Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The Visibility of Ruling Class Reproduction

Last week there was a minor kerfuffle in the press and social media about a photography book. This doesn't happen very often because, well, in the age of Instagram and selfies who needs someone else's photos to make your coffee table look sharp? Beats me, but a market there remains nonetheless. What I See is, well, a compilation of photos by Brooklyn Beckham of what he, um, sees. Photos of family, photos of dinner, photos of friends, photos of holidays, it's all entirely unremarkable and what you'd expect any budding 18 year old photographer to try their hand at. Then why the interest? In case you hadn't noticed nor paid attention, our Brooklyn is David and Victoria's lad, the heir to the empire and, as such, a product of Brand Beckham. Therefore whatever he decides to do can only but generate interest. Here, I'm not interested in that per se, rather what is interesting is the interest and, ultimately, what this says about the reproduction of the ruling class in the 21st century.

Celebrity offspring can usually be found trying to cut singles of their own, getting into acting, or just providing the paps with Sidebar of Shame fodder, and so straight away Brooklyn has distinguished himself among his peers. However, as a person of interest decreed by his parentage, by dabbling with photography he is straight away positioned as an illegitimate outsider by the arbiters of art and taste in the field. After all, how many teenagers have a photography book to brag about? Therefore Brooklyn's celebrity capital has forced an entry into a field in which the requisite entry fee - years of work, networking, apprenticing, exhibiting - is entirely bypassed. For instance, arts editor for The I Alice Jones had a snarky look and Brooklyn's efforts that just about summed up the professional response to it. And yet there has proven no shortage of defenders, including no less a personage than the BBC's arts editor.

It would be easy to agree with the esteemed Gompertz and others who would defend him. As his publicist puts it, "What I See is a book for teenagers, by a teenager, which gives Brooklyn's fans broader insight into his world seen through his unique and creative perspective." A case of misrecognition by the photography community, then? This is common enough. Remember when Fifty Shades of Grey was the big cultural event? Ridiculously, you had literary authors and critics weighing in to attack it for being a sloppily written dull slab of porn pulp instead of an exquisite work of literary erotica. As if it was ever conceived to be anything other than trashy sex with light BDSM and dodgy gender politics.

A case of snobby gate-keeping here then? Perhaps not. In early 2016 Brooklyn was hired by Burberry to shoot its fragrance campaign. At the time, fashion photographer Chris Lloyd argued,
David and Victoria Beckham represent sheer willpower and graft. Especially her, she’s climbed that mountain all by herself. They represent hard work and then their 16-year-old year son comes along and it’s sheer nepotism. He hasn’t done it from hard work, which is counter-intuitive to what his parents represent.
Joe Gorrigan, another photographer said,
It infuriates me because I learned my trade and other photographers learn their trade but he’s not learning his trade. I can understand why they’re doing it, getting the younger generation interested in Burberry. It definitely annoys me. Names sell, don’t they?
They do indeed. Brooklyn represents a double threat. The first, of the traditional imposter muscling in on a field and flouting its conventions. Think the nouveaux riches getting marked down as vulgar upon their admittance into 19th century society, but could not be ignored because of the wealth they represented. The second, however, speaks of the anxiety gripping photography as a profession and as an art. The explosion of digital cameras and embedding them in smartphones threatens the field with devaluation, both in terms of status and the fees all but the most specialist photographers can command. Linked to this is the ubiquity of Photoshop and the filters that can be applied on Instagram. When everyone is a photographer, no one can be a photographer. Brooklyn therefore condenses the anxiety toward the outsider every field feels, and the fear of a deskilled future in which the techniques photographers take years to master are rendered obsolete. Who cares about lighting when the computer can sort it for you?

There is something else these Beckham junior episodes sum up, and that's the visibility of ruling class reproduction. In 21st century capitalism, so much of what used to be hidden is now explicit. Most crucially of all, the hidden character of exploitation that was hidden behind the wage relation is coming into the open. To demonstrate, in most occupations the wage hides the real state of affairs. It appears to be a private contract between equals: in return for working x number of hours, you shall receive y amount of pay. As noted here recently,
Capital employs labour power to make commodities, be they material, like the laptop I'm writing this blog post on, or immaterial, like knowledge or a service. The worker, or proletarian, receives a wage or salary for their time doing whatever their employer asks of them - an experience, ultimately, not without serious consequences. However, from the point of view of the worker a great deal of time spent in the workplace is completely unnecessary. Say in a five day week, our worker produces £2,500 worth of commodities and receives £500/week in wages, the value of their labour power has been generated on day one. Effectively, for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday they're undertaking surplus labour. Labour, that is surplus to their requirements. When these commodities are sold, that extra value, surplus value, accrues to the employer. Some of it is advanced to cover the next round of wages. Other bits pay off loans, rent, etc. Some is put aside for reinvestment, and what is left is squirreled away as profit.
Basically put, workers in capitalist society are exploited because they are denied the full value of what they produce. They are compelled to sell their labour power or suffer the indignity of unemployment and the petty tyranny of the dole office. However, with the erosion of workers' rights, the weakness of the labour movement, and ongoing changes to class, we are seeing more gratuitous and overtly exploitative forms of wage labour become more common. Zero hours contracts renders naked the power differential between capital and (atomised) labour. Uber, Deliveroo, but bogus self-employment contractors like the poor sods who harass you on the high street can see the revenue their labour generates and how much of that is directly appropriated by the app/employer. And in both examples, their status renders them ineligible for most rights more "conventional" workers enjoy.

