By James Anderson
When noted philosopher and public intellectual Cornel West spoke to and fielded questions from a capacity crowd gathered in the ballroom on the second floor of the Student Union of California State University San Marcos, he hit just about every note.
With West’s stated intent to “unsettle” and “unnerve” everyone that Friday, November 4 – coupled with hefty doses of humility and humor – he delivered a compelling exegesis on democracy.
You cannot sustain a democracy based on superficial spectacle of the sort on display in the present electoral arena and in major media, he said. Online news media offer an illusion of hope, but as a recent piece denouncing West’s appearance at Cal State San Marcos as a “Totalitarian Conference to be Held at UC Marcos—With Your Tax $$” – despite there being no UC, a.k.a. University of California, in San Marcos – illustrates, the cybersphere serves as a space for amplifying confusion just as often as it functions as any sort of meaningful public sphere.
West referenced W.E.B. Du Bois extensively during his lecture, citing the black historian’s “democratic soul craft,” while lamenting the “relative eclipse of integrity in this nation” and suggested learning how to die is necessary now in order to learn how to live.
“Learning how to die is counter-cultural,” he said, noting that it is and has historically been about transformation and the un-learning of slavery.
Abolition-Democracy, Reconstruction and Racist Redemption
In the question and answer session immediately following his talk, West responded candidly to questions. His answer to one question, though, demands contestation on the same grounds of regenerating a properly democratic project laid out during his lecture.
I asked West about the way militant philosopher and long-time activist Angela Davis has applied Du Bois’ concept of “abolition-democracy” to prison abolition, and given the 100th anniversary of the publication of John Dewey’s “Democracy and Education,” what he thought the role of education in such a project might be, and what the role of education might be within a university like Cal State San Marcos given the anti-democratic disparities in power and wealth characterizing the institution.
Du Bois coined the term “abolition-democracy” in “Black Reconstruction in America,” his historical narrative that tells the story of slaves and then former slaves, along with a handful of white abolitionists, to reconstruct genuine democracy leading up to and especially in the immediate wake of the American Civil War.
The “abolition-democracy” movement, Du Bois wrote, started its “moral fight against slavery” in the 1830s and 1840s, and as economic conditions changed, it culminated in part with the war pitting the North against the South.
As Davis explains, citing Du Bois’ analysis, despite certain advances toward racial equality during the Reconstruction period, slavery was formally but never fully abolished. The abolition was incomplete because the democratic institutions necessary for former slaves to individually and collectively determine the major decisions affecting their lives were inadequately constructed and in many cases were unable to survive given the severe repression that ensued.
The democratic commitment of the coalition of abolitionists, Du Bois observed, prompted them to accept an alliance with the captains of Northern industry and “led them to risk all, even in the absence of that economic and educational minimum which they knew was next to indispensable.”
Davis noted how the notion of “40 acres and a mule” for freed slaves is mocked as a silly aspiration now, but in the immediate wake of slavery, it reflected a cogent understanding among abolition democracy advocates of the necessity of access to some land and an animal to help work it. Without equitable access to that means of subsistence, without that material basis for emancipation, more meaningful freedom could not be realized.
Indeed, “abolition-democracy” Du Bois claimed, “was pushed” toward the notion that people should collectively own and democratically control their work. However, what he termed the “American Assumption,” the ideological belief “that wealth is mainly the result of its owner’s effort and that any average worker can by thrift become a capitalist,” prevented the cross-racial solidarity and alliance building necessary for the formation of a democratic project capable of transcending servitude.
What is more, former slaveholders and (often wealthy) white supremacists countered Reconstruction efforts with “Redemption,” a movement of so-called “Redeemers,” led by the Ku Klux Klan, and those of a similar ilk who championed the owners of property over the property-less. The KKK served as what historian Sharon Smith has referred to as the “primary vehicle for lynching, home burnings, and other forms of racial violence used to defeat Reconstruction.”
Du Bois insisted it “be remembered and never forgotten that the civil war in the South which overthrew Reconstruction was a determined effort to reduce black labor as nearly as possible to a condition of unlimited exploitation and build a new class of capitalists on this foundation.”
So Du Bois and Davis argue slavery continued in modified form. Davis also argues mass incarceration in the US has exploded these past few decades because the “deep structures of slavery persist” and people still lack access to the material resources needed to fashion a free existence. Prison, then, cannot be abolished “unless new institutions and resources are made available to those communities that provide, in large part, the human beings that make up the prison population.”
To be rendered obsolete, carceral institutions must not only be dismantled but must also be displaced by properly democratic counter-institutions to enable the politically disenfranchised and economically dispossessed to recover a sense of agency and assert equitable control over their individual and collective lives.
