Sunday, 13 February 2011

Trapped in the Past

I've had a busy weekend so no time for much posting. But I wanted to share this with readers. As I've said in my last post, living with an elderly person has really been an eye-opener to how lucky I think we are today. And it really made me reconsider this clip from 'The Trap' which I thought was vastly exagerated when I watched it a couple of years ago, dealing with RD Laing's radical views on bullying in domestic relationships.

For someone of my generation, 'bullying' is a fairly blunt term: generally it makes you think of a barely civilised neanderthal who shouts a lot and confuses noise with profundity or cleverness.

And certainly, I don't think that any society or culture has ever lacked such people. Our modern Britain certainly doesn't. However, I think that this highlights the weird paradox of modern Britain: we have a 'mainstream culture' that doesn't have the confidence in itself that everyone should really conform to it.

I guess if anyone wanted to know my place in British society it would probably best be the affable slacker films of Simon Pegg. Not that I'm a massive fan, but I do quite like the fact that someone reflects this offbeat and indefinable culture. Oddly enough, within this culture I think there is a golden age of good manners in Britain. This might seem odd given how informal we are, but those who have spent time with older middle class people will also know that barking 'what' at those they consider socially inferior is taken for granted.

A culture incidentally, which isn't for everyone, but which survives largely tolerated.

But it was not always so. The British mainstream society did not always take the view that its own views were incidental or optional. Which brings me back to bullying and the video I've linked to from Adam Curtis's excellent series 'The Trap'.

As I said before, people of my generation would tend to think of bullying as a personality disfunction. But in a genuinely bourgeois society, it is a fairly integral part of existence. Not so much aggressive bullying but emotional bullying.

This is most evident from opinions. When a bigmouth ventures their opinion (no bully worth their salt of any kind has ever doubted that they are a fount of knowledge) then they force the lucky recipient of their vast wisdom to either show cruelty of their own in rudely rejecting it, or else appearing submissive.

And then there are the so-called 'stupid questions'. Which aren't questions at all. But in recent months I've discovered that 'do you really like/want' actually means 'You shouldn't like/want'.

I am just so grateful this wasn't my world. Modern Britain has its problems but it seems to me that the left really has to accept that many features that we take for granted in our society are not default social settings but aspects that we'll have to proudly claim as our own: whilst condemning the truly hideous features of economic liberalism, the intellectual shortcomings of the banking economy and addressing the potential that modern Britain has to create lonely and depressed consumers. It's ironic how some people on both left and right will hint that we have Maggie and Norman Tebitt to thank for social liberalism: two cold and repressed Middle Class Brits who wouldn't even want the compliment.

And it is a compliment, though eclectic consumers might not think so: thinking instead that in those days you could have your pipe and slippers and when the wife was out playing bridge you could say you're going to watch Dam Busters, but then whip out Dawn of the Dead or a Lucio Fulci boxset and sit there puffing contentedly. No chance, back in the day. Not because the wife would give you a knock with the rolling pin but because your own inner bourgeois nosey parker would prevent you from watching anything without the Radio Times seal of approval.

And, whilst my left wing economic arguments are usually founded on how much we can learn from France and Germany, in this case, I don't think the left can necessarily look to the continent for ideals. Take it away Jean.


  1. Gregor wrote:

    "This might seem odd given how informal we are, but those who have spent time with older middle class people will also know that barking 'what' at those they consider socially inferior is taken for granted."

    This is definitely true. My grandmother worked as a waitress for decades after the Second World War, right in the midst of the post-war settlement, and she was often verbally abused by customers and her boss.

    I spend a good deal of time around older middle class people at work and they can be decidedly rude and bullying to their own employees and to service staff elsewhere.

    I sometimes wonder if the relatively high wages of workers in the post-war era were considered a trade-off for continuing to work in often very mean-spirited environments.

    Of course, under neoliberalism, you are probably more likely to get sacked or have your benefits cut, but the human resources departments are more likely to be condescending as opposed to being outright mean.

    To me, this is just more evidence in favor of worker’s cooperatives as an answer to microeconomic/workplace problems.

  2. @John
    Thank you for your interesting comment about American culture (which I know little about but would be interested to learn more of; it is ironic that Britain is saturated with American media yet the only Americans we generally see are meterosexual yuppies, inbred Southern Nazis and African American gangsters). I think that in Britain's case it was partially that the emerging post war middle classes were too anxious to be 'upwardly mobile' and copy some of the worst features of the Edwardian upper middle classes.

    I'd increasingly agree with you about cooperatives because I think statist social democracy is better than market fanaticism but needs the kind of bourgeois society that can be harmful for many people.