Forget Coates vs. West — We All Have a Duty to Confront the Full Reach of U.S. Empire
SO, WHICH SIDE are you on? #TeamWest or #TeamCoates?
Choose fast, preferably within seconds, and don’t come to this gunfight with a knife. No, like some nerdy Rambo, we want you greased up and loaded with ammo: your most painful character smears, your most “gotcha” evidence of past political infractions, a blitzkrieg of hyperlinks and, of course, an aircraft carrier of reaction GIFs.
That’s pretty much how the online debate has played out ever since Cornel West published his piece in The Guardian challenging Ta-Nehisi Coates, an article you either regard as an outrageous injustice or an earth-shattering truth bomb, depending on which team you have chosen.
We see it differently. We see this debate as a political opportunity, one that has far less to do with either of these brilliant men and everything to do with how, at a time of unfathomably high stakes, we are going to build a multiracial human rights movement capable of beating back surging white supremacy and rapidly concentrating corporate power. As women, both Black and white, both American and Canadian, we see the question like this: What are the duties of radicals and progressives inside relatively wealthy countries to the world beyond our national borders? A warming world wracked by expanding and unending wars that our governments wage, finance, and arm — a world scarred by unbearable poverty and forced migration?
Though West directed his criticisms at Coates, these are by no means questions for Coates alone. They are urgent challenges for all of us who see ourselves as part of social movements and intellectual traditions that yearn for a world where justice and dignity abound.
What are the duties of radicals and progressives inside relatively wealthy countries to the world beyond our national borders?
So before this goes any further, let’s yank this fight away from the poisonous terrain on which it is currently unfolding — that of two famous men with healthy egos duking it out while the Twitterverse divides into warring camps — and instead dig into the substance.
Let’s also take it as a given that West’s piece was flawed and painted Coates with too broad a brush. It accuses him of silence on some subjects where he has, in fact, been vocal (like the financial sector’s role in entrenching Black poverty). And as the New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb pointed out, the man who has done more to revive the debate about Black reparations than any writer of his generation cannot blithely be written off as a neoliberal tool.
But that does not change the fact that West raises crucial points when he critiques Coates for having too little to say about the impact of U.S. military and economic policies abroad, for failing to place U.S. experiences in a broader context of U.S. imperial power, and for casting Barack Obama as the continuation of the legacy of Malcolm X (whom West describes as “the greatest prophetic voice against the American Empire,” while Obama is “the first Black head of the American Empire”).
Where we differ is that we don’t think these criticisms apply just (or even especially) to Coates. Nor do we think this debate should be viewed as an exclusively Black discussion, as some have argued (which is why we decided to write this together). Rather, these questions about our relationship to empire and transnational capital are ones that every progressive movement and intellectual across North America should urgently confront, and we are convinced that if we do, we will be stronger for it.
To be clear, we are not saying that every writer has a duty to write about everything. No one does. Nor do we think that the subject matter for which Coates is known — Black life in the United States — is somehow insufficient. It isn’t. And yet hard questions remain that cannot be dismissed simply become some dislike the messenger or the form of the message.
Such as: Is it even possible to be a voice for transformational change without a clear position on the brutal wars and occupations waged with U.S. weapons? Is it possible to have a credible critique of Wall Street’s impact on Black and other vulnerable communities in the U.S. without reckoning with the predatory and neocolonial impacts of the global financial system (including Washington-based institutions like the International Monetary Fund) on the debt-laden economies of African countries?
Is it even possible to be a voice for transformational change without a clear position on the brutal wars and occupations waged with U.S. weapons?
Even when our work is primarily focused nationally or hyperlocally, as it is for most organizers and writers, there is still a pressing need for an internationalist conception of power to inform our analysis. This is not a contradiction. In fact, it used to be foundational to all major radical and progressive movements, from the socialist internationals to Pan-Africanism and the global campaign to end apartheid in South Africa, from the “alter-globalization” movement to the international women’s movement. All understood that resistance needed to be global in order to win. Marcus Garvey, for instance, drew ideas and inspiration for Black liberation from the Irish struggle for independence. And Malcolm X famously observed that when racial minorities in the U.S. saw their struggle in a global context, they had the empowering realization that they were, in fact, part of a broad and powerful majority.
We are not saying that this internationalist tradition is entirely absent in contemporary North American movements — there have been Black activist delegations to Colombia, Brazil, and Palestine in recent years. The climate justice movement is linked to frontline fights against fossil fuel extraction in every corner of the globe. And the immigrant rights movement is internationalist by definition. So are parts of the movement confronting sexual violence. We could go on.
But it is also true that the atmosphere of intense political crisis in the United States is breeding a near myopic insularity among progressives and even some self-described radicals, one that is not just morally dangerous but strategically shortsighted. By defining our work exclusively as what goes on inside our borders, and losing touch with the rich anti-imperialist tradition, we risk depriving our movements of the revolutionary power that flows from cross-border exchanges of both wisdom and tactics.
For instance, if U.S. President Donald Trump is seen in isolation from the rise of far-right forces around the world, we lose opportunities to learn from people in Brazil, Argentina, the Philippines, South Africa, India, Turkey, and Togo about how they are resisting their various strongmen. Because if we have learned anything over the past years of left-wing setbacks and disappointments, from Syriza in Greece to Maduro in Venezuela to the dashed dreams of the Arab Spring, it should be that the forces shaping national destinies are global. International lenders, Western military support for despots, or even a sudden drop in oil prices can all thwart or derail a liberation project that has defined itself too narrowly.
Which is why it’s high time to change the subject from West vs. Coates, and begin the much more salient debate about what we all can do to rediscover the power of a genuinely internationalist, anti-imperialist worldview. A power that our movement ancestors well understood.
Because there is simply no way to fight for a world in which Black lives truly matter without reckoning with the global forces that allow Black lives to disappear under waves in the Mediterranean, or to be mutilated and enslaved in countries like Libya, or to be snuffed out by debt imposed by Washington-based financial institutions.
The same is true of climate change, which is hitting people in the global south first and worst. It has been reported that of the top 10 nations most impacted by climate change, six are on the continent of Africa. Similarly, there is no way to fight for the full funding of public schools and free universal health care inside the United States without confronting the vastly expanding share of the budget that goes to feeding the war machine.
The immigrant rights movement is the most internationalist of our movements, but we still need to do more to connect the dots between rights and justice for migrants within countries like the United States and Canada, and the drivers of migration in places like Mexico and Ghana, whether it is pro-corporate trade and economic policies that destabilize domestic industries, or U.S.-backed wars, or drought deepened by climate change.
Our movements simply cannot afford to stick to our various comfort zones or offload internationalism as someone else’s responsibility.
The unending misery in Haiti may be the most vivid illustration of how today’s crises are all interrelated. On the island, serial natural disasters, some linked to climate change, are being layered on top of illegitimate foreign debts and coupled with gross negligence by the international aid industry, as well as acute U.S.-lead efforts to destabilize and under-develop the country. These compounding forces have led tens of thousands of Haitians to migrate to the United States in recent years, where they come face-to-face with Trump’s anti-Black, anti-immigrant agenda. Many are now fleeing to Canada, where hundreds if not thousands could face deportation. We can’t pry these various cross-border crises apart, nor should we.
IN SHORT, THERE is no radicalism — Black or otherwise — that ends at the national boundaries of our countries, especially the wealthiest and most heavily armed nation on earth. From the worldwide reach of the financial sector to the rapidly expanding battlefield of U.S. Special Operations to the fact that carbon pollution respects no borders, the forces we are all up against are global. So, too, are the crises we face, from the rise of white supremacy, ethno-chauvinism, and authoritarian strongmen to the fact that more people are being forced from their homes than at any point since World War II. If our movements are to succeed, we will need both analysis and strategies that reflect these truths about our world.
Some argue for staying in our lane, and undoubtedly there is a place for deep expertise. The political reality, however, is that the U.S. government doesn’t stay in its lane and never has — it spends public dollars using its military and economic might to turn the world into a battlefield, and it does so in the name of all of U.S. citizens.
As a result, our movements simply cannot afford to stick to our various comfort zones or offload internationalism as someone else’s responsibility. To do so would be grossly negligent of our geopolitical power, our own agency, as well as our very real connections to people and places throughout the world. So when we build cross-sector alliances and cross-issue solidarity, those relationships cannot be confined to our own nations or even our own hemisphere — not in a world as interconnected as ours. We have to strive for them to be as global as the forces we are up against.
We know this can seem overwhelming at a time when so many domestic crises are coming to a head and so many of us are being pushed beyond the breaking point. But it is worth remembering that our movement ancestors formed international alliances and placed their struggles within a global narrative not out of a sense of guilt or obligation, but because they understood that it made them stronger and more likely to win at home — and that strength terrified their enemies.
Besides, the benefit of building a broad-based, multiracial social movement — which should surely be the end goal of all serious organizers and radical intellectuals — is that movements can have a division of labor, with different specialists focusing on different areas, united by broad agreement about overall vision and goals. That’s what a real movement looks like.
The good news is that grassroots internationalism has never been easier. From cellphones to social media, we have opportunities to speak with one another across borders that our predecessors couldn’t have dreamed of. Similarly, tools that allow migrant families to stay connected with loved ones in different countries can also become conduits for social movements to hear news that the corporate media ignores. We are able, for instance, to learn about the pro-democracy movements growing in strength across the continent of Africa, as well as efforts to stop extrajudicial killings in countries like Brazil. Many would not have known that Black African migrants are being enslaved in Libya if it had not been for these same tools. And had they not known they wouldn’t have been able to engage in acts of necessary solidarity.
So let’s leave narrow, nostalgic nationalism to Donald Trump and his delusional #MAGA supporters. The forces waging war on bodies and the planet are irreversibly global, and we are vastly stronger when we build global movements capable of confronting them at every turn.