The politics of privilege-checking

November 18, 2014

Sharon Smith is author of the forthcoming Women and Socialism: Marxism, Feminism and Women's Liberation and Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States. At the Socialism 2014 conference last June, she spoke at a session that took up the discussion about the politics of privilege theory and the practice of privilege-checking.

I THINK it's important to make clear at the outset of this presentation that recognizing and appreciating the degree of gross inequality in capitalist society--which is a necessary feature not only of exploitation, but also of oppression--is much more important than the term you use to describe it. That is, whether you call it "privilege," or "benefits" or "advantages" is not the main issue.

The only way we can hope to build a movement that fights oppression in all its forms, and also includes all oppressed people within it, is not by minimizing the degree of oppression that exists, but by recognizing its many manifestations--no matter which oppressed group you are discussing.

It is also the case that a solid proportion of people, especially young people, who have become radicalized in recent years have done so precisely because of their recognition of and opposition to oppression--be it racism, sexism, LGBTQ oppression, disability oppression or any number of other forms of oppression that exist today.

Students marching against racist hate crimes at University of California, San Diego last spring

This makes sense. On the one hand, the dramatic growth in class inequality since 2008 has led to a sharp rise in class-consciousness--most recently demonstrated by the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011. But this class-consciousness is mostly limited to anger at class and social inequality--without an obvious connection to a working-class strategy to transform society.

This is completely understandable, since anyone in the U.S. who became politically aware after the mid-1970s will have had little to no opportunity to experience firsthand the solidarity that is palpable among workers who are fighting shoulder to shoulder in an open-ended mass strike. So while the misery caused by the system is obvious to all those who are radicalizing today, the potential power of the working class is not.

Recent generations of young radicals have often gotten their first introduction to the issue of combatting oppression through reading the very influential Peggy McIntosh essay of 1989, "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack."

The best thing about this essay is that it forces its white readers to appreciate the many manifestations of racism in everyday life. But the essay itself primarily focuses on individual awareness, rather than putting forward a particular strategy for ending racism. I also find that it tends to conflate the meaning of "white" people with white middle-class people, without actually integrating a class analysis.

For its intended purposes, though, this essay raises awareness and does some good--mainly arguing that white people looking at themselves in the mirror should realize the many ways that people of color are victimized in ways that white people do not experience. And McIntosh certainly doesn't call for privilege-checking as a strategy for social change. This strategy arrived to the radical left much later on.

I NOW want to focus on explaining how the political climate changed dramatically over the last four decades, and how this markedly affected the strategies for fighting for social change within the broader radical left.

It is well known that the late 1960s and early 1970s were a period of mass social upheaval and mass radicalization around the globe. In the U.S., the civil rights movement gave rise to the Black Power movement. The National Liberation Front in Vietnam radicalized the antiwar movement and dealt a severe blow to U.S. imperialism through its grassroots national liberation struggle. The women's liberation movement, partly inspired by the Black liberation movement, used mass action to raise radical demands. The Gay Liberation Front, borrowing its name from the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, rose like a rocket after the Stonewall rebellion of 1969.

Vietnam vets returning from fighting a pointless war became radicalized through their experience--which often played out when they came home and took factory jobs. At this time, there was a massive rise in U.S. working-class strikes and struggles--including a series of wildcat strikes against the wishes of the union leadership. There was the rise of the Miners for Democracy, Teamsters for a Decent Contract and a host of other rank-and-file movements--which together showed in practice how the working class could be the agent of revolutionary change.

You can see how all these movements built upon each other to compose a massive radicalization. By the early 1970s, many radicals believed revolution would soon be on the agenda. In this context--of a mass struggle and a mass radicalization--many young activists turned to Marxism as a revolutionary theory and formed a variety of revolutionary organizations.

Few could have expected at the start of the 1970s that by the middle of the decade, the U.S. corporate class would regroup and launch an "employers' offensive" that became official with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and has lasted through to today--now known as "neoliberalism." Whereas in the early 1970s, many radicals believed revolution would soon be on the agenda, by the end of the decade, the political trajectory was moving rapidly in the opposite direction.

The neoliberal era transformed the balance of class and social forces decisively in favor of capital on a global scale, returning class inequality to levels similar to the Gilded Age. This onslaught was aimed at lowering working-class living standards and busting working-class organization, but it has also been accompanied by vitriolic attacks on all the gains of the 1960s-era social movements, along with open racism, misogyny and homophobia in the political mainstream.

RADICAL ACTIVISTS and theorists of the 1980s were forced to absorb this dramatic political and social transformation. They responded (after the initial shock) with a sense of pessimism, losing confidence that the revolution that seemed so possible in the early 1970s would ever take place. Most radical social theorists adjusted to the neoliberal reality by turning away from structural analyses altogether--and Marxism in particular.

Marxism locates the source of class and social inequality in the capitalist system and relies upon an analysis of objective material realities. These were all dismissed out of hand as "essentialist" and "reductionist," and were widely derided by postmodernists as "truths," "totalities" and "universalities"--all in the name of "anti-essentialism."

The conception of the systemic roots of injustice--and the possibility of achieving systemic change--were replaced by a focus on subjective, individual and cultural relations as centers of struggle, including reclaiming or re-appropriating oppressive language as a tool to combat oppression. In this process, postmodernism--and the accompanying post-structural and post-Marxist--theories achieved dominance by the 1980s.

Two of post-Marxism's key theorists, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, argued explicitly in 1985: "There are not, for example, necessary links between anti-sexism and anti-capitalism...This requires the autonomization of the spheres of struggle."

What is perhaps most remarkable is that Laclau and Mouffe envisioned all struggles as "free-floating," autonomous struggles with no relationship to each other--which do not even need to involve more than two people. They stated this explicitly: "[M]any of these forms of resistance are made manifest not in the form of collective struggles, but through an increasingly armed individualism." In this way, interpersonal relationships can be key sites of struggle, based on subjective (and ever-changing) perceptions of which individual is in a position of "dominance" and which is in a position of "subordination" in any particular situation.

This emphasis on individualism has led some post-structuralists to object to the use of broad, "binary" categories such as "women" and "Black women"--over the objection of many leading Black feminists, including Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term "intersectionality" within a Black feminist framework in 1989.

Crenshaw took issue with the assumptions of the "version of anti-essentialism, embodying what might be called the vulgarized social construction thesis, [which] is that since all categories are socially constructed, there is no such thing as, say, 'Blacks' or 'women,' and thus it makes little sense to continue reproducing those categories by organizing around them."

She concluded, "At this point in history, a strong case can be made that the most critical resistance strategy for disempowered groups is to occupy and defend a politics of social location rather than to vacate and destroy it."

Just as neoliberalism survived the economic meltdown of 2008, in spite of its key role in creating it, so too has a postmodernist outlook survived within the left. To be sure, there are signs of resurgence of Marxism, with a new generation of radicals and radical academics attracted to it. Yet the pessimism inherent to postmodernism prevails in the broad left.

Today's generation of young radicals has spent their whole conscious lives experiencing a major decline in living standards, and defeat and setback for social struggles, with very few victories in between. In U.S. history, there has never been such an extended period of working-class retreat and defeat, now going on 40 years.

While we should not expect this to be a permanent state of affairs, this prevailing sense of pessimism helps to maintain the influence of postmodernist theory on the broad left--even among many activists who have no idea what post-structuralism or postmodernism stand for, or how privilege-checking originated as a strategy for social change out of this pessimistic outlook.

WHY DOES any of this history or theory matter in a discussion about the effectiveness of checking privilege? It matters because every strategy for social change is rooted in a political worldview.

If you don't actually think that revolution is possible or can't envision how such a revolution could realistically come about, then it makes perfect sense to focus our political energies on making the best of this rotten world in the here and now. Within the postmodern/post-structuralist worldview, an overriding emphasis is placed on subjective, individual and cultural relations as centers of struggle--including reclaiming or re-appropriating oppressive language as a tool to combat oppression.

Language is far from irrelevant. But if we want to change it among the masses of people, we need to build a mass movement that affects mass consciousness.

