Down and out in the class war

Suzanne Moore notes the death of the working-class hero - destroyed by drink, drugs, sex and violenc

A working-class hero is something to be. But only if you like the working class and much of the time I don't. I grew up in a class where people made themselves deliberately stupid; they became narrow-minded, closed down and hemmed in. I cannot romanticise the working class and, even if I wanted to, there are few role models. If I were male and northern, maybe I could see myself in a Ken Loach movie or Coronation Street or even glimpse something of myself in the contorted exclamations of John Prescott; but I am female and from the south. I have never lived in Victoria Wood-land nor am I one of the Scots, the new carriers of authentic working-class identity.

Anyway, I have moved class. Accidentally, grudgingly perhaps, but undeniably. I got an education and a job in the media. How much more upwardly mobile do you want? I don't work in Boots, which would have been my mother's aspiration for me. Yet I am not comfortable with being middle class because, if there is anything worse than the working classes, it is the middle classes, and any prolonged encounter with a middle-class person reminds me that I am not one of them. I just do not have the sense of entitlement, nor the capacity for worry.

Strangely enough, I managed to avoid the full horror of the bourgeoisie, even though I studied a lot of Marxist theory at college. An interesting theory, I thought lumpenly at the time, but nothing to do with my life. It was only when I was asked to read books called things like Working-Class Culture that I started to feel uncomfortable. My culture, I argued now that I was finally aware that I was in possession of one, should not be an object of anthropological study. "Who walks around with books called Middle-Class Culture?" I demanded. It wasn't till I worked at the Guardian that I fully realised what it meant to be middle class. Not just middle class . . . but concerned. Anger may be an energy, as Johnny Rotten may have sung, but anger is a working-class energy. To be middle class, I realised, was to be permanently indignant but never full of the kind of righteous and bloody-minded anger that makes you know you are alive. It also means, as far as I can tell, never really enjoying yourself.

Yet we still talk of the petty demarcations of class as though they are entirely external, as though they reside in consumer choices rather than in a mindset. We still tolerate clearly ridiculous statements like "the classless society". We still say that class doesn't matter. Well, it matters to me more and more. It continues to shape my life in ways that I am increasingly resentful of and at the same time grateful for. I am, as they say in California, "conflicted". So was John Lennon when he wrote "Working-Class Hero". It is the nature of the beast. That is why working-class heroes fall from grace so easily.

Look at Gazza. Look at Noel and Liam. Once we cheered their "attitude". Now they are just rich and boorish instead of poor and thick. They went from shoplifting outlaws to shopaholics in just one album. Witness every punch-drunk boxer, every cheating celebrity hairdresser, every footballer coked out of his brain beating up his girlfriend in a nightclub, and ask yourself: what kind of heroes are they? Or take homeboy John Major, who could have been a contender, a class warrior worth celebrating but became . . . John Major.

No, the working-class hero these days represents no one except himself. And then not for long. He is little more than some nostalgic throwback. The decline of industry and the entrance of women into the workforce make a mockery of traditional notions of working-class life. No one really wants working-class men any more. Advertisers ignore them. Tabloid newspapers salivate, not at the thought of the man in the street, but at the young, aspirational woman worker.

The working-class hero, now a member of the long-term unemployed, exists only as fiction and even then he is hardly heroic. He is in the books of Irvine Welsh, in the dirty realism of Richard Billingham's art, in the emotionally deformed Mitchell brothers of EastEnders. He is bowed. He is tearing himself apart. He is no longer sure of who he is. More often than not, working-class masculinity these days is portrayed as simply unlivable. The working-class hero does not disrupt the class system, he does not even challenge it, he simply destroys himself with drink and drugs, sex and violence. His self-annihilation is performed right under Tony's grinning shadow and new Labour's talk of social exclusion. He has been superseded by working-class wannabees, "lads" of all ages and all classes who have co-opted working-class pastimes to pass them off as their own. For the middle class, class identity has always been something of a pick 'n' mix affair. Remember Blair's descent into Essex man on the Des O'Connor show.

Cultural slumming is sanctified in the worlds of art and literature in the pursuit of all that is "real": the monotony of poverty, the deadly boredom, the routine self-oppression. Working-class life may be freeze-framed, but not understood. Instead, we talk a kind of code: inner city, sink estates, crime, heroin epidemics, single mothers, ethnic minorities, teenage pregnancies. What are these things if not a way of talking about working-class life? Why pretend otherwise?

Every so often, something comes along which tells it like it is and we are repulsed. Nick Davies's book Dark Heart revealed, as the subtitle put it, "the shocking truth about hidden Britain", but we didn't really want to know. Gordon Burn's book Happy Like Murderers was condemned because its subject matter - the lives of Fred and Rosemary West - revealed a way of life we do not want to know is lived alongside our own. Gary Oldman's stunning Nil by Mouth showed us victims victimising each other. There was no moral uplift to be found here, and the film was better for it.

Such grim representatives of working-class existence may not be positive role models, but it is too late in the day because positive inequality is increasing. We know that. We are mostly happy to live with its consequences. We do not like seeing teenagers huddled in sleeping-bags, but we hope our own houses hold their value, what with the recession and everything. This is not hypocrisy; this is human.

Policies that attempt to include the excluded are only popular as long as they don't affect the already included. The middle-class retreat from state education is a case in point. Far from being a classless society, it is now possible for many to live as new Victorians with a form of class apartheid. The only members of the working class that some people meet are their cleaners, drivers and prostitutes. Realists know that there is more division between women of different classes than there is between men and women, yet the charade of class denial goes largely unchallenged.

Meanwhile, I sit and watch The Royle Family, a depiction of working-class life, in all its farting glory, a culture of catalogues, chain-smoking, singalongs and endless telly and wonder at the genius of Caroline Aherne, whose suicide attempt I read of in the papers. Or I watch the work of that underrated actress Patsy Palmer, another troubled soul, who plays the wonderful Bianca in EastEnders. I marvel at the continuing brilliance of Kathy Burke in whatever she does.

And I think that the working-class hero has taken his redundancy payment. Whereas the working-class heroine, difficult, feisty, never at ease with herself, must be out there somewhere.

The writer is a columnist with the "Mail on Sunday"

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

***

The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

***

The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition