by Peter Byrne
Jones, Owen: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, Verso, 2011, eISBN 978-1-84467-804-4, 298 pages.
"Chav-hate is a way of justifying an unequal society." Page 137.
(Swans - September 12, 2011) Visitors to the United Kingdom over the past decade will have been puzzled by a word never taught them in their English lessons. What on earth was a chav? The thing had to be contemptible since there was a confident consensus against it. No one seemed afraid of it answering back. Always referred to with a self-satisfied sneer and muffled laughter, it was the object of ridicule as well as derision.
Owen Jones knew what chav meant. Then, one evening at a London dinner party, he heard the word once too often. The guests were educated professionals, men and women, ethnically diverse, some gay, all left of center in politics. They would have been surprised and amused to be called snobs or bigots. But they all joined in laughing at a joke about shoppers who bought their Christmas presents at Woolworth's. They called these people chavs.
This angered Owen Jones though not because he was more radical in politics than the other guests. It was that he had been born and raised where people now thought themselves lucky if they could go on a spending spree in a dime store.
Stockport, a former industrial town in Greater Manchester, had been decimated in the 1980s by the Thatcher government. Like most of the UK that made things, its trade unions had been neutered and its industries closed down. Under the flag of globalization and the free market a way of life had been trashed. The community pride created by a tradition of skilled work in a local mine or factory was no more. Secure and decently paid jobs had gone.
Such areas had slipped into poverty and were completely demoralized. A job now meant being a shop assistant or call center employee. "Flexible arrangements" translated as low pay, no unions, and instant dismissal at an employer's whim. The arrival of New Labour in 1997 reinforced the new regime.
Owen Jones attended a Stockport school starved of resources and was the only member of his class to reach university. He has no doubt that he made it only because his family was middle class. His mother taught in a college and his father held a reasonable job with the city of Sheffield.
His itinerary hasn't led Owen Jones to share the mindset encouraged by the governments of Thatcher, Blair, and now Cameron. He doesn't believe that his impoverished classmates could have followed him by dint of their individual efforts. The old chestnut about willpower and an upward tug on bootstraps rings more hollow than ever in a city where supermarkets have become the central institution. You work in them (often part-time) and then spend what money you have in them (often on booze). Some of your customers, luckier than you, will collect (often temporary) welfare. Owen Jones's fellow students needed a leg-up from their countrymen and their country. The thrust of his book is to show by a close look at the nation why this is true.
In taking the measure of the fashionable slur chav, Owen Jones unmasks the confidence trick that has hoodwinked the UK for thirty years. Tony Blair echoed it with his "We're all middle class now." (Page 139) According to this imposture, there's only one social class, and so there can be no class conflict. In fact the gleeful badmouthing of the chavs is nothing but a devious attack on the working class, which though morphed and now shy of the ballot box still very much exists. It hasn't evaporated but become invisible and fragmented.
Owen Jones points out that by a taboo on the word "class" since the 1980s, the white working class was saddled with identity politics. Thereafter the only inequality that could be discussed was racial inequality. The white working class became a sub-group like Jamaicans or Bangladeshis. When successive governments stopped building public housing and began to eliminate welfare, the various groups became competitors. The so-called backlash against immigrants had begun.
The nativist parties promoting racism gained strength and their growth was inevitably greater in areas that had traditionally voted for the Labour Party. Polls show that the majority of the fascist-minded British National Party comes from the poorest categories of society. The white working class, solidarity forgotten, had become just one more mutinous tribe. The caricature was born of "a beer-bellied skin head on a council [public housing] estate, moaning about hordes of immigrants 'coming in and taking our jobs'." (Page 223) Those jobs had become rarer, less secure, and worse paid.
A prominent London journalist gave Owen Jones his view of the British working class. One half worked no more and had become a "feral underclass" kept alive by the welfare state. (They are "sick," as Prime Minister Cameron dubbed the demonstrators who dared to take to the streets in August.) The other half, in a surge of respectability, had gone to university, got professional type jobs, and disappeared into the middle class with a pat on the back and a smile from politicians like Tony Blair. Such is the fantasy that floats like a cloud from the West Atlantic over the United Kingdom. There's no point in counting the eight million men who still do manual work and who have never been inside a university. Sooner or later they will move upward or to the sub-basement of the social pile.
To these manual workers Owen Jones adds another eight million people in rudimentary clerical jobs and basic service work. If we include health workers and teachers this amounts to well over half of the British work force. Miners, dockers, and steel workers, all now extinct, were once the backbone of the British working class. Now workers, unprotected by strong unions or any unions at all, struggle on their own to maintain their rights.
As Owen Jones sees it, the dirty work of identifying these millions of workers with a "feral underclass" has been taken on with zeal by the media. "The working class majority," in his words, "has been airbrushed out of existence in favor of the 'chav' caricature." (Page 11) He watches the process at work in two headline-grabbing cases of children who disappeared. Why was the life of one of them considered more valuable than that of the other?
The answer was all too evident. Three-year-old Madeleine McCann was middle class. She had supposedly been plucked in May 2007 from a luxury resort in Portugal's Algarve district. Her young and handsome parents were well-connected medical practitioners who lived in an up-market suburb of Leicestershire. Within two weeks British journalists had published 1,148 stories on the case.
The photos of the McCanns showed a couple who looked like an adman's dream of elite consumers. We learned they were churchgoers and other details of their glossy but dignified lifestyle. Empathy for them was so easy it reached groupie proportions. Man and wife embodied the goal that Tony Blair urged everyone to strive for. So what if for the time being we had potbellies and crooked noses? Personal aspiration was the remedy. Bootstraps may be out of fashion, but a lone individual copulating to beat the band with the free market could reach his own gated paradise.
Shannon Matthews, nine, disappeared in February 2008 on her way home alone from a swimming pool. She lived in public housing in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire -- a place that had never recovered from the dismantling of industry in the 1980s. Shannon's mother wasn't photogenic, had given up on cosmetics, and at thirty-two looked like an old woman. She had given birth to seven children by five different men, which British journalists, always fastidious in moral matters, were quick to point out was hardly aspirational. Her present male companion worked at the fish counter of a supermarket. He favored rumpled tracksuits and a baseball cap.
Donors rushed to gather two million and a half pounds sterling as a reward for the return of Madeleine. Corporations and public figures got into the act. Members of parliament at Westminster wore a yellow ribbon in "Maddy's" honor. The press repeated in sobbing prose that such things as losing a daughter didn't happen "to people like us." It wasn't clear if the country had experienced a collective trauma or merely been swept by hysteria.
Up north in desolate Dewsbury a copycat operation got going. Wasn't the ex-working class called upon to have aspirations too and turn away from chavvy ways? However, only 50,000 pounds could be raised, fifty times less than "Maddy's" jackpot. The money came partly from the screaming tabloid The Sun, whose editors regularly invested in anything with lurid possibilities.
In the end, everything worked out well for the middle classes. Not that Madeleine McCann has ever been found. But Shannon Matthews turned up, alive though the worse for wear. Her mother had been in cahoots with her partner's uncle to fake a kidnapping, rake in some cash and come up in the world. But the United Kingdom's journalistic confraternity, not rich, not poor but to a man and woman in that aspirational middle that Blair assured them included everybody who mattered, wasn't happy. Enterprise and individual effort, yes, but the Matthew family had exaggerated. The story that a distraught Kate McCann had accidentally killed her hard-to-manage daughter never got legs in the mainstream press.
The surprising turn of events did not prevent The Sun from getting its money's worth. The Dewsbury housing estate was "like a nastier Beirut." Its denizens were described as going into stores dressed in pajamas well into the afternoon. The entire national press got behind the project of denying humanity to Ms. Matthews and making her representative of all Britain's poor. Here was the feral underclass dripping blood from tooth and claw.
Owen Jones does note a nervous underside to this middle-class triumph. Could Middle England's assurance that it's unchallenged merely be whistling in the dark? Does Shelly's "Ye are many -- they are few" still have relevance? Observers of the reaction to the social unrest across the UK of August 2011 will certainly agree with Stephen Pound who is quoted on page 131:
I genuinely think that there are people out there in the middle classes, in the church and the judiciary and politics and the media, who actually fear the idea of this great, gold bling-dripping, lumpenproletariat that might one day kick their front door in and eat their au pair.
Owen Jones has much that's important to say. The working class still exists, and massively, though altered, despite the attempt to portray it as an antisocial rump on twenty-first century neoliberal society. But Owen Jones repeats himself. His repetitions don't insert his argument in a rising crescendo. They are simply restatements, often in the same words.
Moreover, one of the strengths of his book can become a weakness. He has spoken to a vast number of people across the UK, from politicians to ordinary folk. He has their remarks on the tip of his tongue, but the way he scatters them in the book often confuses more than it clarifies. His chapters are another problem. Each doesn't lead to the next and at times they seem to be vying with one another. Their overlapping often amounts to reiteration.
Such reservations, however, in no way alter the fact that Owen Jones is a fresh and necessary voice. His clear tones only rarely turn sardonic. He's no firebrand but a cautious researcher who refrains from turning the tables and making demons of the middle class (Page 269):
At its heart, the demonization of the working class is the flagrant triumphalism of the rich who, no longer challenged by those below them, instead point and laugh at them. As this Conservative-led government pushes ahead with a program of cuts that makes the working class pay for the crimes of the elite, they have much to laugh at.
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