By Daniel Margrain
During my teenage years through to my mid-20s (roughly 1975-1985), people in the north of England and Scotland always appeared to me to be far more class conscious than those of us down south. This admittedly anecdotal geographical distinction can probably, in part, be explained in terms of how, historically, the development of modern capitalism tended to result in higher relative concentrations of heavy industry in the former compared to the latter.
But can it be inferred from my anecdotal observation that the UK population during the early 1980s, in general, were more class conscious than they are today? It would appear not. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey, “the proportions of people identifying as working and middle class, and the perception that a person’s class affects their opportunities have remained stable since the early 1980s.”
So what’s going on?
One key issue that has resulted in a dramatic shift in attitudes over the last few decades is the extent to which the perception of class relates to welfare:
“In 1984 measures of social class such as economic status, socio-economic group and income level had strong correlations with both welfare and liberal attitudes. For example, lower socio-economic groups were more likely to support increased government taxation and spending … In 2012, although there is a relatively high continuity, there are some indications that class has declined in importance.”
The BSAS survey would appear to reinforce the widely held notion that working class attitudes to people on benefits have hardened over the last three decades as the harshness of neoliberalism has kicked in.
Many workers display, at best, an ambivalent and at worst, a morally superior attitude towards other working class people who they regard as being lower on the socioeconomic scale than they are. In the more extreme cases, this has manifested in violence directed against immigrants and disabled people on the streets of Britain.
The obvious corollary of this set of relationships, is that rather than the prospect of the poor uniting outwardly as one against the forces that oppress them, many instead turn inward by attacking others in similar situations to themselves. Implicit in this, is the notion that the ruling class, through the implementation of the classic divide and conquer tactic, seek to weaken working class resistance to their politics of cruelty.
The way the ruling class achieve this is by shifting the public’s perception of the importance of class understood objectively in terms of the relationship workers have to the means of production, towards their acceptance of its re-definition, subjectively, as an occupation and lifestyle category.
The corporate media is deeply complicit in this process. Mass consumption and corporate advertising reinforce the notion that subjective lifestyle choices supplant class as the overriding driving force in society. Consequently, instead of the perception that individuals are part of a broader collective schema identifiable as an objective class-based stratified system, they are made to feel powerless and their lives absent of tangible meaning.
Retail therapy, embodied in consumption, is the form of displacement activity preferred by the establishment as their method of ensuring the working class is contained. The role retail therapy plays in the transformation of the citizen from political actor to passive consumer and subject, is crucial to the process of negating collective class-based mobilizations and revolutionary impulses.
Following the obliteration of the concept of the working class, the need for overt forms of oppression are correspondingly minimized. This is where the corporate mass media comes into its own. The celebrity lifestyles of the rich and famous and other forms of ‘infotainment’ whose purpose is to encourage the masses to consume, fill the gap left over by ‘news’.
It’s hard to disagree with journalist Jonathan Cook who said that consumers “are being constantly spun by the media machine that’s the modern equivalent of “soma”, the drug in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World that its citizens were fed to keep them docile and happy.”
Thus, under such circumstances, the use of violence by the state against its subjects is unnecessary. The creation of a passive and docile public is the ‘secret’ that lays behind the ability of governments’ to engender an overarching false sense of social stability.
Crucially, a ‘successful’ totalitarian democracy is one in which the ruling class manages to convince a significant amount of its working class minions that what defines them as human beings, is not the extent to which they may, or may not, exercise collective economic control over the productive resources of society, but rather the extent to which they are able to engage them politically by way of the individual choices they make as consumers.
The ruling class have succeeded in their propaganda by deliberately separating out the economic and political spheres. The strategy serves an ideological purpose predicated on an illusion. The illusion is that the granting of political rights matters.
Unlike formal authoritarian regimes, their formal democratic counterparts understand the important role the use of language plays in terms of the ability of the ruling class to sustain this illusion.
In this sense, formal dictators have largely failed to grasp that it’s not necessary to engage in traditional methods of oppression in order to maintain control of the levers of the state. In other words, they have largely failed to understand that ‘successful’ thought control reduces the need for tanks, guns and torture.
Far better from the perspective of the ruling class to create the illusion of freedom by legislating for the right of the masses to demonstrate, politically, outside the Ritz while simultaneously convincing them of the parallel illusion that economically they will be able to join with the ranks of the elite class on the inside if only they were to work hard enough.
It’s precisely the perpetuation of this myth that, for example, continues to sustain a post-Mandela South Africa apartheid state reconfigured from a system based on politics-race to one based on economics. The South Africa example illustrates, vividly, the fact that granting the political right of the masses to vote and demonstrate does nothing to fundamentally change the underlying uneven economic class structure of society.
Although racist apartheid officially ended decades ago, black people in South Africa proportionately continue to suffer the worst social and economic outcomes. The ideology of aspiration perpetuates a myth that assumes an acceptance by the masses of what Peter Stefanovic aptly referred to as the ruling classes prevailing ‘Downton Abbey’ vision of the world where everybody’s role in society is fixed and follows a set pattern.
This is a regressive colonial faded notion of society in which the ruling class is able to project its power onto the rest of the world. It’s an archaic and retarded vision favoured by the likes of pro-nuclear weapons and fox hunting enthusiast, Theresa May and medievalist racist, Nigel Farage. This prevailing orthodoxy, in other words, is one in which the inherent structure of society is regarded as unchanging and everlasting.
The Conservative party are the embodiment of the notion that the existing class structure is in stasis. The attempt by the political-media establishment to white-wash class as an objective category from public discourse at the expense of the promotion of the cult of aspiration and lifestyle enhancement, is key to their ability to control the masses. For how much longer they will be able to continue to fool enough of the people all of the time, remains to be seen.
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