Dueling Philosophies of Democracy
West told the hundreds gathered in the student union at CSUSM on November 4 that he and Davis share many of the same goals. During his talk he lambasted the “unbelievable expansion” of the prison system as well as the gross disparity in how supposed justice is applied across race and class lines.
But he stopped short of endorsing the Du Bois-Davis project of abolition-democracy. Citing his years of teaching in prisons, West suggested some of the human beings behind bars require some sort of incarceration.
Recasting a theme he wrote about in an article regarding the “spiritual blackout” in the US published just a day before his talk in San Marcos, West explained to the Cal State audience the heightened salience today of the existential battle between two competing perspectives on democracy. West was referring to the critique of democratic society put forth by Plato, the founder of Western philosophy, and the rejoinder offered by John Dewey, the famed – if also seldom seriously read – philosopher of education.
As explained in “The Republic,” Plato suggested democracies produce ignorant individuals easily manipulated by elites. For Plato, the end result of democracy is tyranny, with an authoritarian ruler empowered by the uncontrolled passions and inadequate intellects of the masses. As an antidote to democratic disaster, Plato argued instead for a society ruled by a select few lovers of wisdom, honorable philosopher kings who could rise above the herd and dictate the principles of social life for others.
Dewey directly challenged the anti-democratic Platonic ideal, dethroning the philosopher king paradigm. Plato, Dewey wrote, lacked the “perception of the uniqueness of every individual,” likely due to the influence of the class-based, hierarchical slave society in which Plato lived and philosophized. Plato also failed to recognize “that a society might change yet be stable,” and so his philosophical doctrine implied the “subordination of individuality” even as it explicitly condemned tyrannical rule.
For Dewey, a robust educational experience, while an end in itself, also nourishes “individual capacity in a progressive growth directed to social aims” – an antidote to anti-democratic power. Education can provide “individuals a personal interest in social relationships and control,” and involves “reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience.” Education can thus empower all people to participate in the provision of the common wealth of society “on equal terms” and encourage “flexible readjustment” of society’s “institutions through interaction of the different forms of associated life.”
Education for “abolition-democracy” is especially apropos in California where we’ve witnessed one of the largest prison-building projects in world history. Ruth Wilson Gilmore, co-founder of the California Prison Moratorium Project and the abolitionist organization Critical Resistance, documented in her book, “Golden Gulag,” how the state’s incarcerated population increased around 500 percent between the early1980s and 2000. In 2014, just under 600,000 individuals constituting its correctional population, the Golden State ranked second only to Texas in terms of the number of human beings under correctional supervision, according to statistics from the Department of Justice. Coupled with legislation like Prop 13, passed in 1978, which decreased the state’s capacity to raise revenue through property taxes to help support public education, massive prison expansion ensured insufficient funds for colleges and universities in California. In turn, there has been ever-increasing tuition and fees for students who now learn in school not only what is required for degree completion but also how to adjust to a lifetime of debt servitude, if also how to mount militant resistance and organize opposition to the hikes.
While West was not ready to make the connection during his talk in San Marcos, it is apparent that, drawing on the works of Du Bois, Davis, Dewey and others, the dehumanization inherent in incarceration as an institution is incompatible with any viable democracy.
My younger sister served a year in prison in Decatur, Ill., after being arrested and charged for possessing a few pills she did not have prescriptions for. The routine physical brutality she witnessed even in that minimum security women’s prison in the Midwest was enough to illustrate the old adage: “Hurt people hurt people.” Horrifying stories of women prisoners forced to give birth while incarcerated only reinforce the point that prison does not work and we can do better.
As Dewey argued, effective social control need not and should not involve the state deploying violence for purposes of retribution, but rather it ought to encourage formative “mental dispositions,” teaching, learning and understanding so one can “participate effectively in associated activities.”
Education in and through counter-institutions like San Diego’s Restorative Justice Mediation Program reflect a similar democratic sentiment, echoing the constructive aspect of abolition, democracy, and education advanced by Du Bois, Dewey and Davis. Dialogue, righting wrongs and understanding the root causes of harm take precedence over punishment and the reproduction of harm committed when people are plucked out of communities and locked up, a practice undermining the essential “mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” – the kind of consociation which, far more than some form of ill-functioning representative government, is what Dewey understood democracy to be about.
West understandably did not comment on the anti-democratic tendencies within California State University San Marcos when he fielded my question. While the perils of market-driven education by no means only afflict Southern California, I assume West was reluctant to comment on particular issues in which he wasn’t well versed. For the throngs of adjunct faculty making ~$700 per month per class or less, sometimes without health insurance, and for the one in 10 students across the CSU system who are housing insecure, the struggle is all too real.
Education and Abolition-Democracy
For those entangled within the struggle, intentionally or not, it is imperative we make the connections West, the epitome of a courteous-yet-electrifying guest, was unable or unwilling to make.
As Du Bois and Dewey both understood, though, education could not support a democracy, abolitionist or otherwise, so long as the aim of education remained externally imposed. Too much divorcing of means from ends, paralleling current economic arrangements, spells disaster.
One person who commented on an article I co-authored at San Diego Free Press suggested we should “have more education about the scam that most education is and more apprenticeship programs for jobs which really exists.”
While inquiry into the purpose and practices of education is indeed needed, the aim of apprenticeship risks imposing an external aim under the assumption that what opportunities for work existing at present ought to exist and will exist in the future despite all indications neither can be supported.
The deindustrialization of the American economy that started in the 1970s destroyed many previously unionized, decent-paying jobs and dislocated communities. Not coincidentally did it occur simultaneously alongside expansion of a prison-industrial complex capable of forcefully managing the populations rendered disposable while at the same time offering otherwise desperate and employment-lacking people opportunities to work as correctional officers, prison guards and clerical staff needed to sustain the growing carceral apparatus.
And, as Dewey argued 100 years ago, preparation for existing work within the existing inequitable anti-democratic economic arrangements leads to an insidious separation of means from ends. The significance of creative and socially regenerative activities – be they educational or work related – diminish in significance. Wage labor, the selling of one’s ability to work to another person, or more commonly to a largely unaccountable private tyranny like a corporation, subordinates the individual to an abstract enterprise.
“Plato,” Dewey observed, “defined a slave as one who accepts from another the purposes which control his conduct. This condition obtains even where there is no slavery in the legal sense. It is found wherever men are engaged in activity which is socially serviceable, but whose service they do not understand and have no personal interest in.”
In contrast, a project of “abolition-democracy” entails extension of democratic activity to the economy. People should be able to “see the technical, intellectual, and social relationships involved in what they do,” Dewey claimed, and to engage in and modify their work based on such perceptions.
I would argue, then, “abolition-democracy” can and should involve recuperating existing universities to create equitable and democratically controlled counter-institutions capable of displacing existing institutions, like prisons and top-down corporate enterprises, which prevent the fuller realization of democratic freedom. We can tentatively understand such freedom as dynamic social organization – and the education it implies – enabling human beings to maximize their unique qualities and creative capacities in un-coerced consociation not stratified by class.
“When you need to borrow tens of thousands of dollars for a student loan in order to get a college degree so that you can work at Starbucks for $12 an hour, something is not only wrong with the system,” reads another part of the comment from before. “Something is wrong with the mentality of the students.”
Dewey, for one, might not entirely disagree. The way resources, production, and consumption are arranged, he wrote, has “a profound influence upon all the relationships of persons to one another,” and those social relations, of course, influence our individual consciousness. Labor in the abstract, the kind that dominates today and in which those performing it have no serious say, results in “an absence of mind,” yet also “a corresponding distortion of emotional life.” For these reasons Dewey warned of the “grave danger” of insisting “existing economic conditions and standards will be accepted as final,” since an authentic “democratic criterion” demands individuals’ capacities be developed so that they can determine society’s future constitution, an approach preferred over training that fits people into predetermined occupations and institutions over and within which they have little-to-no control.
“Today,” it might be true, “there are better ways to make a living than going the college route,” as the person quoted before also commented. “And one can always be an independent scholar.”
But that approach hardly addresses the rough road democracy is barreling down. Nor does it help re-route the related course universities are problematically geared toward. Nor does it deal with what the society-wide democratic deficit stemming from all that has wrought, like mass incarceration. It does not support the Deweyan notion of democracy based on ensuring opportunities “for development of distinctive capacities be afforded all.” It ignores Dewey’s insightful recasting of objectives like “social efficiency,” which in the educational context he claimed “should mean cultivation of power to join freely and fully in shared common activities,” while also means at other times being able to be alone and think for yourself.
That is why it strikes me as crucial to reconstruct and reorganize pedagogical spaces, perhaps including but not limited to universities, where the “soul stirring,” in West’s words, the dialogue, and the educational experience of experimenting in doing things differently can better unite ends and means. Changing consciousness is not a matter of people simply pursuing more apprenticeships. Consciousness is consciousness of experience, in large part, and it is necessary to co-create new experiential opportunities to challenge our preconceived notions, expose our unexamined assumptions and pre-figure sorely needed forms of social life. In creating real democratic spaces, we can use those “desirable traits of forms of community life,” to then “criticize undesirable features and suggest improvement.”
We can learn how to die in order to learn how to live.
West told those in San Marcos during his talk that it helps to “have the courage to attack your convictions too.” While he might have been wrong about “abolition-democracy,” the most influential philosopher alive was right about that.
James K. Anderson, PhD, is a déclassé writer, journalist, scholar and social theorist. He was born and raised in the Midwest but now struggles to live in Southern California. He is teaching classes at Mt. San Jacinto College and California State University San Marcos during the fall 2016 semester.