Review: Chavs. The Demonisation of the Working Class, Owen Jones (Verso, 2012)

Whatever the uncertainty surrounding the derivation of the word ‘chav’, there can be little doubt as to the intention with which it is used to signify the feckless: to be a chav is to be a part of the tracksuit wearing, pasty chomping, benefit claiming, and economically inactive underclass.

It is to this caricature that Jones turns his gaze throughout his first book.  It’s packed with useful references which are often deftly drawn to outline the political and economic structures that are deployed to maintain the status quo.  There are plenty of occasions when anyone with the faintest understanding of the ways in which social inequality has blighted this far from united kingdom will find themselves nodding vigorously.  As Jones excavates the orthodoxy which allows commentators and politicians alike to direct scorn and contempt towards those ‘too thick’ to help themselves it’s hard to see any of the flaws in his argument.  It’s both an angry book and a well-argued tract.  Who’d want to disagree with him ‘as a government of millionaires led by an Old Etonian prepares to further demolish the living standards of millions of working class people, the time has rarely been so ripe for a new wave of class politics.’  Certainly not me.

The problem with it (and I really don’t want there to be one) is that it tends to either romanticise the working class or treat them simply as passive victims of circumstance.  It is this tendency towards homogenisation that irks slightly and at times Jones’ arguments become a little too selective.  Indeed, the conflation of the term ‘chav’ with ‘working class’ is highly problematic (linguistically and economically).  He takes aim at Little Britain to point out that the character Vicky Pollard is ‘grotesque’ but he fails to state the obvious: all of the characters in Little Britain are ‘grotesque’.  It’s such nuances that are sometimes lost throughout the book.  The implication of the criticism of Walliams and Lucas is that class discrimination is simply a one way process.  There’s little discussion of the experience of inverse snobbery that motivates the poetry of, say, Tony Harrison.  To do so would be to admit some of the problems that are inherent when writing from a left of centre position: the working class are always understood as being the oppressed victims – a position as reductive and caricatured as the one he is arguing against.

It is a good book though.  We need more passion, more indignation, and greater fairness.  This book certainly contributes towards such a worthwhile project and it deserves to be widely read.