Alan Dent

Alan Dent

Alan Dent is the founder and editor of The Penniless Press and its successor MQB.

Capitalists like us
Wednesday, 02 December 2020 09:28

Capitalists like us

Published in Cultural Commentary

Alan Dent continues his series on culture and capitalism by arguing that soap operas, game and talent shows validate capitalism

Fans of Hancock’s Half-Hour, The Liver Birds or Steptoe and Son enjoyed good quality entertainment. After a hard day’s work, what’s wrong with turning on the radio or the television to ease up and have a laugh? Joe Orton said he was no cultural snob and enjoyed I Love Lucy, yet he also defaced books from Islington Library in protest at the debased content of the shelves – and that at a time when libraries weren’t forced to ditch editions more than ten years old.

Orton was recognising that entertainment has its place, but not at the cost of elbowing art aside. Huw Weldon, in a famous speech in the 1960s, claimed the distinction between entertainment and art lay in the difference between giving pleasure and seeking truth. There is truth in Hancock, of course and in The Liver Birds, and King Lear is pleasurable in spite of the gouging out of eyes. Perhaps a better distinction lies in this: a work of art is successful whether or not it attains an audience. A soap opera watched by 100,000 would be an abject failure; a theatre play seen by 10,000 might be a huge success, artistically. Entertainment has to make money, even for a public service broadcaster, in the sense people won’t pay the licence fee for what they aren’t willing to watch. The success of a work of art is extraneous to questions of popularity. Emily Dickinson’s poems were artistically successful while still in her drawer. Accomplished art tends to attract an audience, but often not easily. Entertainment is impatient. No one writes a soap opera anticipating it may get due recognition in two centuries.

So entertainment must be given its due. As an introduction to dramatic writing and especially to good acting, much TV entertainment has done good work. Also, few people can tolerate a diet of only the most exacting art. Young people especially need to be eased towards appreciation of demanding art; but entertainment is much more amenable to manipulation than art. When advertisers are paying TV companies millions to buy their audiences, the last thing they want is content which subverts their view of the world.

AD Play For Today 1200 Red Shift Alan Garner BFI BBC A Year In The Country smaller

The era (1964-1984) that provided The Wednesday Play and Play for Today perhaps bridged the gap. Several hundred plays, some written by dramatists of exceptional talent, attracted good audiences. They weren’t all masterpieces, but they were attempts at real drama presented on a popular if naturalistic medium. The dates are to be noted: 1964 saw Wilson’s first electoral victory, 1984 was the year after Thatcher’s second. Sixties cultural openness declined into eighties philistinism. The BBC offered Ken Loach and others the brief to produce drama which challenged orthodoxy and addressed contemporary social realities. After Thatcher, that was unthinkable.

High art for the few and bland culture for the many

Trevor Griffiths remarked that he couldn’t understand why radical writers didn’t cleave to television. Like him, Thatcher recognised that a mass medium broadcasting material which questioned the status quo was potentially revolutionary. A division had to be made between high art, confined to a few, and bland mass culture. Forms like folk music (revived at around the same time The Wednesday Play began, largely thanks to Ewan McColl) which blended serious radicalism with popular melodies and lyrics, had to be sidelined by the pop charts, dominated largely by saccharine love songs. Entertainment had to confirm that what is must be, and art had to learn to pay its way. This remains the general tenor of British culture.

All entertainment, because of its need for commercial success, is debased art. It’s a simple truism: without Bach, there would be no pop music, no western music. Bach worked out Equal Temperament and he or his assistants or both tuned a keyboard so it could play in all keys. Prior to which, instruments were limited in range or had to be retuned for key changes (the musicology of this is explained clearly in Howard Goodall’s Big Bangs). Before Equal Temperament, harmony was limited. Bach was a musical revolutionary. Without Aeschylus there would be no Eastenders. Without Henry Fielding, there would be no Val McDermid. The same is not true in reverse: Mark Anthony Turnage has no need of Kylie Minogue, Caryl Churchill doesn’t need Coronation St. Entertainment is a debased form by definition, yet it can be responsibly employed.

What matters is who produces it and why. Entertainment in our culture is in general produced by the rich, and its purpose is to uphold the system which makes them wealthy. Our culture blurs the boundaries of art and entertainment for the purpose of elevating the latter and diminishing the former: pos-modernism, the intellectual handmaiden of this process, is nothing more than the refusal of a hierarchy of values. Its primary strategy is to assert there are no objective criteria by which culture can be judged. Who can say Ibsen is better drama than Coronation St? Putatively democratic, this is simply a capitulation to commercialism: what sells is good. Thus, Fifty Shades of Grey is better than The Trial (sales of the latter globally are enormous but in contemporary Britain relatively modest).

The problem art poses for capitalism is that it obviously isn’t aimed at a market. Who, wanting to sell, would write Krapp’s Last Tape or Heart of Darkness? As art is motivated by something other than pursuit of maximum sales, it’s a suspicious activity. Just what it might be about, the ideologues of capitalism may not be able to discern, but their attitude is well summed up by the remark Thatcher made to Birtwistle when he attended a reception for the music “industry” (idiotic designation) in Downing St: “We know what you’re up to.”

Advertising with knobs on

It is Thatcher’s paranoid philistinism which drives the entertainment industry (an apposite designation). An article in The Sun by Lucy Murgatroyd on 24th June 2020 tells us that Jacqueline Jossa is worth some £1.2m, Michelle Keegan £2.7m, Alan Halsall up to £4m, Danny Dyer £3.9m, Adam Woodyatt up to £4m, Steve McFadden £2.7m, Jack P. Shepherd up to £4m, Derek Thompson £6m, Amanda Mealing up to £4m. The article revels in the conspicuous consumption of the wealthy stars: they like to show off their expensive cars, they luxuriate in their wealth. That this is morally obscene in a society where millions depend on foodbanks, hundreds of thousands are homeless, ought not to need saying. Our culture not only normalises greed and its ostentatious display, it proposes it as morally worthy, a proof of status and value.

The first soap opera is thought to have been Painted Dreams, which aired on WGN radio Chicago on 20th October 1930. The title is appropriate. The form was elaborated to catch the attention of housewives. At its core, therefore, is reaction. It embraced no desire to examine the concept “housewife”. It took the category and all it implied (which included no small measure of despair and mental torment for women trapped in a limited, stultifying role) for granted. Housewives were a market. If, in their boredom, they could be hooked by redundant, sentimental, melodramatic broadcasts, they could be sold soap powder, or whatever else was deemed appropriate to their downgraded status. In its conception, soap opera was barely entertainment: it was advertising with knobs on. In a sense that is what it remains: an advert for capitalism.

According to the Mailonline of 3rd August 2017, Hugh Quarshie was demanding a pay rise for his role in Holby City, as he’d discovered that his fellow actor Derek Thompson was earning £399,000 a year. If nurses demand a pay rise, they are usually castigated by the right-wing media for “holding the country to ransom” or a lack of professionalism or neglecting their patients or some other confected failing; but for an actor to demand a salary some ten times the national average is not only acceptable, it reveals all is well with the world. The talented must be richly rewarded. Hard work must bring great wealth. These are rules inscribed in the heavens – immutable, irresistible, eternal.

That there is no necessary connection between talent and wealth or hard work and wealth is obvious. Poets of talent have, for hundreds of years, earned nothing or virtually nothing. Musicians of talent play in orchestras for modest salaries or jazz gigs for less than a plumber charges per hour. Teachers, nurses, care workers, kitchen porters, waiters work hard and get by. The indefeasible connection is between wealth and greed. All the wealthy are greedy. No one is trapped in wealth like they are trapped in poverty. It’s always possible to divest yourself of wealth, to employ it to help those who need help. What keeps the rich rich is not the operation of an abstract market, but greed.         

Soap operas, which continue to hook audiences through the tired formulas of melodrama (Orton pointed up the similarity between melodrama and madness) are principally transparent vehicles for the empty proposition that society can’t function without the rich: you love your soap opera; you identify with the characters; you follow the plots; their lives seem more real than your own (the boredom of capitalism makes sure of that); they are a major source of conversation; and the stars earn £400,000 a year or are worth millions. Thus, your pleasures depend on inequality. What is also at work, though, is the debased nature of the form.

