Social Democracy Week Part III: Walter Benn Michaels on Inequality and Diversity

Speaking of socialists, what about the American left in general?

It exists, of course. However, as Walter Benn Michaels (an English professor at the University of Illinois) argues in this essay, they often seem to care more about ethnic diversity than social equality:

We love race — we love identity — because we don’t love class. We love thinking that the differences that divide us are not the differences between those of us who have money and those who don’t but are instead the differences between those of us who are black and those who are white or Asian or Latino or whatever. A world where some of us don’t have enough money is a world where the differences between us present a problem: the need to get rid of inequality or to justify it….

But the fact that we all like to think of ourselves as belonging to the same class doesn’t, of course, mean that we actually do belong to the same class. In reality, we obviously and increasingly don’t. “The last few decades,” as The Economist puts it, “have seen a huge increase in inequality in America.” The rich are different from you and me, and one of the ways they’re different is that they’re getting richer and we’re not. And while it’s not surprising that most of the rich and their apologists on the intellectual right are unperturbed by this development, it is at least a little surprising that the intellectual left has managed to remain almost equally unperturbed. Giving priority to issues like affirmative action and committing itself to the celebration of difference, the intellectual left has responded to the increase in economic inequality by insisting on the importance of cultural identity. So for 30 years, while the gap between the rich and the poor has grown larger, we’ve been urged to respect people’s identities — as if the problem of poverty would be solved if we just appreciated the poor. From the economic standpoint, however, what poor people want is not to contribute to diversity but to minimize their contribution to it — they want to stop being poor. Celebrating the diversity of American life has become the American left’s way of accepting their poverty, of accepting inequality.

In every area of society, Michaels argues, Americans ignore or downplay social inequality. Take education:

Today, says [American commentator] David Brooks, “the rich don’t exploit the poor, they just out-compete them.” And if out-competing people means tying their ankles together and loading them down with extra weight while hiring yourself the most expensive coaches and the best practice facilities, he’s right. The entire U.S. school system, from pre-K up, is structured from the very start to enable the rich to out-compete the poor, which is to say, the race is fixed. And the kinds of solutions that might actually make a difference — financing every school district equally, abolishing private schools, making high-quality child care available to every family — are treated as if they were positively un-American.

Meanwhile, Michaels argues, the left is fixated on political correctness or racial diversity, or on the alleged racism of the right:

[The left] want[s] a fictional George Bush who doesn’t care about black people rather than the George Bush we’ve actually got, one who doesn’t care about poor people.

Although that’s not quite the right way to put it. First because, for all I know, George Bush does care about poor people; at least he cares as much about poor people as anyone else does. What he doesn’t care about — and what Bill Clinton, judging by his eight years in office, didn’t much care about, and what John Kerry, judging from his presidential campaign, doesn’t much care about, and what we on the so called left, judging by our willingness to accept Kerry as the alternative to Bush, don’t care about either — is taking any steps to get them to stop being poor. We would much rather get rid of racism than get rid of poverty. And we would much rather celebrate cultural diversity than seek to establish economic equality.

I don’t completely agree with Michaels’ focus — I think he may be a bit too influenced by the issues that drive the left on university campuses. However, his point that poor and working class people rarely get traction in the American political debate is spot-on. Note that he is not arguing that people like George W. Bush, John Kerry, and Bill Clinton don’t care about poverty or poor people. Of course, they all claim to, and in some sense they do. He is saying that they’ve done nothing to actually reduce poverty, social isolation, and economic insecurity in the United States. Nor, he adds, have many people who call themselves liberals or progressives.

Benn’s point may seem obvious to Europeans: "Of course expanding social equality and providing a safety net is an important issues for the left (and for society as a whole). Does this need repeating?" Every European nation has a socialist party which (of course, with huge variations) understands its goal as preserving social structures that reduce economic inequality and provide security to those nearer the bottom. In Benn’s view, the U.S. left is more likely to be concerned about foreign policy, the Bush Administration’s misdeeds, and issues of interest to specific interest groups such as women, blacks, and gays.

You get a sense of how completely the poor are sidelined in the U.S. when you come to Germany. Here in the fatherland, the needs of the poor and working-class are always center-stage in the national discourse. And it’s not just talk: Germany is filled with institutions that funnel power, money and security to the less well-off. Examples: most firms of any size have a worker’s council (Betriebsrat) with real power, whose rights are guaranteed by law. It’s easy for poor people to get bank accounts, which means you see fewer pawnshops or exploitative "payday loan" places than you see in the United States. Universities used to be free, and even the tuition fees they’ve just started charging (about $700 per semester, depending on location) are a tiny fraction of tuition in other countries.

Unions are still strong, and most workers’ wages are determined by broad collective-bargaining agreements. Virtually every resident is covered by a national healthcare system. Employed workers are protected by tough laws that make it hard to fire them after a trial period. Most workers still get some sort of bonus added to their December paycheck to help them pay for gifts and holiday travel. Unemployed people get free, or cheap, access, to museums, public baths, public transport, and libraries. Those who can’t afford a car can use one of the most advanced and reliable public-transport systems in the world. People on welfare have the right to small extra disbursements so they can take a vacation. Mothers and fathers are guaranteed generous paid leave after they have a baby, something which the U.S., increasingly isolated, still does not guarantee as a matter of federal law. The Constitution of Germany protects property, but reminds property owners that "property entails obligations." Everywhere you go in Germany and France, you will find organizations with "social" or "welfare" or "commonweal" in their name, which offer assistance to various people facing various kinds of crises. Usually, these agencies have some sort quasi-public funding arrangements. The list could go on and on.

Contrary to some stereotypes, the European welfare state doesn’t involve cash handouts to the poor. Rather, it’s a comprehensive, overlapping network of collective social security arrangements and insurance schemes that protect all citizens — not just the poor — from economic shocks and disadvantages. These things didn’t just emerge from thin air; they were the result of over a century of pressure and activism (as well as a strong sense of solidarity). They were achieved, as often as not, against bitter reactionary opposition. Germans regard these institutions as achievements which reduce the amount of extreme financial insecurity the ordinary German must face. Any attempt to mess with them is met with controversy and discussion, in which the impact of the proposed change on poor and working-class people is the principal theme. What about the conservatives? The conservative parties in Germany are of the ‘Tory’ or Christian Democrat mold, which means they also favor government intervention to secure social stability and prevent large inequalities of wealth. On these specific issues, European Christian Democrat parties are almost indistinguishable from the Social Democrats.

Europe is not paradise. Some of these social insurance schemes are better-conceived than others. They often clogged with unnecessary bureaucracy, and some face serious funding crises. However, warts and all, German society provides a rough approximation of what happens to a society when the needs of average people are placed right there in the middle of the mainstream; when the welfare of the less-well-off is regarded as a everybody’s problem. They won’t happen until and unless this change in the national discourse takes place, and that’s exactly what Benn is trying to bring about.

Zbigniew Brzezinski on the Iraq War

When it comes to American foreign-policy establishment types, Zbigniew Brzezinski who was President Carter’s National Security Adviser and remains an eminence grise of the Washington establishment, has always struck me as one of the most cautious and intelligent. The European accent, of course, always helps. On January 11, he told an American newscaster: "The mistakes of the Iraq war are not only tactical and strategic, but historical. It is essentially a war of colonialism, attempted in the post-colonial age."

Yesterday, he gave the followng testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

It is time for the White House to come to terms with two central realities:

The war in Iraq is a historic, strategic, and moral calamity. Undertaken under false assumptions, it is undermining America’s global legitimacy. Its collateral civilian casualties as well as some abuses are tarnishing America’s moral credentials. Driven by Manichean impulses and imperial hubris, it is intensifying regional instability. . . .

A mythical historical narrative to justify the case for such a protracted and potentially expanding war [in the Middle East] is already being articulated. Initially justified by false claims about WMD’s in Iraq, the war is now being redefined as the "decisive ideological struggle" of our time, reminiscent of the earlier collisions with Nazism and Stalinism. In that context, Islamist extremism and al Qaeda are presented as the equivalents of the threat posed by Nazi Germany and then Soviet Russia, and 9/11 as the equivalent of the Pearl Harbor attack which precipitated America’s involvement in World War II.

This simplistic and demagogic narrative overlooks the fact that Nazism was based on the military power of the industrially most advanced European state; and that Stalinism was able to mobilize not only the resources of the victorious and militarily powerful Soviet Union but also had worldwide appeal through its Marxist doctrine. In contrast, most Muslims are not embracing Islamic fundamentalism; al Qaeda is an isolated fundamentalist Islamist aberration; most Iraqis are engaged in strife because the American occupation of Iraq destroyed the Iraqi state; while Iran — though gaining in regional influence — is itself politically divided, economically and militarily weak. To argue that America is already at war in the region with a wider Islamic threat, of which Iran is the epicenter, is to promote a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Deplorably, the Administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East region has lately relied almost entirely on such sloganeering. . . .

Here’s how the military attack on Iran is being planned:

A plausible scenario for a military collision with Iran involves Iraqi failure to meet the benchmarks; followed by accusations of Iranian responsibility for the failure; then by some provocation in Iraq or a terrorist act in the U.S. blamed on Iran; culminating in a "defensive" U.S. military action against Iran that plunges a lonely America into a spreading and deepening quagmire eventually ranging across Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

If you’re interested in yet more gloom, read his January 12 Washington Post editorial:

The commitment of 21,500 more troops is a political gimmick of limited tactical significance and of no strategic benefit. It is insufficient to win the war militarily. It will engage U.S. forces in bloody street fighting that will not resolve with finality the ongoing turmoil and the sectarian and ethnic strife, not to mention the anti-American insurgency.