Some Notes on the Shortcomings of the “Privilege” Discourse

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A Facebook friend asked what I mean when I talk about the inadequacy of the “privilege” discourse, and it was a good chance to organize my thoughts. Here’s a few.

1) “Privilege,” as a liberal discourse, uses the language of intersectionality but is in fact incredibly *non*-intersectional, centering only a very few forms of difference and erasing subtler others.

2) It participates in a call-out culture that is excommunicative, guilt- and shame-fetishizing, toxic, silencing, morally compromising, and not edifying for either its winners or its losers.

3) It makes politics confessional and gestural, about becoming virtuous by confessing one’s primordial sin, rather than foregrounding the need to organize concretely and strategically across identity lines, in solidarity, to which performative self-flagellation is simply irrelevant.

4) Symbolically, it implies that everybody should be brought down to a certain level rather than everybody brought up.

5) It is distinctly alienating when directed at people who, rightly or wrongly, feel themselves not to be privileged. It loses them. It drives them into the arms of reaction.

6) It accentuates what makes us different rather than what unites us. (And it falsifies what makes us different too: see point 1.)

Excellent further reading on this includes Phoebe Maltz Bovy’s book The Perils of Privilege (https://us.macmillan.com/…/phoebemaltzbovy/9781250091208) and virtually anything the Chicago-based organizer RL Stephens II writes, including his brilliant critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates (https://www.viewpointmag.com/…/the-birthmark-of-damnation-…/). See also this great Dead Pundits podcast episode featuring the indispensable Adolph Reed Jr. (https://soundcloud.com/…/ep-22-race-class-and-dsa-w-adolph-…).

One half of a dialectic of despair?

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Hi, I have a question. Maybe you understand this issue better than I do and can help me out.

The classic conservative and liberal objection to socialism is that its proposals are unrealistic. This objection is generally correct, though not for the reasons its defenders claim. Socialist proposals for ending poverty, e.g., are entirely realistic given the material resources and technological powers available to humankind in 2017. They’re often entirely unrealistic, in a single country, given the relations of domination that marble the all-ensnaring web of global capitalism. This is the lesson of Mitterand’s Socialist Party in 1980s France and Allende’s presidency in 1970s Chile, as I understand it. Socialism In One Country comes under impossible pressure from militarized, mobilized capital and does not last. At best (and there are also a lot of “at worsts”), it becomes Social-Democratic State Capitalism In One Country.

So what do we do? How do we organize, as people (if we’re such people) who think capitalism chokes our highest human capacities and should be repealed and replaced? Locally, sure, on issues that matter to local people in material terms — but does that work ever become more than reformist accommodation to a vicious system? Maybe that’s the best we can do? But that’s no more than one half of a dialectic of despair, isn’t it, to win real, meaningful improvements in people’s lives while the oceans rise and apocalyptic wars are kindled by the dynamics of a system that our parliamentary inch-gains hardly touch.

I probably just need to read more Trotsky and Luxemburg or something, but like, do you think about this? What’s the way forward, the way out? How do you combat this particular despair?

A Canadian left that can win

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One thing that living in the US has confirmed for me is that the liberal-left/socialist-left distinction is much, much clearer here than it is in Canada. I think this is partly because American (neo)liberals are often apologists for injustices that are less grotesquely in evidence in Canada: Canadian health care is already single-payer, Canadian criminal justice and carceral policy is somewhat less dystopian than its American counterpart, Canadian urban poverty can be less visible than the vast blight here. Canadian neoliberalism can more credibly, if meretriciously, claim to be an egalitarian success.

The liberal-socialist distinction is also harder to parse in Canada, I think, because of a Canadian aversion to group antagonisms, a sense that the country is small, so are its elite professional enclaves, and it’s best if we all just get along. Everyone wants to be invited to everyone else’s parties. Without many clearly articulated group antagonisms in place, with most social hydraulics converging toward consensus, the cost of individual dissent can be high: either your opinion will be more or less assimilated to the consensus or you’ll be kicked out of the club. Whereas in the US, in the same position, you’re more likely to have a pack of comrades ranged beside you and another pack at your throat.

Wherever this false amity of Canadian neoliberals and leftists is found, it’s the neolibs who tend to set the agenda, because–though they conceal it, sometimes even from themselves–they’re backed by capital. But politically, in this moment, they can’t win. Aimed at securing the participation of a more diverse range of the population in what’s inherently a brutal, exploitative system, Canadian neoliberalism offers no positive vision of a desirable life in a society organized on just principles. It doesn’t really know what to do with desire at all, except to shame it as it fans it or sublimate it in tech startups. It doesn’t know what to do with its historic guilt, except attempt in vain to exorcise it through moral panics, periodic public orgies of virtuous feeling that leave the structural causes of injustice intact. It’s neurotic and sclerotic. Joyless. A scold.

It can’t win. In this moment, it cannot build a broad enough base of support. Against the insurgent populist right, it has no chance. And if Canada is to become the just society it purports to be, or even to hold on to its political achievements, its socialist left will need to distinguish itself from the woke, elite-oriented, performatively self-righteous neoliberal “left” with which much of the Canadian public conflates it. A Canadian left that can win will seek to repair social misery, but it isn’t woke. On the contrary, it’s deep dream–in which the imagination is unshackled from staid notions of what’s possible, what kind of collective subject Canadians might be, who we are when we say “We” and how we can best enable each other’s flourishing.

“Apolitical Art” and Other Fantasies

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I think Jason Guriel is a genius prose stylist, and as an editor he’s a gentleman and very sharp, but I’m not convinced by his polemic in The Walrus against self-consciously political art. Maybe Auden’s right that poetry makes nothing happen, but only if you define “poetry” (and “happen”) pretty narrowly. Art can make better political imagination happen. It can make greater clarity about the nature of things happen. Plato exiled the poets from his Republic, but Plato’s own poetry (e.g. The Republic!) made a hell of a lot of Western consciousness happen.

I share Jason’s impatience with sentimental odes to art’s politically redemptive power. It’s true that, as he says, “the degree to which one’s earnest message is on the right side of history isn’t enough to redeem a cliché image or rote expression.” But just because there’s loads of dumb talk about art out there, reams of facile politicking in and around it, doesn’t mean art should abdicate in the face of intolerable social problems. Dazzling style gives delight, which matters, but such virtuosity can be placed in the service of any end, and all ends aren’t equally defensible. You have to weigh them and choose.

Jason’s choosing not to choose, taking style as its own end, is a classic liberal move: an assertion of individual freedom (style) and achieved personal responsibility (craft), coupled with a rejection of noisy collectivist activisms — which, on closer inspection, turns out to be itself a highly activist politics in defense of the existing liberal order, a worldview that represents itself as the inevitable, the only rational basis for consensus. It elides the economic, cultural, historical reasons why many people can’t or won’t assent to that consensus, and why they might look to art for various kinds of help.

You could maybe defend Jason’s position, or one thematically related to it, by making the argument Pierre Bourdieu proposes about “art for art’s sake”: that it’s not at all apolitical but instead represents a stronghold of autonomy from an all-pervading market logic. The market tends to assimilate most of what we’d consider Western art creation, though, so I’m not sure that’s a way out. Maybe the more productive thing would be to argue for subtler, smarter political art. Even if apolitical art were desirable, it isn’t possible.

Dialectic, Not Dualism

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When I argue, as I do, for dialectic over dualism in the way we process conflict, some folk get the impression I’m arguing for inaction. I’m not. I’m arguing for more thoughtful action. Maybe for “tragic” rather than “heroic” action, acting in doubt rather than acting in false certainty.

