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69

The Neoliberal Imagination

The scholarship novel

(missing author)

1
terms
3
notes

by Walter Benn Michaels

? (2005). The Neoliberal Imagination. n+1, 3, pp. 69-76

72

Schools, in other words, loom larger in the neoliberal imagination than they did in the liberal imagination because schools have become our primary mechanism for convincing ourselves that poor people deserve their poverty. Or, to put the point the other way around, schools have become our primary mechanism for convincing us rich people that we deserve our wealth. Everybody gets that people who go to elite schools have a sizable economic advantage over people who don’t; that’s one reason why people want to go to them. And as long as the elite schools are open to anybody who’s smart enough and/or hardworking enough to get into them, we see no injustice in reaping their benefits. It’s OK if schools are technologies for producing inequality as long as they are also technologies for justifying it. But the justification will work only if, as the Crimson hopefully asserts, there really are rich people and poor people at Harvard. If there really aren’t, if it’s your wealth (or your family’s wealth) that makes it possible for you to get into the elite school in the first place, then of course the real source of your success is not the fact that you went to an elite school but the fact that your parents were rich enough to give you the kind of preparation that got you admitted to the elite school. And if going to Harvard is more a reflection of your family’s wealth than it is of your merit, if it’s a sign of privilege rather than a cause of it, then of course the legitimating effect disappears. So the real point of eliminating the unneeded class differences at Harvard is to conceal the needed ones, the ones that got all the kids from the top quarter into Harvard in the first place. The function of the (very few) poor people at Harvard is to reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can’t just buy your way into Harvard.

—p.72 missing author 3 years, 1 month ago

Schools, in other words, loom larger in the neoliberal imagination than they did in the liberal imagination because schools have become our primary mechanism for convincing ourselves that poor people deserve their poverty. Or, to put the point the other way around, schools have become our primary mechanism for convincing us rich people that we deserve our wealth. Everybody gets that people who go to elite schools have a sizable economic advantage over people who don’t; that’s one reason why people want to go to them. And as long as the elite schools are open to anybody who’s smart enough and/or hardworking enough to get into them, we see no injustice in reaping their benefits. It’s OK if schools are technologies for producing inequality as long as they are also technologies for justifying it. But the justification will work only if, as the Crimson hopefully asserts, there really are rich people and poor people at Harvard. If there really aren’t, if it’s your wealth (or your family’s wealth) that makes it possible for you to get into the elite school in the first place, then of course the real source of your success is not the fact that you went to an elite school but the fact that your parents were rich enough to give you the kind of preparation that got you admitted to the elite school. And if going to Harvard is more a reflection of your family’s wealth than it is of your merit, if it’s a sign of privilege rather than a cause of it, then of course the legitimating effect disappears. So the real point of eliminating the unneeded class differences at Harvard is to conceal the needed ones, the ones that got all the kids from the top quarter into Harvard in the first place. The function of the (very few) poor people at Harvard is to reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can’t just buy your way into Harvard.

—p.72 missing author 3 years, 1 month ago
74

And just as the benefits of status presume the irrelevance of material inequality, so do its injustices. When you think your real problem is not that people have more money than you but that the people who have more money condescend to you, your problem is status. And when the solution to your problem is (as Sennett recommends) “mutual respect across the boundaries of inequality” (i.e., no more condescending), you have the imaginative world of neoliberalism, the world in which it’s OK for a few people to be rich and a lot of people to be poor but where it’s definitely not OK to make anyone feel bad about being poor, where it’s important above all to remember that there’s nothing wrong with being poor, and where, as Lee’s mom says, “being rich doesn’t make you a better person.” Indeed, the very thing wrong with the liberal elite—the thing, at least, that right-wing neoliberals like Wolfe and David Brooks are always taking them to task for—is that they think being rich does make them better people, or that being better people is what made them rich. But the reality, as Brooks puts it, is that in America, “nobody is better, nobody is worse.” Thus his famous comparison of the differences in American life to those in a high school cafeteria, divided into nerds, freaks, jocks, et cetera—they’re not classes, they’re “cliques.” Sure, the jocks have a higher status, but they’re not really better than the freaks, and just as the jocks shouldn’t be boastful, the freaks shouldn’t be resentful. The jocks shouldn’t be bullies; the freaks shouldn’t bring their Kalashnikovs to school.

