Friday, July 01, 2016

On Retail Grievance

I've lost count of the numbers of times I've been told this week that the British people are angry, with precious little analysis of what it is that we're supposed to be angry about

So: What are we angry about?

Maybe I can help out here.  I've been speaking to exactly the type of people who voted Leave for years - actively seeking them out and probing them for their opinions on all manner of issues.  I don't do this because I'm keen to reach out to people with different beliefs or to change minds, but mainly because I'm a dick and I enjoy bickering with people.  And if there's one thing I can say about the people I know who voted to leave the EU, it's this - they're always up for a rumble.

There's been a lot of nonsense spoken about the Leave-Remain split, with worryingly large numbers of people on both sides determined to turn it into a straight class issue.  Thankfully, the numbers are pretty clear.  As Flip-Chart Rick will tell you, the main indicators for the likelihood of a person voting Leave aren't economic or based upon status, or even party-political.  The most accurate predictor is a person's opinion on the death penalty...

...The probability of voting Brexit rises from around 20 per cent for those most opposed to the death penalty to 70 per cent for those most in favour. Wealthy people who back capital punishment back Brexit. Poor folk who oppose the death penalty support Remain.

There's a reason why this is, and it's retail grievance.  That is, it's anger as a consumer product that can be bought and enjoyed, much like Wagon Wheels or Irn-Bru.

I'd argue that you can't understand anything about British politics until you grasp that a huge chunk of the populace are basically angry about everything and nothing at the same time, all the time, for no other reason than because they like being angry.

The easiest way to assess whether this is true or not, is just to speak to your friends and co-workers and to sift their opinions for actual, real problems.  As soon as some burning issue of the day comes up, just ask them what they think about it.  Almost everyone will be delighted to tell you their opinion in great detail, because most people are like me and they love a good whinge.

There are plenty of people in this country who have very real problems: sick relatives, terrible jobs, horrible neighbours.  Ask people questions about what annoys them however, and you'll find that those aren't the type of issues that are winding up most of us.

The things that really wind a lot of people up are usually bizarre urban fables; daft outrage stories that they've read, and whatever shite they've seen on TV recently.  Examples:

- Homeless people who beg all day, and then drive home in expensive cars.  Such people are apparently everywhere, because I've heard this one coming from several cities across the UK;

- Shiftless bastards with widescreen tellies.  The average British punter usually encounters these people on TV (unless they're unlucky enough to have job in retail or hospitality, in which case - fair enough).

- How you can't even sing Baa-Baa Black Sheep without the police beating you with truncheons, or

- Some mad Muslim with a hook for a hand who spat on a poppy but gets free Fruit Corners, while British veterans are sleeping rough, or whatever.

I could go on - a personal favourite is people complaining that the benefits system is designed explicitly to denigrate and humiliate them... And then claiming that immigrants can get whatever they want for free, as if foreign nationals had access to an entirely separate system, rather than using exactly the same one, with all the same built-in horrors.

Anyway, go out and speak to these folk yourself.  I guarantee you that of every ten complaints you hear, maybe one will be a real issue that's adversely affecting them personally; another will be an actual, real political issue and the other eight will be a daft deluge of half-true horseshit that they've heard down the pub or that somebody has read about on the internet.

Which is another way of saying that this is consumer grievance.   Most of these people are pissed off because they spend a great deal of time consuming products that have been specifically designed to piss them off.  And they like being pissed off, so they come back for more.

Very few of the issues that people have told me about over the years involved situations that they themselves have experienced.  Almost all of it is the kind of thing that you have to deliberately seek out, in exactly the same way that the worst, most precious Guardianista goes looking for things to be offended by.

And if you want something to complain about, you're not going to be disappointed.  Britain may not build much these days but we're still a world-class manufacturer of outrage.  The TV schedules are packed with it; the newsagent's shelves are groaning with it and you can download it in seventy different formats to whatever device you like.  All of it does pretty much what I'm doing here - it tells you exactly what you  want to hear, in precisely these I'm a proper expert and I'm just telling it like it is mate tones.

