Privilege

The abolition of privileges, at the Monument to the Republic, Paris. Via Wikimedia Commons.

We hear it said a lot these days: white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege. It suggests an advantage that is in some way illegitimate. The concept acquired greater sharpness for me recently while reading Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Under the ancien régime, ennobled families were granted privilege in the literal sense; that is, they answered to a different set of laws (privy: private, leges: laws). In particular, they were exempt from taxation. Making matters worse, one could buy into this arrangement through the purchase of “venal offices,” which granted one the same immunities. One might become an inspector of cheeses, for example. It really was that ridiculous. Such positions proliferated as the fiscal crisis of the 1780s deepened; the sale of offices was a way for the crown to finance its present needs through the sacrifice of future tax revenue.  Those who purchased offices were entered, along with their descendants, into the lists of noble families, permanently exempt from the tax burden.

Meanwhile, one of many forms of taxation that peasants were subject to was the corvée (literally, “drudgery”): The men of a village would be rounded up to perform some public works project such as the building of a road, and for whatever reason this tended to happen during the harvest, just when their labor was most needed at home. It was a bitter injustice.

Obviously, the whole system of privilege was parasitical. It was also quite different from what we mean today when we speak of privilege. According to current usage, it means something like good fortune. In a polemical discussion of education, for example, it will be said that a child who grows up with two parents is “privileged,” from which we are meant to infer that there is something illegitimate about the source of his relative calm and competence.

But it’s not as though such advantages make him a parasite on society. For us, the meaning of the term is reversed. If you are privileged, it means you are expected to contribute more, not less, than someone who is “underprivileged.” But at the same time, your being in a position to do so may be subject to the same resentment that was directed to the privileges of the ancien régime. From the perspective of eighteenth century usage, it looks as though the point of recasting any advantage as “privilege” is to suggest that all inequality of condition is illegitimate, based on an underlying injustice.

But what this injustice consists of is usually not elaborated. If one presses for details (and this is already a breach of etiquette), the reasons offered are often tendentious. The term privilege is used not to make a case but rather to convey a mood. Why is there so much political opportunity to be had by deploying this mood, as a weapon? What accounts for our susceptibility to being cowed by it, or indeed to indulging it ourselves, this fuzzy indignation? In particular, we need to account for the fact that accusations of privilege are most prominent among…well, the privileged. (For example, Ivy League students.) Hold that thought.

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Francois Furet was another preeminent historian of the French Revolution. His final book, published shortly before he expired while playing tennis at the Quad Club in Hyde Park, was a magisterial account of the career of communism among Western intellectuals in the twentieth century, entitled The Passing of an Illusion. (Furet was himself a Marxist in his youth.) In this work, he expanded his purview to take in “the revolutionary passion” as it appeared in another epoch, and drew parallels to the original. Among many insights he offers is that hatred of the bourgeoisie is itself a bourgeois phenomenon.

The condition of being bourgeois was a genuinely new development in the human landscape, arising in the late eighteenth century. Furet suggests that what it amounts to is that one is…undefined. You don’t have an inherited social role, or a given place in society. You are not born into the trade of your father, for example, or into the reciprocal obligations of rank. This indeterminacy is both a social fact and a principle that we avow. We do so because we believe such indeterminacy is what makes us free, which really means free for self-making. But it is also what makes us anxious. (Today many young people feel they have to decide even what gender they will be.)

Because our status is always in flux, or potentially so, we look around and compare ourselves to our contemporaries; bourgeois society is fundamentally competitive. One has to perform one’s social value anew each day. (That’s what social media is for. And to maintain a high-performance personality, it helps to have the right mix of mood- or attention-enhancing pharmaceuticals.)

The competition of bourgeois society is responsible for its unprecedented ability to create wealth. But there is a problem. Furet writes that “the idea of the universality and equality of man, which [bourgeois society] claims as its foundation and is its primary innovation, is constantly negated by the inequality of property and wealth produced by the competition of its members. Its development belies its principle, and its dynamic undercuts its legitimacy. The bourgeoisie did not invent the division of society into classes, but by cloaking that division in an ideology that renders it illegitimate, they tinged it with suffering.”

