Sunday 25 March 2012

Against Privilege Theory

This recent intervention from U.S. socialists in the Occupy movement has set me reflecting on the term ‘privilege’, and its growth as a analytical tool – and accompanying rhetorical strategy – in social movements.

I’ve little patience with contemporary leftist critiques of so-called identity politics, whatever previous value that struggle may once have had. They seem now, for the most part, to be dedicated to trying to get other people to quieten down about their identity, all in the name of a (largely mythical) ‘central’ class concern. This isn’t just bad politics. It’s also bad class politics. A left which isn’t – like the working class itself – attuned to, and welcoming of, the varieties of human sexuality and gender identity, and actively anti-racist, is hardly worth the name or the bother. And, besides, it’s not like the oppressed choose what questions of identity they’ll be confronted with. The trans person who has no appropriate box to tick when they're asked about sex on census day, or who is assigned a prison cell in a jail for people other than the gender they identify with, didn’t ask to be placed in that situation.

Conversations about, and struggles over, identity, are essential to politics. Gary Younge is wise about this, as so much else, and stresses, in his Who Are We?, that “identities are a great place to start.” The pains they impose upon us (in the case of compulsory heterosexuality, say) or the sense of liberation they can bring (as with the superb slogan Black is Beautiful from the 1960s) can both spur further action, and demand reflection. That process, for those not amongst the oppressed group, isn’t always comfortable, but it’s an essential starting move. That confrontation – in which a sincere belief in one’s involvement in a particular cause comes up against the realities of implication in a wider ideological system – seems to be the moment from which privilege theory takes its energy. The exciting work of Eclipse Rising, the Zainichi activists on the West Coast of the United States, or the publishing collective Mellow Yellow in this country, are just two examples of the kind of direction that struggle can take.

It’s here that my discomfort sets in. For starters, the language here – whatever gestures are made in the direction of wider structures of power – relentlessly psychologizes what needs to be understood in systemic terms. That oppression exists is so obvious that it shouldn’t need mentioning, nor should it be put into rhetorical competition with other injustices. (Here I agree with Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb: “those who attack multiculturalism in the name of class instantly forfeit their probity on both subjects.”) Contemporary capitalism is riven with barbarousness, racist inequalities, murderous injustice, sexist bigotry and petty, vindictive meanness.

But to whom does any of this accrue ‘privilege’? The language of rights we’ve inherited from the great bourgeois revolutions, whatever its other problems, still seems preferable at the level of immediate slogans and rhetorical demands: to walk the streets unmolested ought to be a simple – and essential - democratic right, not a privilege granted, like access to a licensed premises, to the lucky by the powerful.

More worrying, talk of privilege in this sense suggests an investment in, and a benefit from, the existing state of affairs for those not in oppressed groups (I mean, for most of these examples, straight-identifying white male workers) that I don’t think the history of previous liberation movements bears out.

The Gay Liberation Movement of the 1970s, for instance, has been of enormous benefit to straight men. This wasn’t, quite properly, the aim of that movement, but its by-products have been a boon for us all. A more open culture around sexual experience and sexual expression; programmes for male health unthinkable before the activism and stridency of the gay rights’ movement; a greater sense of the complexities of identity and desire: all this has resulted in markedly better lives for heterosexual men. It took Women’s Liberation and Gay Liberation to attack and critique the association of male sexuality with dominance and aggression- are straight men worse off for this? On a more practical, and needlessly tragic, level, homophobic anxieties around examining parts of the body play an important part in keeping deaths from prostate cancer so high, while the quite different attitudes to contraception between openly gay men and heterosexual-identifying men who have sex with other men point to the universal potential good of Gay Liberation.

Check Your Privilege

Talk of checking privilege captures little of this complexity, whatever the individual merits of the suggestions involved, and, what’s worse, produces a sense of the experience of liberation as one of threat, loss, and morally-driven reformation. Its language here, ironically, mirrors that of the mainstream, in which feminism has ‘emasculated’ men, produced a crisis of masculinity and so on. Challenges to oppression involve all sorts of uncomfortable and difficult confrontations, to be sure. Whether these are what drive that process is another matter.

