Privilege is a tough subject. For most people, there are always plenty of others who are both more privileged and less privileged. Still, nuance and complexity isn’t how we tend to think about such things. It depends, as always, on what we focus upon and what we ignore—this typically being shaped by unconscious biases.
We don’t objectively compare ourselves to the larger social reality. And we don’t base our perceptions on intricate demographic data and comprehensive surveys. What we usually do is create a sense of our place in the world through personal anecdotes and vague media-filtered experience, through narrative frames and political rhetoric. This causes us to compare ourselves to the distorted and often fictionalized narratives portrayed in MSM news reporting and Hollywood movies—not to mention the influence of now near endless political campaigning and the subtle class war rhetoric that is drilled into our psyches. Besides that, it is human nature to focus on and, when possible, aspire toward what is above us. Even the wealthy will look with envy at the even wealthier. This is exaggerated in a high inequality society, where the gap between the rich and super-rich is as vast as the gap between the upper classes and all the rest, and such gaps continue to grow ever more vast. Only those near the bottom might bother to spend much time looking down upon those below them in the social pecking order, whether the differences are real (class) or perceived (race).
I’ve pointed out how this plays out for liberals—the privilege of the liberal class, the bias and benefits inherent to greater wealth and status, opportunities and resources. The liberal demographic is among the most economically well off and well educated. And, related to this, the wealthier of any demographic (race, ideology, etc) the more liberal people tend to be, often both in terms of social liberalism and classical liberal economics. It’s not only about those who self-identify as liberals. A similar pattern is found among libertarians and other right-wingers, from objectivists to anarcho-capitalists. It’s true of the Republican political elite and activists, the conservative pundits and think tank intellectuals, the business managerial class and inherited old wealth. But it’s also true of most people on the far political left: Marxists, anarcho-syndicalists, feminists, etc. Even the typical minority activist and politician is going to be far above average in wealth and education. To hold and defend any particular ideology or identity politics largely depends on a privileged status in society. It takes a lot of time, energy, and resources to commit to such activities—especially if one makes a career out of it. The poor, whether working or unemployed, whether white or minority, don’t have this kind of luxury.
There is an odd dynamic here. The middle-to-upper class are more ‘liberal’ in many ways, including for those on the political right. Those far down the economic scale are less concerned about defending liberalism in any of its forms, whether leftist standard liberalism or right-wing classical liberalism. In Western countries, even radical left-wingers who often are critical of ‘liberalism’ are more culturally liberal than the poor. On the other hand, the lower classes (i.e., the majority of the population) are more liberal/leftist in concrete ways than the political elite that claims to represent them—supporting: higher taxation of the rich and corporations, stronger social safety net, more effective regulations, less wars of aggression and military adventurism, etc. The supposed conservatism of the lower class majority is primarily symbolic, not necessarily based on specific political principles and policies. But it could be seen as genuinely conservative in the lower class’ demand for more emphasis on social capital and culture of trust, family and community—the very things that are undermined by upper class politics and economics, especially neoliberalism. Anyway, it’s a class divide more than an ideological divide, as the differences between partisan/ideological elites is negligible in terms of practical politics and actual results.
The main thing, anyway, is that there are these fundamental divides in our society. They lead to endless disconnections and conflicts. Our thoughts are distorted and our vision narrowed, causing endless confusion and misunderstanding. This is why privilege is so hard to see and understand. We rarely ever get the sense of the full context of our lives. This has worsened because of the segregation of not just ghettos, housing projects, and rural isolation but also of suburbs, walled communities, and gentrified neighborhoods. Physical distance leads to psychological distance.
Obviously, it’s not just about the hypocrisy of self-identified liberals living comfortable lives, even though their example is egregious based on the politics they outwardly support. This is a collective failure, not just of the dominant liberal order of post-Enlightenment society, or rather at this point we are all liberals complicit in this failure, even those who spend their lives complaining about liberalism and blaming liberals. Hypocritical liberals simply make explicit what is implicit to the world we live in. Even poor Westerners are part of the problems involved in a long history of imperialism, colonialism, genocide, slavery, exploitation, etc. Living in the West, we are all legacy beneficiaries of immense crimes against humanity in the past but also continuing into the present. This is particularly true of a country like the US, for being a subject of an empire has its advantages even for the poorest of subjects, not that it’s all that great of a fate even though there are worst fates.
