Sunday, November 18, 2007

Full Of The Glories Of Their Common Sense

I was recently lent a book by a friend which I'm actually slightly surprised they thought I'd like. It was a kind of reminiscence of a place, an attempt to summarise its singular charm. These sorts of things, when done well, when alive to both what's stifled and what flourishes in a particular social environment, can be good, although now I struggle to think of any that I really like. The risk, always, always, is that, as Rousseau put it, chains end up being gilded with flowers; that a kind of unreflective nostalgia kicks in, and a given social milieu is presented as a pictureseque, organic whole, with all happily playing their appointed roles in its totally natural heirarchies. Marx had his fun with this, and I see no reason why I ought to put up with it more than a hundred and fifty years later. A book whose text begins with the masking of a justification for political subordination - masked because by showing its face it'd fall apart, as it creates the conditions of its own justification - as a page-long and not very funny joke at the expense of the fatalistic political niavety of the working class, and, more, the working class in the presence of their betters, is one I am hardly likely to enjoy.

What is objectionable here is the reification of contingent and idealised social relations, that of the prole, incapable by virtue of an innocent stupidity of occupying any position other than supplication to their masters, and an elite, motivated by a laughing noblesse oblige to provide an overarching guidance to their less fortunate subjects, to structure their lives so as to avoid exposing them to the consequences of their foolishness. That sense of entitlement - entitlement which of course relies on characteristics it itself produces for its justification - is, I think we could pretty safely say, an important part what drives my politics: in true Republican style, I want its total and utter eradication from the world, which must be a quite vain goal. It's why, for example, last Saturday night, when I saw two groups of young men, clearly all drunk, squaring up to one another in the street, I thought, 'if anyone's going to get a kicking, I hope it's the bastards wearing dinner jackets' - which of course isn't to say that I hoped anyone did get a kicking; one can consistently oppose the death penalty and think that if we are going to judicially murder someone, it would be preferrable that it were some rather than others. Or why, despite thinking that the state ought to be neutral between competing conceptions of the good, I am quite happy to justify banning foxhunting on what are effectively class-war grounds; and more than that, am suspicious of the politics of people who don't think that class-war grounds are good ones for banning foxhunting. After all, no feudal society could be just, and its remnants should be torn out root and branch.

The connection there, that at least part of our justification for banning foxhunting is its undeniable connections with patterns of class and status distinction, and the barriers that those patterns put up to the achievement of something looking like justice, their distorting effects on the distribution of social power, both directly, through controlling access to positions of advantage, and indirectly, as means of structuring aspiration, is crucial. Unfortunately, though, if anything, I think that sense of entitlement is on the advance. It's very difficult to tell - without engaging in much more serious research than I can really bothered with - whether this is an effect of advancing age and consequent distance from the concerns of eighteen year-old living away from home for the first time, or the objective observation of an actual trend, but undergraduates seem posher and less ashamed of it than when I was an one. I've even heard stories from older hands than me which lead me to believe that there was even a time in the dim and distant past when cross-dressing had not been co-opted as a kind of reinforcement of conservative gender roles by misogynist homophobes and admitting to being a member of a drinking society was tantamount to social death; when Boris f*cking Johnson had to pretend to be a supporter of the SDP to get elected President of the Oxford Union.

Of course, I am willing to admit that I go a little far. It doesn't seem to be entirely fair to more or less write off the suburbs as an institution of bought-off, deadened acquiesence, but I doubt that that's really going to stop me doing it. Equally, so much of what is brilliant about English pop music - and it is English - is driven precisely by what is so loathsome about the English class system, and indeed perhaps its particular manifestation in what I see as the basic emptiness of suburbia. Pulp, for example, with Jarvis' persistent intertwining of sexual and political ennui over what in a way sounds like a kind of perverted lift music, or Suede's desperate cracked glamour, again with the inability to prevent sexual politics and a broader set of concerns from leaching into each other; these are compensations, a sort of sublimation of a more obviously political rage, a way of speaking about it without speaking about it, and in that vein my recent discovery of The Long Blondes - thanks, El - in a way answers this demand. But still, that march of a sense of entitlement, a common sense that is neither common nor makes very much sense, I think explains much of the background to that demand. Where are our glories?


Phil said...

I am quite happy to justify banning foxhunting on what are effectively class-war grounds; and more than that, am suspicious of the politics of people who don't think that class-war grounds are good ones for banning foxhunting

Quite. I can never understand the people (some of them on the Left) who say You're only opposing it because people enjoy it - and think they've made a point.

Ben said...

Obviously we both lived through the 80s, but were too young to appreciate it. I'd be interested to know what people thought of the yuppies and such - e.g. whether they signalled the rise of meritocracy and if not exactly end of the class system at least its reorganization. Obviously the obsession with money and consumerism was something many attacked (Gang of Four, Heaven 17, etc) but on the other hand it seems like more optimism may have been justifiable...

Rob Jubb said...


the Gang of Four are perhaps a bit over the top, but then they are named after the Gang of Four, blamed for the Cultural Revolution, so you'd expect that really. I doubt, though, that many of the vast reserve army of the unemployed and causalised that Thatcher deliberately created thought that there being yuppies was meritocratic or in much sense an improvement.


yeah, exactly. If we think the fact that torturers enjoy doing it does not really tell in favour of torture, I'm not really sure why a practice which involves the brutal killing of an animal and is transparently tied up with class should be more acceptable because people like it.

Ben said...

I just meant I could at least see why those in the 80s might reasonably expect the class system as they knew it to be changing, so it's understandable that their concerns were actually somewhat different.

And, compared to that, mainstream 90s indie/Brit-pop (I'm thinking more like Blur, Oasis, Dodgy) never appeared particularly class-conscious or even political, beyond promoting a vague sense of optimistic patriotism harnessed by New Labour.