Monday, 4 July 2011

Class, work and politics: Chavs by Owen Jones

'Chavs' is a much talked-about, even fashionable, book. It is therefore tempting to decry it as over-hyped rubbish. Frustratingly for the polemicist in me, it is actually very good indeed.

Owen Jones is an extremely capable and engaging writer who has done his research. His book is full of relevant insights from politicians, writers, campaigners and academics, with generally well-chosen examples from media and popular culture to support his points and a light sprinkling of statistics to give the more sociological passages some clout.

It is gloriously free from academic jargon and the dead hand of stale far-left rhetoric, without being politically or intellectually compromised one bit.

In recent weeks the author has been in a whirlwind of media engagements, not just promoting the book (though publishers Verso must surely be delighted at the attention) but also exploring the important issues - about class, media, politics and more - it raises.

Class and the contempt for 'chavs'

For the purposes of reaching a wide audience and generating public debate, it helps enormously that the book has an eye-catching title and cover, especially as they articulate a position at odds with orthodoxy. It also benefits from having a Big Idea.

Actually, there are two big ideas. The obvious one - but actually the less important - is that frequent and widespread talk of 'chavs' is an expression of class prejudice and contempt. The subtitle, 'The Demonization of the Working Class', alludes to this. It's this element that has drawn most media attention.

The common deployment of 'chav', and everything which accompanies it, can be seen as a way of stigmatising, rubbishing and ridiculing those who are often regarded as an 'underclass', dependent on benefits and socially marginalised. Such contempt is bad enough, but Owen traces how this demonisation is linked to a bigger rejection of the concept of a 'working class' altogether - and with it any sense of positive values, pride or collective identity associated with the working class.

So the second big idea - an idea that is normally totally excluded from all mainstream discourse - is perhaps even more outrageous than suggesting chav-bashing is a form of class prejudice. The book argues that we still live in a society shaped by class divisions and, more particularly, we still have a sizable working class. Perhaps, Owen daringly suggests, we might even gain from a kind of politics which talks openly about class and unashamedly champions working class interests.

Expressing distinctive and easily understood, but rarely articulated, Big Ideas is helping 'Chavs' get wider attention, as happened with 'The Spirit Level' (that book's authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, are quoted on the back).

Just as 'The Spirit Level' popularised important research showing that economic inequality has a huge influence on a wide range of social ills - and desperately needs redressing - 'Chavs' can hopefully establish, beyond the left, an understanding that class may be fundamental to modern British society and provide the basis for a different sort of politics.

'Chavs' isn't just about attitudes. It's also about the realities of class society: life for those near the bottom of a grossly unequal, hierarchical society. It makes the link between these two things. Stigmatisation of working class people, blaming the poor for their poverty and the ideology of a 'classless society' all help excuse and justify extreme social inequality.

A deeply unequal society depends, for ideological legitimacy, on demonising the working class. 'Chavs' is therefore complementary to 'The Spirit Level': it goes a long way to explaining how British politicians get away with allowing our profoundly unequal society to become yet more unequal.

Owen is also aware of the relationship between institutions - especially in media and politics - and popular attitudes. In the same way that institutional racism feeds popular racist attitudes, it's true that media representations of 'chavs' and the language (and indeed policies) of politicians underpin much of the casual 'chav-bashing' in British society.

The existence of inequality itself is also a factor here. When some people live privileged lives that separate them completely from less advantaged sections of society, we see a flourishing of middle class prejudice and contempt for those who are both feared and seen as ridiculous.

Class and today's world of work

Throughout the book, the author's awareness that class, inequality and work must be taken seriously in analysing society are extremely refreshing. When I was half way through I felt slightly disappointed at the lack of any real probing of what the working class actually is in today's Britain. How do we define 'working class'? What is its composition, and how is this different from previous eras?

But in the middle of the book there's a chapter called 'We're all middle class now' which takes apart the popular myth referenced in that chapter title. A kind of economic analysis with a human face, it outlines the shape of today's working class, influenced by de-industrialisation and the rise of service industries.

A strength of the book is its dismissal of the notion that we're divided between a large middle class and a minority underclass, with no such thing as the working class anymore. Owen tentatively offers a definition of 'working class' - roughly based on the classic marxist analysis, but tied in to contemporary society - fleshed out with examples of the realities of today's world of work.

Owen has rescued the working class from the margins. I'm not sure he's entirely rescued work - as a central element of people's lives, and worthy of serious study and political discussion - along with it, though this section of the book certainly sets us on the right tracks. There are even comments on the trade unions and the challenges of unionising newer workplaces in often difficult circumstances.

