Check your privilege, then…

A brief guide to solidarity and collective action

There is no denying that we live in a world where the divide between rich and poor is increasing. This truth challenges the myth that society will become more fair, more equal, and more just slowly over time if we simply are patient. 

The realisation that rights and equality must be fought for and won, and can move both backwards and forwards, has led many more people to think about, discuss and challenge the injustice they see.

One way this discussion is happening is through the recognition that privileges are not shared equally.  Many protest movements and campaigns have drawn people’s attention to the disadvantages faced by certain groups in society – groups of various ethnicity, religion, gender identity, sexuality, age, appearance, or physical/mental ability.

It is clear that in Australia not everyone is given the same opportunity. There is a reason the gender pay gap is so wide, the Indigenous incarceration rate is so high and the exploitation of migrant workers is so rife. These problems cannot be explained away by accusing people of personal failure. Though the problems may not affect each member of the group equality, they are systemic and widespread. In other words, these problems originate externally from the people they affect. They originate from the structures of the society we live in.

Though many people understand this, there are those who refuse to accept or acknowledge it. These are the columnists who complain that racism only exists because people of colour talk about it. Or the radio shock jocks who say women shouldn’t go out alone at night if they don’t want to be assaulted. Or the TV commentators who complain that Muslims aren’t doing enough to stop right-wing radicalision. Or the immigration minsters who accuse refugees of seeking refuge “the wrong way”. Or the federal treasurers who tell working class people to “get a better job” if they can’t afford a house. Or the prime ministers who tell young people to “ask [their] parents for help” if they can’t afford a house. Or the prime ministers who tell Aboriginal people to make different “lifestyle choices” to overcome their unemployment. You get the idea.

These arguments are infuriating because the logic is to blame the victim for their oppression, rather than to examine the external circumstances and causes.

People who ignore or deny the existence of systemic racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of oppression are usually doing so either because they benefit from the oppression or because they are ignorant of it. This distinction is important.

The shock jocks, columnists, TV commentators and politicians definitely benefit from it. For the media the benefit of publishing controversial or offensive views is primarily to draw attention and attract revenue. Sometimes there is an ideological agenda. For politicians, there is always an ideological agenda. ‘Divide and rule’ is a crucial tactic to maintain the power of a tiny minority in an unequal society.

When people and institutions in positions of power that benefit from oppression reinforce and perpetuate prejudice against (or violence against) oppressed groups, they should be unequivocally challenged and shut down. Protests, boycotts, blockades, and occupations to stop them are all valid. Disruption of oppressive power structures can be a crucial tactic in undermining them.

However, when it comes to people whose prejudice stems from ignorance or misplaced anger, the approach needs to be different. This is because the goal is not the same.

Ultimately, people who hold no real power in society do not, in any meaningful sense, benefit from structures of oppression and they are not themselves the source of oppression. Yes, men enjoy privileges that women do not. White people enjoy privileges that people of colour do not. Straight cis gendered people enjoy privileges that queer and trans people do not. And so on. But ordinary working class people, even those who hold prejudices, have far more to gain by uniting with other oppressed groups to undermine these structures of oppression – to undermine capitalism – than they have to gain by reinforcing them. This makes them potential allies, even if they don’t yet consider themselves allies.

It is the shared interest (whether conscious or not) that working class people have in challenging capitalism, and our role as workers in a capitalist economy, that make workers important allies. Nobody can bring society to a halt like the organised working class can. This is why socialists strive for maximum class unity in the fight against capitalist oppression. 

That is not because class oppression hurts more, or costs more lives, or is worse in kind or degree. It is because this oppression is central to the way capitalism functions. Other forms of oppression, like racism and sexism, are rooted in class oppression.

Malcolm X said “you can’t have capitalism without racism”. Many feminists agree that women’s oppression stems from the patriarchy that developed through class society. It is because our oppressions are bound up with each other’s that prejudice amongst working class people is both changeable and worth changing.

This is not to say that it is the duty of every woman to patiently explain sexism to every sexist man, or the duty of every person of colour to explain racism to every racist bigot. And it is certainly not to diminish or apologise for vile predjudices. It is simply a guide to understanding consciousness and oppression, and a broad strategy to change it.

Understanding how people are oppressed by capitalism, and how these forms of oppression interact, is imperative for any movement equipped to fight it. We are powerless without this understanding and will remain isolated unless we utilise it. This is the purpose and importance of studying Marxism – the theory of socialism – in directing and influencing our day-to-day struggles and activism.   

We should all strive to be acutely aware of the injustice around us, but this can’t happen simply through inward reflection. We need to recognise and acknowledge the advantages we have compared to others in order to better understand their oppression. We can do this while recognising that as working class people, our privileges don’t make capitalism, as a system, beneficial to us – at least not compared to what we all have to gain in a genuinely democratic socialist society where the economy is owned and controlled by all of us, making real solidarity possible.

The systems of oppression we face must be smashed, not reasoned with. But people from other oppressed groups should be reasoned with, not smashed. This is the only way we can build a united movement strong enough to overcome capitalism, its structures of oppression and its unequal privileges.

– By Emma Davey

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