“Chavs”, class and representation

Issue: 136

Nicola Ginsburgh

A review of Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class (Verso, 2011), £9.99

Owen Jones’s best-selling Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class has deservedly been praised as an accessible and refreshing engagement with the issues of class in modern Britain. Since its publication last year Jones has achieved celebrity status as the unofficial figurehead of a re-emergent young left. His popularity is significant testimony to a resurgent interest in left wing politics, and indicative of a mood of both struggle and discontent with Tory and New Labour thinking.

Chavs traces the rise of an offensive caricature of the working class: a racist hooligan, an alcoholic thug; women unable to control their vaginas, men unable to control their fists; brainless, feckless scroungers-working class people, as represented by the term chav, are nothing more than parasitic growths on society. Jones demonstrates how the figure of the chav is used to deflect blame away from the structures that create inequality onto individuals. The chav caricature implies poverty is the result of personal choices and moral deficiencies-laziness, pure unadulterated barbarity and primitive atavism-rather than the system itself. Consequently, such representations not only shroud the real causes of inequality, but also act to justify further attacks upon the welfare system. After all, why should taxpayers’ money go towards sustaining the gross lifestyles of indolent plebs?

Jones argues that derogatory working class caricatures gained currency because the working class has relatively little power over how it is represented. The proportion of people from working class backgrounds in journalism and politics has significantly dwindled, while the middle class edges further and further towards monopolising positions of power, replicating society in its own image to serve its own needs. Put simply, there is a class bias in the dominant representations of society. Even genuine attempts to give the working class a fair representation or voice inevitably reproduce unrealistic stereotypes due to the middle class’s detachment from the actualities of working class life.

Alongside growing contempt for the working class, class itself has been increasingly ignored and disavowed by politicians and the media. Jones argues that Thatcherism’s all-out assault on trade unions and the welfare state crippled the working class, allowing for the subsequent airbrushing of the working class out of public life. He lambasts the disingenuous claim made by Thatcherites that we live in a classless society, pointing to the fact that those who made such statements were ruthlessly pursuing their own class agenda. Jones is also disdainful of New Labour’s capitulation to this logic, with their feeble response that “we are all middle class now”. This idea, or the notion that we live in a meritocracy in which all can, regardless of background, achieve unlimited wealth and success, denies the fact that class affects people’s lives in any real meaningful way and entrenches the belief people are responsible for
their own poverty.

Jones wants to reveal the real working class behind these representations. He dismisses the idea that class is about how much you earn, home ownership or lifestyle, instead defining the working class as “people who have no means of sustenance other than the sale of labour” and who lack autonomy or control over that labour.1 He describes an increasingly female workforce, based in service industries, working in poor conditions for low pay. He criticises the drive to create a flexible workforce of temporary and part-time employees working under terrible conditions, and explores the social cost of unemployment within communities destroyed by the closure of industries during the 1980s.

Like Jones, Marxism sees class as “the collective social expression of the fact of exploitation, the way in which exploitation is embodied in a social structure”.2 Class is essentially a social relationship: “Class society arises when a minority establishes sufficient control over the means of production to compel the direct producers-slaves, peasants or workers-to labour not simply for themselves but also for the exploiting minority”.3 Class position is objective and exists with or without class consciousness. A person may consider themselves to be middle class because they have a university degree, work in a white collar industry or display what are regarded as middle class consumption patterns and tastes, but it is their relationship to the means of production and to other classes in society that determines their class. Although it is tempting define class by occupation, this mystifies more than it reveals. For example, identifying the working class with manual workers overlooks the fact that “manual workers” can be shop-floor workers, supervisors and small businesspeople, just as the term “white collar” can bunch together the CEO of a large corporation and the low-paid office worker in the same category.4 Class is not about identifying static social groups within a predefined hierarchy; classes are better “defined as common positions within the social relations of production, where production is analysed above all as a system of exploitation”.5

Culture and class

Despite Chavs being about the working class, the opinions of journalists and politicians take precedence throughout the book. The middle class, who are the main focus of Jones’s anger and criticism, simultaneously provide his main sources, while those who own and control the means of production-the capitalists-escape largely unscathed.

