If there is something that vexes the political left across Europe and the United States, currently, universally, it is the apparent disconnect between ‘traditional’ social democratic politics and its ‘traditional’ audience. Why, seemingly, are working people, if they are not turned off politics altogether, are turning from the left to the right, from the Communist Party in France to the National Front, from Labour to UKIP (or, at best, if we can call it that, the Conservatives)? Is there something in the political landscape of the last generation that hints at an answer to the question, or a solution to the problem? This is something I’ve certainly been thinking about, for it bears down directly on my current work – why, in an estuary of potential choices, was it Labour that became the dominant channel along which the political aspirations and actions of working people flowed?
It was with these thoughts that I chanced across a preview commentary on the English translation of Édouard Louis’s En Finir avec Eddy Bellegueule (2014) – Finishing With Eddy Bellegueule or in its more moderated, translated title The End of Eddy. In the three years between the French original and the English translation, the world has changed dramatically, but in fulfilment of the worst threats of that time. The list is instantly familiar, is it not: Brexit, Trump, the steady rise of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, the Sweden Democrats, and comparable weakening of social democratic parties across Western Europe. As I raced through the text, it was unsettlingly and happily familiar. The Picardie of Louis’s childhood was not so far different from the South Wales Valleys of my own; there was a different language, too, often ill-represented in mainstream discourse; and there was the abandonment by the intelligentsia and political class alike, except for the stereotypes that they served to perpetuate. Was Brexit a shock at the end of that? Was (and is) support for the Front National? No.
But to say no in response to such questions is not to excuse those actions, for they are inexcusable, at least if that environment was once your own, but they are knowable and explainable. Édouard Louis relates, for instance, how his mother voted for Marine Le Pen in the elections because she spoke their language (“she’s the only one who talks about us, the little people”) and was, ultimately, the only politician with balls – to have the conviction of her beliefs. You hear much the same rhetoric swirling around Brexit. There’s little truth in it, to be sure, because the model of populist politics employed by Marine Le Pen and by the Leave campaign was not about overcoming the invisibility of the dispossessed by giving their ‘country’ back to them but about exploiting that invisibility to serve the ends of a minority. It is a lie that working people were ever in possession of their country.
A barefaced lie.
That was the whole reason, in the first place, for labour movements, for the language of social democracy, and for seeking power to change the way society functioned. ‘A young miner in a South Wales colliery’, wrote Aneurin Bevan, ‘my concern was with one practical question: Where does power lie in this particular state of Great Britain, and how can it be attained by the workers?’ That was the point. Then at least. But those workers who elected Bevan and other similar doers eventually became disconnected – a phenomenon that Bevan worried about:
Social institutions are what they do, not necessarily what we say they do. It is the verb that matters, not the noun.
If this is not understood we become symbol worshippers. The categories we once evolved and which were the tools we used in our intercourse with reality become hopelessly blunted. In these circumstances the social and political realities we are supposed to be grappling with change and reshape themselves independently of the collective impact of our ideas. We become the creature and no longer the partner of social realities. As we fumble with outworn categories our political vitality is sucked away and we stumble from one situation to another, without chart, without compass, and with the steering-wheel lashed to a course we are no longer following.
This is the real point of danger for a political party and for the leaders and thinkers who inspire it. For if they are out of touch with reality, the masses are not.
And in the process of becoming disconnected, the politicians retained the power that they once sought to rehabilitate to the classes populaires. The working class, and those without work who rest below them, became utterly dispossessed of all but the capacity to shock the complacent system when given the opportunity.
The everyday consequences of that dispossession lie at the centre of The End of Eddy, which is a truly remarkable book. I hesitate to use the word novel, because it isn’t that. Fiction allows for distancing of the author, to be sure, but even so manufactured a term as auto-fiction (applied with some merit to Karl Ove Knausgaard, for instance) hardly sums up a book that is as much sociology as it is literature, and which tells the truth. We are shown the abandonment of education – a choice as much as a guided fate – and the masculine determination that men win the bread for their families. There was the role of sport, in this case soccer, but in the valleys it could just as well be rugby union, in manifesting a particular masculine virility and providing a ready-made language to parrot as part of the ‘fitting in’ process. And of course there was the violence and racism and homophobia which became normalised within this milieu because any confrontation tended to come from the different and the over-theres. The true value of Édouard Louis’s writing, then, lies in the authentic internal confrontation of those traits.
