By Daniel Smith
BBC Two have a new series covering the everyday realities of the high-society magazine, Tatler, the periodical which dates back to the 18th century and so chronicles the goings-ons of British ‘upper class’ life. The series is entitled Posh People: Inside Tatler. For some critics, notably Hadley Freeman of The Guardian, the whole idea of the series is tedious; the whole obsession with social class, especially dramatic polarisations of class in British society, is itself an aberration – not the people included in the documentary. Pointing to the sheer lunacy of the show, Freeman notes that the documentary was mere gazing at posh people for amusement – amusement of resentiment or amusement of recognition, it doesn’t matter. Ultimately the documentary doesn’t inform us of anything important, she suggests, just that class still exists and it comes in the form of eating pears with spoons!
I wouldn’t dismiss Posh People with such a broad stroke. While certainly it is in the interests of the producers of the show to depict that which is silly for the sake of viewers, the effect isn’t nearly as trivial as Freeman makes out. Indeed, the actual title of the programme Posh People requires not a colon after it but a question mark, Posh People? This is the whole motive guiding the documentary, it is a search to define ‘poshness’ or the upper-class of contemporary Britain. The joke of the first episode that editor Kate Reardon makes all staff read, learn and rely upon Debrett’s etiquette manual is indicative of the crucial part played by Tatler as cultural intermediaries; they are those who seek to define and guard cultural resources for a given collective (Bourdieu, 1986). Without the role played by those guardians of privilege, privilege itself goes undefined. So when Freeman makes the suggestion that ‘Brits are obsessed with class’, the cart is being put before the horse: rather ‘class’, in a distinctly British sense, is being defined and moulded in the type of cultural production that Tatler, the programme Posh People and others (e.g. BBC Three’s Life is Toff), engages in. Notable in this respect is the types of idiosyncratic cartography which Tatler engages in: ‘old country – black Labrador; new in London – Labradoodle’. This is a cartography of contingency; turning fashion and trends into a synchronic, stereotyped guide book of privileged culture.
The point is that because the magazine attempts to play into an appeal to tradition with its circulation that is over 300 years old, the conjuring trick this requires on the part of the cultural producers is something like this: “let’s assume there is something called ‘British’-ness, or ‘English-ness’, and that we chronicle this… but all the while forget that chronicling itself is part of the defining process.” Instead of seeing what they do as part of the definition of an elite Englishness or classed and racialized vision of British identity, Tatler (and other forms of cultural intermediary activity associated with elites) claim to be the ones who help ‘us’, the non-elites or ‘bystanders’, gain knowledge and insight into the very world we are excluded from.
Crucial to this process of exclusion by way of exposure is how Posh People has shown the British public that a clear cut, uniform, idea of ‘The Establishment’ or ‘upper-class’ does not exist. While this has been well known for some time, especially in social science circles (see Piketty’s (2014) massive tome on the drastic nature of social inequality induced by the neo-liberal project), what is interesting about the documentary that seldom appears in sociological literature is the seeing-into window it provides the life world of the elites. So various are the ‘elites’ in a Britain that is subject to the massive pressures of neo-liberal markets and globalising forces that what Posh People exposes is how Tatler engages in processes of assimilation: shifting and sorting out new elite ventures, new elite members, new elite practices so that, despite contingencies and differences, they become dressed up and acculturated into an ideal of British identity or, even, ‘Englishness’. Hence the conjuring trick may continue: chronicling is defining, and defining seeks to guard an enduring ideal of what Englishness consists of.
Given the openness of this idea of the British upper-class, that it is open to change and inclusion of new members, practices and so forth, it is worth noting how important cultural production is in the maintaining of elite identity, privilege and reproduction. Khan (2012) has suggested that as elites become more open and meritocratic, the question becomes how is that the most talented and successful are elites or remain of privileged backgrounds? The answer is that elite culture has embraced what Khan calls an ethic of ‘individual self-cultivation’ (Khan, 2012:481): Tatler is an excellent cultural intermediary in this process. While the documentary will tell the story of new comers to the world of Britain’s elites, the Russian oligarchs, the Nigeria billionaires, the French diamond merchants or American socialites, the story of openness is also a story of closure. This story of access to recourses then becomes one of entry into Britain’s upper-class, the cultural baggage of ‘British upper-class’, then, becomes the symbolic capital sourced from their economic gains. Self-cultivation, or making lots of money, is then converted into acceptance into Britain’s upper-class set. What Tatler and other cultural intermediaries effect is the conversion of brute economic might into cultured and stylised British-ness – if we are to believe Ellen Woods’ (1991) historical analysis (and I have every reason to believe her), this has long been the peculiarity to Britain’s economic development. ‘Class’ in capitalist terms is re-affirmed by extra-economic means, i.e. that of style, culture, language and fashion (Wood, 1995:37f). Elsewhere I have demonstrated this is the case with the Jack Wills brand, using the language of marketing they effectively and skilfully re-introduce the ideology and aesthetic of heraldry (Smith, 2014).
There is a huge market for a type of white- upper-class British-ness in modern Britain: part of why this is the need for people to locate themselves as a subject in a multi-racial and highly unequal society through consumer choice, i.e. looking toward others as models of self-improvement, and the other is more reactionary. We are obliged to engage in self-improvement so as to fit the ideological mantra of the neo-liberal project. When it comes to British identity, I call this the ‘dialectic of gentry’ (Smith, 2013): it seems to have been going on since about 1100…
Bourdieu, Pierre (1986), Distinction, (London: Routledge)
Khan, Shamus Rahman (2012), ‘Elite Identities’, Identities: Global studies in culture and power, 19(4):477-484.
Piketty, Thomas (2013), Capital in the twenty-first century, (Boston, Mass: Harvard University Press)
Smith, Daniel (2013), ‘Jack Wills: a sociological study of elite group identity and sociality through the prism of a brand-name corporation’, unpublished PhD thesis (University of Exeter).
Smith, Daniel (2014), ‘The elite of fiduciarity: the heraldry of the Jack Wills brand’, Ephemera: theory and politics in organisation, 14(1):27-55.
Woods, Ellen Meiksins (1995), Democracy against Capitalism, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)