Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones, Verso 2011
Conservative thought is marked in part by belonging to a kind of dehistoricised negative space: a black hole of history which absorbs and dematerialises the role of the past in constituting the present. The consequences of this can be located in the “chav” stereotype – that British figure of the “feral underclass”. Aspirationless and violent, they are the gape-mouthed leeches sucking up, through welfare programmes, the surplus that their middle-class counterparts have worked hard for. According to this thinking, contra-Marx, the working-classes are not the disavowed excess of systemic capitalism, produced through the global asymmetries in the distribution of wealth and advantage which that system generates. Rather, through recourse to the ad hominem, conservative thinking maintains that the working-classes have failed to access middle-class privilege because of the mere fact of themselves: they’re lazy and spoilt on charity. Our socioeconomic mainframes – so the conservative programme goes – are free and fair. Inequality is the result of a natural social Darwinism. The impoverished bring their poverty upon themselves.
A culturalist logic inheres in this way of thinking. It was there during the London Riots, when British historian David Starkey marked the event as little more than “shopping with violence”.
The cause he said – surprisingly unconscious to history given his profession – was that “the whites have become black”. This is part of a desire to vindicate our present political, social and economic systems through excluding them from debate. It is the desire to place a civilisation, a culture (“black culture”, “chavs” says Starkey) behind the phenomenon which, perhaps, defines our globalised world: inequality. Owen Jones reveals brilliantly and meticulously in his new pop-sociological study that this is part of a two-wing conservative strategy. The first is discursive: mark the down-and-out as authors of their own fate; attribute their problems to culture and character. The second is political: now punish them through ruthless policy.
Jones begins the book with a resonant anecdote. He’s at a dinner party in a gentrified part of East London. The attendees make for a cosmopolitan picture: “They were all educated and open-minded professionals. Sitting around the table were people from more than one ethnic group. The gender split was fifty-fifty and not everyone was straight. All would have placed themselves left-of-centre politically.” In this atmosphere, as the blackcurrant cheesecake is being dished out, one of the party cracks a joke: “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing,” he/she says. “Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” The joke is met with laughter, but Jones ponders the veiled sentiment behind the remark. He rephrases it, revealing its inner spirit: “It’s sad that Woolworths is closing. Where will the ghastly lower classes buy their Christmas presents?”
This joke acts as the motivating impulse for his study. Jones contends that class hatred is the last acceptable prejudice and that this is an age-old phenomenon – “the wealthy mocking the less well-off”. His project is a twofold solicitation in response to this phenomenon. The first is a project of retrieval, a journeying through the archives to recover the historical sediment, the repressed constituents of the “chav” stereotype. The second is to expose the ways in which this stereotype has been engaged, circulated and integrated into British conservative thought and policy – what has it occluded and what has it licensed? What he exposes is nothing less than a large-scale 20th-century conservative campaign against the working-classes: first demonise, and then entrench disadvantage.
The “chav” stereotype has been savaged by comedians. Think Vicki Pollard of Little Britain: fat, indolent and barbaric-tongued, kitted out in pink velour tracksuit. This caricaturing – and the corresponding anxieties about an ungovernable contingent of anarchic, working-class thugs – is widespread in the United Kingdom. Fitness club Gymbox offers “Chav Fighting” classes. In the wet-dream rhetoric of triumphal PR, they suggest: “why hone your skills on punching bags and planks of wood when you can deck some Chavs…a world where Bacardi Breezers are your sword and ASBOs [a civil order against social disobedience] are your trophy.” Travel agency Activities Abroad run a PR campaign promising “Chav-Free Activity Holidays” – where the rich and decadent can glut themselves in areas free from the invasions of their social inferiors.
Jones uses as a template for his study the abductions of two children: the middle-class Madeleine McCann and the decidedly working-class Shannon Matthews. Through interviews and analyses of the major newspapers of public record, he argues that the representation of the two cases in the public sphere reveals the prejudice of journalists – most of whom are “out of touch” with the realities they report on. Columnist Allison Pearson writes of the McCann case: “This kind of thing doesn’t usually happen to people like us.” Through telling and insightful quotations, Jones eventually argues that deviancy in the working-classes is rarely regarded as the dereliction of a particular individual: instead, as is the case with the Shannon Matthews abduction, entire communities are demonised through one example. Jones’ journalistic inquiry is strong, offering a wealth of original research; it’s also accessibly and economically written. His case for the “demonization of the working class” is compelling. Highly re-quotable interviews give flesh to his accusations. This is journalism conducted in the affray – Dewsbury Moor, Dagenham – rather than from the speculative realm of the armchair.
The same methodology is brought to bear on his second project: how has this stereotype been used as a basis for policy against the working-class? Jones employs a simple historicist operation here, showing up the complicity of the conservatives in creating the desperate circumstances of their target: the unstable working-class is forged in the umbra of a political and economic disconsolation. Predictably, Thatcher is at the end of his rifle for much of the work. He looks into the welfare cuts, closure of industry, the destruction of unions. “Today, with their power smashed into pieces,” he writes, “the working-class can be safely ridiculed as tracksuit-wearing drunken layabouts with a soft spot for Enoch Powell. Feeble, feckless, perhaps – but certainly not dangerous.” The case for this de-barbing of working-class power throughout the 20th-century is presented through reams of facts and figures which attest to Britain’s hidden class war.
Jones’ work is not without fault, although to obsess over these details might be to commit to the narcissism of small differences. Contrary to his objectives, Jones engages more than a little romanticising of the working class, opening himself up to charges of soppiness and schmaltz. This is contained in the paragon sentence of this tendency: the sighing cliché – of a certain working-class neighbourhood - “there’s a real community spirit in the air”. But critics have also remarked on a reductive strategy whereby Jones reduces the multivalency of the working-class by equating it, unequivocally, with the “chav” stereotype. This does not allow the position that the “chav” is an intra-working-class subject, loathed as much by the working classes as those of the middle. He appears to systematically deny any agency to the working-class (“they have lost their voice”), but part of the recovery of their position must consist in a discursive retaliation. As postcolonial scholar Gayatri Spivak remarked at a recent departmental seminar at the University of Cape Town, “the role of education is to produce the realisation that the proletariats are not the victims of capital, but the agents of production.”
On balance, however, Chavs is unwearied by the existence of such divisions. It is superbly relevant, situating itself in a context of global disconsolation and protest. It joins works by David Harvey (The Enigma of Capital) and others in the renewal of capitalist-critique, after our traumatic wake-up from the Fukuyama-ist dream of the “End of History”. While it appears to limit itself to Britain, the study has profound global consequences – it provides a consciousness to the ways in which capitalist logic continues to engender polarity. It shows how stereotype and caricature occlude socioeconomic realities. This is a phenomenon to which South Africa is far from immune: one can summon immediately to mind a host of largely “raced” effigies which service the same function as the British “chav”. Most necessarily, it re-histories the working-class and restores them to the network of relations in which they are produced. The conservative illusions vanish as the autonomy of the economically dispossessed is shown to be weathered and eaten by circumstance. This confirms the imperatives of populist protests like Occupy Wall Street (and its antecedents and imagined inheritors) for systemic address.
With its wide collation of facts and statistics, its passionately argued polemic and the reach of its analysis, Chavs is a thoroughly recommended contribution to counter-capitalist, counter-conservative literature, now reaching a crescendo in the current crises, contradictions and torsion of global capitalist modernity.