Monday, 20 December 2010

Responsibly Sourced Nudity

I use porn. I’m not proud of it, but then, I’m not ashamed of it either. I can’t remember how it came up in conversation but my metrosexual friend (he's from Brighton) says he avoids it (the online stuff anyway) because he’s worried about the sick things that go on in the Sex Industry.

No doubt he has reason to worry. We all thought slavery had been abolished but it turns out that was only the kind that ended in the American civil war. Apparently the number of slaves in the world today is higher than it’s ever been (probably partly because the population’s higher than it’s ever been, but anyway) and a large part of that is as a result of the trafficking of women and children for the Sex Industry, but even without that it's pretty much assumed that there’s a lot of god-awful stuff going on. 
For example, most days I listen to Woman’s Hour on Radio 4 (and I look at porn too – sometimes at the same time. How pervy is that?) and they discuss porn from time to time, and seem to consider it synonymous with all that is violent, degrading and exploitative – a crime against women and threat to childhood.
But, going on the internet, spending an hour or so, maybe once a week (I suspect it would be more if I was younger) looking at online porn, I just don’t recognise the description. I’m not saying there isn’t ugly stuff there. Perhaps it’s even the majority, or a sizable minority but it doesn’t seem like that. Most of it seems to be just people taking their clothes off and having sex. I don’t know. I haven’t carried out any statistically rigorous surveys but it just doesn’t seem like the nasty stuff’s very common – not unless you go looking for it. If you do go looking for it I dare say it’s easy to find, but you do have to go looking for it. You have to make a conscious decision. Kids are unlikely to find it just by putting a perfectly innocent search term in Google for example, whatever they may have told their parents.

But I’m not saying it’s a thing of great beauty and refinement either. As in any area of commerce, most of it is just crass, commercial, unimaginative junk. Mostly it’s pretty boring. As in most businesses the purveyors (perviers?) have a fairly clear idea of what sells and what sells is very predictable. If you’ve visited one of the many free porn sites (I will never be sending them my card details) you will know that there are usually a number of categories there for you to click on. They’re an interesting window into the soul of humanity, or at least, masculinity. Women are categorised by hair colour – blondes, redheads, brunettes, which is interesting in itself. It wouldn’t be the first thing on my list but there you go. Race is another popular criterion - Asian or Black most obviously but also Latino (Latina surely?) or Indian. Then there’s age – ‘nubiles’ or ‘teens’ (usually pretty obviously in their twenties or older – rarely genuinely young girls unless you specifically go looking for them), then there’s MILFs (‘Moms I’d like to F**k’. Seriously...) which is women in their late twenties to forties I’d guess, and then ‘mature’ which can mean anything beyond that. Then there are various body shapes you can have a look at. Big Boobs are an obvious one, much being made of whether they’re ‘natural’ or fake. (Women might be interested to know which of these is the more popular. In fact a survey of the stats of porn site activity would probably give a very honest insight into what men actually prefer. I suspect the former) but there are sections for small breasted girls too, also skinny girls (from the merely slim to the anorexic) and fat girls (BBW? I don’t know what it stands for) varying from the curvy to the morbidly obese.
It’s pretty much all full-frontal but you can go for shaved or hairy (sometimes frighteningly so.) I dare say there are similar categories if you want to look at men but I’ve not felt sufficiently motivated to do the research. Beyond that you can look for Shemales, pregnant women, dwarfs and other miscellanea often gathered together under the heading ‘Bizarre’ – another area I’ve not really looked at in any detail. My tastes, it turns out, are fairly vanilla.

