Owen Jones’ Chavs – first published in 2011 but now out again in an enlarged and updated edition – is the most subversive, passionate, humane and necessary book about that old Behemoth, the British class system, in years.
In clear, careful and caring prose, it conceals its own ‘lefteously’ (to coin a phrase) anarchic anger, marshalls the evidence to speak dispassionately for itself, and turns contemporary British society on its head. This is what such writing ahould be about; we see it in the best of the Ranters. The people at the top of society – supposedly the best – are exposed as ethically negligible, and those at the bottom – supposedly ‘Chav Scum’ – as decent human beings.
The book takes in everything we see around us in the modern cities of Britain, and in the modern mass media. Jones examines the reality/media parallelogram and shows how the media wilfully misrepresents the reality, and why it does so.
Its most important achievement – and it is achieved within the first few pages as well as throughout – is to force Britain to take a reality check, a stocktake of its own hatred. He presents a society that is as polarised as it has ever been, if not moreso, one in which an artificially expanded bourgeoisie indulges daily in collective hate sessions at the expense of a systematically demonized underclass. The madness of the bourgeois media is exposed: the psychopathy, the inhumanity, the judgmentalism, the complacency; certainly the ignorance, and most of all the vicious herd mentality. The denizens of an over-privileged England are dehumanizing the denizens of an under-privileged England. Chavs scratches enlightened/rational/humanist institutions to reveal the irrational ‘fear and loathing’ beneath.
An opening anecdote in which a group of young urban professionals laugh at an unfunny joke about ‘chavs’, sets up the otherwise lefty-liberal yuppies as a microcosm of middle-class England, and the ‘chavs’ as their reviled other. It is Jones’ analysis of the ‘chav’ phenomenon that makes his book so up-to-the-minute. We find out how the new label is the latest instalment of the age-old class war, a war actively waged by the overclass, of course, and passively suffered by the underclass; a war which depends on the most specious self-justifications and snide accusations of others; a war which constantly has to invent new deceits and disguises as soon as the old ones are seen through; a war which adopts multiple applications of the trusty ‘divide and rule’ tactic to divide an oppressed proletariat from itself, as well as keeping a desirable but supposedly non-existent ‘two nations’ England going.
It is a phenomenon William Blake wrote about over two hundred years ago in his poem ‘The Human Abstract’:
Pity would be no more
If we did not make somebody poor;
And Mercy no more could be
If all were as happy as we.
No one would ever publicly say such a thing, but Blake’s genius is in articulating the unconscious thought-processes of an oppressor elite. The poem satirises Malthus’ equations about population growth in which humanity is reduced to a line on a graph, an economic statistic, a blip. Here an overclass is guilty of causing poverty – ‘make somebody poor’ – but atones (in its own eyes) by exercising such civic virtues as ‘Pity’ and ‘Mercy’.
Jones’ polemic reminds us that the same thing is still going on i.e. an abstraction of the human, but that today there is little ‘Pity’ and even less ‘Mercy’ bestowed on the involuntary poor. Instead they are spattered with no-holds-barred revulsion.
The key to understanding this process is the ‘abstract’. An attempt is made to somehow measure or gauge humanity, but the humans doing the measuring don’t know anything about the humans they are trying to measure. Everything is reduced to calculus and logic. It is all about measuring incomes, the amount of children, the amount of time unemployed, the amount of benefits claimed. By such mathematical persuasions, flavoured with rhetorical bile, Middle England is manipulated to look down on the innocent poor and spit, to look up at the guilty rich and fawn. It could not work without the artful ministrations of the subtle Beelzebub: hypocrisy.
A chapter is devoted to explaining the very different media reaction to the disappearence of the middle-class child Madeleine McCann, and the working-class child Shannon Matthews. The bourgeois McCanns received vast publicity, mostly sympathetic, while the proletarian Matthews received much less publicity, mostly unsympathetic. Later, when it was discovered that Shannon had been kidnapped by her own family, the Matthews were then used as political pawns in a class war game. The powers-that-be fleshed out their ‘human abstract’ by presenting the Matthews as the prototypical working-class family: shiftless, dysfunctional, criminal. The middle class media then launched into a feeding frenzy of ranting vilification against the working-classes in general. Jones x-rays this tactic. It would be like holding up Harold Shipman as an example of the typical bourgeois. David Cameron’s suitably opportunist reaction is quoted: ‘The verdict last week on Karen Matthews and her vile accomplice is also a verdict on our broken society. If only this was a one-off story.’ It was a one-off story. Other mothers were not kidnapping their own children to raise funds through gift-aid. It is worse when we realise that the working-classes only feature in the middle class media as the butt of ‘cheap shot’ righteously indignant prejudice; otherwise they are conspicuously absent. This is the social hygiene of the bourgeois tabloid.
