A Working Class Hero(ine) is Something to Be

by McKenzie Wark on November 29, 2013

Its been a bizarre kind of self fulfilling prophecy. Mark Fisher called out the leftish commentariat for their barely restrained petit bourgeois moralism, and for his troubles has been hit by a wave of – petit bourgeois moralism.

What set this off was the spectacle – there’s no other word – of comedian Russell Brand tearing strips of the respectable British TV talking head, Jeremy Paxman. Fisher correctly points out that class is what is at stake in the whole performance. Paxman can barely suppress his incredulity that Brand would deign to edit an issue of the New Statesman when he has clearly not attended the right schools. Fisher found it rather cheering to see the Brand the class outside give Paxman a verbal going over.

Turning to the post-game commentary, Fisher finds over and over the same “snarky resentment” and “witch-hunting moralism.” Brand is a noisy interruption, lacks the proper diction, shows signs of mental instability and a poor upbringing. Not that Fisher wants to defend everything Brand might say or do. As Fisher writes: “It is right that Brand, like any of us, should answer for his behavior and the language that he uses. But such questioning should take place in an atmosphere of comradeship and solidarity, and probably not in public in the first instance…” As they say in the movies: nobody’s perfect.

Fisher’s main point is that supposedly left commentary has lost all contact with the working class. It’s a form of affordable dissent, liberal and bourgeois. It knows nothing of the solidarities of class. Its tone is that of the school teacher, the psychiatrist or the administrator – when not that of the priest.

There’s a consistent set of rhetorical devices at hand: The first is to individualize and privatize everything. Everything is about personal success or personal failure. The second is to make thought and action seem difficult, and beyond the reach of ordinary folk. The people need some nonprofit functionaries to swoop in and tell their story and organize their misery for them. Third, the propagating of guilt. Everyone is supposed to feel bad about their little ‘privileges’, while the truly staggering inequalities of wealth and power go largely unmentioned.

Seen from an American perspective, it is remarkable that Fisher still has some residual sense that culture is an arena in which the rival structures of feeling of class might contest for the assent of a people. There is some residual sense there that while the long counter revolution that Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair presided over has done its best to erase working class sentiment and self-knowledge from the face of the earth, it is not entirely gone.

In the United States its hard to detect much sense of class feeling ever finding its way into popular culture other than indirectly, as allegory. For a few seconds in the first of the Hunger Games movies, the coal mining people of District 12 rise up as one and confront their oppressors. But its only for a few second, and those a half-assed quote from Battleship Potemkin. Only individual struggle can be acknowledged, or at best the romantic couple.

Perhaps one could propose a sort of speculative sociology as to how class feeling was erased from American popular culture. It was alive and well, if in the margins, of American cinema of the 30s and 40s. But that was before McCarthyism put an end to the popular front. It was alive and well in African American popular music, but that was before the fatal mugging of the Civil Rights movement. Paul Gilroy has a rather sad account of how rhythm and blues became obsessed not just with cars but with expensive ones.

More subtly, there was a closing off of the culture industries to talent from below. Expensive graduate schools are now the pathways into art, journalism, or publishing. Even in music, the gutter crawling fuck-ups who once delighted us with their sheer survival instincts are more or less a thing of the past. Stand-up comedy is a bit of a hold out, offering occasional glimmers of proletarian life. But mostly, the arts both fine and popular are a genteel affair.

Gone too, or almost gone, is bohemia, that place outside the conventions of petit bourgeois morality, where those of different classes, genders, sexualities, different everythings, rub shoulders, and a few other body parts, and make their own lives. Bohemia is never the same if you claw in from below as it is if you swan in from the top. Its much better, if you are in a scrape with the law, if a well placed phone call from someone very important can get you quickly released. Stewart Home’s book Tainted Love is a moving account of what bohemia can do to those who try to navigate it without a parachute. But there was a sense that bohemia at least confronted the classes with each other. And every now and then someone would claw their way all the way up through it. One such, I suspect, was Russell Brand.

There’s a fine expression of what working class experience is like in America today in the work of the film maker (and my Lang College colleague) Laurie CollyerSherrybaby (2006) and Sunlight Jr (2013). These are not Pretty Womanstyle Princess-in-disguise stories, where the working class woman turns out to be Julia Roberts all along, safely one of us once she learns the codes. Nor are theyMildred Pierce style stories where the uppity woman is put back in her place by tragedy caused by her neglect of her motherly duties. They are stories of everyday struggle, without Production Code morality. And they are a rare exception. Collyer’s protagonists are working class heroines, whose triumph is in getting by.

There was a certain wisdom in the slogan of Occupy Wall Street: “we are the 99%.” It focused attention on the question of class rather than the question of privilege, or what is the same thing in right wing language, “the cultural elites.” But there’s work to be done to loosen the choke-hold of petit bourgeois moral superiority as the default language of leftish life. (Even Zuccotti Park had its psychogeography of intra-99% class fissures.) Fisher rightly calls out the rather sad will to power of such talk: as if there were some moral nation where the guardians of all that is proper in speech and demeanor might rule.

This is not to say that one should embrace racist or sexist or homophobic speech and acts. Rather its to say that the struggles around all of those ‘intersectional’ issues have their own inflections in working class cultures, which do not always need to be lectured at from without. For it is a simple fact that most of the 99% can acknowledge that, in the words of that other great Occupy slogan, “Shit is fucked up and bullshit.” That shit requires attention in not only its variable detail but entire, and in what Fisher calls the “atmosphere of comradeship and solidarity.”

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