Review of: Jones, O. (2011). Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (London: Verso)
Owen Jones’ Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (‘Chavs’) is more relevant in contemporary British politics than ever. In a society where contempt for the working class is not only now socially and politically permissible, but in fact becoming ingrained into culture itself, Chavs is an investigation into how this damning perception has turned the working class from “the salt of the earth to the scum of the earth” (Jones 2011). Exploring the ‘chav caricature’ generated by both the media and the government, Jones seeks to expel the myths surrounding the working class through detailed empirical analysis and research into modern British culture. Begging the fundamental questions of ‘where has this class hatred come from?’, and ‘why is this hatred so socially acceptable?’, this almost angry exposure completely refutes the notion of Britain as a classless society.
Firstly, it is important to note that Jones’ argument is not about the labelling of the working class as ‘chavs’, but more importantly that decisions made by the establishment have stripped the working class of all their dignity. Thus, the question is, where did this class contempt originate from? He makes the visceral statement, “Thatcher’s assumption of power in 1979 marked the beginning of an all out assault on the pillars of working class Britain”. From this point, the socio-political orthodoxy of the working class as being the backbone of the country was starting to be reversed, and a new kind of class warfare began to emerge.
Thatcher’s slandering of the working class, as Jones notes, laid out the foundations for the class hatred, or ‘chav caricature’ that we witness today.
Her core belief of ‘social aspiration’, glorified the Conservative idea of, the harder you work, the richer you shall be. However, Jones highlights the preposterous notion of this idea; the working class were plunged into the depths of depravity due to the dismantling of both trade unions and industry. Leaving once thriving working class communities in ruin, Thatcher projected the establishment’s failings to the working class onto themselves, implying that the reason for their status was their own personal “idleness”. This notion is mirrored in similar texts such as Katz’s ‘The Undeserving Poor’ (1989), highlighting how poverty in America is portrayed as an inherently personal failure.
Critics such as Garner (2011) have noted that perhaps, too much of the “meat” of the book is an attack on Thatcherite policy. Yet, Jones contends this effect of Thatcherism cannot be understated. Over two decades, the Conservative government stripped the most important aspect of the working classes’ lives: their identity. Within academic literature, many have noted this idea of identity as perhaps the most fundamental aspect of being working class, often described as ‘place-based personhood’. As the majority of the working class still reside in industrial cities, many of these people’s identity is inseparable from the social and material means of production that once made these cities thrive. Studies of the working class in these cities, such as Stoke on Trent, showed people referring to themselves as “people of the clay” (Hart 1987,2005). Born and raised in the once industrial Manchester, it is evident that this idea resonates strongly with Jones. The deep generational and residential ties to these places meant, that when Thatcher and both New Labour abandoned manufacturing in favour of enchanting neoliberal policies, they not only abandoned the working class, but the very core of their personhood that had been established for countless generations.
Chavs highlights that this era of British history dramatically increased the inequality gap between the rich and the poor. Through Thatcher’s fiscal policy, the rich were getting richer via the deduction of income tax, and the poor were getting increasingly poorer, with tax levels increasing by 6%. The class war had been ignited. The stigmatisation of the working class that ensued, which Jones refers to as ‘chav bashing’, had become increasingly more commonplace. This ‘chav caricature’ stereotypes members of the working class as “ugly proles”; idly scrounging from the state, anti-social and thuggish.
A major theme of Chavs is the perpetuation of this illusionary narrative through the elite spheres of media and government. Jones draws on a variety of media articles such as the disappearance of a working class, young girl, Shannon Matthews. The perpetrators in this case were described by journalist Malone as “good-for-nothing scroungers who have no morals, no compassion… who are incapable of feeling love or guilt” . The Daily Mail even defined them as the “feral underclass”. The dominance of this class hatred is something completely unorthodox, Jones raises a vital point that it would be outrageous to publicly discriminate in this way if someone was, for example black, or Jewish. Why is it so socially acceptable when it comes to the working class?
In an almost sinister eugenics movement, which advocates those who depend on the welfare system should limit their reproduction, society has adopted the view that somehow, “a single mother on welfare with a handful of kids… is culpable for the economic crisis” (Cruddas 2011). Jones’ extensive research illustrates this narrative of “scrounging” to be deeply elaborated; welfare fraud accounts for £1 billion per year, yet tax evasion from usually elite figures or institutions is estimated at £70 billion.
Jones contrasts Shannon Matthews with the infamous Madeleine McCann case, with an article from the Daily Mail noting “this kind of thing doesn’t usually happen to people like us”. The phrase “people like us” leads to Jones’ argument that within these aforementioned institutions, politicians and journalists originate from middle and upper class, privately educated backgrounds; they could not be any further removed from the plight of the working
class, trapped as ignorant “class prisoners”.
What are the repercussions of this class contempt? The demonization of the working class has been a catalyst for a dramatic political shift. With working class identity decimated, researchers such as Evans (2007) suggest that race, not identity, is the new basis of political solidarity within this class. Far right advocates such as Nick Griffin, started to racialize certain aspects of working class solidarity in order to regain some identity, with this new form of identity being “whiteness”. Evans notes he “reconfigures the politics of working class… into a new form of ethnic association”. The white working class are now flirting with fascism as a result of this alienation; the outcome of Brexit and the rise of populist parties such as the BNP, as an anti-establishment vote, threatens to overhaul the social contract of equality and diversity in Britain.
It is important to remember that class contempt is everywhere, seeped through our modern day society. Through major influences such as governmental policy and media narrative, the class hatred for the working class exposes a major flaw and prejudice in modern British society. So that we are able to make social progressive change, it is necessary that we delve deeper into the establishment’s failings towards the working class, in order to dismantle this negative portrait of individuals who were once, the “salt of the earth”.
Cruddas, J. (2011). ‘A War Against the Poor’, The Independent, 3rd June 2011
Evans, G. (2017). Brexit Britain: Why We Are All Post-Industrial Now (University of Manchester)
Garner, D. (2011). ‘Get Your Bling and Adidas Tracksuit, Wayne, A British Class War is Raging’, The New York Times, 12th July 2011
Hart, E. (1987). Paintresses and Potters: Work, Skill and Social Relations in a Pottery in Stoke on Trent, 1981-1984 (London School of Economics and Political Science)
Jones, O. (2011). Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (London: Verso)
Katz, B. (1989) The Undeserving Poor (Oxford University Press)