Theorizing Underpants and Mr. Burns’s Skirt: Multiculturalism and the Left Road to Nowhere

A couple of weeks ago Jacobin ran a blog post by Peter Frase attempting to answer certain criticisms pertaining to the dominant role of multiculturalism and identity politics in the left as it is now constituted.

The consensus, in my social media circles at least, appeared to indicate that it was not very convincing, with some objecting to what one commenter referred to as its reliance on “90’s grad seminar” discourse.

If it were only a question of style, the piece wouldn’t be worth discussing. What requires that it be dealt with is the substance, revolving around the claim that critics of the diversity agenda “do away with race” by taking “class (to be) the universal solvent that does away with all identity.”

That Frase’s characterization is not without merit is apparent in that it is not hard to find examples of what he has in mind. One is the following remark by Adolph Reed.

(T)he fact of the matter is that if you want to improve the social position of black americans, latino americans or non-whites the most effective way to do it, the biggest bang for the buck, would come from pursuing programs and goals that would enforce the economic well-being and security of the vast majority of working americans. Because not only (does) the vast majority of those non-white groups fall into the working class broadly construed but disproportionately so according to those who focus on racial disparity as a key metric of inequality. So that’s the only way to do it.

Another is from a Jacobin article by Sam Gindin cited by Frase, though not what would seem to be the most relevant passage:

“The alternative (to attempting to mobilize African-Americans as a particularly oppressed group) is to define racially coded inequality as part of a more general class inequality and mobilize the class as a whole around universal single-payer health care, free quality education, jobs with living wages, and liveable public pensions. Only the latter approach would seem to hold out the potential to build political capacity for substantive reform and such reforms would, given the nature of existing inequalities, disproportionately support the African-American working class.”

Frase is correct to construe these strategic proposals as “doing away with race” provided they are understood in the following narrow sense: any left majority will need to be assembled from groups which could, if they choose to do so, define themselves as minorities. The left needs to provide a reason for why they should ally themselves with what will necessarily (based on demographic reality) be a white majority coalition advancing issues such as “universal single-payer health care, free quality education, jobs with living wages, and liveable public pensions”. And they need to do so even when this means withholding their support from, indeed, opposing, for example, an African American leadership class, including the president and members of his administration, whose hostility to the left agenda is by now a matter of record.

If helping the left succeed in this way is “doing away with race”, Gindin and Reed provide a simple basis for why it makes sense to do so: it will benefit the great majority-including minorities and women disproportionately, which is to say what the coalition achieves will benefit them substantially more than it will benefit everyone else.


While the argument seems straightforward enough-not to mention plenty familiar-it is revealing that nowhere does Frase attempt to address, let alone answer it. Instead, his rebuttal consists largely of repackaging various elements of 90s social construct theorizing, among them the “current (of) discussion among radical feminists, . . . which sees the ultimate aim not as an equality between hypostatized essences but as eliminating the gender binary entirely.”

As Frase continues the old story, this “performance of gender could then become more fluid, playful, and theatrical, following the models set down by queer and transgender cultures.”

Of course, there would be nothing wrong and a great deal right in achieving the gender negationist utopia Frase describes. However, there would be nothing socialist-or even necessarily just or decent about it; to see why, all we need to do is imagine Mr. Burns in a skirt. Frase along with an alarming number of others on the left completely miss this obvious point: exploitation without discrimination is still exploitation. As a result of their conflation of opposition to discrimination with opposition to exploitation, the essence of their proposals amounts to a multiculturalist restatement of the underpants/gnome theory which here take the form 1) elimination of gender binary 2) ???? 3) expropriation of the expropriators.

Just as it is unclear what stroke of gnomic inspiration can derive profits from collecting underpants, it is hard to see what step 2) can link radical conceptions of gender performativity to nationalization of major industries, democratic control of the means of production, or the institution of a wealth tax.

The reason why Frase doesn’t attempt to argue for or even mention how 1) and 3) are to be connected may be due to there being no real connection to be had. As the economist Gary Becker has suggested, the meritocratic logic of neoliberalism is intrinsically hostile to all forms of arbitrary discrimination and by extension fully consonant with “the elimination of the gender binary.” If multiculturalism can be naturally achieved within neoliberalism, what purpose is served by attempting to show that it is a natural fit with socialism?

