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Robert Reich wants you to fight the system

On Vox Conversations, the Berkeley professor and former secretary of labor speaks about changing the world not inside government, but on your timeline.

Courtesy of Robert Reich; TikTok

Back in 2002, during his run for Massachusetts governor, Robert Reich put out a book called I’ll Be Short. The title recognized the elephant in the room, so to speak: Reich, a former secretary of labor under Bill Clinton, stands just under five feet due to a rare genetic disorder that stunted his growth, and was running for major office in a country that likes tall politicians. He lost that race, but nearly 20 years later, Reich’s message of equality and societal cooperation is resonating more loudly than perhaps ever before.

Reich is the author of numerous other books, most recently The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It. Now 75 and a professor at Berkeley, his truculent tweets and social videos are at once blunt and inviting, humorous and uncompromising. I wanted to talk with Reich about the growing inequality he fights against, political dynamics in Congress, and how social media allows him to serve as an educator outside of the classroom.

He and I spoke on August 2, shortly after two titans of industry spent absurd amounts of money to joy-ride to the edge of space, and only for mere seconds. Given Reich’s frequent critiques of oligarchs, I couldn’t wait to hear what he thought of that.

An abbreviated transcript, edited for length and clarity, follows. You can hear much more of our chat in this week’s episode of Vox Conversations, embedded below.

Subscribe to Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.


Jamil Smith

Amidst all of this worry about folks who are having trouble just keeping a roof over their heads, we have a couple of rich guys trying to go to space. It’s this kind of dick-measuring contest between Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos. I hesitate to reach into somebody else’s wallet, but what else could they be doing with that money?

Robert Reich

Look, you can always make up a story, isn’t this great, we are moving closer to space travel for ordinary people. I think that’s bullshit, frankly. Ordinary people are not going to go into space at least in my lifetime — maybe your lifetime. It’s kind of a symbol of something that runs very deep in capitalism. And that is the very wealthiest seceding from everybody else.

Today, to be rich in America is not to have to come anywhere close to anybody who is not rich. You have your own private planes, your own security guards, your own limousines, your own drivers, everything is privatized, and you only see other rich people. The logical extreme, symbolically, is a space colony of only rich people.

Jamil Smith

But in this respect, how are rich people dangerous?

Robert Reich

Well, they’re not so dangerous. They’re just not paying their fair share of the dues, for being a part of a society and a part of the world. And I think they’re also kind of thumbing their nose at society. They’re saying, “We can live in our own world, we can go into outer space, we can do anything we want, we have the ultimate freedom. And by the way, you guys don’t.”

Jamil Smith

That’s something I think you addressed very well in one of your earlier chapters in your book last year, with regard to how the rich get to enjoy socialism — and the rest of us have to deal with the consequences of capitalism.

Robert Reich

I think this is a very fundamental, important point that distinguishes American capitalism from almost every other form of capitalism. Here we have the harshest and most brutal form of capitalism. We have almost no safety nets. Our safety nets that we did have are unraveling.

If you are poor, if you’ve had bad luck, if you’ve had a bad illness, you’re in terrible trouble. You are constrained in ways that almost nobody else in the world, in advanced countries, is constrained. We have no sick leave. We have no mandatory paid paternity or maternity leave. We have no child care. We have nothing for most people except Social Security and Medicare. But if you are rich, if you have rich parents, if you’ve had the best luck, if you if you’ve gone to good schools and you have the right connections, you are in a different, and it’s a socialist world in the sense that you’re too big to fail, too rich to fail.

The government will bail you out if you’re a banker and you have completely screwed up. You get tax breaks. The Federal Reserve Board will give you extra benefits and we’ll take the debt off your hands. You’ve got enough political power to get everything you want.

Jamil Smith

And that’s the thing I don’t understand, going back to the Democrats: You have the power, you have the presidency back, you’ve rescued it from these incompetent, malevolent people who were in charge and you have a majority in Congress. Why aren’t you using it?

Robert Reich

I want to say, in just fairness, I’m impressed by the stimulus bill that got through. I’m impressed that an infrastructure bill is going through. I think the Democrats actually are accomplishing more than the Obama Democrats or the Clinton Democrats in the first two years.

