Today, we’re bringing you an interview with Dr. Vanessa Bilancetti, Lecturer in Political Sociology at UniNettuno University, in Rome. Vanessa is one of those rare scholars who can bring together Foucault and Marx, and apply them both to the interesting empirical questions of our time. In this episode, she’ll be talking with us about how we can approach their scholarship as a toolbox for analyzing European Governmentality in the context of post-financial crisis political economy.
Vanessa’s research interests include the European Union, financialisation, feminist political economy and critical European studies. I had the good fortune of meeting Vanessa at an online conference this summer, held by the Critical Political Economy Research Network. Vanessa was presenting a paper, called ‘How to study the commodification of social services following a gender perspective.’ Between sessions, we got talking about Foucault and how he is used in political economy, and I found Vanessa’s take on the inherent compatibilities between Foucault and Marx to be really interesting. She later sent me some of her research, which I read, and .. well, that’s when I decided I had to have her on for an interview!
Vanessa is an advocate of allowing the methods of Foucault with that of what she calls, “an anti-essentialist Marxism and a critical feminist political economy approach.” So, in this interview you’re going to hear me ask her to elaborate on that. We’re also going to talk about the case studies she presents in her published work, on the European Fiscal Compact. I’m very grateful to Vanessa for coming on the show, and I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Before I sign off here, just wanted to thank everyone who shared and commented on last week’s “special commentary episode” on the prominence of the K-Hive, in academia. Hope to do more of those “essay”-style pods, in the future.
We never ask for money for this show. However, if you enjoy it, please feel welcome to leave a rating on Apple Podcasts, or the podcast app of your choice. The ratings help improve the standing of the show, and help me book future guests for the show!
This episode is coming to you on Wednesday, November 11, 2020, just a few days after the media called the 2020 US presidential election for Joe Biden. Its an unusual episode for this show, insofar as it doesn’t feature an interview (we have a great interview coming very soon, with Vanesa Bilancetti, on Foucault and Marx). Instead, its just going to be me, offering a few remarks on the election results, and what they mean for American academia. In the below, I’m going to focus on two key aspects of the discussion. The first is the strange prevalence of the so-called K-Hive, in American academia. The second concerns the role of racial essentialism in early academic analysis of the election.
Just a caveat here. I want to make it clear from the outset that I think on balance its probably a good thing that Donald Trump is no longer going to the president. The problem is that I’m not sure how much better the Biden presidency will be. Now I agree, I think, that there are probably real and important positives to a Biden administration, such as the likelihood that Biden will put more labor-friendly appointees on the National Labor Relations Board. Equally, Biden will probably do a better job with the coronavirus. Yet, as many good faith leftists will point out, the Biden administration will likely do very little to address the core rot at the heart of the pandemic-stricken neoliberal hellscape that is America today. Similarly, these good faith critics will point out, there are real and extremely worrying indications that, from a foreign policy perspective, the Biden administration will be loaded with neoconservative ghouls left over from the Bush “W” administration. As Derek Davison and Daniel Bessner discussed on Monday’s paywall episode of Chapo Trap House yesterday, Trump didn’t do much to challenge the national security blob. But neither was he a competent whip for US empire. Biden, on the other hand, looks set to present a far more vicious and bloodthirsty face of the American war machine to the world.
In the end, the fact remains that Trump is an insufferable narcissist and, while perhaps he is too dumb to ever deserve the accusation of fascism often thrown at him by academics and the liberal left, its probably just better on balance not to have a shameless used car salesman in the White House. As Matt Taibbi put it in a recent Substack post:
Donald Trump is so unlike most people, and so especially unlike anyone raised under a conventional moral framework, that he’s perpetually misdiagnosed. The words we see slapped on him most often, like “fascist” and “authoritarian,” nowhere near describe what he really is, and I don’t mean that as a compliment. It’s been proven across four years that Trump lacks the attention span or ambition required to implement a true dictatorial regime. He might not have a moral problem with the idea, but two minutes into the plan he’d leave the room, phone in hand, to throw on a robe and watch himself on Fox and Friends over a cheeseburger.
The elite misread of Trump is egregious because he’s an easily familiar type to the rest of America. We’re a sales culture and Trump is a salesman. Moreover he’s not just any salesman; he might be the greatest salesman ever, considering the quality of the product, i.e. himself. He’s up to his eyes in balls, and the parts of the brain that hold most people back from selling schlock online degrees or tchotchkes door-to-door are absent. He has no shame, will say anything, and experiences morality the way the rest of us deal with indigestion.
