The Daily Stirrer
Why The Intellectual Elite Truly Despise People
They Pretend To Care About.
Under the dreaming spires – Oxford University, England
In his book The Intellectuals and The Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939 (review - Google Books) John Carey comments on the elitism and intellectual snobbery of leading left wing academics and writers from the late nineteenth to the mid twentieth century.
Professor Carey's book identifies modernism as a way of thinking born out of a snobbish revulsion among people in the higher levels of society to the spread of literacy and popular culture among the working classes. Modernism, Carey says, is less a cultural movement motivated by certain aesthetic and spiritual imperatives than a closing of ranks by social cabal. Its chief ambition is to exclude people from outside the cultural and intellectual elites from the enjoyment and understanding of culture, music, literature and such. To this end the self-appointed elitists of culture, commerce and politics may bask in their imagined superiority which is affirmed every time they look down from their lofty heights at 'the little people.'
Or, to put it in a colloquial phrase we can easily tell the cultural value of a thing: If a lot of people like it, it must be crap. In this sense, modernism is fundamentally "antidemocratic" and quite possibly veering sharply towards a kind of fascism.
"Intellectuals could not, of course, actually prevent the masses from attaining literacy," Professor Carey explains. "But they could prevent them reading literature by making it too difficult for them to understand - and this is what they did. The early twentieth century saw a determined effort, on the part of the European intelligensia, to exclude the masses from culture."
Quite true. Most modern poetry that earns the acclaim of literature professors and the kind of critics who set the standards for this new elite is so deliberately obscure, so brutal in its torturing of language, as to defy any attempt to make sense of it. I am a fan of poetry and have seen my own published published and yet am mystified by the egomaniacal babbling of most modernists. Their work has no structure of theme, mostly it is a self indulgent experiment in analysing the poet's own psyche.
The literary experiments of Mallarme, Eliot, Joyce, Virginia Woolf and others of that ilk were undertaken not with the intention of communicating ideas to a wide audience or for any aesthetic or spiritual reason but simply as an exercise in obfuscation. Though Joyce's Ulysses is regarded by many intellectuals in th e field of literature as the greatest novel of the twentieth century the modern Irosh writer Roddy Doyle who is (or perhaps was?) highly regarded in literary circles confessed he could not be bothered with the book which he found deliberately obscure, self indulgent and boring. Doyle went on to compound his blasphemy by going on to describe joye's unreadable “masterpiece” Finegans Wake as a waste of time.
Compare Joyce's arrogance towards his readers and the acclaim in which intellectuals hold him because of it with T S Eliot's response to complaints that his work was incomprehensible. Eliot's attitude was that if people could not understand his poetry it only proved they were of inferior intellect to him. Was there any better way of ensuring his work was read by people who resembled characters in The Emperor's New Clothes fairy story?
Literature is not unique in self congratultory posturing, how many of us can make any sense of the "installations" of modern artists and what is the point of an artwork if it requires a thousand - word explanation to give the viewer a clue about that it illustrates? Literature, books and poetry, does hold a special place in the weaponry of the new elite. If we cannot read and comprehend we can do little else.
Books and poetry have the ability to educate and entertain simultaneously. Who among us has not at some time in their live loved a poem as much for it's rhythm and use of language as for it's message or moral. Even if it is a Dr. Seuss rhyme, something like Green Eggs and Ham, or a bit of nonesense like Lewis Carrol's Jabberwocky, there is a love of words, rhythm and variation of pace and tone to be gained from them.
The new elite, the "progressives" as they like to style themselves, like to sneer at popular fiction. They are wrong, it is the literary fiction presented as having superior quality they should despise. People who followed Bernard Cornwell's "Sharpe" series will have not only learned about Wellington's Iberian Campaign against Napoleon Bonaparte's French Empire and about early nineteenth century weapons, military tactics and politics, they will have also been offered some insights into how ordinary people fared in that brutal war. Likewise the books of John Steinbeck give us a vivid and quite accurate picture of California in and just after the Great depression, delivering the message in a more engaging way than some weighty social history written by the type of person who would sneer at Steinbeck's populism.
For those who would rather get a broad picture of history from an enjoyable novel than a detailed but dry and dusty text book I can recommend Cornwell's books on the Hundred Years War, Azincourt or Harequin (U S title The Archer's Tale )describing events leading to and the actual siege of Crécy and Azincourt obviously about the well known, thanks to Shakespeare, battle of Agincourt.
