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The Spiritual Crisis of the Bourgeois Bohemians

What if greater lifestyle choice and consumerism means more inequality?

The New Yorker‘s George Packer can’t decide what to think about 21st-century America.

On the one hand, Packer likes developments that enhance the lifestyles of the educated upper middle class: “marriage equality, Lipitor, a black President, Google searches, airbags, novelistic TV shows, the opportunity for women to be as singlemindedly driven as their male colleagues, good coffee, safer cities, cleaner air, photographs of the kids on my phone, anti-bullying, Daniel Day Lewis, cheap communications, smoke-free airplanes, wheelchair parking, and I could go on.” On the other hand, he’s sorry that these benefits aren’t more broadly shared. Life is pretty good in brownstone Brooklyn and its spiritual counterparts. But it’s gotten harder and harder in “urban cores like Youngstown, Ohio; rural backwaters like Rockingham County, North Carolina; and the exurban slums outside Tampa…”

So how can this be the best of times for gays, sufferers from cardiovascular disease, African American politicians, TV fans, ambitious women, and so on, but among the worst for the urban poor, agricultural workers, and overleveraged homeowners? Packer can’t quite figure it out:

We usually think of greater inclusiveness as a blow struck for equality. But in our time, the stories of greater social equality and economic inequality are unrelated. The fortunes of middle-class Americans have declined while prospects for many women and minorities have risen. There’s no reason why they couldn’t have improved together—this is what appeared to be happening in the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies. Since then, many women and minorities have done better than in any previous generations, but many others in both groups have seen their lives and communities squeezed by the economic contractions of the past generation.

Although his economic generalizations are accurate, Packer’s remark is historically and politically obtuse. Rather than shedding light on the profound divergence in Americans’ fortunes and expectations over the last few decades, it reflects a spiritual crisis of the BoBo elite, which is unwilling even to contemplate the possibility that its commitments to individual autonomy and expressive consumerism are incompatible with the egalitarianism that it pretends to favor.

In the first place, note Packer’s unexplained use of the first person plural. In his view, “we usually think of greater inclusiveness as a blow struck for equality.” This is probably true of contributors to The New Yorker. But the automatic association of “inclusiveness” with equality is a fairly recent development in American thought, and reflects the triumph of the New Left rather than any inherent affinity.

Before the 1970s, labor unions were the most effective advocates for economic equality in American life. At the same time, they were for the most part indifferent and in some cases actively hostile to the liberatory aspirations of gays, women, and blacks.

Today’s progressives usually see this hostility as an expression of bigotry, and thus miss its strategic significance. For the labor movement, workers’ collective power against employers was vastly more important than individuals’ freedom to pursue their sexual orientation or personal ambitions. The unions’ success in the postwar period is partly attributable to the subordination of all other considerations to the goals improving wages, benefits, and working conditions. For labor, in other words, equality had little to do with the number of women and blacks sitting on the management side of the table—let alone gay marriage (which AFL-CIO President George Meany mocked as early as 1972).

The transformation of equality from an economic ideal to a social principle is important for understanding what’s wrong with Packer’s second claim. In our time, the stories of greater social equality and economic inequality are far from “unrelated”. Rather, social inclusion has been used to legitimize economic inequality by means of familiar arguments about meritocracy. According to this view, it’s fine that the road from Harvard Yard to Wall Street is paved with gold, so long a few representatives of every religion, color, and sexual permutation manage to complete the journey. Superficial diversity at the top thus provides an moral alibi for the gap between the one percent and the rest.

Did it have to be this way? Packer suggests that it does not, noting that social and economic equality progressed together for a while before diverging in the ’70s. But that divergence was not simply an accident. Rather, it was a predictable result of the takeover of Democratic Party by the New Left, which was far more interested in sexual and cultural revolution than in representing unfashionably conservative workers.

Over the next few decades, erstwhile radicals learned that they could get more of what they wanted by cooperating with business than by opposing it. The New Left got affirmative action, relaxed gender norms, and good coffee, while the corporations acquired a new justification for their profits. The libertarianism adopted by many Silicon Valley types is the most rigorous theory of this fusion of inclusiveness and capitalism. But the “social liberalism, fiscal conservatism” popular on Wall Street and at elite universities is a milder and therefore more palatable version of the same idea.

More generally, it is hard for a society characterized by ethnic and cultural pluralism to generate the solidarity required for the redistribution of wealth. People are willing, on the whole, to pay high taxes and forgo luxuries to support those they see as like themselves. They are often unwilling to do so for those who look, sound, or act very differently. In this respect, the affirmations of choice and diversity that now characterize American culture, tend to undermine appeals to collective action or shared responsibility. If we’re all equal in our right to live own lives, why should we do much to help each other?

Over the past several years, I have posed versions of this question to a number of intelligent, well-educated progressives who are puzzled by the coincidence of increasing social inclusion and economic inequality. I’ve never yet heard a convincing answer. George Packer is right to observe that:

No iPhone app or biotech breakthrough can do anything about this disparity. It’s not a problem that the most brilliant start-up entrepreneurs are equipped to solve. It seems immune to engineering solutions, since it has coincided with a period of rapid technological change. It’s one of those big, structural problems that requires action on many fronts, from many institutions—from government at all levels, from business, from the media and universities. It needs a shift in laws, priorities, social relations, modes of production, and in the ways people think of their rights and obligations as citizens.

But I wonder if he’d actually approve of the implications of such a shift, which is more likely to take the form of déclassé populism than the manicured progressivism on offer at The New Yorker. 



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