Tag Archives: privilege


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.


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.