Home > General Comment > Anarchism, Social Emancipation and Privilege Theory: A critique

Anarchism, Social Emancipation and Privilege Theory: A critique

TRIGGER WARNING: If you think your opinion is the only possible legitimate opinion on the subject of Privilege, you probably should stop reading this post now.

I grew up in a family that had a color line. One of my brother’s is relatively darker than the rest of us, and another of my brother’s is somewhat lighter than the average. Being typical children who can always find ways to taunt and humiliate our peers, we often called my fairer brother “honkie” — although, when my parents were in earshot, we called him “hink” — he still has that nickname today.

On the other hand, my grandmother, who was as fair as Hilary Clinton, and looked a lot like her, once called my brother and sister and myself “you little niggers”, when we pissed her off. I have a family member who has been challenged or otherwise assumed to be white in social situations that were awkward to say the least — for instance, in a room full of black women, who were discussing issues of relevance to black women, and once, when picking out a black doll for her daughter, when she was redirected to a white version of the same doll by a “well meaning” (read, “racist”) white woman.

Privilege theory is a crock

I say this to explain I come at the notion of “privilege” from a decidedly different perspective than many — not “valid”, “different”. Frankly, I am completely suspicious of the term, “privilege”, and think it is a crock. So, to be honest, I began reading “A Class Struggle Anarchist Analysis of Privilege Theory”, by the members of the Anarchist Federation’s Women’s Caucus with no illusions that I would agree with their fundamental argument. And my expectation was confirmed almost from the first sentence. The authors of this paper begin with an attempt to define the term, privilege:

“Privilege implies that wherever there is a system of oppression (such as capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity) there is an oppressed group and also a privileged group, who benefit from the oppressions that this system puts in place.”

The phrase, “system of oppression” is not defined by the authors, and enters the definition of privilege as an assumption we all know what they mean by the term. But, do we? Well, not so fast. The examples of a “system of oppression” include, capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, and heteronormativity. The problem with these examples of a “system of oppression” is that three of these forms of oppression aim at the actual exploitation of the labor of others, while one does not.

Capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy have as their aim the actual exploitation of some people by other people. On the other hand, patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, are commonly held individual prejudices that exist in society even apart from exploitation of the labor of others. By lumping all four into a single category, “system of oppression”, the writers are actually combining two (maybe more) different categories of social relations without demonstrating why they should all be combined under the single category “system of oppression”.

There are, of course, widely held individual prejudices within society, and there are also systems of exploitation and the two are often interrelated. Capitalism, for instance, rests on the exploitation of wage labor, but this exploitation is itself mediated by divisions within the working class itself. Capitalism as a system of exploitation naturally makes use of individual prejudice, since it leads to competition within the working class over who gets to sell their labor and who is condemned to the reserve army.

I want to emphasize, however, that by “makes use of individual prejudice”, I do not simply mean that the capitalist employs racial, national, religious, gender and other prejudices to divide the working class — although this is the acceptable, liberal, politically correct, way to make this argument. As a matter of historical accuracy, I must insist the capitalist did not invent these prejudices and divisions, they already exist as real prejudices and divisions within the working class. All the capitalist does is make use of them as they naturally occur in society. Which is to say, the capitalist exploits the fact that the working class, as a collection of individuals engaged in competition, use every competitive advantage they find already in existence in their struggle against other members of their class to sell their labor power.

The working class are not angels — quite the contrary, when your next meal depends on getting that job, another worker is your enemy as much, and even more so, than the capitalist; the next guy is trying to keep food out of the mouths of your kids. So after the overthrow of slavery, at the insistence of the free white laborers of the South, black labor was prevented from competing with white labor in the South with the passing of the black codes. So when black people escaped the filthy conditions of the segregated South, they were greeted by white working class faces carrying torches and lynching ropes in every industrial area they fled to. They had, in many cases, unknowingly been recruited to break strikes in the North. If you want to know why Indiana today is reliably conservative, all you need do is look to the black exodus and the legacy of murderous outrages practiced there against black migrants.

