The Neoliberal Imagination

Mask, Switzerland, New Year 2000-2001
Susanne Neunhoeffer, Mask, Switzerland, New Year 2000-2001, silver gelatin print, varied dimensions. Courtesy of the artist.

I am rich—millions are not.
Bret Easton Ellis, American Psycho

Being rich doesn’t make you a better person.
Curtis Sittenfeld, Prep

After a certain point quantity of money does indeed change into quality of personality.
Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination

The scariest thing about the first day of school in two recent novels—Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep and Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons—is finding out what the other girls are wearing (the answer at both schools is flip-flops and shorts), and the toughest moment is when your family meets your new roommate’s family. Charlotte is relieved when she sees the flip-flops and the shorts, since she’s wearing shorts, too; Sittenfeld’s Lee is horrified, since she’s wearing “a long dress with peach and lavender flowers and a lace collar.” But Charlotte’s advantage disappears when it comes to the meeting of families, because although Lee is embarrassed by her father, Charlotte is “mortified” by hers. What embarrasses Lee is that her father responds, “‘No sir, I’m in the mattress business’” to her roommate’s father who, having heard they’re from South Bend, says, “‘I take it you teach at Notre Dame.’” “I was embarrassed that my father called Dede’s father sir,” Lee says, “embarrassed by his job, embarrassed by our rusty white Datsun.” Charlotte’s mortification trumps Lee’s embarrassment on every count, from the car—her daddy drives a rusted-out pickup truck with a fiberglass camper top—to the job, or lack of one: “‘Used to be I operated a last-cutting machine over’t the Thom McAn factory in Sparta, but Thom McAn, they relocated to Mexico’”; now “‘I take care’—keer—‘of a house some summer people got over’t Roaring Gap.’”

Charlotte is at her college (something like Duke) on a scholarship, and Lee is also on scholarship at her prep school—modeled on Groton, where Sittenfeld herself went (and where Charlotte’s roommate is supposed to have gone). And the meaning of all the embarrassment is more social than personal. Anybody can be embarrassed by her parents, but these girls are embarrassed by their parents’ class, by the fact that (at Groton and Duke if not in the world) everybody else is rich, or at least richer. Charlotte’s daddy produces a few rueful complaints about globalization for the edification of the roommate’s CEO dad until he remembers his manners and apologizes for talking politics at the dinner table. But Wolfe’s point is made. “Americans,” Lionel Trilling wrote in The Liberal Imagination, “have a kind of resistance to looking closely at society,” and by society he meant “class” and, in particular, “the meeting and conflict of diverse social classes.” Of course, it was “American writers of genius” (Faulkner, Dos Passos, et cetera) whom Trilling was interested in, and, while the verdict is still out on the 30-year-old Curtis Sittenfeld, it’s pretty clear that the 70-something Tom Wolfe hasn’t made it. But they do get credit for attempting to imagine an America in which the fact that some people have more money than others matters. Reading Philip Roth’s new novel, you’d think the big issue in American life was anti-Semitism. Which is not that far from what you’d think reading recent novels by Jonathan Safran Foer and Michael Chabon; at least Wolfe and Sittenfeld aren’t writing about the Holocaust.

This is not to say that the downside of globalization is Wolfe’s central preoccupation. He is, after all, one of President Bush’s favorite novelists, and he tells every interviewer who will talk to him how much he enjoys taunting the out-of-touch “liberal elite” at dinner parties with his own support for the President. (They react, he says, as if he’d announced he was a child molester.) So it isn’t her poverty that makes college life hard for Charlotte; it’s her Shamela-like “vartue” and her intellectual seriousness. Where all the other kids want to get drunk and hook up, Charlotte just wants to have deep thoughts. But even that isn’t the real problem—what drives Charlotte and Wolfe crazy is not the anti-intellectualism or the promiscuity (which, in fact, he describes with a kind of creepy enthusiasm that makes the child molester thing hit a little too close to home). It’s the “condescension”; it’s the way all the students who went to Groton and whose parents never got laid off by Thom McAn and who know exactly what to wear and what attitudes to have—“the liberal elite”—make Charlotte feel as if they are better than she is. And this isn’t just Tom Wolfe’s issue. The equivalent in Prep is being identified as “LMC”—lower middle class. And if Prep has a more interesting relation to elitism than Charlotte Simmons does, it’s because Sittenfeld’s Lee is not immune to its attractions. Charlotte despises a world in which anybody is judged as LMC; Lee doesn’t like the world in which she is judged as LMC—being LMC is what she went to Groton to escape.

So both these novels understand themselves as concerned with class privilege, and Prep even ends with Lee being interviewed by the Times and getting into trouble when she tells the reporter that the difference between the rich and the poor is visible in “the quality of their stuff” and in the fact that some people send their laundry “to a service” while others do it themselves “in the dorm machines.” Hence the “condescension” problem, the suggestion that at elite institutions, the poor are made to feel their poverty. And hence the solution—poor people shouldn’t be made to feel inferior, either in novels or in life. Thus, in a recent real-world instance, the Harvard Crimson is unhappy about a new $85 student-room-cleaning service—the “obvious display of wealth,” the Crimson objects (neither Charlotte nor Lee could afford DormAid), “would establish a perceived, if unspoken, barrier between students of different economic means” and thus compromise the “egalitarian nature of dorm life.” “There are both rich people and poor people at Harvard,” the Crimson (and Prep and I Am Charlotte Simmons) tells us, and keeping maids out of the dorms will eliminate what the Crimson brilliantly calls the “unneeded distinctions between the rich and the poor.”

