Six months will wipe the smile off your boat race, you f***ing pleb! Class, privilege and the contradictions of liberal ‘tolerance’.

Reading Politics PhD student Ben Whitham here analyses the sentencing of boat race protester Trenton Oldfield and what it tells us about the politics of class and the pathologies of liberal tolerance.

On Friday, Trenton Oldfield, the man who dived into the Thames to disrupt the 2012 Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, was sentenced to six months in jail. Judge Anne Molyneux noted with particular disdain the fact that Oldfield  had been smiling in court throughout her description of his actions, though, as the Telegraph gleefully notes, when the sentence was read out ‘he looked stunned and slowly shook his head from side to side’. The Sun and the Express were also pleased to see the ‘smirk’ wiped from Oldfield’s proverbial boat race. [1]

The disproportionate severity of Oldfield’s sentence has triggered a round of condemnation, ranging from parodies which seek to highlight the ‘out of touch-ness’ of the judge, to moralising conservative outrage at the relative lenience shown to some violent criminals. The harshness of the sentence was also reminiscent of the fast-track jailing, last year, of participants in the August riots, particularly the college student imprisoned for six months for stealing some bottled water.

Before discussing the details of Oldfield’s sentencing, and the implications for the concept of liberal ‘tolerance’, it is worth placing this series of events in a wider political context. Oldfield’s actions, and his sentencing, are indicative of the forceful re-emergence of social class as a vital political category in the ostensibly ‘post-class’ West. As the ongoing international financial crisis and the various ‘austerity’ and ‘cuts’ programmes implemented by Western governments have taken hold, it has become apparent that, with the booming ‘90s an increasingly distant memory, Western societies are not as classless as some had previously thought. From the 2011 UK riots to the Greek unrest over austerity, and the American children living in such extreme poverty that they are reduced to eating rats and ‘ketchup soup’, it is increasingly evident that citizens of the ‘prosperous’ West are, not, contrary to John Prescott’s famous dictum ‘all middle class now’.

Issues of inequality of wealth and lifestyle, redistribution and fairness or ‘social justice’ have crept back to the top of the British political agenda, not least because of a widespread sentiment that the very people who ‘got us into this mess’ – executives at investment and commercial banks, hedge fund managers, traders in derivative securities – have been relatively unaffected since their salaries and lifestyles are so exorbitant, and their massive incomes and bonuses often contractually guaranteed, that they can survive a deep recession better than most.

The election of a Conservative-led coalition, with a cabinet comprised largely of millionaires, has further illuminated the entrenched differentials of wealth between what can be called the ‘political class’ and ‘the rest of us’. The personal wealth of Jeremy Hunt and William Hague is thought to be stand at around £4.8 million each, while Cameron himself is valued at £3.8 million and the Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond is apparently worth a staggering £8.2 million. After a protracted row in the press and in Westminster, Andrew Mitchell, the Conservative Government Chief Whip, finally resigned his post on the same day Oldfield received his six-month jail term. A police officer stationed at Downing Street had alleged that, when he advised Mitchell he could not take his bicycle through the main gate, but would instead have to use the pedestrian gate, Mitchell responded with an outburst of swearing, which climaxed in Mitchell shouting “You’re fucking plebs!”. Mitchell’s comments – though he accepts that he swore, he still denies using the term ‘plebs’, and was backed by Cameron and other senior figures throughout – seem indicative of a patrician attitude among our political leaders.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the Republican candidate in this year’s US presidential election is widely seen to be out of touch with the electorate, given the privileged lifestyle his huge wealth has long afforded him. This view was reinforced by the leaking of his disparaging comments about how ‘47% of Americans’ see themselves as ‘victims’, are ‘dependent upon government’ and believe ‘government has a responsibility to care for them’. This 47%, Romney contends, ‘pay no income taxes’ and it is therefore not ‘my job’ to ‘worry about those people’. These comments, which he was later forced to retract, were not only strategically rather short-sighted (alienating half of the electorate a few months before they go to the polls is counter-intuitive to say the least), but seemed to reflect a detachment from the everyday lives of ‘ordinary’ Americans. After all, it seems somewhat unlikely that nearly half the country ‘pay no income tax’, and those who do contribute the least in tax are probably the twelve million unemployed – unemployment being precisely one of those things a candidate for the presidency can usually be expected to ‘care’ about, and to develop policy for. 

In a world beset by the worst crisis of international capitalism since the 1930s, with rising unemployment and social unrest, and an increasing sense of frustration and injustice permeating popular perceptions of the ‘political class’ in the UK and elsewhere, how could a judge decide that a small, non-violent protest, against the spectacle of extreme wealth, warrants incarcerating someone for six months? Some answers to this question may lie in the sentencing remarks of the judge concerned.

Firstly there is the question of the symbolic power of Oldfield’s protest, and of the class position of Judge Molyneux herself.

Oldfield maintained during his trial that his interruption of the race was a form of political protest against ‘elitism’. Infuriated at the creeping privatisation of the NHS, the police clampdown on protest around the (£10.8 billion) London Olympics and, in his wife’s words, ‘an increasingly brutal business, media and political elite’, Oldfield saw the Oxford-Cambridge race as a ‘symbol’ of the inequality and ineptitude perpetrated by the ruling class. Yet in her sentencing remarks, the judge accused Oldfield of acting ‘disproportionately’ by stalling the race in this way.

