Objects, orts and imitations

Hugo Rifkind — well-known son of a famous father (almost dynastic, you may think) — did his regular vamp for The Times:

Tories should want us all to be middle-class

Yes: it that old crowd-pleaser on social class. The old ones are the best-selling ones. As with this clip:

Although many Tories do care about social mobility (Mr Cameron, presumably, among them), they often end up looking as if they don’t. Instinctively — deep down, almost before thought — a Tory believes that success in life involves ending up looking like a Tory. When Mr Cameron speaks of his desire to “increase diversity in the national elite”, he is at once wholly sincere and speaking a half-truth. What he means is that a far more diverse group of people should be able to end up being quite a lot like him.

This is a malign desire only if you fetishise class. Conservativism, perhaps contrary to popular opinion, and at least when it has its wits about it, does its utmost not to. 

Enough spoonsful of saccharin to slide that medicinal down. It’s only when you start exploring the after-taste it becomes suspicious.

Let’s start with fetishise.

It appears in the OED as fetishize. The -ise form seems a peculiarity of the computer spell-check, but it has reason on its side. The -ize suffix, as Malcolm’s classical (and definitively middle-classical) education had it should properly go with terms of Greek derivation. The OED, at its densest, most helpful and authoritative, has a complex set of six guidelines for when -ize should be preferred to –ise (and here considerably abbreviated):

1. Words that have come down from Greek, or have been at some time adopted from Greek, or formed on Greek elements.
2. Words formed (in French or English) on Latin adjs. and ns. (esp. on derivative adjs. in -al-ar-an, etc.), mostly with the trans. sense ‘to make (that which is expressed by the derivation)’.
3. Words from later sources, as bastardizeforeignizejeopardize,villanizewomanize trans., gormandize, and such nonce-words as cricketizepedestrianizetandemize, intr.
4. Words formed on ethnic adjs., and the like, chiefly trans. but sometimes intrans., as AmericanizeAnglicizeGallicizeGermanize,LatinizeRomanizeRussianize.
5. Words formed on names of persons, sometimes with the intrans. Greek sense of ‘to act like, or in accordance with’.
6. From names of substances, chemical and other; in the trans. sense of  ‘to charge, impregnate, treat, affect, or influence with’.

Err, yes. Probably. Perhaps. Arguably.

The OED citations for fetishize tell a tale in themselves:

1934   in Webster Dict.  
1961   I. L. Horowitz Philos., Sci. & Sociol. of Knowl. v. 57   Present metaphysical attitudes fetishize private intuition.
1973   Screen Spring–Summer 198   The only way to avoid fetishising cinematic specificity is to examine it, as Metz has done, in a systematic and relative way.
1986   S. Orbach Hunger Strike i. 23   The preoccupation with food is linked with a fetishizing of the female form.

Got that? It decodes as Americanism ➪ abstruse academicism ➪ poncy film-buffery ➪ feminist claptrap.

And so to Hugo Rifkind.

Which should all make us wonder at “fetish”

This one sneaked into English usage from French fétiche, which was a borrowing from Portuguese feitiço. Its original sense was a charm, a sorcery. Again, let’s take the OED’s definitions:

1. a. Originally: any of the objects used by the indigenous peoples of the Guinea coast and the neighbouring regions as amulets or means of enchantment, or regarded by them with superstitious dread.

b. By writers on anthropology (following C. de Brosses, Le Culte des Dieux Fétiches, 1760) used in wider sense: an inanimate object worshipped by preliterate peoples on account of its supposed inherent magical powers, or as being animated by a spirit.

fetish (in sense 1b) differs from an idol in that it is worshipped in its own character, not as the image, symbol, or occasional residence of a deity.

Got that? Portuguese explorers (think Prince Henry the Navigator, and specifically Álvaro Fernandes) were into the Guinea coast by the mid-fifteenth century. So the word comes with implicit history.

But can one, as Rifkind warns against, fetishise class?

Try the Preface to Shaw’s Pygmalion:

It is impossible for an Englishman to open his mouth without making some other Englishman hate or despise him.

— an axiom ingrained in the native psychology. When Tony Blair, or George Osborne strayed into the demotic, that became a matter of major critical debate.

A while back the BBC web-site produced a Great British class calculator: What class are you?

Malcolm emerged (to his horror) as:

Technical middle class

This is a small, distinctive and prosperous new class group. According to the Great British Class Survey results, lots of people in this group:

  • Mix socially with people similar to themselves
  • Work in research, science and technical fields
  • Enjoy emerging culture such as going to the gym and using social media

This, despite having no “science or technical” qualification beyond O-level General Science (1958) and going nowhere near a gym. However, the definition includes:

  • They tend to live in suburban locations, often in the south east of England
  • They come from largely middle class backgrounds


Let’s persist with young Master Rifkind a moment longer, continuing directly from the first quotation:

John Major himself used to speak of “the classless society” — in essence, a middle class so big as to include everybody. Even today, the more coherently ideological Conservative policies have the same idea at their core. Free schools and academies, for example, are best understood as a desire to re-create the benefits of a private education for people who couldn’t possibly afford one. Underneath, always, lurks the presumption that the middle-class way is the way things ought to be.

Notice the illogical leap from the former two sentences (which Malcolm finds quite acceptable) to the third.  Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The whole point of those Free schools and academies is they are Statist, responsible directly and only to the self-anointed Secretary of State for Education.

If we accept Rifkind’s notion there, we are assuming that class is something which can be imposed, a top-down social reorganisation.

Now that really is fetishistic worship of supposed inherent magical powers.


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Filed under David Cameron, George Osborne, Times, Tories.

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