- Interview by
- Owen Hatherley
In her new book Steal as Much as You Can – How To Win The Culture Wars In An Age of Austerity, Nathalie Olah writes about the cultural politics of the era from the late 1990s to the present – from New Labour and John Prescott’s claim that ‘we are all middle class now’, to the dominance of an Old Etonian elite and the conjuring up of an imaginary ‘white working class’ to support any given reactionary measure; it proposes ways in which working class voices can avoid being caricatured and patronised by a media set up to serve middle class cultural and vested interests. Tribune spoke to her about the book, and about Lawrence Llewellyn-Bowen’s role in the class war.
You describe the 2000s and 2010s culturally as ‘lost decades’, and see this as a result of the way ‘working class eccentrics’ have been supplanted by exploitative, lowest-common-denominator talent shows on the one hand and an openly posh music and literary scene on the other. This made me think of how in the mid-2000s Mark Fisher argued that we were living through the ‘worst time for popular culture since the 1950s’. At the time that got quite a lot of criticism, but it now seems pretty accurate, as your book’s investigation of that time makes clear. Do you think there’s any likely prospect of major cultural change in the next decade?
I’m hopeful of a change, but I think it has to come from us, the consumers. The legacy media, publishing, record industry etc. are given over to market forces, they’re too big and unwieldy to operate in any other way: they have to run a profit, and to do so they have no choice but to stay broadly within the realm of what the middle-class consumer base wants, never rocking the boat or challenging the rules too much. They’re obsolete, basically.
If there’s any hope it’s in the independent alternatives. Fitzcarraldo Editions now have two Nobel prize winning authors, while Penguin, Faber etc continue to churn out the same authors they’ve been publishing for the past few decades, if not literally, then at least in the tone and sentiment of what they’re writing: quiet, middle-class memoirs. By limiting their remit, and avoiding greed, the indie presses are producing the work that we’ll look back on favourably in later decades. Now part of the problem at the moment is that places like Fitzcarraldo are funded by independently wealthy people, which is really the only way for them to survive. But if we as consumers start to boycott the legacy media and support alternatives, we can start to create a climate in which real grass-roots alternatives can exist, and thrive.
You write at one point that ‘efforts to improve standards have hinged on the protected characteristics of employment law – age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex and sexual orientation – while frequently neglecting to consider that one condition that exacerbates all nine – class’. I had the weird experience recently filling in a form at a lottery-funded cinema event where there was – and it’s the first time I’ve ever seen this – a question of ‘do you consider yourself to be from a deprived background’. I ticked the ‘yes’, but thought it really interesting that the only way the makers of the metrics could conceive class was in terms of ‘background’ – for all that I might believe in the ‘hidden injuries of class’ idea, doesn’t the ruling class today have all sorts of Alan Sugar types who ‘consider themselves to be from a deprived background’ and then gleefully kick the ladder away? Isn’t it better to think of class in terms of a deprived present rather than a past or a ‘background’?
I completely agree that the question of class has hinged too often on background, and been reduced to a question of accent, for example. I think the class question does need to be rooted in the realities of work, and we need to update our definition so that it extends beyond the old industrial/organised model of the past, to encompass those working at the lower-paid end of the gig economy and service sector, for example. Too often we hear the argument that class no longer exists, simply for the fact that it has become that much more difficult to define. This is borne of the fact that the definitions are stuck in the 1970s and nature of work has changed and become far more precarious. The classes aren’t stratified into ‘blue’ and ‘white’ collar workers in quite the same way as they were in the past. But we’ve seen the decline in the unions opportunistically wielded by the right to suggest that the working-class no longer exists. When it obviously does.
Now on another level, we do have the problem that since Thatcher and later Blair, working-class people have been told that they need to escape to the middle, and that ‘social mobility’ is their only means of achieving security and stability. People who have followed this call constitute a large portion of the electorate, and their experience matters. These people aren’t in every case Alan Sugar types. Often their aspirations are only to provide a bit more security to their families, who will often be working-class themselves. These people have no financial security, no inheritance, beyond the work they’re doing in the present, and this constitutes a huge difference between them and the the people who are born into wealth. I think the Left needs to be a bit more sympathetic to their motivations if it is serious about winning these people back on side, and it needs to go to greater lengths to explain that had we not been sold the line about social mobility, all of the working-class would have benefited, and that individuals would have been under far less pressure to earn inordinate sums of money in order to provide for their families. I think there’s ample room to have that conversation while also fiercely defending the rights of people working in the most precarious and low-paid jobs.
I thought the parts of the book on New Labour and education captured something crucial about those governments which is usually missed – the belief in meritocracy rather than equality, with Blair literally saying ‘education is social justice’. So a degree becomes necessary for a menial job, apprenticeships become irrelevant, and the process begins almost at infancy with a cruel testing regime that recurs throughout school. You note also the pressure mounted on parents ‘to raise their children according to the new individualistic value system necessitated by the marketplace’ – with fines for the parents of truant children. This seems to bring together both New Labour’s obsession with ‘aspiration’ and their commitment at the same time to very punitive, moralistic, law and order politics. Do you think it’s fair to say these were linked?
Yes, well both are symptomatic of a culture that is wilfully ignorant to the structural forces that govern society, such as inequality. It’s a culture that places the solution to a whole plethora of societal problems with the individual. But as individuals, the extent to which we can exercise our free will is determined by our socio-economic and cultural circumstances. Instead of creating a culture in schools that celebrated the wide variety of skills required in the functioning of a healthy society, we saw a doubling down on the idea that the skills to support the corporate workplace were the only ones that mattered. Anyone whose aspirations were centred on more manual or care-based work for example, was disregarded. To then penalise the natural dissatisfaction and alienation of kids on the receiving end of that culture, through punitive laws that targeted the parents, showed an absolute refusal to accept a flaw in the policy-making.
In the chapter about comedy and about Caroline Aherne, you mention that she and Steve Coogan were ‘never shying away from criticising the racist and homophobic corners of working class culture’ – eg Mrs Merton asking Bernard Manning, ‘so, who do you vote for now Hitler’s dead?’ It’s funny now seeing Etonians like David Goodhart or middle class people from Cheshire like John Harris arguing that suggesting anything a given authentic working class person says might be racist or ignorant is some sort of appalling ‘elite’ transgression, and that we should listen to their ‘very real concerns’. But often people on the left seem to miss how divided the working class is internally, and how it can both be by far the most multicultural and mixed social class but can also contain some really deep-seated bigotry, depending on where and when and who you’re talking to. I wonder if this is also a symptom of working class people becoming ever more marginal in culture and media – that it now gets ‘spoken for’ by elite anti-elitists?
This is something I feel very strongly about. Aherne and Coogan were able to portray this stuff fairly and with an even hand because they came from working-class families. They understood the complicated dynamics intimately, and they understood the apparent contradiction that oppressed and marginalised people can also be guilty of some of the worst bigotry and cruelty. Actually it is very elitist and condescending to paint the working class as ‘god’s people’ – pure and without fault. It’s absurd and I believe that it’s a caricature borne of middle-class neurosis and guilt. But this reductionism is also contributing to the very binary and reactionary style of politics we’ve seen emerge in the last few years. If we had more working-class people, or as we mention above, more people from ‘working-class backgrounds’ authoring our TV shows, music, art and literature, we would create a far more measured, complex and interesting culture reflective of reality. And by extension, one far more conducive to the healthy functioning of democracy.
One part of the book that really rang true was on ‘improvement’ shows – the spillover from Ground Force to Changing Rooms and What Not To Wear to Location Location Location to eventually How Clean is Your House and Benefits Street (not to mention the amazing End Of History anecdotes about Nelson Mandela being on Ground Force and meeting the Spice Girls as ‘the best day of his life’). Do you think it was inevitable that this stuff would move gradually from ‘sort out your house’ to ‘or we’ll evict you’?
I think it was! I marvel at shows like Changing Rooms now, and how obviously symptomatic they were of the time, when the working classes had been told that the responsibility lay with them to ‘pull themselves up’. You saw people living in council flats being given Baroque-style living rooms! The actual gall of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen painting frescos on the walls of people’s 1930s semi-detached houses! Also we talk about how the labour definition of class has been supplanted by accent and dress-code etc., but this started in the 90s, when in lieu of millions of people actually being able to seize on the opportunities of social mobility, it became enough just to seem middle-class. I think this can go a long way to explain the massive amounts of credit card debt of that time. But yes, it represented a culture in which working-class people were told to become inconspicuous and conform with the tastes and lifestyles of people far richer than them. All of which acted to erode any authentic working-class culture, but also minimized the possibility of there being a collective identity among working-class people, with the ability to then organise and mount political movements.
Going back to education, you argue that the HE expansion ended up storing up trouble, as young people encountered critical theory and critical ways of looking at the world, and that this came out in the student movement of 2010-11 – many of the people in which ended up finding a place in Corbynism at the think-tank and podcast end of things. I remember from when I started University in 1999 onwards every generation seemed to be more quietist and conformist than the one before, so in 2010 this seemed to come out of nowhere. Do you think that kids having to read Adorno or Butler or whoever might have also played a part?
Well one thing that really confused me about the university experience, is that I’d encounter young people getting really excited by the ideas of anyone from Robespierre to Angela Davis – writing dissertations on these people for crying out loud – only to wind up, three months later, happily working in the offices of PWC or similar. And I remember questioning my own sanity for the fact that I’d taken a lot of the ideas I encountered at university so seriously that I wanted to devote my life to exploring them further. Where did the fervour go for these people? Did it disappear or did they just suppress it for the purposes of being able to survive in a capitalist society? Then the student protests happened – sadly I was in hospital at UCH at the time, so just down the road, and was forced to watch most of it from my TV. And suddenly all kinds of leftwing theory was being used to justify resistance movements, by kids who had gone to university. There seemed to be a huge appetite among young people for leftwing theory and political ideas, that had been far less popular among the Gen X-ers and Baby Boomers, and the only difference was that massive explosion in HE and also, I suppose, the Internet. I think both things had a hand in reigniting Marxist feeling and it was really exciting to see. I suppose too, that generation had no personal memory of Red Scare.
You’re withering about London literary fiction and its mode of autobiography, good taste, ‘cleanly written prose, exquisite phraseology and well-executed pauses’ – the world of Olivia Laing and her fridge, or what you call The Mental Health Benefits of Cross-Stitch. You call for people amplifying their accents and their ‘bad taste’ instead, going as far as to make a case for American Psycho and other deliberately gross and horrifying forms of satire (and I appreciated the point, which some people seem to have a huge problem with today, that ‘depiction is not endorsement’). I broadly agree with this – but do you think there are working class ways of writing autobiography and ‘ways of living’ instead? Your book does after all end with a sort of list of tips for working class people in media and culture.
I have been quite extreme in the solutions I prescribe, because I think in the first instance we really need some bold statements to smash the present complacency. But yes, in the long-run, it would be fantastic to see many more quieter depictions of everyday life. I mean The Royle Family which I go on about a lot, is that. Loach is that. Pinter was that, as was Larkin etc. It obviously doesn’t need to all be gaudy and in your face, and I actually hate the idea that working-class, and by extension, left wing culture, ought to be base or simple or loud. That just plays into the worst stereotypes created under Thatcher and Blair and denies the existence of a working-class intellectual tradition that is capable of being extremely erudite at times, but that has been eroded by the political conditions of neoliberalism.