Walter Benn Michaels has been trying awfully hard for some years now to drive a wedge between, well, mostly between everyone and himself, since I'm not sure who's actually lining up behind him, but I suppose what he thinks he's been doing is convincing people that liberal attention paid to (mostly racial) diversity has been at the expense of any consideration of economic inequality. I haven't read his book The Trouble with Diversity, but I did follow along closely when n+1 ran his piece "The Neoliberal Imagination" (not available online) and then Bruce Robbins wrote in with a harsh critique and Michaels responded and Robbins responded back (the latter two are found here—I can't find the first Robbins critique).
Michaels accuses liberals of stooping to a politics of respect or recognition where we should be practicing a politics of redistribution. "[T]he politics of the neoliberal imagination involve respecting the poor, not getting rid of poverty—eliminating inequality without redistributing wealth." Liberals, he argues, like to treat classism as homologous to racism or sexism—as being primarily about the destructive force of prejudice, rather than the destructive force of not having enough money to pay for basic needs. "So, just as being opposed to racism is by no means to be opposed to racial difference… to be opposed to classism is by no means to oppose class difference."
There are two crucial jumps for Michaels here: the first is to turn this homology into history, which he tries to do by arguing that the increased commitment to racial/gender diversity both in the academy and the private sector has coincided with the exponential growth of economic inequality during the same period. (This is a fairly truncated view of a rather long struggle against prejudice and racial and gendered forms of injustice, struggles which have remained active in greater or lesser measure through periods of widening and decreasing inequality, and which have often worked as not against a struggle for economic equality.) The second jump is to turn the history into action: because fighting for diversity has coincided with greater economic inequality, give up diversity as an agenda-setting value for the left. Michaels openly acknowledges that he sees diversity vs. equality not only as an historically adversarial relation but a zero-sum game. So, presto-changeo, ignoring diversity will lead every good leftist (and, it seems, also all the faint-hearted liberals who warm to diversity because it's so much easier than fighting inequality) to re-commit themselves to the struggle for redistributive national economic policies. Hmm. I'm probably missing something here, but even if I'm missing a lot, I can't imagine that in all of this, Michaels isn't missing more than a little.
Of course, it's quite interesting to re-visit this ca. 2006 thesis in the midst of a
What if what we’re seeing now is not just the end of a boom but the beginning of a new period of “ideological struggle”? If good for markets was bad for art, will bad for markets be good for art? For it does seem fairly clear that, with respect to at least one art form, market triumphalism hasn’t been so great. The past twenty-five years have been a pretty sad time for the American novel, and a lot of the best ones have been committed to historical caretaking… [Although these historical caretaking novels] about slavery and the Middle Passage, the Holocaust and the extermination of Native Americans, are more or less definitionally sad, it’s also true that the logic by which they are produced and that makes them so attractive is an optimistic one.From there, Michaels goes on to accuse novels about slavery and the Holocaust of basically pandering to a liberal desire to ignore inequality, but Michaels offers the solace that everyone might soon be so economically screwed ("disapproval of holocausts is getting serious competition from fear of poverty") that we will all start writing and reading novels about hard times and the vileness of capitalism again.
Novels he suggests we write would be like… American Psycho???
