The Cinematic Spectacle that Class War has become

Our recently appointed Reader in Work and Organisation, Christopher Land, takes it upon himself to dethrone the anti-working class morals symptomatic within films such as, though by no means limited to, Kingsman

Two weeks ago I saw Kingsman: a mash up of Shaw’s Pygmalion and a Roger Moore era James Bond movie, complete with insane villain intent on destroying the world with an overly complicated plot carried out from a secret mountain lair. The main action follows working-class Eggsy as he is approached by the immaculately dressed, upper-class Harry Hart (played by Colin Firth) to join a very secret service organization – the Kingsmen – operating out of a Saville Row bespoke tailor’s shop, connected by underground train to a country estate that doubles as a training ground. Eggsy is represented as a typical baseball cap wearing chav occupying a life of poverty, booze and drugs.

Entering this lumpenproletariat hell, Harry Hart arrives just in time to rescue Eggsy: first from prison and then from a beating by a local gang in the pub. Indeed, the only representations of the working class in the film are set in the pub or in a council flat, where they smoke dope on the sofa and casually perpetrate domestic violence. Eggsy’s mother lives with an abusive local gang leader and the overall image of working class London is one of violence, lack of community, and grey concrete: an image quite at odds with recent sociological studies.

At first glance, the movie could be seen as progressive. Eggsy wins out against the usual Kingsmen recruits: an assortment of Oxbridge toffs with various character flaws borne of privilege and arrogance. In this sense, he is able to transcend his impoverished background until, in the final scenes, he is transformed into a bespoke-suit-wearing super-spy, who saves the world, kills the baddies, and gets the girl.  The message, at one level, is one of equality and merit where birth rank does not, should not, determine status and achieved rank. In the Kingsman universe, talent and commitment will ultimately prevail.

This is an entirely superficial reading, however. More fundamentally Kingsmen celebrates a world dominated by upper-class aesthetics and performativities. The ideal of the gentleman, well dressed, well behaved, highly educated and oozing establishment cultural capital, is venerated throughout the film. Equality, as far as it goes, is understood as the equality of opportunity to become one of the elite. Not only does this go against a reality in which social mobility is, if anything, decreasing, it also leaves the fundamental hierarchy of social class intact and even reinforces it. Throughout the film the working class are represented as a lumpenproletariat: the chavs whose demonization has been so effectively critiqued by Owen Jones.  In this binary world the only feasible option is one of escape, either into drugs and violence, or upward social mobility. The idealised values – ethical and aesthetic – of the upper-class remain an unquestioned good, and something to be aspired to, throughout the film.

If this were just an isolated case it would not be worthy of comment. Even if this were just another example of Colin Firth being posh on screen we might dismiss it. But it is part of a wider problem: our mainsteam media and cultural industries persistently fail to represent the experiences and lives of the majority of the population. At a two day workshop recently hosted by the University of Leicester’s Mark Banks and Doris Eikhof, academics studying the cultural industries gathered together to discuss talent, merit, opportunity and selection in the cultural and creative industries. With reports on research conducted in art schools, classical music conservatoires, jazz music, film and television, fashion design, and computer gaming, the recurrent theme of the workshop was that careers in the cultural industries remain highly stratified and unequal. In almost all cases, white, able-bodied, heterosexual, middle-class, men dominate the cultural and creative industries. Women, black and ethnic minorities, the disabled and LBGT people are under-represented in all of these sectors when compared to those groups as a proportion of the UK population as a whole, or to levels of wider labour market participation.

The reason for this inequality is rarely explicit prejudice and discrimination. Rather the problem is systemic. Where formal qualifications are an entry requirement, as in most higher education institutions, the apparent objectivity and neutrality of merit measured by credentials benefits those from relatively affluent families who can afford to send their children to private schools, live in catchment areas for ‘good’ schools, or pay for private tutors to coach their children through entrance exams for selecting schools. The result, unsurprisingly, is that children from a socio-economically privilege background do better, on average, due to these advantages.

The case is a little more complex when it comes to the cultural industries and the arts. In many cases even elite conservatoires and art schools place a relatively low weight on academic qualifications. Instead they emphasise ‘talent’, which, at first glance, would seem to be more of a fair and egalitarian approach. But how can talent be recognised? As Mark Banks explained, the way that many music schools evaluate talent is through an audition, but these events are themselves spaces where ‘talent’ is performed according to culturally specific conventions and depend upon students’ abilities to understand and comport themselves in this social context according to often implicit rules. Children who have had private musical tuition will often be trained in how to audition. Those with a middle class background are more likely to understand the norms and expectations of conduct in these settings.  In effect, the audition is as much about an applicant’s cultural capital as it is any innate ‘talent’. Indeed, without being developed, trained, and demonstrated in an audition, it is hard to imagine how some raw potential could ever be assessed.

Another, very clear example, was given by Burke and McManus’ discussion of admissions interviews at art and design colleges. Applicants for a fashion course were asked, as a matter of course, where they shopped and who their favourite designer was. Whilst this may be a reasonable question for an aspiring fashion student, it reproduces economic inequality. Those who are able to shop for the kind of high-end fashion design that selectors found credible had to have access to disposable income, as well as a knowledge of design that could only be garnered by following fashion shows and industry press. This world remains inaccessible for many, as highlighted by selectors dismissal of a young, working class, black woman who was influenced by hip-hop and sports styles. These were not the ‘right’ kind of fashion for a high-prestige college, so the applicant was rejected on the basis of her cultural taste and relative difficulty in articulating this clearly and in an appropriate frame. Indeed, in the current context of widespread social inequality, some of the poorest students could not even afford the £5 bus fair to get to art college open days, so never even made it to the stage where they could be rejected in the selection process.

These inequalities do not stop at education and training. As Randle’s talk indicated, access to film and television exacerbates this privileging of the already affluent.  Getting in to these industries is often achieved through social networks, so that those with family contacts in film or television have a better chance than outsiders. Like many other cultural industries, they are disproportionately concentrated in London, and early career opportunities are often in the form of unpaid internships. Getting on in the industry requires the ability to cope with precarious and uncertain employment prospects, riding out periods of unemployment, or putting in extremely long hours when work arrives in cycles of feast and famine. These challenges are more easily met by those without caring responsibilities and with affluent parents who can support them whilst establishing a career. The project-based nature of the film industry doubles down on this systemic inequality as people are more likely to trust and feel comfortable with people who they are able to get on with socially, so will choose to work with people they already know, people similar to them. Access to projects also means remaining in regular contact with potential colleagues, for example in the pub. This creates a kind of homophily where middle class white men are more likely to employ more middle class white men, reproducing an already entrenched inequality.

So how does this relate back to Kingsman and why is any of this really so important? Well, on the one hand, a lack of diversity in the cultural and creative industries means that their products tend to reproduce the experiences and concerns of those working in them. This is not simply a ‘business case’ argument that diversity is good because it enables producers to reach a wider audience. It is important because the cultural industries produce meaning: narratives, images and ideas that shape our sense of self. Middle class, heterosexual, white men will tend to produce films that take their own identity for granted and not even realise that they are making films for people like themselves. In a diverse society, this creates a kind of democratic deficit in which anyone other than a white, middle-class, heterosexual is underrepresented, not only in the cultural industries’ workforce, but also in their products.

In Kingsman, Eggsy only becomes a full subject, in control of his own fate, when he replicates his mentor Harry, emulating him aesthetically and stylistically, as well as in his choice of profession.  For Eggsy to get in and get on in the fictitious secret service, he has to shed his former associations and identity. In this moral universe, the only valid aspiration for him is to escape from the working class and become one of the elite. There is no possibility of class politics or solidarity in such an image, just social climbing.  At a time when the only rational response to increasing inequality should be outrage at silver-spoon, inherited wealth, massive city-bonuses, and a culture of entitlement by the already privileged, escape from poverty is framed as an individualistic, aesthetic act of reshaping our image so that we not only look like the rich but act like them and identify with them.

Rather than challenging the continuing class war that the wealthy are conducting against the poorest in society, we are being encouraged to identity with the wealthy against the working class. In this, I would suggest, cultural representations like Kingsman are far from innocent or just a bit of fun. They are part of a widespread cultural front in the class war and, at least partly, the result of a material inequality within the cultural industries themselves.

Originally published at http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/management/

Addressing Liberty: Hayek, Gibraltar and The Road to Serfdom

Lecturer in Management and Economic History at the School, Chris Grocott, outlines a little known escapade of a largely known economist    

Friedrich Hayek’s ideas on how economies should be organised, or on how state power should be restrained, have affected us all. Daniel Stedman Jones’s Masters of the Universe selected Hayek, alongside Milton Friedman, as a main influence on the government policies of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher while Nicholas Wapshott, Thatcher’s biographer, characterised the rift between followers of Hayek and John Maynard Keynes as one which ‘defined modern economics’. Hayek was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1972 and further awards followed: in 1984 he received the UK’s Order of Merit (one of the highest civilian honours the UK can bestow), whilst in 1991 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the United States (likewise, a rare and highly prized honour). Such acclaim, while widely known, was a long time in coming.

In an article recently published in Economy and Society, I examine events which occurred almost half a century before Hayek died. In 1944, he was invited by the British Colonial Office to write a report on how, after the war, the economy of Gibraltar should be organised. What was to become his most famous work – The Road to Serfdom – had just been finished in March 1944. There he famously argued that state economic intervention often led to the sort of totalitarianism experienced in Nazi Germany. It wasn’t that advocacy of state planning was indistinguishable from totalitarianism but that the outcome of excessive economic intervention on the part of the state was an oppressive situation. Hayek was due to go to the United States to promote his book, and its views, in early 1945. A six week paid trip to Gibraltar in August, followed by a period of writing up his findings, therefore fit his plans very nicely.

Having recently outlined the dire consequences of the Weimar Republic’s control of over half of Germany’s economic activities, Hayek’s discovery that, in 1940’s Gibraltar, the state generated over fifty per cent of the jobs available cannot have comforted him. Faced with a population of around 20,000 Gibraltarians and a garrison of 10,000 troops to be accommodated in the space of two and half square miles, the cost of living, with particular reference to rents, was also very high. So greatly had rents increased in the inter-war period that 3,000 or so Gibraltarians lived across the frontier in neighbouring Spain, where rents were cheaper. The Gibraltar government, in an attempt to prevent a further exodus, capped rents via a Rent Restriction Ordinance (an ordinance then being Gibraltar’s equivalent of a UK government Act). Massive state economic presence was therefore compounded by significant political economic rulings: were these not precisely the green shoots of totalitarianism The Road to Serfdom had earlier identified?

There were several strands to Hayek’s report on the Gibraltar economy, which aimed at reversing its route towards serfdom. Instead of rent restriction making the cost of living cheaper for Gibraltarians, Hayek argued that it encouraged people to house themselves in Gibraltar, albeit at considerable – but just about affordable – expense, when they could find cheaper accommodations across the frontier in the neighbouring Spanish city of La Línea. Hayek’s free market solution to this problem was to lift rent restriction and allow rental prices to rise. In such circumstances, the majority of Gibraltar’s population would be forced to relocate across the frontier where they could enjoy cheaper rents; undertake market gardening in the larger homes to be found in La Línea; and migrate more easily into the Andalucía region should work dry-up in Gibraltar. Seen as a ‘Greater Gibraltar’, the economy of the region would be re-imagined with Gibraltar as an industrial centre and La Línea as its suburb. For landlords, increased rents would mean happier bank balances and, so Hayek supposed, additional funds for renovating Gibraltar’s dilapidated housing stock.

Hayek rarely undertook work for governments and felt that those who did, such as his one-time colleague at the London School of Economics (LSE) Lionel Robbins, were tarnished by the experience. This makes his Gibraltar report particularly interesting. The report is also interesting in its own right to the extent that it stands testament to the Nobel Laureate in the making’s political naivety. His determination to create a free market in the Gibraltar housing sector would have resulted in thousands of Gibraltarians being force to relocate into a Spain which was, until 1975, governed under the dictatorship of General Franco. Dictatorship, as we came to know from Hayek’s later support of Chile’s General Pinochet, wasn’t necessarily incompatible with Hayek’s worldview. Nevertheless, the Franco government’s economic strategy was explicitly autarkic: he understood Adam Smith’s political economy to be a wheeze via which Britain had secured informal imperial power in Spain. And so, by contrast, Franco propelled Spain into a disastrous policy of self-sufficiency and economic isolation. Rather than delivering Gibraltarians into the vision of liberty which Hayek outlined in The Road to Serfdom his policies, had they been implemented, would have seen Gibraltarians living in exactly the conditions which Hayek had bemoaned as being totalitarian.

My paper tells the story of the contrast between Hayek’s philosophy, as outlined in The Road to Serfdom, and his practical political economic recommendations, as evidenced in his Gibraltar report. There is more to be said on the matter, not least of all the negative reaction it received, both from the Colonial Office and from the government in Gibraltar. It seems odd that Hayek was not savvy enough to recognise that the colonial authorities in Gibraltar would find the idea of removing the local population into a foreign country unacceptable. It also seems odd that Hayek should have proposed such radical free-market solutions to Gibraltar’s problems, given the degree to which both the government of Gibraltar and the Colonial Office were committed to economic planning. That Hayek’s proposals were so squarely dismissed may well have played a role in his decision to move to the United States in 1950 where his Road to Serfdom book tour, thankfully for him, met with many receptive audiences. Were it not for that tour, and the Cold War politics it spoke to, perhaps Hayek would have been as little known as his report.

Originally published at http://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/management/