Sarah Parker Remond Centre


Transcript: In conversation with Nikhil Pal Singh

This conversation was recorded on 16th June 2020. Speakers: Paul Gilroy, SPRC Director // Nikhil Pal Singh, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis, New York University

Paul Gilroy: My name's Paul Gilroy, I am the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at University College London. My guest today is Nikhil Pal Singh, who is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at NYU- New York University. Nikhil is Founding Director- Faculty Director of the NYU Prison Education Program, but is perhaps better known as a historian of race and empire and culture in the United States, particularly in the 20th century. Nikhil is the author of several books, Black is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy, and then most recently Race and America's Long War, which came out from University of California Press in 2017. Now, I thought we could start, if that's alright Nikhil, with your interest - your long-standing and provocative interest - in the unfinished struggle for democracy in the United States. And I found myself, I'm sure like many people, looking back at black reconstruction and thinking about that argument of Du Bois which has been so important for so many of us doing this work, and looking at the events of the last month or so, how do you interpret that and do you think that there are still things in that frame; that centring the argument on democracy is not as popular a choice these days, so I'm curious to know whether you still think that that's important and whether you still think that's something that we should be committed to.

Nikhil Pal Singh: Well, first let me say Paul, thank you so much for having me in conversation with you and being a part of the beginnings of this new centre which is very exciting initiative to have on the way. So to begin with the concept of democracy, for sure it's fallen on hard times and it's a term that's so traduced in the usage in the United States particularly as it became, over the last 20 years, captive to the neo-conservative, neo-imperial project of democracy promotion; and I remember, and I think it was one of the spurs to writing Race in America's Long War, Condoleezza Rice going down to New Orleans after Katrina and making the argument that the civil rights movement - the African American struggle for full citizenship and for non-racial democracy in the United States - had in a sense licensed the United States, it cleansed the United States in a way that allowed this country to become the agent of democracy promotion in the world. So I think when I heard that in 2005, which was just around when Black is a Country came out, I felt aghast because it seemed to me the exact inversion of the argument that I had been making in that book, which was to the contrary, it had been the truncated nature of American democracy as a racial democracy, as a racist democracy, as a democracy built on exclusion, that in some sense had limited all of our aspirations, that there's a radical potential within the idea of democracy, a democracy that in some ways we might see as consistent with socialism, a democracy that is about bringing to heel the forces of private accumulation, not just allowing for wider political participation. And it had always seemed to me in the history of the United States, going back to the failure of reconstruction or the foreclosure of reconstruction at the end of the civil war, that American racism and white supremacy in particular had been the leading edge of democracy limitation for the entire country; and so we had a first reconstruction which was foreclosed, and then we had a second reconstruction which was also foreclosed in the 1960s, the moment when the United States we might say for the first time in its history became a liberal democracy, only just over 50 years ago, and now we think perhaps that we are on the brink of something that we might call a third reconstruction; and I think that's a potentially very compelling language and framework to think about what we're trying to achieve. But we also have to recognise some of the ways in which the situation has changed. The forces of order, if you will, the forces that in some ways have been very comfortable with the truncated nature of American democracy, with a democracy in name that is the annex to capital accumulation on a very rapacious scale, is also quite comfortable with paying lip service to Black Lives Matter and is quite comfortable with the idea that what we really need to do is to diversify the ruling elite even as we maintain a system of quite brutal market dependency. So to really move to the next moment in our democratic struggle I think we have to reckon with that, reckon with the ways in which- to circle back to Condoleezza Rice, some of the earlier struggles have now been conscripted and their languages have been taken over by the ruling order. So it's a tricky situation of course because we don't just have that conscription but we have the resurgence on the right of a more virulent racial nationalism, and we're caught on both sides and trying to find our way through to a new settlement that would actually lead us somewhere better.

