[A-List] UK society: widening inequality

Michael Keaney michael.keaney at mbs.fi
Wed Oct 13 04:03:12 MDT 2004

Lanchester has written pro-Tony stuff before, but has adopted a more
critical tone of late. Mount, the "Tory Marxist", is in fact a Tory
conservative of the kind driven out of the Conservative Party by Thatcher
and, to a certain extent, welcomed by Tony into New Labour but repelled by
the rampant neoliberal "meritocracy" of the Third Way in practice. Max
Hastings is another example of this rare breed. As such they offer often
very perceptive analyses of the UK today notwithstanding their dependency on
Weberian concepts and/or empiricism, coupled with selective readings of
history. [In this respect it is interesting that Mount seems to have adopted
a perspective in some ways derivative of E.P. Thompson.] While having
certain obvious limitations, this review of what is sure to be an important
book (albeit similarly limited) highlights a very real and significant
biproduct of the sort of capitalism promoted by the Blair-Brown axis. Mount
appears to have reached a conclusion similar to that of John Kenneth
Galbraith regarding the "functional" underclass. However functional it might
be, the more surplus that is extracted for the purpose of containing this
growing and increasingly intractable problem will be the inevitable result
of the social structure of accumulation presided over by Tony and Gordon,
and therefore the seeds of that structure's downfall.


Mao meets Oakeshott
John Lanchester
Mind the Gap: The New Class Divide in Britain by Ferdinand Mount
Short Books, 320 pp, £14.99
London Review of Books, vol. 26, no. 20, 21 October 2004

Britain produces an extraordinary amount of commentary, in print, on
television and on radio; so much that the production of opinion can seem to
be our dominant industry, the thing we are best at and most take to. For the
most part, it isn't bad commentary. If the broadsheets were badly written,
if the sermonisers and pundits couldn't speak in coherent sentences, if you
routinely turned the radio on to hear people not making any sense, it would
all be much easier to dismiss. That, though, is not the problem with what
passes for intellectual and political life in Britain. The problem with our
public culture is not that it is low-grade: it is that it is fluent, clear,
coherent, often vividly expressed, and more or less entirely free of fresh
intellectual content. You can go whole weeks reading the broadsheet press
without encountering a new idea; you can listen to hundreds of hours of
broadcast debate and encounter nothing but received wisdoms. The void gapes
at its widest when there is a conspicuous attempt at pretending to fill it:
the frowning politico miming thought as he makes a 'big' speech to set out
policy; the extensively press-released think-tank paper whose main purpose
is to draw attention to itself; the utterly formulaic broadcast debate. You
witness these performances (which is what they are) and you think: I wish
somebody would say something. Because this is the feeling you get about
British public life, a bizarre feeling given how astonishingly much talk
there is, but one which even so goes very deep: you get the feeling that
nobody ever says anything. You watch the television, read the paper, and
wait for somebody to say something . . . and wait . . . and wait . . .

It is in this context that Ferdinand Mount's book Mind the Gap is so
welcome. He has written an essay about class in which it is possible to
disagree with almost every assertion and produce counter-examples for almost
every fact, but which gives the strange, giddy-making sensation that there
is a source of oxygen somewhere in the room. This is in considerable part
because Mount is writing about a real subject - and one of the ways one can
tell it is a real subject is from the general reluctance to discuss it in
public. His brilliant but depressing book offers an analysis of the ways the
working class has been consistently denigrated, disempowered, and 'subjected
to a sustained programme of social contempt and institutional erosion which
has persisted through many different governments and several political
fashions'. This has caused a 'kind of cultural impoverishment', accompanied
by a 'hollowing out' of what Mount unflinchingly calls 'lower-class' life,
leading to 'the sense that the worst-off in this country live impoverished
lives, more so than the worst-off on the Continent or in the United States'.

The first observation to make about this observation is that it is true. Our
Downers - to use Mount's preferred term for the losers in the British class
system - are, by world standards, culturally impoverished. It is difficult
to be precise and non-subjective about this, but there seems to be a genre
of working-class life in England which has no equivalent in the rest of the
developed world. The deprivation in question is not material: we're not
talking about child labour, or anything which by global standards - the
standards of the four billion people who live on less than $4 a day - is
considered absolute poverty. It is difficult to quantify this deprivation,
though Mount does have one or two good examples, such as the fact that 42
per cent of all burglaries happen to 1 per cent of all homes, principally
those belonging to the poor and/or single parents: so the less you have, the
more likely you are to have it stolen.

