Category Archives: social class

Culture, Class And Loathing: The Establishment’s Distorted Views Of The Working Class

In recent years I have noticed a tendency on the part of mainstream politicians and the media to make blanket generalisations of the working class. For them, the working class is uniformly illiterate, ignorant, racist, xenophobic, eat Big Macs and slob around in tracksuit bottoms that have been purchased from Sports Direct. In reality, these supposed characteristics are nothing less than middle class prejudices that have been projected onto an entire social formation. These views have been helped along by the appearance of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary series like Channel 4’s Benefits Street, which depict the working classes as feckless and indolent.

Middle class anxieties about the subaltern classes are nothing new.  In the 19th century, Music Hall, which was popular with the urban working classes, was seen as a site of class conflict because it was created from below by the people  (qv. Kift, 1996). Some Music Halls, like Hoxton Hall, were shut down on police advice, while other halls began to appeal to middle class audiences. By the 1920s, Music Hall was dead and had been replaced by the more respectable genre of variety theatre. The working class performers who played the halls were eventually forced out to make way for respectable middle class performers.

We expect the Tories to approach the working class through fictional characters and their view to be informed by a handful of tropes.  This is in spite of their continued claim that there is no class war or that class “doesn’t matter” or “doesn’t exist”.  When John Prescott infamously remarked “we’re all middle class now” he was unconsciously acknowledging his party’s abandonment of the working class. His party leader, Tony Blair, left working class communities to the predations of UKIP and the far-right. Indeed, the party under Blair helped to foster an atmosphere of intolerance and hatred that has now been given a voice in post-EU referendum Britain.  Instead of facing down Michael Howard’s racist dog whistle election campaign in 2005, it started mimicking them by producing its own version in Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” speech in 2007.

A few years ago, a blog written by Daniel Hannan for the Telegraph used an image of Wayne and Waynetta Slob to provide a visual representation of the working class, who it also suggested were ‘intergenerationally workshy’. This theme, it would appear, has been enthusiastically adopted by the right-wing Labour politicians and their allies in the Murdoch and Rothermere press. They heap trope upon trope by making unsubstantiated claims about working class culture. One such claim is that McDonald’s, the American fast food chain, is universally appreciated by working class people. When Labour banned the chain from its conference last year, the right-wing of the party saw an opportunity to indulge in some slack thinking.

Defending McDonald’s, right-wing Labour MP, Wes Streeting, claimed.

“McDonald’s may not be the trendy falafel bar that some people in politics like to hang out at, but it’s enjoyed by families across the country,”

Streeting would possibly deny that he was referring to the working class in this statement to The S*n (also seen as a working class institution by out of touch parliamentarians) but the signifiers are there for all to see. “Falafel”, for example, is seen as a middle class food by lazy-thinkers, but on what evidence is this view based? None that I can see. Don’t working class people eat falafels? Of course they do. How about middle class people? Don’t they eat McDonald’s burgers too? Yes, they do and they shop at Sports Direct. But who are these “families” of which he speaks? They are no more than line drawings of a group of people who have been observed at a distance through the lens of bourgeois privilege. The mention of “families” is also deployed to add ballast to a weak argument.

But Streeting’s words also dovetail into the notion that working class people don’t support Jeremy Corbyn, who is generally depicted by his detractors as a middle class out-of-touch metropolitan intellectual that fails to “connect” with the working class.  Yet, there is no evidence to support this view and it is likely that the Streetings of this world are projecting their own prejudices onto the working class. They are supported in this by the media, whose lazy-thinking hacks are more than happy to adopt this view uncritically and spread it about like so much muck on a field.

In an article in The New Statesman, Streeting wrote:

First up, a declaration of interest. I used to work in McDonald’s. Serving customers helped me pay my way through my A-levels. I enjoyed it, for the most part.

Unlike those legions of working class people who are forced to accept jobs at McDonald’s by the Jobcentre, Streeting’s time at the food chain was a relatively short one. His path to a political future smoothed by being a middle class young man from a middle class family. Once he completed his ‘A’ Levels, he was off to Cambridge University and eventually the House of Commons via his presidency of the National Union of Students. For those working class people unable to find jobs that pay well or go to university, they were abandoned to the likes of ruthless sweatshop employers like Sports Direct or forced into ‘self-employment’ and other forms of insecure employment. Their condition is blamed on immigrants – regardless of where they come from.

