My father is in his early 90s. That is one amazing privilege to have. He would be the first to say being old isn't easy. But he is privileged to have lived so long and to have lived when he did. But these aren't the types of privileges folks normally refer to when exhorting men to check our privilege. They're talking about those unspoken sensibilities that permit us to move through our physical, social, and emotional spaces untrammelled by worry, anxiety, fear, or worse.
Check your privilege is about individual acknowledgement of what one might have and how it might advantage one in ways that are not readily obvious to oneself. Check your privilege speaks to wider structural imbalances, but places the responsibility of changing it onto the individual. Change is thus motivated by individual repudiation of privilege. It's the equivalent of finding oneself at the front of a line, acknowledging that positionally as privilege, and then walking to the back of the line in order to let those marginalized by front of line privilege to advance more fairly. Yet the material fact of the line is left fundamentally unaltered.
We need to start thinking about how to reconfigure the 'line' not have the people at the front bumped to the back. This is hard to do. It requires all of us compelled to stand in the line to act together in ways that will feel unsettling. It means taking on trust that we can create a better way to line up. But this isn't where current cultural politics has been taking us. Instead we are focussing more and more on individualist experiences, emphasizing personal responsibility over social action, and in so do merely replicating late capitalist culture of individual choice.
Capitalist cultures prioritize ideas of self-reliance, choice, and individualism. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once said there is no society, only individuals. Here is the exact quote:
“…there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”
This effectively encapsulates the core values of capitalist culture. Individuals, defined as men and women who form families are primarily responsible for their own care. Individuals most attend to themselves first. Then individuals have a have a duty to look after one’s neighbours. This is a case and an explanation of why there are no societal effects or issues of structural beyond individual dynamics. The crux of the matter when facing social inequality, according to this cultural expression, is a failure of individual responsibly to look after one self.
Thatcher's summary of capitalist culture stands at one end of the social spectrum. Many who support the 'check your privilege' perspective may consider themselves totally opposed to Thatcher's view of the world. However, if one steps away from the partisanship of 'no society' and 'check your privilege' one can appreciate these views as being part of the spectrum of the pro-market and pro-individual autonomy culture of late capitalism. Individual choice and autonomy is a key element of capitalist culture and is shared by both right and left wing elements. It's encapsulated by key words like freedom, choice, autonomy, experience, identity, and self-actualization.
While Thatcher would suggest the man or women at the front of the line earned their place. The left cultural activist would say that same individual was unfairly advantaged and needs to step out of the line to let others more deserving, due to their experience of oppression, to step forward. Both Thatcher and the activist would agree the solution is individual and underplay the existence of any underlying societal structure like social class that might create societal effects. Both Thatcher and the activist would argue line placement is the result of individual attributes - drive and initiative for Thatcher, identity for the activist. For Thatcher the problem is the lack of drive embodied by the end of liners. For the cultural activist it's the unfair identity privilege of the front of liners. In both cases the resolution is individual. There are differences, of course. Thatcher version would advocate for policies that facilitate individual advancement based upon merit removing potential restrictions on market mechanisms. The left cultural activist would advocate for policies that undermined unfairly gained identity privilege so that individuals can achieve based upon their own merit. Neither of them, however, are actually arguing against class power or for the transformation of capitalism itself.
My father continues to enjoy the privilege of having been a working class man who made a life for himself in BC's resource extraction industry. His entire capacity to exist as he does today is an outcome of what gets called privilege. He was a man during a period in BC's economy where he was able to work in the relatively high paid resource industry - an industry with few openings for women. His transit through this world occurred in the post-world war two economic expansion. Rising prices, rising wages, rising global integration made it possible for many industrial working class men to, if they were so inclined, save money and invest in productive property - for him this meant a fishing boat. Then the ecologists came with their ideas of the tragedy of the commons. Who would have predicted that a pro-capitalist resource management ideology of privatization would create an ostensible pension plan for the men who happened to own boats and fishing licenses in the 1960s and 1970s when these men started to retire in the early 2000s. This is all privilege as understood by the 'check your privilege' ideologists.
Checking privilege in this case doesn't solve anything. It doesn't address the contingency of life and lack of strong social supports for working class people. It doesn't address the fact that privatized and for-profit elder care creates a system akin to prisons. It doesn't alter the fact that home care is provided by mostly older women with a life of labour and no adequate pensions or immigrant women trying to create a better life for their families. Checking privilege fundamentally ignores large scale social inequalities created by capitalism reducing 'progressive' action to individuals engaging in acts of self admonishment.
We need to move beyond the pro-capitalist identity politics of our day. The time has come to transform popular protests to acts of social solidarity set to undermine the real problem privilege - class privilege. We need to move toward elevating all people to the same real freedoms of life lived well. To do this we need to remove the profit motive from education, healthcare, and the provision of core human services. We need to, as it were, remove the need for line ups fundamentally: its time to put people before profits.