This excellent book provides a long overdue look at the state of the class war in Britain today. It takes as its starting point the demonisation of the “underclass” or “chavs”, as much of the media and popular culture choose to portray the poorer working class sections of society.
Owen Jones argues that in modern Britain an aggressive bigoted snobbery has emerged that allows the upper and middle classes to treat with utter contempt those they consider to be beyond the pale of decent society. Even among sections of the liberal middle classes this contempt is deemed acceptable.
The typical view of “chavs” is that they have no taste and little money, live on benefits and are probably knee deep in crime. They are the flotsam and jetsam of what was once the working class.
Jones argues that this view has been carefully cultivated by politicians and journalists who wouldn’t know or understand a working class person any more than if they were from the furthest reaches of Kandahar.
Indeed as part of his narrative he charts just how more excluded ordinary working class people are from entering the world of professional politics and journalism in the post-Thatcher/Blair era.
Jones contrasts today’s bigotry with the attitude of politicians and the press 30 years ago. Then the working class was viewed differently. British workers were feared because of their collective strength. They were the “enemy within”. Jones argues that the key to the change in attitude came with the victory of Thatcher. In three key areas her period in office changed the face of class forces physically and ideologically.
Firstly she inflicted heavy defeats on the unions, starting with the steel workers and culminating in the miners, all aided by ever more draconian anti-union laws.
Secondly Jones highlights the sell-off of council houses which led to the destruction of social and affordable housing and in the process wrecked working class communities.
Finally he argues that the destruction of manufacturing industry greatly weakened the working class and the unions. He states that only 15 percent of the private sector workforce is now unionised.
These were huge blows to working class coherence, confidence and culture.
He does not, however, believe that the working class is a thing of the past. He castigates the view first promulgated by Thatcher and then championed by Blair that we are now all “middle class” – apart from those who lack ambition, drive or moral standing and have therefore allowed themselves to be left behind.
Jones goes to great lengths to show that the majority of the population is working class, both in the public and the private sectors. However, he argues that in the private sector large scale factories, mines and workplaces with well organised workforces have by and large been replaced by call centres and the retail sector, common features of both being poor pay, transient workforces and as a result little unionisation.
This is the picture Jones paints as he comes to deal with the question of immigration. He rejects all talk of the plight of white workers being due to working class blacks or Asians. Equally importantly, he rejects all notions of the white working class as an unreconstructed racist rump.
However, he surely overstates and damages his case when he compares the BNP’s appeal to that of religion as viewed by Marx.
He also seeks to defend the workers who put forward the slogan “British jobs for British workers” in the Lindsey Oil Refinery, not that he likes the slogan but he wanted to argue that the workers weren’t racist. Whether they were racist or not the slogan certainly was, and it was vital that it was fought with the utmost ferocity in order that it didn’t spread.
Finally Jones, although optimistic about the future, does struggle with conclusions as to how to resolve the situation. He champions community and, to an extent, workplace struggle. He believes we need to re-engage working class people in electoral politics – he wants workers to fight for environmentally friendly industrial regeneration, social housing and a fairer distribution of wealth.
The real problem is how. A programme of demands, no matter how good, remains only an abstract proposition if they are unaccompanied by struggle. Although Jones doesn’t say so, the industrial struggles that lie ahead in the public sector will surely be the key to the balance of class forces in the near future. Victories in those struggles could see all sorts of demands emerging, and movements arising. Then the whole ideological ground can shift rapidly and we can become the “enemy within” again.
Chavs is published by Verso, £14.99
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