That joke isn’t funny anymore: on satire, nostalgia and class

Is working-class culture dying out? Someone forgot to tell Checky Watch

I recently encountered an article by Mark Fisher about satire and class, which are two subjects I’m quite interested in. However, I’m also quite sceptical of some of the arguments he makes, so I thought it was worth examining why.

Fisher starts off with an attack on the crapness of the BBC’s politics coverage, and particularly the “air of light mockery, which…, I believe, tells us something about the widespread disengagement from parliamentary politics in England.” This may well be true, but it seems to be setting the cart before the horse a bit to blame a TV presenter, no matter how rubbish, for the fact that putting “former Tory leadership candidate Michael Portillo… on a sofa with professionally amiable Blairite Alan Johnson [generates] no class antagonism…, only mild disagreements.”*

Fisher objects to “the overwhelming impression is that nothing much is at stake in any of the decisions that parliament takes”, and it’s certainly the case that those decisions themselves have very serious consequences, but how much can ever really be at stake in a discussion between a representative of the government and a representative of the [mainstream, pre-Corbyn] Parliamentary Labour Party? How many thrills are ever going to come from a conversation between someone who supports the Welfare Reform Bill and someone who just won’t vote against it? Certainly, inviting IDS on to discuss things with someone from Disabled People Against Cuts or the Black Triangle Campaign, or a resident of the Sweets Way Estate, might well make things a bit more interesting, but it would hardly count as promoting engagement with parliamentary politics.

Rather than seeing the culture of treating parliament “as a (boring) soap opera, in which the lead characters are self-serving individuals who don’t believe in much beyond getting themselves elected” as a perfectly rational response to contemporary parliamentary politics, he sees it as a product of boarding-school culture and the peculiar ways in which the British ruling class mould their children. This in itself is fine enough as far as it goes  – certainly, the contemporary British media is dominated by a small and culturally very similar elite – but Fisher’s attempts to fit it into a broader story of decline and how it wasn’t like this in the good old days deserve a bit more scrutiny.

To bolster his argument, Fisher calls on “a 2013 essay for the London Review of Books, “Sinking Giggling into the Sea”, [where] Jonathan Coe positioned Have I Got News for You in a genealogy of British satire going back to the 1950s. Coe argued that, back then, satire might have posed a threat to the authority of establishment politicians who expected unthinking deference from the electorate. Now, however, when politicians are routinely ridiculed and a weary cynicism is ubiquitous, satire is a weapon used by the establishment to protect itself.”

Here we have the bones of Fisher’s argument set out: In some [largely unspecified] Golden Age, satire was good [and so, for the rest of his argument to work, presumably not made by poshos(?)]. Now, however, satire is just silly rubbish, as a result of being made by posh people who can’t take anything seriously.

Looking up the Coe article in question shows that it doesn’t totally support Fisher’s argument. While Coe does allow for the possibility that anti-establishment comedy in its heyday may have been somewhat more effective than it is now, he is also very aware that the limitations of the project have been present since the start, citing Peter Cook’s great line about opening a club modelled on “those wonderful Berlin cabarets which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War”.

The other crucial difference between Coe’s perspective and Fisher’s is that, for Fisher’s thesis about the decline of satire being a consequence of its domination by poshos to work, there needs to have been a time when things were otherwise; Coe, on the other hand, when considering the supposed high point of anti-establishment comedy, notes that “practically every one of its leading figures had been to Oxford or Cambridge and could, therefore, be seen to have at least a foothold in the establishment they were criticising…, these were not rebellious outsiders but ‘young men questioning a system they had been trained to lead’.”

Fisher’s article then considers the cases of Boris Johnson, Silvio Berlusconi and Jeremy Clarkson, who’re identified as all sharing an appeal based on the “ridiculing of political rhetoric and its stagnant rituals… disdaining law and rules in the name of a spontaneous energy that rules can no longer bridle”. Sadly, he misses the opportunity to ask whether this energy is always inherently reactionary or if there are other uses for it – whether, in other words, a Jeremy Clarkson of the left is something to be.

And so we arrive at Fisher’s conclusion, which is worth quoting in full: “Self-educated working-class culture generated some of the best comedy, music and literature in modern British history. The last 30 years have seen the bourgeoisie take over not only business and politics, but also entertainment and culture. In the UK, comedy and music are increasingly graduate professions, dominated by the privately educated. The sophistication of working-class culture – which combines laughter, intelligence and seriousness in complex ways – has been replaced by a grey bourgeois common sense, where everything comes swathed in a witless humour. It’s long past time that we stopped sniggering along with the emotionally damaged bourgeoisie, and learned once again to laugh and care with the working class.”

The first thing that jumps out is the apparent claim that the “last 30 years have seen the bourgeoisie take over… business and politics”. A charitable reading of this sentence has to be the somewhat strained “The last 30 years have seen the bourgeoisie take over not only business and politics [which are areas they always controlled], but also entertainment and culture [which are areas which were once outside their control].” This is something of a stretch, but the more straightforward reading of that sentence – that 30 years ago, business and politics were not run by the ruling class – is just laughable.

As for that final call to arms… I try to avoid over-reliance on quoting Pulp, because Common People is such an obvious reference point in discussions of class and popular culture, but really, once you’ve noticed it, there’s no un-noticing the similarity between Jarvis’ sneer of “laugh along with the common people” and Fisher’s entirely straight-faced “laugh and care with the working class”. I think that gets to the heart of what bothers me about this section: the assumed distance between the reader and the working-class cultures it seeks to celebrate. To have the ability to pick sides, the reader has to be situated in a no-man’s-land somewhere in between the bourgeoisie and the working class.

After all, whether an underground scene ever “makes it big” is largely a matter of indifference to most of the people who’re in the know and actually able to attend the parties, gigs or whatever. It’s only those of us who have no connection to that scene who actually need the exposure the media can bring before we can enjoy what it has to offer. Likewise, if your day-to-day life brings you into regular contact with working-class laughter, intelligence and seriousness, how much more of it do you need from the media?

And make no mistake, this is definitely an argument about the mainstream media. After all, the claim that “comedy and music are increasingly graduate professions, dominated by the privately educated” works if we define “comedy and music” as “comedy and music that gets on the telly”; at the risk of coming over all Paul Mason, the picture looks a bit different if we take into account the networks of horizontal communication that make it possible, on an unprecedented scale,  for kids from rural Derbyshire to record a few songs and have them heard by kids in rural Kansas (or vice versa), or for a kid from Huddersfield or Dundee who comes up with one perfect joke to have their Vine seen hundreds or thousands of times? None of this is to say that these technologies are without their problems, or that the openness currently existing won’t get closed down sooner or later, but seriously, when it comes to experiencing working-class creativity, why would you turn to the BBC?

Of course, there is still one last question to answer: does any of this matter? What’s the point of putting this much energy into examining the class backgrounds of people who went into satirical comedy in the last century? The political substance of this disagreement, such as it is, is mainly with the argument Fisher hints at rather than making fully explicit: that, thirty-plus years ago, things were not like this, and the media was not tightly controlled by Oxbridge old boys’ networks and was more reflective of working-class culture, and that we should try to return to that state of affairs. This, I think, is connected to the lingering affection for parliamentary politics expressed at the start of the article, the idea that cynical contempt for politicians is wrong and should be discouraged.

The dream of a media that would somehow provide a real, proper cultural representation of the working class might be less dangerous than the dream of a politician who would somehow provide a real, proper political representation of the working class, but both share similar roots: the idea that institutions that have been created by the ruling class, and have been moulded in their image ever since, can somehow be run for the benefit of those at the bottom of society instead of those at the top. As long as class society exists, as long as there’s a bourgeoisie, of course they’ll be in charge of not only business and politics but also the official entertainment and official culture of that society.

For those of us who’re currently dispossessed and disempowered, the process of taking apart the society and institutions that keep us down is likely to be a long and complex one, and many different tasks and tactics will be involved. I would imagine that there will be moments that call for fighting the police, and moments that call for cooking meals together; wild, raucous parties and lengthy, draining discussions of the exact mechanisms that will be needed to recall delegates and working groups that are considered to have broken their mandates. But try as I might, I can’t see how a few more individuals from working-class backgrounds getting to interview politicians on the BBC would make much of a contribution to the struggle against class society and the hierarchies it breeds.



*As a side-note, this article has the feel of a very pre-Corbynmania piece, and I’ll be mainly responding to it in those terms. An argument about engagement and disengagement with parliamentary politics written today might well read somewhat differently, but it seems fairer to engage with it on the ground it was written about.

About nothingiseverlost

"The impulse to fight against work and management is immediately collective. As we fight against the conditions of our own lives, we see that other people are doing the same. To get anywhere we have to fight side by side. We begin to break down the divisions between us and prejudices, hierarchies, and nationalisms begin to be undermined. As we build trust and solidarity, we grow more daring and combative. More becomes possible. We get more organized, more confident, more disruptive and more powerful."
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