This intellectual snobbery is not purely a conceit of overdeveloped egos. Academic elitism is one of the most potent forces at work in society today and it'd long term goals should disturb us all. The very last thing this new elite wants is is an educated working class asking difficult questions. Academics spend all their lives with noses buried in books so who understands better than they the effect raising the illiterate peasantry out of ignorance had on the old aristocratic oligarchs.
The left's social engineering programme goes back a long way. Early in the twentieth century, seeing that the enfranchisement of the working classes and women would create a voting bloc capable of swaying every election, those who perceived themselves part of the elite but who were regarded as inferior by the old aristocracy and "old money" made a concerted effort to infiltrate the new political movements that represented the lower classes with the aim of creating a new political hegemony, a political and academic class sustained in power by the massive electoral clout of working class votes.
the masses aren't uniformly dull witted although perhaps viewed from
the ivory towers intellectuals place themselves in, it is easy to
perceive uniformity where there is in fact rich diversity . Anyone
who doubts this need only visit Wanlochhead in Scotland. but as that
is a rather expensive exercise, I'll go into travelogue mode and give
you the quick tour.
where until the mid-20th century miners toiled to extract lead.
Photograph: AA World Travel Library/Alamy
Picture: undiscovered scotland
Pretty little Wanlockhead (link below) is the highest village in Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway the tourist information tells us. Approach it on a sunny day and it looks delightful, the tiny white-painted cottages nestling in the among the hills by fast flowing burns of clear water, the fibrous grass cropped short by sheep that wander freely, knowing the sparse traffic poses no threat. The reason most people come here is to see the lead mining museum.
It is no good looking for the museum building as you enter the village though, you're already in it. No lead has been extracted from the local mines since the mid-20th century, even though rich seams of the stuff, and other minerals run through the bedrock. The seams are too deep even for modern technology to make them either economic or safe. All that Visit the lead mine if you're not claustrophobic.
Wanlockhead has left is its pub, and its heritage. Hardly anyone lives there any longer, and it relies on its status as a mining museum – run by a village consortium – to pull in tourists.
This is the best type of museum because rather than selected exhibits the infrastructure of that old life is all still there, intact. After taking a look at some of the cottages, decked out as they would have been in the early 18th, 19th and 20th centuries , visitors led by a guide whose accent was made for reading aloud the poetry of Robert Burns venture 150 yards into the mine. The guide's Scottish accent reverberates with indignation as he describes what conditions were like for the miners.
Wanlockhead's mine when it was till a working enterprise
The men worked in the tunnels for 10 hours a day, six days a week were, in the early nineteenth century, paid £20 a year. From that they had to provide their own tools, their own explosives, even their own candles, so it was dark, very dark. They began their working lives at eight years old.
Many of the miners died in accidents. Because the material mined was lead there was no risk of firedamp, the explosive gas feared by coal miners, but lead holds more stealthy dangers. The inhabitants of this early industrial Klondyke who survived accidents died of lead poisoning. In Wanlockhead, back then, a 35-year-old was very old man.
The early workers built the walls of their cottages from stone, freely available in this landscape. But they had to get permission to take the turf and the heather to put on a roof. That belonged to the estate. If the estate wanted you out, they had the right to burn you out by setting the roof on fire; the roof that belonged to them. Even as we mock the politically correct posturings of the modern left it does no harm to remember the type of treatment dealt out by the powerful that caused Trade Unionism and Socialist movements to come into existence.
Then as now however the elite despised the lower orders and regarded them as pitiable imbeciles not capable of being educated, behaving in civilised ways or appreciating the finer things in life.
As we reflect on those things they bring us to the real reason for our coming here. What ought to be becoming clear is that far from the dull witted brutes their remote and aloof masters imagined them to be, these people possessed an astonishing resilience that, with the help of their Presbyterian faith enabled them to work together together in community whose spirit acted to mitigate the adversities that life flung at them and to aspire to change things for the better.
The best way to get a sense of this in Wanlockhead is to spend some time looking in the library, the second oldest miners' subscription library in the world. Its eclectic collection of books was assembled by men who lived and worked in appalling conditions, endured soul destroying poverty and died young. Against the odds they managed to set money aside for books and for a place where these books could be kept, read, and shared.
