Hate-filled ignorant scum

I’ve been struck for some time by the increasing invisibility of working class people in Britain.   Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, I’ve been struck by the increasing invisibility of class as a social division.  The concerns of progressive-minded people have shifted away from class to other divisions -gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, ability/disability- to a degree that, as Owen Jones points out at the beginning of his important book, Chavs*, the kind of derogatory comment that would be completely unacceptable if applied to, say, an ethnic minority, or to women, or to people with disabilities, can now be quite openly made about people who are working class or poor.  This was particularly evident to me in the wake of the Brexit referendum.  I was very stuck, not only by the way that liberal middle-class Remain voters tended to characterise working-class Leave voters as ignorant, stupid, bigoted and racist, but also by their shock at being defeated.  Many Remain voters, it seemed, only knew folk who voted Remain.  There was a whole bloc of people out there, whose lives and opinions they knew almost nothing about.

When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s working class people were not invisible in the same way.   The city I grew up in, Oxford, was at that time a major car-manufacturing town.  Trade unions were powerful working-class organisations and, though I came from a middle-class and not particularly political background, in my teens I would have been able to name probably nine or ten trade union leaders in the same way that I could name senior government ministers.  Changes since then have not abolished the working class, but fragmented it, disempowered it and rendered it invisible as a class to the point that some middle-class people, who clearly lead very sheltered lives, now speak of a classless society, or a post-class society, or of us ‘all being middle-class’ now.

The changes, described in Owen’s book, include, the dismantling of much of manufacturing industry, the attack, begun by Margaret Thatcher, on trade union power, and the deliberate policy of the Thatcher government, through the selling off of social housing, to encourage as many working class people as possible to begin to think of themselves as middle-class home owners, or at least to drive a wedge between them, and those that remained in social housing.  The Labour Party, a party originally established with the precise purpose of ensuring that working class people were politically represented, was to carry on with this programme.  Under New Labour, as Owen notes, the idea of emancipating the working class people morphed from improving conditions for the class as a whole, to helping individual working class people to become middle-class.  The emphasis shifted from ‘equality’ to ‘equality of opportunity’.  ‘The new Britain is a meritocracy’, Tony Blair said when he came to power, though the term ‘was not originally meant to describe a desirable society…[but] was meant to raise the alarm at what Britain could become’ (Chavs, p 96).

Not all working class people can become middle class.  ‘If everyone became middle class, who would man the supermarket checkouts, empty the bins and answer the phones in call-in centres?’ (Chavs, p 250).   And not everyone has the same aptitudes.  But the shift of emphasis from improving the condition of a whole class, to helping people with the necessary abilities to leave that class and join the middle class, means that those who are left behind can be blamed for their own problems, and the poorest among them can be described in terms which, if applied to ethnic minorities rather than social classes, could have come straight from some 1930s Nazi tract:

‘…that sub (human) class that now exists in the murkiest, darkest corners of this country…good-for-nothing scroungers who have no morals, no compassion, no sense of responsibility and are incapable of feeling love or guilt’ (Carole Malone, News of the World, cited in Chavs, p 22)

One of the interesting points raised by Owen, and one which very much chimes with my own experience, is that denigration of working class people isn’t confined to the right-wing of British politics, but can also be found among liberal and even left-wing people.  I read an article in the Guardian a few years ago, reporting on a poll which found that the middle class was now more ‘left-wing’ than the working class.  And in the comment thread I came across the following, offered, as far as I could tell, without conscious irony:

… [The working class] consistently vote against their own interests. I have always imagined that the reason is that they think they are “middle-class” as was my own family’s delusion. However, I suspect that the real reason is that they are just hate-filled ignorant scum and we middle-class people should just say fuck them.

