Does it help to “check privilege”?

October 15, 2013

Ryne Poelker analyzes the political and social assumptions inherent in calls to "check privilege"--and explains why much more will be needed to achieve change.

OUTCRY AS well as eye-rolling have swept the Internet in response to Kate Menendez's recent post "Being Privileged Is Not a Choice, So Stop Hating Me for It." Quite typically, Menendez writes about how she can't help coming from comfortable means, and that she shouldn't be shamed for doing so.

I would venture that most working-class people who serve rich students living in high-rises are quite used to such responses. The rich are unapologetic with their blatant contempt towards students "whining about debt" or mothers concerned about feeding children--or when we, the common folk, complain about paying too much of this thing called rent.

They don't want to look at their own life when they're reminded of today's accelerating inequality, growing poverty, crumbling public infrastructure, systematic racism, widespread home foreclosures, school closings, job outsourcing, massive societal suffering--or what I like to call "reality." All too often, their arrogance and obliviousness can be too much to handle.

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Just as frustrating, however, are the responses among the left toward Menendez, which point to a politics that is both limiting and powerless when up against the supremacy of the rich.

Nico Lang, a DePaul graduate and queer commentator, wrote a response to Menendez calling on all of us to check our privileges. While quoting Mean Girls and mentioning his own life experience, Lang describes the ways in which inequality can be invisible to those who don't face it. He ends with a "rich people can be good people, too" sentiment by adding that he knows rich people who recognize their privilege, and who are very generous in regards to philanthropy.

Meanwhile, Keith Grubb wrote to Menendez and other rich folks, reminding them that the working-poor are suffering, and the rich should acknowledge their privilege.

Grubb describes a system entrenched with "classism" where there is "systematic oppression of working class and poor people for the benefit of the middle and ruling classes," and a system that produces stigma towards those who face class oppression. He ends with the statement that Menendez and those of her class should just "confront" their "privilege" and acknowledge today's "classism."

THE WRITERS aren't completely wrong, but their solutions are flawed--and, quite frankly, are impotent against the brutality of class power under today's capitalist order. They are correct that today's working class and poor face stigma.

Yes, obviously the wealthy live much better, and they are free of many of the economic stresses that haunt our existence. Yes, we of the working poor face all kinds of disadvantages and societal repression. Yes, many in today's ruling class are completely unaware of our suffering. But both writers need to go further.

To get the ruling class to simply "check their privilege" is a weak goal. Theoretically, let's say we are able to get a lot of rich folks, individual by individual, to all acknowledge the unfair treatment they enjoy. It would still do nothing to dismantle the material anatomy of inequality, exploitation and oppression that pervades capitalist life. The conditions of disparity and unchecked power would remain. The structures that daily produce and rely on poverty and wage exploitation would be left completely intact and unchallenged.

Furthermore, many elites are already well aware of their dominance, and they could care less about the repercussions. They know they are treated better. They know they have power. They know there are people who don't have the luxuries they have, and guess what? They revel in it.

They "check their privilege" all the time. When they need a bank bailout in a week, they fully acknowledge that they can get it. If they want another country's oil and resources, they know they'll have it. If the activists in Occupy are causing too much trouble, the elites are well aware that they can pay the NYPD to do something about it. If low-wage workers are demanding better income, they know something must be done to crush them.

In other words, "educating the rich on how they are privileged" is a futile strategy that gets us nowhere beyond where we're already at, and does relatively little in threatening the positions of power, as well as the structural reality that the wealthy elite enjoys.

The individualistic politics of "checking your privilege" don't come out of struggle. They come out of the academy during a period of retreat for the left. They were born when the movements of the 1960s and '70s were on the decline. In search of substitutes to organized struggle at the collective level, much of the left came up with this type of lifestyle politics that could exist within the confines of neoliberal capitalism while posing no serous challenge to oppression beyond individual interactions.

The "personal is political" not only became a nice catchphrase, it also became the limit within which the left challenged inequality. We seem to have forgotten that the structural is also political. Oppression and exploitation were no longer seen as material realities that resulted from systematic origins. Rather, in the age of postmodernism, they were seen as born from bad ideas--and all we had to do was just educate others on their bad ideas.

It was a strategy of passivity. We witnessed a period where politics shifted away from open displays of urban rebellion, prison uprisings and revolutionary organization to a new politics that thought discourse alone was what changed our material conditions. While regulating discourse and interaction at the individual level still warrants attention and can be a crucial starting point, it can also become a dead end for those who refuse to look further at the material roots of reactionary ideas and oppression.

IN ORDER to truly transform ideas on a much grander scale, an effective strategy would instead require a collective struggle that takes aim at the pillars of a the capitalist system, which structurally reinforces racist, sexist and homophobic ideology. In the age of neoliberalism, growing inequality and a vehement right wing, the left needs a materialist outlook more than ever.

Furthermore, the idea of "checking class privilege" came during a time when understandings of class were beginning to change or rather...devolve. Ellen Meiksins Wood, a Marxist writer and scholar, writes of this development:

The leading academic fashions on the left, beginning with "post-Marxism" and culminating in postmodernism, seemed now to operate on the principle that, for better or worse, capitalism was the only viable option, and class struggle was no longer on the agenda. These fashions were well on the way in the late 1970s, developing more or less in parallel with the "New Right" and neoliberalism.