Then there’s the act itself. ‘Hardcore’ is a bit of a misnomer. It seems to be pretty much assumed among those who don’t know what they’re talking about that this is the nastier (and hence harder), more violent stuff, when what it actually means (and from what I can gather, what it has always meant) is people having full penetrative sex (and what could be more natural and normal?) Then there’s anal and oral sex of course, Threes and Foursomes, Swingers, group sex and ‘Partying’ but since I don’t like looking at men (for whatever reason) I’m generally not that interested. ‘Lesbians’ is another matter. Here I can look at women having sex without a man in sight which I think has got to be a good thing. Much of it seems to be simulated and designed for men to look at but unless I’m very easily deceived, by no means all.
‘Masturbation’ and ‘toys’, as you’d expect, is women playing with themselves (or the male equivalent presumably) mostly with various sorts of dildos, vibrators, or sometimes with the fruit and veg or a bottle. It can get fairly ‘Bizarre’ here too though, with ‘F**king Machines’ and ‘Fisting’ (I’ve not stumbled across any bestiality but then I’ve not looked) but it’s mostly fairly uncontroversial.
Beyond that there’s various sorts of public nudity and sex, much of which is fairly tame exhibitionism or just plain old fashioned streaking or naturism. There seems to be a premium on images of women 'caught unawares' by hidden cameras in the bathroom, or when they’re drunk or asleep or simply forgetting to keep their legs together when they sit down but I suspect a lot of candid ‘Upskirts’ and ‘Drunk Girlfriends’ are posed.
This brings in the whole genre of ‘Amateur’, ‘Natural’ or ‘Reality’ porn. Again, Women’s Hour does seem to assume that your typical male (ie me) would prefer the airbrushed, pneumatic, peroxide blonde porn star in the fluffy crotchless knickers to looking at the girl next door when I suspect it’s quite the opposite. I suspect that for most men, that classic porn star look belongs with the Shemales and the swingers in some seventies time warp. Which reminds me – there’s always the ‘Vintage’ section you can go to for a spot of nostalgia. The most controversial aspect of ‘Amateur’ porn nowadays of course is the ease with which, not having to send their films to Boots to be developed any more, young girls can take and upload images of themselves; and how easily these can find their way from their boyfriend’s (or ex boyfriend’s) mobile onto those of everybody else at school and beyond onto a ‘Revenge’ site. Concerns about consent are obvious, especially when the girls in question are teenagers. Most ‘Amateur’ porn though appears to be at least as consensual as the regular stuff. I’ll come back to this.
Then there’s BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism and Masochism) and beyond. This varies enormously from harmless and titillating games with ropes and spanking, to some fairly rough and public sex, to some seriously unpleasant stuff which I can’t look at even if it is consensual. Some sites seem to go out of their way to show the participants smiling and happy afterwards to demonstrate the point but this is obviously the area (along with underage sex) that causes most concern for those who consider themselves ‘anti-pornography’, and quite rightly.
There’s other perhaps more peripheral categories – underwear, goths, celebrities, various sorts of non photographic art work, but I think I’ve covered most of the important stuff.

So now I’m going to take the genuinely abusive and non-consensual stuff out of the equation. This maybe seems an unorthodox move – for isn’t this at the heart of the matter? Well no, I don’t think it is. As far as I’m concerned, forcing people to do violent and/or sexual things without their free and informed consent is immoral and illegal - End of, as they say. No one underage should be involved (and in my opinion the age of consent should be raised) and those made vulnerable by reason of poverty or mental illness, dependence or addiction or isolation should have the full protection of the law, and those exploiting them convicted. I consider myself lucky that I’m not interested in looking at images of anyone that is not doing what they’re doing from choice, but even if I did like that stuff I hope I’d have the moral integrity to be against it anyway. For those who do need such stuff, life must be extremely difficult but that’s no excuse. They simply can’t be allowed to act on their tastes and if they do they should be locked up until it can be proved that they no longer pose a threat, and I don’t know how you prove that.
But my point is that this sort of thing does not appear to characterise the bulk or even a significant proportion of the porn industry’s output. Looking at the images, reading interviews and talking to women in unguarded moments, I simply do not recognise that description. Certainly, much of what I see is unimaginative, crude and commercial. I’ve said that. I feel the same way though of much of what turns up in the music charts or in high street stores. Fast food, holiday resorts, Reality TV and instant coffee – it’s all pretty much a travesty of the way life could be but people apparently like things to be cheap and cheerful. They like things to be quick and convenient and not too challenging. They like things to be predictable. And of course the workers in all of these industries are to some extent exploited. It’s in the nature of capitalism. There’s no such thing as a fully free and informed decision.
What that does for the extraordinary thing that is human sexuality is possibly lamentable, but it’s done the same thing for food, travel and entertainment. Unless you think there’s something sacred about sex, it’s really not very remarkable.

