This book is about a personal journey. Triumphalist in tone, the text describes how an individual has moved up the social pecking order. It focuses on social mobility, culture and work . While it is neither dull nor dumb, it buys into the idea that the competitive accumulation of cultural capital should be taken seriously. In other words, it suggests that keeping up with the Jones intellectually is a worthwhile project.
When reading this somewhat solipsistic narrative, which is laden with academic jargon, one is taken back to the brilliant class-based satires of the past. Vanity Fair by William Thackeray illustrated the ruthlessness of social climbing and was composed at the peak of the Victorian class system. The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ by Sue Townsend captured the class-based growing pains of the neo-liberal 1980s. Of course, one can take one’s life as seriously as one wishes, but the world is under no obligation to take anything seriously.
Reading Pierre Bourdieu, Friedrich Engels and Juliet Mitchell may help one to understand where one comes from. There is nothing wrong with using academic understandings of class. But to understand class through the prism of one’s own history is to miss the point. Class is about being a tiny part of a contradictory class structure.
“Patriots are a bit nuts in the head
because they wear
red, white and blue-
(red for blood
white for glory
and blue …
for a boy)
and are in effervescent danger
of losing their lives
lives are good for you”
Patriotism, nationalism and imperialism have revived in new forms since the financial crash of 2007 to 2009. The central dream of neoliberalism, a border-free world which is made smooth for the development of capitalism, is not being made real. Globalisation is not being powered by technological progress in the simplistic fashion which was once envisaged.
While patriotism cannot be challenged at the level of discourse alone, it makes sense to question it more assertively than normal. The crudity of ethnocentric populism cannot go unremarked. Brexit and the Trump presidency have underscored the responsibility of socialists and liberals to speak up.
Politics and poetry can be uneasy bedfellows. However, all poetry is political in a sense. Even a love poem is composed in a context which shapes its conventions. Roger McGough was part of The Mersey Sound and his lack of respect for authority was underlined by Why Patriots are a Bit Nuts in the Head. The sentiment of the poem is captured in the excerpt above. While the message tails off in the latter stages of the work, the refreshing tone makes the poem worthy of appreciation. Political correctness had not been thought of when the poem was constructed and this means that aspects of the content must not be taken seriously. Feminists might not enjoy reading poetry like this, but half a century ago gender relations in the UK were unfortunately somewhat different than they are now.
Some books are simply strange. A curate’s egg of a concept in theory can become an omelette upon completion. This text is intended to stimulate thinking about a fair society. Nevertheless, the provocative illusions of the writer simply underline the divides he seeks to challenge.
Hutton does engage with those philosophers who have thought about equality. However, his critical take on Karl Marx is revealing. He approves of Marx’s pragmatism about the period before communism could be attained. He cites the opinion that in a post-revolutionary society the immediate slogan should be:
“From each according to his ability, to each according to his contribution.”
Gender issues aside, Marx is writing about a transitional period in which capitalism is being rolled back. In contrast, Hutton is situated in a period of capitalism where genuine socialism is hardly to be seen. The powerful elite is running the show like it did during the late Victorian era. Hence Hutton’s confused appreciation of Marx takes place in an ideological space outside of history.
Hutton then proceeds to listen to the most reactionary voices of the current century. In his eagerness to have an influence over contemporary politics, he forgets that a progressive thinker should try to challenge discourses of exclusion. He writes to defend nationalist resentment against immigration:
“Gordon Brown’s election campaign blunder- when he dismissed Gillian Duffy as a bigot after she had expressed her reasonable concerns about immigration, while always maintaining a sense of fairness- was so damaging because it encapsulated everything that is wrong.”
Mainstream economists like to view their work as neutral. They tend to use mathematical models and to focus on economic growth. Real rates of underemployment or inflation form quite small territories of their mental maps. As most economists are middle class males, the unfortunate sociology involved in the manufacture of economics has a bearing on the continued conflict within the discipline.
For example, moderate inflation can be viewed as tolerable by most economists. They may view prices in terms of their signalling powers. They could perceive prices in the light of their rationing capacity. The distributional impact of inflation might not be their main concern. A single mother on frozen benefits will not think about rising prices in the same way.
However, journalists have to relate to ordinary consumers. Hence they will mention concepts like concealed inflation periodically. The Guardian has specified that a major British supermarket has reduced the length of its tinsel. The store is selling the new product at the same price as last year’s product. A shopper may feel cheated when they discover this fact.
If people live near mixed woodland they can pick up debris from the ground. Pieces of fir or holly make ideal Christmas decoration. The young Karl Marx once reflected on the theft of wood. This drew him towards the class-based economic analysis which brought him fame. In relation to the concrete question of private property and wood, he wrote:
“We have come down to the ground level.”
While Marx should not be followed blindly, it remains great advice to go to the woods. Christmas can be a sedentary period and walking among trees is a sensible pursuit for those who like to think.
This classic text is unlikely to have been read by Donald Trump. Many affluent men perceive women as trophies to be won, but the President of the United States is particularly prone to judge a book by its cover. However, Wolf shows that this cultural trend has an economic base.
We all know about the injustice of the gender pay gap. We all appreciate that men typically shirk their share of chores. But lots of us forget the full extent of the pressure exerted on females to look their best. This force breeds unnecessary competition. Furthermore, it means that substantial discretionary spending is wasted on keeping up appearances.
Perhaps Wolf was slightly too passionate at times. Maddened by the social disasters of anorexia and unnecessary plastic surgery in the United States, she did make an unfortunate comparison with the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the author did produce a compelling argument. She was generous towards other feminists and paid a warm tribute to Virginia Woolf:
“Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own had a vision that someday young women would have access to the rich forbidden libraries of the men’s colleges, their sunken lawns, their vellum, the claret light.”
The Office for National Statistics regularly adjusts the composition of the basket of goods which is used to assess inflation in the UK. This can be a controversial process because consumers buy such different items. While artisan gin may be really popular in some circles, other social groups could be more concerned with the price of iced buns.
Class and gender may impact on what we purchase. Our perception of inflation is thereby influenced by the position we occupy in society. When inflation is above the two per cent target, our emotions about it might be structured by more than our income.
This matters when interest rates are the subject of elite discussion. The Bank of England may cite inflation if it nudges up the interest rate this week. But people know that the central bank is also concerned with its credibility. Any decision of the Monetary Policy Committee will be evaluated by citizens with different spending patterns. This suggests that a broader economic debate is needed. Minor interest rate adjustment may be deemed to be tinkering if enough people think that the unbalanced UK economy requires the implementation of a robust democratic strategy.
“The environmental crisis- if conceived sufficiently broadly- neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency.”
This lengthy text focuses on the need to be more assertive in the fight against climate change. Naomi Klein is unafraid to link the crisis to the international political economy. She makes a persuasive case against ‘business as usual’ solutions.
Klein is at her best when she attacks the emergent research on geoengineering. Clearly, it is not in the public interest to explore solutions which would exacerbate the crisis. Moving towards a sustainable future should not involve adding untested and risky initiatives into the mix.
Towards the end, the argument apparently loses some of its sharpness. This is because of the significant stress on the personal life of the writer. While the narrative about her son is far from dull, there is something uncomfortable about its location in the wider story. As climate change is an international dilemma, the inclusion of an innocent individual in the discussion seems slightly incongruous.