Archive for the ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class’ Category
On reflection perhaps picking a subject as controversial as class for a first book was a bit cocky, particularly given I’m 26 and look about half that (“why isn’t Owen Jones doing his paper-round?” asked someone on Twitter when I appeared on Channel 4’s now deceased 10 O’Clock Live). At first I thought the book might just get a cursory mention in the odd column. But as it began to be taken up by every national newspaper I remembered a story I once heard: former Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell’s wife turned to him after a speech and said: “The wrong people are clapping.” What if the wrong people (i.e. not the Daily Mail) started booing?
The book had a straightforward aim: a contribution, no matter how limited or modest, to reopening a debate about class that has been shut down by the political and media establishment throughout my lifetime. But the reality is that the attention Chavs received far exceeded my expectations because class had already crept back on to the agenda. Indeed, if Chavs had been released just three or four years ago, it might have expected about half the coverage, even though the “chav” term was far fresher and – quite possibly – in broader circulation.
Read the rest of the article at the New Humanist website
Owen Jones’s first book, “Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class,” begins more like a Noël Coward play or a late-model Ian McEwan novel than like a rumbling social polemic. That is, it opens with a misfired witticism uttered at an elite East London dinner party.
Here’s how Mr. Jones sets the scene. “Sitting around the table were people from more than one ethnic group. The gender split was 50-50, and not everyone was straight. All would have placed themselves somewhere left of center politically.” Each guest “would have bristled at being labeled a snob.” Disaster arrived, as it always seems to, with the black currant cheesecake. That’s when the talk turned to the economic crisis. One of the party’s hosts joked: “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” The other guests tittered. Mr. Jones stewed.
The word chav, if your subscriptions to British periodicals have lapsed, is a noun that essentially means “ugly prole”: loutish, tacky, probably drunken and possibly violent. The stereotypical chav is a hormonal 20-something lad in an Adidas tracksuit, sideways Burberry baseball cap and bling, but women can be chavs, too. Think of Snooki with a cockney accent.
One of the most frequent criticisms of my book is that it supposedly conflates ‘chav’ and ‘working-class’. They are two completely different things, the critics say. ‘Chav’ is a word widely used – and that includes by working-class people as well as middle-class people. Indeed it’s argued that working-class people hate ‘chavs’ – so in what meaningful sense can ‘chav’ be used to demonise working-class people?
Although the book is called Chavs: The Demonization of the Working-Class, it could easily have been called The Demonization of Working-Class Identity (not as catchy, admittedly). Polling organisation BritainThinks has just conducted a detailed survey into attitudes to class: a staggering 71% self-identified as middle-class, compared to just 24% who felt they had any working-class identity. But the most interesting – and disturbing – finding in my view was this:
There was a strong feeling in the focus groups that the noble tradition of a respectable and diligent working class was over. For the first time, I saw the “working class” tag used as a slur, equated with other class-based insults such as “chav”. I asked focus group members to make collages using newspaper and magazine clippings to show what the working class was. Many chose deeply unattractive images: flashy excess, cosmetic surgery gone wrong, tacky designer clothes, booze, drugs and overeating. By contrast, being middle class is about being, well, a bit classy.
The ‘working-class’ label was no longer something people felt that they could be proud of. Far from it: it had become effectively synonymous with ‘chav’. For that reason, many who most of us would describe as clearly working-class rejected the label because they felt it was a pejorative. The demonisation of working-class identity has had an impact on the attitudes of both and working-class and middle-class people. With a political consensus that we should aspire to become middle-class, and with few positive representations of working-class people, this is as unsurprising and it is depressing.
I’ve written a piece on BritainThinks’ report on attitudes to class in modern Britain; there’s others point I want to make, so I’ll cobble something more detailed together this week
“It’s not the existence of classes that threatens the unity of the nation, but the existence of class feeling.” Those words appeared in the Conservative Party’s statement of aims in 1976, just three years before Margaret Thatcher began to transform British society. The document’s authors would undoubtedly find much satisfaction in the complex and disturbing portrait of attitudes to class uncovered by the research firm BritainThinks in modern Britain.
