Monday, June 11, 2007

Critique of Post-Paternalist Reason

Strange that anything 'educational' or 'difficult' is deemed to be oppressive and elitist, whereas programmes which explicitly tell people (usually working class) how to dress, eat and clean their houses are perfectly acceptable. It's OK to suggest that someone looks haggard because they have neglected the botox (rather than because they have been doing a miserable job and looking after kids for the last thirty years) but anything even remotely smelling of cultural or intellectual improvement is verboten.

This puts the dominant cultural logic in a nutshell. The disturbing thing though is the sheer popularity of these programmes, the revelling in abjection and general crapness of British life: it amazes me on the rare occasions I watch TV just how much of this stuff there is (my Mum is a fan), whole cable channels devoted to these injunctions at the proles. Isn't the makeover fixation linked though, to the obverse phenomenon of a collective collapse of self-respect? Walk round most British high streets and see a George Grosz landscape of illness, abjection, ugliness and grim poverty (I include myself in most of those categories, by the way). The strange willingness, when told by the master class what shit you are to cry 'yes! That's exactly what we are!', encapsulated by the less that proletarian (Kelvin Mackenzie - Dulwich, Rebekah Wade - The Sorbonne, etc...) Sun creating a grotesque caricature of the working class to its almost universal approval.

To digress, there was certainly a definite discourse of 'how clean is your house?' in the intellectual circles which eventually coalesced into the postwar Beveridge/Attlee/Reith establishment: think of Bill Brandt's photos of East End families in grossly dilapidated houses for Picture Post, the Modernist obsession with dust and dirt, which would presumably conspire to make the inhabitants tubercular; the worry that council house designers had that tenants would store coal in their baths, and so forth. The line between Shutte-Lihotsky's kitchen and How clean is your Arse is not an unbroken one, though: though there might have been a definite paternalist discourse of cleanness, of injunctions at the proletariat, it was always joined up with some sort of systemic critique: the assumption was never that people chose to live like this, or that if they did, their choice was frankly wrong and they had to be convinced otherwise.

Having said that, and on the back of the comments box posts below (evidently I should write about the SI more often!) it's clear that paternalism was never enough. The problem now is that the demise of state socialism and social democracy leads to a certain rearguard action - a defence of both of these experiments against the still widespread calumnies, up to a point - which can obscure the critiques of both from the Situationist, Trotskyist, Surrealist (etc) sections of the Left. This blog is wholly guilty of this, of course, mainly due to my own somewhat morbid fixation on both. Proletarian self-organisation would be, of necessity, opposed to them as much as to Neo-Liberalism. Let's not forget what side Reith was on in the General Strike.


Anonymous Kiri said...

'the assumption was never that people chose to live like this, or that if they did, their choice was frankly wrong and they had to be convinced otherwise'

actually, that sounds a lot like the Victorians and their many many attempts to tell the working classes how to live, how to cook, how to look after their house etc etc. Programmes like 'How claen is your house' have a literary precedent in many Victorian penny papers written by the middle-class do-gooders for the salvation and improvement of working class readers.

5:07 pm  
Anonymous CR said...

Yes, Kiri, but the point that Owen is making is that in the better sorts of modernism the Victorian help-you-to self-help stuff is combined with a systemic critique. The Victorians would blame the ills on unholiness or intemperance or bad breeding - but not Captial, social structures, etc.

6:43 pm  
Anonymous kiri said...

ah yes, I did miss the point rather.

11:42 am  
Anonymous Ben said...

I think you are right to see utopian traces in the modernist experiments and to suggest the defence of certain gains from social-democracy, not least around housing and education. I wouldn't want a catastrophist ultra-leftism (or any leftism at all based on that premise), ie let's hope things get worse so we will be forced into a revolutionary situation.
The problem with some SI type critiques of the planner/bureaucratic state is that they saw this as the future path of capital, which it didn't actually take - preferring the 'minimal' (security) State. This problem affilicted punk as well -when its critique of housing estates / (labour) social-democracy all too neatly segued into Thatcherite critiques. Hence the interest of post-punk for a certain distancing and radicalisation of the simple minded punk versions of alienation and its call for construction / organistion.
Growing up in a working class household in Essex in the 1980s the power of Thatcherite ideology seemed, partly, to be that it said that the working class didn't have to stay working class. That was its 'utopian' element. Of course what was denied, and still is, is the role of cultural capital in being able to exploit this highly ambiguous 'freedom'.
Confused remarks I know.

1:06 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

The problem with some SI type critiques of the planner/bureaucratic state is that they saw this as the future path of capital, which it didn't actually take.

Yes, absolutely. The Audacity thing I spoke at recently seemed to still hold onto this, the idea that planning=dominant ideology, which is clearly nonsense.

4:01 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Aside: 'the working class didn't have to stay working class': well as Trotsky put it, the proletariat is the class that has the abolition of itself as its aim (see also Paul Lafargue's intervention into this - the acceptance of 'work' among the workers' movement nullifying it)
But interestingly sociologists were obsessed in the 80s (still are) that the seemingly embourgeoisified South-Eastern WC that did well out of Thatcher doggedly held onto all class signifiers (except of course those anathematised by Sun ideology: solidarity, autodidacticism, etc)

4:18 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

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6:00 pm  
Anonymous Ben said...

Coincidentally I've been reading Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello's New Spirit of Capitalism (Verso 2005). It makes some interesting remarks concerning the 'liberation' capitalism offers and the necessity of a parallel critique of paternalism and the new capitalism. Particularly interesting on the need for a refusal of capitalist self-branding and self-promotion in the 'new' insecure forms of labour (highly relevant to contemporary academia).
On the down side, badly written (at least in translation), thinks itself far more original than it is, and often wrong on the avant-garde (as usual poor Marcuse suffers). Explicitly reformist, which at least is honest.

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