Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

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, the holocaust and ubiquitous patriarchy to promote a contemporary policy agenda. Just as it is useful to test our current exposure to electronic surveillance against the ideals of the American Revolution to assist our speculation on how the ideals that inspired the Fourth Amendment no longer have the moral punch they once did, we can learn from the New Deal and Progressive movements to imagine how one might check and balance surging corporate influence.  These memories of movements past rekindle our imaginations, highlighting the categories of abusive power against we must protect ourselves.

Imaginative expansion is a useful way to characterize conventional politics post-Vietnam, but displacement can occur at the same time as we look back to the moral appeal of the last war—the identity revolution—losing sight of how to fight the next one. I know no one on the left who would support a retreat from the ideals grounding hard won social protections for the elderly, blacks, women, or the disabled and others, but as we imagine each new policy struggle in terms suited for other kinds of abuses, we lose sight of the complexity of conflict and the diversity of forms through which oppression presents itself.

What the nostalgia argument presented by Coontz represents today is a specific theory about social justice: conflict extension. This is a kind of descriptive theory of recent history in which new movements meant to counter abusive power are imagined to simply extend the institutions of justice rather than displacing older ideas. But in an environment of scarce resources of time and attention, extension and displacement can happen at the same time, and if concern about one form of injustice has displaced another too far, we have a right to ask if the balance is now just right. If the extension of conceptions of justice to matters of identity might have captivated our moral sense to the point that they have displaced older class concerns—in practice and not in principle we might begin to ask new disorienting questions. We might ask: Is class a white man’s moral category? If so, was it not we who made it so? Could we imagine a class politics that is not as sexist, racist and homophobic as it sometimes was when the class concern crested in the boomer adolescence?

My suspicion is that, subjective as these perceptions of abusive power inevitably are, objective conditions will win the day. The brutal facts of political economy and opportunity polarization are such that society will soon mobilize to protect itself from the worst aspects of imbalance in capital/community relations. This is why I suggest that the Eclipse of Equality—the partial displacement of concerns about individual equality for those of inter-group respect—will pass.

What is most interesting is to speculate on is not if but how this period of eclipse will pass. Knowing my fellow Americans, I doubt that the populist register will take us very far. Similarly, if for different reasons, the Socialist alternative is dead on arrival—it won’t happen here. Instead our emerging moral politics of class inequality will mainly be successfully championed by economic Progressives just as it was in the past. As far as popular opinion goes, formulating the post eclipse of equality agenda is a job for the future Lincolns, Roosevelts and Jane Addamses more than for the Bryans, Debs and Naders. Americans reserve a place for the critical, but the last radical we could stomach was Thomas Jefferson. In sum, we have lived through a period of extension of the categories of the moral imagination as well as displacement. To recognize this latter effect is not nostalgia, but rather its opposite. To chart the future of the justice journey will require that we enable our imaginations to chart limits for abusive power in all its forms, even when we have to look to history to remember what ought to outrage us.

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