Privilege theory: a political impasse?

On the 1st May 2014 (International Workers’ Day) I attended a session titled “Intersectionality” at the launch event of the Free University of Sheffield. The strap line to the session – “checking our own privilege” – was a more accurate descriptor, since the session itself advanced privilege theory rather than explored intersectionality. Ideas on intersectionality seem to me to offer a potentially creative political exchange, whereas the current popularity of privilege theory, bound up with intersectionality discussion, appears to lead activist milieus into a political impasse (see also my post On privilege theory and intersectionality). The (black) woman leading the session problematized an image used by the (white) organisers of the Free University of Sheffield to advertise the event, an image which she described as black African children holding a free education poster (the actual image is below). She deemed this as an ignorant appropriation.

photo(1)I spoke up: while we must be sensitive to the temporal and spatial specificities of such images (social, cultural, economic, and political), there is something universal here. She replied: what could I possibility think I had in common with the people in the image? I suggested: the universal struggle for free education, for starters, also, the universal struggle for free health care, the universal struggle for independent trade unions…

Nothing concrete in terms of political activity came out of this session, unless the well-meaning musing and ultimate entanglement on the part of the predominantly white audience count. Some looked pretty concerned by their accidental but privileged appropriation of an image of the unprivileged. I, by the way, was one of two non-white participants, the other, of course, was the session leader. I sensed that my outspokenness might have been less tolerated had I been white, in which case I might have been expected to look pretty concerned too.

Moving from an encounter of privilege theory in practice to the theory itself, in Peggy McIntosh’s essay, White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, she states:

“Through work to bring materials from Women’s Studies into the rest of the curriculum, I have often noticed men’s unwillingness to grant that they are over privileged, even though they may grant that women are disadvantaged. They may say they will work to improve women’s status, in the society, the university, or the curriculum, but they can’t or won’t support the idea of lessening men’s. Denials, which amount to taboos, surround the subject of advantages, which men gain from women’s disadvantages. These denials protect male privilege from being fully acknowledged, lessened or ended. Thinking through unacknowledged male privilege as a phenomenon, I realized that since hierarchies in our society are interlocking, there was most likely a phenomenon of white privilege, which was similarly denied and protected. As a white person, I realized I had been taught about racism as something which puts others at a disadvantage, but had been taught not to see one of its corollary aspects, white privilege which puts me at an advantage. […] the feeling that one belongs within the human circle, as Native Americans say, should not be seen as a privilege for a few. Ideally it is an unearned entitlement. At present, since only a few have it, it is an unearned advantage for them. This paper results from a process of coming to see that some of the power which I originally saw as attendant on being a human being in the U.S. consisted in unearned advantage and conferred dominance.”

Privilege theory views society as a seesaw: you are up there because I am down here, and you are up there because you weigh me down. It is a personalised dual camp – us versus them, me versus you – perspective on social relations that is devoid of independent class politics, and is prone (dare I say it?) to unproductive anger.

seesawMia McKenzie, writing about ways to push back against privilege, declares: “The truth is that acknowledging your privilege means a whole lot of nothing much if you don’t do anything to actively push back against it.” Speaking from the vantage point of a black woman, her advice to the privileged is:

1. Relinquish power – “If you are in a position of power and you are able to recognize and acknowledge that at least part of the reason you are there is your (white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, class, etc.) privilege, then pushing back against that privilege means sharing that power with, or sometimes relinquishing it to, the folks around you who have less privilege and therefore less power.”

2. Just don’t go – “If you have access to something and you recognize that you have it partly because of privilege, opt out of it. […] Pushing back against your privilege often requires sacrifice.”

3. Shut up – “This one is so, so important. If you are a person with a lot of privilege (i.e. a white, straight, able-bodied, class-privileged, cisgender male or any combination of two or more of those) and you call yourself being against oppression, then it should be part of your regular routine to sit the hell down and shut the eff up.”

4. Be careful what identities you claim – “If you’re a cis dude who is only into women but you call yourself ‘queer’ because all your friends are queer and plus you kissed a guy once and also you feel more politically aligned with queer folks…rethink that. Consider how your privilege (and sense of entitlement) gives you access to claim identities even when your lived experience doesn’t support it. […] Think about what it means to claim a marginalized identity when you don’t have a marginalized experience.”

As a blueprint for political action, it is the gist here that troubles me. For instance, in terms of anti-racist and anti-fascist politics, it is harmful to naturalise the idea of ‘race’ (see my post Racism 101: what is it?) and with that invert the seesaw of privilege theory. There is a passivity and political impasse to privilege theory that Mia McKenzie ironically demonstrates. She says, it is not enough to be aware of your privilege, you must push back; yet her four points for pushing back entail little to nothing that is actively or proactively political. Given that we are all, in one way or another, according to this theory, privileged and unprivileged, advantaged and disadvantaged, we are all left naval gazing.

On privilege theory and intersectionality

What are privilege theory and intersectionality? And what’s the appeal?

Privilege theorist Peggy McIntosh talks of white privilege as “an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, assurances, tools, maps, guides, codebooks, passports, visas, clothes, compass, emergency gear, and blank cheques”. The term privilege is seen to go beyond the concept of ‘economic class’ to enable us to identify and understand how various oppressions affect our social relations and interactions with one another. Furthermore, privilege theory and intersectionality reject a division between so-called primary (class-based) and secondary struggles (for example, based around gender, ‘race’, and sexuality).

The basic premise of privilege theory is that wherever there is an oppressive system – notably, capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity – there is both an oppressed group of people and a privileged group of people (who, consciously or not, benefit to a degree). Intersectionality is the idea that we are all privileged by some systems of oppression and burdened by other systems of oppression, thus our privileges and our oppressions intersect.

By lacking full awareness of our privileges and their intersectionality, we are politically divided and weak. And while we cannot be held responsible for the systems of oppression that impart privilege upon us, we do have a choice in terms of how we respond to such privilege (for instance, to our whiteness, to our maleness, to our straightness, to our ableness, and so on). For leftists then, the privileged have a critical role to play in the struggles against systems of oppression but not a leading role, since oppressed groups – with their own unique insight and experience – should head the struggles to end their oppressions.

It is easy to appreciate why privilege theory and intersectionality have broad appeal, and to see the potential for a constructive and creative exchange towards a politics capable of realising a ‘new normal’. That said, below I offer four cautions / critiques that I hope are worthy of engagement.

Beware of ‘the straw man’ in privilege theory and intersectionality…

A serious, damning history of prominent Marxist organisations downplaying, and, worse still, pandering to, sexism, racism and homophobia is certainly not ‘the straw man’ here. For instance, the forerunner to the Socialist Party, the Militant Tendency, in the late 1970s and 1980s (see my previous blog posts). This history, as well as the recent, well-publicised, ill-handling of a rape allegation case within the Socialist Workers’ Party, partly explains the appeal of privilege theory and intersectionality; and the ‘turn off’ many have to white, straight, male dominated Marxist organisations. However, this is neither the whole picture nor an inevitable one to do with Marxism per se. My own organisation (Alliance for Workers’ Liberty) has a brave history of socialist feminism and anti-racism, of fighting for LGBT rights and liberation, and of balancing a collective, coherent and democratic centrist approach to struggling against oppression with autonomous control for oppressed groups.

Critique No 1: What is ‘the straw man’ in privilege theory and intersectionality? That Marxism innately differentiates between primary and secondary struggles, and is therefore class reductionist and economically determinist.

Let’s turn to Engels in a defence:

“if somebody twists this into saying that the economic factor is the only determining one, [she or] he is transforming that proposition into a meaningless, abstract, absurd phrase. We make history ourselves, but first of all, under very definite assumptions and conditions … history is made in such a way that the final result always arises from conflicts between individual wills, of which each in turn has been made what it is by a variety of particular conditions of life. Thus, there are innumerable crisscrossing forces, an infinite series of parallelograms of forces which give rise to one resultant – the historical event.”

What we can gauge from this quote is actually a kind of pre-existing, living, breathing intersectional Marxism.

Racism and white supremacy

Demonstrating such a pre-existing intersectional Marxism are the following two examples from Marx’s writings on racism and capitalism:

“In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” (From Capital)

On anti-Irish racism, Marx observed:

“Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the USA. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland. This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organisation. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.” (From Marx to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt In New York)

Critique No 2: Marxism holds that people’s reactionary ideas are shaped by historical conditions and forces of existence, AND that people’s reactionary ideas can change depending on historical conditions and forces of existence.

Take the example of the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike, and the impact that this class struggle had on questioning gender roles and relations within traditional mining communities, and the effect that gay and black solidarity groups had in challenging homophobia and racism.

Privilege theory is predicated on an unchanging status – i.e. privilege – rather than a dynamic understanding of human consciousness vis-à-vis human history.

Critique No 3: In privilege theory, people tend to talk about ‘white supremacy’ rather than ‘racism’; but how much explanatory power does the former have over the latter? None. Robert Miles (1989) defines racism as a process of signification: “racism ‘works’ by attributing meanings to certain phenotypical and/or genetic characteristics of human beings in such a way as to create a system of categorisation, and by attributing additional (negatively evaluated) characteristics to the people sorted into those categories. This process of signification is therefore the basis for the creation of a hierarchy of groups, and for establishing criteria by which to include and exclude groups of people in the process of allocating resources and services.” This is what explanatory power looks like. How does white supremacy help with a political analysis and response to anti-Irish racism, anti-gypsy racism, anti-Semitism?

What happens when we mess around with ‘capitalism’ and ‘class’? We lose something rather important

Both ‘capitalism’ and ‘class’ have been given wider definitional scope within privilege theory and intersectionality: capitalism as social, cultural, political and economic relations, and class as a cultural construct (to include the economic but differing from simply wage-labour). Thus it is worth asking: what is lost in re-defining key Marxist terminology when thinking through the nature of exploitation and resistance?

Let’s recap Marx’s understanding of the terms labour, value and capital. In Capital, Marx distinguishes labour from labour-power, for it is not the labourer which capital buys, as in a slave society, but the capacity to work. The commodity, as a thing for sale, is defined as possessing both an exchange-value (its exchange ratio at a certain amount with various amounts of other commodities) and a use-value (its capacity to satisfy human wants or needs). A commodity can be a person’s labour-power, or a good or service.

The twofold nature of labour in commodities – “the pivot”, Marx reminds us, “on which a clear comprehension of Political Economy turns” – is concrete labour (a particular activity producing a useful thing) and abstract labour (the expenditure of a quantity of average social labour-time).

The value of a commodity is the common property underlying its exchange-value, specifically, the average social labour-time ‘congealed’ within it; while profit is the surplus-value derived from the excess of value added by workers’ labour over the value paid out for their labour-power as a commodity. Hence capital is value used to generate surplus-value or, as Marx puts it, is “self-expanding value”.

Marx’s differentiation of productive and unproductive labour can for most purposes be considered minor, since exploitation is fundamentally a relation between the whole capitalist class and the whole working class, not one capitalist and one worker. Exploitation lies less in the higher or lower rate of payment for labour-power and more in the fact that one class monopolises the means of production and another is compelled to sell their labour-power. The consequence being that, as Marx spells out in Grundrisse: “[t]he exchange between capital and labour […] does not enrich the worker”, since the “separation of labour and property [is] the precondition of this exchange”; therefore “[l]abour as object [is] absolute poverty, [and] labour as subject [is] general possibility of wealth. – Labour without particular specificity confronts capital”.

That said, for Marx, productive workers directly produce surplus-value while others do not, for example, unproductive workers, the unemployed, domestic labour, children, or old people. However, unproductive workers (and indeed unpaid domestic labour), whilst not directly linked to creating surplus-value, serve a role for capital in reducing the cost to capital in realising surplus-value. For the reason that capital or the State forces unproductive workers to work a longer time than required to produce the equivalent of their own wage, they are exploited in the same way as productive workers.

Furthermore, domestic labour, much unproductive labour and even consumption serves to reproduce labour-power and thus to reproduce the power that creates the wealth of capitalists and the State, as Marx remarks: “The individual consumption of the labourer, whether it proceed within the workshop or outside it, whether it be part of the process of production or not, forms […] a factor of the production and reproduction of capital […] The fact that the labourer consumes his [sic] means of subsistence for his own purposes, and not to please the capitalist, has no bearing on the matter. […] The maintenance and reproduction of the working-class is, and must ever be, a necessary condition to the reproduction of capital. But the capitalist may safely leave its fulfilment to the labourer’s instincts of self-preservation and of propagation.” Capital not only gets away with not paying for the full value of the maintenance and reproduction of the working class but actually further exploits the workers’ instincts (and wages) for self-preservation.

For all of us committed to the idea that a majority is capable of changing society into a more democratic and humane one, in which we can conceive of and realise a ‘new normal’, we actually need to know: who will set the tempo and volume of struggles against capital? The importance of Marx’s labour theory of value is that it offers us an explanation of profit and enables us to predict that when labour is withdrawn (when workers strike) no value is produced. While his distinction between productive and unproductive labour is a minor one (given exploitation is a relation of struggle between the whole capitalist class and the whole working class), it remains a useful tool in assessing the degrees of leverage various groups of workers have to disrupt and halt areas of capitalism.

Critique No 4: Privilege theory and intersectionality offer no such insight or explanation of capitalist exploitation and resistance; in fact, both take us away from a Marxist political economy understanding of class and class struggle.


The above discussion was based on notes that I delivered at the NCAFC Conference in Birmingham on 23rd November 2013. I spoke on a panel with two other speakers. Two points made by the last speaker have stayed with me since. First, she stated that I’d “made an assumption that everyone in the room was at the same level” – implying that “the use of high, convoluted language” (as she put it) by people who are able to read theory was a privilege and therefore exclusionary. Second, she frustrated that in such discussions people “refuse to shut up about Marx”. If this in some way signifies the practical application of privilege theory within the student movement, then I wonder if it is underpinned by a rather unhelpful anger, anti-intellectualism, and anti-Marxism.

In preparation for my talk, I had in fact assumed zero prior knowledge of privilege theory, intersectionality, and Marxism. And my introduction of Marxism was to illustrate its intersectional dimension, and its unique perspective into the nature of exploitation and resistance.

Finally, if anger derives from a place in which individuals feel uniquely and especially aggrieved, and they perceive others as unable to appreciate their uniquely and especially painful lived experience, thus offers of empathy are seen as patronising and from a place of privilege – then how healthy and useful is such anger personally and politically?