Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

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.

We remember this as the emergence of the Reagan Democrats, but it is part of a much longer-term social realignment in American party politics that began as early as the first Roosevelt administration in the New Deal era. Throughout this period, social conservatives used reactionary identity politics to chasten, hamper and limit class politics. Effectively, dominant identities were good, emerging identities were bad and these evaluations could be extended to associated domains like economic policy.

But things have now turned around, and in a big way. First we, as a polity, learned how to recover from our anti-Semitism. The experience of Nazi horror after centuries of marginalization and exclusion of jews in the west opened the door to full recognition of the abusive power of hegemonic culture. This quickly translated into the idiom of the Civil Rights Movement through the analogy of WASPs as good Germans, willing to do nothing while atrocities played out beneath their notice.

In our own time we have seen the next shoe drop in this axiological transition. Many of us, Niall Ferguson included, grew up in a time when it was perfectly fine to crack gay jokes and poke fun at sexual difference. It is easy to know, but hard to internalize how quickly and decisively this has changed. Where Ferguson’s parents might have had the opportunity to do in a progressive economist with a casual mirthless dig at an alternative lifestyle, today his economic adversaries can promote their progressive agendas with the purifying rhetoric of anti-discrimination talk. Just as one can kill popular support for a policy by linking it with terrorists and tyrants, so too now one can kill it by surrounding it with the aura of intolerance. We are living through this and so it is obvious, but it is a big deal that the so-called social issues are now starting to work in favor of the economic progressive. The gay lifestyle, or at least the appreciation of the same, is an increasingly purifying signifier rather than a polluting one (if that goes too far for you, we can say that intolerance of homosexuality is at least a polluting one).

What this implies for practical politics is that we are poised for a reversal of the dynamic of the Reagan revolution in symbolic politics. In his pilloried performance, Ferguson did great damage to the cause of austerity economics. In the sociological language I would use, he desecrated austerity by linking it with homophobia through himself. You see, you could once sink a policy by championing bigotry, now you sink it by practicing it.

The weight of this insight become apparent when you put it in the light of William Julius Wilson’s famous argument about the relation between class and race emphases in politics. Wilson once argued that if you wanted to pursue policies that would result in equality between and among the races, you should frame it in universalistic language and rhetoric, i.e. class rhetoric. One name for this is targeted universalism. This worked because black people were disproportional representaives of the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder and to benefit the downtrodden would benefit black people disproportionately. In that frame, class politics could benefit identity politics (racial, gender, sexuality etc.) by disassociation of the two.

Wilson has recently changed his views, as we can see in this NPR interview with Michel Martin from September 13, 2012.

MARTIN: Does that suggest to you that perhaps it would be helpful for people who talk about these matters, publicly and privately, for that matter, to really stop emphasizing race?

WILSON: No. I don’t think we should stop emphasizing race, because I think, you know, race is still very, very important and we have to recognize that and continue to introduce programs to address racial inequities. But we have to widen our vision and also address the growing problems of economic class. The middle class has just fallen further and further behind the rich.

We should couple Wilson’s change of heart with this economic stimulus-is-gay moment to note what this implies for the policies that progressives will want to use to promote economic equality over the next generation.

I have argued and still hold that you will only start to see robust support for egalitarian civil policy like democratic workplaces, universal pre-K, student loan relief, and counter-cyclical national service organizations when we have an independent class rhetoric—when you don’t need to speak at the intersection of class with race or ethnicity or gender or disability or sexuality to get people mobilized for practical politics. In the meantime, intersectionality will begin to benefit class politics by borrowing the empathetic energies of identity politics, rather than the other way around. To be clear: class politics can now benefit from its association with identity politics where it once suffered from it. This is a big deal and people of all persuasions should take note.

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