Monday, March 23, 2009

On Populist Rage

Many people in the US are evidently enraged to hear about huge bonuses paid to financial industry executives held responsible for the recent economic collapse. In some quarters, as in this last Sunday's New York Times' Week in Review Section, this rage is held to be a "distraction" from the work of rebuilding the world economy. Thomas Friedman, among others, believes that while this anger is understandable, the job at hand is to recapitalize banks and financial firms so they can once again begin lend money to businesses and get the wheels of capitalism moving again.
There is a way of looking at the populist anger as more than a distraction, a venting of frustration in vengeful rage at people held responsible for peoples' economic suffering. What if we saw this rage as the leading edge of discontent with the inequities that characterize unregulated capitalism. During the last two elections, liberals often wondered why working class Americans would vote for an administration that had a track record of favoring policies that increased inequity, making the rich richer. It seemed to me that working class Americans often tend to identify with the rich, regarding taxes and "big government" as the source of oppression, rather than a system that leaves the spoils to the winners. This is a moment when President Obama could educate people about systemic inequity, thus putting the bonuses in a larger perspective that would validate people's rage while taking the focus off individuals and onto a system that urgently requires reform and regulation to address the inequities that flourished under recent decades of Republican government.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

On privilege

Discussions of "white privilege", it seems to me, often do not reflect on the nature of privilege. It is often taken for granted that "privilege" means economic and political privilege, power and money.
Obviously, it is true that there is value to having power and money. Or, perhaps it would be better to say that there are disadvantages to not having power and money, or to being systematically deprived of power and money. But I think it is often overlooked that there are other forms of privilege besides the economic and political, spiritual and emotional privilege, for example, and that these forms of privilege can be at variance with economic and political privilege. Indeed, I think that the unreflective equation of privilege with money and power may be one of the more subtle and insidious forms in which the values of colonialism and capitalism get internalized.
The word "power" itself needs to be unpacked. In the most basic sense (as in Spanish "poder") power means the ability to do things. In English, the word has gotten to imply a dominating sort of power, the ability to impose one's will on others, as if power were a zero sum game. When the context of power is domination and submission, violence and power become close cousins. But if we go back to the basic sense of being able to do things, perhaps we can imagine my power and your power not being in conflict, or even being mutually enabling. Power in a dominant-submissive context is the kind of power that corrupts, ultimately absolutely, and thus is at variance with spiritual privilege and the privilege of being emotionally connected with others.
Some of this was brought home to me recently when I realized that the people who contributed to the current economic collapse by over-reaching for profits from subprime mortgages, securities derivatives, etc. were people who already had unimaginable sums of money. This was not a case of a system being brought down by poor people stealing from the rich, or poor people killing the rich, but by rich people trying to get richer. Ultimately, they may make off like bandits (many already have) as essential bail outs go into their pockets. In which case, the downfall of the system will be only more prolonged.
But what kind of privilege is it when having money leads to the need for more of it (even when one already has more than one could possibly spend), ultimately at the cost of more deprivation and suffering for those who were already poor at home and abroad. I suggest that the pursuit of ever more money and power is in response to a sense of deprivation and loss that accompanies a rupture with our fellow human beings, with their experience and their suffering. But that gap cannot be filled with more money and power, to the contrary. In that sense, power and money in a zero sum context lead to a treadmill of running after illusory substitutes for the true privilege of love and caring.