One of the most curious features of the recent UK election was the ambiguous media treatment enjoyed by David Cameron’s class background. While the fact of his privilege was unassailable, with Cameron himself telling ITV that his was a “very posh, very privileged upbringing”, the moral salience of this fact for assessing the man as a future Prime Minister was roundly denied by everyone to the right of Old Labour. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the political expediency of such a rhetorical strategy in defence of a party led by the most nakedly privileged leadership that it, historically the party of the privileged, has enjoyed for many decades.
Even so it raises the question of the political and cultural circumstances which renders such a strategy both obvious and plausible. I would argue that it represents the culmination of liberal individualism, as a questionable (and once widely questioned) picture of an atomistic social world becomes entrenched in cultural common sense and begins to shape the limits of the thinkable. Given such an understanding any personal characteristic (someone’s socio-economic background and even their political views) which is not a consequence of an individual’s immediate choice is seen to be beyond criticism because to criticise it would transgress the idea of tolerance which colonises ever greater areas of argumentative space.
On a purely political level this is problematic because it leaves matters off stage which should surely be subject to debate and scrutiny. However I want to argue that it’s also conceptually incoherent, in the sense that it’s simply not possible to offer a thoroughgoing appraisal of candidates for office which makes no mention of the social circumstances which shaped them.
The realist theorist Margaret Archer suggests that human identity comprises an I, Me, We and You. She argues that the development of an adult identity necessitates the movement through these four stages and that, throughout our lives, shifts in our identity occur through ongoing cycles of such movements. ’I’ is our internal sense of self, ‘me’ is our objective social placement, ‘we’ is our collective action within society and ‘you’ is the aggregate of these factors with which others within society are able to ascertain and know about us. The aforementioned rhetorical strategy (and it is a rhetorical strategy though the cultural framework upon which it draws isn’t and is correspondingly much more pervasive and dangerous) serves to censor the ‘me’ and the ‘we’. Their moral relevance to the assessment of a person is denied and, furthermore, any suggestion that they should not be left ‘off stage’ is seen to be, at least potentially, prejudicial.
The result is that any sense of Cameron’s objective social placement (the sheer wealth & privilege into which he was born) is seen as being off limits. To mention it invites accusations of ‘inverted snobbery’, ‘prejudice’ or, worse, ‘the politics of envy’. Likewise political discourse quickly loses any sense of his membership of a collective group pursuing collective aims which serve some interests within society and work against others. The result is a narcissistic, childish and contradictory politics. It embraces the ‘I’ suggesting that we ought to judge based on personal character and other virtues while castigating discussion of those factors (the ‘me’ and the ‘we’) which serve to shape and define who this man is, what he cares about, how he views the social world, who he is allied with, what his interests are etc. This leads to the evacuation of an intellectual space which can be filled by the work of professional advertisers and marketers, paid small fortunes to craft an image and control public perceptions.