Chav-baiting and class politics
Harley Filben reviews Owen Jones ‘Chavs: the demonisation of the working class’ Verso, 2011, pp298, £14.99 (first published in the Weekly Worker)
This book, at first glance, appears to have come out of nowhere to dominate the world. Owen Jones is a supporter of the Labour Representation Committee, one of the main hotbeds of the ‘hard’ Labour left; yet his book has received broadly enthusiastic notices from soft-left doyenne Polly Toynbee
, left Blairite Jon Cruddas and many others. It has even received that ultimate backhanded compliment for a social democratic radical: a scabrous and basically spurious review in Spiked.
On one level, comrade Jones has the advantage of arguing at exhaustive length, with a compelling sense of anger and outrage, what such people had talked about only in brief op-ed columns, or even only thought at the back of their minds. Primarily, this amounts to the proposition that the middle classes have found a new blood sport, and its name is chav-baiting; and that, underlying (petty) bourgeois contempt for the dress, diet and social habits of so-called ‘chavs’ is a bilious form of class hatred directed against workers.
On another level, however, Jones’s book is genuinely of use to certain trends in the Labour Party more influential than his own. It is no accident that Cruddas received it so warmly (and, indeed, was happy to be interviewed candidly in the book itself). Labour is in opposition; as always, it is faced with the dilemma of reconnecting with a core support base it has spent its time in government thoroughly alienating. Questions of class, and class organisation, drip more easily from the lips of people who not two years go were the City’s biggest fans.
Currently, this regular-as-clockwork shift is taking place under the sign of Maurice Glasman’s Blue Labour; and in a book substantially taken up with a wide range of often illuminating interviews, it is impossible not to draw conclusions from the New Labour figures involved here. Hazel Blears and James Purnell turn up to admit that New Labour, whatever its strengths, got too caught up in finance capitalism and forgot about class. Both are now found supporting Blue Labour.
The appeal is clear: comrade Jones’s book is not only, on one level, an argument for redeeming the cultural worth of the working class, for the very real traditions of communal solidarity to which Blue Labour figures like to pay lip service. Its political arguments, too, dovetail in many respects – although they form rather too much of an old Labour left programme to be taken up in any unqualified way.
The rise of chav-baiting
Jones’s account starts with an anecdote, drawn from a ‘middle class’ east London dinner party: “It’s sad that Woolworths is closing,” notes a guest. “Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” For Jones, the event sums the whole phenomenon up – even a group of ethnically, sexually, etc mixed people with a natural abhorrence of bigotry can happily accommodate this kind of snobbishness about the lower orders (p1).
How, Jones asks, did we get here – not just to borderline-innocent dinner party jibes, but to Gymbox’s expensive ‘chav-fighting’ classes, Activities Abroad’s ‘chav-free holidays’, the aggressive attacks of chavscum.com and chavtowns.com on an ill-defined social grouping? The book is his answer to the question. The first chapter focuses on “the strange case of Shannon Matthews”, the young girl kidnapped by her own family in pursuit of reward money a few years ago (pp13-17).
Jones notes, first of all, the massive disparity in press coverage between Matthews’ case and that of Madeleine McCann. As far as the media were concerned, the McCanns were ‘their kind of people’; the likes of Karen Matthews, from a dirt-poor community in the north, may as well have been living on Mars. Then, of course, there was the revelation that the whole affair was a scam; the bloodhounds were loosed, and the story became not that of an isolated and damaged individual (Karen Matthews), but of a whole community, the growth of a feral underclass in which such events were to be expected.
The strong tendency for this sort of reasoning – some atrocious but isolated event being taken as representative of working class communities tout court – is a recurring theme in Jones’s book; more broadly, the role of the media in building up this image is criticised thoroughly. For Jones, the media and political classes, with a disproportionate amount of public school and elite-university alumni as well as a relatively cosseted lifestyle, simply have no idea how things actually are on council estates; the image of a great, irresponsible mass of welfare-dependent thugs amounts to a defence of their own privilege.
The second chapter outlines the more substantial cause of all this, which can be summed up in one name – Margaret Thatcher. The rise of the Tory new right, which took truly catastrophic form in Thatcher’s period in office, transformed class relations in this country; Thatcher wielded unemployment as a weapon, to devastating effect. The defeats inflicted on the unions, in particular, and the decimation of British industry pulled the rug out from under the organised working class.
The decimation of the working class as an organised force, along with the ‘social democratic consensus’ of state-administered public services, opens the way for an ideological shift. Collectivism is, if not exactly destroyed, submerged by the waning profile of the unions and the rightward drift of Labour; in its place grows the paradigmatic Thatcherite creed of ‘rugged individualism’. The social ills of our age – long-term unemployment, the devastation of ex-industrial communities and so forth – can be cast as the personal failings of particular individuals.