Paul: Yeah, absolutely, I mean I call it McKinsey multiculturalism. I suppose the project of decolonising the one percent is not a very appealing prospect for me, but you put your finger on it there because I think the question of emergent forms of authoritarian- I would say neo-fascists, but I know not everybody wants to look at it from that angle; I think the resurgence of new forms of popular authoritarian politics, popular ultra-nationalist politics, the emergence of- I don't want to say 'alt-right' because I feel alt-right is not a critical term, it's their term for what they do, it's not our term for what they do and we have to be really, really careful about terminology here as we move into this new configuration that you've mentioned. So, I suppose I'm curious to know, given what you said a moment ago, what the balance of forces looks like because I don't know how isolated the alt-right forces are; I don't know how parochial the old white nationalist forces are. I know that they fall out periodically around gender questions or that they don't always look at the world from the same angle, but there are many ways in which racism itself supplies them with energy, supplies them with a centripetal force that enables them to hold their projects together. So I'm curious to how you will really assess this balance of forces in the moment that we're in- and it may all of course change over the next few days, we'll be very careful to say that we were having this conversation on the 16th June, things are moving very, very fast, it's a very volatile, very complex situation, very perilous situation. But the mainstreaming of the Black Lives Matter idea, the corporate multiculturalism- the voice of corporate multiculturalism- I don't want to say this lightly, but the mainstreaming of all of that actually is one factor I feel that's pushing certain ambivalently placed forces almost towards the right because they're recoiling from a mainstream which is branding itself as the repository of multicultural possibility, and that's a repellent prospect actually.

Nikhil: Yes, yes. You put it so well and I really wrestle with this idea. I think you've actually homed in on the crucial question for us which is how do we assess the balance of forces, and I think any answers you've already noted is going to be highly provisional, but I would just highlight the question because I think this is the conversation we should be having. We've lurched in this country, since Trump was elected, between an idea of fascism descending, and I think we could bring the 'f-word' back into the conversation, I'm not averse to it and you've qualified it by calling it neo-fascism, and I think I always go back to Langston Hughes who talked about our native fascisms. So in the United States we've had a version of something on the far right for quite a long time, a far right politics that has been invested in racialised necropolitics, again as the leading edge of its political project, but a political project that has been again fundamentally about a version of capital accumulation of private property holding and of the sequestration and hoarding of wealth; so we could call it racial capitalism- we could call it a lot of different things and I think we're trying out different terms to try to name the system as they said on the new left, and it's not easy because we do have on the other side as you pointed out this almost lockstep consensus- when the protests started every single corporation came out with- every single big multinational came out with its Black Lives Matter statement. You have Amazon, who's really now the biggest corporation in the world by dollar value, and running masses of quote unquote 'essential workers' through the mill of logistics work in the most dangerous times for those workers, and with very, very little concern for their lives and their livelihoods. And of course in New York City, where I see those workers all the time, the vast majority of them are black and brown, African American and Latino, most of them live in the boroughs of Bronx or Queens where they have to take the subway to get to work; these are the boroughs where we have the highest rates of Covid-19 infection and mortality. So in terms of black lives mattering to Amazon, it's just not true, at that level. And so we have this disconnection and I think you're absolutely right that this is a real dilemma on the left right now because you referred earlier to the nationalist currents on the left, and I think those merge here with a hostility to corporate multiculturalism, that then leads people to an argument that basically says 'well if we talk about racial disparity in any way, we are in some ways selling out to the neo-liberals' right? And that argument's gained a certain amount of traction here and in a sense it has its own built-in amnesia, first of all, it forgets that there's a multi-century history of racial terror that's behind us and that's underpinning all this. But it also ignores the possibility, I think, and this gets to the balance of forces that in this moment we actually have an opportunity to say that- I think as Ruthie Gilmore said in her conversations with you earlier, which was wonderful, that 'when black lives matter everyone lives better', I think was how she put it, but also that what's being recognised in the streets of the United States right now is that a long history of racial sacrifice - of racist sacrifice - has been central to building a malevolent state and economy for all of us. The American police and carceral system now locks up millions of people, millions of white people, just as the slave-holding South disenfranchised millions of white people even as they held millions of slaves. So when we talk about something like white supremacy, in the language of white privilege, I think we miss that important element because the language of white privilege suggests 'well what we have to do is to look at all white people and say you have this privilege that I don't have and so we need to take that away from you', rather than recognising that the racist ordering of our system has actually meant a paucity of life for all of us. There's an anecdote I use in Race and America's Long War, a historical anecdote that I got from Edmund Morgan's amazing work American Slavery, American Freedom, where he talks about how some of the earliest laws that codify race in Virginia, in the late 17th century, are laws that make distinctions around how servants and slaves can be punished; and that both sets of workers can be whipped, but one can be whipped without their clothes, i.e. slaves, and the others have to retain their clothing when they're whipped. So this is white privilege in that moment. White privilege is you got to be beaten with your clothes on rather than being stripped naked; and I think if we could start to attain an understanding, within our anti-racist politics, that recognise that the point is not to constantly do this comparative gesture where we parse out who has privilege and who doesn't have privilege in order to level-down, that we recognise that the problem that we face is the way in which a racialised order has been used to, in some ways, convince all of us that we can't actually have the broad solidarities that are required to produce the egalitarian ordering of wealth and political participation and pleasure and enjoyment and leisure and everything that I think most people, if they were really given the chance to think about it, would want. So, that's maybe not a precise enough answer, precise enough way of getting at the question about the balance of forces; I think the balance of forces in the street actually favour us, but the balance of forces in terms of the control of wealth and resources, and the balance of forces within the functioning institutions we have, do not favour us. And I think that's partly what's pushed people back into the streets, I think people keep getting pushed into the streets again and again all over the world. Joshua Clover calls it the 'age of riots', and the form of struggles that we now have are these forms of struggles that are about the eruptions into the space of circulation due to the fact that people are not actually empowered in work places, in fact, even if they have decent jobs; and yet the struggles in the streets, as of yet, have not yielded a responsiveness, or maybe they're organised in a way that seems to ask for something from those who are in positions of power but that doesn't actually change the ordering of power. So one of the things we've seen in the United States over the last 4-5 years is an effort to really advance left electoral project, and you've obviously seen that in Britain as well; so Sanders and Corbyn would have been the standard bearers of that, but in the US at least, it pushes further down into congressional races and city council races and races for local assemblies. And I think there are hopeful signs there of people really running on a strong position that is both about the redistribution of wealth, universal health care, education, all the things that we would want as people on the left, people who consider themselves socialists in some sense, and we can talk about what that means; but that also who recognise that we have lived in a society which has brutally segmented us along race and gender lines, and that these have to be addressed in concert, that we need a politics that can articulate these questions, but we've needed that politics for a long, long time, we still haven't really found our way to it.

Paul: Right, and of course, obviously for us the labour party is the fetter that we need but we also can't free ourselves from; there's no point going over my view of the Corbyn period, I always felt that he was somebody who was not really equipped to play the hand the history had dealt him, someone whose perspective on the country despite being somebody who is committed to peace and committed to anti-racist goals in the way that commanded a measure of acknowledgement, was also someone who is essentially an English nationalist of the Tony Benn kind; and that my own life as an academic and as a writer really began with trying to interrogate that formation for its unthinking attachment to certain nationalist motifs in the way that it articulated its socialist commitments. I'm curious about two things in response to what you say: firstly, about the language of class and whether there is some sense in which the language class is a vehicle that you can reimagine in the context that you described. I always found it hard to see in the States because the racial nomos, the organisation of power and space on the ground, is still so utterly segregated that it almost seems to set a horizon against which those- as it were prefigurative appeal to class-based experiences in politics was going to founder on that. And the other thing it makes me think of is really questions of technology in communication because when you were speaking earlier on I was thinking about Father Coughlin, the 'radio priest', in this idea of an American fascism in the 1930s, it was all very much a radio-based phenomenon- there are other aspects of it that aren't really relevant here. And now I'm thinking about internet communications and the development of psycho-politics or psychographic political operations that are part and parcel of the military and cultural diplomacy of both our countries in the world, but which are now in a much more refined form of being brought to bear on the life of our polities at the moment in ways that I think people on the left have found very hard to track. The forces of the right seem much better at gaming the algorithms of Facebook and Twitter, but there's a lot more going on beneath the gaming of those algorithms in terms of how one communicates with those that won't mobilise. And I'm wondering, looking at the last three weeks in particular, how much that's been breaking down; it's been very striking here that the young people- very often the very young people who are in the street are using TikTok and other tools that were not really designed for the purposes that they put them to. So I'm interested in political communication and different forms of political communication that can help to make sense of this mobilisation, that's first thing; and the second thing really is whether you think that there's a limit placed on the way that a resurgent class politics can express itself given how tightly managed on the ground it really is by the- not just the residues of a segregated governance, but by the active power of that segregated governance in so many- well everywhere actually. I know there are the parts of the big cities where that's broken down to some extent and they're often very clearly identifiable as the engines of the radical culture of the moment that we're in. You mentioned Queens earlier on, Brooklyn, obviously Oakland Bay Area- there are places dotted all over the country where we can see those things adding up to something on the ground; does that have a limit and what forms of political communication have to - and contagion - have to come with that? Because it's incredible- I know we were criticising earlier on how the corporate interests have been completely opportunistic in this, but I'm wondering about the culture of celebrity, because one of the things that's happened as it were on our team, is that we've had a lot of celebrity capital - capital of celebrity - disposed in the direction that we would wish. Is there a slightly different argument to be made about the celebrity factor rather than the corporate factor- and I know they mesh, but can we separate them?

Nikhil: No, I think they definitely do mesh and I've seen a lot of cringe-worthy celebrity renunciations of privilege and embracing responsibility and these kinds of things. It has a theological aspect to it in some ways. You've asked so many- you've posed so many questions in that very complicated framing that you gave, and I feel like I want to answer some of them by circling back to maybe the themes that are already running through this conversation, which is: how do we assess the balance of forces? How do we take the measure of the relationship between what we might call on the one hand a progressive neo-liberal orientation that will embrace multicultural symbolics, while pursuing ruthlessly its market interests, its profit motive; and on the other hand, a resurgence on the right, which is very, very comfortable again speaking a quite virulent language of exclusionary nationalism that is inwardly focused. Because in the United States I think that one of the complicating features, and obviously this relates to Britain but perhaps in a different moment, is that we still have the empire, we still have military bases in 800 countries, we still spend more on so-called defence than the rest of the world combined, practically, and are the biggest arms trader, and have a massive military apparatus which also employs millions of people; and has in some ways long been a bulwark of racial integration. Approximately 40% of the US military is of racial and ethnic minority*. And interestingly of course the military has really put some brakes on Trump at different moments in the current- when Trump wanted to call out the military and tried to enlist the military in the vision of violent suppression of what's happening, the military put up a big hand to stop him. And I think it's interesting that that US military I think is quite cognisant of the idea that it needs to manage internal diversity in the United States much differently than say the far right would want us to manage inwardly focused difference. And obviously this is a very heterogeneous country, and has been for a long time, so the corporate neo-liberal and military interests I think are all aligned towards an effort to tamp this down with a soft reform and return to the business of running the empire. In a sense this was what Obama represented; Obama was- he ran his election in these soft populists tones, he did this wonderful rhetorical move of making himself the inheritor of all the progressive trajectories of American democracy, the struggles of workers, the struggles of women, struggles of African Americans, and added a few reformist pieces to our social policy picture of a very, very moderate improvements in health care and a desire to extend that to the country - but not a nationalised healthcare, even close to that - and then to better prosecute the global security project. So I think that's the status quo that we are now primed to return to with a figure like Biden, and I think the real concern on parts of the left is that this all rebounds to that project, it all gets channelled back into a a shoring up of this progressive neo-liberal imperial management that has softer accents domestically: a little bit of carceral reform, a little bit of police reform, some return to make sure that we have a diversification in the right places, and the internal contradictions then get tamped down again; and maybe Biden won't produce the same kind of right wing furore that Obama produced, hard to say. The right, on the other hand, I think is at a bit of a crossroads in the United States; so it could very well double down on Trump's move, which is to really try to stoke a racial animus wherever it can find it, and it's always been this mobile project, it's 'is it urban crime associated with African Americans? Is it the illegal border crossers and people who are working without papers, and also perhaps committing crimes because crime is always saturated in this? Is it the Chinese who have stolen our birth right? Is it the terrorist - the brown skin - perhaps, somewhat hard to locate on the map, but somewhere in the Middle East, who has infiltrated in some way our otherwise secured pastoral land?' All of these modes of racialisation, and the ways they get articulated to a violent state initiative, have been very much a part of the American project for the last 20 years, and I think the right has run with them in different directions. George Bush ran with the war on terror; Trump ran with the war at the border; before Trump and Bush, the Reagan-Bush ran with the war on crime; and I think they're at a bit of a crossroads now in terms of where they go next. Do they try to continue in this vein, or do they return in some ways to something that's more like maybe a language of class? And I think if you look at someone like Steve Bannon who's obviously made his appearances on your shores; sometimes he says things that are quite interesting, and one of the things that I think he said early on was he said 'we're gonna bring a lot of African Americans and Latinos into this project...'

