2008-11-05

Social Class II: C'est Beau, La Bourgeoisie

Congratulations Obama supporters! Now, while the iron is still hot, I thought I'd better give you a word of advice.

I've been following the US elections from a distance, and some of the most interesting texts I've read about it have been from a distance too. And they paint up a fairly worrying picture. First, Swedish blogger for a major right-wing newspaper (and ardent Obama supporter) Martin Gelin wrote about the Joe the Plumber shtick (in Swedish):
It's a real laugh to see how Swedish "middle class journalists" are falling for it. Can we call it a low education complex? Intellectuals who have a a complex towards the working class and desperately try to understand what the working class likes: cosy hockey moms who say "youbetcha" but don't offer a single pragmatic solution for low income earners.
Second, style journalist Marcus Dunberg took it one step further in a column in the free newspaper Metro (again in Swedish). Following Gelin's thought to its logical, Palin-bashing conclusion, writing about how all the candidates fought about who had the most regular-Joe background, and how, in his eyes, it had created a backlash:
If Sarah Palin is an anti-elitist, then by extension the diametrically opposed stance has to be something good. [...] On the streets of Manhattan more and more people are turning up wearing T-shirts that say "Liberal Elite" on them. It's about time us elitists are able to run free, without being judged by the commoners.
Well guys, trust me, if any of you have started falling into this shit then stop it. An elitist is not something you want to be. And yet, there seem to be little signs everywhere that, in fact, a consciously self-labelled elite is starting to appear even among the young, And I for one won't attribute it to Sarah Palin. (I do realise that "elitist" has come to stand for women and upwardly-mobile blacks, and for liberals in general. But adopting it yourself is a total cop-out to the forces that rather would not associate with the working class at all. Whatever new type of radicalism is emerging, I just have to ask them: don't ignore the working class. The class system is still one of the chief sources of inequality in the world.)

When I was still very politically active politically a few years ago, the kind of "complex" Martin Gelin talks about was still very much alive, and no-one pointed it out in order to mock it. People would try to reach out to the working class. They would hide their high levels of education and buy "anti-fashion" clothes from charity shops. The enemy was a traditional establishment consisting of both a cultural and an economic elite, who oppressed the working class and its (popular) culture in equal measure.

But now we're seeing this kind of shit, radicals dressing in fashion labels, and a seemingly conscious distancing from the working class in all sorts of contexts. Whatever you think about backpacker rap (I hate it, myself) and the dull roots reggae that was the soundtrack to a lot of demonstrations a few years ago, at least it never celebrated the upper-class lifestyle that's enjoyed in this post's titular track:


The song is from this fall, a period when (indeed) the new elitism seems to have accelerated. Just look at the iconography on the posters for this London club:


Can you imagine a club that plays kwaito, kuduro and baile funk having a poster so obviously designed to turn away the diaspora and the working class a few years ago? It's way past the sort of art-school faux DIY you still see around, it's deeply entrenched in a horrible sort of Victorian colonialist exotica. The concept, and the poster, has already been copied in Stockholm, of course:

It's taking working class music and planting it into a context the working class has no access to. (Like I said, little things. But what if the bear is real?)

How did we get here? Well, the right-wing appropriation of equality rhetoric in one thing. Another is the loss of a credible cultural elite to fight and the appropriation of the symbols of youthful rebellion by big business. But I think maybe part of the blame can be attached to the recession - is it a coincidence that some of the most elitist youth cultures ever have hit during recessions? Bereft of financial markers of success, the upper class takes to refinement as the dividing line between them and the mob. We've got better taste, even if we don't have more money, ergo we're better than you.

We'll see if, indeed, we're seeing a new elitism emerge. But I hope, for the sake of the left wing in general, that you Obama supporters won't be the ones spearheading such a movement. Now start by not trying to distance yourselves from the working class and for god's sake, please don't use the label "elitist".

3 comments:

tray said...

I came here from Brandon's blog. You and I have very different politics - I see no problem whatsoever with running as far away from the working class as I possibly can, or a with politics that runs away from the working class as far as it can (insofar as that's electorally sustainable, at any rate) - but if I were a young man of the left, instead of the young man of the center-right that I am, I still don't think I'd see the problem that you do. In the first place, I think it might be a bit condescending to assume that the working class is entirely unfamiliar with what's probably one of the ten or so most reproduced paintings of the twentieth century, one that's, as best as I can recall, frequently reproduced in children's books. Would you also object to a poster that had the Mona Lisa on it? Would that also be taking working class music and putting it into a context the working class has no access to? Granted, they may not be able to afford to fly from Sweden to New York and buy MOMA tickets (which have become quite expensive), but that's not the only way to have access to this oft-reproduced painting. There are "The Dream" mugs, "The Dream" greeting cards, "The Dream" refrigerator magnets... and even our working class has refrigerators, and we don't have nearly the safety net you folks do. But even if Rousseau's works were as unknown to the working class as you seem to think them to be (or is it just Rousseau's politics that you object to, and if that's the case, aren't you assuming that these working-class folk can decode the politics when they see the poster, instead of just seeing an inviting image of a jungle?), what's the big deal? Even if you've never seen the painting, it's still a well-designed poster (there's a reason the painting's so famous, there's a little artistic merit there), and not one that's likely to turn away the working class in any way. And even if it did - so what? Is it necessary that the working class not only be cared for by the state to some extent, but also welcomed to any party where working-class music's on the menu? Should jazz clubs go out of their way to be welcoming to blacks, as jazz was originally black music, so therefore the club owes some debt to the black race as a whole - how does this argument even work? Why can't we wealthy folk enjoy other classes' music in the company of like-minded rich?

Birdseed said...

I'm not sure it's the idea of the Rousseau painting specifically that "sells it" specifically to the upper class. (Is that even the Rousseau painting? It seems to differ in details.) Yes, part of it is the objectionable image/association, with the jungle as the representation of Africa - how fun and accurate does an African think that stereotype is? But it's mostly a question of iconography or semiotics.

Don't you think there are typographies, images, colour uses etc. that tell people what kind of event is going to happen? A small brass plate with discreet lettering standing for expensive and exclusive stores. Very cheap, uniform-looking, cheaply designed packaging for economy foods. Etc. People use symbols to communicate what their product is going to be like, and is it really that strange to claim that the poster above will invite a different crowd to a poster like this one?

As for why exclusivity is wrong, well that's where our politics differ rather than our analysis. I'm extremely ashamed of my privilege, myself.

tray said...

They've played with the Rousseau painting a little, yeah. You're right that the other poster you link to will invite a different crowd - at least, it's sure to turn off anyone wealthy, whereas the jungle poster should attract them. I don't know, though, if the jungle poster would turn off the working-class. I mean, it does seem to promise a somewhat elegant affair, but as long as the price isn't prohibitive (and I have no idea what those numbers stand for), is anyone really going to be turned away by an excessively pretty poster? Well, maybe so. But even so, you're in a sort of bind. You could put up the sort of poster that you linked to in your comment and virtually no one with money will come, if they're like me, anyway, or you could put up the jungle poster and maybe you'll have an exclusively wealthy crowd. If those are the choices, what's wrong with the latter? Wealthy people like to go out too, so it isn't fair that every club should put up a poster designed to turn us off. Is there anything really so wrong with wealthy people appropriating working-class music and dancing to it? Like what would you prefer, a world in which every club that played baile funk went out of their way to invite the class that originated baile funk? So long as there's some baile-playing-place where the working class feel welcome, I should think that would be enough. Certainly even I could see that if in America all the clubs that played rap somehow turned off poorer urban blacks, there'd be some unfairness in that - it'd be as if the genre had been stolen from them. (Of course, new, more inclusive clubs would simply open up and take advantage of this inefficiency in the market, so that could never happen.) But a single club being a little exclusive - I don't see the harm.