Interview: There Clearly Is No Decent Human Future Possible in Capitalism
By Robert Jensen
Published in American Herald Tribune · August, 2018
Mohsen Abdelmoumen: How do you explain the silence of Western media and governments regarding the massacre of the people of Yemen by the coalition led by Saudi Arabia, the strategic ally of the US?
Prof. Robert Jensen: I am not an expert on the war in Yemen, but it is clear that the Saudi-led coalition has used tactics that have caused widespread civilian suffering. The US media have not completely avoided the story but also have not focused on those humanitarian disasters in the same way they would if the forces responsible were US enemies. This is a longstanding pattern, what Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky called the distinction between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims, depending on who is doing the killing. It’s one way we see that an allegedly “objective” US news media tends to fall in line behind US foreign policy.
In your view, is not the alternative press shaping a way of seeing the world differently?
The terms “alternative press” or “independent media” were once used to describe journalism that rejected the corporate-commercial media’s claim of neutrality and challenged the fundamental systems of power in the United States—capitalism, imperialism, white supremacy, patriarchy. The media landscape in the 21st century is different, with both mass media and social media produced from a variety of ideological perspectives, and so there are many more “alternatives” to the corporate-commercial media, including more on the reactionary right. Another complicating factor: some of what is called press or media make no attempt to do original fact-based reporting and are merely a channel for advocacy and opinion.
I would use the term “alternative press” to describe journalism that does not pretend to be neutral but does original reporting to try to produce accurate accounts of events and issues;does not rely primarily on commercial advertising for funding; and is focused on challenging not only specific politicians and parties but foundational systems of power.
Is that alternative press shaping a new way of seeing the world? I would avoid being too media-centric. Yes, mass media and social media influence how people understand the world, but the underlying political frameworks have been developed over time by political and social movements. My fear is that by focusing too much on media, we too easily overlook the need for traditional political and community organizing to build effective movements. In other words, media are a necessary but certainly not sufficient element for social change.
Do not you think that Donald Trump and his hostile policy to some countries like Iran and Russia, constitutes a danger for peace in the world?
In general, powerful states are a threat to peace, and the more powerful the state the greater the potential threat. The Iranian government, for example, is a threat to its own people and pursues what Iranian leaders believe are Iranian interests in the Middle East, which adds to the violence. But the United States has a much longer and more disruptive record in the Middle East and is responsible for incredible destruction and suffering there since the end of World War II.
Russia is an authoritarian petro-state, hardly a model for any nation to follow. But US actions since the end of the Cold War have undermined the possibility of stable peace and more sustainable development in the former Soviet Union, going back to the Bush I and Clinton administrations, which sought to dominate rather than cooperate.
So, lots of states are a threat, and as a US citizen, I must make sure not to overlook the threat the US government poses.
In your very interesting book “We Are All Apocalyptic Now“, you paint a picture of the world in which we live. Why, in your opinion, did we get there?
I think it is crucial that we tell the truth about not only the inequality and suffering in human societies, but also about the state of the ecosystems of the planet. The news on that front is bad, getting worse, and getting worse faster than anticipated. Many people around the world, especially in the affluent societies, are in deep denial about this, including many in the environmental movement.
Capitalism encourages the destruction of the larger living world without attention or concern to ecological consequences, but the problem goes back much further, to the origins of agriculture more than 10,000 years ago and what I would call “the seduction of dense energy.” When humans get their hands on dense energy, first in the form of surplus grain and today in fossil fuels, lots of bad things tend to happen.
So, there clearly is no decent human future possible in capitalism, perhaps no human future at all. But transcending capitalism is alone not the answer if we cannot impose on ourselves serious limits in our consumption of energy and resources.
I am fond of the term “apocalypse,” not to suggest the world is coming to an end, but in the original definition of the word—a lifting of the veil that obscures our vision, a coming to clarity about how the world works.We need to see the world apocalyptically, honestly, even when the conclusions that brings us to are difficult to face.
In your opinion, does not America suffer from white racism?
The United States has always been a white-supremacist society. The shape of that racial/racist ideology has changed over time—obviously in many ways that are progressive, with the end of slavery and the elimination of formal legal segregation. But the data on today’s racialized disparities in wealth and well-being make it clear we remain a deeply white-supremacist society, a fact non-white people routinely testify to. And while there are liberal and conservative versions of the supremacist ideology, it’s frightening to see an overtly reactionary white-supremacist political movement move to the center of US politics in recent years.
In your relevant and critical book against American intellectuals “September 11 and the failures of American intellectuals“, you make an observation of failure of the American intelligentsia regarding the events of 9/11. Did this intelligentsia fail just in the understanding of 11/9 or did it fail on all fronts?
The events of Sept.11, 2001, involved the longstanding failure of US intellectuals to critique the imperialist ideology of the US and the specific inability of most journalists and academics to challenge the US wars that followed. The term “11/9,” referring to Trump’s 2016 election, raises different questions. Many on the left, myself included, failed to recognize the growing strength of Trump’s campaign, and I think we should analyze why so many of us were so naïve. Since the election, I think the task has been to (1) resist the dangerous policies that Trump and the Republicans are pushing through at home and abroad, (2) reject the white-supremacist and patriarchal values that Trump champions defend, and (3) recognize that hoping for a return to business-as-usual under the Democrats would be a grave error.
You wrote an article in the Houston Chronicle about the 9/11 attacks that sparked a heated debate and some occult circles have asked that you be dismissed from the university where you teach. After that, can we still talk about freedom of speech, democracy, and human rights in Western countries?
Yes, we can, and it’s important to recognize that there are broad protections for freedom of expression in the United States (recognizing that the degree of protection depends on who is seeking it—as a white man with US citizenship, I’m the most protected). The fact that some people were angry over critics’ writing and speaking after 9/11 doesn’t mean there is no freedom. I am a harsh critic of many US government policies and of many aspects of US culture, but one positive aspect of this country is a serious concern about freedom of expression. Nothing is perfect, but the US does a good job of protecting speech and press, at least for now.
How do you explain that there is no condemnation by Western governments of the assassination of Palestinians by the Israeli army?
The US has long supported Israel’s occupation of Palestine and use of military force to expand its territory and access to resources. Under Trump, that support has increased. Most of the US’s European allies have a different view and on occasion express their concerns, but the US continues to demand European subordination on this issue.
How do you explain the unwavering alliance between the United States and Israel?
That’s a complicated story about US goals to dominate politics and economics in the Middle East, and the increasing influence of a certain view of the Middle East conflict in US evangelical Christian circles, having to do with various theories about the second coming of Christ. That alliance has changed over time, and could shift. But for now, US unconditional support for Israel is deepening.
Your work deals, among other things, with the issue of feminism. Do not you think we have to reinvent feminism?
I think we have to reassert, not reinvent, a radical feminist analysis that emerged in the late 1960s and ‘70s. Those women offered a compelling critique of patriarchy—institutionalized male dominance—and a critique of the attempts to naturalize hierarchies in general. Liberal and postmodern versions of feminism, which present a weaker critique of patriarchy, have come to dominate in the US, but the radical feminist analysis provides a more incisive critique. I tried to capture that in my last book, The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men.
In your opinion, what remains of the “American dream”?
First, we should remember what Malcolm X said, “I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream—I see an American nightmare.” The dream always depended on the elimination or subordination of others, most notably indigenous people and African slaves. The dominant culture’s talk of the dream of freedom always had an ugly side to it.
But beyond that, we should realize that the definition of the American dream in material terms—the dream as evermore consumption—is unsustainable and unfulfilling. We should be talking not of an American dream but of a human striving for a just and sustainable society.
Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen