Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – Part Two

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This is the second part of a three part review of Owen Jones’ book, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class. Part 1 was published yesterday, and the concluding part will appear tomorrow.

Book Review: Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. London: Verso, 2011. 298 pages. £14.99

It’s your own fault

No longer do we hear the concept that poverty is a consequence of structural inequalities in mainstream media and political commentary, Jones observes. Instead pundits peddle the fantasy of the ‘marginalised’, the ‘disenfranchised’, the ‘dysfunctional’ and the ‘alienated’; if only we could reform this degenerate rump on the edge of society everything would be much better. ‘Social problems like poverty and unemployment were once understood as injustices that sprang from flaws within capitalism which, at the very least, had to be addressed. Yet today they have become understood as the consequences of personal behaviour, individual defects and even choice’. A horde of highly-paid middle-class, ranch-poverty-industry gurus swarm into working-class areas under the auspices of various well-funded NGOs, crusading, like latter-day Salvation Army saints, against the individual flaws of the improvident poor. Since the recession, the ceaseless din of various institutions calling for retraining and motivational measures for the unemployed seems oblivious to the fact that the jobs simply aren’t there.

Take, for instance, former businessman and politician Ivan Yates’s Newstalk 106 interview on Thursday 1 September with businessman Gerry Keneally. According to Ivan’s wealthy guest, the problem of half a million Irish people on the dole was not macroeconomic, but personal. ‘A lot of these people [the unemployed] don’t have relevant skills anymore’, Keneally said. While he bleated, ‘my heart goes out to them’, benefits for the unemployed would need to be reduced if they are to be incentivised to work. Moreover, because workers have been ‘incredibly bolshy over the years’, labour costs in Ireland are too high. Keneally concluded that ‘the reality is that an awful lot of people in this country didn’t mind their careers’: they, not the impersonal forces of the market, were to blame. ‘It’s not going to get handed to you on a plate, that’s basically what it’s all about: People have to get off their arses’.

Working-class people who have fallen into unemployment, or who end up in essential but low-paid jobs are labelled, as Jones observes, as suffering from a ‘poverty of ambition’; cue more jobs for middle-class professionals correcting this perceived, pervasive character flaw of the jobless and supposedly feckless, for whom, of course, there are less and less opportunities. A fundamental flaw of capitalism, which Marx observed over a hundred and fifty years ago – the narrowing of the base of labour at the bottom in conjunction with the relentless drive for productivity and profits at the top – is recast as the discrete flaw of the archetypal and apparently rampant layabout. Economic reality is turned on its head: it’s not that the system has failed to provide labour, but that the labourers have failed themselves. When, in 2008, the British government announced plans ‘to push 3.5 million benefit recipients into jobs’, Jones expands, ‘at the same time they estimated that there were only around half a million vacancies’. This, he points out, is part of the absurdity of modern political debate – which, if ill-informed, is nonetheless powerfully effective in manipulating public perception: ‘while only 19 per cent felt that poverty was caused by laziness or a lack of willpower in 1986, the figure had increased to 27 per cent twenty years later’. Chapter 7 of Chavs provides some compelling data that explodes this myth of a lazy lumpen class.

The disconnect

Yet despite the prevalence of class hate, class itself has become an elephant in the drawing room of public discourse. In recent years the Irish right-of-centre Fine Gael party has taken to the euphemism ‘the coping-classes’ in order to side-step the class politics thrown up by the recession; millions of people are just ‘coping’ (or not coping at all), but, preposterously, they’re still to be considered middle-class. Using the old term to describe those who barely cope through selling their labour would be divisive and dangerous, somebody must have reasoned; much better to suggest that those ‘coping’ in Artane have nothing in common with those ‘coping’ in Darndale. The irony is that despite the ubiquity of these evasions in media and political circles, forty per cent of Irish people categorized themselves as working class at the height of the boom (Amárach Consultancy survey, 2006) and over half of British people recently did likewise (The Guardian, 2007; a figure that ‘has remained more or less steady since the 1960s, and is higher now than it was in 1950).

So where does this disconnect between the reality and the fantasy of class relations begin? When asked for Chavs what has happened to the old class relations of a by-gone era, one journalist responds with what is surely a familiar mantra on these islands; that the working class has become upwardly mobile because ‘they’ve gone to university, and they’ve got jobs in white-collar trades or professions, and they’ve become middle class’. But Jones rightly comments that ‘where the millions who remain in manual occupations, or the majority of the population who have not attended a university, fit into all this is an interesting question’. Furnishing a comic straw poll by journalist Johann Hari on what some of the most informed middle-class journalists in Britain think the average wage is, Jones reveals how removed from reality some of these intrepid reporters are: ‘One senior editor estimated it at £80,000. This absurd figure is nearly four times higher than the true amount of £21,000.’ As Hari elaborates, ‘of course if you never leave Zone One, if you’ve never met anyone from an estate, never been to one, then you live in a world of feverish fantasy’. So insulated is middle-class life against the working-class majority – so removed are middle-class networks and social circles from the reality of life for the majority of the population, that some of its most strident and supposedly informed spokespersons simply haven’t a clue. Listening to multi-millionaire broadcasters in Ireland preach about how life induces a similar mix of incredulity and nausea.

This disconnect did not, of course, happen in a vacuum. Jones argues that ‘it is more and more difficult for people from working-class backgrounds to get their foot in the door of newspapers and broadcasters’. With the rise of the unpaid, or poorly paid, internship, and the rise also of a myriad of university media courses, ‘wannabe journalists have to pay for their own training, which usually means having at least one degree. That leaves a huge amount of debt on their shoulders when starting out in a profession with notoriously low wages for junior staff’. The people most likely to be able to afford this initial outlay – not to mention the years slogging for peanuts before a decent opportunity arises – are ‘those whose parents can support them, which means the nature of those going into journalism has changed dramatically’. The same gulf between junior and senior wages exists in academia and law (consider the case of devilling barristers in Ireland) – invisible, but often insurmountable hurdles for working-class students, who lack both contacts and cash. Jones cites a report by Young Legal Aid Lawyers in 2010, which revealed that, ‘because of requirements for unpaid work experience and subsidized training opportunities, much of the law was a no-go area for working-class people’.

He also notes Jonathan Rose’s finding, in The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, that issues of working-class identity have failed to attract significant academic attention. A search of one academic archive reveals that while ‘gender’ gets 4,539 hits, ‘working class’ returns a paltry 136. This suggests, also, a paucity of working-class people in academia. Contacts, of course, make an enormous difference, especially in areas like media, where qualifications vary substantially. One employee of a contractor who provides television production services to RTÉ recently told me how he had attained his position through a chance encounter with a neighbour who was the son of a well-known broadcaster; how likely is a Ballymunner with an MA in journalism from DCU to happen upon such a golden opportunity? Even in the dynamic realm of British politics, this creeping exclusivism is increasingly the norm. ‘Those sitting on Parliament’s green benches are over four times more likely to have gone to private school than the rest of us’, Jones reveals. He argues persuasively that this glass ceiling has created an elevated realm of public life in which the discussion is decidedly one-sided and in which who you know not what you know is more important than ever.

Jones enlists the widening class chasm in British political and media circles to explain why, for instance, benefit fraud has become such an incessant hobby horse for British journalists and politicians – in comparison with their relatively muted concerns regarding tax evasion. ‘Welfare fraud is estimated to cost the Treasury around £1 billion a year’, whereas ‘£70 billion is lost through tax evasion’. As Jones argues, ‘the cruel irony is that poor people [……..] actually pay more in tax as a proportion of their wage packets than many of the rich journalists and politicians who attack them’.

Class warriors

For Jones, the demise of a once-proud tradition of working-class politics is rooted in a seminal event that also had profound implications for Irish political life: the election, in 1979, of Margaret Thatcher. The Iron Lady’s assumption of power ‘marked the beginning of an all-out assault on the pillars of working-class Britain’. Thatcher’s Machiavellian manipulation of a then powerful trade union movement resulted in the 1980s defeats of striking miners that devastated Britain’s confidence in the power of organised labour. This epochal defeat had potent cultural implications as well: ‘Stripped of their power and no longer seen as a proud identity, the working class was increasingly sneered at, belittled and scapegoated.’

As Jones points out, Thatcherism ‘unleashed a tsunami of de-industrialization, decimating communities’. Since the late 1970s, manufacturing has collapsed, in large part through Thatcher’s attack on the social and economic fabric of working-class Britain. In 1979, over seven million of her compatriots worked in manufacturing; now that figure stands at a mere 2.83 million. Switch forward to 2010, and the first Tory budget was estimated by economists to have hit the poorest six times harder than the richest.

Jones points to the irony that a global economic crisis ‘triggered by the greed and incompetence of a wealthy banking elite’ has triggered unprecedented attacks on working-class people – at a time when income inequality in Britain has in fact demonstrably grown. The example of multi-millionaire Tory minister Jeremy Hunt is a case in point. Railing against the failure of ‘responsibility’ amongst long-term benefit claimants, Hunt excoriated those – supposedly ubiquitous – parents of large families who depended on dole payments. While Hunt was emboldened in this crusade by elements in the habitually outraged right-wing media, and while he used the bogeyman of over-breeding dole recipients to slash welfare benefits, few asked how pervasive this ‘problem’ was. While many journalists were happy to substitute prejudice for proof, ‘in reality, just 3.4 per cent of families in long-term receipt of benefits have four children or more’. But this minor detail didn’t matter; ‘Hunt was tapping into the age-old prejudice that the people at the bottom were breeding out of control’. As Jones suggests, this is the true usefulness of the chav myth: feeding dangerous and inaccurate perceptions of the working-class, which in turn facilitate right-wing economic sleights of hand.

