Prophet of Discontent is a new look at King’s economic and political theories amid expanding awareness of the Black radical tradition. The following is a Q&A with the authors, Andrew J. Douglas and Jared A. Loggins, about past and present develops in the world of Black radical discourse and how they pertain to King.
1) Your book makes clear that the enduring, popular image of Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of a man of the people. However, you also make clear that his more radical views have been watered down to appeal to a larger audience. Is this a constructive – and ultimately positive – omission since it makes his legacy more broadly palatable? Or do you see it more as a cover-up of his “socialist commitments” (3) and something that is regressive or detrimental?
Cornel West talks about the “sanitization” of King’s radicalism. Throughout the neoliberal era, King’s ideas have been altered and, some might say, rendered more appealing, more palatable. But this has been done largely by and for neoliberals, those who benefit from enlisting King’s good name in the reproduction of a racially divisive, violent, and increasingly unequal world order. Over the years King’s views have been watered down in some circles, though not so much to appeal to a mass audience, but rather as part of an effort to manufacture an audience in support of a particular and misleading narrative.
It probably is fair to say that this amounts to a cover-up of King’s socialist commitments. But this is really just an indication that King’s radical views were and remain dangerously popular. The fact that so much work has to be put into “sanitizing” King—boxing his legacy into a narrow, rights-based multiculturalism, for example—is a sign that neoliberalism’s powerbrokers fear the popular appeal of what they work so hard to erase or distort. Which is of course much of what we cover in the book: King’s anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism, his critique of militarism and policing, his efforts to defend unions and push anti-racism struggles to the center of the labor movement. We’re encouraged that King’s radicalism is no longer ignored. And we’re encouraged that growing numbers of his readers are seeing through efforts to manufacture an audience in support political projects that betray King’s ideals.
2) Your description of spirituality in King’s movement “not as an opiate… but as part of the psychology of active and sustained resistance” (40) indicates that Marx’s famous idea of religion as an opium of the people comes in stark contrast with the African American church’s central role in education, community, and, above all, sustained activism. Does the church hold a similar role in mobilizing social change now as half a century ago? Or have new vehicles for education and community taken the lead in informing activist ideas and actions today?
The role of the contemporary Black church is a tricky matter, and something that is ultimately beyond the scope of our book. In fact, given that so much has been written about King and the church, we deliberately sought to foreground other institutional spaces that might carry on King’s activist legacy—such as the university and more experimental centers of Black scholar-activism.
We certainly stress how King was embedded in the spiritual activism of the Black radical tradition. And of course, he was a leading figure in a social gospel movement that saw religion as a means of reconstituting life in the here and now. All of this runs counter to Marx’s rather crude notion that religious or theological consciousness is necessarily depoliticizing. And there are today powerful examples of church-based mobilizing that extend these aspects of King’s legacy—notably Rev. William J. Barber’s Repairers of the Breach and the revival of King’s Poor People’s Campaign, led by Barber and the Rev. Liz Theoharis.
Still, today’s Black church has become increasingly enmeshed in neoliberal rationality. The compulsion that we all experience to embrace market logic, compete with one another, render ourselves investment worthy—none of this stops at the church doors. And it makes the work of building fellowship and caring for others, indeed the work of heeding basic Christian teachings, increasingly difficult. The relevant takeaway from our book should be simply that the Black church continues to play a crucial role in mobilizing for progressive social change, though that work has become more difficult, for a variety of reasons. As such, it’s important that we also look to other spaces for education, community, and sustained activism.
3) Considering the advent of trickle-down economics in the 80’s and the economic booms of the 90’s, had King been alive in those decades, do you believe his messages against the private accumulation of wealth in the absence of “voluntary acts of redistributive charity” would have been even more pressing? Is it likely, had he continued his work into later decades, that his socialist leanings in matters of property and wealth would have become much more overt and pronounced?
King’s socialist leanings, broadly understood, have certainly become more urgent. And had he lived on, we suspect he would have developed a very pronounced critique of neoliberal capitalism.
In the book, we talk about how King’s ambivalence toward the state has enduring lessons into the neoliberal era. One of the distinctive features of the neoliberal turn of the 80s and 90s is that the state has taken on a more active role in the upward redistribution of wealth, in part by promoting privatization and a market individualism that disproportionally benefits white property owners.
