Sunday, January 11, 2015

An unbalanced diet (1997)

Theatre Review from the November 1997 issue of the Socialist Standard

Chips With Everything by Arnold Wesker

Chips With Everything, currently revived by the National Theatre, is about power and social class. Based on Wesker's own experience of National service in the RAF in the early 1950s, this stunning production makes compulsive viewing. In it we follow the fate of a group of young conscripts in the first weeks of training as they are taught systematically to respond to orders without thinking; to defer to officers as though the latter were possessed of infinite wit and intelligence; and to be brutalised by constant drilling. The officers have power but this is for the most part not manifest directly in their contacts with recruits. Rather it is dispensed through the agency of their lackeys, the sergeants, corporals, lance-corporals and other non-commissioned officers. Officers kick NCOs, who in turn kick the recruits and other ranks. It must have all been very familiar to young recruits with previous experience of factory work. In most factories orders are given not by grey-suited men in remote offices, but by large-as-life foremen and chargehands who patrol the workplace. The word chargehand is apt. Chargehands are in charge. But this group of young recruits is different. One of its number, Pip, is not an apprentice or recent school leaver, but a public schoolboy, the son of a general. Why is he here? Why hasn't he taken the opportunities presented by his privileged background and school cadet experience, to transfer for officer training? Wesker hints that Pip's behaviour is fired by a desire to rebel against his father, but more than this Wesker also intriguingly suggests that Pip, too, may be interested in power. Familiar with the intentions and strategies of the officers, Pip uses his knowledge to thwart authority: frustrating an attempt by the officers to get the recruits drunk at a Christmas party; and leading them on a daring raid on a coal dump when they find themselves shivering in their barracks on a icy midwinter night. In so doing he is instrumental in changing the recruits' perception of themselves; in increasing their confidence and self-worth, and suggesting the possibilities of growth and change. Yet this apparent desire to escape from his father's influence leads him to cast the officers as pseudo-father figures and, paradoxically, to manipulate his fellow recruits in much the same way as his father seemingly manipulates him. Pip finally gets his comeuppance when the officer in charge finds a way of coercing him into applying for officer training, leaving the other recruits bereft.

Wesker is clearly intent on registering something in which social divisions are part and parcel of life in the armed forces, and giving us a glimpse into their nature and the way in which they are perpetuated. This he manages, very well, especially when—as in this production—he is well served by a skillful cast, excellent production staff and imaginative director. But whilst social class divisions are, so to speak, centre stage, Wesker does little more than describe and delimit some of their effects. He fails to talk about the origins of social class and, crucially, he makes no mention of economic class as primary.

Whilst social classifications may be useful they are hardly sufficient. If we want to understand something about the life chances of children—that is, the likelihood that they will be healthy and wealthy, even if they are not wise—then it is best to take note of the economic class of the parents. Children born to members of the capitalist class will in general live longer than those of the working class and enjoy a higher standard of living. Social classifications per se may be useful to an extent, but they have relatively little of the explanatory or predictive power of classifications based on the economic division of capitalist and worker. The predictive power of the kind of social classifications which inform Chips With Everything is limited, and it is also rooted, exclusively, in capitalist society.

In a socialist society it may well be helpful to classify people on the basis of activities such as reading, attendance at opera performances, frequency of consumption of Indian curries, and so on—not least if the intention is to try to meet the needs of readers, opera buffs and curry eaters. Even in today's capitalist society it is certainly the case that within the working class it is possible to find correlations between these activities and length and nature of formal schooling, occupation, and income, etc. But if we really want to understand such things as how the world works at a macro level, the origins of power, and how to resolve the antagonisms that lie at the heart of the kind of relationships that Wesker describes, we must look beyond mere social classifications however useful they may be at the margins to the more profound economic realities below.

At one level Chips With Everything works very well. It makes some telling points about the nature of social hierarchies and offers some encouraging (and for this viewer, inspiring) evidence of the capacity of young people to resist the brutal conditioning of life in the armed forces; and it is difficult to see how the present production could be bettered. However, because Wesker hasn't widened his focus to look beyond social classifications, at another and deeper level, his play turns out to be as inadequate as what the words of its title imply.
Michael Gill

Greasy Pole: Who You Calling A Pleb? (2015)

