George Walford: Maintaining the Differentials

In a cutting from the Guardian which is so old the ink with which I dated it has faded almost to disappearance (looks like May 30 but the year has completely gone), Harry Whewell discusses the way in which vegetarianism has become fashionable just as the poor have become able to afford meat. He raises the suspicion that:

The moral imperative of the vegetarian missionary might be yet one more of those means of snatching away the upper rungs’ of the ladder just because too many hands have come within reach.

and continues:

There have been, after all, a whole catalogue of these since the onset of relative affluence after the war. No sooner had the working class acquired motor cars than motor cars became antisooial, wrecking the cities, despoiling the countryside and polluting the air. Yet the rich had had them for generations without anyone trying “to make them feel guilty, on those counts at any rate.”

Then it became possible for the working class to travel abroad, and guess what? It suddenly turned out that the only places most of them could afford to visit were reactionary dictatorships, and they ought to be ashamed of themselves for going there. And now this even more basic assault. The postwar generation of common people must be the first in British history to be able to afford meat more than once or twice a week, only to find their children rising up and calling them gluttons.

We can add two more examples to Whewell’s list. Firstly, housing: Within the last year or two tenants of council houses have, for the first time, been granted terms which enable some of them to buy the houses they occupy. At last they are able to share in the bonanza the better-off have so long enjoyed as house prices rocket upwards. At least, that is what they will have expected. What has actually happened is rather different. According to the Guardian of 31 December 1981, as council tenants have become able to buy their houses so house prices have dropped. The have undergone “the worst slump for thirty years.”

Secondly, drugs. This is Anthony Burgess in the Observer of 24 January 1982, commenting on a book about opium:

But Dr. Berridge is surely right in arguing that, if opium had remained solely the preserve of men of letters and other members of the bourgeoisie, no reformers would have come along to control its use and, finally, ban its sale.

In these two instances also the upper rungs of the ladder have been snatched away as the hands of the many came within reach. The left-wing comment on this is obvious enough; the poor have once more been defrauded by their exploiters. But let us stop and think. In all the examples Whewell gives, and in the added ones also, the poor (or at least more of them than formerly) are able to partake of the new experience, previously reserved for those with more money. They can eat meat, they can take foreign holidays, they can motor, they can live in their own houses, they can use drugs their predecessors had never dreamt of.

The substance of the experience is still there and they are getting it. What has changed is that these things no longer carry the “cachet” they once did, are no longer valuable as status symbols. The ladder whose upper rungs are snatched away as the hands of the many came within reach is not the ladder of experience or the ladder of enjoyment; it is the ladder of status.

And how could this be otherwise? High status is necessarily, inherently, unavoidably, a possession of the few; this is built into all status systems. The only way in which all can enjoy equal status is by doing away with differential status, and that is one of the last things the general body of the people, including most of the poor, are willing to contemplate.

from Ideological Commentary 11, March 1982.