Here are a few examples of issues I grapple with that seem to me in need of a synthesis you might call “dialectical,” not just an affirmation of one pole or the other:

There are brutal inequalities in society that, given the considerably fucked way the individual is socialized under capitalism, may need to be addressed by handing more (redistributive, etc.) power to the state. || The state is brutal, repressive, and authoritarian, with basically illimitable, irresponsible sovereignty, it tends towards hierarchy and centralization of power, and this is as true of socialist states as of capitalist.

Trauma is a discourse weaponized in and by neoliberalism to hide structural problems under expressions of individual pain, to avoid structural reform by pushing for individual redress. || Trauma is an all too real lived experience that must be taken seriously and treated compassionately, that mustn’t be dismissed as mere politics.

Most of our social problems are structural and most people live with some manner of false consciousness, a misunderstanding of their own interests. || To tell someone they have false consciousness, they misread their own experiences, is horrendously condescending and often just plain inaccurate, and most people who do so are kind of dicks.

Directly, writing/theorizing makes nothing happen. It is in fact “all talk.” || No ethical action is possible without doing the work that writing/theorizing gives voice to.

To feel so so so so much is a spiritual and political resource that matters. || Raw emotion isn’t a coherent politics, nor does it necessarily point towards one.

You will do harm, no matter what; you can’t avoid it. || You’re obliged to try your fucking hardest to avoid doing harm.

I might add to this list.

Loving Beyond Beauty

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This piece by Caleb Luna (they/them) gets at an issue that increasingly seems to me to be *the* sticking point for a radical politics rooted in the erotic, in love. What happens to bodies marked by the majority as unbeautiful? Urging people to redefine their idea of beauty, as corporate marketing campaigns sometimes do, misses the point. That still makes beauty the measure of worth. It’s not enough to say, “You too are beautiful, body that society relentlessly devalues”; what’s radical and necessary is to say, “Your human value has nothing to do with your beauty or unbeauty, your human value is inalienable, and yet you’re still a body and your body is still good.”

I’ve often been kinda terrified about how alone I’d feel if nobody I find attractive found me attractive. I’ve worried that my tendency to date conventionally nice-looking able-bodied white people, when once in a while they’ll have me, just doesn’t scale: if everybody did that or tried to do that, so so so many people would be frustrated and alone.

And hey wait: so many people ARE frustrated and alone! It’s almost as if a neoliberal market logic applied to the sexual “marketplace” results, for some, in what Michel Houellebecq calls “absolute pauperization.” It’s almost as if the neoliberal privatization of care, the political consensus that people are mostly responsible for themselves and it’s not the role of the community to look after all its members, means that people who don’t find mates — whose bodies make it difficult to find mates — are pretty royally fucked.

But speaking of fucking, you want to fuck who you want to fuck, right? You do. It’s hard if not impossible to “reeducate” desire. But the identification of sex with care — the reality that, as Luna points out in their piece, a lot of people direct a disproportionate amount of their emotional energy towards the person they’re fucking — is a problem. Of course you should show as much care as possible to whomever you’re fucking. But a radically loving politics needs to go further.

Maybe it means building more friendships that are as committed and emotional-energy-intensive as good sexual relationships. Maybe it means fucking those you care about but who aren’t socially marked as beautiful, and also worshipping beauty (because beauty is amazing) and fucking those it abides in. Probably it doesn’t mean monogamy, which deals in a logic of status and possession and will-to-babymaking that causes many people, for both social and biological reasons, to prioritize beauty. (My partner and I aren’t monogamous and I still happen to think she’s beautiful, but I would love her and want to take care of her and be taken care of by her even if she weren’t.) Certainly it doesn’t mean pretending, because we want to protest oppressive forms of “objectification,” that we’re not bodies. That’s wrong. We don’t *have* bodies. We’re not spirits that borrow bodies. That’s Christianity. That’s Plato. That’s metaphor. We’re bodies.

I dunno. But it seems to me that the fundamental political question is an erotic one, that a politics that enables people to live fully human lives must both affirm beauty (because beauty is amazing) and refuse to make it a necessary basis for care.