On this model, then, class is turned into clique, and once the advantages of class are redescribed as the advantages of status, we get the recipe for what we might call right-wing egalitarianism: Respect the Poor. Which is also, as it turns out, the recipe for left-wing egalitarianism. Where the neoliberal right likes status instead of class, the neoliberal left likes culture, and the diversity version of Respect the Poor is Respect the Other. The Other is different from you and me but, just like Brooks says, neither better nor worse. That’s why multiculturalism could go from proclaiming itself a subversive politics to taking up its position as a corporate management technology in about ten minutes and without having to make the slightest adjustment in its most radical claims—Americans belong to many cultures, not one; all cultures are equal and should be equally respected. What CEO doesn’t prefer respecting his employees’ culture to paying them a living wage?

damn this is good

—p.74 missing author 3 years, 1 month ago

And just as the benefits of status presume the irrelevance of material inequality, so do its injustices. When you think your real problem is not that people have more money than you but that the people who have more money condescend to you, your problem is status. And when the solution to your problem is (as Sennett recommends) “mutual respect across the boundaries of inequality” (i.e., no more condescending), you have the imaginative world of neoliberalism, the world in which it’s OK for a few people to be rich and a lot of people to be poor but where it’s definitely not OK to make anyone feel bad about being poor, where it’s important above all to remember that there’s nothing wrong with being poor, and where, as Lee’s mom says, “being rich doesn’t make you a better person.” Indeed, the very thing wrong with the liberal elite—the thing, at least, that right-wing neoliberals like Wolfe and David Brooks are always taking them to task for—is that they think being rich does make them better people, or that being better people is what made them rich. But the reality, as Brooks puts it, is that in America, “nobody is better, nobody is worse.” Thus his famous comparison of the differences in American life to those in a high school cafeteria, divided into nerds, freaks, jocks, et cetera—they’re not classes, they’re “cliques.” Sure, the jocks have a higher status, but they’re not really better than the freaks, and just as the jocks shouldn’t be boastful, the freaks shouldn’t be resentful. The jocks shouldn’t be bullies; the freaks shouldn’t bring their Kalashnikovs to school.

On this model, then, class is turned into clique, and once the advantages of class are redescribed as the advantages of status, we get the recipe for what we might call right-wing egalitarianism: Respect the Poor. Which is also, as it turns out, the recipe for left-wing egalitarianism. Where the neoliberal right likes status instead of class, the neoliberal left likes culture, and the diversity version of Respect the Poor is Respect the Other. The Other is different from you and me but, just like Brooks says, neither better nor worse. That’s why multiculturalism could go from proclaiming itself a subversive politics to taking up its position as a corporate management technology in about ten minutes and without having to make the slightest adjustment in its most radical claims—Americans belong to many cultures, not one; all cultures are equal and should be equally respected. What CEO doesn’t prefer respecting his employees’ culture to paying them a living wage?

damn this is good

—p.74 missing author 3 years, 1 month ago

(noun) a painkilling drug or medicine

75

utterly anodyne texts

—p.75 missing author
notable
3 years, 1 month ago

utterly anodyne texts

—p.75 missing author
notable
3 years, 1 month ago
76

For neoliberals, in other words, it’s prejudice not poverty that counts as the problem, and if, at the heart of the liberal imagination, as Trilling understood it, was the desire not to have to think about class difference, then at the heart of the neoliberal imagination is the desire not to have to get rid of class difference. Sometimes that desire takes the form of pretending class doesn’t exist (no maid service in the dorms); more often it takes the form of pretending it does exist (there are rich students and poor students at Harvard). Almost always it takes the form of insisting that class doesn’t matter; that, like Lee’s mom says, being rich doesn’t make you a better person. Of course it might be objected that, when it comes to being healthier, safer, freer, and happier, being rich does indeed make you better and a more just society would imagine a more just distribution of money, health, safety, and freedom. But the politics of the neoliberal imagination involve respecting the poor, not getting rid of poverty—eliminating inequality without redistributing wealth. And until that changes, our best hope for economic egalitarianism would seem to be the recently announced spike in theft on the subways, due, the transit police say, to kids stealing iPods from (we can hope) the graduates of universities like Duke, which has started giving them away free to Charlotte Simmons and her classmates.

—p.76 missing author 3 years, 1 month ago

For neoliberals, in other words, it’s prejudice not poverty that counts as the problem, and if, at the heart of the liberal imagination, as Trilling understood it, was the desire not to have to think about class difference, then at the heart of the neoliberal imagination is the desire not to have to get rid of class difference. Sometimes that desire takes the form of pretending class doesn’t exist (no maid service in the dorms); more often it takes the form of pretending it does exist (there are rich students and poor students at Harvard). Almost always it takes the form of insisting that class doesn’t matter; that, like Lee’s mom says, being rich doesn’t make you a better person. Of course it might be objected that, when it comes to being healthier, safer, freer, and happier, being rich does indeed make you better and a more just society would imagine a more just distribution of money, health, safety, and freedom. But the politics of the neoliberal imagination involve respecting the poor, not getting rid of poverty—eliminating inequality without redistributing wealth. And until that changes, our best hope for economic egalitarianism would seem to be the recently announced spike in theft on the subways, due, the transit police say, to kids stealing iPods from (we can hope) the graduates of universities like Duke, which has started giving them away free to Charlotte Simmons and her classmates.

—p.76 missing author 3 years, 1 month ago