This of course is at the heart of the matter. The anti-porn lobby as with most sex controversies (sex before marriage, homosexuality, sexual abuse and prostitution) depends to some extent on seeing sex as, if not sacred, then ‘special’ in some way.
I suppose for most people sex has a special place in life, but it’s interesting that they don’t often feel the same way about, for example, food. It’s worth remembering that such mores are very culture specific. People’s who go around practically naked all the time in, for example, New Guinea, are not perpetually trying to hump one another, whilst the sight of a woman’s ankle in Victorian England or apparently some parts of modern Arabia can induce apoplexy and riots. But I’m talking about modern Britain here (I’m not qualified to talk about anywhere else). Sexual mores have changed a great deal in the last fifty years but there is still this strong urge to treat sex as if it is something very special. Sexual morality has gone from something very prescribed - only to be practised under the strictest legal framework (ie a marriage between a man and a woman) with transgressors under threat of public opprobrium and legal sanction to, in the sixties, something that could be enjoyed, Joy of Sex style, among any consenting adults, in any number of positions and with all sorts of props. Even so it was supposed to be an expression of deep feelings, a coming together of two souls, a deeply private moment, a rite of passage. Women took part willingly in pornography, group sex and sadomasochistic games even then but it was considered a highly questionable thing to do. Feminism in particular but probably the majority of women generally, disapproved, and suspected that there was something deeply wrong with them. It was simply unthinkable that such women could possibly have made anything like a free and informed decision. Some branches of feminism would have ascribed ‘False Consciousness’ to any woman in the sex industry who claimed to enjoy (or even just be ok with) what she did. She simply had to be deluded.
Such attitudes persist in present day Woman’s Hour and in my friend’s fears, but the world has changed.
Feminists believed, back in the seventies, that if women had a more equal place in the workplace, in government and in education, that the world would be a more nurturing, sensitive, spiritual place, for those were the qualities traditionally associated with women. The old macho, aggressive, materialistic, competitive ways would be tempered by the woman’s touch. And so they have been, to some extent. Back then, before the sixties, a man would not be seen in the street pushing a pram, let alone claiming paternity leave. A man could not tolerate the mention of the word ‘menstruation’, far less go out and buy his girlfriend some tampons. But when women moved into traditionally held mens’ roles, they did not feminise them and make them more sensitive and fair. They themselves became more ruthless careerists and aggressive consumers. And the same thing has happened in sex. Women have not civilised the male sexuality but have moved in on it and look like becoming as obsessed with superficial attraction and immediate personal gratification as men ever were. Of course there are differences – men always did stupid things to get girls’ attention – getting into fights, participating in extreme sports, taking too many mind-altering substances. Girls take too many mind-altering substances, take their clothes off and dance on tables. Sometimes they allow their friends to take pictures of them doing it.
Perhaps we’re getting to a stage where sex is stripped of all sense of the forbidden (and hence in my opinion, much of the fun) to become a mere bodily function, to be carried out only more or less riskily. No doubt it will always be pleasurable but a large part of the excitement has always been in the edginess of it – the fact that, frankly, it was all a bit naughty. Sex will presumably always be, at a basic level, pleasurable and satisfying, as it is for other animals, but it is one of the triumphs of human culture that it can also be incredibly rude and powerfully erotic. Presumably it’s necessary to have some strictures in order to enjoy the transgression. I don’t know how to balance that one.
To use a food analogy, I dislike McDonald’s because it makes eating into a bland functional commodity, like going to the toilet. I fear that there are children out there, raised on oven chips and turkey twizzlers who will have no idea what else is possible and will not have the mental equipment to find out. Ultimately it’s their choice of course but I still think it’s depressing.

