Multiple Identities, Politics, Freedom, and Equality

For me, the most important article of 2019 may prove to be “The Philosopher Redefining Equality” by Nathan Heller in the January 7 issue of The New Yorker. The article’s subhead is “Elizabeth Anderson thinks we’ve misunderstood the basis of a free and fair society.” The caption for the lead illustration is “Our real concern should be equality not in material benefits, Anderson argues, but in social relations: democratic equality.”

Heller writes:

Her work, drawing on real-world problems and information, has helped to redefine the way contemporary philosophy is done, leading what might be called the Michigan school of thought. ...She brings together ideas from both the left and the right to battle increasing inequality,...

Born in 1959, Anderson specializes in moral and political philosophy. Right out of graduate school, Princeton University offered her a tenure-track job, but she decided to stay at the University of Michigan, where she is now the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies (which she named after Dewey when the university elevated her to its highest professorship). As soon as I get it, I plan to read her 2017 book Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don't Talk About It).

Heller reports:

“The Industrial Revolution was a cataclysmic event for egalitarians,” Anderson explains.... “We are told that our choice is between free markets and state control, when most adults live their working lives under a third thing entirely: private government.”

As summed up by Heller:

What else could you call the modern workplace, where superiors can issue changing orders, control attire, surveil correspondence, demand medical testing, define schedules, and monitor communication, such as social-media posts? The decisions that a company makes, like the installation of cubicles in the bank in Harvard Square [as happened to Anderson], are presented as none of its employees’ business (hence “private”). Defenders of this state of affairs often counter that people negotiate their salaries and can always leave. Anderson notes that low-level workers can rarely wrangle raises, and that real-world constraints eliminate exit power. (Workers are sometimes bound by non-compete agreements, and usually cannot get unemployment insurance if they quit.) It was as if relational equality could be suspended between nine and five—a habit that, inevitably, affects life beyond work.

...Jeff Bezos earns more than a hundred thousand dollars a minute, while Amazon warehouse employees, many talented and hardworking, have reportedly resorted to urinating in bottles in lieu of a bathroom break. That circumstance reflects some structure of hierarchical oppression. It is a rip in the democratic fabric, and it’s increasingly the norm.

Anderson traces this thinking to Jeremy Bentham’s 19th century utilitarianism, which affirmed “the greatest good for the greatest number” -- even if it involved the oppression of minorities. Bentham, who rejected natural rights and conscience as a motive, proposed a network of large workhouses for the poor and a “Panopticon” disciplinary prison for law violators. Anderson says Bentham’s philosophy “is one of the original sources of the arguments for the privatization of public functions,” which she calls an unfortunate “plutocratic reversal” of classical liberal ideas.

The classical liberals, according to Anderson, had been anti-monopolistic. “They opposed all forms of unfree labor—not just slavery but serfdom, peonage, unpaid apprenticeship,” she says. The goal of “fairness” is more widely shared, across the political spectrum, than many people suppose, she argues.

Her current project is to write a massive history of egalitarian ideas and how they relate to state power. As she explored those origins, “Anderson ended up at the hunter-gatherers.” Her reflections on that history will likely be fascinating.

Anderson disagrees with those who believe freedom necessarily leads to inequality -- as well as those who say constraints on freedom are necessary to reduce inequality. Rather, she argues that freedom and equality are bound together, mutually dependent. As Heller puts it, “Equality is the basis for a free society.”

Anderson wants to increase the range of activities valued by society. When that happens, she believes

people [will] have the freedom to have crosscutting identities in different domains. ...The ability... to have an identity that one carries from sphere to sphere…[and] be able to slip in and adopt whatever values and norms are appropriate while retaining one’s identities in other domains,...that is what it is to be free."

A shift from “distributive equality” to “relational, or democratic, equality” involves “meeting as equals,” regardless of where individuals are coming from or going to.

Heller writes:

If one person’s supposed freedom results in someone else’s subjugation, that is not actually a free society in action. It’s hierarchy in disguise.

To be truly free, in Anderson’s assessment, members of a society had to be able to function as human beings (requiring food, shelter, medical care), to participate in production (education, fair-value pay, entrepreneurial opportunity), to execute their role as citizens (freedom to speak and to vote), and to move through civil society (parks, restaurants, workplaces, markets, and all the rest). Egalitarians should focus policy attention on areas where that order had broken down.... People should be equally free, regardless of their differences….

This approach transcends materialism, whether Marxist or capitalist. Rather, Anderson affirms the pluralistic pursuit of quality, meaning, and moral intuition. She neither views morality as duty nor measures actions merely by their effects. “Dewey argued that the primary problems for ethics in the modern world concerned the ways society ought to be organized, rather than personal decisions of the individual,” Anderson wrote in her Stanford Encyclopedia entry. That approach does not envision an ideal, perfectly just society, and recalls E. L. Doctorow’s description of driving at night: “You can see only as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Anderson rejects both “color blindness” and any “identity politics” that involves the formation of exclusive political alliances. The term “identity politics” has been used with various meanings, but the most common one seems to be the one that Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective apparently coined when they wrote:

This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else's oppression.

In “The Imperative of Integration,” published in 2010, Anderson criticized that exclusive self-segregation and its refusal to use inclusive alliances to support the end of others’ oppression. Such affinity groups, though they can be beneficial in some ways, do not involve real power or social equality, according to Anderson. Rather, they “certify” subordinate status and open the door to others to self-segregate, such as the white working-class who are themselves oppressed in certain ways. Such self-segregation may have reinforced the recent increase in white-identity politics.

Heller summarizes Anderson’s argument:

Integration, by her lights, meant mixing on the basis of equality. It was not assimilation. It required adjustments from all groups. Anderson laid out four integrative stages: formal desegregation (no legal separation), spatial integration (different people share neighborhoods), formal social integration (they work together, and are one another’s bosses), and informal social integration (they become buddies, get married, start families).... Citizens should fight to bolster healthy institutions and systems—those which insure that all views and experiences will be heard...

A red flag to Anderson’s analysis is raised by Derrick Darby, who grew up in New York City projects and is the only tenured black professor in Anderson’s department. He works in her  Michigan-school mold and uses “The Imperative of Integration” in his own teaching. But he’s also cautious and slow to fully embrace her approach. “Liz has a view that you pull people up from the projects and send them on their ways into the élite,” he says. He believes she may not fully appreciate the constraints that result from being “the only damn black person in so many rooms.”

As I explore her writing, I’ll keep those concerns in mind. It seems to me that moderate self-segregation is not inherently problematic. Meeting with others who share a similar background to provide mutual support can be beneficial if members of those groups also at other times join in broad alliances with others to confront shared problems. Heller does not address that issue. It will be interesting to see if Anderson does.

I’m also concerned about what may be a related issue. Heller says Anderson is concerned about giving everyone “a crack at being a star at something.” But is being “a star” important? That emphasis may reinforce what seems to drive our society: the urge to climb social ladders and look down on those below. Ideally, upward mobility need not necessarily involve condescension and domination, but in the real world, they seem interwoven.

Nevertheless, I very much look forward to getting my hands on Private Government.


To review extensive excerpts from Heller’s article, click here.