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Socialism Today 154 - December/January 2011/12

Writing off the working class?

Chavs, the recent book by Owen Jones, shows how the ruling class are attempting to demonise the working class in order to create ideological support for their dismantling of the post-war welfare state. But does he point a way forward against the austerity consensus? KEN DOUGLAS writes.

Chavs: the demonization of the working class

By Owen Jones

Published by Verso, 2011, £14.99

FOLLOWING THE RIOTS in August establishment politicians and media commentators queued up to condemn ‘the feral underclass’, in justice minister Ken Clarke’s words, they held responsible. Tory millionaire David Cameron resurrected his idea of ‘broken Britain’ and blamed the parents, schools, the 1960s and everything except the government cuts (dutifully passed on by the local Labour council) which led, for example, to eight youth clubs being closed on the eve of the riots in Tottenham. They condemned the spectacle of long-established businesses being burned out while ignoring the thousands that have been closed due to the economic crisis sparked off by the unrestrained greed and venality of the bankers and the super-rich they represent.

In doing so they were covering up the real causes of the riots: decades of neo-liberal policies that have left generations with little hope of a decent future. Policies which are culminating in the savage attacks of this ConDem government as it attempts to turn the clock back to the laissez-faire capitalism of the mid-19th century.

In his book, Chavs: the demonization of the working class, Owen Jones sets out to show how Tory, Lib Dem and New Labour politicians, in collusion with the media, have attempted to demonise sections of the working class over the last three decades to justify their attacks on the welfare state, trade unions, public services and council housing. He focuses on the emergence of the term ‘chav’ as emblematic of this process. Shocked at a chav joke at a dinner party, he wonders why this was acceptable where a racist or homophobic joke would have been condemned.

The origins of the term itself are a mystery. Jones speculates that it stands for ‘council house and violent’ or that it may be derived from Romany. It is widely used – working-class youth themselves use it denote someone with a certain type of look. Katie Price, aka Jordan, described herself as a ‘rich chav’ in a debate at the Oxford Union.

However, the use of the caricature in the media and by capitalist politicians has a different purpose, that of constructing a stereotype which can be used to attack the white working class. Jones quotes Christopher Howse, a leader writer for the Telegraph: "Many people use chav as a smokescreen for their hatred of the working classes".

Constructing a stereotype

JONES DEVOTES A chapter to the example of Karen Matthews, from the Dewsbury Moor estate, who colluded in the kidnap of her own child, Shannon, to claim the reward money that would be offered. He points out how cases like this are used to justify inequality; to show that those at the bottom are there because of their own volition, not as a result of social conditions created by government policy. A columnist in the Birmingham Mail went further and used it to attack the welfare state itself: "Karen Matthews, 32 but looking 60, glib hair falling across a greasy face, is the product of a society that rewards fecklessness". Correspondents to the Daily Mail engaged in a feeding frenzy, calling for compulsory sterilisation for all those who have a second child on state benefits. One exceptional example is generalised to cover a whole community and then everyone who lives on council estates.

Jones quotes another columnist, Carole Malone, describing the council estate near where she lives: "… much like the one in Dewsbury Moor. It was full of people like Karen Matthews. People who never had jobs, never wanted one, people who expected the state to fund every illegitimate child they had – not to mention their drink, drug and smoking habits". For right-wing columnist Melanie Phillips it showed that "what was once a working class is now, in some places, an underclass. It is a decline that this unfortunate woman seemed to embody". The term ‘underclass’ appeared in the 1980s for precisely the same reasons: to create a surrogate for the working class that could be attacked and used to demonise the class as a whole.

Jones outlines its purpose: "At the root of the demonization of working-class people is the legacy of a very British class war. Margaret Thatcher’s assumption of power in 1979 marked the beginning of an all-out assault on the pillars of working class Britain".

The long post-war boom and the strength and consciousness of the organised working class had won wage levels that reached an-all time high of 65% as a share of national income by the end of the 1960s. In the 1970s, with the ending of the boom and the need to maintain their profits, the capitalists set themselves the task of clawing back the gains that the working class had made throughout the 20th century.

"Thatcherism fought the most aggressive class war in British history", Jones writes, "by battering the trade unions into the ground, shifting the tax burden from the wealthy to the working class and the poor, and stripping business of state regulations. Thatcher wanted to end the class war – but on the terms of the upper crust of British society. ‘Old-fashioned Tories say there isn’t any class war’, declared Tory newspaper editor Peregrine Worsthorne. ‘New Tories make no bones about it: we are class warriors and we expect to be victorious’." (p48)

Jones shows how the Tories promoted the idea of what has come to be known as ‘social mobility’, of escaping the working class and becoming middle class. They attacked council housing by cutting grants to local authorities and bringing in the ‘right-to-buy’, which led to a million houses being sold off, while preventing councils from using the money from sales to build more houses. They promoted the idea of a property- and share-owning democracy. Keith Joseph, one of Thatcher’s closest advisers, described it as resuming "the forward march of embourgeoisement (becoming bourgeois), which went so far in Victorian times". (p143)

