Social Class

The British Working Class Social Comedy

There is a film genre that I enjoy quite a bit from the time I felPride_posterl in love with The Full Monty. For want of a better term, it’s the British working class social comedy. It’s best defined by examples: Brassed Off, Billy Elliot, and one I found at the library the other day, the 2014 film Pride.

They focus on episodes in the lives of communities that are losing their cohesion and identity as a result of steel mills or mines closing.  (One of my favorite moments in Billy Elliot is when young Billy walks down the street running a stick along what seems to be a wall, youthfully unaware that it is a line of riot gear clad police called in to deal with a labor strike.)

The films are populated with every day men and women dealing with social change as a community and they are uplifting and funny, even when their small victories are set against a bleak background.

Mark Herman, the writer of Brassed Off, explained his inspiration on a site called Den of Geek:

Following his previous film, the Dudley Moore-headlined Blame It On The Bellboy (that was savaged by critics, and didn’t find much salvation with audiences), Mark Herman told me back in 2008 that “I wrote a few what I thought were very commercial, sellable scripts, but after the reaction to Bellboy, nobody would touch me with a bargepole”.

Eventually, “the advice from my agent at the time was to not worry about whether a script is sellable or not, just write something that I care about”. Which is what he duly did.

A chance traffic jam was what led him to the north-eastern English town of Grimethorpe, a place he used to visit back in the 1970s when he sold bacon for a living. He recalled that “the miners’ strike [of the 1980s] was never off our TV screens, but the closures, and these effects of the closures, had been pretty much ignored by the media. Seeing the shops I used to visit all boarded up, seeing these places like ghost towns, seeing that it was now easier to buy drugs than bacon, made me want to write something about it”.

It strikes me that while we’ve heard a lot about these sort of failing industrial communities here in the U.S. in the news in recent years, I can’t really think of a good example of an American “Brassed Off” or “Full Monty.” If you know of one, please let me know. The only movie that jumps to mind is Nebraska from 2013, which is shot in black and white and focuses on a man in a rural midwest town who is convinced by one of those “You may already have won” sweepstakes letters that he has a million dollars waiting for him in Lincoln, Nebraska. He goes on a road trip with his son, with a stop in a fictional small Nebraska town being the highlight of the journey.

What is different in Nebraska is that it is more dark (its black and white cinematography may be part of what creates that mood). There is no small victory in Nebraska. It is also not really connected to the community it features. The travelers pass through and witness the place, but are not really part of it. It is an individual journey not a community journey.

Somehow this genre “feels” particularly British. I have posted before a clip of Stephen Fry discussing the differences between American and British humor and he puts forward the theory that American comedy is based on being the smartest guy in the room, a clever commentator on the surroundings, whereas the classic British comedy character is life’s loser. This clip quotes that segment of the Stephen Fry clip and challenges the notion.

 

One of the theories that the creator of this clip posits is that perhaps the American sense of optimism is eroding and that our sense of opportunity is becoming more like that of our British counterparts.

I have also found a number of recent articles on both sides of the Atlantic lamenting the “death” of the working class television sit com.

Wesley Morris, writing in The Australian, said:

In 2007, TV underwent a great expansion — beyond the major broadcast networks, beyond TVs and into all kinds of genres — just at the moment the economy shrank, and a fantasy emerged. As real people became poorer and lost their jobs, the ones on TV got richer, and their jobs seemed more besides the point. All that space to tell new stories ended up dedicated to a limited set of jobs and an increasingly homogeneous notion of what work means.

These days, there are only a handful of workplace taxonomies in scripted TV. We’ve got police precincts, crime-and-forensics teams and legal-medical-beltway dramas. NBC’s Chicago Med, Chicago Fire and Chicago P.D. are a virtual sexy-calendar night. These shows might know what a blue collar is, but they’re class-unconscious: their characters don’t usually work for the explicit maintenance of their livelihoods. They work for comedy, for suspense, for sport. For the most part, TV cops, lawyers, bureaucrats and doctors inhabit the same kinds of toothsome residences and wear the same exquisitely tailored clothes, all showing off how fabulously art directors and costume designers earn a pay cheque. Sometimes we see more of their work than that done by the people who inhabit it. Now on TV, no matter what your actual job, almost everybody belongs to the same generic, vaguely upper-class class.

So where are the Roseanne’s and the Archie Bunkers? Is their absence to blame for some of the resentment of “rust belt” and rural voters who feel no one hears them? Has our comedy as well as our politics made them invisible?

