Friday, October 05, 2012

Owen Jones - Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class

Owen Jones is clearly a rising star of the Labour left. I've arrived late to review Chavs which has been extensively reviewed, debated and discussed here in many different publications (see for instance, The Guardian, Lenin's Tomb, Socialist Review and The Daily Telegraph). Since its publication in 2011 its seen (as reflected in the number of reviews) enormous success. It has also seen a further deepening of some of the trends portrayed in the book, which the author argues in his new preface helped detonate the riots of the summer of 2011.

Jones points out, back in that strange week when the forces of "law and order" seemed to have lost control of their inner-cities, there "was little appetite for social and economic explanations". In reality it wasn't so much that "People just wanted to feel safe and for those responsible to be punished", there was also a ready appetite from the media for simplistic explanations that placed the blame on greed, feckless young people and uncaring people.

Jones locates the riots in the wider problems in British society. For the left many of these are obvious - the current ConDem coalition is rightly condemned for its austerity policies that have cut back enormously on public services and the welfare state, cut funding for the few facilities for young people and of course, the police racism that helped spark the riots in the first place.

Jones begins the book by arguing that the last few decades have seen a growing "demonisation" of working people. The Chavs phenomena, the image of a social underclass, that is both permanently unemployed and unemployable, given to petty crime, racism and unwanted pregnancies is, for Jones, both a reflection of this demonisation and part of the problem. Comedians, newspaper columnists and politicians paint a picture of the Chav (Council Housed And Violent as one backroynm has it) that reinforces popular perceptions of such a section of society.

In reality, Jones argues that what has changed is the systematic destruction of working class communities, jobs and workplaces that has created vast pools of poverty and under-employment. Jones' book is in part a detailed explanation of some of these trends, for instance the growth in short-contract, low-waged, unskilled jobs, and the expense of well-paid, skilled, long-term jobs that created the basis for a wider community. Such communities, Jones argues, helped to solve other social problems, but once the core work was destroyed, whole areas went into decline.

Secondly Jones argues there has been a deliberate transformation of attitudes towards the working class by politicians. This he rightly locates in the Thatcher era, where the Prime Minister spearheaded a conscious drive to instill ideas of individuality into the mass of society. At the same time, her government laid waste to whole sections of British industry in an effort to destroy the very organisations, the Trade Unions, that helped workers protect themselves and their communities. One key example of this, is the destruction of Council Housing.

Thatcher's Right-to-Buy scheme helped transform Britain from a country where 2 in 5 lived in council housing to one in ten. Councils have been blocked from building new homes, and the under-mining of these estates, combined with the encouragement to own your own property helped undermine the wider community. The boom in housing buying coincided with an increasing sense of individualism. Now one had to fight everyone else to get ahead, rather than standing together for ones interests.

This destruction of council housing was important, not simply for what it did to the communities, but for how it has shaped the perception of working people since then. As Jones' explains:

"Because of the sheer concentration of Britain's poorest living in social housing, council estates easily become associated with the so-called 'chavs'. While it is true that about half of Britain's poor own their homes, they too tend to live on estates. The increasing transformation of council estates into social dumping grounds has provided much ammunition for the theory that Britain is divided into middle-class society and a working-class rump, suffering from an epidemic of self-inflicted problems."

Despite this assault, Jones argues, a lot has survived. Trade Unions still have enormous numbers of members and still have the power to terrify governments when they act together. Over half the population still describe themselves as working class, despite the way that successive governments have tried to undermine the words meaning, and working people still stand together to try and improve their collective lives in the face of austerity and indifference from on high.

Part of this indifference comes from those governments that have followed Thatchers. While Jones rightly reserves enormous contempt to the Tories (which comes across in his interviews with former Tory MPs and ministers), Jones also lays part of the blame at the feet of the Labour administration. Right from the time of Thatcher, Neil Kinnock, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband have aped the Tory views that being working class is bad and middle class is an aspiration for all. Indeed, Jones points out that Gordon Brown fought the 2010 general election on the slogan of creating "a bigger middle class than ever before".

