Tuesday, 2 August 2011

REVIEW - Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class

A edited version of this review appears in the next issue of Red Pepper

The stereotypical ‘chav’ may be a fairly recent phenomenon but it has become so pervasive that few would struggle to conjure up their own image of what it represents. In a thoughtful, polemical examination of the changing perceptions of working class culture, Owen Jones draws on testimony from extensive interviews to unravel how ‘chavs’ have become a byword for a vision of society that David Cameron calls ‘broken Britain’ and is used to blame the poor and dispossessed for ‘choosing’ their poverty and exclusion.

In part, Jones points the finger at websites such as the appalling ‘Chavscum’ and comedians like the creators of Little Britain, famous for picking on society’s most vulnerable, for the spread of the new chav caricature, as well as the kind of lazy journalism exposed in Nick Davies’ excellent Flat Earth News. However, he argues persuasively that the roots of renewed and vicious class hatred are found in the destruction of working class communities that began with rapid deindustrialisation under Thatcher and that led to a collapse in values like solidarity in favour of rampant, dog-eat-dog individualism. For thirty years, “to be working class was no longer something to be proud of, never mind to celebrate”, as first the Tories and then New Labour have tried to persuade us that we are now ‘all middle class’. Those who failed to prosper during the boom years have been written off and ridiculed as a ‘chav’ rump, a despised underclass.

Jones argues that in truth, “the myth of the classless society gained ground just as society became more rigged in favour of the middle class. Britain remains as divided by class as it ever was”. He makes a persuasive and at times exhaustive case, but it begins to lose its way when trying to explain support for the BNP in working class areas. He rightly condemns Labour for abandoning communities like Barking and criticises liberal multiculturalism for ignoring class by descending into identity politics. However, he is too quick to explain away the conscious racism that leads a minority to deliberately vote for the far-Right and at times embraces a simplistic economic reductionism that risks focusing on the legitimate grievances of the white working class at the expense of other, equally exploited and marginalised workers. The slogan ‘black and white, unite and fight’ has been around for years, but the problem has always been that achieving this laudable aim is impossible without black workers confronting the racism of many of their white counterparts.

Jones is also too ready to accept that the Labour Party remains the vehicle for a ‘new class politics’ that can mobilise the working class electorate, when the evidence suggests its only interest is in mild placation of its base. His sentimentality for Labour’s past, one that can be restored by "the first priority" of improving working class parliamentary representation, is rather at odds with the call for new ideas and new initiatives.

Nevertheless, Chavs is a useful and informative book: not least because the wider left is just as ill-prepared to confront the open class hostility of the wealthy and powerful when it has no sizable base in working class communities. Single issue campaigns are important, but only if they become a stepping stone to a broader class-conscious movement.

Chavs is published by Verso.

On Monday 19 September, Owen Jones will be discussing and signing his book at St John's Church in Stratford, at an event starting at 7pm and organised by Newham Bookshop and Newham Monitoring Project. Flyer here.

Tickets cost £5 and are available from the bookshop. Call 020 8552 9993 to reserve yours.

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