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Aspirational

How Brown and Cameron make us feel fabulous

An unspeak.net reader writes:

You covered “aspirational goals” back in 2007, but now we have ‘aspirational’ NHS gowns (which are also ‘lux’). What does this mean? That the patients should want to nick them and take them home, as people are said to do with luxury hotel bathrobes? That they will want to remain in hospital because the gowns feel so fabulous? Either way, it would seem to mean more expense for the NHS. Or does the designer think “NHS gowns” will become a desirable brand, in the way that NHS specs weren’t?1

These are all excellent questions? Designer of the new gown, Ben de Lisi, elucidates:

“The old hospital gown was hideous, embarrassing, ill-fitting and probably ill-making too. You are away from home, ill, and in hospital and you have to wear this horrific garment with your arse hanging out. Give me a break. I wanted the new gowns to feel fabulous and aspirational. They are made from beautiful cotton shirting which is very smooth, cool and lux.”

He said his design means patients can have their modesty covered but still allow medics immediate access through clever “entrance points” in the gown.

“It’s infinitely dignified, yet practical. And Velcro doesn’t enter into the equation.”

It is tempting to mock (I’m sure the unspeak.net readership is always clothed in an infinitely dignified style), but this is basically good news, of course. It ought to remind us, though, of the peculiarities of the newly ubiquitous invocation of aspiration(al) in political speech. In fashion, aspirational means something openly brutal:

In consumer marketing, an aspirational brand (or product) means a large segment of its exposure audience wishes to own it, but for economical reasons cannot.

Aspirational products are therefore a way of enforcing a class hierarchy through deliberately excessive pricing. Compare, then, the way Gordon Brown talks of an age of aspiration, and analyses his citizens thus:

This is a country of aspirational individuals who, given half a chance, want to get on and not simply get by.

Meanwhile, the sinister and lubberly wattle-head David Cameron prates:

[C]hange must be based on the values of responsibility and aspiration [...] We can’t go on with an old-fashioned left-wing class war on aspiration.

Politically, the fetishization of aspiration valorizes the social and economic anxieties of the populace, insisting that a neurotic obsession with the greasy pole is a national virtue, while cunningly reversing the usual manifesto structure whereby the politician promises something to the people. Instead, it is enough that the people promise something to themselves, while the politician looks on benevolently and encourages them in their lust for material advancement. The people are praised inasmuch as they merely continue to desire something kept critically vague, and the politician doesn’t have to promise that he will grant them the means to fulfil those aspirations — indeed, he doesn’t have to promise anything at all. Which is just as well since, in the world of fashion, what is aspirational is deliberately engineered to be what most of us can’t have. This is, in quite a precise sense, the politics of envy.

What are your current aspirations, readers?

  1. Thanks to Barney.
6 comments
  1. 1  Hich  February 12, 2010, 9:36 am 

    “Aspirational” was a term that had a robust showing in the lead-up to the 2008 US presidential elections. When Obama introduced his promise of no tax hikes for anyone earning more than 250,000 dollars, many commentators were surprised by how many Americans viewed that as a threat that could affect them personally despite the majority of them earning nowhere near that amount. The general view was that this highlighted the culture of aspiration in the US where the average citizen believes their conditions are bound to improve in the very near future.

    My guess is Cameron is trying to tap into that same reservoir of self-belief (a.k.a self-delusion) in the UK public.

    Aspirational is now probably used by politicians less in the sense of “want to do better in the not-too-distant future” than “will do better …”

  2. 2  Sarah  February 12, 2010, 11:45 am 

    Are shorts with tights infinitely dignified? If they are, then I am too.

    The politics of aspiration are a horrible con, and a powerful example of advertising logic informing political authority. Does satisfaction become a dereliction of civic duty?

  3. 3  Ricardo  February 12, 2010, 1:02 pm 

    The idea that every one should be aspirational – ie aspiring to better their neighbour – reminds me of how the average British car driver thinks themself to be an above-average driver

  4. 4  Alex  February 12, 2010, 4:12 pm 

    I recall that in the late 90s, the phrase “aspirational target” had permeated into the civil service – it meant a numerical output target for which insufficient input resources were available, but Tony Zoffis said so and therefore you had to crack on. “The target is X thousand.” “But we’ve only got Y Zs.” “It’s aspirational!”

  5. 5  John Fallhammer  February 12, 2010, 5:15 pm 

    Giving people the idea that they’re likely to be rich in the future is a brilliant way to persuade them to vote against their economic interests, and all the more powerful in a culture soaked with propaganda that tells them they can achieve anything if they just try hard enough (and never mind native talent, education, capital resources or sheer luck). There was a survey early in the decade in which an astonishingly high proportion of college students (about 70% I think) said that they thought they were likely to become millionaires. Bet they’re not so cocky now.

    I’m optimistic that growing general pessimism will disarm this poisonous delusion. And giving people a name and shape for the delusion can only help them understand and see through it. By openly banging on about “aspiration”, neo-liberal politicians are cutting off their own feet. At least, that’s my hope.

    Ben de Lisi (a name you’d study very carefully before reading out on the radio) is probably thinking of dignity as a ratio. If you can get the antecedent (style) positive and reduce the consequent (indignity) to zero, the result is indeed infinite dignity!

  6. 6  richard  February 12, 2010, 9:34 pm 

    an astonishingly high proportion of college students (about 70% I think) said that they thought they were likely to become millionaires

    Perhaps this was a comment on inflation?

    I’m optimistic that growing general pessimism
    I love it. Thank you. It seems like you’ve already moved past being pessimistic about optimism, but I greatly appreciate your not falling into the rhetorical trap of labeling your perspective “realism.”



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