One of the year’s most popular political books was “Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class” by Owen Jones.
It includes an analysis of the portrayal of working class people in the media. This portrayal has shifted over the years, Owen told Socialist Worker, reflecting the changing political fortunes of the class.
“When working class people were demonised in the late 1970s it was often because of their strength,” he says. “There was talk of ‘union militants holding the country to ransom’ or ‘union thugs and bully boys’.
“There was less overt sneering, because it just wasn’t acceptable. Instead there was fear of the strength of organised labour.”
But after the defeats of the labour movement in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher’s government, the tone changed from fear to contempt.
“When working class people appeared after those defeats it was to show how pathetic they were. They weren’t shown as a threat, except maybe on an individual level as ‘anti-social yobs’, but not in a collective sense.”
But Owen thinks this situation may be about to change. “What we’re now seeing is the reassertion of the strength of workers in an organised sense. There’s a sense of solidarity emerging in way that most media commentators certainly hadn’t expected.
“We saw that at the end of June when teachers and civil servants came out on strike. And after 30 November I’m sure we’ll see absolute right wing hysteria. I fully expect the press to throw everything they’ve got at the workers.
“But it will also be the first time, arguably for a generation, when the labour movement flexes its muscles. It will be a show of power, a show of force, a show of strength against this illegitimate government.”
Owen argues, “The 30 June strikes were a lot smaller than 30 November will be. But even then they shook the arguments of the people at the top.
“You had cabinet office minister Francis Maude being torn apart on radio because of the lies about pensions. The idea that they were unaffordable was shown to be not true. The money the government would save was not going into pension funds—it was going to pay off the deficit.
“It also showed up the cynical and disgraceful attempt to pit public sector and private sector workers against each other. PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka and others argued clearly and loudly that we had to drag private sector pensions up, not drag the public sector down. Those arguments were made and they got a sympathetic hearing.”
And Owen rejects the commonly held notion that strikes are necessarily unpopular. “Public opinion showed a broad-based support for the 30 June action,” he says.
“Other workers who were being hit in a whole range of different ways were very much in solidarity—despite the attempts of the government to divide and rule.”
The potential power of the working class makes it dangerous, which is one reason for the ideological drive to try to erase it as a category. In his book Owen details how the media have tried to portray working class people either as “middle class”, or as part of an “underclass” beset by intractable social problems. Either way, the identity of the worker disappears.
“Teachers, nurses, call centre workers, supermarket workers, cleaners, people who’ve been thrown out of work—they all have a common class interest which puts them in conflict with people at the top,” says Owen. The problem, he adds, is how to get people to “self-identify as working class” in the face of the constant ideological “demonisation” charted in Chavs.
Owen emphasises that mass strikes involve working class people withdrawing their labour—and this gives them a power far greater than that of many other forms of protest.
“Going out protesting is containable. Going out on strike and shutting the country down—that is impossible to ignore. It puts the people at the top of society in a very weak position. When the anger is so widespread that the entire country grinds to a halt, it forces the people at the top into a corner.”
Interview by Anindya Bhattacharyya. Chavs—The Demonisation of the Working Class is available from Bookmarks the Socialist Bookshop. Go to www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk or phone 020 7637 1848