We have been told by the media and politicians that the working class voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the European Union and this was seen, on the one hand, as evidence of their insularity, ignorance and xenophobia and on the other as “two fingers up to the establishment”. This sentiment was uttered,  without a trace of irony, by same establishment that has exploited them for generations. It is true, however, that working class fears were manipulated and exploited by superficial postmodern politicians, but if we look at parts of Southern England, it would be reasonable to suggest that the middle class also voted overwhelmingly for Brexit. So what’s going on?

Postmodern politicians are seeking a mandate to ram through short-sighted policies that propose further cuts to public spending. To do this, they claim that we “must listen to the working class’s fears” and limit immigration numbers. Yet when it comes to demands for more council housing, proper wages, equal access to education and healthcare, a decent standard of living, the working classes are completely ignored. Instead, the politicians play to xenophobic class fractions that buy into the narrative that foreigners are taking jobs and being advanced up council house waiting lists over long-term residents. Only a month ago, Labour right-winger, Rachel Reeves attempted to exploit these fears by channelling Powellite rhetoric. No doubt this middle class woman would claim a ‘mandate’ from the working class too.

Labour politicians like Reeves, Streeting and Woodcock and their friends in the media subscribe to the bourgeois view that the working class en masse are illiterate and ignorant. Yet, there is a long history of an educated working class, who placed great emphasis on reading and study. My own family, for instance, is part of this working class fraction. My grandfather, who worked as a boy miner and joined the army as a young man, was a self-educated historian. My mother was an amateur Egyptologist, while my father was a mostly self-taught linguist. I was the first in my family to go to university. Yet, the very institutions of working class education that my family and those like us took for granted: the public libraries, trades unions and mechanics institutes have been systematically eroded or destroyed. Libraries were actually closed under the Tory-Lib Dem coalition. One Tory even claimed (and I paraphrase) that “if you can’t afford to buy books, then why should we provide them for free in public libraries”? The unstated aim of this philistinism is to keep working class people in the perpetual darkness of ignorance and superstition. If people are denied access to knowledge and learning, it makes them easier to manipulate. Hack politicians know this only too well.

For all the talk of a universally ignorant working class, there is no mention of middle class ignorants. The middle class and the aristocracy contains just as many xenophobic, reactionary and anti-intellectual elements as the working class, but no one dares to ascribe these characteristics to those classes as a whole.  It’s past time that the generalisations made of the working class were challenged.

Reference

Kift, D. (1996). The Victorian Music Hall: Culture, Class, and Conflict. Cambridge University Press.

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What’s Happening To Stand-up Comedy In Britain?

I’m one of the judges for the New Acts of The Year and we’re about half way through the contest. One thing that I and other judges have noticed is the general lack of political and philosophical engagement with the world among novice comedians. There are also a worrying number of acts who either have no material or have nothing interesting to say. Some have even ventured into misogyny, homophobia and casual racism in a feeble attempt to get laughs. What we also tend to find is that, rather than present a quirky view of the world, some of these novice comedians are giving us a spoken version of their CV. Is this what people are being taught to do at the many stand-up comedy courses that have proliferated since the early 1990s? I think it is. Whatever the case, British stand-up comedy is on its sick bed.

For the last few days, many comedians have been talking about Andrew Lawrence’s alleged support for UKIP and his attack on immigrants. Even UKIP leader Nigel Farage has given Lawrence his support.   A potential kiss of death? Possibly. Only time will tell. What has the world come to when today’s comedians are embracing anti-immigration rhetoric and railing against diversity? Are we really heading back in time to the immediate post-colonial period when comedians used trot out a stream of racist and sexist gags and used “it’s only a joke” as a defence? Sometimes it seems that way.  In Lawrence’s case, it’s easy to suggest that he’s doing this to attract attention. On the other hand, perhaps he, like so many others, is suffering from cognitive dissonance or maybe he’s just a right-wing reactionary arsehole. At any rate, there is an absence of critical thinking to his rant and I would argue that this is indicative of a malaise that is currently affecting the entire country, especially in England, where this negative attitude towards difference seems rife. This malaise is particularly manifest in those people who believe UKIP is ‘anti-establishment’ or ‘anti-politics’.  ‘Anti-politics’? Really? There is no such thing as ‘anti-politics’. Everything is political. UKIP is an anti-intellectual party that appeals to anti-intellectuals, who believe the country’s myriad problems can be solved by simply ‘pulling up the drawbridge’.

On Lawrence’s Facebook page, he attempts to “clarify” his earlier post but is actually reiterating what he said previously. In effect, he ends up digging himself an even bigger hole of gargantuan proportions:

A comedian from a minority background who uses their own ethnicity as a foundation for the whole of their act, rather than looking at wider aspects of society and exploring outside of their own personal experience.