But as a progressive, I want more. I want to see the minimum wage raised. I want people who are in poverty, who are in who are being kicked out of their homes or their rental units. I don’t want people at the border to be put into prisons or jails or cages. As a progressive, as a liberal, I want much more than the Democrats seem to be able to deliver. I want voting reform. And I’m angry.

Jamil Smith

There’s this kind of partisan theater that sometimes takes us away from what we need to be focusing upon. You’ve been in Washington as the labor secretary. You’ve filled a lot of different roles in our politics.

Is working with Republicans even worth it?

Robert Reich

I would say now, probably not. I was in Washington at a time when it was possible for Democrats and Republicans to come together. There was a generation of people who had gone through some traumas: the Vietnam War, voting rights, civil rights. They had been forced to work together. They had been through the Nixon administration.

They understood they needed each other. They understood they were there for the common good, for the country as a whole. That is now not the case. The Republican Party essentially stands for two things for the two basic parts of its constituency: low taxes for the wealthy and white supremacy for the white working class.

Jamil Smith

And Republicans exploit that to maintain power because they can’t win national elections anymore, especially the presidency. And they certainly can’t do it without huge amounts of voter suppression.

Robert Reich

Oh, yeah, that’s the key to their survival. And I think they’re playing with long-term debt.

Jamil Smith

They got people scared about using their full capabilities as a citizen. It’s not simply targeting the undocumented folks, but also the people who are here legally but aren’t, in Republican views, fortunate enough to be white. And they want to make sure that those people, even though they are here legally and they are citizens, feel like they aren’t fully part of the American franchise.

And that is inherent to the whole philosophy because if you make people feel like they’re not fully Americans, it’s easier to dehumanize them. And it makes their job easier, in terms of maintenance of power for the service of oligarchy.

Robert Reich

Absolutely true. I think the oligarchy in America wants black people and white people, working-class, to distrust each other, even hate each other. That way they prevent the working class and much of the middle class from looking up and seeing where all the wealth has gone. That is the central goal, I think, of the richest people in America.

Jamil Smith

And of course, that’s who we’re speaking about. When we talk about oligarchy, we don’t have dukes and kings and queens in this country. But money allows folks to assume those kinds of de facto royalty positions within our society.

Robert Reich

I look at the fact that we’ve always had an oligarchy. We’ve always had a lot of inequality in this country. But the last time we had the degree of inequality was in the so-called Gilded Age, where a handful of extraordinarily wealthy people suppressed votes. They suppressed unions. They did not want any competition for their fortunes. And, of course, it ended badly.

So what’s the bottom line? It is interesting. It’s actually in the economic interest of the oligarchy of the wealthy to prevent and to cure the degree of inequality we now have. They are raking it in, but the next depression is just around the corner.

Jamil Smith

And they don’t see it. They don’t understand that they would be doing better, that white supremacy hurts us all, and so does their employment of white supremacy and its tactics in order to preserve power.

But also, I think Republicans and oligarchs understand race and racism in this country probably better than a lot of Democrats do. What do you think about how our evolving attitudes on race and racism and misogyny and other forms of discrimination and bias have affected how Republicans seek to retain power?

Robert Reich

What I don’t think we faced is that there’s a connection between racism and the maldistribution of income and wealth in this country. We haven’t faced the fact that voting rights are not simply a matter of making sure that everybody can get to the polls. Voting rights is also a matter of making sure that our government is not overwhelmed by big money.

Jamil Smith

There are so many different things that would make this a better country, and make it run more efficiently and more equitably. What do people need to do right now? For voting rights, for the minimum wage, for all of it put together. And if not taking to the streets, what do you feel might be the best way for us to go after these goals?

Robert Reich

Well, it’s always nice to take the streets, but I worry that demonstrating is sometimes a substitute for the hard work of political organizing. And it mustn’t be. I tell my students that the best way to make change is to help people organize for change. The best way to improve society is to either run for office yourself or to get other people to help support candidates in your communities, in your states. Organize, organize, organize. That’s what needs to be done all over the country.

