ISBN-13: 978-1-84467-864-8. “Chavs – The Demonization of the Working Class” by Owen Jones was published by 2011. This is a review of the 2012 update with new preface. There is no biog of the author and his is a new name to us. We saw its provocative title at a local bookstore and was intrigued as to how it related to “The Spirit Level” by Richard Wilkinson & Kate Pickett. Given the ground-breaking impact of “The Spirit Level” it looked like “Chavs” could take the topic of inequality and apply it to modern Britain. But this is a book of two halves: one part strong appeal to reason, the other half leftist rhetoric.
Lets say first up that we have a problem with discussing “class”. The reason is two-fold: firstly we can only analyse it through the lens of our own personal experiences; secondly we feel that class is about as useful as a tool for understanding inequality as a bicyle is a useful form of transport for a fish. Let us explain why – we have spent five years analysing the woes of the world through the experience of Transition. So if there is one thing we have learnt it is that there should be a strong bond between members of local communities. It is community that has long since replaced the concept of class in the modern dialogue of social affairs. For Owen we all belong to a class that somehow bonds us to people all over the country based upon some ill-defined demographic, income or educational attainment. This is about as helpful to us today as was the Marxist rhetoric of Greg Sharzer’s “No Local“. It struggles to make itself relevant.
For Owen the reason why we don’t talk about class today is because of some near-mythical class-war that started in the 1980’s under Margaret Thatcher and continued under Tony Blair. For the author the working class has become ‘unpeople’ to be marginalised and forgotten. Maybe he simply overlooks the fact that class ceased to be a useful tool to describe what is wrong. Yes there is a war between a feral elite and a feral underclass but it was won by the elite a long time ago and we all live with the sad consequences.
This leads me to my own personal experiences that so cloud my judgement. Before I read this book I simply thought ‘Chavs’ was a term for kids wearing Burberry. They were some kind of fashion mistake. How naïve I was. Apparently the term “Chav” has now be expanded vastly into a derogatory terms for a swathe of our society that are considered to be relatively undesirable. The proletariat. The great unwashed of the slums. Poorly educated. Mostly workless or work-shy, this faction is beset by crime, drugs and teenage pregnancy. You would all be blind not to know who Owen is describing. We all can see such people. So now my education is complete the first question is “what the heck has Chavs got to do with working classes (or as a politicians call them these days “hard working families”)?”
In our opinion very little. To conflate the too is the greatest mistake of this book. In the new preface Owen is meticulous in his defence but one can help but wonder if the word “Chavs” is inserted upon the cover simply to sell books. If it is it is effective. If it is then it simply cannot be removed because the term “Chavs” is woven throughout Owen’s narrative. This isn’t just a marketing gimmick – he really does believe that the term “Chavs” is an appropriate description for the working classes. How do we feel about this? The difficulty is that I feel quite working class – or maybe I did until I read this.
This is painful really because I believe that Owen is describing an urban, inner-city, pit-community phenomena. However if you grow up in a rural area your experiences can be radically different. My family was working class. My family is working class. My Mum cleaned toilets and my Dad was a farm labourer. Dad left school at 14. Mum, being younger and more suburban in outlook, was marginally better educated. She worked hard and became a semi-skilled worker in social services. She did well and put her son though University. He is forever grateful. She was also a pillar of her community. They were all working class. They worked, and they had class. Now this is not the militant industrial working classes. These were thoughtful proud people who wanted better for their kids. So the working class I know is my own family and their community. This is a very alien world to the one Owen believe is HIS “working class”. Our “class” is always just our “community”.
And isn’t that the rub? To Owen he would probably pigeon-hole us as middle class. However I have felt as uncomfortable amongst people I would label as “a bit posh” as I do amongst the tattooed & pierced folk I see at the school gate. My class is whoever I identify with and that is whoever my community is. My community is often just my peers or, more immediately, my fellow citizens of this locality. It matters not their ethnic origin, their education or their money. They are my neighbours. Yet Owen talks a lot about “community” yet for him it is “mining communities” and the areas around large car factories. His is a wistful, romantic, memories of the good old days when men were men and had “proper” jobs. He is dismissive of call centres and stacking shelves. He lets his own value judgements get in the way of the ebb and flow of labour market economics. He ignores the fact that we ALL live in communities. We all belong. Lots of middle class people make quite lovely communities and achieve a lot when they build it together.
