Home > Book Reviews, General Politics, Marxism, Terrible Tories, Trade Unions > Keeping up with Jones – a review of Owen Jones’ ‘Chavs’

Keeping up with Jones – a review of Owen Jones’ ‘Chavs’

‘Chav’. The word has disputed etymology, and yet everyone knows what it is – or rather, knows that they would prefer not be, themselves, identified as one. ‘Chav’ is that rare beast, denoting a section in society which almost nobody would want to touch with a bargepole, but yet, or so according to Owen Jones, has a well-defined target, at least as far as the mainstream media is concerned, as the newly consumerised working classes – and even in some cases the lower class made good.

Though, rather than being a category worthy of collected denunciation, ‘chav-bashing’ is a concerted campaign against the working class itself. The fact that many working class people would choose not to identify with the term is important in the way it has been used by many middle class people and self-appointed ‘neo-snobs’, such as Jemima Lewis, in the media.

The way in which the word ‘chav’ has been used can be seen within the framework Marxism has used to observe capitalism: as an agenda setting the workers against each other – Thatcher’s preferred means of governance. And yet, ironically, Marx himself would have been none too supportive of the so-called ‘chavs’. The assumption is that a ‘chav’ takes from society without actually giving back to it, and Marx had a word for this himself: the lumpenproletarian. This class, of whom Marx called ‘social scum’ in the Communist Manifesto, were unproductive and likely to be used as fodder for reactionaries.

But Jones has written, not a myth-busting book setting the world right about what is or is not a ‘chav’, but rather a reminder that in recent times, and quite under our noses, the working class have been institutionally demonised wholesale as the very worst, contemptible, subjects society can offer; rowdy, immoral and burdensome.

‘Chav’ is not a catch-all term, but its definition is loose enough so as to allow all to condemn the ‘chav’, thus playing into the hands of Thatcherite politics, key to which is dividing (the working class) and conquering.

As well as saying that this class-hatred (‘neo-snobs’ unto ‘chavs’) stems from the destruction caused by Thatcherite politics, and the age devoted only to a social mobility that sees being working class as a departure, not an ennobled end in itself, Jones is appealing against a rowdy headline-grabbing media, set on a course of snobbery and braggartry, who perceives somebody like Michael Carroll – dubbed the lotto lout – as the sum total of today’s working class.

Indeed, this is what was meant by local Dewsbury Moor community leader Julie Bushby, interviewed by Jones in his book, when she says “Ninety per cent of people here work. We’ve all taken money out of [our] own pockets for this [the search for Shannon Matthews]” (p.17). What she is saying here is Dewsbury Moor is not how the mainstream press paints it; namely as a scum setting with people who care only for themselves and not the communities in which they live.

It’s easy to see how the notion of ‘chav’ fits in neatly with Thatcher’s politics. In the same way that ‘chav-bashing’ is not unique to ‘neo-snobs’ in the mainstream press (the founder of website chavscum.co.uk for example identifies as working class) Thatcher’s policies were not avowedly anti-working class. In fact as Jones points out, for Thatcher class is a “Communist concept”, getting in the way of a society where one is out for oneself. There was one section of the working class Thatcher was happy to side by: the ‘Basildon Man‘. In the 1980s Basildon, a new town, generally speaking working class with a history of sitting Conservative MPs, was seen to epitomise the aspirational working class. In deed, Thatcher wanted to appeal to the “Basildon man” mentality, but in action she was setting about destructive measures which would hit working class families hardest.

In the economy, Thatcher’s 1979 Conservative government quickly “abolished exchange controls, allowing financial companies to make huge profits from currency speculation … at the expense of other parts of the economy, like manufacturing” (p.52). This was a sign that the rich were going to be given allowances, whereas at the lower end of the scale, a “de-industrialization of the economy” would sweep up jobs and opportunities – which many towns to this day have not recovered from.

Thatcher’s plans for society – a concept she was sceptical of – were worse still. Despite her words she did not want to get rid of social class, just stop us from perceiving we belonged to one. On her watch council estates were something to be feared, not somewhere to be proud of, and her callous derision of single Mother families ensured communities were divided (p.67). In an interview Jones conducted with Geoffrey Howe – the longest serving minister in Thatcher’s cabinet, and whose resignation was said to have hastened Thatcher’s own downfall – he was left surprised at how much the living standards of the poorest had become, left only uttering “…at the end of the period they’ve got better off, I think” (p.63).

