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Sunday, April 12, 2015

Kilpatrick vs. Giridharadas: Class vs. Privilege

Beggar's Cup
Image courtesy Le Colonel Chabert

An item at Truthdig brought to my attention a schism of perception between two thinkers concerned with inequality and privilege. I think it’s important to understand what is being said here. The Anand Giridharadas quote that ruffled the feathers of Connor Kilpatrick at Jacobin:
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 Let Them Eat Privilege, Kilpatrick responds:
"We are the 99%.” It was like a gift from on high.

For decades, the Left had been trying to come up with a slogan that was both inclusive and oppositional. A slogan that put a relatively complex critique of class society in the populist language of American egalitarianism — something that spoke to a widespread sentiment that the elites had gotten too wealthy and powerful and had to be reined in.

But a recent Vox article, citing TED talker and New York Times columnist Anand Giridharadas, casts doubt on just who gets to sit at that 99 percent table. It seems one-percenter privilege is haunting quite a few of us...

Before you go after the one percent, Giridharadas says, take a look at yourself. Kill the one-percenter within. Check your privilege.

But instead of explaining what it actually means to be among this tiny sliver in terms of concrete earnings, accumulated wealth, or class position, Vox and Giridharadas rely on strange descriptors that Vox considers “privileges.”

By forcing the middle class to divert their attention downward (and within) instead of at the real power players above, Vox and Giridharadas are playing into the Right’s hands...
You get the picture.

I don’t see these two points of view to be in conflict at all, and Kilpatrick’s reaction strikes me as rather suspicious.

While I’ll get to that in a minute, let me first say that I commend the call to solidarity among the nominal “99%” championed by Occupy, and Kilpatrick. Also, he makes a solid point about distractions from this solidarity, and certainly Giridharadas could be quoted in certain contexts as a such a distraction.

I think, however, that Kilpatrick is being a bit sensitive here. First of all, I doubt that members of the “class-struggle” (as awakened by Occupy) are dangling on the precipice of asceticism, ready to abandon the fight for economic justice in the name of personal purity.

But what if they were, anyway?

There may, of course, be a certain number of folk who - weak of heart and will - might abandon the struggle once they awakened to the sins of their own bourgeoisie habits and tastes. But such people are, well, weak of heart and will, and you’re not going to get much out of them anyway when the rubber meets the road.

But, again, what if a significant number of them did “turn inwards?” First of all, it would not be a contradiction to do both - to check your own privilege while continuing the struggle for economic justice. However, while that would be the likely course followed by our “new ascetics,” let’s indulge Kilpatrick’s bigger fear that it would indeed distract from class struggle (before you go after the one percent, Giridharadas is saying to him, take a look at yourself.)

Seeing as how the entire house-of-cards that is elite wealth and power is dependent upon the consumerist habits of the, er, 99%, then any substantial turning away from these habits would wreak a significant amount of “class-justice” in and of itself.

Why do I find his reaction to be suspicious? Because, like the deification of “the middle class,” it smells of the sort of lifestyle-protectionism that permeates the liberal well-off. They see class injustice, and they are focused on “lifting the boats,” while willfully ignoring just how much boat-lifting can be sustained across the entire population of the Earth. There is a pervasive and willful ignorance among those who have “become accustomed.”

I take Giridharadas’ point: The “1%” are merely an extreme caricature of the avarice within us all.

While we should remain solidly together in the struggle for economic justice, let us not be ignorant of what that justice really means. The “middle-class,” who after all might live near a Whole Foods, get paid by the year, and have “finished college,” are indeed taking more than their fair share.

1 comment:

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