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The neoliberalism of Walter Benn Michaels

Walter Benn Michaels has recently been partying like it’s 1988 and engaging in a critique of identity politics. Lenin has already done a good job dismantling Michaels’s simplistic view of race, but what’s so frustrating about Michaels is that the economically-focused politics he prescribes is as deeply embedded in neoliberalism as the politics of diversity he rejects. Michaels criticizes a certain employment of “diversity” to promote an image of equality that does not challenge the fundamentals of economic inequality. This is true, although hardly new, and Michaels’s presentation is particularly simplistic. What he fails to realize, moreover, is that the sort of economic equality he champions is just as neoliberal.

Michaels puts forward a common but quite false presentation of neoliberalism as being unconcerned by economic inequality. But neoliberalism is not a simple anti-government position, but rather an advocacy of government intervention to create a very particular sort of marketized society, and a certain concern with the management and amelioration of inequality is central to that program of marketization, from New Labour to the IMF (some examples of which are discussed in this post on the neoliberalism of “Red Toryism”). Of course neoliberalism cannot in fact abolish economic inequality, but this is not because neoliberals have no desire to do so. The problem is that neoliberalism has no interest in promoting class struggle and the destruction of capitalism, the only things that can in fact abolish economic equality, by abolishing “the economic” altogether; but Michaels, because of the way he understands economic inequality, is just as hostile to these things.

The problem is that Michaels views economic inequality as transparent, as a simple matter of numerical difference (differences of wealth or earnings) that can be directly read off economic statistics. What this misses is the existence of a structure that underlies and produces these differences, and this structure (that is to say, class) is never directly visible; one will search in vain for a numerical boundary that differentiates capitalists from workers. As a recent post on LBO-Talk put it:

Class Struggle as visible Class Struggle never occurs…. The visible struggle is always about something else; that is why it takes analysis to identify what the struggle is, who are the participants, etc.

The upshot of views such as Michaels’s, which reduce the approved grounds of political struggle to visible economic difference, is that they locate the solution in a technocratic and narrowly economic rationality, a manipulation of the distribution of goods and the structure of incentives intended to produce more economically equal outcomes. But this kind of technocratic economic rationality is exactly what neoliberalism is. Far from opposing neoliberalism, Michaels is advocating it.

A genuine alternative to neoliberalism requires that we understand the ways in which the underlying abstract structures of capitalism become visible; these include the visible positivities that usually get called “class” (wage bracket, occupation, social mores), but there are other identity categories that are equally objectifications of capitalism’s logic, and race and gender are foremost among them. Michaels’s assumption that race and gender are mere epiphenomena, while class is a directly visible economic reality, rejects a materialist analysis of race, gender, and class. The difficulty lies in discovering a form of political action which recognizes the forms of appearance of capitalism while also attacking the invisible ground of this appearance. A politics directed solely against these appearances is, as Michaels correctly points out, merely part of the ideological legitimization of capitalism, but, as k-punk points out and contra Michaels’s neoliberal economism, “a protest against capitalism seems designed to fail.” How, then, do we engage in concrete political action against the abstraction that is capitalism?