Thursday, February 28, 2019

Review: Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by Owen Jones

London: Verso, 2011, pp. 352.

As the rather charged and frankly offensive title of Owen Jones' book, Chavs, implies, his concern is with the recent social history of the British working class, and the ways in which that class has been depicted and understood by British society at large. In particular Jones concerns himself with the alleged disappearance of the "respectable" working class--the image of working class people as gainfully employed, law-abiding, functional contributors to the society in which they lived--and its replacement by the image of working class Britons as "chavs"--vulgar, bigoted, anti-social louts, apt to be drunk, violent, criminal.

In considering this transformation Jones, to his credit, gives due to quite concrete facts of social history, with the catastrophe of Thatcherism playing its part in the story--for the neoliberal turn she pioneered and each and every one of her successors continued to promulgate (not least the "New Labor" she regarded as her greatest achievement) did in a manner of speaking wipe out the old working class. The collapse of the British industrial base amid the worldwide Volcker recession and homegrown monetarism, and the privatization of the housing stock, and all that accompanied and followed them, eliminated the enterprises and institutions that provided the working class with both steady, remunerative work and the benefits of a community--the factories and coal mines, the labor unions that organized those who worked in them, the council estates. What remained in their place, casual, temp, ill-paid--and atomized--work in the "service" economy, and at the same time fantasies of soaring to the top in a world where celebrities and the like are richer and more exalted than they ever were before (for instance, becoming a soccer player like superstar "chav" David Beckham), was no substitute in either monetary or social terms. All of this did undeniable, considerable damage to that class's members individually and collectively, as many were turned from, one might say, proletarian to lumpenproletarian.

However, as Jones declares in his extensive overview of the treatment of this strata by the typically reactionary British media, much of this was a matter of rhetoric, propaganda--the declaration that "We are all middle class now," only one of the illusions fostered was that the worthier element of the working class had "moved on up," leaving outside that class only the incorrigibles who had only themselves to blame for their misfortunes. Underscoring this was the lavish, sensationalized attention paid to the evidences of the dysfunction of the non-respectable working class that remained. Much of this was superficial--whining about their dress. ("What ever happened to working class men wearing suits and ties?" right-wing social critics whine.) Some of it was more serious. (The alleged propensity of the working class to neglect its children is an obvious example.)1

As always, it is comforting for the privileged to think that the comfort they enjoy is wholly and unimpeachably earned and deserved by them and not enjoyed at the expense of anyone else; that those who are not so privileged are, when one cannot shrug off their deprivation so easily, the authors of their own miseries. It is more comforting still to think of them as not contributing at all, but as parasites, scrounging off the taxes of "respectable people," dragging down the economy, while debasing the quality of urban life with their anti-social behavior--for one can still less make claims on behalf of a parasite than they can of people who merely made a muck of their own lives.

It is comforting, too, for them to make much of working class bigotry. Comforting to say that the more affluent--enlightened--segments of society are indeed as "post-racial" as they flatter themselves they are, and that the only reason society as a whole may not be so is the lower orders. It is convenient, additional proof of the crudity and backwardness that condemns them to their place at the bottom of the heap, that adds to their discomfort with their obvious and severe dysfunction--while being yet another excuse for deflecting any claim on their behalf. That they think they should be living better--why, that is mere "entitlement," and a racist entitlement at that. Besides, when they so clearly have no empathy for others, why should anyone care about them?

Reading it all I found Jones' case to be as robust and lucid as it was depressing. And as tends to be the case with worthwhile books, it left me thinking a good deal about its implications--not least, how a shallow and sanctimonious and commonly hypocritical parody of anti-racism becomes an excuse for a vicious classism that, ironically, has worsened the problem of racism. Because when right-wing populists (read: fascists) court the votes of the working people abused and exploited, snubbed and insulted, by the mainstream parties of the liberal/left as well as the right, they can say, no, their appeal has nothing to do with our abandonment of working class people and their interests in favor of catering to the super-rich, and everything to do with their racism. So that it is only right and fair that we continue along the path of woke neoliberalism--which only worsens the problem in a vicious cycle. In that, it strikes me, Jones' book offers insight into much more than just Britain's working class at the time, but the trends in British life generally since then (e.g. Brexit), and the destructive ascendancy across the Western world and beyond.

1. Altogether reading the criticisms of this strata I got the impression that those who traffic in the "chav" stereotype simply took an exhaustive list of racist stereotypes about inner city African-Americans in the United States, scratched out whatever epithet the list maker used for African-American and wrote in "English working class" instead.

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