Let them eat Diversity.
On the politics of identity.
Though he might not appreciate the cliché, Walter Benn Michaels is no stranger to controversy. In the early 1980s he wrote a series of articles with Steven Knapp entitled “Against Theory,” in which it was argued that literary works meant only what their authors intended them to mean. He created a stir beyond the Ivory Tower with a 2006 book, The Trouble with Diversity, premised around the idea that a focus on cultural diversity at the expense of economic equality has stunted resistance to neoliberalism.
Neoliberalism is often presented as a unified, homogenous ideology, but you differentiate between “left” and “right” neoliberalisms — what’s the difference and which one dominates American politics today?
The differentiation between left and right neoliberalism doesn’t really undermine the way it which it is deeply unified in its commitment to competitive markets and to the state’s role in maintaining competitive markets. 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.
One of the first major works of neoliberal economics by an American is Becker’s [The] Economics of Discrimination, which is designed precisely to show that in competitive economies you can’t afford to discriminate. Foucault sort of marks the beginning of neoliberalism in Europe with the horror at what the Nazi state did and the recognition that you can legitimize the state in a much more satisfactory manner by making it the guardian of competitive markets rather than the guardian of the German volk. And 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.
A bit further into the interview here.
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. So the model of social justice is not that the rich don’t make as much and the poor make more, the model of social justice is that the rich make whatever they make, but an appropriate percentage of them are minorities or women. That’s a long answer to your question, but it is a serious question and the essence of the answer is precisely that internationalization, the new mobility of both capital and labor, has produced a contemporary anti-racism that functions as a legitimization of capital rather than as resistance or even critique.