Sunday, June 20, 2004

The Aristocracy Of Mind

Great Times article by David Brooks, with perfect parallels for Britain.

The percentage of voters with college degrees has doubled in the past 30 years. As the educated class has grown, it has segmented. The economy has produced a large class of affluent knowledge workers — teachers, lawyers, architects, academics, journalists, therapists and so on — who live and vote differently from their equally well-educated but more business-orientated peers.

Quite. We can see the same thing here as a larger percentage head for college each year. The middle class isn't just increasing in size but changing in character, a trend accelerated by deindustrialisation. The BBC's weekly 'Any Questions ?' radio show was known to radical 1970s students as 'Any Fascists ?'. Now the audience are the people who fill the Guardian's letters page. Still middle class, but the middle class has changed.

This phenomenon will be even more marked in the UK, where the state-funded sector is so much larger - all those social workers and healthy eating consultants - and the industrial working class has shrunk more than in America. We saw in the local elections that the anti-war vote was (outside Muslim areas) primarily middle class and that Labour's vote held up in areas with a high number of working-class voters.

As the 'left' middle class expands, so the definition of 'left' changed to reflect the interests of that class. You could call that a Marxist analysis, or a Mandy Rice-Davies analysis. It would, wouldn't it ?
My generation were more interested in sex, drugs and rock'n'roll than in the nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. None of us thought we'd do anything like actually making things for a living (alright, I'll except pottery, knitwear and wood furniture). Real working class people, with their unreconstructed views, could be a little embarrassing (too like the parents ?) - although an NUM donkey jacket from Saltley had all the status of Bilbo's mithril coat.

And the definition of 'right' changed too. Fifty years ago a socialist could advocate the nationalisation of 'the commanding heights' of the economy while simultaneously supporting economic protectionism, the imprisonment of homosexuals and abortionists and upholding the monarchy. The grammar school was taken for granted as the path to education for ambitious working-class youth. Now a prospective Labour candidate with such views would be offered counselling for his deep seated problems.

The old working class changed too. It shrank as our industrial base disappeared (started under Wilson, accelerated under Thatcher, continued under Blair) and as the skilled beneficiaries of the Thatcher years moved off the estate. It also lost large numbers to the underclass, the non-working class - many of whom have disppeared from the unemployment figures thanks to the tripling of the long-term sickness and disability figures (started under Thatcher, continued under Blair).

Where America leads, we tend to follow. Blue-collar America has long been more conservative than white-collar. In my youth, canvassing at election time, I remember the warm response of the terraced streets, the coolness on the new detached estates ('You're the scum of the earth !'), the relief at finding the occasional middle class leftie there. Remembering our changing definitions of left and right, how long before it's the other way round ?

NOTE - David Brooks is the author of the wonderful and recommended 'Bohos In Paradise', a book about the people who need a Freelander and North Face jacket for the three-mile commute to the IT centre.

"To calculate a person's status, you take his net worth and multiply it by his antimaterialistic attitudes. A zero in either column means no prestige, but high numbers in both rocket you to the top of the heap. Thus, to be treated well in this world, not only do you have to show some income results; you have to perform a series of feints to show how little your worldly success means to you.... You will ceaselessly bash yuppies in order to show that you yourself have not become one. You will talk about your nanny as if she were your close personal friend, as if it were just a weird triviality that you happen to live in a $900,000 Santa Monica house and she takes the bus two hours each day to the barrio. "

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