Marx was the great theorist of the revolutions that ushered in modernity, and if one is seeking the genealogy of “privilege”, that elusive neo-liberal concept, he’s a good person to go to. Marx thought that the old hierarchy, the old social order, was largely determined by family and provenance (provenance being basically ethnicity, and religion), while the new social order – one that came in, symbolically, the bonfire of “privileges” – the casting off of the aristocratic governing class and the entrance of the bourgeoisie -was characterized, as a total social fact, by the exploitation of labor by capital.
However, Marx’s model was ideal. It was an ideal that was being realized, patchily, in real time. All that was solid did not, really, melt into air. Moreover, with the elastic but handy notion of alienation, Marx had a conceptual tool to understand not only the affect of the new order of exploitation, but the existential effect of the undermining of “all that is solid”.
As we know, Marx’s simple picture of capitalism, while it traces out a path that has been tread by the peoples of the world, is intersected by many persistent remnants of the ancien regime. It makes sense that Cold War liberals would seek to preserve the order while expanding it by returning to the notion of privilege. Instead of speaking of the masses oppressed and exploited by Capital, they spoke of the underprivileged. And what were the privileges? In many ways, they return to ethnicity, race, and education as a guild system – provenance once again. In this morass, the state had to help the underprivileged – hence the great welfare projects. From the retirement system in France to the welfare system in the U.S., these projects worked well to push the underprivileged into middle class status.
The Cold War liberals died with their war, and there is not a statue of one of them. Their descendants, post-war neoliberals, enjoyed the fruits of the massive expansion of exploitation, which involved destroying the welfare system in the U.S. (courtesy of Clinton), and is presently going about destroying the retirement system in France (courtesy of Macron). Yet the rhetoric under which these events were engineered is a far cry from those of the Cold War conservative. The defense of a hypercharged predator form of capitalism has been combined attacks on privilege. Hence, the absurd conjunction of, say, dropping tariffs, protecting “intellectual property”, on the one hand, and promoting a euphemistic diversity in management, with a special emphasis on the glass ceiling. In the process, white privilege, which had been the tactic of the union-busters of yore, and which is exemplified in the astonishing whiteness of the upper 1 percent, a confederate monument all by itself, has been disowned by the privileged. Unsurprisingly, the era of euphemistic diversity coincides with the era of the collapse of black household wealth – as the same people who urge sensitivity to black lives matter are, very often, the same people who have devised the means for immiserating black lives.
We’ve seen this before. The great Justice Department report that x-rayed Ferguson, MO resulted in – zip. The system of predatory fines, the system of police harassment, the constant inequality dosed out to African-Americans at the end of a taser or baton is still going strong. Defunding the police is this year’s occupy Wall Street – sweet, but then the grownups, the mostly white managerial class, will take it from here. After occupy Wall Street, the Obama administration went on to preside over a recovery that favored the rich, astonishingly, more than even the Bush tax cuts did, with zero action taken against the incredible fees that are required for being credentialed in modernity’s guild – higher education – and zero action taken to address the housing crisis that, in particular, disproportionately affects black households.
Yet, yet … this time is always different, because it is this time. With a great depression brewing among the 80 percent of Americans who make less than 150 thou a year, and with an unstoppable pandemic revealing that the American health care system doesn’t only suck, but is booby trapped – and with the American government full throttle saving the richest through the most lucrative policies ever devised by a national government, with the Fed making sure that the investor class is so bathed in trillions that the financial markets are completely untethered from the real economy – this time might be different. If we begin a bonfire of the privileges, the country club will be on the pyre.