Anarchism in Interesting Times
(Note for reading for white cis hetero socialist men: Read the first paragraph, take some deep breaths, go for a walk if you need to, and when you’ve calmed right down, come back and read the rest.)
Privilege used to be a popular word in the leftist vocabulary. Now it’s reviled. It’s all very well to rally against the privilege of the merchant or the monarch, of the bishop or the banker, but suggest that some of us members of the proletariat might have privilege in relation to others, and you get accused of all sorts. You get accused of being divisive, of not having a class analysis, or even, of being middle class. I hasten to add that the class analysis of some of these champions of labour extends as far as asking if the green stuff on your plate is mushy peas or avocado (I like both by the way).
Now, it’s worth mentioning that the first time I encountered this concept I was horrified. Privilege? Surely not me. After all I came from a “proper working class” background, spent part of my formative years on a council estate and had considered myself a communist from the age of thirteen, pretty much right around the time that the state socialism or state capitalism that bore the name of communism was crumbling.
When I heard the word proletariat for the first time and asked my history teacher what it meant, I immediately thought, “that’s us”. I identified with the underdog, with people in struggle, and I was one of them. How could I be privileged? Yet, when I finally managed to get over myself, and think about how I could possibly be privileged, I returned to my own experience as a kid from a solidly proletarian town a short drive north of Dublin. I thought about a time when my family was probably at it’s least privileged. I thought back to my early school days.
When I was in junior infants I threw up in the sink in our classroom. When the teacher saw it she went berserk and lined up the five Traveller boys in the class demanding to know who did it. The rest of us were from settled working class families, mostly from council estates, but we were privileged not to be the ones who were automatically accused. (I owned up btw and she was dead embarrassed and tried to blame me for the fact she blamed them.)
A couple of years later, my Dad became a miner, and as such was pretty heavily exploited by the capitalists who owned the company; every day doing labour intensive, sometimes dangerous work in order to live, while the riches that the mine produced were shipped off to shareholders, first in Canada, later in Finland, then Sweden.
Yet, take the father of one of those traveller boys in my class. He didn’t work for a capitalist. Sometimes he did odd jobs. Sometimes he claimed the dole. In that sense he was less exploited by the capitalists than my dad was, but he faced harassment by the cops, was refused service in various shops and pubs in the area and his kids got blamed for throwing up in the sink, when it was my regurgitated calvita and brown bread sandwich that sat there. That traveller man didn’t face the daily exploitation that my dad did, but he and his family were far more oppressed and we were privileged relative to them. Then, take that man’s wife, who faced all that oppression and on top of that was exploited in the sense that she worked non stop caring for the husband and the children – she, and her daughters had less privilege again.
When put like this, I doubt many of the detractors of privilege theory would disagree that they are privileged relative to the people of the Traveller community, who all on the left, if they are really of the left, would agree face horrendous discrimination and outright racism on a daily basis. I doubt that many of the men of the left would disagree that they are privileged compared to their colleagues with ovaries who on average get paid less, are from early childhood treated differently to boys, have to worry about pregnancy every time they have sex and face the possibility of having to raise the money and go through the stress of travelling to England for an abortion or of trying to bring up a child in a world that is hostile to child rearing. I know that most of these people, enthusiastically and quite rightly shared the recent video of Panti Bliss describing privilege in the aftermath of Pantigate.
So what is the problem? I guess that in the face of hardship and a fracturing political left, no one wants to think about the fact that we are structurally conditioned to oppress, if only in small ways. No one really wants to think that our actions, or even our very position in society, no matter how low, can help oppression thrive. The sad thing about that is, that by simply starting to think about privilege and changing little things, we begin to unravel the complex layers of domination that keep us divided and ensure our conquest and surely that’s something that shouldn’t be reviled.