Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class By Owen Jones
Reviewed by James Rhodes
In his 2011 book, Owen Jones—a former trade-union lobbyist and political researcher, now a journalist—offers an angry and impassioned take on the rise of the “chav” phenomenon. “Chav” entered the popular lexicon of the U.K. in 2004, the latest in a long line of stigmatizing terms referring to the white working class. Sometimes defined as an acronym for “Council Housed and Violent,” the term usually refers to the “non-aspirational,” “non-respectable” sections of the white work- ing class, characterized by unemployment, welfare dependency, social housing tenancy, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity, and overarching moral degeneracy. However, for many, “chav” and “working-class” have become synonymous. Jones states that while racism and homophobia are increasingly taboo subjects, the “class hatred” directed toward chavs “has become an integral, respectable part of modern British culture. It is present in newspapers, TV comedy shows, films, internet forums, social networking sites, and everyday conversations” (p. 6).
Although Jones’s arguments and examples are specific to the U.K. context, the central themes of the book will strike chords with many U.S. readers, at a time when writers such as David Brooks (2010) and Charles Murray (2012) are increasingly concerned with the apparent slippage of the white working class from “respectability” into what Brooks termed “underclass-style dysfunction.” Indeed, chav has its own U.S. equivalents, particularly in terms such as “white trash” and “hillbilly.” Jones’s work certainly seems to have garnered interest in the U.S.; the New York Times listed it as one of its top ten non-fiction books in 2011.
A key strength of Jones’s account is his attention to context. He situates the construction of the chav within the sweeping political, social, cultural, and economic changes that have transformed Britain since the 1970s. He credits deindustrialization, the rise of neoliberal economic governance, welfare and housing reforms, the decline of the trade union movement, and the impact of these changes with transforming traditional white working-class communities. He offers a portrait of white working-class communities plagued by economic and social problems, lacking adequate forms of representation in the workplace and politics, and marginalized by mainstream cultural representations that patronize, distort, and degrade. These themes will be familiar to American readers, particularly across the Rust Belt, where the loss of economic restructuring, and suburbanization has transformed blue-collar communities.
Rather than presenting these transformations as “natural” or “inevitable,” as many accounts of working-class decline do, Jones ties them to decades of neoliberalism and industrial transformation. Indeed, while the account of the Thatcherite assault on the working class will be familiar to most readers, Jones shows that the political unwillingness and failure of the Blairite New Labour project to address the inequalities faced by working-class communities may be even more damning. The net result has not been about “improving the lot of the working class; it is about escaping the working class” (p.88, emphasis in original). For Jones, the denigration of the working class reflects broader societal attitudes toward work in the de-industrial context and the devaluation of low-paid, low-skilled, insecure labor: “By putting the emphasis on escaping these jobs rather than improving their conditions, we end up disqualifying those who remain in them. We frown upon the supermarket checkout staff, the cleaners, the factory workers—slackers who failed to climb the ladder offered by social mobility” (p. 98).
Jones outlines how the figure of the chav has become a politically and socially convenient caricature of the working classes as economic polarization and inequality increase rapidly, compounded by government austerity. Politicians and pundits use the idea of the chav to dismiss inequality as due to bad choices, outmoded lifestyles, poor attitudes, and a lack of application. Jones argues that this recasts Britain as a meritocratic, individualized state in which aspiration—or rather the lack of aspiration—is seen as the only barrier to social mobility. Jones notes that stigmatizing the white working classes ironically represents the U.K. as a classless society. As the “respectable” working class is redefined as part of an expanding middle class, the working class is further marginalized as the identity of the feckless and the failed. Jones’s account offers an interesting contrast to Charles Murray’s view—in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010—that the supposed disintegration of the white working class has exposed America’s claims to be a classless meritocracy. Where Jones sees the chav as a reflection of political and economic changes, Murray frames class largely in cultural terms, blaming growing social divisions on differences in values.
While Jones offers a highly emotional, politicized account of the contemporary position of the white working class in the U.K., the book is not without flaws. For example, while the term chav is generally directed exclusively at whites, Jones tells us that the book is about “the” working class, which he seems to assume is inherently white. Indeed, the voices of ethnic minority members of the working class are absent, suggesting that the working class and “ethnic minorities” are mutually exclusive categories. This leads Jones into a form of class nostalgia—familiar to many American readers—where the story of the working class is narrated through the figure of the white, male, industrial worker. This reflects a broader tendency to deny the diversity of the working classes; Jones ignores differences of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, nation, and place. While he acknowledges that Thatcher-era policies that encouraged more affluent working-class families to buy homes (and thus view themselves as middle class) reflected an attempt at a “divide and rule” approach to “class war,” he fails to explore the significance of this. For instance, he ignores the way working-class people engage in the negative stigma of chavs. This has important implications for how we think about contem- porary class relations, particularly as this term divides the working class into the “respect- able” and “deserving” as opposed to the “immoral,” “irresponsible,” and “undeserving.”
Jones may also overstate the expansion of the middle class and the dissolution of working-class identities. While he argues that the definition of the middle class has expanded as working-class identities have lost salience, he cites opinion polls showing that approximately half of the U.K. population continue to define themselves as working class. By constructing a dichotomous relation- ship between homogeneous middle- and working-class categories, Jones diminishes the complexity of class fragmentation and relations. This is particularly important in light of the Occupy movement, which in some respects marks a reorientation of class politics and the potential for an alliance of middle- and working-class communities against the super-rich.
Finally, despite claiming to speak on behalf of the working class, Jones largely ignores the agency of working-class people and communities. We hear almost no working-class voices in this book, other than a few isolated individuals, politicians, and trade unionists from working-class backgrounds. We rarely hear from those who have been objectified most forcefully through the chav caricature. Indeed, while Jones’s account of the decline of neighborhoods, living standards, and political engagement captures important facets of working-class life, his lack of attention to the various forms of resistance presents the working class as docile, apathetic, and easily duped. The final chapter, “Backlash,” is the only part of the book devoted to working-class responses to their stigmatization and marginalization. Here, Jones focuses on the shift of some (in reality a minority) white working-class voters to far-right parties such as the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League (EDL). This represents one of the few acknowledgements of white working-class agency in the book, and it ploughs a familiar furrow in which the white working class is seduced by the far-right out of frustration and racism (a pattern often seen in discussions of why the white working class in the U.S. votes for conservative Republicans). Jones mistakes the support from a minority of the white working class for the far-right as representative of this class as a whole, something for which he earlier critiques media coverage of chavs. Worse, he acts as an apologist for those of all classes who have turned to the racist politics of the far-right. By presenting racism solely as a naive, misguided response to underlying economic and politi- cal concerns, he fails to see racism itself as a serious barrier to overcoming social divisions and achieving social justice for all groups.
Despite these problems, Jones offers a well-argued, well-evidenced account that brings to light the increasing negativity that surrounds the white working classes, manifest in the figure of the chav. The book offers a pertinent critique of simplistic and damaging representations of the white working class by politicians and the media. For readers on both sides of the Atlantic, Jones poses important questions about how economic, political, and social changes are reconfiguring the material and symbolic position of the white working class in contemporary society.
David Brooks, “The Lean Years,” New York Times, February 16, 2010.
Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing, 2012).