Socialism is almost a universally misunderstood term. To some it is a pejorative, an awful thing, and to others it is the wave of the future. For many Americans it is whatever their favorite politician says it is. Plenty of governments and political parties of all types have referred to themselves as socialist. Some of them never actually define the word or why they use it. This confusion of definition makes the term ‘Socialism’ what cognitive linguists refer to as a contested concept. A contested concept is one that appears to be clearly defined by a certain word but the word, in reality, means different things to different people.
One definition of a word is often promoted by a group to advance their ideology or philosophy over another group’s definition. Words have power, so defining them can mean the acquisition of power. Some words or phrases naturally have a variety of definitions, for example ‘interesting’ or ‘love’. Other previously clear concepts, such as ‘equality’ and ‘news’ have been intentionally muddied by people with an ideological agenda. They want to create confusion in the public about the meaning of the word. There is fierce competition between groups to establish a universal definition of a word. Each group wants to lock it into a particular picture or frame, and point it to their meaning of the word over all others. The winner then acquires the power of that word. The word now points to what they want the public to hear.
Socialism is a word whose definition has been fought over for years. Conservatives and capitalists have been winning this battle. But most recently, changes have appeared in the picture they want you to see when you hear the word ‘Socialism’. Most scholars define Socialism as a type of government, usually related to Marxist/Leninist ideology. This is true in many cases, but not all. Conservatives use this definition in their framing of the word. However, it is my contention that Socialism is not really a form of government. It is actually a necessary but separate part of government. How else could we explain why both both extreme right wing and left wing governments have been described as socialist. My definition of Socialism is not universaly accepted. But I believe in it strongly. Socialism is always an economic part of government but it is not a government by itself.
In America the conceptual battle over the term Socialism has centered on the right wing’s campaign to tarnish the reputation of the word. It has been effective. They have taken advantage of the ambiguity surrounding the word’s meaning. Their tactic has not been to design an alternative definition of the word because today it has no definite meaning. Instead they have constantly bombarded the public with the idea that Socialism is bad. Like their complaint about most things liberal they tie Socialism to the idea that government interferes with a person’s ability to decide for themselves how to live, it limits their freedom and liberty. They have succeeded, primarily through constant repetition, in making it a dirty word to a majority of Americans. Many people now fear that Socialists hate American and will do anything to hurt them, from poisoning their water to stealing their children. These fears were intentionally promoted by conservatives. When they call someone a socialist, or claim a thing is socialist, people are afraid and angry.
As well as tying it to big government, capitalists have implied that Socialism will destroy the free market. Their attacks on Socialism focus on it being big, suffocating government that oppresses people. But their examples are mostly about government stealing people’s hard earned tax money and giving it to people who don’t deserve it. They hate government spending on programs they don’t like and didn’t have a say in. They tell us that a socialist government will take away your freedom to choose your own healthcare coverage. They say that Socialism will choke business until it dies from unnecessary and cruel regulation. They tell us Socialism will discourage the innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that makes America great.
What do all these complaints have in common? They are all about money. They economic arguments. They aren’t about Socialism taking away our right to vote or abolishing the Bill of Rights. They are not about government itself. They are about what government does with our money. These complaints reveal what both the complainers and I consider to be the real definition of Socialism. Socialism is an economic system whose true opponent is not democracy but capitalism. The idea that Socialism represents big government versus the democratic will of the people is a smokescreen. The people who hate Socialism the most are capitalists.
The capitalists who play dirty to keep people thinking that Socialism a dirty word are aware that millennials and Gen Z see through their greedy tricks. Young Americans know that the rich use the poor’s desire to be wealthy to their advantage. They see how the oligarchy dangles the carrot of a nonexistent American dream in front of the poverty stricken, teasing them with the idea that they too can become rich if they just do what the 1% tell them to do. Our young citizens can tell that the system is corrupt and broken and there is no wizard who will give them everything they want. There are just some clever and frightened men behind a screen, pulling levers and manipulating the masses.
The coming political and economic power of people of color and young adults has the capitalists fearful. They have turned their attacks on Socialism up to 11. But in the last several years a new breed of young leaders have had the courage to declare themselves Socialists. They are challenging the capitalists directly. They see a future America where both Socialism and Capitalism have a role in our economy. They are confident history tells them they will prevail.
The American Civil War was based on the North opposing slavery. Yhat opposition was a direct threat to the South’s economy. The current growing political division in America is also based on racial and class struggles that are a direct threat to our wealthy rulers. Over 150 years since the emancipation of the slaves racism is still a major factor in American politics. The coming economic and political power of people of color and the young is bringing to a head this centuries long conflict. we are in a real war between white supremacy’s political and economic domination of our nation versus a new multicultural politics and economy that works for everyone. Socialism or more accurately socialist principles are in the trenches of this fight. The fight over what Socialism really means is intense and important.
An appreciation of what Socialism is and isn’t.
Socialism is a kind of system and philosophy that goverments use to run their economy. The standard dictionary definition of socialism states that it is a government that owns and/or controls the means of production. Significantly, that definition does not say what type of government that might be. A government that controls the means of production can be of any type, from democratic to authoritarian. Socialist economies, no matter what type of government uses them, work the same way every time.
