A unionized auto worker on the assembly line in 1979.
In 2015, I wrote a short post about how some people — particularly wealthy liberals — are trying to rob “the 99 vs. 1 percent” framing of its inherent class politics in order to turn it into a new form of privilege-checking.
My argument was that the so-called “one percent” was better understood as a class than either an accumulation of arbitrary privileges or even a specific payscale — though that’s certainly a much better start than whether you’ve smoked meth. Furthermore, I argued that by diverting attention away from this ruling class at the top, we were instead turning inwards and letting the real power players in our society get off scot-free.
Sections of the working class are without a doubt more oppressed than others, but I wrote the piece because right now Americans are inundated with a variety of liberal politics that try to turn what should be political reckonings against the truly powerful into an epidemic of guilt and complicity in which a huge portion — or, sometimes, nearly all of us — are to blame.
That’s not only not true — it’s also politically ineffective if our aim is social emancipation.
But there’s another problem with the politics of privilege: the ease with which it’s used by conservatives.
Unlike many leftists from “blue states,” I grew up with Rush Limbaugh. Rush, Mark Davis, Hugh Hewitt — I listened to them all as my parents drove me around to Little League practices and summer vacations. As soon as I’d hear the thumping bass line to Limbaugh’s intro (“The City Was Gone” by the Pretenders), I’d get a knot in my stomach thinking about all the pompous bluster that was about to be unleashed. Whatever it was, I didn’t like its effect on my parents. It wasn’t so much that it was hateful as it was sarcastic, chortling, and aggrieved.
At the time, having no knowledge of the outside world whatsoever, I thought these radio right-wingers were obnoxious and probably wrong. But at the same time, I picked up on the cadence of their arguments.
Liberals like to believe that these hucksters are all dumb, and that they’ve managed to gain an audience simply because “there are a lot of racists out there” — and of course there’s definitely a big market for that in the USA. But there’s more to it.
There’s a reason so many millions have kept tuning in all these decades. With conservative politics, there’s a consistent logic. And a huge part of it is an attack on what they see as a series of unjust and unfair “privileges” being protected by a liberal state.
For decades, the conservative movement has taken advantage of the malaise of the labor movement in order to turn wage earners against unionized workers. With their hard-won benefits and higher wages, unionized workers are, after all, “privileged” members of the working class.
How many hours has Limbaugh & Co. done on the lazy United Automobile Workers thug who gets paid $70 an hour to screw a light bulb into a Chevy? Or the “rubber rooms” full of tenured public school teachers who can’t be fired ’cause of their damn union? Just look at how handily Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker was able to turn the bulk of his state — including the working class — against “privileged” public sector employees.
When the social-democratic parties of the Western world chose neoliberal policy solutions over the material interests of the working class, it was the Right who stepped in there too — arguing that immigrant families were “privileged” beneficiaries of social programs that workers fought for throughout the twentieth century.
We have our own version of that in the United States: is a desperately poor person on Medicaid more “privileged” than a working-class person who’s forced to pay exorbitant health insurance premiums out of pocket? The Right would say yes.
And yet notice how confident conservatives are that framing issues in terms of “privilege” will always go their way — the diminishment of Medicaid, the defunding of the welfare state — and never towards a solidaristic politics of single-payer. Funny how that works.
Sometimes, the Right will even go across the globe to turn the immiserated American poor into just another privileged class. Whenever they want to dismiss shocking new stats on American poverty, how do they do it? They quickly juxtapose the American poor against the impoverished in less developed countries.
“The US poor are privileged!” they say. After all, they have cable television, cell phones, refrigerators. These are all things that the poor elsewhere lack — so, really, is capitalism and wealth inequality that much of a problem?
Ask yourself: is this not, essentially, the same argument as the “first world problems” meme so beloved by progressives? During Occupy, remember the conservative line? Those kids all had iPods! They bought coffee at Starbucks! They, those fools, were all complicit — privileged. Don’t listen to those hipsters!
And of course, on the rare occasion that a progressive celebrity goes a couple notches left of acceptable — as Matt Damon did in his brutal takedown of the education reform movement — we’re reminded that these people are, after all, the privileged. Even if they’re arguing for the abolition of said privileges.
Each of these conservative lines ignores the ruling class at the top and, instead, drives our attention elsewhere. Never once does the conservative’s search for “privilege” blow back in his face and land on the capitalist class in general.
The Right deploys privilege politics to avoid class politics, obscuring just where the real wealth, power, and, yes, privilege lies in our society. Clearly, there’s something about this tactic that’s conducive to the conservative mission. They’ve been using it for decades now. Obviously they have reason to believe it’s working in their interests.
So why exactly do we think it’s working in ours?
Connor Kilpatrick is on the editorial board of Jacobin.