The library building also hosted meetings of the village's silver band, its quoits club and its curling club. Literature, music, sport, leisure – all these were nurtured, and paid for, by the miners themselves. No government grants in those days but that worked in their favour. There was no Nanny State to tell them what to think, no patronising social workers to sap their get-up-and-go, you see. No welfare, no rights, no easy distractions to featherbed them all and make them indolent.
The books in the library tell us these uneducated miners took their autodidactism seriously. There is little of a frivolous nature and few novels. The tourist guide explains there were dire punishments for those who suggested the acquisition of books deemed unsuitable by the strict Protestant pastors who wielded the moral power in the village. She suggests that brave soul who argued for, and won the right to read The Origin of Species might have made a better living in a circus, putting his head in the lion's mouth.
It was not just in the reading tastes of Wanlockhead's miners that we can observe the vast gulf between the actual lives of working class people and the assumptions of moneyed gentry and left wing intellectuals who self righteously set about "saving the masses from deprivation and despair." The evidence is everywhere. During the industrial revolution that caused a great shift from rural areas to the towns just as a new middle class sprang up, the bourgeoisie or lower middle class, so new sub classes of the working classes merged. One of these was what became known as "the aspirational working class". When the Labour politician Ernest Bevin (1881 - 1951) gave us the line "Poverty of aspiration leads to poverty of spirit," he was not talking about modern aspirations, to live in a bigger house or own a car (in his lifetime any car was a luxury for many) but of a more spiritual aspiration, to make oneself a better person either by learning, changing one's values or by being an active member of the community.
All through the stratified working class people were active, in politics, cultural activities, hobbies and by being members of clubs and churches. In my part of England there was a great musical tradition, the Brass Bands. These were established by workers in coal mines and cotton mills, often sponsored by the owners, and achieved an extraordinarily high level of musical excellence. These bands which played a mix of classical, church and traditional music, were part of the fabric of community. Brass Band concerts on the bandstand in the park or sometimes in the town square were free entertainment for families. Often the origins of the bands were reflected in the names, The Grimethorpe Colliery Band, The Leigh Miners Welfare Band and (I'm not kidding now) The Back Dyke Mills Band comprised of workers at Black Dyke Woollen Mills in Queensbury, Yorkshire. The mills are closed now but with the word Mills dropped from the name they continue, (despite protests from the Politically Correct Thought Police) as the Black Dyke Band, insisting that they had the name before dyke meant anything but man made drainage ditch. The British movie Brassed Off starring Ewan McGregor and the late Pete Postlethwaite, though it may be too left wing in its sentiments for some, tells of the role the Brass Band played in those small industrial communities.
Orange Juice (Concerto d' Aranjuez) from Brassed off with Tara Fitzgerald looking lovely but not really playing.
There were other cultural cultural activities going on too. Even small town could claim several dramatic, operatic or choral societies, there were Scientific clubs that usually met in the Mechanics Hall or a function room in a Working Men's club to talk about the latest developments in science and technology, groups for artists and photographers, football and cricket teams of various levels and of course the churches which played an enormous role in holding communities together and also supported cultural and sporting activity (my wife first stepped out on stage in a production by St. Mary's amateur Operatic Society) as well as charitable work and supporting individuals and families through emotional crises. And all these things were open to everybody regardless of income or education. Far from a brutish rabble who were condemned by their ignorance to live in misery and despair the working classes lived in a vibrant society. There were the drunks, gamblers and wasters of course, those things are part of life but for the most part, people understood that not everybody can be a doctor, lawyer, business owner, consultant, college lecturer or celebrity. They had the grace to accept their lot and just get on with making the best of the hand life dealt them. And what they hated far more than their bosses were the patronising paternaslistic lefties who presumed to tell them how they should live their lives.
Another illustration of this elitist prejudice concerns literature. Music Hall comedians had long made fun of the industrial areas, the ugliness of the towns, the way soot from factory chimneys blackened everything, the strange, guttural accents that owe as much to the old Viking and Celtic languages as to The Queens English and to the fact that thanks to our Viking and Celtic heritage many northern place names just sound funny. Oswaldtwistle, Barnoldswick, Cleckheaton and Mytholmroyd could be names of places where goblins live in a Tolkein story but they are real (my wife was born in Oswaldtwistle.)
