Privilege at the Top of the Social Ladder

This is a piece I wrote for an upcoming zine about privilege and social hierarchy. Comments welcome.

1. Introduction

Is it not the nightmare of every antiwar activist to be confronted, face to face, and in public, with a well-dressed, well-heeled, articulate man with military experience who offers, point by point, counter-arguments to their slogans and claims? For those on the ‘left’ who try to confront power on it’s own terms, i.e., face-to-face in a ‘neutral’ setting, whether it be in the context of campaigning or otherwise, the existence of privilege on the part of authority can often be both debilitating and deflating. This, of course, is only one of the reasons that such strategies are seldom successful, but it’s what I’m going to mull over here: how does privilege operate within social authorities? As such, I’m going to discuss the ‘top’ of the privilege ladder, rather than the various gradations that we encounter everyday. To escape confusion, I’m going to call it something suitably trashy, like ‘uberprivilege’. As the tone suggests, it’s going to be a subtle blend of personal accounts (on which the strength of the argument is really based) and quotations and referencing (to make it look like an academic argument).

2. Initial Definitions

For the purposes of this excursion, I’m going to attempt to given a brief definition privilege. The view of privilege is that it is legitimate to view others as deserving less than ourselves, whether it’s in material possessions, emotional support, life aspirations, or the power to define what is important. It is the opposite of what Jacque Ranciere would call the ‘insistence on equality’: the insistence, at any moment, on the total equality and entitlement of those who are without power in the status quo. A situation that exhibits privilege, as ours does, not only masks the existence of inequality, but when this inequality is pointed to, rationalises, legitimises, but above all denies it.

There are two points to unpick here. The first is that those with power tend to be unaware of their privilege, seeing it as simply ‘natural’, and the second is that those in power tend to be in denial about the humanity of their subordinates.

As to the first point, this means that pointing out privilege is often a huge task in and of itself. When I am better than you, it’s not so much that I obsess over my superiority, but simply that I don’t think about it a lot.  As Addis and Cohane put it during a discussion of men’s mental health:

“…members of a privileged group are typically the least likely people to be aware of their privilege. In fact, one of the benefits of being in any dominant position is the subjective invisibility to oneself of one’s own privilege. In effect, dominant individuals or groups need not attend to their place within a social hierarchy; they are free to behave naturally.”[1]

As for the second point, this is put fairly clearly by the stunning brutality that can be found in the recent Jezebel posting about a college student’s attitude to women.[2] All of this is of course supported by what I call ‘ideological recycling’, which means that because we can clearly see people living lives different from ours that are in some degree worse, it’s simply easier to not think beyond the possibility that they are less than we are.

It is this very absence of concern that is hard to identify with. Sometimes, it’s easier to imagine a motive beyond hierarchy in social structures. “It’s not their superior social position that they want, but rather, they’re trying to control you in some more nefarious way…”. Or, there is the assumption that there is some rational reason why so few have to own so much of the wealth and exercise so much power.  There is also, naturally, the stark fascination with attracting the rejection of those higher in the hierarchy. Is this not the fundamental gesture of punk? “We find us disgusting, so we will control our environment by making you find us even more disgusting!’.

3. The Life and Times of ‘Uberprivilege’

So, getting to the point then, how does uberprivilege, that is to say, the privilege of the ‘ruling class’, sustain itself and interact with the outside world? I would say that the main elements are through group survival strategies, amazing ammounts of denial (touched on above) and by using the supporting culture to extract an imbalance of emotional labour. This sounds convoluted, but I promise that it’s not.

The first element, group survival strategies, are the purpose of early socialization into the upper classes. These are basically mechanisms that permit you to be part of the group provided that you meet a number of criteria.

Forming class solidarity through socialization is the subject of an interesting and heartbreakingly earnest book by Nick Duffell called ‘The Making of Them’. As he writes, in British boarding schools at least:

“The best route to safety is of course to become one of the ‘the club’. If you can’t beat them, then join them. Make yourself like school…Your reward is that you get to be one of the winners, and if you need to, you will be able to take your revenge when it is your turn at the top of the ladder.”[3]

Further, the competition and rivalry engendered here transform into loyalty:

“The “supreme asset of loyalty” meant that these private, well-disciplined gentlemen could be relied upon to do anything for king, country, and their class.”[4]

What isn’t included in this account but is equally important is that, moreover, once a network of privilege is established, they tend to be excellent at excluding those who do not share the same views, thus making sure information and power is not distributed equally. For an excellent treatment of this phenomenon, see the chapter on Jersey politics in Nicholas Shaxson’s Treasure Islands. To paraphrase, those who speak out against the government’s support of tax avoidance very soon find themselves without influence, without support, and frequently without jobs.

