Wednesday, March 16, 2011
The English ideology II posted by Richard SeymourThis may or may not be related to Midsomer Murders. But it certainly has some bearing on the current crisis, rise of austerity nostalgia, the 'Keep Calm and Carry On' carry on, the appeal to the pragmatic, phlegmatic spirit of the Blitz, the attempt at packaging a vicious generational transfer of wealth and power in the guise of social solidarity, pulling together in a time of distress, the Big Society, the 'broken society', and all that...
"We turn, first, to the notion of respectability - at once, so different for different social classes, and yet so 'universal' a social value. It is an extremely complex social idea. It touches on the fundamental notion of self-respect: men who do not respect themselves cannot expect respect from others. But respectability also touches the more 'protestant' values of our culture; it is connected with thrift, self-discipline, living the decent life, and thus with observance of what is commonly held to be upright, decent conduct. It is strongly connected with ideas of self-help and self-reliance, and of 'conformity' to established social standards - standards set and embodied by 'significant others'.
"The 'others' are always those who rank and stand above us in the social hierarchy: people we 'look up to', and in turn respect. The idea of respectability means that we have taken care not to fall into the abyss, not to lose out in the competitive struggle for existence. In the middle classes, the idea of 'respectability' carries with it the powerful overtones of competitive success; its token is the ability to 'keep up appearances', to secure a standard of life which enables you to afford those things which befit - and embody - your social station in life. But in the working classes, it is connected with three, different ideas: with work, with poverty, and with crime in the broad sense. It is work, above all, which is the guarantee of respectability; for work is the means - the only means - to the respectable life. The idea of the 'respectable working classes' is irretrievably associated with regular, often skilled, employment. It is labour which has disciplined the working class into respectability. Loss of respectability is therefore associated with loss of occupation and with poverty. Poverty is the trap which marks the slide away from respectability back into the 'lower depths'. The distinction between the 'respectable' and the 'rough' working class, though in no sense an accurate sociological or historical one, remains an extremely important moral distinction. If poverty is one route downwards out of the respectable life, crime or moral misconduct is another, broader and more certain route. Respectability is the collective internalisation, by the lower orders, of an image of the 'ideal life' held out for them by those who stand higher in the scheme of things; it disciplines society from end to end, rank by rank. Respectability is therefore one of the key values which dovetails and inserts one social class into the social image of another class. It is part of what Gramsci called the 'cement' of society.
"Work is not only the guarantee of working-class respectability, it is also a powerful image in its own right. We know how much our social and indeed personal identities are caught up with our work, and how men (especially men, given the sexual division of labour) who are without work, feel not only materially abandoned but spiritually decentred. We know in fact that this is the product of an extremely long an arduous process of historical acculturation: all that is involved in the erection, alongside the birth fo capitalism, of the Protestant Ethic, and all that was involved in the insertion of the labouring industrial masses into the rigorous disciplines of factory labour. Work has gradually come to be regarded more as 'instrumental' than as 'sacred', as manual labour under capitalism is disciplined by the wage contract; leisure, or rather all that is associated with non-work and with the private sphere, has come to rank even higher than once it did in the hierarchy of social goods, as family and home have been progressively distanced from work. Yet, for men above all, the workaday world of work, and the formal and informal values associated with it, seem in many ways coterminous with the definition of 'reality' itself. And this, though endowed with extremely powerful ideological content reflects a material fact: without work, the material basis of our lives would vanish overnight. What matters here, with respect to crime, however, is not so much the centrality of work, and our feelings about it, as what we might call the calculus of work. The calculus of work implies the belief that, though work may have few intrinsic rewards and is unlikely to lead to wealth, prosperity and riches for the vast majority, it provides one of the stable negotiated bases for our economic existence: a 'fair day's wage for a fair day's work'. It also entails the belief that the valued things - leisure, pleasure, security, free activity, play - are a reward for the diligent application to long-term productive goals through work. The former come after, and as the result of, or recompense for, the latter.
"Of course, some professional crime could, technically, be seen as 'work' of a kind, and there are certainly testimonies by professional criminals which would support such an interpretation. But few people would see it that way. The sharpest distinction is made between the professional or organised life of crime, and the petty pilfering and 'borrowing' from one's place of work, which is regarded as a customary way of setting a funamentally exploitative economic relation to right, and is thus not understood as 'crime' in the ordinary sense at all. Crime, in the proper sense, when involving robbery or rackets for gain, is set off against work in the public mind, precisely because it is an attempt to acquire by speed, stealth, fraudulent or shorthand methods what the great majority of law-abiding citizens can only come by through arduous toil, routine, expenditure of time, and the postponement of pleasure. It is through this contrast that some of the most powerful moral feelings come to be transferred against deviants who trhive and prosper, but do not work. One of the most familiar ways in which the moral calculus of work is recruited into attitudes to social problems is in the way people talk about 'scroungers', 'layabouts', those who 'don't do a stroke' or 'live off the Welfare'. The characterisations are often applied indiscriminately, and without much evidence, to various 'out-groups': the poor, the unemployed, the irresponsible and feckless - but also youth, students and black people. These are seen as getting something without 'putting anything into it'. The image implies instant moral condemnation. At the same time it is important to remember that again, a real, objective material reality is distortedly expressed in these negative images of the 'scrounger' and the layabout. For the vast majority of working people, there is absolutely no other route to a minimal degree of security and material comfort apart from the life-long commitment to 'hard graft'. It must be remembered that this feeling that 'everyone should earn what he gets by working for it' also informs working class feelings about the very wealthy, or those who live on unearned incomes, or accumulate large pieces of property, or about the unequal distribution of wealth. There is evidence that what is sometimes called a 'pragmatic acceptance' of the present unequal distribution of wealth is matched by an equally strong feeling that there is something intrinsically wrong and exploitative about it. So sentiments stemming from the prevailing 'work calculus' have their progressive aspect too, though they are often used to underpin root conservative attitudes to all who transgress it.
"Another social image with special importance for public ideologies of crime has to do with the need for social discipline - and with England as a disciplined society. Once again, there are different versions of this very general social idea across the different class cultures; the idea is interpreted and applied differently within different cultural systems of meaning, while retaining sufficient common elements to appear to carry a more universal validity. The idea of a 'disciplined society' is enshrined in popular mythology - the whole nation 'at prayer' having been long ago supplanted by the whole nation in an orderly queue. It is especially strong at those high points of popular history, like 'the War', where a country of free individuals 'pulled itself together' to defeat the enemy. The 'discipline' of English society is not the rigorously organised tyranny of the bureaucratic or regimented state, but that 'self-discipline', flexible yet tenacious, while holds the nation together from the inside when it is under stress. In the English ideology, 'discipline' is always linked and qualified by an opposing tendency which tempers its authoritarian harshness: in the upper classes, the idea of discipline and anarchism (as caricatured, for example, in the roles played by John Cleese in the television comedy series, Monty Python's Flying Circus). Lower down the social scale, discipline is often qualified by the image of a sort of petty-bourgeois 'anarchy' (as, for example, in post-war Ealing comedies or Dad's Army). However, the capacity of popular mythology to counter or qualify the respect for 'social discipline' in these ways does not mean that it is not a strong sentiment - only that it is held, like so many other traditional social values, in a peculiarly British way, and with a very special English sense of irony.
"The traditional idea of social discipline is closely linked, on the one hand, with notions about hierarchy and authority. Society is hierarchical, in the dominant view, by nature. Competitive success may promote individuals up through this hierarchy, but does not destroy the notion of a hierarchical order itself. But the hierarchy, in turn, depends upon the giving and taking of authority. And the exercise of authority, both on the part of those who exercise it, and of those who give obedience to it, requires discipline. This trinity - the hierarchical nature of society, the importance of authority and the acclimatisation of the people to both through self-discipline - forms a central complex of attitudes. In this version of the dominant social image, indiscipline is seen as a threat both to the hierarchical conception of the social order and to the exercise of 'due authority' and deference; it is thus the beginnings, the seed bed, of social anarchy.
"[T]he three social image clusters we have so far discussed - respectability, work and discipline - are inextricably connected with the fourth image: that of the family.
"In the traditionalist lexicon, the sphere of the family is of course where moral-social compulsions and inner controls are generated, as well as the sphere where the primary socialisation of the young is first tellingly and intimately carried through. The first aspect has to do with the repression and regulation of sexuality - the seat of pleasure - in the family nexus; and thus with authority. The second has to do with the power which the family has, through its intimate exchanges of love and anger, punishment and reward, and the structure of patriarchty, to prepare children for a competitive existence, work and the sexual division of labour. The family, too, is a complex social image; different forms, functions and habits may be found in the different social classes. Thus the structures of sexual identity and repression within the working-class family, though in some respects reproducing the dominant stuctures of sex roles in the organisation of the family, are also profoundly shaped by the material experiences of the class - the construction of practices and a definition of 'masculinity' and masculine work and values in the world of production which are transposed into the sexual organisation of the family. Similarly, the apparently cross-class conception of the family as 'refuge' carries a particular weight and intensity when the world from which the family froms a 'refuge' is the daily experience of class exploitation in production and work. But the 'sense of family' is a strong value because it is an absolutely pivotal social institution. Few would deny its central role in the construction of social identities, and in transmitting, at an extremely deep level, the basic ideological grid of society. Family ideology is undoubtedly also changing; and we have learned to think of the family, also, in more positive, less punitive terms. But, when we come 'right down to it', the dominant image of the family - perhaps across classes - still has more to do with the duty of instilling a basic understanding of fundamental 'do's and don'ts' than it does of providing a mutually sustaining and releasing framework. Love is what we hope and pray will emerge from the family, but disciplining, punishing, rewarding and controlling is what we seem actually to do in it a great deal of the time. Reich, with some justification, calls it a 'factory for creating submissive people'. And, as we have come to see, the fundamental images of authority, power and discipline, aloong with the primary origins of what Giles Playfair calls 'the punitive obsession', are experienced and internalise first within its tiny kingdom. The alignment of the sexual and the social - a fundamental task of the family - is just the homology of structures which creates inside us those repertoires of self-discipline and self-control for which, later, the wider world is to be so thankful. It is little wonder, then, that fears and pancis about the breakdown of social discipline - of which crime is one of the most powerful indices - centre on the indiscipline of 'youth', 'the young', and on those institutions whose task it is to help them internalise social discipline - the school, but above all, the family."
- Stuart Hall et al, Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order, Macmillan, 1978, pp. 140-5