Of course, these things remain objectively class issues; so those a few rungs up the ‘social mobility’ ladder begin to hypothesise the existence of an incorrigibly feckless underclass. The result is a culture of bloodthirsty snobbery, laid out in punishing detail in a chapter entitled ‘A class in the stocks’, that encompasses everything from David Walliams’s Little Britain to David Cameron’s ‘broken Britain’.
From there, Jones confronts the issue of the working class directly. He starts with a relatively simple ‘Marxist’ definition, which he takes from the mouth of Neil Kinnock, of all people: “I’d use the broad definition – I always have: people who have no means of sustenance other than the sale of their labour are working class.”
Jones considers this insufficient: “Is a Cambridge don really in the same category as a supermarket checkout worker? The important qualification to add is not only those who sell their labour, but those who lack autonomy, or control over this labour” (p144). Exactly what this means is somewhat ambiguous: he claims that autonomy means “power over [one’s] everyday activity”, which is said to be more true of professors than cashiers.
Jones substantiates this definition with a series of interviews, primarily with supermarket and call centre workers. He points out differences in the workplace culture of the call centre, as opposed to the factory, and concludes that while non-manual jobs are “cleaner and less physically arduous” (p145) than a daily trip down a coal-pit, the interlinked loss of camaraderie, job security and union organisation has resulted in downward pressure on wages and increases in stress-related conditions.
In truth, this definition is basically inadequate. For a start, it is unclear how true it is even of professors, or at least academics further down the food chain, that work is characterised by ‘autonomy’, what with the universities’ spiral into intrusive managerialism; more broadly, many jobs previously considered ‘middle class’, and not without some justification, have become proletarianised as a result of the economic transformations of the last three decades. Would a teacher’s control over lesson plans constitute ‘autonomy’, despite research suggesting teachers actually work up to 60 hours a week meeting all the “broad parameters” of their job?
A more serious problem – extremely serious in present conditions – for the theory is the unemployed. On the strict Jones definition, the unemployed do not fit into the working class. They do not directly exchange their labour for wages; you could even argue that, having no job at all, they have nothing but “autonomy” over their daily routines! This practically poses Jones two options: firstly, grasping the horn and simply saying that the unemployed are not working class; or, secondly, adding a further qualification to his definition.
Neither solution is particularly appealing. If he qualifies his definition, then he will have to requalify it again and again with each new, analogous layer of the population – children from working class backgrounds, housewives … this, in the end amounts to class analysis as Ptolemaic astronomy. In a throwaway aside, as it happens, he suggests that “most” of “the old working class … were men”, suggesting that he prefers a strict definition of those in work (p166). In that case, what class are the housewives?
More importantly for this book, what about the unemployed? Remember – its whole argument is that attacks on benefit-dependent ‘chavs’, far from identifying an underclass separate from the working class, amount to coded attacks on the latter. Yet if he cannot conceive of a working class housewife without a job, then he surely cannot conceive of the unemployed as working class, which leaves them as … what, if not a discrete underclass?
The truth is that this is not a Marxist view of class. For Marxism, the working class is a negative category; it is not positively selling one’s labour that makes one working class, but rather having nothing else to sell but one’s labour (strictly speaking, labour-power). The shift is crucial, because in effect it is a shift from the empirical life of a discrete individual to the dynamics of society as a whole.
The working class has no power except to the extent it is organised – in unions, cooperatives, parties and other forms. The unemployed fit in neatly here as a ‘reserve army of labour’, and the success of working class struggle in the near future will depend considerably on united organisations of employed and unemployed. No doubt Jones would agree with this political point; but there are adverse political consequences that stem from failing to theorise it in terms of the working class’s objective tendency towards, and need for, united collective action.
And so, when Jones comes to outline a response in his conclusion, entitled ‘A new class politics?’, his view of the working class comes to distort his view of working class politics. It is worth summarising his proposals: firstly, an airy and unobjectionable call for a “total redefinition of aspiration” (p258) – as the old slogan has it, ‘Rise with your class, not above it.’
Secondly, the rather undefined agent of change – presumably a Labour government – must seriously tackle unemployment. That, obviously, means creating good, skilled work for thousands and even millions of people. That, in turn, means a largely unspecified “industrial strategy”. We can kill two birds with one stone, as it were, by launching a large-scale programme of council house-building, which will create thousands of jobs and also make some headway in ending the acute housing crisis. Talk of a ‘green new deal’ turns out, again, to be about upping the environmental standards of housing specifically.
