January 2010


First of all, Burkesworks takes issue with the Prime Minister’s latest vain attempt to struggle up from the governmental deeps and break the surface of reality.

Brown has announced that the “middle classes” are to be his party’s election battleground, which seems to me to be less an act of campaigning and more an act of journalism. At least in the good old days columnists had to earn their keep by working out that a party’s proposals were targeting the middle class. Now it seems the politicians just take you straight to the interpretation and miss out the bit where they tell you what they’re actually going to do. Burkesworks’ problem is as follows:

when he says “middle-class” I’m sure he means “middle-income”, and the two are not necessarily congruent.

(Burkesworks also blames the Normans for the class divide between north and south, an intriguing suggestion that I’ve seen made elsewhere, and I’ve often wondered whether this “folk memory” of looting and destruction by the southern king is a genuine folk memory or a post-medieval resurrection to underline later, unrelated grievances.)

The odd thing is, I have a lot of sympathy for Brown’s take here, which is not something I’ll often say. “Middle class” should mean “middle income”, otherwise it is a misused turn of phrase that only gets us into trouble. We have a certain tic in this country of applying the term “middle class” to such regular everyday consumables as, erm, agas, private education and annual skiing holidays. These are things that are available to perhaps 5% or 10% of the population. Calling them “middle class” seems to fly in the face of common sense.

It also, I submit, gives the people who do have access to these things an artificial sense that they are “normal”, as opposed to “very, very wealthy to the point where any sane country would call them upper class” (so essentially I blame the Normans too). “Middle” is such a common or garden word, seducing the bearer into thinking that they cannot possibly be that unusual. The universal perception that extraordinary circumstances of personal wealth are “normal” is why David Cameron is able to suggest that raising the inheritance tax threshold will benefit “Middle” England.

It’s why glossy newspaper supplements are full of cushions costing as much as a small house, and small houses costing as much as the GDP of a developing nation, and no-one ever bats an eyelid. 90% of us or more would no sooner buy the things depicted in the glossies than we would  stir lumps of edible gold leaf into our morning cuppa, but we take it as read that it’s normal to be presented with them as choices. Someone has got to be buying them. (Actually, of course, the debt bubble is explained by the fact that a small number among that 90% lost sight of the boundaries between fantasy and reality as a result of exactly this sort of advertising).

This thoroughly artificial “middle class” benchmark has a knock-on effect as well. I once saw a blogger, a smart, impassioned, left-wing blogger, comment to the effect that his £40,000-odd salary was not that high. This is a thing that can be quite dramatically disproved by means of a pile of beans and a few facts gleaned from Wikipedia. And he knew perfectly well what the “average income” is. But his perceptions were such that £40,000 nonetheless seemed like a middling income. Well, you couldn’t afford an aga, private education and an annual skiing holiday on it, so it must be pretty ordinary!

That skewed perception of reality is only half the trouble. The other half is that when you propose, say, an alteration to the tax system which will benefit of people on “low and middle incomes” (by which you mean, up to about 25k), the responses will fall into two categories: those that paid attention to the word “incomes” and so know what kind of earners you mean, and those that only noticed the word “middle”, and think you’re in the business of giving tax breaks to aga-owners, or similar.

This fuzziness about class and how it relates to income is partly, as Burkesworks suggests when he blames the Normans, an outcome of having started out as a feudal monarchy, wherein the phrase “upper class” means something quite specific and “middle class” has to do triple duty. But it may also be because politicians just don’t discourse about class and poverty any more, and our perceptions are the rustier for it, and that leads me to this post from Chris Dillow, which I urge you to read and pin to a tree:

…how could anyone have ever thought that class wasn’t important, or that race and disadvantage were the same?

To cut a long and tragi-comic story short, I fear the answer originates in the Left’s reaction against orthodox Marxism in the 1980s. Inspired in part by Hobsbawm’s essay, the Forward March of Labour Halted?, many on the Left gave up on the idea of the working class as a revolutionary force, and looked instead to what they called “new social movements”: women, blacks and gays (yes – to many the three were somehow homogenous!) Allied to this was a growing lack of interest in economics, and a rise in interest in cultural theory.

Over the past few months, I’ve been mildly fantasising about rescuscitating my PhD (or, more probably, burying it as a lost cause and starting again). The problems I’ve got are twofold (threefold if you count the money):

1) Last time round (2002) I wonder if I didn’t just start the PhD because I had nothing else to do. I’m sure I painted a much neater picture for myself at the time, but is that nearer the truth? I had quite openly gone through a Masters degree because I had nothing else to do, and that had turned out just fine, and it was a very good Masters in terms of being prepared for a PhD because it was research-based rather than taught. Maybe I went with the flow a bit too much. It is instructive to recall that there was a year between the Masters and the PhD, a blank year, and if I had found anything searingly exciting to occupy me in that time then it seems unlikely that I would have interrupted it to go back to university.

None of this would seem quite so much of a problem except for the fact that the pattern of my life now is very similar to what it was then. The last year has been, well, not a blank at all actually because I’ve moved cities and bought a dear little house with Mr Head of State which has a leaky roof (the house, not the Mr). But it has been a bit of a blank in terms of work owing to a troublesome little thing called the recession.

