Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The British "Red Neck"

“Chavs – The Demonization of the Working Class,” by Owen Jones, 2011

Britain has always had a strong labor tradition, and it is hard to read a book that focuses on the particular variety of sado-capitalism practiced there since the mid-1970s.  The parallel to events in the U.S. is clear, making one think that perhaps the capitalists around the globe … actually work together! 

“Chavs’ is a British slang term for the poorest part of the working class, which has taken on connotations covering the whole British working class. It is similar to U.S. slang like redneck, trailer-trash, wigger or hillbilly – an anti-working class stereotype and pejorative.  It is from a Romani (gypsy) word meaning ‘youth.’  It was initially used to describe white working-class young people in Britain with designer sportswear and gold jewelry who ostensibly don’t work and make trouble.  The stereotype is that they live in public ‘council’ housing, like graffiti, rap, soccer and also wear hoodies and slanted baseball hats.  They are lazy, violent, uncouth, smell, are racist, like beer and drugs, have plenty of babies and enjoy sex – and yes, are white.  Sort of Eminen gone massive.  Jones contends that the stereotype has been applied to an alleged ‘rump’ working-class that seemingly won’t live in a ‘middle-class’ way.   All other aspiring respectable workers, you see, have migrated into the ‘middle class.’  The image now in Britain is that ‘working class’ actually means poor and 'middle-class' means respectable and evidently well-employed. 

Jones demolishes this version of bourgeois class hatred, which he sees as just another continuation of the class war started by Margaret Thatcher, and embraced by the Tories and New Labour.  The middle of the British wages system in yearly earnings is ₤21,000, which is $33,600.  That is not comfortable or ‘middle-class’ by any definition.  Jones contends that the majority of people in England are still actually working class – and if you add fake ‘professional’ categories like nurses and other skilled white collar workers, the numbers are even greater.  There are many white-collar 'trades' no different than being a carpenter, plumber, electrician or machinist.  The image of a giant middle class, a smaller underclass of sad ‘chavs’ and a few invisible rich people is a social fabrication which the power structure in Britain projects.  It has been harder to fake this after the destruction wrought by the 2007 economic crash.  Jones uses this book to deconstruct a rigged British class society hiding behind insults.

The parallels to the U.S. are frightening – Reagan and Thatcher, New Democrats and New Labour; welfare reform in both countries; Jerry Springer and a similar British sod; snooty middle-class columnists; charter schools and ‘free’ schools; the 47% and the chav ‘rump,’ the worship of the mythical 'middle-class'; the meritocracy.  There are even conservative U.S. theorists now declaring that white workers are becoming as ‘morally weak’ as Black people, who now have English counterparts.

Jones spends a lot of time looking at stereotypes in British tabloids, television and reality TV, in film and even in rock, where working-class bands are now the exception, not the rule.  (Mumford and Sons, anyone?)  Many British journalists and politicians from both parties now hail from private schools, Oxbridge, Eton and Oxford, and have never been working class in their lives.  Tony Blair, of New Labour, famously said that, ‘we’re all middle-class now’ much as Thatcher declared that ‘society does not exist."  Blair had thus denounced the base of his own party.  After all, where could they go with their votes?  (Sound familiar?) 

The most interesting parts of the book is how Jones describes what has happened to the British working class since the famous General Strike of 1926 and the rise of Labour.  He makes the heavy point that without a political party or unions, working class people have a hard time rising in society, and in fact, these organizations helped many people rise from humble backgrounds to prominence.  During the 1960s and 1970s, miners, car workers and dockers were the majority of British proletarians.  Now their sons and daughters are more likely to be working in call centers, at grocery stores, as temps, or in some other low-paid office job - with no union, lower pay, lower skills and less solidarity and community than their parents. That is if they can even find a job. 

Prior to Thatcher, the British miners union – NUM - brought down a British government in 1974 – and the Tories never forgot it.  Thatcher – like Reagan – decided to destroy the unions and weaken the British working class by de-industrializing and instead de-regulating the banking industry to unleash “The City” – London’s Wall Street. After the miners under Scargill were finally defeated in the brutal and bloody 1984-1985 miners strike, it has been downhill for union concentrations in Britain and the working conditions of the British working class.  Working class self-esteem has also taken a nose dive.  One example Jones uses is the closure of the Longbridge Rover plant in 2005, which created a hole in a formerly thriving community that has never been filled. 

Jones details many human interest stories of individual poor white people demonized by the newspapers, TV, the internet and the political parties, in some kind of throwback to Victorian England’s bear-baiting.  Putting fat, pregnant, unemployed women in the stocks, while being pelted with rotten tomatoes by posh poseurs would be somewhat similar.  The self-congratulation of series like “Downton Abbey,” which historicizes class snobbery and class oppression as things of the past, fits in quite well with the myth that class no longer matters.  In fact, class is the main thing that really matters, and it matters in every country on the globe. 

