The Perpetual Victimhood of Privilege

Photo by Thomas Galvez | CC BY 2.0

Privilege is a characteristic feature of the world we live in, defining the vast and unmistakable gaps between the haves and the have-nots, the proverbial 1 and 99 percent. As such, privilege demands a permanent, indeed perpetual posture of victimhood on the part of the privileged as a safeguard against political challenges from heretofore oppressed groups seeking greater freedom and equality. Permanent victimhood is the characteristic feature of all attempts to assert, reproduce and establish privilege.

The value of perpetual victimhood for privileged groups resides in the main from the blame-shifting, scapegoating and crisis leveraging properties of the victim complex, which forms part of the broader set of mechanisms social psychologists associate with the phenomenon of moral disengagement. Moral disengagement is roughly defined as the set of subjective mechanisms we employ to disable the self-restraining qualities of the conscience.

The role of the victim complex in neutralising the conscience and expediting blame-shifting, results in the main from a pretence or affect constructed on the conflation of being made subject to doubt, criticism or challenge and an attack on one’s person or rights. The conflation of being doubted or criticised and being attacked derives in turn from a fundamental, and typically willing, confusion of individual freedom and personal license.

Individual freedom means the ability doing what you want as long as you respect the equal rights of others. Personal licence refers to the power to do what you like regardless of the consequences for anyone else. Individual freedom is the basis for all harmony, functionality and justice in society. Personal license is the basis of all chaos, disorder, and injustice. Privilege being a form of injustice depends then on the assertion of personal license at the expense of individual freedom.

Asserting the right to perpetrate injustice at the expense of others must be dressed up as something else. The actual victims must fail to understand what is going on, and the privileged must maintain an inner equilibrium (or something approximating it; the tendency to fixate on the approval of strangers through conspicuous consumption with the same degree of preoccupation and obsession that heroin addicts consume hard drugs points towards comparable spiritual deficits).

This is why the privileged, with the aid of their courtiers and lapdogs in government, the corporate media, the public relations industry and academia, habitually conflate personal license and individual freedom, a sleight of hand that establishes the aforementioned and much-vaunted and cherished victim complex. The privileged and their servants are no longer perpetrators of injustice, they are victims of it, just as the actual victims of the maintenance and perpetuation of privilege through the assertion of personal license are the victimisers of the privileged.

The application of the victim complex in direct defence of the economic privilege of the haves conflates personal licence and individual freedom through the myth that wealth is the result of individual hard work. If the richest 8 people in the world have as much wealth combined as the poorest half of humanity, so this myth suggests, it is because they are enterprising, intelligent, and work hard, an assumption whose flipside is that the poorest 3.6 billion people are poor because they are indolent, unintelligent and lazy.

Naturally this belief system neglects to account for the exploitative social relations through which this inequality is maintained and reproduced, along with the processes that produced them historically. It neglects to account for colonialism and imperialism, the habit of the richer parts of the world of moving into other people’s countries, enslaving them politically or economically, or both, and stealing their resources. Exploiting the resources of sovereign nations for stupendous profits while their populations live in wretched poverty is typically rationalised in terms of free trade – in reality, the power to do what you want (make yourself rich) without having to worry about the consequences for anyone else.

Similarly, this belied system neglects to account for chattel slavery, through which free marketeers used massive amounts of unpaid labour to establish ‘free trade’ economies. It neglects to account for wage-slavery, the system based on outsourcing capital costs associated with the upkeep of slaves to the slaves themselves. Instead of purchasing food and housing on their behalf, free marketeers simply paid them a proportion of the value they created back to them as a wage and gave them the ‘freedom’ to house, clothe and themselves.

When workers organise unions to defend their rights, advance their interests and in so doing challenge the institutional privilege of the neoliberal corporate oligarchy, defenders of class privilege typically paint them as aggressive thugs and usurpers who have no respect for individual rights, though complaints of this kind apply far more resoundingly to the defenders of economic privilege. Their privilege is so normalised, along with the victim complex invoked to protect it, that they take for granted not only their privileges, but their status as perpetual victims of the underprivileged.

The logic of the victim complex invoked in defence of privilege is such a pervasive feature of history as to practically constitute a characteristic facet, if not the one through which history tends to repeat most consistently. It is also socially pervasive, invoked through hierarchies based on gender, ethnicity, sexuality, ability, physical stature, and so forth. In providing token crumbs from the banquet of capital, each of these social forms of privilege divides the have-nots amongst themselves, further solidifying the power of the opulent few.

