The Pornography of Benefits Street; Comments on Classificatory Struggles: Class, Culture and Inequality in Neoliberal Times by Prof Sarah Green
Professor Sarah Green works in Helsinki, having moved from Manchester last August to the faculty of Social Sciences to teach and do research on Social and Cultural Anthropology. Green’s field of study, borders and border dynamics has led her to question old theories on the matter. Green sees borders more as a phenomenon that is in the minds and realities of the people who move and stay put. “I prefer to talk about interfaces rather than borders,” she says.
Here are her comments on Imogen Tyler’s Keynote lecture “Classificatory Struggles: Class, Culture and Inequality in Neoliberal Times” which was given as the Annual Lecture for The Sociological Review on 20 February 2015. She was one of the guest speakers and reflected the importance of the content:
My immediate thoughts after reading Imogen Tyler’s text for this lecture was: of course. It’s obvious, now that you mention it. The pornography of Benefits Street is about blaming the poor, or more accurately, particular individuals who are poor; blaming them for the problems created for them by the rich. We all know, – don’t we? – that the poor continue to be shafted, in full view of the nearest television screen.
Yes, we know. We do. But few mention this obvious and self-evident point; most act as if they didn’t know – which is an act of cynicism, like the one Navaro-Yashin observed in her study of Turkish people’s attitudes towards their always already corrupt governments (Navaro-Yashin 2002).
The practice of statecraft in Turkey, as well as people’s responses to it, Navaro-Yashin says, is about cynicism that never becomes unconscious through constant repetition, as Zizek thinks it does; Navaro-Yashin argues cynicism in this case is a conscious, practical solution to a practical problem. People act as if they didn’t know the state is corrupt because – well, because acting in any other way is likely to land you in trouble.
As Tyler mentioned, everyone, or almost everyone in the UK, is living a more precarious life these days than they used to do. This adds a twist to the famous comment that Upton Sinclair is credited with making many years ago: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Tyler tracks an intensification of that kind of difficulty in people’s lives, that provocation for people to be cynical: the strong sense of precarity that most people feel nowadays makes it sensible, or at least safer, or so it seems, for many to just walk on by, looking anywhere, especially at the television screen, so as to avoid looking at what is staring at them in the face.
Tyler also notes that the effort to remove all the names attached to this obvious shafting – class, inequality, oppression – has been palpable, and as Tyler outlines, for some politicians such as Tony Blair, it was an explicit effort, right in the open, no disguise or hiding needed. Tyler points out that the emperor is wearing no clothes: many would like pretend that he is wearing clothes, to act as if they did not know he is naked; it is easier that way. But she also notes that she is not the only one doing the pointing: there are some people out there, many even, who are holding up signs, in an act of rage, or frustration or a sense of humiliation, trying to get attention, trying to say: this is not a joke; this is not entertainment; this is not a points-wins-prizes situation; this is our lives.
Tyler’s paper implies that in this media-saturated world, it is perhaps a little more difficult than it once was to distinguish television from people’s lives; sometimes, you need signs to tell you, held out for the cameras to see: if it’s on television, it’s real, in a strange inversion of what we all thought, once, was the way to tell the difference. She is right, along with Bev Skeggs, to point to the importance of television, and to the importance of how the relationship between television and the world beyond it has changed.
Quite a few years ago, in the mid-1990s, Marc Augé talked about supermodernity – the word ‘neoliberalism’ was not very popular at the time (Augé 1995). Supermodernity, Augé said, created non-places, places that are the same here as they are somewhere else – McDonalds, airports, motorways, soap operas. He also said, in The War of Dreams, published as long ago as 1999, that the distinction between the media and everyday life has become more complicated. He spoke of:
“a culture dissolving in quotations, copies and plagiarism, of an identity losing itself in images and reflections, of a history which is swallowed up in the here-and-now of a here-and-now which is itself indefinable (modern, postmodern?) because we perceive it only piecemeal, without any organising principle which can enable us to give meaning to the cliches, advertising commercials and commentaries which stand in for our reality.” (Augé 1999: 10).