The failure of Labour governments to undo some of the chains that bind working people (such as anti-union laws) have only accelerated the destruction of working class communities. But Jones also argues that their policies have copied and made this worse. In a interesting chapter on racism in Britain, Jones points out:

"New Labour launched a £12 million project specifically designed to help white working-class communities. Of course it is true that there are many working-class - and yes, largely white - communities that have been neglected or even abandoned by New Labour.... But this approach takes us further down the road of linking the problems of working-class communities to their ethnic identity, rather than their class. More dangerously it encourages the idea that working-class people belonging to different ethnic groups are in competition with each other for attention and resources."

This approach must be lauded coming from someone inside the Labour Party and Jones spends a good section of the book demonstrating that the working class is not the bigoted mass that liberal journalists often think it is. He does however over-state the question when discussing the Lindsey Oil Dispute. In this strikes, mass numbers of workers walked out, some of whom carried banners with the phrase "British Jobs for British Workers". While not everyone in the strike was racist, and there were those who argued against this slogan, the slogan itself was racist and demonstrated the potential for anger at government and job-losses to be turned down a more ugly direction (for more on this, see this article).

Jones builds up an impressive mass of data that undermines current government policy and demonstrates the mistakes of previous ones. His research also demonstrates just how wrong popular perception of society actually is, take for instance his figures on single-mothers, widely blamed it seems by Tory MPs for everything from economic crisis to rioting. Rather than single mothers being feckless young women, "only one in fifty single mothers are under eighteen. The average age for a single-parent is thirty-six, and over half had the children while married."

Jones' arguments that the anti-union laws should be repelled, that council houses should be built to high environmental standards to reduce emissions and create homes and jobs, and many other ideas are very positive and must be supported. But Jones' limitations come in the final twenty or so pages. The problem is, that individual socialists can all come up with alternative economic policies. What we also need are strategies for winning them.

For all his criticisms of Labour in power, Jones clearly believes that the only way forward is a reformed Labour party, which has better economic policies aimed at improving the lot of working people. While a laudable aim, the problem with this approach is that it ignores the reality of the current Labour Party, as well as Labour over the last 100 or so years. Labour consistently has signed with the capitalist system against working people. Labour's role as a reformist party that plays the systems game to try to win a few bread-crumbs, means that inevitably it sides with that system. Indeed, the real problem that runs through this book, as it has done for Labour thinkers throughout the last century, is that the working class must be a passive recipient of benevolence from reforming government, rather than an active agent of change.

It is true that Jones supports strikes and protests, though they have only passing mentions in this book. But  the problem is, that in order to survive the current economic crisis, working people are going to have to fundamentally challenge the priorities of the system. Labour politicians, and many of their leading supporters in the unions run terrified of such a response from below. For them, and Jones, the system must be reformed in the interests of the majority in society.

Revolutionary socialists have a different starting point. For us, the system leads inevitably to economic crisis. It has war, bigotry and environmental destruction built into it. This is a fact of life, not a aberration. This is a system that must be smashed, and the only social force that can do this, is the working class. This requires political organisation outside the Labour Party.

While reading Chavs I was seized on a number of occasions by enormous amounts of rage. What has been done to working people by successive governments over the last two or three decades is appalling. Jones' book documents well what has taken place and the consequences here. Marshaled inside this book are vast arrays of facts and figures, together with detailed arguments, that undermine the actions of the current government. For these reasons it deserves a wider readership. It is part of a weapon in our armoury against those who rule in the interests of banks and big business.

But this book is also a starting point for a debate. That debate is about what sort of political organisation working people need. Do they need a Labour Party that asks them to vote once every few years, or do they need parties that try to strengthen resistance, to unite different struggles, to push for stronger action to win the changes that are needed? Such a debate has been taking place since the beginning of Social Democracy. The weakness of the Labour Left in the last few years has muted it, but Owen Jones has helped revive the debate and his book is an excellent starting point for this discussion.

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