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Notes on privilege
Someone sent me an excerpt from my recent appearance on the Regenerative Agriculture Podcast where I said the following:
Basically a privileged person is somebody who in fact doesn’t have or doesn’t need community because they can meet all of their needs with money. Because if you have enough money in modern society, you don’t need anybody or anyone or anything. You don’t need the people around you because you can pay somebody else to do whatever they’re doing. You don’t need the ecosystem around you, you don’t need the soil around because you can pay to import food from somewhere else. You’re completely independent of your relationships, except for the one one relationship that matters in modern society to sustain life, which is money, or so it seems, but as the study you cite demonstrates, it’s not actually true that we can meet all of our needs with money. But what money does is it replaces human relationships. So in an Amish community, there’s no such thing — as far as I know — as insurance on your home. Because if your home burns down, the community will get together and build you a new home. That’s your insurance. And your insurance payment is all the times that you helped somebody else build their house. So you don’t need insurance in that community. Well, any society that lives in that way is a ripe target for development, as it’s called, for economic growth, because you can replace that community function with a paid service. And so what’s happened in the modern era is that one after another, human relationships have been replaced with paid services. Everything from growing food to taking care of children to making entertainment. It’s not just the survival needs, it’s also: What does it take to live well? To be fully human? And if you don’t make your own music any more but you download it from Spotify, then that’s another service that’s been converted into money. And also ecological services get converted into something that you purchase. And that strips away what actually makes life rich. So you ask what to do about it, and on the broadest level, it’s to reclaim to restore, to recover, to regenerate the lost relationships to come into relationship again ... but to turn that idea [of privilege] on its head and embrace the knowledge of what actually makes life rich, what makes life good, and to say, ok, it’s time to enrich ourselves again. It’s time to reclaim the lost relationships.
Here is a corollary to my point. In a subtle way, the assumptions that the privileged take for granted are part of the very conception of privilege. The privilege discourse takes for granted the desirability of the lives that the privileged occupy. This is part of the ideology of development that imposes Western, modernist ideas of progress on the rest of the world. It approaches development with the smug certainty that our way of life is better than theirs.
Certainly the life of an affluent American suburbanite is preferable to that of a starving Somali villager, an incarcerated inmate, or a sex-trafficked Haitian child. But is it superior to that of the relatives of my Amish interlocutor on the podcast? Is it superior to the lives of indigenous peasants in the remote Andes? Traditional villagers in Gabon or Bangladesh? If so, then why are people so often palpably happier in those places than in America, where prescriptions for psychiatric medications exceed one per capita?
Consider an example of NGO philanthropic development work, the boring of wells for Africans living in remote areas. Everyone would agree that access to safe drinking water is a positive good for all humans. Is it, however, an advance to have running water in every home? From the perspective of an American, it seems obviously so, as we are reminded when a power outage cuts off the water supply. But traditional villagers say that the spring or river or well is central to village life, one of the primary gathering places — especially for women. Are we better off sequestered each in our own homes, never needing to interact with each other to procure food, water, play, child care, or entertainment?
In that interview I spoke as well of the wealth that is connection to non-human beings like plants, animals, wind, rain, and soil. Progress has distanced us from all those things. As money mediates our relationships to these other beings, it grows into our primary relationship with the material world. We end up alone.
The privileged at least have money. The rest, living in a society of separation, suffer much of same distancing from nature and community, and lack money as well. If we take the distancing for granted, then yes, to have money is better than not to have it. To be privileged is preferable to being without privilege.
In a society where courts and police settle our disputes instead of village councils and wise elders, then it is preferable to be among the privileged races and classes that suffer less police violence than the poor and Black.
Must we take all that for granted though? Can we envision a different kind of society? Some of us have seen it, in remote places or in remnants in developed societies. Some remains even in small-town America. It is possible, but the path from here to there disappears into the mist. The first step is always a step back into connection. Then we remember the wealth we have lost. Our sense of poverty within affluence is validated. We are no longer satisfied with the money-mediated, technology-mediated substitutes for what we have lost. We no longer tolerate the ongoing destruction of the species, habitats, places, and cultures where such wealth still resides. Our choices orient naturally to the recovery of true wealth for one and all.
For a deeper exploration of these ideas, see my pre=Substack essay, The Banquet of Whiteness. It was one of my best, but got very little attention because it used examples from Covid at a time when the issue was so highly politicized that any fine currents got lost in maelstrom.
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