NOVEMBER 5, 2012
CLASS HAS ALWAYS BEEN a defining feature in English society. Politicians rarely admit this, often out of fear of the political consequences. Margaret Thatcher struggled to make class obsolete, arguing that labor unions and class-based socialist policies were detrimental for a prosperous society. Others have tried to unite the entire country under a single class banner, thereby neutralizing the distinction. It was not a Thatcherite but John Prescott, a labor minister, who put it best when he said in 1997, “we are all middle class now.”
Some newspapers liked this idea of an all-encompassing middle class, although not without a certain sarcasm. The Daily Telegraph echoed Prescott (“We’re all middle class now, darling”), while the Daily Mail seemed less convinced: “There are now three main classes in Britain: a scarily alienated underclass; the new and confident middle class, set free by the Thatcher revolution […] and a tiny, and increasingly powerless, upper class.”
Fifteen years later, it is often those on the margins who don’t belong to Prescott’s neo-middle class that inflame England’s political culture. Many Tories who are members of the ruling political elite are ridiculed for being “posh boys” out of touch with the middle classes; the “scarily alienated underclass” at the other end of the class ladder is occasionally portrayed by the conservative press as a political threat that undermines the security and the stability of the country.
Meanwhile, working conditions for England’s low-earners, though more comfortable than the industrial workers of the Victorian age, continue to fall short. People work too long and are paid too little. According to a study by The Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists, “increasing numbers of call centre workers are being referred to speech therapists because they are losing their voices.” The reason: long working hours with little opportunity to even have a drink of water.
As workers are losing their class identity and their voices, British writers are losing something equally precious: a thorough interest in the lives of the underprivileged. British novelists in recent decades have been less interested in the poor and working class than their Victorian ancestors: Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Thomas Hardy, and others. Many British journalists are not doing any better: they have nicknamed workers “chavs”; the widespread mistreatment of the poor in the press has become a crucial part of their overall subjectification.
When I visited London on a rainy day last summer, I took shelter in the world’s largest Waterstone’s, located on Piccadilly street. The long list of the Man Booker prize had just been announced and the entrance floor was decorated with piles of beautifully designed books. But it was Owen Jones’s first book, Chavs, with the rather unsophisticated image of a Burberry cap on its white cover, that won me over. Jones was giving a talk that week, and given the way people were discussing him, it seemed he was, at 27 years old, the new Dickens in town.
Chavs was the best-selling nonfiction book of the year, according to the Sunday Times. Eric Hobsbawm, the great Marxist historian who died in October, had described it as “a passionate and well-documented denunciation of the upper-class contempt for the proles that has recently become so visible in the British class system.” Prior to the publication of Chavs, Jones worked as a trade union lobbyist and parliamentary researcher. He helped Labour party backbenchers with finding fresh arguments about Tory attacks on workers’ rights. British journalists quickly picked him as an energetic and passionate critic of David Cameron’s policies. But Jones also proved himself to be a critic of the Labour party, advocating for a return to its radical roots and to socialist policies adopted before it became New Labour. He started writing articles for The Guardian and, a few months later, was hired as a columnist for The Independent. Here was a youthful radical who supported the rights of the retired and the student alike: an activist from the middle class who had no patience for middle class complacency.
In May, a new edition of Chavs appeared in the United States, with Jones’s updated preface addressing the August 6 Tottenham riots that spread to London. Police shot Mark Duggan, a young black man, which led to looting and arson in several cities. When the riots came to an end a few days later, more than 3,000 people were arrested and a third of them charged.
Jones was in Hackney on the second day of the riots, where he lived. “It was my birthday,” he writes in the new edition, “and with celebratory drinks cut short as nervous friends fled home, I cycled past boarded-up shops on Kingsland Road that were being defended by Turkish men.”
He tweeted his experiences to his followers and was shocked to see the manner in which the riots were discussed in social media, as well as in the mainstream press. Antipathy toward the chavs was widespread, and even more shocking when it came from musicians, journalists and politicians who were expected to show greater understanding; the lead singer of the rock band Travis, for example, tweeted about the “Chav Spring,” and there was widespread talk in the newspapers about a “feral underclass” that posed a great threat to England’s future well-being. Jones was appalled by calls for working class youths to be “clubbed like baby seals.” David Cameron’s government punished rioters by forcing participants to be evicted from council homes.
On the BBC’s Newsnight program, Jones struggled to articulate the political and economic causes of the disturbances, while the Tudor historian David Starkey used quite a different tone, accusing poor white people of adapting themselves to what he called “black culture,” which he saw as the root cause of the disturbances. As the Daily Mail summarized Starkey’s analysis, “White chavs have become black.” This was hardly an exception, as the chav caricature was freely used in media reports about white rioters. This tradition, Jones argues in his book, has a long history behind it.
“Chav” is widely used in British society by a group that includes, but is not limited to, bigots. Like the American term “white trash,” it is positioned as the polar opposite to all liberal values. Etymologically, the term has Romani roots. It comes from the word “chavi,” which means child. But chavs are not simply ignored or looked down upon as immature creatures: they are seen as the harbinger of socio-economic doom.
