[This is the last of three posts on the Great British Class Survey. To access the others, go to the introduction here.]
My final concern arises from the attitude to forms of culture that this study reflects. Specifically it reflects a demonization of a large number of truly counter-cultural forms, which is to say highbrow culture. By counter-cultural I mean, quite simply, running on lines that are counter to the general motions of society, and since our society is conditioned by capital and the social relations that it feeds on, counter-cultural forms are those which cause problems for capital. Highbrow culture is counter-cultural in two specific and important senses: first because it has always been and remains a problem for capitalist sale. It simply is not attractive enough, or as easy to reproduce, as capitalism wishes for its commodities. The question of quality or intelligence or value is immaterial here: capitalism simply can’t sell ancient Greek poetry for as quick and big a profit as it can sell football. The second reason highbrow culture is counter-cultural is that it offers the possibility for disrupting the class position of members of society, and specifically allowing for the possibility that the lower classes might rise above their beginnings.
The demonization of highbrow culture is widespread. It informs programming on television and radio, curriculums in schools, even, ludicrously, decisions that highbrow cultural organizations take about what they are going to stage or exhibit (can’t be too highbrow, darling: that simply won’t do). And the reasons for the demonization, on the face of it, as so often, seem good: highbrow culture has traditionally been associated with the rich and powerful. But it isn’t any more, and this is a paradox that the liberal attitude is often ignorant of. The richest and most powerful, people like ex-Etonian David Cameron, are more likely to disdain highbrow culture – and particularly musical culture – than to enjoy it, and it’s the aspirational lower-class Tories like Michael Gove who are more likely to be seen watching Wagner – doubtless with genuine love for the music – at Covent Garden. (And the ticket prices, incidentally, might not cost any more than football: see my blogpost here). This paradox – the rich seem to be increasingly opposed to highbrow culture – serves a specific political and economic purpose, which will become clear below (essentially, it helps keep the poor in their place).
The demonization of highbrow culture covers over two huge errors: first, the error of essentialism (i.e. supposing that there is an unbreakable link between certain people and certain characteristics: here, a link between poshness and highbrow culture); second, the error of supposing that people are always representative of the situation in which they find themselves. Hand in hand, these errors help to sustain the abject position of the poor by denying them access to at least the possibility of deciding for themselves whether highbrow culture has anything to offer.
One of the greatest and most emancipatory benefits of highbrow culture is that it strikes those who were not born into an exposure with it – i.e. those from the lower classes, whose diet might be Agatha Christie and the Bee Gees rather than Virgil and Beethoven – as something profoundly Other, something to which they can aspire, something that can lead them, as a beacon, to a better life. It is perhaps the most staggering stupidity of the contemporary liberal attitude that so many people fail to see this. In precisely the same way, the democratic freedoms of the West are often seen by abject subjects of middle-eastern dictatorships, and so on, as a political consummation devoutly to be wished. Again, the liberal attitude is to feel guilty about the very freedoms that our patronizingly viewed Other regards as so very desirable. The only thing that could possibly be wrong about enjoying freedom or high culture would be to deny it to others. Yet this is precisely what the liberal attitude dictates. Hide high culture away; listen to pop; don’t try to foist our cultural attitudes (pro-women, pro-gay, multicultural) onto the Other.
But disdaining highbrow Western civilization simply because it is (falsely) assumed to have an essential relation to an exploitative elite is, quite simply, selfishness. It leads to the evisceration of school curriculums and the demonization of the arts. Extending the gift of civilization to the whole world, not to force-feed but at least to allow people the chance to decide for themselves whether they want it, is surely a better course to take. But the attitude reflected by studies like the Great British Class Survey serves one purpose only: to further the motion of modern capitalism.
The highbrow tastes that are implicitly disdained by this study, and which explicitly lift people into a higher class even when their actual material conditions are much worse than those around them, are quite simply the cultural interests that capitalism has always found it very difficult to sell, relative to the attractive objects of mass consumption peddled by the culture industry. The demonization of these cultural forms – so extensive that even an ex-Etonian prime minister can largely disdain them – is an essential function of the command to consume. And hand in hand with this demonization of the cultural artefacts themselves goes the demonization of those who wish to make them, and rational thought about them, available to as many people as possible, because they believe them to have the potential to emancipate.
I should say that I don’t mean, as the authors of this study do, that listening to Beethoven or reading Virgil will make your life more secure and you a better and more socially important person. It won’t. Absolutely not. Cultural capital buys you nothing and doesn’t improve your morals or social standing. It’s worthless as a commodity. Don’t waste your time learning about Beethoven or Virgil if you want to be a better or richer person. It has no direct causal connexion with the increase or decrease of personal significance or riches. But it might just lead you into thinking about things you hadn’t thought about before. Pursuing it might open doors that your birth and the wealth of your parents could not. It might lead you, for instance, if all around you are low-skilled workers in dead-end jobs, to imagine a different career path, one focused on teaching, research, arts administration, museum curating, performance, journalism, creative writing… But the moment you tick more than three boxes of highbrow cultural interests on the online calculator, you are catapulted into a higher social class. And the higher you go, the more guilty you should feel.
The calculator is worse than simply being useless. It is a depressing reflexion of the present attitude in liberal Western society towards the possibility of properly understanding and then overturning our current system. And until we can cast off our assumption of an essential relation between highbrow culture and privilege, and the concomitant view that working-class people have working-class attitudes and cannot articulate for themselves a way out of their position which draws on the exquisite resources for self-understanding that highbrow culture offers, we are doomed to perpetuate the wretched class system of capitalism, which remains, even after this study, not seven classes but two: those who are exploited (a class that is growing) and those who exploit.