Those great Danes

The love Bernie Sanders and his coterie of propagandists have for Denmark is disgusting in its selectivity. They have lots to say about the country’s generous social benefits but nothing to say about who gets to receive them or how the polity’s access to them is protected.

Denmark was the first European country to close its borders this summer and instituted strict new asylum laws specifically for people that were fleeing the brutality in Syria, Eritrea, and other places. The government even placed advertisements in newspapers in Middle East newspapers discouraging people from migrating there because their families would not be able to join them and because there would be a four-year wait before they would be issued even a temporary residency permit. Bernie’s social-democratic paradise was called the Hungary of the north for good reason, except that it was probably even worse: at least Hungary allowed, at intervals, migrants to travel through; Denmark’s policy this summer was to detain and deport.

The government that instituted these emergency measures was the recently elected rightist Venstre party, but they were mostly an extension of the logic of citizenship-based policies instituted by the Social Democrats, which controlled the previous government and admitted that it had to tightly control immigration in order to protect the welfare state.

The Social Democrats saddled the migrants that are able to stay with the strictest requirements in the EU: migrants must marry someone with citizenship to a EU country; migrants earn points toward citizenship by showing they’re serious about linguistic and cultural assimilation through active labor force and civic participation, by being tested on their knowledge of Danish history and culture, and by attaining advanced educational degrees, and those who came from certain places (EU and Nordic countries) are awarded more points than those that came from other countries; the state instituted a nine-year waiting period before a permanent residency permit would be issued, and longer even for full citizenship; and those that need to access social services first have to place 13,000 euros into escrow.

None of this is to even make the argument that social-democracy is inherently racist. But if people are going to lionize the Danes, it’s worth pointing out that even by the country’s own estimation, the continuation of those social benefits and the happiness they create entails a managed cultural homogeneity and universal acceptance of the nation’s communitarian principles. Not even those fleeing war, famine, and climate change can be exempted from those requirements.

On the other hand, Bernie and his fans — the guy who called open borders a “Koch brothers proposal” and blames migrants from driving down wages — are not being selective when they ignore all this. Maybe they just don’t care.

Triggering

What if the demands for trigger warnings aren’t expressions of revulsion at what is but an anticipation and warding off of what could be? Of course they can be and are both. But the accepted assumption that they are indicators of an almost-puritanical aversion to risk misses that they are as much oriented to the future as they are to past trauma and that, in their blithe dismissal of institutional protocol and hierarchy, they exhibit a utopianism that’s about more than just rejection and self-protection. The act of demanding is more akin to workers who move to obtain some degree of control of their workplace, a completely appropriate response to students’ position in the contemporary university.

Of course trigger warnings — under which I’m also including safe spaces and the like — have a conservatizing element. But everything that’s recognizable is conservative — ordered/ordering, formed/forming — in some ways. The more interesting questions are about how things are conserved, who decides how they are ordered, and how the burden of risk is distributed. Those are the questions that the demands for trigger warnings are forcing, and it’s not surprising that the people who seem to be reacting most strongly against their being raised are academics, aspiring and established, who were promised full control of their workplace environment. These academics often present their objections as a radical embrace of risk, experimentation, and unbounded learning, but the idea that students should be empty receptacles for professors’ presentation of an already-formed canon is itself highly conservative, based as it is on institutional hierarchy, credentialed mastery of subject matter, and a lot of other accepted truths about how an education should be achieved.

It’s no coincidence that these issues and antagonisms seem to have become acute as more people, and more different kinds of people, pursue higher education than ever have before. For most of the history of universities, until the last 40 years, say, the people allowed to attend them was highly circumscribed — monied (or those who had proved their merit), white, and male, by and large. There was no need for content warnings because the community was already defined. The university was, in other words, its own kind of safe space. 

The challenge presented by trigger warnings and safe spaces is that those who demand them want to redefine that space for themselves. This will probably inspire some conservative fortifications and violent exclusions, and those should be criticized and defeated. But there is nothing inherently conservative about people attempting to define the space they want to occupy, just as there is nothing politically radical about defending institutions and processes that structurally obstruct those attempts.

