Tuesday 17 December 2013

Jack Monroe and the Sociology of Selling Out

Selling out. Been there, done that. So has cookery blogger and Graun regular Jack Monroe, apparently. Not a household name by any means, but someone who was catapulted to Twitter fame after attracting the attention of The Mail's Richard Littlejohn following a party political broadcast for Labour. You can read her reply here. Now, I'd be lying if I said I followed Jack's work. Food columns and cookery writing just ain't my thing. Food is something to nom on and that's it for me. It's fodder, not a petit bourgeois distraction from the class struggle on a plate. I also gathered from Jack's blogs that she does some anti-poverty campaigning too. Now comes the tricky bit. Jack, a) speaks out about food banks; b) supports Labour; c) writes about cooking. Therefore, on what basis is she being labelled a "sell-out" for fronting a Sainsbury's ad campaign?

It's ridiculous. It really is. I'm sure Jack was surprised to learn she was a pin-up for anti-capitalist foodies. That somehow blogging for free about shopping at Sainsbury's is okay, but getting paid to talk about shopping at Sainsbury's for Sainsbury's isn't. It's a funny old world. Just what exactly has she "sold out"?

Selling out is an infantile concept to start off with. As my old mucker Kit observes, selling out is "learning from your experience, as other people might call it." It is a favourite on the far left of course. As a movement more at home with purity than relevancy, selling out is a label one can stick on dissidents and ex-members. It's a way of blunting criticism, of ignoring inconvenient truths and sidelining critical thought about strategy and the "prestige" of the leaders. There's a reason why one general secretary's been in post for nearly 50 years. But you don't need me to tell you it's just a left thing.

We live in an age where the officially-endorsed mode of individuality - the consumer - has reached its apogee. Think about the most basic characteristic of consumer-as-subject. It's me, me, me. I will choose what I want. I will demand gratification from others. And as I'm making the choices, I owe no one else anything. Perhaps Susan Greenfield had a point. We are encouraged to live in our own personal universes, to be stars of the movie playing inside our heads. And, broadly speaking, it's an outcome of modes of subjectivation in which meaning is found in the pursuit of commodities, be they physical goods, services, or ways of stringing them both together in styles of life. This in itself is not new. What is different now is we're living after a mutation in the nature of the media and the "accessibility" of celebrity. Fame is divorced from actual and discernible talent. Reality TV, celebrity gossip rags, etc. created and sustained a demand for instant celebrities whose sole criterion for fame was being in the right place at the right time. Social media generally, and Twitter in particular has allowed for the net to be cast even wider. Fame can happen in an instant. You can find yourself promoted by A-list stars or, um, fronting a supermarket ad campaign. In turn this feeds back into the narcissistic consumer subject. If you showboat enough, appear stylish enough, are funny enough, troll enough, or have followers enough you too can be kissed by fame.

Am I trying to say calling out Jack for selling out is a matter of jealousy? No. To quote brit-rock favourites Skunk Anansie, "it takes blood and guts to be this cool/ but I'm still just a cliche". Presenting a particular sense of self is a tough job. Keeping up appearances is a daily task. We are all Hyacinth Bucket. Being part of a subculture or just trying to appear fashionable, stylish means constant, exhausting self-surveillance. Those virtuosos who do appear effortlessly cool and/or au fait with their chosen milieu do so on the basis of years of practice, of performing and presenting in certain ways. This, however, can never be admitted. Friend-of-the-blog Pierre Bourdieu talks about something called an illusio. This is an effect of the social fields we encounter daily to justify the hierarchy, the arbiters of taste and distinction. In youth/style subcultures particularly, the form the illusio takes is authenticity. If you're an authentic hipster, you just are. If you're an authentic gamer, you're just naturally gifted at games. If you're an authentic music aficionado, you have an instinct for the best clubs and hot new underground acts. And on it goes. If you wan to apply it to the far left, authenticity inheres around being authentically proletarian, or being authentically Marxist. It is the presentation of carefully crafted, carefully contrived sets of practices and knowledges as somehow the natural properties of certain people.

It's this idea of authenticity that has so irked Jack's naysayers. Like I said, I don't know Jack but it's pretty evident she did not stake any claims-to-authenticity. Yet it is the effect of the fields that pervade our social existence that mean our actions tend to be perceived in light of them, regardless of our subjective intentions. As far as Jack was concerned, she's just an ordinary mum getting by on a tight budget, and writing about it for the internet and the Graun. Yet for some who followed her writing, they framed her in terms of non-celebrity authenticity, as a woman who cooked on a budget because she had to. She was strangely earthy and was in some weird, unconscious but nevertheless real sense anti-corporate and counter-hegemonic. In the manichean clash between social media civilisations, Jack was a good guy fighting the good fight with 30p liver and sultana casserole. She was an ally that slotted into many right-on senses of self. In spite of herself, Jack was a coordinate, a safe point of light in a chain of personal universes she never knew existed.

