You can’t say, ‘If only I was lucky, I’d become a Nobel Prize winner.’
I was struck by this line in an interview with Eric Hobsbawm, from the latest issue of the New Left Review, in which he describes why its easier for the poor to identify with the conservative rich, than with leftish intellectuals. (Sorry you can’t read it online. Buy the issue! Robin Blackburn’s got mouths to feed!)
The context is a discussion of the possibilities of a left movement after the demise of the traditional working class:
“The third and most important development [ed-since the end of the Cold War], in my view, is the growing divide produced by a new class criterion—namely, passing examinations in schools and universities as an entry ticket into jobs. This is, if you like, meritocracy, but it is measured, institutionalized and mediated by educational systems. What this has done is to divert class consciousness from opposition to employers to oppositions to toffs of one kind or another—intellectuals, liberal elites, people who are putting it over on us…
There is a progressive politics of coalitions, even such relatively permanent coalitions as that between, say, the educated, Guardian-reading middle class and the intellectuals—the highly educated, who on the whole tend to be more on the left than the others—and the mass of the poor and ignorant. Both groups are essential to such a movement, but they are perhaps harder to unify than before. In a sense, it is possible for the poor to identify with multimillionaires, as in the United States, saying ‘If only I was lucky, I could become a pop star.’ But you can’t say, ‘If only I was lucky, I’d become a Nobel Prize winner.’”
What’s amazing about this attitude, which I think Hobsbawm puts his finger on, is that it is premised on the correct awareness that the market is capricious and arbitrary. Which is obviously true, though not the normal justification for capitalism’s inequality.
But perversely, the very awareness of that capriciousness and randomness can function to impart false hope to people that one day they might win the lottery, or hit it big like Susan Boyle, or whatever. What might be a left-wing analysis- that the market is fundamentally unfair in how it rewards people- turns out to buttress an attitude of acceptance to the status quo.
And intellectuals? Those snobs telling you that you’ll probably never get wealthy so you should want to tax the rich? Why they’re the very people most identified with the educational gauntlet that you had to run through (even if they aren’t the primary benefactors of that system) and which left you where you are today.