The Narcissism of Privilege: The Left Needs to Be More Not Less Aware of It

18/12/2012 08:50 GMT | Updated 16/02/2013 10:12 GMT

"...let's put aside our differences and start fighting back" says Tom Midlane in a recent New Statesman piece on privilege checking. Or as he so eruditely puts it, in a Freud name-check, "the narcissism of small differences". Which is ironic, considering Freud so embodied male privilege that he based his whole theory of gender around his own penis. Small differences indeed.

Midlane sounds nothing if not compelling in this piece - after all, who wouldn't want to unite and fight in the face of a common top-hat bedecked, welfare-scything enemy? The problem is, Midlane conflates uniting against welfare cuts with homogenising against welfare cuts. He sees awareness of privilege as a disease (it has "infected progressive thought"), or even more insidiously a disingenuous "striking [of] poses" for nothing less then an individualistic attempt at differentiation - another symptom of a neoliberal "postmodern fallacy". Sounds like someone's been spending a bit too much time with Mehdi Hasan.

So down with privilege-checking right? It's nothing but 'Top Trumps', a 'bingo card', a laughable '12-step program' towards 'self-abasement'. Let's try to remember: we're all the same, we all want the same thing; we're all in this together. Hang on, where have I heard that before?

Midlane's way of doing things sounds nice in theory, but in practice it stands as Tory boot-straps ideology lite. The boot-straps ideology stems from the belief that we all have the same chances, we all have the same drives, needs, desires; all we need to do is put the effort in and we can achieve the same desired outcomes. As is abundantly clear from the increasing poverty in the UK, this is simply not true. By ignoring the vastly different needs of various sectors of the UK the current government's most visible success has been in the expansion of the food bank sector.

In order to achieve the dynamism that Midlane so admires in the current government, Cameron has taken such progressive steps as scrapping equality assessments for policy, his rationale being that they are "bureaucratic rubbish" that get in the way of British business. Fine action taking, right there, utterly free from privilege-checking. Quel nirvana of utopian action. I quiver in my privileged boots. And there's more potential 'action' being taken in Afghanistan, as the world considers whether those insisting on women's rights are just being whiney privilege-checkers, who are preventing the big boys getting on with the serious business of running the world. Let's not forget the bigger picture in favour of, you know, real people, hey?

In order to "take action" and defeat the problems that exist in Midlane's "real world" we don't need more of the same homogenising currently practised by the our neo-liberal rulers. What we need is a revolution in thinking, where "united we stand" doesn't erase our differences. To do so would be to serve the most privileged, since they are without fail the most visible.

Why does Midlane think the conservatives our currently dismantling the NHS and "large swathes of the public sector"? Is it because they are evil boogeymen? Or is it because they believe that the interests of the country are homogenous, and from their position, the interests of the country are being served by their actions? I know this is an unpopular viewpoint, but I don't think Cameron is evil. I think he's misguided. I think he's blinded by his privilege. I think no-one's ever told him to check it - or at least not until it was too late.

Let's not repeat their mistakes.