Conservative capitalists continue to constantly tell us that Socialism is a threat to Anerica and a destructive type of government. This is not true. Socialism isn’t really a type of government at all. In fact, governments that feature a Socialist economy are widely diverse in nature. They can be, and have been, both right and left wing, conservative or liberal, with hybrid types in between. Here are some examples.
Nazi was an abbreviation of National Socialist Party, the political party that ruled Germany during World War II. It featured a government dominated by the Nazi Party, which worked closely with all levels of business plus religious and cultural entities to form an authoritarian, nationalist government. Nazi Germany’s socialist economy was based on the power of the government to force business to follow its orders or face punishment. It was socialism used and controlled by a right wing government.
There also are and were many left wing governments who applied socialist principles to their economies, most of them based on a Marxist/Leninist philosophy. These socialist governments insist that capitalists are only concerned with profits and not the welfare of the people. Therefore it is the people who should rule, control the means of production, and direct the economy to the people’s benefit.
To establish governments with Socialist economies, the people, usually headed by a charismatic leader or leaders, will often overthrow what they feel is a corrupt government. The goal is to give or restore control of the economy to the people. Many of these sovereign nations refer to themselves as People’s Republics. As a Republic they are governed by representatives, usually limited by a constitution. But rather than holding democratic elections that feature two or more strong parties they hold elections where only members of the one ‘party of the people’ are elected.
In these ‘Republics’ the head of the party usually has more power than the head of state. It is also the party which dictates how the economy operates. This kind of socialist economy often works better in theory than in practice. Many of these governmental representatives are chosen more for their loyalty to the party rather than for their ability to govern. Their weakness lets the economy fail. Weak leaders can succumb to the lure of power. Power can corrupt even the most honest of politicians. ‘The people’ who overthrow corrupt governments can easily become corrupt themselves. Therefore, many of these nations are unstable, with one government after another becoming corrupt. The people rise up once again and that government is also overthrown. But the economy remains socialist.
An extreme form of Socialism is Communism. Communism is perhaps the purest form of Socialism in the sense that the government is the economy. In Communism the workers both own the means of production and elect the representatives that form the government. Again, there is only one party, the worker’s party. The two major Communist nations were and are Russia and China, both born of 20th century people’s revolutions.
Russian Communism also featured only one party, the Communist Party. The nation was divided into integrated social, economic, and political units called communes. Thus the name ‘Communism’. The workers elected a committee, called a Soviet, that ran the commune out of those workers who were party members. Central government representatives were elected out of the Soviets. Again, party leaders had more power than the elected representatives. The Russian ‘empire’ or sphere of influence was the called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
The USSR was a Union because it united a number of previously sovereign nations such as Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, etc. into one functioning government. It was Soviet because its basic political unit was the Soviet. Theese nations were Socialist Republics because they were sovereign states that were dominated by Russia. Russia allowed them to elect and send party representatives to a central government, called a Politburo, that controlled their government, and individual lives, through controlling the communes
In the Soviet economy each commune was given a specified task and was told by government what production goals they were to reach. There was a strict hierarchy of rulers who handed down these orders from the level above them, much like a military hierarchy. More and more pressure was placed on communes to produce more and more to keep pace with western capitalist economies. The economy began to lag behind the capialist nations. Although the USSR had a large amount of resources the Soviet model was not able to take advantage of them. Also, the Communist hierarchy easily became corrupt as opportunites for bribery and lies were numerous. Eventually, over about 75 years of Communist rule, it became clear that communist economics were failing and in the late 20th Century the USSR broke into it’s separate staes, most of whom returned to democracy and capitalism.
Communist China saw the Soviet Union begin to fail as the Soviet form of economics and worker operated government was unable to compete against the challenge of Capitalism. Economically, they realized that some capitalist principles had to be used to compete with the West. The government remained “communist” because they remained a one party government with representatives selected only from within the Communist party. However, they began to downplay their communisy nature and started to call themselves simply ‘China’. Businesses and corporations were allowed to compete in international markets using certain capitalist principles. Still, because government permission and guidance was required for companies to use capital, their economic system became something of a hybrid. This socialist/capitalist hybrid economy has seen greater success than Soviet style economics ever did.
There is another hybrid form of Socialism, one which has had a measure of success. It originated not in authoritarian, one party goverbments but mostly in parliamentary onarhies, where the monarch are primarily figureheads and government is democratly elected from a number of parties. Its appeal is growing in America. It is gathering support from many younger Americans and even some old school American socialists. This American Socialism, often called Democratic Socialism, is modeled after what is known as Scandinavian Social Democracy or the Nordic Model.
I don’t know a great deal about the inner workings of Scandinavian style social democracy. What I do know is the government is democratic, elected by the people. The power of the government and its economy originates in the will of the people. Nordic people have a tradition of working together and sacrificing personal gain to make sure all citizens have security in their quality of life. The Socialist nature of the economy comes from this strong social welfare tradition. While Nordic economies still feature a large amount of capitalist free-market activity, this strong social welfare policy dominates. It is another type of hybrid economy, one whose government is very different from China, but with a similar economic philosophy.
The citizens of Nordic social democracies pay a high percentage of their income in taxes. For this they get such social benefits as publicly financed (not free) healthcare, higher education without fees or tuition, generous parental leave for all parents, nearly unlimited unemployment benefits, and other generous social welfare programs. The Nordic spirit of community motivates Scandinavians to pay more taxes in order to insure meaningful and secure lives for everyone regardless of status. It is largely this strong social safety net which appeals to many young Americans.
We should expect more of these hybrid economies in the future, as it has become clear that neither pure, unrestrained capitalism nor strict and limiting Socialism have succeeded to any great degree. These new ideas have been largely ignored by the leaders of both the capitalist and socialist forms of economics. They still see the world from a 20th Century viewpoint. The failure of these old economic theories stems from the constant economic growth needed by Capitalism and the harshnesss of government control of the economy that defines Socialism. Both are impossibly and/or functionally unsustainable.
Much to the irritation of America’s conservative capitalists there has been a recent increase of interest in and support of Democratic Socialism. They can no longer avoid the challenge of hybrid economies. Young people are not accepting the conservative definition of Socialism as being a dirty word. They see the hypocrisy of conservatives who claim Nazism and Communism are the same thing and say that Socialism is a government that is desperate to destroy America and Democracy.
Millennials and many precocious Generation Z youth see through this effort to define Socialism as a threat to everything American. They see that a well thought out social democracy that both respects individual liberty and social welfare is not only desirable but necessary. They want a government and economic system with the honest competition and entrepreneurial spirit of Capitalism and the wise regulation of capitalists and efficient social services found in Socialism.
Americans don’t realize that we have many hybrid Socialist programs already in place and succeeding. Local services such as police and fire services, water treatment and snow removal are paid for through taxes but produced and controlled by government. That’s Socialism. Every time we hear of a “public/private cooperative project” we are dealing with a hybrid of Socialism and Capitalism. Government and private business working together is a growing means of doing large public projects such as road building and bridge construction.
Neither Keynes’ nor Friedman’s economic theories work in the 21st Century. This is something all politicians must learn and embrace. Strictly adopting either demand driven or supply side economic principles by themselves in today’s information and service world is not wise. America no longer has the industrial, manufacturing economy of the past. Hybrid economies featuring modified principles of both Capitalism and Socialism, or perhaps a totally new economic theory are the future.
Until then the battle rages on.
Let’s take a closer look at the politics of issues activism versus the electoral process of selecting candidates. They are both quite similar and significantly different. It has always been my contention that we can’t do both, at least at the same time, without solid compartmentalizing and a clear understanding of the essentials of how to do both.
When involved in issues activism it behooves one to focus on the issue that you can devote your entire energy to. You immerse yourself totally, 100%, into moving the needle on the issue that you give an ‘A’ grade. Even the A-minus and B-plus issues, though critically important to you, will dilute your ability to effectuate your A grade activism. You support that highest grade issue and give it your full attention and strength. Only in that way do your policy goals have any chance of being realized.
In electoral politics, on the other hand, one deals with numerous issues simultaneously. When discerning which candidate is the best option for one to support and ultimately for the party to support not only must we look at the candidate’s position on any number of issues but also numerous non-policy factors. We grade all of these factors, issues and non-issues. Then, all grades must, or should, be actively considered together when choosing a candidate to support and possibly work or volunteer for. Herein lies the major difference between issues politics and electoral politics.
In issues politics, it is your highest graded issue that is supported on all levels. Politicians given A grades on an issue are supported and those given F grades are actively opposed. Grades in between distract and aren’t worth spending time and energy on. This is how one does issues politics. When we approach electoral politics in the same way as we do issues politics we wind up with skewed situations. One candidate is supported and campaigned for because they score an A on the prime issue, or, they are rejected and attacked because they score an F on your favorite issue.
Once elected, because of our firmly entrenched two-party system, any representative’s vote will grade out to the issues activist as either an A or an F dependent on their vote. This causes them to determine the issues part of a candidate’s worthiness with a binary A or F being the only possible grades. Of course, they can display more variety in assessing a legislator’s non-issue-based qualities. But, even though such things as astute political instincts or media-savvy should be as important to constituents as policy, they are often not actively considered.
Regardless of how complex an issue is and how subtle and nuanced the proposed policy and legislation addressing it is, when in office a legislator can only vote up or down, yes or no, A or F. As we know, binary logic works fine for computers but is outdated for addressing the complexity of modern law and society. This dualist nature of modern politics has influenced the current rampant partisanship we see everywhere, which in itself reinforces the dualism. A rather vicious circle.
To put this in a nutshell, in issues politics, to succeed one may work solely on their highest graded issue. But in electoral politics, the best results are achieved by working with the ‘student’ with the highest GPA.
Let me repeat that. In electoral politics, it is wise to use the grade point average of a candidate to measure their value to the voter and not simply the one who grades the highest on an important issue. Likewise, it can be unfair to reject out of hand a candidate whose grade on your main issue is ‘unacceptable’. If we aren’t careful our policy biases can tarnish the candidate best positioned to win the election based solely on their positions on select issues. Once again, because of our two-party system, it is difficult, read impossible, to find a party and/or candidate who satisfies all our policy desires. To insist on issues purity in a candidate is a recipe for disaster.
Many voters will take the apparent high road and vote for a candidate that has no chance of winning simply because that candidate more closely reflects their values. They do this because ‘it’s a free country’ where ’I can vote for whomever I want’ and ‘stand up for my principles’. These choices are noble and in keeping with the best philosophy of the American way of life. Unfortunately, as long as the two-party system dominates our elections this manner of voting will only result in more decisions based on either a single issue or a grade point average, between two divisively partisan candidates. One party’s candidate might only support your issues 40% of the time but the other only 5%.
If you choose not to vote for the 40% candidate, which your logic says you shouldn’t, there is the possibility that you get the 5% candidate. You might walk out of the voting booth proud of voting your values but one month later you’re gnashing your teeth at a vote taken by the 5 percenter we elected. I should say here that it is right and good to vote your conscience. We just need to be aware of the potential for unintended consequences and consider our choices accordingly.
Yes, this ‘ F**k, I have to vote for the lesser of two evils again’ scenario is patently unfair. It sucks. We shouldn’t have to hold our nose and vote for somebody we can barely stand. Our current system paints us into frustrating corners filled with anger. Having only two parties we sadly have only two basic philosophies of governance in the U.S.. The opposing parties must need to create coalitions of voters with varied interests. There are many more than two philosophies of government to cram into one or the other.
For candidates to appeal to the entire spectrum of different philosophies in one party we often find that it is the candidate who best tempers their candidacy with alleged ‘moderate’ rhetoric that delegates think will appeal to the most voters. These candidates will fake or hide their true politics in order to get nominated. Candidates want to win. Obviously, they can’t win without being nominated. Parties want to win. They choose who they think can win. Many of us find this incredibly distasteful and foolish, and rightfully so. But it is a political reality and a maddening one.
Counter to how things truly work, parties will cautiously nominate who they imagine is the ‘right’ candidate instead of boldly choosing the ‘best’ candidate. Most often the right candidate turns out to be the one with A’s on the popular issues. The party then develops selective amnesia about their nominee’s possibly numerous and critical F’s and their often suspect, vulnerable character flaws. It is not this candidate that will win. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the candidate who scores well across the board, who may not be ‘right’ but certainly ‘best’ can win. Maybe they don’t get so many A’s but not so many F’s either and a goodly number of B’s.
The candidate’s grades must be earned not because they got the test ahead of time and answered the way they thought the teacher wanted but rather truthfully answered with courage and conviction. Only in this way will the party nominate the person who best represents the essential values of the party. This is the candidate that inspires. This is the candidate who can actually win.
Having the better GPA is not to be confused with ‘electability’, that scourge of cautious and lukewarm centrists. The elusive quality of electability is considered to be vital in selecting a candidate. Not only the rank and file but respected pundits and influential party leaders often insist that this is the gold standard of candidate selection. Nothing could be further from the truth. The two party system certainly gives the impression that because of the diverse coalitions both parties form, their right candidate is the one who appeals to everyone in their ‘base’.
This is the seemingly safe ‘centrist’ candidate. But in trying to appeal to everyone this candidate moderates their stance on many issues they either do not support or support more vociferously. This not only lowers their GPA accross the board but can only increase the perception of them as a phony and liar. Then, in the general election, they are more likely to not only lose appeal with the ever-decreasing number of moderate voters but also cause issues voters to look away from them and toward the vote my principles candidates.
Another spurious means of selecting a candidate is the ‘next up’ method. Here we find the candidate who has paid their dues. They have been around seemingly forever. They are visible, high ranking elected public officials who have accomplished just enough to have some name recognition and popularity. They have been considered serious contenders for a long time. Why in god’s name do these qualities make someone a good candidate much less the best candidate? It’s beyond me. This is this nepotism that is not genetic but seems to be designed to motivate career politicians to consistently do the party’s bidding over the long term. What a foolish practice.
Both parties claim to have a plan based on candidate selection and the corresponding policy positions. They both claim to be appealing to young voters and non-voters in an effort to find more supporters. But these are the very voters that vote for the person who best exemplifies their philosophy of existence, and not the measured and overthought offerings of the major parties. Our current President ‘got it’ before his rivals and appealed to the populist mindset of the non-voter, helping him eke out a victory in 2016. And disillusioned milennial voters, who have been shown to be more progressive than not, largely became third party or non voters.
That the current occupant wasn’t honest about what he offered did not matter. He sold his brand of populism well. He convinced, falsely, that his care for the fed-up non-voters was genuine. As his presidency has advanced these facts have become more clear. Some of his less virulent followers have become disillusioned. He, as well as his party, are vulnerable to candidates who are wisely chosen. Currently, there are a plethora of Democrats seeking the opportunity to run against him in 2020. We will see what criteria rise to the top of the delegate’s selection process and what sort of candidate emerges.
If a safe, electable, centrist presidential candidate is nominated by the Democrats there will be a struggle that will have the most influential existential impact on American democracy, and thus the planet, as any preceding it. However, outside of the perception that the candidate has to be everything to all people there exists a basic, simpler philosophy of progress. Of the wide variety of people who tend to identify with the Democratic party nearly all embrace it. It is not issues-based, nor personality or identity dependent, but value and feeling based. If a candidate emerges that best represents that basic philosophy we could see a Democratic landslide of historic dimensions.
The centrists tell us in strongly-worded diatribes that a ‘far-left’ candidate cannot win. They present numerous examples of leftist candidates who have failed over the last half-century. Could it be that the electorate has changed enough to reverse that trend? Could disillusioned millennials and non-voting liberals turn the tide for a progressive candidate who more closely projects their values.? Can the centrists support a candidate they see as a Democratic Socialist, one they feel the country is not ready for? The jury is out. The result of the 2020 presidential election, regardless of the nature of the Democrat’s candidate, is up for grabs. This is for all the marbles. And, vastly more serious, for the future of the planet.
To summarize, all of this is to say that when fighting for a cause it is imperative to give it 100% of your power. Stay focused, don’t ever give up and don’t take any prisoners. But in discerning elections and politicians, in the beginning of the process, you must hedge your bets. Never stop looking at the big picture, the overarching values you share with diverse but like-minded compatriots. Remember that compromise and the language of confluence is not your enemy but your friend.
And everyone, everyone, always keep mindful of that GPA.
They say too much idle time is the Devil’s workshop. Last week while using some power tools I imagined that the world’s political power dymanic was analogous to a chessboard, with its pieces and moves. I’m aware that chess has been used as a metaphor for any number of systems and functions. So I’m sure someone has been here before me. Regardless, I lay down before you my chessboard analogy, which I enjoy calling ‘Just Like Bobby Fischer Say’.
People before me have likened the power dynamic of players on the world stage to that of a game of 3 dimensional chess. It is an easy metaphor to visualize I suppose. While I’m not well versed in 3 dimensional chess I do have a layman’s understanding of the basics of the chess we non-Vulcans play. I must interject here that I am a poor chess player. I can barely see the current move much less several moves ahead. Anyway, here is my chessboard analogy, submitted for your approval.
This is obviously my own imagining and is in no way meant to imply any great profundity. I’m not sure why I always include a caveat with my posts. Perhaps it is because I have trouble accepting criticism and must attempt to divert it. Or perhaps it is because there really are legitimate alternatives. This particular post is narrow in scope but says enough to blog it up. Besides, I need something to post.
I have tried to present the pieces in the order of the heirarchy pyramid of their relative power. I thought a bit about the relationship between the King and Queen. To me it is somewhat a chicken and egg proposition. I eventually settled on the idea that to protect the power is in reality the most important power.
Corporations and government are the queens. They are the power that dominates the board and protects the king, who is almost invisible until it falls. The queen is easily the most versatile piece on the board. Her power is not only visible but surrepticious. She is her team’s General. I like the idea of the General being a woman. A queen who plays well uses her power in offensive and defensive ways, both stealthy and aggressive. It is the king who gives the queen her power and she protects him at all costs, to her dying breath.
The plutocratic oligarchs are the kings. They don’t move very much or very far. They hold and assign all power and give the queen her marching orders. They are the most sought after and the most protected. They are nearly invisible on the board until they are threatened. They are like matadors, avoiding catastrophe with the slightest of movements. The entire game is played to overcome them. The king who outsmarts the other wins everything. .
I could go here into a discussion about the gender of the monarch. But chess was created well over a millennia before gender equity became significant so I’m sticking to its rigid interpretations. I’m happy to accept criticism.
Religion is the aptly named bishop. It is primarily an offensive weapon that has an underlying prominence on the board because of its angular attack. It must be accounted for at all times as it can lull the queen and king to sleep and strike swiftly and surely. The queen often uses religion as a flanking maneuver that forces the king to relinquish control of a large part of the board.
The military and police are not separate pieces but together are the knights, who are versatile attacking and defending machines. They can attack suddenly from unexpected places. They can often get quite close to the king without being opposed and can make the queen weaken her defenses in a strategic way. Defensively they can snuff out an opponent’s best planned attack. They do this by making counter attacks with their uneven movement, often effective even when taken into consideration by the offense.
The rook is the media, who has the power to attack the king directly, from near and far, and with surprise. It forces the queen to make certain the king moves with caution. It’s power is perhaps greater than is perceived but it can entice the queen to make difficult decisions. The queen must use a portion of her troops to encircle the king with protection at all times. The rook can be held in check, just don’t ignore it. It is the most vulnerable piece on the board next to the pawns.
The pawns are the people. There are many more pawns on the board than any other piece but they are also the most limited in movement and power. They open the game with a relatively small move, but one which for both them and game is significant. It is the pawn’s only double move. And it points the King toward his strategic options. Pawns are sacrificial both on offense and defense. They can only move forward but can sometimes slip ahead at an angle and capture another piece, when their opponents are under multiple attacks. It is a movement similar to the way a bishop attacks. I do find it interesting that the pawn and king can both only move one square at a time.
Pawns are the chess piece most often used as a metaphor in real life. In the game they can gain great power but they must move wisely, stealthily, and with unity. They have to have a plan. It is possible to overwhelm one of the other side’s powerful pieces with numbers, or distract them while a single piece races to regain its rightful power. It can’t crown itself a king, yet can still gain any power up to and including a queen. However, it needs no small amount of luck to do this.
The machinations of the powerful pieces are of primary importance in the game. The people have little say, save for giving the king his means to defeat them. But the people can gain enough power to perhaps bring power to bear to defeat the king. It is difficult but not so rare as to give up without trying.
While it is true that in the event an elevated pawn, the people’s champion, assists in defeating the other king, the board is still ruled by a king. That king should be made aware that it was the people’s power which won the day. In that circumstance we have as much or more leverage as did the British people who forced King John to give his people the right to equal protection under the law.
Of course, this was accomplished by economic pressure from wealthy influences. But it gave the people protection from unscrupulous entities and eventually a representative government. That would actually be a good start for us. We will work on the rest of our agenda next.
We can force our current authoritarian leader to sign a new Magna Carta, just a short 700 years later.
A topic of great interest for me has been the concept of privilege. From conversations and commentary I’ve been involved in there appears to be nearly as many ideas of what privilege is and what it means as there are comments. It is out of character for me to be simple in any way but how I understand privilege seems simple compared to other explanations I have heard.
I have tried to keep myself out of this discussion, from the standpoint of my own privilege. My demographic is fraught with privilege to the degree that I may never get to the bottom of it. I am white, male, middle class, heterosexual, cisgender, protestant, college educated, a senior, with a mental disorder. All of those things are prime examples of things that are associated with some form of privilege or another.
One might ask what having a mental disorder has to do with privilege but I assure you that one has access to certain things much easier when one is “disabled”. Regardless, that litany of things about me are all subject to privilege for a very good reason. Things. They are not character traits. They are actual things. They are ‘whats’ and not ‘whos’.
This is the basis for my appreciation of what privilege is and perhaps more importantly, what it isn’t. Privilege is about things. Depending on what sort of thing we are talking about the thing a person is is either subject to privilege or not. The primary indicator is that privilege is not about who we are but about what we are. And privilege is about choice. It is about what we choose to do about the privileges we have.
I can see that this explanation is vague so let’s look into it a little closer. The criterion I use to determine if a thing has privilege is how many people can be that thing. Who you are can be anyone, and anyone can be who you are. For example, a doctor can be anyone and anyone can be a doctor. That is a who. When someone asks us who we are we normally answer with a who answer, an answer that could apply to anyone. We might say we are a doctor. That’s a who. That’s because anyone can be a doctor.
When asked who we are we likely wouldn’t say we are male. Why? Because male is not a who answer. It is a what answer. Male is a logical answer to the question what are you. That is because not everyone can be a ‘what’. We don’t ask who nationality are you. Or who colored eyes do you have. Of course ‘what’ questions can sometimes have who answers. One might ask what kind of car do you drive. But the answer there is a subset of a who answer. Anyone can potentially drive a car. So anyone could drive the same kind of car you drive.
And herein we have the criterion for the difference between who and what, between privilege and not privilege. Sure it can get confusing. If the difference between a ‘who’ and a ‘what eludes you remember the prime indicator. The proof for a ‘who’ or a ‘what’ is in the number of people that can do or be a thing. Anyone can be a doctor. Not everyone can be male. All males have privilege. Doctors do not.
Some caveats here. First, one might say that doctors have privilege. They get better seats at the theatre and restaurants, better service from just about any mechanic or cashier than other people. But that is a function of earned merit. It is not something they just are. It is something they chose to earn. Anyone can study for years to become a doctor, but no one can study to be Irish.
It is also obvious that many people have a lesser chance to be a doctor than others. But once again that is a function of choice as well, just in a different direction. People who want to be doctors are often not chosen for the opportunity to become doctors based on factors such as race and class or education. Or, people with privilege are thought to be more qualified to become doctors are chosen by others with privilege, in positions of power.
Earned privilege is not the same as ‘what’ privilege. Earned privilege doesn’t always apply to a given situation. Whereas someone who identifies as male is always male, a doctor’s earned privilege is dependent on someone else granting it to him. The mechanic can always say, ‘I don’t care if you are a doctor you aren’t getting your car done earlier than anybody else’.
Here is where we start getting into what privilege really is. It’s people getting advantages or disadvantages simply because of what they are. You’re black and you can’t buy a house in a certain neighborhood but if you are white you can. That is white privilege. It is also racism. The racism is the realtor’s and not so much the two competing parties. Racism and white privilege are not the same thing. Anyone can be a racist. That is a who. Only certain people can be white. That is a what. Now of course a person can be both white with privilege and racist. That is a dangerous state of being we will touch on later.
Another way of determining if a person is privileged is to use what I call the Aldi criterion. When a person walks into Aldi pushing a cart you can sometimes tell by looking at them that they belong to a specific group of people. They are ‘whats’who have some sort of privilege. Or sometimes you can’t tell at allThose people are usually “who’s’. Using the Aldi criterion when a doctor walks into Aldi unless they are wearing scrubs no one can tell they are a doctor. But if a woman wearing a hijab pushes her cart in she is immediately known to be a Muslim woman with traditionally little privilege.
It is interesting that unless they otherwise reveal themselves, like the doctor in scrubs, it’s impossible to know a person’s ‘who’ by observing their ‘what’. Any black, asian, native, latin, or white person, man or woman, could be a doctor. This is another way we can understand that anyone can be a who but only certain people are whats. One can see that this criteria applies consistently, at least for observations based on visible physicality.
When a Muslim or white person enters Aldi one knows immediately. As soon as a white person pushes their cart through the door you know they probably won’t be watched on the camera feeds like a young black male would be. Unless of course they are dirty and unkempt like a homeless person, who is another persecuted group with lesser societal privilege. That white person is likely viewed with the same suspicion as the black male.
There exists a hierarchy of privilege that dictates whose privilege is greater. For example a white man’s privilege is greater than a white woman’s whose privilege is greater than a black man’s. And, frankly, an elderly black man has more privilege that a young black male. A hetero white family is more likely to get a mortgage than a white lesbian family but the lesbian family would still get one over a Muslim family And neither the hetero or lesbian white family would be raided by ICE at their workplace like a Latina.
These are the effects of the victimhood of ‘the other’ by those with privilege of a higher heirarchic status. The negative effects on those with little or no privilege are many and varied. A major issue in society today is that unless the person with privilege has accepted their privilege and are sensitive to it’s damage they do not see that these negative effects are doubly invisible. They do not know they have privilege in the first place. And second, they do not see that they have done any damage. That’s some big negative karma.
The white grocery shopper above didn’t do anything to deserve that mortgage or avoiding that visit from ICE. They could be a good person or a bad person. It doesn’t matter. They just happened to be born white. When they walk into the store you don’t know them at all. But you know when they leave they are less likely to be stopped for a burnt out tail light than a black judge on his way home from court. Privilege has nothing to do with who you are. You can’t tell what sort of privilege a person has by their whos. You can only know from their whats.
I think a large part of the misunderstanding about the concept of privilege is that it gets tangled up with other concepts. Sometimes people are both a racist and have privilege and other times they are not. In the example above the white families got the houses simply because they were white. Chances were they weren’t racist. And the black family may have been just as much or more financially capable of paying their mortgage as any of the families.
Once again, all white people have white privilege. Because they are what? They are white. You don’t have to be a racist to have white privilege. You might be a racist or you might not. But you absolutely have to be white. Being white affords you a laundry list of privilege you hold over other races. You did nothing to earn it. This is where the conversation about white privilege in particular usually goes south. A person will be told they have white privilege and immediately they become angry and say “But I’m not a racist”.
And maybe they aren’t a racist. But they do have white privilege. Why? Because everyone can be a racist but not everyone can be white. Being racist is a who and being white is a what. You have privilege when what you are is higher on the heirarchy totem than other people. There then is a set of advantages available to you based solely on that particular what. Sometimes people get confused with whos and whats. One big confusion that creates problems with people understanding white privilege stems from the fact that people are often both white and racist.
This is truly a big problem. Not only in local sociopolitical discourse but also as a national issue that is crippling American society. As individuals we must separate the conversation about race from the issue of whether or not somebody has privilege. People will try to mix up the two to muddy the waters. The issues of racism and white privilege are just two of many intertwined and complicated issues we face as a society. It’s vitally important to be clear about the universe to which our conversations apply.
For me the number one thing people can do to break through the anger and misinformation out there is to put a wedge between the concepts of ‘what’ with it’s privilege and ‘who’ states of being. Only then can productive dialogue take place. Let’s say you are talking to a male about discrepancies in pay for the USWNT, even as they have won the World Cup 4 times out of 8. You say that male privilege is largely responsible for women not getting equal pay. The man says ‘But my company gives women equal pay’.
If you aren’t clear about what to say in a situation like that always ask yourself the who vs. what question before you rattle off an answer. A good reply is not always very clear and an answer is expected immediately. So practice arming yourself with the question, internally. In this instance not all companies pay women equally. His company is more who than what privilege has a lower hierarchy than male privilege. Therefore his claim doesn’t hold water. This is a subtle distinction.
Companies themselves don’t have privilege so much as power and influence. The same with politicians and others with power. Their power can often circumvent privilege. They are higher on the heirarchy pyramid. However, classic privilege still functions in many situations, such as the black judge getting pulled over for a minor infraction or ludicrous suspicion. There are exceptions to the who versus what criterion.
In our equal pay example the man is a ‘what’ and has male privilege. Armed with this knowledge you can respectfully inform him of the difference between a what and a who. And how that relates to their conversation. It isn’t hard to understand these things when you keep them clear and basic. And without judgement.
If he isn’t hardcore and is simply confused or under the spell of propaganda you are much more likely to continue with a meaningful conversation. It may even inspire him to reevaluate his position on privilege and start looking into himself. This will be because he now knows he himself is not responsible for his privilege. It is because from birth he has been part of a specific group. He is now aware he has no control over his privilege, and never had.
One thing people should understand is that everyone has some sort of privilege. Everyone can have or do something that others can’t, simply because of what they are. People of color have privilege too. Men have privilege. Tall people have privilege. Attractive women get into night clubs while others can’t. English speakers also have privilege. Why? Because it is a what answerr to the question ‘What language do you speak’. In our culture some of these ‘what’ groups have significantly more privilege and others have significantly less. It’s that heirarchy pyramid at work.
