War ordinarily engenders hatred for the enemy. This was particularly true in the America of 1917-1918, when public authorities sought to inoculate against unpatriotic backsliding the millions of citizens who had emigrated from nations fighting on the enemy side. From printing press, pulpit, and President Wilson’s war propaganda creation, George Creel’s Committee on Public Information, propaganda flowed charging that the German nation was synonymous with evil, that the Kaiser was the devil incarnate, and that the German people were less than human. Small wonder, then, that in a flurry of patriotism Americans renamed sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” and dachshunds “liberty hounds.”
–from Melvyn Dubofsky, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World (1969)
Financial Times writer Edward Luce offers the paradigmatic neoliberal critique of affirmative action in the context of his discussion of India’s affirmative action program, in which
half of all government jobs are reserved for three separate categories of underdog: Adivasis, Indians of tribal origin who make up almost 10 per cent of the population; Dalits, officially accounting for 12.5 per cent of the population; and ‘other backward classes’, including castes such as the Yadavs, who account for 27 per cent of the population. Together, 50 per cent of India’s public sector jobs are allocated to these groups. In addition each state has its own system of reservations and in some, including Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu, the quota for provincial government jobs is as high as two-thirds. Few are allocated by competitive examination. In practice many of the jobs are dispensed by the relevant caste leaders and their networks of hangers-on, or they are put up for sale to the highest bidders. It is the most extensive system of patronage in the democratic world.
According to the standard neoliberal argument, affirmative action is unmeritocratic and inefficient, discouraging competition and rewarding the undeserving, and therefore should be abolished. Luce doesn’t explicitly make this argument, but he doesn’t have to: Without a more meritocratic and just state, India’s economy will suffer. Yet this buries the lede: these jobs may be reserved for “underdogs” in theory, but in practice reward “the highest bidders.” As he later acknowledges:
In addition to the fact that they restrict merit-based selection, there are questions about the justness of India’s job reservations system for scheduled castes, tribes and other backward classes. According to India’s Supreme Court, the ‘creamy layers’–economically wealthy–among India’s socially disadvantaged groups monopolise the public sector jobs quota.
In this context, isn’t affirmative action not working because India doesn’t have enough of it (i.e. a system created to remedy inequality and injustice is being prevented from doing this by quid pro quo deals brokered by moneyed interests)?
Isn’t the failure of affirmative action the failure of the market itself?