An Interview with Corey Robin

Adrian Lo, Corey Robin, Emaline Kelso, Scott Remer, Spring 2015

Corey Robin is one of the foremost thinkers on the American Left today. He’s a professor of political science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, and his research focuses on modern political and economic thought. He writes extensively in forums like Dissent, Jacobin, The Nation, The London Review of Books, and The New York Times and has published two books, Fear: The History of a Political Idea and The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. Adrian Lo, SY ’15, and Scott Remer, PC ’16, interviewed him by phone for the Spring 2015 Issue, with Emaline Kelso, MC ’17, transcribing  (PDF version).

An Interview with Corey Robin

Lo: We’ll try to move in a few sections and try to cover different areas. We’ll start off with something about the current national security or militarization conversation, before we move on to talk a little bit about the Left, and we’ll close on a few questions about your experience of the Left at Yale while you were here. How does that sound to you?

Robin: Sounds fun.

Lo: In light of Ferguson and the conversation about the increasing militarization of domestic politics on one hand, and the whole other conversation about the NSA surveillance and increasing surveillance security, there seems to be an increasing militarization and securitization of both domestic and foreign politics in the US. The question is whether you have some thoughts on these things and how the Left should respond to these trends.

Robin: Well, that’s a big question. This has been going on for some time. I came of age in the late ’70s and early ’80s when what was called at that point the new Cold War was really ramping up, and I don’t think it’s really subsided ever since. There’s been a couple of blips—when Clinton was elected, there was some hope of some kind of a peace dividend, for about a year or two. There was some effort at that, and then that got reversed. And, of course, since 9/11, the militarization of our politics has been steadily expanding. So I tend to see a lot of this as very continuous.

What I think I’m actually more impressed by, or what I find more interesting and significant, is the increasing response from activists on the Left. When I was in graduate school in the ’90s there was, I think it was called Critical Resistance. It was a group that was begun in part by Angela Davis and other academic activists. It was focused on increasing criminalization and securitization of political life. But it wasn’t a mass movement. The huge response to Ferguson in the streets is to my mind one of the most hopeful things that I’ve seen in a very long time.

The real question for me is whether or not and how it can be sustained. Because we have seen other moments of activist response. In the late ’90s and early aughts, it was around globalization and the global economy, and 9/11 squelched that. And then we had the Occupy movement. And the state helped squelch that, and other factors as well. This is a long buildup to say that what I think the most important thing about the increasing securitization of politics is the fact that it’s now becoming part of an activist lingua franca to think about this, to oppose it, and that that’s extended beyond limited activist circles, so I think that’s the first thing. But the second thing—this is just something that has faced every social movement, with a couple of exceptions, since the 1980s—is how to sustain this and make it into a real movement that can last and do something. Because we’ve seen too many of these blips of movements that ultimately either get smashed or disintegrate for one reason or another.

Lo: Why do you think that this moment, events over the past year or so, attracted the attention of activists? Does it have anything to do with how close these events struck home? The more we know about the surveillance program, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, though it’s nominally targeted at foreigners, a lot of it is domestic. Similarly, in the response to Ferguson— is it something that has struck close to home, or has something else changed on the Left to cause these events?

Robin: I don’t know, honestly. I don’t think it’s because the security politics struck home, personally or individually. Obviously something like Ferguson struck home for African-Americans, but I don’t know if it struck home for other activists in the same way.

Look what happened recently with the police in New York City after Eric Garner’s killers were not indicted and those two officers were killed. The cops really overplayed their hand. After the two officers were killed, it seemed for a moment there that the police were going to launch a countermovement against any police reform, and I was very nervous about it. What was most impressive to me was how quickly that movement among the police fizzled out and how quickly they actually lost all public support. So I don’t think it’s just as simple as that the police state’s actions have struck home, to individuals. I think somehow or another this has now begun to tap into a wider revulsion with a certain type of security politics, but why that is, I don’t know.

I do really want to stress this, the fact that the cops blew that opportunity—they had a real opportunity after those two cops were killed to really try to reverse popular sentiment around over-policing, and I thought they were going to be able to pull it off. I thought it was going to be a kind of Giuliani-type mood that they were going to be able to pull off, and the fact that they were not able to does really suggest that there’s been a shift, not just amongst activists, but the public at large.

Lo: It seems like there is a slight disconnect between the feelings on the ground among people and the official responses that we’re getting, both in the surveillance conversations, where the reforms are still forthcoming and very slow and there is a lot of resistance from Republicans, and likewise the whole Ferguson situation, where it’s not clear where the reforms are coming, right?

