Complicity of the Privileged

Every once in a while I’ll read, hear or observe something that crystallizes an idea or concern I’ve been praying and/or thinking about for a long time, sometimes decades. That’s what happened when I read about the complicity of the privileged. The idea isn’t new to me, but the phrase frames it in a way I hadn’t before, and like how it does.


There are times I find it difficult to express publicly in certain spheres of attention the work I do within social movements as an organizer. Often, in predominantly Caucasian and bourgeois theory subcultures, there is a sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, discrediting of efforts to operate within so-called “folk-political” and normie institutional systems while attempting to generate significant sociocultural change.

The arm-chair theorizers and spiritually exhausted tell us that ‘politics is dead’, or that praxis is a fools game. Meanwhile, the very same people continue to make excuses for continuing to live in ways extensively captured by pathological consumption patterns, and believing it nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of capitalist degradation than to risk their WiFi access by participating in an illegal occupation or some civil disobedience campaign.

The saddest irony of this complicity of the privileged is that social movements would be just that much more effective (in the ways that genuinely matter) if, instead of continuing the circus of hyper-abstraction, these big-brained soothsayers would lend their considerable intellects to social movements. How much better, for example, would the local Extinction Rebellion group be if their strategies and communications were deeply informed by leading academics and para-academics from appropriate fields of political science, media studies, communications, or whatnot?

UNNERVING REALITIES OF THE WET’SUWET’EN by michael james, Synthetic Zero, January 7, 2020

I think the terms “arm-chair theorizers and spiritually exhausted” are interesting. For years I’ve felt and spoken about spiritual poverty in our times. These are among the people who “continue to make excuses for continuing to live in ways extensively captured by pathological consumption patterns, and believing it nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of capitalist degradation than to risk their WiFi access by participating in an illegal occupation or some civil disobedience campaign.”

There are several things I discern from that quote:

  • spiritual exhaustion or poverty allows people to rationalize their behavior related both to participating in pathological consumption and to not agitate against that
  • there is an explicit or implicit discrediting of efforts to generate significant sociocultural change
  • capitalism degrades our lives
  • social movements would be more effective if people would move from abstraction to participation in social movements

What I was taught, and have tried to live is activism for justice must originate from my spiritual life. Time and again I have seen so many people spend a lot of time and effort doing things they think they should be doing. Unfortunately that usually ends up making them dispirited and exhausted, and often doing more harm than good. If this work is not spiritually grounded, people often stop trying. Working for justice takes a long time, with many frustrations along the way. From the examples of others, I see this work should continue for as long as you live.

Early in my life I was hesitant to talk about the spiritual basis of what I was trying to do. I guess I had my own ‘privilege’ of thinking people who weren’t Quakers or others who were spiritually grounded shouldn’t be expected to share my views. Fortunately I learned many people who don’t speak in religious terms are very spiritual. They have helped me grow spiritually.

The basic thing I have learned is how important it is to listen deeply and be patient. We can’t control when we receive spiritual guidance. Listening deeply is twofold, internal and external. We need to create times of quiet in order to hear what our inner light is saying to us. This spirit is in every single one of us.

Not only that, the spirit is part of everything, the earth, the air, the water, inanimate things, all our relations. Externally listen deeply to all that is around you, all the time. Some of my must significant experiences came from hearing a few words amidst the noise. Something about “a van of people going to Minneapolis to be with other water protectors,” or a “First Nation-Farmer Climate Unity March.” Too often we don’t pay attention to those things, they fly past us. But with deep listening we can hear.

When I read “the complicity of the privileged”, some pieces of the puzzle of my life came together. The focus of my spiritual leadings my whole life has been to reduce my own carbon footprint and try to get others to do so as well. We weren’t aware of the many dangers of greenhouse gas emissions when this spiritual path began for me some forty years ago. I am now realizing this is why it was a vision that started me on a journey that was to become part of my life’s work since. Even though much of the science wasn’t known at that time, some of the consequences were being expressed visually. In this case I guess deep listening involved deep visioning.

This was my vision. Our family summer vacations were camping trips to National Parks. Rocky Mountain National Park was our favorite. Part of that joy for me was trying to capture the beauty of the mountains on film (this was before digital photography). I moved to Indianapolis when I was 20 years old and was astounded by the thick clouds of smog. This was before catalytic converters. My horrifying vision was imagining my beloved Rocky Mountains hidden in smog. That convinced me I had to do whatever I could to prevent that from happening. The most immediate and impactful consequence was deciding I couldn’t contribute to the smog, so I gave up having a personal automobile for the rest of my life.

But no matter how vocal I was and how many different ways I tried to convince others they, too, should give up cars, I was spectacularly unsuccessful. Nearly everyone said they would like to give up their car. And then each person would tell me the reasons why they just had to have one.

In a way I wish catalytic converters had not been invented. Although they did remove the particles that caused the visual smog, they didn’t stop the greenhouse gases from spewing out into the air.

And as our cities were so poorly planned as they expanded, people who lived in the suburbs or other areas where there was no mass transit actually did need cars if they chose to live there. And it is a choice. I carefully scoped out a neighborhood I was thinking of moving into. The apartment would have to have a laundry, be on a bus route, close enough to work that I could walk there and have a grocery store within walking distance.

Many in Quaker communities did live in rural areas, and required a car or truck for transportation. The ways we could have avoided that mess would have been better urban planning and emphasis on mass transit. In rural areas it would have helped to cluster farm houses together.

So I finally get to the point about “the complicity of the privileged”. Most Quakers care deeply about our environment. And many have tried different ways to reduce their carbon footprint. Despite that, the very same people continue to make excuses for continuing to live in ways extensively captured by pathological consumption patterns.”

As is becoming increasingly, terrifyingly clear, we all should have found ways to escape being “captured by pathological consumption patterns.”

This “complicity of the privileged” is found in so many other parts of our lives: racial justice and White privilege, distribution of wealth, militarism and war, xenophobia, Indigenous rights and colonialism. The list goes on.

Below is an example of a group of land defenders and alt-world builders struggling to slow the deep grind of capitalism as it drives life on this planet towards obliteration. The struggle of Wet’suwet’en is happening now – today, and ongoing.

As this website becomes more and more a space where I finally integrate my work in political organizing with my varied research interests, I will be increasingly using these living examples in order to explore how the topics and strategies of “exit”, patchwork (as alt-community building), bioregionalism, and acts of resistance possibly converge in attempts to re-make the contemporary.

UNNERVING REALITIES OF THE WET’SUWET’EN by michael james, Synthetic Zero, January 7, 2020

The article goes on to give a history of the struggles of the Wet’suwet’en peoples and their stands to protect and assert their Indigenous rights. One example of the “complicity of the privileged” is White settlers who don’t want to acknowledge what it really means to honor Indigenous rights. This conflict is global because of the use of the Doctrine of Discovery to take the land from Indigenous peoples all over the world.

Following is a quote from a new friend of mine I think is relevant to this discussion.

I’m of the firm opinion that a system that was built by stolen bodies on stolen land for the benefit of a few is a system that is not repairable. It is operating as designed, and small changes (which are the result of huge efforts) to lessen the blow on those it was not designed for are merely half measures that can’t ever fully succeed.

So the question is now, where do we go from here? Do we continue to make incremental changes while the wealthy hoard more wealth and the climate crisis deepens, or do we do something drastic that has never been done before? Can we envision and create a world where a class war from above isn’t a reality anymore?”

Ronnie James

Wouldn’t it be great if we found ways to explore the “complicity of privilege” in such a way as to help people become aware of their complicity? And explore how to escape from that complicity?



Synthetic Zero is an experimental multimedia research and design space for exploring adaptive responses to the various crises and unequally distributed realities of contemporary life.
We salvage, analyze, and disseminate a wide range of speculative and pragmatic resources gleaned from the media wilderness.

Synthetic Zero

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— Edmund Berger

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