Hateful Class War for the Hateful Classes

On July 23rd 1789, pretty close to exactly 128 years ago, Louis XVI’s Controller-General of Finance, Joseph Foullon de Doué, was dragged from hiding by a Parisian mob and hung from a lamppost at the corner of the place de Grève and the rue de la Vannerie, right opposite the Hôtel de Ville. The rope broke; he was strung up again; the rope broke again. After the rope broke a third time the mob gave up on the lamppost and decapitated him.

In September of the same year, the journalist Camille Desmoulins published a short pamphlet called Discours de la lanterne aux Parisiens, in which that same lamppost on the place de Grève, sprung to life like a skeleton, praises the Parisians for the revolutionary violence of the summer and exhorts them to continue. It helpfully notes that if they need to hang any more recalcitrant aristocrats then its own ironwork limbs remain ideally suited to the task — it was, after all, the rope that let them down when they played out their vengeance on Foullon. The Discours de la lanterne is, I suppose, an explicit call for class warfare, in a context where that war was already being fought in the streets.

Yesterday — that is, in July 2017 — the Labour-aligned campaigning group Momentum kept up the tradition of the Procureur-gènèral de la lanterne by unleashing upon an unsuspecting British public a devastating agitprop video in which a small group of upper-class people are, over the course of 53 seconds, gently needled for their hypocrisy and general political cluelessness. While it features no talking street furniture, it’s pretty good, as propaganda goes: it’s straightforward, specific, and cleverly subverts the tiresome Islington Set stereotype of Corbyn supporters. It has particular targets and a particular programme, and unlike the vast majority of political propaganda those targets aren’t vulnerable or oppressed people and that programme isn’t relentless misery for all but the best off. It is, to quote the not-at-all hysterical Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, “straightforward class war.” The Sun, in its usual vague way, reports that someone somewhere said the video was “hateful.” Is that sunshine in Islington, or is it the pallid death-light of the lanterne over the red wine and couscous?

That even this mild little video could attract such wild condemnation is indicative of how narrow the horizon of political possibility has become since Desmoulins’ lamppost demanded openly the bodies of the rich: we now must rigorously shut down even the quietest condemnation of the class system in the most hyperbolic terms. Of course Hannan is an idiot, a man apparently voluntarily sporting the phrase “Old Whig” in his Twitter bio, and much as we all wish otherwise it is absurd to depict Momentum as bloodthirsty communists. But his hysteria at least has the correct target: the video is about class conflict, and it does identify particular people — the rich, basically — as enemies of the betterment of everyone else. It casually and pretty gently mocks those that, comfortable themselves, have no desire to see the lives of others improve, and will oppose all movements in that direction.

This willingness to actually do politics — to represent the interests of a particular class against those of another — has long been a source of right-wing and centrist animus against Momentum and Corbyn’s Labour. The tenacity of the resurgent left project in Britain in actually naming the rich and the ruling class as enemies is deplored as divisive, abusive, prejudiced, violent: even Corbyn’s favourite line from Shelley, “Ye are many — they are few!”, has been subject to bad-faith critique for its supposed majority-tyrannical overtones. On the right, this critique is pretty much to be expected: they, with their slashing of disability benefit, their incarceration and incineration of poor immigrants, their relentless grasping for the food of children, have become accustomed to a class war in which their adversary is cowed, confused, and frightened. Propaganda that speaks the language of class war is omnipresent in Britain — it’s there in its Benefits Streets, its Top 100 Most Loathsome Proletarians, its Border Cop Death Squadrons, whatever else; it’s just usually ruling class propaganda, and they dislike their monopoly jostled.

The centrist critique, the New Labour one, is a little more complex, taking on faith that they aren’t themselves avid viewers of Border Cop Death Squadron; it requires a little more psychic archaeology. In The Guardian (yes indeed), Deborah Orr’s objection to the Momentum ad is, essentially, Not All Rich Baby-boomers: “they focus on age and class,” she writes, “as if only the old and rich are capable of self-interest. They mock the idea that the young and poor could ever be motivated by self-interest.” This is an odd thing to say about an ad that explicitly appeals to the self-interest of the young and poor by defending Labour’s policies of free education, better housing, better jobs. It’s a revealing error, though, because it takes an obviously political message — one about the competing material interests of the old/rich and the young/poor — and immediately reconfigures it — idealises it — in the moral terms of selfishness/selflessness.

This is the general anti-political two-step of the contemporary liberal pundit classes. Political questions — ultimately questions about the distribution of power amongst the classes of society — are ignored, or given answers that can be made into fetishes with moral characters: things that can be worn as a badge of one’s own formal purity. The (pretty good) ideals of liberalism — liberty, equality, fraternity, you know — are used to generate not reconfigurations of the power structures of society that stand definitively against the realisation of those ideals but abstract ethical norms, that is, norms of correct behaviour for atomised individuals. People are to be judged on the extent to which they conform to those norms. Once this happens class conflict can be safely submerged in the narrow mire of contemporary individualised ethics: there are, after all, nice rich old people (I’ve even met a couple) and mean young poor people. The struggle is not about access to power or wealth but about goodness. Saying the rich are the problem is simplistic: some of them are perfectly personable. Saying the poor should have enough to eat is simplistic: some of them are quite rude.

Hence Momentum’s daring to point out that the rich stand in the way of true material equality can be decried on the grounds that it’s prejudiced, and thus yoked to the prejudices — in fact materially opposite— of racism or sexism or whatever else. Hence the flattening of the distinction between real deplorable online abuse and the entirely correct abuse of calling Tories vicious and evil bastards for the vicious and evil things they do.

This cute little ideological reversal is always on tenuous footing, however. It is, after all, obvious to everyone that a society in which everyone can eat, everyone can have a home, everyone can be educated and feel secure is a better one than this gasping hellhole. Those moral categories, even in their ideological attenuated form, are merciless when applied consistently. When the left surges back to visibility as it did under Corbyn those that have made a badge of their moral-political goodness in the centre or centre-left are undercut in the moral economy; in the schema of selfish/selfless through which they understand politics, a group appears that is apparently more selfless than they are; more radical in their demand of a better life for all. This is, as we can see in the last two years of desperate Guardian rationalisations, a pretty psychically troubling experience. The general response is either to claim that the left’s demands are unrealistic — and hence, in some largely mysterious way, counterproductive — or that, because of its willingness to engage in real political struggle, the left is actually identical to the right (i.e., the famous horseshoe theory, possibly the single stupidest idea in politics). Orr’s response to Momentum in The Guardian is a combination of these two: the ad is counterproductive because it’s prejudiced against the wealthy and old.

Neither of these approaches really work, either in the real world or in the psychic realm of the centrist columnist. They remain apolitical. They remain committed to the idea that there isn’t really such a thing as class struggle, just the struggle between nice people and mean people, or between smart people and stupid people — and look, I might drink red wine and eat couscous, and earn six figures writing sophomoric columns, but I’m a nice smart person, I’m not a part of the problem, and anything that suggests I am is stupid, or mean itself, or virtue-signalling (the phrase virtue-signalling, appropriated from the far right, is perhaps the most telling one of this whole phenomenon: it entails admitting that even by one’s own lights the other’s position is morally superior).

But there is a class struggle, one that has been constantly waged by the rich against the poor for centuries: and, paradoxically for the centrist columnist, they’ll never be able to feel totally secure in their moral superiority while the horrifying condition that their ideology defends persists. While there is misery there will be a left, and the left will always reappear to cut the bottom from the moral economy of the centre. At base the centre prefers the right to the left because centrism is a bourgeois ideology materially committed to the status quo. Centrism is ultimately the belief that untold slaughter should be visited upon the earth to ensure that a handful of wealthy individuals in the west can keep driving golf carts around. But at the level of affect the centre prefers the right because the left dares undermine the centre’s commitment to their claimed values: it represents, to an ideology obsessed with such things, an ungraspable horizon of virtue. The left fights for a nicer world, sure, amongst other things — and to those that care only about the abstract principle of niceness, it’s an outrage.

If Momentum’s video were about the distribution of meanness in society, then it would indeed be simplistic, and perhaps even prejudiced — so long as one restricts meanness to its abstract definition, and refuses it any material meaning. If the problem of the video were the distribution of virtue, or intelligence, then it would be simplistic. But the problem is none of these things: it’s the distribution of wealth and power. The nicer world does not come about from being nice only to nice people and mean only to mean people; like all liberal values, niceness cannot be trusted to liberals. The problem is class. And the struggle against it is not an ethical one but a material one: a struggle between classes— and it should be named as such.