A Note on the Black (Neo)Liberal Intelligentsia

By Phedias Christodoulides

We should support black individuals who overcome the mantle of their identity and who occupy the standpoint of a bourgeois subject aspiring to be free.

In the Matrix that is the contemporary Western public sphere, we have the following phenomenon: deeply conservative, reactionary black intellectuals and artists being labelled as progressive and liberal, and comparatively much more liberal black intellectuals and artists being labelled as conservative and reactionary. The first group consists of journalists and writers such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Harriott, and artists such as Kendrick Lamar. The second group’s most famous individual, currently under public fire, is Kanye West.

The first group of people engage in endless expositions of the supposed plight of black people in the US, seeing racism everywhere and no way out from this situation. These thinkers exaggerate present-day racism in order to argue that there was no progress on this front in the US over the 19th and 20th centuries; an indefensible claim. Their thought is deeply pessimistic and nihilistic: Coates famously stated that America will always be racist [1], while Harriott argues that human beings can never attain the universalist standpoint of a human subject.

As Harriott states indicatively: “Part of privilege is the freedom to ignore history, data and proven facts to embrace the possibility of the universal oneness of all mankind” [2]. In other words, these thinkers believe that tribalism in the human species is unavoidable. This is a far cry from past black intellectuals like Franz Fanon who believed that individuals, including black individuals, “must endeavour to assume the universalism inherent in the human condition” [3], and who viewed racial identification as an affective disorder.

[Kanye West] aspires to be an artist, rather than a black artist, and a bourgeois subject, rather than a black subject.
In reality, no human being is free today, neither black nor white men and women, neither poor nor rich people. This is because freedom is the ability for rational self-legislation, self-direction, and self-transformation of one’s life, and the social reality of capitalism severely limits this ability in human beings, including the most privileged ones. However, human beings still have the ability to aspire for freedom. This is what classical liberals, Marxists, and now Kanye West, are accused of doing. Kanye states that black people should not be required to think alike, but should aspire to freedom of thought. He aspires to be an artist, rather than a black artist, and a bourgeois subject, rather than a black subject.

Coates, Harriott and many other black (and white) and intellectuals have argued against Kanye on this point, revealing the authoritarianism of their thought. Coates et al. question the possibility of an individual being able to transcend the group identity into which he or she was born. They further claim for themselves, in the words of Thomas Chatterton Williams, “a Mullah-like authority to assert communal possession of other people [they]deems to be a part of [their]community” [4]. In other words, they police what people in their community can think and do. If a member of this community, e.g. Kanye, deviate from what Coates et al. pronounce the acceptable group perspective, they are vilified and excommunicated.

Kanye West aspires to overcome the mantle of blackness and black victimhood, occupying instead the standpoint of a bourgeois subject aspiring to be free

The despair that the present-day black (neo)liberal intellectuals like Coates and Harriott apparently experience leads them to subscribe to a nihilist world-view that views the world as a zero-sum game between different tribal interests. Consequently, they take a tribal black nationalist political outlook, viewing US politics as an inevitable struggle between black and white people, immigrants and citizens, men and women etc., and they label the opposite viewpoint, i.e. the aspiration to human freedom, as a solipsistic privileged world-view, as “white”. These intellectuals do not believe that society can really change for the better. Thus, they are conservatives.

Ta-Nehisi Coates
Ta-Nehisi Coates

On the other hand, Kanye West aspires to overcome the mantle of blackness and black victimhood, occupying instead the standpoint of a bourgeois subject aspiring to be free. This is the classical liberal standpoint enshrined in the US constitution, the aspiration to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Is this aspiration unattainable? If yes, humanity is doomed to tribalism and barbarism. Therefore, one necessarily has to root for Kanye here. The dominant nihilist standpoint of black intellectuals does not help black people at all; one has to believe that freedom is possible if she is to strive for it and stand a chance of achieving it. To this extent, Kanye is right when he argues that “400 years of slavery is a choice” [5]. Helplessness, nihilism and self-victimization are definitely a choice.

[1] https://www.vox.com/culture/2017/10/3/16409194/ta-nehisi-coates-stephen-colbert

[2] https://www.theroot.com/free-thought-is-for-white-people-1825704677

[3] Fanon, Franz. Black Skins White Masks, p. xiv, Grove Press New York, 2008

[4] https://theamericanscholar.org/kanye-and-ta-nehisi/#.W_4fqGhKjIU

[5] https://www.cnn.com/2018/05/01/entertainment/kanye-west-slavery-choice-trnd/index.html

1 Comment

  1. I think Kanye is one of the least talented “artists” of all time, but that doesn’t mean he is never right about anything. But a more inspiring example of a liberal black intellectual being labelled as conservative and reactionary is Kmele Foster, who is trying to bring some good sense to the debate. I hope one day Kmele will write for Conatus News. Meanwhile, here’s a little taster: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rX3gy3SkSI

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