Jones does a careful deconstruction of newspaper columnist attacks on ‘chav’ white workers for being ‘racist’ in the name of middle-class ‘multi-culturalism.’  He shows this to be part of the same myth generated by the Tories, just from the liberal side.  Workers are only to be seen for their ethnicity, their personal attitudes – or gender preferences – not their class.  Thus middle-class ‘leftists’ can look down on white workers – just as liberal U.S. Democrats sneer at southern white workers and other northern ‘red necks.’  It is, after all, the last acceptable prejudice.  However, white skin privilege isn’t what it used to be, as more and more white people sink into poverty.  But ‘middle-class’ privilege still is going strong!

If you haven’t noticed, the caricature of poor white workers is similar to the long-standing caricature of poor non-whites.   Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani and Bangledeshi workers in England are also highly concentrated in poor, working-class communities.  In the 2011 youth riots against police brutality, British non-white and white youth actually worked together against the police.  I would say one of the weaknesses of this book is it does not link up the situations of both very well, though that was not its intention.  He does point out that working class Britain is far more integrated by marriage, neighborhood and job than middle or upper-class Britain.  Nor was his intention a general critique of capitalism, as he seems to think that a pro-industrial policy would have somehow kept capitalism from going overseas, or industrialism from becoming less profitable in Britain.  Neo-liberalism is not only a 'policy,' it is driven by economic factors within capitalism itself.

Jones ends the book with a look at the influence of the British National Party, (BNP) the racist anti-immigrant organization that is now the 5th largest party in Britain by votes.  He contends that working-class votes for the BNP are a direct a result of the destruction of the industrial economy, the evisceration of the unions and the class-abandonment politics of New Labour.  For instance, the closure of the Dagenham Ford plant has created the conditions of growth for the BNP in that area.  It is material deprivation and a scramble for the scraps of unavailable housing and jobs that causes the hostility to immigrants, not some magical ethnic hatred floating above social reality. Jones advocates unions and a real Labour Party organize in communities and geographies (as others are starting to suggest too) to deal with the new nature of the working class.  He thinks we need a return to class politics - not identity politics, anti-war politics or simple 'international' issue politics that the left has engaged in as a substitute. 

Other books about the mostly U.S. working class reviewed below:  “Embedded with Organized Labor,” “In and Out of the Working Class,”  “Reviving the Strike,” “The Precariat,” “Waiter Rant” and “The Invisible Handcuffs of Capitalism.” 

And I bought it at Mayday Books!
Red Frog, January 9, 2013

Today was the start of the 1905 revolution in Russia and the beginnings of the Petrograd Soviet.  Na zdorovie!


AA said...

I have an ongoing interest in the BNP and its leader, Nick Griffin (as I do with Marine Le Pen and Front National in France). They are anti-immigrant but I'm not so sure about the racist charge. Also, interestingly, they are adamantly opposed to US hegemony (Griffin has called for withdrawing British troops from Afghanistan, claiming it only furthers US pipeline ambitions there).

This kind of national populism is the only thing left for the working class and the lumpens, as the traditional left has not only deserted them but has nothing to offer, nothing to propose. That left has indeed bought into neoliberal ideology.

In passing, I'd recommend you read David Caute's 1980s novel, "Veronica, or the Two Nations," to better understand British class divisions. The kind of thing they won't show on pap like "Downton Abbey."

Red Frog said...

I don't watch Downton Abbey, but I know others who do.

You don't know what 'left' you are talking about, AA. The 'left' I know has not bought into neo-liberalism. If you think the Democrats or the liberals or the social democrats are 'left' - well, then, the term has lost all meaning.

AA said...

That is what has passed for "left" for decades. Also include chunks of the trade union bureaucracy, which at best has been playing a weak rearguard action. Or do you mean the armchair theorising left?

AA said...

Also, it wasn't Thatcher and the Tories alone who decided to come down hard on unions. There was widespread sentiment that the unions had become unruly, out of control, and held the nation as hostage. The Labour Party depended on union support for finances and votes but frontbenchers like Roy Hattersley and Dennis Healey realised, by the mid-'70s that the British welfare state was unaffordable, that union wage demands were causing double-digit inflation (at times over 20%) and that Britain was slipping down the GDP league table. Thatcher didn't set out to de-industrialise: it was the inadvertent consequence of the economic monetarist pap she was fed by her economic advisor, Alan Walters.

In the 33 years since Thatcher came into office, the armchair left has offered many a scathing (and legitimate) critique of British neoliberalism (which has continued apace under New Labour). But as far as I know, it has never offered workable alternatives.

Red Frog said...

"Widespread sentiment." From who? Fleet Street?
It is true, the welfare state and capitalism ultimately cannot co-exist.
What might be the workable solution, other than real socialism?