As a liberal, much of my focus has been on other liberals. But I want to clarify this. There is a reason I identify as a liberal. It’s because of, not in spite of, my criticisms. According to my most utopian ideals and futuristic visions, I could identify as a left-libertarian, anarcho-syndicalist, democratic-socialist, etc. I could grab hold of some ideology as a way of distancing myself from liberalism. I don’t want to do that. Instead, I want to emphasize that I’m complicit in all that goes on in this society. I don’t want to merely stand back from it all or worse still pretend I’m above it all. That is what irritates me about many left-wingers. It’s true that left-wing politics has little overt power in the world today, certainly not in the United States. But I think it’s a cop-out for left-wingers to play intellectual games with detached righteousness, lost in their highfalutin abstruse historical and economic analyses, as if they aren’t stuck down in the sewers covered with shit like the rest of us.
Joe Bageant was a Marxist and considered himself far left of the far left, but he never forgot his roots in poor white Appalachia. He complained about liberalism and yet at times admitted he was a liberal of sorts—worse still, an educated liberal and an old hippie at that. He was trying to make his voice heard from within the belly of the beast, not observing the beast’s behavior as if a zoologist studying from afar. From the opposite end of the class spectrum, there was someone like Theodore Roosevelt. His class solidarity apparently was a bit lacking, as he didn’t espouse an ideology for the wealthy and business interests. He took socialists seriously, in that he argued they made some valid points. Unlike many mainstream partisans today reacting to the supporters of Sanders and Trump, TR didn’t just dismiss the perceived radicals as loud-mouthed rabble-rousers and malcontents. He argued that many socialists were simply social reformers, not utopian ideologues, and that the issues they brought up should be taken seriously—it being better to allow genuine reform if it prevents violent revolution. Both Bageant and Roosevelt were making the simple point that we should listen to those making complaints and try to understand where they are coming from—i.e., don’t shoot the messenger.
Here is what has been on my mind, a specific demographic that is some combination of middle-to-upper class, well educated, professional, and mostly white. Out of this demographic comes the politicians and activists, community organizers and social workers, intellectuals and academics, writers and artists, musicians and actors, journalists and reporters, etc. Despite being a minority of the population, they have greater power to be heard and influence than all of the rest of the population combined. They are, of course, more economically secure and comfortable than most of the population, along with greater opportunity for economic mobility. They particularly dominate the political and media spheres and so they determine the terms of public debate and controlling the framing of issues and narratives. These are the people who are most invested in the system and likewise benefit the most from the system, but they aren’t the people who experience the greatest harm from and costs of the system.
These are the privileged. These are the people who have the most insulated lives. They either don’t see or don’t understand many of the divides in our society. Certainly, they have little experience of those who live on the other side of those divides. They argue among themselves within a narrow frame of interests and ideas. Even the supposed radicals among them are safely contained within the dominant paradigm. Yet fissures are beginning to form in their walled reality. And the voices from outside are beginning to be heard. This disturbs their comfortable lives and puts them in an irritable mood. They realize their position in the social order is being threatened.
Even so, I don’t get the sense that most of these middle-to-upper class gentlefolk realize how bad it’s gotten for the majority of the population. Some do get it, but many more don’t. When I hear the criticisms of the supporters of Sanders and Trump, it becomes obvious that these critics are oblivious to the point of utter cluelessness. It’s not just economic problems getting worse: increasing poverty among the disadvantaged and growing inequality across society, higher rates of unemployment and underemployment (permanent unemployment no longer even being measured), the falling behind other developed countries in economic mobility along with the size and wealth of the middle class, stagnating or falling real wages and buying power, etc. It’s also a worsening of rates of mental health issues, suicide and other mortality causes, delayed marriage and divorce—and the destruction of all that held the social fabric together: deteriorating tight-knit farming communities and factory towns based on strong local economies, loss of high membership rates in labor unions and civic organizations, undermining of culture of trust and civic participation, weakening of democratic process and representation, disempowerment and disenfranchisement and demoralization of the lower classes, economic segregation and isolation, underfunding of schools and libraries and infrastructure and public services, and so much else.
This isn’t directly impacting most of the people the comfortable middle-to-upper classes. They usually don’t even see it’s impact on others, except occasional reports about it in the news media and occasional portrayals of it in the entertainment media. But even then, no real sense of what it means for those suffering and struggling. When they dismiss demands for reform from those below them, what they don’t understand is that these aren’t unreasonable requests. Those at the bottom of society don’t have the luxury to wait for slowly implemented moderate reforms. The system is broken. For the worst off, this at times can be a life or death situation. Some people are barely hanging on, at the end of their rope. As the economy worsens and the divides widen, desperation gets pushed to the breaking point with the inevitable result of soaring rates of mental health issues and suicides. Push it far enough and you will see even far worse consequences for all of society. The presently comfortable might find themselves increasingly uncomfortable, if they continue to ignore the victims of these oppressive problems. It’s not wise, much less moral and compassionate, to dismiss the pleas of the desperate.
* * *