🎧 Adolph Reed, Jr. on Race and Class in America
Yascha Mounk and Adolph Reed, Jr. discuss what we miss when we leave class out of the conversation.
Adolph Reed, Jr. is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written widely about race and class and is the author, most recently, of The South: Jim Crow and Its Afterlives, which presents a granular look at the reality of life as he and others experienced it under Jim Crow.
In this week’s conversation, Yascha Mounk and Adolph Reed, Jr. discuss how the mainstream American conception of race has developed since the early 20th century, why and how much of the modern left has become “race-reductionist,” and what actions we can pursue to address both racial and economic injustice in the future.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: To start the conversation, I want to take a step back and get your sense of how the American mainstream view about race in intellectual circles has changed over the course of your lifetime.
Adolph Reed, Jr: That's an interesting one. I think it's changed. That change—which I think is kind of the history of the race idea since its inception—partly maps on to the extent to which the commitment to see race is more of an ontological one than it is an intellectual one, in the sense that people are committed in an a priori way to believe in subspecific human classifications, or subpopulations, that exist in nature. For the last 20 years-plus in my career, I taught a grad seminar on 20th century race theory. And one of the experiences that grad students commonly had was that by the fourth or fifth week, they got really depressed because they came into the course anticipating something closer to a Whiggish account, such that there was a benighted past when people believed that “races” were fundamentally real human divisions, and then didn't.
What they learned is that the fundamental commitment doesn't really go away; that what struggles between egalitarian and determinist interests can produce is victories against a particular metaphor of fundamental difference: biology, culture, whatever. But because the commitment is ultimately an ontological one, the tendency to believe that such differences are real in the sense that they exist in nature doesn't really get defeated. And that's kind of depressing until you just take it as a fact of life, and then figure out that this is a struggle that will go on. It's not even specifically just a struggle against a discourse of naturalized hierarchy, like race, but there are a bunch of others: gender is one, “feeble-mindedness” was one during the high period of the eugenics era. And that's one reason I like to teach that, too, partly because it was also the period in which the race idea, broadly construed, was more broadly held and more firmly entrenched than at any point in history of the species, either prior to that or since.
That's what my grandmother would have called “going all around Robin Hood's barn to give an answer.” But to go back to your question, I think it's changed in my life well, so from the end of World War II or really earlier. I guess the combination of the discovery of the Nazi death camps and a shift from biology to culture as a foundation for explaining human difference that began in the 20s and 30s, to the emergence of the notion of cultural pluralism, basically turns race from biology into culture.
From the end of World War II onward, in respectable American intellectual life explicitly racialist thinking has become increasingly negatively sanctioned. Things start turning around again, in a funny way, in the late 60s with the proliferation of ethnic pluralism, again, as a way of talking about populations. And I've argued, along with my colleague, Walter Benn Michaels, and others as well—actually, Rogers Brubaker makes a version of this argument a little more cautiously—that ”race,” “ethnos,” “nation,” are all different words for the same thing, basically. So that ambiguity was always there, even as racial liberalism spread and became the dominant understanding, the classic moment being the publication of Carleton Coon’s opus, The Origin of Races in 1962. Coon was a very prominent physical anthropologist, and chair of the Penn anthropology department for many, many years. He was also a barely closeted, active segregationist and a believer in polygenesis, which was the idea that different racial groups evolved to homosapiens from different ancestral forms. When Coon published this summation of his life's work, he was roundly attacked by the liberals in the world of physical anthropology, and you can take that as kind of a marker of the completion of the shift.
Mounk: What you’re saying is that there's an ideological commitment to thinking of race as fundamental and that it takes these different forms. The most obvious classic form of thinking of race as fundamental is biological, which really had been quite dominant in American intellectual circles in the early 20th century, for example. And then there was this moment when the pushback against that notion had succeeded. But then I guess your argument implies that the ideological commitment to race is going to lead to the appearance of a different kind of ontological form in which people try to express those racial differences or reassert the importance of race?
