Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Archive for 2013|Yearly archive page

Extension AND Displacement: Identity and Class in the American Century

In Class and Social Stratification, Culture, Intellectual History on June 16, 2013 at 10:36 am

A powerful opinion piece appeared in today’s New York Times, written by Stephanie Coontz, a justly celebrated historian with impeccable credentials in the American left. Building on an argument from a book of hers from the early 1990’s she counsels the American intelligentsia to avoid the nostalgia trap. As she rightly suggests, “you can’t just stroll through the past, picking the things you like and skipping the ones you don’t, as if historical eras were menus.” She worries that we are beginning to forget the atrocities of the past and the value of hard-won advances in social policy achieved by feminists and civil rights and disability activists among others in a context of surging economic inequality. But as she inoculates us to the threats of nostalgia, she may also be blinding us to the challenge of our time: to blend arguments for what Nancy Fraser calls recognition and redistribution in a progressive social vision. Let me explain.

Looking back to early 1960s, it easy to see how the elderly, women, the disabled, and black people, among members of other groups, would look to opportunities they enjoy today, preferring them to what they would have enjoyed back then. As Coontz says, for many, the good old days were not so good. In that sense we have unambiguously extended social rights in favor of a broader conception of justice. But for various, complicated reasons the balance between capital and community seems also to have tilted in favor of the former over that same period. Most of us have seen the objective numbers of economic and wealth disparities, but what is most striking about this are not the features of the objective situation but rather of the moral case. Over the last thirty-five years (I pick 1978 as my mark for empirical reasons I discuss elsewhere) we seem to have lost the ability to see this transformation in unambiguously moral terms. As a political community, we are no longer in the habit of condemning the destructive effects of the market. There remain some unapologetic pockets of comradeship that once powered the Nader fringe, but as I demonstrate in my study of mainstream political talk on Meet the Press, outrage in the face of abusive class power is largely a thing of the past. Thought of in terms of conventional mindshare, class has been displaced by identity. If you care about how we once articulated outrage about economic inequality, you will have to risk the nostalgia label and look to the past, because few powerful examples are on display today.

As we imagine the bridge narrative of the future, it is no more nostalgic to look back at what we have lost in our capacity to imagine abusive power over the last half century than it is to look back to the horrors of slavery, Read the rest of this entry »

From Pollutant to Purifier: Identity Politics and the Class Comeback

In Class and Social Stratification, Culture, Domestic Politics on May 7, 2013 at 10:36 am

2593-Niall Ferguson (internet)

I’m not sure if you noticed, but last week the famous conservative historian, Niall Ferguson, made some offensive remarks about John Maynard Keynes at “the Tenth Annual Altegris Conference in Carlsbad, Calif., in front of a group of more than 500 financial advisors and investors.” The gist of what he said was that because Keynes was a homosexual, he had no generative commitments to coming generations and he therefore cared little how they would suffer under his feckless policies. I don’t intend to pile on Ferguson and have nothing to add about his cultural views (nor do I know if Keynes was, in fact, gay), but I think Ferguson’s widely publicized PR implosion is a signal of what may be the most profound transition in symbolic politics that we will live through together.

Let me explain. As you must know by now if you have heard of my book, The Eclipse of Equality, I believe that we are in a moment of axiological transition, in which the values based on countering the abusive power of concentrated wealth—class values—have been eclipsed by libertarian values on the right and multicultural values on the left. I think that, under pressure of non-ignorable circumstances, class values are poised to make some kind of comeback. The comeback may play out on either the Democratic or Republican side, but either way, it will fill the vacuum we now experience.

This eclipse and the need for a class comeback was produced by a conjuncture of historical events that enabled opportunistic elites to downplay concerns about their economic power and its occasionally adverse influence on middle class livelihoods by exploiting cultural, racial and sub-cultural bigotry through the Nixon era to our own to promote anti-public sector, anti-labor, pro-business policies. In essence, lifestyles that had been positioned outside of the mainstream—black, youth, poor, feminist, gay, etc.—could be tagged or foisted onto progressive economic policies, “polluting” those once popular policies in the process with negative moral and symbolic associations. In this way, programs that benefitted the non-wealthy and economically exposed like old age and medical insurance, collective bargaining, Keynesian economic stimulus, and especially temporary assistance (aka welfare) were marketed as misguided, anti-American, and even immoral. Read the rest of this entry »

Eclipse Passes Through The Page 99 Test

In Guest Blogger, Media and Politics, Reviews on May 2, 2013 at 9:55 am

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Today’s post will be a bit different. I was contacted by the author of the official blog of the Campaign for the American Reader, who asked me to put The Eclipse of Equality through the Page 99 test. The idea is that if you take a random page from the book from a section that is not overworked and through through, you can judge the quality of the whole for yourself. I had a lot of fun playing this game, and I think the test basically works. You can read for yourself over at Marshal Zeringue’s blog.

Greed is a Grievance: Hate, Greed and the Meaning of Equality in the 21st Century

In Class and Social Stratification, Collective and Chosen Trauma, Culture, Diversity, Domestic Politics, Tolerance on April 30, 2013 at 10:46 am

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As you must know by now, I’ve just written a book about public struggles over the meaning of a just society with an intriguing title, The Eclipse of Equality. The title is catchy, but it also a bit misleading. I know that many in my audience will gravitate toward or be repulsed by it based on our collective tendency to think about equality in the ways that we typically do, but there is an irony embedded in this title that I ought to explain or you will miss the whole point.

First, the standard story. What you likely imagine when I say that we have lived through an eclipse of equality is a story about the career of hatred in the modern world and the ways that dominant groups have used their hatred infused privilege to exploit and dominate others, even to the present day. Anticipating my turn to conversations about the economy, you might therefore expect that my book is about the enduring structural and systemic legacies of that hatred and our collective failure to address them. It is that book, in part, but the thesis also plays on a level beneath that common reading that qualifies and reframes the standard interpretation.

I argue that at the same time that we have become increasingly clever in recognizing the abusive powers of white, male, Christian, straight, abled privilege, we have forgotten how to think, feel and argue well about economic inequality thought of in its own terms. To suggest that there are enticing alternatives to be explored in comparative capitalisms comes off as odd and distracting in too many of our conversations. We have lived through an eclipse of the moral category of equality and this means that we have lost the ability to creatively imagine the world of material scarcity.

Consider this a family intervention: we need to face that we as a society no longer care much about economic equality. In fact, we’re kind of cool with the way things are playing out. Of course, we think we care about equality, but the way we talk about it proves that we really care about is just about anything but. When we speak about equality today, we always inflect it with other clarifying words that show where our red lines are drawn: tolerance, inclusion, identity and diversity. Read the rest of this entry »

Paradigms of Injustice: Bureaucrats, Bigwigs, Bigots and the Lessons of Google Books

In Class and Social Stratification, Diversity, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Media and Politics on April 26, 2013 at 3:17 pm

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I’ve noticed that there is something tricky about my eclipse of equality thesis. It is tricky to explain to my conservative friends and colleagues because they can sense that what I am hinting at might jeopardize their discursive achievements in promoting anti-government imagery, ideas and symbols. It is tricky to explain to my liberal friends and colleagues because they can sense that what I am hinting at might jeopardize their discursive achievements in promoting anti-supremacist imagery, ideas, and symbols.

Both of these sets of colleagues might be right, but I hope that both are, in fact, wrong. What I think the eclipse of equality lens allows to begin to see is how a coherent plan for a just society requires us to balance our concern with the full spectrum of abusive powers that are arrayed against us and to plan institutions that have the balancing power to make those forces more useful than (ab)useful. The insight is that while planning authorities, wealthy entrepreneurs and ethical codifiers are all good things in one sense—they provide us with order, growth and morality respectively—they also invariably overreach, becoming villainous bureaucrats, bigwigs and bigots in the narratives that constitute our perspective on the just society.  My conservative friends fear the bureaucrat. My liberal friends fear the bigot. Both of them fear the vilification of the bigwig, which they associate with either Marxist Socialism on the conservative and reactionary populism on the liberal side. This helps to lock us into a pattern that makes it very difficult to articulate compelling popular ideas that challenge the concentration of economic power in precipitously few hands.

For the moment, I will postpone the argument about the objective data of class polarization and focus instead on how our value system and narrative ecology has evolved in this period of spiraling inequality. One has to be very careful in making attributions of causal direction when analyzing time series, or historical, data of the kind I will present here, but I think the drift in certain word choices in books printed in American English as represented in Google books might give us a supporting body of data to complement the deeply qualitative case I make in Eclipse about what is going on and why.

Consider Figure 1. You see here the result of a Google search using the incredibly seductive NGRAM Viewer application. I am deeply suspicious of many uses of this application for natural language or quantitative content analysis; in my own experience with it, the older dates are riddled with errors and there are odd patterns of what Google considered to be books. I am not clear about exactly what qualifies as a book for Google, but Life magazine seems to make the cut, as does a bound set of journals and other unorthodox sources. Taking these caveats in mind, Google books NGRAM is a mind-blowing application for purposes of mapping culture as the authors well advertised and it may help to put my arguments in context.

Read the rest of this entry »

Analyzing Discourse: A Methodological Note

In Culture, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Media and Politics on April 23, 2013 at 10:26 am

Eclipse of Equality

As part of the celebration of the release of my new book The Eclipse of Equality: Arguing America on Meet the Press, I thought it might be helpful to share in broad outline how I put together the analysis there, something the space requirements of the manuscript did not allow in the book itself. I won’t go into great detail, but I hope this will be helpful to any of my students who have an interest in cobbling together some similar an analysis in their own work.

Step 1: The Puzzle Trap

The first priority in a journey of this kind is to find a coherent stream of discourse that you would like to analyze—some discursive arena on which to set your attention. For me, this came easily. In all of my political work on the United States, and throughout my academic career, I have found it necessary to keep myself grounded by watching the Sunday shows: Meet the Press, Fox News Sunday, This Week, Face the Nation etc. At first, I didn’t think much about why these shows were so important in grounding my perspectives on survey work or for my teaching, but it was always true.

I remember in one of my early job interviews talking about how I anchored the codes for my dissertation work (a massive content analysis on the association of open-ended themes and Presidential party vote in the National Election Studies (NES)) in the Sunday morning debates. The literature in the top journals was essential to getting a bead on what mattered in American politics, but what that kind of immersion provided me was what I would now call a set of puzzles that were relevant from the point of view of the scholars rather than a set of problems that real people were confronting in their lives as practical politicians.

This contrast between the puzzles we spin and the problems our subjects manage is the first methodological insight. If you want actionable results in your social science, you can’t rely on the way you and your colleagues frame the problems (in terms of puzzles in the literature), but rather an immediate sense of how the participants frame them as problems they themselves confront, and they frame them in their own rhetorical forms. When you take these forms seriously, you find that the boundary between pure and applied research begins to dissolve and the relevance of your work increases immensely, this at the expense of veering close to the social science/journalism boundary.

This puzzle/problem distinction is a fine point, but it is easiest to see if you have had any experience in framing a survey question. Read the rest of this entry »

Equal Protection and the Politics of Difference

In Class and Social Stratification, Culture, Domestic Politics, Intellectual History, Tolerance on February 23, 2013 at 11:18 am

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In preparation for the release of my new book, The Eclipse of Equality: Arguing America on Meet the Press, I have decided to return to the blogging business. The central claim of that book is that we have lived through a temporary shift in political emphases in which equality, one of the canonical categories of the moral imagination, has been allowed to atrophy. When we speak about equality today, we tend not to speak about equality itself, understood in non-ascriptive and universalistic terms, but rather about tolerance, inclusion and diversity in terms of their points of intersection with equality per se–hence the vogue of intersectionality. Equality and tolerance are related principles, but they differ in relation to the abusive power they were designed to oppose. My book is worth a read, because this confusion of categories leaves us unprepared to deal with our most pressing problems like uncivil communication, democratic gridlock and soaring rates of inequality.

Let me explain what I mean with a story. Back when I was in graduate training to become a professional sociologist, I used to suggest to my students that they would soon live through the rise of the LGBT movement as the central civil rights cause of our day. Even liberal sociology students back then were typically skeptical of my claim and we often politely moved on to other topics. In my personal life, I thought that people ought to be more aware of the centrality of this cause and so, when I was invited to join the Human Rights Campaign some time around 2002, whose logo you see rotated above, I put the sticker they gave me up on a kitchen door just as you see it represented there. Perhaps I was thinking of 9/11 or maybe I just didn’t like being bothered with swag, but this logo hung orthogonal to its meaning in my house for some time. It never occurred to me to rotate it and read the message as equality for gay people, even though my major field of study was the study of inequality. The problem struck me not as one of a inequality, read class, but one of intolerance. I thought what was needed was something like tolerance for religious difference–safeguards against state establishment of heterosexuality and the prohibition of free exercise of alternative sexualities.

Read the rest of this entry »