Growing up, I was always aware of being working class. Even when my political knowledge barely existed, the one thing that I knew was that an entrenched class system existed, and I belonged somewhere near the bottom of it. And being a proud person, I always liked to flaunt the fact that my family worked for the money we had, and that we were tough enough to live in a ‘dodgy’ area of Birmingham, and that we weren’t on the bad side of my own personal, simplified class war. This is something touched upon in Owen Jones’s Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class – the pride of manual labour that existed in the mid-20th century.
But something else that Chavs made apparent to me is that not even a self-proclaimed, justice fighting member of the working class can be free of class prejudice. It is not often that a non-fiction book promotes such a self-reflective reaction from me – possibly because I read a lower amount of non-fiction – but Jones’s study was an immense effort to unravel the complex web of propaganda and lies that people like me have be subject to from the right-wing press. It turns one’s head from blaming the victims to noticing who the real perpetrators are through a complex analysis of political history, spanning from the formation of the NHS to past the Tory campaign and victory of 2005. In essence, this book was like a giant finger pushing me in the chest that said, “hey, what you’re thinking about these people isn’t cool,” which is honestly what a multitude of people could benefit from – working class or not.
The very word ‘chav’ is a term probably unfamiliar to anybody out of the United Kingdom, and so it’s necessary to provide a bit of contextual background in order to understand it’s political significance. A ‘chav’ – according to the OED – is “a young lower-class person who displays brash and loutish behaviour and wears real or imitation designer clothes”. Yet along with this simple definition comes an array of harmful stereotypes, including but not limited to: becoming a mother/father at a young age, eating solely from fast food restaurants, being unintelligent, being violent and carrying weapons, dressing in tracksuits/sportswear (usually brands like Adidas, Nike, etc), listening to chart music, being addicted to reality television, and probably most important to this study, being unemployed or “on the doll”. It is this last stereotype that causes the widest breach between members of the working class, because where is the fairness in chavs not having to work a day in their lives because they live of state benefits?
But there are wider issues at play here, which Jones takes into immense account in his study. The majority of the state benefits don’t actually go to unemployed individuals or families, but to pensioners and the disabled. In addition, finding a permanent job that pays the living wage is way more difficult that you might think – we live in a country where nurses are forced to use foodbanks and are constantly threatened with losing their jobs. For millions of young people in deprived areas to look at this economic disaster and think that that is their future, why are we then surprised when they don’t try their best in school? Because good grades in this political job market will get them, as working-class people, nowhere. The best jobs, and the best lifestyles, are reserved for the middle class. And this is constantly being exploited, not just through the right-wing media, but through acts such as the tripling of university fees which made it even harder for working-class people to get to further education. So, when unemployed people are on benefits, rather than seeing it as a result of an unfair, entrenched class system that renders many of them unable to find jobs that will provide for their families, many working-class people see it as a way of those ‘chavs’ scrounging off the government because they can’t be bothered to get a job. There is enormous fault here in the misidentification of the real root of the problem, and it is dangerous in its consequences.
Jones looks way back to the political issues of the 1970s and 80s which is where much of the demonization began. The miner’s strike under Thatcher, which is one of the most famous strikes in British history, was so detrimental to many working-class communities that thirty years on, they still haven’t economically recovered. Many working men had to use food banks, union power was destroyed. There was no longer any pride in being working-class because of the hardships suffered by people who lost their homes, their loved ones and their spirit. Even today, many workers are afraid to strike for their rights because of the horrendous effects of Thatcher’s political reign, in which she privatised many public industries and sowed the seeds for the demonization of the workers.
This book was one that was incredibly close to home, which is one of the reasons I enjoyed reading it so much. Yet it is also very well researched and written, and Jones, as a writer for the Guardian, is no stranger to writing not only politically, but writing to cause change. His most notable point was the way in which his book made me realise how much I had personally been part of the problem. Jones notes how that ‘chavs’ are constantly mocked on comedy shows and reality TV, and we absorb this content without even fully realising that we are doing it. The ‘chav’ has become a caricature – obscene incidents have occurred when Oxbridge students were seen dressing up as ‘chavs’ for fancy dress parties because it had become so unreal to them, so woven into a fabric of fictionality that they couldn’t possibly believe people actually lived that way. I have been forced to change my own thinking and my attitude, and I am so glad that I have. I’d always thought I’d been an advocate for my class and for those born without silver spoons, but for a long time I had been helping to fuel a burning fire.
One problem I found with Jones’ study was his stance on race. He claimed that it was the white working class were always constantly the butt of the joke, and that it is they who suffer the most as a result of the ‘chav’ caricature and the right-wing press. Yet, though I have no personal experiences of this, I can only imagine that being non-white in this political climate is even more difficult in terms of finding a job, getting access to good education and good schools, and therefore being able to earn decent sums of money. Jones does touch on this in one chapter, where he writes about the demonization of immigrants and non-white people who seem to be ‘taking jobs’. Yet I found he offered no solution to this segment, simply stating that it was the result of the government not being able to provide enough opportunities for immigrants to climb up the class ladder, putting all of us in the same boat. I find, however, that this doesn’t stop me from seeing xenophobia increasing around my community every day.
There is much more I could say about this book concerning reality television, the music industry, and the way in which working-class scandals are treated by the right-wing press and made out to be more awful than they actually are, but I think a lot of the points are worth reading for yourself. I can only try and reiterate what Jones says in his book with my own personal spin on it, because the majority of what he discusses is completely shocking yet completely true. The structure of his arguments and prose were incredibly powerful, and I believe that this was a book that desperately needed to be written in order to unravel the damaging effects of the right-wing press and middle class attitudes towards the working-class community.
Chav is available from Verso