The American academic and firebrand campaigner talks about Britain’s deep trouble, fighting white supremacy and where Obama is going wrong
Cornel West, the firebrand of American academia for almost 30 years, is causing his hosts some problems. They are on a schedule but such things barely move him, for as he saunters down the high street there are people to talk to, and no one can leave shortchanged. Everyone, “brother” or “sister”, is indeed treated like a long lost family member. And then there is the hug; a bear-like pincer movement. There’s no escape. It happens in New York, where the professor/philosopher usually holds court. And now it’s the same in Cambridge.
The best students accord their visitors a healthy respect, but West’s week laying bare the conflicts and fissures of race and culture and activism and literature in the US and Britain yielded more than that during his short residency at King’s College. There are academics who draw a crowd, but the West phenomenon at King’s had rock star quality: the buzz, the poster beaming his image from doors and noticeboards; the back story – Harvard, Princeton, Yale, his seminal work Race Matters, his falling-in and falling-out with Barack Obama.
Others can teach, and at Cambridge the teaching is some of the best in the world, but standing-room-only crowds came to see West perform. He performed. Approaching 60 now, he is slow of gait. But he always performs.
“Britain is in trouble,” he tells me. “Britain is in deep trouble. The privatising is out of the control, the militarising is out of control and the financialising is out of control. And what I mean from that is you have a cold-hearted, mean-spirited budget that the Queen just read; you have working and poor people under panic, you have this obsession with immigration that tends to scapegoat the most vulnerable rather than confront the most powerful. And it is not just black immigrants, but also our brothers and sisters from Poland and Bulgaria, Romania; right across the board.” He isn’t ranting. He doesn’t rant. He smiles, he growls gently, he leans in and whispers conspiratorily. There is an upside, he says. “Britain has a rich history of bouncing back too.”
They looked after him at King’s, he says. Incongruous in his trademark black three–piece suit, with fob watch and old-time, grey–flecked, fly-away afro, he berthed in the understated splendour of the Rylands room in the Old Lodge. Named after Dadie Rylands, the literary scholar and theatre director educated at King’s and a fellow until his death in 1999, it was where Virginia Woolf lunched with Rylands and John Maynard Keynes. West likes such evocations. “I feel her spirit,” he says, leaning back on a chair.
But then he is accustomed to the star treatment. A graduate of Harvard University in 1973, he received his PhD at Princeton; returning to both as professor of religion and director of the programme in African-American studies at Princeton and later professor of African-American studies at Harvard. He departed Harvard in 2002 after a bitter dispute with the then president of the university, Lawrence Summers, Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary, who was later picked by President Obama to head the US National Economic Council. Some claim Summers’s clash with West formed part of the spiral that led to his own departure from Harvard. West says Summers had an agenda to cut African American studies, and him, down to size. He “tangled with the wrong Negro”, the professor said later. He returned to Princeton, from which he has recently retired. Now his centre of academic operations is the Union Theologiocal Seminary in New York, where he began his teaching career.
But he is multi-platform, which, critics contend, added something to the fall-out with Summers at Harvard. He is the author of 19 books and editor of another 13. A regular TV pundit. Co-star of the popular public radio show Smiley and West. Chair of the Democratic Socialists of America. He even played the wise Councillor West in The Matrix Reloaded. While the right throws the socialist tag at Obama like a poisoned dart, West wears it as a badge of honour. A “non-Marxist socialist” eschewing Marxism in favour of Christianity. A complex package. Hence the enthusiasm at Cambridge’s Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities to invite him over and peel the layers.
Last week West appeared three times in conversation: on race and politics, with academic Paul Gilroy – their double header had to be moved to a larger venue and ended with a standing ovation; on philosophy and the public sphere, with philosopher MM McCabe; and with Ben Okri on literature and the nation. The fact is that he’ll talk indefinitely and on anything. In between Cambridge appearances, he headed to Sheffield University to unveil a memorial to a previous visitor there, “my brother Malcolm X”. Also to London to an event hosted by former race chief Trevor Phillips.
For his radio show in the US, he also travelled to the Ecuadorian embassy for an encounter with Julian Assange. Exhilarating, by his account. “Boy, that was a rich one,” he says. “Oh my God, we went on for an hour and a half: about the militarising of the internet and the use of US imperial power. They’re trying to squelch any whistleblower who wants to reveal the secrets of the dirty wars of the US empires and other governments. We talked primarily about courage. He is a very smart man and very courageous too.”