The British writer and broadcaster Caitlin Moran has a theory that “a deliberate, systematic attack on the working classes” has made it harder to write mainstream comedy about those communities.  “Comedy needs your characters’ lives to stay static,” she said. “They have to be trapped in a frustrating box they can never get out of. But there was such a terrible decline in the lives of the working classes – which continues now – that there was no stable box to write from.”

I will have to give some more thought to whether the basis of comedy is, indeed, being trapped in a static situation. (This seems to go back to the question of British vs. American comedy and whether comedy is found in being the smartest person in the room, or in failure.)

Anyway, if you can recommend a good movie “for people who liked The Full Monty” let me know.

 

 

Is Inequality Necessary?

511BEhcZ-cL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_In 1492, two cultures collided. In my school we were taught to call this Columbus’s discovery of America. Of course, there were already people living here, and they equally discovered the Spanish. There are no written records of how the locals perceived of these strange new arrivals. Columbus, on the other hand, left a diary, which made it quite clear that he did not understand the local customs at all nor did he believe he had any reason to.

Reading Tzvetan Todorov’s The Conquest of America, I was often reminded of Undiscovery Day in Ocean Shores, Washington. Each year on the last Saturday in April the residents of Ocean Shores commemorate the time George Vancouver sailed right by their town without discovering it. They go to the shore and shout “Hey George!” (And then presumably head to the bar for drinks.)

Todorov’s thesis is that Columbus managed to encounter the people of America without ever really discovering them.

When Columbus first met the people he called Indians he found them to be generous and a bit foolish. He could not understand why they would trade gold for worthless things like bits of glass.

“No more than in the case of languages does Columbus understand that values are conventional, that gold is not more precious than glass in itself, but only in the European system of exchange,” Todorov wrote, “…a different system of exchange is for him equivalent to the absence of a system from which he infers the bestial character of the Indians.”

The people he encountered did not possess private property. They had an egalitarian society.  “I seemed to discern that all owned a share of what one of them owned and particularly with regard to victuals.”

Another member of the crew confirmed that they owned everything as common property and would “make use of whatever they pleased; the owners gave no sign of displeasure.” The Spaniards seemed to admire this– until their neighbors extended it to their property, at which point they went from generous to thieving in their eyes even though their behavior had not actually changed.

Before we get too smug about Columbus’s blind spots, we should admit that we are really no better. Can you imagine a society without private property? Our system of organizing society is so ingrained that we are largely unaware that there could be any other way to do it. A few years ago I wrote about what Economic anthropologist David Graeber calls this “the founding myth” of economics, the idea that money evolved out of a system of barter. In fact, the opposite is true. The idea that objects and services have a comparable value that can be quantified and exchanged developed with money. In an interview posted on the blog Naked Capitalism, Graber explained:

Obviously what would really happen, and this is what anthropologists observe when neighbors do engage in something like exchange with each other, if you want your neighbor’s cow, you’d say, “wow, nice cow” and he’d say “you like it? Take it!” – and now you owe him one. Quite often people don’t even engage in exchange at all – if they were real Iroquois or other Native Americans, for example, all such things would probably be allocated by women’s councils.

So the real question is not how does barter generate some sort of medium of exchange, that then becomes money, but rather, how does that broad sense of ‘I owe you one’ turn into a precise system of measurement – that is: money as a unit of account?

Buchan’s book, Frozen Desire, says that in ancient times there was “a contest between the moneyless and moneyed forms of social organizations…Money is normative. So pervasive is its influence on our lives that it makes less moneyed ages incomprehensible, consigning them to barbarism or folklore. Yet history is not inevitable: antiquity did not aspire to our present condition and might have generated a quite different present.”

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Buchan says, Britain for a time shifted to a non-monetary economy.  That means that in the time of Jesus and his contemporaries, the money model was not yet set in stone. We read accounts of Jesus telling his followers to take nothing with them, not to use money, and to rely on the kindness of others.  This is the old relationship model of commerce. Money was of Caesar. The Kingdom of God was to operate on an egalitarian system.

Yesterday I read an article on Big Think reporting on a study published in the journal Nature which argued that human sacrifice was not merely a religious ritual, but a means of social control.

Two-thirds of highly stratified societies once took part in the grisly act, while only a quarter of egalitarian cultures did. The groups who at one time practiced human sacrifice, had more rigid castes, titles that were inherited, and less social mobility. Researchers concluded that “ritual killings helped humans transition from the small egalitarian groups of our ancestors and the large, stratified societies we live in today.” Though sociologists have posited such a hypothesis before, this is the first time it’s been scientifically studied.

