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The symbolic violence of reality television

Published on London Progressive Journal (here) 24/03/12

Prior to the encroachment of neo-liberal policy into the economic and cultural landscape of Britain, television programmes we would typify as ‘entertainment shows’ were built around the dominant working-class lifestyle and values.

Shows like ‘Steptoe and Son’ and ‘Auf Wiedersehen, Pet’ were seen as the populist breakaway from the flat-toned intelligentsia that were main place in the post-War era, and these (albeit tongue-in-cheek) representations of working-class life helped define this culture as integral to the culture of the country itself.

Following her self-proclaimed destruction of the trade unions (and consequently the shattering of the backbone of working-class life), Margaret Thatcher made a declaration that has come to define the cultural objectives of modern television programming; “there’s tons of room at the top.” No longer may you be content with your humble job and your modest wardrobe; you must strive to meet the expectations of a middle-class that has become the universal norm. And such expectations are not broadcasted lightly.

The French cultural theorist Pierre Bourdieu coined the term ‘symbolic violence’ to describe how the ideas and values of a ruling cultural class are purposefully imposed (often through subconscious means) onto a dominated social group. This symbolic violence is evident in reality TV shows, where working-class values and styles are demonised and sterilised in the name of ‘aspiration’.

Take for example ‘What Not To Wear’, broadcast on the BBC for nearly seven years. The resident demagogues Trinny and Susannah ambushed women and made them parade, semi-naked, as the duo gawked and sneered from behind hidden cameras at apparent defects in the woman’s appearance or style.

The show progressed on to rectify these infractions; the symbolic castration of the woman’s individuality as she was transformed into a ‘sleek and sophisticated modern woman’ was seen as a triumph in the eyes of the hosts. The ritual humiliation they subjected the participant to serve as a threat to the show’s audience; obey or be ostracized. ‘What Not To Wear’ was class-warfare through the lens of post-feminism, a top-down spectator sport by which the privileged and successful middle-classes may applaud themselves and tisk at the less fortunate, all under the guise of ‘a superior sense of fashion’.

These subversive attacks on styles defiant of the middle-class ideology can be seen across nearly all reality TV formats. Property shows from ‘Homes Under the Hammer’ to ‘Location Location Location’ (and all of its many siblings) proliferate the myth of home ownership, treating small flats and terraced houses as nothing more than commodities to be bought and sold amongst amateur tycoons.

Condescending hand-out shows like ‘Secret Millionaire’ perpetuate the ethics of trickle-down economics, where no matter how hard you try, it is only from the graces of your betters that you may ever succeed. In almost every episode the incognito philanthropist turns to the camera to make some loaded comment like ‘I couldn’t do this job for more than a few hours’ or ‘I don’t know how they manage it’. We as the audience are expected to adopt these feelings too and, in almost pantomimic obedience, eagerly await the climax of the show when ‘those poor souls’ are hoisted by the hand of their betters out from their loathsome existence.

In an age of obsession with aspiration and drama, reality television programmes provide television producers a cheap and simple means of both. Through these shows, ordinary people are guided away from their deplorable habits and become champions of the middle-class dream. Coupled with a subliminal war of attrition in tabloid papers which attempt to stamp out traits that are associated with being working-class, reality television conducts a mass practise of some cultural Ludovico technique. We are shown a lifestyle and taught to fear and loathe it. Particularly in make-over programmes, the over-riding message is clear; any woman which does not possess the traits of an aspirational middle-class female (as dictated by a handful of so-called experts) is commanded to either improve, or face partitioning from respectable society.

Individuals that defy the idealised image of neo-liberal society, who are often victims to this system, are brought out and humiliated; their personalities insulted, their styles and habits criticised and their lives apparently improved through the symbolic violence of being made over, re-educated and transformed into an archetype of middle-class society.

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“Gotcha!” – Budget goes down with all headlines.

It seems today’s budget isn’t getting favourable mention from anywhere. Not surprising that the focus is on the hit to pensioners, as tax allowances are frozen in what is being dubbed a ‘Granny Tax’. With most of the budget details leaked beforehand, did Osbourne really hope to get away with such a blatantly unfair cut?

Here are the headlines from the country’s leading papers following today’s announcement:

'Granny tax' will no doubt be a phrase haunting the Government for a long time.

The Times taking a cautious approach

The Independent echoing the central ethic to Tory policies for the last 2 years.

The Guardian needs no pantomime rhetoric

The Mirror goes all out with the 'hug a hoody, mug a granny' motif.

And lest we forget –

The Sun taking a characteristically juvenile approach to the entire ordeal.