They found points of contact. “He talked about Martin Luther King’s courage and how he has been inspired by Martin Luther King. We talked about the 3 June case with brother Bradley Manning and the witnesses the US government has lined up. I wanted people to hear his voice and to revel in his humanity; revel in his wrestling with his situation and to see what his vision is.”
He found some optimism, he says. “He has this situation with the sisters in Sweden and that’s got to be resolved, and I think that’s in the process of being resolved. We have to be concerned about someone accused of violating anybody, but I think for the most part that is going to be resolved, and that was probably an attempt of the powers that be. One woman has already said she is pulling back and the other one admits it was consensual, so it is not as ugly as it was projected in the press. But once that is over he has got the big one coming. He has got a behemoth coming at him; the US empire and its
World equity markets post record highs
Twenty cities have more than 100,000 millionaires – but which has most? And where do the world’s billionaires live?
Millionaires | Multi-millionaires | Billionaires | Country
• Get the data
• More data journalism and data visualisations from the Guardian
Where do the world’s wealthiest individuals live? Well, it depends if you’re talking millionaires, multi-millionaires or billionaires, according to a new list of the global rich.
Tokyo may contain the most millionaires (US$), however London is the city with the highest number of multi-millionaires – defined as individuals with over $30m each. For the fattest of the fat cats, though, look to New York where 70 billionaires have made their home – or maybe one of their many global homes.
The ranking of top global cities for millionaires, multi-millionaires and billionaires has been compiled by London based wealth consultancy WealthInsight using five years of data analysed by their team. So what insights can we glean from this latest rich list?
Tokyo tops the list with 461,000 millionaires at the end of 2012, followed by New York City with 389,000. London and Paris take third and fourth place respectively with Frankfurt, Beijing, Osaka, Hong Kong and Shanghai making up the the remainder of the top ten. Interestingly the second highest city for billionaires, Moscow, comes in 20th for its number of millionaires.
The report also looks at the proportion of each country’s millionaires in each city. Tokyo accounts for 21% of Japan’s millionaires whereas New York City accounts for only 7% of US millionaires. Cities with much higher proportions include Seoul (83%), Rome (49%) and London (42%).
Now for the big players, those individuals with over $30m each. London is top of the list as the city with the most multi-millionaires (4,224) but Tokyo and Singapore follow in second and third place respectively.
New York makes an appearance at fourth place on the rankings – but if you’re surprised by the Big Apple’s slip down the rich list, WealthInsight do point out that ‘many wealthy New Yorkers live off the Island in cities such as Greenwich which has over 350 multi-millionaires on its own’.
New York (Manhattan) contains the most billionaires according to the release with 70 in the city. Moscow has 64 billionaires and London boasts 54.
Moscow, Mumbai and Istanbul are significantly higher on the billionaire list than they are on the millionaire rankings. Moscow which is ranked 20th for millionaires and is absent from the top 20 cities for multi-millionaires, comes in at third place on the billionaires list.
Hong Kong, Beijing, Mumbai, Istanbul, Shanghai, Paris and Los Angeles all make it into the top ten.
Despite Tokyo topping the list as the city with the highest total of millionaires, when it comes to country level the US boasts the most with 5,231 in 2012 – a figure WealthInsight expects to jump to 7,318 by 2020.
But the country to watch according to the wealth consultancy is China. They predict that it will overtake Japan and Germany to become the second largest wealth market in the world by 2020. India is also expected to rise up the rankings, from 11th place in 2012 to 5th place in 2020.
The tables below show the top ten cities for millionaires, multi-millionaires and billionaires. The downloadable spreadsheet contains data at country level and the proportion of country’s millionaires in each city. What can you do with this?
Download the data
• DATA: download the full spreadsheet
More data journalism and data visualisations from the Guardian
• Follow us on Twitter
• Like us on Facebook
Encouraging Chinese trade data sends Japanese Nikkei to new five-year high, as IMF officials fly in to start their annual healthcheck of the UK economy
Central bank easing continues as Reserve Bank of Australia cuts borrowing costs overnight, following European Central Bank’s move last Thursday
Clothes workers in Bangladesh say the recent building collapse in Dhaka has made them concerned for their own safety
Dhaka police are questioning Rana plaza owner Sohel Rana about gun licence, and have arrested structural engineer
Rescue workers combing through the rubble of the factory complex that collapsed in Bangladesh killing more than 500 people have found a pistol belonging to the building’s owner.