Soap opera is excessively naturalistic. It defeats Ibsen’s maxim: The illusion I seek is the illusion of reality. In its place it puts: The reality I propose is the reality of illusion. The economics of soap opera production necessitates overlong scenes and expanded conversations. Soap operas are divided into bits which lack conciseness; what can be said in ten words will never be said in less than a hundred; an emotion that can be expressed in the most minute gesture requires histrionics. None of this is accidental. It’s not unusual for those addicted to soap opera to communicate with characters as if they are real: Dear Ken, I feel I must let you know your wife is having an affair.. or With deepest sympathy appended to flowers for someone’s funeral.

British soaps resized

This naïve appreciation of the framework is part of the ploy: the form engenders the naivety it requires. In spite of an expensive education system, people in their millions set aside suspension of disbelief and see no illusion. No one has ever written to an actor playing Hamlet in the theatre: Dear Hamlet, Sorry to hear about your dad….The debilitating naturalism of soap opera destroys the ability to simultaneously watch drama as if it’s real while knowing it’s factitious. In soap opera, there is no “as if”. This is as culturally backward as the simple folk of Dorset who, when first read the stories of Hardy took them for truth and when told Mr Hardy had invented them, said: “Why would he do that?”

The lack of the appropriate frame kills the sense that the writer (soap operas, of course, are written by committees) has invented to a purpose. There being no purpose to the illusion, it must be reality. What could be more dismal than millions of benighted adherents taking spatchcock, thoughtless melodrama for reality? Capitalism is routinely attacked for its injustice, but seldom for its unconscionable tedium, the source of the pitiful need to identify with plastic TV characters.

It’s sometimes argued that soap operas deal with pressing social realities, as if this justifies them and makes them half-way radical; but the form defeats whatever plotlines it may embrace. There is no catharsis where there is no appreciation of drama as illusion. There has never been a riot outside a TV studio in response to a soap opera, as people rioted over O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars in 1926 (it was also said that his inclusion of a prostitute in one of his plays was a disgrace because there were no prostitutes in Dublin). Whatever ostensibly contentious issue is included in a soap opera, its potential subversive effect will be annulled by its utter conformism, which confirms our culture in all its injustice, boredom and stasis.

Coronation Street

Soap opera characters are just like us, so the form proposes; but ironically, given the audience’s willingness not to suspend disbelief, they are played by stars who are anything but. Ken Barlow is a very rich man, and a Tory, though in the series he isn’t either. If the Ken the viewers can identify with as someone like us, a bloke who might live next door blends with the William Roache who definitely doesn’t (unless you’re very well off), the job is done: actors require huge financial rewards. Thus is real drama shredded and capitalism justified.

Tony Warren’s notion was reactionary from the beginning: a typical northern street with a pub at one end and a corner shop at the other; characters who would be as typical as their environment. The essence is stasis, a synchronic perspective, a slice through rather than of life. At the heart of the idea was the rejection of change, as if Coronation Street was born with time and would endure with it. Where drama often depicts characters trapped by circumstance and therefore implicitly available for transformation by escaping them, Warren’s little universe was to be self-enclosed and therefore entropic. Entropy spreads out energy until nothing can happen. The same dispersal is intrinsic to soap opera’s form. Nothing can happen in the sense that no fundamental change can come about because if it did, the very conception would wither. Characters may leave Coronation St, they may die, but the street itself remains, eternal and therefore dead. Until heat-death, the universe is in constant flux. Whatever is unchanging can exist only after heat-death, though, of course, it can’t, as everything that exists must be subject to change.

What is typical of characters in real drama, is energy. Even Vladimir and Estragon are defined by their inability to go; they have to wait for Godot so their energy is trapped. Lear employs his waning energy to assert his kingly power and Regan and Goneril theirs for the evil of lust for that power. Othello’s energy is misdirected into jealousy by the manipulative energy of Iago. Willy Loman’s energy, denied by his culture, fuels the fantasy which kills him. The characters in Coronation Street are held is aspic. Their energy is flattened out. They are puppets. There is no real drama because their can be no real possibility of change. The form defies it. Hamlet tells us things could have been different if corruption hadn’t seized the court of Denmark. What The Butler Saw tells us that disaster ensues when we try to hide the truth. A Doll’s House shows us people can be diminished by institutions but can rebel. Soap opera tells us nothing can happen and therefore there can be only the non-events of melodrama, an expression of the phoney emotions of the emotionally dead.

The just-like-us nature of soap opera is carried over into game shows and talent shows where people you might sit next to on the bus put themselves through humiliation in pursuit of money and fame. The formula is as simple as it is cynical: you have no shame; you will undergo any embarrassment to be lifted out of your current situation, even if by no more than few thousand quid. Both game and talent shows are based on greed for money and fame.

The false promise of capitalism           

The key to game shows is that contestants prove themselves idiots and to talent shows that they reveal themselves as talentless. Of course, some people defeat the formula and win or turn out able to perform. Yet the essence is the message that you’re willing to compromise your dignity for money or fame (which implies money). Central also is the notion of overnight success: one day you’re a teacher, next day you win Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. One day you’re a hairdresser, next day you have a recording contract. This keeps alive the false and essentially neurotic promise of capitalism: that while the wheel is spinning you may have the chance of remarkable fortune. Of course, a tiny minority are lucky, but that’s the point: the tiny minority who are exorbitantly wealthy deserve their wealth, and the rest deserve what’s left.  

This also militates against the idea of long apprenticeship or of a commitment which is worthwhile though not lucrative. It takes a long time and much hard work, for example, to master an instrument well enough to play in an orchestra. Hence this being an art form reserved for a minority. There is no ban, of course, on the masses taking to serious music, just a prevailing sense that “it isn’t done”, as Orwell put it. Aimed at the masses, soap opera, game shows, talent shows proclaim: this is your culture; it’s vulgar, it’s loud, it’s raucous; Shakespeare is not for you; Beethoven is too serious; this is your stuff and you love it.

The deliberate appeal to the lowest common denominator keeps the masses in their place: when the common folk start taking an interest in “high” culture, there’s trouble on the way. The barriers to them doing so are high and forbidding. A guileless, innocent interest in Mozart or Jane Austen is mocked by the cognoscenti. The common folk are made to feel embarrassed and pretentious if they show a liking for what is above their station. The mass media force their attention onto the culture which is concocted for them. The argument goes that the masses have willingly chosen this stuff and to criticise it is cultural snobbery. The truth is the culture has deliberately pursued downgraded forms to keep the common folk from what might make them think.

In this regard, it is interesting to look at the relationship between these forms and the education system. That schools run shows in imitation of Britain’s Got Talent indicates how the get-rich-quick, celebrity mentality has permeated. The last place you would expect such values to prevail is an educational setting where commitment to the cumulative mastery of knowledge and skills and a belief in learning for its own sake ought to be taken for granted. Schools have long been exam factories, but there used to be a hinterland of commitment to disinterested learning. By imposing a culture of measurement which proposes that what can’t be reduced to a number is worthless, government has erased any resistance within the system to the superficial, short-term values of the culture at large. OFSTED enforces minute conformism, which assists capitulation to whatever looms large.

Children were once taught traditional folk song in school but the Lincolnshire Poacher (sung by many primary school children in the 1950s) has been replaced by Taylor Swift. The subversive delight in poaching, the wish (in some versions) for bad luck to every magistrate would be unlikely to make it past OFSTED’s censors. The song is said to date from the eighteenth century. Today’s young are taught to attend to whatever is “trending”. Training in not thinking begins early and is well rewarded.

Class struggle in Lincolnshire

Capitalism makes two fundamental requirements of the common folk: that they should be dutiful employees and committed consumers. They hand over their labour to an employer for the latter’s enrichment and the wages they receive they hand over to commercial interests for the same purpose. Democracy barely gets a look in. For most, it is a trip to the polling booth every few years; but however they vote, the essentials don’t change: they must be diligent employees and good consumers.

By and large, the Left conspires in this by making higher wages and therefore greater consumerism the principal plank of its platform. The argument is hardly ever heard that the relation of employer-employee needs to be reformed out of existence. Higher wages, state provision of health, education, social care – such is the limit of socialism’s reach. Hence the core of socialism is removed, as only when people transcend the limits of their definition of employee can they begin to realise the potential which lies beyond it.

Popular culture is like fast food           

Soap operas, in their entrenched conformism, their stasis, their replacement of the transformative energy of drama by the dissipated entropy of melodrama confirm people in their current definitions. Joe Orton, in The Good and Faithful Servant, attacked employment. He is virtually alone among modern UK writers in going to the heart of the matter. The play was written for television, but no one will get to see it. Instead we have Strictly, Bake Off,  X-Factor, anything which stops people questioning. Very popular programmes, of course: people have to find some relief from the deadly boredom of capitalism.