It is good to remember that in the pre-broadband age, these thoughts about fragmentation were already in the air, so that it was perhaps not the internet that ushered them in, but something else – perhaps it was what Tyler has identified as a kind of unholy alliance between big business, the dream factories of film and television, and governments. And most people got shafted. They really did.
As I was reading Tyler’s text, I couldn’t help thinking about Greece. That’s not only because of the headlines at the moment; it’s also because Greece is one of my places, one of the places in which I have both lived and that I study for my own research. The bizarre turn of events in Greece over the last five or six years appears a bit like a massively exaggerated version of what Tyler has been describing for the UK: poverty pornography on a national scale, a whole frigging country of scroungers and benefits cheats, being treated by the rest of Europe like the single road in Birmingham depicted in Benefits Street.
It’s non-stop entertainment, the story about Greece, with the added value of having larger than life national stereotypes depicted across the screen – the Germans, the French, the bureaucrats in Brussels, the Nordic countries, the Spanish – they’ve all got their bit parts, and everyone can choose the ones they love to hate most.
Thinking about the current situation in Greece through the lens of Tyler’s paper made me think of Russian dolls; it made me think that perhaps the phenomenon she’s describing for the UK is just a miniature version of what is happening in Greece in relation to the whole Eurozone.
The paper challenged me to make that connection, to make me see the relationship between the cynicism and the entertainment in how the media have been reporting the financial crisis. Before listening to Tyler’s account, I had mostly been thinking about how the financial crisis has shifted the moral axis of Europe from the old old War one of West versus East to the neoliberal one of North versus South. Embedded within both those spatial distinctions was always, of course, inequality; there was always an implied moral and economic difference between West and East, and then more recently, between North and South.
Tyler’s lecture provoked me to consider two questions about this. First, how does class struggle work between countries rather than within them? And second, what is the relationship between inequality and location, and how does that relate to the discussion about class? The first question is relatively easy to answer with the help of some post-colonial research, and with more recent research on the dynamics of migration, such as that done by Imogen herself and by Bridget Anderson’s work as described in Us and Them.
Anderson points out that the contemporary story of what makes an upstanding, decent and respectable citizen needs lots of examples of its opposite – the feckless and indecent citizen, who stretches easily from the undeserving poor citizen at one end of the spectrum to the undeserving and undocumented foreign migrant at the other. The moral story is the same: in order to be a moral and upstanding citizen, you need to pay your bills and, perhaps more acutely than at any other time in history, you need to pay for the right to be legitimately standing on a piece of the earth, to be located in one place rather than another.
Just as I was intrigued by the way the financial crisis was initially provoked by sub-prime mortgages, which highlighted how people get pushed into impossible efforts to get a foothold on a place to live, I was intrigued by the fact that the Channel 4 program about benefits cheats was about a street. This was not only people who had misbehaved and refused to be dressed in the appropriate manner in their bodies: they had also messed up their street. It used to be beautiful, now it was a rubbish dump. Literally. There has always been an open secret in the UK about the relation between class and location: north-south England, west-east London, Britain had gated communities way before that phrase existed.
That brings me back to the apparent anachronism of words like class struggle and inequality, the sense that such words are from a different century. On the one hand, Tyler’s argument is that no, these words entirely describe conditions today, and the effort to separate the idea of inequality from the idea of class was all part of the dissembling that has been going on for quite some time now. But she also acknowledges that the kinds of class struggles and inequalities that these words were originally coined to describe have changed: the neoliberal context has generated versions of them that are not the same as the ones that were there before.
So Tyler rightly, in my view, argues that the endless attempts to define class, to classify class, and to make class a matter of identities, is a hiding to nothing, for in those terms, the entity keeps morphing, turning into something else. And in any case, that is beside the point: if you focus on class as identity, you turn it into a cultural artefact, a matter of cultural heritage, even; and that misses the most important point that class-as-inequality and class-as-struggle-against-inequality still very much exists, even if what that means in practice has morphed into something other than what it was when Marx and Engels were writing about it.
The thread I am pulling on here – quite tentatively at the moment – is to suggest that the relationship between what Tyler calls class, inequality and struggle is somehow even more intensely involving territory and real estate than it ever was (though it always was, and Marx of course made a very big deal of that).
In Tyler’s approach, class identifies something structured, rather than personal or individual going on; inequality names the effects of that structuring; and struggle notes that it is not a done deal, that people are fighting against the pressure to accept that the emperor is wearing a shiny new suit. There is contingency; there is always the possibility that it could be different. And I have to say, what is going on now in Greece gives me heart in that respect: a whole government that is struggling, and not just people on the street.
As an aside here, Bourdieu’s complaint against earlier structural approaches that Tyler draws upon was that sociologists were treating models of people’s practices as if they contained a power that was really capable of determining people’s behaviour – whereas Bourdieu insisted that people determine people’s conditions, and that social structures are just conceptual models invented by sociologists. This leaves a space for struggle within the field of practice, as Tyler points out. But it also questions the idea of the determining force of structures.
The point I’m making here, of course, is the question of how class fits into inequality. Bourdieu argued that earlier scholars such as Durkheim and even Lévi-Strauss were mistaking their own models for what determined people’s behaviour, and that this had a doubly bad effect. On the one hand, it missed the point that the world in which people live is an unequal world, that it contains its own structuring structures, that it contains power dynamics that were weirdly not part of these earlier sociologists’ models of social life. And on the other hand, these earlier models apparently dictated how people should behave, which also left no room for struggle.
As Tyler points out, Bourdieu wanted to note that practice, and the implicit contingency of practice – that the outcome is not known in advance, which means there is a space for struggle – was a key part of Bourdieu’s approach. What is slightly less clear is how the inequality that class names fits into the structured part of this story. I’m sure it does, I’m just not sure how. From my own perspective, I have the sense that there is something distinctive about the way the whole debate has played out in recent years, and that this has something to do with territory and location.
Just a couple of other final points. The first one concerns the internet, and its relation to television. Marc Augé also argued, way back in 1999, that the difference between all the ‘virtual worlds’ that anthropologists had already been studying for decades – dream worlds, spirit possession worlds, worlds of the deities and so on – and the worlds created by new media technologies is that there is no connection anymore between what Augé called ‘individual imagination and memory’ and ‘collective imagination and memory’.
He suggests that the other dream worlds that anthropologists have studied for decades are anchored into the world of experience through ‘collective imagination and memory’. It is that which is missing in the new media technologies, he says: there is just the fictional creation, unmediated by some coherent collective context. And that creates the sense of an unstable, isolated self; a self that is unconnected to anything else.
Of course, he was writing before the advent of social media, before the recreation of social connectivity through the internet. And that social media element raises a question: does the social media element of the Internet work in the same way as terrestrial television? Social media possibly, at least for now, has some wiggle room in which people can create their own dream worlds, in which people can much more effectively express the struggle that Tyler notes than they can on television.
If there is one thing I appreciated most about this paper it is the explicitly political character of the approach. That the analysis of class is a political analysis that is concerned with inequality should not be something that anyone needs to point out, but as Tyler outlines, the politics seems to have dropped out of these concepts in recent years. This is important in a wider sense, for this depoliticising effect has occurred across a range of social theories, even while they claim to continue to be political.
For example, we are living in an era of trying to bring hard science back into the social sciences, especially via the analysis of big data and the return to Darwin and a variety of other earlier scientists in some versions of social theory. Tyler’s paper is a timely reminder that many social theories have always had political intent: theories based in natural science never did.
Finally, one tiny question: while I understand the concept of neoliberalism, I have often wondered why some aspects of what is happening today have not been named neoconservatism. Many of the actions that Tyler describes seem very far from liberal to me.
- Augé, Marc. 1995. Non-places: introduction to an anthropology of supermodernity (trans.) John Howe. London: Verso.
- —. 1999. The War of Dreams: Studies in Ethno Fiction (trans.) Liz Heron. London: Pluto Press.
- Bourdieu, Pierre. 2014. “Objectification Objectified.” In Anthropology in theory: issues in epistemology, edited by Henrietta L. Moore and Todd Sanders, 151-162. Second Edition. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell.
- Navaro-Yashin, Yael. 2002. Faces of the state: secularism and public life in Turkey. Princeton, N.J.; Oxford: Princeton University Press.