I should drop in a note here about the two arguments for prohibition around non-marital sex usually trotted out. The first is unwanted pregnancy. Bringing unwanted children into the world (or indeed having an abortion, pro-choice though I am) are among the deadliest of sins in my estimation (the latter a necessary evil justifiable only to avoid the former) but it is worth pointing out that the kinds of sexual behaviour most demonised are those that couldn’t possibly lead to pregnancy – notably homosexuality and masturbation. Internet porn has got to be the ultimate in risk-free intercourse. Secondly there’s sexually transmitted infection, which is a very real threat but compares well with other risky recreational pursuits, such as going out drinking, driving a motor bike or travelling in Africa. The possible risks may be serious but there is no moral outrage involved when your friend tells you she is going back-packing in Botswana – only fears for her safety and the suggestion of sensible precautions. Women being photographed naked or filmed having sex, is simply not all that life threatening.

Feminists who feel the need to make a political stand (the aim of which would be to change the law presumably), are I think underestimating women. They may not approve of what girls do but sex simply does not have the same power to destroy that it used to have. Once, being discovered in some sexual indiscretion could destroy a girl’s reputation for ever and see her disowned and on the street and this is still true in some parts of the world, but here and now, appearing on a porn site may be embarrassing for a girl, especially for her relatives but it is not necessarily or even likely to be her ruin. She may see it as an extension of what she does anyway – snogging her girlfriends at a party, getting off with strangers on Saturday night or running up the street naked in Ibiza. Why not do it properly? Why not get paid for it. It’s just a bit of fun. It’s a laugh, or so I gather. I've never felt this way about my own sex life.

I don’t know how good I am at detecting what’s really going on under the surface, just from looking at people’s faces. I know when I trawl the porn sites I sometimes come across the faces of women and girls who quite obviously don’t want what’s happening to them. I guess some men like that sort of thing. For me it’s a miserable and disturbing sight, but I don’t see it very often. Mostly the gazes and postures seem stereotyped, unimaginative, asexual in even the most explicit poses. They smile at us men, or feign orgasm, hold their vulvas open or try to lick their own nipples. It’s contrived, commercial, boring, but it’s a job. One thing they don’t look is traumatised. I like to think I’d notice. It’s as sincere as the smile of a receptionist, or the greeting of a call centre. They get paid to do this stuff but it doesn’t say anything about them.
A small minority though, the ones I look out for, actually seem to be getting a bit of a kick out of it. They think it’s sexy, naughty, fun. I like to think I can tell. If not then they’re bloody good actors.

This is what Woman’s Hour, for all its excellent qualities (it’s one of my favourite Radio 4 shows) and it’s contributors cannot overtly admit (despite the occasional featuring of burlesque dancers, swingers and page three girls) – that some women at least (and possibly quite a lot of women) like taking their clothes off in public and having sex with strangers, and not just to please their men. They find it a turn on. It’s part of their sexuality, and they’re not much worried about the consequences, because for the most part, there really aren’t any.

But (they insist, the detractors) pornography really just simply isn't like that. The majority of pornography simply is violent, degrading and exploitative.
All I can say is it doesn't look that way to me, but even if this were the case, my point would be that we should support the minority that aren't rather than condemn them all. That there weren't many suppliers was not an argument for not buying for example free range eggs, or fair trade coffee. Perhaps we should start some sort of certification scheme - Responsibly Sourced Nudity, or Safely Harvested Sex but I suspect the main participants might be a little too safe - even for my tastes (we don't want it too wholesome after all do we).
In practice though we are going to have to trust our instincts to spot when the participants are not happy with what's going on or are too young to know better, and to go elsewhere.
And if you're still not happy with that I suspect you are one of those who simply believe that pornography is wrong. In which case I can't help you.
So anyway, where was I? Yay!

Friday, 19 November 2010

To Uncle Bob

I'm not claiming any special expertise or originality of thought here. Anybody reading this blog who wants to dismiss me on the grounds that it's been said before or that I have missed some crucial argument or item of evidence, will have missed the point. I'm not an academic or a journalist, paid to do the research. I don't have that luxury. I'm just an ordinary bloke trying to make sense of what I see. If I've missed something genuinely crucial to the argument I'm making, feel free to let me know (politely and concisely please) and I'll do my best to include it.

