Risk, Failure, and Privilege

A recent tweet and ensuing conversation got me to thinking about the relationship between risk (and failure) and privilege. The tweeter stated that “failure is privilege” and a colleague of mine, Shawn Graham, retweeted this sentiment in the context of a book project that he’s working on that explores the role of failure in his career. The conversation evoked a paper that I heard this fall at the EAA meeting that argued – persuasively – that our current celebration of risk-taking in the high tech industry, in higher education, and maker culture is a product of extraordinary privilege.

Many of the people encouraging others to take intellectual, financial, and educational risk enjoy a robust economic safety net, are operating from a position of social and political power, and, in the most cynical assessment, have limited responsibility for the mess that risk taking can often produce. Moreover, we tend to elide risk taking in general with our own fairly narrow definition of risk. Trying out a new piece of software or taking on a new project might be risky in certain situations, but it isn’t the same as existential or personal risk. For more vulnerable individuals and communities in our society, risk taking and failure can have dire consequences. 

Finally, and most importantly, the attitude toward risk taking, innovation, and entrepreneurship often assumes that the status quo is somehow broken and needs a radical solution. This justifies and valorizes all sort of transgressive behavior in the name revolution. It undermines the accomplishments of all those individuals and institutions that created the existing system and creates an “us versus them,” “new versus old,” “risk versus complacency” situation where the baby is thrown out with the bathwater. Existing institutions do offer protections to some of the most vulnerable in society and innovation can involve exposing others to hazards that exceed our own.

[As an aside, I often advocate among friends for a kinder, gentler form of anarchism, and one particular colleague never tires of pointing out that any call for us to destroy the system exposes those whom the system protects particularly vulnerable. She’s right, of course, but only in so far as the vulnerable are not a rendered vulnerable because of the system rather than despite it.] 

In this context, the valorization of risk taking is almost certainly a sign of privilege. For individuals who can afford (in a literal and personal sense) to fail, who have the security outside the system that they’re challenging and who operate within an established discourse that allows failure to occur without persistent stigma or social harm, then failure is a privilege. Tenure, for example, allows for failure to happen with a minimum of consequences. American society has protections – from bankruptcy law to various social safety nets – that protect the literally insulate the affluent from catastrophic risk of failure and celebrates innovators who take risks and succeed.

This brings us back, then, to the question of whether we can argue that failure is privilege. I’m skeptical. 

I worry that the slide from risk taking as an act of privilege to failure as an act of privilege serves on of two narratives. On the one hand, it seems to evoke long-standing Christian narratives that see the fall from grace as a precondition for salvation. Embedded in the New Testament parable of the prodigal son or the Denial of Peter, failure allows for redemption and leads to an awareness of God’s limitless capacity for compassion and love. This same narrative trajectory appears in innumerable hagiographic texts that document the redemption of a fallen individual as a challenge along the path to true sanctification. There are other obvious parallels – the Exodus, Mary Magdalene, Zacchaeus, – but the basic story of failure and redemption remains the same. To my mind, this narrative does the work of privileging failure by linking it to salvation.

What worries me more, however, is that by seeing failure as privilege, we are perhaps unintentionally reinforcing certain elements of the neoliberal world view. To oversimplify a complex set of ideological assumptions, the neoliberal world view tends to see the state as a barrier to innovation and argue that the free functioning of the market will allow for growth that will ultimately benefit everyone. The champions of the free market are those victorious souls who are great personal risk have generate economic value for themselves (of course) and society. The enemies of this order are those who have failed and live “comfortably” on “government handouts” which reinforce the government’s role in sapping wealth, energy, and motivation from the market. The privilege of failure in the neoliberal economy is placed on the shoulders of government programs that are both practically and ideologically suspect.  

In the end, I accept that our drive to innovate and take risks is a privilege position. At the same time, I’m hesitant to see failure as part of a similar system of privilege. Failure sucks and few aspire to fail. The idea that failure represents privilege nudges it too close to the idea that failure is a choice. In this context, those who fail simply decided not to win and are content to be burdens on those who had the gumption necessary to achieve their dreams.

In this context, the association of failure with privilege is a clear moral critique. Privilege is seen as something that is a voluntary position capable of being “checked” at the door of fair play and meritocratic judgement. Failure then represents an unwillingness to check one’s privilege and accept the level playing field where defeat isn’t just the gently luxury of privileged failure but absolute. This view of the world expects the vanquished to suffer deprived of both success and privilege. 

It’s hard to say whether this view of failure serves to promote a market driven world where the winners really win and the losers genuinely lose, but it certainly reinforces this as a basic reality. It changes failure from being a consequence of social, economic, intellectual, and even physical limitations and transforms it to a choice.  

In the end, I just don’t like this. Taking risks involves understanding and accepting the possibility of failure, but not all failure comes from taking risks. Even if we accept risk taking as an act of privilege, we owe it to ourselves to view failure more magnanimously. After all, we can agree that a society that mitigates the consequence of our decisions so as to make risk taking very difficult might be desirable in some ways, but it seems to me that a critique of failure that regards it as an act of privilege confuses the decision to take a risk (and fail) with the inevitability of failure in our lives.