“We’re all middle class now”
“There is no such thing as society…merely individuals”
The epistemic shift in the work of Foucault is the historical a priori that grounds knowledge and discourses and thus represents the condition of their possibility within a specific historical moment. Whilst Foucault’s historical project requires the benefit of some distance from the moment in question, in politics there are instances where the discourses of the episteme can be seen more clearly. The recent attention given to the increasingly common practice of creating two tier entrance systems for London residency blocks serves as a good example of one such snapshot.
Purely from a theoretical standpoint it’s a fascinating story, revealing a set of discursive tensions fostered within late capitalist British politics since the late 1980s. Firstly, property. One of Thatcher’s enduring legacies is the right to buy, selling off council homes to residents. As a Thatcherite exercise in politics the aim was to transfer assets from the state to the individual – entirely consistent with the right-wing, Hayek economics that Thatcher embodied. Aside from lightening the balance sheet the move was ideological too – providing those who previously needed something larger than themselves with their own tangible, valuable asset. In the words of Michael Hesletine, the sale ‘encourages a personal desire to improve and modernize one’s own home, enables parents to accrue wealth for their children and stimulates the attitudes of independence and self-reliance.’
In short, an Englishman’s home is his castle and there is no such thing as society anymore as it can no longer afford to exist.
However Thatcher’s government revealed the harsher realities of a pure capitalist running the state and successive governments were forced to confront an enduring choice for those of the opposite side of the politic spectrum to Margaret. What does a leftist politician do about the inequality and exploitation inherent in the capitalist system? The subsequent choice made and re-made by the politicians of the left is a vague fudge of an answer. Capitalism is not the problem. BAD CAPITALISM is. Capitalism can save us all from itself – exploitation can be remedied through mild state intervention and allowing capitalism itself to lift us all into the middle classes. The old Marxists no longer need be on the side of the working class as we seem to have simply abolished “class” itself, a far easier and more efficient revolution that the one Karl wrote about.
Yet as the story above shows the thesis of Thatcher and the subsequent anodyne antithesis failed to reach any satisfactory synthesis. Class is now not abolished but codified into planning permission – the attempt to “pepper-pot” new builds in the capital with affordable units did not allow a new diverse range of property owners but simply motivated construction firms to no longer conceal their contempt for those who cannot leverage the necessary amount of financial capital. Class in the London is perhaps no longer spoken about, but is now so reinforced as to be unnecessary.
There is a final reason why these doors are there too – class as a political discourse is not something that just affects the working class aspiring upwards but the guilt of the middle classes too. These “poor doors”, designed so that the two strata that inhabit the same space do not have to meet is a defense mechanism. We’re all middle class now apparently and thus have no need to see those who are not. The poor simply cannot be conceived of as occupying the same space, the same paid for property as us. Philanthropically inclined though we might consider the middle class to be, the charity and good grace that it extends does not begin at home. Home is not a place to be reminded of social division and stratification but rather be reminded of our own virtuous capitalist acquisitions. After all, those who are able to spend £500,000 on a city apartment embody those qualities of independence and self-reliance. Though we might be aware in some abstracted sense of the otherness of those who live in the same apartment building as us, the building’s very fabric hides the impression of inconvenient inequality to a safe removed distance. We share addresses with those who need affordable housing ergo we must all be equal now. It’s just some are more equal than others.