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The Demonization of the Working Class: Owen Jones's Chavs in the Observer, the Evening Standard and the Times

Kaitlin Staudt10 June 2011

The Observer's Carole Cadwalladr asks a man on the street, 'What is a chav?'. He answers, "A chav is someone who wears a tracksuit, has an earring, and a haircut which is grade zero on the sides, grade three on the top."

This contrasts with Owen Jones's argument in Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. Arguing that the chav figure is a caricature that encourages the ridicule and hatred of working-class people, Jones states, "The 1980s saw a dramatic assault on all aspects of working class life, on unions, and council houses, and communities, and with it working class pride. It's been replaced by middle class pride, and the working classes have come to be seen as something to escape from." Calder discusses the media's role in caricaturing working-class people in this way Britain's TV:

To find what used to be termed "the respectable working class" you need to drive 10 miles from Brentwood, and travel back 30 years in time, to the other side of the county, and the other side of Thatcherism: to the Dagenham of Made in Dagenham... It's only here, in the past, that you'll find a world of proud and happy working class folk; people who are empowered by trade unions... who are diligent and law-abiding and happy to call themselves working class.

In 2011, Jones says, hardly anyone does. When I ask Tony Benn why that is he says: "It's because there's this idea that somehow you've failed if you're poor." The idea of chavs as a semi-feral underclass has emerged, he suggests, because "the media are very hostile to these people. What they're doing is suggesting that if they're sacked it's in some way their fault. And if you blame unemployment on the victims, you are ignoring the logic of what has actually happened."

And it's not just the media, says Tim Horton, the research director of the Fabian Society. "Although the way that the media portrays poverty is a disgrace, politicians are worse. They're laying claim to these stereotypes to create an aggravated sense of tension which then allows them to destroy the welfare system."

Andrew Neather reviews Chavs for the Evening Standard.  Suggesting that media ridicule is:

[S]ymptomatic of a new, wider disdain. For to belong to the working class is no longer to be the salt of the earth but instead part of a class with insufficient brains, taste or aspiration. It's even acceptable for the Left to kick the white working class as a bunch of racist BNP supporters, "one marginalised ethnic minority among others".

Yet Jones's central argument is far more ambitious than this. For him, Vicky Pollard is merely the embodiment of a class war waged - and won - by the Conservative Party and its allies over the past three decades. Our laughter at her expense is the fruit of Mrs Thatcher's assault on the unions, of the collapse of traditional industrial jobs and of the Labour Party's embrace of neo-liberal economics. Pollard represents the view of that class war's victors. It is a victory that Jones is determined to reverse.

Carol Midgley chooses Chavs as the Saturday Times 'Book of the Week,' asking:

Perhaps you are now thinking what some people say: "So what if there's a word to describe a certain type of vulgar, feckless, feral, fecund, workshy, benefits claiming lout? Everyone knows these people exist. This is why TV comedy characters such as Vicky Pollard and Waynetta Slob are so funny; they're based in truth."

But really, how "true" is it? The fact that only one single mother in fifty is under 18. The majority of people living in poverty actually have a job. The claiming of Incapacity Benefit was encouraged by several governments to mask unemployment figures. The figures don't stack up. Jones's point is that some politicians and certain sections of the media have gleefully seized upon this stereotype and presented it as typical of an entire sector of people...

It is for reasons such as this that Jones's book needed writing. Much of it is not about "chavs" at all but the emergence of creeping contempt for anyone outside the middle-class bubble. It started long before Burberry caps and garish leisurewear became the so-called badge of "chavdom." But because the "chav" refused to be lower class and humble, and indeed was often loudmouthed, they were ripe for a kicking... The demonization of the working class, he writes, is simply the ridiculing of the conquered by the conqueror.

Visit the Observer to read the article in full.

Visit the Evening Standard to read the review in full.

The Times review is available behind their pay wall.

Filed under: articles, reviews