Robin: Absolutely. My first book is on the politics of fear, and I said there, in 2004, that the atmospherics that help lead to the increasing securitization of politics after 9/11 are going to subside, but that won’t matter because the infrastructure and the institutions and the bureaucracy that are built in the wake of that manipulation of popular emotion will persist long after popular sensibilities have changed. That is exactly what has been happening—I would say it really began around 2005, 2006 when the Iraq War began to really collapse, probably even earlier, 2004-2005, so now we’re talking about ten years of increasing popular disaffection with these heavy military policies, increasing popular skepticism.

Now it’s come home to affect the police, so you have that on the one hand. But as you say, you have this disconnect with the inability or refusal of public officials to be able to turn the tide and do anything about it, and I think we will be seeing this for quite a while. You’re going to see this tendency over and over again. In some ways, I would say this business with the cops that we just saw is the continuation of a lot of developments post-9/11, where you see increasing popular disaffection with a heavy militarized police, but a total disconnect between that disaffection and what both Democrats and Republicans are doing. You could see that as a cause for despair, but it’s also a cause for a certain kind of hope, because it means that there’s a constituency out there that could be politically tapped to do something, if there’s the right kind of organization and the right kind of leadership.

You could see that as a cause for despair, but it’s also a cause for a certain kind of hope, because it means that there’s a constituency out there that could be politically tapped to do something, if there’s the right kind of organization and the right kind of leadership.

Remer: Certainly there have been events over the past couple of years, during the Obama administration, that seem to be continuations of preexisting trends in the Bush administration, particularly with regards to the stance that the government takes towards certain journalists and whistleblowers—for instance, the whole Snowden controversy, the way that the government has been treating Glenn Greenwald and Chelsea Manning. I was wondering whether you thought that this hostility towards people attempting to call a halt to some of the more unsavory workings of the security state is going to continue. If Hillary Clinton ends up being the Democratic nominee for president in 2016, it seems kind of likely, but I was wondering if you thought to some degree criticism of these trends on the Left has been somewhat muted because the current occupant of the presidency is nominally a Democrat.

Robin: Well, I thought that at the beginning you were asking a different question, so I’m going to answer that one. Then I’ll answer where you ended up in the final part of your question.

There’s no way that the clamping down on dissent is not going to continue. It has to continue, precisely because of what we have just been talking about, because of the increasing disconnect between popular sentiment and what officials in the state apparatus want. And the more increasing dissent you see, in social movements and all around, the more clamping down there’s going to be.

You’ve got to remember, back when I was a graduate student, there was Noam Chomsky and that was about it. And he could fill up the Church on the Green with a group of activists, but that was it, that’s what opposition to the national security state and the police state looked like. And it was a very aging population that used to show up to that kind of stuff. That has really changed dramatically. You’re going to see going to see more and more clampdown. And in some ways it’s going to get worse, because the more active and threatening this social movement gets, the more there will be attempts to try to stop it. And they have a lot— and when I say they, I mean these officials in the state apparatus—they have a lot of tools at their disposal. I mean, this stuff that’s been coming up and publicized, all this state surveillance, my fear is that that’s just nothing, compared to the kinds of things you’re going to see once this movement really starts confronting something. So that’s what I thought you were going to ask.

Lo: Can I just interrupt there and push this direction a little further, because it seems like the politics we have now is between the state and the people, not so much one group versus another group. Arguably, in the ’60s or ’70s, during McCarthyism, it was always a target of the majority against what was perceived to be a minority, whether they were communists or whatever the label was back then, but now it seems to be that it’s not the state on behalf of a certain majority doing something against a minority, it’s the state running off as its own agent doing this thing in the name of national security on behalf of everyone. I’m curious, what has propelled that change? Isn’t that a little weird that the state is acting as its own agent, on behalf of no one, really, and there seem to be so few ways of holding that back and controlling it?

Robin: Right. I dispute the premises of the question. I think, what you had, for instance, in the McCarthy era, during the 1960s and 70s, was not the state acting on the behalf of the majority against a minority. It was always very much about a power struggle, in which the state represented a lot more the elites in both the economy and in culture, as opposed to a majority as such. There’s been a lot of research showing that McCarthyism was not a popular movement at all, it was very much an elite movement. Likewise, the Cointelpro program wasn’t a popular movement during the ’60s; it was very much an elite minority movement.

