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.
* * *
The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness
The Desperate Acting Desperately
Trends in Depression and Suicide Rates
From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
21 thoughts on “Inequality Divides, Privilege Disconnects”
I noticed a Vox article about liberals being smug:
And some responses:
It was interesting to hear the different views. Of course, conservatives at the National Review took it as an opportunity for their own ironically gleeful smugness. I hadn’t seen so much smugness in a comments section in a long time.
Here are a couple of my responses to someone at the National Review—here is one:
Part of the problem is what do we even mean by liberals. Most Americans hold ‘liberal’/progressive positions on many issues. But if we are talking specifically about the liberal class or self-identified liberals, I see it as a different problem than smugness.
They are the second wealthiest and most well educated demographic, second to libertarians. They are also a smaller demographic, like libertarians, and don’t actually represent much of the American population or even much of the Democratic party.
Rather than smugness, they are disconnected from the average American. Then again, most conservative or right-wing political elite, middle class Tea Partiers, MSM pundits, think tank intellectuals, university academics, business professionals, etc are likewise disconnected. It’s a problem of a vast class divide in life experience, not a particular ideology.
I’m an equal opportunity critic. And I have criticized liberals plenty. But I’m generally critical, no matter the ideology.
And here is another comment:
No. I don’t see disconnection and smugness as the same, at least not in a simple sense. I have severe doubts that the two are connected. It depends on what kind of disconnection and smugness one is talking about. I see plenty of smugness in other demographics, far beyond the confines of liberalism.
My working class white grandfather who grew up in poverty was fully capable of feeling smug toward poor minorities in particular and minorities in general. Many American WASPs have felt smug toward ethnic whites, especially Irish Catholics. But these days about anyone can feel smug toward some group or another.
Politicians and pundits on the political right are among the most smug people in this country—consider Bill O’Reilly as an example, as smug as they come. I see this smugness and other expressions of condescension among libertarians, objectivists, neocons, fundamentalists, etc—far from all being liberal in even the broadest of senses.
Even my parents can be condescending at times, in typical conservative fashion, but I just wouldn’t call it smugness. Like most Americans, my parents were raised with class consciousness and race consciousness. We Americans are always comparing ourselves with each other and trying to ensure that at least one group is below us.
This widespread problem is not necessarily any particular disconnection of any particular demographic. There are many kinds of disconnections in our society, as we are divided endlessly—class being one, race and religion being two others.
I was amused that you stated that, “one of my greatest objections to liberals today is that they refuse to read anything but their own organs, on the grounds that all conservatives are liars or stupid or both. Are there any liberals who do not adopt that attitude? Of course, but they are rarer than they used to be.”
By the way, I am a liberal. And I read widely, including non-liberal media. I’d add that I’m specifically a working class liberal. There are probably more working class liberals than any other variety of liberal, but we get ignored by the MSM for obvious reasons—ignored by both the conservative MSM and the liberal MSM.
I’d also point out that one of things that amuses me the most about conservatives is that they often embody and express much of what they see in liberals. I don’t know about other countries, but the US is rife with such things as conservative political correctness.
As I said, none of this is an ideological issue. These are problems inherent to our shared society. Of course, everyone wants to project it onto those other people.
An interesting read for you:
Perceptions of the candidates by age.
I’m not too surprised by it. I’m 40 years old. That puts me right in that contended age demographic. Maybe that is why I sense so much conflict. It’s specifically the people I personally know around my own age who are so strongly divided. It might be less stressful for the youngest and oldest demographics of voters, for they and their peers have more shared perceptions of the candidates.
Here are some other polls that caught my attention.
The first one shows that the percentage of Americans identifying as environmentalists is about half of what it was a quarter century ago, when I was a young teenager. Yet the other polls show that Americans are more concerned with environmental issues than ever before.
This is similar to how fewer Americans identify as liberal precisely during this time when polls showing majority of Americans hold liberal positions on diverse issues. Older labels have lost their former meaning. They no longer resonate.
It isn’t as if Americans are becoming anti-environmentalist conservatives. Quite the opposite. It’s just that an increasing number of Americans, when given a choice, would rather identify as progressive, moderate, independent, or even socialist.
There is a huge gap in wealth I find between the Bernie and Clinton supporters – perhaps being wealthy has insulated the upper middle class from the dire realities of society.
As you know, I’m just a ramp cashier and I don’t even have full time hours. The people I know who like Sanders tend to be similar to me, not very high up the economic ladder.
A close friend of mine is Bernie or bust and he is a bus driver. I’m not quite as political as he is, but like him I have no desire to vote for Clinton or be a partisan Democrat in any way. Another Sanders supporter I know had lost her job and was unemployed for a long time. She was lucky to have been a union member and she successfully fought to get her job back, but she still struggles as she has had health problems. She is a hardcore Bernie fan, having volunteered for Democrats in the past and seen how they operate at the local level—she has a visceral sense of the problems that we face.
