Pathfinders: The Ladybird Book of Revolution
Older readers will recall with fondness their salad days learning to read in the company of nice and respectable middle-class kids Peter and Jane, and Pat the dog. Ladybird has lately achieved renewed prominence with their amusing self-spoofing series for adults covering hangovers, red tape, mid-life crises, throwing a sickie, the people next door and surviving a zombie apocalypse (bbc.co.uk/news/uk-38627650). Having successfully re-established themselves as nostalgia comedy they’ve now done a very odd thing. They’ve let Prince Charles co-write a Ladybird book on climate change.
It’s a bit hard to see the thinking here. Ladybird books won’t mean anything to today’s children, and the retro look surely can’t be aimed at them, so Ladybird seem to be suggesting that some adults are too stupid to understand the case for climate action unless it’s written by a doddering royal in large type and words of one syllable, and with circa-1960 hand-drawn pictures. Condescending or what, your royal haughtiness?
Of course you can certainly argue that none of us really understand the science, because we’re not climatologists. But at the political level the argument is much simpler. Barring a few loony deniers, the entire scientific community is united and unequivocal. There is a problem. The question is what to do about it. There now, that wasn’t difficult, was it?
There is something of an elephant lumbering around the environmental debate which some will be painfully aware of while others may be studiously ignoring it – the lack of participation by what is called the ‘traditional working class’ (TWC) and the consequent domination of the subject by the cultural middle class (CMC).
These terms require a short digression. Socialists identify two economic classes in society which are perpetually at war with each other, the ruling or parasitical class which owns and controls everything but does no real work, and the working class or 99 percent, who control nothing and are economic slaves. One could picture these two classes as opposing trenches on a battlefield. For us there can be no middle class. If there was, it would be standing in No Man’s Land getting shot at by both sides.
However most people use the word ‘class’ in a vaguer cultural sense, with all sorts of prejudices and preconceptions attached. It is this world of cultural categories that is at issue here.
Go to any Green party or environmentalist meeting and count the number of people there with university degrees and CMC manners, voices, clothes and social connections. Very often there will be nobody at the meeting who does not fit that description, be they TWC, immigrants or other ethnic minorities.
There are three possible explanations for this lack of participation. The first is the one put forward by HRH, in collaboration with Ladybird. The message isn’t simple enough.
The second explanation is the one put forward by many sympathetic Greens themselves, as well as politicians and media pundits, and ably expressed by a British climatologist recently: ‘For too long the climate change discussion has been about things that will happen in 100 years time. For economically insecure people, statements about what might happen in 100 years time they just don’t care about, because they know these kind of predictions have been proved wrong in the past and will be in the future’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-38640413).
One could go further and suggest that people facing a desperate struggle to survive today won’t care about anything that’s a hundred years away whether the predictions are correct or not. But while there’s obviously some truth in this, it is not the case that concern over the environment is always associated with personal financial well-being, i.e. that having an environmental conscience is somehow a luxury item that the poor can’t afford. Many TWC people are not especially poor, have foreign holidays every year and spend a fortune at Christmas, while some people with university backgrounds have no job or money yet still shop ethically, eat tofu and recycle religiously. It’s not simply about the money.
The third explanation is that the TWC are not only not interested in environmental concerns, but actually put off them because of their CMC image. If you live on a council estate, don’t have a degree and speak with a local accent, you might very well decide that environmentalism is not for you. You’re pretty sure you wouldn’t like or relate to anyone, and they wouldn’t like you. Your face, voice, clothes, hair and make-up just wouldn’t fit. You talk yourself out of being involved.
And are you entirely wrong to do so? Perhaps the uncomfortable truth is that some CMC environmentalists are quite happy in their cosy little clique and would be secretly horrified if it was suddenly invaded by working-class types wearing hoodies and bling and reeking of skunk, or hard-boiled council estate veterans with tattoos on their knuckles. Environmentalism is Frasier and Friends and Have I Got News For You?, not Eastenders and Shameless.
The problem is the nature of environmentalist politics, which tends to ignore class politics as essentially irrelevant to the debate. We all live on the same planet, runs the thinking, so we should be able to rise above our petty class divisions in order to save it. But that of course is a lot easier to say when you’re not the one getting the worst of those divisions and you’re not even aware what the worst involves. This is how environmentalism slips into the genteel world of Ladybird, and away from the real and bruising world of class war.
Would it make much difference if environmentalists incorporated class into their world view, given that power resides not with them but with state elites? Well, it would give socialist revolutionaries and environmentalists something in common, and it would make the debate more inclusive, something which needs to happen if anything is ever going to change. You can’t wish away class war by ignoring it, but you can wish away a lot of potential support.