Review: Chavs by Owen Jones

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Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones book cover
Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011) is Owen Jones’s political polemic in defence of the working classes who, he believes, have been consistently drawn as feckless, violent no-hopers by a middle-class media, and ostracised by consecutive governments who have failed to support those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, and in fact have increased the gap between the richest and poorest in British society. Despite himself being a self-confessed Oxford graduate from a middle-class home, Jones, who has previously been employed by the Labour party as a junior researcher, is a staunch advocate of the left, and through Chavs carefully dissects the collapse of industry in the Britain and the impact it had on the individuals involved not to mention the communities that were built around the big manufacturing and mining sites. Unsurprisingly, the rampant consumerism and neoliberalism espoused by Thatcher’s Conservative government of the 1980s is very firmly in the cross-hairs, but the New Labour revolution is not left without blame either. Through a mix of informal interviews, media cuttings, statistics, and careful analysis Jones demonstrates the inequality endemic in British society today and describes the problem in an accessible and passionate work.

In his introduction Jones asserts that the word Chav, which he understands to originate from the Romanian word ‘Chavi’, has been used thoughtlessly by the middle classes to label the working class as a whole and thus the illusion that a large proportion of the working class form a work-shy and anti-social underbelly of British society has been created. For the majority of readers this will prove a problematic definition, with the term ‘chav’, in common usage, used by all classes to identify an underclass where criminality and loutish behaviour are commonplace – thus making the term itself a tautology of sorts: unpleasant people are labelled chavs, and therefore chavs are unpleasant. The less eye-catching subtitle of Jones’s book is a far better indicator of its content, but as a guiding definition it is fair to say that the media-driven perception of chavs has bled into the uninformed’s perception of the working classes. It would have been nice to hear more from Jones about this, but for the purposes of this review, this definition will suffice.

Chavs then, is a book about class war – a term not often used in contemporary political commentary – about the disparity between the rich and the poor, and the systematic mechanisms that ensure this imbalance remains in place. Jones does a good job of piercing some of the unchallenged ideas many now hold about the working class, such as the idea that it is something to escape from, rather than to improve. Jones makes a good start at illustrating the way in which the media generalises negative stereotypes attributed to unpleasant examples of the working class, to members of the class as a whole. Sadly, this isn’t developed sufficiently. What is desperately missing from the analysis is a straight-forward comparison of the perception with the reality, without all the distraction tactics and hyperbole.

The slant of Jones’s argument is undeniably partisan, almost, at times, to the point of absurdity. This feels particularly heavy-handed in the opening chapters, and will almost certainly turn off many readers who would most benefit from some of the points that Jones makes throughout Chavs. It’s a fact that those of greater intelligence respond better to balanced and critical arguments than lop-sided polemics; that Jones appeals to the hearts of his natural readership more than to the intellect of the masses is to the detriment of his argument as a whole.

For many of the arguments that Jones makes there is neither enough critical evaluation of the statistics he presents, nor of the selected comments that he chooses to include. Whilst Chavs is not intended to be an overly academic study of class politics today, there is plenty of inane repetition that could have been cut in order to make room for more methodical arguments. Another serious flaw in the methodology is the lack of interviews with what would be considered by society’s standards ‘chavs’. The interviews with working class subjects tends towards those that would be considered productive members of society, and no time is given to those that regularly face demonization as the underclass. For Jones to exclude the voices of those who have suffered the most at the hands of the economic policies that he so assiduously decries, is a considerable disappointment, and disingenuous airbrushing. To understand the pressure of those who turn to criminality or anti-social behaviour as a way to survive or simply rebel against a society who has failed them, is crucial to understanding the psychological effects of some of the problems Jones discusses.