Reed: The modification I would make is that it may not even be so much a commitment to the idea of race, as a commitment to the idea of naturalized hierarchies; that wherever people seem to be in the world, they're supposed to be there. There's something kind of feudal about it, even. So what happens after World War II, at least in the U.S. and in the social sciences, is that the work that the race idea had done previously to root understandings of natural human difference someplace other than political economy (because from my perspective, that's always their goal, to root it someplace other than political economy as a manifestation of a contemporary class hierarchies) kind of moves to culture. We see this in the 50s, in the U.S., first in the emergence of the culture of poverty idea, but then even in the reinvention of economic inequality as “poverty.” If you read back to the late 50s and early 60s—and even the work of people who are sort of my side politically, like Michael Harrington—there's a powerful inclination to provide cultural realist accounts of why people are poor. And insofar as cultural life is understood to lie outside political economy, then you've got another version of an essentialist argument. By the late 60s, with black power and the emergence of the Chicano and the Puerto Rican movements for social justice—as those migrate into discourses that are based on culture and nationality even with the more or less romantic connections to third world, anticolonial insurgencies—they did the same kind of work. By the 80s, or certainly by the end of the Clinton administration, class and political economy have disappeared from American political discourse (or at least policy-oriented discourse) almost entirely. And culture is all that's available for us to understand existing inequalities.
I think that something really big has happened since 2015, or certainly after the 2008 crash. As levels of economic inequality in the US have become greater, as the society has become more polarized economically, since then, the two main languages of response are from, on the right, what we can summarize as reactionary nationalism, basically. And then on the other side is “disparatarianism” as a standard of injustice. This is a notion I've been on the warpath against for quite some time, because there's nothing transformative about correcting for disparities based on descriptive hierarchy, or ideas of a scripted difference. And from that perspective, you began to have a sort of half-baked Keynesian moment in American political history, where addressing disparate outcomes seems like a reasonable, small ‘d’ democratic thing to do—it seems less and less so as that has completely displaced efforts to reduce economic inequality, and as the society has become more and more polarized, with respect to wealth and income, because the model there is that the society could be one in which 1% of the population controls 95% of the resources, and it would be just, so long as 12% of the 1% were black and 14% were Hispanic, or half women, and so on.
Mounk: So, the far right rediscovers that they think of certain groups as inferior. That's worrying. And it's shocking, and it's important to fight against it. But there's nothing intellectually interesting or surprising about that.
However, as somebody who grew up with communist grandparents, as a member of the youth movement of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, I understood what it was to be on the left: as a kind of human universalism which didn't deny the recognition of colonial injustices or the existence of racism in the midst of our society. But the goal was to recognize that these differences should be overcome and are not as important as the things that humans share. How is it that this has ceased to be the dominant intellectual mode of the left, which is instead a proud embrace of the idea that somebody being white, or Latino or black is really the most important, absolutely fundamental thing about them, and that, in fact, society would be better if people were more aware of these ethnic differences?
Reed: Well, that's a very good question. And I'll start by expressing how simpatico we are about this. My father, at a minimum, moved in the orbit of the Communist Party. My mother was a Catholic Worker kind of Catholic. I grew up the way you grew up. I grew up to appreciate the Enlightenment, and not least because I suffered through 12 years of Catholic school. I've watched this happen over the last 40 years. And a simple answer, or response, is that it happened because it appealed to the sensibilities of the ruling class. But more problematic, I think—I guess I start by saying, and maybe I'll take this transition that you described as evidence, but I think a discussion has to begin from the acknowledgement that there is no “left” in the U.S. and hasn't been for quite some time.
Now, I realize that in saying that, what I'm actually stipulating is that a left is what you and I grew up understanding the left to be, but through a process of semantic inflation and infiltration, over the last four decades, what people generally understand to be the left has been once again disconnected from political economy and linked to performances of identity. Basically, I think that the dialectical connection here is the retreat of working class politics and the retreat of a working class left, which you can trace back to the purging of AFL-CIO in World War II. For instance, and pardon the parenthetical, but part of the debate over how to shape the war on poverty in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations was understood by participants—or at least those who understood themselves to be aligned with the new left—as a debate between ossified bureaucratic and mechanistic “one size fits all” programs of macroeconomic intervention, versus the emerging fascination with the pursuit of authenticity. And the Ford Foundation was in the middle of this. Going through the debates and the documents, you can see how the non-economic position came to be seen as the progressive one. Whereas the arguments made by people like Walter Reuther from UAW and A. Philip Randolph and others were that, basically, people were poor because they didn't have jobs that were good enough, and didn't have money, and so, therefore, the way to fight poverty is through creating opportunities for meaningful employment for people. And that got castigated as a right wing position. This notion that and there's a bait and switch here, or like a sleight of hand—
Mounk:—explain it to me, because I'm not as familiar with it. So the position that you're talking about is basically to say, “Look, the way to overcome poverty is to make sure that people who are poor, with all of the cultural consequences that has, get access to the jobs to be able to get out of poverty, and also some of the cultural things we might be worried about like, say, single mothers or whatever, will be overcome. That became a right wing position. What became the left wing position? Or what was the other pole in that debate?
Reed: Yeah. The other pole was—and here's the sleight of hand—that people were poor because they lacked a sense of personal capacity. This was the foundation of the community mobilization approach to fighting poverty, the idea being that you organize the poor to act on their own behalf, and somehow, magically, that would turn into the end of poverty. Hardly anyone recognized that, at the time, in the terms in which I'm describing it now. But in effect, the psychologistic understanding of the roots of poverty was becoming part of the basis of the new left’s understanding of radicalism.
And I can't tell you how many frustrating meetings I attended when I was in college—people thinking the point of politics was to express themselves and to realize their deeper identities and aspirations. That's one tributary that flowed into this great river that we're talking about today. And then in the mid-to-late 80s, in the academy, in particular, the newer disciplines of Black Studies, feminist studies, etc, emerged with an aura of ersatz politics or extramural political meaning about them, just as they were becoming institutionalized as solidly respected fields of study in the elite academy. Scholars in those fields were under internal pressure themselves to combine what we might call their social service justifications for their existence with demonstrations of high intellectuality. So, at that moment of need, we get another infusion of French theory, and we also get a particular kind of American appropriation of cultural studies on the British model. And they come together in a way that reinforces identitarianism. Then my colleague and friend James Scott’s work on the “hidden transcripts” of the oppressed gets appropriated by people in those disciplines to make claims about how the truth of women, blacks, Hispanics, whatever, can never be known, unless you do the deep, almost Straussian, mystified understanding of hidden meanings that can only be reached through an elaborate and an esoteric hermeneutic, which also carries with it a race-reductionist and identitarian component in the sense that there's at least a substantive argument that's packed into that, that only the black woman can really get access to the esoteric interpretation of the state of the black woman. You can see how this also becomes a career imperative.
Mounk: Fascinating. I'd never thought that what some people call “situated knowledge,” what often today is called standpoint epistemology, has one of its roots in the work of James Scott, whom I also greatly admire.
You use the term “race reductionism,” which is one of the phrases that you're well known for. What is race reductionism, and why should we be worried about it?
Reed: I give my son credit for the term. And on a rhetorical level, it's obviously a reversal of the “class reductionism” charge that people levy at the likes of us. But there's an organic foundation for the term. If you start out from the assumption that the black experience in North America has been uniformly defined by racism, white supremacy and even like a sort of demon theory of a transcendent anti-blackness that has animated the history of the entire world, what that means is that you're reducing everything that has to do with black Americans’ experience to their racial classification. And we see that now for instance, shortly after the 2016 presidential campaign, an MSNBC host, who I describe as a tribune of neoliberal anti-racism, Joy-Ann Reid, in an interview with Trevor Noah on The Daily Show, declared that black people don't have an interest in stuff like free public higher education, or Medicare for All, or a $15 an hour wage, or employment security, or access to a secure and dignified retirement. What black people actually want is a “reckoning,” as they call it, and to have the racial conversation. That can only work, first of all, if others are at all prepared to accept her as a ventriloquist of 46 million black people, but also, if people are prepared to accept (including her, by the way) the premise that every other feature of the lives of any black person is subordinate to their racial classification, and to an agenda that purportedly can be read out from the racial classification. That seems like a textbook explanation of racial reductionism to me. And I think that's a mindset that dominates current identity politics.
Mounk: I'm struck by the fact that in the United States, even in terms of descriptive statistics, people often don't control for class. A really stupid example: OkCupid, the dating site, which once upon a time was dominant, had this blog, and they showed the percentage of respondents that various demographic groups got—and among women, black women got the fewest responses. And that was read as straightforwardly an expression of racism, when presumably a lot of what's going on with dating sites are all kinds of subtle class clues. And one of the things that drove that is that, probably, the average black user was less affluent.
