Against aspiration

I’m fed up with hearing the soundbite “aspirational middle class”, which has become something of a meme in the British press over the past several days. The analysis of Labour’s defeat [see my previous post] already emerging from the Blairite wing insists that the party’s campaign rhetoric was perceived as anti-business and, more specifically, as anti-aspiration. I very much like this response to that talking point, aimed at Labour leadership candidate Chucka Umanna, from one Margaret Morris of London. She writes:

Could Chuka Umunna please explain who exactly are the “aspiring middle classes” whose interests have been neglected by Labour, as opposed to the “squeezed middle” whom Ed Miliband wanted to protect? And what exactly are their special aspirations, different from those of the rest of the population, all of whom want a good future for their children? The growth of the middle classes last century was mainly brought about by a rise in the number of “middle-class” jobs in the public sector – doctors, teachers, administrators etc. Their particular “aspiration” in recent years has been for the services in which they work to be adequately funded and, individually, not to be made redundant due to cuts. This was at least partly addressed in the Labour manifesto.

Small businessmen, a key middle-class group, who aspire to grow their businesses, have been held back in recent years by problems obtaining credit from our inadequate, publicly subsidised banking sector. That was addressed in the manifesto. In terms of simply aspiring to get rich, the biggest single group now is probably private landlords, especially buy-to-let ones owning a substantial proportion of what used to be publicly owned housing. Is this the group Umunna is worried about? We have just had an election dominated by soundbite propaganda, not serious analysis of policy options. Will the election of a new Labour leader follow the same course?

The “aspirational middle class” is a soundbite engineered to be maximally inclusive and minimally concrete. It is Britain’s post-Thatcherite/New Labour analogue to “the American Dream” – that mythical journey of growth, personal prosperity, and self-creation which is theoretically open to all and practically open to few. The superficial elegance of this vision is that we all ostensibly have access to it, if we choose. The reality is that people belong to different classes, both social and economic, and aren’t more or less “aspirational” because of it (at least not in the commonly understood meaning of the word). Conceptualizing social disparities and economic structures in terms of personal aspiration is a convenient and very deliberate way of ignoring how these structures benefit some and constrain others. The built-in myth of self-sufficiency, in which the individual is always solely and completely responsible for her own outcome, also very deliberately neglects the inherently social nature of our lives: the schools which give us education, the libraries which give us books, the communities in which we are raised, the parents and others who give us care, the roads and transport networks on which we travel.

Neither Britain’s benefits claimants (the majority of whom are in work, contrary to popular belief) nor its poor need a Labour Party that offers them sermons on how to be a better version of some idealized and thoroughly non-existent aspirational middle. What they need is protection from the rapacious landlords and energy barons who keep raising their rates; new housing which the market has steadfastly refused to create; a tax system which asks Russian oligarchs and people living on landed estates to pay into the system like everyone else; educational institutions to which everyone has equal access; regulations which prevent employers from paying starvation wages in exchange for back-breaking hours. In extremely modest fashion, Ed Miliband’s election platform recognized this reality – the fashionable idea that such things are “anti-business” or “anti-aspiration” is only true insofar as they contradict a very narrow and particular version of it.

Relatedly, it bears worth asking why we should privilege a particular kind of personal aspiration which mostly or wholly aspires to make and keep a small number of people extremely wealthy and which elevates the acquisition of personal wealth to the status of cardinal social value.

If this is what “aspiration” now officially means then I, too, am against aspiration.

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