Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class
By Owen Jones
Verso updated 2012
300 pages, $15:00
“It's not the existence of classes that threatens the unity of the nation, but the existence of class feeling,” an official British Conservative Party document stated in 1976.
Indeed, abolishing classes was the last thing on the mind of the Tories' new leader at the time, Margaret Thatcher. She merely wanted people to forget which class they belonged to, says Owen Jones in Chavs.
The notion ― posited by the political class, including New Labour ― that “we are all middle class now” is, Jones says, “a nonsense”. Last year, the median income in Britain was an unimpressive 21,000 pounds (about A$32,300).
If “we” were all middle class, who would staff the supermarket checkouts and the call centres, fix the plumbing or drive the buses?
“Class feeling” is the very thing that inspired the term “chav”, a 21st century hate-word coined by the better-off strata of British society to refer to an allegedly typical working-class person.
For many in the middle class, chavs are typified by the characters in the television series Shameless (shown in Australia on SBS), whose lives revolve around sex, booze, drugs and petty crime, played out against a background of domestic squalor and benefit dependency.
The program caricatures working class life, but its chief fault, thinks Jones, is that it fails to show how and why the characters got into their predicaments in the first place.
There is a crisis of working-class representation in the media as well as in politics. Journalism, says Jones, is now dominated by persons who come from middle-class and often highly privileged backgrounds.
Their ignorance of life outside their own social class allows them to construct negative stereotypes based on highly untypical working class behaviour.
As an example, Jones cites the media's treatment of the case of Shannon Matthews, a young girl from a working-class community who disappeared and was presumed kidnapped. It transpired that the “disappearance” had been arranged for money-grabbing purposes by her mother, a bedraggled 32-year-old working class woman who had given birth to seven children by five partners.
In the media moralising that ensued, one or two errant individuals were held up as allegedly typical products of “broken” communities, where women were breeding out of control, fathers were absent, and fecklessness, drug addiction and welfare dependency were the norm.
But when a doctor, Harold Shipman, was found to have murdered many of his own patients, the media ― rightly enough ― offered no glib generalisations, no suggestions that his far worse crimes somehow indicated a moral crisis of the middle class.
The author traces the start of the demonisation of the working class to the multi-pronged attack Thatcher's 1979-90 government launched against working class communities. Such as highly restrictive anti-union legislation accompanied the wholesale shutting down of industries such as mining, steel and manufacturing.
As a result, hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of skilled, secure and decently paid jobs vanished. Insofar as they were replaced, it was by lower-skilled, insecure, low-paying service-sector jobs.
Council houses were sold off and new ones not built. This worsened the public housing shortage and allowed racist groups to claim ― misleadingly ― that migrants were the cause of the housing crisis.
Taxes on the wealthy were lowered, but taxes on workers and the poor were raised.
Thatcher's biggest weapon of all was unemployment, which rose from one million at the start of her government to a height of about four million. When drug abuse and crime rose to unprecedented levels, Thatcher denied there was any link between unemployment and these social blights.
Thatcher argued that poverty, if it existed at all, was simply the outcome of defective personal behaviour ― a now-familiar rationalisation for attacks on welfare.
But in low-pay Britain, having a job is no guarantee of prosperity. In fact, says Jones, the majority of poor people have work.
Responding to a charge that in criticising Thatcher, he is re-fighting old battles that nobody cares about any more, Jones has pointed out that New Labour did almost nothing to reverse the “Thatcherite counter-revolution”. Hence, he says, today's Britain is essentially her creation.
The limited assistance New Labour did give working people, such as the introduction of a (low) minimum wage, helped only those at the very bottom. Blair's policies were not intended to ameliorate the conditions of the broader working class, but encourage individuals to leave that class.
By these means, New Labour sought to sideline the aspirations of working-class communities as a whole and replace them with individual aspiration, thereby undermining the solidarity which had been a bedrock of the Labour tradition for generations.
Jones has some constructive criticism for the left, which he defines broadly as social democracy, democratic socialism and “the remnants of revolutionary socialism”. He argues that the left, demoralised by its defeats, has veered too far from class politics in the direction of “identity” politics.
Jones agrees that the liberation of women, gays and racial minorities is extremely important, but says liberation can only go so far without tackling the overarching issue of class.
Similarly, the imperial projects in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine are important issues, but do not appear as large in ordinary people's minds as the need for a living wage and decent, affordable housing.
The book ends positively, finding hope for the future in the mass movements against the current Conservative government's attacks on education, the National Health Service, incapacity benefits and pensions. For anyone interested in class and politics, this angry, well-documented book makes for compelling reading.