The most interesting response to the firing of James Damore, the Google engineer who wrote a provocative memo questioning his company’s diversity practices, didn’t come from the establishment center-left, which predictably proclaimed Damore’s arguments beyond the pale, or the conservative right, which predictably said Silicon Valley elites had become intoxicated by political correctness. Rather, it came from the lonely members of the old-fashioned, class-conscious, social democratic Left, which framed the issue in terms of worker rights and the unaccountable power of employers over their employees.
Writing in The Week, Jeff Spross argued that even if Damore was in the wrong, the episode highlights the way American companies as a whole have too much power to fire workers at will.
To put it bluntly, most workplaces in America today are miniature dictatorships ruled by their employer. “Workers can be surveilled by their employer, compelled to work long hours, and even denied bathroom breaks,” Jacobin explains. “In most parts of the U.S., employers can legally terminate employees for being ‘too attractive,’ for having the wrong political affiliations, and for choosing a particular sexual partner.”
In many other Western economies, employees cannot be fired “at will”; they can only be let go after a lengthy legal process. Laws often require employers to negotiate with unions and other labor groups. Some countries even require that worker representatives make up half of all corporate boards. Point being, workers have input of real consequence into how the companies that employ them are run. And they cannot be fired except under circumstances agreed to be fair by society as a whole.
This angle is worth considering because it complicates the dominant partisan framing around the Google affair. Perhaps by supporting the rollback of labor regulations and private sector unions over the past few decades, the American Right helped create the social conditions that led to Damore’s ouster. And perhaps by cheering Google’s diversity enforcement scheme, liberals aren’t actually furthering the interests of the oppressed but simply giving cover to unaccountable, inequality-producing mega-corporations. More broadly, perhaps right-wing market economics and left-wing identity politics aren’t opposed but mutually-reinforcing.
That is more or less the thesis of the Columbia historian Mark Lilla’s forthcoming book, The Once and Future Liberal. Lilla (oversimplifying liberally) divides American political history over the last hundred years into two great epochs. The first is what he calls the “Roosevelt Dispensation”—a solidarity-based liberalism that emphasized what American citizens owed to one another. This worldview was dominant “from the era of the New Deal to the era of the civil rights movement and the Great Society in the 1960s, and then exhausted itself in the 1970s.” The second is what he calls the “Reagan Dispensation”—an individualistic, expressive, pro-market ethos that was inaugurated under the Gipper and is today coming to a close.
Rather than challenging the Reagan Dispensation, Lilla says, the American Left retreated from actual politics, relying more and more on an inward-looking “politics of recognition” that eschewed concepts like citizenship and the common good. The emerging liberal focus on race and gender and sexual orientation wasn’t an alternative to neoliberal economics; it was the social corollary of it. Both were rooted in the a drive for individual self-actualization that arose after the Roosevelt Dispensation faded away.
It is hardly a coincidence … that a cult of personal identity also developed in our universities in the age of Reagan and became the governing ideology of the liberal power elite in the Democratic party, the media, and the education and legal professions. While many students studied business and economics in order to make money for themselves, others were taking classes where they learned how very special those selves are. Some took both sorts of classes, satisfying both their pocketbooks and their consciences. The intellectual and material forces of the age were working together to keep them self-involved, and to convince them that narcissism with attitude was both good business and good politics. Identity is not the future of the left. It is not a force hostile to neoliberalism. Identity is Reaganism for lefties.
This brings us back to Google, where many of these trends have come together over the past week. In the firing of Damore, we have a fantastically wealthy mega-corporation—a symbol for the kind of profit-producing creative destruction the Reagan Dispensation lionized—practicing identity politics in its rawest form. The merits of Damore’s arguments are mostly besides the point (I certainly don’t agree with everything he wrote). What matters is that he questioned the design and execution of Google’s lavishly-funded but not particularly successful diversity initiatives, created a firestorm of outrage, and was summarily dismissed for his offense. After all, Lilla says, a defining feature of identity politics is that argument is replaced by taboo.
Google’s decision is being taken by many liberals as a blow for justice—a strong stand against discrimination in the workplace. But it’s also possible to see how the corporate diversity apparatus that led to Damore’s dismissal is actually a self-interested mechanism for big companies to get bigger, to extend control over their workers, and ultimately command even bigger profits. First, a code of inviolable political taboos disempowers workers and gives them less of a say in how their company is being run, putting Spross’s “democratic” workplace even further out of reach. Second, buying into campus-style identity politics helps mobilize the coalition for immigration reform, which technology companies are lobbying for aggressively. Third, and perhaps most importantly, the self-conscious mixing of social justice politics with profit-making adds valuable luster to technology companies’ brand and recruitment capacity—allowing them to attract idealistic and intelligent young people who think that they are carrying out a wider social mission even as they act as cogs in the machine of a ruthlessly efficient quasi-monopoly.
Conservatives looking at the Google spectacle with fear and dismay, then, shouldn’t necessarily see it simply as the product of an overreaching elite Left. It represents something wider—the exhaustion of Lilla’s “Reagan Dispensation,” which mixes capitalist self-expression and a laser-like focus on “the feeling self and its struggle for recognition.” Moving beyond this fraying marriage of convenience will require a politics of solidarity that steps away from the narcissistic individualisms of Left and Right and mobilizes Americans around a compelling vision of the common good. You won’t find such a politics in the conventional platforms of either party, but there are stirrings on the horizon.