Hate-filled, ignorant scum.  ‘One of the ways people have made their snobbery socially acceptable…’ says Johann Hari (cited in Chavs, p 116) ‘[is] by acting as though they are defending immigrants from the “ignorant” white working class’.  Indeed some commentators quite specifically contrast hard-working immigrants with lazy good-for-nothing British workers.  Writing in the Times in 1994, Janet Daley (cited in Chavs, p 118-9) characterised British working-class people as a ‘self-loathing, self-destructive tranche of the population’ and contrasted them with the ‘religion, cultural dignity and… sense of family’ brought by people from ethnic minorities, who were only held back by the ‘mindless hatred of the indigenous working classes, who loathe them precisely for their cultural integrity…  I fear long after Britain has become a successful multi-racial society, it will be plagued by this diminishing…detritus of the Industrial Revolution’.

*   *   *

I heard a lot of that kind of talk from Remainers in the aftermath of Brexit.  But it seems to me that describing working class British people as ‘hate-filled ignorant scum’ and contrasting them unfavourably with immigrant workers was never exactly calculated to endear them to the European project.

*References are to the new 2016 edition of this book, published by Verso

Brexit Eeyores

Absolutely awful

As I mentioned before, I voted ‘remain’ in the UK’s recent referendum, but I am growing very tired of what now I think of as the Brexit Eeyores: the weary, ‘I know better’ voices predicting economic calamity, lamenting that a vote was ever held on a matter that ordinary people couldn’t be expected to understand, and dismissing ‘leave’ voters as some combination of ignorant, uneducated, racist, or gullible.  I am sometimes reminded of white Rhodesians  telling each other how they always knew the country would go to the dogs if the Africans were given the vote.

One can argue about the merits or otherwise of referendums, but if we were only allowed to vote on matters of which we possessed expert knowledge, then most of us wouldn’t be permitted to vote at all.  General elections usually hinge on economic policy and the management of public services, after all, both of which are highly complex and technical matters.  The fact is that, in a democracy, those who possess expertise have to persuade the rest of us that they understand what our concerns are, and have a plan that will help to address them.  You can’t just say, ‘we know better than you do what’s good for you, so do as you’re told.’

The key thing here is that, even though all the established political parties, almost all economists, and the great majority of business leaders, supported the ‘remain’ cause, the majority of the electorate decided to ignore them.  That’s quite a consensus to go against!  Why did it happen?  Presumably it is because that wide range of eminent people failed to convince 17,000,000 voters that their concerns were being heard or being addressed.  Dismissing those seventeen million voters as thick, or racist or gullible dupes will not help them with that feeling of not being heard.  And if that feeling isn’t addressed, we really are in for some difficult times.

As I say, I’m not an expert but here is one of the best analyses I’ve read recently of what’s going on behind the Brexit vote here and the rise of the likes of Donald Trump.


I was interested in this article asking whether meritocracy in the UK is a sham.  I live in Cambridge and for a time I used go and write in the Cambridge University Library (I was eligible for a library card at the time as a member of staff of Cambridge’s other, marginally less famous, university: Anglia Ruskin).  I got into the habit of working in the cafe there  -I find a background hum of voices more conducive to writing than absolute silence- and I can tell you that I could go all day without seeing a single black face, or hearing a single regional accent.  There’d  be some foreigners, but  the British people in there, students and academics, were almost all white and almost all spoke with the  distinctive accent, somehow both languid and gushing, of the English private school system.   (I myself was no exception btw: I too am white, I too went to private school.)  That tells you quite a lot, I think, about the extent to which we live in a meritocracy!

What we do live in, though, is a society which sees being a meritocracy as a desireable goal, a society which, when it talks about equality, talks about equality of opportunity, about removing the obstacles that prevent gifted people from poor backgrounds from achieving their potential.  There’s not a lot of talk about people whose talents are not exceptional, people who are not especially bright, people who are of average or below average ability, even though this group, by definition, includes more than half of the population.

Equality of opportunity is desireable, but it’s not sufficient, a point made in the article by the former Labour leader, Ed Milliband (someone who I never thought I’d look back on with some degree of nostalgia!).   A meritocracy, per se, would not necessarily be good society.  In fact, thinking about it now, I’d go as far as to say that, if I was designing a society in which the power of an elite was to be permenantly entrenched, I’d make it a meritocracy, and give it an excellent universal educational system, designed to ensure that anyone with above average ability, from whatever background, could be identified from an early age and channelled to a position in society commensurate with those abilities.  That way the elite could be constantly strengthened, because it would continously co-opt the most able and continuously deprive therest of the population of those who would otherwise have been their natural leaders.

Or am I being unfair?  I suppose that what would moderate such a society, and make it more humane, would be that the elite would contain many people who had memories of, and family connections with, the rest of society, whereas the more stratified system we have now means that many  people (including some of those I overheard in the University library) may never really have known anyone from outside of their own class.

The Party is Over

Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions — everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses (Juvenal, c100 CE: Satire 10.77-81)

A public that pays more attention to reality TV than its status as free citizens cannot withstand an unremitting encroachment on its liberties by calculating, unscrupulous and power-hungry leaders (Mike Lofgren, The Party is Over, 2012 CE)

The party is over

I haven’t even finished reading this book yet, and I may well have more to say about it later.  It is packed with sharp, pithily expressed and extremely scary observations about the break-down of the American political system and its corruption by corporate money.  A Republican who worked as a staffer in Congress for nearly 30 years, Lofgren is pretty scathing about the Democrats, but his most bitter attacks (at least so far) are directed against his own party which he describes as becoming less and less like a political party and more like ‘an apocalyptic cult’.

What he really exposes is a kind of doublespeak in which strident claims to be defending something – the constitution, liberty, democracy, the national interest- are used to conceal attacks on that same object.  ‘Let us now dispose,’ Lofgren writes, for instance, ‘ of the quaint notion that the present-day Republican Party is conservative.’   He defines the GOP, as it now exists, as a ‘radical right-wing party’, which doesn’t really conserve and protect anything, for all that it invokes the memory of a romanticised past, but seeks to completely transform society in the interests of the very wealthy* using whatever means possible and with a kind of Leninist ruthlessness.

The American political system works in a very different way from the British one, but there is much here that is familiar to a British reader all the same.  For instance:

The GOP reflexively scorns so-called elites (by which it means educated, critical thinkers) to mask the way it is utterly beholden to the true American elite.

I am particularly struck by Lofgren’s observation that the current Republican Party deliberately seeks to undermine the credibility of government itself:

Should Republicans succeed in preventing the Senate from doing its job, it would further lower Congress’s favorability rating among the American people. In such a scenario the party that presents itself as programmatically against government – i.e., the Republican Party – will come out the relative winner.

Undermining Americans’ belief in their own institutions of self-government remains a prime GOP electoral strategy.

A UK parallel is the relentless attack on the quality of public services, which is always ostensibly in the name of making them better, but which in fact reduces the standing of the services themselves.   But we also have a culture of cynicism about politicians and government in general, and I’ve long thought that (for instance) leftish comedians should be more aware of whose interests such routine and unfocused cynicism actually serves.

*Interesting fact: according to Lofgren under Eisenhower’s Republican presidency in the 50s, the top rate of income tax in the US was 91%.  Even the new leadership of the British Labour Party, characterised by many as unelectably left-wing, only proposes a top rate of 50%.

Freedom is slavery

Politics is a rough business everywhere but, from this side of the Atlantic, the tone of political discourse in the US can sometimes look particularly ugly.  One of the worst examples I’ve ever seen, was the suggestion by Senator Rand Paul that a right to free health care is equivalent to a belief in slavery.  The quote in question was the following:

 With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to health care, you have realize what that implies. It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me. It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses.

Basically, once you imply a belief in a right to someone’s services — do you have a right to plumbing? Do you have a right to water? Do you have right to food? — you’re basically saying you believe in slavery.

I’m a physician in your community and you say you have a right to health care. You have a right to beat down my door with the police, escort me away and force me to take care of you? That’s ultimately what the right to free health care would be.

(If you think this must be some crude spoof, by the way, here is a clip of him saying it.)