Why then do I expect my views to be read and taken seriously?
Well I don't expect them to. I don't expect anything.
A) I just like writing. It's not a waste of time for me. It's what I do.
B) I have all this stuff going around in my head with no outlet. Writing a blog, although probably unread, puts it 'out there'. All this 'wisdom' I've accumulated (ha ha) need not go entirely to waste.
C) The main accusation of the question though is why do I imagine I might have anything worthwhile to add to the debate?

The answer to that is, keeping up as well as I can with current debates, I note that there are points of view, ways of thinking, strands of argument, that are never or almost never aired. I'm not talking about bizarre cultish or extremist views that are supposedly repressed or dismissed by the mainstream. I'm talking about fairly ordinary propositions that simply fall outside the received wisdom of the time, and which journalists in particular don't seem interested in pursuing. Does capitalism for instance really promote choice and diversity? Does competition really result in the best rising to the top? Does hard work and talent lead, in general, to success? How do you define success? Is popularity a sign of quality?
Some of these questions have been unfashionable since the '80s, associated as they were with the more extremist or unworldly strands of left wing politics, but, as will become obvious, I am not interested in being fashionable (or in being left wing for that matter.)

It may also be objected that much of what I propose requires changes that are considered impractical. I am not being 'realistic' they say. This leads into my fourth reason for writing:
D) I think these questions matter - not because I think they are straightforward prescriptions for action but because they might cause some of us to change our minds (or to challenge our assumptions.) In most cases I have no clear idea whatsoever how to bring about the changes that I want in how the world is run, but what I do know is that nothing can ever change until enough people believe that something should change. Everything else follows from that (think women's rights, democracy, war crimes courts, the abolition of slavery - all unthinkable before their times.) Once the moral will (or the pressure) is there, somehow, practical steps emerge, but not before. Too often powerful moral arguments are shouted down by vested interests (and the journalists reporting them unfortunately), demanding to know exactly how we propose putting our ideas into practice. The question is premature.

Finally (E) these essays (for that's what they are) are a lifelong repost to all my (mostly male) relatives who I tried to discuss with as a child and a teenager, but who, instead of enjoying the intellectual stimulation, considered me a misguided dreamer and set about 'putting me right' with their 'common sense' notions of the 'ways of the world'. Their incurious, narrow minded spirits lurk in the margins of all my writing.

This is what I'd like to have said to them but was too young to articulate at the time.
Thanks Bob.

Monday, 1 November 2010

With fiduciary duty's to be done, to be done...

The Thinker.I'm not against capitalism. It sticks in my craw to say so, but I'm not. I run a small business myself after all.
If there is anything you love doing and people are prepared to pay you for it, what could be better than earning a living at it?
But I'm suspicious of big business for the same reasons I'm suspicious of big government - because sooner or later it starts to run on it's own ulterior motives, oblivious of the rest of us, and in business, that motive is purely and simply to make money. Nothing else matters. Everything else is incidental. In fact, as I understand it, companies floated on the stock exchange are legally required to make as much money as is legally possible*. Anything else is illegal. That this should be the case is I think the gist of what Milton Friedman had to say on the subject.
This motive has become pretty universally accepted and taken for granted of late. As business people will gladly tell you whenever it is suggested they do something to help the environment or working mothers or whatever - "We're in business to make money. This isn't a charity."

For those who believe in the power of the Free Market this is not a problem. What is good for business must be good for the consumer. A well run business responds to demand, providing choice and opportunity. Furthermore, growth in the private sector creates wealth and that's got to be a good thing hasn't it.
But the experiences of the last few years demonstrate instead the power of the Law of Unintended Consquences. Briefly, Economic Reality developed a logic all its own that became so divorced from Actual Reality that a small number of individuals in the financial sector in one country could completely destabilise the economy of the rest of the world. The analysis of the current crisis has been rehearsed ad nauseum and needs no addendum from me except to say that this problem is not the result of some abstruse detail at the periphery of the capitalist edifice. It is a direct and inevitable result of basic assumptions about how the economy should be run, which is to say that making money is the only thing that counts.