King, of course, was known for defending a more democratically accountable welfare state. And that struggle remains central to any effort to combat neoliberalism today. But King’s thinking on this was far more complicated than we tend to assume. He was never fully satisfied with the welfare state model, what we might think of as a form of state-managed capitalism that relies on sustained consumerism, ongoing growth cycles, the imperialist management of global supply chains—all of which were points of focus for King, and deeply antithetical to his vision of a “beloved community” or a “world house.” What King was really interested in—and this speaks so generatively to our neoliberal moment—is how grassroots struggles to expand public control, to achieve some semblance of a more popular grip over the worst excesses of racial capitalism, forge new social sympathies and solidarities that ground and inform alternative ways of living and being together. King stressed the importance of organizing and community building as antidote to an individualizing ethic and a domineering state—indeed a neoliberal political project that has only grown more pernicious and socially destructive into our time.
4) Founded in Atlanta in 1969, the Institute of the Black World was a think tank formed in the aftermath of King’s assassination that explored Black nationalism, integrationism, and Marxism. Because of its aspirations, the institute became increasingly distanced from universities, the King Center, and the Left which opted for a more “narrow reading of King” (84) and closed in 1983. Is the IBW a casualty of the “post-civil rights electoral class and white liberal philanthropy” who branded King as a man of the people or a “paragon of liberal respectability”? Can you envision a future, whether close or distant, in which the “scholarly fugitive” or “guerilla intellectual” (91) can work in the academic sphere without compromising their radical ideas?
Our academic institutions certainly offer space for radically progressive ideas and, albeit to a lesser extent, scholar activism. But the question is not whether established schools and research centers allow room on the margins for, say, Black Studies programs or anti-imperialist scholarship. The question is whether we can build and maintain institutions that center this work and, from their mission statements down to the material realities of their daily operations, reproduce what King called the beloved community.
To get there we have to work through an existential crisis. Today’s schools and research centers were born of settler colonialism, have grown increasingly extractive, and continue to play an essential role in sustaining the racial capitalist world order. It’s not simply a matter of what gets taught or researched, or who gets hired or admitted. Just to keep the lights on is to participate in the reproduction of racial capitalism, as we discuss in the book. Can our colleges and universities be reformed? Can we imagine a beloved community that retains an Ivy League or even a land-grant public university system, given the imperial legacies such a system perpetuates?
IBW cofounder Vincent Harding—who was also one of the authors of King’s legendary 1967 anti-Vietnam War speech—raised these kinds of difficult, existential questions about our established institutional landscape: “What institutions must be discarded now in order that they may be more fully prepared to break the circle of white power? What chances and risks must we take in our own time in order to help them towards better positions for their own overcoming movement?” King, for his part, worried about integrating into a burning house. The point of our chapter on the IBW is to encourage assessment of how our schools and research centers, and all manner of existing institutions, are hard-wired into a racial capitalist world order, often in ways that are hidden from view. To make good on antiracist, anticapitalist, anti-imperialist commitments is to, in the words of Cedric Robinson, “bridge the decline of one world and the eruption of another.” And that, he says, can be a very “frightening and uncertain space of being”—as King knew all too well.
5) One of the reasons you’ve written this book is to point out how we have collectively defined Dr. King’s legacy in ways that miss important aspects of his political and economic views. Do you think he’d agree with your analyses regarding what gets left out? It’s impossible to know, but how might he have differed?
This question gives us an opportunity to highlight a distinctive aspect of our study. Our book is an effort to reconstruct the critical theory of capitalist society that King’s egalitarian vision presupposes. It is an effort to think through the question: how is King’s call for a revolution of values complicated by the production and circulation of value in capitalist society? King was of course a profound intellectual and a prolific speaker and writer. But he rarely gave us sustained theoretical expositions. Contemporary readers like us thus have an opening—a chance to fill in gaps, to follow underdeveloped lines of thinking, to wrestle with a translation of historical work into a contemporary idiom.
Our book tries to expose some of King’s implicit theoretical commitments. And it does so with conceptual tools and a vocabulary that King did not have. The discourse on racial capitalism—which really took off after the republication, in 2000, of Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition—was not King’s authentic language. While we certainly believe that we’ve tapped into a veiled essence of King’s political economic thinking, and would like to believe that he’d see himself fully in what we’ve written, we know that other approaches, other conceptual vocabularies or theoretical frameworks, could also be used to build out King’s critical theory. Surely there are additional stories to be told about King’s anticapitalism, perhaps ones that build on our work but that foreground his Christianity and religious commitments, for example, or that mine his business sense or personal financial affairs, much more than we do. Like Robinson, who in his study of the Black radical tradition said that his “purpose was never to exhaust the subject, only to suggest that it was there,” we recognize that there is so much more to be discovered, reconstructed, and debated about King and the critique of racial capitalism.