As Jones rightly puts it: “Thatcher’s assumption of power in 1979 marked the beginning of an all-out assault on the pillars of working class Britain” (p.10). But surely not even she could have foreseen how far this assault would embed itself into future British politics. Jones points out that many New Labour policies were steeped in the kind of middle class triumphalism usually associated with the Tories. Stories about the lazy unemployed became a commonplace, and the era defined a new Labour politician, like James Purnell, who spent more time appeasing Tory attitudes and less time addressing the deep rooted problems that Britain inherited from Thatcherite destruction.

Today, now Labour are in opposition, things are not much better for the traditional party of the working class. While the nation apprehensively awaits Osborne’s deep cuts to the economy, effects of which will hurt the poorest harder, Blairites such as Peter Watt – Labour’s former General Secretary – are calling on the party to accept the Tories’ cuts agenda wholesale. The party historically linked to unions and working people, has become the party of the mainstream. The fire in the belly of the Labour party has been extinguished, leaving the door open for fringe parties to sweep up what has been left –  a gift for far right parties such as the British National Party (BNP).

Jones reflects upon a staggering 1958 gallup poll showing how 71% of britons were opposed to interracial marriage, however it is today, not the fifties, that the BNP is the most successful far right party in the UK to date (pp.222-23). Now that the New Labour party panders to a ruling metropolitan elite community for its votes and support, the BNP have stepped in to raise people’s legitimate concerns (housing, immigration, schools) framing the debate in racial terms. By and large, working class communities reject the appeals of the far right (they got a trumping in the last local elections), but the English Defence League are still making ground, tapping into local  concerns, and Labour is still doing little to counter this. Maurice Glasman, an academic at London Metropolitan University, has raised the debate of how Labour can win back the working classes, with his idea of a ‘blue Labour‘ – which is a start – but clearly there is much thinking left to be had inside the party, in order to reverse years of Tory pandering and working class abandonment.

But Jones doesn’t leave us hanging on what kind of action should be taken today, in order that the working class feel represented by politicians in parliament. He concludes by touching on just a few things likely to re-integrate the least well-off back into society again. Things like a national programme of social housing, reliant as it would be on “an army of skilled labour”. Today even the Tories are discussing ‘Britain making things again’, and so, opines Jones, “there is ample space to make the case for a new industrial strategy” (p.261). Furthermore, giving workers “genuine control and power in the workplace” is not unique to the Left any longer – the benefits of better workforce engagement has been researched across the board from The Work Foundation to centre right think-tank Respublica.  

Certainly the case for working class empowerment has gained traction again, the battle now is to harangue politicians to ensure they keep their word and start to deliver the changes necessary to reverse the tide of recent class prejudice, started by the Tories and carried on through to the present day via the appeasement of New Labour.

As Jones has cleverly noted in his book, ‘chav’ is the perfect embodiment of how far the class war, waged by the political establishment, and perpetuated by many in the mainstream media, has come. No longer is class prejudice simply fought along the lines of ‘them (the poor) and us (the wealthy)’, but a situation has arisen where their demonisation of the working class has created a ‘them and us’ within those very communities. That this happened alongside the political elites’ efforts to weaken working class institutions (such as trade unions) has frustrated working class strength and pride – laying the ground for the expansion of anti-working class politics. Hopefully this book, which is extremely readable and exceptionally researched, will be the wake-up call needed to combat today’s ‘neo-snob’ class warriors, whose sole aim is the destruction of all that the working class hold dear.

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  1. Chris
    June 4, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    Seems one day I woke up and everyone was talking about “chavs”. I’d never heard the word before about 2004-5. Where it came from, I’m not sure, but I doubt it could have happened without New Labour’s capitulation to Thatcherism.

    • June 4, 2011 at 8:40 pm

      Where the word came from is pretty unclear, but I think you’re right about New Labour’s capitulation to Thatcherism, Chris

  1. June 4, 2011 at 1:10 pm
  2. June 12, 2011 at 3:50 pm

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