by Sunetra Senior

On Friday June 23rd 2016, millions of us woke up to the rattling reality of a momentous decision: the pound had plummeted to a 31-year low, our young people had lost the right to live and work nearby abroad, and oh yes – the UK as we knew it was now officially in a state of civil conflict. But this isn’t going to be another article about how we should respect the people who voted Leave – though of course we should – nor one that commiserates upon how we’ve tragically lost touch with the ‘underprivileged and disadvantaged’ of us, for the simple fact that it is the sole circulation – and indulgence of – such statements that is fanning the right-wing heat blowing an insidious hole through our country.

The truth is, we knew of the disconnect between London and the rest of the country back in 2010 after the general election; then again in 2015, before the referendum. People were rebelling against their traditional working class party’s increasing numbers because they felt disillusioned, systematically phased out. We talked then amongst ourselves about how awful it was but that’s also what hinders: the over-intellectualising, sighing, echo-chamber –erring. There’s too big a gap between all our benevolent ideas and seeing the actual progressive changes, and it’s starting to look suspicious.

There’s too big a gap between all our benevolent ideas and seeing the actual progressive changes, and it’s starting to look suspicious.

In Lionel Shriver’s brilliant sociological novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin, the concept of middle class privilege clashing head-on with the need for an immediate connection, emerges as a powerful theme. The book depicts the wound that opens up between a concerned mother and her neglected, possibly psychopathic, son, because even as she reaches out to him, she still maintains a cautious distance. Of course this feels incredibly patronising to Kevin, who reacts with reciprocal hostility until the story’s climax of domestic carnage.

( TIlda Swinton and Jon C Reilly in We Need to Talk About Kevin © Artificial Eye )

That there is such a heavy class context makes it irresistibly comparable to the way that many of us who identify as liberal are approaching the current national climate; not least because it’s an uncomfortable parallel.  Though other issues strain the maternal connection in the novel, the family’s comfortable status is always a gaping presence in the background: the mother’s tentative engagement with her troubled son is shown against the walls of a vast and impersonal house, and the high style language used to report of his suspicious behaviour identifies her as part of a prudent, face-saving culture that likes to repress and circumvent grittier truths. The real monster isn’t so much Kevin, or indeed his mental imbalance; it’s the denial of the mother and her inability to recognise the deep culpability in her own demise. Now, though this bourgeois blind spot is peripheral in the novel, it is fundamental for the liberal movement. We don’t just run from a single problem, but the concept of class prejudice itself.

What many of us who have enthusiastically pursued education and like to think ourselves as conscionable intellectuals don’t realise, is that we are at once entering into an ideology of social intimidation and superiority that still thrives on a class divide. Along with being able to pursue a stimulating degree where you can grow and expand yourself, and consequently have access to higher paying and satisfying work, you also inherit an incredible sense of personal entitlement.

We don’t just run from a single problem, but the concept of class prejudice itself.

Ha-Joon Chang points out in his sharp, political work 23 Things They Don’t Tell you About Capitalism, in his section arguing that equal opportunities do not equal a fairer society that a poorer background not only places restrictions on what people can do, but ‘what they want to do – your environment can you make you give up certain things without even trying’, he states, ‘for example, many academically talented British working-class children do not even try to go to universities’ because they’ve been told repeatedly these places ‘are not for them.’

Essentially then, being privileged isn’t just a monetary status; more specifically than being social, it’s also categorically psychological. By joining a social currency that values reputation and favours the stronger competitor, you by default become part of a financial system that exploits others to survive. And no matter how unconsciously, it cannot be said to care about a strata of society – and indeed the virtues of tolerance and open-mindedness – when you are actively exercising and benefitting from an ideology that exploits, belittles and infantilises them. Here I could give the example of how such institutional hypocrisy manifested in the way a lot of liberal-identifying voters got angry at Leave voters for being ‘so ignorant and selfish’ when: a) it took this drastic an action to get them to notice the value of the working class voice in the first place and b) the public might very well have made an ill-informed decision because that’s how low the quality of our state education is. But even this does not demonstrate how endemic class prejudice really is.

Job centre bar in Deptford ©

Even if we do acknowledge that there is inequality, we have more an opportunistic reaction to it than anything else. In fact, more often than not our energies go the other way, towards throwing around our academic clout: language is used to prove ourselves smarter in an argument, where the very next day we’ll return to worrying about the robustness of our social life, or what career opportunity we should chase next.  A real time consequence of this  inadvertent status apathy is the fact that many graduates and the children of wealthier parents have been buying up properties in Shoreditch, in what is considered in an ‘up and coming’ area, driving up the  house prices and taking advantage what were formerly council houses. When ideas such as UBI (Universal Basic Income) are posited, a lot of us stall and dismiss it as too radical an idea – why? Of course there are reasons, but if it’s a primal fear of change rearing its ugly head, ask yourself where that’s coming from. Does the individualistic idea of everybody having to ‘earn their lot in life’ hold more sway than you realised?

that’s what’s supposed to be ours as a community: the intent to do better

If we want our cause to give back, we need to address the full and heated extent of our responsibility in it: our implicit duty to address class division and play a grassroots role in the national solidarity our lifestyles naturally undermine. In Shriver’s novel there is a powerful scene in which the mother – in the one instance that she loses her cool – throws Kevin across the room. In the few weeks that follow, he actually begins to respond to her and reciprocate her affections: ‘that was the one time,’ he tells her ‘that you were actually being honest’. For the liberal effort, this means a large-scale collective self-awareness that we do tend to sleepwalk into the mainstream complacency.

We must fight to take back that subliminally waylaid energy because that’s what’s supposed to be ours as a community: the intent to do better. It just takes each of us to do a little more – turning up to demonstration protests, backing social programmes that help teachers and provide hope in recreational hours for youth, speaking up more about injustices on social media (Black Lives Matter has gathered great momentum because of this) – to affect a redemptive cleanse: maybe then we’ll see philanthropy reflected back in wider politics and find that more of the UK is on our side.

Featured image © Toby Morris/Pencilsword


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