There was a rare display of class resentment on TV last week with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Chicken Run series on Channel 4.
The programmes were enthralling, not because of their official topic – the welfare of chickens in intensive farming – but because of their running subtext of class antagonism.
Fearnley-Whittingstall’s aim to transform his local town of Axminster into “Britain’s first free range chicken town” was dogged by Hayley, a single mother.
Although she had enthusiastically participated in a project which saw council estate residents raise and kill their own chickens, Hayley refused to stop buying supermarket “two for £5” chickens.
She was shown how chickens were kept in an intensive factory that Fearnley-Whittingstall had set up to demonstrate the conditions that cheap chickens endure.
Yet Hayley maintained that feeding her children on a limited budget was more important than the welfare of chickens. There was something heroic about the way she resisted the consensual sentimentality to which the others on her estate seemed to quickly submit.
Fearnley-Whittingstall said that he didn’t want to “flinch” from the issues that Hayley raised, but that chicken welfare was “not about class but ethics”. He reinforced the point in an article in The Guardian entitled “Poultry Is Not A Class Issue”.
The immediate temptation when faced with Fearnley-Whittingstall’s opposition between class and ethics is to indignantly ask if class is not also about ethics. But this temptation should be resisted.
Karl Marx’s argument that “ethics” is an ideology promoted by the ruling class to serve its own interests is today more relevant than ever. We can see plenty of examples of how the “ethical” blatantly serves as both a substitute for the political and as a means of warding it off.
“Ethical consumerism” is presented as the (only) means by which ordinary people can “make a difference”.
But of course consumers cannot make one jot of difference to the systematic causes of misery – whether it be in humans or chickens.
Consumers can only make a “choice”, and it is the supermarket chains and wider food industry that determine what those “choices” are.
Choice, in this situation, is reduced to a choice between commodities.
Like neoliberalism itself, ethical consumerism assumes that an “invisible hand” guides the market, even though it accepts that this hand occasionally needs jogging in the right direction by enlightened “good sorts”.
In Fearnley-Whittingstall’s programmes, Jamie Oliver’s Fowl Dinners show and BBC3’s bizarre programme Kill It, Cook It, Eat It, we see “ethical” moralism combined with sensationalism.
All include footage of animals being slaughtered and each programme claims that it is making people “experience” the “reality” of meat production.
But the reality of meat production is rooted in the system we live under, rather than being something that can be served up as a TV “experience”.
The crowding of animals into tiny spaces – and the economic inequality that means many people can only afford cheap and unhealthy meat – is a symptom of the way capitalism and class works today.
Describing himself on BBC1 as a “posh boy with a farm”, Fearnley-Whittingstall is not so much deluded about his class position, as cheerily unaware of its implications.
Seemingly ignorant of how much difference even a pound or two makes on a limited budget, Fearnley-Whittingstall never successfully made a case as to why Hayley should forego the welfare of her children for the sake of chickens.
The Chicken Run programmes devoted a good deal of screen time to Axminster working class voices that were sceptical of Fearnley-Whittingstall’s motives and openly hostile to his “organic” and “free range” agenda, which they rightly saw in class terms.
To many, myself included, the “organic” and “ethical” labelling of products produces a smart of resentment – this is expensive posh food, and our being hectored to buy it is just another example of the middle class lecturing the poor on how they should behave.
The abstract contours of global capital appear in Fearnley-Whittingstall’s vision in an inverted way – seen simply from the consumer’s point of view.
It would only take a nudge for the condition of chickens to be connected with the superbugs raging through privatised hospitals, for example.
But a nudge like that is far too much to expect from “lifestyle” programmes – all of which assume that capitalism can be reformed, but never abolished.
Mark Fisher is a writer and lecturer. His blog is at » www.k-punk.abstractdynamics.org