Saturday, October 4, 2008

"Against Diversity"

I am a regular reader of the journal New Left Review. Its one of the few places where you find unflinching radical politics combined with sharp academic rigor. The short polemic in the most recent volume entitled "Against Diversity" by Walter Benn Michaels, however is neither radical nor rigorous. Frankly, it's an embarrassment to the entire journal.

The short, rambling article is summarized in the "programme notes" at the beginning of the journal as follows: "Tears and triumphs for race and gender have dominated the discussion of the 2008 US election. Benn Michaels argues that the Obama and Clinton campaigns are victories for neoliberalism, not over it -serving only to camouflage inequality"

The baffling mention of "tears and triumphs for race and gender" notwithstanding (that will be addressed shortly), the idea that Obama and Clinton represent victories for neoliberalism despite their promiscuous use of the language of "change" is indeed an interesting topic. In my view at least, there are necessary critiques to be made of the Obama/Clinton campaigns (and the Democratic Party writ large) on the basis of their entanglement with Capital and their commitment to neoliberalism and capitalism. Undertaking such an anti-capitalist critique, however, is not Benn Michaels's aim.

Benn Michales's target in this polemic isn't neoliberalism, capitalism or the absence of American Left in the electoral arena, it's a blunt attack on anyone concerned to fight racial or sexual oppression. This sort of complaint is hardly new. Class exploitation and staggering social inequality persist, the old argument goes, precisely because too much emphasis is placed on ‘identity politics’ (an amorphous and often unclear umbrella that threatens to be so broad as to include any critical politics aimed at fighting forms of oppression other than class).

Of course, Benn-Michaels (BM) never puts the thought in quite this clear and direct a formulation. His article is, after all, a polemic: littered with exaggerated rhetoric, false dichotomies, straw-person accounts of his enemies and facts assembled in order to imply conclusions that simply don’t follow.

The first example of the above is the opening sentence of the piece, which equates “the salience of racism and sexism” with “discrimination” and “prejudice”. The move being made here is to define racism and sexism in terms of “prejudice”, “discrimination” and “the perpetuation of false stereotypes”. But it's ridiculous and downright dense to assume that the contemporary social/economic/political dimensions of racism and sexism, as they exist today, are merely a matter of personal prejudices and “false stereotypes.” Thus, BM's polemic begins with a false conception of what the phenomena of racial and sexual oppression actually are. This is classic straw-man argumentation: assume a weak and inaccurate version of what you intend to argue against, and then contrast it with (what you think) is the strongest version of your own view.

Any serious examination of, for instance, racism would take seriously many things that BM seems intent on hiding from view, e.g. critical engagement with history, serious analysis of social movements and struggles against racial oppression, the ideational/ideological features of racism, the institutional dimensions of racism, etc. If BM is right, all of these matters are simply not relevant to Left politics. That is a frightening and false position.

So, having assumed a rather anemic and unrealistic conception of what racism is, BM moves to show us how faulty such "anti-racist" politics are. In contrast to the narrow focus on “discrimination” and “prejudice”, BM points our attention to toward the "noble" concerns that have been lost amidst the alleged preoccupation with gender and race: "equality, justice and openness". In his own words:

“The US today is certainly a less discriminatory society than it was before the Civil Rights movement and the rise of feminism; but is not a more just, open and equal society. On the contrary: it is no more just, it is less open and it is much less equal.”

He continues:

“In 1947 –seven years before Brown v. Board of Education, sixteen years before The Feminine Mystique –the top fifth of American wage-earners made 43 percent of the money earned in the US. Today that same quintile gets 50.5 percent. The bottom fifth got 5 per cent of total income; today it gets 3.4 percent. After half a century of anti-racism and feminism, the US today is a less equal society than was the racist, sexist society of Jim Crow. Furthermore, virtually all of the growth in equality has taken place since the Civil Rights Act of 1965- which means not only that the struggle against discrimination have failed to alleviate inequality, but that they have been compatible with a radical expansion of it. Indeed they have helped to enable the increasing gulf between rich and poor.”(My emphasis)

Whoa, whoa. Hold it right there for a second. Let’s try to make sense out of this.