The most striking finding is that fewer than a quarter of those surveyed define themselves as “working class”. The findings depend heavily on question wording. Ipsos MORI found that two-thirds described themselves as “working class and proud of it” in 2002; and the 2007 British Social Attitudes survey found that 57 per cent called themselves “working class” or “upper working class”.
Well, it’s been a hectic couple of weeks because of the publications of ‘Chavs’. If the book had one over-riding purpose, it was to be a modest contribution to kick-starting a long-neglected debate about class, as I wrote in a piece for the Indy.
Since my first update, there’s been lots of interesting stuff about the book – and themes of class – in the press. The Independent made it their ‘Book of the Week‘: Jon Cruddas’ review was very thoughtful and I’m glad he picked on the book’s key purpose – “to reintroduce class as a political variable.”
The Beeb had a really interesting and balanced overview of the word ‘chav’, featuring yours truly.
Suzanne Moore rightly called in the Guardian for the debate to be refocused away from simply debating the word ‘chav’, and back on to class.
In the Observer, Carole Cadwalladr had a brilliant piece looking at how the representation of working-class people on TV has changed.
In the Guardian, Lynsey Hanley wrote an extremely thoughtful, engaging review with lots of food for thought.
I wrote an article for The Sun - yes, really – about how working-class people are portrayed on the TV.
I was really pleased with Andrew Neather’s review in the Evening Standard, above all because he highlighted the book’s call for a new class politics.
In the Independent on Sunday, DJ Taylor backed my call for a national debate on class, although disagreeing with my own take – but of course that’s exactly how a debate will have to proceed!
On the other hand, libertarian website Spiked hated the book, although I was far from the only one amused by being portrayed as an apologist for Labour’s time in government (contrast with Cruddas’ criticism that “Apart from a fleeting aside about the minimum wage and public-services investment, there appears no redeeming element to 13 years of Labour rule”). The line that particularly made me spit out my tea was the revelation I was a “keen fan” of Beatrice Webb who – funnily enough – was savaged in an early draft for her eugenics.
There’s been some really interesting blog reviews too. Carl Packman, one of the cleverest and most thoughtful thinkers on the Labour left, had his take over at Though Cowards Flinch.
The prodigal Daniel Frost also wrote a fascinating piece over at ‘Musings of a Radical’.
I’ve started doing ‘Chavs’ events (which I’ll update asap) too. I was honoured to debate the book with Johann Hari and Suzanne Moore at the excellent Stoke Newington Festival last Saturday.
I’ve also done a lot of radio interviews and debates this week: a number of BBC local radios have been doing phone-in debates about class, which has been absolutely fantastic.
This week I’m doing Radio 2′s Nightwaves on Monday; the Jeremy Vine Show at 1pm on Wednesday; and Radio 5 Live at some point. I’ll try and keep it updated!
But above all I’d like to just try and encourage a debate about class, no matter how strongly that may mean people disagreeing with me.
Below is an article I’ve written for the Independent
Margaret Thatcher was nothing if not ambitious. As part and parcel of one of the most audacious attempts at social engineering in British history, her government set about stripping class – ‘a Communist concept’ – from the nation’s vocabulary. Even as wealth and power became increasingly concentrated at the top, the conspiracy to deny class has faced few challenges. Both New Labour and the Tories alike preached the myth that – as Tony Blair put it – ‘we’re all middle class now’”. Narrow definitions of ‘aspiration’ and ‘social mobility’ have encouraged the idea that being working class is something to escape from.
Things have begun to change: there’s nothing quite like an economic crisis to highlight profound injustices in the distribution of wealth and power. When the paypackets of FTSE 100 directors go up by a third, while the average working Briton suffers the biggest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s, denying the existence of class becomes a form of Flat Earth-ism.