And then says:

Quotas have been introduced, whereby every panel show must book a certain number of female and ethnic comedians, regardless of ability or merit.

Objectively then, there are comedians on panel shows who are there first and foremost because of their gender or ethnicity.

But it gets worse:

Because there is currently not a sufficiently large enough pool of female comedians with the requisite experience and ability to fill the quota, there are females who’ve been booked for these shows who are either poor comedians, not comedians at all, or aspiring female comedians that are still learning their craft, but have not yet reached a decent professional standard.

These females I have described as ‘women-posing-as-comedians’.

The upshot of all that is that there are still many women coming across incredibly badly on panel shows, which is helping to perpetuate the myth that women aren’t funny.

The hope is that women currently on panel shows, will further legitimise stand-up comedy as a career for women and encourage other women to take up comedy. Which is an admirable aim.

Unfortunately for every female who gets on a panel show, there are very many male comedians with more ability and experience who are not and will never get the opportunity to be on one. I think that’s a great shame for TV audiences.

And for his finale:

Oh, and I don’t have a problem with properly regulated immigration and I don’t have a problem with immigrants.

I do have a great deal of concern about the lack of border controls in this country and subsequent gross overpopulation as a result of EU legislation, which I believe adversely affects all our quality of life.

Here Lawrence uncritically accepts UKIP’s position on immigration and seeks to rationalize this position by summoning up the Malthusian claim of “overpopulation” to lend some kind of intellectual gravitas to his narrativization. This is exactly what Malthusian think-tank Migration Watch UK (and Bill Oddie) does all the time.  But this claim that there is a “lack of proper border controls” is not only ludicrously melodramatic, it’s a complete myth. He claims that he isn’t a UKIP supporter but that claim is pretty meaningless, given the fact that he’s regurgitated the same myths as Kippers and the rest of the English Right. Lawrence, if anything, is a reactionary, though it’s not something that he would readily admit. Instead, he complains that comedians are making jokes about UKIP. Diddums.

Let’s return to Lawrence’s comment about “minority comedians”, who he claims use their ethnicity as the basis of their act. Here, he doesn’t even try to understand why this is the case. He’s a white male stand-up and looks more or less like every other white male stand-up. If you’re black or a woman (or both), you have certain visual signifiers that differentiate you from the rest of the pack and may make jokes about those things. That’s what happens. If you have red hair or you’re fat, you will also make jokes about those things. That’s what happens. Yet, for Lawrence, it’s as if over 200 years of colonialism and racism never happened and that things are all right now because this is the year 2014 and people have stopped being racist. Sure they have. Yet for all the white male faces on television, the numbers of black faces on panel shows is so small as to be non-existent. Can you think why that is? I can. It’s called institutionalized racism and it’s a product of the dominant class’s early socialization. The vast majority of producers and commissioning editors come from public school and Oxbridge backgrounds. In their schools, some of which are all boy schools, they never see any females apart from those who are employed to teach or make beds. Black pupils are just as much of a rarity, thus commissioning editors tend to employ those people who are most like them: white and male.

With regards to women comedians, Lawrence has painted himself into a corner by claiming on the one hand that there aren’t a large number of women comics and on the other,  this small number of women comics is responsible for inferior female talent because male numbers are superior. Confused? Don’t be. It’s the anti-intellectual tripe of a knee-jerk reactionary. Like so many white [right-wing] males, Lawrence is playing the victim and it’s as if to say “It’s all the fault of those horrible wimmin with their feminism. They’re oppressing me”.  Lawrence is offering nothing new and is merely repeating the worn-out fallacy that women aren’t funny. Let me tell you something, Andrew, a lot of women are funnier than men, they just don’t get the same opportunities as white males who constantly refer to their genitalia and their apparent sexual inadequacies/perversions. Boring, huh?

The current malaise in British stand-up comedy is an indication of an overall malaise that hangs over this country like miasma. We have now entered a time when the very idea of tolerance is being pissed on, not only by right-wing politicians, but also by selfish misogynistic comics for cheap laughs, who believe they’re ‘pushing the boundaries’. The dominant discourses in this country have been orientated to the right for the last 35 years. People walk around talking in market-speak without realizing it. Other people repeat phrases like “Benefit claimants are addicted to the state” and “We need to have cuts” without thinking about them. Some, like Toby Young, believe that free speech means you can say anything you like without being criticized or being called an ‘idiot’ for it. However, if you’re tolerant and see immigration as a benefit to the nation, you’re shouted down, while those who oppose immigration complain that their voices “aren’t heard” even though the newspapers are full of articles complaining about immigration, and which rely on the usual myths, tropes and hyperbolic flights of fancy like “the country is crowded” to make their spurious points.

If comedy acts as a barometer for the political and social health of a nation, then Britain or, at least, England is a very sick patient indeed. It is obsessed with nostalgia and ready to blame its condition on everything but the system that produces inequalities and untold miseries. Instead, women, ethnic minorities and immigrants are scapegoated for a system that has comprehensively failed to deliver. Those in power in Westminster are happy to allow this continue and comedians like Andrew Lawrence are more than happy to act on their behalf. Sometimes I think the battles that we fought in the 1980s were for nothing.

 

 

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Telegraph Comment of the Week (#12)

Brendan O'Neill: let them eat donuts

Brendan O’Neill: poverty is a leftist conspiracy

At Nowhere Towers, Brendan O’Neill is known as one of the Telegraph’s worst bloggers (James Delingpole is the other one). A Murdoch lackey and an acolyte of The Great Furedi, O’Neill rails against anything that looks vaguely left-wing and this  is in spite of his repeated insistence that he’s a “man of the Left”. Is he a hypocrite? Yes, he is.

Yesterday, O’Neill penned a blog with the title “What’s fuelling the food bank frenzy? The hunger for publicity for anti-poverty activists”.

O’Neill knows what his readers like and they like anything that puts the poor and the needy in their place. They also like their ideas half-baked and O’Neill knows this and plays them like a fiddle.

Here’s my theory, for what it’s worth. Today’s food banks are not fuelled by the needs of the poor so much as by the needs of charities and campaigners. I think the main beneficiaries of the fashion for opening food banks, and for press-releasing these openings to every media outlet in the land, are the poverty industry rather than the poor. The poverty industry is made up of those campaigners who depend, for their very existence, on the idea that there exist hordes of helpless, hapless poor folk – and so the more these campaigners can fuel that idea, the better. Just consider how loose is their definition of poverty.

“Here’s my theory” he says. The trouble is, Brendan, it isn’t a “theory”; it’s a collection of prejudices strung together like diamante pearls. Furthermore, there is no “poverty industry”. That’s blatant hyperbole. What O’Neill is saying is that those who help others are to be despised. So the food banks, which many people rely on, are just publicity fronts? Did I get that right? Yes, I did.

They define “food poverty” as “the inability to afford, or have access to, food to make up a healthy diet”. But who defines what is a healthy diet? If a family can afford unhealthy foods – like cheap white bread, processed meat, beans – can they still be said to be suffering from “food poverty”? In these campaigners’ eyes, yes. Using various modern and ridiculously stretched definitions of poverty, the Trussell Trust, which runs most of Britain’s food banks, says 13 million people in Britain are living in poverty. They mean relative poverty – effectively “not being as wealthy as others” rather than “having nothing”. For them, the important thing is not having a serious debate about living standards in the 21st century but rather promoting the Dickensian idea that millions of people are poor, desperate and starving.

With the rising cost of fuel, travel and foodstuffs, combined with stagnating wages (stagflation), life for the low-waged and those on benefits is tough, but you’ll get no sympathy from O’Neill who thinks poverty is a leftist conspiracy. He nitpicks over the definition of “food poverty” but he hasn’t actually produced an coherent argument to challenge it. Instead he tells us that poverty is a “Dickensian idea”; old-fashioned and no longer ‘hip’. In the last sentence, he shows us that not only is he spiteful and mean, but he’s in denial.

That is what is driving the food-bank frenzy – not Britons’ desperation for food, but poverty campaigners’ desperation for publicity. The opening of a food bank is ultimately a very fancy press release about the need to keep the charity sector and welfare state flourishing. It’s politics dolled up as emergency aid. It’s poverty porn, providing a kick for those activists and commentators who like nothing more than to feel the thrill of pity for the less fortunate.

O’Neill hasn’t got any evidence to support this provocative assertion. “Politics dolled up as emergency aid” just reinforces his selective misanthropy. Better to let people starve. Eh, Brendan?

Now we come to the comment of the week. This one is from “MHammer47”, whose class hatred oozes from every word of this comment:

MHammer Twat

“MHammer47” channels Marie Antoinette by saying “let them eat donuts (sic)”. They’re only “69p”. Living on doughnuts will lead to serious health issues but for people like this, such things are incidental; mere collateral damage.  For MC Hammer, finding oneself in dire financial circumstances is about making “bad choices”. If only it were that simple.

There’s an old saying that Hammer and O’Neill need to learn and understand: There by the grace of God go I.