So, good riddance to the used car salesman! Even if the evidence is flimsy, its certainly hard to dismiss the argument that a Biden White House will be at least marginally better. Yet, in a way, that’s precisely the point. It will be only a marginally improvement. Certainly nowhere near a major improvement, and certainly nowhere near the sort of level of improvement as would warrant the totally fawning reaction of many otherwise sensible and intelligent people, including a number of academics (and even friends of this show!), to the election of Kamala Harris to the Eisenhower Building.
In the last few days, usually sensible people — people who I would usually regard to be quite sober-minded and intelligent — have been posting memes lavishing praise on Harris, as not only the first female VP in US history, but also the first woman of color VP in US history. This double whammy of specialness is supposedly a ‘big deal.’ Harris is going to be an inspirational figure, the memes declare, for a whole generation of young women of color.
And you might say at this point, well, where are you going with this, Kiersey? Its no small thing, after all, given America’s problematic racial and gendered history, for a woman of color to be in the White House. But honestly, I genuinely don’t understand the impulse. To pick perhaps an obvious example, few of us would look back and celebrate the election of Margaret Thatcher, who despite being the first female British Prime Minister, hardly elevated the cause of women’s emancipation. Well, same here. There’s a non-trivial amount of evidence that Kamala Harris is an awful human being and that, on balance, she deserves to be called out much more than she deserves to be celebrated.
In the course of her career as a prosecutor in California, Harris did very little to deserve the admiration of anyone on the left, let alone that of young black women. In a 2019 piece in the NYT, Prof. Lara Bazelon of the University of San Francisco School of Law offers just a few highlights of Harris’s shameful career: she withheld information about police misconduct; she championed an an anti-truancy initiative that criminalized noncompliant parents and threatened them with jail time; she appealed a judge in a case who ruled against the death penalty on constitutional grounds; she opposed marijuana legalization (and then laughed about smoking up, on the debate stage in 2020); she opposed the use of body-worn cameras by police officers; and, finally, and perhaps most worryingly, she is associated with a string of wrongful conviction cases. From this review, its not hard to make an argument that Harris made a practice of throwing innocent people under the bus to build up a “tough on crime” brand, and cultivate her political career. She failed to prosecute “foreclosure king,” Steve Mnuchin. She also arrived in the White House with a fat rolodex of Silicon Valley donor names (some speculate her post-primary largess towards the Biden campaign to be one of the key reasons she got the VP nod, in the first place).
Despite the weight of evidence, however, the last 3 days we’ve seen numerous self-identifying serious critical theory types blowing up on social media over criticism directed at Kamala Harris. So what’s going on here? What’s with the cognitive dissonance? The only theory I can come up with is that the rage serves a sort of displacement function. Let me explain. The results of this election were actually pretty unambiguous. They clarified certain trends that were seen as ambiguous and contestable, in 2016. One of the more famous analyses put forward in 2016, was the so-called deplorables hypothesis. This was a controversial idea, as former guest Lee Jones explained in a blog post at the time. But the basic gist is that was the poor, white racists in flyover states who put Trump over the edge.
If this theory sounded dodgy in 2016, the 2020 election results really smashed it to bits. As Matt Breunig noted in a Tweet on November 4, Trump “did better in 2020 with every race and gender except white men.” To flesh that out a bit, Trump gained 4 points from black men (who already trended red, in 2016) and black women (a doubling of his 2016 performance), gained 3 points among Latino Men, and gained 3 points among other non-whites. He lost support from white male voters by 5 points. Now, white male voters were still his main support group, followed closely by white females, but there’s no doubt that the non-white vote confounded expectations. Given how close the election was, these are not trivial numbers; overall, as Bruenig further noted, “women and people of color make up the majority (59.6%) of the Trump coalition again in 2020.” And Trump made serious inroads in the non-white vote, increasing his share from 21% in 2016, to 25% in 2020. Given these figures, and the crazy tight margins in many contested states, the notable decline in white male support is arguably the only thing that saved Biden’s campaign. But all of this just begs the even bigger question: how could Trump, the ignoramus, racist, fascist, misogynistic, Cheeto-faced science denier, increase his votes among non-whites, in the highest turnout election in US since 1900?!
