‘The Poverty of Privilege Politics’ and its critics

This is a strange way to return to a long-neglected blog, namely, with a highly specific engagement, from New York City, with what some people are saying in Manchester and Leeds. But anyway:

There appears to be a conversation starting up (again) in the UK about the significance of ‘privilege’. This piece hopes to generate mutual understanding whilst arguing for a particular conclusion, namely, a position distinguishing itself sharply both from privilege theory and, on the other hand, from the appalling “ortho”-Marxism that still lives on, which (absurdly) deems race, class and sexuality irrelevant in the struggle against capitalism. This is not a fully-formed article, but a swiftly penned response that hopes it could be a helpful intervention as well as an overview of three texts relevant to this debate. It conveys my belief that these are questions crucial to the revival of something like a Left, and indispensable to the emergence of revolutionary struggle.

In Shift (15) we find the source of some of the debates, the much-misunderstood and much-maligned article ‘The Poverty of Privilege Politics'[1]. It seems to me that Tabitha Bast and Hannah McClure wanted to make the case for an anticapitalism that is integrated, coherent, unitary, and so on, one which therefore – paradoxically for some – might actually be up to the feminist and anti-racist tasks of liberating all humans in their differently-oppressed specificity. They explain why they are “embarrassed by the simplicity of [“privilege,”] this undisclosed and undefined overarching theory,” to the point of being “concerned that it further leads a stagnant movement down more … dead ends”. In particular, they criticise the rise of well-meaning “check-lists” that have been circulated widely online (e.g. bullet-points that defamiliarize the normal/unmarked heterosexist, able-bodied, and cis-gender experiences). They lament certain “self-flagellating groups” whose workshops they dub “punkier than thou equal ops sessions” that “prop up a culture of shame”.

Although those already lambasting their piece as “manarchist” will not have perceived this, Bast and McClure are not saying that check-your-privilege tick-lists have no pedagogic uses in struggle (they do) but, rather, pointing out that power mechanisms are irreducible to such tick-lists and/or could not be eradicated even by the mass disciplined assimilation of such tick lists by individuals. I don’t think many people would disagree with this. Still, a legitimate addition to this objection to tick-listing might consist in stating how “privilege”-mitigating, consciousness-raising catechisms and protocols, despite being ineffectual at actualising a embodied, generalised equality, are actually vital transitional social accommodations on the way to something better. They are certainly clumsy, clunky, frequently counterproductive, and uncomfortable for many. Yet they are indispensable agreements symbolically carved out in the everyday violence of capitalist social relations. (Stewart Lee says as much in his stand-up about political correctness.[2]) The efforts so easily dismissed by some as “incomprehensible jargon” or “elitist babble” – when of course, like “foreign-sounding” names, gender-neutral pronouns aren’t so hard to learn when you try – are arguably a necessary but not sufficient condition for organising. In this sense they are not a “politics” or a “theory” proper but rather an imperfect, messy element of praxis.

I feel the Shift article could have avoided eliciting some of the worst, hurt, angry excesses of its ensuing comment-thread disputes, if it had started out with a simple definition of what it was critically attributing to activist populations in general, namely, an entire, allegedly “undisclosed and undefined”, theory. A Black Orchid guest post (‘Privilege Politics is Reformism’ March 12, 2012 [3]) provides an in-depth account of what privilege politics actually is. If they had incorporated that definition more fully, McClure and Bast could quite rightly, I believe, claim that “a political lens of privilege is divisive and unhelpful when we are part and parcel of a system that already thrives on the division of the working classes, through gender, class and sexual oppression”. One rather distracting or dissatisfying point Bast and McClure appear to want to make is quite simply that anti-patriarchy training for men isn’t working: “the ones who could do with it rammed down their hairy throats wouldn’t dream of attending”. This pragmatic despondency is hardly a good enough reason to desist: if need be, I would say we shall set up re-education camps. Still, I will now begin to outline the argument in favour of Bast and McClure’s conclusion.

In n+1 recently, Rosalyn Baxandall recalled the January 1969 anti-war MOBE demonstration (and Counter-inaugural Ball) at Nixon’s inauguration in Washington. The only two women speakers that had been appointed for the mobilization, “neither Shulie [Shulamith Firestone] nor Marilyn Webb could [actually] speak, because SDS guys soared onto the stage, saying, “Take her off the stage and fuck her!”” This anecdote about the white male SDS leadership gives us just one (rather breathtaking) example of ‘manarchist’ internal oppressors in another era. Nevertheless, the Women’s Liberation Movement was focusing not on interpersonal protocols that would enable it to work on more acceptable terms with other anticapitalists, but on programmatic revolutionary feminism and advancing the ‘dialectic of sex’. It strongly resisted a politics of retreat, of guilt, and even of ‘consciousness-raising’ education if these have to exist at the expense of militant action (class organising). The idea remained that the task of liberation is carried out by those most at risk, by those most oppressed. Privilege politics today focuses (well-meaningly) on protecting these people from the excessive punishment their militancy would provoke. For Black Panthers and second-wave revolutionary feminists, others (and allies) could indeed sometimes be coerced into highly conscious attitudes of ‘respect’, but this would not spell liberation.

