Privilege, The Myth of Merit, and Abolition-Democracy

NB: This is a lightly edited version of a talk that I gave as part of the “Thinking Privilege” Symposium at the Hurford Center for the Arts and Humanities, Haverford College, April 8, 2016. It is based on an earlier talk I gave at the 2015 APSA annual meeting as part of a roundtable to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the publication of Iris Marion Young’s Justice and the Politics of Difference. As it was written for spoken delivery, it lacks a complete scholarly apparatus; apologies.


I want to make a relatively simple claim today, but one which might have less than simple consequences.[1]

I want to insist that if we want to think about privilege, and if we want to talk about it productively, if we want to question it, undermine it, refuse it, smash it, and do so without reproducing it or re-centering the axes of domination that privilege always already entails, then we must approach it politically.

This is my simple claim: privilege is a political form of rule and ought to be viewed as such.

A first less simple consequence of this, however, is the more difficult claim to substantiate (but to which I am more strongly attached): to acknowledge that privilege is political calls us to direct our energies toward what Alisa Bierria terms the “subversive proposition” of abolitionist politics.

A second consequence: we ought to embrace what Angela Davis—drawing on W.E.B. Du Bois’ account of the failures of reconstruction—calls the “comprehensive abolition” necessary for building a true abolition-democracy: building of the institutions necessary for black liberation that can render slavery, the prison, the death penalty, the border, and the settler-colony all obsolete.

And a third consequence: we should take up what Joel Olson argues is a democratic theory and practice that is dedicated to the proposition that, “No privilege held can compare to a world in which privilege does not exist.”

And I want to do this by thinking about the idea of “merit,” the role it plays in the academy, and the critical theory of Iris Marion Young.

First Movement: Privilege, Property, and Epistemology

It is helpful to start with the simple claim, and to clarify what I mean a little bit. A “privilege” is a kind of property; it is a kind of “gift.” A privilege is a kind of property; it is an object which one controls, but which is not entirely one’s own. A privilege is always a grant, a grace, a forgiveness, and it always comes from an authority. And while a privilege is typically distinguished (at least in a liberal lexicon) from a right, this is not really the most helpful distinction. Put differently, the sovereign is not simply they who decide in the state of exception, but rather they who grant privileges. If we trace the roots of the term, we arrive at private laws: commands that pertain to a single individual. Privileges are, by their very definition, unearned properties, the kinds of things that can be revoked without cause.

This helps us recall the lost radicality of liberalism and property theory as articulated by someone like Locke: that one could claim to appropriate a thing (or, it turns out, another person) by nature and not by grant of authority from an arbitrary sovereign. But while Locke may have seen such a claim as liberatory, it was, of course, only for those who were themselves granted the privileges, as Carol Pateman has shown us, of masculinity, or as Charles Mills reminds us, of whiteness. The liberal rejection of privilege was, not surprisingly, only radical in relation to the feudal order it sought to replace, and only in regards to those who have not been political and epistemologically, to borrow the language of Kristie Dotson, disregarded, disbelieved, and disavowed.

Privilege is political therefore not only in that it constructs and reconstructs authority, but because it operates in and through the very system that was said to replace it: property. And as Cheryl Harris reminds us, at the core of property as a practice, as exercised throughout the entirety of the history of political sovereignty in what became the United States is the system of racial domination. Whiteness is the property that confers immunity on some bodies from the constitutive violence of the foundations and maintenance of the United States.

To profess a commitment to democracy, is, sadly, insufficient to the eradication of privilege, but it is necessary. That is, to be dedicated deeply to the premise of equality and to reject the subordination of others (either on liberal or radical terms), is to also assert that privilege has no place in political life.

But, one might be able to draw a demarcation on the left between liberalism and radical left politics by the degree to which one allows that privilege, an unearned and undeserved relations of property, to exist in putatively non-political spheres of life. That is, while liberalism might try to recuperate privilege and its properties into a general theory of property (like Locke does, by asserting that self-possession is a privilege granted by God and nature), a radical position might reject the claims of privilege itself.