The ultimate joke town was Wigan. Wigan was synonymous with poverty, pies (meat and potato pies,the staple diet of mine and mill workers) and a brand of daftness that owed more to unworldliness that stupidity. The best joke about Wigan was it's pier. To late Victorian and early twentieth century audiences the word pier conjured up images of the gaudy pleasure piers at costal resorts, cast iron structure built out over the sea where in season there was always some kind of show it the pavilion at the end and along the length of which fortune tellers, ice cream vendors, souvenir merchants, tattooed ladies and tacky freak shows were arrayed. Wigan, 40 miles inland, boasted no such attractions, the "pier" was a landing stage on the Leeds and Liverpool canal, an older usage of the word.
Wiganers took it in all good part and laughed at the jokes but the bohemian left of the metropolitan elite took it on board as literal truth. In the finest bleeding heart style they elected themselves to be the new leaders of the labour movement and help the unfortunate wretches who knew no better than to live like brutes. In the 1930s members of the Left Book Club decided what Wiganers really needed to raise their consciousness was somebody to write a book about them, a sociological tome describing their poverty and brutish hopelessness.
These London based intellectuals commissioned a young man from a well to do family who after a very expensive private education had worked as a colonial servant in India before moving to Paris to pursue a career as a writer to live in Wigan, study the lives of the poor and write something that would raise awareness of their plight.
The writer's name was Eric Blair and in lodging with several families in the town he was appalled at what he saw. Not at the vulgarity or brutishness of the people but at the appalling treatment they endured with a certain nobility. I have read many books that describe similar conditions endured by the urban and rural poor in Scotland (as we have seen above) southern and eastern England, the USA and in Europe so such deprivation and the ability of the human spirit to overcome it were not unique to Wigan. The problem was that everybody knew how terrible the slums were, everybody was aware of the suffering caused by bad working conditions, damp homes and lack of facilities. And everyone thought something ought to be done about it ... by somebody else.
This was the start of the era of big government. Power was being centralised in national government departments and municipalities, Church Parish Councils and local charities were being squeezed out of the picture. The one-size-fits-all solutions of big government seldom fit anybody properly, local problems need local solutions. It was also the start of the era of corporatism. Instead of factories and mines being owned by local families who lived in the community close to their workers, businesses were now owned by anonymous shareholders who lived miles away and had no sense of what was going on. That is not to say the local capitalists were perfect but the mean spirited tightwads subject to pressure because of the more acceptable conditions offered by some of their competitors.
Eric Blair was the opposite of a modern left winger, raging about equal rights or homophobia or the evils of smoking and alcohol but too delicate to address the innate conservatism of the working class, the problems of race or the failure of the education system, he had no time for what we would now call political correctness and its close kin multiculturalism and moral relativism, instead he wrote of what he observed with a cold fury but saved for the people of Wigan that he came to know, a warm admiration as he described their resilience and cheerfulness.
Of one man whose family he lodged with he said "That he can, after ten hours working a thin seam (a coal mining term describing a task that involved lying on ones belly in a tunnel probably no more that two and a half feet high, chipping coal with a pick and pushing it backwards mole - like for others to load into skips) he can converse jovially or sit and read Dickens, Hardy or translations of Zola or listen to plays and discussions on their radios is a testament to the nobility of the human spirit. His sympathies lay not with the intellectuals who might pass resolutions about the need for change but would do nothing or if they did would only make matters worse because they did not understand the problem. He supported they guys who lay on their stomachs in cold, dank, blackness, with coal dust clogging their lungs as they chipped at the seam.
His book, which he called The Road To Wigan Pier though Wigan is not a coastal resort, where the Victorian pleasure piers were hugely popular at the time nor has it a major river. The pier of the title was a local joke, a reference to a loading platform on the canal that passed through town. People who could not afford a trip to Blackpool or Morecambe on holidays would say they were having a day out at Wigan Pier, such self mocking humour mystified the elitists.
The book was rejected by the Left Book Club, it committed the unforgivable sin of challenging their assumptions so it had to be wrong. Eric wasn't discouraged however, he took it to a commercial publisher and under the title The Road To Wigan Pier it became famous. Eric did too but only after he changed is name to George Orwell. A couple of his books which predict the kind of authoritarian regime the members of the Left book Club covertly yearned for became best sellers and are still in print today.