Dhaka police say that Sohel Rana has accepted that the weapon belonged to him. They are investigating whether he had a licence to own the weapon. The discovery did nothing to improve the public image of Rana, now portrayed as a gangster figure able to use his power to circumvent building regulations.
There have already been accusations that he muscled out competitors and illegally grabbed the land on which the Rana Plaza stood before its collapse.
Detectives are continuing to investigate Rana’s background and have also arrested the structural engineer, Abdur Razzak, previously credited with raising the alarm about the danger of collapse. Detectives are investigating his role in advising Rana on adding three storeys to the building; their weight is one of the main suspected causes of the collapse. Razzak was said to have been alarmed by cracks which appeared the day before the collapse, but Rana and some factory owners are understood to have claimed he told them it was safe for the building to remain open.
Yesterday the death toll from the collapse had risen to 551, with fears that there may still be a large number of bodies under the structure. Workers pulled 19 bodies from the rubble on Saturday morning, the 11th day of the rescue operation, having recovered 80 the day before.
Meanwhile, western brands are facing mounting pressure to improve working conditions. Leading UK brands have been urged to sign up to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which provides for independent structural inspections of factory buildings, with the reports to be made public. But so far only two groups have done so, the US-based PVH which owns Calvin Klein and Timberland, and German retailer Tchibo.
UK brands say they are following the lead of the Ethical Trading Initiative, which is instead supporting a Bangladeshi government national action plan launched in March. That plan does not involve structural inspections, although the government has ordered factories to produce building certificates within a month.
The textile industry is worth £13 billion a year to the Bangladeshi economy and companies there are desperate to persuade Western brands to stay, despite concerns over safety in factories where hundreds of people have died in fires and collapses in recent years.
The Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association has promised action to prevent a repeat of the Rana Plaza disaster and urged brands not to cancel orders.
Disney, however, has announced that it is halting all production in the country by the end of March next year. Other major brands met in Germany on Monday to discuss what could be done to improve factory safety in Bangladesh.
A statement issued on Thursday from the ETI – whose members include Primark, M&S and Walmart – said that UK retailers would take a common approach to fire and building safety. They would improve factories to an agreed minimum standard and would strengthen the role of health and safety committees in unsafe factories.
ETI director Peter McAllister said: “We are appalled by the recent factory fire tragedies, and last week’s deplorable Savar building collapse. Together with our company, trade union and NGO members, we are committed to driving real, sustainable change for workers by tackling the chronic, widespread health and safety issues that plague Bangladesh’s garment sector.”
But Bangladesh’s Finance Minister, AMA Muhith, did little to boost confidence in change when he dismissed the collapse during a visit to Delhi, saying: “The present difficulties … well, I don’t think it is really serious – it’s an accident. And the steps that we have taken in order to make sure that it doesn’t happen, they are quite elaborate and I believe that it will be appreciated by all.”
The country’s home minister, Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, struck a more aggressive note on Friday when he warned more arrests could follow. ”This is a case of sheer negligence and sheer arrogance,” Alamgir said in an interview. “Arrogance on the part of the owner and negligence by the engineers and the local government authorities.”
Primark, which acknowledged that it bought from a factory in the collapsed building, has urged other brands which used it to join it in offering financial assistance to the families of victims.
Prime minister Enrico Letta faces a confidence vote this afternoon, after a sale of Italian debt this morning
If Reinhart and Rogoff’s ‘error’ has discredited the prevailing policy dogma, now is the time for an alternative that works
The intellectual justification for austerity lies in ruins. It turns out that Harvard economists Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, who originally framed the argument that too high a “debt-to-GDP ratio” will always, necessarily, lead to economic contraction – and who had aggressively promoted it during Rogoff’s tenure as chief economist for the IMF –, had based their entire argument on a spreadsheet error. The premise behind the cuts turns out to be faulty. There is now no definite proof that high levels of debt necessarily lead to recession.
Will we, then, see a reversal of policy? A sea of mea culpas from politicians who have spent the last few years telling disabled pensioners to give up their bus passes and poor students to forgo college, all on the basis of a mistake? It seems unlikely. After all, as I and many others have long argued, austerity was never really an economic policy: ultimately, it was always about morality. We are talking about a politics of crime and punishment, sin and atonement. True, it’s never been particularly clear exactly what the original sin was: some combination, perhaps, of tax avoidance, laziness, benefit fraud and the election of irresponsible leaders. But in a larger sense, the message was that we were guilty of having dreamed of social security, humane working conditions, pensions, social and economic democracy.
