The Intellectual Situation
Privilege discourse offers a way for members of the same class to discuss differences in the same room.
Class is back in American discourse. It has become impossible to deny—and strange that it was ever possible to deny—that your inheritance, income, and credentials guarantee certain advantages, and that these advantages might have been wrested from those less fortunate. Ever since the Occupy movement so pithily pointed out the distance between the top earners and the rest, the inequalities of American life have been apparent to anyone with a flicker of sentience.
But the concept of class returns after a long period of retreat and transformation. For decades, class-based forms of critique were replaced by forms whose sources were not entirely or even primarily economic. For a time, the importance of social class as fundamental to explaining power imbalances—something taken for granted for generations—faded into the background.
The reasons why this happened are still obscure enough to be worth rehearsing. By the mid-1970s, in the wealthy Western countries, labor organizing had been successful enough to guarantee “middle-class” incomes to an enormous group of workers. Even unorganized workers reaped benefits. At the same time, the proportion of white-collar workers—professionals, clerks in offices, academics—came to exceed that of blue-collar workers. No matter how low their income, they tended to identify as middle class, and why not? Their work was clean, done amid bright lighting and powerful air-conditioning, and though they might be bossed around, they could at least dream of becoming the bosses themselves. Blue-collar workers, meanwhile, often earned more than their white-collar peers, and so potentially belonged to the middle, too.
Everyone seemed to have been lumped—or to have lumped themselves—into this burgeoning middle, its borders porous, its characteristics undefined. The left devoted its resources to figuring out the nature of the middle class. Was it an illusion, a smoke screen that masked the coming conflict between capital and labor? Or was the middle class the ultimate truth, and the conflict would never come?
Labor unions, in turn, began their long decline, and the institutional image of class struggle declined with them. A key figure in the diminution of organized labor’s power to represent the working class was Richard Nixon. Knowing that Republicans could not win working-class votes by attacking unions head on, he crafted a different strategy. As Jefferson Cowie tells it in his voracious sociocultural history, Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2010), Nixon and crew worked hard to divorce the identity of white working-class men from their material interests. He made such interests “secondary,” writes Cowie, “to an appeal to their moral backbone, patriotic rectitude, whiteness, and machismo in the face of the inter-related threats of social decay, racial unrest, and faltering national purpose.” “[We] need,” H. R. Haldeman, chief of staff, recorded Nixon as saying, “to build our own new coalition based on Silent Majority, blue-collar Catholics, Poles, Italians, Irish. No promise with Jews and Negroes. Appeal not hard right-wing, Bircher, or anti-Communist.” In 1972 he became the first Republican in many years to win the votes of organized labor, in part by convincing white union members that George McGovern’s goal was to bring America under the rule of Jewish homosexual pornographers.
Nixon’s strategy worked, and not just in gathering votes. Portions of the Eastern Seaboard elite that he despised (when any crisis came, Nixon said, they “painted their asses white and ran like antelopes”) came to accept his class analysis after it proved so successful electorally. It became common to see the “white working class,” and therefore unions, as regressive and dangerous. Sociological essay collections with titles like Overcoming Middle Class Rage (1971) proliferated, seeking to explain the reactionary drift among workers protesting school busing in Boston (while missing their strong anti-Vietnam war sentiment and still left-wing economic preferences).
For many, the most forceful opposition to economic inequality and brutality lay elsewhere, in petit bourgeois radicalism. In a series of articles for the great journal Radical America, Barbara and John Ehrenreich described the New Left as a peculiar political formation that, unlike the old, labor-focused left of the 1930s, grew out of a professional-managerial class (PMC). Class analysis had shifted from ownership and exploitation to control and domination. Although the PMC did not necessarily like the capitalists above them, they were scornful of working-class politics below. In her follow-up book Fear of Falling (1989), Barbara Ehrenreich noted the impressive number of films and TV shows from the 1970s made by members of the PMC that took on working-class subjects. But unlike the laboring of American culture in the 1930s, the new labor films tended to show the futility or idiocy of working-class life and the corresponding joy of yuppiedom. Think of Dog Day Afternoon, Saturday Night Fever, even Jaws. (Robert Shaw, working-class hero, leads the shark hunt and shows up yuppie scientist Richard Dreyfuss—only to get eaten.) In each of these, the working-class figure is strung out, trying to escape a world closing in on him (rarely her). Perhaps he tries to steal money for his lover’s sex-change operation and goes to jail, as in Dog Day Afternoon; perhaps his dancing skills, as in Saturday Night Fever, could take him from deepest, darkest Bay Ridge into the glitter of Ed Koch’s Manhattan.
This pessimism corresponded to real-life woes for the working class: the sharp decline of stable industrial jobs, thanks to increased automation, offshoring, and corresponding waves of plant closings, and the concomitant rise of “services,” a vague term that encompassed junk bond mavens and the waiters they tipped. Attempts to define the downwardly mobile, easy-to-lay-off white-collar workers as “new proletarians”—such as Harry Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital (1974) and the studies of the labor process that followed in its wake—were brave, but in many ways isolated. For enough middle-class leftists it had become absurd, if not impossible, to argue, as Marxists once did, that the working class would come to recognize socialism as in its interests, and bring about revolution.
What to focus on instead of the doomed working class? “New social movements”—women’s and gay liberation movements and remnants of black power groups, all later slandered by partisans of older lefts as mere “identity politics”—became the center of intellectual energy. Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985), one of the most significant (and jargony) books of the decade, derided the lockstep focus on the working class that, according to its authors, marred all Marxism as deterministic. They insisted on the “plurality and indeterminacy of the social”—the idea that no class had objective material interests, only socially constructed ideas about their interests. The famous working class, therefore, wasn’t structurally positioned to overturn capitalism, or at least wasn’t the only social force in a position to do so. “Antagonism” to the established order could spring up at any point, from any direction. However obscurely, this correction attempted to reflect the lived experience of blacks and women, among others, who had often been told that to organize as anything other than workers was a kind of treason, despite the obvious significance of race and gender divides. This was “Post-Marxism Without Apologies,” as Laclau and Mouffe called a defensive essay for New Left Review. Despite the title of their book, they disavowed socialism and preferred the term “radical democracy.” This was the prelude to the classless concepts that came to rule the aughts, like Hardt and Negri’s seething, borderless “multitude.”
Meanwhile the “neoliberal grand slam” in Perry Anderson’s phrase, had invigorated the assault of those above against those below. Leader after leader—Thatcher, Reagan, the fascist Pinochet, so-called socialists Mitterand and Craxi, the communist Deng—aggressively dismantled the institutions of the working class. By the ’90s, the importance of class to left-wing thought had diminished just when it was most needed.
Though many on the left groused about how identity politics had hijacked the left, it was the right’s heyday: freshly possessed of power after some uncertain moments in the 1960s and ’70s, it was time to put women and blacks (and unions) back in their place. Attacks on the poor, such as the eventually successful attempt to end welfare, were racially coded, but affected people regardless of race. Much of the fight was cultural: time to stop reading slave narratives and restore the antiseptic dramas of Sheridan to the syllabus. The left fought these developments in schools and universities, and largely won; everywhere else, they lost. Only years later did this inversion—the rise of inequality alongside a rise in public commitments to “diversity”—permit Walter Benn Michaels to argue that diversity in things like college admissions helped liberals to forget about the basic questions of material life.
Savage cuts to welfare benefits; spikes in university tuition and student debt; youth unemployment rates in southern Europe hovering around 50 percent; the spectacular recovery of the wealthy and their banks from their greatest crisis in eighty years: it was inevitable that social class would re-emerge as a topic of concern. But class could not come back fresh as a newborn, trailing clouds of glory; nor could the movements that rose up in the interim be brushed aside. What has emerged, as a sort of compromise-formation, is the concept of privilege.
Privilege is an old word, from Old English and Old French, that referred to the existence of different laws and benefits for different people. It might be the oldest target of insurrections on the books. The English Civil War and French Revolution were both revolts against privilege and the elites who inherited and abused it. It’s also a word that has become, in recent years, ubiquitous to the culture. The logic of privilege—who has how much, in which of its myriad forms—feels deeply descriptive of our situation. Perhaps old resonances have something to do with this. Our present moment feels, strangely, feudal. On the one hand painfully divided, the few against the many; on the other stagnant and stable, as the rich, seemingly unchallengeable, placidly pile up advantages. Fortunes have congealed, and a small coterie make the laws for themselves and the laws for the rest. The blockbuster success of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, with its emphasis on the persistence of wealth over generations and the tendency for returns on wealth to outpace growth, suggests a book-buying public eager to understand the economic roots of this moment.
