Mao meets Oakeshott

John Lanchester

  • Mind the Gap: The New Class Divide in Britain by Ferdinand Mount
    Short Books, 320 pp, £14.99, September 2004, ISBN 1 904095 94 1

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.