The Greek referendum

What percentage of Greeks are actually in support of the text of today’s referendum? Five percent? Ten percent? Shipping magnates, no doubt, probably a wider swath of the upper classes. And that’s it, because everyone else would be (further) impoverished by the Troika’s latest proposal (which, it bears repeating, is more or less the same proposal the antiausterity government led by Syriza submitted a few weeks before the current impasse). Greeks already voted no on the specific questions in the referendum when they elected Syriza in January.

So what is the point of the referendum if not to vote on a proposal that no one supports? The government has been consistently dodgy about that. It seems to want to intimate that a No would eventually lead to an exit from the euro, but publicly it says that a No would lead to the immediate resumption of negotiations. That happens to be the same result as a Yes vote would lead to, which literally makes the vote meaningless. I can’t decide if this is tragedy, farce, or absurdism.

Given the inconsequentiality — or at best the indeterminacy — of the results, the main thing the referendum seems designed to do is fortify the government’s position in both its dealings with the Troika and as administrator of the state. This is Syriza acting as most institutions do, ensuring its own survival. But it’s doing more than that: in its chosen form, the referendum, and in its rhetoric, the party and its supporters are redrawing the lines of the political in ways that substantially trace the lines of the national.

First, the referendum. Balibar and his crew hope that a No vote will convince Europe to “restate” is commitment to equality, justice, and solidarity. But Europe’s institutions have repeatedly ignored those principles and committed themselves instead to fiscal rules and contractual conditions. Similarly, Greece’s European cohabitants, especially those in Germany but also in most other countries, have made it clear they support the institutions’ strict approach. European transnational politics are long dead, and they were killed as much by Europeans’ rejection of solidarity as much as they were by their institutions’ insistence on austerity.

Not that Greeks should have just accepted those realities. But the fact that the country’s ruling party, whose victory is attributable to a substantial degree on its ability to tame and redirect Greece’s social movements to electoral ends, decided that protesting them would happen through referendum should raise more questions than it has. Does it really signal a recommitment to European Enlightenment values — every one of those words makes me want to vomit — when the people polled are the eligible citizens of one small nation at the periphery of Europe? For Europhilic Marxist intellectuals, the answer seems to be yes. The trans-European subject will be (re)created by newly (re)nationalized subjects.

And it’s not just the difference between national citizens and non-nationals that Syriza and its fans think is irrelevant; they also ignore or erase the differences within the national. In an article that unambiguously chest-thumps for No, a left Syrizan notes “that it is only among pensioners and housewives that ‘yes’ leads or is close to majority support.”

Pensioners and housewives are absolutely right to be leery of a No that could lead to an exit from the euro. Who is likely to be most affected by a renationalized Greek state and economy but the “nonproductive” elements of society? This is true if Syriza and their right-nationalist coalition partners stay in power, and even more so if another, more Golden Dawn-influenced, or military, government takes control. The EU-dictated austerity will be brutal for them, but at least they will know their position to a more predictable degree, and the link to the EU could provide them some protection from the ravages of rightwing nationalist maniacs, or the military, taking power. For outsiders and Syriza academics with posh positions in UK and US universities, there’s not much consequence in saying No, just as there are good reasons for ignoring differences in people’s positions within the national hierarchy. For people who have to live through the consequences, things are quite a bit different, and for pensioners and housewives there is nothing irrational about fearing the worst with renationalization.

For a lot of commentators, though, it is the return to old lines of decision that makes Syriza’s gamble so “democratic.” In the strict sense, they are right in that the referendum is designed to express the power (kratos) of a national people (demos). But that’s not how they mean it: they see it as a bold, radical move licensing free political decision in solidarity with the rest of the world, without acknowledging that the referendum form is the expression of an already existent people, and not even something as meager as a people-to-come. That’s why “democracy” has so often been paired with “national sovereignty” and/or “dignity.”

