Kieran Devlin 31st October 2017
During a recent dinner, Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar took aim at “latte socialists”, a cousin to the more renowned and debauch “champagne socialists”, a term for the allegedly hypocritical left who criticise capitalism’s institutions while taking advantage of its products, such as buying fancy coffee. Staring at “latte socialists” written down is initially jarring, resembling more high school band name than cutting insult.
Curiously, the “coffee is posh” aberration has a surprisingly ample history. Appearing on Have I Got News For You in 2011, the journalist and ex-Tory MP Louise Mensch vilified Occupy protesters for drinking Starbucks. This April, during the general election run-in, the Tory candidate for Wakefield Antony Calvert tweeted about a local’s nerve to enter a Costa after the man had confronted Calvert over the Tories’ record with the working class.
This isn’t a partisan strategy. That same day, Labour’s now-Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham advised that the Tories wanted to adopt “barista visas” post-Brexit so people wouldn’t miss out on their “posh coffee,” and during last year’s Labour leadership contest Owen Smith distanced himself from drinking “frothy coffee” in “a posh cup” during a Guardian interview.
The coffee is posh myth illustrates neatly how our politicians and media hold an antiquated view of working-class signifiers and values, of what ideas and products working class people both cherish and is accessible to them. Politicians appropriate these signifiers for political capital, whether that’s attacking the hypocritical left for criticising capitalism while drinking brand coffee, or deploying them as affirmations of their own groundedness and authenticity, their clumsy clawing at connection and relevancy with the electorate. Accompanying Burnham and Smith’s coffee bashing, there’s David Cameron’s persevering that he was an Aston Villa fan even after mistaking them for West Ham, Theresa May eating fish and chips, and Boris Johnson and other Bullingdon Club alma maters awkwardly sipping Heineken in a Wetherspoons. Football, a chippie, and lager are all superficially traditional working class signifiers, but frothy coffee certainly isn’t.
There is, however, an insidiousness at play with the posh coffee circus. The dogmatic insistence that working class people don’t drink milky Italian coffee is founded in the insistence that they shouldn’t drink milky Italian coffee.
Ignore that a Costa or Starbucks is significantly cheaper than the politicians’ go-to working class signifier, the pint of lager, it’s popular among young, largely left-leaning liberals and affiliated with the astonishingly impudent decadence of steamed milk; it’s excessive, unlike a good, strong black coffee, or even better, a proper builders’ tea. That’s the working class hot drink remit, because the working class don’t buy into such gratuitous frills, because they can’t afford to, because they shouldn’t be able to afford to, with their austere time and money. If you can afford to buy lattes, then you don’t align with this calcified definition of working classness.
The thinly veiled implication behind arguments is that poor people are poor because of character deficiencies
It’s a common worldview across some sections of the right that, bluntly, poor people are poor because they misspend their money. One of the most tired aphorisms directed at the poor is that they can’t be starving because they’re buying smartphones and widescreen TVs, and can’t be freezing cold because they opt to go to Glastonbury over getting the boiler fixed.
However, if you are working class and you do buy lattes, then you’re either a class-traitor hypocrite or fiscally irresponsible. The thinly veiled implication behind arguments is that poor people are poor because of character deficiencies, tendencies towards temptation of extravagance even at the expense of necessities, rather than systemic flaws in welfare and income distribution.
You can of course read this as a simple deflection tactic, whether conscious or unconscious, veering discussion away from the structural problems facilitating the UK’s growing poverty levels and increasing income inequality; particularly around the soaring figures of in-work poverty which exemplify such structural deficiencies. Or, you can read it as a resurrection and modernisation of the Victorian conviction that poverty is synonymous with ignorance, squalor, laziness. Working class people are confined to Just About Managing, buying all the bare essentials and nothing greater; and if they refuse to conform to that caricature even to just buy a latte then they’re subverting their societal role, or are demoted to the lower tier cartoon, that of the benefits frauds, the drains on the welfare system, the ignorant, the squalid, the lazy.
It’s obvious in the way poverty’s relationship to class is depicted across media, from tabloid castigation of benefit scroungers and documentary “poverty porn” on our TVs, to the supposedly uplifting TV show “Get A House For Free” where basic housing is presented as an exceptional reward. Working class people have to be both morally good and work hard to win the prize of food, water, shelter, and clothing otherwise they’re undeserving. Frothy coffee is a superfluous extra in this. Good, honest, hard-working people have no time for their milk to be steamed.
People will choose to buy luxury goods over necessary goods because buying luxury goods makes you feel happy.
People who know, who’ve experienced its numbing bleakness, recurrently stress that poverty is drudgery where small treats can mean the world, a brief escape of pleasure and life, whether that’s represented by a Monday motivation latte or a fortnight’s holiday to Portugal. Foregoing necessities for a fleeting thrill or gratification isn’t the hyper-rational decision which the circumstances of our economic system may dictate, but it’s an understandable one, and a universal one. Some people will manipulate the welfare system, benefits claimants making frivolous purchases knowing that they can turn to food banks if need be – but the crux is that the decision they face shouldn’t have to be made. People shouldn’t have to decide between fundamental survival and happiness.
People will choose to buy luxury goods over necessary goods because buying luxury goods makes you feel happy. It makes you feel excited. It makes you feel human. Even something as trivial and barely constituting a luxury good as a latte. People, regardless of class or income, buy luxury goods because it’s worth it.
In its own marginal way, the “coffee is posh” façade shows that class is still an embedded issue in British, and Irish, politics. Income disparity is something our political class seem more intent on using for tedious point-scoring than attempting to understand or improve.
Kieran Devlin 31st October 2017