Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Equality Returns

In my last post, I discussed Walter Benn Michaels' book, The Trouble with Diversity. He sees diversity and 'identity politics' as taking the focus away from economic inequality. He sets diversity and equality in opposition to each other.

Lisa Duggan, in her book The Twilight of Equality, agrees about how neoliberalism is using diversity and identity politics to camouflage increasing economic inequality. But her solution is to reconnect diversity and equality. She argues that neoliberalism is deliberately dividing the movement, and analyses like Michaels make matters worse.

This is a very short book (111 pages including notes, bibliography, and index--but not including the introduction) but it contains a lot of ideas and information. The thirteen page introduction gives a dense, documented history of the last fifty years, including the development of neoliberalism and how the movements of the '60s and '70s were ripped apart in the '80s and then coopted in the '90s. As Lisa Duggan puts it,"During every phase, the construction of neoliberal politics and policy in the U.S. has relied on identity and cultural politics. The politics of race, both overt and covert, have been particularly central to the entire project. But the politics of gender and sexuality have intersected with race and class politics at every stage as well."

She goes on to say: "The most successful ruse of neoliberal dominance in both global and domestic affairs is the definition of economic policy as primarily a matter of neutral, technical expertise. This expertise is then presented as separate from politics and culture, and not properly subject to specifically political accountability or cultural critique. Opposition to material inequality is maligned as 'class warfare', while race, gender or sexual inequalities are dismissed as merely cultural, private, or trivial. This rhetorical separation of the economic from the political and cultural arenas disguises the upwardly redistributing goals of neoliberalism..."

The book itself consists of four chapters. The first is an expansion of the introduction's history of neoliberalism, this time starting with the development of capitalism and liberalism beginning in the seventeen century, and going up through the 1990s where she focuses on the concrete examples of welfare "reform" and the mass incarceration of young men of color in the name of "law and order" as ways of shifting public opinion. She ends this chapter by pointing out conflicts within the "elites" between those attacking diversity (which she refers to as "culture wars") and those embracing a new "equality politics" that supports "diversity" as long as it doesn't threaten the economic policies of "globalist neoliberalism". The second chapter focuses on an example of the "culture wars", a conservative attack on a conference on women's sexuality (called "Revolting Behavior") held at SUNY New Paltz. She goes on to analyze the economic reasons behind this attack. In her third chapter, Lisa Duggan looks at how and why many gay organizations (such as the Human Rights Campaign and the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs, not to mention the Log Cabin Club) have begun a shift rightward, embracing single issue politics and repudiating progressive/radical groups that want to 'restructure' society. She singles out the Independent Gay Forum, an online writers group consisting mostly of white male writers (twenty-nine white men, one African-American man, and three white women) and dissects statements from two of the more well-known contributors, Andrew Sullivan, a former New Republic editor, and Bruce Bawer, a former writer for the American Spectator.

In her final chapter, Lisa Duggan looks at leftists, similar to Walter Benn Michaels, who denigrate "identity politics", as opposed to a more 'serious' class/economics politics. She ends by citing writers such as Robin Kelley, Cindy Patton, Eric Lott, Wahneema Lubiano, Amber Hollibaugh, and Nikhil Singh, who are able to see and integrate the connections between identity and economics, between diversity and equality. To quote her last sentence: "For it is pleasure and collective caretaking, love and the egalitarian circulation of money--allied to clear and hard-headed political analysis offered generously--that will create the space for a progressive politics that might both imagine and create...something worth living for." (Italics and ellipsis in original)

It seems like equality and diversity may go together.

Quote of the day: "... as long as the progressive-left represents and reproduces itself as divided into economic vs. cultural, universal vs. identity-based, ... it will defeat itself. On one side, the identity politics camps are increasingly divorced from any critique of global capitalism. ... On the other side, critiques of global capitalism and neoliberalism, and left populist or universalist politics within the U.S., attack and dismiss cultural and identity politics at their peril. Such attacks strip them of prime sources of political creativity and new analyses, and leave them uncomprehending before the cultural and identity politics of the opposition. In addition, they drive constituencies seeking equality away, toward the false promises of superficial neoliberal 'multiculturalism'. In other words, they help create what they fearfully or critically imagine." - Lisa Duggan
Word (or phrase) of the day: Victory garden
Hero(es) of the day: Sarah and Angelina Grimké

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