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.
Bhaskar Sunkara: 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?
Walter Benn Michaels: 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.
BKS: What’s at the heart of your work is that equal-opportunity exploitation is what we’re moving towards, or at the very least it’s an ideological goal of the ruling class. So, what explains the shift in the way capital has historically acted — using racial and ethnic divisions to better exploit the working class?
WBM: Well, I think there’s absolutely no question that is true. Capitalism throughout the 19th century and through much of the 20th was classically imperialist, which is basically impossible without racism, without a massive commitment to what amounted to European-American White supremacy. But one of the things that’s become obvious — leaving the racism question aside, leaving the discrimination question more generally aside, — is that the condition of capital changed fairly radically in the 20th century. Of course, people have different accounts of why that is. Even those on the Left who agree that the falling rate of profit is central don’t agree on whether it’s a structural necessity or a contingent development. But almost everyone agrees that neoliberalism involved internationalization in a way that cannot be reduced to what imperialism was before and that it involved, above all, a kind of powerful necessity for mobility not of only of capital, but of labor.
Stalin famously won the argument but lost the war over whether there could be socialism in one country, but no one has ever been under the impression for more than a millisecond that there could be neoliberalism in only one country. 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 U.S 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 U.S. 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. Before, whether you could come to the U.S. was based almost entirely on racial or, to use the then-preferred term, “national” criteria. I believe that, for example, the quota on Indian immigration to the U.S. in 1925 was 100. I don’t know the figure on Indian immigration to the U.S. since 1965 off-hand, but 100 is probably about an hour and a half of that in a given year. The anti-racism that involves is obviously a good thing, but it was enacted above all to admit people who benefited the economy of the U.S. They are often sort of high-end labor, doctors, lawyers, and businessmen of various kinds. The Asian immigration of the 70s and 80s involved a high proportion of people who had upper and upper-middle class status in their countries of origin and who quickly resumed that middle and upper middle class status in the U.S. 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. 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.
BKS: You just identified the problem, increasing social inequity and heightened class exploitation in recent decades, but you also did something that you didn’t do as much in your book, which is give credence to objective economic forces — the crises of social democracy, stagflation, capitalist restructuring, union busting, etc.
WBM: Well, I wrote the book four or five years ago and I know more about it now than I did then. So yeah, that’s true, the book is in a certain sense a response to what seemed to me very visible on the surface, but I had much less of a sense of how that situation came about. One of the things that’s been useful—I know it’s been useful for me, but I think it’s actually be useful in general for at least some people on the Left in thinking about these issues—has been the popularization of the concept of neoliberalism, which has given us a better ability to periodize the history of capitalism and especially of events since World War II. You get a different vision of what postmodernism, for example, is when you begin to see postmodernism as the official ideology of neoliberalism and that’s a vision you can’t have until you have a kind of sense of what neoliberalism is. Others, of course, were alert to this long before I was.
BKS: Speaking of the postmodernists, you focus a lot on academics and academia in your book, but one could argue that correlation doesn’t equal causation. An academic might be spending too much time writing about hybridity and difference and identity movements might be marching in the streets, but is this actually preventing class based movements from emerging …
WBM: I don’t know if it’s preventing it. My thesis was never that it prevented class based movements from emerging. I mean I never meant to present a theory about what has prevented class-based movements from emerging in the U.S. and I certainly didn’t mean to imply that what people do in English classes did it. Although, of course, given the class position of the students in those classes, it’s probably right to say that English departments and 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 U.S. corporation.
There do things that corporations would do that academics would never think of. I’ve never been in the worst bullshit cultural theory class that actually took seriously the idea that we really should think of first born children and middle children belonging to separate cultures, but there are corporations that do indeed have organizations designed precisely to deal with the cultures of first born and middle born and youngest children, so I don’t think that business America should be at all ashamed of its performance in relation to academic America.
It’s true, we in the university are in some sense the research and development division of business, but in this regard business has also exceeded us. So I think actually there is a whole lot of continuity between ways in which Americans think of these issues both in the academy and outside. And then beyond that 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 30 or 40 years. And from that standpoint the American academy is really only following along with what is been central to American society more generally.
The most vivid image of that is going to be same sex marriage. I mean Stonewall was, what, in 1969? So, it’s almost exactly 40 years ago, and the idea that gay rights would include or should include same sex marriage was seen as … I don’t know if anyone even had that idea, I mean I’m old enough to have been around then, and I might have missed it, but I don’t know if that was on anyone’s agenda even as a utopian fantasy. Today it’s going to be a reality; it is in five states, on its way to being a reality in six states. That’s not been produced primarily by academics, that’s due to a shift in American society itself. And it is on one hand a completely admirable shift, I don’t think there is any doubt that you have a freer, more just society if you allow same-sex marriage, but on the other hand it is a shift that is in no sense oppositional to capitalism.
Major social changes have taken place in the past 40 years with remarkable rapidity, but not any in any sense inimical to capitalism. Capitalism has no problem with gay people getting married and people who self-identify as neoliberals understand this very well. So I think the main thing to say there is that, maybe in the book a lot of the examples tend to be academic examples, but I think you can find examples in American society everywhere of the extraordinary power, the hegemony of the model of anti-discrimination, accompanied by defense of property, as the guiding precepts of social justice. You can see this in the study that people have recently been making fun of—the one that shows that liberals are not as liberal as they think they are. What it showed was that when people were asked about the question of redistribution of wealth they turned out to be a lot less egalitarian than they thought they were. People who characterized themselves as “extremely liberal” nevertheless had real problems with the redistribution of wealth. And someone pointed out, I think he teaches at Stanford, that that’s the wrong way to think of this, because yes it’s true that especially as people get more wealthy they tend to become less committed to the redistribution of wealth but there are lots of ways in which they become “more liberal”—with respect to gay rights, antiracism, with respect to all the so-called “social issues,” as long as these social issues are defined in such a way that they have nothing to do with decreasing the increased inequalities brought about by capitalism, which is to say, taking away rich liberals’ money.
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.” There’s a good paper you can get off the web by Gordon Hanson, commissioned by whoever runs Foreign Affairs, and the argument is that illegal immigration is better than legal immigration, because illegal immigration is extremely responsive to market conditions.
So it’s quite striking that you have all this protesting against illegal immigration, and especially at a time when it’s down. So why are people so upset about it? They are upset about it not because it has gotten worse, it hasn’t, but because they somehow recognize that one of the primary sort of marks of the triumph of neoliberalism in the U.S. 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.
In fact, he’s become obsessed in an interesting way with communism though as far as I can tell we have zero communists not only in the U.S., but almost anywhere else in the world. But you can sort of see it, because they recognize in illegal immigration a form of capitalism that has finally begun to emerge as a threat to the middle class and even a little bit to the upper middle class, but the only way that they can conceptualize it is as “communism.” They are so committed to a kind of capitalism, which neoliberalism is in fact destroying, that when they see neoliberalism in action they just identify it as “communism.”
BKS: But isn’t there a problem with saying things “close the borders,” “restore the welfare state,” etc. I mean the welfare state was obviously a golden period of human civilization …
WBM: I don’t know of anyone who’s advocating “close the borders.”
BKS: Well, at the very least, against open borders, against labor matching the mobility of capital, so basically you’re looking back with nostalgia instead of looking forward. Instead of adapting the labor movement to the global climate as it is by internationalizing labor unions and other vehicles of working class political representation.
WBM: Well, for sure the labor movement should be doing that although we know it isn’t. Some argue that limiting immigration could help restore the unions and that’s obviously false and I’m certainly not saying that the Tea Party has the diagnosis right. The Tea Party thinks that immigrants are taking away their money. It’s not immigrants who are taking away their money; it’s neoliberalism that’s taking away their money. And this is true even though the Tea Party is a disproportionately upper middle class movement. There is some debate about that, but what theTimes survey shows, at least in part, is that Tea Partiers in general are richer than most Americans, closer to the top 20 percent than they are to the middle. But if you look at the distribution of income in the last 10 years what you’re struck by is that the top 20 percent looks like it’s done very well in relation to everyone else and the top 10 percent looks like it’s done very very well in relation to everyone else but it’s the top 1 percent who have really made out like bandits. And if you separate out the top 1 percent from the rest of the 19 that makes up the top 20, the 19 have more or less stayed still, they have not increased their proportion of the share of the U.S. income very much over the past 10-15 years. Almost all the increase has gone to the top 1 percent. So you now have a threat even to the upper middle class, which for the first 15-20 years of neoliberalism benefited from it tremendously, but which is now not exactly losing ground in relation to the country as a whole, but is losing ground in relation to this new phenomenon, this extraordinary success of the top 1, or to some extent, the top 5 percent. And you begin to see those people actually feeling a certain sense of anxiety. I remember years and years ago Jameson saying, it must have been in the 70s, that inflation was god’s way of making the middle class feel the force of History. Well, we don’t have inflation, but you can completely see this redistribution of wealth as god’s way of making the upper middle class begin to feel the force of History. And the Tea Party I see as one response to that.
BKS: You mention Tea Party angst, but if we are moving towards an “equal opportunity exploitation” with the ideal of a more diversified elite, wouldn’t that naturally cause a degree of white male status anxiety …
WBM: People always bridle when I say this, but I really doubt that the main issue here is white male status anxiety. Obviously I’m not in a position to say there aren’t people who are experiencing it. What I’m saying is that people in the Tea Party movement have a problem that is realer than “white male status anxiety,” that the economic shifts that are taking place, the more and more extreme inequality, the more and more going to the top, no doubt some people may be unhappy because of loss of status, but many millions more are going to be unhappy because of the loss of actual money. So my point isn’t really to deny the phenomenon of status anxiety, it’s just to point out the extraordinaire eagerness of American liberals to identify racism as the problem, so that anti-racism (rather than anti-capitalism) can be the solution.
BKS: You mention that your putting aside of questions of “status anxiety” has gotten some people angry, Richard Kim wrote disparagingly in The Nation of the backlash against affirmative action. He characterized your work as, “Seething, misplaced, amnesiac resentment [...] masquerading as class-consciousness.” Do these rather explicit allegations of racism catch you off guard or …
WBM: Are you kidding me, I’ve been called a racist for twenty years. Ever since I published the beginning of Our America, the first article that went into Our America, which was an argument that there was no such thing as race, including the social construction of race. People use to label that “liberal racism,” now they don’t bother to say it’s “liberal.” That Richard Kim thing is pretty blatantly empty. He’s saying, “It’s racism, Michaels is upset, because there’s all these black people on campus and there are all these Asian people on campus and all these Latinos on campus” … first of all, I don’t know anyone who’s actually upset by this. We’re upset, because there are no poor kids on campus. But even when Kim is confronted with an argument which says explicitly—“look the problem with affirmative action is not that it is a form of ‘reverse racism,’ the problem with affirmative action is that it doesn’t get at the group that actually is excluded from universities and that is poor people,” all he can think of to say is “see, that guy’s a racist.” I have no idea how to respond to that other than to say that whatever one’s personal feelings might be (even if I were experiencing the dread “white male status anxiety”!), the group that is actually excluded from American universities is poor people, and that’s true, whether it is “racist” or not. “You’re a racist” is not even an attempt to counter the truth of the argument; it’s just pure ad hominem of the most uninventive and, in this case, the most unconvincing and irrelevant type.
BKS: But even people who agree with the substance of your work have had some criticism of your manner of argumentation. Doug Henwood, for example, mentioned, “Walter Benn Michaels doesn’t always phrase things to his advantage—he aims to provoke, which is an impulse I deeply understand, but he may end up putting people off who should really listen to what he has to say.” Do you intentionally provoke or does the tension arise from the incompatibility of political positions between you and your opponents?
WBM: I try to put things as sharply as I can. I’m not interested on the other hand in provoking everyone so I’m the only person who’s saying the right thing. On the contrary, it has been very comforting to discover over the past five or six years that there are plenty of people who have views similar to mine and who are actually better at expressing them.
