The poverty of privilege politics

In this text from September 2012 the authors argue that privilege politics may not lead us towards a revolutionary perspective.

Privilege. Now there’s a word we are hearing a lot. The concept and finger-pointing of privilege is coming to increasingly concern us as a problem and a poor semblance within the alternative left. We feel not only embarrassed by the simplicity of this undisclosed and undefined overarching theory but concerned that it further leads a stagnant movement down more dire dead ends. And yet our disquiet is not because we believe interpersonal politics are less worthy of our attention, nor because we are without awareness and rage about the oppressive power structures within our lives and political milieus. We do not believe that these are minor details that can wait til after the revolution. Whilst we are currently organising what is suspiciously like a women’s consciousness raising group, we dismiss those laughable and cringeworthy lists that have gone viral in the social networking world. These might appear as conflicting positions, but as we hope to explain, we do not find them so.

As mentioned, we are confronted with endless lists asking us to ‘Check our Privilege.’ We have encountered the ‘heterosexual privilege checklist” the “cis privilege checklist” and the “able bodied checklist.” (examples of these checklists are included at the end of the article- the Eds.) We think you get the picture? Soon we will be carrying around score cards wishing to be the most victimised person in the world. This sort of privilege scorekeeping is tallied in our everyday encounters but most often called out in a certain political context, such as a political meeting, discussion or lecture. We now are presented with the ‘manarchist’ who uses his male privilege taking up space in meetings. Taking up space is not seen as only about the amount a person of privilege speaks but often the language used. We see a growth in these subcultural movements in the UK of an adherence to a new political language and analysis with a centrality of privilege as an overarching ideology. We find an anti-intellectualism where both theorising and militancy are seen as a privilege in and of themselves, as if acting on the front line as WELL as analysis are only weapons of the oppressive rather than weapons of the oppressed. We find this dangerous because it evokes that the most ‘oppressed’ are helpless and weak, encourages a lack of activity and analysis away from ‘make do and mend’ circles, and further rarefies the notion of resistance.

Another vagary is the self-flagellating groups emerging that prop up a culture of shame. For example, recent workshops have emerged under the theme of ‘Men dealing with their patriarchal shit.’ Whilst we want individuals to examine, analyse and challenge their own behaviour in political terms these punkier than thou equal ops sessions reinforce the holier than thou attitude of the attendees….and the ones who could do with it rammed down their hairy throats wouldn’t dream of attending. These examples of new emerging themes demonstrate that on one side of the coin you have a points based oppression outlook (we’ve made the complexities of power into a handy ticklist for you!) and on the other you have individualised guilt and self- victimisation (which is another way of re-focusing on the ‘more privileged’ ironically). This focus on the individual and self as the problem is a product of privilege leading us nowhere. It’s a dead end. We feel 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.

So how then do we divide these concepts so we neither become a self parodying shell of victim politics nor replicate the power structures we seek to destroy? How does this differ from an analysis of power? Does it permit spaces for movement and resistance? Or does it revert back to the activist quagmire of guilt, shame and stagnation? These are questions that should be discussed within our wider political groups.

We recognise the well meaningness of checking your privilege. We too understand that people are silenced not just as individuals but due to identities. However, we perceive wrong footed attempts to right this balance. In meetings we witness call outs where someone will announce that six men have spoken and no women. This is an attempt to expose the hidden subtleties of patriarchy and male dominance, and to empower women. We have never seen this work to readdress power relations. This call of male privilege may serve to quieten the six men who have spoken, but it does not give more voice to the silenced. More awkwardly, it is often uncomfortable for the women in the group who may feel, as we do in this scenario, an obligation to speak, but with it comes an unnatural sense of representation. The opposite usually takes place; a silencing of people rather than the growth of new conversations. One that is forced, fake and full of disdain. Whilst the next person, woman, is to speak but feels an artificial pressure of representation that we are supposed to be speaking on behalf of all women, from an identity as ‘woman’, and only as ‘woman’. And when we, or she, speaks, it is of course as a woman within patriarchy and to a room where she is being observed and judged by the six men who have spoken, under a political male gaze. Because of these things, and more, we do not see these clumsy attempts moving any steps toward challenging sexist oppression. To do that we need first to acknowledge intersectionality of power, history and privilege. With a singular identification of privilege we reduce the myriad of power relations within the group to a straightforward visible one. We don’t want a politics that reduces and simplifies power into an ideology of privilege. Intersectionalities of power, oppression and privilege need to be examined mixed with relations of capital. Analysing and pinpointing privilege to an obsessive extent in political circles can be demobilising as well as futile. But most damaging of all, these performances of privilege call out, mislead us into believing that challenging patriarchy within our interpersonal relations occurs within the formalities of a meeting and it is who speaks rather than what they say.

Because ultimately, it is not woman’s voice we should be seeking but feminist voice. A feminist voice is not one based on identity but rather on a shared transformative politics. A feminist voice is a stance rather than a given. As bell hooks reminds us; feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. We suggest this will often be best realised through those most facing sexist oppression but also we are vigilant to note that not all oppressed are resisting, subverting or fighting this oppression, nor are those who seem to benefit in ways from it always or automatically in alignment with the oppressive forces. So where does that leave identity and privilege in the struggle for freedoms? Understanding politics through the lens of privilege is intrinsically entangled with identity politics. And, for reasons stated, we find identity politics a monolithic and restrictive way to understand the world. We are our identities but we are never just one identity, we are a complexity of them. And identities do not line up in a straightforward ABC of oppression, no matter how much the privilegists want them to. This just falls into binaries that we are attempting to escape from, or creates more. The queer movement challenges the notions of “men” and “women” yet seems to be opting instead for “cis” or “trans” giving new permanence and boundaries to our gender. This is not to downplay the struggles but we believe that these fixed linear positions are not just unhelpful but often false. Cis gender may not seem intrinsically a privilege to the women killed by domestic violence or childbirth. Nor male privilege to a gay Ugandan. The relationality of power has to be optimistically understood if we are to move beyond an idle determinism and singular identity code. But, also, to resist we must understand our power; the strength in our collective power rather than this frugal analysis of power where privilege divides us into mundane categories of oppression. We need to galvanise on our power as a class, as this class being fucked over by capital within all it’s facets of everyday life. Rather than creating new prisons and new boxes to further tear ourselves to pieces within, we need to analyse and act with fluidity and creativity in terms of our intersectional identities in the kitchens, the bedrooms, the meeting spaces, the pubs and in the streets we demand to occupy.

Privilege Checklists:

Tabitha Bast and Hannah McClure are engaged in the following crimes of passion; mostly together, but some as singular adventures – the Space Project (a radical education Space), as writers (latest article in “Occupy Everything: Reflections on Why its Kicking Off Everywhere), New Weapons Reading Group, various Queer ventures, Plan C, Footprint Worker’s Co-operative, working with domestic violence perpetrators, parenting, and general Leeds/Redhills based agitation.