Who’s afraid of the working class?
Once, the political elite was gripped by fear and loathing of workers. Now it just loathes them.
Once, the political elite was gripped by fear and loathing of the working classes. Now it just loathes them. In another time, our rulers listened anxiously for the sound of proletarian boots on the march. Now they look down upon the proles as if they were something to be scraped off the bottom of their shoes.
Margaret Hodge, New Labour’s employment minister, marks her white working-class constituents in Barking, east London, eight out of 10 for prejudice and stupidity, claiming that is how many of them might vote for the British National Party in the forthcoming local elections. Denis McShane, a Labour MP from Yorkshire, has sought to update the old divide between the respectable and disrespectable poor, asserting that ‘the number one issue for my constituents in Rotherham is the loutish, often violent, sometimes feral behaviour of different groups in working-class communities’. Perhaps he should rename it the divide between the Chavs and the Chav-nots.
Much the same message about the ignorant, lumpen lower orders is clear in politics away from the UK. In France, for example, commentators claim that the run-up to next year’s presidential election campaign is a contest between Nicolas Sarkozy and the Front National to see which can stoop the lowest to win the supposedly racist votes of the white working class.
In British popular culture, working-class people are now routinely depicted as living low lives in a yob-culture cycle of binge-drinking, obesity, violence, teenage pregnancy and all-round Chavdom. Some are vilified as the undeserving poor living on welfare benefits, others as the undeserving affluent living flash on ‘easy money’ and credit. It would appear that, when they are not despoiling the environment with their big, loud cars or driving twee little shops out of business with their supermarket addiction, they are embarrassing Britain abroad with their appalling table manners and football songs. It seems a wonder any of these dreadful people have the time to entertain the nation by shouting at one another about their lies and infidelities on those daytime television ‘talk’ shows.
Expressions of contempt for ‘ordinary people’ are everywhere, from self-styled “ordinary bloke” Jamie Oliver’s criticisms of the eating habits of ‘white trash’ families, to the latest Lonely Planet travel guide’s description of the ordinary English as obese people who drink too much beer and watch too much TV. Wherever do those Islamic fundamentalists who rant on about our debased British culture get their ideas from?
There is of course nothing new about the abuse of the working classes, from the days when they were known as ‘the great unwashed’ onwards. But there is something different happening today. In the past, the hatred of the sullen masses was motivated by genuine fear, a sense that these people posed a threat to the status quo. First ‘the mob’ and then, more importantly, the movement of organised labour were feared as a force capable of anything. Every time the proletariat stirred itself, in a strike or popular revolt, it sent shockwaves through the system.
Today, the capitalist order faces no such threat from the working class. The labour movement is an empty shell, traditional working-class communities lie atomised and impotent. The worst that the political class fears is that white working-class votes might cost it a few council seats to the BNP – an embarrassment, but hardly the storming of the Winter Palace. Yet working-class people and lifestyles are subject to vituperative attacks.
One striking expression of how things have changed is that New Labour figures are now in the forefront of sermonising about the politics of working-class behaviour. In the past the Labour Party – while often staffed and run by middle-class professionals – saw it as important to maintain its standing as the political representatives of the labour movement. That New Labour leaders no longer feel any such compunction reflects the disappearance of the working class as a distinctive political force with a voice of its own.
Those in authority may worry about what white people in inner cities will do on polling day, and feel afraid to pass a posse of chavs on the street. But they do not fear the working class as a collective force. That is why they feel free to caricature these people with impunity. Look at those extraordinary pictures of Prince William and his pals from the military academy at Sandhurst, all dressed up as cartoon chavs for a party. Strangely, army officer cadets didn’t dress up as striking miners ‘for a laugh’ in the 1980s (unless perhaps those rumours of infiltration of the coalfields were true).
What drives today’s expressions of loathing and contempt is not fear of any threat from the working classes, but anxiety of another variety within the political and cultural elite. It is a self-conscious feeling of insecurity about their own status and sense of purpose in society today. Striking postures against the proles is an exercise in implicit self-flattery. Those looking down are saying that, whatever doubts they might have about their own values and standing, they are better than that. Their aim is to get closer to the moral high ground by standing on those they see as chip-fattened lowlife.
In this sense the new politics of behaviour pioneered by New Labour, with its focus on the apparently uncivilised eating, drinking, smoking and living habits associated with the working class, can be understood as the new form of moral snobbery. The current association of racism with the uncivilised lumpen proletariat is particularly striking in that context. It is worth recalling that, when the politics of race first reared its ugly head in British society, long before mass immigration, it was aimed against the lower orders of white society who were said to be polluting the national and racial stock.
The flipside of this vilification is the attempt by some writers and cultural commentators to patronise the working classes, to put a tick where others put a cross. So they seek to celebrate ‘chavness’, or to romanticise working-class communities, trying to imbue the banalities of life with deeper meaning. This reminds me of the cult of the ‘noble savage’ in earlier times. Once a group like the Highland clans had been defeated, they could safely be patronised and celebrated by their ‘betters’. Now that the working class has been routed as a political force, it can be patted on the head as a cultural artefact. The effect is to reduce the white working class to another group of victims, one more expression of grievance-fuelled identity politics.
Today’s assault on working-class degeneracy only confirms how degenerate the political and cultural elite has become. Far removed from the realities of the life that most people lead, these political leaders cannot even comprehend that there could be good reasons why disaffected working-class voters might be prepared to vote for anybody rather than the established parties. The way that they now condemn the aspiration of millions for a better life as ‘crass consumerism’ or even ‘environmental vandalism’ shows that they live on a different planet.
There is no point trying to romanticise a workaday life, or waxing nostalgic about the good old days of class solidarity. But there is a point in taking a stand against the chav-bashers, who forcefully express the mood of misanthropy and miserabilism among the insecure class at the top of society. It appears that the elite can only justify its own position atop the heap today by looking upon others as a pile of crap. That is what I call loathsome.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
The making of London’s ‘white trash’, by Ed Barrett