Guest post by Callum:
Since its publication earlier this year, Owen Jones’ Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class seems to have caught the mood. Longlisted for the Guardian first book award, the book has gained positive write-ups in publications as diverse as the New York Times and Socialist Review. Media interest in the book and its author spiked in the aftermath of the riots, taken by the Right to be the surest sign yet of the existence of a pre-social class beyond all redemption. Jones’ front-row seat to David Starkey’s meltdown on Newsnight was one unfortunate outcome of the increased demand for his insight.
The thesis of the book is one readers of the Tomb will be familiar with and sympathetic to. It goes something like this: on the back of its institutions and communities being decimated by 30 years of neo-liberal class warfare, the working class has been turned into an object of ridicule for Britain’s triumphant rulers. The vision of working class life dominant among political and cultural elites is of a thick, violent, criminal, over-sexed and proto-fascist rump whose ‘social problems’ are all of their own making. Robbed of the collective identity and sense of power that came with a strong trade union and Labour movement, the working class has been rendered defenceless to an onslaught launched by a media and political establishment dominated by the well-heeled.
The first reaction provoked by the book is one of anger. The author does an excellent job of building up evidence of the class bigotry that infects British public life. Given the invidious task of wading through the shit emanating from a variety of sources, from the detestable website ChavTowns, to the editorial pages of our newspapers, both broadsheet and tabloid, Jones convincingly demonstrates the hatred and bile that poor people have been on the end of in the last decade or so. Careful not to let his study become an account of ‘cultural oppression’, the author is always quick to relate his vignettes of mockery to political and economic processes. In a public discourse desperate to convince itself of the reality of Blair’s feted ‘meritocracy’, the poor had to be made responsible for their own poverty. The figure of the chav rump helped to feed the lie that ‘we’re all middle class’ and justify the gradual elimination of working class voices from the political debate.
Chavs is at its strongest when debunking this myth of the middle-class majority. While honest about the real damage and social disarticulation caused by the collapse of industry in some areas of the country, it paints a picture of a working class that has been transformed rather than abolished. Jones points out the grim reality of the ‘weightless economy’ for tens of millions of working class people. Whereas jobs in traditional industries were relatively well-paid, secure and high-status, the labour market that has replaced them is largely filled with badly paid, unsecure and low-status jobs in retail and ‘customer service’. The trade unions have struggled to reproduce the strength they had in the ‘old’ industries in the call centres and supermarkets that employ millions of working class people. This has had the effect of a creating a class that “objectively” is as numerous and economically vital as ever but “subjectively” experiences the world as a collection of isolated fragments, with no way to express politically its common interests. Chavs paints a picture of a working class that has been dislocated from its traditional strongholds in the trade union and socialist movement and is sorely lacking political representation.
This political weakness, Owen claims, lies at the heart of the cultural beating the working class has taken. In earlier days, our rulers were afraid of the ‘resolute mass brandishing red flags and carrying dog-eared copies of the Communist Manifesto’ and this sense of working class power was reflected in relatively favourable, if patronizing, depictions of working class life in popular entertainment. With the trade unions smashed (one issue I had with the book is that it tends to slightly exaggerate the scale of the defeat of the trade unions) and the Labour Party reduced to a neo-liberal husk, ruling class fear of the proletarian mass has given way to derision.
The problem of working class representation is central to the book’s political message. While the author is no doubt correct to emphasize the effects New Labour’s dismissive attitude to the party’s working class supporters, to have the question of ‘representation’ as the main focus seems to miss the point somewhat. Jones, a left-wing member of the Labour Party, seems at certain points to assign the working class a purely passive role in its potential re-awakening. He appears to see the working class as an abused ‘constituency’ of potential Labour voters who need to be mobilized by the right messaging and policy portfolio.
Those of us from a different socialist tradition would instead stress that a new working class movement with a strong sense of collective interest and identity can only emerge through a process of class struggle. Simply waiting, as Chavs sometimes seems to suggest we ought to, for some Labour MPs (or even Ed Miliband) to break ranks with the neo-liberal orthodoxy and speak about working class life is, to put it comradely, not sufficient as a political strategy. The strikes proposed for November 30th could be set in motion a process in which the question of working class representation is posed concretely. If so, our political horizons will hopefully extend beyond putting pressure on E. Miliband to release some conciliatory press statements
In a chapter of the book entitled ‘Backlash’, Jones broaches the subject of the recent return of class into the political debate in the form of reactionary invocations of the so-called ‘white working class’. Again, regular readers of this blog will be aware of the debates surrounding this term. At this point, the author seems to lose some of the admirable single-mindedness that marks the rest of the argument. On the one hand, he gives short-shrift to the idea that the so-called ‘white working class’ are a bunch of drink-fuelled bigots who are just gullible fodder for fascist snake-oil salesmen. The working class, as he points out, is multiracial and multicultural. In a trip to Dagenham, a BNP stronghold before they were wiped out at the last election, the author meets anti-racist campaigners and ordinary locals disgusted with the fascist presence in the borough. He also meets worried locals airing what we have come to know as ‘legitimate grievances’ about the effects of immigration on the social housing stock in particular. (Jones points out that non-British nationals occupied just 5 percent of the council houses in the borough).
At this point however, the book veers into uncertainty. A discussion of the problem of fascism in economically depressed boroughs of London quickly morphs into a rather lazy attack on the contemporary political Left. The BNP’s support, the book suggests, results from a successful strategy of ‘community politics’ that the Left could learn from. BNP action on issues like ‘litter’ and ‘anti-social behaviour’ gave them a root in working class communities in which the political Left is largely missing. While the far-right were listening to the concerns of local working class people, the Left is charged with retreating into ‘identity politics’ and being more interested in ‘manning a stall about Gaza outside a university campus’ than in the “bread-and-butter” issues.
Jones admits that things like war and widespread Islamophobia are important issues, and points out for instance that opposition to the war in Afghanistan in higher among poorer people, but, he says, the ‘problem comes with the priority given by the left to international issues’. Many working-class people care about these issues but not ‘above housing and jobs’. In other words, we can talk about what is going on in Helmand province or the treatment of the Palestinians but only after Mrs. Smith down the road has had her leaky drainpipe fixed.
No doubt to some readers Owen’s position will strike a chord, and maybe even come off as reassuringly “practically-minded” to others. Socialism focussed on local issues perhaps sounds “authentic” compared to abstract denunciations of crimes going on far away. Unfortunately, as soon as one interrogates this separation of bread-and-butter “class” issues from “international” issues, it becomes clear that there is nothing to it.
Take the issue of war: I do not want to be silly and make the clichéd polemical points, but they seem necessary. Firstly, it is an army disproportionately drawn from working class communities that is fighting and dying in the British state’s wars. I don’t suppose that there is an issue more ‘bread-and-butter’ for working class people than whether their sons and daughters should risk be risking their lives in ridiculous imperialist adventures. (I say this as someone whose cousin is currently posted in Afghanistan). Secondly, the argument that the billions spent bombing other countries could have been spent more productively on public services here is the most simple and easily understandable argument in the world to make to ordinary people. It also happens to be true.
More fundamentally, however, you cannot separate these issues because the political and cultural conditions created by a decade of war directly feed into the anxiety and division that prevent the emergence of working class unity. As Jones himself admits in the book, there is a connection between the traction gained by Islamophobia in this country and the fact that Britain is ostensibly fighting ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ abroad. In this sense, it is just not practical to say that we can sideline the “international” issues until we have a new class politics. Rather, a new class politics is only possible if it has a critique of Britain’s imperial ambitions at its centre. Sacrificing the construction of an anti-war movement in an effort to found a new class politics makes both things less likely.
One other major weakness with the book lies with its sheepishness when it came to identifying the class enemy, so to speak. We get much talk of elite politicians and journalists and the ‘middle classes’ and so on, but we get almost no mention of capitalists. The book’s index contains precisely zero entries for ‘capitalism’ or ‘capitalist’. (It also contains very little mention of socialism, except to slag off existing groups). You could pass this off as a meaningless terminological difference. It is clear where the author’s political allegiances lie.
It must be true, however, that if the left is to direct the anger created by the crisis and now austerity at those responsible, we are going to want to know who they are and give them a name. It could of course be ‘politicians’ or the ‘middle classes’, but unfortunately these categories are too diverse to form a stable enough referent for an oppositional political movement. It is also clear that having ‘politicians’ as such as a political enemy can quickly detour in a reactionary direction. The movement of the ‘indignant’ in Spain seem to have progressed slightly and has spoken of the ‘system’ as the enemy, but even this misses something. The value of the term capitalist is that it gets to the root of the division in our society – between those who own and tell others what to do and those who do not own and must take orders from others.
These political differences aside, I would recommend Chavs to readers. The enthusiasm with which the book has been greeted reflects, I think, a desire to put to bed the obscurantism of the New Labour era on the question of class. In an age when the working class is rendered either invisible or is invoked only as a repository of an ugly ressentiment, the book reminds us of the potential political and economic power that exists largely untapped in British society. While I think the solutions to the current state of class politics offered by Chavs are limited, the author ought to be thanked for creating a space in which discussion of this topic is again possible.
Labels: 'chav', class struggle, labour, labour left, neoliberalism, reactionaries, ruling class, tories, trade unions, working class