Standing in opposition to the dominance of privilege

Being aware of one’s own privilege doesn't detract from the struggle - working to ameliorate its effects can only enhance what we are trying to achieve.

At risk of sounding recursive, I’d like to highlight problems with a New Statesman blog entitled “The problem with privilege checking”. Its author, Tom Midlane, won the privilege lottery, and reckons that we should stop highlighting problematic language and behaviour displayed by those with the luxury to not have to think about it, as it lets the right dismantle the welfare state while we’re not looking. 

Now, first of all, let us acknowledge that this exact assertion is very much untrue. The wheels have been in motion for a long time, long before the coalition came into power. None of these things happened because the opposition was too busy arguing over privilege to do anything else; they happened because we live in a system which is set up to benefit the people with the privilege. It doesn’t help that the tactics which may have historically worked - the marches, the boycotts, the coordinated letter-writing campaigns - don’t really work so well any more, as time marches on and the system develops resilience to these approaches. 

As it stands, those in power are comfortably conserving their social order, and making themselves a little more comfortable at the expense of everyone else. This must be opposed. All of it. Yet by avoiding checking our own privilege, the best possible outcome is that the social order will continue to be conserved, with those at the top taking less from everyone else. 

For those who benefit from the existing social order - the white, able-bodied, cisgendered, heterosexual middle-class men - this is enough. For many of the rest of us, it really, really is not. A lot more needs to change before we stop facing oppression, and that revolution begins in the mind. The conservatives are happy to dismiss this pressing need and continue doing what they are doing without a care in the world for the people that will be harmed. For the most part, it is not malice that motivates them, but sheer negligence. They just don’t care.

Those of us standing in opposition to this dominance cannot and must not fall into the same trap, or we run the risk of creating something which is merely another movement representing the interests of the privileged. This movement can never be as strong as the dominant order, as the majority of its target audience will inherently be part of the dominant order. So we need to do things differently. 

Far from detracting from struggle, being aware of one’s own privilege and actively working to ameliorate its effects can only enhance what we are trying to achieve. We must be willing to be radically different from those in power if we are to avoid alienating those less privileged than ourselves. It is utterly urgent that we listen to those who we claim to be fighting for and avoid contributing to any continuing oppression. Without getting our own house in order, we are coming from an inherently weak position.

Oppression is far more than hate speech. It is insidious, it comes in the form of words and deeds which we were unaware could ever be a problem. The effect of negligence can be exactly the same as the effect of malice. It is our responsibility to mitigate these effects: ultimately, I too hope for the day to come where we no longer call upon one another to check privilege. For me, this will only happen when my allies in social justice are doing this for themselves. 

In reaching this understanding, we will be far, far stronger. It is interesting that the phrase “fighting with” carries a double entendre. At present, it is a struggle against resistance from those unwilling to rescind their own privilege and act in solidarity. However, “with” can also mean “alongside”. And in the future, I hope that we all fight with each other a lot more.

 

"Fighting with" can also mean "fighting alongside". Photograph: Getty Images
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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.