Last week, I was in a meeting to discuss dividing grant funds between two groups. I work with two coalitions that provide social services to people in need. One coalition receives about a third of the funding that the other group does. Neither coalition is swimming in money. Their funder convened us to rebalance the allocation of money they share each year. While the coalitions each lobbied for their piece of the pie, the funder wanted us all to reach a consensus. The group that receives more money said they felt like any major funding change would “take away” money they desperately needed. The group with less money only wanted to remedy the historic funding imbalance.
These conversations were lurching to conclusion in this one of many video calls we’d be on that day. We negotiated the small numbers of a compromise that would last for the rest of the year. While someone was speaking for their side, an unmuted person on the call muttered, “palace fucking intrigue.” He apologized and muted himself, but the phrase stayed with me! It felt like a word on the tip of my tongue that I didn’t know was there. It was an itch that I didn’t know I could scratch. Reflecting on the hour that had come before, I realized the term was perfect for how the meeting was making me feel.
By encouraging consensus on finding an equitable split, the funder dodges the true issue here. Neither coalition currently receives enough money for their work. The discussion centered on how to cut the pie. Nobody was talking about how meager the slices were.
what is palace intrigue?
There are a few different interpretations of this phrase. As you might expect, its usage exploded among the press during the Trump administration. Wiktionary defines it as: when people in power within a structure work against each other.
Backstage Magazine says one movie in particular embodies the phrase like no other: The Favourite, one of my favourite movies of 2018.
In the movie, Lady Sarah Churchill and her cousin Abigail vie for the favor of Queen Anne. They spend the movie locked in a battle to undercut and displace the other. They scheme to maintain their intimate relationships with a volatile and childish ruler. Their machinations are enjoyable to the point that we may forget what should again be obvious. Both women are much smarter than the person who holds the throne by divine right. Imagine if these two people had spent the movie working together! Imagine if they had united against the decadent aristocracy bankrupting the crown. Imagine if they had joined in concern for people who starved while England waged war. Together, Queen Anne would have been powerless against them. It might not have had the same impact as a movie, but who cares! They saved England!
why it matters
My opening story described two coalitions within a system. For weeks, they discussed how to divide a little bit more money than they had received the year before. Neither had been appropriately resourced for 2020’s skyrocketing levels of food insecurity, but that wasn’t the topic up for debate. Vu Le calls this infighting the non-profit hunger games. We struggle and fight to receive resources insufficient to solve our problems. This fighting ignores what created these problems in the first place. The further enrichment of the elite class. Racism and classism perpetrated on generations of laborers. The constant denigration of the public’s social services. The diverting of money to an ever-expanding police state. We are all fighting to share a pie while the capitalist hoards ten.
how can we stop it?
Remember each other. Support your colleagues in their own work. Make yourself aware of the systems they navigate that are separate from yours. Advocate for their causes as if they’re your own. Do this even when there’s no clear benefit to yourself.
Remember who you fight for. Center the people you work to support. They are already weighed down and slowed by an unjust system. We should lighten their load whenever possible and fight alongside them. Use your power to their advantage before your own.
Remember who holds the keys. Palace intrigue originated in monarchies and imperialism, but those dynamics live on today. Though the systems are different, the structures we operate in are similar. Washington state has one of the most regressive tax structures in the country. The wealthy hold outsize influence around the world. If there’s not enough to go around, it’s because they extracted more of value than they earned.
The coalitions I described faced incredible challenges throughout the pandemic. Their resilience is evident against an unending pandemic and a sputtering patchwork economy. Thousands of people are in need, and both coalitions are doing great work. Everything they can, really. Meanwhile, millionaires and billionaires get richer and richer. The pie gets smaller and smaller.
While we spend our entire lives pointing fingers at each other, they are ransacking our palace.