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Road to Wigan Pier and unemployment

Sound familiar?

“…these beings whom I had been taught to regard as cynical parasites were decent young miners and cotton-workers, gazing at their destiny with the same sort of amazement as an animal in a trap. They simply could not understand what was happening to them, they had been brought up to work and behold! It seemed as if they were never going to have the chance of working again. In their circumstances it was inevitable, at first, that they should be haunted by a feeling of personal degradation. That was the attitude to unemployment in those days: it was a disaster that happened to you and for which you were to blame.”

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Regional pay

With the recent announcement by the Chancellor that public sector pay will be determined by the general economic state of the region, I managed to catch the Radio 5 Live debate featuring Owen Jones and Edwina Currie.

Their respective statements were to be expected; Owen reiterated many of the points from his book about poorer areas being demonised, and Edwina unrolled the typical Tory spin about SMEs being the best route to economic recovery.

The problem with this policy should be obvious; not only will it take money straight out of local economies, depriving businesses of cyclical revenue when they need it most, it will also isolate wealth in already affluent areas of the country.

One caller on the show noted that should a teacher wish to move from say, the North-East to London, even though they would be perfectly experienced as to take up a new role, they simply wouldn’t be able to afford the change in residence.

Not to mention the obvious inequalities this will create as public sector workers all across the country, all doing the same important roles, will be paid differently just because regional economies are different. This will of course instigate even further stagnation of those economies.

It was the blitzkrieg of Thatcher’s government to associate wealth with jobs based on their blind idea of aspiration, and now the new wave of Conservatives want to take this even further and say that unless you live in certain parts of the country, you don’t deserve a decent living.

I tried to raise a question with Edwina about whether encouraging SMEs over the public sector was such a good idea, seeing as SMEs work to profit whereas public sector services have tangible transferable qualities which benefits the community.

My call, however was not picked. I assume Radio 5 had fulfilled it’s quota of borderline-pubescents for one show.

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Is there a way of reaching out to potential BNP and EDL supporters?

Behind the well-known images of BNP rallies and EDL protests, there’s another startling dimension to the crisis of ultra-right nationalism that is often missed when we talk about such groups. It’s easy to picture an EDL supporter as some skinhead brute with Swastikas tattoos, but the bulk of support for these groups lies in already-fractured communities standing on the precipice of economic destruction.

With the Government pressing ahead with their draconian cuts, working class communities are being hit hardest as benefits are slashed, jobs become sparse, and the price of just about everything skyrockets. Along with various political scandals and the news heralding moral decay, people have become disaffected and very, very angry.

Enter characters like Nick Griffin and Tommy Robinson, false prophets for fixing our ‘Broken Britain’. By proclaiming themselves as outside the political system which has created this mess, the BNP and EDL are able to capitalize on the fears of these communities.

Their policies are as simplistic as they are sensationalist, and in times of desperation the scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims by the BNP and EDL becomes all the more effective, as people yearn to find something in society that is the cause of their troubles.

What’s worse is that these claims aren’t entirely without foundation; the ‘Broken Britain’ dilemma hasn’t arisen from immigration but integration, or rather, the lack thereof. Multiculturalism under Blair did nothing to merge the nascent migrant communities with the local ones, instead isolating them in separate council estates, ticking boxes off the minorities checklist in a vain attempt at encouraging diversity.

This has left an open goal for the real fascists running the EDL and BNP. When different cultures are kept separate, it becomes impossible for them to understand one another, and this lack of understanding breeds the fear that the EDL and BNP use to fuel their xenophobia.

So how can we on the left reach out to BNP and EDL supporters? Various groups such as Unite Against Fascism and Hope not Hate’s methods of protest and canvassing work wonders in halting the militaristic advance of these nationalist protests which we know so well, but we can no longer sit back and wait until the BNP and EDL have dug their heels in before we take action.

This cannot be achieved through party politics, though. Attaching labels to our message will only repel those who have been worse affected by cuts and community disorganisation, and the BNP plays off of this. Nor can it be achieved through childishly berating communities into loving one another.

Proper integration and cultural understanding only be achieved through community action. Local activists who know the community rifts must work to bring the people together, introducing parents’ associations, religious groups and other community hubs to their respective counterparts.

By encouraging understanding and cooperation, these communities will see they are all under the same threats from austerity, and that division will only perpetuate the problems. Furthermore this will safeguard vulnerable and angry individuals from the poisonous and dangerous ideals of the BNP and EDL.

These groups aren’t a medium for inherent racism and intolerance as some might suggest, they are merely ideological opportunists playing on the misguided and disaffected parts of society, and it is our duty as believers in equality to prevent the spread of such ideas before they can even get a foot in the door.



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My summary of Movement4Change (published 2/3/12)

Published here

Although I’m a relatively new member of the Labour Party, I joined just in time to be able to help out with campaigning during the local elections in May last year. Hopes were high that with the increasing negativity towards the Government (and in particular the Liberal Democrats who are extremely popular in Bath), this election could be fought on level ground for the first time in decades.

This of course was not the case; the Liberal Democrats increased their number of seats in the council and our all-out mobilisation of candidates and leaflet drops seemed wasted. In subsequent branch meetings our solemn admissions of defeat had one thing in common; whilst our campaigns were fought on a logistical par with the Lib Dems, we lacked the strong community relationships that are vital in creating a strong campaign force. Whatever their opinions were on national issues, voters still turned to the Liberal Democrat candidates as they were seen to be ‘true locals fighting for local issues’. No matter how strong our campaign efforts were, without a strong local presence we Labour campaigners were seen as a foreign force fronting a foreign cause.

Enter Movement4Change. I attended the training because, as a community organiser for one of our target council wards, I felt that although our team was eager to begin campaigning, we lacked a clear direction. We knew all about the local concerns but couldn’t identify how best to fight for them. As part of our plans to create a consistent grass-roots campaign team, the training offered by M4C was invaluable. Not only did the session help our team to better understand one another’s motivations, but it also reminded us of the real importance of community relationships; it’s not about finding policies to fight for, but about creating bonds with the groups which are vital to the community. Not a minute had passed after the end of the session that, armed with a clear strategy, we set about planning our next steps, designating our target groups and starting to build a presence within the local community.

Movement for Change has given our campaign team a much needed push in the right direction. With a straight-forward list of tasks to complete that will begin to shape our operations within the local community, we are energised and focused, ready to bring Labour principles to the heart of Bath.

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The Polemic Pandemic

Put aside the rainbow manifestos and unite.

We as the Labour Party are facing a multitude of problems that are holding us back from our true potential in opposition. No one is going to dispute that we’ve lost a lot of the general public’s trust, that we’ve yet to find a message that can engage the public, or that there’s a crippling divide between the decisions made at the top and the interests of the activists at the bottom. However, no one is willing to acknowledge (publically, at least) the source of our perceived weakness. Following the sour defeat in 2010 and the election of a new figurehead, every ideological corner of the party saw a long awaited opportunity to break out from 13 years of party-line conformity. Just as light stikes a prism, the blank slate of The Labour Party was ready to divide into any number of factions.

Before even pulling away from a begrudging embrace with his brother, Ed Milliband was put on a number of different leashes, their owners digging in their heels and preparing for the most counter-productive tug of war in this Party’s history. Tugging firmly from the right are Maurice Glasman and Blue Labour types, preaching a return to ‘Blairism’ and neo-liberal economics. From the left, the faceless Red Labour heave and yank with ceaseless Nye Bevan quotes and criticisms of anything that even mentions a free market. Hanging from above, Purple Labour have given Ed a little slack to share the party out amongst its members, but are more than ready to give a sharp pull should the bureaucracy be threatened. Meanwhile, scrabbling at his feet for even a morsel of responsbility or recognition, the everyday members and activists cry out to their leader to reform the party’s structure. Neither group will give way to the party opposite, debate nor agree on any policies, yet they all have the same principle in mind; to make our party electable once more so that we might bring about an end to this destructive government.

This situation has created two rifts within our party that our opponents in both Westminster and the media are all too happy to capitalise on; a rift amongst members that makes us all too keen to criticise one another without offering concrete suggestions of our own, and a rift between us and a leader who needs our support more than anything. Should he inch closer to one half of the party, the other half shouts of betrayal and threatens either a rebellion or an exodus. Because of this we are left with the leader we see now; a man afraid to make any decision in an attempt to satisfy all, yet for this very same reason angering everyone for his inactivity. If we expect our leaders to solve our Party’s problems, we musn’t devote ourselves so loyally to in-fighting which will only serve to divide the party. ‘And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand.

I am in no way suggesting that we entirely abandon our personal beliefs for the sake of dedication for Our Glorious Leader. Nothing is healthier for a party than for its members to debate and discuss issues, this much is obvious. But painting yourself as Red Labour or Blue Labour offers no solutions, no more so than calling yourself a socialist or centrist does. It serves as an ideological calling card but contributes little to the discussions we must have to make ourselves a powerful opposition and an electable party for 2015.