Nice is half way to evil

I’ve been decorating a crappy house I’ve bought recently.  It’s made me think about the way we cover unsightly things to make them “nice”.   Skirting boards, soffits, fascias, paint, wallpaper and polyfilla are added in layers which, when removed reveal an archaeology of taste over the lifetime of the house.  But the strata expose not only previous taste but also the process of disguise – masking the stains of damp to trick gullible tenants or prospective buyers for instance.  That itself is a useful allegory for a lot of 21st century capitalism – what I call “stick on culture”.

Owen Jones got it right in Chavs when he pointed out that the droves of wage slaves in offices doing ordinary jobs for ordinary wages are the new proletariat.  And yet white collar work is meant to be a cut above common “working class”.   I suggest that “nice” is what is used to perpetuate a meaningless distinction – such is the level of self-hatred of the British working class.  Rather than feel compassion or solidarity for fellow workers – the reaction of the British proletariat is to jump ship and pretend to be nice.

One could point to the numbers to demonstrate the impossibility of everyone being well-off, but the British think they are above numbers.  Michael Gove called it when he exposed the perverse Tory take on Stalinist tractor production targets by declaring the aspiration to make all school children above average, without any shred of irony.  We do it with lottery tickets, and with our willingness to believe we are invincible by eating a diet of lard and sugar before reacting with surprise to a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease, and with our insistence that it’s not our car that contributes to heavy traffic.  So it is with being common – by definition most people are common and it’s not pejorative. But oh no, not the British working class.  We aspire to be nice.

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His failure lies shamelessly exposed in the gutter.  A bit like a flasher.

The disastrous flaw in the logic, however, is affordability.  We might think we’re nice, but our wages don’t.  So capitalism responds as capitalism does best – it delivers nice on a plate.  On nice, cheap, IKEA plates.  Nice just has to look nice and be affordable.  It doesn’t have to be good quality, as long as it costs slightly more than the cheap tat but not as much as the good stuff.  ALDI and LIDL are prime examples of the way the nice goods have been delivered by the good ship Capitalism.  Affordable luxury is taken seriously rather than as an oxymoron.  And where capitalism can’t delivery quality at affordable prices, debt comes to our rescue.  Private debt has ballooned to staggering levels through our addiction to car loans, mortgage debt, overdrafts, credit cards, store cards, HP and any other finance we can get our hands on.  Consumer spending follows suit to prop up the economy and everyone’s happy.

But the problem with cheap tat that’s also nice is that it’s still cheap tat.  It breaks.  It gets superseded.  We don’t actually value it and so we just chuck it over the fence.  Or bury it in landfill sites.  Or paint over it.  Sometimes the lipstick comes off in the rain – have a listen to Classic FM and marvel at how much film music and instrumental versions of Queen songs masquerade as classical music.  Which is where we get back to layering.

Nice has the sinister edge of exclusion.  “It’s a nice area” means “there are no poor people here”.  That’s also mixed up with race, but the primary driver is (self) hatred of the poor.  Where we can’t afford it, we just pretend.  We pretend by painting over the cracks.  By dressing up.  By decorating rather than reconstructing.   By shutting the door, pulling the blinds or growing a leylandii 8hedge.  By changing the name – doesn’t The Jewellery Quarter sound nicer than “Hockley”?

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“Do we extend the beautiful row of lombardy poplars and wait fifty years? – Nah, sod it, let’s just plant some leylandii.”

The social mobility of the post war years was funded by burning fossil fuels, exploiting colonies, exploiting the unpaid labour of women, by technological and financial innovation.  Continuing those expectations is impossible without accepting that the faceless masses the economy is meant to provide for are exactly that – average, typical and ubiquitous.  In other words, the opposite of nice with its intimations of luxury and exclusivity.   Bullshit jobs in the “knowledge economy” chasing sales of bullshit that no-one needs don’t generate solidarity.   But it’s OK – we get to wear nice office clothes…

I’m hoping that nice is a baby boomer hangover.  Many young people, especially in London, recognise that they will never be able to afford to buy a house of their own and as a result prefer to blow their money on artisanal haircuts rather than turning into mortgage-owning wage slaves.  The rental business model of Uber, Airbnb and Spotify may swing the achievement of status away from ownership to creative ways of expressing experiences.  It’ll hurt when they’re too old to work and lack any form of security, but until then we’ll have good coffee at least.

