Friday, 7 November 2014

Keeping privilege in check.

It is no coincidence that the decline of the Left as an organising force has been followed by various forms of depoliticisation. It has come in the form of moralism as well as in the culturalisation of politics. Not only class, but race, gender, and sexuality, have been reduced to ethical and cultural questions. It’s a kind of ‘lifestyle’ politics, not even identity politics. As if all we have to do is change our personal conduct and private attitudes then the system will be rendered humane. It’s all a matter of self-regulation, chiefly in language.

If we take privilege-checking, it’s about who has the legitimacy to talk first and foremost. The demand to ‘check your privilege’ will be thrown at anyone for a multitude of reasons. If you fall into an intersection of privileged groups then you can find yourself on the receiving end of this demand. Of course, there is a serious point worth considering. People ought to reflect upon the advantaged position in which they were born and act responsibly. But that’s not what we’re talking about.

No-platforming is not so far away from ‘calling out’ someone on their privilege. Not only is privilege-checking sanctimonious and censorious, it is essentially reformist in its ad hominem attacks. If we take it seriously then its aim is to delegitimize the voices of the privileged and empower those who are underprivileged. So it’s about shifting the discourse, but not very far from what we have already. It’s perfectly conceivable that there are figures who can speak without the baggage of ‘privilege’. It doesn’t make them automatic allies of the Left.

It’s not really about resolving social problems. It’s about reshaping the discourse at best. It smacks of the kind of regulatory measures preferred by liberals. If we can vet the speakers on the basis of privilege then we’ll have a better discourse. It loses sight of the possibility that there is a structural problem with the kind of society in which we live. It’s not enough to challenge privilege and demand that it limits its reach. It won’t go away overnight. It’s the modesty of these aims which the Left should criticise.

If we are radicals then we don’t want to keep privilege in check because we don’t think such privileges should exist. Therefore we are for the abolition of privilege and not the maintenance of such privilege in any way. This calls for more than ‘shouting down’ illegitimate voices. It takes collective action, which requires coordination. The question of organisational form still hangs over the Left long after the Soviet Union collapsed. Perhaps it is the face of this question that the Left would rather turn towards moralism.

This article was originally posted at the Third Estate on November 2 2014.

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