[Marxism] Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Wed Jul 13 10:46:22 MDT 2011

(The author was on Marxmail long ago.)

NY Times July 12, 2011
Get Your Bling and Adidas Tracksuit, Wayne, a British Class War Is 

The Demonization of the Working Class
By Owen Jones
298 pages. Verso. $23.95.

Owen Jones’s first book, “Chavs: The Demonization of the Working 
Class,” begins more like a Noël Coward play or a late-model Ian 
McEwan novel than like a rumbling social polemic. That is, it 
opens with a misfired witticism uttered at an elite East London 
dinner party.

Here’s how Mr. Jones sets the scene. “Sitting around the table 
were people from more than one ethnic group. The gender split was 
50-50, and not everyone was straight. All would have placed 
themselves somewhere left of center politically.” Each guest 
“would have bristled at being labeled a snob.” Disaster arrived, 
as it always seems to, with the black currant cheesecake. That’s 
when the talk turned to the economic crisis. One of the party’s 
hosts joked: “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all 
the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” The other guests 
tittered. Mr. Jones stewed.

The word chav, if your subscriptions to British periodicals have 
lapsed, is a noun that essentially means “ugly prole”: loutish, 
tacky, probably drunken and possibly violent. The stereotypical 
chav is a hormonal 20-something lad in an Adidas tracksuit, 
sideways Burberry baseball cap and bling, but women can be chavs, 
too. Think of Snooki with a cockney accent.

What angered Mr. Jones about the dinner party comment, he 
explains, is that the joke could easily have been rephrased thus: 
“It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will the ghastly 
lower classes buy their Christmas presents?” This got him 
thinking. “How has hatred of working-class people become so 
socially acceptable?” he asks.

He writes, “It seems as though working-class people are the one 
group in society that you can say practically anything about.” 
Here he ignores fat people, but the two groups in the public mind 
often overlap.

How this came to pass in Britain, which has long revered its 
stalwart working class, is Mr. Jones’s primordial subject in 
“Chavs.” The book poses this principled question: How did the salt 
of the earth come to be viewed as the scum of the earth?

In pursuit of answers, “Chavs” covers a lot of ground. It’s a 
history of the British class system, a long-form indictment of 
Margaret Thatcher’s social and economic policies and a rowdy 
broadside against London’s elite media and political circles. Its 
combination of wit and outrage, at least in the early chapters, is 

Mr. Jones is very young (he’s 26) and hideously talented. Reading 
“Chavs,” I often cursed aloud as if I’d banged my thumb with a 
mallet, which is how I express keen literary pleasure until I can 
arrive at something more coherent to say.

Mr. Jones spies a London exercise class called “Chav Fighting,” 
and contemplates “sweating City bankers taking out their 
recession-induced frustrations on semi-bestial poor kids.” He 
zings Britain’s rock music for going squishy, offering up bland, 
middle-class bands like Keane and Coldplay. He wonders how working 
men, in the public imagination, have been reduced to 
“knuckle-dragging thugs.”

Writing about a tabloid crime that seemed to indict England’s 
lower classes, Mr. Jones declares, “The episode was like a flare, 
momentarily lighting up a world of class and prejudice in modern 

Many flares are sent up in “Chavs.” Mr. Jones is fearless. Part of 
his argument is that members of Britain’s news media and political 
worlds are increasingly the product of wealth and privilege, 
planets removed from the concerns of working-class people. In 
making this argument he doesn’t merely throw shadow punches; he 
names names.

The novelist and columnist Allison Pearson is given a drubbing for 
writing, about the much-publicized disappearance of a 3-year-old 
named Madeleine McCann, “This kind of thing doesn’t usually happen 
to people like us.” Mr. Jones picks up that phrase, “people like 
us,” like a boy who’s found an abandoned slingshot, and runs 
rather far with it.

He points out that the British prime minister, David Cameron, had 
such a pampered upbringing that “at the precocious age of 11 he 
traveled by Concorde to the U.S. with four classmates to celebrate 
the birthday of Peter Getty, the grandson of oil billionaire John 
Paul Getty.”

Mr. Jones’s book is a work of economics tucked inside what appears 
to be a volume of pop sociology. The meat of “Chavs” is an attack 
on Mrs. Thatcher’s policies as prime minister: her 
administration’s destruction of unions, its raising of the tax 
burden on the poor, its allowing if not encouraging industry to 
fall into ruin. More recently, unemployment and the rise in casual 
and temporary labor — at supermarkets or call centers — have fed a 
sense of desperation.

“In only a decade or so, Thatcherism had completely changed how 
class was seen,” Mr. Jones writes. “The wealthy were adulated. All 
were now encouraged to scramble up the social ladder, and be 
defined by how much they owned. Those who were poor or unemployed 
had no one to blame but themselves.”

The author notes how demonizing the lower classes makes it easier 
to make policy against them. “To admit that some people are poorer 
than others because of the social injustice inherent in our 
society would require government action,” he writes. “Claiming 
that people are largely responsible for their circumstances 
facilitates the opposite conclusion.”

The Labour Party under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was nearly as 
alienated from the working class, Mr. Jones argues. He quotes a 
Guardian newspaper editor who describes the New Labour leaders’ 
view of their electoral base: “They didn’t really like these 
people very much. They thought they didn’t have the right sort of 
raspberry-wine vinegar to put on their radicchio, and so on.”

The front half of “Chavs” is vastly superior to its back half. Mr. 
Jones makes his best case, and dumps his prickliest facts, early 
on. The rest of the book is mealy, padded with interviews and 
flat-footed elaboration, some of it vital, much of it not. He can 
be lachrymose. Mr. Jones goes to visit a depressed working-class 
neighborhood and returns with a pocketful of soppy clichés. 
(“There’s a real community spirit in the air.”)

This book could have been a rippling, rock-hard classic at 150 
pages — the book you’d see peeking out of every college student’s 
back pocket and rucksack during the summer of 2011. At nearly 
twice that length, it is still something to behold, a work of 
passion, sympathy and moral grace.

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