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For Mother Teresa poverty is the condition of saintliness. Poverty, then, ceases to be bad and instead becomes something to be celebrated. The poor can be treated with condescension as those who will redeem the world by their acceptance of charity. Such an approach becomes a part of a global enterprise for the alleviation of bourgeois guilt rather than a genuine challenge to those forces [i.e., modern capitalism] that produce and maintain poverty.


On capitalism and story-telling

When I was little, I always wanted to be writer. In many ways, I don’t think that dream ever left me. But when I was in primary school, I used to be sick a lot, and the way I spent those days cooped up at home was writing frantically in a myriad of notebooks, and devouring novel after history book after novel. When I made it to school, I was quite the ringleader in my group of friends, and I sometimes used to sit them all down at lunch and stand before them and tell them an exciting, intricate adventure story – all made up on the spur of the moment, of course. As far as my memory goes, they didn’t mind – I remember some enthusiastic applause – but who really knows how reliable that memory is? The point is, I always fancied myself a story-teller; it was my favourite thing to do in the world, and it was what I wanted to spend my life doing. Unfortunately, capitalism makes it impossible for the vast majority of aspiring story-tellers to devote their lives to doing exactly that. A very, very small minority of writers are able to make a living from writing, which helps to explain why literature, and art in general, is so dominated by bourgeois fools – they’re the ones with the cash reserves to be able to indulge themselves and their creative urges. The rest of us have to hold down jobs, to be able to pay bills and rent or mortgages and whatever else has to be paid, and to a large extent this destroys us. We have to spend so much of our lives at work, and spend so much of the rest of our time exhausted from work, and so even if we have an idea – and I believe a lot of us are full of ideas – where are we going to find the time to write these ideas down? We’re too busy keeping ourselves afloat to indulge our inner story-tellers, I guess is what I’m getting at – capitalism forces us to be practical and hard-headed, so we always set them to one side. All of this means that at the moment, I don’t aspire to be “a writer”. I’d still love to write things – about a week ago I set up a side blog to post writing on, in the hope it’ll motivate me to create some – but I’m realistic enough (or pessimistic enough, if you’d prefer to put it that way) to think I’ll never be able to pay my way through writing, and so I have to find another career. As it happens, I think I’d like to be a teacher, and a primary school teacher at that, perhaps since it’d bring me the closest to the playground story-teller I was so many years ago. Also, I genuinely like children, and the idea of teaching them appeals to me. But still… if I had it my way, I’d never have got demoralised about writing, and I’d never have fallen out of the habit of writing pages and pages every day, instead of only during NaNoWriMo the way I do now. Although I guess it’s easier to find the time to write pages and pages every day when you’re a child, and have no obligations (except for school, but… pfft). The point is – for me now, just as for me aged eight, I’ve never wanted to write so I could make money. I want to make money for the same reason I want to breathe – it’s a basic prerequisite to doing other, more interesting things. When I sat my friends down in the playground, I didn’t charge them each a dollar for hearing my exciting tales of epic quests and danger. I told them because I had stories to tell, stories I wanted them to hear, and it was just fun! And this remains why I want to tell stories – for the sheer enjoyment of story-telling. And look, I don’t think there’s anyone who wants to get into writing for the money – if that was your goal, you’d have chosen the complete wrong career path. It’s just that writers, like anyone else, have to make a living, and they also have to contend with this horrific monolith called… “the industry”. Basically, while writers are in it to tell stories, publishing houses are in it to make money. They have to be, because that’s how capitalism works. Assuming you have the capital to start up your own publishing house, and you have the choice between – say – publishing a shoddy Twilight rip-off that you know has a ready-made market because it’s perfectly obvious that there’s a huge market for shoddy Twilight rip-offs, or an experimental, philosophical work that’s really cool but difficult to get your head around, which are you going to publish? You might say the quirky one, but if there’s no market, you’re not going to make the money back from printing and distributing it. If you want to keep your publishing house afloat, you’ll publish the shoddy Twilight rip-off. (Of course, if you publish enough of the shoddy rip-offs, you’ll have enough “fat” in the budget to go towards something cooler, and if you’re a niche publishing house you can get away with a bit more. But still, the way to make more money is to print what sells, not what’s really cool.) One of the good things about the internet age is that it’s changing this model a lot. Apparently a quarter of the top-selling titles on Amazon are self-published, and honestly never mind selling books – the internet gives people the freedom to just post their work, for free, for anyone to read whenever they like. (There’s obviously much more of a tradition of this with fanfic, because you can’t sell that anyway, but there are websites like FictionPress where people can do the same thing with their original work.) Then you have interesting platforms like Novelistik, where for 49 Mexican pesos a month (less than AUD$4) people can read as much as they want, and writers get paid a peso for each time a chapter they write is read by someone. Perhaps my Spanish isn’t good enough to make good use of that platform, but it’d be interesting to see how it turns out. There are some arguments that get made against using the internet to distribute stories, especially against using it to distribute stories for free. I’ve heard the complaint that writers deserve to be paid for their work, and distributing stories for free undermines writers who seek to be paid, because readers just figure, “Why bother paying when I can read stuff for free?” Honestly, this argument seems kind of petulant to me. I agree that writers should be able to live comfortably, but I also think that people without bucketloads of cash to burn should have the ability to read books. Resistance to ever-cheaper, ever-more-accessible books prices people out of the market, whether advertently or not. And to be honest, I think everyone should be able to live comfortably, whether they write or not. So maybe we need to find another channel for making that happen. Another argument I’ve heard is that grand publishing houses ensure some kind of quality control that you wouldn’t have if people just published what they wanted on the internet. But an important counterargument to this is that publishing houses evidently don’t do quality control, because just look at how much trash gets published! And I mean, trash is fine, sometimes you just feel like some lowbrow, guilty pleasure-style entertainment – but don’t get all high and mighty about how trash somehow isn’t trash just because it was published. Finding good stuff isn’t always easy, but it’s not like it gets any harder if you look for it online. Basically, the thing I’m getting at here is that literature, the creating and sharing of stories, would be so much better if capitalism didn’t exist to commodify everything. If stories weren’t considered objects to be sold, but creations to be shared and enjoyed. The internet can solve some of these problems by virtue of how it enables anyone, really, to distribute what they want, but there are others that it can’t solve – that, for instance, the vast majority of us are going to struggle massively to find the time and inclination to tell our stories. Story-telling is not about money, but in the world we live in money can never be too far away from our minds, much as we wish otherwise.

