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Right Hook: The Tactics of Conservative Criticism (pt.2)

Right Hook: The Tactics of Conservative Criticism (pt.2)

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Start here: Right Hook: The Tactics of Conservative Criticism (pt.1)

Chavs

In Chavs, author Owen Jones argues that media caricatures and opportunistic politicians have helped shape the image of the British working class as feckless, scrounging criminals, or 'chavs'. We direct a level of ire toward this people that would be unthinkable were the word 'chav' replaced with 'black', 'gay' or even 'pleb', which alone shows how unacceptable it is. Yet this vilification of 'chavs', combined with the fact that many of us consider ourselves 'middle class', obscures the simple fact that a majority of people in the UK fit a fairly reasonable definition of working class, and, on top of this, these people are not work shy louts.

A lot of the conservative criticism of this book seems to miss the point. "Chav is not commonly understood as shorthand for working-class; it is shorthand for violent, work-shy louts who ruin perfectly good neighbourhoods", writes Tim Stanley. But why do we have a shorthand for these people when they are in poor neighbourhoods, but not when they are in middle class or upper class neighbourhoods? Stanley reckons that anyone can be a chav, but I've not often seen, say, the Bullingdon Club referred to as such. 'Ordinary' people who commit crimes are simply called...criminals, or perhaps 'bad eggs', or even something less affectionate, but they do not earn their own collectively derisory term. There is also no doubt that, while some may use the term chav sparingly, overall it helps to tarnish entire communities, as so aptly demonstrated by the media treatment of the Kidnapping of Shannon Matthews. Jones does not defend the working class as chavs; he says that they have been charactised by it, and their reality has been obscured.

Critics such as Stanley argue Jones is "simultaneously conflating and defending the working class and chavs", and questions the need for the "anachronistic" idea of a 'working class' at all. Yet Jones spends a substantial amount of time discussing what the concept really means. He defines 'working class' in the (loosely) Marxist sense as somebody who has to work for another to get by, though he also adds that it is less applicable to professionals, who have a lot of control over their working lives. Jones makes it clear that the popular 'we're all middle class now' myth is simply not reflected by the facts: around half the British work force are in low pay, menial, often insecure jobs. However, the decline of unions, coupled with the increasingly atomised nature of this work, has thwarted attempts to restore working class solidarity.

For some, Jones' treatment of the working class essentially robs them of autonomy, and paints them as gullible to politician's propaganda, unable to fend for themselves. This is really a superficial reading that is generally only achieved by quoting Jones' arguments selectively. For example, Peter Cuthbertson characterises Jones' position as "[the working class] may say they want welfare reform and an end to mass immigration, but don’t take that at face value". Yet Jones notes that many of the people he interviewed were incredibly clued up about the real nature of problems such as housing shortages, and viewed even their own opposition to immigration in a similar way that Jones did: an unfortunate, second-best solution to a much bigger problem.

It's true that when talking about income, employment and so forth, Jones tends to emphasise the systemic aspects such as the decline of industry in local communities, but this is something that even critics such as Cuthberson do not deny is a major factor, and is virtually impossible for individuals to control. On the other hand, when Jones is talking about people themselves, he goes to great lengths to praise them, precisely in the name of combating the 'chav' caricature. For instance, Jones places a lot of emphasis on the pulling together of the people of Dewsbury after Shannon Matthews was kidnapped, and warns that it is dangerous to lump the 'working class' together, as they are obviously a diverse group of people.

Conservatives often seem to think that even mentioning class is a patronising attack on 'aspiration', but pretending the UK is some sort of 'meritocracy' in the face of the evidence Jones presents to the contrary is simply deluded. As Jones points out, it is simply a fact that some people will always have to do 'working class' jobs: clean the streets, drive the buses etc. These jobs are, in fact, the most important jobs in society, and attempts to improve the lot of the people who do them as a group, instead of encouraging them to 'escape' is recognition of this fact, not - as Brendan O'Neill puts it - anything to do with making sure they "know their place" (remember: under socialism, everyone would have to the shit work!)

Thankfully, unlike the other books in this post, the initial wave of criticism does seem to have been displaced by a more reasoned approach from both sides. The Economist, to its credit, gave a fair review of the book, noting that although sections on Thatcherism might be disputed by some, and a large amount of evidence was "inevitably...subjective and anecdotal", the central point of the book was "depressingly difficult to argue with". Even some of the aforementioned reviewers I have linked to have acknowledged there is at least a grain of truth to the 'chav' hypothesis; if they could overcome their priors about class and meritocracy, they might be more sympathetic overall.

Tomorrow

Right Hook: The Tactics of Conservative Criticism (pt.3) / The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism by Naomi Klein.

Out of all 3 books, the reactions to this one were easily the worst. If you were to believe these reviews - and before reading the book, even I was somewhat taken in by them - the author, Naomi Klein, was a polemicist, a liar, a hack, or even - as one delightful commenter put it - "a cunt". Klein's hypothesis was that disasters - both natural and man made - were often harnessed to push through unpalatable neoliberal economic reforms, to the detriment of many. This, combined with her attacks on Milton Friedman, did not sit well with 'free market' advocates, who generally see themselves as on the side of freedom. The book was therefore attacked quite vehemently by the libertarian right...


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