Second Movement: Material conditions and Four Theses on the “Academy”

I want to take up the precaritization of higher education staffing and the particularly raced and gendered processes of adjunctification in US colleges and universities since the 1970s. And I want to stress that I mean for this analysis to be a synecdoche for broader structures of privilege and discussions around “merit” and “desert” that occur in other contexts. It is my intention to self-consciously “zoom in” here and have a part stand for a whole, one that I would like us to feel uncomfortable about.

I turn to the academy for at least five reasons: (1) In so far as this is, for many of gathered here in some way, our house, and it is a house out of order; (2) The academy is proffered as a necessary location for thinking and defended on that basis; (3) The essence of prefigurative politics of liberation and positive-abolition requires that we do the work where we are; (4) My own experience in the academy in historically and predominantly male-masculine and white spaces, has convinced me that the myth of merit—as an ostensible counter to systems of privilege—is stronger and operates more perniciously in academic departments and universities than in many other places. The myth of merit leads us (those of us with relatively secure positions and especially privileged subject positions) to make dangerous mistakes about re-centering our own positions in our analyses. And lastly, (5) The myth of merit arguably operates most violently at the hands of those of us who are otherwise committed to anti-oppression work along axes of race, gender, ability, and class. We are, quite frankly, blowing it, and we are blowing it because we (those of us in relatively less contingent positions) think and act as if we deserve our positions and rank based on merit.

In response to this condition, what I want to offer here is four theses on how the myth of merit operates in higher education, each drawing expressly on four claims developed at length (but largely without reference to higher education) in Iris Young’s Justice and the Politics of Difference.

First, that “merit” is largely a mythic construct that works to obscure political systems of oppression;

Second, that a theory of social groups does not require a theory of individual identity;

Third, that the capitalist-welfare state functions to depoliticize public space, and;

Fourth, that insurgency works to resist such depoliticization but requires new practices of listening to insurgent demands without imposing a politics of respectability.

Thesis 1: The “myth of merit” is essential to the current organization of most universities, and tenure track faculty rely on this myth in ways that mask overt oppression and domination of roughly 75% of higher education faculty.

The transformation in the profile of tenure track positions that has occurred in the last 40 years, alongside the dramatic demographic shifts within the academy is not incidental. As the members of the academy and disciplinary foci have become less white, less male, less masculine, less wealthy, and less able-bodied, the working conditions for members of the academy have also become more and more precarious. Nationally, contingent faculty skew away from folks who are demographically situated like myself. This is driven in no small part by existing gender and racial disparities between fields in the academy and by differential rates of contingent employment between fields. Which is just to say that race and gender are always already a part of this story.

This transformation has received increased attention in recent years not largely because those of us with tenure-track positions finally saw the numbers, but rather because of demands made by contingently employed faculty for improved pay, benefits, and dignity in their working conditions. These claims have often come in the form of unionization movements of graduate students and adjunct faculty. And for good reason.

As John Protevi has argued, it is well past time to stop referring to the “job market” in higher education and recognize that we function in a broader political economy of higher education staffing. And I would add this is an expressly racist, sexist, and ablest political economy. Decisions about teaching and research positions are largely overtly political, but operate under the ideological mask of equal market conditions. This is a hierarchical system both between contingent and less-contingent faculty, and within less-contingent faculty (where tenure itself, and “rank” is delivered under expressly political conditions, no matter how hard institutions seek to quantify or objectify “merit”).

What has kept this system functioning, in part, is a myth of merit and a belief that academic qualifications are value-neutral. “Once we understand merit evaluation as political,” Young writes, “then important questions of justice arise beyond distribution, questions about who should decide on qualifications and by what norms and principles.”

The current 25% versus 75% split is, on its face almost always predicated by undemocratic forms of decision making within departments and universities where contingent faculty are typically excluded informally and formally from participation in faculty governance, peer review, and above all, the establishment of performance criteria. The solution, Young puts it succinctly, is that “decisions that establish and apply criteria of qualification should be made democratically… [and] criteria should not exclude any social groups from consideration for positions, either explicitly or implicitly.”

