Let Them Eat Privilege
Focusing on privilege diverts attention away from the real villains.
Let Them Eat Privilege
By Connor Kilpatrick / jacobinmag.com
Aug 26, 2015

We are the 99%.” It was like a gift from on high.

For decades, the Left had been trying to come up with a slogan that was both inclusive and oppositional. A slogan that put a relatively complex critique of class society in the populist language of American egalitarianism — something that spoke to a widespread sentiment that the elites had gotten too wealthy and powerful and had to be reined in.

But a recent Vox article, citing TED talker and New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas, casts doubt on just who gets to sit at that 99 percent table. It seems one-percenter privilege is haunting quite a few of us:

‘Don’t console yourself that you are the 99 percent,’ he says. ‘If you live near a Whole Foods; if no one in your family serves in the military; if you are paid by the year, not the hour; if most people you know finished college; if no one you know uses meth; if you married once and remain married; if you’re not one of 65 million Americans with a criminal record — if any or all of these things describe you, then accept the possibility that actually, you may not know what’s going on, and you may be part of the problem.’

Before you go after the one percent, Giridharadas says, take a look at yourself. Kill the one-percenter within. Check your privilege.

But instead of explaining what it actually means to be among this tiny sliver in terms of concrete earnings, accumulated wealth, or class position, Vox and Giridharadas rely on strange descriptors that Vox considers “privileges.”

By forcing the middle class to divert their attention downward (and within) instead of at the real power players above, Vox and Giridharadas are playing into the Right’s hands. It’s an attempt to shame the middle class — those with some wealth but, relative to the top one or one-tenth of one percent, mere crumbs — to make them shut up about the rich and super rich and, instead, look at those below as a reminder that it could all be much worse.

Let’s take a closer look at Giridharadas’s list of supposedly 99 percenter traits and find out just how representative they are of the bulk of the US population.

Only 5% of adults have ever used meth. A quick perusal of Whole Foods’s site shows a location in every major metropolitan area in the United States — and as of 2010, 80.7% of Americans live in urban areas. More than a third of Americans hold a college degree. And although 57% of those under fifty have an immediate family member who’s served in the military, only a third of those under thirty do. That’s a far cry from 99%.

But the one-percent concept isn’t about a lifestyle or individual consumption habits — a graduate degree and a kale smoothie do not a one-percenter make. It’s based on concrete socioeconomic relations first brought to popular attention in an academic study by economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty — a study that specifically charted the enrichment of this tiny minority amid the economic stagnation and impoverishment of nearly everyone else.

The one percent isn’t some amorphous boogeyman inside all of us, as Vox seems to believe. It’s a very real class. And we don’t need a list of cultural “symptoms” of one-percent-style privilege to figure out who they are. Just run the numbers.

If your household — or to be generous, the one you grew up in — makes an adjusted gross income of at least $343,000, you are, in fact, the one percent. Even if you smoke meth, went to boot camp, and are on your third marriage. Yes, even if most of your friends didn’t finish college and live kinda far from a Whole Foods.

Now, if you or the household you grew up in make an adjusted gross income of less than $340,000, you are, technically, the 99 percent. Even if you’ve never seen combat, hang out with college-completing dorks, and are too chicken shit to smoke crystal.

In other words, Giridharadas’s checklist is bullshit — it reads like a wealthy New Yorker whose only concept of flyover America is an episode of Justified. But what then is one-percentdom? Is it simply earning north of $340,000 a year? $10,000 less and you’re Tom Joad, $10,000 more and you’re the Monopoly Man?

No — it’s about the class it places you in.

The category of class, after all, is relational — not gradational. Most of the super rich get their money by virtue of exploiting the labor of others and holding private property — corporate shares, real estate investments, bonds and treasury bills, etc. —  that they will fight tooth and nail to protect.

Even when the income of the one percent (mostly the bottom half of that select group) is derived primarily from high salaries (as opposed to returns on investment) it’s far more likely to be reinvested in shares, bonds, and real estate — and of course elite educations and other opportunities for their children — than the income of the middle 40 percent, who have hardly anything left once the bills are paid.

That means that even with nothing more than a killer W-2, the salaried lower half of the one percent still have the means to consolidate themselves as an elite class while the rest of us are immiserated.

When a cut in capital gains taxes is paid for by hiking state tuition and slashing social services, the one percent benefits while the vast majority of the 99 percent loses. When a new law is passed making it harder to organize a union or wages are squeezed to ring out higher and higher corporate profits, it’s the one percent — and their investment portfolios — that benefits and the majority of the 99 percent who loses.

It’s real winners and losers — not a state of mind and not a “culture.” And it works like this:

chart

What’s bad for you economically is probably good for them. That’s why the rest of us will have to come in conflict with this tiny elite and its institutions if we’re going win a more just and egalitarian future for ourselves.

By substituting class relations for an arbitrary list of “privileges,” Vox is attempting to paint a picture of an immiserated America with no villain. It’s an America without a ruling class that directly and materially benefits from everyone else’s hard times. And this omission isn’t just incorrect — it robs us of any meaningful oppositional politics that could change it all.

It’s a conclusion that, despite Vox’s endorsement, plays into conservatives’ hands. Like the journalist Robert Fitch once wrote, it is the aim of the Right “to restrict the scope of class conflict — to bring it down to as low a level as possible. The smaller and more local the political unit, the easier it is to run it oligarchically.”

So why turn inward? Why argue over who’s got the sweeter deal and how we’re all responsible for the gross inequity of society when it’s not that much more than a tiny sliver of millionaires and billionaires at Davos sipping wine and rubbing shoulders with politicians?

Let’s try worrying more about knowing thy enemy — and building solidarity from that recognition. “Check your privilege?” Sure. But for once, let’s try checking it against the average hedge fund manager instead of a random Whole Foods shopper.

If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.

4.0 ·
1
Trending Today
What Happens When You Rebel Against the Herd
Sofo Archon · 15,555 views today · Are You Truly Living Your Life? You live, but are you living the way you want to live, or the way others want you to live? You choose, but are your choices based on...
The Coming War on China
John Pilger · 6,447 views today · A major US military build-up – including nuclear weapons – is under way in Asia and the Pacific with the purpose of confronting China. John Pilger raises the alarm on an...
Murdoch and Trump, Sitting at the Tee, S-C-H-E-M-I-N-G
Frankie Boyle · 4,618 views today · Say what you like about Donald Trump but he's already done things people said were impossible, like made Twitter worse. Looking back, the Harambe situation is the closest...
How a Lack of Touch Is Destroying Men
Mark Green · 4,499 views today · Why Men Need More Platonic Touch in their Lives
Real Underground Kingdom That Has Existed for Millions of Years Went Unnoticed, Until Recently...
Kid Krunk · 2,530 views today · 28 Stunning Photos Of The World’s Largest Cave
10 Words Every Girl Should Learn
Soraya Chemaly · 2,371 views today · "Stop interrupting me."  "I just said that." "No explanation needed." In fifth grade, I won the school courtesy prize. In other words, I won an award for being polite. My...
Thich Nhat Hanh: How We Can Learn to Love Our Enemies
5 min · 1,965 views today · This is a short excerpt from Peacemaking. I often think about this story when I think about the kind of activism I would like to bring into this world. I want to help build a...
Simple Social Experiment Shows We Are More Than The Boxes People Put Us In
3 min · 1,947 views today · We live in a time where we are quick to put people in boxes. Maybe we have more in common than what we think?
I Am Not Your Negro (2017)
3 min · 1,661 views today · In his new film, director Raoul Peck envisions the book James Baldwin never finished - a radical narration about race in America, using the writer's original words. He draws...
What Would It Take to Stop the Raids?
CrimethInc. Ex-Workers Collective · 1,560 views today · Responding Effectively to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Attacks
Your Lifestyle Has Already Been Designed (The Real Reason For The Forty-Hour Workweek)
David Cain · 1,287 views today · Well I’m in the working world again. I’ve found myself a well-paying gig in the engineering industry, and life finally feels like it’s returning to normal after my nine months...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,089 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
How Wolves Change Rivers
4 min · 1,022 views today · When wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the United States after being absent nearly 70 years, the most remarkable "trophic cascade" occurred. What is a...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 927 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 900 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Charter For Compassion
2 min · 674 views today · The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated...
Surviving Capitalist Depression
Michael Emero · 672 views today · We live in a toxic society filled with toxic people. Even the ones with the best hearts- including ourselves- have been raised in ignorance, with disinformation. Our examples...
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 555 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Hans Rosling Brilliantly Explains Complexity of Population and Resource Issues Using Simple Tools
3 min · 468 views today · Let me show you the world, says Swedish academic Han Rosling as he demonstrates the dynamics of population growth, child mortality and carbon dioxide emissions. The challenge...
"The Myth of Time" - Martin Luther King Jr.
3 min · 440 views today · Excerpt from MLK Jr.'s last sermon, "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution". Delivered at The National Cathedral on March 31, 1968 (4 days prior to his...
Load More
What's Next
Like us on Facebook?
Let Them Eat Privilege