It’s not often that you see the Daily Mail and The Spectator talking about revolution, but that’s what happened last week. Both right-wing rags praised Karl Marx in articles about the death of the middle class. I was stunned to see a big photo of Marx on the Mail’s website, better known for its photos of celebrities no one has heard of wearing bikinis. It seems the middle class are feeling oppressed in rather the same way that Marx’s 19th-century working class felt oppressed. And the Mail was attacking the rich and defending the new poor, the middle classes who can no longer afford school fees, foreign holidays, meals in restaurants and all the rest.
The author of the piece said that Marx predicted that the small tradespeople would sink down the social ladder, and then went on to paraphrase Marx. “Society, he thought, would inexorably be divided into haves and have-nots, and the tension would turn inevitably to violent revolution.”
The tone was no less inflammatory in The Spectator. Its editor, Fraser Nelson, complained that “the lifestyle that the average earner had half a century ago – reasonably sized house, dependable healthcare, a decent education for the children and a reliable pension – is becoming the preserve of the rich”.
In true revolutionary fashion, the piece then went on to moan about the wealth of the Cabinet, which contains 23 millionaires. It then picked up on Occupy’s “one per cent” idea: “For the best-paid one per cent, the boom years never stopped.” The same mag which sneered at Occupy is now using its own tropes.The piece ended with practically a call to revolutionary action: “It’s hard to imagine the British bourgeoisie taking to the streets, but someday soon they might turn around and say: ‘Sorry, but we’re really rather mad and we’re not going to take it any more.’” Yes, comrades! Although it does rather conjure the comical image of the streets swelling with accountants and solicitors chanting: “What do we want? A reasonable pension!”
I also spluttered into my Monmouth coffee to see not one, but two articles praising idleness in left-wing mag the New Statesman.
Now, idleness and the Left have never really seen eye to eye. The ideal socialist institution is the factory, and Tony Benn’s fantasy world is one of full employment, with every worker cycling cheerily to the sweet factory, sandwiches in his satchel. Idleness is attacked under Leftist regimes: the Protestant work ethic is closer to Gordon Brown’s breast than David Cameron’s. Just look at his over-worked face. The Left’s favourite philosopher is not Marx, who enjoyed boozing and merry-making, but the insane, pleasure-hating, work-loving utilitarian Jeremy Bentham.
Therefore it was almost as nice a surprise to see the Left talking about the pleasures of doing nothing as it was to read the Right stirring up revolutionary fervour. One of the Statesman pieces, by the novelist Jenny Diski, had an anarchist flavour: “Avidness to work hard all their lives is the ruling classes’ and the corporations’ definition of the good citizen.”
The other was by the former cricketer Ed Smith, who cited Bertrand Russell’s famous essay “In Praise of Idleness”. He also made the fascinating observation that in cricket, practice does not make perfect: practice plus oodles of idle time make perfect. He said that four hours a day was about the right amount of practice. More than that and his game would deteriorate.
Smith also wrote that top classical musicians are fairly lazy. It’s the mediocre who practise a lot; the best give themselves time to relax. “The idea that being good at something demands harried, exhausted martyrdom is relatively new,” argued Smith. There is no relationship between workaholism and success, he said, rightly. “Stopping practising at the right moment is a vital form of self-discipline.” It was truly heartwarming to see that even the world of competitive sport is starting to praise idleness.
My god: I’ve just seen another idler-friendly piece in the New Statesman, this time, an article praising the noble ways of the tortoise. Will it never end? It is truly delightful to see so many old myths being smashed in the political press. Let the middle classes now smash the system. Or better, create a new one.
Tom Hodgkinson is editor of ‘The Idler’