From class politics to classy products
Once, people defined themselves by what they did and believed; now, as Harry Wallop’s entertaining Consumed reveals, we are what we buy.
The concept of class is not what it was.
It used to apply to what people did. At its most essential, it used to demarcate those who owned the means of production from those who owned almost nothing save their labour power; those who, as Marx famously put it in 1848, ‘have nothing to lose but their chains’. To be working class was to be in an economically antagonistic relationship with the capitalist class. At various points in time, that economic antagonism could develop into a political antagonism – such was the nature of class consciousness.
But, as shown – if not explained – by Harry Wallop’s entertaining Consumed: How Shopping Fed the Class System, the meaning of class has long since shifted. It no longer refers to relations of production. Any such contest has long since become a lifeless, trade-unionised parody of itself. No, today, class refers almost entirely to relations of consumption. It is ‘determined’ by one’s spending and leisure habits, not by one’s position in the production process. It is no longer an economic phenomenon to be transcended; it is a cultural phenomenon to be embraced, a so-called culture every bit as reified as gender or ethnicity.
In short, class has stopped being the basis for a political identity; it has become a form of identity politics. As Wallop puts it: ‘Class is no longer what we do with our hands nine to five, it is what we do with our wallets at the weekend. How that money arrives in our wallets must play a part, but how we define ourselves and how others view us mostly comes down to the weekly drive to the local retail park, rather than the daily trudge to the factory.’
Consumed is a snarking and sniping attempt by Wallop, a consumer affairs writer at the Daily Telegraph, to anatomise these new consumerist class identities. At the upper end are the super-rich Portland Privateers, named after the private Portland Hospital in central London, where pregnancies come to fruition with the obligatory C-section at the cost of several grand and the toiletries are Molton Brown. Then in descending order come: the Rockabillies, defined by their love of a British holiday, ideally in the Cornish town of Rock; the Wood-Burning Stovers, who love a wood-burning stove almost as much as they love the Guardian; the Middleton Classes, who – like Carole Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge’s mother – have vaulted up the social ladder, usually taking in a grammar school en route; the Sun Skittlers, a resolutely old-school working-class identity devolving upon reading the Sun, playing skittles, and earning enough to have bought one’s own home; the Asda Mums, who spend wisely, but take safety in big, well-known brands; and the Hyphen-Leighs, whose much sneered-at social aspiration is marked out by the unusually spelled double-barrelled names and the commitment to high-status brands, from Burberry to Paul’s Boutique. Other monikers crop up throughout, but these are the main ones.
If Consumed sounds rife with all forms of snobbery, from the inverse to the outright, that’s because it is. And this ought to be expected, too. In a society in which how you consume has been allowed to determine your identity, then snobbery, which was always a vice of the consuming class par excellence, the non-productive aristocracy, is bound to flourish. It allows groups to include initiates and to exclude the vulgar. Hence, as Wallop relentlessly details, the consumption choices of other people (and it is always other people) have now become objects of mockery and often condemnation.
Not that Wallop’s own judgemental stereotyping lacks bite. Take his description of the distinctly middle-class elite, the Wood-Burning Stovers. They will not only own a £1,000 wood-burning stove; they will also buy Ottolenghi cookbooks, listen to Radio 4 and read the Guardian. ‘They are a curious beast, the Wood-Burning Stovers’, remarks Wallop: ‘Most would claim to be “progressive”, but their outlook and certainly their furnishings, are often nostalgic; they are suspicious of consumerism, and yet they are seekers of status and will travel far to track down the right vegetable, side-table or primary school.’ They will also own an electric whisk, a bread maker and an ice-cream maker, a conscious sign that they have escaped the tyranny of the supermarket, and an unconscious sign of their submission to the tyranny of household drudgery.
Choice of holidays is similarly indicative of one’s consumerist class identity. While the Middleton classes, having enjoyed the freedom afforded by the advent of package holidays in the 1970s, have been hopping on cruise ships in ever-increasing numbers for the past two decades, the Wood-Burning Stovers, following in the footsteps of Peter Mayle in his A Year in Provence (1989), have been opting for rustic chic. As an illustration, think of Tony and Cherie Blair’s endless trips to Tuscany in the early Noughties. Wallop’s description of the Wood-Burning Stovers’ holiday choice is positively disdainful: ‘The queue at Stansted for Perugia – a tin shack of an airport in the pretty Italian countryside of Umbria – is full of Poppies and Georges sporting good teeth, poor hair, and Bananagrams, well-nourished burghers of Hampstead and Chalfont St Giles.’
On and on Wallop waxes spiteful, cocking a snook at the choices of each class of consumer in turn. ‘Something as innocent as a loaf of white bread may have had the salt content reduced’, he writes, ‘but it has never been so loaded with social anxieties’. Indeed.
Yet there is a seeming paradox revealed by the snobbery exposed by Consumed. It is often assumed that we live in an unusually non-judgemental era. Pluralism and multiculturalism are the watchwords today; diversity training is widespread. And yet, as Consumed shows, we also seem to live in a hyper-judgemental era, where the lifestyles of the Wood Burning Stovers or the Rockabillies or, to a lesser extent, the Middleton classes, are considered to be superior to, and a judgement upon, those of the Asda Mums or the Hyphen-Leighs. It seems then that the explicit moral relativism of today goes hand-in-hand with a rampant, albeit implicit snobbery.
But this seeming paradox also makes perfect sense. That is, we do live in a society in which our isolated, deracinated elite lacks the moral and social resources to rule, to provide a vision of how things ought to be. Yet what the elite lacks in moral mettle and social roots, its members more than make up for in unabashed snobbery. In other words, through the sphere of consumption, the contemporary elite is constantly in the process of imagining and affirming its superiority to the rest of us.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the incredibly politicised discourse around food, the subject of Wallop’s first chapter. Of course, food has always provided fertile ground for snobbery – the etymology of ‘taste’ (good or bad) is culinary after all. Still, in recent years, as spiked‘s Rob Lyons has observed elsewhere, food has become one of the principal mechanisms through which today’s political and cultural elites demonstrate their superiority to the masses.
As Wallop records, eating out in the 1950s was for many limited to Lyons Corner Houses or fish-and-chip shops. And it wasn’t just the high-cost of restaurants that deterred many; the arcane rituals of the hotel dining experience were equally off-putting. This is why, argues Wallop, the British embraced the classless, ritual-free environs of the fast-food joint, first in the form of Wimpy and latterly in the shape of McDonald’s or Burger King. ‘Of course, eating out in fast-food places, or indeed any places, never became a classless activity’, writes Wallop. ‘Classless merely became a euphemism for working class. No more so than with fast food, which over time took on a demonic quality, at least in the eyes of those who refused to eat it. Junk food for the junk classes.’
Junk food for the junk classes. In that one sentence, Wallop touches upon the crucial conflation of the object of consumption with those consuming. When Wood-Burning Stovers complain about McDonald’s, they are really complaining about the type of people that eat there. Little wonder that during the 1980s, residents in Hampstead, a highly affluent area of London packed to its borders with the right-thinking, ran a 12-year legal campaign against the opening of a Hampstead branch of McDonald’s. An editorial in The Times (London) in 1992 to mark the failure of the legal battle drips with disdain: ‘The last rampart has fallen… Many customers are already excavating their purchases as they walk away from the counter, smearing ketchup around their mouths and grabbing handfuls of the deep-fried tooth-picks that are parodies of the honest British “chip”.’
The suggestion is always clear: the lower classes, indeed, the middle-of-the-road classes, have appalling taste. And as a result, they make the wrong choices: they have too many children; they give them silly names; and they feed them the wrong food. Oh, and their huge TVs are hung on the wall. For shame. Wallop’s Consumed helps to expose the social power of twenty-first-century snobbery.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.