Culture and Class

Over on искра/iskra, Kit Withnail has been thinking over the whole “chav” culture and the way in which it is looked down and the snobbery associated with the use of the term.

I have problems with the whole “classism”(discrimination on the basis of class) narrative. Class is a relationship to the means of production, discrimination on the basis of class is a given – people who own the means of production *automatically* have more power than those who don’t.  Kyriarchial discrimination on the other hand is based on socially constructed power – power which just floats along through the use of narrative rather than embodied in bits of paper.


“Classism” then fits in more with race than it does with class. Race is a myth, there is no real distinction between people of differing genetic heritage other than variations in skin pigmentation and relatively minor features, however those skin pigmentations do tend to be associated with different cultures.  That association is not absolute, there are many people with darker pigmentation who have absorbed and fit in well to the dominent white cultural hegemony.

“Classism” is a cultural discrimination. Jade Goody, for example, by the end of her life was firmly ruling class – she owned the means of production and her economic power came from that. Her culture however was still that of the working class, and that culture ultimately works against ruling class interests.  Jade Goody, faithful to her working class background, retained its culture and was a traitor to the class to which she had entered.

For culture is not neutral, it seeks to transmit values and attitudes.  The culture of the ruling class, and that which the ruling class deigns suitable for consumption by the working class are spread through its power structures.  Its ownership of physical locations, advertising and the media gives it a control over the culture which is transmitted and ultimately consumed, while its tacit control over sites of cultural production, the production of historical narratives and education allows its values to be spread.

Culture is a product of situations, a reflection of the times in which we live.  The “chavs” with their Burberry caps and fake gold chains are subverting the culture of the ruling class who seek to distinguish themselves by consuming cultural products which are off-limits to the working class by virtue of their expense.   They are disliked by the ruling class as it is a form of mockery; at the same time, they are disliked by large sections of the working class as the culture that they are appropriating is one which they see is not a product of their situation and lacks an authenticity present in say hip-hop.

David Starkey rather famously said “…and the whites are becoming Black”.  It was clearly not meant as a compliment and he was jumped on at the time for the implicit racism, yet looking a little more deeply, he was expressing the fears of the ruling class cultural agenda.  That the cultural hegemony that the ruling class seeks to impose on the working class is breaking down and that peoples are developing their own culture based on their objective conditions.  

Culture is produced and reproduced on the basis of socio-economic conditions. Cheap or free accessible culture, until very recently meant television and advertising.  Through these mediums, the culture of the working class could be shaped and moulded, producing values and attitudes which were helpful to ruling class interests.

There is a Black urban culture, based on ongoing poverty, discrimination and police harassment.  Those experiences are not unique to Blacks within the inner-cities, but are more common within Black communities – it is labelled a “Black culture” but really it is a culture of exclusion, and increasing number of whites are finding themselves in the same boat, and the cultural memes transmitted on the streets are rapidly finding their way across racial barriers to those who share the same conditions.

The ruling class is losing its control over culture – no longer able to exercise the same domination over its channels of production, and no longer able to maintain their own distinctions in a world where designer goods can be copied and sold at working class pocket prices.  It fears the chavs who mock them and it fears the urban culture which its socio-economic conditions produce.  The challenge for the working class is to produce a culture without reference to the ruling class, one grounded in the authenticity of working class experience which can develop the values of a new society.

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