By Daniel Margrain
Defined in the objective Marxist sense, class is an historical constant. However, the extent to which workers, historically, are conscious of their class and its potential power in helping to shape and transform society, is dependent upon prevailing socioeconomic circumstances.
The long demand-led economic boom which had gathered pace during the 1950s in Britain, alongside the developments in the welfare state and the growth in power of social democratic discourses of meritocracy, had led to the emergence of a new social formation of better educated, assertive and frustrated, younger people who wanted to see the stuffiness of a system based upon status and respect shift into a meritocratic environment.
The social realism and British new wave movements in film-making that emerged from the optimism generated after the 1950 Festival of Britain and its espousal of new technologies, produced talents of the stature of Ken Loach, Jack Clayton, Tony Richardson, Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger and Lindsay Anderson. All of these directors produced memorable films whose cinematic themes reflected the deep underlying societal shifts of the time, indicative of the new meritocratic scene in which the working class were largely at the forefront.
As the post-war consensus between capital and labour began to ebb away and be replaced by the growing inequality of the neoliberal years from the mid-1970s onwards, so the confidence of the working class began to recede also. Whereas identifying as working class during the 1960s opened up opportunities, by the 1980s, the perception was that class negatively impacted on them.
As the British Social Attitudes Survey indicate, the 1980s marked a low point from which the working class haven’t recovered. One particularly depressing shift over the last few decades that the survey highlights, is the extent to which the perception of class relates to welfare. The survey states:
“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.”
Many workers today display, at best, an ambivalent and at worst, a morally superior attitude towards other working class people – usually immigrants and those on benefits – who they regard as being in some way inferior to them. In extreme cases, this has manifested in violence directed against these groups on the streets of many British towns and cities.
These behaviour traits are consistent with the BSAS survey above which 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.
The obvious inference that can be made, 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 they 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 latter process. Instead of workers self-identifying as being part of a broad objective class-based stratified system, they are encouraged, through mass consumption and corporate advertising campaigns, to buy things they don’t need with money they haven’t got. In this way, retail therapy embodied in consumption, becomes a form of displacement activity.
This in turn, reinforces the notion that the working class are best defined by the subjective lifestyle choices they make thereby ensuring class consciousness is minimized. The role retail therapy plays in the transformation of the citizen from political actor to passive consumer, is crucial to the process of negating collective class-based mobilizations and revolutionary impulses.
The subtle form of media propaganda described which attempts to obliterate the concept of the working class, correspondingly reduces the need for overt forms of state oppression. As Noam Chomsky put it, “propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state.” In this sense, formal dictators have largely failed to understand that ‘successful’ thought control reduces the need for tanks, guns and torture.
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.”
Crucially, a ‘successful’ totalitarian democracy is one in which the ruling class manages to convince a significant amount of ordinary people that what defines them as human beings, is not the extent to which they are able to exercise collective economic control over the productive resources of society, but rather the extent to which they are engaged politically in terms of the individual choices they make as consumers.
Separating the economic & political
The ruling class have succeeded in their myth-making by deliberately separating the economic and political spheres. The strategy serves an ideological purpose predicated on the illusion 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 an illusion of freedom. They succeed in this totalitarian image-making by metaphorically 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 work hard enough.
It’s precisely the perpetuation of this myth that continues, for example, to sustain a post-Mandela South Africa reconfigured from a system based on politics and 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 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.
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, lifestyle enhancement and identity politics, is key to their ability to control the masses.
However, what Jeremy Corbyn’s relative electoral success indicates, is a class re-awakening. The days in which the political establishment are able to use the corporate media as their propaganda echo chamber, is coming to an end. But, as Theresa May’s recent meeting with Emmanuel Macron highlights, the ruling class will do their utmost to resist the threat social media poses to their control of the flow of information.
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