Competitive advantages are not passively enjoyed

The writers argue privilege can be a completely passive benefit bestowed on its recipient:

“The privileged group do not have to be active supporters of the system of oppression, or even aware of it, in order to benefit from it.”

I think this is complete nonsense and I want to call this bullshit out. I think we should assume the opposite: every time a person has a competitive advantage, she has every incentive to take advantage of it. We are, after all, speaking of forces that determine someone’s entire life. Rather than assuming everyone is naively unaware of their competitive advantages, the very existence of these advantages presuppose people are commonly aware of them. Unlike the writers, I do not assume folks passively enjoy advantages arising from their race, gender, nationality, etc., but actually exploit those advantages to get what they need.

We need to pull the covers off that taboo subject within the movement from the beginning. I don’t think there is anyone who turned down a job, because he felt he got it because the hiring manager went to the same school or hailed from the same ethnic group. You throw people into an environment of universal, all-sided, competition, and what do you expect? Quakers? Liberals? People don’t benefit from their advantages by reason of being seen as the norm, they exploit their advantages. The writers here haven’t a clue how shit works in the real world.

Laws that are selectively enforced against black men were designed to work that way. They were meant to round up hundreds of thousands of young black men and incarcerate them en masse. When the fucking laws were written, the authors pictured black male faces bent over the front of a cop car, handcuffed from behind. In fact, if you remove black and Hispanic prisoners from the total number of prisoners, American incarceration rates are not that different than other advanced nations — the numbers incarcerated are still higher, but not grossly higher than the UK. The difference between the US and UK incarceration rates could be explained as a form of collateral damage.

But this is all beside the point since anarchists are against the state, aren’t they? Does the higher rates of incarceration for young black men in the present society suggest that if the state is abolished there will still be a higher rate of incarceration? The higher rate of incarceration of young black males suggest white supremacy and the systematic subjugation of black folks by white folks is at work, but without the state what becomes of this “system of oppression”? How does it express itself without the police, courts and prisons? How does it express itself in the absence of competition to sell one’s labor power?

Racism certainly doesn’t go away, but really, who gives a fuck? You can be as damned racist as you want to be. As long as it does not affect me, I could give a shit. Oddly enough, the writers agree that prejudice requires material advantages and means to be effective:

“It makes sense that where there is an oppressed group, there is a privileged group, because systems of oppression wouldn’t last long if nobody benefited from them.”

In other words, although each of these commonly held social prejudices do not owe their existence to capitalism, they would provide no material benefit to anyone with the abolition of capitalist competition and the state. Since in a society founded on voluntary association, no one can be compelled to associate with anyone else, I would guess all the racists and homophobes will still likely hang out in their own circles — but really, would you have it any other way? They will all be able to sit and talk about how wonderfully white and straight they are, and leave the rest of us the fuck alone.

If you don’t like racists getting together to congratulate themselves on how white they each are, tough shit. There ain’t shit you can do about it since you no longer have a state, and you can’t impose economic sanctions on them through you control over the total social capital. You have no more power to dominate them than they have to impose their vile racist shit on you.

That is the future, but what about now? What about the next union meeting with the guy who beats his wife, or called the boy down the street “nigger’ or “fag”? And what about the guy who never beat his wife or called anyone “nigger” or “fag”; but is still a straight white male? What do we do about that motherfucking “privileged” assed white boy — should we kill him? Should we fuck him up? There he is walking around the union meeting all “privileged up” in his own world, completely blind to the very real disadvantages his fellow workers suffer in the workplace and in society generally.

When he asks the union to endorse Obama, clearly this is because the only fucking thing going through his self-absorbed thinking process is how great Obamacare will be for his kids, and it never occurs to him that that fucker in the White House, who pushed this idea into law, is also systematically killing folks without due process all over the world and is handing out trillions to the wealthiest members of society. He has no idea that he is “privileged” to not be a “bug splat” in Pakistan because he is a greedy grasping Obama supporter in America, only concerned with getting his — he is fucking clueless.

