I've been giving the concept of privilege a lot of thought recently, primarily in response to some of the criticisms that have been made recently from a number of perspectives. Rather than taking my usual approach of close reading and critique, I thought I would put my thoughts down on the concept with a slightly more informal approach. The usefulness of the concept of privilege largely comes out of its ability to provide a sort of conceptual lens to understand the often personal and informal problems that arise in groups of ostensible peers, particularly within radical and progressive activist circles. After all, the framework of privilege largely arises out of W.E.B. DuBois' effort to understand the inability to produce inter-racial forms of working class solidarity within his analysis of the reconstruction period in his 1930's text Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. DuBois argues that these alliances collapse due to the formal and informal privileges offered to white workers in order to keep them committed to the cross-class white nationalist formation of the United States, or to use David Roediger's later term developed out of this framework, white workers are offered a kind of psychic wage to compensate for other modes of inequality, a sort of wage of whiteness, to use his vocabulary.
The concept of privilege then has its origins in the attempt to understand the inability to produce radical political assemblages within the United States. However, it would be possible to draw other genealogies of the concept. For instance, a history of privilege could be created out the long and multiple feminist analyses, produced over the past century, starting with Charlotte Perkins Gilman's analysis of the treatment of boys and girls for instance, or earlier thoughts. We can see the need for this analysis arise out of most movements responding to a multiplicity of oppressions. In each case, the analysis points out the unthought benefits assumed by a dominant group, or structure. In many cases, such as the sex/gender system or structures of race, these forms of inequality were deliberately created in order to resist counter-systemic politics from forming, and some cases which those structures tie into modes of normalization such as homophobia, but in other cases, such as disability issues, the slights were unintended. What a lens of privilege allowed for an ethical critique of those practices of inequality, in effect creating an analysis and framework of micro-power in the everyday structures of communal life.
However, as the concept of privilege has become increasingly institutionalized, a number of intellectuals have tried to transform privilege into a lens that explains larger political phenomenon, the larger structures of capitalist accumulation, for instance. The simple problem is that the notion of privilege does not explain the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and structures of violence and brutality associated with it, nor the institutional structures of white supremacy, or the structures of domination within our sex/gender system. Attempts to do so produce a sort of atomism, assuming that the larger structures of our society are a sort of expansion of the small interpersonal relationships that exist in social movements and daily life. They miss the obvious fact that these relationships are an effect of those larger structures, and a reinforcing mechanism, not an explanation for them. By doing this, they often prescribe highly personalized and individualistic methods of solving structural problems, ignoring the social movement work that is necessary to actually solve such problems. This is not to say that our ability to cooperate and work together isn't significant, or dismissing the implicit argument that those of us who benefit from those systems need to be the ones who shift our practices for the sake of the community, but to simply point out that the analytic of privilege is insufficient, although necessary, for a radical politic.
Within this context, it's not surprising that the analytic plays a significant role within non-profit politics. As a number of folks have pointed out, the non-profit structure largely exists as a mediator within structures of inequality and domination, not as entities that exist to challenge or destroy those structures. Communist philosopher Antonio Negri notably compares them to the Benedictine monks of the middle ages, an institution that often worked to ameliorate poverty, but in order to preserve the larger system. I don't think that this fact in and of itself neutralizes the value of the institutions that produce this kind of work, but it does mean that we as radicals need to look at these institutional structures, whether in university activism or other movement organizing, with a skeptical and critical eye. There is no way of returning to a pure form of radical analysis of privilege. After all, the non-profit institutions are far too intertwined with genuine counter-systemic movements, but we can rework them into a new approach to radical politics, preferably one that translates into a new historical bloc far larger than previously seen. The analytic of privilege answer to many significant questions to inter-subjective problems to every be fully erased, for all that they symptomatize a sort of neo-liberal subjectivity and collectivity. A new radical assemblage can only be created through an engagement with these forms, not by avoiding them.