Among many today, religion is thought to be the standard bearer of morality. Yet, this study, as Watts said, “…shows how religion can be exploited by social elites to their own benefit.” Since these societies prospered, it proved an effective method of social control. “The terror and spectacle [of the act] was maximized,” in order to achieve the desired effect, Watts told Science. Moreover, ritualized killings would’ve given pause to rivals considering a power play for the throne, foreign ministers mulling over war, and bands among the populace grumbling for rebellion.

Yet, Watts and colleagues posit that social cohesion and stratification was necessary to give humans the ability to develop large-scale agriculture, build cities, erect monumental architecture and public works projects, and to allow for greater capacities for science, art, and learning. Though these findings are thought provoking and significant, some experts wonder if the phylogenetic analysis proves a causal relationship, or merely hints at one.

One of the things that interested me was the researchers’ conclusion that stratification was necessary to have modern culture. There is a double assumption here. Not only that we need a division of labor to achieve large tasks, but that some of the people must receive a smaller share of the rewards for a division of labor to work. In other words, Watts cannot imagine a division of labor without a corresponding class system.

As with gold and glass beads, values are conventional. There is no objective reason that the manual laborer must receive a smaller compensation than the manager. One could imagine rather that a job like working overnight to clean the machines at the slaugherhouse, a job that is both unpleasant and dangerous, might be compensated more than a job like management which has non-monetary rewards like status and a clean working environment. Just because we cannot imagine a large-scale system with a division of labor that operates on an egalitarian system doesn’t mean that such a thing could not exist. (See also my article on the Western notion of History as a Straight Line.)

Yet the human sacrifice theory makes sense to me. In the shift from the “I owe you one” economy to the monetary economy, imagine how radical this idea must have been: that I am entitled to a smaller share of the pie because my job is different from yours. Creating a stratified society required more than just differentiating jobs. It meant convincing people that not only should they take the unpleasant slaughterhouse job, but that the work is not worthy of as much reward as the job of the manager. To get people to agree to that, you need force and maybe the voice of a god.

 

“That Makes Me Smart”

“Mr. Trump is a highly-skilled businessman who has a fiduciary responsibility to his business, his family and his employees to pay no more tax than legally required.”-Statement by the Trump campaign.

I have not been posting here as much as usual because I have been hard at work completing a book about a circle of friends who lived in the Victorian and Edwardian era. Their culture was still much more focused on “honor” than “success.” (This sent them to the libel courts in foolish attempts to preserve their reputations on a regular basis.)

Aristocrats were, of course, entitled and out of touch with the needs of the working class. Yet they did have an ideal of “noblesse oblige,” that is to say, if God favored you by allowing you to be born Lord Wibblebottom of Wembley then this fortune came with a responsibility to society and to those who were less fortunate. The sense of duty and honor was positively fatal to the aristocracy during World War I when so many sons were killed in battle. There was no question that a man had a duty to defend his country. Nobles did not always live up to this ideal, nor were they always aware of their class assumptions, but at least the ideal existed.

In the rarefied air of today’s super rich this ideal is not even present. People like Donald Trump use the language of duty and honor, as in the Trump campaign’s “fiduciary duty,” but “duty” includes no obligation to the larger society whatsoever.

A couple of points, there is no “fiduciary duty” to avoid paying taxes. A 2013 article in The Guardian notes:

Farrer & Co was commissioned to look at the issue by tax justice commissioners who fear executives are trying to justify tax avoidance on the grounds that their priority is to enhance shareholder returns.

The legal assessment from Farrer & Co, which numbers the Queen among its clients, states: “It is not possible to construe a director’s duty to promote the success of the company as constituting a positive duty to avoid tax.”

Farrer says company directors have a wide discretion when calculating the social impact of their decisions. If they choose to pay tax responsibly, they would in fact be protected by the applicable law rather than at risk of liability, it explains.

It seems amazing that this should even be a question. What is fascinating about the 2013 article is that it quotes a representative who says executives “are being told by their tax advisers that they have a duty to adopt anti-social tax measures.”

Think about this for a moment. A duty– a moral obligation– not to contribute to your country.

The idea that it is a moral obligation to avoid taxes is related to another myth that has taken hold of our discourse, the idea that the CEO of a company is morally bound to focus on nothing but maximizing shareholder value.  Yves Smith wrote in Naked Capitalism:

…that board and managements are somehow obligated to “maximize shareholder value” is patently false. Legally, shareholders’ equity is a residual claim, inferior to all other obligations. Boards and management are required to satisfy all of the company’s commitments, which include payments to vendors (including employees), satisfying product warranties, paying various creditors, paying taxes, and meeting various regulatory requirements (including workplace and product safety rules and environmental regulations)…

this idea did not come out of legal analysis, changes in regulation, or court decisions. It was simply an academic theory that went mainstream. And to add insult to injury, the version of the Jensen formula that became popular was its worst possible embodiment.