In fact, tell him about his “privilege”, and he is likely to tell you he supports “Our President and our troops”. The fact that our “privileged” straight white male worker supports the president killing kids in Afghanistan doesn’t mean he is unaware of his privileges, or even that he only passively enjoys them — it could even be that he was an active participant in the murderous outrages ordered by that war criminal in the White House. We could even suppose this “privileged” motherfucker joined the marines and has murdered innocent people for six years before joining the union — and he is proud of that, between bouts of PTSD.

Your tiny anarchist circle is not “the revolution”

How do we handle this? Do we tell him he is not allowed at future union meetings? Really, this is not just a question of someone not accepting you as gay or black or a woman, etc. As the writers note, this “privilege” does not make that worker any less exploited by capitalism. In any case, he belongs to the union, not your insular little fucking anarchist sects. You can tell people to “check their privileges at the door”, when it is just you and five activist friends (plus the cop informant who is there to spy on radicals, but can’t stop hitting on all the lesbians in the group and making racist jokes). Since it is your tiny little isolated meaningless circle-jerk of idealistic young radicals (plus one cop informant), you can set whatever silly fucking rules you want.

But, please, don’t confuse your insignificant fucking tiny anarchist tea party with “The Revolution”.

Next, the writers address several objections to the concept of privilege. First, they try to explain why it makes sense to describe people as privileged for possessing individual attributes that are mere accidents of birth? Here is their answer to this objection:

“If you dislike the term but agree with the concept, then it would show practical solidarity to leave your personal discomfort out of the argument, accept that the terminology has been chosen, and start using the same term as those at the forefront of these struggles.”

Ha! I was born “colored”, grew up a “negro”, declared myself “black”, and now am routinely referred to as an “African-American” or a that dog whistle term “minority”. Black people change their self-description more than most people change their underwear. Fine, call people what they want to be called — this falls under the heading of not being rude. But by the same token, since the social revolution has no other aim than to free the individual from external compulsions, we are all in the “forefront” of our own struggle for individual emancipation — and I don’t like the fucking term “privileged”.

The second objection the writers address is that the term privilege turns the absence of something into a positive description.

“You could say that not facing systematic prejudice for your skin colour isn’t a privilege, it’s how things should be for everyone. To face racism is the aberration. To not face it should be the default experience.”

Their answer to this objection is silly, at best:

“The problem is, if not experiencing oppression is the default experience, then experiencing the oppression puts you outside the default experience, in a special category, which in turn makes a lot of the oppression invisible.”

Really? Racism is invisible to whom? Me? Or the fucker whose nose I just broke because of his inappropriate joke, “So, an Irishman, a Jew and a black guy go into a bar…”? To say your racist attitudes is invisible to you does not imply you will not be compelled to face your racism by me or any black person.

The writers also make the specious argument that there is a practical advantage provided by privilege theory:

“Privilege theory is systematic. It explains why removing prejudice and discrimination isn’t enough to remove oppression.”

But who is talking about removing prejudice? Do we really expect the present society to pass away only after everyone has been rehabilitated and cleansed of their prejudices? Another way to put this is, why do I have to wait until you stop being racist, or do you have to wait until I stop being homophobic, for both of us to be freed from the competition within which your racism and my homophobia is materially expressed? Frankly, if you tell me I have to wait until racism is expunged from society before capitalism and the state is overthrown, I am likely to tell you to fuck off.

Privilege can survive capitalism?

Next, the authors argue because these “systems of oppression” preceded capitalism, they can survive capitalism:

“Patriarchy, in particular, existed long before modern industrial capitalism and, there’s evidence to suggest, before the invention of money itself, and it’s not difficult to imagine a post-capitalist society in which oppressive gender roles still hold true.”

