Posted by: martinworster | December 17, 2012


Finally got round to reading Owen Jones’ ‘Chavs: The Demonization Of The Working Classes’ and found it very thought provoking. For those that don’t know, a ‘chav’ – according to Jones – is a derogatory term for a usually young, jobless, fake Burberry touting, hooligan type of questionable morals frequently found hanging around Britain’s towns and inner cities and getting up to no good. The word came into common parlance in the last ten years and penetrated popular culture to almost over saturation. I even admit to using the term myself in certain situations. 

In his leftish polemic, Owen seems to equate the rise of most of Britain’s social ills and problems with the birth of Thatcherism in 1979. The killing off of the trade unions, the sale of council housing, the eradication of many traditional manufacturing industries and the general rolling back of the state, all point to a continued onslaught against the working classes. Particularly in the north of England, the traditional heartland of Labour, whole communities and towns had their hearts ripped out after the end of the mining industries. 

Many politicians – on both sides – make much of how Britain’s once very rigid class system has largely been eroded. Admittedly, Britain is probably on the whole a more fluid society and it is partially on its way to being a meritocracy. However there is still the very well worn path of Eton – Cambridge / Oxford – Government which suggests that wealth and privilege is always a fast track to power and money. In fact, of the current government, David Cameron (Prime Minister), George Osbourne (Chancellor) and Boris Johnson all went to Eton and were part of the Bullingdon Club at Oxford. 

So Jones argues that by using the word ‘chav’ we are essentially participating in the subjugation and denigration of a portion of the working classes – ie keeping them in their place and the subtext is always that they are inferior and somehow lesser members of society. I can see how the word has this negative inference and power. If I ever used it I hope I wasn’t subconsciously using it in this way. I like to think I used it merely as a descriptive signifier to a certain type, just for example, if I saw a group of well spoken gents in Old Windsor wearing suits and bowler hats I’d call them ‘toffs’.

I would have used the word ‘chav’ more in an aesthetic sense to describe what a people in a group were wearing – tracksuits, Burberry, fake brand caps, white trainers, hooded sports tops – plus behavior – smoking, drinking, talking loudly on mobile phones etc. Maybe there was a demonization aspect in my usage of the word at play, a verbal linguistic whip to keep them in their place. This line designates my place in society and you’d better not cross it, stay on your side. I hope not, but that’s the revealing thing about Owen’s diatribe, maybe there was. It’s the same with other words – pikey, oik, pleb, prole, gyp – that perhaps also have a political edge when used.

Reading the book brought back memories of my education. My secondary school was Haileybury College, quite a traditional public (boarding) school that had aristocratic links and generally worshipped at the altar of the upper classes. I suppose my generation starting at the school was the beginning of the change these private schools experienced as they opened up to new entrants, largely as a result of Thatcher’s 80s. Newly monied – nouveau riche – kids like myself were privileged enough (with parents who could afford it) to be able to attend the school. I do remember there was quite a lot of snobbery and reverse classism. I was a member of Russel Dore which was the then newly created day house – all the other houses in the school were boarding. We were quite looked down upon. Some of the boys were teased for their accents. Boarders joked that we were Kevins (a common name) and our girlfriends either Sharons or Traceys. We were teased for wearing white socks (even though we didn’t) as this would have been the garb of a boy who attended the cheaper local comprehensive school. Looking back now it can be seen as a fear driven response on behalf of the old guard as the school was opened up to people from different backgrounds and the wider change this might have reflected in society at large. Now I think the school is mainly a day school and co-ed throughout. 

The memories from my school are revealing. Humans always like to form themselves in groups – as like in nature, society is hierarchical. Unfortunately in a competitive capitalist society there will always be some members of society with more money than others. Money buys privilege and status. Due to evolutionary principles like survival of the fittest, those with wealth naturally like to hang onto to it and pass it on to their immediate bloodlines. Other members of society see how they operate (and the luxury of the life they lead) and will aspire to attain the same status and wealth. Some would argue that this dynamic is one of the main motors of society and has a legitimate function. The small elite at the top are aspired to by the masses at the bottom. 

I’m not sure how differently society can be arranged. I don’t think flat societies (socially and economically) are realistic in reality and even in communist countries there was always an elite at the top who controlled access to money and resources and dished it out amongst themselves. However, I do think the rich poor disparity is way too big now. The top 5 per cent are moving into a league way out of proportion to the rest of society and it is unsustainable. I do not know what the solution is. I hope the answer will come soon from clever and fair economists rather than angry mobs taking to the streets.


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