It’s certainly true that income inequality has increased since 1947. It’s also true that virtually all of the most dramatic growth in income inequality occurred after 1965; it began in the early 1970s. But what has any of this to do with Brown v. Board of Education, Betty Freidan, anti-racism and women's lib? Very little. The relatively low measure (by US Standards) of income inequality in 1947 was a reflection of gains won from past struggles in the 30s, post-War Keynesian (left-liberal) policies and the broad economic circumstances of that era. The increase of inequality to which BM draws our attention, actually began with the global economic landslide of the early 1970s and the concurrent revival of the Right and laissez-faire economic policy (i.e. neoliberalism). This had nothing to do with 1960s social movements or the Civil Rights Act (which was passed and signed into law in 1964, not 1965). The economic downturn that began in 1973 was a global phenomenon, as was the concomitant rise of neoliberalism as a global political/economic movement. To blame that on, say, the Voting Rights Act is downright crazy.

It's also completely ignorant and unfair to the actual history of the struggle against Jim Crow as well as the early 1970s swell of feminist activism; both of these struggles were hardly indifferent to or supportive of capitalism. On the contrary, both struggled mercilessly against the imperatives of Capital. Some obvious examples, on the anti-racist front, include MLK's 'poor peoples' campaign and his explicit turn against capitalism, Malcolm X's late arguments against capitalist exploitation, the Black Panther Party's staunch anti-capitalist platform, etc. It's almost as though BM wants to wipe out the memory of these movements. Surely he is old enough that he should be able recall what they actually stood for.

Now, BM takes a couple of swings at neoliberalism by referring to the Gini Coefficient and arguing that the American Dream is ‘no longer a reality’ (can anyone say “fucking duh?"). It seems that some have been so glib as to take this to be a Left-wing argument. But any true Leftist here would ask: when was the so-called "American Dream" ever a reality in capitalism? Could BM perhaps give us a date, a "golden era", a point in time to which we should attempt to return? And what was the "American Dream" anyway? Was it the suburban, white, reactionary patriarchal family structure characteristic of much of post-war America? Was it the so-called postwar "affluent society" marked by its unrelenting endorsement of over-consumption, single-family homes, and large gas-guzzling automobiles? Is this what is no longer a reality for some sectors of the population?

Now there are interesting, critical, nuanced things to say about the politics of postwar America and the rise of neoliberalism. For example, we could talk about how struggles of the 1960s were derailed in the early 1970s. We could talk about how militant anti-racist organizations were dismantled, infiltrated and slaughtered by the Federal Government. We could talk about 1973, the global economic crisis that followed, and the re-consolidation of class-power by elites that followed. We could talk about how capital crushed organized labor across the board. We could examine how all of these factors lead to a reconfiguration of policies and institutions that resulted in steadily rising inequality for the next 40 years. None of this, I repeat, none of this, however, is part of BM's analysis. His answer is that anti-racist and anti-sexist struggles are to blame for our problems.

So, we've seen that BM is big on pointing to the one statistic he seems to understand: income inequality. But what, precisely, does a rise in income inequality have to do with concerns for racial and sexual justice?

Not much. But again, we have to remember that BM isn’t interested in the actual features of neoliberalism or the economic/political history of the 20th century; his target isn’t capitalism at all, and the end of the day his target is it’s feminism and anti-racism, as such.

Some of his defenders seem baffled when I make this claim, but this speaks more to their imprecise reading of the article than to BM's actual position as stated in his writings.

What else are we supposed to make of his absurd claim that “a half century of anti-racism and feminism” (wondering what the hell he means by "anti racism" and "feminism"?... yeah, so are the rest of us) has not just been compatible with radical expansions of inequality, but has “helped to enable” it? This is preposterous bullshit.

