A slippery subject: unpacking ‘privilege’ without a zero-sum mentality

It’s becoming all too twee these days to use the word ‘privilege’ as a signifier of ‘woke-ness’ without considering what privilege is, how it is acquired and the slipping of semantics it currently suffers.

Firstly to say that, even if abused as a signalling device to indicate an alleged lack of bias or prejudice, that we are talking about various forms of privilege in the mainstream is a good thing. I’ve no doubt that the conversations currently ongoing about white privilege, male privilege, cis privilege, “middle class problems” etc. is a form of progress from denying these things exist.

Rather, I’m concerned at the slippage between the concept of privilege and the concept of luxury. I even caught myself the other day writing “male privilege, a luxury women can’t afford” and then had to erase my words… as if these are the same things: luxuries and privileges. But they are not always.

The importance of the distinction first struck me while conducting fieldwork in a high-performing (by results, at least) high school in Cape Town. On explaining the focus of my study, the staff and students at the school were quick to caveat their place of work and activities with the phrase “yes, we know we are very privileged here.” Besides being a form of exculpation, I was increasingly bemused as I then proceeded to walk about the school. Because very little of what the school offered was particularly luxurious. The buildings were old, but well maintained, but relatively simple. Classrooms looked like my old classroom did back in the 1990s. There weren’t iPads in every hand, smartboards in every room, water coolers in every classroom, digital eyeball recognition locks on student lockers… you get my meaning. The student lockers were old metal jobs. The staffroom decor still quaintly dated. The school was not lavish. It was functional, and well maintained. Yes, the learners had access to good sports coaching and art classes. But these are facilities every child should enjoy. They shouldn’t be synonymous with excess.

This got me to thinking that we need to heed the difference between privilege and luxury. The difference can be prised apart when we consider a more well-trodden framework of equity versus adequacy. Privilege sits in the frame of equity–it points out that there are discrepancies between peoples experiences that shouldn’t be there. Luxury sits in the frame of adequacy i.e. ‘what is enough?’ Luxury is synonymous with excess. To say I have privileges is to admit I sit on the fortunate side of an equity assymmetry. But it does not necessarily mean I live in luxury.

White privilege allows me to walk into a building as a stranger and not be assumed to be a thief or a beggar. It allows me to enquire about hiring a flat without worrying that I’ll be told “sorry it’s taken” sans further explanation when I arrive for a viewing. To not have my lecturer assume my lack of understanding is a language issue, or that my command of English is synonymous with my intelligence. But this is not a luxury: this is something people of all hues should be afforded.

Male privilege means not being catcalled down the street. Not being asked “what were you wearing” when you lay a complaint about antisocial behaviour. Not being tutted at when the cashier notices you’ve grey hair but no wedding ring (yes, this really happens). But I don’t want men to be catcalled, or judged for their marital status. I would like the privileges that men enjoy too please.

You see, I think we’ve allowed ‘privilege’ and ‘luxury’ to problematically meld. We slip between ‘privileges’ which are human rights, and ‘privileges’ which are luxuries. Privileges are things that all people should enjoy. That is: they should be additive, not subtractive. We call these things ‘privileges’ to acknowledge that while they should be universal, they are not: some have them, and some don’t, and this is a problem.

But when we ask someone to ‘check their privilege’, it is not helpful to tacitly or overtly insinuate that those privileges are necessarily all excessive and should be given up in the name of social justice. Luxuries–those things we don’t need–that’s a different story. It’s a luxury to buy new shoes every month. It’s a luxury to have a heated private swimming pool. Sadly, it is a privilege in South Africa  to be safe in your home. It is a privilege to not be harrassed by police. It is a privilege to have safe means to get to work every day.

When we conflate human rights and luxuries by sweepingly referring to them as ‘privileges’, we end up with extremely defensive and angry rhetoric: people feel they are being told to yield things that all human beings, in a good society, would have a right to. A home. Access to job opportunities. Respect and dignity. To not be discriminated against. We need to distinguish what we mean when we say ‘privilege’.

