The Conspiracy of Good Taste

Class Oppression and Culture: 2001 Conclusion

It was quite clear to me from the Sixties and Seventies experience that revolutionary politics couldn't provide effective answers to ending social injustice. As I tried to find an explanation of the anger I felt so keenly about class issues I found very little clarity of thinking around. In fact the identity politics that emerged from that period soon showed what a dead spot existed everywhere when it came to any questions on class. Gender and Race 'awareness' was embraced by the liberal society but when it came to class there was almost complete avoidance. I couldn't get very far thinking about it on my own and there seemed to be some invisible taboo that silenced discussion about the disgusting class divisions that pitted humans against each other and seemed to be at the root of all the worst excesses of human behaviour.

It wasn't simply a matter of politics. We'd spent a century getting the right to vote but all this achieved was a welfare state that bureaucratised human caring and a housing situation in which working class communities have been constantly broken up, harassed and stuck in ridiculous malfunctioning modernist estates. I asked  myself why working class people hadn't called a halt to the grand scale of abuse directed against them and why middle class people continued to be so callous and patronising in managing the society that perpetrated these mundane horrors.

The only thing I could think was that there had to be mechanisms of oppression that got at people in the process of their daily lives, as they grew up and lived their lives. Mechanisms that were somehow enacted in such a way that we hadn't been able to defend against them.

Whilst working class organisations had focused on the workplace in terms of getting shorter hours, holidays and better pay, there was something else going on in the background that had been missed. Something that we hadn't fought because it had been installed by stealth.

A general word that describes the flux of meaning and communication in our daily lives is culture. Perhaps oppression was being imposed through the ebb and flow of cultural meanings... rather than just being an effect of the exploitation of our labour. It seemed to me that if we could identify the nuts and bolts of these cultural mechanisms then we could go about dismantling them. Class oppression is too easily accepted as a normal 'fact of life' rather than something imposed and vile; something we don't have to put up with; something that degrades all humans whilst it goes unchallenged. We need to start to find out how these mechanisms work and how they can be dismantled. This book is an attempt to find some clues as to how class oppression has been installed and maintained through culture.

In the Nineteenth century working class people had banded together to defend and improve work conditions with some success, but they had not defended their lives so well outside of work. The importance of defending the integrity and resourcing of working class culture does not seem to have been generally understood. Without a well resourced culture people lose the ability to have a sense of themselves. We loose the ability to think collectively as a social body. We do not get a sense of our own achievements on our own terms. We do not, in the main, get to tell our own stories in any medium. Or see ourselves as the key players in human history.

It seems that three interrelated things have happened to put us in this predicament. First, working class culture was either banned outright or it was undermined and derided in a thousand ways. An audience was gradually separated from an active relation with production and passified. The new urban culture moved from the Free 'n' Easies of the early Nineteenth century to the fixed seating and blackout of the modern cinema. Second, new urban working class cultural forms were commercialised, professionalised and turned into self-serving commodities. Third, middle class culture and knowledge, had achieved such an appearance of authority that many working class leaders were persuaded that this was a universal model of culture which everyone should aspire to. Working class culture (the way we lived our daily lives) was bad: Middle class culture was good, and should be our goal if we were ever to 'get on'.

Without a culture of their own a people are gutted. They are laid out on the slab. They can then be chopped up, taken apart and disposed of. What Frantz Fanon said of colonial domination is reflected back in the domination of the 'natives' at home:

"The poverty of the people, national oppression and the inhibition of culture are one and the same thing" (The Wretched of the Earth, 1961 p191).

That is what has happened to the working class. The operatives of this outrage have been and are the middle class. There has been resistance of all sorts - but it has never managed to link up and realise its collective power.

In this book I've tried to get behind the civilised facade that is put up by middle class knowledge and gather some evidence of what these cultural mechanisms of class oppression might be.

The middle class people that perpetrate the crimes of class oppression hide behind masks of respectability. They are the upright members of the community many of us have looked up to. They make out they are on our side, that they have our best interests at heart - before they shaft us. They are 'the great and the good' - artists, architects, educators, broadcasters, and the directors and managers of our cultural and educational institutions. They manage to control local committees and busy themselves in local affairs whilst all the while intimidating working class people with their self-confident bluster and officious manners.

Another mask that they have often hidden behind is  'Socialism'. It's difficult for many working class people to suspect a middle class person that is apparently spouting socialist 'principles' and doing everything for the good of the people.

I started this book off by discussing the insidious effect of William Morris's influence in the Nineteenth century. I went on to consider how the mediation of Cecil Sharp had silenced singing in my own family. I then related the work of Clough Williams Ellis to the way we have had our ability to provide housing for ourselves excised in the Twentieth century. I could have gone on to include others like Lord Reith who started the BBC:

"The pronunciation of the King's English is a sore trial to students of our own language. It is also a matter of considerable concern and irritation to ourselves ... One hears the most appalling travesties of vowel pronunciation. This is a matter in which broadcasting may be of immense assistance" (John Reith, 1924).