Thesis Two: Contingent faculty function as a social series if not a social group, and should be included in all deliberations regarding qualification, rank, and “merit.”

For Young groups are “a collective of persons differentiated from at least one other group by cultural forms, practices, or way of life. … Group differentiation arises, that is, in the encounter and interaction between social collectivities that experience some differences in their way of life and forms of association, even if they also regard themselves as belonging to the same society.”

The key here is to realize that contingent faculty sit in similar situations with respect to the practio-inert structures of higher education, and comprise a series that has the latent potential to become a group, and make demands as such. This is what we are seeing happening in local and national campaigns for unionization, for instance. But as anyone who has taken part in organizing work knows, it is not simply disciplinary cleavages that frustrate solidarity amongst contingent faculty, it is the continues promise of the tenure-track position and the hierarchical benefits that appear to come with it that frustrate organizing efforts.

But it is also at the direct peril of tenure-line faculty to not organize along with contingent faculty, precisely because the main defining conditions of higher education staffing are actually shared in common between tenure-line and non-tenure-line faculty: an explosion of administrative positions, increased bureaucratic oversight, permanent austerity budgets, increased spending on “enrollment management” and “assessment,” and (as is clearly visible in cases from the University of Illinois, the University of Southern Maine, the University of Louisiana, or the University of Wisconsin) the lack of the basic employment protections tenure promises to provide.

This is to say that an account of “faculty” as a series has the potential for reorganizing solidarity across the tenure-track and non-tenure-track divide and organize for better more stable and more self-directed working conditions. But only, I would argue, if we are also willing first acknowledge and then radically democratize hierarchies within the tenure track as well (i.e. to effectively abolish them as structures of domination)

Thesis Three: The University has been almost completely subsumed under the broader depoliticzation of the welfare capitalist state.

If adjuncts and graduate instructors are a social grouping of the basis of their shared position in relation to the practico-inert structures of the contemporary university, then this is arguably because the “University” as a corporate body (even those universities that claim to be mission-driven such as my own) has generally restricted all conversation about pedagogy, policy, and deliberation to a client-consumer model. This is not just the fulfillment of what Mario Savio warned us about when he spoke from the steps of Sproul Hall in Berkeley over 50 years ago, but also about the solidification of faculty as fungible units of human capital directed toward the maintenance of bond-ratings and producing returns on financial capital via unprecedented levels of debt-finance of both tuition payments and institutional operating costs.

As Young reminds us, such an organization of public life means that claims of justice become entirely subsumed to distributional questions within an existing order of domination, where self-determination is not simply curtailed, but actively constrained by institutional arrangements.

Hence, thesis four: We need a return to “insurgency” and insurgent action to respond to the depoliticization of higher education, to refuse the hierarchal distinctions in groupings between and within faculty, and to abolish the myth of merit as a key ideological component of the oppression and domination of faculty and students within our universities.  

What is most characteristic about models of insurgency found in new social movements, according to Young, is the way that they, “seek to limit state and corporate power, to push back on the bounds of their commodifying and bureaucratizing influence… [and] create alternative institutional forms and independent discussion” from existing bureaucratic forms. Insurgent movements do not ask simply for an extension of the tenure-line system again (although this might a strategically important claim to make) or a return to a nostalgic period in which universities were “better” (but only for a select few as they were also openly racist, sexist, colonial, and heteronormative institutions). Rather, insurgent movements challenge decision-making structures and the right of the powerful to exert their wills. In their best form, they call for abolitionist and decolonial politics that can be seen as a radicalization of Young’s narrower critique of the limits of inclusionary politics on the currently existing conditions.

What ought a new insurgency within the University look like? While I’m heartened by unionization movements across the country, I’m far more interested in and optimistic about projects such as the Subconference of the MLA, or Undercommoning, who call for “A revolution within, against and beyond the university will always come from below, from the diverse struggles and alliances of those dwelling unhappily inside, alongside, and outside the institution.”


