CapitalismLetters

A Working Class Hero(ine) is Something to Be.

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 Collyer: Sherrybaby (2006) and Sunlight Jr (2013). These are not Pretty Woman style 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 they Mildred 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.”

 

McKenzie Wark

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  • petit bourgeois moralist

    I’m astounded by the sympathy for a piece so entirely suffused with ressentiment, one that swipes at old allies and intends to posit its writer as the head of some left but not left class counterculture. As a member of the left academic world yourself, what makes you so sure you’re not also a vampire? And your activist students merely neo-anarchists? This is the whole problem. In the real world, it’s generosity, openness and pragmatic activism that work better to bring people together in grassroots political organisations, united but not some homogeneous unity. Pointing fingers and talking from the origin-point of theory less so.

    Not sure how much Russell Brand you’ve watched but he went to a private school and college, has excellent diction and is open about is celebrity lifestyle. He came to fame as a TV presenter and stand-up comic, not through some melancholy dream of bohemia. Fair enough to him. But as an exemplar of class activism, I’m not so sure, and neither is Russell. That you both seem to find superior evidence of class struggle in a Hollywood movie, rather than real class activism happening in workplace struggles across the UK and the US is kinda funny.

    And the call for class solidarity with this typical mourning of authentic class identities (like those in the Collyer films) is unconvincing and doesn’t leave much except another great Master to identify the true way, validate the true class, endorse the true class act. Meanwhile the economic working-class (which never ceased existing across the West) continues struggling, blissfully unaware that its greatest hindrance are a few “intersectional” activists on twitter who call out straight white men in professional positions of power on their privileges. Really? Too many theoretical chiefs and not enough Indians I think. When do we step beyond all this?

    • mckenziewark

      Nobody is claiming Brand for class activism. The way class works is subtle. The point here is how Brand’s performance was read by Fisher, and one suspects by many others.

  • deedeeh
  • Meowsy McTrollington

    I for one welcome our new turtlenecked white male overlords. I have no doubt that when the time comes for revolution they will without hesitation throw down the tools of queer hating white supremacist patriarchy which they wield so happily now.

    • mckenziewark

      How is this language of any help to anyone?

  • occupy academia

    So glad to have a guy in a turtleneck that knows some swear words on our side. Thanks for being there when we were being smashed by the cops as well!

    • mckenziewark

      You appear to be spending some time looking at websites and making comments here yourself.

  • rabotnika

    The “99%” rhetoric as an example of class analysis when that rhetoric specifically obscures actual class distincions and pretends the working class, petit bourgeoisie, and much of the actual bourgeoisie are a single class. I guess this type of “class analysis” is necessary when you want to establish that a millionaire actor is a working-class icon ehile struggling minorities who speak up about prejudiced bullshit are petit-bourgeois.

    Also, these articles keep insisting that any criticism of racist, sexist etc attitudes by card-carrying members of The Left should take place in private. How does that actually work with someone like Brand? Are we supposed to get the millionaire actor into a room for a little struggle session? And how do you respond to the simple fact (obvious to anyone who’s actually dealt with this shit) that giving such criticism in private almost exclusively leads to the person brushing it off, as there’s no perception of potential consequences?

    • mckenziewark

      The context here is the really savage attack on Mark after his inital comments on Brand/Paxson. I agree that class is more complicated than “the 99%”, but in the US at least that concept would be a start.

  • Steve Rendall

    I got two thousand words into the Fisher piece and he still had not actually quoted or named any leftists guilty of the behavior he claims is so prevalent on the left. Did I miss something?

    • Doug Lain

      All you have to do to find those leftists is read the comment section either here or at North Star.

      • mckenziewark

        Yes, i just didn’t want to link to any of it.

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  • anon

    ya’ll are total dinguses. the point here about the occupy slogan is that it at least posits class difference as something that exists and that is foundational. this is actually remarkable in mass american publics in 2013. the author obviously isn’t suggesting it’s a thorough conjunctural analysis. the other point is that it isn’t that the criticism of figures like Brand for sexism is *wrong*; rather, the point is that we should think about the nature of the satisfaction we derive from falling into the shaming/moralizing mode in relation to a moment of working-class speech that could energize a larger class consciousness.

    • dingus

      Who’s ‘we’ here?

      • anon

        those interested in the consolidation of the class consciousness of workers.

        • dingus

          who are workers?

          • Doug Lain

            Workers are those who are exploited through Capitalist production to produce profits. http://youtu.be/hHSxOUW-okk

          • dingus

            So who is not a worker, then?

          • Doug Lain

            Those who either a) make a personal profit from owning the means of production or b) lives off the surplus or outside of the system of production (a subsistence farmer is not a worker, for instance)

          • dingus

            So that is how you divide up the world and its possible ‘we’s? Pretty simplistic. Simple formulas like that seem wide open for more powerful groups to dominate.

          • Doug Lain

            I don’t understand what you mean. Why would more powerful groups need to dominate a simple formula when the simple formula is just an explanation of how society is divided into classes?

          • mckenziewark

            Thinking abstractly about shared interests is of course open to all sorts of abuses. Failing to do it on the other hand an absolute guarantee that people will remain isolated and oppressed.

      • anon

        only straight white cis men–oh, shit. you caught me out.

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