On a bright afternoon about a month ago, my beer garden pint was interrupted by a loud young man with a Contemporary Received Pronunciation accent explaining to his friends that his brother had ‘low aspirations’ even though he was ‘intelligent’. The disturber of my peace might have erased an old regional accent while at university, or his ‘working class’ background might have been more or less imaginary. Both are common enough. Either way, after I got over my annoyance, I found his mental world almost as interesting to contemplate as my beer had been.
The first thing I noticed was his easy assumption that intelligence usually leads to membership of a higher social class. Our middle classes have swallowed this story whole, and our university sector promotes it assiduously; but it is, of course, nonsense. A lack of intelligence can block off certain routes up the social ladder, but its presence does not guarantee that they will become available; and, in any case, the evidence suggests that the intelligence gap between the classes is declining, mostly because those further up the social scale are getting stupider. All in all, an intelligent person failing to experience upward social mobility will only be surprising if you believe some obviously false things. My beer garden interloper did believe these false things, though, so his own brother’s life was a bit of a puzzle to him. Following a well-worn script, he explained this puzzle away by talking about ‘low aspirations’.
His version of the low aspiration story was a common one, ‘because we were poor growing up, my brother never realised a better life was possible, so he never learned to desire it’. He was a bit vague on why he, unlike his brother, realised that a better life was possible; but the story might be plausible enough on an individual level. On the social level, it is unsupported by the evidence. This should not be surprising. The purpose of tales like this is not to unveil the truth. It is to reassure the upper strata of society that they don’t have to worry too deeply about the justice of the status quo. It seemed to do that job tolerably well for the young man, with the help of some beer and the reassurance of his friends.
The second thing I noticed about his mental world was another assumption. He did not question whether a middle-class life is always the best alternative. From his description, it was not obvious to me that his brother’s life was so awful that it needed any explanation at all. He had a job in a factory and was living in the town that he grew up in. People have lived this way in the North of England for some time now. The assumption that a middle class life must be better than this amused me a little, simply because it contradicted my own experiences. Mostly by chance, I’ve experienced some social mobility, so I’ve spent time within the milieu of different classes; and, as an outsider, it has always struck me how utterly miserable our middle classes are, especially the young adults. Life for them seems to be a constant battle to fulfil one set of expectations or another, and it seems like the more that they succeed, the higher those expectations become. Like a blinkered horse, they never seem to have much but the endless path ahead.
Let me try to illustrate what I mean. At one point, I was a commuter. It didn’t last, but I did find watching other rush-hour drivers fascinating. Like a rubbish modern version of a nineteenth century naturalist, I used to classify them based on observable features. One particular type of driver usually drove a German luxury car. They would drive fast and close, exhibit visible frustration if the car in front of them had a large gap in front of it; and would shift lanes frequently, jostling for position among the other commuters. They are not uncommon, and I am sure some readers will have noticed them. They did leave me with a certain amount of philosophical puzzlement, though.
It’s fairly obvious that the space between successive vehicles in a convoy has a negligible effect on how fast a car will get to its destination if they are all travelling at the same speed. In fact, larger spacing between cars leads to systematically faster traffic. Similarly, in crawling rush-hour traffic, it’s fairly obvious that the rewards of constant lane changes are likely to negligible. At best, they could be replicated by leaving the house a few minutes earlier every day. Worse, as with the spacing of vehicles, evidence suggests that frequent changes of lane slow down the convoy as a whole.
My puzzlement stemmed from trying to understand exactly what was going on in the minds of these drivers. They were presumably in commuter traffic most days, so they presumably had plenty of opportunity to observe that their tactics had little effect on their journey, even if it would be more difficult for them to observe that they were incrementally slowing down the convoy as a whole. So why did they bother acting in ways that seemed stressful for them?
I came to see their behaviour as reflecting a deeper confusion. My theory is that they were not emotionally differentiating between getting to work faster and going faster than the people around them. In other words, they failed to distinguish between their longer-term goals and interpersonal competition, even when the interpersonal competition was more or less fruitless. In this, they helped me to understand another group that had puzzled me: the British upper-middle classes, who seemed to me to be similarly focused on markers of interpersonal status that were completely divorced from their own overall flourishing, even in contexts where they had a negligible degree of control over the outcome.
The language of aspiration is the language of these drivers. It is the language of the individual car trying to get ahead in rush-hour traffic. Its measures are intrapersonal: how well the person is doing on a scale against the rest of society, not how well they are flourishing as an organic being. It is blithely unaware of the wider context. Even if driving close and frequently switching lanes makes the individual’s journey marginally faster, then it only does so on the assumption that most other people will not do the same. Similarly, techniques to get ahead in society only work insofar as most people don’t use them. It is so focussed on the individual that it does not consider systematic effects, whether slowing down of the convoy or leaving behind of parts of society. It is so relentlessly, stupidly, optimistic that it does not consider the risks and costs even to the individual themselves. Driving close and shifting lanes frequently might get you killed, and climbing the social ladder has costs and risks too. Finally, driving in certain ways might lead others to mutter about you under their breath; and trying to explain away the lives of other people in terms of their lack of aspiration might, similarly, lead others to certain conclusions about your character.
These problems with aspiration cannot be fixed by broadening the concept in the way that political parties try to do: the usual bore where an Oxford graduate talks about how great the new apprenticeships are going to be. All of that noise is just the man in the Audi saying that if the lady in the Fiat 500 will also shift lanes every three seconds, then the whole convoy will move faster. I am not arguing for better aspirations here. I am arguing against aspiration.
This might seem harsh, but that is because the language of aspiration has debased our political language. I am not arguing against individual success. I am arguing that a society whose only measure of success is doing better than other people has no true concept of success at all. It will think that one person getting ahead in the convoy is the best thing that can happen, even when it slows the whole convoy down; and it will leave those that do what society wants angry and stressed: constantly succeeding by the only measure they know, yet never feeling like a success. Aspiration will not cure any problems. It is a problem.
This same useless language of aspiration infects the national conversation about the North. We are cast as regional version of the white working class. If we’ve not got where we’re supposed to be yet, then it must be because we’re not tailgating the car in front hard enough. So we need to ‘level up’ by developing ‘clusters of high-value activities’, or we need a ‘Northern Powerhouse’ to ‘maximise our economic potential’, or maybe a ‘Northern Way’ to make us more entrepreneurial. The schemes are endless, but they’re all the same. Basically, we need to be a bit more London. We’ll all be happy then. This drivel is why the regional money always ends up in the big cities. The political classes can squint and pretend that Leeds is a potential London that just needs a bit of a push. They haven’t got a clue what to do about the small towns apart from encouraging people to leave: ‘There’s nothing there except pound shops and heroin anyway. Why would you want to stay?’ This is the ugliness of aspiration written on the national scale. There is no concept of a destination, no idea of something good in itself. There is merely the mindless comparison of one place to another on a scale that has no connection to human flourishing.
I have no aspiration for Yorkshire because Yorkshire is older, bigger, and better than the language of aspiration and than our entire degenerate post-war political class. I have no aspiration for Yorkshire because I have hope for it, and hope is a different kind of thing. I do not want Yorkshire to do well in the race to the bottom that now passes for civilisation. I want Yorkshire to survive it. It has survived the ruin of better things, as this newsletter’s picture illustrates.
For localist parties, such as the Yorkshire Party, there is a choice that they must make sooner or later. Do they stand for aspiration with a white rose bumper sticker, or do they stand for hope? The world is being turned upside-down again, and handing the lying language of Westminster over to York will not be enough for what lies ahead. Planning for the future will need someone who can tell it like it is. That is not politics as usual, but it might not be as hard to sell as it sounds. Who really wants be like London? I’m not even convinced that London does.
Image: ‘Rievaulx Abbey: The ruins of the grand Cistercian abbey near Helmsley, North Yorkshire’ by Richard (CC BY-ND 2.0).
This makes me think of Tony Blair. Mr Contemporary Received Pronunciation himself (I learned something there) was all about the aspiration for everyone in New Britain to 'join the middle classes.' I remember thinking exactly the same at the time about 'aspiration': the shallowness and stupidity of what people are supposed to be 'aspiring' to. The notion that 'being middle class' in a Tony Blair sort of way was so obviously desirable that everyone would be onboard. And today every Tory leadership candidate today will churn out the same stuff. Growth. Aspiration. The middle classes - even as the middle classes are hollowed out by neo-feudalism.
Incidentally, I went to Oxford University, as the first from my lower-middle class aspirational family ever to go to university. I remember being scared of being outclassed by the ferocious intelligence of all the people I expected to meet there. It turned out that about 5% of the students were very clever, and the rest were mostly conformists who knew how to work. This was my first awakening ...
To be honest it didn't worry us at all. We raised our children to make choices and learn from their mistakes I suppose. My daughter decided to go on from school to university as she wanted to teach English Lit. She has made a success of her career so far although not to the school managements approval. She is a wild card in many respects and brings much more to the classroom experience than the standard curriculum for English Lit. I am proud of her efforts to impart into her students a love of reading books as opposed to txt messages. I say this as a retired bus driver and shepherd !