The strange case of Trenton Oldfield
If we’re all trapped in one giant series of Big Brother, Trenton Oldfield is the latest evictee, replacing Samantha Brick on the long Walk of Shame (although it was This Morning, not Davina, that awaited the Daily Mail’s lucrative offering to the lions). I’m not going to join the booing, placard-waving crowds, because there’s enough posts stringing Mr Oldfield up if that’s your thing. But who am I to miss out on the rash of ’so, what’s the broader significance?’ pieces?
Firstly, a word in Oldfield’s defence. Much of the commentary has ridiculed the fact that a self-declared warrior against elitism is himself from a privileged background: indeed, he was educated at one of Sydney’s most exclusive public schools. I’ve never bought the argument that being born into relatively well-to-do circumstances bars you from rejecting a manifestly unjust status quo.
The right love nothing better than a supposed left-wing hypocrite: if you are well-off in any way, then, as far as some are concerned, the only legitimate political position to have is selfish, naked class interest. But I’ve argued before that socialism is nothing personal; that it’s the system that’s at fault, not the characteristics of the individuals who make it up. Of course, if you rail against private education and send your kids to Eton, you’re more or less asking for a Daily Mail hatchet job, but if – like Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, George Orwell, Clement Attlee, Tony Benn, and so on – you’re not exactly salt-of-the-earth by birth but want a better world, then good for you.
In terms of Oldfield’s exact political grievances, it’s fair to say they are a tad on the muddled side. His blog does have more than a hint of Monty Python about it, suggesting that a war against ‘elitism’ would involve taxi drivers taking their passengers on expensive routes, plumbers ’storing’ up problems at right-wing think-tanks, and cleaners not replacing the toilet paper of ’someone that considers themselves elite or is an elite sympathiser, like a right wing professor’. If caricaturing left-wing ideas is your schtick, then Oldfield is probably a bit of a gift.
But it does strike me that the sheer volume of media outrage over Oldfield’s antics is down to the fact that, frankly, a hugely disproportionate number of journalists (myself included) are Oxbridge-educated. I doubt most care about what happens at a sporting event which is completely culturally alien to the vast majority of the population, and I’m sure a fair number cheered Oldfield on when they heard what had happened (anecdotally, I know this to be true). Oxford and Cambridge have poor reputations with a sizable chunk of the population, which is why so many bright working-class kids refuse to apply in the first place.
I’ve argued before against what I call the ‘Oxbridge system’ – that is, having two elite universities that are held in far higher esteem than all others, with a totally socially unrepresentative body of students. I wonder if Oldfield agrees, then, that a big part of the problem with both Oxford and Cambridge is that actually they have too many students who share his background. The absurdity of Oxford as it currently exists is that even someone like me was in a minority simply because I was educated at comprehensive schools, and I am no working-class hero: my dad worked for Sheffield Council (well, till he lost his job) and my mum was an IT lecturer at Salford University.
And then there is the form of his protest. I’m sure that this would raise Oldfield’s hackles, but I’m inclined to throw the charge of elitism back at him. There’s a slightly clunky term long used by certain Marxists: ’substitutionism’. It was first used by Leon Trotsky at the turn of the 20th century to warn of the danger of a revolutionary party substituting itself for the working-class: after all, as Marx had written, ‘the emancipation of the working class must be the work of the working class itself’.
What Oldfield has done is to substitute himself for collective action. The driving force of social change in history is people with similar interests and grievances getting together and using their weight as a group to challenge those who currently rule. Even that is no guarantee of success, but self-selected individuals committing supposed heroic stunts is certainly doomed to failure. If Oldfield wants a war against elitism, then an elitist form of protest is probably not the way of going about it.
And then there’s the choice of target. The living standards of the average Briton are declining at the fastest rate since my grandmother was born; our welfare state and public services are being shredded; and yet it remains boom-time for those at the top. Is driving a minor sports event most have no interest in up the news agenda really a priority for today’s protester?
Picture:Getty ImagesTagged in: boat race, elitism, Oxbridge, Trenton Oldfield
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter