The Philosophy of Privilege

I grew up in a state of Margaret Atwood worship. The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace woke my young male mind to the female perspectives existing all around me, both in the present and the past; perspectives, at the time, I was too ignorant to fully comprehend on my own.
And yet I have problems with Atwood’s Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth. Mainly, her tax bracket poses issues to my Marxism when I see her pontificating on debt and wealth, and it’s exactly the method she uses which concerns me. Not all intellectuals are wealthy, and we can agree that Atwood is certainly a rich intellectual. She isn’t an economist here, but a philosopher, and like, many philosophers, has the privilege to conceive of debt existentially. Meanwhile the rest of us are out here living pay cheque to pay cheque, if making a whole pay cheque at all.
Margaret Atwood, C.C., 1984Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth is a bold and strange move for Atwood, whose previous non-fiction work centred mostly on literary criticism, Canadian heritage, and the relationship between Canadian and American national identities. In this book, she moves into economics, and it’s an odd departure into a space so far outside her usual wheelhouse it’s jarring.
In particular, “Ancient Balances” is frequently baffling. Later in the book Atwood sources other academic work, but this chapter’s rife with anecdotal information relayed to her by “a friend” – an amorphous intellectual entity with insider economic knowledge. She writes that “a friend tells me of an epidemic of debt among overeighteens” (Payback 8) and it sounds more like her friend is a professional she ought to be citing.
But it’s the false equivalency Atwood employs in relation to a friend’s belief about airplanes which is the most grievous of her literary sins. She parallels an idea that our collective belief in debt could be similar to a friend’s hypothetical thought that airplanes “stayed up in the air only because people believedagainst reasonthat they could fly; without that collective delusion sustaining them, they would instantly plummet to earth” (Payback 10).
It’s almost difficult to engage with a thought so foolish, and because of that it feels Atwood is unknowingly being condescending. The airplane analogy is utterly inane, requiring us to disregard an entire history of aviation. Atwood wants to compare a nebulous concept like debt with mechanical engineering, essentially. This makes me believe she was grasping at straws for a debt analogy, then she chose one that frankly might only work on children; one reason it strikes me as unintentional condescension. This brings us to my biggest problem with Atwood’s writing on debt: privilege.
MarxI’m not ignorantly Marxist; I understand reality (for the record, I’m also a pessimist). Money is a necessary evil because it’s a logical evolution in the barter and trade system, which is, in part, a function of society to stave off anarchy. And I’m no anarchist. But it’s all in the way someone from moneyed privilege writes which determines whether they ought to be offering their expertise.
Atwood writes on page 9: “we never think about [debt] unless something goes wrong with the supply.” Her implication of the collective “we” is objectionable here, as opposed to the collective “we” in her suggestions about debt as societal fiction. I’ve no doubt Atwood doesn’t much worry about her own debt or the money she has in the bank too often, so it’s difficult to take an economic philosophy seriously from someone nestled in a comfortable tax bracket, far from real economic realities of debt.
Just as it’s prudent for white intellectuals to acknowledge the privilege their race provides, so should intellectuals of the upper class – regardless of where they began – acknowledge they come from a place of class privilege when writing about debt. Take Warren Buffett, as an example: he often talks about overall economics in relation to privilege, and always seems to recognise his coming from a place of immense privilege in opposition with those on the ground of the economy experiencing true hardship.
(Note: I happily include Buffett as an example of working against type re: class, but he is still, despite all good intentions, a capitalist; albeit a self-aware one.)
warren_buffettThis all begs the question, does being upper class prove a hindrance for intellectuals speaking publicly about certain topics? It’s ironic because if someone unknown wrote what Atwood did, nobody would know, or care. It almost takes a person of the upper class – or any person of privilege – to reach back down and pull the other classes up by questioning what privilege is afforded to their own class. Someone like Atwood wasn’t born into wealth; she earned her career, and, as a woman coming into that career in the time she did, it’s a testament to her strength she persevered.
Yet Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth doesn’t feel written by someone reaching back down to lift up the lower economic classes. It feels more like someone not fully aware of or recognising the privilege she’s attained, and more like Atwood is kicking her feet up in philosophical thought without considering it’s her privilege allowing her to even write such things (and get paid for them).
Then again, this seems to be a new, recurring problem with Atwood in the past few years: she’s forgetting from where she came, and how hard it was back there before she arrived at a place of privilege.


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