Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Let Them Eat Diversity!

See this magnificent interview of Walter Benn Michaels in the socialist magazine Jacobin:
Michaels, Walter Benn. 2011. “Let Them Eat Diversity. On the Politics of Identity,” Jacobin Issue 1
Granted there is a bit of exaggeration here and there, and some vulgar Marxism, but this article is brilliant stuff.

The fundamental arguments of Walter Benn Michaels in this interview, written in 2011, are as follows:
(1) there is, in reality, a right-wing and left-wing neoliberalism.

(2) the left-wing neoliberals actually fail to understand that their beliefs reinforce and support neoliberalism, and that they are unwitting tools of neoliberalism:
“For me the distinction is that ‘left neoliberals’ are people who don’t understand themselves as neoliberals. They think that their commitments to anti-racism, to anti-sexism, to anti-homophobia constitute a critique of neoliberalism. But if you look at the history of the idea of neoliberalism you can see fairly quickly that neoliberalism arises as a kind of commitment precisely to those things. ....

... today’s orthodoxy is the idea that social justice consists above all in defense of property and the attack of discrimination. This is at the heart of neoliberalism and right-wing neoliberals understand this and left-wing neoliberals don’t.”
Michaels, Walter Benn. 2011. “Let Them Eat Diversity. On the Politics of Identity,” Jacobin Issue 1
(3) Michaels points out that early American neoliberal Gary S. Becker in his book The Economics of Discrimination (Chicago & London, 1973) argued that discrimination in capitalism on the basis of race, class or gender is inefficient and reduces incomes.

The tendency of capitalist production, in other words, is to break down such barriers in the name of economic rationality.

This is exactly the argument that Noam Chomsky has made:
See, capitalism is not fundamentally racist—it can exploit racism for its purposes, but racism isn’t built into it. Capitalism basically wants people to be interchangeable cogs, and differences among them, such as on the basis of race, usually are not functional. I mean, they may be functional for a period, like if you want a super exploited workforce or something, but those situations are kind of anomalous. Over the long term, you can expect capitalism to be anti-racist—just because it’s anti-human. And race is in fact a human characteristic—there’s no reason why it should be a negative characteristic, but it is a human characteristic. So therefore identifications based on race interfere with the basic ideal that people should be available just as consumers and producers, interchangeable cogs who will purchase all the junk that’s produced—that’s their ultimate function, and any other properties they might have are kind of irrelevant, and usually a nuisance.”
from Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power (2002)
(4) right-wing neoliberalism has actually therefore enthusiastically and logically adopted “social justice” as a strategy in the “defense of property” and capitalist enterprise.

(5) though Michaels mentions the Marxist falling rate of profit doctrine in his explanation of the development of capitalism, I have no doubt we can ditch this as Marxist dogma (see here and here).

More important is Michaels’ analysis of the connection between mass immigration and globalised neoliberalism:
“An easy way to look at this would be to say that the conditions of mobility of labor and mobility of capital have since World War II required an extraordinary upsurge in immigration. The foreign born population in the US today is something like 38 million people, which is roughly equivalent to the entire population of Poland. This is a function of matching the mobility of capital with the mobility of labor, and when you begin to produce these massive multi-racial or multi-national or as we would call them today multi-cultural workforces, you obviously need technologies to manage these work forces.

In the US this all began in a kind of powerful way with the Immigration Act of 1965, which in effect repudiated the explicit racism of the Immigration Act of the 1924 and replaced it with largely neoliberal criteria. ….

While at the same time we’ve had this increased immigration from Mexico, people from the lower-end of the economy, filling jobs that otherwise cannot be filled — or at least not filled at the price capital would prefer to pay. So there is a certain sense in which the internationalism intrinsic to the neoliberal process requires a form of anti-racism and indeed neoliberalism has made very good use of the particular form we’ve evolved, multiculturalism, in two ways.

