Walter Benn Michaels’ response to Sean McCann’s critique of his book The Beauty of a Social Problem recently appeared in Politics/Letters Live. This is McCann’s reply.

I thank Walter Benn Michaels for the seriousness of his engagement with my review of his book and for his substantial restatement of his argument. He has a great deal to say in this essay. Only a little of what he writes, however, speaks to my critique of his work. His comments largely address other antagonists with whose views he appears to lump mine, and much of what he writes does not accurately capture what my review meant to object to in his book. So, let me try to be more direct.

Michaels claims that I “iron out tensions” in Kant’s Critique of Judgment. I think it is not myself but rather he who oversimplifies the third critique. My charge, which Michaels does not significantly contest, is that his book ignores what Kant actually wrote in order to construct a straw man, one that is used by Michaels to identify what he calls a whole “side” of cultural history. That misreading matters, I believe, both because it oversimplifies intellectual history and because it obscures how much Michaels shares with Kant and with a number of post-Kantian aesthetic theorists.[1] The important element in that similarity, in my view, is the fact that Michaels, like Kant before him, overestimates the distinctiveness and the significance of what he conceives of as aesthetic autonomy, casting that alleged autonomy as a means to a rare experience of freedom and, in this respect, as an alternative to a world otherwise characterized by delusion, sentiment, and manipulation.

I think this view involves over-reading the alleged distinctiveness of autonomous art and larding that distinctiveness with ethical and political freight for which there is no significant evidence. In his response to my review, for example, Michaels praises the artists he admires for “devis[ing] ways to foreground the internal relations that structure” their works of art. But, as anyone who has ever appreciated, say, a coda in piece of music knows, foregrounding the internal relations that structure a work is an ordinary feature of artfulness per se. Some styles of art are indeed more elaborate and self-reflexive in making use of such devices than others, and those devices may certainly be worthy of aesthetic appreciation and critical interest–as they are in Michaels’s compelling reading of LaToya Ruby Frazier’s photograph. But there is little reason to believe that such formal devices in themselves allow certain works, as Michaels suggests, to reveal an otherwise hidden truth about the world or to believe that they thereby provide an allegorical representation of a better one.[2]

I think Michaels’s account of politics similarly emphasizes an unnecessarily Manichean division between truth and delusion; that it likewise emphasizes a stark contrast between the constraints of an unjust world and the freedom of an alternative; and, further, that it asserts a sharp divide between people who are motivated by illegitimate interests and those rarer people who are imagined to have freed themselves from base motivation.[3] By the same token, Michaels’s account of politics demands unnecessarily polar choices. The attitude is evident, among other places, in his insistence that there can be only one left with only one legitimate priority.

In short, part of what I meant to convey by the term “formalist,” is my sense that Michaels’s account of politics is reductive and abstract and that it therefore relies on convoluted interpretations of the facts. In his response to my review, for example, Michaels lays responsibility for recent Republican Party strategy at the foot of “the hegemonic power of anti-racism,” suggesting that conservatives would not have known how to stir racial resentment unless anti-racists had taught them how to do it. But, leaving aside the question of whether anti-racism is in fact as hegemonic as Michaels assumes, this is an unlikely understanding of recent history. On Michaels’s account, because the language of anti-racism was imposed upon them, a significant number of white Americans came mistakenly to imagine themselves as victims of bias rather than of economic exploitation. (Presumably, following the broader case made by The Beauty of a Social Problem, he would extend this argument to the hegemonic power of anti-sexism and make a similar case about, say, the rage of men’s rights activists. By Michaels’s logic, one must assume, such men would not feel resentment at their loss of relative power over women if feminists hadn’t given them a language to express it.)

