The concepts of white supremacy and white privilege have become increasingly familiar over the past decade. The proponents of these ideas insist, on the one hand, that minority groups—racial, sexual, and other—must be recognised for the historical specificity of their sufferings; but, at the same time, it is considered inadmissible for the so-called privileged to speak about the minority as if it exists. This is contradictory; if a person attempts to recognise the specificity of, say, the black hair experience and how it has, supposedly, been disprivileged compared to other hair types then they must speak racially—yet they immediately run the risk of being accused of conceptualising people in racial terms.
The root of this approach lies in Jean-Paul Sartre’s short book Anti-Semite and Jew (1946); the ideas contained in this book influenced Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse, and so provided the ground for those intellectuals who would develop the concepts of white privilege and white supremacy. Sartre’s phenomenological approach is somewhat unique: he did not see the Jews as a race, religion, or cultural group—he saw the Jews as a collection of mutable traits. Sartre, a man who, like myself, would introspect into a glass of beer—watching each bubble climb its way up the glass and pop—found that freedom did not mean unimpeded action; rather, following Heidegger, freedom was a state of consciousness; and this peculiarity explains the current strangeness of progressive racial ideology.
Imagine that you walk along a beach for an hour, quite alone. You forget yourself; you become a free-floating consciousness, hardly even aware of your body: this is what Sartre means by freedom—everything opens up, everything seems possible. After an hour, you come to a jetty in the sea. There is a man on the jetty. He turns and says, “What are you doing, you stupid cunt?” At this moment, you become a thing—you become “the cunt”. Your free-floating consciousness is constrained, and your freedom has been replaced by a rigid conception of yourself as an object—an object only has certain possibilities, its “cuntiness”. The example is dramatic, but the objectification does not have to be ill-intentioned; it is simply to treat a consciousness as a thing. This is what feminists, inspired Sartre’s lover de Beauvoir, mean when they speak of men objectifying women; it is not, as is often taken, referring to literally pulling women about physically; rather, it refers to an engagement with consciousness that treats consciousness as a thing.
This mode of analysis explains the ambivalence of contemporary progressive thought. As with today’s progressives, Sartre lambasted democrats (classical liberals, we might say) for seeking to regard the Jew as just another citizen; they were not recognising the transient elements of the Jew—they were as bad as the anti-Semite, just in another way. Sartre wanted people to be recognised for their mutable traits in such a way that they were not regarded as an object (not “the Jew” or “the citizen”). Sartre’s philosophy, like most left-wing philosophies, reaches this position because it assumes that there is nothing prior about people, people self-create moment-to-moment: there is no race, sex, or history to constrain them. This is not true; he was subverting Heidegger’s rooted conceptualisation of consciousness; and so he spawned the impossible demand that people should recognise a person for their Jewish specificity while simultaneously maintaining that there is no such thing as “the Jew”. His phenomenology has been carried on into the fields of sex, race, and sexuality—it is not, incidentally, postmodern at all.
Sartre’s freedom—free-floating consciousness—can only really be achieved in religious states, through meditation and prayer. As an atheist, Sartre rejected this idea; he tried to force other people to preserve the fragile free-floating state of consciousness—ultimately through political compulsion—but this can never be; even to compel people to preserve it is, by Sartre’s own logic, objectification. The only way to experience this freedom is through a cultivated meditative state of mind.