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Walter Benn Michaels on how liberals still love diversity and ignore inequality

A conversation with the UIC professor whose controversial 2006 polemic The Trouble with Diversity now looks prescient

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The 2016 presidential election may have transformed Walter Benn Michaels from pariah to prophet of doom. In 2006, the University of Illinois at Chicago English professor published the polemic The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality, which makes the unpopular argument that liberalism's single-minded obsession with diversity is a tool used by elites to distract from the greater evils of worker exploitation and economic inequality. Michaels argues that social justice is perceived as served if the top classes at Ivy League colleges contain a percentage of women, black people, and Latinos proportionate to the population—ignoring the lack of opportunity for those who don't go to college. Likewise, it's considered a victory if minorities or women become executives at Fortune 500 companies, whether or not workers at those companies are paid a living wage. In other words, liberals are OK with inequality so long as it's diverse inequality. Diversity, according to Michaels, is the moral alibi for the excesses of the winner-take-all nature of capitalism. The Democrats' emphasis on identity, he anticipated, would weaken the electoral viability of the party because it had so little to offer the working class.

A decade later, Michaels's ideas played out in the flesh during the Democratic primary. Bernie Sanders, a socialist like Michaels, put antibillionaire class politics and the redistribution of wealth at the forefront of his upstart campaign, while Hillary Clinton downplayed economics in favor of antiracism: "Not everything is about an economic theory, right?" she famously said on the campaign trail. "If we broke up the big banks tomorrow . . . would that end racism?" The Clinton campaign's focus on identity over inequality was enough to edge out Sanders in the primaries, but she lost the general election to Donald Trump. The shocking victory of a buffoonish demagogue who employed a combination of racist and populist economic rhetoric throughout his campaign has led to a lot of soul-searching on the left since November 8.

As a result, there have been calls for the demise of Clintonism and a growing feeling that Sanders's socialist wing of the Democratic Party should be embraced. "A lethal fusion of economic insecurity and cultural scapegoating brought neoliberalism to its knees," wrote Cornel West in a November 17 Guardian column headlined "Goodbye, American neoliberalism. A new era is here." The headline of a recent opinion piece in the New York Times proclaimed "The End of Identity Liberalism." The rising socialist left even has its own growing media sphere, with outspoken personalities like Glenn Greenwald and Fredrik deBoer, publications like Jacobin magazine (which recently held an issue-release event in Logan Square), and Chapo Trap House, a podcast about politics and media that's on its way to becoming the Daily Show of left politics.

Still, Michaels, who updated The Trouble With Diversity with an afterword for the just-released tenth-anniversary edition, isn't optimistic that a new left will emerge during the Trump era to replace the so-called identitarian left. "Someday, but not in my lifetime," says the 68-year-old. "I don't have a lot of faith in the [millennial generation]."

In his UIC office recently, Michaels reflected on the legacy of his book and what it means in the aftermath of the presidential election.


What kind of response has The Trouble With Diversity gotten over the last decade?

The primary reaction has been a lot of disapproval, especially from what I didn't yet know to call the neoliberal left. The book is essentially an attack on them, and it's not a superpopular book among college professors—though it is widely taught at colleges with the idea of "Well, let's start some discussion here, because here's a guy who is against diversity but who isn't actually racist." The other guys who are against diversity are.

On the other hand, someone told me they'd just discovered the book last week, and now it reads like a prophecy. When I was writing that book in 2004 and 2005, inequality was high, but no one was paying attention to it like they have since. It wasn't on anyone's front page, and data was lacking. Now every time [economists] Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty put out a new report on inequality, it's on the front page of the New York Times. There's a lot more awareness of it, and the Great Recession intensified that. However, it's very striking that our politics haven't changed a lot. Our politics are very much still neoliberal left, very geared to antiracism, antisexism, antihomophobia, antidiscrimination in general. The most recent presidential campaign is a pure example of that.

Could you elaborate on that?

The Democratic primary produced a version of this philosophic split. Some people complained about the book—with some justice—that it's one-note about economic inequality and redistribution. Sanders got a lot of those same criticisms—that he only had one message. Now, as you saw by the end of the campaign when he was giving a stump speech, everyone in the room knew it by heart and was chanting it. That's not a bad thing. That's called organizing people. If you're in a position where people know what you stand for on the issues, then they're not confused and they're there exactly because they know what you stand for.

For Clinton? Well, there's a famous moment in the campaign where she said, "Will bringing down the banks end racism? No. Will bringing down the banks end sexism? No." So the commitment at the core of the neoliberal left is a commitment to antidiscrimination. But it's obvious that you cannot build a working-class movement with a commitment to antidiscrimination. That doesn't mean discrimination is right, of course—it's wrong and we should oppose it. But you can't build a working-class movement with that kind of campaign, because they're not the victims of discrimination, they're the victims of exploitation. If you keep telling them the problem is discrimination, what you're actually telling them is, "We don't want to get rid of inequality, we want to legitimize it." It's to say, "Look, if you're poor because you're a victim of racism, sexism, homophobia—that's a problem because it's an inequality of opportunity. But if you're not a victim of one of those things, fuck you."

That's the core of the antidiscriminatory ethic in our politics. They don't contain a critique of class or class structure—they make sure the class structure is fair. Of course, I think the Democrats have a better version of policy by far. The election of Trump was a catastrophe, but I don't think anyone on the left thought Clinton was going to build a working-class movement—Sanders was the best shot at it.

Walter Benn Michaels
  • Walter Benn Michaels

Clinton also didn't offer many policy solutions that would actually help stop systemic racism. It was more opposition to Trump's brand of overt racism rather than offering any clear goals.

I don't think the Clinton campaign's problem was that it wasn't sufficiently antiracist. No doubt people can be more antiracist, but you can't build a working-class movement on that. In the current practical moment, half the people the [Clinton campaign] accused of being racist are people who should be voting for the Democratic Party. The percentage of the vote from the working class and poor people—let's say making under $50,000 a year—has declined over the years in a very strong way. Clinton did get a majority of those making under $30,000, but a very small majority. Way, way below Obama and Gore. If you look at it, the Democratic Party gets rich people and poor people to vote for it. But if the Democratic Party were to be truly the party of the working class, it would stop a core political message that basically says, "We're richer than you poor white guys, and we're morally superior." It's not a surprise that it's not a way to win hearts and minds.

For forever, rich people have liked to think of themselves as richer and morally superior to poor people. To try to make a political project out of that in a democracy is hard. It was this thing among the Democrats this year: "It's bullshit to attribute the rise of Trump to the economic stuff among the working class. The real issue is their racism." I have no doubts that a lot of Trump supporters are racist. But racism doesn't come from nowhere. Racism isn't like some kind of moral failing; there's a political economy behind it. When people attempt to think about what's caused their own economic situation, they get a bad diagnosis of it.

As racism and antidiscrimination have become more central to the moral compass of the country, what you get is an increasing number of white people who are committed and convinced that they're the victims of racism. Among Republicans, it's something like the majority of them who think they're the primary victims of racism. There are two ways to look at that. One is that it's not true. Let me be clear, I know perfectly fucking well that white people are not the victims of racism. They're not the primary, secondary, or even the tertiary victims of racism. But in a world where racism is a central issue, people begin to understand their own genuine victimization through that lens.

White people are indeed victimized—they're the largest group of poor people, the largest group of people on welfare, and group below the poverty level in this country. Those people begin to think, yeah, racism is the problem. That's why what we've seen emerge during this Trump campaign is a white identity politics, in which white people go around thinking of themselves as aggrieved, as victims—not because of black people's prejudice against them but rather the government's, which prefers other groups. It's a mistaken view, but a standard view. But then the response on the so-called left is just to go, "Racists!" That doesn't change people's minds. You're not trying to organize them, you're just scapegoating. Scapegoating people is a bad idea when they're in the majority and you're in the minority. It's one thing if you're scapegoating 10 percent of the population, but you're scapegoating a very large part of the population. So as an electoral policy, it doesn't seem wise.

The Democratic primary revealed a philosophic split on the left as Sanders focused on inequality while Clinton downplayed economics—a dichotomy highlighted in  The Trouble With Diversity . - SUN-TIMES
  • Sun-Times
  • The Democratic primary revealed a philosophic split on the left as Sanders focused on inequality while Clinton downplayed economics—a dichotomy highlighted in The Trouble With Diversity .

The white working class hasn't been provided this perspective or the vocabulary of exploitation against them. They get further exploited by Fox News, Breitbart, and the conservative media—which focuses on the racial and culture wars.

Yeah, there's a very good book [Racecraft] written about that by African-American sisters, Barbara and Karen Fields, and one of their central points is that one of the central functions of race in the last half century has been to empty the vocabulary of victimization so that people don't know what it means to be victimized or exploited because of their class position. Poor white people are indeed victimized and exploited in our society, but they have no way of understanding that except to say they're the victims of racism. A political organization for me would be to actually instill a class perspective in everyone, and that's what left organizations should be, but that's not what they have been.

Why does discrimination have to be mutually exclusive? Can't the left focus on an agenda of both antiracism and antiexploitation?

I haven't had a single discussion about this book without getting that question. I want to say, "Yeah, of course we can have both." But if you look at the last half century, you see economic inequality growing basically every single year, while we've had real success in reducing discrimination. When I wrote this book, there was no such thing as same-sex marriage. Now there is. Ten years ago, if you told me we'd have a black president, I'd say, "You're out of your fucking mind." Since I wrote that book, there's been continued attention to racial and gender and sexual discrimination—while economic exploitation and inequality has continued apace. There's been more talk about it, but with few exceptions very little effort to do anything about it or even a sense of what to do about it.