It is difficult also to discuss this without sounding snobbish; but there
is, clearly, a crisis of value among the poor in Britain - the bottom
decile, or 10 per cent, and perhaps the decile above it. The crisis is
related to the fact that our culture now values only two things, money and
celebrity, and the poor by definition don't have either. As Britain becomes
increasingly meritocratic - which it has, not definitively but
incrementally, for everybody else apart from the poor - it becomes harder
for the poor not to feel that they somehow deserve their poverty. It becomes
harder for everybody else not to feel this, too. As a historian of English
education from 1870 onwards observed:

Now that people are classified by ability, the gap between the classes has
inevitably become wider. The upper classes are, on the one hand, no longer
weakened by self-doubt and self-criticism. Today the eminent know that
success is just reward for their own capacity, for their own efforts, and
for their own undeniable achievement. They deserve to belong to a superior
class . . . As for the lower classes, their situation is different too.
Today all persons, however humble, know they have had every chance. They are
tested again and again . . . if they have been labelled 'dunce' repeatedly
they cannot any longer pretend; their image of themselves is more nearly a
true, unflattering, reflection. Are they not bound to recognise that they
have an inferior status - not as in the past because they were denied
opportunity; but because they are inferior. For the first time in human
history the inferior man has no ready buttress for his self-regard.

That historian is fictional: he is the narrator of Michael Young's 1958
satire The Rise of the Meritocracy. But the only thing significantly off the
mark about his dystopian predictions is that his narrator is saying these
things, as opposed to merely thinking them. Mount's Uppers do, broadly
speaking, think that they have all the things they have because they deserve
them. As for the Downers, it's hard to prove that they have introjected a
sense of their own worthlessness - but you do have to wonder. The evidence
for this is bound to be subjective and anecdotal, but the sheer ugliness and
rage and thwartedness of Downer life, the lack of desire for anything
better - what Nye Bevan called 'poverty of aspiration' - are things anyone
living in urban Britain will often encounter, or witness, or merely drive
past in their German car. One current example is the upsurge in young male
Downer spitting: an ugly and seriously unsanitary habit which reflects the
contempt felt by the spitter by expressing it back at the world, with
interest, in the form of sputum.

The curious thing about this degradation is that there is, if not quite a
consensus that it exists, then at least there are descriptions and
evocations of it from across what passes for the political spectrum. The
Downer world described by 'the Spectator's prole-hating doctor Theodore
Dalrymple' (Ian Sansom's phrase) is the same as that described by the
impeccably liberal Nick Davies in his extensive Guardian reports and his
lid-lifting Dark Heart. Dalrymple blames prole stupidity, Davies blames
poverty, but the hollowed-out world they describe is all too similar. A much
praised website called 'chavscum' is dedicated to chavs, 'Britain's new
peasant underclass' - the term 'chav' being of uncertain origin, though some
say it's a nickname for yob-thronged Chatham. Chavs are conspicuously
yobbish white urban proles, and chavscum, as Mount says, drips with hate,
while claiming to be funny. (Actually, some of it is funny: 'Argos bling'
for cheap jewellery, 'Croydon face-lift' for the ultra-scraped-back hairdo
we South Londoners often admire.) You don't have to agree with any of this
to agree that the social phenomenon being described exists. It's worth
noticing, though, that the book about the Chav phenomenon - Chav! - is
subtitled 'A User's Guide to Britain's New Ruling Class'. In a way, that
categorisation is true, too. Chav styles and mores seem to take up more and
more space in the public sphere, and more and more seem to be a focus of
imitation by non-chavs: baseball caps, tattoos, swearing, spitting,
fighting, calling your children Armani and Lexus. (I wish I had made that
up, but I didn't.)

Are the chavs a ruling class or an underclass? Clearly, the latter, though
they are one to whom everyone is keen to pretend to defer. When John Reid,
the health secretary, was discussing his reasons for not wanting to ban
smoking in public places, he said he 'worried about the unanimity of
middle-class health professionals' on this issue, and wondered what other
sources of pleasure were available to a single mother in a tower block. Note
here: 1. the implicitly derogatory twist to 'middle-class' - no politician
would ever dare to use 'working-class' in a sentence explaining why he was
discounting people's views; 2. that Reid's little cameo ignores the rights
of the single mother's imaginary baby. He evokes the baby as a rhetorical
counter and then acts as if the baby doesn't exist - which is politicians'
Standard Operating Procedure when talking about the poor. But he is right to
be wary. In the last major survey of the issue, two-thirds of all Britons
announced that they consider themselves to be working class; 55 per cent of
social groups ABC1 think that they are working class. In other words, when
considering the issue of our own class, most of us express an inverse
snobbery, and we either lie or are in denial. All this ambivalence and bad
faith adds up to a feeling that issues about class are everywhere in our
society, and at the same time cannot be spoken about, or even thought about,
with candour or clarity.