The popularity of mass culture is akin to that of fast food: it is designed to appeal to the most easily stimulated and satisfied appetites. Fast food relies on fat, sugar and salt, a combination that is hard to find in nature and so one to which we have an excessive response. Our biological ancestors never ate anything like a doughnut. Natural selection ensured that when we get a hit of fat and sugar combined, our taste buds light up, because that’s a rare source of energy – but not in our supermarkets. The same is true of soap opera – it’s a sickly, sentimental confection which sparks up a set of responses remote from reality, unlike drama whose illusion penetrates to the deeper responses a true orientation to reality requires.

Similarly with game and talent shows: they permit the narrowest range of responses, all  in keeping with capitalism’s illusions: being rich is liberation, being famous is the way out of daily tedium. Incidentally, such programmes are universally popular. Globalisation has done its work. Romantic fantasies are particularly liked in China – hardly surprising when the reality is state capitalist tyranny. Russians appear to have more of a taste for crime dramas. This might occasion the argument that criticising these forms is pushing water uphill, that their universal appeal reveals their ability to key into fundamental features of the human mind which transcend cultural differences. This returns us to our initial proposition: these forms are debased art. Just as an advertising jingle can find a musical resonance across the globe, so soap opera has enough residual dramatic vibration to strike a chord. As for game and talent shows, they touch a nerve which associates performance and reward – a good spearthrower gets a good dinner.

It isn’t because they appeal to unchanging features of our nature that these forms are popular, but because they correspond to the dominant culture which itself is passed off as nature. They represent a misuse of mass media to inculcate a sensibility which upholds the system which creates it. They are brilliantly successful and will continue to be until an alternative and mocking culture arises, but that requires a willingness to forgo the rewards they provide. Writing or acting for fringe theatre is far less lucrative than doing so for television. Talent can be bought off – principle resists.

Capitalists in football shirts
Thursday, 08 October 2020 08:02

Capitalists in football shirts

Published in Sport

CAPITALISTS IN FOOTBALL SHIRTS:

Alan Dent argues that football has become a game which legitimises the radical inequalities of capitalist Britain

One of Britain’s most highly regarded footballers is Tom Finney. Born into the working-class town of Preston in 1922, he spent his playing years at his home club, Preston North End, and represented England seventy times. He earned relatively modestly as a player, yet helped attract crowds of thirty thousand to Deepdale. Offered a contract as a junior in 1937, his pay was to be two pounds ten shillings per week. His father insisted he complete his apprenticeship as a plumber before signing. His professional career began in earnest in 1946 when his pay was fourteen pounds a week. The average male manual wage (according to ONS statistics) was six pounds.

In his early days, he was working part-time as a plumber while playing for the club: up the ladder with a blow-lamp on Saturday morning, pulling his boots on in the afternoon, as the story goes. He was praised highly by other professionals. In his day, he was one of the best players in the world. Today, he would be a multi-millionaire. He wouldn’t spend his career at one club – it wasn’t loyalty which made Finney do so, but absence of opportunity.

Tom Finney 011

Tom Finney inventing the victory slide on a wet day in Preston

As his pay in 1946 suggests, he was reasonably rewarded, but fourteen to six is nothing like the proportions which prevail today. The average wage (ONS) in February 2020 was £511 in nominal terms and £471 in real terms. According to media reports, Gareth Bale is currently (September 2020) paid £600,000 a week. Finney’s pay in 1946 was a little more than twice the average, Bale’s more than a thousand times.

The so-called free-market account is that players are paid the going rate. No one makes a decision: it is the abstract market which distributes resources. What is sought after in the market attracts a greater price. Is Bale a better player than Finney?  The question of exorbitant rewards is, according to the free-market ideology, beyond moral judgement. The market is amoral: it acts according to the laws of the economy. Footballers are paid what the market will tolerate.

That this is propaganda is self-evident. Markets don’t make decisions any more than algorithms. That is anthropomorphism. Dogs make decisions, as do bees and ants, within very narrow limits laid down by biology; but only people make moral decisions, though there is some evidence that other primates make proto-moral choices. What makes a moral choice possible, however, is the same kind of attribute that provides language. All animals communicate, but only we have language. It is part of our biological inheritance. So is morality. There’s an important point here: we are linguistic  by nature. We have no choice. Try not to be linguistic. You can no more do it then you can wish one of your legs away. The same is true of morality. We don’t have a choice. We have evolved for moral decision-making. Which is why those who want to excuse their bad behaviour claim some abstract force is responsible.

Finney retired in 1960, the year before Jimmy Hill’s successful campaign to lift the £20 cap on player’s pay (during the summer the maximum was £17). In 1900 footballers’ weekly pay averaged £7, in 1924 £8 and in 1953 £15 (£13 during the summer). In 1961 average male manual pay was fifteen pounds two shillings a week. Thus, footballers had long earned above the average, but by 1961 they were only marginally ahead. Educated professionals could earn more.

The Professional Footballers’ Association’s campaign was supported by the TUC. At their 1955 Congress, Jimmy Guthrie, the ex-Portsmouth player accused the football league of a “Victorian business ethic” and described the condition of footballers as “akin to slavery”. George Eastham, the Newcastle player, took his case to the High Court on the grounds of “restraint of trade”.

Stanley Matthews, at first resistant, changed his mind and voted for the cap to be removed out of loyalty to his fellow players and because he had done well out of the game. When he started as an office boy at Stoke City in 1930, Matthews was paid £1 a week. On his seventeenth birthday he signed as a professional and was paid £5 (£3 in the summer). By 1950 he was earning the current maximum of £12 per week and when he made his final move to Stoke in 1962 he was paid £50, twice what he had been earning at Blackpool. When the maximum pay cap was lifted in 1961, Johnny Haynes became the first £100 a week footballer. Yet Matthews felt his financial rewards had been good. The salary on which he finished his playing career was about two and half times the average wage, at today’s values something like £1,250 a week.

The simple conclusion to be drawn from the above is that there is no absolute correlation between the skill of a player, the excitement he or she brings to the fans and the level of pay. Fans didn’t refuse to watch Matthews or Finney because they weren’t millionaires. The prevailing assumption that the astronomical salaries paid to footballers today is the necessary outcome of their talent, effort and fan-pulling power can’t be correct.

AD 4 Fwomen12

Women's football was once more popular than the men's game

Football began as a game of the common folk, of men, of course, though women did make their mark quite early – though the bureaucrats, as bureaucrats will, intervened to stop them on the usual specious grounds. Probably the most famous women’s team was Dick Kerr’s Ladies founded in Preston in 1894. On Boxing Day 1920 they played St Helen’s Ladies before a crowd of 53,000 at Goodison Park and in the same year, the first women’s international, against a French side, which they won 2-0. 25,000 watched that. A year later, the FA banned women from playing on football league grounds, arguing that “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged”. Note the Victorian tone. It wasn’t till 1969 that the Women’s FA was founded. As ever, it takes a long time to rectify the historical mistakes of bigots.

Football is an essentially working-class game

Football’s history goes back as far as 1170. In modern times, the prototype game was developed in the private schools as a typical character-building activity for boys who were intended to rule the Empire, but the game as we know it dates from 1863 when the Football Association was founded. In 1888 there were twelve clubs, by 1950, 92. What brought the growth was the popularity of the game with working-class spectators – not only working-class, of course, but principally.

Football is an essentially working-class game in two respects: it enjoys great popularity among the common folk and many of its players come from the working class: Bobby Charlton’s father was a miner, as was Matt Busby’s. Bill Shankly’s father was a postman, Dennis Law’s a fisherman, Tom Finney’s a local government clerk, Stanley Matthew’s a boxer, Paul Gascoigne’s a hod carrier, Gary Lineker’s parents were grocers and Wayne Rooney’s mother was a dinner lady. There are, of course, exceptions but they tend to prove the rule. Few, if any footballers were privately educated.

When Ted Hill, Chair of the TUC, supported the PFA in its demand for an end to maximum pay, he was identifying footballers with employees in general. In fighting for the right of footballers to improve their pay, he was accepting that the right should be general. The implication was that players were exploited. They ought to enjoy their share of the wealth the game generated. In adopting this position, the TUC failed to appreciate the difference in status between footballers and most employees: footballers are entertainers. They don’t make anything. They are part of an arena of escape from work. That is, after all, the point of sport: it is an activity aside from the work-a-day world.