Surely it's not going to get better under the Trump administration. So it's like, yeah, you can do both, but the [millennial] generation can't even understand social justice without thinking of racialization. If your main problem is discrimination, you're in a very different world—a neoliberal world. It's not as if people committed to the primacy of markets in our lives aren't also committed to equal access to markets. Mortgages are a good example. There definitely has been discrimination against black people in obtaining mortgages, and we should fight that. But if you're a socialist and part of the real version of the left, is the real problem discrimination against people who can't get mortgages, or should housing be a public good? If you wanted to make housing a public good, the fact that you couldn't get a mortgage wouldn't be a problem. The minute you're committed to the mortgage market, you're committed to making that market more efficient and function more fairly.

That's fine if you're committed to neoliberal markets. If you're committed to restoring public housing and making that along with health care and education a public good that everyone should have access to, it's a different story. You have to think about what it means to be on the left. What it means to be on the liberal left is a commitment to making markets run more efficiently and more fairly. What it means to be on the socialist left is to be committed to the idea that we should to try to minimize markets and take essential things like housing, health care, and education and make it public. That's why when I go down to speak at the University of Chicago, it's like talking in completely enemy territory. All those universities exist as private institutions and are committed to the things that make it possible to be fair and open private institutions, not to the idea of what they should be doing is public. Charter schools are part of the same deal. What we're talking about is a massive withdrawal of the state from its responsibility to serve the public good. What the neoliberal left is at the core is an attempt to make sure that as the state [withdraws], people have an equality of access to what's left behind.

This is the passage that ends your book: "People say that economic and ideological issues put voters off, but half the population doesn't vote and most nonvoters are poor. It would be interesting to see how many of them showed up for elections that hinged on the meaning and importance of equality in America." What did this election teach us about that?

I don't know the numbers from the election, but from what I understand, the people that make under $30,000 once again didn't appear to vote in large numbers. You have a lot of working-class people that don't think there's much at stake for them in voting. In theory, that's not a problem for GOP, but it is for Democrats—or would be if they were aiming for a working-class movement. It's important to not turn the election into a morality test; it's hard to get people to vote for you if they don't see that they have some interest, something at stake. If they're convinced from the start that there's nothing you're going to do for them, then they're not going to want to do anything for you.

It seems to me whatever comes out of this from the perspective of the left—it's something that begins with the idea of taking the working class as you find it, not trying to sort out its morality. Find ways in which you can propose things to benefit them and show them their interests are in alliance with other members of the working class across race and gender lines. I mean, what good have the Democrats been to poor black people? Democrats have been great for the relatively small—but larger than it used to be—black middle class. But it's not like things have gotten better for poor blacks over the last 30 years. Since deindustrialization in the 70s, things have gotten worse for them. And you keep saying, "It's discrimination, it's discrimination!" But the core of it is that there's been nothing done for poor people of any race! And black people, being disproportionately poor, take the disproportionate brunt of the indifference to the working class and poor. If you just do race-blind redistribution of wealth downwards, the people that will benefit most will be minorities. Why? Because they're disproportionately poor—there's not even any math to it.

In your book you say that the redistribution doesn't happen because so many liberals are obsessed with diversity and representation in the upper echelons of society.

It's [considered] a mark of justice when you have the right proportions of people—women, minorities, et cetera—in the upper echelons. But that's not a critique of the upper echelons. It's true that women are vastly underrepresented as CEOs of American companies, but it's also true that CEOs make an ungodly amount of money more than the average worker—something like 300 or 400 times as much. So what is social justice? Making sure that instead of 5 percent of CEOs are women, 50 percent of them are part of the group making 400 times more than the average worker. Yay, feminism wins! Social justice should say that whether the CEOs are men or women—they should make way less money and their workers should be making way more. If you have diversity politics, which is equal representation, it has nothing to do with redistribution of wealth.

Applying that to Clinton and Sanders—some of Clinton's support stemmed from the trickle-down effect her presidency could have on women versus Sanders, who would have potentially done more materially for a greater percentage of women.

The most creatively destructive politician in terms of the left of the last 30 years was Margaret Thatcher. No one thinks that being a woman guarantees virtue, including no feminist. But why you'd care about whether or not a woman was president more than you'd care about someone who was actually committed to doing something about economic inequality is a mystery. Except that you're more committed to diversity rather than equality. That part of the book is still true—how we learned to love diversity or identity. We haven't stopped finding new ways to learn to love identity and ignore inequality. Or in this case, to be committed to a vision of inequality anchored to identity.

