November 6, 2016
A Note from “His Collaborator”

Because I agree completely with what Adolph Reed has written in “Splendors and Miseries,” I originally felt no need to write anything myself. But I see (I’m not on Facebook, but I know people) that among the things he’s now being attacked for is his defense of me against Heideman and Birch’s claim that I “espouse” Gary Becker’s argument that “that capitalist markets will tend to dissolve inequalities in income that are not based on real differences in ability.” So I just want to say why I think he’s right and they’re wrong.

Heideman and Birch reference a passage from an essay of mine called “Dude, Where’s My Job?” The point of the passage is that when it comes to getting the cheapest labor, the ideal capitalist should be (and many actual capitalists are) happy to hire people of any color or nationality who they think can do the job. Becker (and especially the more radical Beckerites like Richard Epstein) do indeed think that because of this fact, capitalist markets can dissolve inequalities of income not based on ability. But I don’t. Why not? For the very same reason that Birch and Heideman don’t: inherited inequalities (like differences in wealth and in access to education that are in part the subject of the piece they cite) “lock” the inequalities in. But this is hardly a point that’s been lost on neoliberalism. Just the opposite. If right neoliberalism’s utopian fantasy is relatively unfettered markets, left neoliberalism’s utopian fantasy is relatively unfettered markets plus equality of opportunity. Which is just what “Dude, Where’s My Job?” attacks. You can read it for yourself! What you will find is that I don’t argue that capitalist markets tend to dissolve inequalities of income that are not based on real differences in ability. And I do argue against the ideal of equality of opportunity that left neoliberalism imagines will make it theoretically possible to dissolve such differences.

In my view, then, Heideman and Birch have, in a more or less standard way, set up a straw man. But I also think, in less standard fashion, that instead of knocking the straw man down, they’ve been knocked down by him. Or maybe, more accurately, they’ve become him. When they argue that because “capitalist markets” reproduce racial “disparities” “it follows that the disparities cannot be challenged without challenging the operation of capitalist markets,” they’re saying something that’s in one way trivially true and in another way totally false. The trivial truth is that what they mean by challenging the operation of capitalist markets (i.e. massive downward redistribution) would indeed reduce racialized poverty, for the obvious reason that (as Adolph and I and millions of others keep on tiresomely repeating) precisely because black people are disproportionately poor all efforts of redistribution will disproportionately benefit them. The totally false idea is that a challenge to racial disparities gets you out from under what Reed calls “neoliberalism’s logic.” In fact, unlocking inherited inequality (racialized or not) and achieving real equality of opportunity (hence more upward mobility) is left neoliberalism’s wet dream. So while it is of course true that real equality of opportunity would be better than the ideal of it (a point I make too much of in The Trouble with Diversity), Heideman’s and Birch’s ambition to unlock inequality is, just as Reed says, entirely within neoliberalism’s logic

About the Author

Walter Benn Michaels recently published The Beauty of a Social Problem (Chicago, 2016). His other books include The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century; Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism; The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History; and The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. Recent articles—some on literature, some on photography, and some on politics—have appeared in such journals as PMLA, New Labor Forum, and Le Monde diplomatique.

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