Some Notes on the Shortcomings of the “Privilege” Discourse

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 (…/phoebemaltzbovy/9781250091208) and virtually anything the Chicago-based organizer RL Stephens II writes, including his brilliant critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates (…/the-birthmark-of-damnation-…/). See also this great Dead Pundits podcast episode featuring the indispensable Adolph Reed Jr. (…/ep-22-race-class-and-dsa-w-adolph-…).

One half of a dialectic of despair?

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

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.