I’m in the midst of rereading Chris Hayes’ excellent book Twilight of the Elites (review still forthcoming—promise) and wanted to highlight this pregnant passage:
“The areas in which the left has made the most significant progress—gay rights, inclusion of women in higher education, the end of de jure racial discrimination—are the battles it has fought or is fighting in favor of making the meritocracy more meritocratic. The areas in which it has suffered its worst defeats—collective action to provide universal public goods, mitigating rising income inequality—are those that fall outside meritocracy’s purview. The same goes for conservatives. Those who rail against unions and for reduced taxes on hedge fund bonuses have the logic of meritocracy on their side, yet those who want to keep gay men and women from serving openly in the military do not.”
This is a really perceptive point. Put another way, the struggles which have been successful have been assimilationist, rather than transformative, in nature. Civil rights activists vanquished Jim Crow, but couldn’t occasion economic democracy. Racial minorities may appear in corporate commercials with greater frequency, but they’re still disproportionately poor, powerless, and disenfranchised. In the same vein, it’s telling that when Hayes speaks of “gay rights,” he’s alluding to the acceptance of gays into mainstream America. This is the degree to which more radical demands, groups, and tactics in the queer community have been subordinated in favor of the inclusionary fight for, most prominently, marriage equality. Under this strategy, class fissures need not be remedied, and the interests of the middle and upper class win out. (Taking this logic to the extreme, mainstream groups like the Human Rights Campaign have constructed an alarmingly expansive ally umbrella, and expediently thrown transgender people under the bus.)
One can envision a society, I think, in which racism, sexism, and homophobia have all been quashed, yet profound economic and political inequities fester. Witness the hypertrophied growth in income inequality over the past 30 years, alongside increasing (if insufficient) acceptance of gays, lesbians, and racial and ethnic minorities. The two can coexist quite comfortably if the raison d’etre of activism is inclusion; the new cosmopolitan elite that Hayes so adeptly skewers isn’t averse to the assimilationist agenda.
I write this all, of course, as a straight, cis white male. It would be preposterous and offensive for me to pooh-pooh the enormous accomplishments of the gay rights and civil rights movements. But it’s certainly sobering to an egalitarian like me, who wants to see more tectonic shifts toward equality and democracy, to look at the wins/ losses column.
There’s much work to be done.