By now, a lot’s been said about Julie Burchill’s bigotry. As a general rule, I don’t really think it’s worth spending much time on the likes of Burchill, Clarkson and Littlejohn with their outrageous politically incorrect opinions that they have every week to a deadline for money. As much as they like to think of themselves as shocking and provocative, the truth is that there are few things more timesomely predictable than someone whose job it is to say offensive things saying something offensive. And even if I did think her shitty opinions were worth the bother of replying to, they’ve been torn apart by other people already.
Understandably, the majority of responses to Burchill’s transphobic article have focused on her transphobia. This is completely reasonable, but it does mean that another issue has been discussed much less: her mangling of class politics. In one form or another, the twisted ideas about class that Burchill relies on to justify her bigotry are quite widespread in British society, even among parts of the left, so I thought they were worth examining a bit*.
Trying to present her transphobic ideas as having something to do with class struggle, Burchill writes: “She, the other JB and I are part of the minority of women of working-class origin to make it in what used to be called Fleet Street and I think this partly contributes to the stand-off with the trannies… We know that everything we have we got for ourselves. We have no family money, no safety net. And we are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.”
She’s basically saying that she can’t be privileged because of the fact that she wasn’t born rich, as if being working class was some kind of unchangeable genetic condition. The problem with this is that, no matter how poor she once have been, she is now definitely part of the elite. She will never again have to sign on, and so she will never know the experience of arguing with a jobcentre advisor who has the power to cut off the money you need to survive and wants to send you to do unpaid work in a call centre. She will never have to make a trip to Cash Converters because the gas bill arrived, or take out a loan with Wonga at 4000% interest to make ends meet, or hit that point a few weeks into the month where you realise that you’ve got through too much of your budget so you can’t really afford to go out or get a takeaway until payday. And yet for some reason she thinks she’s entitled to lecture the rest of us about how hard she has it.
At the moment, given that we’re mostly ruled by people who’ve always been rich, arguments about whether or not people like Burchill or Baron Sugar are somehow different from other rich people because they weren’t born into it can seem a bit irrelevant. The tories have made a few attempts at pushing the line that anyone who opposes them must be posh, such as with Iain Duncan Smith’s bizarre claim that anyone who wants to work for minimum wage rather than completely unpaid must be a snob, but for the most part they’re too obviously aristocratic to get away with it. But the tories won’t be in power forever. At some point in the future – maybe 2015, maybe 2020, maybe further away – we’ll have a Labour government.
Under Labour, things won’t be much different. They’ll still pursue many of the same policies, and most of the cabinet will still be made up of privately educated toffs. But they’ll bring in a few figureheads from ordinary backgrounds, perhaps trade union leaders who’ve done such a good job managing workers’ struggles that they’ll be trusted to manage the economy – Brendan Barber seems like a likely candidate for this role. And, just like David Blunkett did, the rich people running the country will claim to be working class, and attack anyone who opposes them as being posh.
Right now, all this can seem like a long way off. When faced with the likes of George Gideon Oliver Osborne and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, an understanding of class as being an immovable category defined by the family you’re born into seems pretty sensible. But, sooner or later, we will be faced with similar attacks coming from politicians who weren’t born into the elite. If we want to defend ourselves against all attempts to make our lives worse, and not just the most obvious and immediate ones, then we need to understand class as being about where people are at, not where they’re from.
There’s a fundamental difference between believing in class mobility and class struggle. To people like Julie Burchill, David Blunkett or Alan Sugar, the idea of making life better for working-class people is all about giving a few people from ordinary backgrounds a chance to enter the elite. To me, it’s about creating a society where we don’t have to be working class anymore, where our lives aren’t defined by having to sell ourselves to bosses in order to survive. If bringing about that society also means that people like Burchill won’t be able to get rich by telling the rest of us what we should think, that’s a price I’m very happy to pay.
* to be clear, by focusing on Burchill’s ideas about class rather than her transphobia, I’m not trying to say that one’s more important or more serious than the other, just that I think her transphobia has been very extensively discussed already by people who’re better qualified than me to do so, while her ideas about class seem to be a bit less explored.