Therefore her decision to appear in an advert for a BIG CAPITALIST EVIL destroyed her perceived authenticity, despite being open about having shopped in Sainsbury's. Because it wasn't about her, it was about the narcissism of others. She wasn't to know that signing on the dotted line was like SPD deputies voting for war credits in the Reichstag all over again.


Phil said...

It's this idea of authenticity that has so irked Jack's naysayers.

No idea why you're jumping all over this one - it seems fairly straightforward to me. Once you've taken money from a big business to say what that business wants saying, it seems to me (and Bill Hicks, among others) that your judgment can never be entirely trusted again. I wince when I hear Michael Gambon doing ads; I know he's An Actor, but I expect better of him. This applies a hundredfold to anyone whose public statements actually carry any sort of radical message. You can't serve two masters, and the interests of J. Sainsbury's are not those of the working class.

Ghost Whistler said...

She campaigns about food poverty but is content to sell her image and reputation to a large corporate chain like Sainsburys. Whether or not you call that 'selling out' is immaterial. You have to consider why Sainsburys chose her and what they are paying for. Her 'fame' comes from her politics - helped, IMO, by the Labour party.

I don't begrudge her financial success; I have no problem with her publishing a cookbook for example (depending on whot he publisher is). However she has a media machine behind her (DCD publishing) that is branding poverty and she is monetising her reputation. I don't believe that warrants 'hate mail' any more than I belive she isn't entitled - aprticular as she is feted to the point of deification in the Guardian - to criticism for decisions she makes publicly.

I think Jack Monroe is politically very naive and has made an unfortunate decision that will compromise her integrity as a campaigner.

T-Childs said...

You see, if you can't beat them down like they can't with Jack, they will somehow incorporate her into the system. I for one do not resent her success at all and merely say 'you go girl!' As a Working class person myself I work hard towards being successful myself, and sadly much of the Left as you say has this BS authenticity thing going, where only suffering, genuinely poor, struggling people are authentic and the moment you get on a bit or move up the scale, you have 'sold out.' Isn't that curious, and that idea seems to be propagated by the Right and the Left against anyone espousing Left wing opinions, ideas or causes. It is a way of marginalising people yet again. Working class people always have to justify their ambitions, whereas we take it for granted that the Middle class and the wealthy can be as self centred, as greedy and ruthlessly ambitious as they like and no one is allowed to question that.

'If you wan to apply it to the far left, authenticity inheres around being authentically proletarian, or being authentically Marxist.' What's also utterly ironic about that statement is that the hard Left and many Leftist organisations of all kinds tend to be led by and filled with completely Middle class people, who then are attacking others for not being authentically proletarian?!!! That's rather odd, when the fact also seems to be that many Working class people do not get near such organisations and nowhere near the leadership either for that matter. Again, we are really talking about class politics more than anything else. The Middle class can lead us and speak on our behalf, but if we want to lead and want to speak for ourselves, then they close ranks don't they? We need a genuine Working class Left that is inclusive but that is led by Working class people and people who have lived on the bottom line, not pampered Middle class academics and trendy Lefties playing at being rebels before they get their affluent careers.

Peter said...

Quoting Bill Hicks on advertising is now a tired, lazy joke - his fatuous 'bad boy' promotion of cigarettes provided Big Tobacco with a last gasp of 'cool' with which to promote their toxic crap. And he even advertised the product for free - what a schmuck.

Who gives a fuck what such a shill for Big Tobacco said about anything?

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't go overboard and write off anything anyone ever says because they 'sold out'.

But equally, as others have pointed out, she is re-enforcing the system she is criticising by doing these ads. It would be like an environmental campaigner doing ads for Enron or gas guzzling cars. You would at least have to go hmmm...

Anonymous said...

...selling out is no more than human nature coming into play when a lefty sees a decent cheque, and the chance to better the interests of themself and their family. Show me a socialist who wouldn't take thd money and I'll show you a man who hasn't been offered it or already doesnt need it .Millionaire country house owner Billy Bragg probably wrote a heart felt ballad about it.

Always remember human nature my friends

Show me a man who says he is a vegan. And I'll show you a man trying to shag a vegan.

Best wishes

Phil said...

Who gives a fuck what such a shill for Big Tobacco said about anything?

In other words, you agree with what he said and you're criticising him on precisely the same grounds.