Some people writing on Greece have raised the issue of nationalism, but for them it is something perpetrated by the Troika’s “supporting [of] the traumatic, nationalist narrative in Greece by actively attempting to undermine and destroy the internationalist, democratic alternative.” But Syriza’s modifications of its program since 2010 — detailed by TPTG — have also played a role in shifting the ground of politics from internationalism and class to nationalism. In particular, in its accepting of and being willing to negotiate further drastic cuts in social investment and pensions and increases in value-added taxes, Syriza has helped flatten the country’s class differences and created something like a homogenous national body politic. This deflation of antagonism has been so thorough that in the runup to the vote, outsiders have expressed solidarity with “Greece” but very rarely with pensioners, unemployed youth, women, queers, migrants, and the like.

None of this is to actually argue against a No vote. I’d like a big, fat fuck-you to the Troika as much as anybody. But since Greeks will not be any more in control of their political existences after the vote, and given the costs to achieve even the choice to say no, the victory will be a Pyrrhic one.

On militarization

The consensus critical diagnosis of the police response to the protests that have followed Michael Brown’s killing seems to be that the violence is a result of the fact that local police forces having become overly militarized. Leftists swear by such an analysis, at least two United States senators have agreed with it, as have local politicians, and The New York Times was even prompted to create a map showing how “ubiquitous” the flow of weaponry and transport from the Defense Department to municipal police. That there has been an increased use of military hardware isn’t a surprise to anyone who tracks police activities — including especially the communities who are subjected to their daily depredations — but it’s at least encouraging to see objections to police activity that target material/structural practices and don’t chalk up the events in Ferguson to the work of a few bad cops. It’s good to see liberals pissed off and conservatives quiet.

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As an explanation for why police kill a black person every day or of how entire populations have become almost exclusively juridical subjects, however, the militarization thesis says very little. This isn’t to deny that there has been a massive increase in the number or power of the weapons that cops have to play with or to claim that those weapons aren’t, in their moments of deployment, frightening or effective at achieving political ends. But the militarization analytic places too much emphasis on technology. Cops are not murderous guardians of the state because they have big weapons — they are murderous guardians of the state who possess big weapons to fulfill their duties. It is similar to complaints about the militarization of the border, as if borders wouldn’t be zones of violence and national fortification without the high-powered weaponry and large numbers of guards. The police were highly effective at their functions of marking and disciplining long before the Defense Department started gifting departments technology and will continue to be even if Claire McCaskill and Rand Paul get their way.

“Machines are social before being technical.”

It makes more sense, I think, to analyze the specific social situations into which those elements of militarization are being inserted, and the prevalent social framework for police-community relations over the last two decades has been the broken-windows/community-policing model, in which the police attempt to conduct the conduct of individuals, especially individuals in supposed crime-disposed communities. Under the theory that petty acts of lawbreaking such as turnstile jumping or jaywalking are contagious and lead to bigger crimes and even to a “criminal lifestyle,” the practice of community policing aggressively interdicts at the level of quotidian behavior. In Ferguson, when Darren Wilson told Michael Brown to get the fuck on the sidewalk, he wasn’t (just) expressing the rage of a racist, entitled cop but enacting the theory underlying community policing, that managing the micro movements of certain subjects is the foundation of the fight against criminality.

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The same motivation guided the Ferguson police’s response to the protests against Brown’s killing. The protestors’ so-called rioting consisted mostly of directionless marching through streets and obstructing traffic, but it was this mildly disruptive presence and micro disobedience — as opposed to, say, gathering at city hall for some speeches, a few chants, and an established march — that triggered the police’s instinct to contain the protestors and direct their activities. This took the form of acting to block streets from marching protestors and keeping public and semipublic spaces clear of their presence. And that’s when the “militarized” hardware and techniques were deployed: snipers, riot gear, armored transport, the no-fly zone, etc. But those elements were not the cause of the police’s response — they were the means for attempting to conduct the actions of the protestors, to discipline the population they represented, and to regulate the behavior of bodies that were already criminal.

Wildness

We become so accustomed to plunging into Ancient Greece to seek the cradle of civilization that it probably seems strange to evoke a Greek comedy writer living twenty-five centuries ago to introduce the wild man, the counterpart of civility. Only fragments have survived of Pherecrates’ work, some of which form part of The Wild Men (Agrioi) performed during the Laenian festivals in A.D. 420. This comedy tells about two Athenian misanthropists who flee the corruption of the city in search of wild ways of living untarnished by the spoils of the polis. The surviving fragments of this work do not reveal whether the wild men among whom the Athenians found refuge were some barbarian tribe on the periphery of the Greek world or a group eloping from the rich Greek mythological ethnography occupied by imaginary wild figures. This comedy should be contextualized within the tragic crisis of Pericles’ democratic city at the close of the fifth century A.D. By satirizing those wishing to return to the nature’s fold, Pherecrates was defending the democratic polis. — Wild Men in the Looking Glass: The Mythic Origins of European Otherness, Roger Bartra

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Bartra goes on to say that for the Greeks and the Romans, the wild man always existed as part of the polity, though obviously at the margins of it, usually by choice, not force. Wild men — personified grotesquely as centaurs, cyclops, and the like — physically inhabited the uninhabitable, frontier spaces of the Greek and Roman worlds: the caves and forests that acted both as protection and as camouflage for wild men’s depredations. In so doing, they refused the plains that provided agriculture, the hills that were the site of shepherding, and the waterways that made possible transport and communication. But wherever the dwelled geographically, the wild men lived everywhere, not so much as an ever-looming threat as a constant virtuality that stalked the polis.

The wild man, in other words, was not a foreigner or a barbarian. Those figures “constituted a threat to society in general,” while “the wild man represented a threat to the individual.” Foreigners and barbarians were menaces that were interested in usurpation and conquest of the state; they could be countered militarily or diplomatically. Wild men, on the other hand, could introduce mutations and contagions into the polity; they threatened to upset the internal balance in unpredictable and uncontrolled ways .

Does any of this sound familiar? The inhabitants of the bestiary have changed, but their discursive role has not: They are still the marginal figures whose desistance from established polities, and even from civilization itself, poses an internal threat to established oppositional politics. The internal becomes important, because no one is reactionary enough to exclude their struggles, but now that they are included, their politics threaten to upset the balance and the unity of the One, of the master struggle. So antisexists transmogrify into vampires, trans folk into language trolls, and antiracists into bullies. In the time of biopolitics, the metaphors get extended to the epidemiological: Twitter feminism is toxic, and intersectionalism is a symptom of the left’s decline. (I won’t honor any of these sources with a link.)

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The dangers of the wild man extend beyond racial and sexual politics. DREAM activists raise the specter of the undocumented, those rightsless noncitizens whose wildness threatens the nation’s solidity and universality. During Occupy, pro-organization, pro-party activists criticized the anti-demand elements, particularly those that rejected the call for full employment and equal representation, as dirty anarchoids and prefigurists who ignored the left’s tradition of progressive struggle. And so on.

What, ultimately, are these critics of wildness defending? I think it’s exactly what Bartra names above: the democratic polis. The struggles of the contemporary wild men are secondary to the demands of defending the established political bodies.

Egypt’s new constitution

Jadaliyya has an analysis of the draft Egyptian constitution that passed today with a comically high popular vote. But as with the vote thirteen months ago, the abstention rate is likely to be so high that something like ten to fifteen percent of eligible-to-vote Egyptians will have officially endorsed the document. Some people attribute the low turnout to the Muslim Brotherhood’s call for a boycott, but the 2012 referendum had the brotherhood’s cooperation and still saw a very high rate of abstention. It’s clear that in Egypt, as elsewhere, abstaining represents a political strategy, not a lack of politics. The abstention rate might be the most important fact about the referendum.

But the content of the draft constitution itself is important, and this one is interesting in the rights it grants and in the guarantees it revokes. On one hand, many of the rights that in the past were subject to limitations and ambiguities, and to legislative codification, have in the new constitution been made explicit and (seemingly) unconditional. As Jadaliyya’s analysis says, it

includes measures [that] could be used to increase labor rights, including workers’ right to a minimum wage and a maximum wage for public-sector administrators, along with the right to establish labor (or class-based) political parties. [T]he charter protects basic rights, including the right to social security, employment opportunities, collective bargaining, and safeguards against punitive sackings of workers and punitive dissolutions of labor organizations. It also outlines provisions for Egypt’s workers, small farmers, peasants, fishermen, persons with special needs, pensioners, minorities, and women, he says.

So, a constitutional framework that strives toward universality, even spelling out protections for specific, historically subaltern population types. Of course such detailing is a first step toward monitoring and directing via legislation and enforcement, but that’s the case with any constitutional process. The formal extension of rights should be taken seriously.

On the other hand, some previously enjoyed rights–or at least international norms that were recognized–get curtailed in the new constitution, and some old restrictions are retained. For instance, there can be “no forced labor except in accordance with the law, and with the objective of performing a public service for a defined period of time and in return for a fair wage.” Other worrying elements include an expansion of the kinds of crimes than can be subject to military tribunals, to the point where most political activity could be so classified. There are also new restrictions on forming government employees’ forming labor unions, a ban that had applied only to military and the police but that now covers all civil workers. Finally, a fifty-year-old provision that gave workers and farmers fifty-percent representation in parliament no longer exists.

In other words, the constitution guarantees more of what could be called economic rights while expanding the ability of the state to control and manage political life and expression.

That’s a perfectly appropriate way for a military dictatorship to proceed. But I think there is more going on than simply the generals’ need to protect their rule. The new, rights-granting provisions of the constitution are heavily tilted toward labor organizing and workplace protections, an acknowledgement that the 2011 uprising was in large part an economic uprising; that is, it was prompted by material conditions–indebtedness, lack of jobs, austerity–even if it was expressed politically. The new constitution is in many ways an anti-neoliberal one.

Put another way, it might signal an ascendence of the political over the economic. The military seems to be wagering that securing rights and granting autonomy in “economic” matters during a time of extended economic crisis can have a palliative effect, though offset of course by the state’s increased political prerogatives, which will translate as police action. As a recent article in Mute put it:

Police violence has always been especially necessary in long periods of capitalist transition…. [It is] the expression of indirect coercion through which the newly reduced conditions of social existence can be forced upon a population which is accustomed to (and which desires to defend) better ‘standards’ of living.

The violence is well underway elsewhere, of course, from out-of-control cops to mass spying and lots more. The Egyptian constitution codifies and formalizes it.

Brocialism

The more I’ve thought about Mark Fisher’s hit job on what he deems identitarianism, the madder I’ve gotten. My muted initial response was due in part to the fact that I’d sort of written him off since he began his bid to become a public intellectual; he was much more interesting, politically and philosophically, as a blogger, before his writing veered toward the pluralistic and oracular. It’s also hard to take seriously anyone who uses playground taunts as the basis of an architecture of social types. Thinking that name-calling (“vampires”) can be the foundation of a critical theory is embarrassing and ridiculous.

Then, as with other things that become more nefarious once they are put to use, I started to see the effect the curiously specifics-free article’s circulation was having, the way it was being used to diagnose and polemicize against “post-Occupy neo-identitarianism and privilege guilt-tripping,” for instance, or the way it was praised for recentering questions of class and organization, which had been sidelined by the identitarian anarchists. All of which made sense upon rereading the piece and seeing Fisher’s curious decision to go to the barricades for Russell Brand, defending him from charges of vanguardism and wanting to lead the revolution. But that (willfully, I’d say) mischaracterizes the criticisms of Brand, the most substantive of which had to do with his loutish sexual politics and behavior and his focus on equality and political corruption–the socialist reforms couched in an idiom of revolution. Fisher has to perform some impressive mental gymnastics to make Brand a working-class victim of cultural identitarianism, a victimization that Fisher incredibly extends to himself in his claim that the vampires nearly drove him from politics.

The nastiness of Fisher’s polemic was heightened for me when I found out a little while after reading it that a writer whose work I respect a lot was jerked around by a journal of proud brocialism. The journal is Jacobin and the writer is a gay migrant woman of color who wrote an article critical of DREAM activists and their normalizing, citizenship-based politics, only to have Jacobin decide at the last minute to not publish the article. Jacobin didn’t give a specific reason for the aboutface, and it’s more than safe to assume that they feared alienating just the sort of social-democratic groups that make up their audience. The important thing here, though, and what connects Jacobin with Fisher, is not the cause but the effect: the (attempted) silencing of voices that criticize and refuse the nationalist, party-based, inclusive politics of socialism. It’s so tiresome to have these critical queers killing your brocialist buzz.

Of course it’s no coincidence that the people who write rants like Fisher’s are middle-aged white dudes who’ve had their feelings hurt by the Internet, sometimes, admittedly, abetted by younger white dudes. But here’s an idea: even if privilege theory is problematic (and it is, though I think it’s aiming at something worth working towards, as I try to get at here), how about accepting that you do have a higher, and certainly different, social position, not taking criticisms personally, and instead using them as a way to expand and modify your political outlook and positions? In other words, don’t be a defensive old fart who takes criticism as a cue to defend your subject position. It might also be helpful not to use “identitarian” as invective and not to assume that just because others fail to share your politics they are ignoring class. I have criticisms of intersectionality, but intersectional analysis certainly does not abnegate class. Pretending that it does is highly insulting, not to mention an exhibition of the muscular-socialist crap that’s (rightly) being criticized.

All of this relates, in odd and disturbing ways, to recent events in British leftist-socialist politics. As far as I know, Fisher was not and is not a member of the SWP, and I don’t intend in any way to smear him with its taint. But he’s certainly associated with that milieu, and his politics seem to have evolved to the point where they are effectively the same as the SWP’s, regardless of institutional affiliation. So it’s notable that in the wake of the party’s rape scandal he and others have opted for retrenchment and chosen to focus energy on those who bring up questions of gender, race, and sexuality. (The “others” include Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, who have rebranded Leninist technocracy as the kinky-sounding accelerationism.) One would think he’d use a bit more caution when discussing gender politics in light of that horrific, sustained series of events, which should have raised concerns beyond the cretinous personalities involved, to include questions about party structure, socialist leadership, democratic centralism, and more. That is, the basic tenets of socialism. Especially, the events should make someone hesitate before avering that questions of gender are nonpolitical and distracting from the primacy of class, which is frighteningly similar to what the women assaulted by Martin Smith were told by the party when they complained. Of all the political routes Fisher and his acolytes could have taken after the events of the spring, focusing critical energies on (as they put it, in sneering tones) neo-anarchism, post-structuralist horizonalists, and identitarianism is an interesting political decision.

Shadows

If I can be allowed a moment of unambiguity, the National Security Agency did not set up its vast spying program to collect personal information, or really even to “spy” on people in the usual sense. The NSA doesn’t really care about the many ways in which you are fascinated by your cat or about your consumer profile or preferences, which it could find through any number of corporate surveillance databases, or even about your political movements per se. Yes, the particulars of the latter could certainly be useful information and are within the purview of the NSA, but that’s micro, time-sensitive information more useful to local police or federal agents. So far as I know, the voracious NSA set of techniques and processes isn’t equipped to process that kind of data, even if the transmission lines to law enforcement did exist.

More unambiguity: The program is not even really about content. At least until it is. No doubt the information flows have been utilized in some instances, but for now it’s about instituting a system that counters existing networks, many, though not all, of which are digital and based on telecommunications lines. The goal of the program is to create shadow networks that stalk current and potential networks, ones that can mimic, surround, and anticipate in order to repress, short-circuit, and coopt. The Snowden documents so far seem to be silent on the methods for doing that.

As far as an end-game of how the US state might benefit from spying and its revelations, the NSA and the executive branch of course couldn’t and can’t predict what that will be. But if, as seems possible now, the Internet becomes fragmented and segmented, that’s a pretty good outcome for them. A nationalized Internet is much easier to monitor, and in times of crisis becomes much more susceptible to nationalist passions and open to emergency measures. The Merkel revelations might be bad for Obama, but they could certainly be good for the national security state.

The Danish model

If I have to hear one more goddamn time about the Danish model…. The Danes are the happiest people in the world! Denmark taxes oil companies highly to fund infrastructure! The Danish welfare system enables a wonderful life-work balance! Everyone in Denmark rides bikes!

