On Not Respecting Their Betters

In a history of the Spanish Civil War, probably Anthony Beevor’s, I read that the Spanish proletariat never respected or imitated its betters. If I recall correctly, this was meant as a sharp contrast with the Anglo-American culture of social deference and class ascent.

I have to take his word for the Spanish proletariat, or indeed any other. My own background is of the British lower middle classes, where aspirations to gentility and worship of nobs and royals were intense and utterly repulsive. I am given to understand that the same applies in the United States, replacing nobs and royals by screen celebrities. That is, I have never heard that the superstitions of my childhood era, namely that one demonstrated superiority by calling a sofa a “settee” and extending the pinkie to drink tea, had any American cognate, although the ideal of the detached house with lawn and white picket fence was surely the same as in our own privet-hedged suburbia. But this is the middles, which most Americans imagine they are. Insofar as there was once a genuine proletarian culture in either country, it probably no longer exists. We now have the precariat instead, which is by no means the same thing. I have not read enough Orwell or even watched enough “Coronation Street” to know much about how the British proletariat used to be. I would not know which author to go to for the prewar American industrial worker, and of course I know better than to seek him in American soaps.

So how did the Spanish proletarian of the Thirties live? What was his culture, to which he held in defiance of any proper deference to the hidalgo? I would expect that bullfighting had something to do with it, but otherwise I have no idea. But if there were to be a secret to a society in which “sucking upwards and kicking downwards” was not the aspiration of the impoverished, then I should like to hear about it. Spain would hardly a good example to follow in general, with its misogyny, mystical gobbledygook and murderous clergy. Not to mention the inability of that undeferential proletariat to achieve much beyond jacquerie and defeat. But even so, I should like to know more about a class that hated those above it so single-mindedly. We Anglos might learn something.

(Fiddle date-stamp to January 15, 2012)

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