours on board.  The ship is distressed, in trouble, but he’s told that the reason there aren’t too many Spaniards on board is because it hit a storm, and then fever struck and most of the Spanish crew died.   And he watched the operations of about seventy slaves, seventy West Africans, and he spent most of that time talking to the Spanish captain, Benito Cereno.  And all that time Cereno was being tended to by his body servant, Babo, a West African who never left his side and seemed to be humble and loyal and attentive.  And every time Amasa Delano asked Benito Cereno for a word alone, Benito Cereno said, “well, anything you have to say, you can say in front of my body servant.”

It turned out that the slaves were actually running things.  That they had risen up fifty-something days earlier, seized the ship, killed most of the Spaniards and demanded to be returned home to Senegal.  These were the West African Muslims that we mentioned earlier.  And Amasa Delano, an experienced mariner in the middle of his third trip around the globe—and an ancestor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt—was completely blind to the social reality.  He couldn’t see the social world around him.  He had no clue at all that the West Africans were actually choreographing everything, that they were pretending not to be in charge.

When they ran into Delano’s ship they had two choices: they could have fled or they could have fought.  But then they came up with this ingenious plan: it was like a nine-hour pantomime of the master-slave relation.

And these were desperate people.  They had been on board for over two months, they were starving, two children had died of dehydration, and yet somehow they managed to summon up the inner resources in order to play the role of slaves.  And this is all a true story.  I use it to open up to this larger history, but this is the story that gripped Melville’s imagination half a century later when he wrote Benito Cereno.

The problem isn’t the paradox of slavery, it is the attempt to escape this paradox.

CM:  Yeah, and it’s a great set-piece, it really is.  It really does set up the story, and it works as a great frame throughout the entire book.

Just a couple more questions for you.  What’s this connection you were making before, between this American individualism that a lot of Libertarians embrace—what’s the connection between that individualism and slavery?

GG:  This goes back to the portrait of Amasa Delano.  I think Amasa Delano, both the real Amasa Delano and Melville’s rendition, represented a new kind of racism.  It wasn’t justified in theology or philosophical doctrine, or even law.  It rose from the psychological need to define one’s freedom in relationship to another’s enslavement, to define absolute freedom in opposition to absolute slavery.

This is what Amasa Delano was.  He understood his freedom.  He was a new man of the American Revolution.  He was “enlightened.”  He believed in modernity, he believed in the rule of law and the institutions that go with it.  But he defined that freedom in relationship to what he imagined to be the servitude and enthrallment of Babo and Mori and these other slaves.

And this touches on things we talked about earlier: the relationship, the paradox of slavery and freedom, the way freedom emerges out of slavery, the way slavery makes freedom possible.  If our very institutions and ideas of freedom are rooted in slavery, I think this is one of the things that accounts for the enduring power of racism.

Tea Partiers, for example, can’t help but talk about healthcare in terms of secession or nullification.  They can’t help but talk about taxes as a form of slavery.  All of these things, this vision of a state impinging on individual rights, is so bound up in the institution of slavery that it just can’t be shaken off.   Whether people are individually racist, who knows?  I don’t know.  But I would argue that their conception of individualism is so deeply embedded in the history of slavery that those two things are inseparable.

Hence the first African American President comes into power after this horrible foreign policy fiasco and this 2008 economic meltdown, and he’s charged with re-stabilizing American power on a more sure footing, and he tries to do that through a mild program of government intervention, and it’s held up as if he’s Stalin incarnate.  In many ways, he’s Babo, right?  The Right treats him as if he was that loyal slave tending to Benito Cereno but is really hatching this plot to steer the ship of state into the rocks.  And the fact that the real West Africans were Muslim just adds to the historical irony of it all.

CM:  This is why I love having Greg Grandin on the show.  One last question for you Greg, and as with all of our guests it’s the Question from Hell: the question we hate to ask, you might hate to answer, or our audience is going to hate the response.  You write, “in his memoir, Delano uses a now-obsolete sailor’s term horse market to describe the explosive pile-up of converging tides strong enough to scuttle vessels.  It’s a good metaphor.  That’s why the people on board the Tryal”—this is the slave ship—“were caught in a horse market of crashing historical currents: of free trade, U.S. expansion and slavery, and of colliding ideas of justice and faith.  The different routes that led all those involved in the drama in the Pacific reveal the fullness of the paradox of freedom and slavery in America, so pervasive it could trap not just slaves and slavers, but men who thought they were neither.”

Is slavery America’s original sin?  Can we never, in the United States, have true freedom or democracy because of the legacy of slavery?

GG:  No, I think we could.  If there was an honest confrontation with the past.

The title of the book, The Empire of Necessity, comes from an epigraph from another Melville story: “seeking to conquer a larger liberty, man but extends the empire of necessity.”  The way I read this is that he didn’t think the problem was that our notions of freedom were dependent on slavery; he thought the problem was the refusal to acknowledge that dependency.

The problem wasn’t the paradox of slavery, it was the attempt to escape the paradox, to skip off into the West or into the Pacific as if fleeing forward into the frontier would somehow solve the problem.  I think what he imagined, and I would tend to agree with it, is that the task is to acknowledge the dependencies and necessities and the obligations that bind one to another.  It’s not so much that we have this history of slavery—I mean, we have that history, other nations have their own particular horrors in the past—but it’s the refusal to confront the legacy directly and understand how much of our political culture is rooted in what we’ve been talking about today.

CM:  It’s always a pleasure to have you on the show.  Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

GG:  Thanks so much, it’s always a pleasure.

Transcribed and printed with the permission of This is Hell! Radio.  Listen to the full interview here:

Neoliberalism and the “Davos Class”


AntiNote: The following is an extended excerpt of a radio interview, edited for readability.

On 25 January 2014,  Chuck Mertz of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) interviewed Hilary Wainwright about her contribution to the Transnational Institute report State of Power 2014: Exposing the Davos Class, an examination of the nature of neoliberalism and the need to resist it in diverse ways, many of which may not be ‘political’ per se. 

The “ecology” of resistance needed to upend the “complex and constantly mobile organism” of neoliberalism is one of the central themes we are exploring on AntiDote; Wainwright’s explanations and imaginative terminology provide a useful framework for these continuing discussions.

Neoliberalism was a product of a class struggle from above, which was won by Thatcher and Reagan and those who wanted to get rid of any constraint on the market.

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