Who aspires to emptying bins, or cleaning toilets? Whose aspirations include picking 240 boxes of springs an hour? Who?
In reality (and semantically) only someone for whom that work would be an improvement on their life. Otherwise, it’s not aspiration.
‘Aspiration’ is something politicians talk about with good intentions but, I feel, too often, particularly those who consider themselves on the left of the debate. What happened to improving material conditions for toilet cleaners, not just telling them they could one day be able to not be a toilet cleaner? What about the person who steps into the now-vacant toilet cleaner job?
Toilet cleaners are, like everyone, aspiring to better. I know I was, when I was cleaning toilets. If you don’t think they are, you’re wrong. You’re also a monster. It’s a human condition. And working to remove obstacles to achieving our legitimate aspirations is right and just. But not at the cost of ignoring the youngest, oldest, poorest and least able; nor at the cost of ignoring the impact of low pay and inequality.
Once Labour adopted it wholeheartedly, the aspiration narrative became ubiquitous. Does this indicate another fundamental rightwards shift in the political baseline?
‘Aspiration’ would appear to me to follow a functionally similar trend of ‘identity politics’, the effects of the rise of which are also starting to come under serious scrutiny. The role of identity politics in displacing material concerns with feelings – and giving paramount importance to personal identifiers – is a burgeoning and fascinating issue. See academic institutions avoiding critical debate to avoid identity conflicts. See students weaponising anti-harrassment infrastructure against people they think have offended them. See professors scared to say anything. See the people into anti-vaccination and the constant conversation despite that we have all the evidence necessary to make ironclad conclusions. See all that Rachel Dolezal business.
Aspiration narratives similarly hog social bandwidth to discuss what are really matters of internal personal identity, and by doing so displace external material issues that arise from lots of humans coexisting like health, food, decent working conditions, discrimination, the ability to raise healthy children.
There is clear value in both identity and aspiration, neither are trivial. But it may be worth assessing whether they squeeze out other matters – like protecting the weak from the strong – from political discussion, and thus (ironically, in cases with liberal/progressive roots and intentions) moving the whole conversation rightwards.
Aspiration narratives devalue political currency invested in addressing the interests of, for example, low skilled workers. They effectively justify low pay, as aspiration can only exist in the context of being dissatisfied with the status quo. So far, so fine, but the lack of audible political voices for the low paid gives that ‘aspiration’ a different democratic, electoral and ultimately policy and material context. Someone is cleaning the toilets. A politician implying they should aspire to better is insulting. Of course they do. The question is, how does our public policy ensure that while they are cleaning toilets they aren’t living in poverty at the whim of someone else’s power!
(Consider also that free market economists assess full employment as economically disadvantageous. A couple of per cent of people unemployed prevents the supply of labour becoming too inelastic, which is A Good Thing; and workers must in our economic reality come and go as business requires, within reason. Consider these facts in the context of social policies to hamstring benefit entitlements while being told to ‘aspire’. The message is clear: keep up, as devil take the hindmost)
Secondly, aspiration narratives move the locus of control in conversations about these matters towards the internal and the individual, and away away from external structural or environmental factors – which is, of course, good news if you control the latter. It is standard modern centre-right capitalist politics. The baseline can certainly be seen to have shifted in this regard. What used to be the left and even centre left – the idea that people could group together to improve the standard of living across the whole group, and leverage not just their money but their franchisement as people to protect themselves from being exploited – has long been sidelined by more individualistic free market ideology, and is now radical. Making the individual king is a legitimate approach, and one that I don’t in fact disagre with, but definitely not to the exclusion of a robust conversation on the real effects of external factors (nor to the exclusion of people’s legitimate ability to organise labour, either). It is pure fantasy to think that we are all individually in total control of our lives. Some power over you lies in the hands of other people, and the obvious political questions are whose hands, how, how much power, why, when, and so on.
This is a society and unnatural, man made externalities exist, whether or not an ideology is – that word again – robust enough, or its adherents intellectually honest enough, to process them. Some employers pay low wages, for instance, to stay sustainable and profitable, and it is state subsidy (tax credits etc) that fills that gap so that the employee can live to a socially agreed standard. This entire structure is an artefact of our deliberate and mostly democratic design, and not the inevitable outcome of a set of natural laws of economics and capital. We have a social contract of sorts, and so the political question is not whether we are all in it together or individually responsible or oppressed or free or taxed – we are inextricably a little of all of these things – but rather what our social policies are for, and who benefits most from them. To fail to have this debate, like handing all responsibility to the individual, is in the strategic interests of the already-powerful.
The political problem now as I see it is that ideological ‘freedom’ – of markets, business, people – with no social intervention is an abstract academic construct, a fiction, and yet dogmatic approaches to it lead our social and democratic policy. Politics is not economics, but we often treat them as interchangeable.
Listen to politicians talk about aspirations.
Regardless of what they aspire to, one in five people doing part time work is in poverty right now. Twenty per cent of a group of people at work being in poverty is a political and economic failure. But in an aspiration narrative responsibility for this is more likely to be seen to fall on the individual and the structural issues more likely to be neglected.
Talking only of aspirations appeals to the ideal of self determination but it also sidesteps many tricky questions of economic reality. What does it mean? Symbolically, that this politician will make a society in which it is possible for you to do what you aspire to do? One test of the value of a political statement is said to be to reverse it and see what you get: vote for me and I will prevent you from aspiring?
I also suspect that like the American dream that convinces poor Yankees to vote for policies that strongly benefit the powerful – on the basis that aspiring to be powerful is better than confronting your material concerns with policies that, should you ever get powerful, would make you *marginally less powerful* – it also works insidiously against the propensity of low skilled workers to vote in their own interests. It is a curiously American concept, to agree to social policy on the basis that things could be better if only one was more able to aspire.
Another politically useful feature of the aspiration narrative is that no one can meaningfully measure or quantify aspirations, and especially not whether those aspirations have been realised. Politicians love it when accountability is unclear. And even if we could measure it we should ask ourselves: in what horrible reality are our hopes and dreams a place for politicians to reside?
Ultimately, the political debate is always over what and how much we should be compelled to do by democratic decison, versus our ‘freedom’. Identity politics are not dissimilar, struggling with an unclear, ill conceived concept of what freedom really is.
Ubiquitous aspiration narratives are a rightwards pressure on the debate.