Like many others, I am caught up in the events as they continue to unfold in Egypt. Watching the video this morning of the jubilant crowds after Mubarak announced that he was stepping down brought tears to my eyes. Sharing that joy, I still understand that it is an unfinished narrative of a possible transition from patriarchy to partnership, from autocratic rule by a privileged oligarchy of civilian strongmen and military generals to a more egalitarian parliamentary system. Like any compelling story where life and death are at stake and the outcome is in doubt, I continue to be on the edge of my seat.
But stepping back and looking at the big picture over the centuries of the odyssey (three steps forward and two steps back) of human development, what I see is a trend away from the concept of privilege. That is, moving beyond the practice of granting some people more respect, higher status, and power over others based on their gender, race, sexual orientation, age, family, or position within some sort of a hierarchy. And moving instead to a circle of equals where power is not seized but granted by others and is exercised to facilitate rather than to control.
From the Wikipedia article on “privilege”…
In a broader sense, “privilege” can refer to special powers or de facto immunities held as a consequence of political power or wealth. Privilege of this sort may be transmitted by birth into a privileged class or achieved through individual actions. One of the objectives of the French Revolution was the abolition of privilege. This meant the removal of separate laws for different social classes (nobility, clergy and ordinary people), instead subjecting everyone to the same common law.
As the conventional wisdom goes, “rank has its privileges”, and the granting of ever increasing perks as one moves up the pecking-order has proven to be an effective tool to maintain that hierarchical order. Particularly so when that moving up can require great investment of ones “blood and treasure” and other costs to the human psyche, a person can feel that they have earned and therefor are entitled to that privilege.
Then there are the many forms of privilege based on an “accident of birth” and generally requiring a certain devotion to playing some conventional role to somehow feel that one has earned that accidental status. A father earns his privilege as male head of household by working and worrying himself to death, since privilege is not necessarily the same thing necessarily as liberty and being able to do whatever you want. Thus that other now rarely heard phrase, “noblesse oblige” (the privilege of aristocracy has its responsibilities). If you’ve got the pedigree and are willing to play the part and saddle the responsibilities, why not reap the perks and have your little world that narcissistically revolves around you?
Just look at much of our advertising in the media and see how much of it leverages the lure of privilege, to drive in a luxury car, live in stately “McMansion”, or have a vacation with all the trimmings in a gorgeous tropical resort with a gorgeous bikini-clad trophy spouse.
Certainly in the contemporary drama playing out in Egypt, strongman President Mubarak has exhibited the patronizing hubris of privilege in his recent speeches. He has heard his flock speak, can take care of their problems, now he urges them to go back to their jobs and let him continue to run the country as he is most qualified to do.
Allan Johnson talks a lot about the concept of privilege and its historical political context in his written works, including The Gender Knot…
As societies have developed new forms of control and domination, systems of privilege have changed in order to make use of them. Under European feudalism, for example, class privilege depended on military force, control over land, and traditional obligations between nobles and peasants. With industrial capitalism, however, class is based primarily on control cover complex organizations such as corporations, government, universities and the mass media.
Mubarak’s privilege is probably closer to the feudal variety, or its modern corollary based on controlling a network of overt and covert police and at least the tacit consent of the army. But like all forms of privilege, it generally leads to corruption of the privileged minority and the resulting dis-empowerment of the non-privileged majority.
In fact, as long as much of the world is still caught up in systems of economic and political privilege, those societies are particularly vulnerable to the challenge of religious extremist groups like Al-Qaeda, which leverage the illegitimacy of the privileged to justify their own violent extremism as somehow the most effective antidote.
But in my opinion the most compelling reason for the historical trend away from privilege is that it is standing in the way of human development. We humans are a species with an insatiable developmental imperative.
There are times in our history that a privileged minority among us has convinced the rest of us (or at least themselves) that it is in the interest of human development that the privileged and powerful control everyone else. But it can only go so far before enough people decide they can run their own live better with the liberty of their own initiative and a societal consensus to facilitate that liberty.
So in my framing of human history, its all about that developmental imperative, and particularly in the last three-thousand years that development has been facilitated by the transition from authoritarian to egalitarian, strongman to citizen, “us and them” to “all of us”, all of which revolve around moving beyond privilege to a circle of equals. Egypt circa 2011 CE is one more chapter in that compelling story.