I don’t want to be understood as pooh-poohing demonstrations. But we really do need people who are working the political system, who have a very long view. This is not going to happen in one year. It’s not going to be happening over one election cycle.

Now, let me just say one more thing: I am very sympathetic with people who come to me and say I’m burnt out. You know, I’ve just been banging my head against a wall, trying to make change, trying to make social change that is progressive. And I can’t do it anymore. Yes, of course, I understand that. I feel the same way.

But often, people who are burnt out have been doing it the wrong way. They’ve been taking too much responsibility on themselves personally. They’ve not been allocating responsibility to others. They’ve not been policing themselves. They’ve not been thinking about the long term.

Jamil Smith

One of the things I think about when you mention that is how burnt out we all got over the previous four years in this administration, just the constant onslaught of bad news, of vitriolic speech, of defending the indefensible. And I think that speaks to your assertion that people take too much upon themselves. They feel like they [must be watching] CNN and MSNBC 24/7 and reading every article. And I keep telling people, “I’m in this business. I used to work in cable news. I don’t watch it anymore.”

Robert Reich

I think the biggest danger, honestly, is not burnout. The biggest danger is cynicism. If many of us and by us, I mean progressives who care about this country, who want social change, who believe in the ideals of this country, if too many of us just say no way, this is not going to happen, then it won’t happen.

And that’s what the oligarchs and the white supremacists would really want more than anything else. They want us all to feel that nothing is going to change. Because if we give up, then we cede the entire ground to them, and we must not do that. Anger isn’t bad. We can be outraged. That’s not bad. But let’s not be cynical.

@rbreich

Folks, there is nothing radical about forming a society based on justice and dignity.

♬ Pretty young twearkalator - ✨yUh✨

Jamil Smith

In that respect, I think you’re an early adopter of common sense. How do you feel like you’re now using your platforms, whether they be in the classroom at Berkeley or on Instagram and YouTube? How are you trying to reach people, to further the kind of change that we need?

Robert Reich

I consider myself an educator. I mean, that’s what I do. I think people need to understand context. They need to be able to connect the dots, economics, politics, philosophy, history, law, and I guess my faith is that to the extent that they are able to do this, they will be constructive citizens.

So my little contribution now is to teach. I love my students. I love teaching, and to teach through social media. Books are a very difficult and inefficient way of reaching people these days. I don’t want to sound negative about young people. I think they’re acutely sensitive to visual cues, and they’re acutely sensitive to musical cues. They grew up not geared to nearly as much the written word as my generation was. And again, I want to stress that my generation cannot see and hear nearly as well as young people.

I even started to do something on TikTok. Now, I don’t understand tech. I really don’t.

Jamil Smith

You and me both.

Robert Reich

We’re not grandiose here. We’re talking about little-scale reaching, reaching generations. So that’s great.

You’ve got to continue to fight. I don’t say this out of cynicism. I see this out of hope, because I believe that a good society is a society that understands that these battles never end. A good society has got to continuously train young people to fight these fights, for some of them to devote their entire lives to these battles. You don’t expect everybody, but maybe 1 or 2 percent. Because these are the front lines in the maintenance of democracy.

Jamil Smith

Speaking of someone who was on the front lines: Tell the listeners who Michael Schwerner was, and who he was to you.

Robert Reich

Well, it’s hard for me to talk about this, because I almost always get emotional. I mean, everybody has their own story about why they do what they do. And my personal story involves Michael Schwerner, because when I was a kid, I was very short. I still am very short, and I was bullied. And my defense against this was to find older boys who would protect me. I kind of created my own private protection racket.

And Mickey Schwerner, when I was a kid, was one of the older boys who did help me. And then in the summer of 1964, I learned later that Michael Schwerner had been in Mississippi, registering black people to vote, along with two other civil rights workers, when he was brutally murdered. By the Ku Klux Klan, including the sheriff of the county.

And when I heard that my protector had been tortured and killed, I think my life changed. I think I started to see that power was a central animating force in a society, in ways that I didn’t understand until then. And that stopping the bullies, whether they’re economic bullies or financial bullies or political bullies, is what we must do if we’re going to have a good society.