Defenders of male gender privilege for example, style themselves victim of feminism by conflating struggles by women for equality with attacks on the rights of men, even as they perpetrate attacks on the rights of women. Similarly, the dominant white anglo ethnicity styles itself a victim of other ethnicities, those it has victimised throughout history through colonialism and imperialism, by conflating their attempts to assert their own culture, identity and sovereignty as acts of violence against the white race. In reality, it is anglo-corporatism moving to neutralise opposition to its totalitarian designs for world domination projecting its own malfeasant character onto anyone who gets in the way.

Thanks to those totalitarian designs, combined with the perpetual victimhood of privilege, nations that try to assert their sovereignty in the face of corporate power or military hegemony are said to be threatening ‘our interests,’ as if they trump individual freedom. Only in the minds of those asserting personal license. Indigenous and environmental activists drawing attention to the way corporations are bleeding the planet dry and destroying the climate are said to be interfering with ‘free trade.’ The issue of why corporations even exist and how they came to be equal masters under the law with human beings is apparently the fault of anyone who notices. In this context, ‘free trade’ is personal licence raised to the level of ideology.

Even in the day to day articles of common nonsense, the victim complex personal licence of corporate persons they are said to be oppressing the poor hard done by corporations, not the associated with the perpetual victimhood of privilege functions to shut down criticism and open debate in the name of maintaining it. The whole right-wing discourse around anti-PC is built on the assumption that challenging power and privilege and demanding respect for groups other than those who dominate is an attempt at thought policing. In this case the victims matter are members of dominant groups, as those who are members of others are shut down in the name of not giving in to ‘political correctness.’

In reality then, it is the anti-PC brigade who are the real thought police, as they are the ones who are unable to deal with being contradicted by people who don’t think or see the world the same way that they do. It is this kind of mentality that gives rise to the complaint that people are not free to ‘speak their mind,’ as if the centrepiece of individual freedom was the right to say the first thing that came into your mind regardless of the effects it had on others.

We can see in fact that this is an article of personal licence. Of course, defenders of privilege have the right to speak their mind, but so does everyone who doesn’t think the same way they do! The complaint is not that they are being deprived of their freedoms, but that others have the same freedom that they claim for themselves and assert it in a way that they happen not to like or find convenient. Once again, the victim complex becomes an asset to the perpetration of privilege.

The pretence of perpetual victimhood regularly reaches the crowning heights of absurdity, as defenders of privilege lose all touch with reality. After Melbourne Murdoch columnist Andrew Bolt was successfully sued for racial defamation after suggesting that light-skinned indigenous Australians were claiming aboriginality to access the welfare system, he took to the front page of the Herald Sun to complain that he was being silenced. Even if it were true that he was being silenced, and his wasn’t just the useless bitching of a serial narcissist, who else on the planet was having the opportunity to tell everyone in the state about it? Definitely not his actual victims. The cognitive dissonance was in this case extreme.

By the same token, Trump and Australian PM Turnbull have been conspicuous of late in invoking the idea of a witch-hunt in response to various political difficulties; Trump in response to the Russia investigation and Turnbull as citizenship laws preventing dual citizens from taking political office have threatened his political majority. Where actual witch hunts have had people being burnt alive at the stake in acts of theocratic terror designed to demonstrate to the rest what happens to those who cross the prevailing power, however, nothing at all happened to either political leader. Trump is no doubt under some stress as the Mueller investigation encircles his presidency; likewise, Turnbull is justifiably concerned for the longevity of his government given his capitulation to corporate oligarchy.

Contrast against the psychotic violence of the European Witch Hunts, the pettiness of their complaints ultimately serves to demonstrate the fragility of their egos, which are brassy and big when it comes to immigration bans, border walls, border security, stopping the boats, suspending Racial Discrimination Acts and detaining people without charges for years on end in offshore gulags where they lose their minds with despair and begin self-harming. In the perpetual victimhood of privilege, things like this are not suggestive of witch hunts; unlike climate change, which is a crypto-socialist, pseudoscientific hoax to undermine the free market, they are Existentialist Threats and Very Serious Problems.

This line of thinking is completely in consistent with the autocratic mentality attendant to privilege, which on the vital issue of property cannot tolerate heterodoxy or doubt. Indeed, the godhead is rarely discussed and never comes into question, let alone is contradicted even as we counsel kindergarten children to share. Considering the codified narcissism that surrounds it, however, we might do well to consider the cries of ‘Witch Hunt’ from on high as unintentionally instructive. It is arguably we who need to be on guard against them, even more so given that, just like the corporate aristocrats of today, Witch Hunters of old were victims of a diabolical evil who didn’t feel the need under the circumstances to mess with tricky concepts like individual freedom and respecting the rights of others either.

Ben Debney is the author of The Oldest Trick in the Book: Panic-Driven Scapegoating in History and Recurring Patterns of Persecution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).