Saturday, 14 May 2011

This is Kitsch

Decades ago Harold Rosenberg wrote an important article about kitsch.  In it he criticised the great Dwight. C. Macdonald, who had attacked the poor quality of popular entertainment.  For Rosenberg, who also criticised Macdonald’s own cliché’s about high culture, this was another form of the genre – writing about kitsch is kitsch.

If you don’t like popular culture ignore it; for it is not worth our attention, he wrote.  This is a stellar insight, which if followed can save much wasted time.  Much angst would have been avoided, and the twitter traffic reduced considerably, especially from the disgruntled Left, if this advice had been taken over the last few weeks.  Why worry about the royal wedding; why even think about it?  Being utterly indifferent to the event I was able to avoid nearly all of it, save for a few pictures in the Guardian, and the front covers of the celebrity magazines that decorate our supermarket shelves.  My one vague interest, as I passed William and Kate on my way into the Co-op each week, was in the race between hair loss and the ceremony I wondered which would win. 

It was all so easy to ignore!  So why get so worked up?  It suggests people are just a little too close to it…

Strangely, having avoided the wedding almost entirely I was walloped right between the ears by one of its effects: a street party.  For the next few hours the history of Japanese trade struggled with poor renditions of “classic” tunes as a pub rock band invaded the house.  The Tokugawa shogunate fighting it out with Oasis and the Beatles, as the Americans appear off the coast…  I gave up around the 1880s. 

Of course I was a little annoyed – I am human, after all.  But the better part of me was pleased.  Not because they were celebrating the royals, they weren’t, but because they were having a party, right there on a public road.  Such an unusual event, for how often can the man in street close his street, and with legal sanction too?  And how often is corporate capitalism shut down for a day, and forced to pay homage to other values?   If the wedding hadn’t taken place, we’d all be in the office.  Is that what the Left wants?  Rather odd, if it does.  And reminds me not a little of the over earnest Fabians, and their cult of work and efficiency.

As I have mentioned before there is a disconnect between the Left and the general public.  These attacks on the wedding, and the attitude it represents, reflects this divide.  Why vigorously attack an institution that either a large number of people support or are largely indifferent too, when it such an attack is liable to alienate just those you want to mobilise? They are likely to consider you patronising or extreme.  Better, surely, to ignore one’s own prejudices and look for common ground, which will be in the political, and not the cultural, arena.  For it is easy to be indifferent to the royals, if you want to be, and to ignore popular sentiment; organising without reference to it.[i]  

These harsh attitudes to the royals, like the attacks on popular culture,[ii]  are often a measure of the class differences between the Left intelligentsia and the ordinary person.  The latter may be indifferent to the Royal Family; but they are unlikely to be ideologically opposed to them.  To bang on and on about the malign influence of the royals, when in fact they are a relatively negligible influence on society, not only alienates the majority of people, but uses up resources that could be better spent elsewhere: to improve the image of the progressive minority, and find out how the world really works.

Consider Johann Hari’s interview in the New Left Project.  He starts off by attacking the wedding cake fantasies about the supposed goodness of the Windsors.  So what?  Is Obama better because he’s a nicer guy than the Queen Mother?  He’s certainly responsible for killing a lot more people.  She had servants, and three cars.  Jerry Seinfeld is reported to have nearly fifty Porsches.  Does this make him worse than she?  It all seems rather petty.

Charles is said to be stupid, and is criticised for it.  Why bring this up?  The forcefulness, and the patronising nature, of his remarks suggests a certain bias - in favour of the smart and sophisticated.[iii]   It also suggests a monumental misunderstanding of power and the nature of British society.  For one could argue that a system based on privilege rather than talent might be more humane.

Where no social institution, such as an aristocracy or hereditary monarchy, exists to limit the number of men to whom power is possible, those who most desire power are, broadly speaking, those most likely to acquire it.  It follows that, in a social system in which power is open to all, the posts which confer power will, as a rule, be occupied by men who differ from the average in being exceptionally power-loving.  (Bertrand Russell. Power: A New Social Analysis)

Russell wasn’t advocating for a monarchy, but he was highlighting a certain restraint inherent in hereditary power.  Contrast Blair with Charles: would Hari prefer clever little Tony as our next head of state?  Or Lenin, a man of immense intelligence and drive, would we prefer him to be in charge, killing off those on the Left who disagreed with him?  This latter something that Charles, if Hari’s diagnosis of his character is correct, would not have the talent to do.  The military have a tendency to overrate force, politicians politics, and the intellectuals intelligence.  This is their class interest, and we should recognise it.  For to wish to create a meritocracy based on brain power is to engage in class war for a particular set of interests, and, given the authoritarian nature of many intellectuals, something we should be highly sceptical about.[iv] 

The personal qualities of the Royal Family are irrelevant to the wider concerns of British society, where the institutional character of corporations and state bureaucracies determine the distribution of wealth and power.  One could go even further.  The nature of the old British establishment, its “feudalism” as Hari puts it, may have acted as a restraint on the kind of Wild West capitalism that exists today.  Instead of two power centres warily accommodating themselves to each other, and softening the impact of both, we now have just one all powerful establishment – the corporation and its increasingly totalitarian culture.[v] 

I think he is correct about popular attitudes to the Royal Family: a minority are passionate monarchists, while the majority give only tacit support.  Although he is wrong and patronising to say the minority of royalists are freaks.  Some no doubt are; but many are ordinary working people who have become very attached to the monarchy; as some intellectuals to Marx and Engels.  Such an attitude shows a certain arrogance, and reminds me very much of class superiority. 

While his description is probably correct his analysis is somewhat askew.  Because an institution is not passionately advocated doesn’t mean that it will be easy to remove.  In fact it would be easier to dethrone the monarchy if the country’s support was emotionally “hot”; for then the popular relationship to it would be more unstable.  A culture’s success depends on its ability to instil unquestioning habits (and which involve contradictions, or what Hari calls “cognitive dissonance”), and these are hard to uproot, because they are part of the texture of people’s lives.

No doubt King Charles will be less liked than Queen Elizabeth, though the rehabilitation of Camilla suggests just how quickly the royals can assimilated into the popular culture.  Will he have much influence when he comes to power?  Age would tell against him – how much energy would he have to engage in the demanding work of political action?  Moreover, to raise this spectre is to misunderstand the nature of modern society: the King may have some influence over the government, though that would be less than in Queen Victoria’s time, but it is not going to be much.  It will be miniscule when compared to the City of London, BP and the major multi-nationals, not to mention the EU, IMF and the United States of America.  Charles is not going to have much power to exercise, even if he wanted to: there is no powerful constituency to back him up.  Hari’s comments remind me of the illusions people had about Obama.  As if one man in the White House could take on the Military Industrial Complex, Big Pharma and the financial industries, all by himself.  This is not how politics works today, if ever it did.

It is just for this reason, its relative lack of power, that to spend much time on the monarchy is pointless; it is kitsch.  Hari confirms this by his creation of two straw men: the monarchy acts as a restraint on the politicians, and it helps promote democracy.  The first argument may have had some validity up to the 1970s, when the monarchy was part of a wider old regime, which still exerted some effect on the society.[vi]   However, by its self the Royal Family can do next to nothing.  The second argument is, as Hari says, wrong, but the example he gives is interesting.  For once again he mixes up the institution with the individual.  The important point about Edward VIII wasn’t his pro-Hitler views but that he couldn’t resist the British political establishment when it wanted rid of him.  He was too weak to resist.  Perfect, surely, for a head of state in a democracy.  Imagine Richard Branson in charge, and with all his mates in the corporate world behind him – Exxon Mobil, J P Morgan Chase, Unilever….  If he had a particular political agenda, and was head of state, he would have the backing of some of the most powerful interests on the planet, and could implement it.  That is, a Richard Branson in Buckingham Palace is more dangerous than a Charles Windsor.

The weakness of Hari’s line of thought comes into clear view when he answers the last question: we could have someone better than Charles as head of state.  Better in what way?  Lots of charisma?  More wit?  A master of the common touch?  The personal qualities of the head of state should be irrelevant; really little more than a symbol, as it currently stands.  The important issue is the relationship of the monarchy (as an institution) to the government; and it to the population.  The single most important question is can the monarchy act as a restraint on the executive when it goes beyond the conventions of parliament to enact unpopular and extreme measures to which a majority of the country is opposed.  For in a hierarchical system where the population is marginalised and the unions emasculated we need some parts of the establishment to effectively resist the power of the corporate world, and its lackeys in our mainstream political parties.  This has nothing to do with the particular qualities of a particular person, but depends on the influence of the institution to which they belong, and its relationships to the most powerful actors in the society. 

His last answer I found strange.  After attacking people who know nothing about history he comes out with a whole series of questionable assertions, to prove that he loves his country.  Did we pioneer universal suffrage?  Germany got there before us on universal male suffrage, while voting rights for men and women did not originate in Britain.  We didn’t beat the Nazis.   The Soviet Union did, with our help and that of the Americans.  Does that make the Soviet Union admirable?[vii]   We abolished slavery, but was that Britain or a reform movement, headed by a few enlightened people?   I find this all very odd.  There are certain things we like about our country and there are certain things we don’t, but to say we love it is only to say that you have fallen for an abstraction; a mannequin dressed in the Union Jack.

His last comment is interesting because it shows the confusion of the entire discussion:

Every child in Britain should be able to grow up knowing that if they do all the right things they could one day be our head of state. The American head of state, for all his flaws, grew up with a mother who was on food stamps. Our head of state grew up with a mother who was on postage stamps.

Do all the right things?  What are they, exactly?  Obama gives us a clue:

In his books, he down-played the more elite parts of his own resume – the prep school Punahou in Hawaii, Columbia and Harvard – but he is nevertheless a true believer in “the idea that top-drawer professionals had gone through a fair sorting process". (Frank Rich, quoted in my Bill is Back)

Join the elites, and accept their values; which means increasing wealth and power for those who already have too much.  Thus Obama, with the massive campaign funding from the financial sector, institutes policies to protect them, once in the White House.  Barack Obama, as Bill Clinton before him, camouflages the general lack of social mobility in America, which has declined since the 1960s; and hides the massive increase in inequality, as a tiny fraction of the über-rich owns the country.  There is simply no connection between the individual who becomes head of state, and the life chances of most of the population.  To concentrate on the few people who make it tends to hide this reality.  In a highly unequal society surely it is far better to have as its symbol a head of state who exhibits its true nature; an obvious example of how unfair and unjust we have become.  And to use that symbol as a galvanising force not to attack and remove an irrelevancy, but to focus it on the real robber barons, who lord it over us in the boardrooms and the office floor.




[i] A Socialist Queen? I suggest a way to use the royals progressively.
[ii] Or the highbrow canonisation of it – a form of reverse snobbery.
[iii] Compare my comments on Paxman in Ouch!
[iv] See Michael Young’s excellent satire The Rise of the Meritocracy.  Bakunin’s prescient criticism of Marx and the red intelligentsia can be found in my Hero Worship, which includes an excellent quote from Anton Pannekoek on the same subject.  See my Dropout Boogie for discussion of the authoritarian nature of the intellectual.
[v] I discuss this more fully in an upcoming essay on Libya and the LSE.  In particular I note how the Royal Family is changing, its behaviour mimicking that of the corporations.
[vi] See J.H. Plumb’s The Origins of Political Stability and in his In the Light of History for the origins of the Britain’s Ancien Régime, and its persistence until at least after the Second World War.
[vii] See my Amongst the Gods for a slightly different take.

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