Thursday, January 17, 2008

Too Good for the Working Man

'The working class suddenly scared themselves; they drew in their collective breath (the belt would come later). After the first decade in which the working class, in the shape of union muscle, had the power and the gumption to say yes or no to government policy, and had said no frequently and long, the working class felt they were teetering on a precipice - on the edge of what they chose to call anarchy, the big bad no-comprendez wolf, but which was really power. Somewhere in the Seventies, if the working class had wished it, they were stong enough to pull it off, pull it all down. But their Vice Anglais, their desire to be bullied and led by their betters, got the better of them. The working class felt that they had become demonic hedonists, because they had acquired a fondue set; they felt they had too good a time in the Sixties, because they had been told it was the decade of Spend Spend Spend and Live Now Pay Later. For a few lousy cars and fridges, the Puritan in the English character (the Welsh and Scottish never fell for Thatcher) blamed itself rather than the government.'

Julie Burchill occupies a similar position in my litany of loves and hates as the Manic Street Preachers: I know it's wrong, I know they've said and done awful things...yet somehow it doesn't bother me (not that I would listen to any record/read a book by either after 1996 or thereabouts). Both exemplify the autodidactic combination of total conviction, terrifying erudition and occasional utter idiocy that so fascinates me, despite being decidedly over-educated. She's also the only person writing in Britain today who I could imagine being starstruck at meeting, massive weight gain and appalling politics and all. So imagine my joy at receiving in the post a book of hers I'd lent out years ago, with my dog-ears, overthumbed pages and general air of wear and dilapidation all in place: the 1985 'best of' collection Love it or Shove It.

Some out and out classics are in here: the lament for the Jewish homosexual pop moguls 'The last days of the Locust'; airport novel appreciation 'Working Class Neros'; the mighty 'The End of America'; and the fine study of Graham Greene that suddely turns into a psychotic no-poperie screed, 'Greeneland Revisited'. But the best thing in here is the astonishing opening 'How I learned to stop worring and Loathe the Proletariat'. It practically negates everyhing she's written since the mid-90s as self-appointed guardian of the reputation of the working class (so hanging-and-flogging and racism runs alongside an unrepentant Stalinism). Instead, this is an essay stricken by the betrayal of the Miners, not only by the TUC but by the bulk of English workers, the failure of imagination that meant that making sure your son could go down pit after you was the ideal, other than self-emancipation, education; it fingers Wilson as the proto-Thatcher, giving away a history of struggle for colour TVs and holidays. It's an unreasonable, hopeless rant delivered with the fervour of the recent apostate. The most intriguing suggestion is that the real reason for the turn to the Tories in 1979 was that we became afraid of ourselves, and have paid ever since for that failure of nerve. Perhaps it's no closer to the truth than her current prole-idolatory - but it feels more convincing, less an act of guilty self-abnegation (if you're a highly paid journalist from the age of 16 then you're in an entirely different world, no matter how much you flex your roots) and more the real simmering rage and resentment not only at one's 'betters' but at the class you've escaped from.


Anonymous Ben (Noys) said...

I think Benjamin's the destructive character is relevant to Burchill. She was certainly right about Wilson, who declared the end of Keynesianism in 1976 and implemented the IMF re-structuration. I'm not so sure that fear is the answer. In some ways I think Thatcherism recuperated class demands for freedom from constraints around wage labour and the refusal of working class identity - as the autonomists suggest. I'd also suggest some of the problems lay in the culture of labourism which could only operate in terms of a defence of a constrained form of the identity of the worker - rather than proletarian.
I think the last point makes a lot of sense and makes me worry as a petit-bourgeois intellectual...

3:19 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

Indeed - those other elements are quite well documented, but the 'you don't really want power, you cowards' argument is v apposite also, as used by Lloyd George against the TUC in 1919.

The last mentioned resentment is the one that didn't really get mentioned in the resentment-fest a few months ago, for good political reasons, but that doesn't mean it isn't present for the class-crosser...

10:28 pm  
Anonymous Ben said...

A relevant comment from Perry Anderson, circa 1964
"This idea represents a maximum statement of one of the two poles of socialist theories of the workingclass: in it, the constitutive nature of the working-class prefigures the society which is its vocation to create. This is what has been called the concept of ‘proletarian positivity’, in contrast to its opposite: that of the proletariat as the negativity of history total negation of the existent social order, a subjectivity flung towards absolute suppression of class society and therewith suppression of itself. Clearly, the reality in any historical situation involves a dialectic of both moments: pure positivity, the working-class would be immobilized in its own fullness, incapable of launching any project of total social change. Pure negativity, it would be in permanent, suicidal insurrection. In England, there is no doubt which moment has dominated. The whole dense, objectinvested universe described by Hoggart in the Uses of Literacy testifies to the monumental positivity of the oldest it working-class in the world. [10] Too much so: the weakness of Williams’ argument is that it fails to make a distinction between corporate and hegemonic institutional forms. The very density and specificity of English working-class culture has limited its political range and checked the emergence of a hegemonic socialism in England."
Origins of the Present Crisis, NLR I/23
Re-reading Benjamin (and Debord) we can see the same emphasis on the need for the 'negative' moment of the dialectic against the positivity of the existing 'left' organisations. Of course it's still the same questions of what kinds of forms, organisations, etc will 'carry' or 'transmit' this effect. That's especially the case in relation to this from Ralph Miliband:
[T]he “primacy” of organized labor in struggle arises from the fact that no other group, movement or force in capitalist society is remotely capable of mounting as effective and formidable a challenge to the existing structures of power and privilege as it is in the power of organized labor to mount. In no way is this to say that movements of women, blacks, peace activists, ecologists, gays, and others are not important, or cannot have effect, or that they ought to surrender separate identity. Not at all. It is only to say that the principal (not the only) “gravedigger” of capitalism remains the organized working class. Here is the necessary, indispensable “agency of historical change.” And if, as one is constantly told is the case, the organized working class will refuse to do the job, then the job will not be done.
NLR 150 (1985): 13

12:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

brilliant piece on burchill, more of this kind of stuff, please. Surely you've got something to get off your chest about johnathon meades or will self?

6:49 pm  
Blogger JammyDodger said...

I agree that the "working class" is the best hope for resistance but would suggest that rather than fear is it not the changes brought about by "late capitalism", ie globalisation, shifting economies, flexible working hours and contracts, plus a little bit of greed thrown in that has shattered the proletariat?

6:58 pm  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

yes, sounds about right to me. But the greed and the fear go together I think (and are minor, but definite factors)

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