Wednesday, 21 January 2009

ITV: Taking us all for muppets, as well they might

Part of what makes the current 'social mobility'' debate so wearisome are the tired old carrier-bag categories employed in any discussion of social class in Britain. It seems damnably hard for commentators to be serious and insightful about this supposedly perennially Burning Issue, and sometimes I do suspect that it's beyond them, or beneath them, or makes them too personally edgy and defensive. (Not for nothing did Richard Sennett title his great American study The Hidden Injuries of Class - that captures the furtive tone of things perfectly.)
The French do it far better, strange to say. Where would we be in this mess without the unimprovable terms déclassé (as in 'winter suntan' or 'electronic goods') or petit bourgeois (in its modern sneering usage)? After all, while it would be ludicrous in this day and age to conduct a conversation about the British class system solely within the Marxian categories of 'bourgeoisie' (petit or haute) and 'proletariat', it would be no less ludicrous to assert of all parties to said conversation that 'We're all middle-class now...' - as if society were some fat bell-curve of solid bourgeois burghers, with a smidgen of upper-crust toffs to the right of the curve and an intractable lump of lower-class scum to the left.
All the above being said, I don't pretend expertise in the sociology of the class debate but I feel confident that I'm a few steps clear of its usual torpor just from having read Pierre Bourdieu's classic Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (the French again!), from which it became clear to me that assessment of any individual's true class status must be made on a graph that employs an x axis of 'cultural' capital as well as a y-axis of material wealth and social status. In Bourdieu’s famous formulation, ‘Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier.’ Taste is socially constructed, and so reflects on the individual and serves to situate him or her within what Bourdieu called habitus, ‘systems of dispositions characteristic of the different classes and class fractions’ - systems, in other words, that are harder to read than a bank statement, or an entry in Debretts, or indeed a court judgement. Having read that much of Bourdieu, I mentally closed the book on the matter; in fairness it's probably time for me to read him again.
Anyhow, last night ITV broadcast a sensationalising schoolboyish hour-long doco called Too Posh To Pay about the supposed corruption and hypocrisy of 'the middle classes' and their seeming behind-the-curtain addiction to acts of white-collar crime. Fair enough as telly, it was a neat compilation of the sorts of true-life 's/he lied to me and stole my money' tales that fill the tabloids. But as to the definition of 'middle class' - well, there wasn't one, not even the barest attempt at one. And from the hard-hitting Crimewatch tone of the voiceover, you'd think we viewers would want to know how to identify all these middle-class scumbags who are pilfering our savings and cash-tills and conning the council or the taxman, just so we can see them coming in future, like shuffling zombies over a hill...
Nope, the real problem was all there in the title - specifically the word 'Posh', a term that was decisively hollowed of meaning back in 1994 (or whenever) as soon it was applied by Simon Fuller to Victoria Adams - you know, Jacqui Adams's girl from Harlow, now worth probably around £120 million, but still - just like all of us - proudly 'branded on the tongue', to borrow Wyndham Lewis's formulation. Or to put it another way, as James Baldwin put it in an essay of 1979 entitled 'If Black English Isn't a Language, then Tell Me What It Is':
To open your mouth in England is (if I may use black English) to "put your business in the street": You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future...
In defence of social mobility, one should say that Baldwin was certainly wrong about the 'future' bit: clearly he never spent enough time on this 'damp little island' to run into any Bradford millionaires wearing silk hats, and he didn't live long enough to consider the case of Victoria Beckham. But, to return to Too Posh To Pay - most of the penitent 'middle class' wrongdoers interviewed weren't really 'middle class', but rather a bit to the left or the right of the curve. And I knew as much because of their accents...
The effect of this demonising little entertainment was to make me feel sorry for the poor slandered middle classes. Maybe I should start taking the Mail. ITV must reckon we're all a bunch of muppets; but then, fair do's, they've got grounds for it, in that there seem to be a lot of Brits out there who think Martina Cole is gritty realism, and the singers on X Factor are brilliant, and Victoria Beckham is posh.

No comments: