For a Left Cultural Politics
Much of our contemporary culture works to deny the existence of class and inequality, at the same time as its structures of nepotism and unpaid internships keep working-class voices marginalized. We need to wrestle back control at the point of cultural production.
The deceitful rhetoric of classlessness has permeated the two-party political systems in both the United States and United Kingdom since the days of Reagan and Thatcher. It was their masterstroke: to protect their neoliberal ideology in a wall of “common sense” rhetoric and so-called meritocracy, thereby obfuscating the causes of poverty and inequality and placing the burden of failure for structural and societal injustices squarely with the individual.
But in recent years, both the United States and the United Kingom have seen a reawakening of class-consciousness, one that seeks to explain these glaring injustices, which allow wealth created by the majority to be extracted by a very small elite.
That reawakening has coincided with the fallout from the 2008 financial crisis, when taxpayers were made to foot the bill for a corporate bailout in which the working class lost out most of all. In my book, Steal as much as you can, I detail the complex relationship that has developed ever since, between working-class communities and the industries of culture that shape our horizons. Despite being narrated as an avenue for greater working-class participation and equality, the mainstream media — in its hiring practices and commissioning principles — remained stubbornly skewed towards the more affluent end of society. One result of that has been a failure to address or represent the growing concerns for working-class communities at the sharp end of right-wing economic policy, and specifically, austerity.
Why does this matter? Across the Western hemisphere, the decline in industry has also meant that we are living increasingly isolated and individualized lives. Industrial models of employment lent themselves more easily to community organizing and solidarity than the precarious, service and hospitality-based sectors that replaced it.
Since the signing of the Beatles in the 1960s, mainstream avenues of culture had been making greater and greater concessions to the working class. After 2008, that process stopped and was partly reversed, as the industry became more risk-averse in-line with market imperatives. That risk-aversion was often classist in character, manifesting in a reluctance to show or publish work that was authored by and centered on working-class communities.
Unpaid internships, nepotism, and the sudden neglect of inclusion quotas served to entrench white, middle-class bias. By the time Corbynism emerged in the United Kingdom, and the movement around Bernie Sanders in the United States, the media landscape in these countries was incapable of understanding of adequately analyzing the politics at play, so out of line were they with the growing sense of inequality and the subsequent calls for socialism.
For all its unwillingness to depict the real dynamics of class, the media as an industry was to some extent able to disguise its classism through a complex system of what Naomi Klein dubbed “cool-hunting” in her standout 1999 book on branding and advertising, No Logo. Though Klein referred specifically to the ways in which the mainstream influencers looked to black culture, there was a similar principle at work in the way that marginalized communities of all varieties were treated during the 2000s and 2010s.
Working-class communities were not ignored altogether, but were subject to the voyeuristic lens of a media class that found fascination in its “edgy” (read “marginal”) ways. During this time, countless fashion editorials, drama series, and documentaries were commissioned that were set in the “gritty” surroundings of a council estate, but were authored by people who had obviously never stepped inside one prior to their assignment.
“Cool-hunting,” for Klein, was combined with code-switching, a phenomenon whereby wealthy aristocrats sought to commandeer crass symbols of a caricatured “working-class identity,” The cosplay of rich people shaving their heads and wearing tracksuits helped to further deny the existence of inequality.
With its emphasis on the individual, neoliberal culture has also allowed for a tendency that has lionized identity, at the expense of the intersecting factor of class. This works to favor individual expression over acts of solidarity, sometimes with the perverse outcome that members of this gilded media establishment have been able to posit themselves as social justice warriors. It’s important to distinguish identity causes that are fought en masse and in tandem with labor rights, from those being expressed solely on the grounds of personal motive; it’s the latter which has tended to dominate mainstream media discourse in recent decades.
These softer questions of culture might not seem like the most pressing concern right now and there is an understandable tendency to want to avoid being dragged into the cartoonish culture wars being confected by the Right. These have created a false sense of solidarity between pompous elites and the working classes through the common bogeyman of the intellectual, or the university graduate.
But in avoiding these arguments that ultimately only serve our opponents, we must not avoid the important questions about the media’s role in the stagecraft of neoliberalism. In our effort to build the material conditions of an organized workforce and redistributed wealth, questions of representation will matter. Stuart Hall understood this. His focus on visual culture began the difficult work of trying to untangle the quiet permutations of the capitalist culture that surrounds us. French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu was also dedicated to unpacking the complexities of a ruling class trying to protect its place in the social hierarchy through ever more obtuse tactics of subversion and reverse psychology.
Activism takes many forms, and while we continue to put the material issues of wealth and resources on our political agenda, we must at the same time look to exposing these deceitful aspects of our cultural landscape that contribute to working-class marginalization. Indeed, avoiding these cultural politics would not only be naïve but, I believe, potentially fatal.