He tells us that income inequality increased "in spite of" the CRM and the Women’s Movement. So what? Income inequality increased in spite a lot of things. Income inequality increased and the Right surged back into prominence despite the efforts of the Left everywhere (in spite of the struggles of labor, in spite of the anti-capitalism of New Left movements, in spite of every radical effort and struggle of the 1960s). It hardly follows that these struggles were therefore compatible with what followed (i.e. with Ronald Reagan, deregulation, privatization, the destruction of the welfare state, union-busting, etc.).

So what is BM’s justification for his claim that feminism and anti-racist movements help “enable the increasing gap between rich and poor”? Well, it is due to the fact that sex and race are merely “sorting devices” (yeah, he actually said it). He tells us that the real inequalities “that matter most in American society”, aren’t due to racism, sexism or homophobia: they’re due solely to neoliberalism. Read this as: the only inequality that’s relevant is income inequality, that is, sexism and racism just don’t matter.

This is far worse than the imprecise, vulgar-Marxist understanding of sexism and racism as wholly reducible to a particular stage of Capital. BM's essay is a full-fledged denial that sexual and racial oppression matter for the Left at all. What he’s suggesting is that racial and sexual oppression today are merely chimeras; myths that serve to take our eye off the real culprit: neoliberalism. That isn’t just false, it’s dangerous.

But this still doesn’t explain how BM can think that “the Clinton and Obama campaigns… are victories for a commitment to justice that has no argument with inequality as long as its beneficiaries are as racially and sexually diverse as its victims”. Why on earth should we conflate feminism with the Clinton campaign, or assume that Obama is the defender of radical racial equality par excellence? Clinton, leaving aside her own anti-feminist commitments, faced all sorts of sexism from the opponents and the media during her bid for the presidency. Moreover, part of Obama’s message and appeal has to do with his avoidance of race as an issue, his denial of the gravity of racism and his Cosby-like claims that blacks take ‘personal responsibility’. If anything, Obama has put far too little emphasis on race throughout his campaign. Taking racial justice seriously means seeing Obama's candidacy as simulatenously a truly important milestone (which would bave been the case even were he a conservative Republican), as well as an opportunity for 'colorblind racists' to affirm their false belief that our society has finally overcome racism and thus silence any further discussion of racism.

Obama and Clinton no more represent a victory for neoliberalism than do Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Al Gore or John Kerry. But again, BM isn’t making a point about the poverty of American politics or its absence of a Left voice. He’s writing a polemic against anyone who takes racial and sexual oppression seriously.

It’s true that neoliberalism doesn’t have any necessary connection with an explicit and assertive racism. But it’s also true that neoliberalism doesn’t have any necessary connection with racial justice or the liberation of women either: ideologically, it is totally indifferent so long as the goal of capital accumulation is accomplished. But this is a sense in which neoliberalism is a horrifying ideology: it understands us only as reified exchangeable units; commodified subjects which are equivalent to a quantifiable set of consumer preferences.

So, if BM thinks that race and gender are merely ‘sorting devices’, this can only be because he has succumbed to the reifying logic of neoliberalism of which he claims to be an opponent.

This article is atrocious. It takes a truth about inequality caused by neoliberalism, and tries to weave it into a false narrative about the "evils" of feminism and anti-racism. It paves over deep, systemic injustices by reducing struggles against racial/sexual subordination to a narrow, soft-core obsession with ‘prejudice’ and ‘discrimination’. It doesn’t even provide a coherent argument against neoliberalism, but rather uses some of the ravages of capitalism to justify a racist and sexist denial of the political relevance of race and sex. Rather than seeing the complicated, intricate ways in which different forms of oppression are woven together, BM offers us a crude scapegoating tale about the sources of injustice. In this sense, BM is basically a less aggressive Pat Buchanan.