This is why Mind the Gap has the potential to be an important book. Mount
seems to be that odd, perhaps even unique thing, a Tory Marxist. He doesn't
advocate class war, but he does think that it has taken place in Britain.
His account of how we got here is a passionately argued attack on 'People
Like Us', who, he says, are 'largely responsible for the present state of
the lower classes in Britain. It is our misunderstandings, meddlings and
manipulations which have transformed a working class that was the envy and
amazement of foreign observers in the 19th century into a so-called
underclass which is often the subject of baffled despair today both at home
and abroad.'

The first stage in Mount's argument is to trace how 'the masses' were
invented, or reified, as a consequence of the industrial revolution. Early
modern England had a complex, highly stratified social structure. Mount
quotes a 1688 classification of lords, baronets, knights, esquires,
gentlemen, 'persons in greater and less offices and places, merchants and
traders, lawyers, clergymen and freeholders, farmers, persons in liberal
arts and scientists, shopkeepers and tradesmen, artisans and handicrafters,
and naval and military officers . . . common seamen, labouring people and
servants, cottagers and paupers, common soldiers and finally "Vagrants", as
Gipsies, Thieves, Beggars etc'. All these groups had overlapping,
conflicting and co-operating interests. But the Industrial Revolution, as
interpreted by Marx with 'his ferocious rhetoric, his thundering certainties
and his air of scientific infallibility' made it much simpler to divide
society into two groups: Us and Them, the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie,
ineluctably at war. Mount argues that Marx knew this simplification wasn't
true: he knew it as an economist and a social historian, but he needed it to
be true as a revolutionary warrior:

This simplifying aspect tends to be taken as read, to be treated as the
precondition of any theory of class conflict. What interests us today is the
way in which Victorians mostly came to dread or to welcome the prospect of
class conflict; for Lord Salisbury or Karl Marx, the most crucial question
was if and when and how these two classes would come into violent collision
with one another. Yet from the perspective of most other centuries, that
question would not seem particularly fresh. Classes were, after all, always
quarrelling; sometimes in alliances, sometimes in single combat; on
occasion, the clergy would ally with the merchants against the aristocracy,
or the merchants with the peasants against a combination of the clergy and
the aristocracy, and so on. This was nothing new, nor indeed was it
surprising; a class tended to become conscious of itself only when its
members felt their interests to be threatened by a shared adversary. But the
notion that there were only two classes was much less usual. It was class
simplification, not class conflict, that seems to me to have been the
distinguishing mark of Victorian debate.

Once class simplification was set up, however, something very close to class
war did take place. Mount sees this process as being driven by middle-class
dislike of the proles. He draws extensively on John Carey's The
Intellectuals and the Masses to evince a widespread contempt for the working
classes on the part of their betters: Huxley, Shaw, Wells, Lawrence, Woolf,
the usual suspects - 'the extraordinary thing remains that so many of the
finest talents of their generation should have found the mere existence of
millions of their fellow countrymen loathsome to the point of being
intolerable.' In effect, the bourgeoisie declared war on their underlings,
and tried to improve them out of existence. Their weapons in this war were
'a national system of education, a state system of welfare, public housing
schemes and, later on, a state system of hospitals, a comprehensive system
of National Insurance and much else besides.' These might not all sound like
unmitigated evils to LRB readers, but Mount does a spirited job of pointing
to the ways in which all of these structures were imposed on top of
previously existing working-class vehicles for self-help. In one of the most
original sections of Mind the Gap, he evokes a thriving culture of schools,
Sunday schools, reading rooms, Nonconformist religion, collective insurance
and trade unions. 'It is not too much to say that the lower classes in
Britain between 1800 and 1940 had created a remarkable civilisation of their
own which it is hard to parallel in human history: narrow-minded perhaps,
prudish certainly, occasionally pharisaical, but steadfast, industrious,
honourable, idealistic, peaceable and purposeful.'

And then this civilisation was dismantled. To take only one of a number of
Mount's examples, the extensive culture of privately run working-class
schools was destroyed by the board-schools founded by the 1870 Education
Act, which were not free, but were effectively subsidised to a point where
they put their private competitors out of business. All of this was part of
a process in which 'the working classes are firmly tagged as the patients,
never the agents.' Mount ignores the extent of working-class agency, or
collaboration, in the dismantling of these institutions, but still, his
argument has energy and brio. The state, he claims, by taking away the
working classes' means of providing for themselves, and especially by
creating catastrophic Downer ghettos in housing estates, has created a
culture of dependency which, together with other cultural forces (increased
ease of divorce, increased prevalence and stupidity of the mass media), has
caused the famous 'hollowing out'.