And as John Kay has stressed, when companies try to “maximize shareholder value,” they don’t succeed

the most profitable companies are not the most profit-oriented…In their 2002 book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras compared outstanding companies with adequate but less remarkable companies with similar operations…in each case: the company that put more emphasis on profit in its declaration of objectives was the less profitable in its financial statements….When a corporation becomes financialized in this way, the top executives no longer concern themselves with investing in the productive capabilities of employees, the foundation for rising living standards. Instead they become focused on generating financial profits that can justify ever higher stock prices – in large part because, through their stock-based compensation, high stock prices translate into megabucks for these corporate executives themselves.

The Trump campaign has gone even a step further with this, making the case that Trump has a duty to avoid paying personal taxes. This is framed as a responsibility to his family. Imagine if you were to try to make the case that you were not going to pay your income tax because you have a duty to your family to provide them with more money?

My interest in this is in how language is used. We use a different standard for middle class and upper class individuals when we talk about income. Trump has profits. Profits are good because they fuel the economy and create jobs. You have savings. Savings are bad because they show a lack of consumer confidence. In both cases the words refer to money that is being hoarded for future personal use.

Then there is the word “responsibility.” I would like to go back to something I said on this subject in 2013 (you can read the full article via the link above):

…Asked what “Thatcherism” was he said, and I’m paraphrasing, Thatcherism was not a political philosophy, it was a way of thinking.  Thatcher, he said, stood for “responsibility.”

I was thinking about this and it occurred to me that this is not a completed concept.  You can’t stand for “responsibility” you have to finish the sentence.  Responsibility to what?

I got to thinking about classical literature and all of those tales about duty and honor.  I thought of something David Denby wrote about the Iliad in Great Books, “Accepting death in battle as inevitable, the Greek and Trojan aristocrats of the Iliad experience the world not as pleasant or unpleasant, not as good and evil, but as glorious or shameful.”

sing the world “responsibility” without saying “to what” calls these types of commitments to mind.  It calls to mind the responsibility of a parent to child.

Yet when I think of Thatcher and Reagan it is a different kind of “responsibility” that comes to mind.  This is often phrased as “personal responsibility.”  It means that each person should take control of his own life, pull himself up by his bootstraps and make his own way. As the name suggests “personal responsibility” is actually a limiting of responsibility from society as a whole to one person.  I am responsible for myself, you are responsible for yourself…

Pulling yourself up by your bootstraps is empowering when it means you have the opportunity to break out of rigid social hierarchies.  It is less empowering when it is used to explain why your boss does not have any responsibility to you.  “It is my responsibility to reduce costs and make the largest profits possible so that I can do my duty and create jobs.  It is not my responsibility to ensure that those jobs have living wages.”

Many of the super-wealthy got that way and remain that way by shielding themselves from personal responsibility while at the same time using the language of personal responsibility to justify not participating in the social contact that binds the rest of us.

The article linked above talks about and Wake Forest Law Review by Brent T. White of the University of Arizona that discusses how middle class borrowers were disadvantaged in the crash of 2008 because we held on to old concepts of honor and duty, which included paying mortgages even when underwater. “Norms governing homeowner behavior stand in sharp contrast to norms governing lenders, who seek to maximize profits or minimize losses irrespective of concerns of morality or social responsibility.”

White called this, in his academic parlance, “norm asymmetry.” What it means in layman’s terms is that most of us feel honor bound to pay our bills, and to avoid taking advantage of the system. (For example millions of people who are eligible for food stamps do not take them as a point of pride and a belief in the virtue of self-reliance.)

If using every advantage the system can provide is, as Trump suggests, “smart,” then those proud people are, it seems, “stupid.”

We, every day Americans, are proud of these virtues. We are proud that we respect the system, work hard and “play by the rules.” Words like “duty” and “responsibility” are meaningful to us.

But if “responsibility” when I use it means I have a responsibility to be contributing citizen, and “responsibility” when you use it means “every man for himself,” then we are not having the same conversation.

In an era when most members of congress are millionaires, and most of us are not, I think it is worth stopping and asking, when a politician uses a word like “responsibility” if he is really speaking the same language.

Savings vs. Profits

Sometimes it is the juxtaposition of articles that gives them meaning. A couple of days ago I recall a meme that flashed through my Facebook feed. (I tried to find it again to link to it here, but after a bit of clicking I gave up.) The idea was that when a person has 50 cats, or has a house full of newspapers, we call him a hoarder. When a rich person has billions more than he can spend, we call him a genius.