Intersectionality is the term some types of feminism use to grasp some of this, but the spatial imagery this deploys – in which privileges pile up on one another like the layers of a pancake brunch – doesn’t seem to fit the dynamics of liberation movements past. (I’m writing about past struggles because, like the rest of my generation, my political formation was in the backlash and devastation of these movements).

Autralia’s Builders’ Labourers Federation in the 1970s seems, at first glance, like a picture of privilege: overwhelmingly male, part of a boisterously heterosexist culture, from a ‘traditional’ blue-collar industry. The BLF’s response as political radicals turned it into a fighting union, though, points in a different direction. For starters, the BLF built amongst immigrants and non-Anglo groups, recognizing the need to draw new migrants into union struggles.

More strikingly, from the height of their industrial power in the 1970s, the BLF took part in an outstanding campaign in support of gay and lesbian rights. They imposed a “black ban” on work at Macquarie University when it tried to kick out a gay student from his hall of residence. (Savour the contemporary headlines here). Strike action forced the reinstatement of a student to teachers’ training who had been expelled for writing a lesbian poem. For organized workers, power doesn’t corrupt, it inspires. (Traditions from the BLF live on: in 2005 a  gay comrade and friend of mine threatened with arrest at Deakin University managed to keep up political activity when construction workers on site stopped work to defend his freedomof speech).

The BLF matters as an example because it disproves both the mythology of the right-wing anti-identity politics stance at the same time as it shows how union organization against oppression might operate. This was a group of ‘traditional’ workers for whom social questions and ‘labour’ questions were inseparable, and their industrial and political strength rose and fell as they fought on both fronts.

None of this should suggest an illusory picture of the trade union movement as free of prejudice, of course. But the strategic dilemmas we face demand an older language of ideology and false consciousness, whatever the difficulties in that term, instead of hierarchies of privilege.  The problem here is strategic stupidity, not privilege. Japan’s major unions have been happy to rest on their privileged position as organisers of the permanent and full-time for many years now. The crisis gathers, though, as casualised and impermanent younger workers have been kept from the movement. That problem, if not addressed with solidarity and organization, will break the permanent workers’ groupings, not maintain them.

Again, who can speak as Other?

One of the productive irritants of privilege theory, though, leftist practice has no right to ignore: where are the voices of the oppressed? A contemporary socialism which isn’t spoken through the language and ideas of women as well as men, queers as well as straights, migrants as well as ‘local’ workers, is of no interest to me. Insisting on agency  is vital here, and warns against revivals of the White Man’s Burden elsewhere; it also reminds us of what’s missing in so much public life.

The question, for me, isn’t one so much of appropriation as appropriation for what end? I’m involved in the movement for abortion rights, for instance; it seems clear that this movement needs both to be led by women and to have the active involvement of men. There’s no contradiction there, and the choice isn’t between marginalizing others and choosing to keep silence in the face of what’s framed as privilege. There are relationships between leadership, involvement, active listening and respectful debate that need explored: privilege theory threatens to close those off instead of developing them.

This blog itself, I’m aware, exists just that side of Orientalism, and leaves me open to not-wholly-unjustified charges of appropriation. I started writing here to try and get into critical habits that might undo three divisions that seemed to be conceptually crippling, and politically harmful: that between the still-dominant Anglocentric orientation of my disciplinary location and the multiculture it inhabits; that between ‘theoretical’ work hidden behind paywalls and peer review and the direct, conversational address of blogging; and that between my training and institutional work as a literary critic and my political commitments and activity.

The risk of appropriation remains, naturally: these aren’t my stories, I’m not of this community, I’m not walking this path. The challenge of literature, and the value of literary studies, is that it offers an imaginative space in which to try and inhabit identities that aren’t our own, and situations we’re not able to share. That work can be productive when its memory plays out in more practical political situations.

Literary experience stresses peculiarity here, the complexity of subjectivity and individual involvement in larger history. The ending to Jean Rhys’ “Let Them Call it Jazz” sticks in my mind as the best example of this:

I read the letter and I could cry. For after all, that song was all I had. I don’t belong nowhere really, and I haven’t money to buy my way to belonging. I don’t want to either.