Now, on the other hand, I was just in France, for a while. And there, I often get the response when I talk about any kind of form of racial injustice or something like that, “Well, it’s just about class.” I agree that class plays a large element. But I wouldn't want to deny that, on top of class, there are also forms of racial discrimination, including some reasonably convincing studies where people send in CVs with different names, for example, and it turns out the names that demark a minority group in most countries get fewer invitations to interview.
How do we talk about this in a subtle way which avoids race-reductionism, but also what I think in some of the other contexts is the denial of race entirely?
Reed: Yeah. No, I agree. In addition to stuff like the cupid site, most medical and public health research doesn't collect data by class. But researchers often use race as a proxy for class, which does the work that it does. Here's how I've come to think about that relation. Frankly, I came into politics in the mid 1960s, and was part of sections of the left that spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to deal with the so called “race-class dichotomy,” which is an issue on the American left going back to before the First World War. Race is best understood as a species of a genus of ideologies of ascriptive hierarchy, that function in class societies (we'll just take capitalism for the moment) to equilibrate, or to sustain the hierarchy, by reading it into nature. In a feudal era, peasants were peasants, because they were supposed to be peasants, or God made them peasants, or whatever. And for much of the history of the West, the women were subordinate, because they were by nature subordinate, and so on. And race does that work, and has always done that work, and race evolved to do that work. And moreover, race, in particular, is a notion that emerged within, and along with, and functional to, capitalist class processes, going back to colonial Virginia. My colleague Barbara Fields for a number of years did an exercise with her Columbia undergrads. She would ask the students to show hands if they were sitting near somebody of the same race or a different race. And then she would ask them to show hands if they were sitting next to someone who looks exactly like themselves. Her point was that homosapiens vary along more dimensions than you can shake a stick at, but only some of them become the basis for race ideology. And it just so happened that those that became the basis for race ideology were the populations that needed to be contained.
From that perspective, the race-versus-class debate is misformulated. I blanche at constructs like “race is our original sin. It's a national disease,” and all that kind of stuff. Because, yes, American racism has a particular horror, but I'll tell you (and this is another anecdote)—This past summer, I saw a documentary on the Vietnamese American population in the city of New Orleans, as part of the annual film festival. Before the film started, there was a generic short video of what I understand now is called the “land acknowledgement.” And it was a video of the Mississippi River with a boat in it, but the voiceover is giving credit to the multiple Native American populations who had lived in the area, going back to before the 18th century, and the African slaves—this, that, and the other. And I mentioned this to my son the next morning, and he asked a question that was on my mind when I watched this, which was, “Was there any reference to the 20,000 plus Irish immigrants who died digging the New Basin Canal in the city in the 1830s?” And of course, there was not. For obvious reasons.
There were other forms of oppression and exploitation—if there’s going to be a discussion of what deserves moral opprobrium, then I think they all do in an equal way. And I think that the sanctimonious discourse about the singularity of racism kind of gets in the way of understanding what it was, how it emerged, and what the links are between then and now.
I want to give props to a legal historian, Robert Steinfeld, who's done really great work on the origins of the idea of free labor, mainly in the U.S. and U.K. One of the points he makes early on is that, despite the moralistic discourse, when you look historically, slavery in the new world is not the anomaly that needs to be explained. Into the 19th century, the vast majority of all labor had been bound in some way or another. The thing that needs to be explained is the emergence of the modern idea of free labor in the 19th century. I think I've gone all the way around Robin Hood's barn again, but did I glancingly, at least, respond to the question you posed?
Mounk: No, absolutely. I think that’s incredibly helpful, there's a million details I would like to discuss further, but I want to make sure that we talk a little bit about your latest book as well, which is about one particular form that racial discrimination took in the United States: Jim Crow.
How would you describe the nature of Jim Crow, and how does that differ from what our listeners may assume?
Reed: To me, the Jim Crow order was, first of all, historically specific. I've often said to my classes that all four of my grandparents were sentient beings, probably a couple of them were adults already, by the time that the system was consolidated in the years around the First World War. Its back was broken by the time I was 18 years old. So that's it. It was not much more than a 60 year system. And it was not any fun for those 60 years. But it began and ended. And I think the system emerged as a response to a particular problem—a couple of different problems actually, that were experienced by the Southern political and economic dominant class: the merchant, planter capitalist class. One of the problems was the objective problem of accumulation, right, just because of the nature of the southern economy toward the end of the 19th century. But the other was—
Mounk: —What's the problem of accumulation?
Reed: Well, beginning around 1880, there was a long-term depression in the cotton economy. Planters in particular had been cash strapped since the “treasonous insurrection” of 1861-1865, and were increasingly in hock to northern financiers. So that's kind of the foundation for one node in the Lost Cause account that sees the tattered south as being a colonial subject of the north. But since Emancipation, planters had been—it seemed to me, in retrospect—maybe unnaturally concerned about the possibilities of cross-racial alliances between poor and working class whites and black freedmen, especially after the 15th Amendment enfranchised black men. But there were enough examples of that insurgent alliance being effective between 1868 and 1890 to justify the fear. And then in the early 1890s, blacks and whites aligned in the populist movement, in 1892 and again in 1896, a Populist-Republican fusion alliance won statewide office in North Carolina and was reelected in 1896. After the ruling class—call the dog by its right name—succeeded in suppressing the populist insurgency, there was a concerted move to reassert dominant class power across the board, the first step of which was disfranchisement. More than 90% of blacks were disfranchised and, depending on what state you are in, up to a quarter to a third of whites. A number that sticks out in my mind is that in the 1896 presidential election, more than 100,000 blacks voted in the state of Louisiana. In the 1904 election, fewer than a thousand voted. Disfranchisement then became the pretext for the imposition of a political, economic, social, and cultural order based explicitly on codified white supremacy and that's what the Jim Crow order was.
Mounk: And so I take it that part of the project of this book is revisionary. You want to change how we think about what life under Jim Crow was like, or what the nature of Jim Crow was. So tell us more about what Jim Crow meant for primarily its victims and how you think we misunderstand the nature of it at times.
Reed: I'll try. As is normally the case, people who are on the victimized end of an oppressive system, to some extent, will experience it as everyday life, as the natural order of things, and you make adaptations. You find ways to define dignity, personal dignity or security, whatever. One facet of the set of commonsensical understanding to correct is that it wasn't like what my son often refers to as “white people's permanent sadism camp.” It was also an order that was imposed on everyone, on whites as well as blacks, and everyone had to figure out ways—especially in the domains of life that weren't explicitly regulated by statute—to accommodate themselves to it. It was, as oppressive systems typically are if they survive for any length of time, malleable and evolving internally on its own. Frankly, the first order of correction for me is that most Americans, even most students, tend to think of that period in American history, or for that matter any other, as like a blur of the unbroken bad old days, where slavery and Jim Crow are indistinguishable, they're the same thing, and all of a sudden, something happened. And this is another problem I'd like to correct. There are people who can't believe that I'm contending that the Jim Crow border was finite. Or that it was defeated. In the fall of 2017, I taught, for the first time in a long time, a grad course on black American political thought. And it was really more of a bibliography course than a research course, so the readings were massive. And one of the students who was a first year—probably first semester, who hadn't been steeped in this kind of stuff—led a discussion of readings of very large, massive books by a bunch of prominent authors from the mid 30s to the mid 40s. And when she began her comments to lead the discussion, she said, “Well, the first thing that struck me, was that of all these people, no one talked about the need to combat racism.” They were all focused on specific programs and policies to fight against, and in specific programs or policies to fight for. They all also understood that an indispensable key to improving the conditions of black Americans was to pursue what you and I would call a “social democratic agenda.” And that's been lost also.
One of the problems that I'd like to do my little bit to correct is this tendency to reduce politics or thinking about race purely to attitudes. Yes, you can see something that you can call racism, but “racism” doesn't do anything. It's people and institutions. And then that opens up to other totally unnecessary and useless debates: “Is ‘x’ action, or idea, racist?” Which isn't the point. So that's one of the larger objectives I had in mind with the book.
Mounk: What kinds of policies or political actions should we pursue to overcome the injustices that obviously still structure the United States? What do you think the implications are of being on the guard against race reductionism, recognizing that the fight against the abstract notion of racism isn't as important as the fight against the actual injustices structured along class and racial lines that we experience today, and what does all of that mean for the kinds of political action that you would like listeners of this podcast to take?
Reed: I published an article last summer, and it's called, “The Whole Country is the Reichstag.” And the point of that article is based on reading and thinking not just about the U.S., but about a crisis in neoliberalism that's more global. I put it in the form of a question: “What if we've gotten to a point where neoliberalism can no longer deliver enough, to enough of the population, to maintain its legitimacy as a nominally democratic order?” Well, then it seems like we may be at the ‘T’ of an intersection, where there are only two directions to go, and straight ahead isn't one of them. The right is the right. It's the real danger, I think, of an authoritarian (or fascist, I'm not going to quibble) takeover of one sort or another in the United States. And I'm not going to quibble between the ballot box and putsch, and they often come together anyway. The other direction is moving in something like a more social democratic direction that connects public policy to satisfying working people's real needs. From our perspective, the Biden administration's first year looked better than I'd hoped, even knowing Biden. But it's kind of an interesting moment when on domestic policy, the left wing of the Biden administration is condensed around Brian Deese and BlackRock, and on the foreign policy dimension, the left wing of the administration seems to be John Mearsheimer. So, things don't look great.
We just started a podcast, and its tagline is, “What would the country look like if it were governed by and for the working class?” And that's where I think the central focus of politics needs to be. That's why I don't go to Brooklyn anymore, except to see my old friend Howard Levy from the antiwar movement, who lives there. And that's why I don't really have anything to do with the intellectual left. But the most important thing for us to do is to try to build a political movement, which has to be built from the ground up. I know Americans, especially younger ones, really want shortcuts, but I don't think there's any way around rebuilding a working class-based left in this country of the sort that you and I grew up understanding the left to be.
Mounk: As a final question, let me ventriloquize the conservative response to your criticism, the pushback that you might get to these ideas. We've talked a lot about your differences with a predominant strain of the left. And it goes back, I think, to that debate about the culture of poverty. I was really struck with a conversation I had with a conservative who said, “Look, when we talked about things like the culture of poverty in the 60s and 70s, this was portrayed as being racist, a sort of coded set of attacks on black people. But what's actually happened is that the dissolution of family structures and all the other kinds of things that we’re worried about first struck African Americans, but a decade or two later struck white people. And actually, all of the kinds of concerns that we ‘expressed’ about the evolution of black American culture were simply the vanguard of what ended up happening in working class white communities in Appalachia, in the Midwest, and all kinds of places in the country.”
They conclude that a key way of fighting against that has implications of personal responsibility or forms of cultural reform and so on. What do you think is wrong about that story?
Reed: Okay, well, I'll say three things. First, when Jeff Bezos shows some personal responsibility, then I’ll look for it from an unemployed mine worker. Second, I think conservatives who make that argument—and I've certainly heard it and read it, too—are, first of all, being disingenuous about what they were doing in the 60s and 70s, especially considering that the economic policy regime that they generated and endorsed and that the corporate Dems followed has led to an increase in immiseration among all sorts of working people. And there's nothing surprising about the fact that the putative behaviors—so much of which are often fantasies of the interpreter’s mind—are just-so stories that are extrapolated from census tract-level data. But it shouldn't be a surprise that as immiseration spreads, these other problems are going to spread. And I'd also say that personal responsibility is not the answer. I go back to the Bezos comment. What should have been happening was certainly not the retreat of the social state over the ‘80s and ‘90s, but as economic transition occurred—and it didn't just occur, it was actively encouraged and supported by the state at all levels—then supports should have been built in to accommodate people's transitions. This is just one tiny instance: the labor movement in New Jersey, coming from the Industrial Union Council, which was the last vestige of a separate CIO, crafted what they call the “job destruction penalty law,” which would have imposed a fine on every firm with a hundred or more employees that left its location in pursuit of, say, cheaper wages. Fine them a significant sum, plus you require that they pay a different sum per laid-off worker to the community to defray the cost of dislocation. Pursuit of that kind of industrial policy, at the federal level, would amount to altering the market incentives (that the people who are into market incentives like to talk about). This is the kind of social democratic approach that could have been taken, that should have been taken, to fight poverty in the first place. So, I think, as in so many other domains, the right is full of shit in that argument.
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