Allan G. Johnson’s book Privilege, Power, and Difference is a useful tool for understanding how systems of privilege work in contemporary capitalism. In a frank and accessible manner, he lays bare a framework for understanding how power relations and comparative dominance work within society and fall back on the ingrained bourgeois ideological norms of individualism, racism and gender chauvinism to obscure their very existence. The ingenuity of privilege is that it compels those caught within its web to justify their position, to dismiss the significance of their comparative privilege and employ a variety of tactics to diffuse and deflect any criticisms of this system because these criticisms are perceived as criticisms of the individual, and not the structure of society.
By its very construction, privilege is a tough nut to crack, necessitating that those who have been trained into accepting and dismissing certain privileges to see those systems as functioning outside of themselves — a feat constituting a major coup in the context of how people are taught to view the world in capitalism — and compelling them to combat a system that may benefit them in a variety of ways. It is difficult for someone caught within the web of privilege to see the system for what it is because the very point of privilege is that it provides the privileged with the luxury to not have to see these systems, along with the incentive to not see such systems for what they are to secure the benefits of privilege guilt-free. The dynamic that emerges when privilege is considered raises a number of questions, including the following: can such an understanding be understood and incorporated within a Marxist framework?
In his outlining of the definition of privilege, Johnson refers to the work of Peggy McIntosh in distinguishing between two kinds of privilege: unearned advantage and conferred dominance. Unearned advantage stems from how unearned entitlements, or those things of value that all people should have but don’t, are distributed. Conferred dominance refers to how this privilege is taken a step further by giving one group power over another (Johnson 22-23). Immediately, we can see how this definition of privilege can be applied to the bourgeoisie in capitalism. The bourgeoisie as a class is defined by the unearned privilege of owning the means of production which, according to the Marxist perspective, should be the right of all laboring peoples. It is able to utilize this privilege in exercising power over workers, forcing them to succumb to capitalist exploitation for their very livelihoods and contribute their labor-power for the advancement of the bourgeoisie’s profit ends. Utilizing this definition of privilege, one can easily apply these notions of unearned advantage and conferred dominance to economic modes of production going back to the emergence of private property itself. This definition can be readily used to articulate class antagonism, yet the focus of McIntosh’s definition and Johnson’s explanation reach beyond the scope of class. Privilege is exercised outside of the naked dynamic of propertied versus laboring classes. Privilege in both forms is present when it comes to the dynamics of race and gender stratification.
Does the existence of privilege outside of class, in some way, detract from the Marxist argument that the core antagonism in capitalist society is one revolving around class? The answer to this question is a resounding “no.” In fact, understanding how non-class privilege works is useful for understanding the importance of class as a central antagonism in capitalism. In the chapter “Capitalism, Class and the Matrix of Domination,” Johnson outlines how notions of how the capitalist system itself relates to, and in fact encourages, understandings of privilege outside of class. The reason that capitalism encourages these other notions of privilege is because they serve to distract from the central dynamic of capitalism that requires the exploitation of workers regardless of their race, gender or other considerations.
If workers are themselves divided into privileged and dominated groups within their own class, the threat of the class as a whole bringing their power to bear against the bourgeoisie is diminished. Considering that the construction of these other privileges have been the task of bourgeois ideology from the very beginning, from racism being utilized as a means of justifying colonialism and breaking any notion of solidarity between colonized peoples and the white proletariat to gender-chauvinism being used as a shackle chaining women to the home, it is clear to see that non-class privilege is an important mainstay in the defense of capitalism from workers. Capitalism needs a distraction from class-based oppression if it is to not succumb to class struggle and revolution.
Bourgeois ideology’s avoidance of the class issue in the favor of other considerations has taken many forms. When class is addressed, for instance, in sociological discussions, class is typically placed side-by-side with other systems of stratification and is frequently seen as a footnote to discussions of race and gender if it is addressed at all. In political discourse, class is viewed through a pseudo-Weberian class-ladder perspective in the exceedingly rare case that it is addressed for any serious length of time. In everyday non-academic discussions of class, frequently class is understood for simply constituting one’s way of dress and mannerisms, if not one’s income or family background. The common thread here is that class, if its existence is even acknowledged, is obscured in its definition and deemphasized in its importance by bourgeois ideology.
One of the biggest ideological currents reinforcing this dismissal of class is that of individualism, which asserts that the sum total of one’s successes and failures in life revolve around how much work one has put in to define their position in society. All one must do is work hard and they will get ahead, and if people haven’t gotten ahead the problem is simply that they have not worked hard enough for it. Johnson dedicates the better part of a chapter to addressing how the ideology of individualism distracts from systems of privilege by making the consequences of these systems the fault of individuals. “Individualistic thinking,” Johnson writes, “keeps us stuck in the trouble by making it so hard to talk about it. It encourages women, for example, to blame and distrust men. It sets men up to feel personally attacked if anyone mentions gender issues and to define those issues as “women’s problem” (Johnson 77). He also describes how individualism can make systems of privilege so much harder to perceive, and that the end result of individualistic perceptions of privilege is to take the “path of least resistance” and ultimately remain complicit in the functioning of these systems. The individualist, in a discussion of class, will argue that they’ve “worked hard for everything they have” and assert that cannot be included in this discussion or blamed for their participation because of this fact. The knee-jerk response provided by individualists towards attempts to criticize systems larger than themselves demonstrates an effective barrier that bourgeois ideology has constructed between these people and class consciousness. “Whatever the problem is, it isn’t with me or the systems that benefit me” is the consensus among those who champion capitalism’s ideological line of individual fetishism. The problem is “bad apples,” not bad privilege. As long as an individual does not consciously intend on putting others at a disadvantage for the sake of their own privilege, then the consequences of privilege have nothing to do with them.
