Oppression is a Negative-Sum Proposition

It was really the silliest thing; a trifle in the scheme of things. The hose to the hand-shower in our bathtub broke, because the way it was installed required the hose to make a sharp bend. Fixing it so that it would last required the installation of a right-angle elbow between the wall spout and the hose: a common item, buckets full of which are probably found in any plumbing supplier or hardware store the world over. I was nevertheless not surprised at the answer I received from local suppliers: “no such thing;” “never heard of it;” “it doesn’t exist.”

I was not surprised because it had been the story of the life of ordinary white South Africans under apartheid. The thought-terminating cliché which accounted for our peculiar inability to have nice things was, “our economy is too small.” And it was too small because it was contrived to exclude the overwhelming bulk of the South African population from it. Even 28 years after the end of apartheid, most black South Africans remain as economically excluded as ever.

There is a conversation which is so common in our discourse that it is ordinarily taken as read. It begins with the concession that this or that white person did not personally invent, construct, or establish colonialism and apartheid, and ends with, “ah, but you benefited from it.” And indeed this seems unanswerable, so stark is the contrast between the typical white experience and the typical black experience here. It feels criminally heartless to compare centuries of violence, dispossession, poverty, loss of dignity, loss of prospects to mild difficulty in getting hold of a minor bathroom accessory: we rightly hesitate to mention them in the same breath. Yet making the comparison at the level of the coldest logic illuminates the question of whether “benefit” is really the best word for what we mean. 

In other words, what has come to be called “white privilege” is undeniably real, a crucial component of any society with a legacy of racism, but is “privilege” the best term for it? As I have the utmost appreciation for conceptual frameworks like Critical Race Theory, the question might seem like frivolous semantic nit-picking. Terminology nevertheless has consequences. If “dog kennel” is the customary term for a mattress in a certain community, that community might be in constant danger of ascribing a poor night’s rest to a mattress which is uncomfortable because there is a dog inside it. That is the error of so-called anarcho-capitalists, and if that is sauce for them, then so is it for everyone else.

Right-wing critiques of this construct of privilege abound. I do not wish to engage with them here except to say that they typically rest on the characteristic structure-blindness of the conservative right: the assumption that circumstances are not relevant if indeed they are real at all, and that all situations are random and adventitious. Thus the conservative right can understand “down on their luck” or “made poor life choices,” but cannot understand “systemically oppressed.”

Left-wing critiques are rarer and seem to favour three bases. Firstly, to focus on individual privilege instead of oppression cultivates the very structure-blindness which characterizes right-wing thinking, and tends to obscure structural factors. Esme Choonara and Yuri Prasad, writing in International Socialism (isj.org.uk) encapsulate it from an orthodox Marxist viewpoint: “Because privilege theory’s primary focus is on the inequality between individuals it cannot arm us for a fight that is ultimately against the system as a whole.”

When structural considerations are dismissed at the outset, there is little option but to ascribe oppression to personal crypto-bigotry: it becomes necessary to dig ever deeper into the individual psyche, be it for unconscious assumptions or for conscious deception. And neither of these is necessarily there. Even when there is grudging cognizance of the structural there remains the danger of locating the ongoing causes of the structural in aggregates of individual behaviour. More racism is embedded in the geographic and functional location of Khayelitsha within the Cape Town metropole than in the attitudes of most of the white population, and it is absurd to imagine that the former is maintained by some kind of unconscious collective telekinesis on the part of the latter.

Secondly, privilege implies a zero-sum situation. The terminology suggests something more than a person ought to have, while what is invariably meant by it in practice is simply what all people ought to have. Surely we are after the eradication and not the mere redistribution of oppression? Moreover, qualifying privilege with the adjective “unearned” becomes problematic when we begin to question what people ought to have to earn: what, after all, is wrong with unearned immunity from police brutality, if it is equal and universal?

Mikhail Bakunin was correct that, “I am truly free only when all human beings, men and women, are equally free. The freedom of other men, far from negating or limiting my freedom, is, on the contrary, its necessary premise and confirmation.” I interpret this not as an expression of moral solidarity but as a matter of simple functionality. If the greater bulk of my freedom consists in the opportunity to interact collaboratively with others, my capability is determined by the capabilities of those with whom I can elect to interact. The more others can do, the more I can do. If freedom is thus a fundamentally positive-sum proposition, so oppression as its corollary is a fundamentally negative-sum proposition.

This requires a counterfactual imagination: not to compare extant oppressions and then derive our interpretation from the contrast, but to imagine what might reasonably have existed in the absence of the oppression. Where do we place zero?

Two companions walk down the street. Each has $10. A mugger confronts them and takes $9 from one and $1 from the other. Between them they have $10 left, and one of them is fully nine times as rich as the other, a position of undeniable privilege. If they both have the memory of the idiomatic goldfish and have thus forgotten all about the theft, only their respective positions are in evidence. Then they might reasonably be expected to calibrate their zero to around the $5.00 mark. If the richer one is a good friend they might offer the poorer $4 to equalize their residue: but does the richer one actually owe the poorer $4? And regardless of their own awareness, could either objectively be said to have benefited from the theft?

If instead they both have the memory of a literal elephant they would be very much aware of the theft. They would know that the zero point is at $10, i.e. above the wealth of the richer. Then a good friend might invest the $8 difference in a joint effort to track down the mugger and get their stolen $10 back. The memory on which the metaphor hinges is nothing but “class consciousness” as in Marxism, without the Hegelian cosmic opera. It is necessary to know about the theft before any effort could be made to imagine a condition in the present had the theft never happened.

It is true that a treacherous friend might be able to exploit the difference in the respective positions in which the theft placed them to gain power over their poorer friend. Is this worth the dollar lost? If Bakunin is to be believed the condition of the other friend being $9 richer is worth far more, given a thorough understanding of the situation. The relative power afforded by the differential loss pales in comparison to the absolute power afforded by the condition of no loss to either.

Thirdly, as Ben Burgis adds to his elaboration of these exact principles, “privilege talk” is polemically disastrous: “A left that only knows how to shame, call out, privilege-check, and diagnose the allegedly unsavory motivations of people who disagree with us will lose a lot of persuadable people whose material interests should put them on our side.” He ends the article, “Why on earth would you frame things this way if you actually wanted to win?”

Yet as Burgis also points out, it is a matter not only of rhetoric but of truth. When we argue that the vast majority of the supposedly privileged have a real interest in ending the oppression of the oppressed, we are arguing in good faith. We honestly believe that it is true.

I remember as a teenager visiting my uncle and aunt; it must have been around 1980. My mother’s second-eldest sister had married a blue-collar technician and had settled in the industrial town of Vereeniging, in what is now southern Gauteng. My aunt had had an ebullient imagination which had over time transformed their garden, such as it was, into an enthrallingly complex community of painted concrete gnomes. The sitting-room had a high ceiling which made the room feel even smaller, and picture rails at door height, typical even of these modest company houses of the 1930s. My uncle had a row of miniature liquor bottles on top of the picture rail, all the way around the room. Here we were assembled in the gathering gloom, for the bare electric light bulb had blown and my uncle could not afford to replace it that week.

I remember only these words of my uncle’s conversation: “Can you believe it?! A k****r!”; and my more politically progressive dad biting his lip lest he precipitate a rift between my mother and her sister. My uncle could pontificate about the horrors of black people in junior management — who could doubtless afford as many light bulbs as they might require — in substantial safety. He did not know the urgent police knock after midnight on his random front door, and his house subsequently being trashed for fun, which even black junior managers knew all too well. My uncle did not fear arrest for being on the wrong street at the wrong time, and then being fungibly prosecuted because punishing one of them was as good as punishing any other. My uncle had the vote, albeit only for white candidates in a narrow window between the extreme right and the moderate right. His job, however poorly paid, had been reserved for white workers for most of his life; and in it he could bully his black colleagues with impunity if he wished. He was however eligible for military conscription, a duty laid upon him to defend with his life the crappy third-rate imperium over which he ruled.

I don’t know if he was happy; I really didn’t know him at all. I do not know if he died mourning dreams to the fulfillment of which no number of garden gnomes could ever be equal. But I know that his streets were not paved with gold; no legions of servants attended him. His world was no paradise, not even a fool’s paradise. It was barely a fool’s park bench.

What might his life have been in an equal society? In no way does it stand to reason that it would have been worse. He would at the very least have enjoyed the same freedom from persecution that he did enjoy. He might have had more options, a broader range of peculiar niches and so a greater chance that one might fit him well. His world might have been more likely to have a use for an obscure talent which he never had cause to develop, which might have afforded him a life of greater comfort and security. Even if he were poorer than he was, his poverty might have been gentler, more convivial, more decent: he might have been more contented than he was.

For every scenario in which my uncle would have been worse off than he was, a hundred can be reasonably imagined in which he would have been at least a bit better off, and possibly a lot better off. Did my uncle benefit from apartheid? It really depends on the terms and the perspective one employs: but there is a definite sense in which my uncle might be said to have been actually oppressed by apartheid, albeit a minuscule fraction as much as his black compatriots were oppressed. He really did have every reason to oppose apartheid, and to stand in solidarity with black South Africans.

But he didn’t know it.

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