But of course it’s not really true that there are rich people and poor people at Harvard—there are very few poor people at Harvard or, for that matter, at any of the 146 colleges that count as “selective”: 3 percent of the students in these institutions come from where Charlotte Simmons is supposed to come from, the lowest socioeconomic quarter of American society; 74 percent come from the highest. And from this standpoint, we can see that the purpose of objecting to conspicuous displays of wealth at school is not so much to avoid offending the poor people at Harvard as it is to pretend that there are enough poor people at Harvard to offend. Indeed, that’s what the attraction of the scholarship novel is all about—the work it does is not to expose the injustices of class difference at Groton and Duke but to pretend that there are class differences at Groton and Duke. If Trilling thought that major American writers were unwilling to write about the class differences that were staring them in the face in 1947, minor American writers in 2005 are so eager to write about class difference that they describe it even where it doesn’t actually exist.

Which is not to say that there is less class difference in 2005 than there was when Trilling was writing. Just the opposite. As it happens, the US Census began its “Historical Income Tables” in 1947; in that year (figured in constant 2001 dollars) the difference between the income of those in the twentieth percentile of the American population and those in the eightieth percentile was a little over $21,000. In 2001 that difference was over $70,000. It’s not hard, in other words, to understand why class difference might have been hard to see in 1947—there wasn’t nearly as much of it. And it’s not hard to understand why we try to make it visible today in places like elite schools where there’s still, albeit for very different reasons, very little of it. For as economic inequality has increased, we have become increasingly committed to imagining that our schools are open to us all, regardless of class. In 1947, everyone knew that Ivy League colleges were mainly for the children of the rich, but no one much cared. Today, however, we’ve all begun to care, so it’s important that we don’t really know.

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.

Naturally, novels about scholarship students make only a minor contribution to convincing us that the students in elite colleges are there because they deserve to be. Affirmative action—designed to convince all the white kids that they didn’t get in just because they were white—plays a somewhat bigger role (hence the passionate support for it among upper-middle-class white students; every black face they see on campus makes them feel better about themselves). But of course the biggest role of all is played by the intense competition among the rich kids to get into the most prestigious of the elite schools. No moment in Prep is more believable than when the bad behavior of a senior is explained by the fact that he’s “bitter” “because he’s going to Trinity” instead of one of his top choices. And this is because you really do have to work hard and be smart (or athletic or talented in some real and distinctive way) to be able to go to a school like Harvard instead of a school like Trinity.

But while it no doubt matters to your self-esteem if you go to one of the really prestigious elite schools instead of one of the not-so-prestigious ones, it doesn’t much matter to your economic position; the graduates of Trinity, too, are being ushered out of upper-middle-class adolescence and into upper-middle-class adulthood. The difference, in other words, between the people who go to Trinity and the ones who go to Harvard is a difference in status, not class. And if status, as Richard Sennett says in Respect in a World of Inequality (2003), “usually refers to where a person stands in a social hierarchy,” it’s crucially not reducible to where a person stands economically. In fact, the inequalities of status presume a certain equality of wealth. The happy senior who’s been admitted to Brown has a higher status than the “bitter” one who’s going to Trinity only because whatever economic difference there may be between them doesn’t count. Indeed, inequalities of status are never more powerful than when they’re utterly disconnected from inequalities of class. If we can’t imagine that we compete on a level playing field, how can we take any pleasure in winning?

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?

Cultures, like cliques, give us all the advantages of what Brooks calls “different sensibilities” without the disadvantages of different incomes. They turn what Trilling called “diverse social classes” into what we just call diversity, and they give us what we might call the fantasy of a left politics, a politics defined by its opposition to racism, sexism, and homophobia and hence by the idea that what we should do with difference is not eliminate it but appreciate it. So whereas Trilling, a half century ago, thought “there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation,” it’s tempting today to say just the opposite. Indeed, we might more plausibly describe contemporary politics and contemporary political argument as nothing but a dispute between our reactionaries and our conservatives. The reactionaries are the ones who attack diversity, the conservatives are the ones who defend it; the reactionaries are the ones who think our inequalities are justified, the conservatives are the ones who think we don’t have any—they think our problem is the illusion of inequality, and that if we could just get rid of the illusion (racism, sexism, especially classism) we’d be fine.

Classism is the key here because classism is the pseudo-problem that brings left and right, conservatives and reactionaries, together, and it’s why otherwise utterly anodyne texts like Prep and I Am Charlotte Simmons have a certain interest. Classism is what you’re a victim of not because you’re poor but because people aren’t nice to you because you’re poor. It originates on the left, and it treats economic difference along the lines of racial and sexual difference, thus identifying the problem not as the difference itself but as the prejudice against the difference. So, just as being opposed to racism is by no means being opposed to racial difference (on the contrary, antiracism asks us to respect racial difference), to be opposed to classism is by no means to oppose class difference. And, of course, once you’re committed to respecting class difference, it doesn’t much matter whether you think of yourself as being on the left. The opposition to classism is at least as attractive to the right—in fact, the campaign against the liberal elite is nothing but a campaign against classism.

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.

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