Link to an article by Alyssa Battistoni:
I have a theory I call the “Idiot Pool” theory that describes how sincere morons are used to promote insidious agendas. I suppose this is somewhat synonymous with the term “useful idiots”, but I see this as really about its specific manifestation in the neoliberal era whereas the term “useful idiots” was a McCarthy-era anticommunist propaganda tool.
There are four basic components to the “Idiot Pool” theory:
- Social Darwinism – In the main, the idiot pool requires, well, a pool. There must initially be a mass of varied and differentiated theories out there, and proponents of those theories available to expound them. A social darwinist “winner-take-all”, market-based logic is then applicable, in the sense that a hierarchy is presumed in the face of this mass of available theories in order to foster the assumption that the theories gaining the most exposure must be “better”, “more accurate”, etc.
- Earnest Belief – The proponents of key theories (i.e., the ones selected, or at least capable of selection) must sincerely believe in their theories. Ideally, the proponent of a given theory should have derived the theory herself or himself, independently. The theory cannot have the appearance of being coerced, dictated by outside forces or actors, or, importantly, being an attempt to pander to the powerful. Key theories must appear to be organically derived in a vacuum, by beautiful souls with good intentions.
- Idiocy – The theory/belief must be stupid, that is, flawed and incorrect in some significant way. Principally, this means it must have a blind spot that removes powerful forces (the curators, as identified below) from view or at least from critical scrutiny, and depoliticizes the interests of the powerful (curators). Idiocy is the purpose behind this endeavor, because, when combined with earnest belief of the proponent of a theory, the proponent is believably unaware of the flaws and blind spots in her or his theory.
- Curation (or Selection) – There must be an entity other than the proponent of a theory to select key theories for mass distribution. This entity basically holds the keys to mass media access. By being a separate entity from the proponent of a theory, there arises plausible deniability as to the idiocy of the theories being promoted. The curating entity may not be visible, and ideally is made invisible through the invocation of a meritocratic view of social darwinism. But the curator may in many situations be prominently visible, and in such cases is usually aware, or at least becomes aware, of the idiocy of the theory selected and promoted — this often manifests as the overt promotion of a theory with a whiff of theoretical plausibility that proves empirically false, or the self-serving promotion of idealistic possibilities in the face of a markedly different reality.
I devised this little theory to try to explain what I read in Astra Taylor‘s book The People’s Platform, in which she described the (right-wing libertarian) actions of Silicon Valley software companies and their owners/executives, who loudly proclaim public benefits that never materialize in the face of rampant exploitation for their own personal/corporate enrichment. I see this theory manifesting itself most prominently in the neoliberal era, and as something more subtle and prone to the “proxy” tactics of such a regime — just as, say, corporations “outsource” tasks to “contractors” in order to sever the links of responsibility and liability for their objectives, while still reaping the benefits. In this context, it just won’t do to rely only on shills. A great example of the cynicism of shills can be found in the Monty Python comedy troupe’s routine “String,” in which a character pitches a series of contradictory marketing campaigns to try to sell a worthless inventory of short bits of string, with hypocritical enthusiasm. Though such shills still play a role too, and, indeed, the use of shills simultaneously with an “idiot pool” has the benefit of drawing attention — and criticism — away from the idiot pool. As an example of idiot pool theory in real-world use, I would point to someone like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Jordan Peterson or Alan Greenspan. See also a discussion of “courting the compatible left”
“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.”
Walter Benn Michaels – The 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.
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).
Links to articles by Eric London:
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“
“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”
Link to a machine translation of an article by Felipe Demier:
Link to an article by Jerry White: