The 99% Isn’t Enough

We can’t fight the rich without fighting our own privileges.

Nyki Salinas-Duda April 22, 2015

(Steve Rhodes / Flickr)

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.

Because we’re at least partially responsible for creating and propping up oppressive systems, we’re also responsible for the clean-up.

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 karaōke 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).

Nyki Sali­nas-Duda is a for­mer Assis­tant Edi­tor at In These Times. She is a Chica­go-based writer and a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at Gozamos. She holds a BA in Latin Amer­i­can his­to­ry from the Uni­ver­si­ty of San Francisco.
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