The Conspiracy of Good Taste


No classless society can arise without a cultural base. It cannot be directed from above but must arise from a rich renewal of people's relations one to another. The failure of bureaucratic communism has proven this without doubt. A liberatory culture cannot be planned from above. Leadership will be necessary in the sense of people taking initiatives to organise, but bureaucratic forms could not be central to this process. What I intend to show in this book is that people will tend to evolve such a culture given half a chance. What has happened in practice is that the class society has continually reasserted its dominant values with violent acts, which are dressed in the fine robes of civilisation: disguised in placid tones of normality. People's culture has been smothered at birth while those who do the vile deed do it with an elegant gesture.

I have painful insights into the nature of working class oppression from my own history. This is a quality of knowledge that has yet to find adequate recognition in the pantheon of learned sources and yet most of us are motivated and directed, limited or inspired by just such subjective knowledge. What I learned was the central and murderous denial of our intellectual capacity that is at the heartless core of class oppression. By this means, we are, as a class, denied a community of intellectual thought through the denial of access to resources and through limiting myths of mental incompetence. The dominant culture's values and traditions are seen as embodying an excellence, rationality and taste that is beyond reproach. It is presented as intrinsically and universally superior. The dynamic of class oppression around this hub has denied working class people full intellectual and cultural development. Many areas of our culture are denied altogether and what remains is devalued, proscribed and impoverished.

For her part the owning class oppressor is required to have a large area of her own sensibility shut down, numbed, frozen. Her perception of the oppressed is that of matchstick-people -- crudely drawn stereotypes. If this were not so, the capitalist as a human being could not direct the vile and endless catalogue of crimes against humanity in the name of daily business and yearly profits. My sense of a person's full humanity cannot envisage such unrelenting and institutionalised violence and calumny without a deeply seated unawareness of the consequences of such actions to human life and dignity. This seems to be the necessary nature of all effective oppressor conditioning -- whether white, male, adult, ruling class or whatever pedigree -- to blot out the humanity of the oppressed.

I had this powerful insight that both sides of the class equation were damaged by the process of oppression. But neither side was aware, anything but obliquely, of its own disabling lack.

In some way oppression generates its own smoke-screen. Long ago Freud had understood that early hurt could be repressed into an unconscious existence, which might only be accessed by dreams and free association or 'madness'. At the same time he realised that the repressed was constantly seeking its expression, sometimes finding it in perverse, bizarre or anti-social behaviour. Wilhelm Reich took this further and indicated how political irrationality resulted from just such damage. He envisaged mass people's clinics for psychic healing. Harvey Jackins has realised some of Reich's dreams by practically investigating the place of emotion in the healing of such hurts. In the last forty years ordinary people in all walks of life have self-organised to attempt to re-evaluate their own history and recover occluded areas of thinking in the Re-evaluation Co-counselling communities.

The great bourgeois intellectuals were inevitably moulded by their own subconscious desires. These defined the essential truths about human beings as a reflection of bourgeois self-images. Within this the working class was represented as a fictional object of knowledge -- to be denied an autonomous subjectivity. These great theories or `grand narratives' came to define the social norm of the dominant culture. Most of us then had to grow up within the classifications thrust on us by these fantasies.

As I studied the characteristics of the dominant culture, it became clear that one of its most persistent and early features is its general denial of bodily forms of emotional expression. The maintenance and reinforcement of this denial is through cultural forms: everything from the facial expression of 'stiff upper lip' to the immobile seated audience in theatres which became popular at the end of the 19th century. Not only are the hurts of oppression repressed into unconsciousness, numbing huge areas of human intelligence, but large areas of the dominant culture seem to have been elaborated from this basis to disguise the foul structure with extravagant surfaces. The values of this culture of artifice are encoded as 'good taste'.

What I wanted to do was to trace how these values of good taste operate in the mechanisms of oppression. The details of economic exploitation have been well explored. The ways in which culture has been used to dominate us are much less well understood.