It was very clear, up to the Cold War, the kinds of economic interests that were being represented by state repression, and the kinds of economic forces that were being protected. It wasn’t simple, the relationship was complicated, but I think in retrospect, we’re pretty clear about the politics, and I think right now it’s less clear what the politics are.

I would not say that the politics are just the state against the people. I think that’s too simple. But I do think what’s true is that, and this has been the case since the end of the Cold War, the mission of the American Empire and what US ruling classes really want has been increasingly unclear, and what they want from the state. They want some very narrow, self-interested things, but if you think back to the early years of the Cold War, there was a really very tight nexus between ruling and the political and economic elites, who had a real sense of how they were going to reconstruct the post-war social order, the global order, on behalf of American capital, and I don’t think you see that tight a nexus anymore. There has been an unraveling for quite a while, and so, while I would not say, that what you’re seeing, in terms of this securitization, is just the state on its own track, representing no one—that just doesn’t happen, really—I do think, the interests, and the ideologies on behalf of which it is acting, have become murkier in the last however many years. You saw this with the Iraq War. For all the attempts that people on the Left made to say that this was about a war for oil or for kind of a global reconstruction of an oil-based economy, in the end it was very unclear what the hell it was all about. The fact that they screwed it up so much, and that sometimes it almost didn’t matter that they screwed it up, shows you that there’s a disconnect there, where it’s unclear why the state’s acting the way it is, and on whose behalf.

Remer: One question that arises in considering the national security state and the ways in which the state is acting autonomously and on behalf of various entrenched elites is: how do you think a leftist should navigate the tension between mounting a critique of the national security state and then supporting the state as a provider of public goods and a provider and guarantor of a social safety net, because it seems like that could cause a contradiction in some people’s minds (even though I do think there are multiple forms of the state).

Robin: Right. I mean, this is a big, big question that everybody’s wrestling with. I used to think this wasn’t such a big problem. It seemed pretty obvious that you could be in favor of the expansion of the welfare state, broadly understood, and in a more democratic sense, and a restriction of the warfare state. While I still think that that separation is both theoretically and politically feasible, I think we face a deeper problem, which is—the Left has just come into a very retrenched position, where we’re just trying to hold on to the most minimal tatters of, or remnants of, the New Deal social democratic state. And I don’t think that’s going to really work anymore, trying to preserve, or even slightly expand it. It’s just clear, that that’s not going to cut it against a very conservative neoliberal model. There has to be something more foundational and more fundamental. So, to my mind, the issue isn’t so much “How do you defend public goods in the state, on the one hand, and critique the warfare state on the other hand?”; it’s “How do you really conceive of the project of taking on capitalism in the year 2015?” The question you asked is, I think, the question people in the 1960s wrestled with. I don’t think it’s the question anymore. Because it presumes that you still have some kind of a vibrant welfare state that you either want to preserve or expand, and we don’t. And the politics of preservation and expansion are dead. So I think you have to start with a different question, given what capitalism is and has become, where do we go from there. And I just don’t know the answer to that.

The issue isn’t so much “How do you defend public goods in the state, on the one hand, and critique the warfare state on the other hand?”; it’s “How do you really conceive of the project of taking on capitalism in the year 2015?”

Lo: Yeah, but, we’ve seen a lot of social movements over the past, say, since Occupy, where they were precisely rethinking this question. It seems like we’ve seen a lot of organization there, political movements that have shown a deep fear and resentment to organized structures and institutions. It seems like that throughout the Occupy movement, one of its main tenets was to have a democratic structure, to the point of having no leaders, and no set agenda, or not a very clear agenda. Is that related to the way that the Left has reacted so strongly in fear of organizations that new movements are not achieving their potential?

Robin: Well, this is what a lot of the people, for instance, in Jacobin, talk about this a lot, and honestly I wasn’t so involved with Occupy myself that I feel qualified—from afar what you described certainly seems true to me, and I’m somebody who believes in organization and leadership and democratic accountability within organizations, so I’m not anti-organization; I don’t think you can do anything in this world without it. So, I don’t want to get too much into the weeds of that, only because I wasn’t that involved, but I will say this. I also think social movements go through a learning process, and it may very well just take a while for people on the Left to begin to work through some of these issues. And you have to have some patience for that process, and not just think you can recreate a party structure or a this or a that, whatever may have worked 50 to 100 years ago, but you have to also have a certain amount of confidence or faith that people will figure out some kind of an organizational model or apparatus that can do that and can survive. This way, I hope some of what we see the national security state doing becomes a salutary lesson to people that really are serious about transforming this culture, and this economy, and this politics. If you really are serious about that, and if you really believe that there is a ruling class that is determined to stop you or at least to hold on to its power, well, you’re going to have to come up with forms of counterpower that can resist and ultimately overturn that.

This came up, I remember, during the discussions after Occupy, people brought up, “Well, look, the state smashed it, and that’s what happened.” And that’s true, but the state has always tried to do that, and it has oftentimes done it far more viciously and violently than it did, so you kind of have to accept that that’s part of the political reality that you need to figure out a way of overcoming.

Remer: If I could just jump in—do you think that we have to reinvent the wheel? Because it seems like from American history, the First Gilded Age and the Progressive Era up until the New Deal, the labor unions were a method of organizing and a counterbalance to organized capital. There was a great deal of state repression and violence directed against the labor movement, but labor was able to organize people around a transformative social agenda, that was able—certainly not to get accomplished everything that it sought to, but it was able to at least bequeath us a large part of the New Deal and then the Great Society. So I’m wondering, do we necessarily have to go looking for new models of organizing, or can we take a cue from the past and try to revive the labor movement (which obviously is in a shambles at the moment)?

Robin: I have a lot of friends in the labor movement, and they are trying to do exactly this. But it’s kind of a race against time, because all the successes, and they are real, and there are some incredibly talented people there, who are doing some incredible stuff, but for all of that, there is, for every three or four or five thousand workers you get organized, there’s tens of thousands who are being de-organized. I’m not somebody who believes in magic and that it’s all about inventing new things, but the fact of the matter is is that there’s a generation of labor activists who have been trying to do precisely this, and we haven’t figured it out yet. So, clearly something else has got to happen. I just don’t know what that is.

Lo: This is an interesting point where we bring in, say, the Left at Yale. I know that you were very involved with GESO, and that is always a conversation about unions, so can we start by hearing a little bit about your thoughts and your experience back then. What was the Left like, particularly some of these labor movements that were organizing around that at Yale?

Robin: It was a very different time—I don’t know what Yale is like now, for students, but when I started graduate school, it was the year 1990. We were told, us political theorists, that with the fall of the Berlin Wall we just don’t read Marx anymore. We just don’t do it. And if we do do it, it’s purely for history’s sake, in the same way you would read Aquinas or Augustine, Marx is just part of a canon, and that’s it. And that was very much the sensibility. That the left was gone and buried forever. Even though the Left has been many different things, the 20th century left was overwhelmingly dominated by this idea of the transformation of social relations under capitalism. That idea was a very much in bad odor in the 1990s, and it affected lots of different kinds of Lefts, because the whole idea of political transformation, the whole idea of political agency, and being able to intervene in social relations, became suspect, so you had much much more quietistic models of politics, and anybody who identified as an activist, or thought of themselves as on the Left, was automatically suspect. And I think that was very much the atmosphere, and that affected things like labor unions. Suddenly a labor union comes to seem to be a Leninist party— that was a lot of the atmosphere. There was a lot of suspicion, and an awful lot of contempt of workers, both the workers at Yale in the dining halls, and clerical workers and so on, and against graduate students, who were accused of pretending to be workers. And it seemed like this was rife, from the faculty, down to the undergraduates.

Now, my sense from afar is just that, I don’t know about Yale, but I think the culture has changed a bit on campuses. I think, and again, Yale is a peculiar place, as you may have gathered, but I think you’ve got an experience of a generation, a couple generations of student now, who do not see their economic prospects in particularly bright or rosy terms, who are graduating with a tremendous amount of debt, and I think economic realities have just come crashing down upon people, and I think they’ve really altered the sensibility of your generation, the people in their twenties, in a way that we probably don’t yet fully understand.

Remer: In some senses, that’s true, but actually it’s interesting, because despite the fact that a lot of people in our generation are no longer facing a guaranteed job and job prospects are rather dim, we don’t see a tremendous amount of organizing around economic issues. I think a lot of people here, even at Yale, where you would expect, if people are able to think through these issues from a social theory lens and analyze and identify these problems, you would think then the next step would be to marry theory with praxis and go out and actually be in the streets and protest, but that doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. Instead, it seems that the influence of individualism and atomism has made the very notion of collective action seem somehow antiquated in our generation, or, if not antiquated, then ineffectual. So I wonder if you have anything to say in response to that.