Privilege discourse offers a way for members of the same class to discuss differences in the same room.Tweet
But the laws of our society are about more than just money, as the Sixties social movements made plain. Fortune in America favors the white, male, able-bodied, and straight. To refer to white privilege—or male privilege, or able-bodied privilege, or straight privilege—is to acknowledge that even when things weren’t easy for white guys, white guys had it easier, if not for what they were given, then for what they were not denied. “I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative, or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do,” wrote sociologist Peggy McIntosh in the 1988 paper in which she coined the term “white privilege.” “I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.” She listed forty-six daily experiences of comfort or security she took for granted based on her skin color—an exercise, she wrote, to better understand the reluctance of men she knew to admit their advantages even when they acknowledged women’s disadvantages. Similar lists have since been made to illustrate the daily, sometimes life-determining difficulties facing women, or the disabled, or transgender people. The goal was to pinpoint, on the interpersonal and collective scale, how “identity” and class intertwined. Law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and critical race studies theorist Patricia Hill Collins each attempted to figure out how the trinity of class, race, and sex functioned to reproduce the privilege of certain kinds of elites. Crenshaw’s work made its way into the constitutional law cases of newly democratic, plurinational countries like South Africa.
Privilege discourse offers a way for members of the same class to discuss differences in the same room. The result may be awkward, humiliating, antagonizing, or annoying; you may be identified or misidentified, called out or shut down. But to be asked on occasion to “check your privilege”—or to ask someone else to—can jolt you into something beyond mere moral solidarity: a sense of yourself as compromised, involved in a process of domination and exclusion larger than yourself. Rather than reducing everything to identity, as some charge, it can bring you out of your identity, onto a collective plane.
Since the ’80s and ’90s, privilege discourse has migrated from college campuses to left-wing social media, penetrating social-justice spheres, liberal newspapers, and major online traffic–titans alike. As to what, or who, brought it to the mainstream, one might look to the recent college graduates who were handed a garbage economy along with their diplomas. Overeducated and underemployed, writing Mad Men recaps to pay off student loans, the millennial hires of new-media ventures have made the most of their constraints by injecting high-order concepts of social critique into otherwise banal assignments.
Sometimes their angle is mocking. In Gawker house style, Hamilton Nolan’s “The Privilege Tournament” pitted discrete social handicaps against one another, bracket-style: deaf vs. AIDS/cancer; Latino vs. South Asian; abuse survivor vs. hopelessly in debt; allergic to nuts vs. hay fever, but real bad. The dating site OKCupid and meme-factory Buzzfeed produced more sincere, literal-minded quizzes: “The Privilege Test,” “The Social Privilege Test,” “The Racism and White Privilege Test,” “How Privileged Are You?” The results could be surprisingly off—amateur sociology often is—but the projects were earnest. Meanwhile, hashtag activists like Mikki Kendall and writers like Buzzfeed’s Heben Nigatu have (ingeniously, in our opinion) tapped the consciousness-raising potential of listing à la McIntosh: Nigatu’s posts, “27 Things You Had To Deal With As The Only Black Kid In Your Class” and “31 Things You Have To Deal With As The Only Black Person In Your Office,” have been viewed over three million times. (Pitched today, McIntosh’s “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies” might be recast, GIF-and-caption style, as “46 Things You Know You Don’t Have to Worry About If You’re White.”) The Times—on it, as ever—has since taken up the privilege beat; in the past year, the paper has run more than a dozen stories citing “privilege” in this manner.
The greatest measure of privilege discourse’s impact on the mainstream is, of course, the rancor of conservatives who fall within its splash radius. In April, privilege became the subject of minor controversy when a Princeton freshman, Tal Fortgang, published a jolly piece of self-righteous entitlement, “Why I’ll Never Apologize for My White Male Privilege” in the Princeton Tory, later syndicated to a wide audience by attention-seeking Time. Even after it became clear that Fortgang had been put up to it, financially and otherwise, by McCarthy-era front-group the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, his description of the phrase “check your privilege” as “a command that teeters between an imposition to actually explore how I got where I am, and a reminder that I ought to feel personally apologetic because white males seem to pull most of the strings in the world” received hearty assents from the right, sympathy from the New Republic, and fervent dissent on campuses everywhere.
Though sappy and confused, the piece was a meaningful case study. What most aggrieved Fortgang and his fellow Tories was not that privilege discourse was wrong, but that it asked him not to speak. “Told to check your privilege,” the New Republic’s Julia Fisherwrote in Fortgang’s defense, “it’s pretty easy to feel shut out of conversation; an advantage in life might be turned into a disadvantage in debate.” A subsequent New York Times article likewise compared the injunction to “check your privilege” to “conversational kryptonite, the final word in an argument to which there is no response.” It’s a fair critique, if politics to you means making nationals in Model UN. Where the stakes are higher, one would do well to remember that conversation consists of two positions—a speaker and a listener—and to be shut down is not the same as to be shut out.
Because privilege discourse offers a vocabulary, not an analysis, it can be enlightening without being exactly illuminating. Where do you go with it? And how can you get there? Often the answers are at best abstract—consider systemic realities; have empathy; don’t overgeneralize; remember that there are many things your experience keeps you from knowing. Lacking a utopian goal, its aims are remedial. It’s a feel-bad politics—one founded on the belief that an honest appraisal of contemporary reality does not lead to feeling good. This feel-bad mechanism is precisely what makes privilege discourse work, when it does: consciousness-raising across identity lines attunes a person to her obliviousness and sharpens her sensitivities. But it’s also the discourse’s limitation: most people would sooner opt out than subject themselves to painful de-conditioning. How much you can get down with privilege discourse says something about how you feel about shame, or anxiety, or being on the receiving end of someone’s anger.
It’s a feel-bad politics—one founded on the belief that an honest appraisal of contemporary reality does not lead to feeling good.Tweet
Veterans of Occupy’s radical-stack moments are familiar with second-guessing their privilege, or lack thereof, when trying to weigh fundamentally incomparable disadvantages against one another. (Does a working-class white person get to speak before or after a middle-class person of color? and so on.) The fact that this process places so much emphasis on the visible nature of deprivation makes it harder to acknowledge, in public anyway, the obscure hurt—mental, sexual—that might be one’s real disability. The pseudoscience of quantifying differences obscures the goal, which is to give the person who feels less heard a chance to speak up. The danger of “check your privilege” discourse is that it threatens to become schematic and static, cementing the very divisions it aims to overcome.
One way past this might be to remember the long history of privilege. Although certain groups (whites, men, and white men come to mind) have persistently hoarded advantages, in many ways privilege doesn’t stay in place, and it doesn’t stay the same. Even the Irish weren’t always white. Today we witness the slow, ongoing enfranchisement of the LGBT community; we also witness the ongoing economic disenfranchisement of most everyone by the ultraprivileged (who never encounter situations where they’re asked to check it). A 2013 study from the Economic Policy Institute revealed that inequality since the 1990s hasn’t just grown between the educated and uneducated, but among people with the same level of education. Deprofessionalization has happened alongside professionalization, opportunity-hoarding alongside the loss of opportunities. More and more people now face exclusion from the labor market, and the specter of their own uselessness. A college student asked to check his privilege one day finds part of it gone the next.
Here is where privilege of the old kind (between the haves and the have-nots), and the varied forms of privilege articulated among activists, seem maybe to be opposed. One can’t simply assert the primacy of class to those who don’t experience it as primary; nor does it seem wise to shunt class aside precisely when it feels so relevant. Yet our response ought not to be to whittle our demands down to an implausible policy proposal—such as Piketty’s global tax on wealth—but to make them proliferate. In a society with a rich understanding of deepening, ramifying inequalities, why not imagine in full what a society in revolt against abuse of privilege might require? Some privileges we can attempt to grant one another, or at least acknowledge, through empathy and sacrifice; others will have to be fought for, side by side.