But when that girl sing, she sing to me and she sing for me. I was there because I was meant to be there. It was meant I should hear it – this I know.

Now I’ve let them play it wrong, and it will go from me like all the other songs – like everything. Nothing left for me at all.

But then I tell myself all this is foolishness. Even if they played it on trumpets, even if they played it just right, like I wanted – no walls would fall so soon. ‘Let them call it jazz’ I think, and let them play it wrong. That won’t make no difference to the song I heard.

I buy myself a dusty pink dress with the money.

The other possibility this raises, with its line about the song being sung for the narrator, is that of standpoint theory, the sense, following Lukacs, that in fact there’s a privilege or the chance to epistemological and political insight to particular marginalized positions, the chance from some locations better to see the system whole.

Where to go from there is a whole other discussion, and one I can’t pursue here. The second half of Gary Younge’s quotation suggests one direction:

even before the recession, for a younger generation capitalism had already become a system worth critiquing. People have never been so savvy about neoliberalism and the need for transformative politics.

So on the one hand we have never been so aware of international capitalism, but we've never been less well organised as a force - we are too dispersed. 

And that's the challenge we face. Identities are a great place to start - they're about how we got here, what makes people want to be part of a certain politics. But it's a terrible place to finish. If you end with identity, you end in fundamentalism or self-indulgence.

So our task is to find a way to mobilise identity for good. Identity is like fire. We wouldn't want to do without fire, but it can be dangerous. To deny difference doesn't mean that difference doesn't exist. It just means that you can't see it.

James Baldwin expressed this in a different way in a line I’ve always loved. Asked if he thought being poor, black and gay had disadvantaged him as a writer, Baldwin replied, no, he felt he’d hit the jackpot. It’s another privilege again.


My knowledge of the BLF campaigns within the social movements comes from Liz Ross, Dare to Struggle, Dare to Win (Vulgar Press, 2004), and Meredith and Verity Burgmann, Green Bans, Red Union (UNSW Press, 1998). Both are wonderful histories.


  1. Wonderful writing, much to consider.

  2. Good article. One objection, in relation to: "...homophobic anxieties around examining parts of the body play an important part in keeping deaths from prostate cancer so high."

    Come on. Does my aversion to having a doctor stick his or her finger up my arse really make me a homophobe? That's a long bow, is it not? This long, in fact:

    1. Many men object to homosexual acts.
    2. Many men view digital penetration of the anus as a homosexual act.
    3. Prostate examinations involve digital penetration of the anus.
    4. Therefore, many men don't have prostate examination because they object to homosexual acts.

    How about:

    1'. Many men prefer to avoid physical discomfort.
    2'. Many men find digital penetration of the anus physically uncomfortable.
    3. Prostate examinations involve digital penetration of the anus.
    4'. Therefore, many men don't have prostate examinations because they prefer to avoid physical discomfort.

    Aversion to undergoing a prostate examination does not itself constitute homophobia any more than aversion to a root canal constitutes homophobia. Given that, I'm assuming you have good evidence that many men in fact do avoid prostate examinations because they view any digital penetration of the anus as a homosexual act that, being homophobic, they wish to avoid.

    This criticism does not touch the main argument in the piece.

  3. I don't think it makes you a homophobe, Nobody, no: my point wasn't about individual psychologies (and I avoid both discomfort and doctors as assiduously as the next person) so much as it was about a wider social pattern. Movements around gay men's health have been a public good for all men: they've normalised discussions of the body.

    The comments on prostate examinations I based on anecdotal conversations with two doctor friends, who mentioned that nervous jokes about this social unease come up regularly. Not "good evidence", to be sure, but good enough evidence for me in a blog post. There's of course a wider literature there -- for me linked most obviously to Jane Gallop and "Thinking Through the Body" -- that elaborates the connections between normative heterosexuality and male bodily disconnection.

    Thanks for the comment! I'm glad you enjoyed the piece.