Monday, April 9, 2012

Still More on Privilege

See previous posts on "privilege" here (the first instalment) and here (the second). 

Marxist Marginalia has prompted really excellent discussion (and debate) on the concept of privilege that is worth reading. It has helped me clarify a lot of my own thinking about these matters and the general analysis put forward by herrnaphta seems to me basically correct.

Stressing points of agreement at the onset--as herrnaphta does at the beginning of the post--is important because, as I tried to argue in a recent post, all too often debates about privilege track the wrong issues and leave the most important ones unaddressed. To be fair, there are plenty of defenders of colorblindness out there who respond caustically and abrasively to the language of privilege, so proponents of the privilege framework can hardly be blamed for taking a generally defensive position when criticisms are leveled at their perspective. And, of course, one finds these colorblind types on the left as well as the right, so a generally wide scope of suspicion here seems to me justified as well. We shouldn't assume that these points of agreement are shared by everyone in radical circles, especially since there are colorblind analyses circulating around on the left. Marxists should be forthcoming about where they stand and should do their best to stave off misunderstandings by actively, explicitly pushing against colorblind forces on the left.

Be that as it may, there are important political questions left over after we agree that colorblindness is a toxic (racist) ideology that papers over oppression and silences its critics. There are still important questions left over after we agree that people of color endure forms of oppression that white people do not. I think the discussion at Marxist Marginalia does a great job of fleshing these questions out.

If there's one important point that I'm willing to concede that the privilege-based approach seems to emphasize more often than many Marxists, it is the following point:
Part of building an effective movement against white supremacy involves white activists understanding their privilege, and taking it into account when building solidarity with people of color...How can white people stop acting out their privileges? Obviously there are important ways that this can be done: realizing that you, as a white activist, need to shut the fuck up once in a while and that not everyone always wants to hear what you have to say is a good start, and a lesson that every white person needs to learn in general.
This accords with Trotsky's argument that black workers "can be developed to the class point of view only when the white worker is educated", i.e. only when white workers are disabused of racist beliefs, when racism is smashed within the labor movement at all levels---formal and informal, explicit and implicit. This is why he argued for a "merciless struggle against... the colossal prejudices of white workers [which] makes no concession to them whatsoever". Trotsky's uncompromising anti-racist position seems to me exactly right.

We could, of course, generalize from this argument. For instance: Men in a society marked by gender oppression have to learn how to shut the fuck up once in a while as well. Why? Because gender oppression is multifaceted and, as is well known, operates through the socialization process by way of certain norms and expectations about how "ideal" women and men are to comport themselves, interact conversationally, dress, behave, and so on.

One toxic element of that process is this: men, from a young age, are expected to be more vocal, more self-confident in expressing their opinions, more likely to sound off without paying attention to how long they've been speaking, and so on. The corresponding social expectations for women here encourage deference, listening patiently to what men have to say, doubting that one has the right to speak authoritatively, feeling unjustified in being self-confident, and so on. Unless we resist these default aspects of gender socialization in an oppressive society such as ours, the result is that men tend to dominate discussions and women don't get the opportunity to speak their mind. The result is patronizing, sexist "men who explain things" or, if you like, "mansplainers". These aren't inevitable characteristics that all men and women share, but this what we're up against if we're fighting for the liberation of women in society today.

This is a familiar problem for any conscious teacher who has to lead class discussions. I regularly have a number of male students who, though they have nothing particularly brilliant to say, have a very low threshold for raising their hand and feel quite comfortable pontificating and sounding off for long periods of time. There is also a tendency for male students to be dismissive toward the contributions of female students. On the other hand, many times I'll have a number of  women students who are far less willing to speak in class, even when they have very good things to say.

Unsurprisingly, female students seem more likely to express self-doubt that they have something valuable to add, whereas male students are far more likely to have a devil-may-care arrogance about them in virtue of which they feel confident raising their hands and speaking over and over. These are not timeless features of human beings. These tendencies are produced by unequal social relations and oppressive norms specifying how gendered persons are to behave, comport themselves, interact socially, etc. What's more: these oppressive relations and norms are not free-floating, they are historically emergent and institutionalized and---most importantly---they are inscribed into the material structure of our society.

Liberation, of course, requires exploding these oppressive expectations and relationships---in all of their material richness---through collective struggle. No amount of inward-looking reflection or attitudinal change will fundamentally uproot these forms of oppression. Only collective action which sets itself the goal of transforming the basic structure of society can end oppression. As I put it in a recent post:
The language of privilege can sometimes make it sound as if the only obligation of, say, white people in a racist society is to individually acknowledge their privilege and apologize for it.

But individual-level concepts such as apology, guilt, acknowledgement, repentance, responsibility and so on fail to capture the historical, social, political and structural features of racial oppression. Racial oppression is not a set of ideas or attitudes individuals have (although ideas and attitudes play an essential role in reproducing and justifying it). Oppression refers to asymmetrical social relations among groups of persons involving power, domination, exploitation and so on. Oppression is an ongoing social process whereby certain groups are systematically criminalized, brutalized, marginalized, exploited, or denied access to the necessities of life. So our task isn't merely to strike up this or that individual attitude toward this state of affairs; our task is to talk about how this social process works so that we can build social movements to decisively smash it once and for all.
However, reflection on these micro-political instantiations of macro-level oppression is still important for a number of reasons. After all, we don't want to reproduce---intentionally or not---these attitudes, practices, norms, cultural forms, and expectations in radical movements aiming to overthrow oppression. As is well known, the New Left movements of the 60s had a lot of deep problems with gender oppression in their ranks. Women were often ridiculed, slandered, or cast aside when it came time to decide who would occupy leadership roles. That was in spite of the fact that many, though not all, of these same organizations---on paper---had progressive positions regarding women's liberation.

