Review: Split: Class Divides Uncovered

“Split: Class Divides Uncovered”, by Ben Tippet, has one major thing going for it. As an object – as a consumer product –  it is beautiful. The cover design by Jamie Keenan is a lovely use of colour and image, pinks and blues and blacks and whites with clean lines and clear iconography. The actual material of the cover is lovely, a slightly rough paper which makes the book a delight to hold; the internal pages are soft and pliable; the fonts are easy on the eye; the size of the book, a slim paperback, makes it easy to read. You feel as if the book has been designed to be read on public transport, so that others will see its eye-catching design and intriguing title, and think “there goes an intellectual, someone-about-town, a thinker of big thoughts”; or, perhaps, it is to be left as if casually on a coffee table, so that someone visiting your house may glance at it and be impressed at your erudition. It is, in short, a pleasing Thing.

Unfortunately, the actual text and contents of the book are rather considerably less impressive.

Let me be clear. I essentially agree with the politics of the book. There were no ideas raised in it that didn’t feel sensible, right and in line with my mainstream opinions as yet another generic young white guilty middle-class person on the UK electoral left in 2020. Much of it is very worthy: essentially every cause it highlights is a righteous one. I found the account of the massacre of the miners of Marikana near the start very affecting; I had completely missed this event when it happened, and it made me want to read more about it. Tippett deserves credit for highlighting these things. It’s clear that he has read quite a lot of things written by other people and as I in turn read the diligent fruits of his reading, it was like he was there next to me, telling me about it.

That doesn’t sound so bad, I hear you say? And yes, I feel sure that I could have an interesting conversation with him were he to tell me about those specific areas in which, as a PhD student, he aspires to world-class expertise. But that was not the kind of conversation that reading this book felt like. Instead, it reminded me quite strongly of being at a house party, talking to a man who listens to a lot of podcasts – good, worthy podcasts, and also podcasts like The Social Review. It was like talking to that man for as long as my drink lasts, until, finally, mercifully, I manage to extricate myself and go to the kitchen for another orange juice and perhaps a breadstick or twelve. I would say that the primary thing I learnt from reading it was that the person who had written it was certainly aware of – maybe even adjacent to! – much wisdom.

The book has a disjointed structure. It purports to be a somewhat-coherent narrative exploring what class is and why it matters, and why it and socialist ideas increasingly matter more to younger people in Britain today. It isn’t really that coherent. Each chapter is a sort of self-contained flurry through a particular aspect of class, or a specific perspective: I found myself waiting, aching, for these strands to be brought together, but this never really happens. Back at the party, I’m just watching his hands move, gesticulating with his can of trendy beer. My eyes lose focus; I notice the wallpaper pattern.

Perhaps some specific examples will help me to illustrate my objections further.

Each chapter – ranging in length from eight pages to a very grown up fifteen pages – ends quite abruptly, as if in the middle of a thought, or as if the author was distracted by the next chapter, or a word limit, or a deadline, or his mate passing by on the way to the kitchen. The resulting effect could not be described as seamless. Chapter 5 on “Culture” ends with an interesting anecdote about how Danny Dyer takes his tea, and the statement that what is much more important than Mr Dyer’s hot beverage preferences are these key questions: “who makes the tea, under what conditions, and who ultimately is getting rich off it?” Well, I agreed with that, was indeed interested, my eyes focused, and I turned the page expecting the next chapter to expand and explore that thought: but it is not until the second third of Chapter 9 that it is returned to, with an express link back to the thought of Chapter 5! This adds to this sensation of a disjointed conversation/ramble, with thoughts running discordantly rather than crescendoing to harmony.

The book’s attitude to citations is curious. At the back, a list of “Resources” is provided, which looks genuinely excellent, without caveats. Throughout the book itself there are also footnoted references. These, however, are by no means comprehensive. On one page, a specific statistic about grammar school pupils and free school meals is quoted and attributed to Stig Abel. Fine! Great! But then, just a few lines down, we have “Research from Durham University shows that going to a grammar school does not actually give you a better education”. What research? By whom? What were the metrics used to measure “better” or “worse” education? On this the author is silent. The name of a prestigious university is sprinkled there like sexy, credentialed dust to give an air of gravitas to the claim – which my gut instinct leads me to think is probably absolutely true – but there’s no attempt to cite it. Why not cite this but cite other things? The approach feels entirely inconsistent. The whole work had this anecdotal factoid-stuffed feel. I am by no means opposed to accessible access to ideas but this book seems to be less interested in demonstrating exactly what its ideas are or where they come from than telling you, vaguely, that they exist.

