21 October 2008

Shuffling the deck chairs of inequality

I've been thinking a lot about this essay by Walter Benn Michaels that Richard Estes linked a couple of weeks ago (and Estes' post is worth a full look). Michaels writes:

The us [sic] today is certainly a less discriminatory society than it was before the Civil Rights movement and the rise of feminism; but it 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.

Why? Because it is exploitation, not discrimination, that is the primary producer of inequality today. It is neoliberalism, not racism or sexism (or homophobia or ageism) that creates the inequalities that matter most in American society; racism and sexism are just sorting devices. In fact, one of the great discoveries of neoliberalism is that they are not very efficient sorting devices, economically speaking. If, for example, you are looking to promote someone as Head of Sales in your company and you are choosing between a straight white male and a black lesbian, and the latter is in fact a better salesperson than the former, racism, sexism and homophobia may tell you to choose the straight white male but capitalism tells you to go with the black lesbian. Which is to say that, even though some capitalists may be racist, sexist and homophobic, capitalism itself is not

This is also why the real (albeit very partial) victories over racism and sexism represented by the Clinton and Obama campaigns are not victories over neoliberalism but victories for neoliberalism: 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.
I imagine this is going to drive American liberals stark raving mad if they ever get wind of it, and Michaels ought to be prepared to learn all the ways in which he hates women and minorities. Modern liberals see themselves as the only acceptable vanguard of these social struggles, even though their ancestors were mostly tagging after folks of a more radical ilk got the ball rolling. If your prescription for fighting inequality doesn't end ultimately in voting a straight-ticket Democratic ballot, there's obviously some prejudiced skeleton in your closet you must be hiding, and the liberals are going to find out what it is.

But this is a worthwhile point. Much argument goes in in identity-liberal circles over the status of "allies" who are white, straight, or male (pick any or all), among them perfidous lefties--probably spoiled WASP's, the buggers--who don't toe the liberal/Democratic line. However, as long as you're backing non-discrimination-under-neoliberalism as Michaels describes, it's a mistake to believe we have any truck with you that's more than temprorary and limited in scope.
On a similar point, If There is Hope... writes about the fate of the Liberal Party in Canada in the middle of a (great) post on last week's elections. DJN here is talking about the attempt to push a consolidated left-of-center "Anybody But Coservative" vote.
The Liberals have reversed the now famous “culture war” strategy for the American Republicans. They have maintained a progressive position on social issues – women’s rights, immigrant rights – but have been hardcore neoliberals in the process. This has, as Thomas Frank famously said of working-class Americans, led to millions of Canadians voting against their economic interests by voting Liberal. The Liberals maintain this and the ABCers fell for it once again who ignore the fact that the Liberal attacks on social spending disproportionately affects women, immigrants, the poor, etc, or that the Liberals propped up the Tories the ABCers oppose so much for nearly three years. The ABCers collapse into the worst kind of lesser-evilism, content that the Liberals don’t attack abortion rights while their cuts to social spending leave millions of women without family doctors, without the healthcare they need for themselves and children, without wage parity with men, without adequate and affordable housing, and so on. Why is this considered "a choice" when there is the NDP?
Sadly, the same kind of desperate compromise (i.e. succumbing to pasty centrism) that has watered down the American left has seeped its way into Canada as well. Of course, he could just as easily be talking about the Democrats (who are not even that socially progressive, really), but, of course, there is no alternative here, a fact the Democrats get a lot of mileage from. But more on that a bit later.