Really this is quite a bold statement and deserve more than a passing mention. It is akin to the dumb arguments of Moishe Postone or Robert Kurz that capitalism can collapse and leave the state intact. Capitalism is a totalizing social relation that commodifies every pre-existing relationship. It is not just patriarchy that predates capitalism, the state, money, labor, property, world trade, religion — even the proletariat itself — all existed before capitalism and do not owe their existence to capitalism. Where capitalism differs from all these older forms is not that it gives rise to them, but that it subjugates them to the same imperative: the logic of capitalist self-expansion.

All of these pre-existing relations are reconstituted on a capitalistic basis — the state is not simply taken over by capital, but is converted into the manager of the total social capital. The argument “that other oppressions won’t melt away ‘after the revolution'”, cannot be simply asserted, but must be demonstrated by examining the “laws” that govern these other oppressions, identifying what of them must survive capitalism’s demise. You cannot just simply assert white supremacy can survive capitalism, you have to demonstrate theoretically that this survival is both possible and necessary, i.e., how the material form white supremacy takes is transformed by the demise of capitalism.

The writers argue that privilege theory allows us to understand how “systems of oppression” affect each other within the sum of social relations, providing a more nuanced understanding of oppression within society:

“Kyriarchy allows us to get away from the primacy of class while keeping it very much in the picture. Just as sexism and racism divide class struggle, capitalism and racism divide gender struggles, and sexism and capitalism divide race struggles. All systems of oppression divide the struggles against all the other systems that they intersect with.”

This assertion appears more convincing than it actually is. I cannot find a single person who argues that in the absence of men (if that were possible) women would oppress themselves as women, or, in the absence of white folks, black folk would oppress themselves as blacks. However, it is quite possible, even in the absence of the capitalist class, for the working class to act as its own capitalist. It is called fascism. Even without a capitalist class that controls capitalist property, the working class in this society still manages to exploit itself through its own democratic state. While this property is legally recognized as owned by the capitalist class, control is entirely in the hands of officials elected by the working class. The fascist state is essentially capitalism without a capitalist class.

The totalizing character of capitalism implies not simply that patriarchy and white supremacy becomes forms of capitalist relations and nothing more, but even that the working class’s own political rule as a class is a specifically capitalist rule. Moreover, patriarchy is not simply left as the routine exploitation by a man of his wife’s labor, that relation itself is commodified, so the woman too can be dragged into the market for labor power. Children are dumped in warehouses call “schools” that are little more than preparation for a life of labor or prison. Capitalism takes all preexisting categories and reconstitutes them on an entirely capitalistic basis. Not to understand this is to miss the significance of the entire capitalist epoch.

How privilege theory balkanizes the struggle

However, the writers really show the fallacy underlying privilege theory when they try to explain the need for separate organizations of “the oppressed”:

“In the AF, we already acknowledge in our Aims and Principles the necessity of autonomous struggle for people in oppressed groups; but rather than analyse why this is necessary, we only warn against cross-class alliances within their struggles. The unspoken reason why it is necessary for them to organise independently is privilege. Any reason you can think of why it might be necessary, is down to privilege: the possible presence of abusers, the potential of experiences of oppression being misunderstood, mistrusted, dismissed, or requiring a huge amount of explanation before they are accepted and the meeting can move onto actions around them, even internalised feelings of inferiority are triggered by our own awareness of the presence of members of the privileged group. This may not be their fault, but it is due to the existence of systems that privilege them. The reason we need to organise autonomously is that we need to be free of the presence of privilege to speak freely. After speaking freely, we can identify and work to change the conditions that prevented us from doing so before – breaking down the influence of those systems on ourselves and lessening the privilege of others in their relations with us – but the speaking freely has to come first.”

Frankly, I am not sure how this will work, since, previously, the writers note:

“To say that somebody has white privilege isn’t to suggest that they can’t also have a whole host of other oppressions. To say that somebody suffers oppression by patriarchy doesn’t mean they can’t also have a lot of other privileges.”