We have come a long way since then thanks in large measure to the struggles of the women's liberation movement of the late 60s and early 70s. So it isn't inevitable that sexist ideologies will infect our movements, but it is will remain a strong possibility as long as we're living in a sexist society. Thus we have to consciously, actively, explicitly work against it on all levels if we're to avoid reproducing and consolidating it. The same is true of racial oppression and, I would argue, class domination (e.g. see this recent post on the revolutionary party that addresses the question of radical consciousness and class pressures).

But these problems---problems of building radical movements dedicated to linking different struggles against oppression on the basis of socialist solidarity---are not problems that are taken seriously by all. Some doubt that such movements are either possible or desirable. Others turn away from political movements entirely and propose that we lose ourselves in the inner-workings of micro-level oppression. I attempted to criticize this inward-looking, individualist approach in my first post on privilege. I think Marxist Marginalia does a good job of criticizing it as well, and I generally agree with analysis there that:
...white privilege theory is a product of the defeat of the movements of the sixties and seventies, and that the emphasis on individual behavior we find there arose as an alternative to collective political action. In the wake of those defeats, it became far easier to imagine changing the behavior of individuals than organizing a collective movement around systemic change. Political pessimism wrote itself into political theory through a variety of ways – Roediger’s adaptation of social history to argue that racism came from below, for example, dovetailed politically with the theoretically very different arguments for a Foucauldian emphasis on the micro-politics of power. Not all of this, of course, was detrimental. Some of it filled in gaps left by more systemically-focused theories of racism. But what became hegemonic was an anti-politics – a turn away from collective action towards individual rehabilitation.
This seems to me right on the money. The privilege analysis gets a lot right, and maybe even brought to light micro-political elements less well addressed by system-level theorizing, but in many guises it simply expresses a pessimism about the possibility of challenging the system. But in times such as these, such pessimism wears its implausibility on its sleeve. We shouldn't be sanguine about the challenges of building a multi-racial radical movement under conditions of racial oppression. But neither should we be confident that such a goal is neither possible nor desirable. As Marxist activist Duncan Hallas once put the point, "isn't the working class... under the influence of racist, sexist, nationalist ideas [and so on]? All that is true... but it can be changed in struggle. It is a long, hard and complicated struggle. But it is also the only cause worth fighting for."


t said...

It just occurred to me that one thing that bothers me about some uses of the privilege framework is this: in some contexts, it takes for granted the competitive struggle between workers that capitalism encourages. But this is exactly what we should want to challenge. To be sure, in a racist society, individual white workers in a context of individual competition with non-white workers will enjoy the advantage of more easily finding employment, among other things. Because of racism, black people are often the last hired and the first fired. At the individual level, being white in such a labor market is an advantage.

But that individual-level competitive context is neither natural nor inevitable. Capitalism pits workers against one another because intra-worker competition of all kinds weakens the hand of labor relative to capital. We won't explain all of racial oppression by referencing the function of competition among workers. But it is an important aspect of any adequate explanation.

The socialist claim here is that such competitive struggle among workers is not in their class interests. Socialists challenge the competitive motivations that capitalism encourages workers to adopt by showing that collective struggle advances the class interests of all workers. That is the argument one uses to push for a strike, for example. That is the argument against nationalism in the working class--that the culprits are the bosses, not fellow workers from other nations.

So, we shouldn't take for granted competition within the working class. That is something that we should aim to change. It is something that loses ground in periods of struggle. It is something that brushes against the class interests of workers.

Anonymous said...

The real question if you're a working class white person is "what side are you on?". Are you on the side of the (white) bosses and the 1%? Or are you on the side of the oppressed? You can't be neutral.

I reject the idea that there some obvious sense in which the interests of white workers are more closely aligned with the bosses than with oppressed peoples. That's what the bosses want them to think. But white workers and the bosses have little in common. This fantasy of "the nation" is useful for the ruling class because it builds cross-class alliances for its policies. But it is a fantasy nonetheless.

White workers have no basic interest in uniting across class lines with the white ruling class. Their class interests bind them to their sisters of brothers of color. There's no guarantee that every working class person will see that this is so--most probably do not see this. But that is is just what we're up against. It shouldn't be a surprise to anyone that the majority of the US working class right now isn't a fully radicalized, self-conscious "class for itself." That would be quite an achievement--that's what we're fighting for.

In the meantime some working class people will vote for Republicans (and Democrats), some working class women will defend gender oppression, some PoC workers will support xenophobic or otherwise racist policies. This is mixed and uneven consciousness at work, these are the contradictory products of capitalist society. The job of radicals is to leverage those contradictions to fight against these oppressive ideologies that exist in the working class.

Will white workers have to give up certain advantages to join up with oppressed people struggling for their liberation? Sure. But these advantages pale in comparison with what they stand to gain by uniting and fighting for a different kind of society.

Workers do not have an interest in the continued existence of capitalist social relations. Any attempt to bribe workers out of realizing that truth is a ploy that papers over that truth.