By way of information to US readers, we have a free National Health Service here in the UK, meaning that everyone has a right to healthcare, and my mother and my maternal grandfather both worked for it as doctors.  They were not forced to be doctors, and they were not forced as doctors to work for the state. They were paid well enough to lead prosperous middle class lifestyle.  They were free to resign whenever they wanted.  They could go and work for private healthcare agencies, if they prefered, or for themselves.   There’s absolutely no sense at all in which their condition could be described as slavery, or indeed as different in any fundamental way to the condition of anyone else who works for an organisation of any kind.  When you think what slavery actually means (and the Senator represents the former slave state of Kentucky, so he should know), the very comparison is obscene.

You might say that US politics is not my business.  But actually it is because the US is a global superpower, and what happens in the US matters everywhere, and perhaps especially in the UK, where there is a common cultural heritage, and no language barrier to filter us from its blast. However I freely admit I know very little about the personalities involved, and almost nothing about Senator Paul.  So here are a couple of questions.

Is Senator Paul an extremely stupid man, so lacking in curiosity that he hasn’t bothered to look into the many free health services around the world, and so lacking in imagination that he can’t figure out for himself how such a service might work without breaking down doctors’ doors?

Or is he cynical and mendacious man, who in order to serve his own political ends, tries to besmirch something that, whatever its snags, is basically benign (a community agreeing to club together to provide healthcare for everyone) by equating it with something that is evil and foul?

Echoing in the back of my mind are the slogans of George Orwell’s Oceania: WAR IS PEACE.  FREEDOM IS SLAVERY.  IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH.  Not an exact parallel of course, but what Orwell was warning about was the misuse of language to destroy our capacity to think.

Invisible electors

One thing that strikes me about the results of the UK election is the arbitary relationship between the number of seats won by each party, and their proportion of the popular vote. The Scottish National Party is now the 3rd largest party in the UK parliament, with 56 seats, but it did this on the basis of 1.5 million votes, while the Lib Dems, with 2.4 million votes, only got 8 seats. Even more bizarrely, the largest Northern Ireland party, the DUP, also won 8 seats, but did so with only 184,000 votes (the same number of seats as the Lib Dems, but less than a tenth of their votes).  Meanwhile the Green Party, with eight times as many votes as the DUP, came out of the process with only one seat.

Suffering a brief attack of geekery, I’ve just done the sums (see table below).  If seats were awarded proportionally, the Greens would have won 25 seats, the SNP  31, and the Lib Dems 52.  The most spectacular difference, though, would have been that UKIP, with 12.6% of the popular vote, would have won 82 parliamentary seats, as opposed to the single seat which it actually won*.

I can’t say that I’m personally sorry that this particular outfit has not got those 82 seats.  But, all the same, I can’t help thinking that the lack of relationship between votes cast and MPs elected is one of the causes of cynicism about the democratic process.

What we have at the moment is a system which rewards parties that have concentrated powerbases in particular geographical areas (like the DUP and the SNP, but also Labour and Conservatives, with their heartlands respectively in the big industrial cities and the leafy suburbs and shires).  But it punishes parties whose support is more widely and thinly distributed across the country, and so grossly misrepresents the relative strength of opinion in the country in general, to the point where whole swathes of electors are rendered virtually invisible.

The fact that the SNP won all but three seats in Scotland, for instance, gives the impression that the whole of Scotland is fervently nationalist, though in fact the SNP only won half the Scottish votes, leaving the unionist half of Scotland almost completely unrepresented.  (And who would have thought, from the coverage of the result that the disgraced and humiliated Lib Dems actually won 900,000 more UK votes than the proud and triumphant SNP?)

A proportional system would still, just, have yielded a right-of-centre majority, based on the popular vote in this election, with Conservatives, UKIP, DUP and UUP between them winning 329 seats, but it would have been a smaller and much more precarious majority than the one the Conservatives won on their own under the first-past-the-post system.  There are lots of downsides of PR, but surely the benefit would be that there would be less triumphalism, fewer spurious claims to have the backing of “the people”, and a more transparent process of negotation between parties that represent the enormous diversity of views that actually exist?

Party table*Of course, these figures assume that everyone would still vote for the same party under a PR system.  In fact, supporters of smaller parties often decide to vote tactically for parties they think likely to win.  My guess is that under a PR system, the Green Party would actually have won quite a lot more than 25 seats, because a lot of potential Green voters voted Labour this time round.  No doubt this would be true of UKIP sympathisers too, many of whom probably voted Conservative for similar reasons.


