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

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The Independent Online

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.