Paul: Yes, he did.

Nikhil: '...because we are going to restore the place of the American worker, and the manufacturing worker'. And in order for the Republican Party to move in that direction, which is in some ways really a civic racial nationalism of the kind that we're familiar with; they really will have to, I think, make a choice to channel their belligerence outward again, and to think about in some ways what it would mean to almost return to the project that George W. Bush had in mind for the GOP. And George W. Bush wanted a big-tent GOP; he wanted to be a little bit softer on immigration, he had a very diverse cabinet if you remember- the prosecution of the Global War on Terror had every colour under the sun running that thing: Asians, Latinos, African Americans, all in positions of considerable authority; and I think it's possible that we could really see that again as well. I think Trump might end up being a bit of an aberration, others have said this, I hesitate to say this because I think when Trump came along we were like 'oh my gosh', it's like 'we didn't know this could happen again and this is going to go in a very, very dark direction'. But I think in the United states that that progressive language of inclusion has a real hold, and that the Republican Party is going to struggle now to compete with the centrists to re-establish its leading edge of its project. Now this may really strike people when they hear it as too pollyannish about the threat from the far right, but I don't mean it that way at all, because we know the kind of belligerence that they are capable of- require really- but also capable of mobilising, can be catastrophic. So it'll be interesting to see where it goes. And I hope that was clear, I...

Paul: No, it was clear, it was very clear. All I'd say really about it is that Bannon didn't just say they we're going to be involved, he said that their involvement was the key to a second Trump victory. So, so we'll see, we'll see, we haven't got- assuming you have an election, we haven't got very long to wait to see if that's gonna happen.

Nikhil: Well, it's actually puzzled me that Trump hasn't tried to appeal more to a right-wing version of racial inclusion, because it could work for him. The masculinist themes- again this aggression, the military aggression, the idea that our competitors are foreigners- are kind of alien rather than national; these are all available and he has tried a little bit on the criminal justice reform side, but I think his instincts just runs so against that, he just can't quite bring- he's a racist guy from Queens, he spent his whole life hating black people, he can't quite do it.

Paul: Well, we've run out of time Nikhil. I'm sorry I didn't get to ask you about the Prison Program, but I will do that in the future. And I would like to just express my absolute heartfelt thanks to you because it's very, very interesting, I find it very educative. Actually, I feel a bit more hopeful now at the end of this conversation than I did at the beginning; I hope others feel similar. So, thank you very, very much for making the time for the conversation, I'm really grateful and I look forward to continuing it now. Let's not leave it so long in the future, Nikhil.

Nikhil: Absolutely, absolutely. Take care.

*different to estimation in the audio, corrected post recording