In passing sentence, Molyneux seemed especially aggrieved that, despite the fact the race was restarted and completed, ‘we will never know’ who would have won the race were it not interrupted. While the temporary interruption of a sporting competition between the two most elite universities in the country – in effect, some students rowing some boats – might not seem to many of us an action worthy of jail time, Molyneux is particularly sympathetic to the participants and audience of the race. But then Molyneux, as a successful Circuit Judge working in London, is actually a part of the very elite Oldfield sought to frustrate. While keen to emphasise her humble roots as a solicitor, Molyneux notes that she ‘was fortunate to become involved in some amazing litigation with a very high profile organisation’ and went on to be a property litigation specialist and law firm partner in the City. The informal links between big business, government, the media and the judiciary are precisely the sort of elite relations Oldfield seeks to criticise, ‘symbolised’ in a race between two universities whose combined alumni will go on to constitute a disproportionate portion of that elite. Molyneux found aggravating factors in Oldfield’s ‘spoiling’ of the ‘spectacle’ of the race. A symbolic sentence, then, for a symbolic act.

‘Class positions’ are, however, an often murky area, so my argument should not rest on Molyneux’s elite membership alone. A second, and in my view much more troubling, aggravating factor in Molyneux’s justification of the sentence is an attempt to characterise Oldfield’s actions as a sort of ‘hate crime’. In her final remark, the judge writes:

You made your decision to sabotage the race based on the membership or perceived membership of its participants of a group to which you took exception. That is prejudice. No good ever comes from prejudice. Every individual and group of society is entitled to respect. It is a necessary part of a liberal and tolerant society that no one should be targeted because of a characteristic with which another takes issue. Prejudice in any form is wrong.

This reading of liberal tolerance, and the legal precedent it sets, entails a shocking prohibition on protest around social justice. In this view, taking action to highlight the disgusting disparity of wealth in a capitalist society constitutes a form of ‘prejudice’ that is beyond the pale in this ‘liberal and tolerant society’ because it involves ‘targeting’ people based on a ‘characteristic’ (extreme wealth and inherited privilege) with which the protestor takes issue. The remark is couched in the ‘rights talk’ common to debates on sexism, racism, homophobia and discrimination against disabled people. This is the language of ‘hate crimes’ – Oldfield’s crime warrants a harsh sentence because it was aggravated by ‘prejudice’. But Molyneux’s description of membership of an elite as a ‘characteristic’ of some people, and the implicit (though thinly-veiled) equivalence she draws with such characteristics as race and gender, is disturbing.

Unlike their sex, age, height, disability or skin tone, a person’s wealth is not an intrinsic quality over which they have no control. ‘Rich’ or ‘poor’ are not determinate physical properties. To the contrary, for the vast majority of people in the Western world, their ‘wealth’ consists in something extraordinarily abstract and removed from their material existence – it is a number stored in the computer of a bank, a digital signal, a short sequence of zeros and ones, that determines whether an individual can have all the material goods they need or desire, or none. Molyneux’s sentencing comments are thus a reificiation of inequality. They seek to transform a plea for social justice and protest against inherited wealth, disproportionate privilege and structured inequality into a ‘prejudicial’ attack on a social group, akin to racism or sexism.

Yet the logic to Molyneux’s remark is undeniable. As long as liberal societies find their normative basis in the premises of ‘tolerance’ and ‘pluralism’ they will not only fail to account properly for the inequality and exploitation that is part-and-parcel of a capitalist political-economy predicated on profitability, but will even come to defend this social injustice in the name of protecting the ‘minority rights’ of the rich on the basis of their very richness.

By way of illustration, I will finish with a characteristically low-brow cultural reference from Slavoj Žižek, who has critiqued the liberal concept of tolerance extensively elsewhere, but whose short book of essays entitled Welcome to the Desert of the Real includes a particularly instructive passage for this case.

In a discussion of the politics of ‘happiness’, Žižek points to ‘what is arguably the clearest articulation of the hegemonic liberal multiculturalist ideology’: The Land Before Time (a series of animated dinosaur movies produced by Steven Spielberg!). The narrative describes a world of talking dinosaurs of various shapes and sizes. The smaller dinosaurs are subject to arbitrary violence by the bigger, more predatory and aggressive ones, who ‘break all the rules, behave badly, squash those who are helpless and small’. The response of the smaller dinosaurs, in the form of a song, is to fully accept this state of affairs on the grounds that ‘It takes all sorts / To make a world / Short and tall sorts / Large and small sorts / To fill this pretty planet / with love and laughter […] It takes all types […] To do all the things / That need to be done’. As Žižek points out, this acceptance of violent exploitation begs the question: ‘It takes all sorts – does that mean nice and brutal, poor and rich, victims and torturers?’. In adopting a ‘collaboration-in-difference’ model, liberal-democratic ‘tolerance’ eliminates emancipatory potential, ideologically transforming vertical (class) antagonisms into horizontal differences which must be tolerated if we are all to live in peace and harmony.

The sentencing of Trenton Oldfield should be remembered not only as a key point in the resurgence of class as a political category, but also as an example of the often contradictory forms of ‘freedom’ that underpin liberalism and the liberal-democratic state.

[1] ‘Boat race’ is the cockney rhyming slang (a traditional working class London dialect) term for ‘face’.

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