Does the rhetoric of “privilege” take pressure off the 1%?


There are two ways to read this satisfyingly provocative essay in Jacobin. Connor Kilpatrick argues that the intellectual left’s relentless focus on privilege—white, male, straight, cisgender, able-bodied, college-educated, et cetera—substitutes an abstract problem for the concrete problem of political and economic dominance by the wealthiest 1% of American households. Privilege is a sideshow. At best, it encourages us to ignore the problems of the middle class in favor of the problems of the most destitute. He writes:

[Privilege] is an attempt to shame the middle class—those with some wealth but, relative to the top one or one-tenth of one percent, mere crumbs—to make them shut up about the rich and super rich and, instead, look at those below as a reminder that it could all be much worse.

Kilpatrick cites as an example this article from Vox, which quotes a TED talk by Alex Giridharadas re: who gets to feel indignant for being in the 99%. Infuriating quote after the jump.

Here’s Giridharadas explaining why you don’t get to complain about wealth inequality if you enjoy any perks from same:

Don’t console yourself that you are the 99 percent. If you live near a Whole Foods; if no one in your family serves in the military; if you are paid by the year, not the hour; if most people you know finished college; if no one you know uses meth; if you married once and remain married; if you’re not one of 65 million Americans with a criminal record—if any or all of these things describe you, then accept the possibility that actually, you may not know what’s going on, and you may be part of the problem.

In certain ways, he makes a valuable point. Lots of us complain about how bad we have it without appreciating how bad other people have it. But as Kilpatrick points out, the number of people who went to college, live in metropolitan areas, are in their first marriages, and/or don’t do meth is much more than 1%.

Moreover, a lot of these qualities don’t directly relate to income. As a concept, the 1% is cleanly and narrowly defined. It’s a descriptor of wealth that applies to households that make an adjusted gross income of $343,000 a year. Going to college and staying out of the army may be something that privileged people do, but to say that these people have no right to protests the abuses of the super-rich—to say, in Giridharadas’s words, that they should “accept the possibility that actually, you may not know what’s going on, and you may be part of the problem”—is to demand that a huge portion of America become rhetorically and politically inert.

My point here is not that privilege isn’t real. It totally is, and straight white people who got laid off from their jobs in 2009 probably don’t appreciate how hard it is to be gay black people who never got hired in the first place. But does that mean that they should stop criticizing the 1% and devote the whole of their political resources to raising less “privileged” people into a higher category of exploitation? The argument that anyone who went to college should stop complaining about the 1% and concentrate on the very poor reads differently when you look at this chart:


One way to read Kilpatrick’s essay is that focusing on “privilege” divides the 90% of Americans who have seen their share of the US economy dramatically reduced over the last three decades. Instead of the vast majority of the country turning its attention to a small and rapacious oligarchy, we should divide up and consider which subset of the peasantry has it worst. “Privilege” divides what would otherwise be the overwhelmingly larger faction in a class war.

Of course, if the rhetoric of privilege means anything to you, you are probably a beneficiary of privilege yourself. This is the other way to read Kilpatrick’s essay: as a convincing argument that “privilege” is an invention of the rich to deprecate themselves—a little ablution of guilt you perform while you get a master’s degree in poststructural theory.

It’s a neat trick, because not only does it allow the rich to feel better about their privilege, but it also encourages the people who are getting screwed by this system—adjunct professors with student loans, for example—to think of themselves as rich, too. Making $343,000 a year draws a bright line between rich and not, but replacing that line with vague cultural associations like Whole Foods and military service lumps the 1% and the 50% of households whose incomes have dropped for the last 30 years together in the same class.

Some of these “privileged” people have a bunch of money and influence over the US government, whereas others get to see characters like themselves on network TV. But it’s all privilege, in this discourse, and therefore all the same.


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  1. The problem with Kilpatrick’s rant is that it leaves you with the assumption that all this was caused by (or could be fixed by) tax code reform. Certainly that’s part of it, but what to do with the fresh revenue from a truly progressive tax code? Probably spend it on other equalizing programs like … education, health care, drug rehab, veterans care … all the things in that “privilege” list.

    Better to argue for what, exactly, a progressive tax code would require besides more from the 1%. Besides, isn’t 99%-vs-1% rhetoric kinda thuggish and creepy when you apply it to any other demographic?

    Reihan Salam is a conservative, but he’s arguing in good faith in this article when he says the upper-middle may be a bigger block to reform than the upper-upper-upper class:

    … and the upper-middle is yer average TED audience member, after all.

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