“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class,
the rich class, that’s making war. And we’re
—U.S. billionaire, Warren Buffet
It might just be me but “class” discussions inevitably provoke a small hind-brain snigger. There’s just something so…dated… about the concept, provoking, as it does, images of tweedy pundits, street-corner prophets and earnest versions of younger selves. Somehow, class paradoxically lost its social currency just as Tony Blair’s smarmy meme “We are middle class now” emerged. Class became someone else’s problem as the rest of us seemingly escaped economic determinism through plunging interest rates and lax lines of credit. Positive working class depictions disappeared, surfacing only as snide amusements on reality TV, utterly ignorning the fact that the working class was undergoing a deliberate assault.
The best thing about a profound financial crisis is the literature it produces, and 2008’s credit crunch produced some of the best. Michael Lewis’ The Big Short and all of Matt Taibbi’s “vampire-squid” articles for Rolling Stone come to mind immediately.
Owen Jones’ Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class has a rightful place in this exalted company. Jones’ Chavs is well written and exhaustively researched. It also confirms our often inchoate suspicions regarding the machinations of our financial institutions. But rather than focusing on the recent financial plagues themselves, Jones highlights those who’ve suffered most—the working class.
Chavs. A pejorative term for the “non-aspirational” English working class. Possibly derived from the Romani word for “child,” the more prevalent explanation is that it’s an initialism for Council Housed and Violent. Familiar to fans of the TV show “Little Britain,” the chav’s popular image is that of a foul-mouthed youth, swaddled in bling and Burberry, always ready to glass a stranger at the local pub or have unprotected sex with a thirteen-year-old cousin. Basically “chav” is the UK equivalent to our own white-trash stereotype.
Struck by how endemic the term had currently become, Jones decided to investigate why it became so widely applied to a class historically characterized as the respectable backbone of British society.
What he discovered is that the increasingly acceptable denigration of the British working class coincided with a tremendous redistribution of wealth in the U.K. Wealth that has actually “trickled” up over the the last thirty years, rather than down, as privileged interests like to conveniently assert. Beginning with the 1980s Thatcherite “revolution” which destroyed England’s unions and outsourced the the nation’s skilled manufacturing overseas, and continuing with the Labour Party’s tax breaks for the wealthy, Britain’s working class was systemically gutted of economic and political power. This “astonishing wealth grab” directly benefited Britain’s elites with the top one percent now scoffing “a healthy 23 percent of the national pie. The bottom half, on the other has to make do with a meager 6 percent between them.”
It would be expected that such a massively inequitable redistribution of wealth would provoke a vigorous public reaction. But, as in North America, the destruction of the working class goes mostly unmentioned in mainstream media. And this is where Owen Jones makes his most compelling arguments about the pernicious effects of the chav phenomenon.
The class hatred encompassed by a term like chav, and the liberal usage of it throughout British society, is much more than the English tradition of simple snobbery, it is, instead, the embodiment of power, the “ridiculing of the conquered by the conqueror.” It’s sound of wealth acting without fear or accountability, and it’s a noise we’re hearing all around the globe.
Deeply engrossing Owen Jones’ Chavs is both an insightful look into social inequities plaguing modern Britain and a passionate plea to bring class back into public consciousness.