Walter Benn Michaels is angry. He thinks the Left has been duped or has duped itself into pursuing the holy grail of identity politics – respect for the ‘other’ as a consolation prize for having lost the battle for a more equal society. For Michaels the whole array of diversity measures: apologies for past historic wrongs, affirmative action programmes, special days, weeks or months dedicated to this or that culture – reduce Left politics to simply a question of etiquette. The preoccupation with race, ethnic and gender identity is perfectly compatible with hierarchies of wealth and power. All this amounts to in the end, Michaels believes, is helping to create the ‘level playing field’ romanticized by neoliberal advocates of free trade and competition.
Trouble is an old-time polemic rather than an extended footnoted analysis, but it is a challenging and, at its core, a convincing one. There are points of weakness: an excessive focus on the US (where class politics is most atrophied), an at times crude materialism, and a snide (yet often amusing) style of argument. But Michaels deserves our attention as he has his finger on something important. If we are to live in a sane multicultural society, it needs to be based on an ethos of equality with which we can forge a common purpose and within which multiculturalism can prosper.