What Matters

Walter Benn Michaels

  • Who Cares about the White Working Class? edited by Kjartan Páll Sveinsson
    Runnymede Perspectives, 72 pp, January 2009, ISBN 978 1 906732 10 3

In the US, there is (or was) an organisation called Love Makes a Family. It was founded in 1999 to support the right of gay couples to adopt children and it played a central role in supporting civil unions. A few months ago, its director, Ann Stanback, announced that, having ‘achieved its goals’, Love Makes a Family would be ceasing operations at the end of this year, and that she would be stepping down to spend more time with her wife, Charlotte. Our ‘core purpose’, she said, has been ‘accomplished’.

It’s possible of course that this declaration of mission accomplished will prove to be as ill-advised as some others have been in the last decade. Gay marriage is legal in Connecticut, where Love Makes a Family is based, but it’s certainly not legal everywhere in the US. No one, however, would deny that the fight for gay rights has made extraordinary strides in the 40 years since Stonewall. And progress in combating homophobia has been accompanied by comparable progress in combating racism and sexism. Although the occasional claim that the election of President Obama has ushered us into a post-racial society is obviously wrong, it’s fairly clear that the country that’s just elected a black president (and that produced so many votes for the presidential candidacy of a woman) is a lot less racist and sexist than it used to be.

But 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 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. A society in which white people were proportionately represented in the bottom quintile (and black people proportionately represented in the top quintile) would not be more equal; it would be exactly as unequal. It would not be more just; it would be proportionately unjust.

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.

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.

In the wake of Gates’s arrest, among the hundreds of people protesting the injustice of racial profiling, a white cardiologist married to a black man put the point best when she lamented that even in the ‘diverse area’ where she lives (Hyde Park, Obama’s old neighbourhood) she’ll hear people nervously say, ‘Look at those black guys coming towards us,’ to which she replies: ‘Yes, but they’re wearing lacrosse shorts and Calvin Klein jeans. They’re probably the kids of the professor down the street.’ ‘You have to be able to discern differences between people,’ she went on to say. ‘It’s very frustrating.’ The differences she means, of course, are between rich kids and poor kids, and the frustration she feels is with people who don’t understand that class is supposed to trump race. But while it’s easy to sympathise with that frustration – rich black kids are infinitely less likely to mug you than poor black kids or, for that matter, poor white kids – it’s a lot harder to see it as the expression of a progressive politics.

Nevertheless, that seems to be the way we do see it. 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. And, perhaps more important, it has, ‘for a long time’, as Wendy Bottero says in her contribution to the recent Runnymede Trust collection Who Cares about the White Working Class?, also performed the intellectual function of focusing social analysis on what she calls ‘questions of racial or sexual identity’ and on ‘cultural differences’ instead of on ‘the way in which capitalist economies create large numbers of low-wage, low-skill jobs with poor job security’. The message of Who Cares about the White Working Class?, however, is that class has re-emerged: ‘What we learn here’, according to the collection’s editor, Kjartan Páll Sveinsson, is that ‘life chances for today’s children are overwhelmingly linked to parental income, occupations and educational qualifications – in other words, class.’

This assertion, unremarkable as it may seem, represents a substantial advance over multiculturalist anti-racism, since the logic of anti-racism requires only the correction of disparities within classes rather than between them. If about 1.5 per cent of your population is of Pakistani descent, then if 1.5 per cent of every income quintile is Pakistani, your job is done. The fact that the top quintile is four times better off than the bottom quintile – the advantage the children of rich Pakistanis would have over the children of poor ones – is not your problem. Which is why, in a society like Britain, whose GINI coefficient – the standard measure of income inequality – is the highest in the EU, the ambition to eliminate racial disparities rather than income inequality itself functions as a form of legitimation rather than as a critique. Which is also why, when an organisation like the Runnymede Trust, which has for years been devoted to promoting ‘a successful multi-ethnic Britain by addressing issues of racial equality and discrimination against minority communities’, starts addressing itself to class, it’s undergone a real change. Racial equality requires respect for racial difference; class equality requires the elimination of class difference.

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 (when Thatcher took office, the GINI score was 0.25; now it’s 0.36, the highest the UK has ever recorded) 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.

You get a perfect sense of how this works from Beverley Skeggs’s analysis of a story told by one of her working-class research subjects about a trip she and her friends took to Kendals in Manchester: ‘You know, where the really posh food is, and we were laughing about all the chocolates, and how many we could eat – if we could afford them – and this woman she just looked at us. If looks could kill … It was like it was her place, and we didn’t belong there.’ The point Skeggs makes is that ‘the gaze that embodies the symbolic reading of the women makes them feel “out of place”, thereby generating a sense of where their “place” should be,’ while her more general point is that ‘the middle class’ should be ‘held accountable for the levels of symbolic violence they enact in daily encounters’ with the lower classes.

The focus of her outrage (indeed, insofar as we can tell from the story, the focus of the women’s own outrage) is not the fact that some people can afford the chocolates and others can’t, but that the ones who can are mean to the ones who can’t. And this represents something of an innovation in left politics. While everyone has always disapproved of adding insult to injury, it’s traditionally been the right that’s sought to treat the insult as if it were the injury.

It’s thus a relevant fact about Who Cares about the White Working Class? that Ferdinand Mount, who once advised Thatcher, is twice cited and praised here for condemning the middle class’s bad behaviour in displaying its open contempt for ‘working-class cultures’. He represents an improvement over those who seek to blame the poor for their poverty and who regard the culture of poverty rather than the structure of capitalism as the problem. That is the view of what we might call right-wing neoliberalism and, from the standpoint of what we might call left-wing neoliberalism, it’s nothing but the expression of class prejudice. 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 is pretty obvious when it comes to class. Kjartan Páll Sveinsson declares that ‘the white working classes are discriminated against on a range of different fronts, including their accent, their style, the food they eat, the clothes they wear’ – and it’s no doubt true. But the elimination of such discrimination would not alter the nature of the system that generates ‘the large numbers of low-wage, low-skill jobs with poor job security’ described by Bottero. It would just alter the technologies used for deciding who had to take them. And it’s hard to see how even the most widespread social enthusiasm for tracksuits and gold chains could make up for the disadvantages produced by those jobs.

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. And she’s also supposed to feel pride because the dean of our college, who makes much more than ten times what she does, is African-American, like her. And since the chancellor of our university, who makes more than 15 times what she does, is not only African-American but a woman too (the fruits of both anti-racism and anti-sexism!), she can feel doubly good about her. But, and I acknowledge that this is the thinnest of anecdotal evidence, I somehow doubt she does. If the downside of the politics of anti-discrimination is that it now functions to legitimate the increasing disparities not produced by racism or sexism, the upside is the degree to which it makes visible the fact that the increase in those disparities does indeed have nothing to do with racism or sexism. A social analyst as clear-eyed as a University of Illinois cleaning woman would start from there.