This is a second post on Owen Jones‘s Chavs: The Demonization of The Working Class. In my previous post, I focused on the sociopathic aspects of the dominant classes as they proceeded to decimate the British industrial working class.
Jones details at length the policies implements not just by Thatcher and the succeeding conservative government but also by the New Labour governments. But these structural factors were underpinned by ideological constructs that were propagated by a fully complicit media.
From what I can see, based on where I am in the book, Owens points to three such ideological constructs that are widespread in conservative thinking: family fetishism, class denialism and the racialization of the working class as white racist counterculture.
Let me take them in order.
Family fetishism refers to the positioning of the family, as social institution, as the main pillar of society, a structure whose essence should never vary for the sake of social stability. From this point of view, everything begins and ends with the family to which the other institutions are just adjuncts, if not unwanted interlopers. And by family, of course, what is meant is the monogamous, heterosexual, two-parent, middle-class family. In conservative thought, the family has as much place of choice as the individual. The only collective loyalty an individual has should be to his/her family. Needless to say, this conception is completely false. History and world cultures tell us that family structures are a function of power mechanisms, politics and economics. But in conservative thought, the family is this societal invariant aroudn which society revolves.
To give an example (not from Jones’s book), this conception is perfectly illustrated by Robert Heinlein’s puke-worthy novel, Farnham’s Freehold. In the novel, Farnham tries to survive in a post-apocalyptic world controlled by *OMG* BLACKS! who castrate his son, enslave whites and practice cannibalism.
The freehold from the title is the family compound he ends up creating with his family, though only having abandoned his castrated son, and dumped his whiny and aging wife (his daughter conveniently died in childbirth, from an pregnancy out of wedlock, the slut), for a younger and more attractive model. Hugh Farnham is the typical patriarch who sees his duty as only extending to his family (once conveniently recomposed more to his liking… he cheats on his wife with the younger woman during the nuclear explosions… why waste time).
Anyway, take this passage from Jones’s book:
“As the darling of the Tory grass roots, right-wing Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan put it: ‘It follows that you do not end poverty by giving money to the poor; a theory that British welfarism has amply demonstrated over 60 years.’ David Cameron himself welcomed one CSJ report with a highly questionable statement: ‘Families matter because almost every social problem that we face comes down to family stability.’ Not the lack of jobs or class division: ‘family stability’ explains all. If you are less well off, then, it is your behaviour that has to be changed, according to this Tory vision.
These ideas are the foundation stones of Cameron’s semi-apocalyptic vision of ‘Broken Britain’. Social problems affecting particular poor working-class communities are first exaggerated and then portrayed as representative. Each time a tragic incident hit the headlines, Cameron seized on it as evidence.” (77-8)
Of course, the same is never true of incidents involving upper-class individuals who are seen not as representative of a rotten class, but as exceptions.
One could see the same reasoning in Thatcher’s now famous statement that there is no such thing as society, only individuals and their families. This family fetishism then permits to recast socially-induced issues as moral failings tied to families: single-motherhood, divorces, working mothers, too many unruly children with bad manners. All these things point to collapsing family structures, with lack of parental authority over unsocialized children.
And so, the solution to these moral failings is moral discipline, not socio-economic policy. And there are a lot of TV programs dedicated to exposing the moral turpitude of working-class families and individuals. In a typically social Darwinist way, these people belong at the bottom of society because of their lack of middle-class values. And indeed, social classes are now matters of culture, and not socioeconomic status.
That is, when classes are mentioned at all because class denialism is another pillar in the cultural demonization of the Chavs. Class, as socio-economic, life-chance category must be eliminated from the discourse as irrelevant. This was accomplished through (1) the real destruction of the industrial working-class through the elimination of their jobs and devastation of their communities and organizations (such as unions), and (2) the proclamation that “we’re all middle-class now”.
The very idea of the concrete plight of the working-class has been evacuated from the discourse, especially the fact that the conditions in which some working-class individuals and communities face must be attributed not to deliberate policies but turned inwards: their own failures, bad decisions, lack of self-control. After all, if ‘we’re all middle class”, it is because most of us worked to get there. Those left behind are there because of their laziness, fecklessness. They deserve to be where they are and they do not deserve help but control.
The third nail in that coffin is to resurrect the working-class but as a racialized category: the white working-class… the racist throwbacks in a multicultural society:
“Because multiculturalism became the only recognized platform in the struggle for equality, Dr Evans [anthropologist specialized in social class] argues that, on the one hand, we fail to acknowledge ‘the existence of a multi-racial working class’, and on the other, the white is ‘forced to think of themselves as a new ethnic group with their own distinctive culture’. Most dangerously of all, middle-class people have ended up ‘refusing to acknowledge anything about white working class as legitimately cultural, which leads to a composite loss of respect on all fronts: economic, political and social.’
We are rightly encouraged to embrace and celebrate ethnic minority identity, not least as a counterweight to continued entrenched racism. But a racialized ‘white’ working class is not seen as having a place in this classless multiculturalism. There are, after all, no prominent, respected champions for the working class in the way that there are for many minority groups. The interests of working-class ethnic minority people end up being ignored too, because the focus is on building up the ethnic minority middle class by ensuring diversity within the leading professions.” (102)
And of that, the liberal and Labour are guilty. Their turn to identity politics is exactly what is described above. Working class bread-and-butter issues are of no more interest to the progressive groups in the US than they are to New Labour. One needs only remember the mockery and jeers that accompanied Hillary Clinton’s higher scores with the white working class during the 2008 Democratic primary.
One needs only remember that formulation of the future of the Democratic party by a leading progressive bloggers. Replace “middle class values” with “creative class background” and it’s exactly what is mentioned above (although the appeal to rich donors is still solidly there):
“Cultural Shift: Out with Bubbas, up with Creatives: There should be a major cultural shift in the party, where the southern Dems and Liebercrat elite will be largely replaced by rising creative class types. Obama has all the markers of a creative class background, from his community organizing, to his Unitarianism, to being an academic, to living in Hyde Park to shopping at Whole Foods and drinking PBR. These will be the type of people running the Democratic Party now, and it will be a big cultural shift from the white working class focus of earlier decades. Given the demographics of the blogosphere, in all likelihood, this is a socioeconomic and cultural demographic into which you fit. Culturally, the Democratic Party will feel pretty normal to netroots types. It will consistently send out cultural signals designed to appeal primarily to the creative class instead of rich donors and the white working class.”
And finally, I should mention that this seems to me to be main reason why the main critique launched against Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level and their very detailed analysis of the impact of poverty, was that they were ignoring culture, which is assume to explain more about all the negative impacts detailed in the book than social inequality. Because such ideas cannot be allowed into public discourse.