Is the Tea Party Fighting NeoLiberalism?
No, that’s absurd. But Walter Benn Michaels thinks so.
I recently came upon this interview with Michaels, in which he calls the Tea Party “a real reaction against neoliberalism that is not simply a reaction against neoliberalism from the old racist Right.” You see, neoliberalism requires immigration, Michaels believes, and the Tea Party is opposed to immigration. Thus, the Tea Party is anti-neoliberalism. This is… so fucking crazy I almost didn’t know what to say.
Michaels, for the last couple of years, has been the preeminent critic of multiculturalism from the left. In The Trouble with Diversity, he argued that the type of multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and identity politics that have dominated the liberal imagination in general, and the university system in particular, are the products of an unconscious affiliation with neoliberal ideology. He identifies what he calls a “left neoliberalism” comprised of anti-racists, anti-sexists, and others, who, he thinks, enshrine an individualistic mentality of personal fulfillment which is perfectly consistent with consumerist neoliberalism. A central aspect of the post-Fordist economy, Michaels argued, was a shift whereby the economy became depoliticized, and instead cultural issues (gender, sex, race, etc…) took its place. Universities, for instance, began obsessing over having a culturally diverse student body and curriculum, while ignoring the lack of poor students and embracing a neoclassical economic orthodoxy.
Michaels certainly isn’t the only one to make arguments like this. Lizabeth Cohen, in her excellent study, A Consumers’ Republic, argues that much of the identity politics we associate with the 60s era was predated by the move to niche marketing in the 40s and 50s. David Harvey has also made similar arguments about “post-modern” identity movements which are reflective of a neoliberal “mental conception of the world.” In terms of academia, William Sewell argued, in his wonderful essay “ The Political Unconscious of Social and Cultural History” that the “cultural turn” made by historians in the 70s and 80s was consistent with the end of Fordism and rise of the post-modern economy of branding, information, and advertisement.
I’m can be a bit sympathetic to these arguments. There is certainly a type of bloodless cosmopolitanism found among our ruling class, with their Thomas Freidman and their subscriptions to The Economist, that seems to justify such a reading. Your average international businessman really does need to be culturally aware, tolerant to other people and religions, and accepting of different races and sexual orientations if he is going to properly exploit them. Goldman Sachs cares about extracting surplus value from you, not what you do in the bedroom or whether you have tattoos. Even more, there is, as Thomas Frank has argued, a sort of neoliberal self—individualist, in a constant state of cultural rebellion, dividing into ever-smaller niches of solidarity—which goes hand in hand with both identity politics and, even more, with late-capitalist consumerism.
But only to a point. As a critique of pseudo-radical university culture I think Michaels argument is uncomfortably accurate. But as a critique of the Left writ large it has some pretty big holes in it. First of all, it ignores the fact that one of the main effects of neoliberalism has been to create a global working class that is increasingly female and people of color. So any movement which seeks to empower this new working class has to take issues of gender, race, and sex seriously.
More to the point it misses the actual coalitions that exist in the real world. Yesterday I was at the One Nation march, made up of all the progressive groups: Unions, civil rights groups, gay rights groups, etc… According to Michaels’ logic such a coalition should be unthinkable. Why would the major labor unions ally themselves with the forces of neoliberalism? But in fact, such a coalition comes naturally to anyone who has ever spent a minute doing progressive politics. Every labor union I’ve ever worked for makes a serious effort to recruit organizers who are women, people of color, and from other marginalized group. Why? Both because they believe in it, but also because these are the very people they are trying to organize.
The biggest hole in Michaels argument, then, is that while his theory has an inward logic it simply does not describe the actual recent history of the Left. He cannot explain why the dreaded identity activists have always had such a clear elective affinity to the economic left. Why did the organized gay rights movement come out of the Communist Party? Why did the CP and socialist party agitate on Civil Rights long before the Democratic Party did? In 1963, A Philip Randolph, the black labor leader, said the following: “Look for the enemies of Medicare, for high minimum wages, of social security, of federal aid to education, and there you will find the enemy of the Negro.” Can anyone say the same is not still true?
Which brings us to immigration, where this whole thing started. Michaels is obsessed with how liberal immigration policy is neoliberal. In one of the more ridiculous sections of this interview Michaels calls the Tea Party the only anti-neoliberal political force out there, because of its anti-immigrant fervor. “The truth is, it’s hard to find any political movement that’s really against neoliberalism today, the closest I can come is the Tea Party.” The reason: the Tea Party is against illegal immigration and “Because who’s for illegal immigration? As far as I know only one set of people is for illegal immigration, I mean you may be [as a Marxist], but as far as I know the only people who are openly for illegal immigration are neoliberal economists.” In other words, Illegal Immigration=neoliberalism; Tea Party= Anti-Illegal Immigration; therefore Tea Party= Anti-neoliberal”
This is wrong on so many levels. First of all, Michaels is flat out wrong that no one on the left supports illegal immigrants. The whole “no one is illegal” campaign is about political support for illegal immigrants. Second, he is wrong that “illegal immigration is the kind of ne plus ultra of the labor mobility that neoliberalism requires.” Neoliberalism requires mobility of capital, but benefits tremendously from the fact that labor does not have the same freedom. Throughout the world—from Dubai to Europe to Arizona—capital is thrilled that there are workers who cannot legally become citizens of the state where they work. The result is a working class that is exposed to a level of surveillance, police harassment, and political repression unlike anything since the nineteenth century.
Which is exactly why the economic left in this country supports immigrant rights movements. We can’t have a strong and politically powerful working class as long as much of it is deemed to be “illegal,” stripped of the rights of citizenship and threatened with deportation if they speak up or try to form a union. Since at least the 1990s, the major labor unions have been vocal advocates for a more humane immigration policy, and Hispanic organizations were prominent members of the One Nation march, side by side with the AFL-CIO.
Michaels whole argument, it seems to me, is based on a set of absurd reductive logic. There are forms of anti-racism that are useful to corporations! Therefore anti-racism is always pro-corporate! Neoliberalism doesn’t like national borders! Therefore all forms of support for immigration is neoliberal! Etc…
If there are people who are sincerely anti-racist (not just the absurd “color-blindness” of the modern right), sincerely pro-gay rights, sincerely pro-women, pro-immigrant, etc… but are also neoliberal in their economics, it seems to me we have a cause for half a celebration. We won one argument! Now we have to fight on the economic front, push them further towards an economically egalitarian vision, not throw away the commitment to these other forms of equality.