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Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones

October 16, 2016

chavs“Chav” means “underclass”, which means working-class people who don’t keep their noses clean or behave impeccably. The word’s etymology is contested: some accounts associate its origin with chavi, a Romany word for “child” or “youth”, which developed into “charva” – meaning scallywag – used for a long time in the northeast. Others treat it as an acronym for “Council Housed and Violent”.

Chavs, Jones writes, are unremittingly portrayed as “Thick. Violent. Criminal.” Travel brochures still apparently promise “Chav-Free Activity Holidays”.

An example of middle-class contempt towards working-class people is rightwing commentator Simon Heffer’s talk of the “feral underclass”.

As British society has become ever more segregated by class, income and neighbourhood, miscommunication has deepened between the classes; the Conservatives’ demeaning of trade unions has helped to strip the working classes of what public voice they had, so that the middle class has effectively become the new decision-making class.

In New Labour’s eyes, being aspirational working class meant embracing individualism and selfishness. It meant fighting to be a part of Brown’s ‘bigger middle class than ever’ p. 90. They Laud ‘aspiration’ but what if there are no jobs to aspire to?

Jones reveals the increasing poverty and desperation of communities made precarious by wrenching social and industrial change, and all but abandoned by the aspirational, society-fragmenting policies of Thatcherism and New Labour. The chav stereotype, he argues, is used by governments as a convenient figleaf to avoid genuine engagement with social and economic problems, and to justify widening inequality.

Midway through the book, Jones gives a somewhat harrowing account of how some call centre workers in County Durham are treated in exchange for their £14,400 per annum. Those who spend more than 4% of their time in the toilet or making a coffee face financial penalties. A no-hang-up policy, however rude and aggressive the callers, means “quite often on the floor people in tears at the way people have spoken to them”.

Critics will say that his leftwing politics requires working-class people to be “oppressed creatures”, always victims, not rational actors in a play they help to write.

Maybe he romanticises an ideal of working-class life, the noble savage here.

‘….the dozens of Daily Mail readers who bombarded the newspaper with messages in support of the Tory councillor. ‘I fail to see the problem with his comments,’ wrote one, adding: ‘It is NOT a God-given right to mass-produce children.’’ p. 27 Roman Catholics would disagree.

chavs-2Quotations:

“It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?”

 

“Karl Marx once described religion as ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’: something similar could be said about the rise of the far right today.
“Demonisation is the ideological backbone of an unequal society.”
“Taken together, New Labour policies have helped to build a series of overlapping chav caricatures: the feckless, the non-aspirational, the scrounger, the dysfunctional and the disorderly. To hear this sort of rhetoric from Labour, rather than the Tories, has confirmed the stereotypes and prejudices many middle-class people have about working-class communities and individuals. But it can be far subtler than outright attacks. Many of New Labour’s underlying philosophies were steeped in middle-class triumphalism. They were based on the assumption that the tattered remnants of the working-class were on the wrong side of history – and must be made to join ‘Middle England’ like the rest of us.”
“Being born into a prosperous middle-class family typically endows you with a safety net for life. If you are not naturally very bright, you are still likely to go far and, at the very least, will never experience poverty as an adult. A good education compounded by your parents’ ‘cultural capital’, financial support and networks will always see you through. If you are a bright child born into a working-class family, you do not have any of these things. The odds are that you will not be better off than your parents.”
“It is entirely undesirable that on modern housing estates only one type of citizen should live,’ he argued. ‘If we are to enable citizens to lead a full life, if they are each to be aware of the problems of their neighbours, then they should all be drawn from different sectors of the community. We should try to introduce what was always the lovely feature of English and Welsh villages, where the doctor, the grocer, the butcher and the farm labourer all lived in the same street.”
“Chav-bashing draws on a long, ignoble tradition of class hatred. But it cannot be understood without looking at more recent events. Above all, it is the bastard child of a very British class war.”
“George Orwell observed: ‘If you look for the working classes in fiction, and especially English fiction, all you find is a hole … the ordinary town proletariat, the people who make the wheels go round, have always been ignored by novelists. When they do find their way between the corners of a book, it is nearly always as objects of pity or as comic relief.’”
“What does the case of Jade Goody show us, other than the capacity of the British media for crassness and cruelty? Above all it demonstrated that it is possible to say practically anything about people from Jade’s background. They are fair game.”
“Pinochet shared one of the main aims of his ideological soulmates in Britain: to erase the working class as a concept. His goal, he declared, was to ‘make Chile not a nation of proletarians, but a nation of entrepreneurs’.”
“Get rid of all the cleaners, rubbish collectors, bus drivers, supermarket checkout staff and secretaries, for example, and society will very quickly grind to a halt. On the other hand, if we woke up one morning to find that all the highly paid advertising executives, management consultants and private equity directors had disappeared, society would go on much as it did before: in a lot of cases, probably quite a bit better.,”
“Morality is personal. There is no such thing as collective conscience, collective kindness, collective gentleness, collective freedom,’ she planned to argue. ‘To talk of social justice, social responsibility, a new world order, may be easy and make us feel good, but it does not absolve each of us from personal responsibility.’ It was clearly too much for her speechwriters and did not make the final cut. However, they were not able to stop her infamous declaration several years later (in lifestyle magazine Woman’s Own, of all places): ‘There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”
To justify the slashing of welfare benefits, he argued that long-term claimants had to ‘take responsibility’ for the number of children that they had, and that the state would no longer fund large workless families. In reality, just 3.4 per cent of families in long-term receipt of benefits have four children or more. But Hunt was tapping into the age-old prejudice that the people at the bottom were breeding out of control, as well as conjuring up the tabloid caricature of the slobbish single mother who milks the benefits system by having lots of children. The purpose was clear: to help justify a wider attack on some of the most vulnerable working-class people in the country.