Running alongside, and of equal importance is the vast amount of denial at the ‘winners table’. I take my understanding of this primarily from Derrick Jensen. While he is speaking generally, I would say his observations become of even greater relevance the further up the hierarchy you go:

“If your socialization has been thorough enough, you will probably not feel tremendously torn as you take your due, however directly or circuitously, from the labour of nonwhites and the poor, from the activities or bodies of women, from the rending of the fabric of the natural world…Avoidance of inner conflict will require you to deny that those to be exploited have lives that are precious to them. You will, in short, have to live in a state of denial. You will also have to split off your own empathies for these others, which means walling-off, numbing, denying the existence of, or otherwise diverting attention from those parts of your own humanity which would normally have connected you to them.”[5]

This absence of compassion as being actively cultivated by ruling class upbringing is discussed in Duffell’s account:

“A sneering attitude stretches into all corners of our public life. For example, in Mrs Thatcher’s government the minority left of centre Tories were call ‘Wets’, a typical prep school derision for one who might be missing his mother, or otherwise failing to contain himself. Other similar words such as ‘soggy’ or ‘pathetic’ can be delivered with a sting which is long remembered; it can last as a warning for life. What from the outside may look like a tame threat can make it really hard for someone to go against the group ethos, for both child and adult.”[6]

An additional point, however, that ties in with the next section is that denial takes place on both levels in the hierarchy, but in subtly different forms. I mostly find this when I discuss the royal family with people, who find it extremely hard to countenance the fact that the royal family, for all the tiresome shit they do regarding the tabloid press, really don’t give a fuck about you, and when they see you, probably snigger. The denial that these remarks will occasion, with people rejecting the possibility that they are not loved by their betters, is fairly predictable. This isn’t going to involve cutting of your humanity like Derrick claims above, but instead will cut off your capacity to understand how you are being treated, and to normalize hierarchy and privilege. Denial is central to both sides, but in slightly different ways.

Finally, there is the imbalance in emotional labour that works to support hierarchy. This is something explored effectively by Robert Jensen and David Graeber in different places. The basic element is that when someone is higher than us in a hierarchy, we try to figure out what they want and will tend to try to make them comfortable, in light of little or no similar effort on their part. A good example would the way that, in our society, a huge amount of time is spent speculating about the feelings of the powerful, whether it’s bankers, royalty or highly paid professionals, with zero concern on their part for the sake of the people they tend to trample on. As Graeber puts it:

“Whether one is dealing with masters and servants, men and women, employers and employees, rich and poor, structural inequality—what I’ve been calling structural violence—invariably creates highly lopsided structures of the imagination. Since Ithink Smith was right to observe that imagination tends to bring with it sympathy: the result is that victims of structural violence tend to care about its beneficiaries far more than those beneficiaries care about them. This might well be, after the violence itself, the single most powerful force preserving such relations.”[7]

Thus, we have three aspects of social hierarchy. One is the closely knit groups that form at the top, with the attendant exclusion to those outside the group, the second is general denial and the third is that we, those under them, tend to go out of our way to make them comfortable while all of this takes place. As Hegel put it, the King may well be mad to consider himself a King, but no less mad are the people who treat him like one.


4. What Does this mean for Social Movements?

So what does this mean for confronting privilege? Is it not an all too common aspect of campaigning work that, whenever we finally confront someone in a position of authority, much of our righteous indignation seeps out of us? Haven’t you heard, time and again, that, as it happens, the authority figure in question is just extremely ‘reasonable’?

This is an extract from the brilliant ‘Treasure Islands’ by Nicholas Shaxson, about tax havens and illicit flows of capital, which puts this rather well. The extract concerned Father William Taylor’s attempt to dissent at a dinner in the City of London. It’s totally relevant, just bear with me:

“’I said, I am not persuaded that this is in the interests of the citizens of London. This system is causing chaos in the world,” said Taylor. ‘Somehow the oxygen went out of the room. People were sucking in air through their teeth. It reminded me that I had joined a club, not a political body.; He was taken aside an told he was being discourteous. ‘They said, “This is not what we do in the City.” I felt I was doing something naughty naughty and shameful.” (269)

My own personal experience of this was being offered a job by someone to undertake freelance research work for a private military company. Of course, it was hardly something I was compelled to do, but when I actually spoke to the guy, the fire and brimstone rhetoric that had characterized how I’d framed it to my friends immediately turned into something placid about not being sure that I’d find the work sufficiently interesting. A wonderful example that I will never forget involved seeing footage of an Earth First! Banner drop outside the home of someone high up in Shell, when the worst thing happened: he turned out to be home. Now, in a situation where one imagines Somalian pirates would have probably taken the bastard hostage, the activists in question sat down, quickly became rather polite, and discussed Shell’s interest in preserving human rights.

These all strike me as manifestations of hierarchy’s privilege. Denying and watering down what you know because you don’t want to upset, or even more so, don’t want to seem like an idiot to the person you’re talking to. Because they have a privileged outlook, they rely on you to do the emotional work to keep them comfortable, and are very unlikely to be doing something similar on your behalf, save perhaps letting you keep an inch of dignity by not calling you an ally. When we cannot identify alternatives or an alternative source of strength, often the campaign against privilege becomes a question of trying to get the privileged to make us a member of their group, through pleading and abasing ourselves, and sometimes better, by betraying our own. This is obvious within the political spectrum within the context of environmentalists who are routinely locked out of the corridors of power and respond by trying to crawl low enough so as not to appear a threat, by denying their passion, by denying the importance of the cause, by praising the achievements of their oppressors, and frequently by betraying their potential allies in struggle by calling them extremists.

