Thursday, January 18, 2007

Classy

This year has started poorly, what with the idiocy of Celebrity BB (by which I mean Jade and her rapidly-expanding Moron Posse) becoming an international incident and my somehow contriving to contract two different viruses in as many weeks. I normally enjoy CBB - more than the normal show, some years - but reintroducing Jade was a huge mistake. I feel for Dirk and Cleo, stuck in the house with a bunch of self-centred children and having no way to relate to the vile creatures around them. Shilpa I feel bad for, simply because she is trying and trying counts in the wider world, where sensible people roam the earth without sociopathic tendencies and ignorance so finely honed that it might appear to be an actual medical condition to the untrained eye.

It calls to mind the notion of a class divide. You don't hear people talk about class any more. People (at least of my generation) tend to assume that it's a thing of the past, an imagined construct that sprang from real, practical differences in wealth and opportunity but that has since become obsolete as society began to treat us all with some measure of equality, at least in principle. It's true that one's ability to change one's circumstances - Major's 'classless society', remember that? - has made a nonsense of the old feudal basis of class division, but class hasn't gone away: it's simply turned into something else, no longer dependent upon or indicated by money or success. The shirtless drunken chavs that litter the High Street of a Saturday are probably as wealthy as you, as accomplished in their careers as you, perhaps even stand next to you on the terraces and went to school with you - they are not held back by denial of education, or denial of the right to work, or to vote, or any of the other outdated controls of working classes past (actually, 'working class' is no longer a meaningful title, is it? It used to be a euphemism for the poorer or lower classes but nowadays 'unemployed class' seems more apt for that group).

It's become almost worse than racism to point out or even acknowledge that there are classes within society, because to do so is to say that person A is worth more than person B in some fundamental sense. The upper classes are the only ones who can get away with saying this, and then only to each other: but then, that's not changed from the old class system.

But we do have classes in modern society, classes that are defined not by what they are allowed to do or able to earn but by how they think, speak and behave. It's not your accent, or your political views, or even how intelligent you are: it's how you relate to the rest of society. We need some terms here, so let's make something up... let's call our two modern classes (for there are indeed but two, with subtle graduations between) the Social class and the Selfish class.

The Social class is composed of people who are part of society, who recognise that fact and who behave in such a way as to strengthen it. This isn't to say that they are selfless, as such: merely that they understand that the rewards are greater when people cooperate in a social structure. We have laws and government and cultural traditions for a reason: people cooperating get more out of the available resources (and their lives) than individuals who don't cooperate. The Social class understand that we pay taxes to pay for public services: services that we can't individually afford. They obey the law because if people don't obey the law then the law cannot protect them against criminals. Their awareness of the wider picture, of society as a functioning whole, means they tend to be well-informed politically and friendly to strangers, especially shop assistants, which means shop assistants tend to be nice to them. Good judge of character, your average shop assistant. The Social class don't often agree with the government but at least understand the arguments. They can disagree convincingly, and suggest alternatives.

The Selfish class views society as an enemy, often without really understanding what society is - much as some people don't get that the environment is where they live, is their own homes and not just a rainforest somewhere, some people don't get that society is made up of people, including themselves. No, this class regards society as the government, as the law: the oppressors, the tax collectors, the lawyers and fatcats. They see nothing wrong in benefit fraud because "they've got all the money, int they?" and consider the rights of the individual to be far more important than the rights of society as a whole. They enjoy being angry - which is why many of them read tabloid newspapers to feed their recreational indignation - and regard putting oneself first at the expense of all others as the highest virtue. They tend to say things like "no-one tells me what to do" and "that's just me", never wishing to change or improve anything about themselves because to do so would be to acknowledge that they are not the most important person in their universe. The Selfish class think they shouldn't have to pay any taxes at all, but also believe they are entitled to unlimited and ineffably perfect public services. They feel that they deserve everything they want and more, and that not having it connotes failure on the part of the universe at large, and is probably
the government's fault. They treat shop assistants like scum, expecting to be treated like gods because they have deigned to enter their store. Such people frequently complain in independent coffee shops that their Italian coffee is not genuine because it isn't like it is in Starbucks. They also frequently find that someone has shat in their burger. The Selfish class do not care to know much of any given political issue save that the government and immigrants are to blame, garnering most of their loudly-voiced opinions from the aforementioned newspapers.

Oddly enough, neither class lends itself comfortably to a particular political bent: the Social may vote Tory for their emphasis on personal responsibility (i.e. not depending on the State to give them everything) whereas the Selfish will vote for them for the possibility of tax cuts. Labour moved away from the Social class (not to be confused with Socialists) to appeal to the Selfish, and won an election from it: Cameron's new Conservatives (if he can convince them to follow him, of course - not exactly cut and dried, a topic for another day) are moving away from the Selfish to appeal to the Social, and may themselves succeed next time. Philosophically both ways of thinking are strongly individualist, but whereas the Social class might say "I am the equal of any man" the Selfish class might say "I am better than any man".

The BB house, as every pundit and journalist given enough microphone time has reminded us lately, is a reflection of wider society - Dirk, Cleo and Jermaine represent the Social class, cooperative and peacemaking; Jade, Danielle and the dog trainer whose name eludes me represent the Selfish class, confrontational, aggressive and blaming the foreigner.

If I were Shilpa, I would be reluctant to set foot in this country ever again. The BB house may only reflect wider society, but that doesn't make it okay.

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