 

comments open a window into the minds of educated, middle-class hacks. They had stumbled into strange, unfamiliar territory. After all, they knew nobody who had grown up in these circumstances. It’s no surprise that they found it difficult to empathize with them.

I suspect in general a lot of national journalists, the people who will have gone up north to cover it, would have been entering an alien world,’ says senior Mirror journalist Kevin Maguire. ‘It’ll have been as alien to them as Kandahar or Timbuktu. They just wouldn’t know that Britain … Because it’s not their Britain, it’s not the bit they live in, they come from.’

This is not baseless speculation. The occasional journalist even con­fessed as much. Melanie Reid in The Times argued passionately that ‘us douce middle classes’ simply did not understand the case ‘because we are as removed from that kind of poverty as we are from events in Afghanistan. For life among the white working class of Dewsbury looks like a foreign country.”

 

Kevin Maguire is one of a tiny handful of senior journalists from working-class backgrounds. You will struggle to find anyone writing or broadcasting news who grew up somewhere even remotely like the Dewsbury Moor estate. Over half of the top hundred journalists were educated at a private school, a figure that is even higher than it was two decades ago. In stark contrast, only one in fourteen children in Britain share this background!’

 

Increasingly, 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 only people who can do that are those with financial support,’ he says. ‘That is, those whose parents can support them, which means the nature of those going into journalism has changed dramatically.’

 

There was once a tradition, particularly on the Labour benches, of MPs who had started off working in factories and mines. Those days are long gone. The number of politicians from those backgrounds is

I small, and shrinks with every election. Fewer than one in twenty MPs started out as manual workers, a number that has halved since 1987, despite the fact that that was a Conservative-dominated Parliament. On the other hand, a startling two-thirds had a professional job or worked in business before arriving in Parliament.

 

Welfare fraud is estimated to cost the Treasury around £1 billion a year. But, as detailed investigations by chartered accountant Richard Murphy have found, £70 billion is lost through tax evasion every year—that is, seventy times more. If anything, ‘welfare evasion’ is more of a problem, with billions of pounds worth of tax credits left unclaimed every year. The cruel irony is that poor people who live in communities like Dewsbury Moor actually pay more in tax as a proportion of their wage packets than many of the rich journalists and politicians who attack them. But where is the outcry over middle-class spongers? Given the media’s distorted coverage, it’s hardly sur­prising that people significantly underestimate the cost of tax avoidance and overestimate the cost of benefit fraud.

 

Looking back on the episode, the future Tory Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin later confessed: ‘The Conservatives can’t talk of class war. They started it.’

 

the strikes were almost completely avoidable. James Callaghan’s Labour government had imposed years of effective pay cuts on public sector workers in order to keep down inflation. But this approach was based on the myth that union pay claims caused price rises, rather than the other way round. Inflation was rampant across the Western world at the time, regardless of how strong unions were.

 

You didn’t get young lads going off the rails at the weekend. You wouldn’t upset an old guy because he would be the same one you’d rely on in the pit to protect your life at work, so why would you upset him at the weekend over a few pints?’

 

it was the relatively better-off council tenants who were becoming homeowners. Those who remained council tenants tended to be poorer and in the worst homes. By 1986, nearly two-thirds of tenants were from the bottom 30 per cent in terms of income, and only 18 per cent were from the richest half. Yet, just seven years earlier, a fifth of the richest 10 per cent were council house dwellers. Council housing became increasingly reserved for those who were most deprived and vulnerable. It was in the 1980s that council estates got their bad name as dilapidated, crime-ridden, and deeply poor: exaggerations in part—and any elements of truth were the direct result of government policies.

 

As Stephen Pound, a loyal­ist Labour MP, argues: ‘I think part of the problem is that people in the working classes have been sold the line that they shouldn’t be there, and you can somehow drag yourself up … The old socialist motto is “rise with your class, not above it”. The reality of this country is that to rise, you rise above your class.’

 

The resulting despair was a major cause of anti-social behaviour.

I sometimes feel—and I’m not criticizing or knocking young people, I don’t mean this as it sounds—that among the younger generations, because maybe they’ve got no prospects, there’s a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude. Things like litter, and things like that. I see them walking past here, there’s bins attached to the lamp posts, but they just throw everything over the wall. And if you say anything, you get a lot of aggression straight away.

A nearby pub that was recently closed because of drugs was a particular source of anti-social behaviour. ‘I remember after midnight Mass at Christmas, it was Christmas morning—about half past five—and I was out here, sweeping up the glass and everything before people came to Mass in the morning. Bottles, just smashed—thrown all over the wall, litter everywhere.’

 

When people think of single mothers, it is often teenage girls that spring to mind. But in reality, only one in fifty single mothers are under eighteen. The average age for a single parent is thirty-six, and over half had the children while married.

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