This is the third part of a three part review of Owen Jones’ book, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class. Part 1 was published on Tuesday and Part 2 was published yesterday. Click here to see all three together.
Book Review: Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. London: Verso, 2011. 298 pages. £14.99
Myths and meritocracy
Myths about British society have become increasingly prevalent in the discourse of current affairs. As Jones notes, ‘it is both tragic and absurd that, as our society has become less equal and as in recent years the poor have actually got poorer, resentment against those at the bottom has positively increased’. While people in Britain seem to believe that things are much better than they were in terms of equality, the Gini coefficient – the most common method used to measure income inequality, reveals that the gap between rich and poor has risen, and risen sharply in Britain since 1979 (from a rating of 26 then to 39 now). Jones explodes the imagined ‘Middle England’ or ‘mainstream of British society’ which crops up so often in common speech. In a jurisdiction where the average wage is £21,000, it is obvious that most people in fact live at a level which is far below the imagined ‘middle’.
Further, although British conservative politicians and commentators continually promote moral panic about teenage pregnancies, again the facts are baffling. ‘By 2007, 11.4 per cent of conceptions were to women under the age of twenty-about the same level as that conservative golden age of family values, the 1950s’. This did not stop the Tories putting out a leaflet in 2010 in which they claimed that ‘in the most deprived areas 54 per cent are likely to fall pregnant before the age of 18′. While the party later admitted to a decimal-point slip – the figure was actually 5.4 – as Jones notes, its insertion in party literature betrayed a certain wilful ignorance; ‘they were not sufficiently startled by such outlandish figures to double-check them before press-releasing their document’.
Working-class teenagers are continually depicted as cider-swilling louts getting wasted at the weekend, despite the fact that ‘a study by the National Centre for Social Research found that children from affluent backgrounds were the biggest drinkers, and teenagers with unemployed parents were less likely to have even tried alcohol’. So much for the attendant myth of irresponsible, unemployed layabout parents; but when do we ever hear calls for middle-class parents to be held responsible for their children’s behaviour? Where the outrage about university drinking clubs – of the type David Cameron was a member – causing havoc?
Indeed, in the context of relentless media advice in Ireland about poor people needing to get budgeting advice, it is interesting to note Jones’s finding that ‘people at the bottom end of the income spectrum are better at managing their money day-to-day than people at the top end’. Seán Quinn will never be advised to get in contact with MABS.
Jones continually unearths these nuggets of counter-intuitive fact throughout the book, and they reveal just how reactionary and removed common perceptions of social decay are from the reality of modern British society. Alarmist ideas have so permeated popular mythology, that even those on the left are likely to look twice at such statistics and wonder how they can be true. Part of the problem is that Labour – the historical guarantor of working-class interests – has not only bought into but actively promoted the same Tory mythology, Jones argues, facilitating a circus-mirror distortion of British social change. Among the most frightening of the myths he identifies is the perception that the ‘Great Recession of 2008′ has forged a renewed focus on traditional industries and a move away from over-reliance on unreliable financial services jobs. ‘The crisis may have been caused by the greed of bankers,’ he writes, ‘but manufacturing paid the price. It lost well over twice the proportion of jobs as finance and business services in the first year of the crisis. The City’s share of the economy has actually grown since 2005, leaving us more dependent on the part of the economy that caused the crash in the first place’. Not only that, but the top 1,000 wealthiest people in Britain increased their wealth by 30 per cent in 2010, according to the Sunday Times Rich List, while CEO wage packets jumped by a staggering 55 per cent in 2008.
A new working-class
One of the most gripping of Jones’s polemics in the book is his analysis of the idea that new industries have radically transformed working-class life for the better due to the steady shift away from manual labour. Chavs makes a compelling case for a reassessment of modern services industry work in this regard. Jones argues, convincingly, that retail – the second biggest employer in Britain – has reduced employment stability and working conditions over the last number of decades of rapid expansion in this area, and thus left working-class people vulnerable to sharp practice.
It is difficult to argue with the picture he paints of call centre employment too, and salutary to consider that as many work in British call centres today as worked in the mines at the height of their activity in the 1940s. Indeed, Jones sees the call centre worker as ‘as good a symbol’ of the contemporary working class as any. ‘Here is the lack of worker’s autonomy in the workplace taken to extremes’, he argues. Interviews he conducts with call centre workers reveal a mind-numbing daily grind of frenetic computer-monitored activity, in which toilet breaks are logged and workers are banned from speaking to one another. Intense productivity of this kind has its inevitable consequences; Jones notes that ‘the sickness rate in call centres is nearly twice the national average’. ‘It can sometimes feel very much life a chicken factory’, one worker complains. Turnover is high and opportunities for trade-union activity are curtailed by the fact that workers are so thoroughly isolated.