For a book that preaches against the demonization of a “working class” Owen sure goes out of his way to demonise the middle class. Despite his occasional mention of horrid bankers he seems uninterested in the feral elite. For him the middle classes are the problem because they get all the best school places and generally keep the working classes in their place. If you see the world as lots of communities then of course this absurd. An uneducated working class man my struggle to get his daughter a place in a good school but just maybe his neighbour can help him. In Transition we would rather use the language of the Occupy movement. This describes a 1% versus the 99%. In this paradigm it is only a small unaccountable elite that are causing the problems. You can target the middle class if you want but since many of them have got where they got through hard work, intelligence and education why blame them for all your ills? There is no justice in blaming your neighbour because he went to University.
Much of this book is spent lambasting the politicians of the left and the right for causing the feral underclass to spring into life; Owen singles out the selling off of Council Houses [and the refusal to allow replacements to be built] as a key turning point in British inequality in the 1980’s. The intention was to bring us all onto the ladder of the property-owning democracy. Owen rightly points out that where there are winners there will be losers. So what of the elderly, infirm, the uneducated, the unlucky? What if the people who could not buy their own home and move out? Well, they stayed and the sink estates became a ghetto. However hard you try some will get left behind. And once there it is hard to escape. You might have had some honour through working down the mine or at some other industrial labour, but all the mines, docks and factories closed down years ago. You might have had a leg up from the Trade Union but they all got busted up when the factories closed. The traditional avenues for poor working class people to get out of their ghetto closed down. They became trapped in a downward spiral. It is the law of unintended consequences.
Inequality is a source of injustice that belittles us all. We all suffer because of it. Owen cites many examples; the poor man imprisoned for stealing a bottle of water, the rich MP who stole £9000 yet was simply asked to pay it back. All of this diminishes into nothing in comparison to the injustice of today’s austerity. It impacts the very poorest yet there is no restorative justice upon the 1% who caused the banking collapse. In Iceland they really did lock up their bankers and turned the economy around so that renewable energy will be their biggest export, not financial services. Here in Britain our political tribes seem convinced that they will drag us out of trouble using all the same tools that got us there in the first place. This is not a resilient solution. That is not a Transition we can all believe in. It serves the 1%. The untouchable feral elite.
Owen is right when he says that blaming the feral underclass is a good way of deferring blame from where it really lies. The statistics speak for themselves: the poorest and most vulnerable in our society under-claim social security benefits to the tune of a cool £4billion per year. The feckless scroungers we all hear about are in fact only guilty of stealing roughly £1billion per year in benefits. Compare that to the 1% who are stealing £70billion every year through tax evasion schemes. We know what the problem is – yet our political classes will not tackle the feral elite. It is far easier to demonise a powerless underclass than the owners of offshore bank accounts isn’t it? For politicians to admit otherwise would be to admit that politicians have a responsibility to rectify inequality. So they have to blame the victim. It is no secret. Owen quotes a Tory grandee as saying:
“…the Conservative Party […] is coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend privilege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to other people.”
The feral underclass simply cannot get up and get jobs, because there aren’t any. Those manufacturing jobs were destroyed by the banking sector in a disproportionate and unjust fashion – but guess what? Life sucks – it isn’t fair – move on and do something about it. But what? The underclass don’t have the power to simply set up new businesses – that is the definition of a disadvantaged underclass. They lack the capital – be it monetary, educational, aspirational or educational. If we are to understand each other then we have to live together – not in ghettoes. It was those mixed communities from the post-war period that made Britain so equal. Not the gated communities of today. We need a return to community. Maybe Thatcherism did undermine communities as Owen contends:
“Thatcherism was fostering a new culture where success was measured by what you owned. Those who did not adapt were despised. Aspiration was no longer about people working together to improve their communities; it was being redefined as getting more for yourself as an individual, regardless of social costs.”
For it is “social costs” that now outweigh the benefits of the Thatcherite revolution. This was the message of “The Spirit Level”. It was a work that stripped away class and politics by looking at the simple statistical evidence: does inequality benefit a society? Their clear answer was “no”. Unfortunately Owen barely touches on the reason why this is so in Britain. He is far happier blaming politicians and newspapers than spending the time to really get under the skin of these ‘social costs’. It is not a simple truth that ‘unfettered free markets dismantle local communities’, nothing can dismantle a community as long as it has a sound economic basis. Our communities no longer have that basis – local economics has to be rebuilt from the ground up. Yes, government has its part to play – but so do we all. Owen is right in one thing – our modern political classes are completely out of touch with the day-to-day realities of people’s lives. The 1% really have no notion of the needs of the 99%. They don’t teach you that at Eton.
So this leaves us with the underclass – the “Chavs” as Owen so unhelpfully labels them. Who are they really? Again, personal experience varies. Our home town of High Wycombe was recently named Britain’s ninth most “crappiest town”. The “crap towns” web site is almost indistinguishable from one very similar to it: “chav towns”. There you can read the same bile and hatred. Yet it is far easier to describe chavs than it is to pin down what “class” is. We could pity the chavs if they are at some disadvantage – Owen spends quite some time spelling out how they deserve far more of our pity then they get. He explains well how the stereotype is statistically inaccurate yet fails to eradicate the sense that the chavs are very, very real. In fact if you were not convinced that chavs existed when you picked up this book you sure will be when you finish it. Own goal!
Of course there is a feral underclass. Of course it is not as significant as our politicians and right-wing newspaper hacks would like you to believe. However these are the same right-wing ideologues who “don’t believe” in Global Warming (despite a tsunami of scientific evidence). These are not people to be swayed by the statistics presented so well in the “The Spirit Level”. For them it is all “bullshit” because the facts do not fit into their world-view. Issues of class are by no means unique. What is more disturbing is how the misfortunes of the underclass have become blamed upon newcomers to our country.
The National Front, the BNP, the English Defence League and UKIP have all benefitted in times of great austerity by blaming foreigners for all our ills. Owen is right to point out this scapegoating but his angle is that the racists have filled the boots of the old Labour Party in local working class communities. He sees this essentially as a political party issue that Labour have to rectify by going back to their working class roots. Maybe he has a point, in the way modern politics has so disenfranchised down-at-heel folk, but xenophobia thrives on hard times and inequality. The only magic wand is a return to the values of community not the remote party politics of Westminster. It’s no wonder the underclass no longer vote – nobody represents them anymore. Labour has moved on. Since they don’t vote they are no longer represented – this is the opening the racists can exploit. Our political tribes have to close that gap – NOT by being racists themselves but by rebuilding community.
Of course not everyone can be ‘middle-class’ if you mean they don’t work in call centres or empty bins. However, class is a state of mind. It is just an identity. You can do whatever job you wish, have whatever income and have gone to whatever school – this doesn’t matter. Owen fails magnificently to even describe how to classify his ‘working class’. In the end it really doesn’t matter what class you think you are in. What makes the difference in this life is the community you really live in – and what you achieve there. Your community doesn’t have to be based upon a place of work. That is a quaint vision of a long-gone world that will not return.
Owen is on much stronger ground when he praises the NEF “Green New Deal” as a basis for economic regeneration. The manufacturing must come home to Britain. We must start making things again. This will happen in a resource constrained world. Owen also praises the Co-operative movement as a way of drawing the underclass back into economic development and return us to a broader form of democracy. Whatever the big brush policy statements are our views of “class” remain personal.
Our family is good friends with a young woman with two great kids. She works hard for them. They are always turned out meticulously. She is educated and multi-lingual. Yet she is a newcomer to this nation, a single mother who lives in a council house. What are we to make of this? To meet her you would think she is the salt-of-the-earth. Always bright-eyed and talkative. A devoted mother. Passionate about life and personal advancement. Maybe not entirely blameless – but who here walks on water? We all are who we are. Maybe there is no such thing as society. Maybe there are only individuals. When I think of unlucky people in council accommodation I think of her and I thank some god that I am not in her shoes. Maybe this is the healthy attitude we should all adopt. We all need to see through the polemic of the Sunday tabloids and the speeches of derision from the latest darling of some Westminster political tribe. We should, in the words of Monty Python, think for ourselves.
When Margaret Thatcher said there is no such thing as society, only individuals; she may have got it wrong. In reality there is no such thing as class, only communities. Turning to the language of class conflict today is like a horse cavalry-charge against a machine gun, like trench warfare in an era of smart bombs. You are fighting the next war with the weapons if the last. This will not engage people. It will not work. We must move on and recognise that modern Britain is not glued together by some tribal bond derived from romantic notions of class. No, we are who we are because of WHERE we are and who the people are around us.
Fifteen years ago I would have called myself conservative. I have learnt much in the intervening times and the facts are a hard task master. Some would take this to be a drift to the Left but when I read a book like this; I know this to be untrue. The ideology of the Right has remained just that – an ideology, a faith. The Right has become disinterested in whether the evidence support their beliefs anymore. But I care for the facts. What I have learnt about myself [through this book] is that I am still conservative (with maybe a liberal-tinge). The Right, sadly, is disappearing into irrelevance in the manner that the Left has done. The game is coming to and end yet the conservatives remain holding all the cards.
Books like this can do nothing to rescue the Left. Instead we need a new politics – not one of class or identity. No. We need a new politics; a politics of ‘place’ and a politics of ‘what-we-are-doing’. Until then we remain lost in Transition where the 1% preserve their dominion over the 99%.
Until then – go and talk to your neighbour.