Obviously I’m pleased, not to mention surprised, to see my book reviewed in a national newspaper that isn’t the Morning Star. Without wishing to sound ungracious, though, it is mildly exasperating to see the review uncritically reflect the idea that using Big Words makes the writing ‘over-done’ and ‘in thrall to the strangulated cult-studs vernacular’. I do know what John Harris means by the latter term, of course, and I will write at a later point about the regrettable tension that seems to occur in a lot of contemporary writers, invariably ones on the left, between the wish to make one’s writing easily understood and the fear of sounding overly simplistic. The latter, incidentally, often seems to be fuelled by a feeling that, in order to be taken seriously by a small potential readership whom one has been conditioned to regard as cultural and academic gatekeepers, one needs to somehow ‘prove oneself’ by larding one’s prose with gobbets of Žižekian sophistry, lest one stand accused of being low-brow or naïve or Owen Jones or something.
The thing is that these words don’t strike me as ‘big words’ when I’m thinking or writing them, they simply strike me as the most appropriate words to use. I also dislike repeating words, and so I use a lot of words which mean similar things but which I guess might grow progressively more outlandish until the book ends up describing 90s popular culture as ‘atavistic’ rather than simply ‘backwards-looking’. Sorry about that, I guess? Ironically enough though, the review goes on to cite ‘those great pop-cultural intellectuals’ the Manic Street Preachers, whose lyrics were nothing if not a strangulated vernacular of their own. For good or ill, the Manics, in their encouragement of reading and general cultural immersion as a cure for small-town boredom and alienation, were far more of an influence on my subsequent vocabulary than some nebulous villain called Cult-Studs.
So here’s a question. Is vocabulary now considered a class signifier? Does understanding, and using, ‘big words’, mark you out as someone who cannot belong to ‘the ordinary’, ‘the normal’, the demographic conveniently delineated by external commentators as ‘working class’? Or is it the case that one’s socio-economic background does not preclude one having an expansive vocabulary? Might one have gained a knowledge of ‘big words’ from, uh god I don’t know, reading books and reading broadsheets, despite where one was brought up? And does knowing ‘big words’ mean you can never be categorised as ‘working class’? Continue reading
I write this without even attempting to address the tangled canopy of class under which the above play unravels. There is very little new under the twentieth- and twenty-first-century sun, not least the withdrawal in disgust from engagement with the whole system of parliamentary party politics. I find this tendency more in erstwhile members of the Labour Party, myself included, than anywhere else.
So often Labour seems to exist only in negative terms: as an entity at once, depending on who you ask, too centrist, too militant, too bureaucratic, too in hock to focus-groups, trade unions, spin doctors, Scotsmen, businessmen, Bennites, Blairites, castigated from so many angles for its invariable failure at any one time to be precisely what a given individual within it might desire it to be, that it’s frankly astonishing that the party in government got anything done at all. (And on a probably myopic, material level, it did, from the NHS to the minimum wage – yes, ameliorated capitalism, concessions wrung like blood out of a stone, but notable improvements to the lives of working people all the same. It’s not as though we aren’t going to miss them when they’re gone.)
The party has always been, to a great extent, held together by surface tension. Its history is a brittle ballet of compromise and pragmatism – which equals selling out – versus purism and idealism – which equals getting nowhere. I suspect each of these scenarios suits some proponents of each set of watchwords just fine. The ‘right kind’ of Labour Party has never wholly existed, has always existed more as a series of competing fantasy constructs, of potential parties never quite made real. And, like its kindergarten the National Union of Students, the party has always seemed more serviceable as a vehicle for advancing individual careers than for furthering the interests of collectives. It’s not as though this critique has only been crystallised post-Blair, although admittedly the post-Blair party appears so risibly, shamefully hollowed-out, in terms of ideology, passion and commitment, that it looks lost for good.
A machine of perpetual disillusion, then, sure, but, whether stemming from self-interest, tradition, sentiment or principle, a residual and almost utopian – read: naive, deluded if you like – faith in what the party could be is very hard to shift. This post was brought on, obviously, by last week’s bravura turn by Owen Jones on Question Time, and his subsequent invocation of the ghosts of Labour past. I think Owen Jones in the wrong party, but mostly I’m fucked if I know what the right party is any more.