To suggest otherwise might be considered heretical these days but I can't help thinking that there are other things business should be about. A couple of things spring to mind:

One is that business should be primarily about providing us with reliable and affordable goods and services. This seems self evident until you listen to business people talking about 'product' as if it signifies nothing more than profit (or loss) to them. The feeling seems to be that none of this 'product' really matters in itself. Each and every product is interchangeable with every other product, and ultimately with money. But a quick look at Actual Reality shows that this isn't the case. In the absence of nationalised industry or backwoodsman style self-sufficiency, we are totally dependent on businesses to provide almost everything we have and use in our lives. This is not just trinkets and treats - optional extras and investments that may or may not come good at some time in the future - this is food and clothing, health and education, home and heating, and yes, the pleasures that make life worth living. Shopping is no mere leisure activity. It is where we get the things we need to in order live. We 'consumers' lose sight of this, dazzled by novelties and fashion accessories, but business provides the things that make life possible. I emphasise - life would be impossible without it. It's not like we have a choice to go elsewhere. And it's not a game. Business has the immense responsibility of making life possible, of providing the things we need to stay alive. They should be taking that extremely seriously, rather than just worrying over their next bonus.
"But surely that is what businesses do" I hear you cry. If they didn't, all those products would not be exchangeable for all that money. The business may not care precisely what products it produces as long as it turns a profit but the customer will, and if the product is wrong it will not sell. Surely?
Not necessarily. If the primary goal is to maximise returns rather than to produce the best possible goods and services, all sorts of unintended consequences follow. It pays for instance to use the cheapest materials and labour you can get away with. You get a better return if your goods don't last very long, can't be repaired and thus have to be replaced often. And you can sell more of these shoddy goods if reliable advice is hard to come by.

A second and equally important thing is that business provides jobs. Again, this seems obvious until you realise that most of the people who run businesses regard work as something of a game or a personal statement, to be traded or invested in for the future and workers as another commodity, to be bought and sold. For most of us though, work is quite simply the only way we have to be able to afford those things we need. Having a job is a matter of life and death. But that's not all. Because most of us spend up to a third of our lives either at or preparing to get to work, work that is not as intrinsically meaningful and satisfying as possible drains life of much of it's meaning.

In short, business's (and therefore capitalism's) first priorities should be to provide the best possible goods and services at an affordable price and the best possible work for a fair wage. Only once those basic requirements are met should 'wealth creation' for its' own sake be an option. Only then can the executive justifiably look to his bonus.

As it stands though, we have the reverse. Things that used to last a lifetime last on average only slightly longer than the length of the warranty. 'Retail outlets' are staffed by people taken on mainly for their ability to sell stuff rather than their expertise and experience. Production is mechanised and manned by unskilled and near destitute workers in 'developing' nations. Legal and technical documentation is unreadable and interminable. (Have you ever wondered why small print is small?) Legal costs discourage litigation.
Many might regard this last paragraph as unnecessarily paranoid or cynical but the bigger businesses leave nothing to chance and you can be sure they'll have done the maths.

To see the alternative all you need do is look at small artisanal businesses. Unbeholding to shareholders, these can choose the best affordable materials and make the best possible job of whatever it is they do, simply because they consider the thing worth doing. They can also take the time to talk directly to their customers to give expert advice and support. Obviously such a business will never make the kind of profits the bigger business does but as long as it makes it's staff a fair living wage and covers it's costs it's perfectly sustainable. Only in competition with big business does such an operation come to look unworkable. Then the smaller business is generally either bought out or undercut into oblivion, or else it's products become luxury goods, available only to the wealthy.

Thus, contrary to popular belief, the Free Market tends inexorably and inevitably toward lower quality and less choice as companies become fewer in number and larger in size.
To the extent that smaller businesses provide better than necessary goods and services, they do so in spite of capitalism, not because of it. Gradually our globalised capitalist civilisation will be served by fewer and fewer, larger and larger corporations and we will have to put up with whatever menial jobs and shoddy (but no doubt fashionable) products they care to offer us, and we will not have the option to shop elsewhere.
This is not some dystopian fantasy. The imperative to maximise returns to shareholders* above all else makes this inevitable.
The difference between big business and big government though is that we get the chance to vote the latter out.
What do we do when we don't like the former?
And how long before business is so big that no government can afford to challenge it?