Earlier in the book Owen writes: 'In today's Britain the number of people employed in blue-collar manual and white-collar routine clerical jobs represents over half the workforce, more than twenty-eight million workers. We're a nation of secretaries, shop assistants and admin employees.'

It's an understanding that runs counter to the dominant trends, over many years, in the Labour Party (of which Owen is a very left wing member). There is an obsession among Labour leaders with seeing the working class - if such a category is accepted at all - as something for individuals to escape from. All the talk is of opportunity, social mobility and aspiration.

Class and debates on the left

Towards the end of 'Chavs', there is an attempt at outlining the political consequences of recognising that class remains fundamental to our society and its injustices and inequalities. The socialist politics here is nothing radically novel, but its relevance is demonstrated countless times in the preceding chapters.

I don't think every element of analysis in the closing chapters is correct. On four political issues there are problems. Firstly, the passages on the BNP give too much weight to working class support for the party, obscuring the fact that many BNP votes came from the middle class. There isn't any theoretical understanding of modern fascism underpinning this section.

Secondly, Owen is right to see most 'identity politics' as a retreat from class, but he doesn't integrate racism, sexism and homophobia into a left-wing class-based analysis. Campaigns in these areas are deemed valid and necessary, but there's no sense they may be connected in some way with class (and, in turn, part of a broader political struggle). They remain autonomous spheres, separated from class.

Thirdly, there's also a rather odd mis-representation of the Respect electoral project as a retreat from class politics. That's certainly not how most of us involved saw it. Respect was an explicitly socialist and class-based project, rather than the (Muslim) community-based initiative Owen suggests it was.

It's true there were tensions in this regard, especially after Respect made electoral gains in east London and Birmingham. But Owen doesn't quite grasp the nature and dynamics of Respect, or the continuing importance of the left allying with (predominantly working-class) Muslims in opposition to both war and Islamophobia.

Finally, Owen downplays 'international issues' - notably the anti-war movement - which are considered important but also seen as an alternative to 'class politics' for the left. This ignores the crucial fact that the mass opposition to war in Iraq - and resistance to New Labour's foreign policy generally - was an integral part of the crisis faced by Blairism, which also derived from failures on the domestic front.

Political and economic issues were, and still are, intertwined. It was 'international issues' that really widened the 'democratic deficit' - that gulf between political elite and ordinary voters (and non-voters) - and sharpened the deep disenchantment with official politics.

These differences, however, should not distract from the considerable merits and achievements of this important - and I'm pleased to say popular - book. It is especially heartening to encounter left wing ideas being aired in the mainstream, and class being discussed seriously, prompted by the publication of 'Chavs'.

And finally... on a lighter note there is this:



  1. This is part of the "americanisation"of society. The reason that the US working class refers to itself as "middle class" is that it rests upon a very large underclass consisting basically of the descendants of slaves and "indians", Mexican Americans from the southwest, nomadic immigrants engaged in casual labour and often in conditions close to slavery. And, the American "chavs": the Poor white"trash" nowadays sometimes called the "trailer park trash."
    There are other groups of course in the underclass, traditionally recent immigrants and, on the west coast, the descendants of "coolie" Asian labourers were part of the mix.
    It is the existence of this 'mudsill' in society which has made it very difficult for working class organisations to thrive.
    It is not surprising that this American system, a variation on the class system, should have been exported to Britain along with the politics into which it fits, and which it underpins.

    There is much more to it of course but in an Empire in which, increasingly, one size is designed to fit all and politicians, no less than militaries, strive for inter-operability there is a tendency not only to recreate the conditions under which US Capitalism thrives but to act as if such conditions already did exist.

    And that in Britain, as in the USA, between 20% and 30% of the population lived beyond the pale. Once this is established the welfare state becomes much cheaper because the underclass is seen as only existing because it chooses to except itself from society. It is not therefore deprived or victimised but, like the gypsies of old, a group which has chosen its ways of life.

    The next step is to romanticise the joys of dying early, never going to work or seeing a doctor, receiving an education in jail rather than school etc. Not unlike Rock and Roll really.

  2. Nice review. On the anti-war thing. I don't for one moment think that Owen was seeking to belittle the anti-war movement, in which he was himself involved. I think the worry is that sections of the left focused on issues around imperialism to the *exclusion* of domestic class issues, and that this played into a distancing of the left from the class. If X left-group have a stall on the high road every Saturday, concentrating exclusively on wars or international affairs, when you're desperately worried about your kids' schooling and the security of your housing, then you're unlikely to see X group as being for you. Of course, you're right, connections can and should be made. But, again, I don't read Owen as denying this.