Chavs by Owen Jones has rightly been lauded as an overdue rejoinder to the steady and near unstoppable denigration of the working class in Britain over the past three decades of unbroken Thatcherism, under both the Tories and New Labour.
Picking apart the economic, social, and cultural fronts on which this war has been waged, Jones weaves a narrative which combines sharp analysis on each of the aforementioned topics with superb writing. It is little wonder that the book’s success has earned him a prominent profile as a political commentator, speaker, and newspaper columnist.
What makes Chavs such a powerful book is its unabashed stance on the side of those at the sharp end of this assault, specifically that section of society pejoratively categorised as the ‘underclass’. This is a categorization which has proved successful in dividing working people between its so-called aspirational and non-aspirational sections.
In analyzing the paradigm shift when it comes to the working class, wherein the concept of aspiration moved from being measured on a collectivist basis, embodied in a postwar settlement in which the working class in Britain commanded the lion’s share of society’s surplus for the first time since the industrial revolution, to an individualist one, Jones succeeds in charting the political and social transformation of British society by Thatcher, culminating in Labour’s shift to the right after its election defeat in 1992.
Under Blair’s leadership this rightward shift reached the point where Labour in government reflected the political and philosophical nostrums of one nation conservatism in its paternalistic relationship to the working class, rather than one founded on the principle of solidarity.
As Jones writes
“Politicians, particularly in the Labour Party, once spoke of improving the conditions of working class people. But today’s consensus is all about escaping the working class. The speeches of politicians are peppered with promises to enlarge the middle class. Aspiration has been redefined to mean individual self-enrichment: to scramble up the social ladder and become middle class. Social problems like poverty and unemployment were once understood as injustices that sprang from flaws within capitalism which, at the very least, had to be addressed. Yet today they have become understood as the consequences of personal behaviour, individual defects and even choice.”
The concrete evidence is compelling. Labour’s atrocious position on welfare, in the shape of its welfare reform acts of 1999 and 2007, marked a historic low point in the party’s relationship to the working class, wherein the emphasis moved from eradicating poverty as a social ill to treating the poor as responsible for its own poverty. This was effected as part of the party’s orientation towards the perceived interests of swing voters, viewed as vital in its electoral successes during the Blair era.
Even those much heralded progressive reforms implemented by Labour while in government – the minimum wage and working tax credits – bear closer examination. Undoubtedly both helped to improve the lives of many, but during a time of economic boom, relative to the enormous increase in wealth of the richest in Britain, they stand exposed as paltry measures designed to alleviate the worst excesses of the nation’s low wage economy. In 1997 Britain’s richest 1,000 citizens were worth a combined wealth of £98 billion. Ten years later, under a Labour government, those same richest 1,000 were worth a combined wealth of just over £300bn – a staggering increase of 204 per cent.
There can be no greater indictment of Labour’s abandonment of the working class and the poor during the Blair years than this.
Jones also does an effective job in tackling the alienation felt by traditional working class communities in the wake of deindustrialisation. Here he analyzes the emergence of the white working class as a distinct demographic – one, he asserts, which comes with a racist connotation.
The predominance of identity politics over class-based politics is also explored, with the author adroitly recognizing this as a reflection of the adulteration of working class identity after the decimation of industry and the communities which existed around those industries.
By its very nature identity politics involves the blurring of class lines, relegating class to a subordinate role when it comes to progressive politics and constituting less of a threat to the status quo as a direct result. Self identification in terms of gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and religious faith has seen Britain increasingly adopt a US social paradigm, wherein culture wars form the main locus of political engagement. The collapse of the Soviet Union, and with it really existing socialism, accelerated this process throughout Europe.
When it comes to the rise of what he refers to as the ‘populist right’ – i.e. the BNP and -UKIP – Jones again offers an indictment of Labour.
“The reason this could happen – and why the populist right has already made inroads into working class communities – is because the Labour Party ceased providing answers to a whole range of working class problems, especially housing, low wages and job insecurity. To many former natural Labour supporters, it seems to be on the side of the rich and big business.”
This assertion is, however, more problematic. The populist right has gained traction by focusing more on the wrongly perceived favouritism given to immigrants when it comes to housing, employment and the allocation of services, not as he claims as a consequence of New Labour’s relationship to the rich and big business. Here the scaremongering around the issue of immigration by the right wing press, which all of the mainstream political parties have succumbed to and supported in varying degrees, and which has distracted from the overweening power of the rich and big business, played a huge role in creating the space for the BNP’s short lived electoral success and the ability of UKIP to maintain an electoral presence.
The emergence of the EDL, which Jones only touches upon, requires a separate treatment, especially as it dovetails with his treatment of Respect in the book, which is the point at which his analysis fails.
The impact of the war on Iraq on British society was transformational in a number of ways. In the run up the scale of the opposition on the part of the public manifested in an antiwar movement the size of which had never been seen in Britain, and most probably will not be seen again for many a generation.
The disjuncture between a political class that had fallen into line behind the Blair government’s case for going to war, and a public opinion which had early discerned the foundation of half-truths and untruths upon which its case consisted, resulted in the increased entrenchment of cynicism when it came to electoral politics, measured in lower and lower election turnouts and a plummeting Labour Party membership.
The exception to this cynicism came with the emergence of Respect in 2004 as a political alternative to the pro war consensus. Its declared objective was to occupy the electoral space vacated by Labour in its shift to the right, aiming to capitalise on public opposition to the war and the size of the antiwar movement at its peak. The challenge involved was considerable, in that success would depend on the ability to link the war with domestic issues affecting the daily lives of working class people, rather than the other way round.
Respect’s initial support base would as a result predominately reside within the Muslim community, consisting of both those Muslims who had previously supported Labour, and young Muslims politicized by the steady demonization of their religion and culture in the wake of 9/11, to the point where they came to be regarded as a fifth column by the establishment and right wing press under the rubric of the war on terror. From there the aim was to spread and attract the support of the wider working class.
However, inevitably, and rightly given the sustained nature and intensity of the attack involved, Respect’s focus became centred on providing a political defence of the nation’s Muslim community, especially after 7/7 when Muslim became interchangeable with terrorist in the nation’s political and social discourse.
While Jones does acknowledge the “rampant Islamophobia” which pervaded in the wake of 9/11, just two sentences further on he takes Respect to task for failing to orient to the working class.
“It [Respect] did not pitch to working class people as a whole; instead, it substituted them for a Muslim community that was understandably angered by the war in Iraq. Class politics was abandoned for communialist politics.”
This particular charge was also made by the Socialist Workers Party, one of Respect’s founding partners, during the 2007 split. It was also made recently in the mainstream media in the wake of George Galloway’s by-election victory in Bradford West. It is a charge premised on a flawed understanding of communialism as the failure of the Muslim community to integrate, rather than a response to that integration, or assimilation, being blocked.
In this regard communialism is no recent phenomenon or indeed one unique to the Muslim community in the present day. It has been ever present throughout the nation’s social history, a symptom of the marginalization experienced by succeeding waves of immigrants and minority communities in Britain, responsible for those communities forging their own social, economic, and political networks in response.
The point therefore is not to attack or condemn Muslims, or any other minority community, for doing so, but to understand the reasons why – namely the racism and marginalization they have encountered from and within mainstream society. At bottom it reflects Britain’s history and continued role as a colonial and imperialist power, which in turn has helped forge and develop British society’s cultural values and attitudes towards minorities and others perceived as an alien presence in this green and pleasant land. That this prevailing national mythology stands in stark contrast to the brutal, militaristic, and exploitative truth is academic.
Of far more importance is the fact it has acted as a key linchpin within British society since the British State came into being, emotionally attaching generations of the nation’s working class to the aims and objectives of its ruling class. This has enabled it to bask in the perceived reflected glory of Britain’s long history of wars and influence on the world stage. The exalted status enjoyed by the troops and the sustained support of the Monarchy are tangible examples of how this informs a false consciousness, a key reason why Britain has never experienced the social convulsions experienced on the continent, where revolutionary impulses have at various points threatened the status quo.
Ultimately, you cannot have it both ways. You cannot acknowledge the existence of the “rampant Islamophobia that has gripped Britain” on the one hand, a direct consequence of the British State’s participation in wars against Muslim and Arab countries over the past decade and more, but then excoriate the only political party to provide a robust defence of it victims at home and abroad for failing to “pitch to the working class”, in which it cannot be denied this Islamophobia has gained significant traction, even if on a passive level.
Rather than point to the fact, which Jones does in his book, that Respect “did not pitch to the working class”, it is equally pertinent to point out that the working class has not pitched to Respect – or at least not yet – to any significant degree. The inescapable conclusion of course is that when he uses the term ‘working class’ here, Jones means the ‘white’ working class, the categorization he takes pains to criticise earlier in the book.
Ultimately, economism and sociology only takes you so far. At some point you have to challenge the political and ideological foundations upon which the state’s institutions and received truths rest. In the case of the British State those foundations consist of imperialism and racism. Given the extent to which both are interwined and have helped define aspects of working class culture, this entails risking alienating significant sections of that same working class along the way.
The willingness to do so is not only a price worth paying, it is absolutely essential in a society whose cultural values have been poisoned by centuries of colonialism and imperialist wars.