Much of contemporary bourgeois ideology revolves around distracting away from these essential systems of privilege, yet there have been occasions in which certain privileges are disclosed and fetishized in an effort to defend capitalist exploitation from crisis. In the course of developing US capitalism’s system of chattel slavery, emphasizing and articulating notions of race in the legal and economic realm became an important response to the crisis of white proletarians and African slaves joining together in rebellions against their mutual oppressors. In defending German capitalism from communist insurrection, the fascist ideology of National Socialism tapped into anti-Semitic cultural norms for the purpose of providing a scapegoat and encouraging class-collaboration and nationalism instead of proletarian revolution. We see non-class privilege become the center issue in conflicts that began with their origins in class conflict frequently and in a manner to steer these conflicts off course.
We also see the defense of non-class privileges become the priority when the consequences of class privilege are brought to bear against people. Consider the white worker who has lost his factory job because of a company’s desire to exploit cheaper labor abroad rather than pay the higher American demand. Is the negative consequence of the bourgeoisie’s privilege, their unearned advantage in owning the factory and their conferred dominance of being able to decide the white worker’s economic destiny, what is foremost in the worker’s mind? One would hope so, yet more often than not, the worker is seduced into turning their frustrations away from the cause of their problems and towards other workers. “It’s the immigrants! They’re taking all our jobs!” they might say. At the root of this line of thought is the assumption of a privilege, that the “jobs” that are being exported should belong to white American citizens like the worker in this example. The problem is no longer the privilege of the capitalist, who can give his job to anyone he/she wants to. The problem is re-articulated as the problem of insufficient privilege for the white worker. The redefining of the problem away from class and from the capitalist system itself is an important strategy for the defender of capitalism in times of crisis, and to this end, non-class privilege is an important tool for capitalism’s ideological agents.
The consequences of non-class privilege can be felt everywhere, for those who are conscious of them, and the result is that different experiences of privilege tend to inform a multitude of perspectives on how the problem is to be solved. As a result, different perspectives will tend to emphasize different problems and privileges as being worthy of the most emphasis. For one who has been subjected to experiencing the results of racial prejudice all of their life, racism emerges as a problem that is potentially unparalleled by other factors. For one who has been made to bare the brunt of gender chauvinism, resolving patriarchy becomes a number one priority. Here we see the potential for a conflict of interests among those who try to address the problems of privilege. What privilege poses the biggest problem? Can those who are not subjected to a privilege understand it? What must the priority be for a black, lesbian woman: combating patriarchy, combating racism, or combating homophobia? There is the potential for much debate along these lines, potentially resulting in a discourse that is more informed by identity politics than sober assessments of how systems of privilege operate in capitalism. Non-class privileges can become the sole focus of people who dedicate themselves combating privilege, and this too can aid in the attempt of bourgeois ideology to distract from class.
The fetishism of resisting specific non-class privileges over others has manifested in an effort to resist privilege that is divided among groups who champion a specific focus with specific methods in waging their battle. The result can be, for instance, a multitude of feminist groups who agree that patriarchy is the biggest problem in society yet disagree on what to do about it. Movements which would rather address one non-class privilege specifically, rather than understanding that these non-class privileges are necessary for the defense of class privilege, become fragmented and less effective as a result. In waging the battle against one non-class privilege exclusively, some groups surrender ground to and, in effect, aid the advancement of privilege in other areas. For instance, radical feminism has the potential of distracting away from class and racial privilege systems by lumping all women together into one group and making their chief enemy men irregardless of their class background or racial identity. Clearly, the results of such a fetishism are not productive to resolving the problem of privilege as experienced by most of the world’s people.
The fetishism of non-class privilege by progressive groups is an issue that stems beyond radical feminism. In fact, there are groups that call themselves “Marxist” who use the presence of non-class privileges to veer off of the course of Marxist dialectics and denounce large populations of workers as a potential revolutionary agent. There has emerged a theory that announces “there is no white proletariat” and argues that workers in the “first world” have been “bought off.” The fact that white workers benefit from privileges beyond class has translated into, in this theory, these workers no longer being of the proletarian class, but of the ruling class. This false notion that having non-class privileges alters significantly how one relates to the means of production also leads to a distraction from that capitalist exploitation that happens in the third world. If we are to take the idea of “proletarian and bourgeois nations” at face value, are we to believe that, since there are no proletarians in the first world, there are no bourgeoisie in the third world? How is capitalism to function in either context without the essential presence of a propertied and laboring class? A whole host of problems emerges when one tries to make statements on the class-origins of people based on other factors which contribute to non-class privilege.
Privilege, as asserted by McIntosh and elaborated on by Johnson, is a useful conceptual framework for understanding power in society. It can be a useful tool for understanding how some socially constructed privileges can be utilized for the defense of other privileges, how a larger matrix of oppression can create a paradox for those working to resist the consequences of privilege. As a concept, privilege can be very readily reconciled with Marxism, and if it is understood correctly as being the product of class-antagonisms, it can be used as a tool for waging an effective resistance to systems of privilege at all levels.