Robin: Well, I’m always dubious about that. I mean, put it this way. I have no doubt that there’s a strong cult of individualism among Yale students. How could there not be? They were brought up their entire life to think that everything, where you are, is a function of your talent, and gift, and effort, so that individualism doesn’t surprise me.

But I also think that that’s ultimately not the massive stumbling block that people imagine it to be. I say this because I feel like I was one of those people myself. I come from a very upper-middle class family, I grew up in Westchester county, I got to Yale, and I thought, look, I’m a smart guy, what do I need from unions, and my mind got changed on this matter. There is a reality out there, it matters, and it can be gotten over, and those sensibilities that you’re describing can be overcome. Those are organizing and organizational problems. They’re not insurmountable. America has always had its cult of individualism. So I’m less surprised or concerned about that.

I think the real problem is that activists just don’t happen. It’s not like you take a class on social theory and then it’s like “Okay, now I’m going to organize or change the world.” I guess some people do that, but they’re rare. You need to have a real organization, you need to have a real cause, you need to have something. I don’t mean to be down on Yale students, but I don’t think you’re going to see a mass movement for economic equality coming from Yale University, that’s not where it begins. But I do think there is a shift amongst students and people in their twenties more generally, where I think these issues are just becoming more salient. We come back to where what we were talking about earlier: are there organizations, is there a leadership structure that can catch up and do something about this? I do think this is a huge opportunity that’s out there, whether or not anybody takes advantage of it. I don’t know whether that’ll happen, and how.

Lo: So I’m curious, back when you were at Yale, whether some of the moments around graduate student organizing were at all linked up with local unions and also had an eye on the broader socioeconomic issues in the city, or were they mainly more inward-looking, focused a very specific issue?

Robin: Right, I think you saw a range. I think people probably got involved in these movements, a lot of them, for narrow reasons. That was certainly the case with me. I did not get involved with the grad union because I thought that much about New Haven or about other workers; I was more interested in graduate students. A whole philosophy of the Left—and I don’t mean just unions or people who are socialists, I mean, just generally, the whole philosophy of solidarity and what the Left stands for—is that you take a particular grievance and ultimately, through a process of political action, you come to see in that grievance a whole world of systemic injustice and inequality that needs to be taken on and overthrown. And then, when the Left is really doing its job, it’s enabling local citizens and local activists and actors to see the world in that grain of sand, to use a little Blake metaphor, and that’s when the Left is doing what it’s supposed to be doing: it’s getting people to act on their particular grievance or sense of injustice or whatever it may be, and to begin to see a wider pattern in it that needs to be taken on—and slowly but surely people start looking at a broader systemic problem in society and begin to understand their own situation in those terms. That’s what political transformation is all about.

That’s when the Left is doing what it’s supposed to be doing: it’s getting people to act on their particular grievance or sense of injustice or whatever it may be, and to begin to see a wider pattern in it that needs to be taken on.

Lo: So, in a way, often when we talk about social movements we’re also talking about students being one of the main forces leading social movements, and we’ve seen plenty of student movements around the world, whether it was the ’60s in the US, or, say, Hong Kong, where I’m from, it was a student movement, or in Egypt or whatnot. Where are we in terms of students actually being out there and affecting or linking up with all these sorts of groups that we’re talking about?

Robin: Well, I was never big on the whole idea of student activists. In fact, I think that’s what kept me away from being involved in campus politics for a long time, but I think because the situation of students has actually changed so dramatically—I just think this debt issue is so foundational—if we use it as an opportunity and see it as an opening, I think students are very well-positioned, both because of the debt that they have accrued and because of the kind of economic opportunities or lack thereof that they’re facing, to start mounting mass movements around this issue. Trotsky was 25, and he led the St. Petersburg Soviet in the 1905 revolution. Martin Luther King was maybe 27 when he led the Montgomery Bus boycott. All these people, were extraordinarily young, so when you have that history on the one hand, and then the fact that students are really in the crux of all the economic transformations that we’re talking about in terms of the increasing assumption of debt, the privatization of public education, and then the disaster of an economy that they are facing, well, that’s an opportunity. I talked to somebody the other day, who was applying to graduate school, and he works as a freelancer, but he temps, doing word-processing at that age. So I said, “What do you get paid?” And he said, “You know, 15 to 16 dollars an hour,” and this is in New York City. I thought, when I graduated college in 1989, I moved out to the Bay Area for a year, and I was temping, I made 15 dollars an hour. So that tells me there’s been such an economic constriction that I do think students are very well placed to take a leadership role on some of these foundational issues of our time.

Image: Sasha Maslov