I have just finished reading Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones. Jones does a good job of demonstrating how the white working class has become demonised, vilified, and satirised in British society – think Shameless, Vicky Pollard etc.. A joke at a dinner party of educated professionals was the spark which resulted in Jones writing this book. The joke went as follows: “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” I too have heard people use this derogatory word, and like Jones, I too have cringed.
What is a chav? For some it is a feral underclass, a rump of the old working class who are largely supported by welfare. For some a chav is a young working-class person who wears tracksuits and fake designer clothes (e.g., Burberry baseball caps). For others a chav encompasses all the negative traits associated with the working class – violence, drunkenness, indolence, promiscuity, teenage pregnancy, uncouthness. According to Jones, chav now simply refers to the white working class, who have been demonised by the rich.
Jones’s basic thesis is that the demonization of the working class is due to deindustrialisation and Margaret Thatcher. This, however, is too simplistic, and he also ignores the long-term evolution of the working class (he should have read E.P. Thompson's seminal work - The Making of the English Workling Class). The white working classes have faced two major shocks over the past three decades – globalisation and the demise of the family.
Globalisation has resulted in the movement of capital, with the result that firms have moved manufacturing jobs (previously the domain of the working class) to lost-cost economies. Globalisation has also resulted in huge numbers of skilled immigrants moving into the UK who outcompete the indigenous working classes in the labour market. Globalisation has been a huge economic shock to the working classes.
Immediate and extended families usually provide a form of mutual help and support whenever we are hit by economic, emotional or other shocks. However, simultaneous to being hit by this large economic shock, working class people were being hit by an even larger shock – the breakdown of the family. This breakdown came about because the liberal elite of the country wanted to undermine the family for their own selfish ideological reasons. They made divorce easier; they attacked the institution of marriage; they changed the welfare system so that it was financially possible to receive welfare and have children outside of marriage; they made it easy for fathers to evade their responsibilities, starting in 1969 by removing the requirement that fathers be present at the registration of their children’s birth. As is well known, the collapse of the family is particularly severe in working-class communities. The irony for me is that the Labour Party was the vanguard of this attack on the family – it is a long time since this party represented the working classes!