 

Capitalist Realism, Socialist Unrealism

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Raymond Mason, with “Forward” before.

Britain is dotted with examples of what may be broadly classed as socialist realist art. From frescoes at Birmingham University to Meet the Widwife, they are attempts at celebrating the lives of the real working class.  They’re socialist because they are commissioned based not on customer demand but on moralizing or pedagogic intent.

Famously in 2003 a member of the real working class torched the impressive “Forward” statue in Centenary Square in Birmingham. Afterwards, no one really gave a toss that it was gone. He probably did people a favour.  The kid made out that it was accidental, but who “accidentally” torches a huge, socialist realist edifice?

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“Whoops!”.  After.

In the same way that people didn’t really give a toss about the expenses scandal in Britain because people’s trust in politicians was already rock bottom, I get the impression that most people know that these socialist realist celebrations are nothing of the sort. Real work is piecemeal, temporary, badly paid, ignored and inglorious. It’s not worth celebrating.  Real workers don’t want to be celebrated: they want out.  They don’t even want solidarity – Trade Unions are dead.  The poor know that the odds of winning the Lottery are next to nothing.  That’s beside the point: they are desperate and next to nothing is better than nothing.

People must also know that Capitalist Realism is equally fantastical (For a brilliant discussion, see Capitalist Realism by the late Mark Fisher). They know that the images of modern capitalism bear no relation to reality, and that suspension of disbelief (or anti-depressants and alcohol) is needed to mask the stench of bullshit and get to the point.  There are the pedants who shout “but it wouldn’t happen like that!”, but those are minority voices.  Most people aren’t so far along the autism spectrum.

So let’s call these socialist and capitalist unrealism, and instead leave socialist and capitalist realism to describe the “true” documents of life under those economic systems, away from the finance, the marketing, the tie-ins, the profit-seeking, the political negotiation, the pedagogy, the brownie points.   I’m treading unfamiliar water here, but I think that one modern cultural exponent of life under capitalism in the 21st century is Grime.  My research is entirely down to having to endure young dudes sodcasting on the number 11.  But I do that a fair bit, so I’ve heard a fair bit of Grime.

There’s little celebration or things to celebrate in Grime. There’s a lot of stabbing, gun toting, reefer smoking, posturing, childish insults, sexism, racism, ageism – in short perfect descriptions of how shit modern life is.  It says “I am powerless, you are powerless, we are scared and we have no future”.  The only way for the powerless to gain respect, to beat the fear and to get power over those who already have it, is to outshock them, especially in public spaces. Tattoos. Piercings. T-shirts with outrageous slogans. Ripped clothes. Swearing loudly.  Openly smoking cannabis.  Racism.  Spitting.  Disregard of rules. “Don’t judge me” is a common theme in grime.  “Despite my anti-social behaviour, I’m still a good person – we have to act like this to survive” is the subtext.  It would be quite powerful if it wasn’t so petty and misdirected, in the way that most robbery takes place in poor areas – the poor robbing the poor, because most thieves are too lazy to travel far.  The centre of power isn’t the Bull Ring Shopping Centre or the number 11 bus.

The mistake of Grime and the mistake of the cynics of capitalist realism is that the audience is still consuming the messages – the beautiful people, the nice house, the new car, the organic cotton baby clothes.  No matter how cynical or ironic or resistant: the messages still get the airtime.  And like the dickheads that we are, we still lap it up.

Weddings, civil war re-enactments, anything.

20170413_085133I wrote last time about the political implications of nostalgia. Watching graduates parading through the dross of Wolverhampton with their parents after graduation reminded me of a further, related thought I’d had before: dressing up is another version of this nostalgia, another form of self-hate and escapism.

There are many situations where we dress up, if we stretch the definition of dressing up: the existence of “office wear” illustrates my point. Ann Summers shops provide the uniform for an assumption of what adventurous lovers wear. Replica football strips fulfil the broken dreams of many football fans and erstwhile clan warriors.  Smart casual shirts for men, cocktail dresses for women fulfil the dress code for “sophistication”.  They each have socially acceptable and unacceptable times and places but in essence, they’re fancy dress.