I essentially try to make the argument as clearly as possible and sometimes that’s going to cause more problems and disputes and sometimes not, but that stuff doesn’t matter to me. And I know that some people don’t actually criticize the argument, but criticize the way in which it’s put. I think it’s Doug’s view that there are lots of people who really dislike what I’m saying and for that matter what Adolph [Reed] is saying and wouldn’t dislike it so much if it were put differently, but I don’t really agree with that. I think they really dislike it and it doesn’t matter how it is put. They wouldn’t be less annoyed if it was put less pointedly. And a lot of them think of themselves as being on the Left and they think it’s especially inappropriate for people to come along and tell them that the thing they like best about themselves, their anti-racism, is not in and of itself a left-wing commitment.
BKS: On the relationship of the academic Left to the white working class, do you see it one of neglect or outright contempt?
WBM: You know it is kind of striking that universities think of themselves and are thought of by their opponents—gratifyingly for the universities themselves—as the most liberal institutions in America today. You have a vision of social justice in which it consists of nothing but basically non-discrimination and no university faculty is outraged by that. But I don’t think it’s because professors are psychologically indifferent to the working class, I think it’s because they’re indifferent to the phenomenon of exploitation. Professors don’t really worry about any form of inequality that isn’t produced by discrimination. We worry a lot about whether women are treated fairly in math classes but we don’t worry at all about that the salaries of the women who clean our offices. More often than not I would guess we feel like those salaries are what those women are worth.
Victimization that does not take place through discrimination is invisible and that’s why it’s worth remembering that the vast majority of poor people in the country are White. After all, the country is about 70 percent white and if you look at the bottom quintile of income it’s about 61 percent white, so it’s an absolute majority. Sure, some will acknowledge “Appalachia” at least, but it’s 61 percent and there aren’t that many people in Appalachia. They are in Chicago, they are in Washington, you don’t have to go that far to see poor people and the minute I say something like that the Richard Kims of the world say “See all he’s worried about is the injustice being done to poor white people,” but it’s obvious that that’s not the point. It’s obvious that the utility, as it were, of poor white people in this discussion is that they are poor not because they are the victims of prejudice; they are poor because of other structures of exploitation.
The fact that most of our poverty is not produced by prejudice should suggest to us that if we are actually concerned about poverty, no matter how much anti-discrimination work we do we are not going to take care of the poverty problem, certainly not in our little test group, the 61 percent of the country who are poor and White. So there are two ways to deal with that; one you say “Okay maybe it’s true that we should focus a little less on discrimination and a little more on other forms of dealing with this inequality,” or, two, the state of the art thing which is to say, “No actually it’s false. White people have been the victim of discrimination, because the lower class is itself a victim of discrimination.”
I wrote a piece on this last year based on the Gates episode for the London Review of Books, a review of a book that had just come out in the U.K. about extending anti-discrimination to deal with the white working class, as if the problem with the white working class was that it was insufficiently respected and that if you could only get a few more White working class guys up at the top … basically just treating the white working class as if it were an identity. That’s cutting edge neoliberalism.
BKS: Gordon Brown certainly was from that Scottish working class.
WBM: Yeah absolutely, so at that point it’s not that you prefer identity categories to class categories. Now you’ve completely labeled the last class category anyone was willing to recognize—the working class—as an identity category and you can treat it the same way you would race.
BKS: What role do you see the legacy of the New Left in the 60s having in this? Is there sort of a nostalgia in the same way people like Christopher Hitchens and Paul Berman revive the rhetoric of the fascist, anti-fascist struggle, is the same thing happening with the politics of anti-racism and the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement?
WBM: It’s a harder question; in the case of Berman you’re obviously right. Berman and Hitchens they are basically returning to a sense that the evil is “totalitarianism” and the remedy is “liberalism.”And once you get the “liberal,” “totalitarian” dichotomy going, you’re always going to choose liberalism, and capitalism now counts as a solution rather than a problem, even for writers who are supposedly on the Left.
Your New Left and civil rights question is more complicated. There is almost a kind of liberal nostalgia for the time in which anti-racism wasn’t so mainstream in American society. Today we’re living in a deeply anti-racist society … officially committed to anti-racism … which you can tell when Glenn Beck thinks it’s a good idea to couch his criticism of Obama by calling Obama a “racist.” It’s the killing word to say to anyone. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t still racism, it means that 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. I don’t know if that involves a kind of nostalgia for the New Left. The question about the role of the New Left is harder and would have to be thought through in relation to the emergence of the new social movements of the 70s and 80s and what the connection is between those two things. And there may be good work on that but if there is I don’t know it.
BKS: In your book you also describe how categories of class have been turned into a culture — like it’s a heritage to be proud of — why is studying working class literature in the same way we study, say, African-American lit “profoundly reactionary?”
WBM: In so far as it suggests that they think the way to deal with the working class is by respecting it. You can get the beginning of that in Raymond Williams if you’re a literary critic, the sort of profound nostalgia for a certain version of the working class. If you genuinely thought that working class virtues were real then of course it would make sense to be nostalgic for them and think it really is better to belong to the working class. But of course the whole concept of the working class depends on there being a class structured society. My argument is fairly straightforward. To be poor in America today, or to be anything but in the top 20 percent in America today, is to be victimized in important ways and in so far as we’re appreciating the characteristic products of victimization, we are not actually dealing with exploitation, but rather enshrining victimization, treating it as if it had value and therefore ought to be preserved. And that’s obviously reactionary.
BKS: Like the Richard Geres of the world viewing Tibetan poverty as a commendable stand against materialism.
WBM: Completely. There are two ways to deal with this question. The identity way is to think about the way we deal with difference and learn to respect difference and negotiate with difference—so that it’s not a problem being different. That’s completely true on the cultural level, although I think it’s completely empty—a topic for another conversation and a different book on what’s wrong with the idea of culture – but at least it makes sense. If the problem is not respecting difference, then the solution is to start respecting it. But if you think of difference in terms of a class structure where the essence is “more than” or “less than” and not just different from, the problem is not just that poor people belong to a different culture, it’s that poor people are deprived of hundreds of opportunities that rich people are not deprived of and the important thing is not to appreciate their deprivations or the things they remarkably manage to do in spite of their deprivations but to get rid of the deprivations.
BKS: What did Obama’s election do to perceptions of race and class? It was sort of seen as a triumph for poor black and brown people around the world. Has it shattered illusions or simply disoriented?
WBM: With respect to class, it’s hard to say that it accomplished very much for poor black and brown people, or poor white people, for that matter. About race, when I was writing The Trouble the Diversity it never crossed my mind that Obama or anyone else could become the first black president of the United States within a couple of years. I thought we were officially anti-racist but not thatofficially anti-racist. So in a certain sense, it did testify to the success of anti-racism. But it obviously did not produce a “post-racial” America. It did not get rid of racism, on the contrary, there are now more overt expressions of racism than there were four or five years ago, precisely because the fact that we have a black president does bring out a racism, which is still in the American body politic. I have no doubt if somehow we managed to elect a Jewish president there would be a lot of more anti-Semitism showing up than there is now, but that wouldn’t really mean there would be more anti-Semitism. It would be a mark of the triumph over anti-Semitism that you could elect him, but it wouldn’t make anti-Semitism go away. But what the election of Obama has accomplished it to make it completely clear that there is zero connection between having a black president and having a president (or, indeed, a Democratic Party) that has any real interest in attacking the increasing inequalities of American life.
You know you live in a world that loves neoliberalism when having some people of color who are rich is supposed to count as good news for all the people of color who are poor. The argument for Obama is he’s there, so I can be there too, but all the white male presidents we’ve had haven’t done much good for poor whites, and in a country where there’s now declining social mobility (less than in Western Europe), it’s hard to take even the traditional solace in the fact that the empty claim that anyone can grow up to become President now includes black people. None of this will make any difference unless we start thinking about the politically relevant question, eliminating the gap between the rich and the poor.
Walter Benn Michaels teaches English at the University of Illinois, Chicago. His most recent book is The Trouble with Diversity; his next will be The Death of a Beautiful Woman: Form Now.
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