August 28th, 2009


Is being poor a culture, or just a number?

I found this article by Walter Benn Michaels (he's an English prof at the University of Illinois) in the current London Review of Books very interesting, because it sums up concisely and eloquently some basic reservations I've tried to express myself about identity politics, about equality of opportunity (rather than outcome), and about the PC culture of respect. It also challenges some of my arguments about poverty, arguments I haven't resolved yet. Is poverty a culture of value in itself, or is it just a lack of money? Are there different poverties around the world, or just one?

Walter Benn Michaels is basically recapping, in the article, the arguments in his book The Trouble with Diversity: how we learned to love identity and ignore inequality. I want to sum up some of what I thought were his best points in a sort of PowerPoint presentation:

1. Someone called Gregory Marton makes a good general summary on the Amazon page: "This book is aimed at drawing distinctions between subjective matters of identity and objective matters of income and beliefs. Each identity is as good as any other, but being poor is worse than being rich. Michaels accuses the left of having lost its focus on objective equality, to the point of glorifying poverty."

2. After reading the article, I summarised it myself in an email to Lynsey Hanley: "Walter Benn Michaels valuably distinguishes between race and class, and says that one requires us to discriminate, the other requires that we don't. Race, in other words, leads to a discourse of culture, identity and diversity (the anthropological discourse), whereas class leads to a discourse of equality and therefore of the eradication of material differences. The only problem is, I'm not sure that class isn't also culture. What do you think? Is being working class just a lack of money, opportunity, etc, or is it a culture? Or both (a culture based on lack of money, opportunity, etc)?"

3. Gregory Marton again: "Treating poverty as a matter of identity is, according to Michaels, a pernicious strategy for willfully ignoring the problem that increasingly many people are increasingly poor, and have less and less opportunity to move out of poverty. Moreover, by fighting battles of identity -- WalMart and Wall Street women each making some percent less than the men -- we may ignore the fact that all the WalMart workers make a hundredth of what the Wall Street workers make. He does not argue against fighting injustices of identity so much as argue for prioritizing and looking at the problems in perspective. The book draws sharp distinctions between the kinds of arguments that make sense for identities and those that make sense for wealth and ideology."

4. A blog report on Michaels' book: "Nobody claims "poor" as an identity... You can claim any number of racial, gender, sexual, and ethnic identities when job hunting, but you can never simply state that you're poor, really poor."

5. Diversity is good when it's cultural, bad when it's economic. In the C-Span video above, Michaels puts it like this: "We don't want to just appreciate diversity, we also want -- where it's appropriate -- to minimize diversity. Because after all diversity with regards to money is just a word for inequality; some people have more, some people have less."

6. From the LRB article: "My point is not that anti-racism and anti-sexism are not good things. It is rather that they currently have nothing to do with left-wing politics, and that, insofar as they function as a substitute for it, can be a bad thing. American universities are exemplary here: they are less racist and sexist than they were 40 years ago and at the same time more elitist. The one serves as an alibi for the other: when you ask them for more equality, what they give you is more diversity."

7. Celebrating diversity is now our way of accepting inequality. There are left neoliberals as well as right neoliberals: "Where right neoliberals want us to condemn the culture of the poor, left neoliberals want us to appreciate it. The great virtue of this debate is that on both sides inequality gets turned into a stigma. That is, once you start redefining the problem of class difference as the problem of class prejudice – once you complete the transformation of race, gender and class into racism, sexism and classism – you no longer have to worry about the redistribution of wealth. You can just fight over whether poor people should be treated with contempt or respect. And while, in human terms, respect seems the right way to go, politically it’s just as empty as contempt."

8. The rise in inequality has -- suspiciously -- gone hand-in-hand with the fall in prejudice: "Increasing tolerance of economic inequality and increasing intolerance of racism, sexism and homophobia – of discrimination as such – are fundamental characteristics of neoliberalism. Hence the extraordinary advances in the battle against discrimination, and hence also its limits as a contribution to any left-wing politics. The increased inequalities of neoliberalism were not caused by racism and sexism and won’t be cured by – they aren’t even addressed by – anti-racism or anti-sexism."

9. "Even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality... a diversified elite is not made any the less elite by its diversity and, as a response to the demand for equality, far from being left-wing politics, it is right-wing politics."

10. "The supposed left has turned into something like the human resource department of the right, concerned to make sure that women of the upper middle class have the same privileges as the men." Or as Alan Wolfe put it in an otherwise scathing review in Slate, it's "as if the ideal society were one in which both rich black kids and rich white kids could attend the same elite college".

11. From Michaels' LRB review: "In a society like Britain, whose GINI coefficient – the standard measure of income inequality – is the highest in the EU, the ambition to eliminate racial disparities rather than income inequality itself functions as a form of legitimation rather than as a critique. Those writing in this collection understand the ‘re-emergence of class’ not as a function of the increasing injustice of class (when Thatcher took office, the GINI score was 0.25; now it’s 0.36, the highest the UK has ever recorded) but as a function of the increasing injustice of ‘classism’. What outrages them, in other words, is not the fact of class difference but the ‘scorn’ and ‘contempt’ with which the lower class is treated."

12. "What left neoliberals want is to offer some ‘positive affirmation for the working classes’. They want us to go beyond race to class, but to do so by treating class as if it were race and to start treating the white working class with the same respect we would, say, the Somalis – giving ‘positive value and meaning to both “workingclassness” and ethnic diversity’." But "it’s hard to see how even the most widespread social enthusiasm for tracksuits and gold chains could make up for the disadvantages produced by [low-paying] jobs."

13. This seems to me to relate both to yesterday's Richard Hoggart quotes about juke-box boys in milk bars -- Hoggart seemed to propose working-classness as a choice between two cultures, a benign traditional English one and a glitzy imported meretricious American one -- and to the entry the other day about Progress versus diversity. Presumably -- since his argument is entirely posited on the separability of economic progress arguments from cultural diversity arguments -- Michaels would really hate my idea of "diversity-as-progress"; that "diversity do the work of progress by allowing many different systems to co-exist". Because, of course, allowing different systems to co-exist means allowing different levels of income to co-exist.

14. It's interesting that Michaels' 2006 book The Shape of the Signifier makes the case for re-instating the ideology of the author's intentions at a time when questions of identity have become the primary concern; it "anatomizes what's fundamentally at stake when we think of literature in terms of the experience of the reader rather than the intention of the author, and when we substitute the question of who people are for the question of what they believe." You may remember that my justification of diversity-as-progress specifically invoked the Intentional Fallacy -- the idea that it's wrong to pay too much attention to a writer's intentions (or, on a broader level, a politician's). Human fallibility, I argued on Tuesday, makes diversity the best guarantor of progress. It's Friday.