Denmark, it’s said, is the model that the rest of the world should follow to find universal happiness. This widely circulated article, for instance, raves that Denmark has “lower unemployment than the U.S., less inequality, more social mobility, lower budget deficits, more opportunities for women.” It’s helpful, however, to read to the end:

I asked [Nick Haekkerup, Denmark’s minister for trade and European affairs] about Denmark’s problems incorporating poor, unskilled immigrants. He said “this has been an extreme struggle within my own party,” the Social Democrats. The party’s current policy, he said, is to limit—though not cut off—immigration to protect the welfare state.

Indeed. Denmark has some of Europe’s strictest immigration laws, which is also to say, some of the most nationalist and race-based: for instance, migrants to the country can only marry someone who is a citizen of the EU, and potential migrants earn “points” toward gaining residency by attaining advanced degrees, proving their language and cultural proficiency, and hailing from preferred countries. Also, if they might receive public assistance, they have to put 13,000 euros in escrow.

There are some other notable features of the Danish model, ones that are both politically awful and technically irreproducible: it’s essentially a petrostate-tourist state of just 5.5 million people; it has a monarchy; and it’s employment regulations are cutely called “flexicurity,” which really means it’s a right-to-work state, so that collective labor arrangements are nearly impossible and the acceptable form of association is communitarian nationalism.

This is a model I want no part of.

Privileged

I admit that I’m a bit uncomfortable with the notion of privilege that has come to inform anti-racist and -sexist politics in the last few years. In a personal register, as a white heterosexual male, it doesn’t feel like privilege to work way too much for too little pay and to have my political concerns marginalized. (Cue the world’s smallest violin.) Politically and philosophically, invocations of privilege often seem to be founded on a few noninterrogated things I’m skeptical of: a this-shouldn’t-happen-here progressivism; equality as an aspirational norm; and, in reminders to “check your privilege,” an assumption that people can will themselves to step outside of their historical circumstances.

Then, occasionally, some really stupid critiques of privilege theories come along and alert me that they are at least onto something. The worst kind of critique, and the most obviously racist, goes something like, Well, we are all exploited under capitalism, and though, say, blacks and women do have it worse, that’s not an essential feature of capitalism. This leftist variation on whiteman-burden-ism assumes that structural equality (“the working class”) means equality in how class plays out. It thinks, or pretends to, that capitalism isn’t a differential system in which exploitation and oppression are more or less intense at various points and among various groups. Of course those using the structural argument don’t really believe that; they would acknowledge differences in exploitation and oppression between, say, doctors and nurses, but often in arguments against privilege, other differences are easily forgotten.

Then there’s the kind of critique found in a recent Socialist Worker article:

Privilege theory is predicated on an unchanging status—privilege—rather than a dynamic understanding of human consciousness or human history. Its pessimism follows from its premise. Privilege theory’s skepticism about social change flows from its investment in a conceptual category that is static and often, as we have seen from the evidence, ahistorical.

That’s the socialist critical method distilled, isn’t it? Call the object or theory of criticism “ahistorical,” dust off your hands, and find the next thing to denounce as bourgeois. (Labeling things reformist and being done with it is another favored technique.)

But every word of it is wrong. Theories that track privilege don’t think of it as unchanging; in fact, the efforts to identify the complex interlockings of privilege recognize that difference plays out in contingent, nonfungible ways that can’t be reduced to identity. That is, invoking privilege as a form engagement–when it doesn’t create a hierarchy of oppressions, as it does admittedly sometimes do–asserts, without apology, that difference is a form of politics, not a personal identification, and that it enacts politics as well as being enacted by it. Consequently, the charge of “pessimism” is pure ad hominem: The caution to “check your privilege” is surely as much an invitation as it is a warning, an encouragement to participate in a being together that forges new relationships and creates new openings. Which is to say, politics.

And maybe that’s why talking of privilege is such a problem for socialists: it posits politics not just as pluralism (in the sense that Ellen Rooney uses the word) and oppositional engagement but as prefigurement and building together. Just the sorts of things parties and aspiring states consider nonpolitical. And ahistorical, of course. Always ahistorical.