This is a fascinating question, to be sure, but its actually not the one I want to focus on, in this commentary. Instead, I want to go a little deeper into what I referred to earlier as the displacement function. As we’ve talked about on this show before, a lot of Critical Theory types engage in racial essentialism. Arguably, many don’t know they are doing it. But they do it. And what is racial essentialism? Simply put, its the expectation that demographics are a kind of moral destiny. Its the belief that non-white voters have fixed political preferences, which remain the same no matter what other variables beyond racial experience might be effecting their lives. Black Marxists have long lamented this kind of analysis, common among liberals, as condescending towards people of color. As scholars like Touré Reed and Cedric Johnson note, racial essentialism tends to instill in the mind heroic stereotypes about black subjectivity, and the moral clarity of black voices. In the same breath, it also papers over the fact in the decades since the civil rights struggles, economic mobilization has decreased black poverty from 60% to 25%. Thus it occludes how black voting preferences are being distributed increasingly along class lines (see 1:15 mark, in this video).
Now you can understand why this narrative might not fit well with the worldview of critical-liberal academics, who have built their entire careers upon the idea that whiteness is the original sin of modernity, and that the only real way to create political change is through a purging of so-called white logocentrism.For a particularly fascinating example of this mindset, we can look at an interview that was posted on Novara Media this week, with the economic historian Adam Tooze. Pondering the racial politics of the 2020 election cycle, Tooze noted that the exit polls might not be a good indicator in a coronavirus year because the numbers would not factor the preferences of the unusually high number of mail-in early ballots in this election. The early ballots, Tooze claimed, would likely tend to skew progressive in the 2020 cycle because, in the months leading up to the vote, Trump had repeatedly warned his supporters away from trusting postal ballots. Yet, while this might seem a reasonable point, the NYT reports that the poll in question, which is the Edison Poll (the gold standard exit poll for US politics), did actually account for mail-in votes.
But, even forgetting the polls for a minute, its hard to imagine someone like Tooze would not have already looked deeper into the actual results. Its unlikely, for example, that he would have been unaware, that Trump had radically increased his margin in the near-homogeneously hispanic border counties of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), in Texas, where he even flipped Zapata County from blue to red by 30 points — the first time the county voted Republican in 100 years! Granted, of course, that Hispanic voters are not a homogenous bloc — the Cuban vote in Miami, for example, has long been conservative. Yet the Mexican vote in the RGV was solid blue for Hillary, in 2016. Considering the tight results in many states, and the very high national turnout, the significance of these voting patterns for the final result is clear. Equally clear, however, is the fact that these patterns refuse explanation in racial terms. Allegedly the Latino note was instrumental in handing Biden a thorough shellacking in Florida, for example, yet the same state also passed a referendum to institute a minimum wage! (Similar examples of local “socialist” ballot initiatives could be seen in “near miss” states like Nevada and Arizona, too, as this tweet by Bernie Sanders attests).
So, what does this all mean? Well, on the one hand, its important not to overstate the case. As the data presented in the NYT shows, white voters were still Trump’s number one supporters. Nevertheless, the results undermine a key assumption which seems to underpin the analysis of folks like Tooze. Namely, that racism plays an unambiguously massive determining role in US electoral politics.
As the NYT data shows, 40% of 2020 voters belonged to the $50-100K middle income bracket. Of these, 57% voted for Biden, thus constituting the highest concentration of support for any candidate among any income bracket (see image below). Numbers from CNN add some further nuance, suggesting the possible emergence of a new battle: middle-class, urban and college-educated on the one side, with poor, rural and non-college on the other. The former largely went into the 2020 election believing the primary issues were identity and the handling of the coronavirus, while the latter appear to have voted primarily on the basis of economic concerns. Further confirmation of this analysis is provided by Derek Thompson, of The Atlantic. And, indeed, all of this merely confirms what was already indicated in the 2018 midterm cycle: the real divide in the data is the one between the middle class and college-educated, on the one hand, and a sizable cohort of rural and non-college educated, on the other.
Hence the displacement function. We are beginning now to get a hint as to why supposedly progressive thinkers appear to be so incapable of handling any criticism of Kamala Harris, and why they so frequently demand that white leftist critics “stay in their lane.” Similarly, we are beginning to get a sense of how it is that an expert figure like Adam Tooze can so casually overlook already widely available data on racial electoral preferences, and hand-wave what are in fact obvious patterns in these election results. Indeed, we might even be beginning to get a sense of how it was exactly that the Biden campaign managed to fritter away what was supposed to be one of its key strengths: its innate appeal to black voters.
The focus on race as the overarching determinant of American politics belies I think a major issue facing progressive and academic thought, as we head into a new era of coronavirus-driven economic crisis and austerity. Simply put, its a class problem. Matt Christman has been commenting on this in some of his recent video blogs, on YouTube. We are living, he says, through a period of major political realignment. The Democratic Party — the traditional party of the working class in the US — has been studiously working to reorient itself as a party of the college educated urban elite. The Republican Party, on the other hand, appears yet unaware of what Trump and Bannon perhaps intuitively grasped: there is a gap in the market for a real working class party.