There maybe a big difference between dressing up as a royalist musketeer in a reenactment of the Battle of Edge hill, wearing a graduation gown and mortar board through the drab and empty streets of failed industrial cities, and wearing a 19th century top coat and tails down the aisle of a 14th century church in 21st century England.  But what they all have in common is anachronism: because contemporary times – where we value diversity, equality, tolerance and democracy, for example, just doesn’t have the right cut. We prefer to dress up and celebrate fashions of a time when slavery was legal and it was fine to beat children. This is the way of nostalgia: the arbitrary celebration of “the past” or “heritage” without critical judgement, whilst at the same time critically judging the present (by trying to mask or ignore it).

In a way it’s similar to the floating carrier bag scene in American Beauty. There is no beauty in a floating carrier bag, but it is a sign of desperation with the brutality of late modern capitalism that we have been reduced to finding beauty where there is none. I’m sure holocaust survivors managed to stay sane by doing the same thing.

There is little beauty in late modern capitalism.  Instead we choose to pretend there is by dressing up.

Nostalgia is cultural colonialism

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Piccadilly Arcade, New St, Birmingham.  Just a facade.

I lazily assumed nostalgia was a yearning for the past, evoked during commemorations, re-enactments, restorations, conservation or just remembering.  But it’s more sinister than that.  In its worst form, it’s cultural colonialism – the privileging of a cultural moment that was racist, sexist or just different to now.  It says “modern life is rubbish”.  Whilst modern life may well be rubbish, it’s rubbish not because it’s modern.  It’s the only life we have.  This is important – the vote to leave the EU, the election of Donald Trump, the potential election of Marine Le Pen seem to me to be expressions of the zeitgeist: modern life is rubbish, and what we need is to do things like we did in the 1950s when women were women, men were men, there was no homosexuality or immigration.  Crucially it was also a time when jobs were jobs, and technology was driving economic growth and incomes.

 

Space has an opportunity cost.  A building in one spot means something else can’t go in the same spot.  Attention works the same way: despite our pretence that multi-tasking is efficient, our attention given to Downton Abbey can’t be given to something or someone else at the same time.  This is what I mean by the privileging of a cultural moment.

Let’s take Listed Buildings.  A building (or more often, actually just a facade) is listed.  This prevents the redevelopment of the Listed aspects without the consent of the local planning authority.  It attempts to fix a point in time in perpetuity.  But what about what existed before the building?  What about the possibility to build something even better in the future?

Landowners know too well the economic impossibility this puts them in.  The world, meanwhile, has moved on.  There are now regulations for any redevelopment to comply with.  Thankfully, buildings are safer, more accessible, more energy-efficient.  But often those are entirely incompatible with the listed building.  So they pay someone to torch the building in the night.

The local community is outraged and demands justice.  And yet it was the same community that demanded and benefitted from the same regulations that drove the owner to their desperate act in the first place.  Which is more important to them?  Money talks – we are all complicit.

Today I saw a performance of a piece of music called The Way of a Monarch by Ivor McGregor.  The concert notes by the composer that describe the piece is inspired by “the extraordinary story of this unusual monarch” (Charles II).  It then mentions “Cromwell’s puritan interregnum” that had shut down many of the performing arts.  Another privileging of a moment: what had driven thousands of men to revolt against Charles’s father in the first place?  Setting aside the ambivalence the British have to their revolution, this seemingly neutral position is deeply reactionary.  Cromwell may well have been a despot, but so was Charles I, James I, James II and the whole lot of them.  In an exercise in change management, Cromwell had it pretty tough and failed – that doesn’t mean that the solution is to simply celebrate the status quo and all of its own injustices.

Humans crave narrative, plot and characters.  The heritage industry has a raw deal trying to interpret social history in stately homes that were built by particular families in particular circumstances and the wealth of extant unique artefacts connected to them.  In contrast the lives of the servants were mundane, everday and typical.  I hear very few people who proudly boast of descendants who were domestic servants or labourers.  There are many reasons why this is (most probably because our descendants weren’t defined by a single “career” – which is a more modern and bourgeois invention.  Pre-industrial work was piecemeal, itinerant and casual), but it demonstrates our inability to accept plurality and complexity.

Let’s try and overcome this inability by recognising that Downton Abbey, Meet the Midwife, any other costume drama, every conserved or restored facade, every blue plaque and every fashion revival displaces something else – and that this displacement is a political one.  It says that one is more important that all the others that could exist in its place either in the past, present or future.

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Something happened here, once.