Football is the opposite of work

Bill Shankly was entirely wrong when he said football is more important than life or death: what makes sport attractive is precisely that it isn’t important. It’s a relief from importance. It was that which attracted so many people across the centuries to the kicking the ball games which prefigured the game proper: it wasn’t work, but the opposite of work. The creation of professional footballers was a result of the game being embraced by the ethos of capitalism. This made footballers employees, but of a very different kind from miners, clerks, hod-carriers, postmen, dinner ladies. What capitalism spotted in the game and its practitioners was the possibility of profit and big fortunes. That the big fortunes were not initially offered to the players doesn’t alter the trajectory. What Jimmy Hill recognised in 1961 was that clubs’ revenues was sufficient to allow players to be better rewarded. What he didn’t see, however, was how the business model of football clubs would develop.

AD 2 bill shankly

Bill Shankly, lifelong socialist

According to David Conn writing in The Guardian on 22nd May 2019, for the year ending 30th June 2018 Manchester United had a turnover of £590m, a wage bill of £296m, a pre-tax profit of £26m, a gate and matchday income of £110m, debts of £254m, paid dividends to shareholders of £22m, mostly to the six Glazers who sit on the board, and remunerated its highest-paid director with £4.1m. Regardless of the debts, the shareholders get their dividends, the directors get their enormous emoluments, the Glazers own a high-value asset and, of course, the players get exorbitant salaries.

What kind of business model is this? It’s often argued that football clubs are businesses which don’t make money: they need rich owners and generous directors. Far from it. The owners and directors aren’t altruists. Abramovich may argue he doesn’t own a football club to make money, but as a hobby; but if that were true he could give it to the fans. How would that get in the way of it being a hobby? Whether or not Chelsea makes a profit, Abramovich owns an asset of enormous value. The billionaires who buy the big clubs know they can’t lose.

In the same article, Conn writes that Everton, for the same period, had a turnover of £189m, a wage bill of £145m, a pre-tax loss of £13m and paid its mostly highly rewarded director £927,000.  An interesting set of figures: the club loses money but the wealthy director gets nearly a million. Bournemouth had a turnover of £135m paid wages of £102m, had a pre-tax loss of £11m and paid its leading director £1.3m. The club is owned by AFCB enterprises registered in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands. It is part of the Opalus Trust, an instrument of the Russian oligarch Maxim Denim’s family.

In the Championship, more than half the clubs spend more on wages than they raise in revenue. Can you think of any other enterprise where this would be the model? Whether run on capitalist lines or as a co-operative, any undertaking which paid its workers more than it brings in would be considered a head-case. A hairdresser, a restaurateur, a joiner, a plumber, a nursery provider, anyone applying to the bank for a loan to get an enterprise started who presented a business plan which included paying in wages more than they take in revenue would be considered insane or incompetent.

So what’s going on with football clubs?

In a video clip posted by the BBC on 12th December 2019, David Sharpe, ex-owner of Wigan FC expressed it fairly well: he described the football league, or at least the Premiership as “a billionaire gambler’s paradise”. Football has been turned into a casino. What was once a game of working people, played by them and watched by them, a relief from the burdens of work and inauspicious living conditions, has become a roulette wheel where some of the wealthiest people on the planet can toy with the culture of the masses.

Whatever happens, Abramovich will come out smelling of roses. Chelsea FC is his asset. Even if it goes broke, he’ll do fine. The people who lose out when a club fails, like Bury, are the ordinary folk for whom the club is a focus, a meeting place, a living part of their culture, not a scam to cream off money into directors’ pockets, to pump up the value of owners’ assets and to turn the players into multi-millionaires.

There’s an argument that goes like this: most players are working-class. Football gives them the chance to rise from their modest origins. Don’t knock them. They are talented and they work hard. They deserve what they get. It’s a good thing that a few lads and lassies from the mean streets get the chance to live the high life. That’s a culture of opportunity, so it’s fair.

No it isn’t

In fact, it’s the opposite. It’s estimated that some 70,000 children on Merseyside live below the poverty line. The confirmed salary for Mo Salah for the present season is £220,000 per week (£10.5m per year), for Alisson £150,000 per week (£7.2m per year), for Van Dijk £180,000 per week (£8.6m per year) – even some of the reserve players are paid £15,000 per week. Of course, the conformist response is that even if the players’ salaries were distributed across all the poor of Merseyside, poverty would not be eliminated. True, but that isn’t the point. What matters is a culture of exorbitant rewards.

AD5

Anti-FIFA mural in Brazil

Football has been cleverly used by the ideologues of capitalism to justify that culture. As with pop stars, film stars and other assorted celebrities, footballers are popular icons, adored and emulated by millions, and they are fabulously rich. The tacit argument is that if they deserve their rewards, so do all the rich. The result is £500bn and more in the hands of the richest one thousand. Extend that to the richest ten thousand and the wealth is unconscionable. A redistribution of wealth from the richest ten thousand to the bottom ten million would make a very real difference. By valorising extreme rewards, football assists in enforcing poverty, Marcus Rashford notwithstanding.

Capitalism can’t allow anything significant which isn’t made in its image, which cannot be measured by money. When the game proper established itself in the late nineteenth century, capitalism was entrenched in Britain. It would have taken great insight and resilience to keep the game as a game rather than a business. From the beginning of its professional manifestation, football began to be associated with wealth. The relationship between players and club owners is explored in David Storey’s 1960 This Sporting Life, set in the world of rugby league. Machin is the workhorse player who kicks (no pun intended) against the pricks (equally) of being made use of by the club’s big-wigs. The title is ironic: sport has been degraded by business whose ethos is anything but sporting.  

Who needs the fans?

The central issue is the nexus of relationships: players, owners, directors, fans and of course, today, media moguls. The only group which doesn’t make money out of the game is the fans. As coronavirus force games to be played in empty stadia, it would be easy to conclude the fans are dispensable. If the media moguls can beam matches round the world, why does it matter if fans turn up at Old Trafford or Bloomfield Road? Manchester United’s turnover in 2018 was £590m but only £110m was matchday income. It would be perfectly feasible economically to do away with the troublesome business of crowd control, turnstiles, transport to and from the ground and to rely entirely on income from television rights, merchandise and corporate hospitality. If football is a business, the fans aren’t crucial, given that some way can be found to replace the income their disappearance would entail.

Of course, this leaves aside atmosphere. Canned cheering and chanting have been employed to give some authenticity to matches in dead venues. Managers and players like to applaud the fans at the end of a game. Yet the interests of the fans are not paramount. If they were, the game would look very different. To put their interests first would mean setting ticket prices as low as is commensurate with keeping the game exciting.

Conditions at grounds have improved since the days Finney and Matthews were playing and fans should be willing to pay for that. All the same, in the mid 1960 a juvenile entry to Preston North End was one shilling and sixpence. The average manual wage was about £15. A youngster’s ticket cost about one two hundredth of that average. Today the cost is about £20 and the average wage, as noted above, about £500, ie about twenty-five times greater. Improvements in conditions can explain only a part of that discrepancy.

The implied argument is that in order for fans to get what they want, the game has to be a business, managers and players have to be paid exorbitantly, owners have to see their assets appreciate, directors have to receive handsome rewards. Tell that to Bury FC fans. What fans want is a club to identify with, a team to cheer on, the excitement of competition, the chance of winning trophies. Clubs like Bury are part of the local culture, they help give the town a focus and to bind people in a common identity. Money isn’t what fans are after. Yet by and large they have been bamboozled into believing that money makes the game function.

Football and capitalism

Of course, the big clubs have fans all over the world. Football has been swept up in capitalism’s globalisation. Nevertheless, a Manchester Utd. fan in Beijing wants essentially the same as one in Salford. The contention they can have it only if football is a business is palpably false. Football as a business doesn’t run for the fans, but for those who make pecuniary gain. The notion that the fans are akin, say, to customers in a restaurant is misleading: a diner expresses no particular loyalty. They consume a product. Fans do something different: they make an emotional investment in their club’s fate.

It is this element of emotional investment which is exploited. The investment is in the game, the sport. What makes sport function is rules. Playing by the rules tests skill, discipline and determination. Which is why taking sport seriously means not cheating.  Finney and Matthews were gentlemen players. They didn’t pull shirts or engage in “professional fouls”. The latter concept is indicative: when money is at stake, cheating is acceptable. Winning domestic trophies which grant access to European competitions brings big money. If a player can be stopped scoring by shirt-pulling or tripping, managers, directors, owners, media moguls are in favour. Fans of the offending team, corrupted  by the culture, are too; but fans of the team offended against appeal to the rules. Such is the interface between sport and capitalism.

AD 6

When Jimmy Guthrie evoked a “Victorian business ethic” he hit the nail on the head. Not in castigating the backward nature of the ethos, but in recognising he was involved in a business. Businesses normally try to keep wages down. The defining factor of business is the relation between employee and employer. The employer’s advantage is the employee’s disadvantage.

When the FA capped players’ wages it was treating them as employees. Once the cap was lifted (ironically because of the TUC involvement) their status was transformed: they became stars in the capitalist firmament. Finney and Matthews were stars of the game, but not icons of capitalism. It is this cynical manipulation of the diversions of the masses to grant legitimacy to capitalist inequality which is the important matter.

Football as an amateur game of working men, prior to the incursion of business, created a space which belonged to the men themselves. The mine might buy their work fifty or sixty hours a week, but on the field they were free men. This capacity to escape the ethos of capitalism in their pleasures is what capitalism had to seize and exploit, otherwise it might have become a counter-culture.

Football turns its players into capitalists, against the interests of the fans. The notion that elevating a tiny number of working-class kids into the oligarchy is any form of liberation or even opportunity is perverse: millions remain in poverty, many get by. Liberation and opportunity for the very few is no liberation or opportunity at all.

Propaganda and diversion

There are two ways capitalism keeps the masses in thrall: propaganda and diversion. It has both down to a fine art, truly marvellous in its effectiveness. Of course, the semblance of democracy requires that propaganda be veiled and diversion be seen as choice. The view is very old that the meddlesome and ignorant masses should be shut out of decision-making. Orwell remarked in the suppressed preface to Animal Farm which was brought to light in 1972: “the sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary”. The way it works, he observed, is that the culture tacitly enforces what is “not done”. He provides the amusing analogy of the Victorian prohibition of mentioning trousers in the presence of a lady; it wasn’t imposed by law but by cultural pressure.

Thought control in contemporary Britain works in the same way. There is no law against discussing democracy in the workplace, it just isn’t done. No one knocks on your door at three in the morning if you argue that a minimum wage suggests a maximum. You don’t get poisoned by secret agents for pointing out that private schools still furnish the boys (and a few girls) who run the Establishment – but all these things just aren’t done, at least in the polite society of the Daily Telegraph, the Mail, the Express, the Sun, the Times, Sky News and most BBC broadcasting.

AD6

 There is lively debate, but within very narrow limits, and whatever exceeds them is not reported. As Orwell put it: “A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the high-brow periodicals.” That ought to be enough to keep the masses in their place, but there’s always the chance that if they aren’t distracted, they might start attending to voices they shouldn’t hear.

They used to. Working-class “self-improvement” in the nineteenth century saw miners, dockers, steel workers, railway workers assembling home libraries of classics. The Mechanics’ Institutes encouraged working folk to find out and think for themselves. Working men and women read Pliny, Milton, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Diderot, Thomas Paine. Naturally, this had to stop. The masses had to be fed a superficial culture of diversion to keep them from concentrating on what is important.

No need to think!

The irony is that as the population has become more educated, the culture of stupefaction has become more permeating. The education system assists by reducing education to exam-passing. Thinking is more or less unnecessary. The culture of football is part of this: the fans can’t be permitted to own and run the clubs; they are the ignorant and meddlesome masses of the game. Their role is to pay up, pass through the turnstiles, chant and cheer. But the clubs they support are no longer sports clubs, but businesses. Playing the game is much less important than winning because winning means money.

Sport is not an escape from the system, it is immersed in it. Nostalgically, Finney is viewed as a gentleman player, who never fouled and insisted on playing by the rules. It’s hard to imagine that being accepted today. Along with the professional foul comes the primadonna performance to try to win unfair free kicks or penalties. There is too much money at stake to be a gentleman.

AD8

A scam has been perpetrated on the fans. Their game has been stolen from them. It belongs to Russian oligarchs, Middle Eastern oil magnates and media tycoons and it is run entirely in the interests of money. The claim, of course, is this is what the fans want. Just as the propaganda system claims the people freely choose (having been told every day that any other choice will bring plagues of frogs and thunderbolts), so the system of diversion perpetuates the fiction that the fans get what they want.

In fact, the fans have never been seriously involved in decision-making. Just as in the culture at large, decisions are made by people with money. The fans stay loyal to their clubs and their game, just as the people keep faith with democracy, but all the while, what they believe in is being taken from them in the interests of the rich and powerful.

What is at work here is the clash of innocence and cynicism. Sport needs to be re-enchanted by being taken out of the hands of capitalists and put into the hands of those it delights, charms and inspires. What rational, democratic argument is there against fans owning and running football clubs? Perhaps if they did the people of Bury would still have a team to support. As it is, the coronavirus pandemic may see clubs fail. Smaller clubs, that is. Clubs with less money. Creating a blueprint for the future of the game would be a mistake, as blueprints for the future always are. What’s required is principle. The essence is democratisation of “the economy”, as the pundits like to call it, as if it’s a thing rather than a set of relationships. This is no small matter.

AD7 city of liverpool fc fans

There is a heartening example, however, in the so-called “Preston Model”. The City Council, inspired by the American Democracy Collaborative and its success in establishing co-operative enterprises, has set up “anchor institutions” who pledge to keep as much of their spending as possible local. Under the leadership of Matt Brown, erstwhile Cabinet Member for equalities, the Council is now incubating a community bank and getting several co-ops off the ground.

Football clubs could be ideal anchor institutions: they are rooted in the community and have substantial budgets. That could be the first step in transforming them into fan-owned and administered, democratic co-operatives. Legislation could require clubs where fans put forward a plan for a takeover to engage seriously. An independent body could adjudicate and if the plan is viable and supported by a majority, a hand over required. Would that entail compensation for the billionaire owners? Maybe in part, but that could be legislated for too: as they have gambled in the casino that the game has become, shouldn’t they be expected to carry some losses? We need cultural democracy in football.

It's a racket

If football didn’t exist and it was your remit to get it established, would you set up something like today’s football league? Would you want a sumptuously rich upper league dominated by a few out-of-the-world wealthy clubs or would you want a people’s game, a game for the fans, a game the common folk can call their own? Football is popular because it’s a simple, beautiful game. To watch Finney, Matthews, Best, was to witness poetry in motion. Capitalism has turned this lovely common pleasure into a money-scam and its practitioners into capitalists in football shirts. The message they send to the fans is that huge disparities of wealth are normal, rather than a sign of a culture gone badly wrong.

Sadio Mané sets a good example, but what matters is never individual acts of generosity alone, but the nature of institutions. We create our institutions and they, in turn, create us. The ideologues of capitalism are very clever. They have worked hard to establish a culture of out-of-kilter rewards for a tiny minority, a culture which helps enforce poverty on millions, some of them football fans who can’t afford a season ticket.

To end where we began, with Preston North End. Its highest-paid player today is Scott Sinclair on £23,000 a week. That’s a little less than the annual average salary for Prestonians. PNE’s annual wage bill is £9,588,800 for a squad of 43. The annual total for 43 people on the average wage would be approximately £1,400,000. The average, of course, conceals that many are below it, especially when its distorted by huge earnings by a few. When Finney was at Preston, he didn’t come anywhere near earning in a week what the average worker earned in a year. The elaboration of football as a business hasn’t improved it as a game but what it has done is to permit the game to be used as a defence of radical inequality. Who would ever have thought having a bit of fun kicking a pig’s bladder could lead to such a bizarre outcome?  

Capitalists with guitars: the Beatles, celebrity culture and social inequality
Sunday, 20 September 2020 09:46

Capitalists with guitars: the Beatles, celebrity culture and social inequality

Published in Music

Alan Dent argues that the Beatles' success shows how pop culture entrenches inequality in capitalist societies

It’s widely accepted that the Beatles are one of the most successful international pop bands, if not the most successful. It ought to be possible, by studying the phenomenon they were, to grasp the nature and meaning of their success. It might be argued this was essentially musical: they could play music, of a kind, to a degree and as Ringo Starr succinctly commented: “People liked the Beatles.” Perhaps Starr could have refined his comments a little – mostly young people liked them, and in particular young girls.

Prior to their commercial success from 1962, the market for pop was well established. It was aimed specifically at teenage girls. Cliff Richard, for example, was known to be more popular among girls than boys by some measure. Footage of the Beatles’ performances is enough to confirm that their fans were substantially female. That’s not to dismiss their significant male following, but the screaming, hysterical (or perhaps pseudo-hysterical) girls clearly made up the majority of their fans. Their complaints that they couldn’t hear themselves play weren’t generated by screeching boys.

