Privilege politics is reformism

Conatz, Juan
Date Written:  2012-03-13
Publisher:  Black Orchid Collective
Year Published:  2012
Resource Type:  Article
Cx Number:  CX15519

A critique of privilege politics, which the author sees as a demobilizing force that boils down issues of oppression into what happens between individuals.



white people do talk to people of color in condescending ways, dismiss POC issues as secondary, ignore POC etc. The issue is how to address it when it happens and in that realm Privilege theory fails.

Privilege theory puts too much weight on consciousness and education. It ends up creating a politics of guilt by birth. At the same time, there is no doubt that more education is needed on the history of white supremacy in the United States and on a global level. Furthermore, the relationship of white supremacy and its effect on consciousness is vital and a legitimate field of politics and philosophical inquiry. W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Michelle Wallace, Frantz Fanon and others have all made vital contributions in the United States regarding this tradition. Re-framing the debate along such a tradition is vital.

New social relations can only be forged in collective struggle of the most militant character. No amount of conversation and education can form new relationships. It is only the mass involvement and struggle of oppressed people which can ultimately destroy white supremacy, re-establish the humanity of people color, and create social relationships between people as one among humans instead of the racially oppressed and white oppressor.

The Failure of Privilege Theory

Privilege theory seeks to redress and describe the huge inequalities which materially, psychologically, and socially exist in society. While it is often accurate in its sociological analysis of such inequalities, it fails in crucial realms of actual struggle. Privilege theory ends up being a radical sociological analysis. It ends up not being a theory of struggle, but a theory of retreat. Privilege theory’s main weakness are a tendency towards reformism, a lack of politics, and a politics of retreat.


Privilege theory tends towards reformism or at best the radical politics of a group of people who seek to act above the oppressed. The latter is especially important. We have lived through a century of where people claiming to represent the masses claiming revolutionary politics acting above them: Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Jawaharlal Nehru, Weather Underground, Josip Broz Tito or Julius Nyerere are just some figures who have fallen in this trap. Today the names are not so grandiose, but things are not so different.

Privilege theory in a partially correct way grasps that people of color do not participate in many of the militant actions precisely because they face greater risk of arrest and more punishment. But instead of finding ways to get around this problem, privilege theorists fetishize this problem into a practice of demobilization and reformism.

Lastly, Privilege theory has no response to the rich history of oppressed people who struggled in the past. In Privilege theories on words, these were some of the most under-privileged humans and yet their theories and actions were at the front of militancy and revolutionary politics. What makes the situation any different today is not clear.

Lack of Politics

Privilege theory de-politicizes most discussion from their most revolutionary potentials. Privilege theory has no political program other then a sociological analysis of who is more likely to be imprisoned, shot, or beaten in protests, strikes, and rebellions.

The past struggles have been over communism, anarchism, nationalism, Maoism, anti-colonialism, African socialism etc. These struggles have fought for the defeat of capitalism, the state, patriarchy, white supremacy, and homophobia (or at least they should have fought for all their defeats if they failed to do so in actuality). The point is that the greatest struggles of the oppressed rallied around mass struggle, militancy, and revolutionary theory. Privilege theory de-centers all three.

In the United States, generations of militants, since the defeat of the 1968 current, have developed with little revolutionary theory and organization, and even less experience in mass struggle. This has meant extremely underdeveloped politics. And at the university setting, where political theory resides, it has been generally dominated by middle class, academic, and reformist tendencies. There is little thinking through of this dynamic in the movement. At its worst, there is a sloppy linkage between any theory–even revolutionary theory — and academia, which only destroys the past tradition of oppressed people who fought so bravely to acquire the freedom to read, theorize strategies of struggle and liberation on revolutionary terms.

Privilege theory is completely divorced from a revolutionary tradition. I have yet to meet Privilege theorists who hold classes on revolutionary politics with unemployed people, with high school drop outs, with undocumented immigrants etc. Privilege theory’s fundamental assumption exposes its proponents class background when they claim that theoretical-political knowledge is for people who come from privileged backgrounds. That is true if the only place you develop that knowledge is in universities. Privilege theorists have not built the schools the Communist Party did in the 1930s or the Panthers did in the late 1960s. These were not official universities, but the educational institutions developed by the oppressed for the oppressed.

They claim that to act in militant ways or to theorize is the luxury of the privileged. This actually leaves no solution for freedom for the oppressed. The theory that the oppressed cannot theorize or struggle militantly is the theory of an elite who see the oppressed as helpless and stupid. It is the oppressed who must theorize and must eventually overthrow capitalism. They actually have the power.

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