Taken together, these theses lead me back to where I began: an assertion that the university as we know if operates according to a system of so-called merit that is in fact a political system of privilege. To acknowledge the political nature of privilege, manifested even in something seeming opposed to privilege—merit—indicates the necessity for the abolition of privilege and its institutions, it requires moving to background conditions and the ruthless critique of those things, following Spivak, we cannot not want.

To return to Olson’s claim that no privilege held can compare to a world in which privilege does not exist. Even academic privilege. The fact of the university’s (and our) attachment to merit matters because it is a synecdoche for how so-called “post-identity society” works more generally, displacing overt modes of privilege into covert modes, under the rubric of “success.”

But the university will not and cannot set us free. This is in no small part because it is not only an instrument of privilege, but because it continually invests itself in a myth of merit precisely where it ought to be rejected, and yet cannot be rejected under current conditions and in the absence of an insurgency from within and without. That the university is under attack from many fronts ought not be a moment for retrenchment, but one in which the cultivation of different practices be imagined. Perhaps it can be positively and comprehensively abolished, subjected to a collective practice of productive refusal, and become something other than it is through processes and politics that are prefigurative of the impossible university: the university without privilege.

And this is a model for addressing other forms of privilege, of other intolerable practices and institutions. And so, more generally, this is part of building the abolition-democracy: an immoderate rejection of white supremacy (and whiteness itself), patriarchy, hetero-normativity, ableism, settler-colonialism, border imperialism, political hierarchy, and the rule of capital. Perhaps it can be one site among many that practices a politics of discomfort and disorientation, of constant reflection, of continuous analysis, a place of increasingly “subversive propositions,” centered on what the Young called a fearless practice of “respectful listening” to those relegated to the margins, even when, perhaps especially when, those demands are not for mere inclusion. Abolition-democracy is not a place. It is, in that sense a utopia.

This is a form of utopian thinking, yes, but hopefully in a queer form that eschews both overly abstract forms and concrete arrangements (as heteronormative and liberal utopias tend to) in favor of “horizons.” As Muñoz puts it, “To see queerness as horizon is to perceive it as a modality of ecstatic time in which the temporal stranglehold … [of] straight time is interrupted or stepped out of.” For Muñoz, such an interruption or dis-identification with the current state of affairs is aided (if not made possible) by failure. If failure orients us toward a future that could be otherwise, it does so by interrupting the bad faith reading of the present that presumes that things had to be the way that they are. This means that refusals, rejections, and failures of the current state of affairs are not idle wishful thinking, but may be radical attempts to remake the world in a way that requires constant ethical practices of freedom. “Utopia can never be prescriptive,” Muñoz writes, “and is always destined to fail.”

We must think and live abolition broadly, always recognizing that our targets are produced and maintained by interlocking and intersecting conditions and that must themselves be refused, rejected, and abolished. These are both the strategic and substantive locations to do the work, to think reflectively about the freedom of others, and to build a world that is otherwise; a world without privilege.

[1] I cannot speak for others who are not similarly situated as myself, yet, as Iris Marion Young reminds us, I cannot speak without them. And in particular, those teachers whose social position is different than my own, whose mere presence in the classroom disrupts students’ expectations and challenges privilege, and especially those who teach at poverty-wages and graduate stipends, who teach without health insurance, without retirement plans, without sabbaticals, without research or travel accounts, without invitations to speak, without office space, and without child-care. And upon whose labor I am literally here today. I follow Young’s method of critical theory, what she defines as, “normative reflection that is historically and socially contextualized.” This calls for a self-reflective (but hopefully not self-absorbed) attention to claims made by those most affected by domination and oppression, forcing us to refigure otherwise merely abstract concepts in material terms. This ought to attune us to insurgencies from within and without and insurgent claims for justice. The outcome of which is a call to listen to and think with insurgent actors and not about them.