The enemy is not among us
A middle class person has more in common with a homeless person than with a billionaire. While their lives are obviously very different, and the middle class person enjoys securities, pleasures, and humanization that the homeless person is barred from accessing, the reality is that a few bad circumstances could easily land the middle class person not far from where the homeless person is. A billionaire is never going to end up anywhere near the homeless person’s position. The billionaire lives in a world that neither the middle class person nor the homeless person can imagine.
The hyper-online ‘social justice’ left (what Jay and I call the Nexus on Fucking Cancelled) is obsessed with the concept all of privilege. People are encouraged to list of their various identities and name which ones grant them privileges and which ones make them oppressed. Then, within this culture, those whose identity categories add up to more ‘privilege’ are expected to give what they have to those more marginalized, as well as to defer to these people in all things.
I often talk about why it is absurd to defer to entire identity groups (identity groups don’t have unified views on anything and it’s dehumanizing to act like they do). Now I want to talk about why our ideas about privilege have us massively confused about power, what it is, and how we might be able to get some ourselves.
Even a person who is considered extremely ‘privileged’ in ‘social justice’ culture (for example the hypothetical middle class person above, who in this case we will describe as white, male, cis, educated, and able bodied) is completely fucking powerless in the face of billionaires, corporations, and the governments who protect them. He works all week like everyone else. If he ‘owns’ a home, he doesn’t actually own it, the bank does (and is greedily sucking up interest payments from him as he tries to pay off his mortgage). If he’s American, his healthcare isn’t guaranteed and is dependent on his employment. Since he’s educated, he likely has student loan debt that he’s paying off along with his mortgage. These all might seem like luxury problems to have, but I have to say: his few weeks of vacation time a year, his home that he doesn’t even own, his time which for the most part belongs to his employer, this is all a very low bar for what we consider the absolute pinnacle of privilege.
Not to mention that he, like the rest of us, is on a planet that is spirally toward environmental collapse. Maybe he lives in a part of the country where forest fires are raging more and more often and air quality is becoming a major issue. If he doesn’t repress these feelings all together, he probably feels worry about his future and the future of his children.
What happens to his middle class security if he gets hit by a car and has to spend months recovering? What happens to his middle class security if the university he works at decides not to hire him back since he is contract faculty and not tenure? What happens to his middle class security if his young child is diagnosed with a severe illness that requires medical care outside of his insurance and more time than he and his wife actually have, both of them being full time workers?
I was trained in ‘social justice’ culture to feel really angry if anyone were to say the things I just said. I was trained to say “Everyone already has compassion for this guy and he has everything on his side already.” I was trained to list off the circumstances of the many others who have it so much worse: the homeless person experiencing violence from cops and totally unable to access healthcare for example.
I was trained to weigh out pain and suffering, measure it, and decide whose is worse and whose is worthy of my attention. I was trained to feel guilt for any ‘privileges’ I had and to believe that I had them at a direct expense to those more marginalized to me. No one really stopped to explain to me why that was or where the scarcity was coming from. No one explained to me why me having a place to live meant someone else didn’t or why my humanity being recognized meant someone else’s wasn’t or why me not living in total abject poverty (anymore) means that I need to ‘hand it over.’
People like to laugh about the ‘secret rich kids’ in activist subcultural scenes. The kids who have parents with money (and maybe even get money from those parents) but pretend like they don’t. Cancellers of mine have ‘outed’ me as having university professor parents (not that it was actually a secret) in order to discredit me. I can explain that I moved out at 16, that I come from a home with child abuse, that I’m totally estranged from my parents. But the question remains - why do we caricature those with relative ‘privilege’ as evil? Why do our activist subcultures insist on poverty chic? Why is having our needs met bad?
Because how dare you have your needs met when other people don’t.
But why don’t they?
Why is healthcare not free and available to all? Why do we pay half our income (or more) to landlords? Why is it normal to spend most of our lives working and not even see a fraction of the profit of that labour? Why is the homeless person homeless? Why will the middle class person lose his house if he can’t make the payments? Why are the forest fires burning and the hope for a planet that can sustain human life dwindling?
The answer is capitalism, an economic system where a small few hoard unthinkable amounts of wealth by exploiting the earth and the rest of us. An economic system where we are taught that we earn what we have and that those who don’t do well are failures. An economic system that dehumanizes human beings and treats the living earth as a never ending resource (even when it is glaringly obvious that that assessment is wrong).
The homeless person definitely has it worse. But the middle class person actually doesn’t have it good either. And the greatest trick the capitalists have played on us is having us bicker amongst ourselves about ‘privilege’ while they get away with stealing our lives and killing our planet.
Once I heard a canceller say “You know why we go after the people in our communities instead of capitalists - you know the capitalists are untouchable.” At least this canceller is being honest. And it’s true, currently the capitalists are untouchable. They hold power that is unthinkable to us, and yet we know its outlines because it shapes all aspects of our lives.
It’s not just that it’s wrong to ‘go after our community members’ as a substitute (scapegoat) for our real enemies. It’s not just that it’s wrong to dehumanize and harass regular people and drive them out of their communities. It’s not just that it’s wrong to try to take away the material security of someone we see as ‘privileged’ but could never even dream of being granted a mortgage and lives paycheck to paycheck. It’s also that it’s strategically failing us. It’s that this behaviour is what makes the capitalists untouchable. We have no fucking power as individuals. But collectively, we have a lot of it.
The workers run the world. That’s not just a catchy slogan and you don’t even need to read Marx to get what I mean. All the capitalist’s profits are extracted from our labour: whether we are talking that middle class faculty member, the uber driver, or people working in Bangladesh making t-shirts. The suffering is being channelled downward and the wealth is being hoarded at the very top.
Capitalism runs on workers. It actually can’t run without them, which is why capitalists work very hard to make sure that we are threatened, exhausted, and most importantly, suspicious of each other.
If we ever got together and say - organized, used the power of our labour to make real demands, that would be a substantial threat to capitalists. If we had clear, specific demands, organized in huge numbers, and went on strike, we would be wielding massive power.
Which is why capitalists love the neoliberal identitarianism that keeps us divided and fighting each other for scraps, and why political leaders who have called for a politics of coalition have often been assassinated.
None of us have what we deserve. We are all being incredibly fucked over, some much worse than others yes. But if we shift our politics from one of fighting each other to fighting together, we would be able to improve things for all of us.
The enemy is not among us and if we want things to change we absolutely must find a way to work together. We must find a way to organize and to build collective power.
(Building collective power across difference toward shared goals also has the added benefit of people humanizing each other and letting go of prejudiced beliefs (as the person beside them turns out to be a friend, and not a scapegoat) - but that’s a story for another day.)
The only way forward is solidarity.
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Clementine Morrigan is a writer and public intellectual based in Montréal, Canada. She writes popular and controversial essays about culture, politics, ethics, relationships, sexuality, and trauma. A passionate believer in independent media, she’s been making zines since the year 2000 and is the author of several books. She’s known for her iconic white-text-on-a-black-background mini-essays on Instagram. One of the leading voices on the Canadian Left and one half of the Fucking Cancelled podcast, Clementine is an outspoken critic of cancel culture and a proponent of building solidarity across difference. She is a socialist, a feminist, and a vegan for the animals and the earth.