*unless the shareholders opt for some sort of ethical investment, and how often does that happen?

Monday, 11 October 2010

Unfairness doesn’t really matter because people can overcome disadvantages with ‘hard work’

Welcome to ParadiseI was listening to the piece on fairness with the Equality and Human Rights Commission's Trevor Phillips this morning on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4. I’ve not read the report of course (750 pages?!) so I’m just responding to what I heard.
As usual I find I’m amazed that some (to me) fairly obvious points weren’t raised, either by Trevor or the interviewer (Evan Davis? Sorry I didn’t catch the name. Can’t seem to find it on the website). 
Most obvious was the interviewer’s insistence that unfairness of opportunity doesn’t really matter because people can overcome disadvantage with ‘hard work’. The example given was ‘Chinese girls’ (compared to Indian girls and Chinese boys presumably).  Rags-to-riches tales of slum kids getting to be millionaires in the city or wherever, are always trotted out when deprivation is mentioned as an ‘excuse’ for underachievement. ‘If some can do it, surely they could all do it, if they tried hard enough’ is the moral of the story. Apparently anybody who is not well off these days just hasn’t tried hard enough.
Wrong, on several counts :
Firstly it’s a matter of probabilities, or trends, not a simple always/never. Childhood deprivation does not always lead to underachievement, but it tends to. There’ll always be exceptions. It’s like the smoker who tells us that his granny smoked forty a day all her life and lived to be 80. Of course it’s possible, but it’s not likely.
Kids from rough backgrounds are less likely to do well later. I think that’s pretty well established, but I still want to ask, why should they have to work so much harder? That is an unfairness in itself. The flip side of the stats is that kids from wealthy backgrounds are not having to work especially hard to do very nicely thank you. Kids with no special aptitude or ambition are finding their ways into lucrative jobs in the city or wherever because their dad knew someone or paid for them to go to the right school. That particular unfairness means there’s no guarantee that those in charge are the most able (only the most ambitious, or competitive perhaps, which is not at all the same thing), so we all suffer as a result.

But working hard isn’t a simple matter either.  It’s not just about putting in the hours. It's about knowing how to work in the right way. It’s about understanding what the work is for and how to use it.  It’s about understanding the possibilities. A person can slog away for years and achieve almost nothing without the right contacts or a certain amount of financial leeway. Lack of a kind of basic self-confidence is another factor for people from poor backgrounds, who perhaps simply don’t know anyone who does anything other than unskilled labour or draw benefits. Thinking your way out of that without family encouragement (or with family derision) can take an almost impossible level of self discipline. And we’re talking about little kids and teenagers here. I put it to you that no matter what sob stories you might hear from ex public school boys about how badly they were treated, they won’t have had to have coped with half the trials a kid off a crappy estate will have had to, just to gain a couple of decent A levels.
In short there is no particular relation between how hard people work and how well they do. There are plenty of people who work desperately hard who have almost nothing, and plenty who do almost nothing and are rolling in it.

Finally the idea that if we all pulled our socks up and got on our bikes, we could all be ‘successful’ (ie rich, as if there’s no other sort of success) is a myth. Most people end up in crappy jobs because most jobs are crappy, and that’s how the market needs it to be. Kids are brought up these days comparing themselves with the people on the telly and are given the idea that if they just try hard enough they could do that too, but for the most part they can’t - not because there’s anything intrinsically wrong with them but because that’s what the jobs available are like. No wonder kids go off the rails.

As a final word, an email was read out (with a flourish I thought, as if it would silence all us leftie idealists) from a woman victimised for being 'too healthy and well dressed' (this was just after the war). The moral of her account apparently was that it’s impossible to create a level playing field.

So therefore we shouldn’t bother to try?