I have just finished reading Chavs by Owen Jones. The book is subtitled “the demonization of the working class” and this is really its core theme. It starts with discussion of the term “chavs” which is a derogatory term used to describe the white working class poor. Like Owen I remember when the term first surfaced and the way that it slipped into ‘polite society’. Owen recounts attending a dinner party where the term was used without concern by his middle class friends. He makes the point that similar derogatory terms about race or gender would not have been tolerated, but within certain social echelons it is broadly acceptable to hate the working class.
For those of us who are uncomfortable with the term ‘chavs’ and the widespread acceptability of the hatred of the poor the emergence of the term threw up a few challenges. At first I was simply amazed that people were willing to air their prejudices so boldly, but gradually I started to challenge the use of the term. So did lots of other people, focused around Owen’s book, and my guess is that the use of the term ‘chavs’ is probably in decline. However, regrettably this doesn’t mean that the broader social attitude that it gave voice to is also in decline.
The book explores how the working class are demonized at a number of levels, perhaps most importantly it traces how a miss-representation of working class culture informs policy. Hatred of the working class is based on assumptions about their otherness and this includes an ironic belief that working class people don’t work. Alongside this are a whole host of stereotypes that include racism, sexism, poor parenting, poor financial management and most Victorian of all a fear that the blighters are breeding at an alarming rate.
The book points out that very few of these myths are based in any kind of reality. For example multi-generational worklessness is rare to the point of non-existence, the working class is one of the most racially diverse and integrated sections of the population and those with very little money tend to be better at managing it than those with a lot of money. However, the book also shows that politicians never like to let facts get in the way of a good story and so endless amounts of welfare, housing, education and employment policies have been built on this kind of anti-working class prejudice.
The one place where I would have liked a bit more clarity was in the definition of the working class. Owen Jones plays around with a number of definitions. One way in which the group is defined is essentially a cultural one. Working class people are those who self-define in this way. This sort of idea then tends to lead to the identification of a stereotype (whippets, flat caps, regional accents etc.). The problem with this kind of definition is that it doesn’t really engage with issues of money and power. So an alternative position (one which Marx would probably buy into) is to see class as essentially a description of an economic relationship. So working class people are those people who have nothing to sell other than their labour. This kind of definition is very inclusive as in reality very few of us have very many capital assets. Imagine you lost your job and couldn’t work, how long could you keep your standard of living going on the basis of your capital assets? Personally I’d be lucky if I made more than a couple of months.
Jones, like me, is tempted by the economic definition of class. However, he ultimately settles on a compromise. His compromise is essentially about professional autonomy. So working class people are people who have nothing to sell other than their labour and also have limited professional autonomy. This would allow him to conclude that I’m not working class, because although I have an economic reliance on my labour power I also have considerably professional autonomy. I don’t have to do the same thing every day and I get to choose how I spend my time. However, this definition doesn’t really work for me either. The concept of professional or occupation autonomy is a very slippery one. In my murky past I worked on a conveyer belt at Walkers Crisps. I was responsible for removing the black and green crisps from the belt as they shuffled along (for eight hours). This was clearly a very low level of professional autonomy. Now I choose how I spend my time as long as I can generate sufficient research income for the University. This is far greater autonomy, but it is a long way from total autonomy. In fact the work that I do is highly constrained by policy, funding, organisational aims and so on. In between these two jobs I have had a lot of other jobs all of which have had varying degrees of autonomy. Working as a car park attendant, for example gave me considerable autonomy as I could read and think and wander about, working as a trainer gave me less because I was always in front of a group of students. Autonomy is useful as a relative concept, but less useful as an absolute one that divides us clearly into classes.
Nonetheless, despite these concerns about the definition of class, it is clear that ideas about class are very important in British politics and the operation of social systems. I think that there are a number of lessons in Chavs that are worth thinking about in terms of career development. Most obviously there is the way in which the misrepresentation of the working class has constructed the nature of problems like unemployments, NEET and school disengagement. Frequently these have then resulted in transformation of support into policing with careers workers in the role of the police. If working class people are inherently lazy there is no point in supporting them to find work, we have to force them through a mix of cajoling, benefit conditionality, cattle prods or whatever else comes to hand. This also has the added benefit of obscuring the fact that there is a political and economic basis for unemployment and pushing the blame onto the (working class) individual.
Even more interestingly Jones engages with the idea that there are problems in the very way in which the idea of aspiration is constructed. A lack of aspiration is often seen as a key component of the failings of working class people, but what does this actually mean? The following passage sums this up well.
At the centre of a political agenda must be a total redefinition of aspiration. ‘I think you start from the basic notion of aspiration,’ says Jon Cruddus, ‘because this was the real cynical element within the worst elements of New Labour post-2001 – the way they stripped out from the notion of aspiration any communitarian element. Any sense of duty, obligation, any sense of something that unites people, rather than this dominant atomized, consuming, acquisitive self.’ The new aspiration must be about improving people’s communities and bettering the conditions of the working class as a whole, rather than simply lifting able individuals up the ladder. (258)
This passage gave me considerable pause for thought about the aspirations of career development. Career development is typically focused on the individual and very commonly serve to ‘life able individuals up the ladder’. In itself this is a noble aim, but it is one which may have some negative social consequences. What if helping people to transcend the circumstances of their birth actually asset strips their communities and leaves the social structures intact. Should we not be trying to improve the lives and careers of whole communities rather than just helping people to leave.
I’m left pondering some of these issues. I’d be interested to hear what others have to say about this.