Some Easy Straw Men: Zack Beauchamp, Sanders, Economics, and Identity Politics
* As the author notes, when you think about it and especially since the last DNC vote for corporate money remaining….quote: election 2016 has been wonderfully clarifying.
Posted on March 20, 2017
By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Zack Beauchamp has written an important though bad piece in Vox, titled “No easy answers: why left-wing economics is not the answer to right-wing populism”. Beauchamp’s piece is important because liberal icon Paul Krugman, in his bullshit-in-a-china-shop way, immediately leveraged it into an open assault on universal benefits like Medicare for All (and also, implicitly, Social Security). Beauchamp’s piece is bad, aside from its policy implications, because it contains major misstatements, major errors of interpretation, and because it both begins and ends with a straw man attack on Bernie Sanders that seriously distorts his views. I’m going to begin with a brief discussion of identity politics, because that will set the context for how Beauchamp strawmanned Sanders.
Justice and Identity Politics
Adolph Reed, in a well-known article, formulates the difficulties of achieving justice through identity politics as follows:
[R]ace politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism. It is the expression and active agency of a political order and moral economy in which capitalist market forces are treated as unassailable nature [TINA]. An integral element of that moral economy is displacement of the critique of the invidious outcomes produced by capitalist class power onto equally naturalized categories of ascriptive identity [for example, perceived skin color] that sort us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do. As I have argued, following Walter Michaels and others, within that moral economy a society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women, and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people. It would be tough to imagine a normative ideal that expresses more unambiguously the social position of people who consider themselves candidates for inclusion in, or at least significant staff positions in service to, the ruling class.
Indeed. Can such a society be just? After all, Reed describes the workings of an oligarchy. Can an oligarchy be just? I argue no:
So, if we ask an identitarian whether shipping the Rust Belt’s jobs off to China was fair — the moral of the story — the answer we get is: “That depends. If the private equity firms that did it were 12% black, 12% Latino, and half women, then yes.” And that really is the answer that the Clintonites give. And, to this day, they believe it’s a winning one.
Now, readers who are on the Twitter — the liberal and/or left parts of it, anyhow — will remember that after the Clinton debacle on November 8, 2016, an enormous and very messy battle immediately broke out, expressed in crude terms as “identity politics” versus “class politics” (shorthand: “economics”), and in more humane terms as what the relationship between class and identity might be, and how to express it. The more vulgar sort of liberal Clintonite would argue — still argues — that economics plays, and should play, no role in the construction of identity; the more vulgar left Sanders supporter, in a move reminiscent of the crude base/superstructure model of the 30s, would argue identity is a mere function of economics. In terms of party leadership, the issue was settled when the left’s candidate, Ellison, was ritually sacrificed by the liberal establishment, but the battle, perhaps attenuated to a heated discussion, necessarily continues today, wherever politics is practiced seriously. With this as context, let’s turn to Beauchamp.
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