"A long talk with Lord Byng after lunch at the Athenaeum... He said I ought not to keep anyone on in the B.B.C. after being divorced, irrespective of the circumstances, which is what I have felt all along, although I was glad to have his confirmation" (Reith Diaries 2-2-1927).

"In six short years Sir John Reith has made himself more even than the guardian of public morals. He has become the judge of What We Ought to Want... Sir John has taught us to regard him as the last surviving Victorian father, the man who alone knows what is good for us"(Helen Wilkinson M.P. Evening Standard 16-6-1931). (Thanks to Yvonne Ossei for  these quotes.)

Leading authors like D.H. Lawrence, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Aldous Huxley, who I grew up to regard as leading progressive intellectuals, were supporters of eugenics: Eugenics was coined by Francis Galton who lead a group which believed that society would benefit from selective breeding. The inferior classes and defectives would be discouraged from breeding.

Others distinguished modern authors feared something they imagined as 'the masses' and sought to exclude them, remove their literature and deny their humanity. (see The Intellectuals and Masses, John Carey, 1992.) Eugenics sought to destroy both slum dwellers and the disabled. Such misanthropic attitudes are still lurking behind many middle class led institutions of our society.

It may not be worth studying more contemporary leaders because nowadays the situation seems to be a lot more diffused. The model set by the early pioneers has become a set of embedded cultural practices that is part of the normal behaviour of the ordinary middle class cadre and is perpetuated through institutions like the English public school system and the 'old' universities. Cultural institutions like the Arts Council of England talk a lot about 'inclusion' and creating 'access' to the arts. We can be sure that this is not the kind of radical inclusion that is being discussed by working class activists.(For a working class take on inclusion see: 'Incurably Human' by Micheline Mason, Working Press, 2000).

Working class people need to run their own communities, learning, culture, entertainment, welfare and everything without any middle class management or interference. And to do this in ways that are not directed from above by the state but are decided by a process of local grassroots discussion and experiment. Working class communities need to get a share of resources, that is in proportion to our numbers in the population, to use on our own lives and well-being, in ways that we decide. We need to make a decisive break with exclusive middle class traditions of knowledge and culture. We need to insist that middle class people do not manage our lives any longer.

We must also understand how the mechanisms of oppression have caused classism to be internalised in our own families and communities. The ways in which we have come to believe in the devaluation of ourselves and each other must be weeded out and refuted. This is a task of enormous historical proportions - enormous damage has been sustained in mind and body. We must ask how we are going to recover from the effects of this and stop it being passed on to the next generation.

There's bound to be a lot of variation in the detail of class oppressinn in different cultural locations. But I believe that something along these lines must be in effect in any advanced capitalist society. Liberal capitalism couldn't be so rampant without a callous middle class to manage it, and a subdued, atomised working class whose cultural integrity has been severely undermined if not obliterated.

This account might seem crude and faulty to a lot of readers. The only way to develop these ideas is to have a network of communication about class. Needless to say this network needs to be between working class people. We need to put our thinking, research and experience together and to breach the silence that has surrounded class for so long. We need our own forums, networks and archives. Clues about how oppression works and how liberation might be achieved occasionally slip out in all media, even on TV. We need to collect all these bits and pieces and reassemble them into a form that can provide insight, inspiration and motivate dialogue in our own communities. We need forms of research and learning which are not compliant with academic values.

Clearly the dominant culture is good at perpetuating itself or it would have withered long ago. An autonomous working class culture would seriously threaten the class system. So we cannot expect these things to fall into our laps without a severe reaction from the system. We cannot expect to get the information we need by a process of cool investigation. Oppression is embedded in our whole selves and it is going to need convulsions of our whole selves to expel it. Academic knowledge sidelines emotion. A working class rationality would embody emotion as a necessary channel through which certain crucial thinking about ending oppression can be a reached.

Working class people have achieved many things in all kinds of media from James Kelman winning the Booker prize in 1994 to the world-wide success of rap music. For some reason this doesn't come together as an unstoppable force to end social injustice. We need to work out the reason this has not occurred and plan to reap the full rewards of our own successes.

The covert operation of classism under cover of culture, the conspiracy of Good Taste, has pirated our history, given us false identity papers, assumed accents and an empty shell of socialism. It has denied our culture; violated our communities; invaded our minds and denied our intelligence. The conspiracy of Good Taste produces knowledge with no heart, manners with no soul, sex with no head and language without meaning. It hands out hurt and casts out healing. It is the cancer in a mothers breast. It has confused love with hate. It has taken our desire to be together and turned it out into the cold night. Good Taste is a glamourous facade which screens us from the impossibly horrific normality of the world order - like a glittering palace built on the sands of unbearable self hatred...

As we enter the twentyfirst century we must insist on cultural autonomy and make sure we are not palmed of by smooth tongued officials, as we have been in the past. The working class has been typified as 'stupid'. In reality it is working class people who can best think about a new society which makes caring for each other its priority. When it comes to thinking about how to improve the quality of human relations middle class intelligence is calloused, blinkered and useless. Working class people must help each other to recognise the quality of our own intelligence and put our thinking and values centre stage in the redirection of human activities.

Stefan Szczelkun June 2001.