Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Class and common sense

I haven't read Owen Jones' new book, Chavs, which is garnering rave reviews in the press, but we know the problem that it addresses. Briefly that, in the last generation or so, there has been a conscious effort on the part of the ruling class to obliterate class as a political-ideological category, and a basis for political action. And, concurrent with this there has been a rise in more or less explicit forms of class chauvinism, some of it expressed in the obnoxious ideologeme, 'chavs'. Only an era which has revived Victorian attitudes concerning 'respectability' and the 'deserving poor', in which poverty is habitually pathologised and 'wealth creators' extolled, could we have a flesh and blood Etonian of royal pedigree in Number Ten. Over the last dozen or so years, there has been a substantial rise in inegalitarian political attitudes, a drop in support for redistribution and, confluently, a more modest but real drop in the number of people who think of themselves as being 'working class'.

It is axiomatic that public attitudes are complex, with clusters of seemingly contradictory attitudes expressed on the same subject. The most recent social attitudes survey (British Social Attitudes, 27th report) confirms this with its mixed bag of results giving socialists reasons to cheer and mourn. But this is banal, what we would expect. The question is in what overall direction does the balance of these composite attitudes tend; in what direction is the trend over time? The authors of the survey find that on such matters as welfare, poverty and wealth redistribution the public has shifted to the right and ascribe this to New Labour's tenure in office. Most interesting for my purposes, though, are the findings on the 'race to the top'. These findings disclose a set of attitudes which in the relevant ideological struggles would tend to favour the right. They find that most people think of themselves as upwardly mobile, and believe that 'meritocratic' factors such as "hard work" are the most decisive in determining one's success (as compared with 'ascriptive' factors such as class, or race).

When you consider that this is not merely debatable but absurd, that hard work is very far from being a more important factor in success than class background (or race, gender, etc), it becomes apparent just how much ideological ground work has had to be done to construct this 'common sense' worldview, and how much the constituents of this 'common sense' had to compete with and displace every day experience. Of course, there are classically reformist attitudes expressed in there, with majorities feeling that the rich are paid too highly (even if they underestimate just how much the rich are paid). This is why, when an actual tax increase on the rich is proposed and implemented (the 50p rate), it is widely popular. But this is still in a context in which only a minority explicitly support redistributionist policies, and in which the tax was represented not as redistribution but purely as 'fairness' - as in the rich paying a 'fair share' of the burden of the recession. A more serious objection, perhaps, is that the answers to such questions would likely reflect aspiration, or self-justification, rather than literal truth-claims. People say 'hard work' got them where they are, or will get them where they want to be, because it seems to validate their efforts. To say otherwise seems disempowering. They don't literally believe such things. Yet, this is precisely the point. If people find validation in rightist nostrums, then to an extent they have come to inhabit the values of the right. In the same way, there are all sorts of reasons why someone might say "we are too soft on crime", but such utterances necessarily belong to the symbolic territory of reactionary-authoritarianism, and the person reproducing them is treading that territory.

So, what does it mean when majorities inhabit this ideology of 'meritocracy', even with qualms? First of all, we are speaking here of a 'common sense', that is a "mass popular philosophy", consisting largely of ways of seeing that are 'traditional' rather than 'organic': people believe it because it is something that people have believed for some time; because people with authority say it is true; because one's peers have born witness to it; because it makes a certain sense of one's efforts; because in the past such beliefs have served 'people like us' well. Not all of these are bad reasons to believe a thing. Common sense is ideological, and ideologies, as Gramsci said, "'organize' human masses, they form the terrain on which men move, acquire consciousness of their position, struggle, etc.". Common sense has an "imperative character", producing "norms of conduct", and is thus formative of the political situations we struggle in. We operate on common sense, some of whose constituents are progressive - "The personality is strangely composite: it contains Stone Age elements and principles of a more advanced science, prejudices from all past phases of history at the local level and intuitions of a future philosophy which will be that of a human race united the world over" - as part of our efforts to develop a new 'good sense'.

The meritocratic 'common sense' is one which we, of course, have to work on. It contains certain tensions, and the reality will never live up to its ideal. So we may occasionally attack layabout Lords and monarchs, 'funemployed' rich kids, and so on, as such things defy the common sense that one does and should get ahead through 'hard work'. Yet we mainly have to work against it. For to believe that, even if one is not well off, then with sufficient hard work one can be, is to believe something about the market, about the creation of wealth and about the relative abilities of one's fellow human beings. It is to believe that market distribution is broadly reflective of effort, that wealth is mainly accumulated by those who contribute the most (thus chairmen work harder than cleaners), and people are naturally very unequal in their abilities. If you believe the system itself is basically meritocratic, even with some significant problems in need of reform, this introduces a bias in your thinking that may lead you to resent scapegoated minorities such as Muslims, single mothers, the unemployed, immigrants and others who appear (because the popular press says so) to get more help than you do, thus partially explaining your failure to enjoy more success than you have. It would also lead you to think that those who do not work are 'cheating' - if they only worked hard, they could get ahead, but instead they choose to waste idle hours while draining taxpayers' money. The bottom 20% of households with no one in employment, no car, no mortgaged property, no savings, etc., are thus pathologised as 'shameless' (tm) wasters, redeemable if at all through missionary work, or police intervention. This is not say that majorities hold the ideas I have outlined as potential corollaries of the meritocratic credo - but significant minorities appear to, and they do so in spite of their basic absurdity and apparent contradiction with other ideas that the same people say they hold.

The 'Chavs' phenomenon condenses many of the themes of this savage creed. It charges poor people with getting ideas above their station, with being feckless and irresponsible with money, tasteless, stupid, drunk, thuggish, and barbaric. In the guise of lewd satire, celeb-bashing and tart social commentary, it gives us a hit of class hatred. It references, and caricatures, the outward signs of social problems such as poverty, alcoholism, bad education and so on, but does so in the manner of a taxonomising anthropologist or zoologist, naturalising these very signs as qualities of a particular social sub-species: here a 'pramface', there a 'Croydon facelift', and mark the Burberry and inauthentic branded wear. The 'chav' is a folk devil, the quasi-satirical subject of the last decade's repeated moral panics about the 'underclass': nightmare neighbours, feral youths, ASBO kids, and so on. It is the byproduct of a neoliberalised social democracy which, in its acceptance of 'free markets', low taxes, and the language of meritocracy, was unable to directly challenge the growing inequality that, as a consequence of the unimpeded operations of the market, reached new peaks under New Labour. And it was under New Labour, rather than under Thatcher or Major, that the meritocratic 'common sense' was effectively popularised. It was New Labour that shifted the ideological terrain to the right, arguing for right-wing ideas and communicating them far more effectively to popular audiences than the Tories ever could.