It’s a commonplace that pop music is listened through, rather than to. Group identification plays, so the argument goes, a greater role than musical appreciation. That’s not to say fans didn’t like the Beatles’ songs. The melodies were catchy and the lyrics had an easy charm to the teenage ear. Yet it’s obvious the girls who worked themselves into a frenzy weren’t listening for chord changes or subtle harmonies. The group’s early songs were designed to appeal to this market. Though Lennon might later sing Give Peace A Chance, he wouldn’t have become a world-famous multi-millionaire if he’d begun with that kind of material in Hamburg and the Cavern. In its earliest manifestation, at least, the Beatles was a money-making venture, properly speaking, a business.

The backing of big business          

Their success, it seems reasonable to argue, wasn’t driven by the musical appreciation of their fans. They were more of a sociological than a musical phenomenon. They were four working-class youngsters from Liverpool who liked playing rock music, but they weren’t innocent of vaulting ambition, for all their irreverence and charm. The evidence suggests they set out to become rich. In order to do so they needed the backing of big business. Had they decided to play jazz, talent permitting, as McCartney’s father did, they wouldn’t have secured a contract with EMI or the services of George Martin.

Their ambition didn’t come from nowhere. They were complying with the norms of their culture (even if Lennon, to some extent, rebelled against them later). The norms of capitalism teach the doctrine of personal enrichment. Their huge fortunes didn’t accrue accidentally. They were turned into a product by the capitalists who saw the potential for sales. Epstein dressed them in what became almost uniforms. The putatively rebellious Lennon said he would wear a balloon if he was paid for it. The scruffy jeans and the on-stage smoking and swearing had to be set aside to conquer the market.

This has nothing to do with music. Rather, the music was a conduit, a way into the heads of million of teenagers with a bit of disposable income. Clever capitalists recognised that the combination of apparently sweet love songs (while Lennon was crooning I Wanna Hold Your Hand or I Feel Fine he was engaging in partner-bashing and Starr described himself as “a drunk, a wife-beater and an absentee father”) Liverpudlian charm and the teenage need for belonging could be a remarkable profit-generator. Effectively, the executives at EMI turned the musicians into capitalists with guitars and a drum kit.

This is straightforward on one level, but its implications are more subtle. If capitalism is to be challenged, its inequality has to be seen as unfair: a system in which a small number of people make a large amount of money from a large number of people. The naturalisation of the wealth of the few has to be exposed. The common people have long been amenable to arguments about the undeserving rich: we work hard and can barely manage from week to week while they reap the profits of our effort.

In the early days of capitalism, when the capitalist was a known figure rather than a faceless cohort of shareholders, it was easier to make a connection between the reduced circumstances of the many and the lavish lives of the few. Capitalism’s problem has been to justify its radical inequality. Its principal means has been the myth of the independent entrepreneur, the “self-made man”, the “captain of industry” without whom none of us could engage in productive work.

Marx demystifies this in the first volume of Capital: “A capitalist is not a capitalist because he’s a commander in industry; he’s a commander in industry because he’s a capitalist; command in industry is an attribute of capital, just as, in feudal times, command in war and a seat on the judge’s bench were attributes of landed property.” This gets things in their right order. Capital may buy talent, but it’s capital which provides the means to control. Talent without capital has no power to command.

Capitalism’s doctrinal system needs a justification for inequality most people will accept more or less unthinkingly. Celebrity culture provides it. The Beatles are emblematic. Not only super-rich, they also became inordinately famous. Their fame was positive. Not all fame, of course is: Hitler and Stalin are very famous but not widely loved. Shakespeare is one of the world’s most famous figures, and is viewed principally positively. Trump is one of today’s most famous men, yet many disdain him. The trick is to combine huge wealth, inordinate fame and almost universal popularity. What flows from this is that the celebrities are defined as the people’s choice. They take on a democratic hue. No one was forced to buy a Beatles record. Peer pressure did its work, but the system could rightly claim teenagers flocked to the record shops of their own free will.

Not only that, but the musicians were objects of adulation. Coming from the common people in a working-class city, they were perfect material for transformation. Harrison’s father was a municipal bus driver. McCartney grew up in a council house, and Starr came from Dingle, one of the most deprived parts of Liverpool. He also suffered what has been called Dickensian misfortune: peritonitis after a childhood appendectomy, later tuberculosis, and a long spell in hospital which seriously disrupted his education.

Lennon was raised in more middle-class surroundings. In spite of his self-description as a “working-class hero” the Woolton where he lived is very well-heeled. Houses on Menlove Avenue sell for well over £300,000 and there is one for sale currently (summer 2020) at £735,000. That may sound relatively modest in London and south-east terms, but it is very posh for Liverpool. You can buy a terrace in Starr’s Dingle for £70,000 and the average is around £100,000. Lennon wasn’t materially but emotionally deprived.

All the same, the Beatles exuded ordinariness. Though Lennon had been to art college (from which he either dropped out, or was expelled, or possibly a combination, the evidence isn’t conclusive) none had been to university or studied A Levels. They appeared to be like the majority of youngsters at the time, leaving school at fifteen or sixteen – though preparation began in 1964 with Wilson’s first victory, and many secondary schools encouraged their more academic pupils to stay on to take O Levels or CSEs, the leaving age wasn’t raised to sixteen till September 1972.

Most youngsters at the time had to limit their horizons: finding whatever work you could and hoping you could stay in a job was the norm. Boys would try for apprenticeships which would provide a trade, or go into office jobs, or the merchant navy; girls might go into nursing, hairdressing, secretarial or shop work. Lennon, the oldest, was born on 9th October 1940 and Harrison, the youngest, on 25th February 1943. They could have left school between 1955 and 1959. At that time, eighty per cent of young people were in secondary modern schools. The grammar schools prepared the fortunate 20% of the population for university and the professions. The rest had to take what they could find.

Big profits from people just like us

Yet the Beatles were not at all like the majority of their contemporaries. Lennon, McCartney and Harrison passed the 11-plus. Starr failed, perhaps due to his absence through illness. So three of them were in the top 20%. What provoked their leaving school early wasn’t lack of ambition, but surfeit. They didn’t leave, like most kids, because they had no option, and to survive as they could in the employment market, but because they were drawn to popular music and saw it as a way to money and fame. Their ordinariness was partly authentic, they weren’t toffs – but it was also substantially manufactured, part of the product the Beatles quickly became when capitalists saw the chance of big profits.

Commodification 2 300x166

The ordinariness of the group permitted an easy identification. Fans could see them as “just like us”. For the boys, the minority, this meant vicarious participation in an ostensibly easy-going, fun-loving, uncomplicated culture; for the girls, the musicians might have been their boyfriends – without, of course, the potentially tiresome and restraining effects of real partners. 

For most people, employment means years of hard work on modest wages which permit a mortgage or rent to be paid: the kind of life Harrison’s father knew as a bus driver. There are no chances of overnight fortune short of winning the pools (in those days) or the lottery. Life is not glamorous or exciting: it’s routine. Capitalism, as we always hear from the “business” lobby, needs stability. The Beatles represented the opposite: sudden success, fame and wealth, glamour, interest, every day different.

Or so it seemed. That was the image the fans must respond to, for by so doing they were engaging in the fantasy on which the enterprise floated. George Harrison is reputed to have remarked about his days as a Beatle: “No one should be forced to live like that.” The image wasn’t supposed to entail the musicians being forced to do anything, nor that their life was unpleasant. Harrison was letting the mask slip: they were a product and were no more in control than a decapitated chicken on a production line.

The identification made by the fans played a crucial psychic and doctrinal role: these are your celebrities, you admire them. In the case of the young girls, you love them – throwing knickers at pop stars and offering themselves as “groupies” was common among young girls. You have chosen them of your own free will; they are rich; thus you not only accept the existence of the rich, you fawn before them; you adulate them; you want to have sex with them; you chase them down the street; you get into a frenzy over them; you set them on a different plane to that of all other people.

Young girls and boys rarely screamed at, got into a frenzy over or copied the style of factory owners, directors, shareholders, bosses. But by doing so in relation to pop stars, they were subtly inveigled into accepting that huge disparities of wealth are not only to be tolerated but enthused over. If the category “the rich” contains only aristocrats, toffs, conventional capitalists, there is an inevitable gap between them and the common folk. Celebrities bridge that gap and by so doing valorise inordinate wealth. Further, the category “the rich”, conceived politically, can exclude some of the wealthiest people on the planet.

