Books | Review | ‘Class and Contemporary British Culture’ by Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn

Elliot Murphy reviews a compelling and often disturbing account of how class identification and cultural tags shape people’s self-image and their image of others.

Books, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Thursday, November 28, 2013 11:04 - 1 Comment

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The philosopher and activist Bertrand Russell once asked: ‘Is a man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and water crawling impotently on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both as once?’ For Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn, a man is instead what he appears to the media which, they argue in their recent Class and Contemporary British Culture, concocts various cultural tags and class associations to explain away, and even justify, growing inequalities in neoliberal Britain.

Two years ago, Owen Jones famously published Chavs, which documented how politicians and the media have systemically demonised the poor in Britain through ethnic slurs and a strong adherence to stereotype and caricature. Now Biressi and Nunn, both at the University of Roehampton, seek to explore how the media, in all its manifestations, informs and structures cultural perceptions of class relations and ideas of ‘success’ and ‘failure’.

This is not a work of sociology but of cultural studies, and so the book focuses primarily on recent depictions of the public through various entertainment shows and literary works. The authors’ facility for quotation is excellent and sharp, and they never lean too heavily on the major works of media and cultural studies. As such, this review attempts to emulate their concern for substance over generalisation by commenting on a few of the book’s core arguments and case studies.

Class and Contemporary British Culture is a compelling and often disturbing account of how class identification and cultural tags shape people’s self-image and their image of others. Many of the popular TV shows Biressi and Nunn examine force their audience to question their identity, consistently prioritise personal comfort over a concern for their society, invest their emotional and intellectual energy in drama and escapism, ignore their social conscience, and have what Barack Obama once called ‘hope in the promise of tomorrow’.

The book notes how the Liverpool soap Brookside often focused in its earlier years on union activism and unemployment, unlike the usual narratives of today’s soaps, which typically consist of a group of friends and families virtually tripping out over the intensity of their romantic and comic drama. Prefiguring Charlie Brooker’s excellent series How TV Ruined Your Life, Simon Nicholson, writing in a journal of design and engineering in 1972, condemned these delusions:

‘Creativity is for the gifted few: the rest of us are compelled to live in the environments constructed by the gifted few, listen to the gifted few’s music, use the gifted few’s inventions and art, and read the poems, fantasies and plays by the gifted few. This is what our education and culture conditions us to believe, and this is a culturally induced and perpetuated lie.’

Early in their study, Biressi and Nunn cite Andrew Sayer’s observation that class is largely experienced and articulated in confrontational terms, which often conflate, for instance, certain dress styles with threatening crime. The resulting tags ‘feral underclass’ or ‘Essex Girl’ lack any explanatory force, and serve only to discourage an analysis of the socioeconomic conditions of some of the poorest and most destitute people in the country. ‘Jokes about Essex Girls are frequently aggressive and misogynistic,’ they write, ‘but they also rely on the audience’s assumed commonly shared assumptions about class, consumerism and bad taste.’

Like Rudolf Rocker before them, the authors argue that exploring culture is a uniquely revealing way to understand a nation’s social and economic realities. The book shows how class consciousness, when emerging in neoliberal societies supposedly structured by market principles, tends to lead to many misleadingly self-identifying as ‘middle class’, which helps alienate more traditional, manual workers.

Since the 1980s, the notion of class in Britain has been moulded into various categories – ‘white working class’, ‘selfish baby boomers’, ‘squeezed middle’ – and Biressi and Nunn comment on a wealth of their cultural representations. ‘Essex Man’, for instance, is viewed by them as a ‘repository for anxieties about decorum’ and neoliberal conceptions of masculine success. These perspectives on social class, they write, are formed through ‘material conditions and economic (in)securities’ and are ‘shaped by early disadvantage or natural privilege and the uneven distribution of life chances and opportunities which these conditions create’.

The book convincingly demonstrates how much popular culture in Britain shies away from exposing the humiliating nature of the dole, and how whether work should be a fulfilling enterprise, and not simply a means of survival, is rarely debated, especially in intellectual circles. Biressi and Nunn consequently condemn the neoliberal proposal under which individuals rent themselves to corporations and are stuck with social and economic insecurities. Homo sapiens were made for greater things than this.

For the authors, the ubiquity of the term ‘lifestyle’ also reflects the wide grip that markestisation has had on British society, in which virtually everything has become financialised. It is a world in which, as David Harvey put it in his essay ‘The Right to the City’, ‘the neoliberal ethic of intense possessive individualism, and its cognate of political withdrawal from collective forms of action, becomes the template for human socialization.’ This helps create the effects documented by the neurological scholar Iain McGilchrist in The Master and His Emissary:

‘Although it might seem that we overvalue the body and physical existence in general, that is not what I deduce from our preoccupation with exercise, health and diet, with “lifestyles,” concerned though this is with the body and its needs and desires. Nor does it follow from the fact that the body was never so much on display, here or in cyberspace. The body has become a thing, a thing we possess, a mechanism, even if a mechanism for fun, a bit like a sports car with a smart sound system.’

This culture of possessing is harmful for many reasons, as John Cowper Powys wrote in his novel A Glastonbury Romance. One of the principal characters, Sam Dekker, speaks about his unconventional, Tolstoyan, antiauthoritarian approach to religion: ‘My Christ’s like Lucifer – only he’s not evil … at least not what I call evil. But He’s the enemy of God. That is, He’s the enemy of Creation! He’s always struggling against Life, as we know it … this curst, cruel self-assertion … this pricking up of fins, this prodding with horns … this opening of mouths … this clutching, this ravishing, this snatching, this possessing.’

Discussions of a certain kind of possessiveness also arose during the August 2011 riots, during which Michael Gove claimed that the ‘underclass’ have ‘a poverty of ambition’, ‘a poverty of discipline’, and ‘a poverty of soul’. Biressi and Nunn stress that Gove’s beliefs carefully detach socioeconomic circumstances from the ‘souls’ of the rioters, although, oddly, he and other neo-Thatcherites are happy to praise their own upbringing in public schools and Oxbridge. The general disillusionment with the political system is easy to square with figures published in December 2012 by the Office for National Statistics, which showed that the wealthiest 10% of British households own more than 40% of the nation’s wealth.

This is unlikely to change as long as Britain is governed by a Prime Minister who, when asked this summer, ‘What would your response to Jesus be on his instruction to us to sell all our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor?’ replied that he was unwilling to follow Jesus’ example. He found the concept of the rich giving away their possession to the poor ‘a little bit more difficult’ than the other commandments. Using the Anglican language of uncertainty and psychological distress to defend his privileges, Cameron said: ‘I’m a Christian and I’m an active member of the Church of England, and like all Christians I think I sometimes struggle with some of the sayings and some of the instructions.’

Biressi and Nunn’s chapter on ‘The Revolting Underclass’ provides the best discussion of the topic available in the scholarly literature. On Gove’s terminology, they note that, unlike ‘working class’, ‘underclass’ is an ‘ideologically loaded and mostly pejorative term’ which ‘no sensible person’ would wish to have attributed to them. The term does away with the traditional family and socialist values associated with ‘working class’ and unthinkingly attacks and ostracises the poor. No political party seeks to ally themselves with an ‘underclass’, and so Gove’s language serves primarily to encourage the effective disenfranchisement of the working classes.

Further in the book, it’s pointed out that the Thatcherite rhetoric of choice and individual aspiration, so often found in shows like The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den, helped form a new generation of Conservative voters who became convinced of the logic of social mobility, and who were raised to believe in their own goodness and the importance of ‘success’ as defined by job promotions and the approval of their corporate betters. This rhetoric, passionately revived by neo-Thatcherites such as Cameron, speaks only of individuals. It was individuals alone, ‘regardless of social background and regardless of earlier social (dis)advantage, who made their own success on their own merits.’

In the intervening decades, a focus on class consciousness and what Kropotkin called ‘mutual aid’ gave way to a concern for ‘self-improvement’ and individual motivation. The focus on competition as the primary determiner of children’s futures found in schools also finds echoes in primetime reality entertainment, which typically operates through the ‘threat of exclusion’, as Nick Stevenson puts it. Likewise, Alan Sugar, Jennifer Lopez and Oprah Winfrey often boast about their impoverished childhoods, as if this somehow vindicates the neoliberal system they benefit dramatically from, and which oppresses a far greater range of working class people.

Chris Hedges, in his and Joe Sacco’s recent Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, believes these factors have created a world of ‘cheerful conformity, as well as an endless and finally fatal optimism. We busy ourselves buying products that promise to change our lives, make us more beautiful, confident, or successful, as we are steadily stripped of rights, money, and influence. All messages we receive through these systems of communication, whether on the nightly news or talks shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show, promise a brighter, happier tomorrow.’

Less well-documented than the corrupting effects of materialism, however, is what Biressi and Nunn call the ‘fundamentally uneven’ terrain upon which British parents support their children through their school years. Commenting on the work of Val Gillies, they argue that working class parents typically support children to ‘manage perceived injustice, instability and hardship’, while middle class families ‘deploy resources, social and cultural capital more directly in the service of scholarly achievement.’ According to sociological research, middle class parents ‘were especially adept at constructing their children as bright, “unique” or distinct from others, and even when their behaviour was difficult or their learning slower than expected it was important that their talents be recognised and nurtured.’

Working class parents, on the other hand, would rather emphasise children’s common features and abilities, regardless of ethnicity or background, and ‘were more concerned that their children “fitted in”, were polite, affable and avoided trouble.’ Quite often, what Cameron once called the ‘sharp-elbowed’ middle class parents use state services ‘to the detriment of others’, dominating PTA meetings to ensure their priorities are met. The book consequently suggests that ‘it may be as privatised, family-oriented individuals we have increasingly dispensed with any collective class consciousness or awareness of the real extent of social inequality.’

Biressi and Nunn cite one sardonic questionnaire which shows the requirements of being a middle class parent (the correct answer is easy enough to guess): If a new state school opens, do you A) Think it’s nice that the kids from the estate will get a decent education, B) Send your own kids there because you think mixing with children from other backgrounds is just as much a part of education as getting good grades, or C) Flood the school with emails from you and other like-minded parents to take over the administrative positions and ensure the school spends its funds in the way beneficial to you. As the sociologist Michael Young once shrewdly commented: ‘Today you have to be far smarter to get by, and if you are not, we penalize your children.’

Most of these forms of oppression are barely even perceived – if at all – by a good deal of middle class parents and students. Gove’s Britain is consequently a long way from the kind of education systems found throughout history which have been built on principles of mutual aid and solidarity. One such highly successful experiment was Fransisco Ferrer’s Escuela Moderna, opened in Barcelona in September 1901, which had 126 pupils enrolled by 1905. In the school’s prospectus, Ferrer wrote: ‘I will teach them only the simple truth. I will not ram a dogma into their heads. I will not conceal from them one iota of fact. I will teach them not what to think but how to think.’ A unique aspect of the school was its lack of punishment and grades and prizes:

‘Having admitted and practiced the coeducation of boys and girls, of rich and poor … we are not prepared to create a new inequality. Hence in the Modern School there will be no rewards and punishments; there will be no examinations to puff up some children with the flattering title of ‘excellent’, to give others the vulgar title of ‘good’, and make others unhappy with a consciousness of incapacity and failure.’

Ferrer observed that, though they had initially hesitated, the parents of the schools’ pupils accepted this anarchist approach, appreciating how ‘the rituals and accompanying solemnities of conventional examinations in schools’ only served the purpose ‘of satisfying the vanity of parents and the selfish interests of many teachers, and in order to put the children to torture before the exam and make them ill afterwards.’ The school favoured practical learning through trips to museums, factories and laboratories, though it also embraced scholarly study while remaining suspicious of over-intellectualising topics.

The Thatcherite contempt for weakness and frailty in the schools has also run alongside the promotion of the ‘imperial CEO’ and a breathtakingly individualistic concern for the condition of one’s house and home over a concern for the condition of one’s society and the environment. Electronic trading, write Biressi and Nunn, has led to the creation of ‘cityboys’ who merged ‘the dictates of masculinity’ with ‘an entrepreneurial ideology in the expectation that virility, a strongly projected personality and lack of fear could be marketable commodities.’

The book’s final chapters explore the politics of class and aspiration through the lens of celebrity autobiographies, since they’re deeply personal, with the authors’ primary contention being that these first-person narratives buttress pre-conceptions of the limits of social mobility from a restrictive or impoverished early life. Biressi and Nunn also touch on a rarely explored subject; the portrayals of the contemporary aristocracy. The rare documentaries and shows which present a narrative of Britain’s aristocracy, like English HeritageTo the Manor Reborn, and Royal Upstairs Downstairs, uniformly portray life as an aristocrat as one of duty. It is supposedly a life of dedication to the preservation of places of ‘natural beauty’ and ‘historical interest’, and in no way relates to historical and contemporary class struggles.

Biressi and Nunn also include an important and distinctive section on middle and upper class lifestyle shows. Featuring prominently is What Not to Wear, presented by the wealthy, assertive and über-confident Trinny Woodall and Susannah Constantine, who stress that their ‘fun’ work is carried out purely in good taste. But for all their jokes about body parts and their sensitive eye contact with the women they are ‘advising’, Biressi and Nunn rightly detect a great deal of class antagonism in the show.

Class and Contemporary British Culture - CeasefireClass and Contemporary British Culture serves as an important indicator not just of how deeply engrained harmful class perceptions remain, but also of how far Britain needs to go before it can even pretend to call itself tolerant and democratic. The question of what anyone who feels powerless can do to undermine and dismantle these forms of prejudice and oppression is a timeless one, and superficially appears increasingly difficult, especially in a society that values mental serenity above anything else. As matters stand, Goethe’s proposal is especially apt: ‘We are, and ought to be, obscure to ourselves, turned outwards, and working upon the world which surrounds us.’

Class and Contemporary British Culture

Anita Biressi and Heather Nunn
256 pages [Hardcover]
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (23 April 2013)
ISBN-10: 0230240569
ISBN-13: 978-0230240568

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Elliot Murphy

Elliot Murphy is a writer and activist based in the UK. He is the author of 'Unmaking Merlin: Anarchist Tendencies in English Literature', to be published in November 2014 by Zero Books.

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Feb 12, 2014 13:54

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