Owen Jones: A book that hit a nerve when we realised we weren't all in it together

The economic crisis has focused attention on the distribution of wealth and power

Share

Nobody expected Chavs to attract half as much attention as it did. And if it had been released even three or four years ago, I doubt that it would have done so well. But the book's impact had less to do with the provocative title and everything to do with the fact that class is back with a vengeance.

During the boom it was possible to at least pretend class was no more – that "we're all middle class now". As the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown had pronounced the end of "boom and bust", and it seemed as though a future of rising living standards beckoned for all. At a time of economic chaos, this period looks like a golden age – even if we now know our sense of prosperity was built on sand.

Chavs was my contribution to ending the conspiracy of silence over class. But, unexpectedly, it pushed at an open door. Economic crisis helped to refocus attention on the unjust distribution of wealth and power in society. Throughout 2011, living standards for the average Briton were declining at the fastest rate since the 1920s. The Child Poverty Action Group warned that poor families faced a "triple whammy" of benefit, support and service cuts. But the wealth of the richest 1,000 Britons, meanwhile, increased by a fifth, after leaping by 30 per cent – the biggest increase ever recorded – in 2010.

For some critics, the book failed to acknowledge that the object of demonization was an identifiable subgroup of undesirables – a workless Burberry-wearing underclass – rather than the working class as a whole. It aimed to challenge the myth that "we're all middle class now": that most of the old working class had been 'aspirational' and joined Middle Britain (whatever that was), leaving behind a feckless, problematic rump. This was often racialized and described as the "white working class". "Chavs" was the term – encompassing a whole range of pejorative connotations – that best summed up this caricature.

The term "chav" is used by different groups of people throughout British society. Practically nobody, except in jest, self-identifies as a chav. The term is almost always an insult imposed on individuals against their consent.

In large part, the demonization of the working class is the legacy of a concerted effort to shift public attitudes, which began under Thatcher, continued with New Labour and has gained further momentum under the Coalition. Poverty and unemployment were no longer to be seen as social problems, but more to do with individual moral failings. Anyone could make it if they tried hard enough, or so the myth went. Of course, few would have known from reading newspapers or watching TV that the Jobseekers' Allowance was worth just £67.50 – and even less for those under the age of 26. And of course, such attitudes have political consequences. It was also suggested that I had a very one-dimensional view of the working class: that what I was actually talking about was a male, white working class. But in fact many of the key examples of demonised figures portrayed as representative of larger groups of people were women – Karen Matthews, Jade Goody and Vicky Pollard, for example. Though chavs are often regarded as "white working-class" figures, it should be noted that the book was intentionally titled "the demonization of the working class" rather than "the white working class". After long arguing "we're all middle class", the media and politicians started talking about the working class again, but in a racialised form.

Where race does come into it is the fact that working-class people from ethnic minority backgrounds suffer from other forms of oppression and exploitation. The majority of British Bangladeshis and Pakistanis, for example, live in poverty, while black people are far more likely to be stopped by the police. One of the main reasons politicians and media commentators started talking about the "white working class" was the emergence of far-right populism, as most prominently expressed by the British National Party. But Chavs argued that such movements were, above all, driven by social and economic insecurities.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: When is a baroness not a baroness? Titles still cause confusion

Guy Keleny
 

CPAC 2015: What I learnt from the US — and what the US could learn from Ukip

Nigel Farage
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?