The morality of debt has proved spectacularly good politics. It appears to work just as well whatever form it takes: fiscal sadism (Dutch and German voters really do believe that Greek, Spanish and Irish citizens are all, collectively, as they put it, “debt sinners”, and vow support for politicians willing to punish them) or fiscal masochism (middle-class Britons really will dutifully vote for candidates who tell them that government has been on a binge, that they must tighten their belts, it’ll be hard, but it’s something we can all do for the sake of our grandchildren). Politicians locate economic theories that provide flashy equations to justify the politics; their authors, like Rogoff, are celebrated as oracles; no one bothers to check if the numbers actually add up.
If ever proof was required that the theory is selected to suit the politics, one need only consider the reaction politicians have to economists who dare suggest this moralistic framework is unnecessary; or that there might be solutions that don’t involve widespread human suffering.
Even before we knew Reinhart and Rogoff’s study was simply wrong, many had pointed out their historical survey made no distinction between the effects of debt on countries such as the US or Japan – which issue their own currency and therefore have their debt denominated in that currency – and countries such as Ireland, Greece, that do not. But the real solution to the eurobond crisis, some have argued, lies in precisely this distinction.
Why is Japan not in the same situation as Spain or Italy? It has one of the highest public debt-to-GDP ratios in the world (twice that of Ireland), and is regularly featured in magazines like the Economist as a prima facie example of an economic basket case, or at least, how not to manage a modern industrial economy. Yet they have no problem raising money. In fact the rate on their 10-year bonds is under 1%. Why? Because there’s no danger of default. Everyone knows that in the event of an emergency, the Japanese government could simply print the money. And Japanese money, in turn, will always be good because there is a constant demand for it by anyone who has to pay Japanese taxes.
This is precisely what Ireland, or Spain, or any of the other troubled southern eurozone countries, cannot do. Since only the German-dominated European Central Bank can print euros, investors in Irish bonds fear default, and the interest rates are bid up accordingly. Hence the vicious cycle of austerity. As a larger percentage of government spending has to be redirected to paying rising interest rates, budgets are slashed, workers fired, the economy shrinks, and so does the tax base, further reducing government revenues and further increasing the danger of default. Finally, political representatives of the creditors are forced to offer “rescue packages”, announcing that, if the offending country is willing to sufficiently chastise its sick and elderly, and shatter the dreams and aspirations of a sufficient percentage of its youth, they will take measures to ensure the bonds will not default.
Warren Mosler and Philip Pilkington are two economists who dare to think beyond the shackles of Rogoff-style austerity economics. They belong to the modern money theory school, which starts by looking at how money actually works, rather than at how it should work. On this basis, they have made a powerful case that if we just get back to that basic problem of money-creation, we may well discover that none of this is ever necessary to begin with. In conjunction with the Levy Institute at Bard College, they propose an ingenious, yet elegant solution to the eurobond crisis. Why not simply add a bit of legal language to, say, Irish bonds, declaring that, in the event of default, those bonds could themselves be used to pay Irish taxes? Investors would be reassured the bonds would remain “money good” even in the worst of crises – since even if they weren’t doing business in Ireland, and didn’t have to pay Irish taxes, it would be easy enough to sell them at a slight discount to someone who does. Once potential investors understood the new arrangement, interest rates would fall back from 4-5% to a manageable 1-2%, and the cycle of austerity would be broken.
Why has this plan not been adopted? When it was proposed in the Irish parliament in May 2012, finance minster Michael Noonan rejected the plan on completely arbitrary grounds (he claimed it would mean treating some bond-holders differently than others, and ignored those who quickly pointed out existing bonds could easily be given the same legal status, or else, swapped for tax-backed bonds). No one is quite sure what the real reason was, other than perhaps an instinctual bureaucratic fear of the unknown.
It’s not even clear that anyone would even be hurt by such a plan. Investors would be happy. Citizens would see quick relief from cuts. There’d be no need for further bailouts. It might not work as well in countries such as Greece, where tax collection is, let us say, less reliable, and it might not entirely eliminate the crisis. But it would almost certainly have major salutary effects. If the politicians refuse to consider it – as they so far have done –, it’s hard to see any reason other than sheer incredulity at the thought that the great moral drama of modern times might in fact be nothing more than the product of bad theory and faulty data series.