The End of Eddy concludes, and there is nothing dangerous in revealing this, since it is as common as the baguette, in a departure. By leaving the village and heading off towards higher education, the young Eddy makes the break with his past and with the (almost) inevitabilities into which he was born. A similar departure occurred for Didier Eribon, to whom En Finir avec Eddy Bellegueule was dedicated, and provided the fundamental basis for his Retour à Reims (Returning to Reims). I read this subsequent to The End of Eddy and although it is the older book I’m quite glad I approached them this way around. Eribon is even less fictive than Louis and the result is a text that lays bare a much broader landscape and longer chronology of dispossession.
This is not quite En Finir avec Didier, so much as the end of the ‘class closet’ into which Eribon stepped in parallel with his emergence from the more traditional closet of sexuality. ‘I was obliged to shape myself’, he writes, ‘by playing one off against the other’. It’s a hard-hitting sentence that sums up the great value of the work. Returning to Reims fleshes out, sociologically, many of the themes raised in The End of Eddy, not least the relationship between dispossession and the use of the ballot box (or lack of it) to express a certain kind of will or general frustration. He writes:
A class war is carried out at the ballot box, a practice of confrontation is reproduced election after election, in which one class – or part of one class – is seen doing its best to make its presence manifest in the face of others, to set up a power relation.
The consequences of this, he continues, are manifest in the weakening of the old alliances of the Left and their replacement with new ones seemingly of those once regarded as enemies:
The major effect of the disappearance of the working class and of workers – or even, we might say, of the popular class more generally – from political discourse will thus have been the weakening of the long-standing alliances formed under the banner of the Left between the working-class world and certain other social categories (workers in the public sector, teachers, and so on), and the formation of a new ‘historical bloc’ bringing together large portions of the vulnerable popular classes living under conditions of precarity with shopkeepers and tradespeople, or with well-to-do retirees in the south of France, or even with fascist military types or traditional old Catholic families, and thus largely located on the right or even the far right.
This does not mean that the new bloc is as solid as the former alliances but it nevertheless exists and:
in voting for the National Front, individuals remain individuals and the opinion they produce is simply the sum of their spontaneous prejudices, latched onto by the party, and taken up and formulated into a coherent political programme.
What, ultimately, were the demographics of Brexit? Well, of the thirty areas with the highest number of old people, twenty-seven voted to leave (ninety percent). Of those with the lowest level of higher education attainment, twenty-eight voted to leave; of those with a median income below thirty thousand pounds the vote was to leave. And so on, and so forth. It hardly needs saying, either, that these are precisely the lines of fracture that are currently pulling the British Labour Party apart.
The massive gulf between these two works and the final one that forms this review blog, Matthew Todd’s 2016 work Straight Jacket, is not simply one of intent and aim, I feel it is one that sums up the absence in British intellectual life of what Édouard Louis and Didier Eribon offer to French audiences. All three books are bound together by their exploration of the challenges facing gay people as they come of age, but whereas Louis and Eribon then proceed with books that are guided by the political sensitivities of social class and alienation, Todd can’t escape the gaze of consumerist culture. Perhaps it is unfair of me to bring these works together like this, but I do so to make the point that there needs to be a follow up to Todd’s volume that moves away from consumerism and hears voices that are typical of the margins, that are less middle-class. Unless that happens, the margins will continue to slip by and the world won’t really change all that much.
Todd is drawn to the self-destructive consequences of what he rightly regards as a mental health crisis: substance abuse, alcohol abuse, addiction to sexual activity, body dysmorphia, anxiety, and suicide. One of the early examples in the book is Kristian Digby, a BBC presenter for the pioneering digital channel BBC Choice (later BBC 3), who died suddenly in 2010. Digby first came to public notice as a presenter for That Gay Show, an attempt at producing targeted LGBT content that typified the social transformations of New Labour’s first term in office. In his mid-20s, good-looking, and keen to display his sexuality in a modern, uncamp manner, Digby readily appealed to young men in search of public role models. He was distinct from the Graham Norton mode of overt camp that was equally present at the time, or Lily Savage’s drag act. But beneath the surface, as Todd illustrates in his discussion, was a very different context illustrative of the self-harm that accompanied growing up gay in a society that said it was wrong. Section 28 may have been a failure as a piece of legislation, since it was frequently not implemented by local authorities, but it did engender a culture of silence in schools and that silence itself was deadly.