Jones describes gym classes, named “Chav Fighting,” where middle class gym customers are provided with the opportunity to “deck some Chavs” and “give them a kicking.” He quotes from interviews with businessman Richard Hilton, who started the classes. Hilton describes chavs as those who “have trouble articulating themselves and have little ability to spell or write. They love their pit bull dogs as well as their blades […] They tend to breed by the age of 15 and spend most of their days trying to score ‘super-skunk’ or whatever ‘gear’ they can get their sweaty teenage hands on.”
Chavs are seen as criminal gangs with little understanding of tolerance, decency and respect. In fact, the Collins English Dictionary offers a neutral definition of the noun, as “a young working-class person who dresses in casual sports clothing,” which makes it seem like a fashion choice; fashion is indeed seen as one symptom of the chav figure. Jones lists David Beckham, Wayne Rooney, and Cheryl Cole as classic examples of celebrities who are caricatured for their lack of taste in dress and their unsophisticated cultural state, as coming from chav backgrounds.
The Burberry cap on Jones’s cover perfectly summarizes the hopeless, futile and tragic attempt to look smart and more well off at the very heart of the chav predicament.
On May 3, 2007, Madeleine McCann, a 4-year-old British girl, disappeared from the apartment her upper-middle class family rented for their holiday in Portugal. Almost a year later, on February 19, 2008, Shannon Matthews, a 9-year-old girl coming from a working class background, went missing, last seen outside the swimming pool of her school. Jones compares the journalistic treatment of the two stories. In the first two weeks, British newspapers published 1,148 stories about Madeleine McCann’s disappearance and a £2.6 million reward to prospective eyewitnesses. Matthews’s disappearance, on the other hand, received a third of the coverage, and the reward money was around £25,000.
For many journalists on Fleet Street, the McCann family was familiar territory. Shannon Matthews and her relatives, on the other hand, belonged to an unexplored, marginal part of Britain’s geography. According to the Times, Dewsbury Moor, where the Matthews family lived, was a “bleak mix of pebbledash council blocks and neglected wasteland” populated by “some people capable of conforming the worst stereotype and prejudice of the white underclass.” Shannon’s mother Karen, an unemployed woman whose partner worked at a supermarket as a fishmonger, had seven children from five previous relationships, providing a stark contrast to the “sophistication” of the McCanns.
But it was after Shannon was found alive that the contrast between journalistic perceptions of the families became even sharper: she had been kidnapped, and her mother Karen had masterminded the crime. This infuriated journalists, who felt deceived by what they now saw as lies of a chav family. One commentator thought the event revealed “the existence of an underclass which is a world apart from the lives that most of us lead and the attitudes and social conventions that most of us take for granted.” Karen had conveniently affirmed the chav stereotype, and journalists were happy to see reality imitating their discourse.
The demonization of Britain’s working class by media and politicians alike is the centerpiece of Jones’s Chavs. The book is a significant example of metapolitics: it’s interested in the language of politics more than anything else. Chavs features a collection of cases where members of the working class are demonized by journalistic and political discourses. After the stories of the Matthews and McCann families, Jones shifts his perspective to everything from portrayal of the poor in popular culture to Margaret Thatcher’s attack on class politics, meticulously describing its effects on Labour politicians. Demonization is presented as a multifaceted phenomenon, occurring on numerous levels and media at the same time. While Chavs mainly focuses on the language of politics, its argument is well-supported by numerous interviews made with politicians, academics, and artists, as well as with unemployed youths and underpaid workers.
Although Jones praises the work of film directors like Ken Loach and Stephen Frears for their truthful depictions of the lives of the working classes, he doesn’t mention any contemporary literary equivalent. Nevertheless, his quote from George Orwell succinctly describes the treatment of the working class by literature:
If you look for the working classes in fiction, and especially English fiction, all you find is a hole […] the ordinary town proletariat, the people who make the wheels go round, have always been ignored by novelists. When they do find their way between the corners of a book, it is nearly always as objects of pity or as comic relief.
I remembered Chavs last month, when Andrew Mitchell, a member of Conservative government’s cabinet, allegedly swore at a police officer on Downing Street. According to The Sun, while attempting to cycle through the gate on Downing Street Mitchell had insulted a police officer by saying: “Best you learn your fucking place. You don’t run this fucking government. You’re fucking plebs.” This derogatory term for working class people suddenly became the center of the political conversation, and Mitchell was forced to resign after the furor that followed.
As class makes unexpected returns to political discourse, alternative and passionate ways to write about “chavs” and “plebs” will become increasingly more vital for an understanding of our political condition. Reading a writer like Jones is a happy reminder that the kind of class-conscious and skeptical political writing Orwell and Hobsbawm represented is very much alive in our day. Without their works, it would be difficult to answer the question as to why the antagonism against “chavs” and “plebs” continues if we are indeed “all middle class now.”
What makes Chavs a work of art is precisely this power of demonstrating the deceptive nature of the premise of an all-encompassing neo-middle class. Far from being classless, British society is defined by an effort to undermine and demonize the underprivileged. This takes place not only in day-to-day struggles but also in newspapers, books and on television. Exposing the machinations of such a powerful discourse is a difficult task: to show its historical precedents, political functions and its immersion in products of culture so extensively and persuasively is a rare achievement.