A great new book has appeared recently about the working class in the UK. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by Owen Jones, has received a lot of well-deserved attention. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘chav’ has become a catch-all term of abuse for either the working class or elements of the working class. The term itself is not especially new and has a variety of roots. Whatever its origins, the label is one that is now used interchangeably with prole, feral underclass, scum, hooligan, the poor, or those who live in public housing. It captures dress codes, social and moral attitudes, child rearing practices, and even the way people stand on the sidewalk. What links all of these caricatures is that this is a way of talking about the white working class. Indeed many critical commentators, Owen included, have argued that the whiteness of those labelled chav is central to its use and therefore represents the last form of acceptable discrimination allowed in ‘polite’ society. The denigration of the white working class can be seen in a variety of cultural texts, from newspaper opinion pieces through publications such as The Little Book of Chavs and television comedies to a host of truly vicious websites that incite hate against the working class. Type in ‘chav’ to a search engine of your choice, but be prepared!
This breadth of coverage is important in understanding why this label has become so widespread and pernicious for debates about the working class. The heavily classed term chav is — rather ironically — inextricably linked to the rhetorical rise of the idea of classlessness, the notion that we are all middle class now. Essentially the term serves several roles. It has become shorthand for the new underclass while simultaneously placing the respectable working class somewhere in the middle of society alongside the bulk of ‘us’ or ‘we’. At the same time it allows those who use the phrase to demonize those in the underclass simply for being there. Chav, therefore becomes an ideological and moral way of categorizing the poor – portraying them as unfit parents, workshy and generally feckless. Jones quotes a stream of right wing pundits who are horrified at this new working clas,s such as Carole Malone, who wrote in a piece about council estate (local authority housing) dwellers: “People who’d never had jobs, never wanted one, people who expected the state to fund every illegitimate child they had-not to mention their drink, drugs and smoking habits … [Their] houses looked like pigsties-dog crap on the floor (trust me, I’ve seen it), putrid carpets, piles of clothes and unwashed dishes everywhere.”
The second related function of the term is that it encourages people not to identify themselves as working class. This has obvious parallels with what Jack Metzgar calls the “class vernacular” of the US, which assumes that the great bulk of the population occupy an imaginary middle class that stretches from multimillionaires down to those struggling to get by.
Jones’s book and a wider and growing critical commentary are beginning to call out this class hatred and discrimination for what it really is. In the process, we are seeing a growing willingness to explore the undoubtedly profound changes in working-class life and culture over the last thirty years. One of the most telling points Jones makes is that the working class has gone from being respected –and at times even feared — for the political and economic clout it once possessed to a position where they are derided and at times feared as almost representing a different species.
At the heart of this shift have been the changes in the economy over the decades, especially the collapse of many industries that once supplied jobs to both the skilled and unskilled working class. Worklessness, or more properly precarious employment, is at the root of this problem. Access to good steady jobs acts as a wedge dividing working-class people and their communities. The rhetoric of chavs widens this divide by pushing some to identify with the ‘nice’ middle rather than the ‘rough’ working class. To work, ironically, takes you out of the working class!
Of course this development is not entirely new. The divide between the ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ (hard living and steady living) working class is as old as industrialization – indeed some historians have seen those labels as more insightful that working and middle class categories. What is new is that this contemporary manifestation of working-class division occurs at a time of massive and growing economic inequality where the super rich are enjoying unprecedented increases in their wealth, and London has become the most unequal city anywhere in the developed world. The label chav helps to hide growing inequality within society by focusing attention – and blame — on those at the bottom. Labelling some of the weakest and most vulnerable in society in this way portrays economic inequality as a question of individual morality responsibility rather than as a wider question that society at large needs to address.
The hope in all this is that books like Jones’s provide a powerful and growing counter narrative to the unthinking use of terms like chav. What is striking is the way those of us interested in working-class issues are collectively drawing on and contributing to debates that show the real nature of economic and social inequality that is too often ignored by politicians and tabloid opinion formers. It shows us that to fully understand class we have to see how it operates on economic, social, and cultural levels. In doing this kind of work, we can perhaps start to recognize the shared humanity and value in working-class community and in turn challenge powerful myths about class more generally.
Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods