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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5 comments
dominicfox
dominicfox

I suppose the distinction I'm dubious about is the one between power "which just floats along through the use of narrative" and that which is "embodied in bits of paper" - I don't think that "floats along through the use of narrative" quite does justice to the reality of race, which is itself embodied in quite a number of ways (institutionally, for example). Once you have "capitalism" as the unifying horizon of a "system of power structures", I'm not sure what real work "kyriarchy" is doing as a mediating term between the particular "structures" and their combined effect as "capitalism". What does it describe that would otherwise go undescribed? In practice, it mostly seems to be used to talk about the vagaries of positional advantage at an interpersonal level. I guess that's a topic of interest for people trying to moderate the scramble for attention in a busy web forum, but I'm dubious about it as a metaphor for the workings of social power in the large.

mhairi
mhairi

Wow - really interesting comment, thanks for that. Class in the Marxian sense is more concrete than race, in that ownership is defined and supported through the legal structure. You are allowed to make money from owning a property through rent for example and the law will back you up on that. Class in the cultural sense is as unreal as race - as both are really forms of cultural discrimination, some cultures support capitalism and are privilaged; some challenge it and are denegrated. I like kyriarchy as it integrates a whole range of different power bases. Yes, colonialism and patriarchy exist, but they are part of a whole system of power structures that work to support and feed capitalism, and there are many more heteronormativity being one - which actually intertwine and support one another, and they work differently in different situations - so kyriarchy is my preference with colonialism, patriarchy, heteronormativity all serving to feed it.

Dominic
Dominic

Is ownership of the means of production more or less "cultural", more or less "real", than being assigned to a race or gender? One can argue that economic relations (property rights, wage labour and so on) fall on the "base" side of a base/superstructure divide, while things like "black culture" are broadly superstructural; but both are social facts with material consequences (or material facts of a social character with social consequences of a material character). I would say that race is as real as, for example, money is: there is a sense in which we "pretend" the latter exists, but it also exists in the relatively concrete form of coinage, bank balances, the ability (or not) to pay the rent. "Whiteness" is similarly materially inscribed: on bodies and images and body-images, through the workings of schools and mental hospitals and the criminal justice system, all of which reproduce whiteness as something they process differently from non-whiteness. It has the property of "reality" stipulated by Philip K. Dick, of being that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away. *Making* it go away entails changing reality - the hard intractable bits as well as the nebulous ideational bits. On the other hand, I would also say that class is as "unreal" as, for example, gender is; that a pair of stiletto heels and a pair of branded trainers are both projections into the world of material culture of subject positions that they construct as much as they index. Class oppression can take the form of Kulturkampf as readily as racial oppression; both are less and less dependent on theories of "biological" difference, even as both continue to recycle old-style racist and classist tropes of physiognomy and "essential character", spiced up with lurid parables of moral depravity. I'm not sure what the word "kyriarchy" adds to our understanding of all this. It seems to be largely concerned with hierarchies of social esteem and epistemic authority: with whose "voices" and "experiences" carry the most weight and credibility, are most seen to matter. Its main purpose seems to be to effect a swift and uncontested passage from the banal observation that hierarchical relationships are hierarchical to the moral conclusion that this is what is most fundamentally bad about them. Colonialism is a *thing*; it has colonisers and colonised people, colonial ideology and decolonisation struggles. Patriarchy is also a *thing* - not quite the same thing, but similar in some of the ways it operates and some of the ways its operation can be frustrated by concerted opposition. As far as I can see, kyriarchy is not a thing but a theoretically confected ur-thing, a hypostatised root-of-all-evil. Is the word genuinely useful, or does it just create an impression of usefulness by offering itself everywhere for employment?

mhairi
mhairi

I think what I mean by it being a myth is that there are no *real* differences - which is not to say that there isn't a powerful pull of the idea that there are, so much so that the idea has become something which must be actively challenged. I just read a piece by Peter Tatchell on post-homosexuality (will post the link when I find it) which talks about how there is really no straight and no gay, but it was necessary to invent these categories in order to challenge the behaviour aimed at people who had same-sex relationships. In the same way, it is handy for the left to pretend that race exists to challenge the behaviour aimed at people who have particular skin pigmentations. Capitalism is amazingly adaptable, but in these shifts, where they lose the power that they previously used to maintain control through technological developments, there is an opportunity there to be grasped.

Kit Withnail (@kit_withnail)
Kit Withnail (@kit_withnail)

Interesting post. I have to say I disagree about race - I think it is a dangerous position to assert that 'race is a myth'. Race I would agree is constructed; but this doesn't mean it can be evaporated on the basis of revelation and to claim so could perhaps undermine vastly important experience and unity. I would agree that the differences, as Gilroy says, between individuals which 'are seen as racial do not have an objective basis', but I think that's rather different from saying that race is a myth. I do agree that the conservative ruling class is losing its grip upon culture (an example of 'all that is solid..' perhaps) but wouldn't say the whole ruling class; after all, the reason it is occurring is commodification, ie production, and that's the whole reason the ruling class are the ruling class.

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