This was certainly the case with the 1960s movements for social justice, which transformed the mass use of language from "colored people" to "Blacks" and "girls" to "women." This has also been the case with the longstanding movement among queer activists. Initially organizing around the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, these activists began to struggle militantly around the slogan "We're here, we're queer, get used to it." Today, the word "queer" has been transformed from a derogatory term into a positive description, even in the political mainstream.

But if our aim is for the mass transformation of society, which requires building a mass movement, we can't realize it by calling out individual people or privilege-checking.

Calling out racism, sexism, homophobia and other reactionary attitudes is obviously a necessary part of fighting oppression in daily life--and apologies from the offending parties are surely welcome. But this is also a far cry from what is needed to end oppression. In reality, privilege-checking does little to challenge the class and social status quo--despite the fact that most activists who engage in privilege-checking believe that the status quo needs changing.

While there is no doubt that those who take part in privilege-checking are well-intentioned, I think that it ends up ultimately replacing politics with morality, which is always subjective and therefore backfires in a number of ways.

It can end up alienating the very people who could be won to a movement to end oppression because they don't already share the current language of the self-identified radical left. Let's be clear: The radical left is tiny in the U.S., and because of this, it can easily become very inward and insular in its outlook, creating an echo chamber instead of reaching outward.

If the point is to help the radical left to grow, we are better off not shaming and humiliating people who are not already acquainted with the currently accepted language within the radical left--which would be an impossibility given the current marginalization of the radical left from the mainstream of society. Instead of shaming people not already acquainted with radical language, we should aim to win them to our hopes of transforming society.

IT IS worth noting that the language of the radical left has changed rapidly over the last decade. This is most evident in the growing list of sexual identities attached to the "LGBTQ" label, which originally designated a shared experience of oppression among lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and queer people in society at large.

The list has now expanded to "LGBTQQIAA" (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, ally and asexual), with additional identities including pansexual, omnisexual, trisexual, agender, bigender, third gender and polyamorous also gaining recognition. While we should celebrate this diversity of identities within the LGBTQ population, we shouldn't confuse identity with systemic oppression.

While expanding sexualities is a welcome development in many respects, it also tends to bury the original purpose of the "LGBT" label, which was intended to include trans people as a recognized group of oppressed people--accompanied by demands for gender-neutral campus housing, gender-neutral bathrooms and gender-neutral language which have been raised specifically to combat transgender oppression. While those who choose to identify as "asexual" or "ally," for example, should have the right to do so, social attitudes and institutional discrimination against these identities are hardly comparable to the enormous degree of oppression faced by trans people.

The practice of privilege-checking relies on its own fairly rigid method of mechanical determinism--assuming that the assertions of a non-privileged person who calls out a privileged person, based on a particular comment, misuse of language or personal demeanor, cannot be challenged. Those who are privileged in a given situation can only offer support and apologies to the non-privileged by checking their privilege and calling out others who are privileged.

This approach places its overriding emphasis on who is making a particular argument or accusation, rather than the content of that argument or accusation. In this context, moralism can supersede politics and prevent the kind of honest and useful debate that is essential to democratic norms. It is easy to see how this approach can inhibit the free exchange of ideas--including necessary political debates--between and among those who are all committed to transforming society.

The rituals of privilege-checking can result in mutually destructive moralism. As Native American activist and scholar Andrea Smith argued recently:

In my experience working with a multitude of anti-racist organizing projects over the years, I frequently found myself participating in various workshops in which participants were asked to reflect on their gender/race/sexuality/class/etc. privilege. These workshops had a bit of a self-help orientation to them: "I am so and so, and I have x privilege." It was never quite clear what the point of these confessions were. It was not as if other participants did not know the confessor in question had her/his proclaimed privilege. It did not appear that these individual confessions actually led to any political projects to dismantle the structures of domination that enabled their privilege. Rather, the confessions became the political project themselves.

The benefits of these confessions seemed to be ephemeral. For the instant the confession took place, those who do not have that privilege in daily life would have a temporary position of power as the hearer of the confession who could grant absolution and forgiveness. The sayer of the confession could then be granted temporary forgiveness for her/his abuses of power and relief from white/male/heterosexual/etc. guilt. Because of the perceived benefits of this ritual, there was generally little critique of the fact that in the end, it primarily served to reinstate the structures of domination it was supposed to resist.