I find this article as a whole too blustery and otherwise wrong-headed to actually like, but the following snippet does a useful job of prising open the discourse around ‘scroungers’ versus The Respectable Poor, in picking up on the kind of reactions which need to be progressively engaged with and challenged from a position of understanding rather than superior, usually class-inflected dismissal, both here and, it seems, in the US. NB I don’t, obviously, think that the problems here expressed began with an article in Salon.
“Before that article in Salon, this mother was allowed to believe that her staying off the dole had some honor in itself– some validation of her identity– and it allowed her to survive her hardships. Now she is forced to swallow that these people are not merely as good as her, but more valuable– they get an article, they get defenders like you, they are praised for their intrinsic human value, and all she gets is mocked, belittled, “she’s too stupid to know what’s good for her!”– all she can do is comment on their life– and her small act of rebellion is to at least use the space to tell the world she exists. Rage is her defense that keeps her intact while the world seemingly ignores her.”
(Yeah, this is how I like to spend my Saturday afternoons.)
I had only one real beef with the excellent Paul Mason’s most recently printed reflection on ‘the graduate without a future’, but it’s the same beef I have with almost every recent lamentation on the state we’re in: lack of attention to class as key. Given Mason’s interesting and not especially privileged background, it seemed a particularly surprising omission. While of course I appreciated the article’s update on how there’s still no future, but there might be some putative entrepreneurial ‘survival in the cracks’, stringing beads together on a collective farm then selling them through The New Inquiry (I paraphrase) – it’s still the case that all graduates are not created equal, and some are still more equal than others. Correct me if I’m wrong (really, do correct me if I’m wrong), but while very, very obviously, it’s still shit to be a graduate right now, surely it’s marginally more shit to be a poor graduate?
Take the Coalition’s recent wheeze, the proposed cut in Housing Benefit for those under 25, which has been widely predicted to herald jobless or low-paid graduates being thrown back to live on the largesse of their parents, or failing that, on their settee. Is there really no discernable difference in the future that awaits a graduate returning to a post-industrial unemployment blackspot, and that awaiting one whose family are able and willing to subsidise their rent and support them while they work unpaid internships? Those graduating with wealth and connections are surely likely to retain their privileges? Take, too, the withdrawal of EMA and cutting of university funding, which is serving to entrench the idea of education as something undesirable because unaffordable, not something which can serve as a route out of poverty and a broadening of horizons.
Also, as several people stressed below the line on Mason’s article, this focus on the plight of the graduate – pitiable, emblematic, and potentially revolutionary as it may be – is part of a broader narrative whereby conditions which have always been likely for those at the socio-economic sharp end are becoming something to which the middle class, and their graduating sons and daughters, are increasingly exposed. The resulting shrieks of indignation are amplified in the media. While it’s true and valid to note that the current economic model is visibly failing, there are those for whom it has never really worked, and whose struggles with it scarcely ever receive broadsheet coverage. In the grand scheme of things, and especially right now, I’m not sure whether this is too insignificant a complaint to make, or whether it’s the only complaint worth making.
Chav, n. British slang (derogatory). “In the United Kingdom (originally the south of England): a young person of a type characterized by brash and loutish behaviour and the wearing of designer-style clothes (esp. sportswear); usually with connotations of a low social status.”
– Oxford English Dictionary
1. The C word
If ‘cunt’ is reportedly losing its power to shock or offend, don’t worry, other c-words are available. ‘Class’, for instance, appears to have become unsuitable for use in polite society these days, while ‘Chav’ has never been so commonplace in the respectable parlance of those who would never dream of using any other c-word so blithely. Owen Jones’ book Chavs, a welcome and necessary analysis of the latter phenomenon, identifies it as a culture ‘created and then mercilessly lampooned by the middle-class, rightwing media and its more combative columnists’, and examines the word’s place in current political and cultural discourse in the context of a simultaneous narrowing of socio-economic opportunity. Continue reading