These shows and newspapers are barely even a political product, mind.  Most are no more political than Pickled Onion Monster Munch or Heinz Tomato Soup are Marxism.  It's simply a question of supply and demand.  There is a large and growing demand for outrage, and thus there are willing suppliers.  The more successful each new scum-baiting TV show is, the more imitators it will spawn, until the market is saturated with bargain-basement knock-offs.  

To pick just one example - the BBC's show Saints and Scroungers might well be a big hunk of red meat to the average elderly conservative, but it's as apolitical as raspberry jam.  The producers of Saints and Scroungers couldn't give a flying fuck who you vote for or what your opinion on the European Union is.  The only thing they're interested in is keeping you angry, because the relationship between producer and viewer is transactional - they provide you with a boiling sense of hopeless rage, and you give them half-an-hour of your time, and then they get paid.

And you can see proof of this in the demographics of those most likely to e.g. vote to leave the EU.  There's a reason why pensioners and other people who don't work were massively more likely to vote for Brexit than people with jobs.  It's because people who have jobs don't have time to sit around all day winding themselves up about true-ish shite that they've read in the paper or seen on TV.  

Seriously, if you want to find out whether I'm bullshitting you here, just speak to people.  They'll be glad to discuss it, possibly at great length.

You're not going to struggle to find people like this, because there doesn't seem to be any particular personal or economic profile for the type.  They're more likely to be male and middle-aged, I suppose, but wealthy people are just as likely to belong to this perpetually outraged group as poor people are, and the highly-educated love it every bit as much as people who left school as soon as they could.

And I have to stress that these are mainly decent, often hard-working, nice people.  They're more likely to be arseholes about it when they get wound up, but they're not usually ogres or morons.

You can gauge this for yourself, tomorrow.  All you have to do is ask.  You'll find out sharpish that our much-vaunted public rage is mainly based upon pish and drivel - made-up urban myths, overheard scare stories, whiny petulance and a general sense that everybody else except for me and my mates is getting away with murder. 

I'll leave it up to you to decide how far the rest of us should go to indulge this chunk of the population's boo-hoo.  I'd advise taking a long, hard look at the financial news before making up your mind, though.


A couple of other points, which I may or may not add to:

- One of the interesting things this week has been the complete invisibility of people like me in Brexit coverage, by which I mean working class people who went to university. The rush to claim Brexit for the decent, hard-working blahs of whatever have left me feeling a bit stranded.

So the Remainers are snobbish, over-educated pricks, and the Leavers are heavily-accented working people who don't like being talked down to.

I fit both of those categories, so where do I fit in?

- There are also plenty of Remain types who do retail grievance just as enthusiastically and loudly, if not more so, but with a different set of issues.  Reality shopping isn't a left-right thing, any more than it's a rich-poor issue.

On the whole, I'd say that between ten and twenty percent of the populace are just the type of people who are never happy unless they're miserable.  Hell, I'm one of those people.

The big difference right now, of course, is that it isn't the Remainers who have just plunged the country into a political and economic crisis, so they're considerably less topical right now. 


chris e said...

I think there is an important subset of the permanently outraged that have salience here; the middle aged pub bore type, who has a couple of pressure points that can trigger them into near apoplexy. Usually found supporting positions that would inflict severe amounts of pain on someone else - which proves to every right thinking person that they are an arsehole, whilst proving to themselves that they are a world weary and hard headed realist.

Anonymous said...

Phil Gould's focus groups sought out exactly this sort of person and then designed Labour Party rhetoric so it would resonate with them.

This is one of the reasons that the Labour Party no longer has much to say that is coherent.


Luke said...

I agree with all this. But I think groundless rage is a known/acknowledged factor. I recently took pity on a pollster for my local council. Long questionaire. Mainly law and order type questions- how much of a problem did I think gang violence, drug dealing, anti-social neighbours were. (Not much - like most 50 yr old white male solicitors, they don't affect me.)

But the last few questions can be summed up as "are you a miserable angry git who spends too much time on your own?" ("How happy are you, 1-10?")

I don't know if replies from angry people were given less weight, but whoever devised the survey was as interested in how angry I was as in what I thought.

gastro george said...

I could describe the argument I had with a friend who was convinced that the big story, the really big story, about the referendum was all the Poles claiming child benefit. Ffs.