Thatcher attacked every gain that the working class had won. Accompanying this was a ferocious onslaught against the trade unions, the Labour Party and the ideas of socialism. Jones goes on to show how the Labour Party, under Neil Kinnock, first capitulated to the Tories and then under Tony Blair, continued implementing Thatcherite policies while putting forward the same message of becoming middle class. Peter Mandelson, one of the architects of New Labour, was famously quoted in 1998 as saying that New Labour was "intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich". Alan Milburn, another close Blair ally, defined Labour’s mission as enabling "more people [to] get the opportunity to join the middle class". New Labour even changed the name of the national statistical survey of ‘Social Class Based on Occupation’ to ‘The National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification’.

Taming Labour

JONES SHOWS HOW the Tories’ methods of divide and rule were enthusiastically taken up by New Labour, for example by demonising council house tenants as lazy and workshy. He quotes former Labour ministers James Purnell and Caroline Flint who, in suggesting that council tenants should lose their homes if they did not get a job, paved the way for Cameron and Iain Duncan-Smith and their attacks on council tenants following the riots.

However, Jones puts too much weight on the effect of Tory propaganda in the 1980s. It was constrained by the mass struggles that took place against Tory policies and the fact that the Labour Party, despite moving to the right, still acted as a conduit for working-class pressure. He ignores two significant defeats inflicted on the government: Liverpool 1983-85, and the battle against the poll tax which brought down Thatcher, both led by Militant (predecessor of the Socialist Party). In the early 1990s, after twelve years of Thatcherism, the British Social Attitudes survey records that 58% of people still thought the government should spend more on benefits, and 51% backed redistributing income from the rich to the poor.

The same survey in 2009, after twelve years of New Labour, however, showed a different picture, illustrating the transformation of the Labour Party into an out-and-out capitalist party. By 2009, only 27% thought the government should spend more on benefits, and 36% backed redistribution.

Although the Tories and New Labour attempted to convince people that they were becoming middle class, their neo-liberal policies actually had the reverse effect. Jones points out that, while Blair declared ‘we’re all middle class now’, the proportion of the population calling themselves working class is greater now than it was in the 1950s. Since the 1980s, the gap between rich and poor has widened. The pay of corporate bosses has risen from 40 times the average wage to over 900 times, while that of skilled workers has largely stagnated. Workers in Britain work the longest hours in Europe, with the exception of Bulgaria and Romania, and managers have been given licence to bully and attack working conditions.

However, Jones glosses over the significance of this process for the development of class consciousness and the potential for mass struggle. Sections of workers who may once have regarded themselves as middle class have become proletarianised. This process has been greatly speeded up under the pressure of the economic crisis and is partially recognised now in Labour’s slogan of the ‘squeezed middle’.

An article by Richard Godwin in The Standard about the emergence of the ‘Just Not’ generation underlines this: "There are hard-working people in western Europe and North America who are ‘just not’ making their rent payments and are just not able to afford the lives they hoped for. They appear middle class, in terms of education, tastes and aspirations, but an increasing number describe themselves as working class. That’s what their lives feel like, as they trawl Lidl for baby food not stuffed with additives, or save up for one decent work outfit". (19 October)

Similarly, Jones makes many points about how the trade unions have become weakened but his analysis is too one-sided. He cites the wiping out of manufacturing jobs over the last 30 years and the related decline in union membership from 13 million in 1979 to seven million today. Unions have failed to unionise large parts of the service sector, and Thatcher’s anti-union laws have made it harder to organise strike action.

Jones includes a section on call centres and interviews PCS vice-president and Socialist Party member, John McInally, about the difficulties of organising in these modern ‘dark, satanic mills’. The implication by Jones, however, is that the transference of jobs from manufacturing to the service sector has weakened the working class. While he acknowledges that unions like the PCS and the RMT, that have been prepared to take action, have grown, he lets right-wing union leaders and the TUC off the hook.

He refers to the Lindsey oil refinery dispute in a later section on immigration but does not draw the real lesson: that, in the face of determined unofficial solidarity action among construction workers across the country, the toughest anti-union laws in Europe were cast aside. What disputes like Lindsey and the success of the RMT have shown is that, while the composition of the working class may have changed, its specific weight in society has not. It still has enormous potential power at the point of production, distribution and exchange.

Ideological defeat

IN A SENSE, these arguments were rehearsed in the 1980s. Kinnock argued on the eve of the 1984-85 strike that miners would not strike as they would not want to forgo their foreign holidays. The theory of post–Fordism said that the working class no longer held the decisive power in society because of the breakup of the large car plants, steel factories, etc. These ideas masked the reality that the leaders of the labour movement, the Labour Party and the TUC, gave up the fight.

Jones confuses the strength of the trade unions and the power of the organised working class in society with the pusillanimous leadership of the TUC and the Labour Party at that time. "[The Tories have] never had to engage in a class war, largely because we signed the peace treaty without realising that they hadn’t", Jones quotes Kinnock, Labour Party leader 1983-92. (p40) Kinnock, now a multi-millionaire peer of the realm, was wrong on both counts: the Tories never stopped practising class war and he didn’t sign a peace treaty, he surrendered, as Jones later points out. But he did not stop there. Kinnock refused to back the miners and then went on to dismantle the Labour Party in Liverpool, which had waged a successful battle against the Tory government’s cuts.

There was a ferocious struggle in the Labour Party in the 1980s over a strategy and programme that could defeat the Tories. This was at heart an ideological struggle between the Marxists in the Labour Party, including those grouped around Militant, and the pro-capitalist right wing. Jones completely ignores this period even though it is key to understanding both the transformation of the Labour Party into a bourgeois party under Blair and how and why the leadership of the trade union movement, with a few exceptions, capitulated to the Tories following the defeat of the miners in 1985.

Kinnock successfully laid the basis for Blairism and he was aided by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989. Jones quotes Purnell: "Somehow, post 1989, a whole bunch of things were defined as, if not insane, then at least as slightly far-fetched, and therefore people on the left had to argue very, very hard to win arguments about overcoming market outcomes or reducing inequality".

Ever since the Russian revolution the bourgeois have produced an avalanche of material attacking the revolution. For the first time, capitalism was overthrown, workers took power and, for a period, a democratic workers’ state existed. Even though the revolution was later hijacked by a privileged, totalitarian bureaucracy, it still rested on the gains of 1917: the abolition of capitalism and landlordism and the institution of a planned economy. The collapse of the Soviet Union therefore represented an historic defeat for the working class and was followed by an avalanche of propaganda attacking the very idea of socialism.

It was the task of socialists to defend the idea of socialist transformation as the only solution to the chaos and misery created by capitalism. Those who did not inevitably adapted to the position that capitalism was the only viable economic system. The Labour and trade union leaders from that period mostly joined the capitalist establishment, were elevated to the House of Lords and enriched themselves at the expense of the working class.

What is to be done?

IN HIS CONCLUSION, Jones puts forward a programme for the future. He correctly says that the most important immediate issue is the crisis of working-class representation. He quotes Polly Toynbee in The Guardian: "Over the years denying them-and-us class feeling may have alienated more voters than it won". But where is that representation to come from and what programme will it stand on?

Although in the book Owen is coy about the prospects for transforming the Labour Party back into a workers’ party, in meetings he has clearly backed that perspective. He puts forward a programme of nationalisation and calls for a new society based around people’s needs rather than private profit. He does not mention, however, socialist ideas or explicitly put forward a socialist programme, leaving the reader to wonder how this is all to be achieved.

The biggest missing factor in Britain today is the lack of a mass party articulating workers’ opposition to the effects of capitalism and able to pose as an electoral alternative. It is hardly credible that the Labour Party can be transformed – the wealth of material Jones provides shows how far it has gone. Ed Miliband, in whom the hopes of the Labour left appear to rest, gives every indication that he does not want power. His party supports the cuts and continues to support free-market capitalism, a system that has been plunged into its deepest crisis for at least a century and possibly in its history. The situation is crying out for the formation of a new mass workers’ party and militant trade union leaders like Bob Crow of the RMT have recently made that call.

To be viable, a new party will need a programme that can provide a solution to this crisis and Jones is not explicit enough on this front. A new mass workers’ party could galvanise the millions of working-class people who feel they have been deserted by the Labour Party and could rapidly grow on a wave of support. If it stood against the cuts and expressed the anger at what is happening this would be a big step forward, although the question of developing a programme would very quickly be posed. The Socialist Party argues that only a socialist programme could present a coherent case for an alternative to the economic chaos that capitalism has led to. Nationalisation of the banks and the key sectors of the economy is essential for a future workers’ government to control the flow of capital. But it would have to go further, moving from the chaos of production under capitalism to a planned economy that would be democratically owned and controlled by the majority in society.

At the beginning of the book Jones describes a meeting he and other young journalism students had with a Tory grandee who tells them: "What you have to realise about the Conservative Party… is that it is a coalition of privileged interests. Its main purpose is to defend that privilege. And the way it wins elections is by giving just enough to just enough other people". In reality, capitalism survives for the same reason, except now it is failing to ‘give just enough to just enough other people’ while the untrammelled greed of the bankers and bosses is laid bare for all to see. Chavs is a very good book by Owen Jones, with interesting material, but his conclusion falls short. The key question facing the working class is that to change society it first needs its own independent party.


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