Chavs clarifies this. Suddenly, so much of what we hear on the radio or read in newspapers is immediately identifiable as baseless class war propaganda. It is the very core of politics. (Sometimes it backfires on the manipulators. A hilarious example happened recently when Eric Pickles announced a crackdown on the 22,000 dysfunctional families that were costing the taxpayer so much per annum, on the same day it was revealed that the Prime Minister and his wife had left their baby daughter in the toilet of a public house. The media were highly sympathetic to the PM; a working-class family would have been crucified). It is terrifying to understand the extent to which politicians and businessmen collude to oppress the largest section of society with such insufferable living conditions, and further conspire with the corporate media to oppress the same people with such terrible defamations. Imagine a bully crippling his victim, and then taunting his victim for being a cripple. The crux? The ‘victims’ are always accused of being ‘the problem’. It is a vast exercise in demoralization, and a thousand times more immoral than anything the working-classes are accused of. As Jones puts it: ‘Somehow a huge part of Britain has been made complicit in crimes they had nothing to do with.’
The question begs: how – after Nazism – can such social engineers live with themselves? The Nazis used to hand out pamphlets in Munich branding the Jews as subhuman. This was a tiny effort compared to what the internationally best-selling Daily Mail does every day all over Britain, and the Anglophone world, branding the working-classes as subhuman. One of the delights of the book is its roll-call of shock-jocks. They are named and shamed gleefully, and their diatribes are quoted. Allison Pearson, Richard Littlejohn, Melanie Phillips, Carole Malone, and the risible James Delingpole. One wonders have they changed their tunes even a little after Owen Jones’ wake-up call? Perhaps one of the symptoms of ‘affluenza’ is that you care more about your own smugness than other people’s sufferings? The only thing that makes such Machiavellian smear-campaigning seem socially acceptable is the large congregation of Conservatism, the Middle English consensus, the endless mooings and brayings of agreement, the cheerleading shires of the South-East. How the hobbits hate the goblins! However, as Jones amply demonstrates, it is not socially acceptable. It is always in breach of the ‘incitement to hatred’ act designed to protect other vulnerable social groups but never used to protect the working-class.
Jones is strong on Thatcher’s destruction of the unions as a major factor, and the Tories’ promotion of individualism over collectivism. It was called the Bourgeoisification of the Proletariat, or in Keith Joseph’s phrase ’embourgeoisment’. Milton Friedman was guru, Pinochet the star pupil. Joseph destroyed his Tory leadership chances by publicly endorsing eugenic policies; Thatcher took his place, and his philosophy to No. 10. The Tories sought to destroy working-classness as an identity, a badge of pride, a way of being. The working-class was persuaded to renounce socialism, and join the bourgeoisie. To be middle-class was ‘aspirational’, to be working-class was ‘non-aspirational’ – (as if socialism wasn’t aspirational). Buying your own council house was one example. ‘We’re all middle class now’ was the refrain; but no one heard the Orwellian echo ‘But some of us are more middle class than others’. The state machinery was rigged also to be less socialist and more individualist. De-unionisation, privatisation, deregulation, etc… While Norman Tebbit said ‘On your bike!’, Thatcher sneered: ‘Anyone over 30 who uses public transport is a loser.’
New Labour was simply the hijacking and betrayal of collectivism, and the British class struggle’s only major political party, by the would-be but self-delusional left-wing middle classes. ‘Aspiration’ itself was redefined as individual not collective. The immensely self-enriching Tony Blair was the exemplar and pyramid-tip of New Labour aspiration. ‘Stop selling copies of Socialist Worker on high streets!’ he seemed to say. ‘Be more like me! Sell out!’
The nemesis of this new social culture was the Expenses scandal. The same politicians who had blithely misrepresented people on state benefits as ‘scoungers’ and ‘dole cheats’ were eventually caught with their own hands in the till. Aspiration was seen for what it is: a way of conning the taxpayer into paying for a moat around the con-man’s house. Chavs coolly weighs justice in the scales. Most of the offending politcians got away scot-free with embezzlement while the English rioters were given draconian sentences for the most petty of offences.
Jones regularly throws a few specific numbers back at the human abstractors, whose modus operandi is not ‘inclusive’ but ‘extractive’. Benefit fraud accounts for £1 billion a year; tax evasion, individual and corporate, costs £70 billion. Furthermore, an estimated £16 billion in benefits a year goes unclaimed by people entitled to it. Needless to say, in an unequal Britain, while benefits claimants are subjected to all kinds of indignities, intrusions, suspicions and exploitation, tax evaders like Sir Phillip Greene are knighted. Cameron’s grandstanding about Jimmy Carr tells us only that Carr isn’t a Tory donor.
Jones further depicts how divide and rule is used to pit the white working-class against working class immigrants, and how this has led to the growth of the far right. This tricky matter is handled skilfully and Jones eloquently defends the working-class from the added insult that they are racists (as well as morally depraved in all other areas.) Some are, most ain’t.
The book’s message, of course, is that the right is far more dangerous than the far right.
Conservatism: a machine for conserving itself, and for conserving its own privileges. As the socially Darwinist Ted Hughes hawk puts it: ‘I am going to keep things like this.’
Outstanding are the quoted words of an off-the-record Tory who spoke to a gathering of young undergraduates, including Jones, who were sworn not to name him: ‘What you have to realise about the Conservative Party is that it is a coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people.’
Here is Blake again voicing the oppressor in the guise of his character Urizen (i.e. ‘your reason’) who represents the controlling intellect:
‘Compel the Poor to live upon a crust of bread by soft mild arts:
So shall you govern over all. Let Moral Duty tune your tongue,
But be your hearts harder than the nether millstone…
Smile when they frown, frown when they smile; and when a man looks pale
With labour and abstinence, say he looks healthy and happy;
And when his children sicken, let them die: there are enough
Born, even too many, and our earth will soon be overrun
Without these arts. If you would make the Poor live with temper,
With pomp give every crust of bread you give; with gracious cunning
Magnify small gifts; reduce the man to want a gift, and then give with pomp.
Say he smiles, if you hear him sigh; if pale, say he is ruddy.
Preach temperance: say he is overgorg’d, and drowns his wit
In strong drink, tho’ you know that bread and water are all
He can afford. Flatter his wife, pity his children, till we can
Reduce all to our will, as spaniels are taught with art.’
This is the ancient way the ruling class treats its ruled. Michael Albert, author of Parecon, phrases it more soberly from a contemporary American perspective: ‘It isn’t that owners are sadists, who would rather build missiles that sit in the ground forever than build a school that educates the poor because they revel in people being denied knowledge. It is that owners want to maintain their position of privilege and power, and they know that distributing too much knowledge or security and well-being to workers is contrary to doing so.’ The rulers themselves, however, lack knowledge and act out of ignorance. As the man in the street says: ‘They’re out of touch.’
Chavs also shows how ‘the conditions of the working-class in England’ have been hugely downgraded. Supermarkets and call-centres are the staple employment now, un-unionised, low-pay, and soul-destroying. There is not much pride in such work
What Jones doesn’t argue, and should, is that – despite all the prejudice hurled at them – the English working classes aren’t stupid. When the message of the well-to-do political, economic and journalistic elites to the less fortunate, less educated, less wealthy, less well-connected is ‘WORK FOR YOUR POVERTY!’, there is inevitably going to be a revolt. Most people in their right minds when confronted with the choice of being on the employment pittance, and working 40 hours a week, or the unemployment pittance, and working zero hours per week, would choose to be unemployed. One could – without the ostentation of long hair, robes, flowers or L.S.D – simply tune in, sign on, and drop out. It was a no-brainer, especially if you were ‘socially excluded’. What large sections of the working-class who didn’t buy into Thatcherism/Blairism did, instead of being Marxist-Leninist wage-slaves, was to embark on a low-key social revolution. A new lifestyle was created. Working made little sense, not because benefits were generous – they were and are the most niggardly in all Europe – but because wages and salaries were so ungenerous. That is the reality. A ‘Big Society’ had already come into being, before Cameron began soundbiting: working class people, on benefits, contributing to their communities in a million and one different ways that they would be unable to do if they were in full-time work. (The Con-Dem government is dismantling the Big Society.) The new underclass was certainly also comprised of the involuntarily unemployed, making the best of it, as well as the voluntarily unemployed, choosing to free up their time and energy. It was an aspiration shared by the artistic classes also. Many of the most astounding artists in modern Britain used benefits as a way of developing their creativity. The reggae band U.B.40 are an obvious case in point. Bohemia reached the masses. The books of C.J. Stone document such culture. Confronted with this social revolution, the political classes’ response is not amelioration of the conditions of the working-class or ‘making work the more attractive option’, but Austerity, Workfare, and the dismantling of the Welfare State. The political classes are actually displaying Puritan levels of righteous indignation at having been been so blatantly and brilliantly outwitted by the working-classes, who were refusing the rat-race on offer, not because they were ‘Chav Scum’ but because they were, and are, conscientious objectors to the kind of sociopathically competitive and religiously acquisitive lifestyle of their over-masters, the so-called role models of British public life, most of whom are now in the dock at the Leveson Inquiry lying through laser-whitened teeth.
Chavs exposes, naked on the fork, the methods modern, post-colonial Britain uses to colonise the British.