Unfortunately our zero-sum mentality (encouraged by our economic system) has us believing that for someone else to ‘get’, someone must ‘lose’. i.e. for women to receive privileges, men must yield theirs. For black people to receive dignity and respect, white people must lose theirs. In the fallout of the “land appropriation without compensation” debate, the pearl clutching middle classes are receiving their DA smses warning them that “they are coming to take your house!”: a message premised on exactly this zero sum view of the world.

And I’m not for one minute insinuating that the line between ‘privilege’ and ‘luxury’ is clear. The adequacy debate is far from concluded. Nor am I implying that being aware that I enjoy human rights (like dignity and respect) that others don’t is a bad thing. But I’m convinced that noting this slippage is an important part of beginning positive discussions across social stratification: between haves and have-nots, whether those strata are racial, class, gendered, landed. Coupled with the recognition that someone else’s gain is my gain too, not my loss, distinguishing luxury and privilege, adequacy and inequity, holds a lot of promise for less angry debate.

Capitalism and learning: a form of parasitism

IT is difficult to engage with sociological issues about schooling without engaging economics. So much of how we think about schools, skills and success is now completely framed in economic terms, with pockets of resistance scattered across the globe.

Given that the dominant mode of economic arrangement is now capitalism and has been a particular flavour of capitalism for the last 30 years, it is inevitable that this blog will touch on this relationship frequently. Many terms are used to refer to the contemporary economic flavour: ‘neoliberalism’, ‘fast capitalism’, ‘late capitalism’… I won’t unpack these too much in terms of an explainer, as plenty has been written on these  elsewhere. Now and then sometimes their deployment warrants some careful scrutiny (e.g. Jessica Gerrard’s excellent paper “Public education in neoliberal times: memory and desire” takes the political left’s use of the word ‘neoliberal’ to task.). But today’s post is the exploration of a thought that struck me while reading Lefebvre’s Rhythmanalysis, and tries to unpick a bit of the relationship between a capitalistic approach to production and economy, and the process of learning. Here goes.

The Dialectic of Capitalism and Learning

An interesting conundrum sits at the heart of the relationship between capitalism and learning: a dialectic (no, not an Hegelian dialectic, for all you philosophers out there… alas there is no synthesis). By dialectic, rather, I mean a germ of an idea that contains its own refutation. A paradox.

There is something inherently contradictory in the relationship between capitalistic arrangements of production, trade and consumption, and the project of learning (which, one could argue, is the project of being and becoming).

Critical to the nature of capitalism as a process is the need for constant growth. This is achieved through expansion into new spheres of markets, through conquest, cooperation, or the fabrication of whole new areas of supposed ‘need’ to generate previously non-existent demand (the latter is often achieved through commodifying previously non-monetized entities: water, air, time, attention etc.)

But such consistent expansion and growth requires adaptation. That is: learning. “Learning” in this sense is not necessarily cognitive, considered, concious or institutionalized. Rather, it is the acquisition (and appropriation) of new information and knowledge in order to better achieve a particular outcome or aim (telos), and this can be overt or covert, deliberate or accidental. In the case of capitalism, that telos is profit.

[Unsurprisingly, when we look backwards at history, we can see how large strides have been made in technological development–mapping, linguistics, military analysis, timespace compression etc.–through the expansion of capitalist market arrangements.]

It is important to note that capitalism depends on learning, but not vice versa. That is: adaptation is necessary for capitalism (in its absence, growth is not possible), but adaptation can–and has–existed for aeons in the absence of capitalism. The assumption of symmetry (or simultaneity) between the two is false, but often used by the proponents of capitalism as ‘natural’ and ‘without alternative’ in a rather neo-Darwinian manner.

Capitalism has had (and continues to have) an extraordinary influence on our conceptions of what constitutes ‘learning’. It’s almost as if, by being so dependent on the process of learning, the capitalist imagination seeks to ‘claim’ learning as its sole right and manifestation. One of the mechanisms of this claiming, is that learning or adaptation that is not to the benefit of the capitalist project is ‘less than’ or of questionable value. Art, philosophy, political studies, music, sport… have all been either interrogated regarding their true ‘value’/usefulness (in the most utilitarian of manners) or appropriated towards commercial ends (even if that commodification is hidden under layers of denial or misrecognition). Institutions of learning are forced to synchronize their aims, outputs, terms and frames of reference to that of the economy, or risk extermination through ‘irrelevance’. Learning for the sake of learning, for discovery, personal development or curiosity, is rapidly losing ground.

Such appropriation is critical if the capitalistic project is to survive. Any learning that is not for is necessarily against: in a world where constant growth and expansion is paramount, all non-cooperation is at best inhibitive and hence antagonistic, or, more radically, a potential for alternatives, for rupture.

Learning that can not, or will not, be appropriated towards the specific aims of capital threatens the totality of that system’s ability to reach and shape discursive reality i.e. to present itself as ‘without alternative’ (whatever that alternative might be, whether anarchy, a return to feudalism, communism, species extinction or any myriad of alleged utopias or dystopias). Uncommodified/uncommodifiable learning punctures the capitalist hold on our imaginations of what might be.

So where’s the contradiction?

Capitalism will cease in the absence of learning. The parasite will die if it kills its host. And yet, the continuation of the project of learning at all times threatens the hold of capitalism on the collective psyche. The discovery and considerations of alternatives continues to draw back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz, inviting fresh creativity that may or may not be aligned with the ends of monetization and commodification. Wherever, whenever, people are learning… are thinking new ideas, previously unthought… there is the possibility that they will think of a world beyond constant commodified growth.

If we recognise this dialectic, we are forced to consider then the continued permanent vulnerability of all systems and moments of learning to appropriation and co-option towards profiteering. In the presence of capitalistic economic arrangements, activities and meaning, in which learning is always the fuel that drives the engine, and yet threatens to rupture, there can not–and never will be–a moment in time when the arrangements, activities and meanings of learning are not beseiged by attempts to be commodified. Consider the example of the very word ‘disrupt’: previously reserved for deviants, political upstarts and anarchists, from street protestors to uncontrollable students in the classroom, the word ‘disrupt’ has now been brought into the monetized fold, been gilded as a descriptor for people who ‘shake up the market’ or ‘reinvent how things are done’. Even terms used previously in the pejorative are co-opted. And due to such a system’s constant need to grow and eliminate all alternatives, learning can expect no relief from commodification forces while a kernel of capitalism remains.

Far from being deterministic, this contradiction gives anyone who is concerned with capitalism and its effects genuine hope. Because built into the machine itself, at its very beating heart, are the seeds of its own defeat–that new ideas, learning, fresh thought and creativity remain, and these pursuits provide the starting point of imagining something different and more humane.

Bouncing back…

As happens with startling frequency to everyone I know, with little to no discrimination, life decided to drop on me over the last year. Needless to say, blogging took a backseat during the ride.

But, as assured by Keith Westwater below, humans are more elastic that they might seem. [more on the issues bound up with the increasingly popular term ‘resilience’ in a later post, as a good friend, Ashley, recently pointed out].

As I’m wrapping up my PhD this year, not a day goes by when I don’t have thoughts that I want to share, discuss and disseminate. I’ve sworn off social media for some time now…long before #deleteFacebook (and am feeling irritatingly smug about this decision since the emergence of the Cambridge Analytica scandal–feel free to tell me to stop gloating), but this does decrease my ability to reach others with ideas across the internet. Social media also doesn’t really encourage proper development of ideas beyond bite-size chunks. Maybe a proper, regular blog might do the trick.

So here’s a poem, originally shown me by someone I care for dearly, which takes a lovely gentle dig at us ‘mathematicians’ in favour of a more nuanced appreciation of human tenacity. Expect regular blog posts again. We are back to vertical.

Resilience by Keith Westwater

Mathematicians     have worked out

how to calculate     the bounciness of a ball:

(the coefficient of this x the cosine of that)

+   the differential of today’s weather     all ÷ by

a piece of string     (and the speed of the train)

= the same as    dropping different balls together

and seeing which ball     has the longest bounce


Measuring how well     a person will rebound

after being dropped on     is still being worked on:

some believe     it has something to do with

the thickness of their skin           whether their stretching

reaches a breaking point     or results in       withstanding

whether they can fight and flee          how many times

the person has returned to a vertical position before