In the broader picture, is there a way out of this predicament? Well, yes and no. What I mean is, it’s possible to override it only at the cost of falling down the privilege ladder.  Mainstream society is constituted on the basis of respect for hierarchy, and submission before authority. For most people, this takes place simply because they have no other option, and getting scraps from the table involves conforming to the best of their abilities. This isn’t to criticize acquiescence to privilege, as I could hardly throw the first stone, but simply to lay out what a grim situation it is.

There are, however, people who don’t respond to the becks and calls of the dominant culture. These people are, who tend to be described as delinquents and extremists, are frequently be met with the only force the culture can call upon beyond patronage, which is violence. As well as being the typical remedy for the despondent who can’t get the rewards of the culture so don’t bother trying, it’s the most consistent method of dealing with activists who don’t seem to want anything from the privileged other than them to relinquish their privilege, and who can’t be bought of with, as Taylor puts it in another part of the above book, ‘claret and fine dining’.

So is there any potential for mobilizing from outside looking out? An interesting aspect of this is something explored by Hardt and Negri in Commonwealth. In this book they develop the central theme of Multitude: that the relevant agent in new political struggles is the population which have no stake in the ‘republic of property’. As they write:


The part of those who have no part, the party of the poor, is an excellent initial definition of the multitude…the party of the poor [is] a formation of all those inserted in the mechanisms of social production without respect to rank or property, in all their diversity, animated by an open and plural production of subjectivity.”[8]

This is relevant because the system of privilege described above has the effect of not only sealing off the rich from the rest of us, but guaranteeing that our access to them occurs in such as a way that it offers the minimum possible disturbance. But if we are to constitute ourselves outside of the ‘republic of property’, what form should this take. Here, Hardt and Negri see Ranciere as having something to add:

“For Ranciere “the whole basis of politics is the struggle between the poor and the rich” or, more precisely, he goes on to say, the struggle between those who have no part in the management of the common and those who control it. Politics exists when those who have no right to be counted, as Ranciere says, make themselves of some account.”[9]

And, on what basis do they make themselves of ‘some account’? By forming an identity based in their resistance, which in contrast to the appeal to privilege, has it’s validity and creates it’s own strength. A good example of this is in some indigenous struggles that have taken place in the last 3 decades, for example in Bolivia or the Zapatista struggle. In these struggles, ‘indigenous’ becomes a strictly distinct identity from the identity of the colonizer. While it could be argued that this is simply an ancient tradition making itself heard, what this account leaves out is that for indigenous identity to become a site of struggle and a basis for action, it is necessary to have a colonizer there to resist. Instead of framing resistance in terms of appealing to the colonizer’s values, indigenous struggles simply demand autonomy, and are willing to organize on the basis of achieving it. From this basis, an escape becomes possible. As Hardt and Negri put it:

“Events of resistance have the power not only to escape control but also to create a new world.”[10]

Of course, it’s difficult to imagine how this can be easily transplanted. While some indigenous communities have eons of culture to draw upon, the same cannot be said for our own communities, let alone the whole body of the propertyless in the west. It is no surprise that anarchists take so much time trying to ground their politics in their history, and even sometimes in fringe historical elements such as pirates… However, as I agree with the above analysis I would maintain that only by supporting each other in a culture which does not seek approval from those more privileged than ourselves, can we constitute an effective basis for not ‘demanding’ change, but enacting it and then defending it, whether this involved occupations, land reclamations or creating zones of lawless commonality.

So, it seems like these are the choices. Buying into the systems of privilege, trying to work your way up the ladder, only to find that if you do not first succumb to the social pressure to conform (if you haven’t already) that you will be considered an outsider and become ineffective at creating change. Privilege tends to perpetuate itself. Or, you have the option of not acknowledging privilege, being confronted with violence and having the option either of finding a way to provide your innocence and harmlessness, demonstrating yourself as a ‘good victim’ who doesn’t threaten privilege, or fighting back.  What does fighting back mean? If you can think of anything that would involve overcoming your sense of appropriateness, politeness and proper social conduct, that’s probably a good place to start.

[1] Addis, Michael E. and Cohane, Geoggrey H Social Scientific Paradigms of Masculinity and Their Implicatons for Research and Practice in Men’s Mental Health (2005) Vol. 61, No. 6, pp. 633-647

[3] Nick Duffell: The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System (2000) Lone Arrow Press, pp. 36

[4] ibid. pp. 129

[5] Derrick Jensen: The Culture of Make Believe, (2004) Chelsea Green Publishing pp. 137-8

[6] Duffell, pp. 37

[7] David Graeber, Beyond Power/Knowledge, an exploration of the relation of power, ignorance and stupidity. You can get the whole thing here:

[8] Hardt and Negri Commonwealth pp. 45

[9] pp. 45

[10] pp. 61

  1. Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: