Saturday, May 14, 2016

The New Circles of Privilege


I am reluctant to dip my toe into the discussion on “privilege,” it is a water heated by two years of fiery rhetoric, and so hot that I may end up boiled alive.

Unfortunately, the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump makes the discussion impossible to ignore. Our two nascent demagogues portend an event in our fair country's history that I was waiting for, but by no means expecting so soon.

No, not the end of privilege and the herald of some utopia age, nor the mechanical marching of jackbooted feet, but the end of a fair portion of privileges for various social classes in our fair country. Before I launch further into this thought, let me dust off the word privilege. A much used, but much misunderstood word. Simply put, there are two kinds of privileges, those that exist due to historical circumstance, and those that are created in response to historical circumstances. The most obvious of the former is birth, in most societies privileges are passed along by birth. Whom your parents were, how wealthy they are, and a great number of other factors that can be added or subtracted, depending on where you live, determine where you start in the game of life. The latter, the point where privileges are created or extended, are considerably more complex to discuss. The creation or extension of privileges normally only happens during exigent, or stressful, social circumstances. Think about war, where one part of the population suddenly gain the privileges, and reciprocal obligations, of soldiers; or economic crisis, where great numbers of a population can suddenly lose the privileges that come with stable employment; or any number of other social upheavals and you will understand how and when the circle of privileges changes. All privileges then are the product of historical happenstance, meaning they are the sum of conscious effort and a whole lot of dumb luck.

Yes, it goes without saying that unevenly distributed social privileges, are both a result and cause of social hierarchy. But don't worry, those on top don't always stay there, building a grand palace of personal prosperity on ones historical social privileges is the equal of building a palace on wet sand. It should also go without saying that the privileges one has, and one gets, comes with reciprocal obligations, which again vary depending on where you are and who you are.

Ultimately, the particularities of history determine your position and society mobility, and the appearance of Trump and Sanders signal that we're standing at the beginning of one of those exigent circumstances. I don't know who will win, or whether either will win, this election cycle but their appearance has shown the vulnerability of our current crop of elite and the circles of privileges that they protect. If redrawing of the circles of privilege doesn't happen in this election, it'll happen in two or three.

When demagogues rise they always redraw the borders of privilege to benefit themselves, it's called consolidation of power. Often the only thing needed to gain some privileges from the new power structure is loyalty. I feel safe saying that a fair portion of elite, and a fair portion of their long chain of dependants, are about to end up as far from the center of privilege as I now sit. Who in our country will end up on the outs, and whether they end up shoved out or leave quietly, is another of those historical details I have no influence on, so I'll leave that alone.

The rise of demagogues puts elites and their chain of dependents into a panic, because once those privileges are redistributed, the new borders are more or less permanent until the next crisis. Note how many people are panicking about the rise of Trump and Sanders, and who's screaming the loudest, and you'll have a pretty good idea of who stands to lose the most.

The broad stroke is that a fair portion of “us,” unless you're part of the “us” that is already on the outside, are probably going to end up outside those new circle of privilege. Are you a part of the “us” that will determine whether you end up the outside? That remains to be seen, but stepping lightly and making preparations might not be a bad idea.

If you're on the outs, or soon will be, you're part of the commons. The circles of privilege are always small and more people end up on the outside than on the inside, since it's more common to be on the outside than on the inside it makes sense those on the outside are commons.

As a common you have three options, one is to hope your dumb luck holds out and you end up in one of the new favored social categories, which could be determined by any of the normal factors such as religion, ethnicity, blood-relations, or region of residence. Dumb luck might just put you in one of those categories. The second is to side with demagogues, and their dependents, and make yourself useful to someone in the new circle to gain a little spill-over privilege. Of course that depends on whether you have any useful skills, and what the new elites find useful. Not a particularly winning proposition because you'll have to hope that we have the right skills, and the new circles aren't full of monsters, but there is historical evidence to support those choices.

The third, and my personal preference, is to redraw the circles ourselves. Make common cause with people in similar circumstances, and start finding small ways to secure our access to basic necessities. At this point there are enough of us who have already been kicked out, or stepped out, of the current circles. The system as is doesn't benefit us anymore, so why sit around hoping that someone will make it benefit us? If we commons intend to secure a future for ourselves, and our children, then perhaps it is best we do so on our terms rather than on someone else's? Trust is a core privilege that you have the ability to grant others, something that is only in your power to give and take away. Why give your trust to some far off voice making promises of prosperity, when your friends and neighbours are close-by?

Trust is the foundation of community, and what greater privilege is there than belonging to a community that trusts you with their prosperity and safety? If we can trust each other with our economic welfare, it is a short step to being able to trust each other with our safety. Trust doesn't just appear, it is planted and watered by action, it is nurtured by words. If the commons are to come together, even in a small way, we must be able to trust that we won't betray each other based on the promises of far off voices. We have to count on each other for what we need, use our skills and ideas for each other instead of some abstract whole. 

These are our options, we have the ability to decide our future. Either we make choices, and follow them up with actions, either we draw together, or we take our chances with the cards history is about to deal us. Time to choose.

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