The dirty secret of the piece is that it attempts to cover up an unjustified disdain for feminism and anti-racism by pointing to a few statistics about income inequality. If you want a trenchant critique of neoliberalism, read someone else because BM's lukewarm assessment isn't blowing this anti-capitalist's skirt up in the least. He would do well to drop the flimsy critique of inequality (which reeks of reformist-liberal baggage), and simply join the ranks of David Horowitz in espousing his hatred for feminism and anti-racist politics. Or why not, on this view, join up with colorblind racists like Ron Paul who argue that Rightist libertarians cannot in principle be racists because when they look at society they "don't see" race, only individuals (i.e. atomized, egoistic, utility-maximizing robots shorn of any relation to history, politics or culture).

In fairness to BM, I do think there is a point to be made about the poverty of a feminism that embraces neoliberalism, or an anti-racism that did not also make a critique of capitalism part of its project. However, BM doesn't make any nuanced points here, perhaps because he's not sympathetic to these projects. After all, why think seriously about feminist theory if sexual oppression is merely a myth that serves to blind us to income inequality? I've got a serious problem with even placing BM's argument on the Left at all. His argument is so easily appropriated by the Pat Buchanan Right it's not even funny.

Perhaps I've got the wrong idea, but I thought being a socialist meant more than just thinking that income inequality was wrong. I thought being a socialist meant thinking that oppression was something worth fighting against, whatever its form. I thought Marxism was about critiquing production, not some moralistic objection to the more egregiously unequal distributions that capitalism yields.

Reading this in NLR, of all places, was a serious disappointment. This isn’t what you expect to find in a journal where one reads the likes of Nancy Fraser and Judith Butler. This isn’t even a serious, coherent or innovative piece: its polemical trash.


Scott said...

"Hey Benn Michaels, I'm more left than you."

You may or may not believe that trying to engage liberals and the moderate left is advisable, but if you imagine a leftist trying to do so, I think it would look very much like Benn Michael's recent campaign.

Merely insisting that capitalist critique existed prior to Benn Michaels is not exactly an intelligent response to a polemic aimed at those who haven't bookmarked yet. And to interpret Benn Michaels as saying not only that racism and sexism are now chimeras, but that the civil rights movement and feminism contributed to the triumph of neoliberalism is to call into question your own literacy. Clearly what Benn Michaels is suggesting is that these things were embraced after the fact by the left, to console themselves in their bad faith, and by the right, in order to distract from class.

T said...

Hi Scott-

I'm not sure what planet you're living on, but those of us on earth have a hard time believing that the Right, as you put it, really buys into fighting racism in order to "distract" from class.

On the contrary, Capital and the Right in this country have often stoked racism in order to divide an conquer. I refer you to such obvious examples as the "Southern Strategy" and the recent anti-immigrant attacks waged by the right wings of both parties.

Moreover, there absolutely no grounds for thinking that any group or politician on the right has EVER done anything to seriously challenge racial oppression or sexual hierarchy. Yes they have placed token black people and women in high places: but any leftist who has moved beyond the intellectual equivalent of kindergarten knows that such appointments are merely window dressing. The same is true of appointments of Labor bureaucrats to high positions: everyone knows that this is merely a way of staving of challenges from below.

The majority of black people in this country continue to be consigned to life in urban ghettos with few opportunities and appalling conditions. These entire populations are also criminalized and harassed by law enforcement with the result that horrifying numbers of black men are currently locked up behind bars. Read a couple of statistics about black unemployment vs. white unemployment: the numbers are heart-stopping.

The task of Leftists is precisely to fight against exploitation and oppression. Michaels is no leftist: he simply denies that certain forms of oppression exist. Moreover- he flatly deines the obvious fact that certain populations in the US are super-exploited!

How can one ever expect to build a mass movement if you buy into the (racist, sexist) premises that WBM is selling?

He is no leftist: he is a Pat Buchanan-esque scapegoater who has no sophisticated analysis of capitalism and offers tepid welfare state solutions to huge structural problems.

I note that the fascist BNP in the UK support many of the economic populist proposals (increased social spending, more progressive taxation) that WBM supports. Simply buying into a couple of policies like that doesn't make you a Leftist! If you can't pick out Right-wing populism from genuine Leftist politics, that's worrying.