The socialist poet Adrian Mitchell was a lifelong enemy of “the rich” but an adulatory fan of The Beatles. Somehow, they escaped opprobrium, despite being far richer than many of the capitalists that Mitchell disdained. This is not to be invidious about Mitchell. His attitude was representative. Capitalist culture has appropriated the common people’s desire for relief from the boredom of its routines, created celebrities for them to identify with, made those celebrities fabulously wealthy and sited them in an apparently glamorous world, in order to defeat well-placed resentment over the grossly unequal distribution of what is produced by collective effort.

Even convinced, self-conscious, socialists, it seems, accept a culture in which pop stars, actors, footballers, celebrity writers and people who are famous for being famous should earn more in a week than most people earn per year. This is an astonishing success of the doctrinal system, for the obvious reason that socialism is grounded in equality and wealth buys power. Not only is socialism spavined by huge wealth, democracy is, whether that wealth is in the hands of a drummer or a CEO.

That this phenomenon took off in the arena of music is interesting. Everybody, almost, likes a nice tune. Some people, it seems, have a poor response to melodies, but they are a small minority. Melody has the power to charm. Aaron Copeland in his little book What To Listen For In Music suggests melody is the only aspect of music that can’t be taught. Being able to write good melodies is, apparently, a matter of pure talent. Melody is a kind of magic. In serious music it plays an important but not a dominating role. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is much more than its famous melody. In pop music, there is little but melody. The architecture of a pop song is minimal. The idea is to get the “ear worm” installed. Millions then want access, on the Dansette in the early days, on an iphone today, and will hand over their bit of money which makes not just the performers but the executives handsome fortunes. Simple melodies are the royal road to huge wealth.

People like stories too. Hence the spread of this celebrity culture to the literary world. J.K.Rowling elaborated a universe children could identify with. Wizardry, like the putative glamour of the pop world, offers escape from the dullness of life in the classroom. It isn’t accidental that the essential setting of the books is a school. Like the Beatles, she had a struggle to get going. Brian Epstein was told guitar bands were passé. But once the commercial possibilities hoved into view, the marketing became fierce. Just as fans didn’t listen to The Beatles’ music so much as through it, so fans don’t respond to Rowling’s writing, rather they read through it. She’s a mediocre writer, almost incapable of producing a surprising sentence.

A shilling for a single would have been enough

How can you argue against her wealth? No one was forced to buy her books. She’s rich because people wanted what she produced and were willing to pay for it. There you have the perfect defence of capitalism and its rank inequality. The arguments, in fact, are easy: the price of Beatles records, once they were selling millions, could have been reduced to virtually nothing and they could still have made handsome livings. The more you produce of anything, the lower its unit cost. The price was set at a level to ensure fabulous fortunes. Kids in the mid-’60s queued to hand over seven and six for a single which, sold for a shilling, would still have turned a good profit. Capitalism is searching for big, easy markets. When it finds them, it sets prices at a level the market will bear, but which will provide maximum returns. Ten shillings for a Beatles single might have pushed down sales just far enough to diminish profits.

Pop-star and celebrity culture has elaborated a bulwark against arguments for equality. It works very well – George Best deserved to be rich because he was supremely talented and people paid voluntarily for the pleasure of watching him. Watching him was, of course, a pleasure for sports fans and they were willing to pay: but in reality they have no choice. The ticket prices are beyond their control. As punters, they pay or miss out. Of course, ticket prices for Premiership football games could be a tenth of what they are, and the players could still live well. What looks inevitable, what is passed off as natural, is a contrived system whose purpose is the creation of a super-rich elite, because that serves the needs of capitalism.

A cadre of rich celebrities the common folk identify with is the way capitalism sells people their disappointment, in the form of dreams. In addition, there is the simple confounding of wealthy celebs and wealthy capitalists. It’s to be noted that capitalists now behave like celebs. This conflation robs the people of their anger at injustice and strips them of the arguments for equality. V-neck capitalism, that of Richard Branson dressed down on the TV as if he’s the bloke next door, picks up on pop culture and reverses the effect. Pop culture says that these are your loved and admired celebs and they are fabulously wealthy – therefore you must accept a culture of gross inequality or you can’t have them.

By implication, you accept the astronomical wealth of Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and so on. Corporate culture says look at us, we’re just like the celebs you love and admire, we dress like them, talk like them, live glamorous lives like them. The mill or mine owner wasn’t a figure the poor weaver or miner could easily identify with – but the modern capitalist is assimilated to the status of a rock star or Hollywood actor.

Challenging the system

There has always been, of course, the odd and disappointing phenomenon of Gramsci’s class hegemony. The working poor of Victorian Britain tried to make their homes look like those of the middle classes – but the transformation brought about by pop culture is of a different kind and on a different scale. It’s a sociological phenomenon with important psychic implications. But the very working people of Victorian Britain who tried to emulate those further up the social scale also built an opposition movement. By creating trade unions, funded by small contributions from millions of workers, the common people discovered a capacity for self-realisation in defiance of the ruling culture. While John Bright was extolling free trade, working men and women were defying the system’s definition of them as mere labour costs. They were asserting not only their determination to get the best price for their labour but their humanity – and in doing so, they challenged the system’s rule by money. As they didn’t have much, they had to find some other value. They relished solidarity and in contradistinction to capitalism’s doctrinal system, elaborated the basis of a socialist movement whose aim was the re-socialisation of what was socially generated but privately appropriated.

After the Second World War, capitalism had to respond to more money being in the pockets of the many. It did so by accelerating the consumerism Daniel Defoe had recognised as entrenched in the system. Consumerism, though, isn’t enough. It contains a risk to the system: why shouldn’t the money in the (often offshore) bank accounts of the rich be in the pockets of the majority, then they can spend it on furniture, cars, clothes, beer, hairdos, holidays and keep the economic wheels turning? Clever but unscrupulous people recognised a psychic identification with the system was necessary to keep it safe. Provided by patriotism, adulation of the Royal Family and a simmering xenophobia, the old identification was under threat from a generation which, liberated to some degree from the want of the 1930s, looked like it might break down barriers.

The period in which the Beatles rose to fame and wealth was one of questioning. Behind the flummery of the 1960s, there was a genuine attempt to challenge and to refuse glib answers. Imagine they hadn’t been appropriated by capitalism, that they’d remained a rock band playing pubs and clubs, with a good following and able to make a living – wearing jeans, leather jackets, smoking and swearing on stage, and coming from a Labour city. A free-floating culture of popular bands unhitched from the commercial market had the potential for subversion; and had they been turned down by the system, their disaffection might have given elan to the Labourism they absorbed from their culture.

It was a work of genius to turn them into a product, simultaneously out of reach yet to be intimately identified with. Naturally, they were more than willing, as fame and wealth were their aim, as the culture teaches. Yet they discovered the nasty nature of what they were part of, as Harrison’s remark quoted above, Starr’s descent into alcoholism (“I lost years” he said) and Lennon’s heroin addiction suggest.

Celebrity culture now permeates. It is an enormous success. Working people once educated themselves (as Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes reveals); their homes had little libraries of classic texts. Today they have enormous TV screens on their walls (to watch celebs) and books from the 3 for 2 table in Waterstones, mostly commercial trash which makes rich, celebrity writers. Legitimate anger at injustice and the determination to act against it are diluted in this solution of mindless absorption. Above all, the circle is complete: these are your celebs, they are filthy rich, therefore you accept a society of debilitating inequality in which power can be bought and democracy is mocked.

By and large, the Left hasn’t found a way to talk about this. It’s outside classical Marxist theory. Celebs aren’t a “ruling class”. They aren’t even capitalists, strictly speaking. Yet McCartney, according to the media, is worth some £500 million. The Left has to make the connection between that and the poverty that blights lives in Liverpool or we will never shift opinion in favour of a radical transformation of our economic and social arrangements.

The Things Our Hands Once Stood For: Introduction and Review
Friday, 03 August 2018 18:47

The Things Our Hands Once Stood For: Introduction and Review

Published in Poetry

 Alan Dent introduces and reviews the recent collection of poems about work by Martin Hayes.

From Chaucer to the present day, hardly any poetry in English is about work. Most of it has been written by men from the higher reaches of society. Chaucer’s father married Agnes Copton who inherited twenty-four shops, as well as other property. Chaucer himself worked for the Countess of Ulster, and one of his relatives was a moneyer.

Dunbar worked for King James, who paid him a pension estimated at about eighty pounds Scottish, a handsome amount. Edmund Spenser was educated at Merchant Taylor’s, London and Pembroke, Cambridge. He served Baron Grey, owned land in the Munster Plantation and by his thirties he also owned an estate at Kilcolman.