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Class: the issue that some people wish would go away

The Cat was immediately suspicious when the BBC announced the findings of a new report into social class in Britain. The new social hierarchy being proposed, which is based on research conducted by the London School of Economics’ Mike Savage and Fiona Devine of the University of Manchester and was commissioned by the BBC, has been concocted to deflect attention from the reality of everyday life. Since the Blair years, there has been much eagerness on the part of the dominant culture to redefine class broadly along lines of consumption, but some of this eagerness also comes from a desire to claim that we’re “all”, as John Prescott once put it,”middle class now”.

This idea that everyone, or most everyone, is middle class has worked well in the United States, where the promotion of the image of a classless country serves to obscure the day-to-day economic reality of the lives of many Americans and their true relationship to capital. Indeed, the fantastic idea of the much-promised American Dream is a nightmare for the vast majority of ordinary people.

The BBC commissioned research into social class has determined that social hierarchy be reconstructed thus,

  • Elite: This is the most privileged class in Great Britain who have high levels of all three capitals. Their high amount of economic capital sets them apart from everyone else.
  • Established Middle Class: Members of this class have high levels of all three capitals although not as high as the Elite. They are a gregarious and culturally engaged class.
  • Technical Middle Class: This is a new, small class with high economic capital but seem less culturally engaged. They have relatively few social contacts and so are less socially engaged.
  • New Affluent Workers: This class has medium levels of economic capital and higher levels of cultural and social capital. They are a young and active group.
  • Emergent Service Workers: This new class has low economic capital but has high levels of ’emerging’ cultural capital and high social capital. This group are young and often found in urban areas.
  • Traditional Working Class: This class scores low on all forms of the three capitals although they are not the poorest group. The average age of this class is older than the others.
  • Precariat: This is the most deprived class of all with low levels of economic, cultural and social capital. The everyday lives of members of this class are precarious.

The idea behind this kind of social realignment is nothing new. Pierre Bourdieu (1989) proposed that taste, or the judgement of distinction, should be reconstructed according to a person’s levels of non-material capital. These were: social, cultural, economic and symbolic forms of capital; there are also subsets of these forms: for  example, subcultural capital (Thornton, 1997) is a subset of cultural capital. These forms of capital are employed on fields and some can used as a medium of exchange: consider the example of the old school tie, which is a form of social capital that can unlock many doors (think of John Lloyd and how he sold Spitting Image to Central Television and you’re there).

Naturally, the BBC nor the researchers, don’t tell us how capital is used on the field nor do they mention habitus or doxa. Instead, we are given new social designations – the ugliest of which is “precariat”. But “Emerging service workers”?  What does that mean, exactly?

The BBC has the summarized findings here. The page also invites you to assess your social class but using its handy class calculator.  I’ve used it twice now and each time, it’s told me something different. Oh, but it’s a bit of coffee-time fun, surely?

Well, I’m not so sure.

What this report has done is to add new strata to an already stratified British society. It makes no attempt to discuss or even apologise for the way in which the same stale ideas circulate on the field of cultural production and how cultural production is controlled by a small group of people who project their ideas of taste on the public. Furthermore, the report fails to take into account how political power remains in the hands of the dominant ideological group, nor does it offer any explanations about how the power of the dominant culture is reproduced in its educational institutions: Oxbridge and the public (independent) schools.

The authors of this report and the BBC should hang their heads in shame for gutting and filleting Bourdieu’s concepts and presenting them as a silly parlour game. Catherine Hakim, who was also at the LSE, did a similar thing with Bourdieu’s ideas of capital by proposing the slippery concept of “erotic capital”. This idea falls apart when one interrogates the claim that anyone can use their erotic capital to advance in life. It is clear that working class women will only be able to use their erotic capital to make it as a stripper or sex worker. There is no social mobility involved in a working class deployment of erotic capital.

Try as they might, the ruling class cannot reorder the class structure of this country. By isolating the issue of class from the production and reproduction of power, any attempt on their part is mere navel-gazing. Furthermore, the fact that this research was commissioned by the BBC tells us that, for all its pretensions to inclusivity, the corporation remains stubbornly bourgeois and works to reproduce the power of the dominant culture.

I was listening to Radio 4’s Today programme a month or two ago when I heard the very bourgeois Harry Mount (I think it was him) declare that class was dead and we should be identified by what coffee we drank. Oh, how I laughed.

References

Bourdieu, P. (1986) Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, London: Routledge.

Chester, L. (1986) Tooth and Claw: The Inside Story of Spitting Image. London: Faber and Faber

Thornton, S (1997) Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Cambridge: Polity Press

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