The prevailing orthodoxy in terms of class identification over the last few decades has been through the nexus of lifestyle choices and job roles. Indeed, this understanding of class in the subjective sense has, since the emergence of neoliberalism four decades ago, been in the ascendancy while conversely, the recognition that class is an objective category measured in terms of ones relationship to the means of production, has been in retreat.
1950’s Britain: The re-emergence of class consciousness
Relatively recent historical experience would tend to suggest that the extent of the prevalence of objective working class consciousness is related to levels of confidence within the said class. Britain throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s represented a snapshot in time in which class consciousness grew underpinned by the emergence of a long demand-led economic boom.
The development of the welfare state and the growth in the power of the social democratic discourse 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 class conscious society as the grounds for the formation of this new meritocratic environment.
The social realism and British new wave movements in film-making that emerged from the optimism generated after the 1951 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 to be replaced by the growing inequality of the neoliberal years, so the confidence of the working class began to recede also. Whereas identifying as working class during the 1960’s opened up opportunities for people from poor and deprived backgrounds, by the 1980’s, the perception was that class negatively impacted on these opportunities.
As the British Social Attitudes Survey indicates, the 1980’s marked a low point from which the working class haven’t sufficiently recovered. One particularly depressing shift over the last few decades highlighted by the survey, 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.”
Many workers today display, at best, an ambivalent and at worst, a morally reprehensible 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.
Passive consumers & propaganda
Through the realms of advertising and consumerism, the corporate media is complicit in cementing the notion of class as a subjective category and the undermining of objective class interests. Class identification embodied in lifestyle choices predicated on consumption becomes, therefore, a form of displacement activity that involves the transformation of politically active citizens into passive consumers. This entire process is fundamental to ensuring that collective class-based mobilizations and revolutionary impulses are minimized.
The quelling of public dissent is a key function of the establishment media. But, as Noam Chomsky realized, a de-politicised and apathetic populace serves a dual propaganda function in that the need for overt forms of state oppression under such circumstances are minimized:
“Propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state”, he said.
In this sense, in contrast to Western liberal democratic states, ‘dictators’ within formal authoritarian ‘regimes’, have failed to understand that ‘successful’ thought control reduces the need for tanks, guns and torture.
This is where the propaganda value of 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, represents the ‘news’ that fills the gap left over by the lack of investigative journalism whose aim is to bring the power of the media-political elite to account.
It’s hard to disagree with independent 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.”
Separating the economic & political
In order to keep the masses docile and happy, the media and political elites create illusions, one of which is the notion that political rights matter. Metaphorically, they succeed in this totalitarian image-making by legislating for the right to demonstrate, politically, outside the Ritz while ensuring that economically the chances of any working class outsider gaining entry is virtually zero. The illusion created is akin to the ‘American Dream’ in which the poor will one day be able to join with the ranks of the elite class on the inside if only they work hard enough. This is the ideology of aspiration.
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 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 what Peter Stefanovic aptly referred to as the ruling classes prevailing ‘Downton Abbey’ vision of the world. 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 the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn and the decline in traditional forms of media illustrate, is that 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 equally as significant, is the new politicisation of contemporary popular music among a new generation of young artists, the most prominent of which is Stormzy. The London-born grime artist and rapper is the vanguard for a long overdue awakening among a new generation of politically class-conscious young people not witnessed since the punk era.