We’re not anywhere near starving without my full-time employ, and I’ve rarely been entirely without work, but that’s not really the point. As I potter about from article to report-writing, occasionally pausing to paint a wall or rip up a carpet covered in cat’s piss, I find an awful lot of spare hours, and by tradition I tend to use spare hours for two things: guilt and the internet. And the guilt, in this instance, has attached itself to all the things I am not doing, viz, Pursuing a Career. Never mind that the only Proper Careers I tried were dull and awful and caused me to run away screaming and work for myself, never mind all the other areas of my life that are going swimmingly, this is the one with the fuzz currently hanging over it, therefore this is what Mortimer focuses on.

So maybe, the structure and clear end-goal involved in a PhD is what is insinuating itself onto my wishlist, and not the PhD at all.

2) All the topics, connections or subjects I can think of that really fire my research imagination are so interdisciplinary as to be, frankly, verging on bonkers. And certainly likely to meet with short shrift from proper medievalists.

Take modern policy-making, for instance, and the ideas and suggestions politicians and think tanks come out with. Perhaps it’s because I never studied modern history in any depth that to me, the modern world is basically just the medieval world with Gay Pride and big train sets. The millions of tiny threads that connect us down the billions of seconds to late medieval England are there in front of me literally all the time. Mixed-use working and living space? Sustainable farming? “Building more effective communities”? Local decision-making? Sometimes it seems to me that the entire public polity is bent on creating the biggest re-enactment the world has ever seen.

Philip Blond has made a post-academic career out of encouraging this wave of New Medievalism, but I’m more interested in the whys. Why have we suddenly decided we want these things? Why are we so collectively nostalgic for what are, in origin, medieval tenets? Is it just a different flavour of the nostalgia that made the Conservatives’ evocation of a vanished England so popular? They were talking about an England that existed in some mythical corner of time between about 1850 and 1930. The England most talked about in white papers these days is the one that existed somewhere between about 1360 and 1500.

You see what I mean? Bonkers. How do you even begin to identify the range of sources that will illustrate and expand that? You could build an entire career on studying the Conservatives’ Victorian values business alone, so taking it as one comparative reference point in a single PhD seems a little on the ambitious side.

Or, I could marry up my medievalism with another of my bonkers little armchair interests, psychological profiling. In the nature of the beast, profiling systems like those of Myers-Briggs and Maslow were built for modern people. They describe and demarcate modern society because it was the inhabitants of modern society who provided the raw materials, lay on the couches, took the tests. By implication, their creators intended them to some degree to stand for all times and cultures, but they are likely to have thought a lot more about the different cultural dimensions than the temporal ones. If you have a habit of writing tendentious blog posts, you can use their systems to identify not only individuals but whole groups, nations or movements that appear to embody the characteristics of say, the Settler, or the NT type.

The bonkers question is, therefore, does it work on the medieval world, this whole other world in my head, whose people I do know at least slightly. We’re already swimming out into my ignorance, because I’ve done a lot of high politics and very little social history, so there’s a vast literature I need to absorb just to become better-acquainted with the medieval psyche. Would we find, on application, that everybody in the medieval era is stuck on a particular rung of the Maslovian hierarchy according to degree?

That’s what we should find. “Those who worked” would never have had their material needs fulfilled to the point where they progressed beyond Settler. “Those who fought” are surely the very personification of Prospectors with their conspicuous wealth displays, elaborate social codes and sumptuous death monuments and rituals whose purpose has (by definition) absolutely nothing to do with the dead self and everything to do with the onlooker. And those who prayed ought, if they were following their callings properly, to have been Transcenders. And yet it’s messy, isn’t it? Because some of the most famous Transcenders of the medieval period, mystics, saints and funny men sitting on the tops of poles in the desert, were also among the poorest. Whole monastic orders of Transcenders cultivated poverty – the hardcore ones to the point of malnutrition, self-flagellation, and constant exposure to disease and danger -  as a necessary condition to their being effective Transcenders. They reduced themselves to Settlerhood. That utterly flies in the face of Maslow’s hierarchy.

And of course, those monastic Transcenders did what they did in part as a reaction to the sections of the clergy who were pure Prospectors, concerned with worldly wealth and display as much as their lay counterparts. The Maslowian hierarchy is all about rising up, evolving. The harsher monastic orders were all about reducing down, paring their lives to the basics and beyond. Indeed, since the notion of progress is itself tricky to the medieval mindset, with its fixed social degrees, Judgement Day and ever-revolving Wheel of Fortune, does the application of Maslow fail altogether? Or does the very fact that kings needed to do things like pass sumptuary legislation indicate that the great unheard bulk of medieval society were very much in favour of advancing their lot in life, thank you, and all the things that we think of as characteristic of the medieval psyche were just the Tools of the Bosses. There already is a literature on that.

And after I’ve been rambling on like this for a while I start to wonder whether I’m quite in the right frame of mind for the rigours of study again. I’ve got awfully used to talking to whatever wall it is I happen to be painting.

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