The Greasy Pole Column from the January 2015 issue of the Socialist Standard
For more than three years the nation was gripped in paralysing uncertainty. Was that policeman, standing on guard on 19 September 2012 at the very centre of British government, being petulant and obstructive when he refused to allow a man with a bicycle to wheel it through the main gate? Was he telling the truth when he said that the cyclist abruptly responded with a word which, even without being backed up in abusive swearing, was cruelly offensive? Was it so urgent that the cyclist should not be delayed because he was going to one of London's most exclusive clubs? And during those three years why did so many participants in the incident appear to change their minds about what happened?
High Court Judgment
The matter eventually came to a head with the conclusion of a libel case at the High Court in late November 2014 when Mr Justice Mitting ruled that Andrew Mitchell MP, ex-Minister of International Development, ex-Government Chief Whip, had behaved 'childishly' when he told PC Toby Rowland at the Downing Street gates that he, and the other police officers on duty there, were 'fucking plebs'. The judge did not accept Mitchell's defence that Rowland had made that up; his opinion, in the coldest terms, was that Rowland was not capable of anything so subtle and effective: he was '...not the sort of man who would have had the wit, imagination or inclination to invent on the spur of the moment an account of what a senior politician had said to him in a temper'. So Mitchell lost his libel case, which landed him with a massive debt starting at £300,000 but which could run into millions.
Politically Toxic
Perhaps to emphasise the basis for his decision, Mitting chose to describe the word 'Plebs' as 'politically toxic'. That may not be universally agreed; for what about that adjectival word which apparently Mitchell often uses, and which he uttered before 'pleb', which may be considered to be the more toxic – more aggressive, more emphatic, more friendly to being spat at a victim (one of the facts to emerge from the libel hearings was that there had been 16 recorded incidents of Mitchell clashing with the police in Westminster, including one which involved a direct insult). In comparison 'pleb' is the less pejorative word, easier to use in exasperation rather than anger. It is a shortened version of 'plebeian' for the underdogs – the more common people – of ancient Rome, expanded to cover anyone behaving in a coarse or vulgar manner. In the case of Mitchell there is more to it than that. He was a pupil at Rugby School, where he attained the exalted rank of a prefect known, for his harshly disciplinarian manner, as 'Slasher'. Among the privileged toffs of Rugby it was common for the non-teaching staff to be known, contemptuously, as plebs. At Jesus College in Cambridge, where Mitchell went after Rugby, the word was used for workers such as cleaners, porters and 'townies'.
After Cambridge Mitchell had been employed as a trader at the merchant bank Lazards, making a great deal of money for himself before becoming an MP. He became notorious for his short temper and his abusive tirades against his staff. 'He could be cantankerous and aggressive' said one of his Ministry staff '...a horrible person to do business with.' Although in some cases 'business' was what he was ready to 'do'. For example there was the situation when, according to the Tory journalist Simon Heffer – one of his admirers – when he was International Development Secretary Mitchell agreed to some £500 million being paid to 'consultancy' firms which resulted in some handsome payouts within the firms. All in all, it was no coincidence that when he was embroiled in the stresses of Plebgate he had so little support from the other Tories (it was said that he kept a list of those he considered to be unreliable in that respect) that it was inevitable that Cameron sacked him.
So far Mitchell has not expanded on his concept of what he calls 'plebs'. We know that they are the lower, in the sense of the exploited, class in society to the extent that it is permissible for ex-public school pupils to regard them with contempt. But he overlooks the fact that other members of the government prefer to adopt a more subtle and patronising – if equally contemptuous – attitude, describing them as 'hard-working people', when a more appropriate term would be 'long suffering'. For example in 2011/12 according to the Joseph Rowntree Trust – who are heavily experienced in this field – there were 13 million of those 'hard working' ones in poverty, with a million of them being paid below the official living wage.
In this matter there is an instructive irony in George Orwell's novel 1984, first published in 1949. In his bleak probe into the future, Orwell suggests a world divided into three super powers, constantly at war with each other while ruthlessly imposing a class society of meticulously unrelenting exploitation. In the state of Oceania the lower class is known not as 'plebs' but 'proles' – the different root of which does not relieve the misery of their lives. Even the music they are allowed is prepared for them at the Ministry of Truth on a kind of kaleidoscope known as a versificator. The central character of the book, Winston Smith, feels he is almost alone in being aware of the situation. It is his belief that If There Is Hope It Lies With The Proles – until he is taken in by the Thought Police to learn to love Big Brother.
Purged of his expletives, Mitchell began his tirade against Rowland with the advice that 'Best you learn You don't run this...government'. It would indeed be progressive if the lower class in society, exploited and ridiculed as plebs or proles or hard working, took heed of this advice in the sense of understanding their position and the reasons for it and the universal problems which ensue from it. That would be the beginning of the end of all the negatives associated with capitalist society. And it would not need a Minister of the crown or a high court judge or a police officer.