That’s not to say class has been entirely squeezed out of the nation’s conversations, but it often emerges in a deeply pernicious form. A few years ago I sat at a dinner table surrounded by middle-class professionals when one quipped: “It’s a shame that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” It’s a scenario that many will recognise. Chav-bashing by those from pampered backgrounds is a continuing national scandal and must be opposed. But – whether people use the word “chav” or not – there’s a deeply distorted, but entirely mainstream, view of class that must also be challenged. It was most eloquently summed up by The Daily Telegraph’s Simon Heffer: “Something called the respectable working class has almost died out. What sociologists used to call the working class does not now usually work at all, but is sustained by the welfare state.”
For the right, those outside the new supposed middle-class majority were the “underclass”, whose numbers were expanding because of supposed behavioural defects and the collapse of marriage. But New Labour’s spin on it – “social exclusion” – has had an equally damaging effect on the popular view of class. With class no longer an accepted way of describing divisions in society, those at the bottom of the pile were held partly responsible for their lot in life.
It’s a theory that’s trickled into popular culture. Take TV comedy: it either showcases nice middle-class people, like My Family; or, on the other hand, grotesque or one-sided caricatures of working-class people, like Little Britain’s feckless Vicky Pollard or The Only Way is Essex, which caricatures the supposedly “tacky aspirational” working class who can’t spend money with the taste and discretion of the middle class.
But the real working class – the 16 million manual workers, clerks and sales assistants who make up half the workforce – has been all but airbrushed from existence. Part of the confusion is down to the fact that the working class looks a lot different than it did thirty years ago. Before the Thatcherite assault on industry, more than 7 million worked in manufacturing; today, it’s little over 2.5 million. Instead of working in factories, mines and docks, most working-class people now earn their keep in call centres, supermarkets and offices. There are a million call centre workers: that’s as many as worked in pits at the peak of mining. A woman who works part-time in a supermarket is as good a symbol for working-class Britain as any: but she is all but invisible as far as our politicians, journalists and TV programme-makers are concerned.
Denying class has proved all-too-convenient in ignoring the concerns of working-class people. We don’t talk about the fact that people from unskilled backgrounds are ten times more likely to be unemployed than professional people or that five million working-class people are languishing on social housing waiting lists. Nothing makes sense without class. If we don’t talk about it, millions will remain disenfranchised, marginalised and ignored. Thatcherism closed the national debate on class: now is the time to re-open it.
My book ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class‘, published by Verso, is now out. It’s a slightly bizarre feeling that it’s actually hit the bookshops – I started writing it back in December 2009, which now seems like another age. And I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been a nerve-wracking few weeks: it’s such an important issue that it’s better not to write it at all than screw it up. (I hope I haven’t).
But so far so good. It was the Times’ ‘Book of the Week’ on Saturday although, I’m afraid, the review is behind the paywall.
Polly Toynbee talked about it in her column yesterday:
“A superb and angry new book, Chavs by Owen Jones, published next week, pulls together the welter of evidence on the demonisation of the working class. Read it for a strong analysis of the conspiracy to deny the very existence of a working class, even to itself. New Labour colluded with this vanishing act but Ed Miliband’s espousal of the “squeezed middle” may be tiptoeing towards giving a voice back to the great disappeared.”
And Michael White has also mentioned it in a piece on class on Monday.
You can also hear me debating with the Telegraph’s James Delingpole on whether posh people are an oppressed minority (yes, seriously) on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, broadcast on Monday.
Richard Seymour has also written a really fascinating piece on ‘chavs’ and class over at Leninology; and I’ve read an absolutely fantastic piece on ‘chavs’ and council tenants, written by two housing policy experts. Thoroughly recommended.
If you want to hear me rambling about the book, here are some upcoming events. My first event is at Stoke Newington Literary Festival this Saturday at 4pm at Abney Hall. I’m very privileged to be doing the event with the journalists Johann Hari and Suzanne Moore. You can book tickets here – and say hello if you come along.
Above all I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on the book when they’ve had a chance to have a shufty. If this book has any purpose, it’s to get people talking about class again – however small my contribution to that will be.
And, finally, I’m writing a post later which will try to answer ‘is chav-bashing really attacking working-class people?’