The people I know who are in the Clinton camp tend to be those with professional jobs. One guy I know is a professional writer and owns his own magazine. He isn’t super wealthy, but he is much more comfortably middle class than many people. The thing is people like this don’t fully realize how bad life is for others. Life isn’t easy even for middle class professionals, in a tough economy like ours. Even so, no middle class liberal would willingly trade places with a lower income person who lives in poverty or not far above it.
There are exceptions to this general rule, but the exceptions seem to prove the rule. The data confirms this, showing that Sanders has the strongest low income support. Yet the stereotype is that Sanders supporters are Bernie Bros, as if we are all upper class privileged white male hipster activists.
I think that this election has illustrated this now with Clinton the nominee. There is an attempt to silence all criticism about Clinton by using Trump.
I’ve given up on the US political system. Beyond the level of the most local government (city and county), the average person has little if any influence. All else is meaningless distraction, spectacle and illusion.
Not an entirely unjustified opinion. Beyond voting for the Green Party in protest, and campaigning for them, there is little else.
This article nailed it:
People voting for Clinton are some combination of willfully ignorant and morally retarded.
I used to think that some people were just being deceived and manipulated into voting for truly horrific politicians like Clinton. But I’ve come to realize that no amount of facts or rationality can reach these people because Clinton actually represents what they want. To their mind, she isn’t lesser evil. She speaks for and acts according to what they believe in.
These people aren’t honest actors who are mere pawns of corrupt power. They fully understand what they are supporting. They aren’t stupid, even if belligerent and depraved. I won’t make excuses for them nor will I accept their rationalizations. They have to face reality, like it or not, because it is going to smack them upside the head one of these days.
I just don’t give a shit about Democrats anymore. I don’t care what they say or what they think. It is irrelevant to anything that matters whatsoever. They are merely a pothole on the road to elsewhere, requiring no more attention than to drive around it.
These ‘liberal’ Democrats can sometimes be forced to do the right thing against their will. But it’s more effort than it’s worth. Even then, the harm they cause is still far greater.
The world would be better off if every last one of them died. If that were to happen, we could finally have an honest fight between the political left and political right, as the greatest threat leftists face are the liberal class. Right-wingers would have little power without all the power the liberal class gives them.
We who want a fair and just society must start treating these people as the danger that they are. They aren’t our allies and never will be. They are the very cancer of our society, that should be removed from power with extreme prejudice. As long as they vote for the likes of Clinton, they are the enemy of everything that is good in the world. We must fight them with as if our life depended on it, because it does.
They cannot be trusted and relied upon. They will always betray the moral left, like the scorpion who stung the frog and drowned both of them in the process because it was in his nature.
I’ve come to the conclusion that talk is cheap. It is also tiresome. I can’t muster the energy to care even slightly what Clinton supporters are on about. It simply doesn’t matter. The only thing matters is the harm done.
I can’t get out of my mind, because of policies and military actions supported and promoted by Clinton New Democrats, all the millions of people who have suffered horribly because of sanctions, died, crippled, and lost family members because of wars and bombings and invasions and occupations; have had their homes blown up, communities destroyed, governments toppled, and societies sent into chaos; have been imprisoned, kicked off welfare when they needed it most, and have struggled as the world gets worse around them; and fucking on and on.
It’s as if, to Clinton supporters, none of that matters. But it does matter. It’s Clinton supporters who don’t matter. They can all burn in hell, as far as I’m concerned. That is the best fate they can hope for. This isn’t political evil or lesser evil. It’s plain evil.
Either they are willfully ignorant, brainwashed by propaganda, or they are part of the very rich.
None of these bodes well. “Shut up and vote for Clinton or else Trump will win” is not a unifying message. It is a message that is intended to suppress dissent.
I think that the majority of the so called Establishment Democratic candidates are socially left wing, but economically very right wing and very pro war.
The disgusting thing is that the Democratic Party has moved so right-wing that Trump is now to the left on issues like free trade.
The problem is this. The right-wing positions on economics and military will always trump the social issues. Most of the left-wing talk is empty rhetoric. They will only support the social issues when it is convenient to win votes or long after the public has already turned in that direction. That is how they occasionally are forced to do the right thing against their will.
I won’t give them any credit for this kind of moral cowardice of only doing the right thing when it’s easy and convenient, when it would be more politically risky to do the wrong thing. They’d always prefer to do the morally wrong thing, as long as they can get away with it. But unlike full-on reactionary authoritarian right-wingers, they won’t do the morally wrong thing on principle, even when it’s unpopular.
Yep. The left wing talk is mostly empty because unless people can advance economically, the world is stuck.
They have already sold out to the very rich. At least for the reactionary right wingers, they tend to “stick” to their guns, even if their ideology is completely insane, they at least are authentic. The sad thing of course is that they are authentic to something that is harmful.
That is your choice. Inauthentic liberals who are dangerous in hidden ways. Or authentic reactionaries who are dangerous in blatant ways. But the fact of the matter is that you don’t have to choose. They are both part of the same system and worldview — one can’t exist without the other.
The liberal class, in particular, needs reactionaries to create the illusion that they have any moral legitimacy whatsoever. Without reactionaries, everyone would see right through their lies and deceptions. Liberalism is ultimately a form of reactionary thought that requires something even more reactionary against which to define itself.