At a time when governments driven by neoliberal doctrine were pursuing open class war on behalf of capital against labor, the concept of class was in decline. In Britain, for instance, when Margaret Thatcher's government was waging its ruthless class war against workers, its rhetorical strategy was to deny the very existence of class...The new non-class warriors of the left effectively accepted the neoliberal construction of the social universe. Here, too, there was really no class or class politics, only a postmodern world where fragmentation, diversity and multiple "identities" had dissolved the old solidarities of class...

Those left intellectuals most disposed to give up the concept of class were also inclined to suggest that there was no longer any need to challenge capitalism as a systemic totality, because, in the new fragmented reality, there was no such thing as a capitalist system, if it had ever existed. There was now a tremendous expansion of "civil society," we were told, which vastly extended the range of individual choice. The way to fight neoliberal doctrines, evidently, was to concede their basic assumptions and try to beat them at their own rhetorical game.

Nico Lang and Keith Grubb seem to carry on new academic understandings of class that see the class divide along lines of income within a "classist" society, where the rich are simply treated better than the poor, and where the poor experience all kinds of stigma for their social position. It's a framework with a fundamentally different understanding of class than the one shared by most Marxists and many anarchists.

While we agree that the poor are stigmatized and that the rich are obviously treated better, my type of Marxism calls for us to dig further. It's an understanding that sees class society in constant conflict between two warring material interests that will never find any harmony under the capitalist order. It's also a social analysis that sees plunder, impoverishment, greed and parasitism as the results of material structures sewn deep into the fabric of capitalism, as opposed to them being mere products of bad moral character and a lack of empathy on the part of the wealthy elite.

Working-class commentator and writer Michael Zweig argues:

We need to change the understanding of class in the United States, going from the division of "rich and poor" to the division of "worker and capitalist"...Class must be understood in terms of power rather than income, wealth, or life style, although these do vary by class. Using power as the starting point allows us to see class as a dynamic relationship rather than as a static set of characteristics.

KARL MARX argued that the fundamental class divide under capitalism is between the capitalist rulers, defined as a class who control the factories and machines and resources used to produce wealth, and the workers, who need to sell their labor to the capitalists for wages. "In Marx's generalized analysis, the level of wages depends on what it takes to keep workers and their families (who represent the next generation of workers) alive and able to work--with their standard of living affected by the outcome of a class struggle between workers and capitalists," writes Gary Lapon, a Marxist and longtime activist.

In other words, class can't be simplified to different treatment and the "privilege" of being free from economic suffering alone. Class is also about power and ownership. It's about exploitation and the illegitimate theft of surplus wealth created by the labor of a working class.

It's also about the political possession of the state and being able to dictate policy to suit a certain class interest. It's about the direct relationship between higher profits for one class through the decrease in standards of living for another. It's a structural conflict of our society that permeates every institution, and it can't be defeated by mere appeal to the morals of wealthy individuals.

This understanding of class further tackles why calls for philanthropic solutions under capitalism is problematic. While Nico Lang writes about all the friendly rich people he's met, those of us in the exploited classes can't rely on their benevolence to liberate us from our condition. Sure, some plutocrats give back through charity, but I'm often reminded of the comedian Fran Lebowitz, who recently commented, "A lot of rich people are saying they want to give back. I say don't steal in the first place." Unfortunately, capitalism is systematic burglary.

Besides, studies have also shown that the rich donate marginally compared to those in the lower income strata. Consequently, the working class and poor are just shuffling around crumbs among themselves while wealth continues to accumulate upward towards the top. This low rate of donations is probably the result of a class position and a socialization that requires vitriolic selfishness and a lack of empathy towards other people beyond oneself--i.e., the typical upbringing of a capitalist.

To solve society's class problem is to abolish a class society altogether. Those who benefit from such a society will most likely defend it until the end. A struggle is needed. The means getting to a new world requires more militant approaches than those offered by Nico Lang and Kevin Grubb, and those typically taught in the sociology departments of expensive universities.

It also requires collective strength as opposed to solely micro-focusing on interactions and morals at the individual level alone. Let's be realistic, most of the ruling class won't give up what they own by us making appeals to their good character and altruistic sentiment. Struggle between the exploited and the exploiter will have to be constant, diligent, harsh and organized. Revolutionary aims must be put on the table.

There's a whole history of working-class radicalism that one can look to: workplace occupations, citywide strikes, street blockades and even violence between workers and company militias. Everything from Social Security to veterans' benefits to the weekend to the eight-hour workday is the fruit of such collective working-class militancy. Such things did not come from the wealthy "checking their privilege," they came from the collective strength and resilience of an exploited working class.

Rather than making appeals to the ruling class, hoping they will acknowledge what is denied to us, the entrance to a new age beyond inequality will only be accomplished when we acknowledge our own ability through both withholding our labor and exercising our numbers. As an alternative, perhaps we should start asking working people to check their power.

A version of this article was first published at Queer in Red.

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