Mount has specific suggestions about what to do: basically, school vouchers
and a massive building programme to get the Downers out of their housing
estates. But that in itself won't be enough, as Mount acknowledges in one of
his engaging Mao-meets-Oakeshott moments: 'Only a wholehearted, even
reckless opening up of genuine, substantial power to the bottom classes is
likely to improve either their self-esteem or the view which the managing
classes take of them - which is what makes the managing classes so reluctant
to effect any such transfer.'

Nobody as worldly and intelligent as Mount could for a moment think that any
such thing will happen in Britain. Our political system is not designed to
function in that directly democratic way: the combination of representative
democracy, the party system, cabinet government, prime ministerial power and
the permanent 'impartial' civil service gives us a curious
oligarchic-democratic hybrid which is specifically intended not to
'recklessly' open up 'genuine substantial power' to anyone, ever. What we
will have to settle for, at best, is a frank debate about some of the
subjects raised by Mind the Gap. Wouldn't it be wonderful if there was a
genuine, open argument about whether our society wants to be more equal, and
is willing to pay the bill for it, or whether it wants instead to accept
that increased inequality is a price for greater wealth, and is willing to
pay the bill for that? At the moment, the discussion about poverty and
inequality and class is so addled that there isn't even a basic measure of,
or consensus about, what poverty is. Poverty is not having money; inequality
is having less money than other people. In Britain, to be poor is generally
defined as meaning that you live on 60 per cent of the median income. But
that isn't a measure of poverty at all, since an entire society could be
living on a dollar a day each, yet under this definition would have nobody
who qualified as poor. This measure for poverty is in fact a measure of
inequality, and the means of dealing with inequality are not just different
from those required to deal with poverty but are in some important respects
their opposite. The next time you read the word 'poverty' used about
Britain, check to see how it is being defined: if the standard 60 per cent
figure is being used, be aware that this is a debate that literally doesn't
know what it's talking about.

So, should our government be addressing poverty, or inequality? This might
sound like a lot for any society to have to work out, but it is an issue on
which, by and large, and ignoring many details and distinctions, most
developed societies have chosen a course. In the USA, broadly speaking, the
political consensus is willing to regard inequality as a cost of capitalism,
and the prosperity it brings to its beneficiaries: government expenditure
comes to 30.9 per cent of GDP, and the poor, by and large, are free to go
boil their heads. In the EU, broadly speaking, social solidarity (as the
French revealingly call their ministry for unemployment) is a goal worth
paying for, the figure for government spending is 46.2 per cent of GDP, and
the bottom deciles of society live, if not well, then better than the bottom
deciles of any other societies that have ever existed. In the Land of the
Third Way, we haven't yet made up our mind, and the figure for government
spending is pretty much bang in the middle, at 39.3 per cent. If we headed
up for the Euro consensus figure, we could buy our Downers something
beginning to resemble an Upper life. Taxes would go up, and our economy
would probably slow down; we would be poorer but more equal. If we headed
down to the US figure, we would be throwing our Downers definitively and
irreversibly into destitution, but our better-off would be, in cash terms at
least, better-off.

Pollyannas may think that this middle figure shows we are steering an
appropriately mid-Atlantic course between the horrors of unfettered
capitalism and Eurosclerosis. Perhaps. But I think the state of Britain,
seven years into a 'progressive' government, is a bit more depressing than
that. The reality is that our polity needs our Downers, and that they serve
an important purpose in our mixed market economy. The Tory Party in the
1980s did not consciously seek to create homelessness; but the fact that
there were beggars newly evident on our streets did nothing to harm the
message that there was a new order in British politics, and that we were
becoming a harder society, one in which the idea of competition was
underpinned by the possibility of real failure. (This is not at all to deny
that there is often something theatrical and willed about living on the
street. But it is a public kind of theatre, in which society at large
provides the parts, even if it doesn't directly cast the play.) Similarly,
in our shiny Blairite mixed market economy we want just enough support for
the bottom 10 per cent of our society so that they don't seriously trouble
our consciences, and at the same time we need their life to be so shitty
that we are willing to bust our guts not to end up living it ourselves. Our
life is its own carrot; their life is the stick. Mount is naive to regard
the degraded condition of Britain's Downers as evidence of a general policy
failure. From a New Labour, market economy perspective, they're just what we
need. Expect to see a lot more spitting.

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