Why is it that the capitalist West has accumulated more resources than human history has ever witnessed, yet appears powerless to overcome poverty, starvation, exploitation, and inequality? What are the mechanisms by which affluence for a minority seems to breed hardship and indignity for the many? Why does private wealth seem to go hand in hand with public squalor? Is it, as the good-hearted liberal reformist suggests, that we have simply not got around to mopping up these pockets of human misery, but shall do so in the fullness of time [perhaps in Obama’s second term]? Or is it more plausible to maintain that there is something in the nature of capitalism itself which generates deprivation and inequality…?


On the language of privilege

It’s no great secret that, by and large, socialists don’t seem to like the language of “privilege” very much. At best, they seem to have mixed feelings – and to be honest I totally get the mixed feelings, as the word “privilege” can be incorporated into a lot of different political frameworks, not all of which you’d agree with. But then again, the same is true of a lot of other words – just look at the contested definition of “democracy” – and I don’t personally think this is a reason, in and of itself, to avoid the word.

Personally, I like the way that Socialist Worker began its article A barrier to fighting oppression?:

ACTIVISTS TALK a lot about privilege, and for good reason. We live in a massively unequal society, in which different people are systematically oppressed in many different ways.

But there is a way of thinking and talking about privilege that, while seemingly radical, at a certain point actually poses a barrier to the fight against oppression.

I like this because it doesn’t reject the validity of talking about privilege; as you can see it says there’s “good reason” to. What it says instead is that the language of privilege can be used to describe and justify sets of politics that are really not useful, and can be outright wrong. If you go to read the whole article, you’ll find that it criticises a document which betrays a complete lack of understanding on the part of the author that class society exists, and in it lies the basis of all these forms of oppression. This document also argues that “class privilege” is the privilege of being a person raised with financial stability and access to financial safety nets through family or other assets. Class privilege can also apply to someone who has accrued wealth over time, which is just an incredibly terrible and useless way of conceptualising class. (For the record, I agree that being rich, or at least financially comfortable, is something that shapes our lived experience, and thus our worldview, and is therefore arguably a privilege that has to be “checked” just like every other form of privilege. But this doesn’t make it equivalent to class. There are well-paid workers, and poverty-stricken members of the petit bourgeoisie; levels of wealth do not align so neatly with class.) What all of this shows, I think, is that there are right ways and wrong ways to conceive of “privilege”.

These wrong ways are justifiably criticised. Failure to see oppression as rooted in the structures of the system – of class society – is extremely problematic, because how do you fight oppression, if you don't understand that it’s rooted in the system itself? Sometimes, the language of privilege can be used to push the idea that actually, the basis of oppression lies in individuals and the way that individuals treat each other. I’m just going to quote one blog post I’ve read, Some Reflections on the Concept of Privilege, which I think explains this framework and the problems with it well:

Given the way that the language is sometimes used, it almost sounds as if members of dominant groups (e.g. men vis-a-vis women, hetero people vis-a-vis lgbt people, etc.) simply need to accept responsibility and offer verbal repentance as individuals in order to do their part in changing the status quo. That is, the language of privilege can sometimes make it sound as if the only obligation of, say, white people in a racist society is to individually acknowledge their privilege and apologize for it.