The Black Orchid guest blogger, Will, bolsters their argument against “privilege” theory (short version: “radical sociology attempting to struggle”) by quoting Frantz Fanon. In the conclusion to Black Skin White Masks, Fanon asserted: “I do not have the right to allow myself to be mired in what the past has determined.  I am not the slave of the Slavery that dehumanized my ancestors.  I as a man of colour do not have the right to hope that in the white man there will be a crystallization of guilt toward the past of my race.” Will remarks that, in contrast to this, it is social interactions that are now more politically contentious to revolutionaries than the overarching facts of white supremacy, for instance, the wealth divide, the education gap, racialized incarceration numbers, and so on — though obviously, it would be surprising if (misogyny and) white supremacy did not crop up in interpersonal relations given our historic environment. A programmatic and organizational response is needed; meanwhile, though, it has to be assumed that movement participants, whilst probably chauvinistic and alienated, are not in fact white- or male-supremacists (the distinction is important). This also amounts to a call for having thick skins. Of course, it is disgusting and preposterous when white graduate students are the ones telling immigrant workers to have thick skins. But Black Orchid insists we remember the real stakes: Harriet Tubman, like Fanon, deemed life worth living through the struggle to become fully human, or not at all.

At its most polemical, the Black Orchid article thunders that “Privilege theory [in fact] thrives off the inactivity of the masses and oppressed”. Its proponents “seek only to remind the masses of its weaknesses. … [when] they actually have the power.” The author says: “I have yet to meet Privilege theorists who hold classes on revolutionary politics with unemployed people, with high school drop outs, with undocumented immigrants etc.  Privilege theory’s fundamental assumption exposes its proponents’ class background when they claim that theoretical-political knowledge is for people who come from privileged backgrounds.” Similarly, McClure and Bast discern in privilege-oriented circles “an anti-intellectualism where both theorising and militancy are seen as privilege[s] in and of themselves”. The Black Orchid Collective, for its part, defines itself as a “multi-gendered, multiracial revolutionary collective… against capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism, imperialism, ableism and the state …fighting for a direct democratic, ecologically sustainable society in which we as workers can creatively produce to fulfill human needs … developing ourselves as working class revolutionaries … reviving the Marxist method as a tool for combining the best of feminist, anti-colonial, anarchist, ecological, anti-racist, and queer liberation perspectives, while discarding all that holds us back.” As the Black Panthers recommended, when alienating and chauvinist things occur, the best attitude is “fuck ’em”.

One rebuttal (an extensive Facebook note, ‘Politics Recognising Privilege’, by Siân O’matic on Tuesday, 9 October 2012[4]) argues that the common allegations of an “oppression Olympics” and “culture of shame” are straw arguments, and this may in many cases be so. However, this author seems to insist that the so-called “privilege” politics should rightly be called liberation politics, acknowledging the downside of it being “problematic when people with privilege demand even more attention or self-victimise”. They cite the familiar formula: it is not the unpleasant complaints of “privilege politics” which is divisive, but of course, in fact, racism, sexism, transphobia, classism, homophobia “and other structural oppressions”. This is because, in their view, “capital is not the only oppressor”. For this reason, true privilege-conscious, “liberation” or “anti-oppression” politics demands a kind of catch-all orientation that “recognises” (according to the title of the piece) all possible and existing forms of oppression. The author reasons one cannot be content that there be “an anti-oppressive string running through the rest of what we do” — the rest of what we do meaning, here, fighting capitalism.

The rejoinder to the well-meaning, harmless, but ultimately analytically weak position, summarised above, can be swift even if it does not intend dismissive harshness. Fighting capitalism can never be the “rest of what we do”, for the very simple reason that it is capitalism which produces sex, gender and race: capitalism is best understood as an expanding, intimidatingly pervasive system of social relations. Patriarchy is not an autonomous mode of production that exists simultaneously alongside capitalism (as Christine Delphy has proposed): like white supremacy, it is a non-negotiable characteristic, fundamental to the capitalist mode of production. I suspect that, for all they were able to identify “straw” enemies of class struggle, the author is still working against an entirely “straw Marx” who is characterized by determinism, vulgar materialism, sex blind categories, and economic reductionism. Better to revive the notion of social reproduction, which gives us a sophisticated, non-reductionist account of the relation between various oppressions and capitalism without falling into the impasse of dual and triple systems theories (which conventionally “added” gender and race “on”).

[1] http://shiftmag.co.uk/?p=679.

[2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jGAOCVwLrXo.
[3] http://blackorchidcollective.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/guest-post-privilege-politics/.
[4] https://www.facebook.com/note.php?&note_id=10151109954408004.


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