Thursday, 6 November 2014

Why is Jamie Oliver a media obsession? Because class is our national obsession

TV chef Jamie Oliver excites all sorts of frenzy among Britain's otherwise cautious highbrow media. Here's Will Self in the New Statesman:

If Terence Conran plummily taught the middle classes how to be a proper European bourgeoisie in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, Oliver is his worthy estuarine successor, taking the permanent foodie revolution on to that portion of the former working class who bought up the public housing stock. Now they can borrow against their equity to buy bruschetta...

Will Self gets the fascination, albeit only symptomatically: Jamie Oliver obsesses liberal columnists not because of how he "speaks to" (to use a very columny phrase) our "notions of class" but because of how he represents movement between classes (that elusive and much abused phenomenon of "social mobility"). The stress in Self's above diatribe on the buying and selling of class consciousness is not on class in itself but on how class is constantly changing.

I traced the New Statesman's obsession with all things Oliver back to 2007 (I got bored after that), when they reviewed a TV show about him growing vegetables in his garden. The "millionaire television personality" himself was soon back, this time being heckled for his views on poverty. While admittedly naive, Oliver's rather pompous advice ("Cook cheaply - like the Spanish!") was hardly the most offensive twaddle to pass from an establishment figure's lips in the last few years. Worse was his anger at "young Brits" (a much-maligned, often skulkily silent constituency) who are "too wet for work" - 80-100 hours a week being his stated workload norm. Even this was voiced in the context of a ham-fisted defence of "our eastern European immigrant friends." True, Oliver's worldview borders on the myopically narrow. He wobbles, suspended above the twin tides of Victorian moral piety and a diluted Thatcherite creed of entrepreneurialism. But what else should you expect from one who so closely fits the role - admittedly a bit belatedly - of a dragged-up-by-his-own-bootstraps, Tebbitt-lite petit-bourgeois, the proverbial self-raising man? Most recently the New Statesman followed all this up with a clarion call for his defence from a voraciously exclusive middle class. Oliver, the writer contended, was a victim of snobbery directed at him and the striving, pestle-and-mortar-bashing masses. (Just to prove my case, and to widen the gene pool, even the very snobbish Economist has had the oracle in to predict the dietary frontiers of 2036 - a distinct slippage from its usual, rigorous empiricism).

What all this chef's broth boils down to is a contest over a very real set of slippages: how we understand movement within and between social classes. It's fitting that we should be so mesmerised and confused, provoked and applauding, of someone like Jamie Oliver, because he - in voice, tone and annoying colloquialism - represents all that feels affected and forced in the personality of the effective social climber. Hopping between classes is culturally a difficult thing to do. To then become outspokenly critical of the 'lower orders' - from among whose number you were flung - almost guarantees a welter of opprobrium. The need to stratify class - to pin down class identities - is betrayed by someone as energetically contrary and - let's face it - obnoxious as Jamie Oliver. The historian E.P. Thompson once described class as not "this or that part of [a larger social] machine" but as "a social and cultural formation." For Thompson class could not be defined abstractly but "only in terms of relationship with other classes... Class is not a thing, it is a happening." The thing happening in the fuss around Jamie Oliver is a symptom of anxiety: the middle class - always a little vulnerable in a society still partially in awe of aristocratic privilege and yet predominantly working class - doesn't want its waters muddied.

The urge to stratify is embodied in that common British pastime, the class survey. Last April most daily newspapers extensively covered a report that contended there were now seven classes in Britain's complex social matrix, from the "precariat" (a buzzy new gloss on semi-employment) to the more familiar elite. The research, conducted by the BBC, separated participants according to empirical data: cars, houses, jobs, savings, and so on. Yet, ask any of them if they felt like they belonged to their resultant group, and they would almost certainly balk. Probably nobody has ever felt passionately drawn to life as an "emergent service sector worker." In this the "traditional working class" survived - reduced, however, to a niggling 15% of the population. Clearly, the survey is inadequate as an expression of class feeling. Yet, how do we clearly establish what the majority of people feel about class today?


The social processes and experiences of capitalism tend to be class forming; yet the degree and direction of class consciousness is not determined by them. This battle takes place on the twin terrains of politics and of culture. Clearly, not all people who work will identify as working class. But because of capitalism's tendency to unite vast numbers of workers in a similar relation to itself (most don't have direct access to or ownership of the means of production; neither do they have control over a great deal of money capital) similarities not only of interest but of social behaviour, custom, outlook, culture, and politics are likely to arise. Selina Todd's recent book The People: The Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 tells this story of growing class consciousness in vibrant terms. What excludes some from the privilege of membership? CEOs obviously work: some part of their professional role is given over to the creation of surplus value. Yet it's unlikely they'll identify in any immediate sense with a wider working class culture because ultimately their workplace power is necessarily greater; their proximity to the means of production closer; their ability to control large amounts of money capital infinitely greater, than the average worker. Nothing follows necessarily from these facts. I'm not going to tell you that Sir Alan Sugar isn't working class; only that you're unlikely to find him in a dole queue - or for that matter on a picket line. The much talked about "decline of the working class" since the 1970s does not refer to an exclusively economic decline; it refers to the crushing of the politically conscious minority of the working class and more broadly those who identified with its traditional culture. Capitalist social processes suggest, however, that its revival in new political and cultural forms is a constant possibility.


Despite the fact that so many British people continue to identify as working class, it is the middle-class that fascinates our media. The limits of this identity are contested in the unassuming form of a Jamie Oliver or of an Alan Sugar or even of a Wayne Rooney. The British middle class is, as Marx would have said, a classic "ruling class." Its ideas tend publicly to dominate others. Yet, just as capital is not static, the social composition and the worldview of its core beneficiaries is not static either. Even if capital senses no existential threat from below, particular layers within the middle class must constantly reassert their right to privilege and to elevation above "infiltrators." Through intellectual, cultural and political ritual the fluidity of the middle class as a social group can be combated.

E.P. Thompson described the development of working-class identity from 1790-1832 from two perspectives: firstly, by looking at the growing internal relations (of, say, artisans to the women's movement or to unskilled labour) of consciously identifying working class people to each other; and secondly by looking at the developing antagonisms between the working class and society's rulers. The practical lesson we can draw from the likes of both Thompson and Selina Todd is that these relations do not develop in any fixed or necessary direction (the admittedly limited attraction, described by Todd, of Oswald Mosley's fascist Blackshirts for the working class demonstrates this): class is in a constant process of change and fissure - both internally and in relation to other classes. This makes the political development of class relations peculiarly combustible and unpredictable. Still, the difference between the working class and the middle class is that only the latter must, by strict definition, attempt viciously to preserve its privileged status from others. This ontological openness of class is in fact a great reserve of strength of the working class.  

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