Last night, I asked my mom if she’d ever heard the term, “We are the 99%.” After we spent a frustrating few minutes of her repeatedly asking, “But 99% of what?” she admitted that she’d heard tell of Occupy Wall Street back in 2011, but the phrase was foreign to her. I explained that it refers to the whole of society, anyone outside of and subjected to the power of the ruling class.
“So I’m part of the 99%? But then which part of it do I fall into?” she laughed.
My mother is college-educated. But she’s also a Mexican American, a woman born to a sort-of immigrant father and a second-generation mother in a Northwest Indiana steel hub — in these and a slew of other ways I’m sure she wouldn’t appreciate my sharing with the public, she’s marginalized. And though politics bore the hell out of her, as usual, she’s got a point. The 99% is not homogenous; it encompasses people with varying levels of social capital, societal power and privilege.
A few weeks ago, Vox ran an article on author Anand Giridharadas’s TED Talk on the development of “two Americas” that included a brief, sarcastic rant on privilege. Premised on the widening gap between rich and poor, then followed up by a forehead-crinkling argument that immigrants have more opportunities in this country than its native-born children (Giridharadas apparently didn’t find it prudent to acknowledge poor immigrants from the Global South, and managed to avoid undocumented people completely) — the talk has plenty of objectionable points, a wholesale buy-in to the idea of American Exceptionalism and the American Dream as historical realities among them. But Giridharadas’s tongue-in-cheek takedown of white and/or upper-crust privilege should not be on his list of analytical shortcomings.
In response to the post, Jacobin ran “Let Them Eat Privilege,” Connor Kilpatrick’s rebuttal to one section of Giridharadas’s speech, a half-joking list of the hallmarks of white and class privileges, with which the author took issue (my emphases):
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.
Kilpatrick takes to tarring Giridharadas’s message with the brush of what I call the “personal responsibility approach,” a school of thought rooted in the philosophy that individuals can change entrenched systemic issues facing humanity — poverty, violence, patriarchy, oppressive governments, capitalism — by being nicer, more generous, maybe recycling. Which, to be fair to Kilpatrick, is what Giridharadas does in the rest of his TED Talk. Income disparity didn’t emerge in a vacuum, and I’d like to think Kilpatrick and I could agree that Giridharadas’s portrayal of economic inequality as a new phenomenon or something that can be fixed by returning to a bygone era when we all could be friends is at best a fantasy, at worst maliciously ignorant.
For Giridharadas, it seems that systems aren’t to blame, but rather unfair policies, greedy human nature, etc. The whole talk has a very “hopey, changey,” Obama-campaign-speech-circa-2008 vibe to it. But we’re not going to compost capitalism out of existence, and we’re unlikely to eradicate income disparity by giving to charity. Were that fairy tale the central nugget of Kilpatrick’s analysis, I’d be on board.
But Giridharadas’s point that Kilpatrick takes particular issue with is his potshot at another fairy tale: the monolithic 99%.
The lecture acknowledges — gasp! — the nuance of distinctions among the so-called 99%, a powerful “us” to take a stand against global capital’s Goliath “them,” which the speaker calls out as a fallacy. “You may not know what’s going on,” he tells the audience. “You may be part of the problem.” Giridharadas questions who should be allowed to represent the 99% — those who, while oppressed, have a built in economic and social safety net, those who don’t, or both?
Kilpatrick argues that by focusing on our differences and not on our common enemy, Giridharadas strengthens conservative forces — and, by extension, weakens the movement opposing the wealthy:
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. It’s 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. … But the one-percent concept isn’t about a lifestyle or individual consumption habits — a graduate degree and a kale smoothie do not a one-percenter make.
Lukewarm liberalism and the fact that he likely benefits from class (though probably not race) privilege aside, Giridharadas, an Indian American, does make one fairly radical point. He calls out the symbols of wealth that upper-middle-class Americans proudly wear like Girl Scout merit badges, the outward symbols of privilege we all cling to no matter our actual degree of marginalization.
And that seems to have made Kilpatrick uncomfortable. The language of the piece is defensive (“Check your privilege? Sure. But for once, let’s try checking it against the average hedge fund manager instead of a random Whole Foods shopper”), essentially saying, “Hey! Don’t look at me — look over there! What they’re doing is so much worse!” He denounces a focus on seemingly superfluous privileges as a diversion from fighting the real enemy, the ultra-wealthy who engineer and perpetuate these privileges, a diversion that “robs us of any meaningful oppositional politics that could change it all.”
So why can’t we all just get along, join together in solidarity against the capitalist class, and maybe meet up for Little Red Songbook karaoke on Friday nights?
Most people on the planet can agree that the world we all currently inhabit is far from ideal. And it’s easy to talk about the general miserable state of our social relations and economic realities on a macro level because poverty, racism and misogyny are all plagues bred in the hothouses of nebulous, oppressive systems. These systems — whether you believe the culprit to be the nation state, capitalism or inefficient and corrupt government institutions — not individuals, create and perpetuate social problems.
But the fact that a white male author would feel qualified to write a piece decrying discussions of privilege — provoked by Giridharadas’s jokey and hyperbolic examples of said phenomenon — and feel that his vastly different perspective is as valid an analysis as that offered by someone without as much innate privilege should set off some alarm bells. It’s true that Kilpatrick doesn’t say we shouldn’t address racism or sexism — but he doesn’t discuss them either. And that’s reflective of a form of privilege itself.
Kilpatrick doesn’t have to think about how social movements that don’t include a discussion of privilege, and don’t emphasize changing our behavior in the work we do everyday based on those discussions, could impact him personally. Because they probably wouldn’t. Some people — most people on the planet, in fact — don’t have that luxury. Or, differently put, privilege.
To Kilpatrick, the 99% seems a useful myth, and it’s clear he has good intentions. In the strictest terms, I’m on board with the idea of the 99% as it relates to capitalism: We’re all at the economic mercy of the 1%. But without an analysis of the other sorts of power that consolidate the economic might of the 1% (and vice versa) like issues of race, gender, and other oppressions, and blatantly ignoring the myriad ways that traditionally marginalized groups experience economic exploitation differently than people who are of more privileged groups, the myth loses its power. As with Kilpatrick’s analysis of class, privilege is a question of degree, not hard-and-fast categories — the closer you are to the center, to the demographic and economic realities of much of the 1%, the more power you have.
An overreliance on rhetoric emphasizing that “we’re all the same” is damaging. Of course people across lines of identity like race and gender share a common interest. But some of us stand to gain — however meagerly — from those systems of oppression, and it’s integral that we acquaint ourselves with other people’s realities as a way of admitting to ourselves that whatever we stand to gain as individuals isn’t worth it compared to economic equity for everyone. If we’re going to deny that, the struggle against capitalism will only end with another oppressive system taking its place.
One of the takeaways of an analysis of social ills rooted in the idea that systems and institutions perpetuate violence and prejudice is that individuals are not themselves at fault when they participate in behaviors that perpetuate the status quo. We’re all here together, in the belly of the beast, and often it’s impossible to tell where the monster ends and we begin. The list of arbitrary qualities that provide sources of power — whiteness, heterosexuality, economic prosperity, Christianity or cis-gendered men — is endless, and the combination of relevant prejudices mind-boggling. Far from acting according to our natures (because we don’t choose to be born privileged), we perform a complex and localized pantomime of the violence and hatred inherent in the systems and institutions that oppress us all.
Economically, though, we’re all clinging to the same life raft. Here, Kilpatrick gets it right. The 1% wouldn’t think twice about the difference between cheating a cab driver versus an accountant. But there is a difference between those two individuals, and the old the system made me do it, mom, excuse won’t work forever. We on the Left have totally divorced the inconvenient and obvious fact that the seeds of capitalism and all the other systems of oppression we live under were sown over centuries by living, breathing humans. As the GOP would say, we built that.
And because we’re at least partially responsible for creating and propping up these damaging systems, we’re also responsible for the clean-up. The manner in which we choose to construct our new world in the shell of the old is critically important. No one is waiting in the wings to swoop in and save us from the bloodthirsty monopoly men — the work has to be done by individuals, working collectively and intentionally denouncing racism, sexism, classism, et. al., in our own projects. That central message, learned from the feminists of the post-Civil Rights movements, is key to ensuring that our struggles are not in vain.
We have to take responsibility for the system we’re all guilty of perpetuating. How can we ask cops and politicians to be held accountable for their actions — lethal actions that come from a place of privilege — when we’re not willing to take responsibility for ourselves? They’re trapped in the same system, after all, so can we really fault them? Of course, their actions are protected by their relationship to power. But certain privileges afford individuals and demographic groups a similar relationship — their actions are protected by a comparable safety net.
Some people have a lot to gain by buying into the lie that they are part of the ruling classes, or can aspire to that end goal, by embracing the trappings of privilege as described by Giridaharads (including but not limited to fancy organic food, savings accounts, and designer drugs). And that’s where traditional Marxist critiques get it wrong.
Speaking at a keynote address at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair in 2009, Black Panther and anarchist Ashanti Alston described his break with Marxism: My people, he told the audience, are not just another oppressed class. And I refuse to accept that the reality of my community can be summed up by a critique of capitalism, he said. There are other forces at play, and abolishing capitalism will not leave us all on an equal playing field.
Class is not the only criteria used to create social stratifications, and without addressing those other issues — as Kilpatrick tacitly suggests by neglecting to include that fact in his discussion — is damaging and divisive.
Treating the 99% as a homogenous group may seem a useful organizing tool, and certainly seems preferable to endless and uncomfortable conversations about privilege. No one likes being on the receiving end of that sort of discussion, myself included, and there’s certainly room to make these conversations more amiable and less accusatory. Calling out privilege isn’t about finger-pointing or blaming certain genders or races for the world’s problems. It’s about unlearning our learned and systemically enforced prejudices that subjugate our fellow 99 percenters and using fresh eyes to dismantle oppression; there’s no one without the other.
Talking about privilege should make us all uneasy. Unless we learn to understand the other and denounce or transform what privilege we’ve each been endowed with, there can never be a 99%. So yes, let’s battle the state’s corruption, struggle against capitalism or try to regulate it into submission, fight patriarchy, whatever. Absolutely, let’s unite against the ruling class. But let’s be faithful to our ideals while we’re doing it — let’s walk the talk — and make the 99% a welcoming space for everyone (my mom included).