First, there isn’t a single US corporation that doesn’t have an HR office committed to respecting the differences between cultures, to making sure that your culture is respected whether or not your standard of living is. And, second, multiculturalism and diversity more generally are even more effective as a legitimizing tool, because they suggest that the ultimate goal of social justice in a neoliberal economy is not that there should be less difference between the rich and the poor — indeed the rule in neoliberal economies is that the difference between the rich and the poor gets wider rather than shrinks — but that no culture should be treated invidiously and that it’s basically OK if economic differences widen as long as the increasingly successful elites come to look like the increasingly unsuccessful non-elites.”
Michaels, Walter Benn. 2011. “Let Them Eat Diversity. On the Politics of Identity,” Jacobin Issue 1
So the practical effect of neoliberalism is not just to use cheap labour for unskilled jobs, hold down real wages, or break down the effectiveness of trade unions through a diverse workforce, but to be concerned with getting minorities into the new neoliberal elite, so that elite is diverse, even when economic inequality soars.

(6) Michaels has a cutting analysis of Postmodernism, and floats the idea that “postmodernism” is “the official ideology of neoliberalism.”

Even more, academic education in the humanities, steeped in Postmodernism and SJW cults, has this remarkable trait:
“… elite universities more generally do a very good job of providing the upper middle class with its impressively good anti-racist, pro-gay-marriage conscience. But the more striking thing here is that when it comes to respecting difference, the academic world is hardly very different from the corporate world. The kind of distinctions and divisions that academics have learned to make in various identity categories are absolutely matched in sophistication by the ones that are made by any major US corporation. ….

... if you get to the core of it, anti-discrimination — which is after all something we are all, including the general American public, committed to — has become the almost exclusive criterion of political morality. American society today, both legally and politically, has a strong commitment to the idea that discrimination is the worst thing you can do, that paying somebody a pathetic salary isn’t too bad but paying somebody a pathetic salary because of his or her race or sex is unacceptable. That is, in some sense, built into the logic of liberal capitalism, but it has reached new heights in the last thirty or forty years. And from that standpoint the American academy is really only following along with what is been central to American society more generally.”
Michaels, Walter Benn. 2011. “Let Them Eat Diversity. On the Politics of Identity,” Jacobin Issue 1
(7) Michaels even argues that the core of the Tea Party Movement was an element of profound middle class – even upper middle class – hostility to neoliberalism on the issue of mass immigration:
“The truth is, it’s hard to find any political movement that’s really against neoliberalism today, the closest I can come is the Tea Party. The Tea Party represents in my view, not actually a serious, because it’s so inchoate and it’s so in a certain sense diluted, but nonetheless a real reaction against neoliberalism that is not simply a reaction against neoliberalism from the old racist Right. It’s a striking fact that what the American Left mainly wants to do is reduce the Tea Party to racists as quickly as humanly possible. They’re thrilled when some Nazis come out and say “Yeah, we support the Tea Party” or some member of the Tea Party says something racist, which is frequently enough. But you can’t understand the real politics of the Tea Party unless you understand how important their opposition to illegal immigration is. Because who’s for illegal immigration? As far as I know only one set of people is for illegal immigration, I mean you may be [as a Marxist], but as far as I know the only people who are openly for illegal immigration are neoliberal economists.

First of all, neoliberal economists are completely for open borders, in so far as that’s possible. Friedman said years ago that, ‘You can’t have a welfare state and open borders,’ but of course the point of that was ‘open the borders, because that’ll kill the welfare state.’ ….

“… one of the primary sort of marks of the triumph of neoliberalism in the US is a very high tolerance of illegal immigration, and that illegal immigration is the kind of ne plus ultra of the labor mobility that neoliberalism requires.
I mean that’s why for years — even though it’s a kind of contradiction in terms — as a policy it’s worked well. The Bush administration did everything it could to talk against illegal immigration but leave it alone and I’m sure the Obama administration would do the same thing except its hand’s being forced by the Tea Party. So you get these people who are saying illegal immigration sucks, and even Glenn Beck will say ‘immigration good, illegal immigration bad’ and, what he’s reacting against is not, as he thinks, socialism but currently existing capitalism, but he has no clue.”
Michaels, Walter Benn. 2011. “Let Them Eat Diversity. On the Politics of Identity,” Jacobin Issue 1
Events have moved on since Michaels said this, and the Trump movement – in important ways – is, I would argue, a right-wing populist movement against neoliberalism.

