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.