So how then is it possible to have an organization of anyone that is free of “privileged” folks that just might not “trigger” someone? This silly shit is nothing more than a call for an ever more divided movement, balkanized along every possible “trigger” point imaginable. Moreover the logic of this srgument calls for precisely those who are most aware of the impact “privileges” have on those who don’t have them to withdraw from the movement at large and confine their activity in small, balkanized, isolated, “privilege-free” circles where they can somehow avoid all the impurities of “privilege” operating outside the circle. I think the writers need to go back and figure another approach to what is clearly a troubling problem within the anarchism movement.

  1. Chris Wright
    October 30, 2012 at 11:41 am

    This stuff is highly influenced by the now-defunct Race Traitor and more importantly these days, the liberal asshole Tim Wise. That it comes out of a different history, however, is not unimportant.

    The origins of this stuff was in the social struggles of the 1960’s and early 1970’s with groups like Sojourner Truth, who were trying to figure out how to relate to groups like The League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the RUM groups, where autonomy was not something ST demanded for so-called minorities, but was asserted in practice by groups that nonetheless wanted to engage in practical solidarity in actions. The problem is that those conditions are gone and a contingent political assessment has been raised into a wonderful bit of “principled” bullshit.

    There are several obvious problems with this stuff:
    – People who write stuff like this seem to have no contact with people not like them. It seems fantastically incestuous and also patronizing.
    – The people who write this stuff are making decisions for oppressed people, but in saying this even, it ignores the fact that oppression also weakens the oppressor who is exploited\dominated by capital, e.g. wherever racism has been strongest traditionally even the wages and benefits of “privileged” groups are lower and working and living conditions worse.
    – The organizations defending this “necessary” autonomous organization are in fact demanding segregated organizations.
    – On the other side, it also usually involves a complete disarmament in respect to “oppressed people’s” nationalism, that is, the patrolling of the boundaries of “communities” by those rancid middle classes who would happily keep control over “their own kind”.
    – This kind of stuff reinforces racialization, gendering, sexualizing, etc. It wants to put people in neat little boxes, the comfortable and insane binaries of capitalist logic.

    On that point, I don’t agree with the use of the term “natural”, though they do in some form pre-exist capitalism and are real divisions in capitalist society. There is nothing natural about race, it has no meaningful biological existence. Sexuality is so plastic it isn’t even funny. With both, there are so many possible shades from one end of the spectrum to the other that it collapses on the closest inspection. Even gender, the division of humanity by the function of our reproductive organs, is only meaningful where that separation is tied to reproduction as the production of heirs of property and divisions of labor.

    Capitalism transforms these pre-existing forms of oppression. Just as technically the state pre-exists capitalism, so too the state and the political become something completely different under capitalism as they achieves the appearance of autonomy from any group of individuals (class). So too these other forms of oppression are really objectivized and made to seem autonomous and transcendent. However, they are anything but and as we know them are wholly structured by capital, sublated if I may say so.

    I think you have a lot of this in mind, I just wanted to try and make this explicit and then see what you think.

  2. Brian Gallagher
    November 6, 2012 at 12:44 am

    Ross Wolfe asks himself a great question (Q. #4) in his latest post. http://rosswolfe.wordpress.com/

    “4. What does it mean to interpret the world without being able to change it?

    Why do the most sophisticated leftist understandings of the world appear unable to assist in the task of changing it? Conversely, can the world be thought intelligible without our capacity to self-consciously transform it through practice?

    Can society — the capitalist social formation — be understood as an entirely objective phenomenon, without ever producing a subject capable of intervening in its processes? Does capitalism still make sense as a pure “structure” or system devoid of human agency?

    Can Marxism survive as an economics or social theory without politics? Does it continue to exist as simply one “lens” or “perspective” amongst others? Should the intractability of the current social, political, and economic crisis not result in a crisis within Marxian economics or social theory as a discipline?”

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