This book follows the lives of three middle class men who were influential in the direction of this cultural oppression. All of them were socialists and writers; William Morris was also a businessman and a pattern designer; Cecil Sharp was a folk-song collector and an educationalist; Clough Williams-Ellis was an architect and town-planner. These three case studies cover the period from the mid nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century. These are just three of the more charismatic figures amongst a mass of professionals and philanthropists who managed to repress and stymie the development of urban working class culture in the 20th century. Their often sincere efforts to contribute to a better world were dwarfed and negated by the undertow of their unconscious class values.

William Morris had taken a neo-medieval vision of rural life and work and relayed it as a utopian goal for every proletarian. These unreal myths were cleverly woven into a tapestry, which denied the value and potential of contemporary working class cultural responses. His media were publishing and business. Through his wealth, energy and humanitarian charisma he became an icon as the cultural 'Champion of the People'.

Following Morris, Cecil Sharp focused on song and dance, the means by which a people celebrates its life. Again he took a romanticised, cleaned up, censored and edited version of a past rural culture and represented it as the ideal for a national song and dance. He presented these ideas through the burgeoning institutions of mass education. All that did not fit his model was castigated and denounced. In this way the least threatening aspects of working class culture were selected and made into the norms of an ersatz national heritage.

Clough Williams-Ellis was an architect and planner. From this position he attacked the autonomy and tastelessness of the working class plotland housing as eyesores. He used the well established myth of England as a green and pleasant land to demonise this widespread self-build culture that flourished in the 1920s and '30s. This autonomous activity was replaced with large scale planning and development. The state presided over crimes that will only be fully recognised when the destruction of working class community in the pursuit of profit is outlawed.

These three are simply representatives of a process of oppression, which continued from the 1880s to the 1980s. A process which blasted the stout heart of radical modern working class culture, reducing it to a smouldering ruin which was over-run by cheap and distracting commodities. But no culture can be utterly destroyed whilst a people live. For culture arises every moment from peoples' lives. Whilst we are chained to the linear and brutal cash nexus we will be working class, whatever myths delude us with false identities and diversions. We need to reclaim a contemporary working class identity, which is free of old stereotypes, rediscover and reconnect to the personal and cultural histories that produced us and find ways to heal ourselves from the terrible legacy of hurt left by class oppression. I can only hope that this book can contribute in a small way to this process.

My criticism is levelled as much at the people who interpret these lives as it is at the characters themselves. History rings hollow with the absence of working class voices. Historians are just as likely to suffer from the blanks and stereotypes of classism as their subjects. Although I cannot hope to compete with their scholarship, I feel compelled to offer my rude critique to offset at least partly the distorted image of history that we receive.

This analysis reflects the new possibilities latent in our contemporary world. We have everything we need for a flourishing liberatory people-orientated culture. We need only to rebuild our confidence in our own language, thinking and values. A process that needs to be cultural -- a part of the way we live. A process that requires some people from the broadly defined working class to accept their vocations as intellectuals, to come to terms with their own history and to shake off the fear which makes them keep their conclusions to themselves.

This requires we thaw out rather than chill out. Working class people have traditionally valued a person's warmth above their appearance. The directing sense of the new intellectually brilliant working class culture will not be the cool neon eye of capitalism but may rather be a dynamic and intelligent warmth.

How This Perception Developed

In 1971 I was in The Scratch Orchestra when it was visiting Newcastle and the North East for its 'Dealer Concert' series. This experimental music group was defined as 'enthusiasts sharing their resources to make music' and concerts involved up to fifty people from classically trained musicians to sculptors. The Dealer Concerts became notorious through the media sensationalising of Greg Bright's piece 'Sweet FA'. The papers reported that the well-known composer Cornelius Cardew had written 'fuck' on scraps of paper and handed them to children.

At about the same time I was preparing my study of basic shelter, later to be published by Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton as Survival Scrapbook 1: Shelter. Unicorn Bookshop, with the imposing beat poet Bill Butler at the helm, had itself recently been taken to court in one of the rash of obscenity trials at around this time; I think it was for selling The Little Red Schoolbook.