Hierarchies in Eden

In the article I discussed in my previous post, David Brin argued that a rigidly hierarchical pyramidal social structure was an “attractor” in the mathematical sense of the word: a pattern or shape towards which a dynamic system tends to evolve.

I’ve often seen Dark Eden described as a ‘dystopian’ novel but, though life may seem grim in Eden, the society itself, as described at the beginning of the book, is actually in many ways utopian.  It has not settled into one of those rigid hierarchical pyramids.  There are no distinctions between rich and poor; women are at least as powerful as men; murder and rape are unknown.

In the second Eden novel (Mother of Eden) all this has changed.  Most of Eden has succumbed to the pyramidal attractor, and the majority of its population live in one of two highly stratified societies, one founded by John Redlantern, the other ruled by the descendants of David Redlantern.   In the case of the ‘Johnfolk’ at least, the people at the bottom of the pyramid are really no more than serfs, ruled over in a more-or-less feudal way, by ‘chiefs’ who are the heirs of those who were John’s lieutenants in his protracted struggle against the Davidfolk. The great rift in Eden’s human community that was depicted in the first book, was the catalyst which set in motion the process of stratification which  also included the increasing dominance of men over women.

One of the things I was interested in exploring in Mother of Eden is how those hierarchies work.   My main protagonist, Starlight Brooking, comes from one of the few remaining exceptions to the pyramidal norm, and she finds it bewildering that such a very number of people can exercise so much control over so many.  Why don’t the people at the bottom of the pyramid simply refuse to do what they’re told?

She discovers there are many reasons, one of which is the fact that the system of stories and beliefs which people use as their source of meaning has, to to speak, been rigged so that it bolsters the status quo.   Another is a ‘prisoner’s dilemma’ kind of paradox: yes, if all the ‘small’ people rose up together, they could defeat the ‘big’ people, but if some stand up to the big people and the others don’t take their side, they’ll end up a lot worse off than they would have been if they kept their heads down.   Another again is that even people who seem low down in the pyramid, and look like they are getting a pretty bad deal, do in fact turn out to have at least some stake in in maintaining the structure as it is, if they know they’re not right at the bottom.

I won’t say how it all works out for Starlight, but I will say that I think people sometimes forget that last point when they are thinking about politics in the modern world.  It simply isn’t the case that the world can be divided up in ‘the rich and powerful’ and ‘the rest of us’, however much we’d like to place ourselves squarely on the side of the good guys.  In a country like the UK, even middle-income people who don’t think of themselves as especially well off are, by global standards, not only very rich, but quite possibly richer (at least in purely material terms) than will ever be possible for the human race as a whole.

Digital Fausts?

I thought I’d write a few lines about an article I read on Saturday about how Facebook avoids UK taxes, by shuffling money around in the usual way (like Starbucks, which will apparently pay no corporation tax at all in the UK for the next 3 years).   But when I searched for the article on Google (yes, I know),  I was invited to access it via – guess what? – my Facebook account, and warned that this would mean sharing information about myself.

I begin to wonder why I have anything to do with this outfit, let alone voluntarily provide it with information about myself, my views, my contacts, my choices, that it can use to make money, and others can use for whatever purpose they like.

I’ve been thinking lately about flashback scenes in movies and stories (see here and here), when characters look back to the early days, when they saw the signs, but paid no heed.  I was put in mind of them by news about climate change (which I still think will come to eclipse every other question).   But one can easily envisage another movie, in which characters look back wonderingly at the days when they first voluntarily surrendered their privacy to huge international organisations over which they had almost no control.

Maybe it would be a good thing if the whole phenomenon really were to fade away like bubonic plague, as some have suggested it may?   And perhaps it would be a good thing too, if we were to stop falling for things that are supposedly ‘free’ but which we actually pay for with our souls?

Yes or no?

A visit to my daughter in Edinburgh has made me think about the Scottish independence referendum coming up in September.   Like a lot of English people, I hadn’t paid much attention to it until recently, but am now realising that this is a pretty big thing, not only for Scotland, but for the whole UK.

Every  friend of mine that I’ve discussed this with, English and Scottish, is strongly against Scottish independence, but I’m not so sure.  The strongest argument I’ve heard against voting yes is that independence would cater to a certain narrow, chauvinist anti-Englishness which (or so I’m told by Scottish friends) is one of the less appealing aspects of Scottish life: a parochial, small-town dislike of anything from outside.  I’ve no way of judging how large a part that plays in the current wave of separatism.

That aside, though, I can see several good reasons for voting yes.   The first is simply that the wider the base of a pyramid, the higher is its tip.   A smaller country can be more accountable to its people – you have more say if you’re one of five million voters than if you’re one of sixty million – and should require fewer tiers of hierarchy between top and bottom.   Of course a global economy means that all countries have to participate in supranational institutions, and this creates additional pyramids that rise up above the national level, but I can’t see that it would be to the disadvantage of Scotland to have its own seat at the table in those institutions, rather than to be represented by the government of a nation within which Scotland is only a small constituent part.

The second reason I can see for voting yes lies, oddly enough, in some of the arguments and positions that are put forward for voting no.  Scotland might not be viable on its own (Why not?   It’s similar in population to Denmark or Norway, and is one of the better-off countries in Europe.)  Scotland might not be allowed to join the EU.    (Oh yeah? When the EU has just agreed to admit Croatia, smaller in population than Scotland and with well under half the GDP?)   Scotland cannot have a currency union with the rest of the UK.  (Except that a UK minister has already contradicted this.)  I hear in these messages the tone of a clingy parent who tries to undermine her child’s confidence because she is afraid to let the child go: ‘It’s a nasty difficult world out there.  You’d be much better off at home with mum.’  And it seems to me that a strong argument for ‘yes’ is simply the confidence that Scotland would gain as a country when it discovered that it could manage perfectly well on its own.  (As of course it would: economics is not an exact science and no one can really know the long-term consequences when there are so many variables involved, but it is surely obvious that Scotland would be perfectly viable either way?)

And this brings me to my third argument for a yes vote, one I’ve not heard anyone express before, which is simply that change can be fun.   All countries are works of the imagination.  A disparate bunch of people are included within a more-or-less arbitrary border, and if all goes well, over time they begin to think of themselves as a kind of community.  Isn’t it refreshing sometimes to reimagine things, just as it can be refreshing to redecorate a room, or move house, or end a relationship that has lost its spark?   Does there have to be a practical reason?   An independent Scotland would be an interesting new project for the people of Scotland to take on (and would incidentally create an interesting new project for the rest of the UK).  Doesn’t the question really boil down to whether they fancy it or not, rather than whether it would be ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

A rigged game

monopolyIn my other life (I work part-time as a lecturer), I’ve sometimes used a rigged monopoly game – a game where one person starts off with, say, ten times as much money as the other, as a way of representing the unfairness of life.  I used it in a text book too.   The point I wanted to make was  not only that life is unfair, but that it is so unfair that, if it was a game, most of us would refuse to play.

I only recently found out (thanks to Thure Etzold) that a rigged monopology game has actually been used as the basis of a psychological experiment to explore the effect of wealth on human behaviour.  Paul Piff observed games of monopoly between pairs of players, randomly assigned to advantaged and disadvantated positions.   Even though they knew the game was rigged to make it virtually certain that they would win, advantaged players would start to act in a more arrogant way towards their adversary.  If we are doing better than another person, the experiment seems to suggest, we start to feel superior to them, even if our rational head knows that our success is none of our doing.  Financial success means status, and status means we can push other people around.

This is consistent with other studies by Piff in which he found that, for instance, expensive cars are less likely to stop at pedestrian crossings than cheaper ones, and that better-off people in psychological experiments are more likely than poorer ones to help themselves to sweets that they have been specifically told are there to give to children in another study.   If you haven’t come across this work, there’s a PBS video here, and an article here.