This acerbic book also includes enough new arguments that it demands a response from conservatives explaining where it goes awry, which it certainly does. Chavs is profoundly wrong — both as sociology and policy. But there is plenty to like. Jones is great at taking the reader out of the metropolitan bubbles in which far too many of us spend far too much time, and at puncturing absurd myths about what an average income is or what motivates people on very low salaries. He is right to highlight the consequences of over-emphasising academic credentials rather than other objective measures of intelligence and competence. Lousy employers are far from unique to the public sector, and such accounts should provoke further thought on the right about those who reject a life on benefits and go out to earn low salaries in truly unpleasant conditions.
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What emerges is a text as outmoded as its title. The "chav" phenomenon belongs very much to , and a moment when liberal broadsheets and right-wing tabloids alike dismissed anyone living in a deprived neighbourhood and in possession of a Burberry cap with a label that, as Owen Jones rightly points out, is an old Romany word for child.
An early instance of this was the treatment of the suspects in the Stephen Lawrence murder. Liberal columnists and academics led the charge, citing a lack of O-levels and the bottle- blonde, chain-smoking mothers of the accused as evidence of guilt.
And that was before they put the whole of south-east London and the white working class in the dock. Whereas the latter was a means of caricaturing those working-class people who had dared to earn money to buy designer clothes and decent cars, the former became shorthand for those who had acquired similar by any means necessary. In this book, the discourse of the "chav" is used as a springboard for examining not only how the working class has been derided, but how it became more or less extinct.
For him, the working class is defined entirely by trade unions and council housing, and anyone who moves beyond these is guilty of breaking class solidarity and pursuing a "rugged individualism". Jones writes of how "social mobility is offered as a means of creaming off the minority of working-class individuals and parachuting them into the middle class".
But this is to confuse a money system with a class system. Urbanites who leave the working-class areas of their birth, through work rather than a university education, often remain working class in their interests and allegiances, with cash and consumerism widening their horizons. In the landscapes of their formative years they see an older, landlocked generation living in fragmented neighbourhoods that are no longer familiar.
Those who stayed behind are alienated by the fallout from the immigration policies and multiculturalism imposed by New Labour. Jones argues that class "had for so long been a forbidden word within the political establishment, [and] the only inequalities discussed by politicians and the media were racial ones".
This happened because the left came to loathe the insularity and localism it once championed in the working class, and shifted its focus to identity politics and minority interests. Jones bemoans the redefinition of the idea of working-class "aspiration", which, after Thatcher, "was no longer about people working together to improve their communities; it was being redefined as getting more for yourself as an individual, regardless of the social costs".
This is the leftist equivalent of telling the working classes they should not get above their station. And it smacks of the late 19th century, of upper-class Fabians and the nascent science of sociology. In the s, in an attempt to define a "practicable" rather than a utopian socialism, Samuel Barnett predicted that in the following century the issue for the poor would not be want but leisure. It was feared that once the proles got their hands on cash, they would spend it on gambling and drink.
At the beginning of the 21st century, it appears that problems ensue when - in the words of the Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham, Jon Cruddas, on whom Jones calls to corroborate his thesis - the working class "earn and own".
Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones – review
Chavs, despite its provocative title, is a lively, well-reasoned and informative counterblast to the notion that Britain is now more or less a classless society. For Jones, the British class system is "an invisible prison" from which, increasingly, there is little escape for those born into working-class families. Without the privilege of family wealth, higher education — and the lucrative careers it provides access to — is fast becoming a no-go area for all but an elite sector of the population. Britain is well on its way to becoming a society run by the wealthy for the wealthy. Jones, who is 26 and has worked as a trade union lobbyist and parliamentary researcher for a Labour MP, begins by looking at the rise of "chav" culture. This, he argues, was created and then mercilessly lampooned by the middle-class, rightwing media and its more combative columnists. The crimes committed by "chavs" included being too loud, too flash, too drunk, too vulgar and, most inexcusable of all, too disrespectful towards their "betters".
Review: Chavs - The Demonization of the Working Class
Owen Jones has taken on a big job documenting the way most of the citizens of these islands are commonly portrayed. They are those who choose benefits over hard work, who prefer drunkenness, obesity and drug addiction to fitness, who elevate racism above decency and single motherhood above respectable family life. Owen Jones argues that we are light years from those poor, brave inner-city communities who could take it during the Blitz and who could make it when we were the workshop of the world. Those we see at the cenotaph each year and on Second World War anniversaries, that we venerate for their courage, wisdom and quiet dignity, sprung from the same places that now, we are led to believe, can only produce those lacking in any of these qualities. Travel to large parts of Britain today and you will see the hollowed-out husk of communities whose inhabitants struggle to survive. Their portrayal, rarely flattering in the good times, has become markedly more nastily caricatured in the decades of dog-eat-dog individualism. So what has changed, asks Owen Jones?