Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

Chavs is the second book I have read by Owen Jones. The other being The Establishment.

In Chavs, Jones rails against the lens that working class people have been put under. Led by politicians, and then the media, society has been encouraged to demonise the poor as benefits-claiming jobless scroungers.

Who exactly are the working class? Neil Kinnock offers Karl Marx’s definition.

People who have no means of sustenance other than the sale of labour, are working class

This seems a very workable definition. I would include myself in the working class. I own no business of any value, nor any property, and have to sell my labour to pay the bills.

Before Thatcher took a sledgehammer to British industry in the 80’s, being working class was something to be proud of. As industry disappeared, entire communities were left without jobs and without hope. By 2010 there were two and a half million people unemployed, and less than a million job openings. There simply were not enough to go round. What sympathy do such communities receive? None. They are told to get on the bus and go chase a non-existent job. So Jones contests.

The argument in support of letting industry go was that it needed modernising and could not be propped up by the state. As we now know though, this isn’t the case. We managed to put together a multi-billion pound bailout for banking after all. So bailing out an entire industry is entirely possible.

The ultimate betrayal of the working class was the creation of New Labour. Thatcher’s greatest victory. No longer did Labour aim to help the working class improve their quality of life, but merely to encourage them to escape into the middle class. Thus, if they remained poor, it was their own fault.

This created a climate that you were either middle-class of a benefits scrounger, and there was no in between. Jones quotes Simon Heffer saying so. That feels ironic given I have just read Heffer’s book. No doubt he would wince at the ‘z’ in ‘Demonization’ too.

Society became outraged at the £1 billion we were losing on benefit fraud. Never mind that over £2 billion of eligible benefit is not claimed and that if everyone got exactly what we deserve the state would be less well off. And especially forget the £70 billion per year big business avoids in tax. A study by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation found that many people doing cash-in-hand jobs on the side do to to pay for basics like food, heating, or debt. Those are the people to blame.

The media jumped on the bandwagon too. The Sun was outraged when people went to the local shop in their pyjamas at lunchtime. Yet a quick visit to any area full of middle-class students, such as Bodington Hall, would offer a similar sight.

This allowed the government to cut into the working class. Between Thatcher taking power and Blair outing them, the tax burdeon on the working class increased from 31.1% to 37.7%.

Jones comes to the support of Jade Goody. She, after all, is a member of the demonised working class. He makes a good case. He attacks Little Britain, which he correctly identifies as being incredibly offensive, with it’s bad stereotypes of gays, transgender people and the poor.

He also suggests Wife Swap would be better-labelled class swap. From the few episodes I have seen of the show it does seem to come down to that. Far from being an attack on the working class though, it always seemed like comparing the loving family environment of the working class to the cold materialistic stand-off-ish attitude of the middle class.

I take exception to his accusation that there have been no working class bands since Oasis though. While Kaiser Chiefs lyrics may not always reflect well on the working class, such claims could not be made against the also-very-popular Arctic Monkeys.

Back onto the real subject matter, the argument about environment is less clear. Jones claims that the middle class are better able to provide for their children because they can get them an advantage in education and jobs. This is simpler to the case Gladwell makes in Outliers. Things are not that simple though. As Pinker points out, parenting has little effect on a child’s personality or intelligence, so the value on focusing on education is unclear.

It also appears not to the case that the middle class are better at managing their money. As Chris Tapp, director of debt advice charity Credit Action, says, poor people are actually excellent at managing money – one has to be to get by.

On reducing council tenancy from lifetime to 5 or 10 years, I’m torn. As my friend Chris points out, those of us in the private renting market enjoy 6 months at best. And when I advocated building more council housing my friend Helene elaborated on the issues of lifetime tenancy in The Netherlands. However, a few hundred pounds in moving bills wouldn’t actually trouble me. I would be very annoyed, but I could easily get such a sum out of my savings. Whereas I imagine many council tenants do not have a savings account.

One thing that put me off was that at least one of the facts in the book appears to the incorrect. For example, when discussing the 2011 riots, he describes them as spreading to northern cities including Leeds. But they didn’t. There was no rioting in Leeds during that period.

The take-home message for me is that there will always be a working class and it is important to have one, so we should focus on making their (our) lives better rather than offering an escape. This seems a difficult proposition to take fault with.




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This entry was posted on Monday, January 4th, 2016 at 10:23 am and is filed under Books, Religion & Politics. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.