I spent this morning with a quick read of the news, first glancing through an article on the World Press site focusing on tax avoidance.  The article opened:

When Donald Trump was recently asked what his tax rate is, he irately responded, “It’s none of your business.” And Trump has repeatedly stated that “I fight very hard to pay as little tax as possible.”

One of the big questions in the presidential campaign at the moment has to do with Donald Trump’s tax returns.  There has been rampant speculation as to why he is not willing to share them with the public. One of the main reasons, the pundits guess, may be that it will show that he is not nearly as rich as he pretends to be.

While still thinking about this admiration of wealth, which at its most basic level is just holding on to big piles of money, I read an article on the Independent Voter Network on how Americans are becoming savers and how this is bad for the economy.

“Under all circumstances, personal consumption is always the primary driver of the economy,” the article says.  “So how do you convince a nation to start spending again?”

It struck me that the “Americans” here who are being asked to start spending are folks like you and me, not folks like Donald Trump. When I put money into a savings account instead of buying a new TV, it is taking that money out of the economy. When a zillionaire parks millions off shore there seems to be little discussion about how to instill confidence in that person that it is OK to spend that cash on cool stuff like higher salaries or whatever rich people could be buying with all their savings. We don’t usually use a word like “savings” to describe the big piles of money rich people keep in their Swiss bank accounts. Savings are what people of modest means put aside. Rich people have profits.

The question “how do you convince a nation to start spending again?” does not bring to mind the uber-wealthy who are hoarding most of the cash. See for example this CNBC article: Rich hoard cash as their wealth reaches record high. It seems it is not “a nation” that needs convincing, it is the small percentage of the nation that is holding most the cash who need convincing.

An interesting element in the IVN article is that wile it worries about the effect of (presumably middle class) savings on the overall economy, it is also critical about the level of debt average Americans carry.

Americans are carrying fairly large credit card balances. As some commentators note, Americans are probably willing to put up with a government drowning in red ink because they see the same pattern in their own finances. We live in a ‘pay for it tomorrow’ society — from Washington D.C. to Main Street, nobody wants to pay the piper.

What does it mean that an article is on the one hand concerned that we might be saving too much and also concerned that we are spending more than we have?

This is a horrendous double-edged sword. Paying down the debt, from the personal perspective has the net effect of saving, yet paying the debt down also destroys wealth in the system (the debt is held as an interest bearing asset by a bank).

Even worse, the consumption from this debt took place long ago; the debt service is no longer driving the economy (and yes, the interest paid is still a part of the current GDP, but consumption drives the economy — not borrowing).

In other words, when you pay down your debt, that is less money that the banking system has, and if you then put the money you saved by not paying interest to a bank every month into a cookie jar, that is money that, say, a car dealer or Wal Mart is not making from you.

This is all true, but when we conceptualize the middle class and poor as having savings and the rich as having profits, doesn’t it change the meaning of a question like “how do we convince people to spend” into something else? If we ignore the people with the most to spend in this, are we not essentially asking “how do we persuade the people who have less to keep less of it for themselves?”

 

 

Quote of the Day: On “Urban Pioneers”

…the phrase “urban pioneers” is perpetually problematic especially in this city. Let’s all just take a moment to remember the original “pioneers” who came through Detroit…The issue with the idea of pioneers is that historically they are treated as if they discovered something. Detroit has been here. People live here, have lived here, have raised generations of their families in Detroit proper. No amount of cheap studio space is going to allow artists or anyone else to move in and act as if they found something new. And to be very clear, it’s not brave or bold, it’s strategic opportunism.- Casey L. Rocheteau, on the Write House blog.

I read the above article immediately after this one from The Metro Times which points out that Detroit’s latest renaissance has also seen the number of black-owned buildings downtown fall by as much as 75 percent.

Quote of the Day: You Can Expect It, but It is a bit Cruel

When we expect young writers to get experience via unpaid internships, we’re actually saying we want only wealthy people writing about American culture in an influential way. That’s what we get, right? Or rather, that’s what we’ve gotten used to accepting as normal when in fact, it’s a kind of fiction. Diversity is reality. So, in order to do my part to support being in step with reality, I’m really excited about creating an opportunity for emerging writers to get experience and mentorship while also receiving financial support. You can’t expect someone to do their best work if they’re exhausted and broke. Well, maybe you can expect it but doing so strikes me as a bit cruel.-Saeed Jones, quoted in Colorlines