Tuesday, 12 April 2011

The Equality Illusion, a review of "Equality" by Noam Chomsky

The ironic thing about social mobility is that the only people capable of bringing it about shouldn’t believe in it – namely leftists.

The UK government’s social mobility strategy  rests on the same tired platitudes about raising the aspirations of young people from poor backgrounds. It will have the same success as John Major’s aim for a “classless society”. Even without obviously contradictory policies like tripling university tuition fees and abolishing the education maintenance allowance, it can’t possibly work

The reason is apparent from reading Walter Benn Michaels’ The Trouble with Diversity: How we learned to love identity and ignore inequality. For here is a person who does really believe in equality of opportunity and realises that to achieve it you have to restrict the liberty of rich people to keep and do what they want with their money. He believes in punitive inheritance taxes and abolishing private schools.

But, in realising this, Michaels falls into the ideological trap represented by the concept of social mobility. This is strange because The Trouble with Diversity is, in another way, a great unmasker of ideological illusion. The book attacks the way the American left has become the “human resources department” of the right. A rigid policing of the way companies recruit, and treat, racial minorities and women, has completely obscured what those companies actually do.

Everyone frets about discrimination, but exploitation is just fine. In fact, exploitation has virtually died out as a concept. If you are a female hedge fund manager and you earn $1.8m, while a male colleague doing the same job earns $1.9m that’s a huge problem. But if you are a (female or male) employee of Walmart and you earn $20,000, that’s just life.

But social mobility performs the same task of ideological obscuration. The very act of worrying whether poor people and women are able to climb the corporate hierarchy, justifies that hierarchy. Or makes it something you just don’t think about.

It is interesting that Michaels uses virtually the same language as the UK government in describing why equal opportunity is a good thing. “What ought to count is how hard you work and the skills and talents you possess, not the school you went to, or what your parents did,” says the government’s social mobility strategy. While Michaels thinks that “hard work and ability”, not background, should be rewarded.

But is it really “hard work and ability” that enables people to get a better job and income? There is, as these examples show, unanimity across the contemporary right and left about this. But this very unanimity should show that it is precisely here that ideology does its work. Ideology is an assumption, a crucial assumption, that remains unspoken. And therefore undisputed.

And it is the assumption that hard work and ability matter more than anything else that Noam Chomsky challenges in his 1976 essay, Equality, which you can read here.

What he says on social mobility is worth quoting at length:

“One might suppose that some mixture of avarice, selfishness, lack of concern for others, aggressiveness, and similar characteristics play a part in getting ahead and ‘making it’ in a competitive society based on capitalist principles. Others may counter with their own prejudices. Whatever the correct collection of attributes may be, we may ask what follows from the fact, if it is a fact, that some partially inherited combination of attributes tends to lead to material success. All that follows, as far as I can see, is a comment on our particular social and economic arrangements. One can easily imagine a society in which physical prowess, willingness to murder, ability to cheat, and so on, would tend to bring success; we hardly need resort to imagination. The egalitarian might respond that, in all such cases, that the social order should be changed so that the collection of attributes that tends to bring success will no longer do so.”

The preceding paragraph has the interesting quality of being true and unbelievable at the same time. Unbelievable is the sense of unacceptable if a person is to function, ideologically, in contemporary society. This is the ideological function of social mobility – to accept it you have to believe in fiction.

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