Second Anon - it really isn't about the money*. To quote the well-known ventriloquist's dummy Gilly Gragg**:

"Money maketh man a Tory" -
Don't fire that assumption at me.
I like toast as much as anyone,
But not for breakfast, lunch & tea.

It's about who you're endorsing, who you're endorsed by, ultimately what your words represent.

*At least, as a general thing it's not about the money - in her case in particular it would be a bit odd to make money out of being the face of poverty!

**Heard this at a Three Johns gig years ago.

Anonymous said...

Ah ....the Three Johns. Used to be regular at their gigs (and Attila and New Model Army and Chumbawumba) back in my youthful lefty days of yore....before I understood the real world. I think it is good to go through and get such nonsense out of your system at an early stage.

One of the reasons I smile so indulgently at radical yoofs of today...bless.

Good blogg by the way. Best wishes

Anonymous said...

Selling out: almost
"learning from your experience",

its actually:
"earning from your experience".

Peter said...

'Who gives a fuck what such a shill for Big Tobacco said about anything?

In other words, you agree with what he said and you're criticising him on precisely the same grounds.'

No, not really - I'm saying the regular quoting of Hicks as a fount of anti-marketing wisdom is ridiculous and doesn't bear scrutiny given all he did to promote cigarette smoking in his routine. He benefited both himself and BIg Tobacco by allying himself so strongly with cigarettes - they were actually part of his act. His apparent anti-advertising shtick was therefore hypocritical.

Mat said...

Great article - spot on the only thing Jack Monroe has sold out on is the imaginary politics others have put on her.

What she has really had the temerity to do is not be a ra-ra fist waving revolutionary socialist, like 99.9% of the rest of the population.

I wonder how many of the people slating her have had to live in the sort of situation she has documented?

T-Childs said...

Some of us have grown up in poverty Mat, and yet many so called lefties from affluent Middle class backgrounds are the first to attack Working class lefties when they escape their poverty in some way. Why is that exactly? It's OK to be wealthy if you are already Middle class, but somehow you have to be continually poor and in need of help if you come from a Working class background? Why is that? Who wants to be poor? Most Left politics is the preserve of the Middle class who live in ivory towers.

Jim Jepps said...

It seems to me that Jack thought long and hard about this, and how to do this without tailoring her message to a corporate sponsor.

I've always found it odd that socialists would never attack someone for having a job in sales, for instance, but dare to make money by selling on the tele and you're some sort of corrupt dog.

Sadly she's only making just over one and a half grand from this because she (wrongly in my view) feels she ought to give the rest away - hardly very much for ten weeks work and public criticism from people who she ought to be able to rely on as allies.

Earning a living isn't grubby, even if you happen to do it in the public eye.

T-Childs said...

'Earning a living isn't grubby, even if you happen to do it in the public eye.' Yes Jim, agreed 100%.

Jamie Oliver made at least a million from Sainsburys even though he is already a multi millionaire and sees fit to make comments about people living in poverty when he has never known a moment's real poverty in his life; why is it ok for the affluent to become more affluent but Jack has to constantly justify her better circumstances? If I become wealthy, I will not justify one thing to anyone. I already give to charity regularly anyway even though unemployed, so I would continue that. The rich aren't even paying their taxes now, avoiding tens of millions in some cases, and then trumpet the £5000 they 'give' to some charity probably run by Middle class do gooders anyway getting good salaries 'administering' the cash. Nice for some hey?

Malcolm said...

Anon said "Show me a socialist who wouldn't take thd [sic] money and I'll show you a man who hasn't been offered it" You are aware that she is donating the fee from Sainsbury's to charity (less six weeks living wage)? No, thought not.

Anonymous said...

I am aware that it is somewhat fortuitously timed with the forthcoming publication of her book. More than one way to skin the commercial cat.

Merry Winterval and best wishes.

Anonymous said...

What I find a sell out is the fact that she was writing posts about the fact that Jamie Oliver is such a stupid little rich kid and then she goes to work for him making video's for his food tube channel. So now when she can get Jamie Oliver's money, he suddenly is okay? It looks to me like when you give little miss Monroe money, she is for sale. And the Sainsbury thing just shows this. Also I don't think that it is a good idea to make her the face of poverty. That's an insult to people who are indeed poor.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree to a certain extent with the former poster.
Now I support Jack's causes and I support her decisions to put bread on her (own) table.
However, in the past she has criticised Jamie Oliver and then climbed aboard his Food Tube channel as if nothing had happened.
Her own website has been revamped is so fragrant it feels like it has more in common with middle class women than us common folk. The content there has suffered too with people not participating as much.
I feel there are many people like myself who are a bit disappointed but do not feel part of her (insert word) anymore. However, we still support her so we keep schtum. Oh well...