Walter Benn Michaels – The Trouble With Diversity

The Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality

Walter Benn MichaelsThe Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (Metropolitan Books 2006)


Michael’s 2006 book The Trouble With Diversity landed quite a few jabs at the politics underlying “multiculturalism” and “diversity” initiatives.  In short, his argument is that “diversity” is really a cultural project that is fundamentally about depoliticizing economic issues.  This project is waged mostly by center-right liberals (who present themselves as the political “left”), but is endorsed in most respects by the reactionary right as well.  Michael’s complaint, therefore, is primarily that diversity initiatives are used to silence the political left, in a era in which the concept of genetic “races” has been scientifically disproved and — let us not forget — in the post-Soviet era of the so-called “end of history” in which the actual political left is supposedly defeated and irrelevant.  Michaels took much criticism (and praise too) for this book, which angered what he later came to term the “neoliberal left” — in reference to those who are part of the neoliberal center-right conservative block but don’t realize it (others call them “progressive neoliberals”).

The book is aimed at a general audience.  As such, Michaels mostly argues through analogy and example — Frantz Fanon‘s Black Skin, White Masks is a reasonable reference point.  He often explains basic concepts at length, and moves quickly through the statistics and science that supports his major premises.  Though his tone is cynical and somewhat condescending, the thing is it is hard to disagree with most of his points.  I, for one, was convinced by his argument against reparations.  I had long supported reparations, but Michaels has convinced me that reparations are basically reactionary as being mere restitution in a situation where more far-reaching solutions are needed — my only complaint being that he could have illustrated his point better with reference the seventh season episode of The Simpsons “Raging Abe Simpson and His Grumbling Grandson in ‘The Curse of the Flying Hellfish,'” in which artwork stolen during WWII is returned to an arrogant and smug German aristocrat who is completely unsympathetic in the context of restitution.

While Michaels succeeds in destroying the depoliticized strategies of the neoliberals, critics are right to point out that he doesn’t suggest much in the way of alternatives.  At least, his consistently negative tone might be off-putting to some, because he never arrives at a negation of his negation.  For those readers, I heartily suggest reading Alain Badiou‘s (with Nicolas Truong) In Praise of Love [Elogie de l’amour].  Badiou explains in more positive terms what a society premised on universalist difference rather than identity would promote.

Another useful supplement (and corrective) to The Trouble With Diversity is Domenico Losurdo‘s Liberalism: A Counter-History, and its companion volume War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century (and perhaps Giorgio Agamben‘s Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life).  While Michaels essentially argues that liberals are hypocritical, Losurdo elaborates on this point further, concluding that Liberalism has always been a politics of exclusion.  Liberals (including the currently hegemonic neoliberal order) simply engage in tactical debates over where the line of exclusion is drawn.  Michaels and Losurdo seem to be in agreement, but Losurdo’s highly academic book naturally offers a much deeper and theoretical argument than is in found in Michaels’ mass-market book.

Michaels has actually given some interesting interviews since the book was first published that are well worth reading.  The include “Walter Benn Michaels on How Liberals Still Love Diversity and Ignore Inequality” and “Let Them Eat Diversity.”  He has responded to his critics and stood his ground.  Adolph Reed, Jr. has helped Michaels carry these sorts of arguments too, and Reed’s various writings and interviews are also worth investigating for the curious.

My only lasting complaint about Michaels’ book is that his politics seem confused.  He describes himself as a socialist, yet he explicitly makes the effort to state his disagreement with some very foundational principles of the “communism hypothesis”, like equality of outcome.  In a way, he may claim to be a socialist critiquing neoliberalism from outside it, but he seems to occasionally rely on liberalism to make his arguments.  If the book spent more time explaining better alternatives to neoliberal “diversity” initiatives perhaps this confusion could have been resolved.  He also takes a very reductionist view of “class”, giving short shrift to theories about social hierarchies that take into account multiple forms of “capital”, like those of Pierre Bourdieu.

I do wish Michaels would write a sequel book, taking on things like “implicit bias” and other tactics of neoliberalism to individualize the problems of exploitation and reinforce market-based frameworks in the corporate world, the judicial system, and elsewhere. Though perhaps someone else has already written that book.  Even though The Trouble With Diversity was published more than a decade ago, it seems as relevant as ever — many have noted how Michaels’ argument explains much about the rise of Donald Trump as a politician and the mass support for a social democratic opposition candidate like Bernie Sanders in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.

Some Critiques of Silicon Valley User Exploitation

Selected links to materials critiquing the morally dubious and exploitative nature of the business models of “online” software companies from places like Silicon Valley, as well as a few relevant quotes.  While the latest buzz in the mass media is about privacy, that is really only one relatively small part of a larger set of issues about exploitative conduct.

 

“They Didn’t Even Need to Hack Facebook”

“Facebook’s Latest Data Breach Reveals Silicon Valley’s Fortunes Are Built on Pilfering Privacy” (see also “Facebook Must Face Class Action Over Facial Recognition, Judge Rules”)

“‘The Gig Economy’ Is the New Term for Serfdom”

“Cambridge Analytica Didn’t Abuse the Happiness Industry – It Was Used Exactly How It Was Intended to Be” (and “Assange Works for the People – Now We Need to Save Him”)

“Can We Be Saved From Facebook?” (note the casual deployment of “horseshoe theory” and “cognitivism”/”scientism” here)

“Imagine Having So Much Money You Can Spend It on Instagram ‘Influencers’”

“Addiction and Microtargeting: How ‘Social’ Networks Expose us to Manipulation”

“Goodbye Facebook, and Screw You Too”

“Facebook CEO Presents Plans for Mass Censorship at Senate Hearing”

“F-Word: What if Ida B. Wells Depended on Facebook?”

“RYM Shitheads”

“How Surveillance Capitalism Became the Pre-eminent Business Model of Silicon Valley”

“The Self-Serving Myths of Silicon Valley”

The People’s Platform

Surveillance Valley: The Secret Military History of the Internet

“Google Tracks Your Movements, Like It or Not”

“Google and Apple’s Systems to Track you in Person: What the Media Isn’t Telling You”

“Cloud Computing Is a Trap, Warns GNU Founder Richard Stallman”

“The Limits of the Web in an Age of Communicative Capitalism”

“The Massive Monopolies of Google, Facebook and Amazon, and Their Role in Destroying Privacy, Producing Inequality and Undermining Democracy”

Jodi Dean, “Communicative Capitalism and Class Struggle”:

“In communicative capitalism, capitalist productivity derives from its expropriation and exploitation of communicative processes.

***

“If we are honest, we have to admit that there is actually no such thing as social media. Digital media is class media. Networked communication does not eliminate hierarchy, as we believed, in entrenches it as it uses our own choices against us.

***

“Dispossession, rather than happening all at once, is an ongoing process. No one will deny the ongoingness of data dispossession. Sometimes it is blatant: the announcement that our call will be monitored for quality assurance, the injunctions to approve Apple’s privacy changes again or the necessity of renewing passwords and credit card information. Sometimes the ongoingness is more subtle; in maps, GPS signals, video surveillance, and the RFID tags on and in items we purchase. And sometimes the ongoingness is completely beyond our grasp, as when datasets are combined and mined so as to give states and corporations actionable data for producing products, patterns, and policies based on knowing things about our interrelations one to another that we do not know ourselves. Here the currents of lives as they are lived are frozen into infinitely separable, countable, and combinatory data-points.

“Approached in terms of class struggle, big data looks like further escalation of capital’s war against labor.”

 

Slavoj Žižek, Revolution at the Gates:

“[Adapting a statement of Lenin regarding central banks,] can we also say that ‘without the World Wide Web socialism would be impossible . . . . Our task is here merely to lop off what capitalistically mutilates this excellent apparatus, to make it even bigger, even more democratic, even more comprehensive?” (p. 293)

“However, does capitalism really provide the ‘natural’ frame of relations of production for the digital universe?  Is there not also, in the World Wide Web, an explosive potential for capitalism itself?  Is not the lesson of the Microsoft monopoly precisely the Leninist one: instead of fighting this monopoly through the state apparatus (remember the court-ordered splitting up of the Microsoft Corporation), would it not be more ‘logical’ simply to nationalize it, making it freely accessible?  So today, I am thus tempted to paraphrase Lenin’s well-known slogan ‘Socialism = electrification + the power of the soviets’: ‘Socialism = free access to the Internet + the power of the soviets.’  (The second element is crucial, since it specifies the only social organization within which the Internet can realize its liberating potential; without it, we would have a new version of crude technological determinism.”  (p. 294).

For a more watered-down, less practical alternative to nationalization, see “Facebook: A Cooperative Transformation”

Karl Marx Quote

“the workers must be armed and organized. The whole proletariat must be armed at once with muskets, rifles, cannon and ammunition, and the revival of the old-style citizens’ militia, directed against the workers, must be opposed. Where the formation of this militia cannot be prevented, the workers must try to organize themselves independently as a proletarian guard, with elected leaders and with their own elected general staff; they must try to place themselves not under the orders of the state authority but of the revolutionary local councils set up by the workers. Where the workers are employed by the state, they must arm and organize themselves into special corps with elected leaders, or as a part of the proletarian guard. Under no pretext should arms and ammunition be surrendered; any attempt to disarm the workers must be frustrated, by force if necessary.”

Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League (1850)

 

Bonus links: “The Rifle on the Wall: A Left Argument for Gun Rights (Reprise)” (“The political principle at stake is simple: to deny the state the monopoly of armed force, and, obversely, to empower the citizenry, to distribute the power of armed force among the people.”), April Theses (“Abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy . . . to be replaced by the arming of the whole people.”),  Chairman Mao Quote (“political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”), Painting & Guns Quote (“After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military.”), “Draft Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” (“XXII. But any act against liberty, against the security or against the property of a man, exercised by anyone, even in the name of the law, except in the cases determined by it, and the forms which they prescribe, is arbitrary and void; the very respect of the law forbids us to submit to it, and if we wish to execute it by violence; it is permissible to repel it by force.”) and “Violence” and Links to books about black armed resistance in freedom movements and “Things That Can and Cannot Be Said” (“And I thought, fuck this. My question is, if, let’s say, there are people who live in villages deep in the forest, four days walk from anywhere, and a thousand soldiers arrive and burn their villages and kill and rape people to scare them off their land because mining companies want it—what brand of non-violence would the stalwarts of the establishment recommend? Non-violence is radical political theatre. *** And who can pull in an audience? You need some capital, some stars, right? Gandhi was a superstar. The people in the forest don’t have that capital, that drawing power. So they have no audience. Non-violence should be a tactic—not an ideology preached from the sidelines to victims of massive violence…. With me, it’s been an evolution of seeing through these things.”) and Barrett Brown on kids’ march for gun rights (“If all these hundreds of thousands of kids had brought guns with them they could have seized control of the capitol and enacted whatever anti-gun legislation they wanted. Catch-22!”) and Battlefield America: The War On The American People.  And for anarchist perspectives, see “School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks” and “How Nonviolence Protects the State”

William S. Burroughs Quote

“After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn’t do it. I sure as hell wouldn’t want to live in a society where the only people allowed guns are the police and the military.”

William S. Burroughs, Painting & Guns

 

Bonus links: “The Rifle on the Wall: A Left Argument for Gun Rights (Reprise)” (“The political principle at stake is simple: to deny the state the monopoly of armed force, and, obversely, to empower the citizenry, to distribute the power of armed force among the people.”) and Links to books about black armed resistance in freedom movements

Slavoj Žižek on Victimhood Status

“one should . . . admit how problematic it is to anchor one’s political demands to status of victimhood. Is the basic characteristic of today’s subjectivity not the weird combination of the free subject who believes themselves ultimately responsible for their own fate and the subject who bases their argument on their status as a victim of circumstances beyond their own control? Every contact with another human being is experienced as a potential threat – if the other smokes, if he casts a covetous glance at me, he already hurts me; this logic of victimization is today universalized, reaching well beyond the standard cases of sexual or racist harassment.”

Slavoj Žižek, “Sex and ’68: Liberal Movement Revolutionized ‘Sexuality’ But at What Cost?”

Bonus links: “The Politics of Identity” and “Art and Exploitation: Ai Weiwei, Dissidence and the Refugee Crisis”

Jonathan Cook – The UK’s Hidden Role in Assange’s Detention

Link to an article by Jonathan Cook:

“The UK’s Hidden Role in Assange’s Detention”

 

Bonus links: “The Scourging of Julian Assange” and “British Judge Refuses to Overturn Julian Assange’s Arrest Warrant” and “Inside WikiLeaks: Working with the Publisher that Changed the World”