 We were camping by a river just outside Newcastle near the village of Overton. Across the river was a brightly painted settlement of about fifty 'shanty' houses. These intrigued me. They were startlingly different from the normal speculative, council or vernacular housing. Many had evidently grown from inventive adaptations of a wheeled van or shed. Their improvised collage of found or cheap materials had a direct parallel in our activity in the Scratch Orchestra and I took a morning off to photograph them. Later, as I travelled about the country, I discovered more and more of these shanties. They enjoyed a minor architectural vogue at the time and I wrote short articles for the magazines Architectural Design and Radical Technology, but it was to be almost twenty years before the full implications of my fascination with these structures would become clear to me.

The realisation was first intimated through an unpublished thesis by Phil Wren at Hull School of Architecture, where I had a part-time job around 1983. In this he pointed out that the growth of British shanties was a product of the urban population's successful struggle for increased leisure time. So the shanties were specifically a product of proletarian culture! Although there were clear influences at work, such as the colonial chalet with veranda, the architectural language also incorporated much that was unique. I realised that my attraction was based on a recognition of my own cultural heritage. I empathised with these slight structures more strongly than I did with a conventionally beautiful Palladian villa.

During the twenties and thirties the building of shanties might have become a cultural generator of housing, challenging the mortgage ethos. However shanties met with a virulent campaign of criticism, and one of the principle critics, as Phil Wren informed me, was Clough Williams-Ellis. He pronounced the shanties "England's most disfiguring disease." He and his influential cronies led various campaigns against them, culminating in the 1947 Town & Country Planning Act, which brought all development under comprehensive municipal control. Ellis was also an author and I was able to see a range of his published materials at the RIBA Library in Portland Place.

A year after Phil Wren had written his thesis, Dennis Hardy and Colin Ward published a comprehensive study of the whole phenomenon, ‘Arcadia for All, the Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape’, but I didn't see a copy until I ordered it from the publisher years later in the course of this research.

The next chance event that influenced this line of thought was in 1989 when I came home in the middle of a TV programme, that was showing how William Morris's Arts & Crafts Movement had helped to create a romantic myth about the British countryside. This had contributed to the formation of a modern British national identity in preparation for the First World War. At the time I didn't note the name of the programme or its director, as the implication of what I had seen sank in only slowly.

Later I found out from the erudite librarian Malcolm Taylor that the programme was called The Land of Lost Content and produced by John Trifit based on research by Alun Howkins. The first half of the programme, which I had missed, had begun with the uncompromising statement: "The countryside was always an impoverished place to live, paradise only for the privileged." Basically the great socialist hero William Morris, whose goodness was always held up as beyond reproach, had helped create a notion of Englishness which was based on a sanitised stereotype from a mythical golden age. This 'roses-round-the-porch' romantic interpretation of working class heritage and English landscape was presented as quintessentially English and jolly well worth dying for. This was a building block of the nationalisms that swept up millions in the coming decades. Leading inexorably to the unimaginable horrors of two world wars.

Could this really be the same William Morris, the immaculate socialist hero! The person every young artist with a social conscience is directed to revere, that enemy of imperialism, so sensitive to human suffering and beauty, so appreciative of the work of craftspeople -- could this person really have contributed to the horrors of modern nationalism? Could this person have so misrepresented working class history? Driving people out of their communities to isolated suburban nightmares, fuelled with false idealism? My suspicions mounted -- another gentleman socialist who seemed to be involved in the repression of proletarian cultural autonomy.

Later I bought a battered copy of the 1955 first edition of E.P.Thompson's ‘William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary’ from a second hand book dealer. In fact in spite of its 900 pages it is very readable, if you've a few weeks to spare. In spite of the author's somewhat adulatory attitude to Morris it was still possible to spot many places in which the classism showed through the masterful scholarship. The later editions are shortened and leave crucial bits out.

 Soon after this I went up to Luton, to see Graham Harwood's mural in a youth club, which resulted in the wordless 'IF Comic 1'. In the youth club's dustbin I found a couple of copies of the Folk Music Journal in one of which was a review of Dave Harker's book, 'Fakesong; the Manufacture of English Folksong from 1700 to the Present Day'. This argues that Cecil Sharp, another well-bred gentleman socialist and a major figure in defining English folk music, had been busy misrepresenting working class culture for the common good. Obviously there was something going on here. Three in a row deserved further investigation -- it seemed that the key to my own cultural alienation might reside here.

After several discussions with Howard Slater, who had been doing a lot of parallel reading, the picture was becoming clear. As the industrial revolution gathered strength, people were forced off the land and into towns. Between 1760 and 1860 seven million acres of commons were enclosed with a subsequent loss of commoners' rights. At the same time primitive factory conditions demanded a workforce, which could repeat mindless tasks in an endless daily routine. The destruction of traditional culture, with its cyclical sense of time, and native communalism, was required to achieve this proletarianisation. By 1860 more than half of the population was living in towns and cities. But in spite of the vicious exploitation and loss of ancient traditions the urban environment had its compensations.

 As the cities developed people lived in greater concentrations than they had ever done before. Enormous numbers of people could be in contact with each other in the street; crowds could gather in response to events at short notice; clubs for self-education and intellectual debate sprang up; the possibilities of mutual aid grew; focused around the Pearly Kings and Queens, people organised health care. The old paternal lord or squire became the more distant bosses and their direct interference and cultural intimidation in everyday life was weakened. Although drastically poor, working class culture was dynamic, vibrant and autonomous. These radically new conditions gave rise to human relations which were qualitatively different from anything that had gone before. The ruling class didn't understand it -- from their lofty vantage points it seemed primitive, chaotic and full of fevered energy. Nonetheless they sensed the threat that it posed. What has been mythologised as a bland `community spirit' was the early growth of a potentially liberatory urban culture. If this rich culture had been allowed to mature and flourish, the class system would have been made obsolete.

In his book, Worship and Work, published in Letchworth in 1913, Samuel Barnett, a leading philanthropist of the 1880s and one of the most prolific writers on the subject of culture and recreation in working class life, "was convinced that the classes had become segregated in their pleasures, and that the poor were developing their own style of life which would eventually render them antagonistic to all established authority" (Waters, 1990, p.68).

The realisation of direct, unmediated political power depends on the ability of everyday culture to express, channel and evolve social needs.

The French Revolution of February 1848 had signalled the end of the European aristocratic monopoly of power. On the 10th April of the same year the Chartists, known for their quasi-autonomous cultural forms and monster rallies, gathered on Kennington Common in South London. The Chartists demonstrated the power of the new urban class. The threat of their march on Westminster had terrified the aristocracy and middle classes and they had united to stop them by force of arms. From then on the threat of the new urban class was taken seriously -- with subsequent programmes of repression.

I'm typing this in a house built in the 1880s, reputedly for servants of Buckingham Palace. My house, now a crumbling squat in St Agnes Place, is adjacent to what was Kennington Common. After the Chartist meeting of 1848 the authorities acted quickly, the necessary legislation to enclose the common was put in motion and in 1850 the vicar of St Marks, the local church, promoted a scheme to make 'a place of resort for respectable persons'. The Prince Consort gave it his personal support and in March 1854 Kennington Park with its formal layout was created. I had been living here for nearly ten years before I became aware of this important historical site right here on my  own doorstep. It brought home to me the extent to which working class history is repressed and not just innocently lost in the mists of time.

I then met John Roberts, the art critic, which led me to the discovery of the book by Chris Waters, ‘British Socialists and the Politics of Popular Culture 1884-1914’, which validated these thoughts with a mass of historical material. At over £29 the book itself was beyond my pocket, so I obtained a free copy from the publisher by arranging to do a review for Variant, the radical arts magazine.

According to Chris Waters, middle class philanthropists, do-gooders and socialists had been at work since the 1850s to ensure that the new urban working class were denied their own culture. Morris, Sharp and Ellis were just some of the more charismatic examples of many middle class enthusiasts who led us well and truly up the English country garden path.

This insight went a good way to explain the cultural paucity of my own suburban upbringing, the emptiness and disconnection I felt. If culture is something that grows organically out of desires and social conditions then the culture of the lower class suburbs, where I grew up, was either a cheap imitation of 'middle class' manners or a shallow puddle of consumerism with all the perverse glamour and linear relation to needs that this implies. The deeper traditions had been erased from the clean Formica surface of our lives.

 'Socialism' had been led, or taken over, by a series of well-heeled leaders who interpreted the 'elevation' of the working classes almost entirely in terms of their own values. Values that they arrogantly assumed were universal achievements and objective standards of excellence. These well off socialists wanted to redistribute this civilised culture to all less fortunate members of humanity. For what person was not deserving of the benefits of civilisation? If they weren't grateful, it only proved they were racially deficient or irretrievably damaged by poverty. If they weren't able to recognise their good fortune, they were to be swept away. The people born to lead had a long and righteous tradition of the crusade to civilise the infidel and pagan. One God! One Civilisation! Onward Christian Soldiers!

In the middle of the most violent repression they convinced themselves of their generosity. After all they were only doing people a good turn. In fact their vile victory was to persuade the majority of the people that their betterment only existed on bourgeois terms. At the same time the people's incipient urban culture was damned as inferior, something to be ashamed of; to be hidden; to be discarded; to be denied; and where it persisted, to be destroyed.

The environmental mess left by the first flush of capitalism concerned the social aware philanthropists. They focused on reforms to improve sewerage, paving, industrial regulations and municipal government. Their concern was to tidy up. To make oppression hygienic and nice. To remove eyesores and leave only picturesque poverty. But after the Chartists the middle class do-gooders realised they also needed to invest their time into actively civilising the lower orders.

From the 1860s philanthropists tried to engage the working classes, in their newly won leisure time, with what came to be known as 'Rational Recreation': choral singing, walks in the country, going to art galleries, reading books and that sort of thing -- orderly pastimes in which little emotion is physically expressed. Whereas there is nothing wrong with any of these activities in themselves we have to look at the whole package on offer. A package that represented the values which a person must adopt if they are to rise to better things, to do well in life, to become respectable and a good citizen. To give up working class traits and to take up a banal and abridged version of middle class demeanour and culture.

This is not to suggest that an ideal pure state of working class culture ever existed. Chartism itself was a cultural movement as much as a political movement. They had their own associations which organised birth rites, funerals and other functions. They had their own songs, plays and literature. But middle class taste was still a strong influence. "Poetry had particular appeal for the Chartists, especially imitations of the verse of Shelley and Byron" (Wright, 1988, p.140 referring to Kovalev 1971, pp. 57-73).

The Chartist leaders William Lovett and John Collins wrote their New Move Manifesto in Warwick Goal and it was first published in 1840. In this they founded their hopes for the future on 'the right and influence of moral progress', which accepted the standards of middle class taste as its model. "Working class culture was something to be reformed through individual self-improvement" (Wright, 1988, p.140).

Later socialist self-improvement schemes shared the same characteristics. They mainly succeeded in splitting those who became socialists from the majority of working people. Sensible refutation of alcohol became infused with classist separation. "Self imposed exclusion from the conviviality of the cup was often accompanied by forms of cultural elitism and the failure to reach those who held very different values" (Waters, 1990, p.96).

Ventures such as Leonards' Holiday camps, the Clarion Cycle Clubs and the Vocal Unions tended to cultivate exclusivity and reject those who failed to share their members' aspirations. Socialist clubs did not lead the working class in any open way but created little islands in which those seeking a claim to a more respectable status could congregate.

The concept of 'respectability' was powerful in class oppression. All in all emergent socialism was characterised by an alienation from working class culture, rather than arising from it. Socialist culture was 'narrow, corporate, defensive and marginal' shepherding people towards respectability and decorum in their cultural pursuits. In fact the socialists attacked popular cultural forms like music hall and when the picture palaces came in they laid into them as well. When the socialists later formed film clubs of their own, they were impregnated with middle class values:

"The Film Society leaned more to the pompous than the proletarian e.g., an early programme note which requested that, 'Members remind their guests that the society was founded for the purpose of technical study. Expression of emotion during the showing of the film may distract attention and therefore is to be avoided'" (quoted in a review of 'Deadly Parallels: Film and the Left in Britain 1929 -39', by Bert Hogenkamp, Lawrence & Wishart, 1986, Red Letters, 1987).