John Donne’s father died when he was four. A few months later, his mother married the wealthy Dr John Syminges. Donne was privately educated, studied at Hart Hall, Oxford, and later at Cambridge.

Keats’s father was a hostler, but he rose to manage the inn where he worked. At nineteen, Keats received two bequests: one from his grandfather worth £800 and £8,000 from his mother’s legacy. A total of some £550,000, at today’s values.

There are exceptions, but by definition they are rare. Most of our poetry has been written by people who have not needed to work, have inherited wealth or have been paid very well. The harsh fact of employment as the means of a roof and food, and poverty or destitution being only one or two wage packets away, has been very distant from most of our poets.

By contrast, Martin Hayes writes principally about employment. Even these days it is almost a taboo topic. The legacy of the Romantics permeates contemporary poetry. The requirement to display a superior, exquisite sensibility bubbles away in the background of most poets’ work. This generates what Miroslav Holub identified as a widespread failing – too much subjectivity, too much toothache.

Employment is a demeaning subject because employment is demeaning. As Hayes puts it:

we help these corporations exist

as our 83 year old mothers have to fill out 28 page forms

to see if they qualify for meals on wheels…

If part of your motivation in writing, conscious or otherwise, is to prove your superiority of response, why write from the point of view of an employee? An employee is by definition inferior. An employee is subject to an employer’s contract. An employee must comply. An employee is a supplicant. An employee must please the employer, or face being demoted, thwarted or sacked. An employee must define himself or herself by promotion, remuneration, position in the hierarchy. An employee’s identity is in the hands of an employer.

Like his American friend Fred Voss, Martin Hayes works for a living. He writes from the employee’s perspective:

a man I work with

cries every time it gets too busy...       

He works in the London courier industry, which is one of those modern, cut-throat operations ripe for zero-hours contracts and the intrusions of the so-called “gig economy”. The phrase is a terrible misnomer – it ought to be called the “you-get-shafted economy”.

Hayes is a husband, a father, a son, a nephew, a cousin, a friend, but none of these categories can be permitted to define our identities. Our economic system requires people to define themselves as ‘hands’, as employees. A good husband, wife, father, brother, son, daughter or friend is a failure if they don’t have a job, status and pay. It is against this tyranny – and it is nothing less – that Hayes’s poetry protests.

His style is demotic. Arguably the greatest exponent of demotic style employed for high-minded ends in English is Joe Orton, who once remarked that he came from the gutter and wasn’t going to forget it. Literature isn’t supposed to come from the gutter. The first working-class writer in English was Lawrence, and it is little wonder that he was snobbishly dismissed as a heretic.

Hayes, like Lawrence and Orton, is speaking for those whose lives are supposed to be not worth speaking about. Lawrence once observed that as much happens to working people as anyone else. He knew it from experience, but our culture denies it. Life happens to the rich and powerful, politicians, celebrities, magnates, pop stars with private jets, footballers with glamorous wives, and dubious businessmen with private islands. The rest become an indistinguishable mass whose experience is worthless. Only by identifying with money and power do their lives gain any significance.

Hayes is intent on revealing the significance of the lives of employees, but it isn’t a pretty picture:

the controllers come in on Monday mornings

full of stories about imaginary women…

Like the employees, his poems tell stories too. Usually they are stories of the stupidity of management, impossible working conditions, unattainable deadlines or targets, exhaustion, boredom, frustration, waiting for the salary that will barely get you through the next month, depletion, breakdown, the empty boasting and fighting upwards of humiliated workers like Ronnie, who wears a t-shirt bearing the slogan:

WARNING

Madman On Duty

The photographs that accompany the poems complement them perfectly, unflinchingly conveying and criticising the realities of working life. Nearly all of the poetry books produced by the Culture Matters imprint show the publisher’s fidelity to William Blake, the inspiration for their website, in the way they combine text with meaningful images. Here, the grainy photographs, often murky, gritty and gloomy like the world of the poems, vividly express the alienation, poverty and broken-down environment in which those ‘hands’ work, creating riches for others.

When he moves from the workplace to the domestic sphere, the prospect hardly improves. Browbeaten and diminished at work, men and women have little energy, confidence or relaxation to make their intimate relations rich. This is the world of Christopher Lasch’s Haven In A Heartless World, the ironic title of his study of the way the ethos of the kill-or-be-killed workplace has invaded the private sphere, destroying the family and personal relations as an asylum from the dismal alienation of employment.

Kill-or-be-killed may seem exaggerated. People don’t murder one another physically for money or advancement at work, usually – but they do murder one another emotionally and psychologically. Workplaces are snake-pits of back-biting, betrayal, sycophancy, rank-pulling, boredom tolerated in the hope of preferment, where the competition is so vicious because the stakes are so low: 

it’s funny really

how 37 years can seem like a couple of chicken bones in a dog’s mouth

when placed alongside this technology...

says the man being dumped after nearly four decades because he can’t keep up with the machines.

Disillusioned, in the best sense, this is poetry which has no need to be flowery. It is direct and simple because it is uncovering the simple truth behind our culture’s manic, ceaseless, sickly, sentimental excuse-making – the human relation on which our society is based, that between employer and employee, is morally indefensible.

Out of this depressing miasma, Hayes extracts black humour. Many of his poems have a humorous edge. When employees share their experiences, they often find gallows humour, which is why employers, more and more, seek to isolate employees from one another – a distinct advantage, for them, of the you-get-shafted economy. In the humour, lies hope. That is the insight at the heart of these poems.

They rarely say it directly, but they imply, time and again, that work should belong to those who do it. Hayes applies the principle of Occam’s razor – the fewer assumptions the better – and the employer’s approach is full of false assumptions. Hayes is determined to expose every one, and show that those who do the work should control the work and benefit from it.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say the whole of our mainstream culture, the press, television, film, music, radio, schools, the church, every bit of it, conspires to conceal this simple truth. Listen to the politicians, the commentators, the interviewers – isn’t it the case that the problems they endlessly discuss emerge from the same source, the unequal relation of employer to employee?

Employment is one of the main drivers of inequality, because unequal ownership rights are built into employment relations in a capitalist economy. It is the Great Money Trick, which Robert Tressell explained in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, and which Karl Marx theorised as the theory of surplus value.

Along with rents from property, and interest on loans, extracting value from work done by employees is one of the means by which the few become richer than anyone should, while the majority get by and those at the bottom are doomed:

where bookies and pawnshops sit side by side

and we aren’t supposed to get the irony

The means by which people are distracted from thinking about this and doing something about it are legion. Buy the latest gadget, or the new release; see the

latest blockbuster, keep up with the newest fashion; download the app that will cut your toe-nails, but never stop and ask yourself why so many people hate their jobs.

It isn’t work that is hateful, but employment. People like to be active. Work should be our hope. Work should be controlled by those who do it, work that is co-operative and rational, work which enchants rather than depresses. That is the vision that Hayes has glimpsed. People are bamboozled into thinking negative ideas must be shunned, but without criticism there is no ground for moral improvement. Hayes stares hard at the negative of employment and brings into the light a better possibility: 

the best bits were the Friday afternoons

when the storms that poured down onto our screens all day

suddenly became a trickle..

We evolved to move horizontally, which is why our thigh muscles are so strong. We were made for walking and running long distances in search of food, better shelter, and a more propitious environment. Yet our rulers have elaborated a culture where we are pressed to move vertically. The metaphor is “the greasy pole”. Perhaps a complementary one would be the escalator to nowhere.

Employment is the means to rise. We scramble for a place on the escalator, elbow and kick one another out of the way (in the most polite, Home Counties manner, of course) but if you get to the top all you find is the abyss on the other side.

Adam Smith expressed this well. He called the pursuit of private wealth a “delusion”. Unfortunately, it is the delusion on which our society is based. To be deluded is to be insane or virtually insane. What Hayes writes about is the insanity of a society where employers pursue a delusion by using employees as mere conduits to their lunatic enrichment, as mere ‘hands’ to be employed and make money for the employer.

He is the only British poet who writes consistently and seriously about the workplace. Almost all the others ignore it. When current employment relations are consigned to the dustbin of history, and are viewed as we now view slavery, or the feudal relations between lord and vassal, will people wonder why so little was written about it? Perhaps, but maybe they’ll twig that when an entire culture is in denial, ambitious writers are willing to poke out their own eyes.

The Things Our Hands Once Stood For is available here.