Jones looks also at the effect of the steady growth in agency workers, the ‘flexible’ workforce of countless companies and services, which has facilitated employers in developing a malleable and insecure ‘hire-and-fire’ ethic. As he rightly argues, miners and factory workers of a previous generation often enjoyed far better security, pay and conditions in their work, at a time when trade unions had less legal restrictions imposed on their activities. His analysis of recent curtailments of workers’ rights and standards of living produces some of the most insightful and well informed passages of the book, as does his analysis of the destruction of social housing. Jones charts the rise of a new, heavily indebted, low paid, atomised, disenfranchised and demoralised working class.
A rallying call
Although the extent of chav hate has grown in recent decades, as Jones shows, it is merely the extension and sophistication of a long-running class war. But Jones’s point is that never has such absurd elitism been so unrelentingly and successfully rationalised in public discourse. In the past, being privileged might even have been a source of embarrassment. Never before have rich-kids seemed so comfortable brandishing their silver spoons.
Part of the problem lies on the left. Over the past number of decades, new frontiers in the battle for equality have supplanted class as the main arena of struggle, with race, gay rights and minority politics coming to the fore, and rightly so. But while these identitarian struggles have formed an integral and laudable part of any socialist’s agenda, they should not do so at the expense of the principal arbiter of social inequality, Jones contends. As one academic Jones interviews laments, it is ironic that while multiculturalism has become a watchword of the British left, the cultural integrity of working-class life has gone by the wayside. In fact, according to anthropologist Dr Gillian Evans, middle-class people have ended up ‘refusing to acknowledge anything about the white working class as legitimately cultural, which leads to a composite loss of respect on all fronts: economic, political and social’. As Ken Worpole argued a long time ago, the refusal of authorities to pay anything other than lip service to the culture of working-class life has resulted in its diminishing status across various platforms, not least the realm of scholarly inquiry. As Jones writes, ‘there are, after all, no prominent, respected champions of the working class in the way that there are for many minority groups’.
Aspects of this book leave Jones open to criticism. At times further statistical analysis might be furnished to back up anecdotes and claims. Serious criticism might be levelled at his failure to deal substantively with the issue of drug addiction, which disproportionately affects working-class areas, yet fails to get any real attention in the book until page 215. While he observes that one former mining community, Bassetlaw, has, according to government findings, a heroin addiction health crisis ‘comparable to a smallpox epidemic’, it is mystifying as to why Jones subsequently fails to explore this significant problem for working-class communities with the rigour he applies to other areas. The rise of the far right, for instance – which forms a good deal of the analysis in Chapter 9 – receives far more attention.
But the spirit of this book is, overall, infectious. Jones’s analysis is thought-provoking and incisive in regard to so many aspects of class politics, but it is more than this. Chavs is a rallying call to all those who are marginalised by class to look anew at the way in which that marginalisation is so insidiously promoted by class warfare from the right. In particular, Jones’ survey of the call-centre industry is insightful and harrowing. The myth that wearing a tie to work makes you middle class is summarily dispelled. The idea that clerical or services work is necessarily a step up from the hard manual graft of pre-eighties British industry is equally dismissed. Jones is at his best in these chapters. The probity and rigour of his analysis provides a powerful argument for the return of class politics, and he writes with brio and passion, weaving an elaborate tapestry of modern class relations in an accessible and enthralling way.
Above all, Jones shows that, underlying the chav-ism – which is most commonly associated with a variety of comic caricature – is a deeply sinister social conservatism. A former chief inspector of British schools articulates this best in Jones’s book, when he attributes the superior educational attainment of middle-class children to ‘better genes’. Middle class people, who have wealth and success because of accident of birth, have to, in some way, rationalise that privilege. As Jones puts it, ‘what if people are poorer than you because the odds are stacked against them? To accept this would trigger a crisis of self-confidence among the well-off few.’ The alternative is to naturalise the social relations of the status quo – to treat them as a reflection of something fundamental and inescapable: ‘if you convince yourself that the less fortunate are smelly, thick, racist and rude by nature, then it is only right they should remain at the bottom’. Jones’s primary achievement here is in teasing out this subtext of ‘chav-hate’, this grim underbelly of middle-class culture, and also in vindicating the class that has become the target of such opprobrium. His accomplishment in this regard is substantial, a vigorous exculpation of the sins for which the working-class has been collectively demonised and a profound reassertion of the necessity of class politics at the very hour of its supposed demise.
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.
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