A couple of years ago I accompanied a group of kids from the local adventure playground on one of their holiday trips to the local cinema to see Karate Kid. I was impressed by their response to the film. As Karate Kid wins his glorious victory over the bully-boys the whole audience rose up with a wild and joyous scream of approval. This must have been the response of the early cinema-goers until the requirements of decorum got the better of them.

The working class activities that couldn't be suppressed were commercialised. Although this encouraged shallow diversions and restricted the blatant illustration of working class oppression, it seemed to offer more scope for the expression of working class desire and identity than that offered by the dry prescriptions and repressive moralism of the socialists.

Waters's book is a mine of information but I was struck by one important short-coming, which it shared with many other sources of information. The academic frame within which this valuable and hard to obtain knowledge exists requires a cool detached and 'objective' style. The result is that these books do not reflect or communicate the violent reality of class relations and by that lack they reflect those same values of detachment. They do not register the outrage appropriate to the crimes they are discussing. For a working class reader this engenders a strange aura of unreality.

On the other hand it is difficult to seriously discuss history and produce knowledge from a working class viewpoint outside of academia. Lack of time and money make access to source material and the atmosphere to discuss ideas difficult. Several artists I know have to steal the books they require to satisfy their intellectual appetites. If they earned money to buy them there would be no time to read! In this introduction I have tried to emphasise the often intuitive or chance means by which evidence has been found to show the difficulties of working outside of the ivory towers. I also want to show how this text is embedded and motivated by my own life and by an outrage at class oppression. Both these things are disallowed or hidden in the academic text. But by presenting my argument in this way I risk forfeiting my place on the platform of serious discussion.

The denial to people of their own culture is an act of extreme violence, however 'nicely' it is done -- however little bloodshed is apparent. It is an act of violence which, unless it is squarely faced, can reverberate through generations.

Reconstructing the story of working class culture is a bit like making a jigsaw up from pieces found at jumble sales. The next piece turned up when an old friend came to an exhibition I was having in an empty shop in Soho, organised by Alternative Arts. He brought a philosopher friend with him called Howard Caygill. Howard had written a book, The Art of Judgement. Although it mainly focused on Kant, the first half of the book was taken up with a historical survey of the development of the philosophy of taste in Britain and aesthetics in Germany, two different traditions that Kant apparently tried to compare in order to transcend the 'bias of judgement'. Only problem was that the book was about 30 quid so I had to wait for an inter-library loan to get it. It was a difficult but exciting read which seemed to validate a lot of my previous thinking as well as provide good information on the historical formation of British civil society and to show how central concepts of taste were to its foundation and operation. Later this information was complemented by a remaindered copy of Victor J. Seidler's 'Kant, Respect and Injustice'. This very clearly written book laid out the moral aspects of the Kantian legacy that validated some of my other ideas about oppression.

I was excited about all this material and the fact that very few people have had the chance to see it assembled, much less in a readable form. As E.P.Thompson points out, the serious study of working class culture is only about twenty years old. Before this there was only 'folklore', which was derided as a mixture of curio collecting and 'crackpot fantasy'. I was determined to make a book out of it. I then wrote a rough manuscript, which I passed around to Richard Hillman, Caroline O'Dwyer, Chris Saunders and Gabrielle Bown for comments. I'd like to thank them.

I also had a task to survey the surrounding literature to check that I was on course. This included wading through tomes like E.P. Thompson's 'Cultures in Common' and Pierre Bourdieu's 'Distinction'. This all took about a year and a half in whatever spare time I could find.

Finally, OK, there was no actual conspiracy of shadowy cloaked figures around a table. But the repression of working class culture is so concerted that it appears as if there is. The thing that focused the projects of Morris, Sharp and Ellis was an ideology, a shared set of cultural values. Reading Bourdieu made me aware of just how intimately every object, action, gesture or expression that we use is ranked and policed by good taste. Much of our political resistance to oppression in the past has simply not taken account of the extent to which the status quo is maintained culturally.

Finally the manuscript had to be edited and proofed, with the help of friends, to bring some consistency to my semi-oral style of writing -- a process of weeding and translation which took many months.