This is, of course, a version of the time-honored strategy of blaming anti-racists for provoking racists to anger. Fortunately, there is a more straightforward and plausible explanation of recent history available. It is simply that racism and sexism historically gave white men in the U.S. significant material and ideological advantages; that the relative decline of those advantages, along with the widening economic inequality Michaels rightly emphasizes, has encouraged resentment; and that conservative elites have exploited and exacerbated that resentment for their own ends. [4]

The glue holding such conservative politics together, in my view, is not the hegemonic power of anti-racism. Nor is it as Michaels account of neoliberalism might suggest, a “commitment to the primacy of markets.” Conservatives and the leaders of neoliberal reform, in fact, have shown far less devotion to markets than they have to defending monopoly and near-monopoly power. What motivates conservative politics, rather, is more simply an investment in defending inequality. It is the coherence of that conservative devotion to inequality that explains why, say, there is no inconsistency in the most recent rulings imposed by the conservative wing of the Roberts Supreme Court. In June 2018, that Court more or less simultaneously struck severe blows against organized labor (Janus v. AFSCME) and reproductive rights (National Institute of Family and Life Advocates), while safeguarding the power of monopoly enterprise (Ohio v. American Express) and sanctioning a manifestly racist immigration policy (Trump v. Hawaii). Michaels’s theory of the allied hegemony of neoliberalism and anti-discrimination would appear to imply that such rulings should have seemed inconsistent to the majority on the Roberts Court. The fact that no sense of inconsistently has been registered suggests instead that what is often labelled neoliberalism has typically had less to do with justifying markets than with preserving the powerful from the threat of democracy.

Conversely, it is the commitment to equality that should be the motivating principle of the left. It is thus also fortunate that, despite Michaels’s strenuous assertions to the contrary—assertions for which he provides little evidence apart from bald assertion— there is no inconsistency in a politics that seeks economic justice while also opposing racism, sexism, and homophobia.

A final note, which may summarize our disagreement. Michaels remarks that “everybody already hates” the Holocaust, slavery, and “all the genocides.” In my view, recent developments have revealed that there is far less unanimity on these issues than he believes.


[1] I do not disagree with Michaels that Kant prioritizes the aesthetic experience of natural beauty or with Robert Pippin’s remark about the severe limitations in Kant’s view of art. But the “blurriness about the intentional character of works of art” with which Michaels chooses to “associate” Kant is Michaels’s invention. In fact, Kant’s Critique of Judgment is entirely clear about the crucial role of intention in distinguishing what Kant himself calls “works” of art from the mere “effects” of nature. In this respect, as in others, as my review noted, Kant appears to anticipate distinctions that are important to Michaels himself.

[2] I am not certain what Michaels means to indicate when he uses the term “post-lapsarian,” but would note that his aesthetic theory is consistent with the fact that he himself says in Beauty that “political and economic alternatives to capitalism” seem “hard to conceptualize.”

[3] Thus, in his essay “The Political Economy of Anti-Racism” from the issue of nonsite to which he refers in his essay, Michaels argues that the views of anti-racist college professors can be dismissed because such views are merely “an expression of their class interest.” Of himself and his allies, meanwhile, Michaels asserts, “the politics we preach are not reflected in the paychecks we deposit.” In short, for Michaels, some people are motivated by money; others by a noble cause.

[4] Michaels cites research in social psychology in support of his view. But he misconstrues his own evidence. As the article he refers to makes clear, the graph Michaels copies does not show that whites began to think of themselves as victims of bias beginning in the late sixties. What it demonstrates rather is “the extent to which” survey respondents at the time of the study retrospectively “felt Blacks and Whites were the target of discrimination in each decade from the 1950s to the 2000s.” That is, it reports the views of respondents in 2011, and in this respect most likely suggests, not that perceptions of bias tracked the rise of neoliberalism, but that white conservatives in the 21st century had adopted the language of cultural grievance long encouraged by conservative leaders. Meanwhile, a study more germane to our disagreement might be the new paper by Alberto Alesino et al., “Immigration and Redistribution,” NBER Working Paper, which suggests that both in the U.S. and in several European countries, support for redistribution is hindered less by anti-racism than by racial bias itself and which accordingly implies, contra Michaels, that voters’ perceptions of the fellow members of their society is a crucial concern for any effort to seek greater redistribution. In light of Michaels’s assertion that “contemporary white racism” is “an artifact of the welfare state,” it might also be worth noting not only that the American welfare state was historically shaped by racism, but that welfare chauvinism is not limited to the US, and is also evident in European democracies that have suffered far less exposure to neoliberalism. See, e.g.,