As the exploitative relationships capital depend are starting to light up like Christmas trees, the coupon snipping class who live off it sees their reproduction strategies move into popular view. Like many celebrities, the Beckhams are simultaneously a concentration and accumulation of capital. Certainly not capitalists in the Scrooge (or Scrooge McDuck) mode, their business model is basically identical to that of the big sportswear multinationals Naomi Klein covered and critiqued in No Logo. She looked at how Nike, among others, divested themselves of the trappings of a clothing manufacturer and shrank itself down to a branding operation concentrating on product design, image, marketing, advertising. If you like the cognitive functions were retained and almost everything else was contracted out. Brand Beckham and other celebrities work entirely alike. Victoria designs a new range for her label, David lends his name to a new cologne. The messy business of production and distribution is taken care of while they reap the lion's share of the rewards. Therefore everything they and the A-list celebrity set do, each bit of publicity in traditional and social media enhances their celebrity capital which, in turn, supports their economic capital. And that, in turn, feeds their status to the point where they are intertwined and inseparable.

To be a celebrity, to maintain one's capital means playing the celebrity game, and the cheapest, most convenient investment of keeping you visible is your Instagrams and your Twitters. The problem is that as you live your life out online, your relationships with the milieu in which you mix become transparent too. Usually what results are the preserve of the gossip sites and magazines, of who Calvin Harris is shacking up with, who Nicki Minaj is feuding with, you know it, you probably read it. Apart from this, however, you see how celebrities cross-promote one another and back each others' ventures through endorsements, or reach out to anoint someone else into their circle. This is pretty much what is happening with Brooklyn Beckham. He emerged into to world cradled by celebrity capital, and as part of the firm - whether consciously divined or not - it paved the way to his ambitions, whatever they may be. We know, everyone knows, not least Brooklyn himself, that he owes his position in the firmament entirely to this. The sorting of his Burberry job, the book, the celebs who drift in and out of his Instagram, the cognoscenti who defend his book, it's simply reinforcing the fact that talent plays second fiddle to who you know, and if you're part of a wealthy celebrity dynasty, people will want to know you.

It has always been thus. Public schools, the traditional gentlemen's club, the salon, Society, these were the private spaces where the well heeled got together, gave out jobs for the boys, sorted marriages, went into business, and so on. Not everything among our heavily mediatised celebrity class is on display, but enough of it is. How they police their boundaries, how they relate to one another, how they reproduce themselves as members of the ruling class and induct new members into it is there for the world to see. And this presents a problem for them and their system, because this cannot be dissociated from the increasingly stark modes of exploitation capitalism increasingly depends on. When social mobility is locked, and when large numbers of young people are socialised into graduate jobs that simply do not exist in sufficient numbers, the spectacle of someone like a Brooklyn Beckham, effortlessly settling into an enviable line of work by virtue of who is is and not what he's capable of doing helps keep growing heap of frustration and grievance keep ticking over.


Speedy said...

Not 100 percent convinced (even though the photos are probably shit).

Certainly, there were a few working class celeb photographers in the Sixties, but it has always been dominated by those that can put the time in and have the connections. Ditto, the rest of the media and entertainment. And everything else. No wonder they're pissed.

The Beckhams are sneered at because as you say they are arrivistes. But one thing that has always struck me is that the only places working class people are "permitted" to excel are sport and entertainment - for our amusement, basically.

Then they get brickbats for playing the same game with their kids as the ruling class has always done. This far but no further, chav.

So, yes, I see your point, but I have some sympathy for the few working class people that "slip through".

Anonymous said...

Social mobility blocked, probably true for males, but stop, doesn't this ignore the experience of women? As you might remember from your ALevel sociology, there was lots on male social mobility, but less on women. At the time of the major Oxford study(10,000 males) one of the designers claimed that women didn't have a class position on their own account and so couldn't have social mobility.

Dialectician1 said...

I am assuming this article is about social mobility? Or, the hidden workings of a ruling elite, which purports to offer a meritocracy but in reality has intricate and historic systems in place to perpetuate the reproduction of their own class advantage. The problem with the debates about meritocracy is not only the questionable methodology for deciding whether there has been a flow of talent to the top but also what we mean by talent (merit). What is kept well hidden is the myth of innate talent. No one is born talented, although those at the top would like us to believe it has been passed down genetically (see Danny Dorling on the myth of IQ.) But even we believe it is nurtured through a very long process of purposeful practise (people only become good at anything if they are correctly mentored over a sustained period) our education system is deliberately non inclusive (e.g. the golden triangle of elite universities). Moreover, what we decide as worthwhile endeavour (i.e. a classical education etc) has already been decided historically by the elite group. People don't just become good photographers overnight. Child prodigies are also mythical. As John Lennon says 'I've got blisters on my fingers'.