Privilege can also be reversed. If you are a white person, try going into certain restaurants or night clubs in certain ethnic or religious neighborhoods and see how comfortable you feel. In that select environment black people have privilege. The heirarchy is reversed. Stepping out of your universe of privilege like that is actually a great way to experience the anguish of being a victim of privilege. It can change your perspective rather quickly. Most white people have rarely, if ever, experienced even five minutes of the abject discomfort that people of color feel everyday all day, often as the only POC in the room. This is not always easy for white people. In these situations they are prone to freaking out.
Sadly, and actually I should use a stronger word here than sadly, the fear that POC will soon have the privilege of being the majority leads white supremacists to desperation. It fuels their attempts to create an American apartheid. They are frightened and angry. They are desperate to maintain political power even as they become a minority race in America.
This desperation stems from the fact they have had privilege in this nation for hundreds of years. They have never known anything else. Just the opposite, POC in the USA have been the victims of white privilege and supremacy for just as long. They are determined to gain the equity in political and social power they have deserved for hundreds of years. White people in America are as afraid of losing their power as POC are determined to have power. This struggle is also a crisis in the USA, one that continues to grow.
Understanding your own privilege and acting to neutralize it is vitally important for our ability to see it in others. All the things I mentioned as my demographic are ‘whats’. White, male, middle class etc. are all whats. Those ‘whats’ show me my privileges. But, I don’t have musicians privilege or history degree privilege. Because those are whos. Your whats and whos shape you as you relate to the world. As white people the work we must do is to constantly assess and reassess not only what biases and prejudices we have, but also accessing our ‘whats’ and the privilege that accompanies them. By knowing ourselves and looking deep inside us we discover how our own privilege affects us and those around us.
We need meaningful dialogue in our country at rural breakfast counters to urban cocktail parties and everywhere in between. Our knowledge of self and awareness of the advantages we have simply because of what we are, whether male or white or any other ‘what’ are vital tools. We can use them to diffuse the anger and the misunderstandings about privilege these honest conversations reveal. It is a good first step toward having those respectful conversations. To take that step means being clear about your own privilege and how it affects others.
This is where those tools we’ve discussed come into play. I have experienced these sorts of encounters first hand. I have had several ‘I’m not a racist’ discussions. The conversation often centers on choice. I explain that they had no choice in being white but they did have a choice to be a racist. And they chose not to be one. Nor did they choose to have white privilege because they didn’t choose to be white. In my experience this sort of open and honest dialogue has often calmed people down enough to civilly talk about our privilege and what we can do to work on it.
Most people want to get along with each other and any tools we can use to help people learn to live better together are valuable. White people having honest conversations with other white people is very important to our understanding of privilege. We need to work hard to refine techniques of communication that are based more on the shared values of our ‘whats’ and less on the often divisive ideas of our ‘whos’. Using these tools will give us a better chance of breaking through resistance than simply bludgeoning people with facts.
There are many positive results we can take away from productive conversations about privilege. But it takes work, fortitude, patience, and mostly love. We mustn’t forget that there are as many types of privilege as there are human ‘what’s’. Developing self reflection, humility and good listening skills as habitual will be invaluable to our relationships on all levels. Exploring the ‘whats’ in our own lives gives us great insight into how our privileges affect the people in our lives in so many ways. It also gives us a peek into the privileges of others, how they affect us, and significantly, how they also affect them.
I have always found it valuable to look at situations like these through the lens of who vs. what relationships. I remember that women don’t walk across the street when they see me walking towards them, not because I’m a musician but because I’m white. I can’t change the fact that I’m white. I have to accept that and thus I have to accept the consequences of that. I have to accept my white privilege. This means I must look deep inside myself to find the privillege imprinted there, often since I was a child.
Also important is that I ask myself why that women who doesn’t cross to the other side of the street when I approach will cross over when a black man approaches. Then I need to think about how that black man feels when, every day, white people avoid him and stare at him like he is a criminal. And then I must stop looking at him like that myself, because he deserves to have a happy and fulfilling life as much as I or anyone else does. He is not a black who just happens to be a man but a man who just happens to be black. It’s a subtle difference but significant.
So, let’s remember. Privilege is a sociocultural, economic, political, or physical advantage you have when you belong to a group that not everyone can belong to. Something that only the limited number of people in that group can have or do. Privilege is about what you are. If you make it about who you are, if it’s about who you have made yourself or who you chose to be, that’s not about privilege. But don’t ignore or discount the ‘whos’. Often whats and whos can come together, such as male privilege and toxic masculinity, to create powerful sociopolitical gangs that are damaging to society and difficult to contend with. Be wary of such combinations.
I have to say here that I am not an authority on privilege. Far from it. My observations can likely be shot full of holes by most anyone. In fact, with the litany of privileges I have I could easily spend the rest of my life discovering and working on them. That being said, I believe in my observations and these tools as limited as they may be. I need to do more work and listen and learn. I must humble myself before those who know more.
We know that I have plenty of privilege to work on, much of it deeply buried in my unconscious. Sometimes it comes out at bad times. I get embarrassed and angry with myself. I feel I have failed in moving into the 21st century, where human evolution is outstripping efforts to blunt it. Luckily, I have a good support system of loving comrades who remind me that I am working hard on my shortcomings and thus worthy of a few mulligans. I am grateful for their succor and love.
If this post helps just one person open up, make their privileges conscious, and find the strength to work on neutralizing there effects out in the world I will have succeeded.
Perhaps I am that one person.