Actually, a quote (the same quote he cites here) from Easton Ellis's novel showed up in his original n+1 piece, so I think he's being serious about holding it up as the type of literature which will return us all to our redistributive consciences, despite the fact that it worked demonstrably better in the film version when it took on masculinity and gender, a re-focusing which probably did not please Michaels. Whatever. Michaels goes on:
So—no memoirs, no historicist novels, what else? Actually, a lot of other novels will have to go, too. The end of the novel is sort of like the weather, people are always talking about it . . . but maybe this time, we’ll get some results. For sure, no more books like The Corrections, or any of Oprah’s other choices. And no more stories about the children of immigrants, trying to figure out whether and where they fit into American culture. Ethnic identity is just the family writ large, and no move is more characteristic of the neoliberal novel than the substitution of cultural difference for (one of the things Thatcher meant to deny) class difference. What the neoliberal novel likes about cultural difference is that it sentimentalizes social conflict, imagining that what people really want is respect for their otherness rather than money for their mortgages. But they don’t. You get a better sense of the actual structure of American society from any of Ellis’s famous descriptions of what people are wearing (“a suit by Lubiam, a great-looking striped spread-collar cotton shirt from Burberry, a silk tie by Resikeio and a belt from Ralph Lauren”) than you do from all the accounts of people reclaiming, refusing, or repurposing their cultural identities.And then, in the move that's rapidly becoming popular with every single critic of the State of the Novel everywhere, he suggests that maybe the novel isn't the answer: the answer is TV (a.k.a The Wire). It's amazing to me how much like a mirror The Wire has become: everyone sees the justice of their vision reflected in its complexity. (It also allows Michaels to end the essay showing that he's cool with urban minorities. Sort of.)
At any rate, the easy thing to say is that I don't know where the hell he gets his idea that novels like American Psycho are going to change the world. The slightly harder thing is to recognize that Michaels shows no real concern with changing the world: his critique is bindingly local, devoted really only to America. Every single first person plural pronoun (and there are a lot of them in this essay) refers directly to Americans, to citizens of the US of A. Immigrants are just Americans with a past that they spend time writing about, and which non-immigrant Americans read to "sentimentalize" class conflict. At this point I should probably also admit that I haven't read Michaels's book on nativism, which I probably should if I want to critique his attitude toward immigrant narratives, but it seems to me awfully, awfully obtuse to treat immigrant narratives so simplistically and so indiscriminately. I wonder if he's read Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist… I'm dubious.
Putting Michaels's argument in a global context does quickly raise some fairly obvious questions, which Robbins (rather glibly) articulated at the end of the response cited above: "Consider, if we're in the business of raising the moral ante, that Americans constitute roughly 5% of the world's population but consume roughly 30% of the world's resources. In other words, the playing field at the level of the planet is even more racially tilted than it is at the level of the nation. How is giving poor American whites a better chance at $135,000 a year legal jobs (Michaels's example) going to have any effect on that inequality?" It should be said that in fighting against inequality, moving quickly to a larger context of inequality can just as quickly gut the will and drive to do anything: Americans do need better, more progressive economic policies, and the existence of massive global poverty doesn't really change that need.
However, there is a difference between arguing for immediate local action and ignoring global consequences, connections, and commonalities. The "historical caretaking" which Michaels so derides is often an attempt to split this difference, and at its best it is able to inspire both global consciousness and local action. Avoiding the easy lapse into Michaels's political provincialism (neoliberalism for him seems to be a primarily American tragedy, always ruining American lives first and not even really considering who else gets jacked in the process of ruining America) is precisely the reason why we should read authors like Toni Morrison. Morrison's narratives make it very difficult to see property and ownership as something unproblematic (an effect which I would think Michaels might applaud), but also make it impossible to see the present problems of property and ownership as something historically disconnected from a much more overtly violent and cruel understanding of what it means to "own." Morrison's historical caretaking is not just about "the burden of the past," a phrase which positions racism's legacy as something which can eventually be removed from its carriers—it's about how the past lives still. And that past's persistence creates not just a critique of prejudice, but a critique of capitalism, a critique of a system that has built into its notion of economic expansion a ready willingness to abuse labor to the greatest extent possible.
Michaels's turn at the end of the essay to The Wire is, perhaps, not surprising. For him, America is Baltimore as the show depicts it. Although there are obligatory nods in the show to the larger world (the FBI's unwillingness to help Baltimore police unless they can connect the drug trade to terrorism or corruption; the second season's globalized crime syndicate that operates out of the city's ports), the efforts to correct injustice are self-laceratingly local. Baltimore is a hell, but hell is a fairly bounded place. I'm not sure how different Michaels's attitude toward the United States is. The literature Michaels derides at least shows how easily hell spills into other places, or how hells can flow together. I just don't think