March 11, 2008

White out


Owen is right to draw attention to these two pieces attacking the BBC's White season, but I'm not sure that either go far enough in locating what was so pernicious about it. The crucial line comes in the New Statesman piece: 'The BBC has made a grave error in locating the problems of Britain's poorest and most pressurised people in race rather than class.' Yet the displacement from class to race is more than an error; it is part of a logic - an ethnologic - that substitutes ethnicity for class. While systematic, this logic is best understood in terms of dreamwork, with all of the telling elisions, substitutions and compressions that psychoanalysis has taught us to be alert to. The most revelatory compression is the title of the season itself: a season ostensibly devoted to the 'white working class' ends up being called 'White', as if 'white' and 'working class' are synonymous. This identification - this conversion, precisely, of class into 'identity' - has strange implications. Is there no non-white working class? And are the upper and middle classes not white? And in a time when ethnic discontent is as likely to be organized around religion and nationality as skin colour, what purchase does the category of 'whiteness' have even on current ethnic resentments?

It ought to be obvious that it is not insofar as they are 'white' that the working class has been disappeared from British culture; since, for all the gestures towards multiculturalism and diversity in Britain, being white remains pervasively normative. Nor is it the case that British culture is bereft of representations of working class life, even if, as the Socialist Worker piece complains, those representations are seldom anything other than hackneyed. (The problem might actually be the reverse: that the middle class control media representation without themselves being subject to even a distorting representation; they remain for the most part an offscreen voice, like the Big (Br)other producers, heard but not seen, who orchestrate a working class freak show from behind the scenes.)

Ethnicization spirits away class in favour of categories that are made to appear natural. The Far Right have profited from this, but New Labour has had its own reasons to collude with it. In addition to fitting New Labour's intrinsic suspicion of working class cultures, ethnicizing the working class has clear strategic benefits. It obstructs the possibility of class solidarity between indigenous British workers and immigrant labour by positing the two groups as competitors for resources whilst deflecting attention from the reasons that resources are scarce in the first place. It is far more convenient for New Labour to have a disenfranchised British-born worker complaining that their council houses have been taken by immigrants rather than asking why so few council houses have been built in the last decade. The documentary on Powell claimed to be soberly analysing the 'Rivers of Blood' speech for the first time, as if Powell's ideas are unspeakable. But while no front-line politician would today be so impolitic to publicly talk of 'wide-grinning piccaninnies', as Powell did, few dare speak in favour of immigration, and even fewer talk about class, the real unmentionable in mainstream politics now.


A refreshingly honest perspective on all this was provided by Kelvin Mackenzie, speaking on the Andrew Marr show at the weekend. MacKenzie was doggedly keeping faith with a 'trickle-down theory' of economics, which whilst totally discredited is still widely treated - not least by New Labour - as if it were true. A Spitting Image puppet from an another era, Mackenzie brayed that super rich 'non domiciles' should not be 'squeezed', because they are 'wealth creators'. It is the poor who are the problem. If only they could be removed from London, then everything would be fine. It's a fantasy that is telling in its very incoherence - who would do all the menial labour in a city populated only by the hyper-affluent? In any case, the working class has already been symbolically eliminated, whited out, a situation that the White season exacerbated rather than addressed.

Posted by mark at March 11, 2008 01:04 PM | TrackBack