Reviewed by Mamoon N. Chaudhry
Owen Jones, a British commentator associated with left-wing politics, analyses class in Britain in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. In the book, Chavs argues that people categorised as the working class in Britain are socially and politically excluded. He asserts that they are openly scorned by privileged classes and are seen as an object of ridicule and disapproval. Attributes associated with them include lawlessness, corruption and laziness.
Chavs is based on in-depth research and wide ranging interviews with media personals, politicians and workers and portrays a disturbing state of inequality and class conflict in Britain. It is a persuasive, well-supported study and exposes the widening income disparities in Britain, which have culminated in class segregation. Jones says that “such is the extreme distribution of wealth that the top one per cent scoffs a hefty 23 per cent slice of the natural pie. The bottom half, on the other hand, has to make do with a meager six per cent between them. Even this is misleading because much of the ‘wealth’ of the bottom half is borrowed, through mortgages and credit. The top one per cent owns it outright.”
The Margaret Thatcher-led government vigorously pursued policies which resulted in the dismantling of the manufacturing sector, causing unemployment, poverty and crippling social problems. Jones blames the “unfettered capitalism” adopted by her government for the weakening of trade unions, the shifting of the tax burden from the wealthy to the poor and for the deregulation of markets. The working class was deprived of their institutions and traditional industries. Well-paid, secure and skilled jobs were replaced with temporary, poorly paid opportunities. Moreover, many of the service sector jobs have distinctly lower status than manufacturing sector jobs.
Jones argues that institutions which gave the working class a sense of identity, security and purpose have been tarnished, and resultantly they are mired in problems such as family break-down, welfare dependency, failing schools and crime. Three decades of battering trade unions culminated in depriving the working classes from gaining a collective identity and without a mean to articulate their aspirations for life of dignity and social justice. The author notes with disdain that “new laws allowed employees to sack strikers, reduced dismissal compensation, forbade workers to strike in support of others, repealed protections preventing courts seizing union funds and made unions liable for huge financial penalties.”
Jones points out that politicians and media representatives hail from affluent and middle classes and are thus disconnected from the realties of the working class and its aspirations and values. Moreover, politicians have failed to admit that the collapse of industry led to rapidly growing social problems; instead, they find it expedient to hold the working class responsible. The politicians’ obsession with the propagation of mantra that “everyone in Britain is middle class” renders the working class no one to blame but themselves. The media promote the lifestyles of the rich and powerful and suggest that life is all about climbing social ladders. It ruthlessly rejects those who do not share these desires as “non-aspirational” or “failures” and does not represent the aims and objectives of the working class.
The conservative philosophy that poverty arises due to lack of discipline, family breakup and substance abuse has gained popularity among the middle class and the perception of the working class has been transformed from “salt of the earth” to “scum of the earth”.
Jones argues that Old Labour cherished the working class identity and introduced major reforms like the NHS and workers’ rights in the post-war era. In contrast, he holds New Labour responsible for the present abysmal state of the working class and perceptions about it. He emphasises that when Labour came into power in 1997, manufacturing accounted for more than the fifth of the economy. However, when Tony Blair left the office 2007, manufacturing accounted for only 12 per cent of the economy. He asserts that in the year 1979, seven million people were employed in factories which have now reduced to approximately 2.5 million. “New Labours’ philosophy is not rooted in improving the lot of working class; it is about escaping the working class,” he feels.
As left wing parties have failed to address the bread-and-butter concerns of working class people in this neo-liberal era of employment insecurity and housing crises and far-right is filling the vacuum. Jones expresses his concern that the far-right has harboured the support of people who have never voted, a reaction to the desertion by the Labour party of the class it was created to represent, and the outcome of the failure of mainstream parties to adequately address genuine grievances. He added that “Karl Marx once described religion as ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature’; something similar could be said about the rise of the far right today”.
Chavs concludes with Jones offering some solutions. The future of trade union lies in organising the new service sector working class people, he argues. The private sector, which comprises super markets, call centers and retails outlets, is highly non-unionised and therefore vulnerable: “while over half of public sector workers are unions members, it is only case for 15 per cent of their private sector counterparts.” The unions have to adapt to existing working class issues in an era of costs cuts, austerity and retrenchments. Jones suggests that a national programme to build socially owned houses can be introduced to overcome the housing crises; it will also have the potential of stimulating the construction industry and creating employment opportunities on a significant scale.
Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class
By Owen Jones
304pp. Price not listed