The suffering is not confined to those who find themselves on the bottom. Furet is especially perceptive on the psychological effect of this contradiction for those who rise to the top: a kind of bourgeois self-hatred. He suggests this sentiment is the secret origin of the revolutionary passion (and in milder form, we might add, of liberal guilt).

The ongoing ferment on campus reveals the university as the site where the paradox of bourgeois society is most acute. As gatekeeper to the upper middle class, the elite university’s primary social function is to sort the population (and it seeks rents commensurate with occupying such a choice position). It detects existing inequalities, exacerbates them, and certifies them. And whatever else it does, it serves as a finishing school where the select learn to recognize one another, forging a class consciousness that has lately hardened into a de facto caste system. But for that very reason, by the logic Furet identifies, it is also the place where the sentiment that every inequality is illegitimate must be performed most strenuously.

In times of broadly shared upward mobility this contradiction was perhaps less keenly felt. But, for reasons that are only now being broadly understood, once the Cold War ended, the economy increasingly took on the shape of a winner-take-all competition. The self-applied, legitimizing balm of campus progressivism became more necessary than ever.

But simply becoming more noisy about equality wouldn’t do the trick. Some conceptual innovation was needed, one that would shift the terms in such a way as to ease the contradiction. Enter “diversity.”

This concept claims descent from a lineage of shining democratic moments in the struggle for equal rights that we rightly celebrate: John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration, Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” or the statesmanship by which Nelson Mandela averted civil war in South Africa. But the family resemblance turns out to be superficial when one grasps the function “diversity” serves as a principle of administration in today’s political economy.

As Michael Lind has written, “Neoliberalism—the hegemonic ideology of the transatlantic elite—pretends that class has disappeared in societies that are purely meritocratic, with the exception of barriers to individual upward mobility that still exist because of racism, misogyny, and homophobia.” Marking out the corresponding classes of persons for special solicitude is thus key to sustaining the democratic legitimacy of our major institutions. Or rather, the point is to shift the basis of that legitimacy away from democratic considerations toward “moral” ones. These have the advantage that they can be managed through the control of language, which has become a central feature of institutional life.

The concept of diversity first germinated in the corporate world, and was quickly seized upon by academia. It arrived just in the nick of time. The previous two decades had seen the traditional mission of the university undermined, if not abandoned, under pressure from a highly politicized turn in the humanities that made its case in epistemic terms, essentially debunking the very idea of knowledge. The role that the upper-tier university soon discovered for itself, upon the collapse of ideals of liberal learning, was no longer that of training citizens for humane self-government, but rather that of supplying a cadre to staff the corporations, the NGOs, and the foundations. That is, the main function of elite schools is to supply the personnel required to run things in an economy that has become more managerial than entrepreneurial.

The institutional desideratum—the political antipode to hated “privilege”—is no longer equality, but diversity. This greatly eases the contradiction Furet identified, shielding the system from democratic pressure. It also protects the self-conception of our meritocrats as agents of historical progress. As was the case with the Soviet nomenklatura, and the leading Jacobins as well, it is precisely our elite that searches out instances of lingering privilege, now understood as obstacles to fulfillment of the moral imperative of diversity. Under this dispensation, the figure of the “straight white male” (abstracted from class distinctions) has been made to do a lot of symbolic work, the heavy lifting of legitimation (in his own hapless way, as sacrificial goat). We reached a point where this was more weight than our electoral system could take, as the election of 2016 revealed. Whether one regards that event as a catastrophe or as a rupture that promises the possibility of glasnost, its immediate effect has been panic in every precinct where the new class accommodations have been functioning smoothly, and a doubling down on the moralizing that previously secured them against popular anger. We’ll see how that goes.

The term “shibboleth” is interesting. Its definitions include “a peculiarity of pronunciation, behavior, mode of dress, etc., that distinguishes a particular class or set of persons” and “a common saying or belief with little current meaning or truth.” It is a random Hebrew word that took on its current meaning when it was used by the Gileadites as a test to detect the fleeing Ephraimites, who could not pronounce the sound sh (Judges 12:4–6). I think it is fair to say that one’s ability to pronounce the word “diversity” with a straight face, indeed with sincerity made scrupulously evident, serves as a shibboleth in this original sense. It answers the question whether one wants to continue as a member in good standing of those institutions that secure one’s position in the upper middle class.

Matthew Crawford is a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia.

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