More radically, he targets the intense alienation typical of modern service sector jobs by calling for substantial measures of workers’ control in the private sector: “It would be a real alternative to the old-style, top-down, bureaucratic form of nationalisation introduced after World War II,” he writes. On top of that, we should defuse the immigration issue by refocusing anger against tax-dodging billionaires, ‘reclaim’ the anti-social behaviour issue from the authoritarian right (again in an unspecified way), and rebuild the trade unions through massive efforts to extend union membership into the private sector.
Finally, he argues that we in Britain cannot do this alone: “only the power of a strong international labour force” can stop the global race to the bottom.
The issue is that the international dimension does not figure in any of his particular demands, which are fundamentally based on nationalist assumptions. An “industrial strategy”, after all, is fundamentally about Britain. Germany does not need one, because it already has one; Britain’s role in the global economy is effectively to be an offshore tax haven for Wall Street. Changing this is no doubt necessary if we are to end up, one of these days, in a sane world; but it already poses the international dimension, particularly on the European scale.
It is no accident that housing trips off the tongue as the one concrete example of reviving industry, since it is a more or less strictly endogenous problem. However, it is at best a temporary fix – eventually, everyone will have a house, and all of them will be fitted out with the necessary green trimmings. With sufficient political will, this could be achieved in a few years. To turn Britain back into an industrial powerhouse beyond that time fundamentally means going into competition with Germany, China, India and the rest for a limited supply of industrial capital and working hours. All things being equal, that actually undermines the possibility of united workers’ organisation across borders.
All things being equal – but they need not be. The way to square the circle is to be more radical – to win masses all over the world to the vision of a fundamental transformation of society at an international level. This is the point of communism – it is not a ‘nice idea’, but the response to an objective necessity. If even the most elementary improvements in living standards are to apply internationally, let alone persist, then we need to target the world market in favour of a collective means of ensuring an equitable global division of labour, and thus target the international state system which props it up. None of this will happen overnight – but without a movement oriented to that goal, the immediate struggle becomes a fruitless guerrilla war against the bourgeoisie.
Such is the problem with Jones’s excommunication of “international politics” from his working class programme. “Many working class people may oppose the war [in Afghanistan], but that does not mean their opposition trumps concerns like housing and jobs” (p256-57). It is by no means clear, however, why working class people in this country would necessarily care more about labour conditions in China than foreign wars.
The objection to both lines of reasoning is fundamentally the same – though they may not appear so, the issues are bound up together. The Socialist Workers Party has made much of the amount of money squandered on killing thousands of people in fruitless imperialist wars, and rightly so – after all, you could build a lot of social housing with that. More generally, it is the relations between states - expressed, in part, by military conflict – which ensures that Britain is a tax haven, India and China are sources of great masses of bargain-basement labour, and so on.
Underlying all this is the fundamental class issue: the more restricted the working class is in its political perspectives, the more individual workers consider the world through the prism of their direct individual interests, the weaker the class becomes. Our side needs unity on a mass scale, which in turn means winning people to perspectives that undermine the bases of sectionalism: the state, the imperialist order, reactionary ideology, the world market and so forth. The danger here is not, as comrade Jones thinks, overemphasising the importance of international issues, but of compartmentalising them away from our conception of ‘class politics’.
It is plain that such a mass movement for international socialism does not exist today, nor will it exist in the near future. For that reason, Jones is right on the money to call for the reconstruction of the trade unions, and for making unemployment a political issue rather than (as in the chav stereotype) an index of personal failure. Other defensive measures of class organisation – cooperatives, mutual societies and so forth – must also follow if our class is to get out the other side of this crisis in any better a position than when it went in, or even just to mark time.
This is common ground, in fact, with the likes of Blue Labour, who are all for community and class organisation. However dubious that movement, it has actually treated the issue far more seriously in its own way than much of the far left in recent history.
The difference is that Glasman and his allies have incorporated this stance into an overarching historical narrative in which class solidarity is fundamentally communitarian-conservative and defined by national character. That this narrative is utterly spurious is not an argument for not having one of our own. Jones presents a vision of a working class battered by economic convulsions for a generation, but not dispossessed of its dignity, which is a salutary response to the bourgeoisie’s chav grotesques. To leave it there, however, opens the door for Glasman and the like to coopt our class and its history, which is an eventuality we must fight against.
When the bourgeoisie hears the phrase ‘working class’, we do not want them to think of the honest, salt-o’-the-earth types of the Glasman stereotype, or some obnoxious chav minstrel show after the fashion of Vicky Pollard. We want them, to quote Jones one last time, to hear “working class boots stomping towards Downing Street … a resolute mass brandishing red flags and dog-eared copies of the Communist manifesto.”
Now that’s what I call a new class politics.
- The Guardian May 31.
- The Independent June 3.