But individual-level concepts such as apology, guilt, acknowledgement, repentance, responsibility and so on fail to capture the historical, social, political and structural features of racial oppression. Racial oppression is not a set of ideas or attitudes individuals have (although ideas and attitudes play a role in reproducing and justifying it). Oppression refers to asymmetrical social relations among groups of persons involving power, domination, exploitation and so on.

That is – personally acknowledging your privilege, and even feeling a bit bad about it, doesn’t actually change a thing. Oppression exists on a systemic level, and nothing you do as an individual can really challenge that. If you care about fighting oppression, you have to fight the system.

But I still think that being aware of privilege is important, as a kind of first step in a process with many more steps after that. Perhaps nothing you can do as an individual can challenge oppression, but plenty that you can do can reinforce it. For instance, disregarding the perspectives of people of colour, women, or any other marginalised group contributes to their marginalisation. So don’t do that.

I do disagree with “privilege politics” when it’s used to mean the argument that privileged groups benefit from oppression. I’m sure this is a contentious proposition, but I do mean it – I think that the ruling class, the bourgeoisie benefits from oppression, but other privileged groups fundamentally don’t.

I think the important thing here is to know what you’re comparing. For instance, it can seem that men benefit from women’s oppression – they don’t have to do as much housework, they get higher wages, they get to be more sexually assertive than women tend to be. But the correct comparison isn’t between men and women; it’s between men in a world where women are oppressed, and men in a world where they aren’t.

So okay, men might have to do a little more housework in such a world. However, such a world is much less likely to be divided into atomised households, so “housework” is likely to be organised at a community level, just like other forms of work. This means it would take far less time and people wouldn’t be so isolated as they did it! As well, men’s wages would be higher than men’s wages are now, because there wouldn’t be this lower-paid section of the workforce holding them back. People’s sex lives would be more fulfilling because everyone would get to be assertive (I find it hard to believe that men actually like the idea of sleeping with women who don’t care about sexual pleasure for themselves… I guess the most reactionary segment of them…?). There would also be no gender norms, no standards of masculinity that men feel pressured to match up to, no pressure to keep their emotions on the inside all the time. And so it goes. Basically, women’s liberation would not just benefit women!

I do think it’s important to be careful articulating thoughts like this – just because men don’t really benefit from women’s oppression, for instance, doesn’t mean that they don’t seem to. For instance, in our society it’s clearly women who are widely regarded as sex objects, available for men’s consumption (porn and prostitution both reflect this dynamic) – and I’ve had to have so many arguments with the man I’m seeing, trying to talk him out of this mindset, that it’s not funny. But still, as I said, the central thing is to know what you’re comparing. Men are better off as compared to women – this is what makes them “privileged”. They’re not better off as compared to how they could be in a world without gendered oppression – this is why they don’t “benefit”.

It’s important to understand the distinction between these two things, and I think this is also why it’s important to have the word “privilege” in your political vocabulary. Lots of people don’t! I’ve met very few socialists who use the word, preferring instead to say privileged groups “aren’t oppressed”, which is technically accurate but somewhat lacking, I feel. To simply say they “aren’t oppressed” makes it sound like they experience the pure absence of a thing, which isn’t the case. Privileged individuals are socialised in this society, and passively absorb an ideological framework that seeks to justify oppression, and thus justify their privilege. As well, there is the reality that white people are likely to be hired ahead of people of colour, that men are likely to be promoted ahead of women, and so on – as capitalism forces workers to compete against each other, this means that privileged individuals are likely to “win”. Just saying they’re “not oppressed” doesn’t really do enough, I think, to reflect this reality.

Ultimately it is in the interests of everyone, except the bourgeoisie, to overthrow the capitalist system that perpetuates all of these oppressions – and it’s necessary to struggle against these oppressions to overthrow the capitalist system. Basically, the only people who truly benefit from oppression are the ones who benefit from capitalism, which is not the vast majority of us. I still think it’s important to acknowledge privilege and be aware of it so that we can unite against the system, though; if you try to minimise it too much, I think you’re just throwing oppressed groups under the bus, honestly. If we can understand that all these struggles are inextricably bound up in each other, as we should, then there shouldn’t be a counterposition here. The language of “privilege” does tell us something about how the world works, and how oppression affects people’s life experiences and views, and thus it’s a concept worth having.

In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society. Disabled people are therefore an oppressed group in society. Thus we define impairment as lacking all or part of a limb, organ or mechanism of the body; and disability as the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes little or no account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from the mainstream of social activities. [If disability] is seen as a tragedy, then disabled people will be treated as if they are the victims of some tragic happening or circumstance. This treatment will…be translated into social policies which will attempt to compensate these victims for the tragedies that have befallen them… If disability is defined as social oppression, then disabled people will be seen as the collective victims of an uncaring or unknowing society… Such a view will be translated into social policies geared towards alleviating oppression rather than compensating individuals.

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