Right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro says that “Marxism can’t work in America” because we have too much income mobility. He has a basic misunderstanding of both income mobility and socialism.

Ben Shapiro speaks at the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. (Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons)

Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro posted a video on his YouTube channel last Sunday entitled “Marxism Can’t Work In America.” He starts with a series of historical claims about race, class, Marxism, and American history.

When you have high levels of societal income mobility, when you can be born in America and become very, very wealthy, when you can be a middle-class person and you can get rich, it’s very difficult to make the case that the system is stacked against you — so the Left had to come up with another way to ram their cultural Marxism through, and what they came up with was race.

Because while the United States historically has not had massive class distinctions that are hard and fast, it has had race distinctions that were hard and fast for the vast majority of America’s lifetime, right, until the 1960s, so from 1776 to the 1960s you had hard and fast racial distinctions in law in many parts of the country and that was a serious problem.

So what the Marxists did is they glommed onto this, and they said, “Aha! What we need to do is make Americans understand that the systems are racist, and you need to tear down the systems so you can have, essentially, racial mobility. That is the only way to do this.

As he continues the story, the end of de jure segregation in the mid-1960s should have removed “any remaining excuse you have for some sort of revolution based on class.” Instead of giving up, though, Marxists invented Critical Race Theory, which claims that notionally racially neutral policies and institutions can be discriminatory in their effects.

Even if Shapiro’s factual premises weren’t completely erroneous — most importantly, the US does not have high levels of class mobility relative to comparable nations — his assumption that a high rate of upward mobility would be enough to blunt the socialist critique of economic inequality shows that he has no idea of what and why that critique is.

Ben Shapiro vs. American History

It’s tempting to imagine Ben Shapiro being transported to West Virginia a century ago so he could explain to striking coal miners dodging bullets from Pinkertons that no white people in America at that time were impacted by “massive class distinctions” — and that any class distinctions that might exist at least weren’t “hard and fast.” (Surely if they went back to work and focused on making sure their kids did their homework, it wouldn’t take more than a generation or two for any family of coal miners to become a family of coal barons.)

Putting that aside, though, Shapiro’s grasp of the relevant history really veers off into oblivion on the questions of a) Marxism and b) race.

It’s true enough that the Socialist Party of America and the Communist Party USA were among very few predominantly white organizations in the United States that put any kind of premium on the fight for racial equality in the 1930s and 40s. But does Shapiro really think fighting racism was something they had to focus on because their message about class injustice wasn’t resonating?

The opposite would be closer to the truth. For American socialists in the heyday of socialism, talking about class was the easy part, the path of least resistance. Race and racism were the difficult subjects, the issues that posed knotty strategic problems that socialists could sometimes be tempted to try to evade. Socialists spent most of their time on the economic issues that impacted working people of all races.

And those appeals resonated with plenty of workers. This was an era when even a tiny Trotskyist party, the Socialist Workers Party, led successful general strikes in a mid-sized American city.

More importantly, the idea that Marxists who were involved in the civil rights movement understood the goal as “essentially, racial mobility” is bizarre. And this gets to Shapiro’s core area of confusion about the point of socialist objections of economic inequality.

Is Critical Race Theory Just Warmed-Over Marxism?

It is true that many liberals equate social justice with equal levels of upward mobility for all demographic groups. And this is a view that seems to be reflected in at least some strands of the (quite broad) academic tradition known as Critical Race Theory. In Shapiro’s rant about CRT later in the video, he contemptuously references a 1992 story written by Critical Race Theorist Derrick Bell called “The Space Traders” in which space aliens visit Earth and offer a vast amount of wealth to the white population in exchange for re-enslaving the black population and selling them to the aliens.

Shapiro’s point in bringing this up is to dismiss “The Space Traders” as a ridiculous exercise in demonizing white America.  Writing at Current Affairs, though, Nathan Robinson has offered a thoughtful defense of what the parable gets right:

With each passing year, the country’s governing institutions allow Black people to die who could be saved, if whites were willing to expend a small amount of illegitimately-accumulated wealth. For instance: Black infant mortality is over twice that of white infant mortality. We could pay to address this problem, and relatively easily, through guaranteeing quality healthcare to all and addressing the social determinants of poor health outcomes. But we don’t. What is this but choosing money at the expense of Black lives? In other words: the despicable bargain of the “Space Traders” was not a hypothetical: it was just another way of looking at existing reality. Every dollar spent on luxury housing that is not spent on improving Black healthcare and Black schools is a deal made with the Space Traders.

There’s a straightforward sense in which all of this is correct. Although most of the “racial wealth gap” is at the top of the income distribution, it’s certainly true that the historical effect of Jim Crow has been to concentrate a disproportionate percentage of the black population at the bottom end of that distribution. This would be true even if there was literally no racially discriminatory behavior going on anywhere in American society for the obvious reason that people who are born in poverty are far more likely to end up in poverty than people who were born into the middle class.

But Marxist scholars like Adolph Reed or Pascal Robert would ask a simple question here: Is the objectionable part the poverty itself, or how it’s racially distributed?

In the sense that poor black people who go to substandard schools and have substandard healthcare are being metaphorically sold to the Space Traders, isn’t the same true of those equally poor white people who experience the same material conditions? Would a just society be one in which demographically proportionate percentages of each group went to schools where they had to pass through metal detectors every day and lost their babies because of substandard healthcare while a demographically proportionate percentage of each group was able to rise to the top?

Socialists have never thought so.

The Severe Limits of Ben Shapiro’s Imagination

The great American socialist rabble-rouser Eugene V. Debs famously said that he wanted to rise not “from the ranks” but “with the ranks.” The rate of upward mobility in the United States is much lower than Shapiro seems to think it is — in fact, it’s highest in social-democratic societies like Denmark and Norway. But whatever it was, it would be almost entirely beside socialists’ point.

We don’t object to “massive class distinctions” because they’re too “hard and fast.” We object to them in and of themselves. Our problem with the amount of inequality generated by capitalism isn’t that we think the wrong people are rising to the top. It’s that no human being deserves to live the way they have to if they end up on the bottom — and since it’s impossible for everyone to meritocratically advance, equating justice with unhindered advancement means ignoring the needs of the bulk of the population. And, even more importantly, inequalities in the distribution of material resources reflect a deep inequality in the distribution of power in capitalist economies.

It’s true that liberal meritocrats think that justice means letting the best and brightest of each group rise to the top. But it’s profoundly telling that Shapiro’s political imagination is so limited that he thinks even Marxists share this assumption. That’s the kind of belief that suggests you don’t so much exist within a conservative echo chamber as a whole series of echo chambers embedded within echo chambers like Russian nesting dolls.

Ben Shapiro should actually talk to a Marxist sometime. There’s no telling what he might learn.

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