One of the most egregious examples – the point when I first commented to a friend “this book is really not very good” – came towards the end of Chapter 3, on “Gender”. Much of this chapter is a potted account of some aspects of contemporary feminism thought, mostly focused on the broad concept of the gender pay gap. Near the end, however, the author makes the argument that the invention of “a man’s place is in the workplace and a woman’s place is in the home” dates back to the beginning of capitalism in the fifteenth century. After a discussion on enclosure and the end of self-sufficient peasant life – which the author seems romantically enamoured with  – maybe he spent a few summers picking soft fruit and really liked it, oh god, maybe, maybe he’s going to tell you about it, are you going to die here, here at this party? – he then goes on to claim that the corresponding revolution in gender relations at that time was the witch trials, in which “hundreds of thousands of women died”. Hmm. Fences around fields are like drowning women? Not quite sure about this, but let’s dig a bit deeper.

Obviously the witch trials across Europe were awful, a ghastly campaign waged by a patriarchal society against women. In particular that figure of hundreds of thousands is massively high – from a little research it seems to be an older figure and not one supported by the scholarly consensus in medievalism, and certainly it’s contested, of which no real mention is given. The narrative here sort of suggests that the witch trials came out of nowhere, as if the nascent capitalists across Europe simply woke up one morning and decided “we need to make sure that the BBC can underpay its female presenters in half a millennium’s time, so we’d better get with the witch burning” – with no indication of why that might have been a thing they decided to do. It doesn’t even discuss the fact that the witch trials happened patchily in different places and in different ways, or the fact that on the whole – as I understand from the medievalist friend I chatted to when writing this review – they were an early modern phenomenon: the time frame presented doesn’t quite seem to fit. 

Regardless of these particular historical oddities, on the whole it’s just there, this sudden notion of witches, and then a mention of the author and book it comes from – Silvia Federici’s “Caliban and the Witch-Woman” – from which, I think, these ideas are transplanted wholesale. I am sure that is a fine book, which properly explains and justifies the points that are here being tragically garbled: but three paragraphs seem to boil it down to triviality, a micro-podcast BBC Bitesize blip. There’s no critical engagement with that work, only a breathless half-baked account of it from which it’s hard to take much. I will say that I am sure it would be news to many women who lived before the fifteenth century that no notion of “women’s work” existed in their lives! The women who were murdered deserve better than a cameo appearance in a waffling and weak narrative about the capitalistic origin of gender roles, which here writes cheques it sorely cannot cash.

This is essentially symptomatic of the core problem which dogs this book. The book knows what it wants to say before it starts, and then it assembles facts and accounts to create it. It has a whiggish view of history, a  teleological view that suggests that everything that happened in the past was working to bring about the now. I’m not a historian, but I can recognise some dodgy history and dodgier analysis when I see it. This book is the QI Guide To Class, the Bumper Book Of Anti-Capitalist Facts; it is a socialist stocking filler, and not a particularly good one at that. There is a good argument that an accessible primer to theory is a valuable tool, digesting these difficult notions down into a form that anyone could access: but I didn’t really feel as if the book was usefully doing that, either. It’s all too short, too quick, too ephemeral; it seems to exist merely to exist. I am someone who struggles with long work and complex theory – I like ideas being broken down for me – but this was too much, too far digested.

The book concludes with a selection of interviews and quotes from young, often working-class, people that the author talked to about the themes of the book – the other half, if you like, of the one-sided conversation of the rest of the work. I really liked this part. I liked the voices of the young people; I found I enjoyed them much more than the authorial voice that spoke preceding them. Sadly, all too shortly, they were cut short, and the author began to concludes with “three practical steps we can all take to shake up our rigid class systems”. These were (drumroll…): “life-long political education”, “join a union”, and “take to the streets”. What novelty! What insight! Why have these things not been tried before!? They are described as practical, but details of how to carry them out are loosely sketched at best. It was a curious ending, as if the author had not known how to conclude, like a conversation that tails off as a man runs out of steam, and his conversational partner (“partner”) disappears in search of more drink and better company. 

In short: once its one-hundred and twenty nine pages were concluded, I found myself not greatly enlightened by the experience in any sense, and certainly in no way certain what the author wanted me to take away from it all. The “Resources” section of this book is fundamentally very good. I suggest reading the works that are cited there. I can’t recommend this book as a potted digest of them to anyone. I look forward to Tippet’s future work: he is clearly a person with good politics who seeks to understand the world and many left notables have given him positive views quoted in the frontispiece. I’m sure he’ll be fine, but, in my view, “Split” is a dud on arrival.