Social Classes, Elitism, Higher Ed, and Social vs. Economic Equality

Ross Douthat has a new post up that’s worth a careful read, as well as the Boston Globe article to which he links. The Globe article by Walter Michaels uses the books Prep and I am Charlotte Simmons to launch a discussion over social class and the "neoliberal imagination."

Ross says:

Both novels, Michaels argues, toss working-class heroines into snobby elite schools, and then protest the indignities visited on them by their richer peers. The lesson of both novels isn’t that class differences are bad per se, but that "poor people shouldn’t be made to feel inferior, either in novels or in life." Thus, Michaels argues, "the imaginative world of neoliberalism . . . is a world where 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." He calls this "right-wing egalitarianism," a point of view whose primary credo is "respect the poor," which is the mirror image of the "left-wing egalitarianism" that focuses on cultural identity and demands that we "respect the Other." Both, he claims, reflect the fact that "at the heart of the neoliberal imagination is the desire not to have to get rid of class difference."

Ross then makes a key point about all the rah-rah about trying to bridge the class gap:

Or put another way, is a politics that demands that we somehow "get rid of class difference" really the only way out of our current meritocratic morass, as Michaels implies? Isn’t it possible that instead of trying to directly reduce the wealth gap between a Charlotte Simmons and her Dupont classmates, which is probably a hopeless task – there are a lot of trends, many of them well beyond the control of even the most socialist government, driving the current growth of economic inequality – we should be focusing more on raising the "general level of competence, energy and devotion," as Christopher Lasch once put it, so that wealth isn’t as important a factor in personal happiness, or in democratic life in general?…

A decade ago, in The End of Equality, Mickey Kaus argued that 1950s-style economic equality was slipping away from us, but he pointed out that economic equality was never the promise of American democracy anyway – "social equality" was. It’s social equality, defined less by money than by manners and mores, that we’re in danger of losing – social equality that’s undercut both by the struggles of the working class and by the worship of success that defines too much of elite life – social equality that both parties have conspicuously failed to address.

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