I don’t get the Hammersmith & City line much, but I did the other day, and for the duration of my journey from Whitechapel to Ladbroke Grove I was faced with a poster from the Mayor of London and Procter & Gamble, which is so remarkable that I transcribed its text on my phone. It says this:
You know when your mum’s coming round to your flat and you give the place a quick tidy? Well that’s exactly what we’re doing. Except our “flat” is London and our “mum” is the rest of the world coming round. So we’re cleaning London in time for the London 2012 Olympic Games. But that’s a big job so we’re asking people like you to lend us a hand. We have litter to pick, graffiti to scrub, and flowers to plant. To help London look its best go to PGCapitalcleanup.com. Come on. Make your mum proud.
What I find particularly insidious about this poster is not the ostensible rhetoric of togetherness which mobile phone commercials are so adept at; rhetoric cultivating the notion of a happy community which will welcome and rescue from alienation anyone who assents to buy into that which it is propagating. Instead, it’s the mode of address which this rhetoric adopts in this specific case. With phrases such as “we’re asking people like you to lend us a hand”, the “us” of the poster’s enunciators - primarily Procter & Gamble, but also, by extension, the multifarious private interests who stand to profit from the Olympics - are asking the “you” of citizens who might happen to see this poster to help them maximise the revenue generated by a two-weeks sports party by sprucing up the city in which its being held for its duration. Considering the fact that I fit into the “you” of this configuration, I’ll reverse the tenses to illustrate a central implication of the poster’s words: for the duration of the Olympics at least, the apparently public spaces of London are not ours, but theirs. It is desirable for them that London looks good during the Olympics in the same way that it’d be desirable for us that our flats look good when our mums are visiting (and the use of this analogy makes evident just who this poster is aimed at: a false-consciousness infested strata of middle-class twenty-to-thirty somethings who live in flats which their mums might visit; the same kind of people that last year joined the broom brigade to tidy up the mess made by all those horrible looters and vandals, the majority of whom just happened to be poor and disenfranchised - apart from A FEW MIDDLE-CLASS ONES! LOOK! SOME OF THEM WERE MIDDLE CLASS!). In order to attain this desirable state, however, they are calling on us to assist them. The intimation is quite clear: we’d be giving up time and effort for their benefit.
I assume that the majority of people would probably like there to be less litter strewn across the streets, the obscenity of consumerism’s detritus doesn’t dwell in the mind so much if it’s out of sight in a landfill (although I would hope the desire for the effacement of graffiti is not so strong, because, outside of Shoreditch and its surrounding nucleus of “creativity”, where the artform has been hijacked by marketeers, it is still one of the most evocative grassroots modes of expression). However, the notion that, at a time of high-unemployment, people should willingly tidy up the streets without remuneration for the benefit of multinational corporations who could easily afford to employ people to do so - and that, as I have just discovered with cursory research, people actually did, corporate slogans emblazoned on their t-shirts and all - is incredibly worrying. At the risk of presumptuousness, I would guess that a large proportion of this campaign’s aforementioned key demographic, and those who actually took part, would be appalled at revelations of similar exploitation - such as those which emerged recently about the Diamond Jubilee’s unpaid workforce - yet they’ll happily volunteer their own free labour if roused by an apparently wholesome call-to-arms infused - via the poster’s aforementioned overall sense of community and togetherness (compounded by the infantile, approachable scrawl in which the words are written) - with vague ideas of civic pride. But civic pride should surely exist for-itself, arising from one’s subjective experience of, and resultant love for, the place where one lives. What it shouldn’t be is an emotion induced from without in the service of other ends, and induced with reliance on the idea that such civic pride is an inconvenient obligation - something which we do to make our mums proud.
Classlessness is purely performative. It does not consist in the abolition of Eton and Oxford but in not talking as though one has gone to them. Classlessness is about no longer caring about the old signifiers of class, or the old character traits, it’s not about any structural changes, as Blair’s face at the mention of the word ‘revolution’ makes clear. If class doesn’t make any real difference to how we behave any more, then maybe it doesn’t exist. More smoke and mirrors.
- Carl Neville, Classless