Fruit Stall off Brick Lane Photo: Garry Knight
Literally, he paints her portrait, then he can fuck off — he can leave. When Leonardo DiCaprio is freezing in water, she notices that he’s dead, and starts to shout, ‘I will never let you go,’ but while she is shouting this, she is pushing him away. It’s not even a love story. Again, Captains Courageous: upper classes lose their life, passion, vitality and act like a vampire to suck vitality from a lower-class guy. Once they replenish their energy, he can fuck off.
— Slavoj Zizek on Titanic
London’s middle class are in crisis — they feel empty and clamor for vitality. Their work is alienating and meaningless, many of them in “bullshit jobs” that are either socially useless, overly bureaucratic or divorced from any traditional notion of labor.
Financial services exist to grow the fortunes of capitalists, advertising to exploit our insecurities and public relations to manage the reputations of companies that do wrong. Society would not collapse without these industries. We could cope without the nexus of lobbyists, corporate lawyers and big firm accountants whose sole purpose is to protect the interests of capital. How empty if must feel to work a job that could be abolished tomorrow. One that at best makes no tangible difference to society and at worst encourages poverty, hunger and ecological collapse.
At the same time our doctors, teachers, university professors, architects, lawyers, solicitors and probation officers are rendered impotent. Desperate to just do their jobs yet besieged by bureaucracy and box-ticking. Their energies are focused not on helping the sick, teaching the young or building hospitals but on creating and maintaining the trail of paperwork that is a prerequisite of any meaningful action in late capitalist society. Talk to anybody in these professions, from the public or private sector, and the frustration that comes up again and again is that they spend the majority of their time writing reports, filling in forms and navigating bureaucratic labyrinths that serve only to justify themselves.
This inaction hurts the middle-class man. He feels impotent in the blue glare of his computer screen. Unable to do anything useful, alienated from physical labor and plagued by the knowledge that his father could use his hands, and the lower classes still do. Escape, however, is impossible. Ever since the advent of the smartphone the traditional working day has been abolished. Office workers are at the constant mercy of email, a culture of overwork and a digitalization of work. Your job can be done anytime, anywhere and this is exactly what capital demands. Refuge can only be found in sleep, another domain which capital is determined to control.
And when the middle classes are awake and working, they cannot even show contempt for their jobs. Affective (or emotional) labor has always been a part of nursing and prostitution, be it fluffing pillows or faking orgasms, but now it has infected both the shop floor of corporate consumer chains and the offices of middle-management above. Staff working at Pret-à-Manger are encouraged to touch each other, “have presence” and “be happy to be themselves.” In the same way the open plan, hyper-extroverted modern office environment enforces positivity. Offering a systemic critique of the very nature of your work does not make you a ‘team player.’ In such an environment, bringing up the pointlessness of your job is akin to taking a shit on the boss’s desk.
This culture is symptomatic of neoliberal contradiction, one which tells us to be true to ourselves and follow our passions in a system that makes it nearly impossible to do so. A system where we work longer hours, for less money and are taught to consume instead of create. Where fulfilling vocations such as teaching, caring or the arts are either vilified, badly paid or not paid at all. Where the only work that will enable you to have a comfortable life is meaningless, bureaucratic or evil. In such a system you are left with only one option: to embrace the myth that your job is your passion while on a deeper level recognizing that it is actually bullshit.
This is London’s middle class crisis.
But thankfully capital has an antidote. Just as in Titanic, when Kate Winslet saps the life from the visceral, working class Leonardo DiCaprio, middle-class Londoners flock to bars and clubs that sell a pre-packaged, commodified experience of working class and immigrant culture. Pitched as a way to re-connect with reality, experience life on the edge and escape the bureaucratic, meaningless, alienated dissonance that pervades their working lives.
The problem, however, is that the symbols, aesthetics and identities that populate these experiences have been ripped from their original contexts and re-positioned in a way that is acceptable to the middle class. In the process, they are stripped of their culture and assigned an economic value. In this way, they are emptied of all possible meaning.
Visit any bar in the hip districts of Brixton, Dalston or Peckham and you will invariably end up in a warehouse, on the top floor of a car park or under a railway arch. Signage will be minimal and white bobbing faces will be crammed close, a Stockholm syndrome recreation of the twice-daily commute, enjoying their two hours of planned hedonism before the work/sleep cycle grinds back into gear.
Expect gritty, urban aesthetics. Railway sleepers grouped around fire pits, scuffed tables and chairs reclaimed from the last generation’s secondary schools and hastily erected toilets with clattering wooden doors and graffitied mixed sex washrooms. Notice the lack of anything meaningful. Anything with politics or soul. Notice the ubiquity of Red Stripe, once an emblem of Jamaican culture, now sold to white ‘creatives’ at £4 a can.
The warehouse, once a site of industry, has trudged down this path of appropriation. At first it was squatters and free parties, the disadvantaged of a different kind, transforming a space of labor into one of hedonistic illegality and sound system counter-culture. Now the warehouse resides in the middle-class consciousness as the go-to space for every art exhibition or party. Any meaning it may once have had is dead. Its industrial identity has been destroyed and the transgressive thrill the warehouse once represented has been neutered by money, legality and middle-class civility.
Nonetheless many still function as clubs across Southeast London, pumping out reggae and soul music appropriated from the long-established Afro-Caribbean communities to white middle-class twenty-somethings who can afford the £15 entrance. Eventually the warehouse aesthetic will make its way to the top of the pay scale and, as the areas in which they reside reach an acceptable level of gentrification, they will become blocks of luxury flats. Because what else does London need but more kitsch, high ceiling hideaways to shield capital from tax?
The ‘street food revolution’ was not a revolution but a middle-class realization that they could abandon their faux bourgeois restaurants and reach down the socioeconomic ladder instead of up. Markets that once sold fruit and vegetables for a pound a bowl to working class and immigrant communities became venues that commodified and sold the culture of their former clientèle. Vendors with new cute names but the same gritty aesthetics serve over-priced ethnic food and craft beer to a bustling metropolitan crowd, paying not for the cuisine or the cold but for the opportunity to bathe in the edgy cool aesthetic of a former working class space.
This is the romantic illusion that these bars, clubs and street food markets construct; that their customers are the ones on the edge of life, running the gauntlet of Zola’s Les Halles, eating local on makeshift benches whilst drinking beer from the can. Yet this zest is vicarious. Only experienced secondhand through objects and spaces appropriated from below. Spaces which are dully sanitized of any edge and rendered un-intimidating enough for the middle classes to inhabit. Appealing enough for them to trek to parts of London in which they’d never dare live in search of something meaningful. In the hope that some semblance of reality will slip back into view.
The illusion is delicate and fleeting. In part it explains the roving zeitgeist of the metropolitan hipster whose anatomy Douglas Haddow so brilliantly managed to pin down. Because as soon as a place becomes inhabited with too many white, middle-class faces it becomes difficult to keep playing penniless. The braying accents crowd in and the illusion shatters. Those who aren’t committed to the working class aesthetic, yuppies dressed in loafers and shirts rather than scruffy plimsoles and vintage wool coats, begin to dominate and it all becomes just a bit too West London. And in no-time at all the zeitgeist rolls on to the next market, pool hall or dive bar ripe for discovery, colonization and commodification.
Not all businesses understand this delicacy. Champagne and Fromage waded into the hipster darling food market of Brixton Village, upsetting locals and regulars alike. This explicitly bourgeois restaurant, attracted by the hip kudos and ready spending of the area, inadvertently pointed out that the emperor had no clothes. That the commodified working class experience the other restaurants had been pedaling was nothing more than an illusion.
The same anxiety that fuels this cultural appropriation also drives first wave gentrifiers to ‘discover’ new areas that have been populated by working class or immigrant communities for decades. Cheap rents beckon but so does the chance of emancipation from the bourgeois culture of their previous North London existence. The chance to live in an area that is gritty, genuine and real. But this reality is always kept at arm’s length. Gentrifiers have the income to inoculate themselves from how locals live. They plump for spacious Georgian semi-detached houses on a quiet street away from the tower blocks. They socialize in gastro-pubs and artisan cafés. They can do without sure start centers, food banks and the local comprehensive.
Their experience will always be confined to dancing in a warehouse, drinking cocktails from jam jars or climbing the stairs of a multi-story car park in search of a new pop-up restaurant. Never will they face the grinding monotony of mindless work, the inability to pay bills or feed their children, nor the feeling of guilt and hopelessness that comes from being at the bottom of a system that blames the individual but offers no legitimate means by which they can escape.
This partial experience is deliberate. Because with intimate knowledge of how the other half live comes an ugly truth: that middle-class privilege is in many ways premised on working class exploitation. That the rising house prices and cheap mortgages from which they have benefited create a rental market shot with misery. That the money inherited from their parents goes largely untaxed while benefits for both the unemployed and working poor are slashed. That the unpaid internships they can afford to take sustains a culture that excludes the majority from comfortable, white collar jobs. That their accent, speech patterns and knowledge of institutions, by their very deployment in the job market, perpetuate norms that exclude those who were born outside of the cultural elite.
Effie Trinket of the Hunger Games is the ideal manifestation of this contradiction. She is Kaitness and Peeta’s flamboyant chaperone who goes from being a necessary annoyance in the first film towards nominal acceptance in the second. The relationship climaxes when, just as Kaitness and Peeta are about to re-enter the arena, Effie presents Hamich and Peeta with a gold band and necklace, a consumerist expression of their heightened intimacy. And in that very moment, her practiced façade of enthusiastic positivity finally breaks. Through her sobs she cries “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” and backs away, absent for the rest of the film.
For Effie, the contradiction surfaced and was too much to bear. She realized that the misery and oppression of those in the districts was in some way caused by her privilege. But her tears were shed for a more fundamental truth — that although she recognizes the horror of the world, she enjoys the material comfort exploitation brings. That if given the choice between the status quo and revolution, she wouldn’t change a thing.
Source URL — https://roarmag.org/essays/london-middle-class-culture-poverty/