One of many indications of the harmonious combination of neoliberalism and multicultural diversity is the top prize “in workplace innovation” from the Human Rights Campaign having been awarded to Goldman Sachs for its creation of an LGBT friendly workplace. While Goldman is, needless to say, among the more odious capitalist institutions, most accounts of its hiring practices indicate a sincere commitment to recruit candidates who will serve as the most effective plunderers of the remaining assets of the 99%. By doing so, it shows that it fully accepts Becker’s logic that its shareholders’ interests in a maximum return of their investment derived from successful plunder would not be served by excluding candidates on the basis of their race, gender or sexual preference. Goldman’s policies in this respect are a special case of the general trend towards rainbow complected corporate boards far beyond that which left institutions have managed to achieve. All this is indicative of both how naturally multiculturalism can be accommodated and how cheaply multicultural credentials can be purchased by those with a prime claim to huge agglomerations of capital.

It should be noted that none of this has any bearing on Reed and Gindin’s argument. Rather it serves to show how the multicultural agenda can function as a smoke screen through which neoliberalism is legitimated and even accepted by some of its primary victims. Among these are African American communities who have suffered the largest drop in aggregate wealth in their recorded history, hemorrhaging rates of home foreclosures and continuing application and maintenance of the new Jim Crow system of incarceration. The administration’s continuing high approval ratings demonstrate the success of multiculturalism in obscuring the target which should be clearly in the sights of those most on the receiving end of its predations.

In addition to the smoke screen there is the offensive weapon of raising doubts as the sincerity of the left’s commitment to racial and gender equity. Frase offers a low-wattage recycling of this charge in his suggestion that “among intellectuals, appeals to class as the universal identity too often mask an attempt to universalize a particular identity, and exclude others.” Frase offers no evidence of attempts by intellectuals to “exclude” for the likely reason that very little exists. What possible objective, after all, would “exclusion” of any significant group serve those trying to build a mass movement? By reinforcing African American suspicions that they need to be continually on the look out for “masks” hiding an underlying racialist agenda Frase’s rhetoric is a close cousin to that of Obama apologists’ routine claim that any criticism of the current administration derives from white intellectuals threatened by “black faces in high places”.

If Glenn Greenwald is correct, a gendered variant of the same tactic is in the offing should Hillary Clinton receive the nomination. A debased, neoliberal feminism will be deployed to tar all criticism of Clinton’s policies and governance as sexist, to be followed in the sequence by a gay neoliberal Democratic nominee, protected by the inevitable charge of homophobia directed at his or her critics.

Finally, it should be mentioned that Jacobin itself has been one the receiving end of a particularly unpleasant form of weaponized identity politics, namely the charge that all males are implicated in perpetuating a “culture of rape” designed to silence and prevent women’s participation in the left. As Jacobin well knows, these smears, usually based on little to no evidence are highly effective at undermining and discrediting promising left institutions.

Frase and Jacobin should know better than most the damage which a debased multiculturalism inflicts when it is resurrected in a vampiric form. It’s high time that they, and we, began a more critical examination of its underlying premises.

3 thoughts on “Theorizing Underpants and Mr. Burns’s Skirt: Multiculturalism and the Left Road to Nowhere”

  1. This approach is hardly new, of course. Martin Luther King took a class-based approach at the end of his life. He said in the introduction of his support for Guaranteed Income: “In the treatment of poverty nationally, one fact stands out: there are twice as many white poor as Negro poor in the United States. Therefore I will not dwell on the experiences of poverty that derive from racial discrimination, but will discuss the poverty that affects white and Negro alike.”

  2. I may be missing something here but this seems like a very tired celebration. Yes, we can all wave our rainbow, every monotheist, multi-cultural flags and proclaim a victory of unilateralism. My inner cynic child tells me this is really a temporary situation. To overcome all the problems of racism, religious intolerance and sexual preference by some add campaign seems a little hard to swallow. I think we’ve been given a bone and told it’s the steak.

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