Bourgeois burghers living in bergs

When you examine the names of towns in the United Kingdom, what will strike you is the amount of them which end in some variant of ‘burg’; Middlesbrough, Edinburgh, Scarborough and Glastonbury are but a few of such towns. The reason for its ubiquity is that it simply means ‘fortified place’. However, it is not until you look into the history of this word that you realise quite how widespread it is and the social assumptions it reflects.

‘Burg’ itself derives the Proto-Indo-European word bhergh, which means ‘high’. This word led to various derivatives referring to hills, forts and fortified places in general, and is also the root of the English ‘barrow’, as in Tolkein’s ‘The Barrow Downs’. As you might have guessed, Proto-Indo-European forms the root of nearly every European language, and as such you can find cognates for bhergh across the continent. As well as the English variants mentioned above, we have Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Bergen and Svendborg to name but a few. Similarly, Italian has borgo, which typically describes the built-up area outside of the old town, and its diminutive, borghetto, is from where we get the word ‘ghetto’. As you may have already guessed, the word iceberg is from the same root, simply meaning ‘ice mountain’.

It is fairly obvious that a word referring to fortification would crop up frequently in the names of our towns, but not so obvious that it would end up forming the basis of one of our most evocative words that refers to class – bourgeois. The word simply means ‘one who dwells in a town’, and came into fashion in the 1700s. Philosopher Jean Jacques-Rousseau, who despaired of the ‘effeminate’ and privileged lifestyle of the city as opposed to that of his ‘noble savages’, was particularly instrumental in shaping the word’s meaning to one of cosy and aloof living. The same etymology is found in the Dutch burgher, which came to refer to the wealthy merchant class in the Dutch trading cities, and even in the English ‘burgess’, one of the first words used to describe an elected representative.

In contrast to these wealthy city dwellers, we have the hated and mocked rural ‘peasants’. Peasant derives from the French paysan, which comes from pays (country) and ultimately the Latin pagus (also meaning country). It is from this same Latin word that ‘pagan’ derives, the early Church despairing of those who dwelt in the country and still worshipped the ‘old gods’. (It should be noted that ‘pheasant’ has no relation to any of this, and means ‘bird from the River Phasis’.) It is fascinating to see how this innocent suffix has ended up embodying one of the biggest divides in all modern nations – the gap between the ‘cultured’ metropolitans and the ‘backwards’ country folk.


The leader’s debate proves one thing: class is still the real dividing force in the UK

The first leader’s debate has finished, and has left me feeling the saddest I’ve been since I discovered ‘Songs of Leonard Cohen’. Miliband put in a good performance, to be sure, but there was no knockout blow and Cameron was left with a nicely split left and no real slip up from him. The split left is exactly what he wanted, which is why he insisted on the minor parties being invited. But the real thing the debate highlighted is how class is by far the largest rift in society and prevents us from succeeding in being a socially mobile and just nation.

The left has become, in my view irretrievably, riven with identity politics with people warring about every badge they can pin on themselves. It was the first victory of Neoliberalism to change the left from being a debate about economic justice to being a debate about culture. Walk into any university and, aside from the inevitable free education demos which themselves are often intertwined with identity, the activism will be about ‘-isms’ and ‘-phobias’, they will not be about creating a more economically just society. Students voted to avoid condemning ISIS for fear of being ‘Islamophobic’, shut down debates around the culture of abortion because ‘#whitemen’ and banned the SWP altogether. Did they protest against the bedroom tax, the 50% tax cut or sweeping welfare cuts? Did they fuck.

Now I’m not saying issues around gender and race etc don’t matter. Of course they do, hugely. But they ultimately still play second fiddle to class. And here’s why. Today two major national newspapers, including the most widely read, are running with the front pages ‘Miliband Flops as Outsiders Shine’ and ‘Oops! I just lost my election. Miliband blows his chance live on TV’. These are nonsense. Not just dubious interpretations: nonsense. The Telegraph is quoting from a poll which had ‘outsiders’ Wood and Bennett floundering below 5% and The Sun wilfully ignores the two other polls where Miliband was ahead or tied for the lead. But what does it matter? What can we do when the information the public get is a distortion from the smallest and wealthiest elite? No one with a voice will challenge it, there will be no rebuttal. It is a disgrace to our democracy, an absolute disgrace. But that’s just it, there’s nothing we can do, so they can do what they like.

Trying to reduce this to ‘white privilege’ or patriarchy misses the point. The primary advantage these people have is their wealth, not their genitalia or skin colour. Such talk only serves to ignore poor white men demonised as chavs, by ‘progressives’ nearly as much as conservatives, and changes the debate from the correct one about wealth to a rhetoric of division and generalisation that only splits the left and serves the wealthy. Because that is what this is. Make no mistake that those who own the production of both media and goods will do everything they can to fight off Miliband’s moving Labour to the left. It’s there with the letter of 100 business leaders denouncing Labour, it’s there with the shameful headlines tomorrow and it’s there with the past five fucking years of caricaturing a man as some weak grotesque with a plan to enslave Britain with taxation and state control.

And that is the tragedy of tonight. Britain actually does have the best chance to at least put itself on the path to social democracy since 1992, but it will blow it. It will blow it because of the lies from the right and a split left. The Greens do not really have anything to offer Britain. They have uncosted policies reinforced with absurd ideas of dismantling the armed forces and the removal of all border controls. But they have a female leader and rhetoric that sounds nice in campuses and around bien pensant dinner tables. I get that the SNP want to kick Labour, I really do, and I wish we hadn’t stood with the Tories in Better Together. Doing so will prove fatal.

But the reason this makes me so sad isn’t because I’m some white guy with an axe to grind or because I’m going to personally hit. Sure I’d get a tuition fee cut with Labour and better-paid work in the holidays, but my life isn’t going to be thrown into turmoil because of it. No. I’m sad because we are going to unwittingly allow in the most savage, cold-hearted and ruthlessly driven Conservative party we have seen. We have the majority of cuts still to come from a party that has already destroyed so many lives. There will be a full-blown assault on trade unions and what is left of workers’ rights in the UK. And it terrifies me. It terrifies me that so many desperate people will suffer because of a right drunk on its own paper and a left too selfish to attempt to see past its differences to aid people who so direly need it. I do not know how bad the full effects will be, but I do know that when I worked in Social Services safeguarding cases for adults in crisis increased by over 200% since the coalition came into power, I know that I have a father suffering from cancer whose drugs will almost certainly not be funded, and I know that if we do elect a Conservative government in May, it will be to our shame as a nation.