I have to say at this stage that of the two great predictions of totalitarian dystopia written in the 1930s, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World has proved the more accurate. Rather than forcing oppression through the brutal oppression of Orwell's Big Brother regime, in Brave New World the government buys compliance by relieving people from personal responsibility and indulging their desires for sex, drugs, and gadgets.
Orwell believed in the miners of Wigan and Tennessee, the cotton mill workers of Lancashire and the plantation labourers of Louisiana, Luxor and Lahore. The problem was not that the steelworkers of Pittsburgh, Ravenscraig, Sheffield and Saarbruken were brurtes, they were brutalised by their environment. George Orwell understood that what those people needed was not a do gooder fussing over them, a social worker of government official telling them what was good for them but for those busybodies to get of their backs, let the cream rise to the top through natural forces and provide a safety net so those who could not rise by their own devices did not fall into destitution in times of hardship. Government could not solve the problem because government was the problem.
Another point Orwell made was to highlight the stoicism of the working class, they way they accepted their lot in life and, to use a Lancashire phrase, just got on with it. No amount of self righteous wailing and gnashing of teeth will ever make it possible for everybody to be born into privilege. The workers understood this, some drank themselves to oblivion others took refuge in other, less destructive pleasures, in making music with the brass band or local choral society, in membership of the Mechanic's Institute or Philosophical Societies that flourished in every town and some, let's call them the aspirational working class, took responsibility for raising their own level of intellect and understanding even if raising their social status was not possible. It is worth noting in connection with the philosophical society reference that the abuse of term science is a recent phenomenon, on the web page of the Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, specifies the organisations aims as "To promote the advancement of science, literature and the arts in the City of Leeds and elsewhere, and to hold, give or provide for meetings, lectures, classes, and entertainments of a scientific, literary or artistic nature".
When next you hear aristocratic David Cameron prattling about his "big society" or the vacuous windbag Obama blethering about "community organising" reflect on the library at Wanlockhead where people who had few choices took responsibility for educating themselves and thus enhancing their own ability to provide better opportunities for their children. There we find what is missing from modern society. It is not the finger wagging admonitions of Nanny State or the scaremongering of her cohorts in the pseudo - science lobby that chivvy us into being good members of society, but adversity. It was not ordinary people of Wanlockhead who needed strong governance to keep them in line, their awe inspiring religious leaders did that. It was the ruling elite, who abused their power without restraint, that made "big government" necessary, mainly to save the necks of the elite as the French revolution demonstrated. But as we now know, big government by scientific and managerial elites does not work any better than the elitism of the feudal system.
In some ways the old aristocratic system was superior because among those aristocrats who had a sense of duty (and many did) there existed the concept of 'noblesse obligé' the obligation of the elite to exercise pastoral care over their wards who were less able to survive without support. This was a relic of the old Roman patrician class and their supervisory function large parts of which had been taken on by the churches. The modern meritocrats are quite happy to wash their hands of any duty to people who don't conform to the official edicts and bureaucratic 'guidelines' handed down from the central authority. Hence we hear politicians discussing the possibility of withholding healthcare from those who smoke, drink alcohol, use illegal recreational drugs or allow themselves to become obese, whether their condition is due to a failure of those people to take responsibility for their own health or not. Indeed, the ultimate hypocrisy of these paternalistic 'liberals' is to promise to care for the individual from the cradle to the grave and then renege on that promise in a petulant reaction to a person's failure to shape their life according to the official template.
Only small government and minimal interference with individual independence works, wherever an all powerful, hierarchic central authority has been established it has resulted in social catastrophe. Small government at municipal level and provincial level based on the ideal of community service, without party politics and the influence of big money and without the 'one-size-fits-all solutions of socialists and paternalistic 'liberals'. Only by returning to that and to the principle that our representatives are elected to serve the interests of their constituents and not those of political parties or vested interests can we start to tackle the problems of society.
In a bizarre turnround it is now the left that seeks to exercise via big government, the kind of power the masters of the past relied on and to infantilize and marginalise the lower classes. Those who style themselves 'the left' have assumed the authoritarian mantle of the political right. This is because the elitists of the modern left are as remote from and ignorant of the lives and the mindset of ordinary people as were the moneyed elite they have displaced.
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