Whilst there are moments of incisive logic, there are equally many muddled comments and contradictory statements. At one point Jones suggests that supermarkets and call centres are much like working in factories and mines, which he suggest were intrinsic to the spirit of community prevalent in working class communities, but then sets about explaining why supermarket and call centre type jobs are so awful, completely undermining his previous assertion. Examples used to illustrate points are also variable in sense; from the ridiculously emotive, to the poorly chosen. In one section Jones presents a man from a working class background to illustrate that aspiration for most working class people is all but impossible. The interviewee states that the idea of aspiration is ‘bullshit’ and that his peers have little or no chance for advancement. He then reveals that he himself left school with only a handful of GCSEs, but through determination managed to attain a university degree for himself, thus completely confounding the point. The book is littered with these inexplicable passages, and one really wonders what the logic behind their inclusion was. In the chapter focused on racism, Jones again turns his attention from the issue of prejudice within working class communities, and towards the BNP – undoubtedly a reasonable target for comment, but rather at a tangent to what Jones should have been writing about.

There is some clear rewriting of history here too; the re-positioning of the Celebrity Big Brother racism row involving Jade Goody and Shilpa Shetty as a class issue and not a race issue; the case of Baby P from which, according to Jones, sprang a torrent of vitriol against the absent Chav father, who will often partake in infanticide rather than watch another man raise his child. To your average reader these assertions will strike an odd chord, and bear little resemblance to the reality of either situation or how they were covered by the media. Some of his assertions about popular culture feel ill-informed too (taking Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard out of the context of a show that caricatures all walks of society, and in many ways challenges the absurdity of stereotypes is but one example), and, when Jones asserts that Victorian literature depicts working class people exclusively as ‘cartoonish’, suggesting that the social realism of the 1950/60s was the first time working class people had been given a representative voice, one follows the logic but begins to question the author’s judgement.

The way in which Jones homogenises both the working classes (which are also romanticized to an extent) and middle classes will strike many as offensive and largely hypocritical; there is very little complexity to his portrayal of either, and perhaps worse still he credits neither with any real sense of autonomy. This lack of personal responsibility is one of the greatest oversights in Chavs; to suggest that the blame for the chav caricature falls between an irresponsible media and selfish politicians, is to abdicate responsibility on behalf of the individuals who regurgitate mindless stereotypes and partake in such distasteful events as ‘dress as a chav’ parties (and no, these aren’t limited to vulgar Oxbridge students divorced from reality, as Jones suggests). Equally, it denies those at the lower end of the socio-economic scale a sense of control; again abdicating responsibility on their behalf for turning either to bad behaviour or for choosing to live as productive, valuable members of society (as most do), Jones choosing instead an economically-driven determinism set about by the ruling classes.

In the end, Jones’s solution seems to be about creating strong communities once more, but beyond a few barely developed ideas about using a transition to sustainable and green housing as a means of creating work, there is little by way of solutions offered, and the negative side of nuclear communities is not discussed at all. It would also have been nice to have a deeper exploration of commodity culture and how that has infected people at all levels of society, but disproportionally those at the bottom, many of whom have been pushed into debt to feed this unhealthy addiction to material possession.

There is too much about Jones’s arguments that won’t ring true for the reader and, whilst this is a book written with real passion, which has the ability to inspire and revivify the dormant left, there is not enough content that stands up to scrutiny to make this the culturally-important book it could have been. Had Jones’s polemic been edited down to its essential points without losing its author’s energy, Chavs could have been a potent reminder of the disparity between the wealthy and the rest of society, a call to arms to the unpoliticised who today struggle not for equality or change, but for personal gain and material possessions. As it is, this is a book that may act as a reminder to some, but will fail to capture the minds of the majority; it’s a passionate polemic for the occasional reader of political thought, not comprehensive, but certainly accessible.

As someone who is politically disaffected, but who identifies with many liberal values, I have been suggesting to people for years that the term 'chav' is offensive. Therefore I felt sure that this was a book I would enjoy. Bizarrely, it very quickly irritated me, and presented biased and flawed arguments about a topic I'd hoped would be handled far more successfully, almost arguing me out of my original position. Nevertheless, there were still some interesting passages, and I can see students being enthused by Jones's passion and going on to read more on the topics introduced here.

Useful Links
Reviews of Chavs on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of Chavs on Amazon (US)

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