A Matter of Class

Class war, it’s finally upon us. Battle lines are being drawn, levies raised, we’re going over the top, and all because Mitchell yelled pleb at someone, Emily Thornberry hates transit vans, and Red Ed wants private schools to do something mildly productive for society. That’s if you believe the papers, and why wouldn’t you? It’s hard to say that we’ve evolved beyond class divisions when the men leading the country are a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II, and the heir to the Osborne baronetcy, both descended from Kings of England. All this even before the BBC’s Posh People went toe to toe with Channel 4’s Skint.

Channel 4 have come under a lot of pressure for the likes of Benefits Street and Skint over the last year. “It’s exploitative, poverty porn” declares the Left, the Right, and everyone in between. In truth, to label Skint as merely poverty porn shows an ongoing disconnection between the poorest in our society and those who claim to stand for them. Skint offers us a view into the lives of the community of the day – the white working class. Only it’s not really the working class, because they can’t find work. Skint focuses on the residents of Grimsby’s East Marsh – according to the Telegraph, the worst place to live in the country – a community ravaged by the dissolution of the fishing industry, alcoholism, crime and drug addiction. Played out before us is the creation of an underclass, and I suppose in a way that does make Skint pornographic because there’s nothing British society loves more than sadistically crafting an underclass to revile. Benefit scroungers, immigrants, chavs, we lump them all into a pit and let the Daily Mail whip us into a frenzy because we love to know that no matter how hard the recession hits, there’s someone even worse off than we are.

But that’s not what’s most worrying about Skint. Over the course of the series you’re introduced to the residents of East Marsh, who to our horror, are actually human beings. Human beings who can be in turn charming, romantic, amusing, and frustrating. Admittedly they’re not perfect, some of their choices are questionable, some criminal, but the descent into the cycle of substance abuse and crime in this corner of Grimsby does not make demons of the residents of East Marsh. Even the least observant will recognise that these are people trapped in a hell not of their own making. At risk of sounding like a good, old-fashioned Bolshevik, this is the fallout of modern capitalism, people fallen by the wayside with no way back in. It’s much more comforting for us to think of the white, working class in the abstract, that way we can still dismiss the rise of UKIP as being due to a lunatic fringe. I don’t suggest that the racism you can sense bubbling away beneath the surface of East Marsh is in any way legitimate, but it is important to recognise that the tide of racism rising in our society comes from fear and uncertainty. When communities are legitimately aggrieved by their abandonment by Whitehall and the rest of the country, it becomes easy to scapegoat an “other”. Skint’s real crime isn’t exploiting the working class, it’s giving them a human face. If the failure of the Left in this country is a betrayal of the working poor, then to dismiss Skint as nothing more than “poverty porn” demonstrates nothing but a repeat of that naivety.

If the likes of Skint and Benefits Street is the porn we whack one out to, Posh PeopleMade In Chelsea and Downton Abbey are the intense feelings of guilt and self-loathing that inevitably follow. The BBC’s succinctly titled documentary, Posh People, follows the staff of Tatler, the world’s oldest magazine, which for three hundred years has been reporting on posh people not doing much. “It would be ghastly if everything in life was relevant” stresses feature writer, Matthew Bell. We’re not in Grimsby anymore. In a way, Made In Chelsea is a Tatler for modern times. Both work upon a similar premise, covering the vapid lives of people who we’re convinced aren’t boring because they went to Eton. In a society in which most would identify, or seek to identify themselves, as middle class, we find ourselves stuck in a dance that’s been going on for centuries. An affluent middle class looks up to an upper class that they can never hope to enter due to a lack of “innate breeding”, dejected they instead turn to the working class, safe in the knowledge they shall never be as “vulgar”. Only now we’ve entered into a bizarre, postmodernist world of class struggle. Skint proves that the working class remains vulgar to us, but Made In Chelsea and Posh People show us that the lives of the upper classes are never truly “real” – everything instead seems to be delivered to us with a nod and a wink. Even social class has its cash value now, everything can be commodified. These shows package up and sell us a lifestyle and attitude we expect from the gentry. Nothing is genuine in the Royal Borough. It’s a staged reality that gives us what we want, a culture we could never know. One of the residents of the Royal Borough recently criticised Napoleon for being “Nouveau”. If the man who conquered Europe couldn’t worm his way into the upper class, what hope have you got when all you can do is buy a detached house in Sevenoaks?

Benjamin Cook

Image property of Channel 4.

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