This is the story of a cocooned middle-class mindset, in which exclusivism and nepotism are the cornerstones of class warfare, and mediocrity and meritocracy are routinely confused.  But it is also a mindset actively cultivated as an essential to a very determined and conscious class war. And, as Jones points out in his third chapter, those prosecuting this war are not the red-flag-waving-man-the-barricades lefties that the term ‘class war’ usually conjures, but the pin-striped plutocrats who are currently enjoying bumper recession-time profits.

Thatcher saw class as a ‘communist concept’, inimical to her own ideological ends. Instead, she would imbue 1980s Britain with an alternative concept, that ‘there’s no such thing as society’, in her own inimitable words. As ‘there is no such thing as collective conscience, collective kindness, collective gentleness, collective freedom’, she argued, individualism was – and ought to be – the ultimate moral compass. In the place of communal ambitions and values, Thatcher sought to promote individual drive and acquisition. On the one hand, she would seek to eliminate working-class culture; as a Tory document put it bluntly in 1976, ‘it’s not the existence of classes that threatens the unity of the nation, but the existence of class feeling’. On the other, Thatcher sought to compound class inequalities by liberalising the British market and lavishing tax breaks on the rich. As Jones puts it, ‘class was to be eliminated as an idea, but it was to be bolstered in practice’.

The sequence of set-piece battles that occurred in the following decade are a matter of historical record, which Jones revisits in some detail. Thatcher even secretly stockpiled coal in order to ensure that she could beat the miners in carefully choreographed battles which she planned in villainous detail. As Jones argues, unemployment was ‘another of Thatcher’s greatest weapons’. With plenty of people on the dole ready to take your place, ‘the terror of losing your job suppresses any temptation to fight back’. One Treasury chief economist for the early 1990 Tory government, Alan Budd, even suggests in Chavs that Thatcher’s economic policies never intended ‘to bring down inflation’. Incredibly, he claims, ‘they did, however, see that it would be a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes’.

With such strident, combative class hatred at the heart of government, it is easy to see why Jones recasts the image of the ‘class warrior’ as a well-fed Tory scoffing steak tartare in Beefeaters as he rails against the excesses of the poor. Once senior Tories had rationalised the perceived threat of working-class solidarity, they also began to grasp the logical antidote: an all-out assault on the very basis of a heretofore profoundly embedded and proud working-class tradition. ‘No other Western European nation saw the obliteration of manufacturing in such a brutally short period’, Jones observes. As arch-villain of the British tabloids Arthur Scargill told a rapt crowd in Dublin’s ITGWU Hall last year, Thatcher’s government shut down industries in the full knowledge that they had a future, simply because the politics those industries cultivated were a threat to capitalism itself. ‘The City’ became the new economic fulcrum of Conservative Britain, after ‘the so-called Big Bang, or deregulation of financial services’; ‘finance and services were the future; making things belonged to the past’. But now that this fallacy has been so thoroughly dispelled – as of the economic crash of 2008 – many are beginning to realise how Thatcher’s gutting of manufacturing Britain sowed the seeds of a perilously imbalanced economy; even some Tories have conceded this seminal mistake of the Thatcher era. But many of Thatcher’s core aims have been realised, including the creation of a society in which success is measured by personal wealth and the tax burden has shifted ‘from the rich to everybody else’. In Ireland, scant attention has so far been paid to the similar legacy of Tory triumvirate of government ministers – Mary Harney, Charlie McCreevy and Michael McDowell – and their Gordon Gekkoesque ideology, as articulated most chillingly by the Gonzaga-educated McDowell in his belief that ‘an economy like ours demands inequality’.

Thatcher succeeded in breaking the British trade unions just as these Irish Tories succeeded in breaking the boom, and Jones surveys the consequences for working-class communities throughout Britain of a carefully planned class war. Thatcher slashed taxes on the mega-rich, but increased VAT – a tax on consumer goods that disproportionately hits the less well off. ‘By the end of the Tories’ reign, in 1996, the richest 10 per cent of families with three children were over £21,000 a year richer than when Thatcher had come to power. The wealthiest decile’s incomes shot up by 65 per cent for each married couple.’ For the rest of the population, taxes increased, and ‘the real income of the poorest tenth collapsed by nearly a fifth’. The numbers in poverty almost tripled between 1979 and 1992; the party of low unemployment and low taxes had increased both. But Thatcher’s greatest victory was in convincing so many that, as she put it herself, ‘poverty is not material but behavioural’. It was okay to hate the poor, because they are lazy and dysfunctional: the myth of the chav was born.

Michael Pierse is author of Writing Ireland’s Working Class: Dublin after O’Casey, which was published by Palgrave Macmillan earlier this year. You can read a review of the book here.