Why Owen Jones is right. The working classes are demonised… By his class

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 2.00pm

The West has many words for them. The American “limosuine liberal”, the German “salonkommunist”, the French “gauche caviar”, the Italian “Radical chic”, the Danish “kysbanesocialist”, and the Swedish “Rodvinsvanster”.

The rich English language has even more; from “Hampstead hippies” to the “chattering classes”, from “Bollinger Bolsheviks” to the “Islington massive”. Most famously of all perhaps is “Champagne Socialist” a term with its roots planted firmly in Herzen, who wrote of the poor “dying of cold and hunger… while you and I in our rooms… are chatting about socialism over pastry and champagne”.

The debate on how, why and when this happened is for another place and another time. Suffice it to say that it revolves around the “Frankfurt School’s” success in the post-war period in capturing the commanding heights, the citadels of culture and academia instead of politics and revolutions, and shaping society’s values. 

I would dispute the fact Socialism ever had a working-class core in the first place however. The French Revolution had its engine rooms in salons full of the well-to-do, not on the backstreets with sans-culottes. The Marxist Revolution was fathered by academics and industrialists, not workers. Its dogmas have only gained traction amongst the working classes when it has been in the interests of the bourgeois to persuade, bribe or coerce them from above. The ratio of roots-up working-class socialist movements compared to top-down equivalents has always been pitifully lopsided. 

Marxism’s two major constituencies are nihilists and idealists. Indeed, though you might find pessimistic and optimistic working men, nihilism and idealism are forms of distortion only the indulgence of an education can afford. And education, in spite of all efforts, remains the key definitive quality that forms the border marches of working and middle class identities. A fact poignantly illustrated by David Starkey in an intimate interview he gave for the Guardian in which he revealed that the typical working class parents’ mindset was enshrined in the phrase “you educate ‘em, you lose ‘em”. 

Parents have lost them nonetheless. Lost them to an education system that is experimenting with socialist concepts the bourgeoisie framed and are now toying with. If “lions led by donkeys” was a popular leftist motif for the behaviour of generals in the first world war, it is one that would accurately describe our education system today in which all the historically conservative foibles of the working-classes have been stamped into the dirt. Its patriotism patronised as racist, its royalism denigrated as quaint, its love of cohesive community decried as tribalistic, its liberality denounced as animalism, and its respect for authority scoffed at as infantile.

Owen Jones, a man loudly ashamed of his bourgeois background, made a name for himself last year by informing us of a process involving the “demonisation of the working classes”. A brave book by any standards for a man who belongs to the class who seem to have done precisely that. 

The solution to this sad tale lies in the conservative party embracing a One Nation Toryism best embodied by men such as Iain Duncan Smith, who, instead of aping the worst aspects of the metropolitan left which takes the underclass vote as a given for its want of proper alternatives, actually takes our compatriots’ concerns seriously. This would be both the morally right thing to do and a politically astute decision, staying on message, detoxifying the brand, whilst gaining a whole new constituency.

People desire, at the very least, shades of fidelity between thought and action, ideals and deeds. But the piquant notes tucked away in these neatly coined phrases reveal more than just frustration with inconsistency. The nugget of injustice the terms are swiping at is the fact the middle-classes, loaded with bourgeois sensibilities, are perceived to have hijacked a theory that claimed the working-classes and history had each found redemption in the other.