At the risk of flogging a dead horse, today’s post is on the relationship between neoliberalism, defined as unfettered capitalism with a smiley face, and the spirit of the sixties, understood as public tolerance of things that were once intolerable, such as racial and sexual difference. I first wrote about this relationship here nearly two years ago, when I summarized a compelling Nancy Fraser essay on “Feminism, Capitalism, and the Cunning of History.” Putting what Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello call “the new spirit of capitalism” to work, Fraser argued that “the cultural changes jump-started by… second wave [feminism], salutary in themselves, have served to legitimate a structural transformation of capitalist society that runs directly counter to feminist visions of a just society.” At that time, I wrote: “Second-wave feminism acted as an unintentional ideological softener for neoliberalism as women poured into the labor market in numbers never before seen.”
In retrospect, I think “unintentional” is the wrong word to describe the relationship between neoliberalism and the spirit of the 60s.
In an interview with the editors of a new and what looks to be fun little magazine, Jacobin, Walter Benn Michaels, who has argued “against diversity,” against the racial and ethnic “diversity” on campuses that merely helps to legitimate a university system that keeps poor people out, makes the case that corporate culture is just as invested in the spirit of the 60s as is academic culture: “There isn’t a single US corporation that doesn’t have an HR office committed to respecting the differences between cultures, to making sure that your culture is respected whether or not your standard of living is.” Why is this? He continues:
…multiculturalism and diversity more generally are even more effective as a legitimizing tool, because they suggest that the ultimate goal of social justice in a neoliberal economy is not that there should be less difference between the rich and the poor—indeed the rule in neoliberal economies is that the difference between the rich and the poor gets wider rather than shrinks—but that no culture should be treated invidiously and that it’s basically OK if economic differences widen as long as the increasingly successful elites come to look like the increasingly unsuccessful non-elites. So the model of social justice is not that the rich don’t make as much and the poor make more, the model of social justice is that the rich make whatever they make, but an appropriate percentage of them are minorities or women. That’s a long answer to your question, but it is a serious question and the essence of the answer is precisely that internationalization, the new mobility of both capital and labor, has produced a contemporary anti-racism that functions as a legitimization of capital rather than as resistance or even critique.
But there’s more to the relationship between our contemporary corporate culture and the spirit of the 60s than just multiculturalism. The anti-authoritarianism of the 60s, which sprung from the alienation felt by the white, middle-class college students being trained for the positions in the soulless white-collar world, was also sopped up by the neoliberal order. David Steigerwald smartly makes this connection in his essay, “Where Have You Gone, Holden Caulfield? Why We Aren’t ‘Alienated’ Anymore,” which Ray already cited in a post earlier this week. Steigerwald writes: “the structures of power that made the early postwar a period of alienation were reoriented after 1970, partly in response to the political sensibilities that erupted in the Sixties and partly in response to the shape of the post-industrial economy.” He continues:
American life is as bureaucratized as ever, but Wal-Mart-like, private corporations and public institutions have put on a smiley face. The cloddish corporation of mid-century was “re-invented” into the nimble “new corporation” that practices “total quality management” or any of a thousand other business school schemes designed to convince workers that they are a “team” rather than isolated individuals. The stone-faced automaker has given way to Apple, which flirts with revolution.
So the cunning of history is as such: neoliberalism—capitalism on steroids—thrives off of the spirit of a movement that many thought was formed as resistance to capitalism, or at least, as resistance to the symptoms of capitalism: imperialism, racism, sexism, etc. It turns out, expressions of tolerance and rebellion are quite profitable. This theoretical depth serves as a critique of recent historical defenses of corporate America, such as Jennifer Delton’s Racial Integration and Corporate America, 1940-1990.
But the story does not end there. Slavoj Žižek has long given the treatment to multiculturalism, terming it the “cultural logic of multinational capitalism.” Recently, he extends this to a critique of liberal tolerance. But his argument has evolved. It is not just that tolerance of racial and other differences allows for tolerance of economic inequality. Žižek argues that tolerance is not just the new form of class exploitation. It is also the new form of racism, or cultural intolerance. He writes:
Why are today so many problems perceived as problems of intolerance, not as problems of inequality, exploitation, injustice? Why is the proposed remedy tolerance, not emancipation, political struggle, even armed struggle? The immediate answer is the liberal multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation: the “culturalization of politics”—political differences, differences conditioned by political inequality, economic exploitation, etc., are naturalized/neutralized into “cultural” differences, different “ways of life,” which are something given, something that cannot be overcome, but merely “tolerated.”
In other words, the growing class chasm is naturalized as a cultural chasm, or as a gap between races, ethnicities, religions, etc. In the U.S., the discourse about the so-called “underclass” nicely fits this schema. And rather than fight to obliterate this chasm, we tolerate it. And the politics of tolerance are actually the politics of anti-politics celebrated by neoliberalism. Zizek quotes Wendy Brown on this:
The retreat from more substantive visions of justice heralded by the promulgation of tolerance today is part of a more general depoliticization of citizenship and power and retreat from political life itself. The cultivation of tolerance as a political end implicitly constitutes a rejection of politics as a domain in which conflict can be productively articulated and addressed, a domain in which citizens can be transformed by their participation. (Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, p. 89.)
In the Jacobin interview, Walter Benn Michaels contends that the Tea Party is the only known resistance to neoliberalism in the U.S. He makes this case based on their aversion to illegal immigration, which so nicely serves the interests of the neoliberal race to the bottom of the wage scale. He is not arguing that Tea Party activists are theoretically aware as such, made clear by their antipathy to the welfare state. But perhaps Michaels is onto something. Perhaps the Tea Party is a rejection of the neoliberal politics of anti-politics, the politics of tolerance? Or am I crazy?