At this juncture, an entirely different book might have emerged if the intersectional relationships between class and sexuality and gender and social violence had been on Todd’s radar. Those are the causes. What he views instead are the effects. He is instinctively drawn to the manifestation of social traumas in addictive behaviour. He notes that many LGBT people have ‘chronic recurrent humiliation’ which manifests itself ‘as depression, suicide ideation and other negative feelings’, and provides the basis on which substance and other forms of addiction are built. Many will find something to relate to in Todd’s discussion of the ‘iceberg theory’ of addiction and may well recognise certain traits in their own patterns of behaviour – addiction to work is just as indicative as addiction to crystal meth. He continues:
One of the most classic and commonest symptoms of people with addictions is irrationally swinging from feeling better than everyone else to feeling worse than everyone else […] it’s a horribly confusing place to be.
Todd draws a persuasive line between trauma and the desire for self-expression that comes from an interest in science fiction and musical theatre. (One is easily more problematic than the other.) What science fiction offers, perhaps more than musical theatre, is an environment in which all individuals are respected regardless of who they happen to be. We’re told frequently how significant Star Trek was in the 1960s for the civil rights movement, for instance, and academics are now recognising the relationship between civil rights and the LGBT equality campaigns that followed. The similarly of appeal is hardly a coincidence. Compare that to musical theatre which narrows down to a certain type of heroism, and those who ‘make it’ in the theatre world are generally the most attractive and talented. Rather like the rest of the consumerist world or, perhaps more unfortunately, in literature. For all that an Alan Hollinghurst novel is still relatively rare in portraying gay life, it is still a poor illustration of how most gay people exist. Social realism has yet to find its way into ‘our lives’. Where, for instance, are the kitchen sink dramas? What if Arthur Seaton’s gay cousin came into view? Imagine how much healthier the world would be.
We return to the issue of class, once more. For a more politically-aware portrait of social trauma would have included far more on the intersection of class and sexuality, on the relationship between poverty and poverty of experience (that is, isolation). When I was doing my initial research on Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, I read an interview given by Mike Jackson, the group’s northern working-class secretary, who reflected on the way that a vital element of his existence – his sexuality – was being ‘stolen’ and manipulated by the wealthy middle-class men who revelled in the clubs and drugs but who did little to really change the world for the better. Perhaps it’s no surprise that another LGSM member, Nicola Field, wrote in the mid-1990s of the dangers of consumerist identity politics to the gay liberation movement. What Todd, to some extent, takes for granted, Field recognised as indicative of the wider problem. As do Édouard Louis and Didier Eribon.
In drawing this blog to a close, I want to pick up on one final point of connection that, as I reached the end of Returning to Reims, caught me completely off guard. That is, Eribon’s employment of Raymond Williams’s Border Country. Those familiar with that classic of Welsh literature will recognise certain traits common to the French writing discussed above. Like Eribon, I’m struck by the dilemma of the return. Can you truly go back to a place that you once rejected and whose values seemingly rejected the you that you became in exile? (This isn’t, to be sure, exactly the dilemma faced in Border Country.) Williams concludes thusly:
Only now it seems like the end of exile. Not going back, but the feeling of exile ending. For the distance is measured, and this is what matters. By measuring the distance, we come home.
Perhaps, in the end, this is much too hopeful. But then Matthew Price has not suffered the alienation of sexual difference, and that alone makes the distance of exile easier to measure. (The real exile is that faced by Hugh in Gwyn Thomas’s Sorrow For Thy Sons, who truly does leave the valley in an act of difference, of succumbing to the social violence whose scars he bore with him on the journey. But that is another story entirely.) Perhaps this is really a metaphor for the measurements taken by those who have little to do with working-class lives, either because they were born middle-class or remain happily locked in their class closets? Perhaps, indeed, it is both? Either way, to understand the violence of the social world, as it manifests intersectionally, with a clear eye on social class, as Eribon and Louis do, is to begin to understand how to ameliorate the dislocation and dispossession of the class to which we belong (once?). We are, after all, in search of lost time.