And its worth pondering what this realignment might mean for academia — or, at least, those in the humanities and social sciences. Because academics are not people who are used to seeing themselves as anything other than the unbiased servants of truth, and the advancement of the Enlightenment project. Even in their more post-structural and Frankfurt School iterations, the identity of the college professor remains that of the iconoclast, seeking in the classroom those “teachable moments” that would challenge the student to engage in self-critique, so that any political instinct they might have towards class solidarity might be purged in favor of more constructivist intuitions.
Let’s be absolutely clear here. This is a political project! To understand this, one need only reflect on the stakes of the project for Marxism, for example, which teaches that there are real and fundamental material structures at work in our world, that these structures have massive pressuring effects on our political outcomes, and that these structures can be overcome only by means of the organization of the working class. The fawning over Harris, and the refusal to see how class is increasingly overriding race as a force in American politics, is instructive in this sense. It points to a blindspot not just among the college-educated elite in America, but among those responsible for their intellectual formation. The awful paradox here is that the critical-constructivist college professor is generally unaware of their own moral exceptionalism. This is why they get so offended when their role in class politics is pointed out to them. This is why they prefer to prescribe the existence of lanes, and urge us to stay in them, rather than call attention to the facts of Kamala Harris’s problematic career. To be fair, they seem to mean well. But functional outcome of their intellectual blindspot is the continued fetishization of the heroic epistemological standpoint of racial minorities — something that functions necessarily to judge in advance any solidarity that might emerge among the multiracial, non-college educated voters that compose the American proletariat, today.
It is worth recalling that Critical Theory mega-stars like Judith Butler and Donna Harraway were both donors to Kamala Harris’s primary campaign. When this information first surfaced in December 2019, it didn’t seem like much more than a mildly instructive piece of “silly gossip.” Looking back on it now, however, it seems far more ominous. Because it speaks to the ideological function both of a college education, and of the progressive, identitarian college professor who’s job it is to offer that education. And here, ultimately, is where you get in trouble. This is where you’ve said the unspeakable thing that the college professor must not hear. This is where they put their head in their hands and say, “you just don’t understand.” “I am a Marxist!,” they might even say. “I teach Deleuze, for God’s sake!” But it doesn’t matter. The fact remains that the primary function of their job is to teach upwardly-bound bourgeois and lumpen students that THOUGHT is the central axis of politics. So, they say, if you want politics to change, you have to change thought. But again, what goes unspoken here is the stake of the claim. If we accept that thought is the central axis of politics, then the very possibility that material interests motivate power at all, or that the real and decisive events in human history have not come about through discursive engagements, but through eruptions of materially-motivated groups, becomes nothing more than a curious historical thought artifact; an antique idea, to be entertained, but only as a somehow vulgar or less than fully sophisticated world world view, when it comes time in the syllabus to discuss The Communist Manifesto.
Whatever people like Adam Tooze, or his interlocutors on Novara Media like Dalia Gabriel, or Ash Sarkar, or Judith Butler, or any of the legion of other American K-Hive critical academics, might tell you, the election results are devastating news for the left. We have just seen the victory on a razor thin margin of a Democratic candidate fully married to the politics of identity performance, and with no economic message to speak of. All Biden offered was the promise of return to civility, and the possibility of a less buffoonish management of the coronavirus. Equally, it seems clear that no small measure of Trump’s surprising success in this election should be attributed his explicitly economic messaging, and the resulting inroads made among a poor, rural and anxious multiracial working class.
This sounds like heresy. And I admit its genuinely hard even for me to accept. But the facts speak for themselves. Identitarian academics clearly have a selection bias when it comes to analyzing increased minority support for Trump, in the 2020 election cycle. Yet their error is only symptomatic of the deeper issue, which is their own complicity with a class project that is actively undermining the very possibility of economic liberation in America, today. This is what I mean when I say that identity politics has a displacement function. Whether in its neoliberal or left guise, identity politics is the perfect shield to any kind of class-based criticism. “Stay in your lane,” is a disavowal of class privilege disguised as a critique of identity privilege.
Turning this around will be hard. And there’s no magic bullet, except the slow, patient work of class-based organizing. Academics will need to reflect on their role in this, and recognize that they are partisans in the emerging new class conflict. Except right now, they are partisans for the wrong side. And its not clear what can be done about it but it is my hope that, with commentaries like this one, we can at least begin a conversation about class and higher education.