The latest wave of feminism has set about generating new ideas and reinterpreting old ones. The response of much of the Marxist left to these developments has been ambivalent if not outright hostile, that is if feminism’s innovative capacities are registered at all. The concept of ‘Privilege’, increasingly common currency within activist circles, has suffered this same fate. This article will attempt to rescue it as a necessary supplement to Marxist understandings of oppression and answer some of the main lines of criticism directed against it.
Contemporary usage of the terms ‘Privilege’ and ‘Privilege Theory’ often leaves them undefined and vague. In the absence of any real fixity critics have been able to claim that weaker manifestations of the concept are representative of its essential and definitive components. Consequently, I believe that it is necessary to jettison the term ‘Privilege Theory’ at the outset. Elevating the idea of Privilege to a fully-fledged theoretical approach to understanding oppression has tended to lead to some rather grandiose assumptions about what is being undertaken. For the most part there is no pretension to providing a general explanation of the origins, operations and solutions to oppression in the same breath. Criticisms of Privilege as failing to explain this or that aspect of oppression, or not providing a solution to oppression, are beside the point. The tasks required of a general theory of oppression are just not within its scope.
Instead, Privilege is better made use of as an addition to a pre-existing conceptual toolbox. That adherents of liberal and poststructuralist approaches to oppression are doing as much should come as no surprise. There is no reason to believe that Marxists cannot do the same without slipping in to the failures attributed to these rival theories. Of course, if Marxists choose to cede the ground then it will be a given that Privilege is only deployed in such contexts. My contention is that it is mistaken to reject the entire idea based solely on some of its more problematic iterations. Marxism is not left unaffected by the idea of Privilege, but it is not true that it poses a fundamental problem for Marxists. The question has been falsely posed as Marxism or Privilege.
Instead of a type of ‘general theory’ the purview of Privilege is considerably narrower. Privileges should be understood as unearned advantages which are unevenly distributed along certain axes, which then work to reproduce hierarchical relations of domination and marginalisation. I see its importance as lying in two areas. First, in supplementing how we understand oppressions with an investigation of the corresponding advantages that occur at the other end of the equation. It is an attempt to expose the mechanisms of unjustified power and the bonds of subjugation through which oppression occurs. Second, in reinvigorating an understanding of oppression as saturating our everyday practices and interactions rather than being confined to intentional, institutional and explicit displays alone.
My focus is primarily on gender (male) Privilege as that is the current locus of the debate. However, the argument here should be largely applicable to any structure of oppression. The origins of Privilege lie in discussions of race. It is with some irony then, given the current hesitancy of Marxists, that the origin of the concept, but not the term, is usually attributed to socialist W.E.B Du Bois and the “psychological wage.”1 Du Bois thought that white workers were granted enhanced social recognition as a supplement their low wages, something not extended to black workers. The purpose was to divide-and-rule the working class. The idea resurfaces more prominently in the 1980s with Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Backpack,” a package of, often mundane, social, cultural and economic advantages that were said to be possessed by white people and men.2 More recently Privilege has become an important feature of fourth-wave feminism, spawning a vast online activist literature. As a result it has been the recipient of a considerable number of critical assessments from the left.3 Esme Choonara and Yuri Prasad, in their recent critique ‘What’s Wrong With Privilege Theory?,’ unfairly assume a direct and unmediated link between the historical and academic uses of Privilege and this contemporary activist use, a relationship which remains ambiguous.4 In doing so they fail to consider how we may make use of Privilege in our present.