A few weeks ago, Adam Kotsko hypothesized a connection between privilege and austerity that relies on the grounding idea that a privilege is a possession rather than a feature – “something extra” that can be lost or taken away. By that definition, he questions whether a privilege is in fact more like a right: something “that’s been denied to a great many people.” As he states at the post’s very outset, all of this takes place within a highly individualized society, in which it’s extremely difficult to get anyone to really absorb the idea that larger structures might play a role in the disposition of people’s lives.
For me, the leap from “privilege” to “a privilege” skips some things, especially as it lands squarely in the the rhetoric of austerity. If a privilege is something that can be taken away, then almost inevitably there will be conditions under which somebody calls for it to be taken away. Thus privilege feeds into the anti-democratic crabs-in-a-barrel scrum through which austerity usually functions.
No argument about the reality of these mechanisms, but Kotsko doesn’t make it to every place where privilege lives. Not every privilege is “a privilege,” I would say, because not every privilege is something you can point to and say “Take it away, that’s not deserved.” There’s a whole class of layers of things that one doesn’t have to think about because of who one is within the larger systems of value and structures of power. At some point, everyone is a fish who never knew about the water.
That said, the visible and mutable privileges that can be taken away and the largely invisible privileges that cannot be taken away (only kept in mind) sit together on a spectrum. When I had occasion to try explaining this to folks, I kept the word but varied it with one of two adjectives. “Positive” privilege refers to those things that are bestowed and can be taken: like an allowance, or the ability to run a tab at your favorite bar. “Negative” privilege, by contrast, is those things that one doesn’t perforce need to think of or recognize, because they never come up until something breaks down. They’re institutional, they’re systemic, they’re most of all structural. They’re often expressed in the expectations and assumptions that we forget we even have.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with negative privilege. It’s an epistemological, cognitive, and ontological fact, but also something that one will have difficulty “seeing” and may therefore often deny exists. We’ve been upvoting value-laden hierarchies of difference and worth for millennia. And so I stand in many of the same places where Kotsko touches down over the course of this post, the comments on it, and a strong follow-up: our individualism makes it really tough to get with the idea that there are things unseen – like gravity, like structural inequality.
Yet and still, I’m not ready to call privilege a “rhetoric of zero-sum despair.” Privilege is a language that we’re not supposed to learn how to speak. One of the things I’ve long thought that African American intellectual and vernacular traditions have in common with European philosophical traditions is never ceasing to draw our attention to aspects of existence to which we can’t really attend. I used to have a whole riff about how ex-slave narratives in the antebellum United States were Heideggerian decades ahead of the man himself, insofar as they were demonstrations of what happens when Vorhandenheit and Zuhandenheit become subject positions in a hierarchy. But if that’s true, there’s also a bluesy mutuality to the relationship I wonder if Heidegger was in a position to get, even as a reader of Hegel, unless he somehow did make it to Lenox and West 125th.