Summary of Dupuy on Social Hierarchy

“The arbitrariness of social hierarchy is not a mistake, but the whole point, with the arbitrariness of evaluation playing an analogous role to the arbitrariness of market success. Violence threatens to explode not when there is too much contingency in the social space, but when one tries to eliminate contingency. In La Marque du sacré, Jean-Pierre Dupuy conceives hierarchy as one of four procedures (‘dispositifs symboliques’) whose function is to make the relationship of superiority non-humiliating: hierarchy itself (an externally imposed order that allows me to experience my lower social status as independent of my inherent value); demystification (the ideological procedure which demonstrates that society is not a meritocracy but the product of objective social struggles, enabling me to avoid the painful conclusion that someone else’s superiority is the result of his merit and achievements); contingency (a similar mechanism, by which we come to understand that our position on the social scale depends on a natural and social lottery; the lucky ones are those born with the right genes in rich families); and complexity (uncontrollable forces have unpredictable consequences; for instance, the invisible hand of the market may lead to my failure and my neighbour’s success, even if I work much harder and am much more intelligent). Contrary to appearances, these mechanisms don’t contest or threaten hierarchy, but make it palatable, since ‘what triggers the turmoil of envy is the idea that the other deserves his good luck and not the opposite idea – which is the only one that can be openly expressed.’ Dupuy draws from this premise the conclusion that it is a great mistake to think that a reasonably just society which also perceives itself as just will be free of resentment: on the contrary, it is in such societies that those who occupy inferior positions will find an outlet for their hurt pride in violent outbursts of resentment.”

Slavoj Žižek, “The Revolt of the Salaried Bourgeoisie”

This is essentially a rejection of the liberal philosopher John Rawls‘ position, as articulated in A Theory of Justice.

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.  Michaels’ 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/elementary concepts at length, and moves quickly through the statistics and science that support 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.

Nancy MacLean – The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America

Link to an interview of Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains (2017), conducted by Nick Licata:

“The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America”

 

MacLean’s position should be problematized (i.e., critiqued from the left), which leads to criticisms of some specific things she says in the interview.  Domenico Losurdo‘s War and Revolution: Rethinking the Twentieth Century (as well as his Liberalism: A Counter-History) are the touchstones for this criticism.  Most of MacLean’s position is about defending the New Deal.   But she defends the New Deal from a position “within” it, which is to say she appears to agree with the “radical reactionary” libertarians in assuming an anti-communist position.  Isn’t it obvious that the way to oppose, in her words, the Buchanan/Koch agenda of the supremacy of private property rights is to eliminate private property altogether?  It is fairly well-established now that the New Deal was only possible as part of an anti-communist agenda, as a conservative compromise to avoid communist government rule.  MacLean at one point jokes that she is not really a conservative, but Losurdo’s books suggest that perhaps she really is conservative, because political liberalism has more in common with the political right than the political left.  She seems to assume that the New Deal was a self-sustaining coalition, which, historically, it was manifestly not — the New Deal was sustained only as a largely unprincipled anti-communist compromise that required at least the threat of communism to sustain itself.  So when she praises, for instance, the recent student anti-gun march, she rejects the pro-gun position universally adopted by the leading figures of the political left (something explained principally by her anti-communist stance).  Also, she bemoans the “identity politics” vs “class” debate, though it is actually an important one because no legitimate politics can overcome class divisions by maintaining an “identity politics” framework, which is necessarily dependent upon maintaining class or class-like divisions of some sort as part of a liberal politics of exclusion.  MacLean’s history of the political right’s own tactics in the the United States in the second half of the 20th Century is nonetheless useful in many ways, and should be read alongside Isaac William Martin‘s Rich People’s Movements, Losurdo’s books, Fredric Jameson‘s An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army (which advocates precisely the opposite of the Koch plan to privatize the Veteran’s Administration), and the work of Slavoj Žižek (perhaps starting with Trouble in Paradise: From the End of History to the End of Captialism).

Eric London – What Determines Social Mobility in America?

Links to articles by Eric London:

“The New York Times on Race and Class: What Determines Social Mobility in America?” and Part 2

 

Bonus links: “Why Liberals Separate Race from Class” and “Beyond the Class Ceiling: Education and Upward Social Mobility” and “America’s Political Economy: Lost Generations — Cumulative Impact of Mass Incarceration” and “Fake News on Russia and Other Official Enemies: The New York Times, 1917–2017” and Liberalism: A Counter-History and “How Obama Destroyed Black Wealth” and “Between Obama and Coates” and “How Racial Disparity Does Not Help Make Sense of Patterns of Police Violence” and Review of Class, Race and Marxism and Walter Benn Michaels on Left Neoliberalism and The Trouble With Diversity and The Condemnation of Little B and “The Controversy Surrounding the Roseanne Television Series” and Social Class in the 21st Century

Bonus quote:

“it is not simply a matter of seeing which account of reality best matches the ‘facts’, with the one that is closest being the least biased and therefore the best. As soon as the facts are determined, we have already — whether we know it or not — made our choice; we are already within one ideological system or another. The real dispute has already taken place over what is to count as the facts, which facts are relevant, and so on.”

Rex Butler, “What is a Master-Signifier”

Jerry White – Teachers Unions Intensify Efforts to Suppress Growing Class Struggle in the US

Link to an article by Jerry White:

“Teachers Unions Intensify Efforts to Suppress Growing Class Struggle in the US”

 

Bonus link: Poor People’s Movements and “Making Greater Possibilities Inconceivable: Another Thought or Two on the Logic of Lesser Evilism”

Sarah Bruch & Joe Soss – The Lessons Students Learn

Link to an article by Sarah Bruch & Joe Soss:

“The Lessons Students Learn”

 

Bonus links: “Red Diaper Babies” and Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Richard Shaull Quote (“There is no such thing as a neutral educational process.  Education either functions as an instrument that is used to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity to it, or it becomes ‘the practice of freedom,’ the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”) and Deschooling Society and The Struggle for the Meaning of Society As Such and “Elite Universities Are Turning Our Kids Into Corporate Stooges”

Johann Hari – Depressed? Anxious? Blame Neoliberalism.

Link to an article by Johann Hari:

“Depressed? Anxious? Blame Neoliberalism.”

 

I very much question why this writer singles out neoliberalism, specifically, rather than capitalism, generally.  There is nothing in the article to suggest that only neoliberalism — but no other forms of liberalism or capitalism — is problematic.  While he has established that eliminating neoliberalism is necessary, he has failed to establish that doing so is sufficient.

 

Bonus link: “Lacan  Between  Cultural  Studies  And  Cognitivism”