Doesn't Bernie Sanders's success give you hope that Democrats will reject neoliberalism and people will be more open to socialism while maintaining a commitment to antiracism?

The Sanders campaign was very antiracist. In the wake of the Trump catastrophe, it's almost hard to remember. We're in for a rough four years. But one of the few ways in which we could produce a true left is through unions—and one of the problems has been the deevolution of the unions, partly because the state has used very powerful weapons against them. Organizing could be much, much harder under a Trump administration. It's hard enough just to overcome legal obstacles. The Friedrichs [v. California Teachers Association] case, which basically got decided in favor of public unions because Scalia died, proved that it's possible there is a god. But then with Trump elected, maybe there isn't a god after all. God might just be fucking with us. Anyway, some version of that case may come back, and a Trump Supreme Court may rule that fair share—which is the way unions pay for themselves—is illegal. That will be a huge battle over the structures on which a real left could build on as opposed to running around in the city streets mad because Trump got elected.

Maybe Trump's election will act as enough of a shock to the system that people will turn to more left politics as a welcome alternative to the failures of Clintonism.

I don't know. I'm not a political scientist. Last week, half of what I heard was: "See, you were right, this will show the left that they have to do a class-based politics." But the other half was, "See, this just shows us how racist this country really is! It's the racism we have to overcome." So if you go with the latter, then no, it's not going to help the slightest bit. It's just going to turn the left into what it wants to be—the moral czar of the country who says these people have the correct moral position, these people don't, and we want to get rid of the people that don't have the correct moral position. That kind of politics is doomed to failure.

In the ten years since you wrote the book, it's interesting how certain academic terms have been—in some sense—stripped of their class connotation. "Privilege" is now a mainstream part of the nomenclature primarily as way to see racism and sexism instead of wealth or class.

A lot of the academic stuff comes out of the elite universities, and one of the things that make them elite is that they're largely populated by rich kids. So what are the issues? At Harvard, Yale, and the U. of C. they're beneficiaries of economic inequality. That's what universities are for. They're for putting people into positions where they can make a lot of money and gain power—many of them the children of those who make a lot of money and have a lot of power. What you get is an entire discourse of equality that is cut loose from the question of money. That's the tyranny of the microaggression and various forms of privilege amongst people who all have a lot of money. That's the cultivation of the safe space. The U. of C. is a perfect example. You had the dean with his famous letter saying, "This is not a safe space, we want a fierce ideological debate. That's what the University of Chicago is for." But then you have a bunch of students saying, "This is not a safe space—gay people and trans people don't feel safe here."

But the thing is, the University of Chicago is one of the safest spaces in the whole world. You can't get spaces much safer than elite university campuses. What you get is fantasies of unsafeness. You have administrators' fantasies of unsafeness where you have the battle of ideas. Then you have the students' fantasies: that there's sexual, racial, and cultural privilege. People who are genuinely unsafe are the people who are not getting anywhere near the University of Chicago or Princeton or Yale.

The election this year was held on the same day of the French Revolution calendar as the coup of 18 Brumaire. Marx wrote a famous essay called The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon about it, in which he talked about how everything in history takes place twice—the first time is tragedy, the second time is farce. Well, we've had tragedy, we've had farce, what comes after that?

To me, the whole discourse of microaggression and safe spaces is what comes after farce. It's a pantomime performed of theorizing inequality among people who are the beneficiaries of the fundamental inequality and structures of our society. And it's probably more useful to the right than the left. People often say that having faculty and students of people of color is really important because they represent their people. But I don't think there's any poor white person or lower middle-class person who see the rich kids at Harvard and think they're there because they represent me. No, they think, These rich kids get to go to Harvard, and people like me don't. When you see that kind of pantomime on campus, what you see is a fuck-you to everyone else that is suffering.

I was struck by a part of the book where you label the modern liberal as conservatives and Republicans as reactionaries.

Yeah, that was in the 2006 version. The more sophisticated way of saying that now is to say liberals are like conservatives in that they wanted a better-functioning market. They're committed to the market ideology. Obama famously said, "I love markets!" and chose right-wing Democrat Austan Goolsbee from the University of Chicago as his economic adviser. And he did totally love markets.

That's how you're a conservative: you love markets and want to improve them by making them more fair, more open, so they run more smoothly. Whereas the real right-wing guys, they love markets but are also committed to racism or preserving whiteness or social values that matter more. So you've had liberals as conservatives and right-wingers as reactionaries. We have a complicated sense of how that works out now—it's all up for grabs this minute. It's ironic that six months ago we all thought the Republican Party was going to split apart. Now we think the Democratic Party will vanish tomorrow. What's going to take its place? Who knows? But if there's a way going forward for the left, it has to be committed to organizing a working-class party.  v

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