(8) American liberals have become infested with the idea that the major problem of modern society is racism, and anti-racism a panacea for all ills, when of course the major problem is the destructive effects of neoliberal capitalism.

(9) Michaels points out that most of the poor people in America – given the fact that most people are white – are of course white working class people, but American liberals are often not just indifferent to the poor white working class, but actively hostile to them with a vicious SJW mentality that sees such people as the worst type of racist, sexist, homophobic evil oppressors.

In fact, “anti-racism” is now the official religion of both the mainstream left and right:
“… there is an important sense in which anti-racism is absolutely the official ideology because no one can imagine themselves to be committed to racism. It’s become a kind of moral imperative rather than a political position, deployed by the Right as well as the Left.”
Michaels, Walter Benn. 2011. “Let Them Eat Diversity. On the Politics of Identity,” Jacobin Issue 1
But of course identity politics based on this obsession with witch hunts against racism and discrimination cannot provide the real economic solutions to the disaster of neoliberalism.
That is a lot to digest here, but it seems to me there are excellent insights that are absolutely correct.

Moreover, Michaels has an interesting book on this subject here:
Michaels, Walter Benn. 2006. The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. Metropolitan Books, New York.
Becker, Gary S. 1973. The Economics of Discrimination. University of Chicago Press, Chicago & London.

Michaels, Walter Benn. 2006. The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. Metropolitan Books, New York.

Michaels, Walter Benn. 2011. “Let Them Eat Diversity. On the Politics of Identity,” Jacobin Issue 1

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Lord Keynes @Lord_Keynes2


  1. Maybe I am understanding his point incorrectly, but if more African American, native American, Latino, and other historically poorer minorities are entering the class of millionaires - shouldn't that be something to celebrate?

    Isn't it a great thing that the elite today looks quite different from the elite yesterday? That it can change?

    But for Walter Benn Michaels, that is a problem is taking away the attention away from poverty?

    Even though groups formerly under poverty are becoming incredibly successful?

    1. Prateek,

      The racial composition of the ruling economic elite should not make much of a difference to regular working people. Why is it better for the ruling class to be more diverse? What difference does it really make when their class interests stay the same? What do regular blacks and Mexicans gain if more blacks and Mexicans become CEOs?

      This is the problem with the whole diversity movement. It doesn't really offer anything to those individuals who do not make it to the upper strata of society (which is the vast majority) except some tribalistic psychological benefit that some of their own tribe "made it."

      It is the same thing with modern feminism. Some working-class woman is supposed to be all joyous over the idea of Hillary Clinton becoming president, even though Hillary’s neoliberal policies might make her life objectively worse.

      To think about it another way, what concrete benefits do regular whites get from knowing that whites make up a large percentage of the wealthy? Other than maybe some “white pride” I would say they don’t get any benefits at all.

      If average whites benefited from this mysterious “white privilege” then why is Western history full of examples of violent conflict between white workers/peasants and white economic elites?

  2. I really don't know where you get this idea that these groups are "formerly under poverty." Has some magic formula been invented and now every minority is prosperous all of a sudden? A few individuals becoming rich is besides the point, just useful for the "everyone can make it" propaganda used to mask overall group dynamics.

  3. Seems to concur with a lot of what you're saying:

  4. Ain't no mealy-mouth "diversity" or "postmodernism" or "social justice" about it:

    Jill Stein went on FOX News and destroyed the Neocons, by articulating where, why and how US Policy in the Middle East is what's causing the problem. And how steps can be taken to correct the problem. Putting the responsibility right where it belongs.

  5. 'The line of questioning owes much to the rise of Britain’s liberal war-makers. The Labour Party and the media have long offered them career opportunities. For a while the moral tsunami of the great crime of Iraq left them floundering, their inversions of the truth a temporary embarrassment. Regardless of Chilcot and the mountain of incriminating facts, Blair remains their inspiration, because he was a “winner”.
    Dissenting journalism and scholarship have since been systematically banished or appropriated, and democratic ideas emptied and refilled with “identity politics” that confuse gender with feminism and public angst with liberation and wilfully ignore the state violence and weapons profiteering that destroys countless lives in faraway places, like Yemen and Syria, and beckon nuclear war in Europe and across the world.'