Walter Benn Michaels explores the curious modern sociopolitical concept of “respect,” which is being appropriated by both left and right as a convenient diversion from dealing with the increasing, crushing imbalance of class and wealth in society.

While noting — and duly lauding — the (relative) progress made against endemic racism, homophobia and misogyny, Michaels points out this progress, such as it is, has come because it does not threaten the overweening power and privilege of the elite. In fact, some maligned, repressed and persecuted groups of citizens are falling even farther behind: the poor, and those once called the working class.

…it would be a mistake to think that because the US is a less racist, sexist and homophobic society, it is a more equal society. In fact, in certain crucial ways it is more unequal than it was 40 years ago. No group dedicated to ending economic inequality would be thinking today about declaring victory and going home. In 1969, the top quintile of American wage-earners made 43 per cent of all the money earned in the US; the bottom quintile made 4.1 per cent. In 2007, the top quintile made 49.7 per cent; the bottom quintile 3.4. And while this inequality is both raced and gendered, it’s less so than you might think. White people, for example, make up about 70 per cent of the US population, and 62 per cent of those are in the bottom quintile. Progress in fighting racism hasn’t done them any good; it hasn’t even been designed to do them any good. More generally, even if we succeeded completely in eliminating the effects of racism and sexism, we would not thereby have made any progress towards economic equality.

True; and one perhaps not irrelevant fact that leaps to mind here is that Martin Luther King Jr. was not assassinated until he started talking about economic injustice faced by all citizens in a militarized state waging unjust wars around the world. Michaels continues:

An obvious question, then, is how we are to understand the fact that we’ve made so much progress in some areas while going backwards in others. And an almost equally obvious answer is that the areas in which we’ve made progress have been those which are in fundamental accord with the deepest values of neoliberalism, and the one where we haven’t isn’t. We can put the point more directly by observing that 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.

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. The neoliberal heart leaps up at the sound of glass ceilings shattering and at the sight of doctors, lawyers and professors of colour taking their place in the upper middle class. Whence the many corporations which pursue diversity almost as enthusiastically as they pursue profits, and proclaim over and over again not only that the two are compatible but that they have a causal connection – that diversity is good for business. But 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.

Here is another key problem of our day: almost everything that is called “left-wing politics” is actually a fairly brutal form of right-wing politics. Hence, all the nutty criticism of Barack Obama as some kind of “far-left” socialist, when he is of course an ardent, open champion of our financial and militarist elites. And the so-called “leftist” government of New Labour in the UK is another glaring example; this “party of the working class” has gone where even Maggie Thatcher feared to tread to coddling big business, waging aggressive war, and building up a police state-style apparatus of authoritarian power. For 30 years now, in both the US and UK, there has been nothing remotely resembling anything that could be called “left-wing politics,” if “left-wing” can be understood as a concern for a more just and equal society; we have had — and still have — only far-right and center-right politics. Back to Michaels:

The recent furore over the arrest for ‘disorderly conduct’ of Henry Louis Gates helps make this clear. Gates, as one of his Harvard colleagues said, is ‘a famous, wealthy and important black man’, a point Gates himself tried to make to the arresting officer – the way he put it was: ‘You don’t know who you’re messing with.’ But, despite the helpful hint, the cop failed to recognise an essential truth about neoliberal America: it’s no longer enough to kowtow to rich white people; now you have to kowtow to rich black people too. The problem, as a sympathetic writer in the Guardian put it, is that ‘Gates’s race snuffed out his class status,’ or as Gates said to the New York Times, ‘I can’t wear my Harvard gown everywhere.’ In the bad old days this situation almost never came up – cops could confidently treat all black people, indeed, all people of colour, the way they traditionally treated poor white people. But now that we’ve made some real progress towards integrating our elites, you need to step back and take the time to figure out ‘who you’re messing with’. You need to make sure that nobody’s class status is snuffed out by his race.

The neoliberal ideal is a world where rich people of all races and sexes can happily enjoy their wealth, and where the injustices produced not by discrimination but by exploitation – there are fewer poor people (7 per cent) than black people (9 per cent) at Harvard, and Harvard’s not the worst – are discreetly sent around to the back door. Thus everyone’s outraged that a black professor living on prosperous Ware St (and renting a summer vacation ‘manse’ on Martha’s Vineyard that he ‘jokingly’ calls ‘Tara’) can be treated with disrespect; no one’s all that outraged by the social system that created the gap between Ware St or ‘Tara’ and the places where most Americans live. Everyone’s outraged by the fact that Gates can be treated so badly; nobody by the fact that he and the rest of the top 10 per cent of American wage-earners have been doing so well. Actually, it’s just the opposite. Liberals – especially white liberals – are thrilled by Gates’s success, since it testifies to the legitimacy of their own: racism didn’t make us all this money, we earned it!

Thus the primacy of anti-discrimination not only performs the economic function of making markets more efficient, it also performs the therapeutic function of making those of us who have benefited from those markets sleep better at night.

Micheals then takes on the popular — if incredibly tepid — “progressive” reaction to the growing inequalities in the system. There is now a movement decrying — again, rightly — the cultural prejudices that the comfortable exhibit more and more openly against the poor. This is particularly acute in the UK, where all are invited to sneer at the “chavs” and their clothes, their accents, their tastes, etc. Now some earnest progressives are fighting back against this prejudice, as evidenced in the collection of essays published by the Runnymede Trust: Who Cares about the White Working Class?

Again, Michaels lauds the sentiment behind the collection: we should treat the mores and cultural expressions of the working class with the same kind of respect we are urged to show toward ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups. But, once again, says Michaels, these sentiments are fine as far as they go — but they don’t get at the heart of the matter:

In the event, however, what Who Cares about the White Working Class? actually provides is less an alternative to neoliberal multiculturalism than an extension and ingenious refinement of it. Those writing in this collection understand the ‘re-emergence of class’ not as a function of the increasing injustice of class… 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. … The focus of her outrage … is not the fact that some people can afford [luxuries] and others can’t, but that the ones who can are mean to the ones who can’t.

…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’. 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.

This dynamic surely played a part in at least some of the support that Barack Obama received in the last election from “progressives.” For in his stated policy positions, Obama offered very little that was “progressive.” He was for continuing the War on Terror on Bush’s terms, winding down the war in Iraq more or less on the schedule Bush had negotiated, then expanding the war in Afghanistan and extending it into Pakistan. He threw his support behind Bush’s plan to bail out Wall Street. He took to the bully pulpit to scold black fathers for their failings, and black people in general for blaming the system for their problems. He made campaign appearances with homophobic preachers, while throwing over his own pastor and long-time friend. He surrounded himself with advisers from Wall Street. He pledged to increase the size and reach and power of the War Machine. And so on and so forth. He was, if anything, well to the right of, say, Bill Clinton in 1992 — and Bill Clinton in 1992 was the most right-wing Democratic candidate since Woodrow Wilson.

Obama’s “progressivism” consisted almost entirely of the symbolism of his mixed-race heritage and personal history. There was very little in his actual policy positions to lead one to believe that he would be — or wanted to be — anything other than a dutiful servant of the power structure. But many people voted for him because they wanted to use the symbol of his person to make a statement about– and a stand against — racism in American society. Again, this is an understandable and laudable sentiment; who of enlightened mind does not want to take a stand against racism? But this symbolic act was, to use Michael’s terms, empty of genuine political content. For as we have seen, Obama’s rule has been characterized not by “change,” but by a remarkable degree of “continuity” with his predecessor.

But as Michaels notes, race was ever one of the most potent tools for obscuring the harsh imbalance at the heart of American society:

Race, on the other hand, has been a more successful technology of mystification. In the US, one of the great uses of racism was (and is) to induce poor white people to feel a crucial and entirely specious fellowship with rich white people; one of the great uses of anti-racism is to make poor black people feel a crucial and equally specious fellowship with rich black people. Furthermore, in the form of the celebration of ‘identity’ and ‘ethnic diversity’, it seeks to create a bond between poor black people and rich white ones. So the African-American woman who cleans my office is supposed to feel not so bad about the fact that I make almost ten times as much money as she does because she can be confident that I’m not racist or sexist and that I respect her culture … But, and I acknowledge that this is the thinnest of anecdotal evidence, I somehow doubt she does.

The American elite figured things out a long time ago: you can let people do anything they want, say anything they want, have a wide-open society — as long as no one seriously threatens to upset the golden applecart of power and privilege.  Or to put it another way, you can have “left-wing politics,” “liberal politics,” “progressive politics,” anything you please — as long as what you actually practice is “right-wing politics.”

We are seeing this dynamic in its rawest state with the health-care “reforms,” which have turned into yet another gigantic boondoggle for powerful corporations, despite the clear wishes of a large majority of Americans for something totally different. But it is a current that runs through — and defines — the entire political system today.

(Apologies for the earlier mix-up in the quotes.)

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