Towards a Marxist Critique of 'Privilege Theory'
Date Written: 20/01/2014
Year Published: 2014
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX15779
A contribution by Tad Tietze to an ongoing debate on Marxism and 'privilege theory.'
one of the central problems with ideas around privilege -- that they also entail a particular theory of knowledge (and consciousness) that sees competing explanations of oppression as both products of, and perpetuating, oppressive hierarchies. The response to this tends to be little more than a process of restating its claims and "calling out" other theories as being part of the problem.
I think it is a deeply flawed approach that Marxists should reject outright.
Yet many socialists have been attracted to privilege arguments because they involve familiar-sounding talk about consciousness as determined by social being. This theory of consciousness -- that one's location in a hierarchy of privilege determines one's ideas -- is used to argue that people from oppressed groups have a better ability to understand oppression and how to fight it than those "higher up the food chain."
In superficial ways, the structure of the argument seems similar to the Marxist idea of "class consciousness" -- consciousness of the totality of capitalist social relations -- as only capable of being grasped from "the standpoint of the proletariat," in Lukács (in)famous words.
But in fact, the consciousness of privilege in this theoretical conception is an anti-totalizing view of society, where relationships to a single hierarchy of oppression must first be analyzed separately from the social totality, before (at best) later being reintegrated into a more complete view. In many cases, it is not even the hierarchy as a whole that is considered, but simply a comparison of privileges held by one individual and another to decide whether or not the more privileged one has the authority to even hold a particular view.
A second confusion is that for some socialists, "class consciousness" has come to mean its vulgar, reductionist variant: consciousness only of the exploitative ("economic") relationship between the capitalists and workers.
a view that runs closer to Marx's own method is that class consciousness is consciousness of the total (and simultaneously) economic, political and ideological aspects of the social relations of production, and how exploitations and oppressions operate as a product of that differentiated, contradictory totality.
Marx didn't start from the totality because he was oblivious to "bottom-up" experiences of exploitation and oppression, but because he recognized how these are produced depends on how whole societies are structured.