One of the reasons there was little critique of this practice is that it bestowed cultural capital to those who seemed to be the "most oppressed." Those who had little privilege did not have to confess and were in the position to be the judge of those who did have privilege. Consequently, people aspired to be oppressed...[and] the goal became not to actually end oppression but to be as oppressed as possible. These rituals often substituted confession for political movement-building.

Smith concluded, "Essentially, the current social structure conditions us to exercise what privileges we may have. If we want to undermine those privileges, we must change the structures within which we live so that we become different peoples in the process."

THE APPROACH to deciding who is privileged and who is not has increasingly relied upon subjective, moral judgments, rather than any objective relationship to the capitalist system.

Thus, some on the radical left have taken to describing unionized workers as a "privileged" population that doesn't deserve the support of the radical left or even lower-wage workers. This despite the fact that whatever advantages union workers have gained in terms of wages and working conditions have been the result of working-class struggle against capital--and the fact that these advantages are currently targets for destruction on the neoliberal agenda.

On this basis, though, a left-wing author called Bromma, in his new book The Worker Elite: Notes on the "Labour Aristocracy", argues that this strata of unionized workers comprise a parasitic section of the middle class, and that "[f]lattering a failing worker elite with crocodile tears for its lost privileges...leads to disaster for proletarian forces."

This example demonstrates the degree to which the subjective approach to privilege can easily feed into the ideological justification for the ruling class attack on the gains won through struggle by the working class. The analysis also begs the question: Why then are we fighting for the right of low-wage workers to unionize today? So they can become part of a privileged elite whose struggles we oppose? This example demonstrates, probably more clearly than any other, the problems with a "subjective" rather than an objective approach to social justice.

WE'RE ALL entitled to our individual anger. But individual anger isn't going to transform the system. Only a mass working-class movement will do so. So how do we take the steps toward that?

Marxism is necessary because it provides a framework for understanding the relationship between oppression and exploitation--i.e., oppression as an essential byproduct of the system of class exploitation--and also identifies the strategy for creating the material and social conditions that will make it possible to end both oppression and exploitation.

The working class holds the potential to lead a struggle in the interests of all those who suffer injustice and oppression. This is not because the working class is morally superior, but because both exploitation and oppression are rooted in capitalism. Exploitation is the method by which the ruling class robs workers of surplus value; the various forms of oppression play a primary role in maintaining the rule of a tiny minority over the vast majority. In each case, the enemy is one and the same.

As the producers of the goods and services that keep capitalism running, workers have the ability to shut down the system through a mass strike. And workers not only have the power to shut down the system, but also to replace it with a socialist society, based upon collective ownership of the means of production. Although other groups in society suffer oppression, only the working class possesses this objective power.

Many people assume that when Marxists talk about building a united working-class movement for socialism, the fight against oppression is automatically relegated to secondary status in the class struggle. In fact, the opposite is true. This fact has been integral to the revolutionary Marxist tradition since the time of the Russian Revolution. The Russian revolutionary Lenin described revolutions as "the festivals of the oppressed and the exploited."

In Lenin's What Is to be Done? published in 1903, he argued explicitly that the working class's fight against capitalism must include a fight against all forms of oppression, no matter what class is affected:

Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence and abuse, no matter what class is affected--unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic point of view and no other.

Karl Marx described socialist revolution as the self-emancipation of the working class. Today, the working class is made up of many races, sexualities and gender identities--and there is every reason to believe that working-class self-emancipation can champion the fight against all forms of oppression. In this context, it is obvious why oppressed people are in the best position to describe and lead the fight against their own oppression.

While postmodernists tend to emphasize the differences that exist between individuals, Marxists strive to unite all those who face a common enemy into a single movement. If our goal is to build a united working-class movement that can fight against every form of oppression, it requires building solidarity, as expressed in the slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all."

Such solidarity can only be built through a common project and a common trust shared by all who are fighting on the same side of the class struggle--and the necessary patience toward others that can win them to a common revolutionary socialist project.

Further Reading

From the archives