Nevertheless, there is much of worth in Jones’s discussion of the realities of working class life today and his acknowledgement that “ultimately it is not the prejudice we need to tackle, but is the fountain from which it springs”.6 This is a refreshing departure from much recent scholarship of class identity, which analyses class through looking at culture and perceptions, and ideas of hierarchy and status in which class position is not only determined through the relationship to the means of production, but is also formed through consumption patterns and lifestyle choices.7 Thus Floya Anthias argues for a definition of class that “is not so much concerned with resource distribution and allocation but rather with inferiorisation at the cultural or ascriptive level, as well as the level of identity and access to cultural or symbolic resources”.8

Similarly, Andy Medhurst has argued that “class is not just an objective entity, but also (and mostly?), a question of identifications, perceptions, feelings”.9 This approach is more interested in the “linguistic condescension” levelled at those with working class accents, than that those who own such accents are working for the minimum wage with no job security. For these writers, Marxist analysis suffers from an “obsession” with economics. Medhurst argues “class privilege and class prejudice are not reducible to dispassionate debate or the algebras of abstraction”.10 They see the need to address cross-class cultural differentiation and the ways in which the middle class sneer at working class culture because this is fundamental to their idea of how class is constituted. However, this ultimately drags them further and further away from the material social relations at the heart of class.

If we focus on the prejudices attached to status, the key to transforming society becomes an appreciation of chav stereotypes and tropes-a perverse donning of Burberry and gold earrings as a route to emancipation and tolerance. The answer to changing society does not lie in eradicating “status snobbery” which ultimately elevates the importance of people’s subjective attitudes towards one another above the unequal distribution of wealth and property. Jones’s strength lies in his concise articulation of the need for class struggle rather than status parity in Chavs, emphasising the need for strong unions and an international labour movement as the means through which real equality can be achieved.

However, although the idea that we need to tackle issues of status rather than distribution and ownership has enjoyed a resurgence in recent times, it is not particularly new, and the failure to recognise this is a weakness of Chavs. In the 1950s Labour revisionists sought to shed the rhetoric of class, believing it alienated the electorate and attributing their 1951 defeat to their characterisation as a party of the working class. Leading revisionist Anthony Crosland claimed the material inequalities in society had been largely overcome, increased state planning had protected people against ravages of capitalism and the real problem of society was the importance attached to status-that people did not feel like they were equal. People were apparently living in an age of affluence in which discontent was not a result of actual material deprivation or class antagonism, but “status anguish”.11 Concurrently, “embourgeoisement” theorists of the 1950s and 1960s claimed the working class had benefited from capitalism; content with their material lot, the real issue at stake for the working class was cultural acceptance.12

A history of class demonisation

The tendency to underplay such continuities emanates from Jones’s stress upon Thatcherism as the decisive turning point in class relations. Although he has rebutted claims that he romanticises the pre-Thatcherite working class, he maintains that:

There was a time when working class people had been patronised rather than openly despised. Disraeli had called working class people “angels in marble”. “Salt of the earth” was another phrase once associated with them. Today, they are more likely than not to be called chavs. From salt of the earth to scum of the earth. This is the legacy of Thatcherism-the demonisation of everything associated with the working class.13

This claim that Thatcherism saw the birth of contempt for the working class leads Jones to underplay the historical antecedents of class demonisation. The “undeserving poor”, the Victorian “social residuum”, the 1960s “culture of poverty”-class demonisation is not simply a product of Thatcherite neoliberal ideology and policies, and neither was it absent during Labour’s post-war period. Broadly speaking, these ideas can be traced back to the 17th century Poor Law, which sought to differentiate between “deserving” and “undeserving” claimants.14 Similarly at the turn of the 20th century, debates raged regarding proposals to segregate the very poor into detention centres, to remove children from “degenerate” parents and even to send the “residuum” overseas.15

Descriptions of the self-inflicted poverty of sections of the working class have been used to justify attacks upon social provisions for the poor for centuries. Just as Thomas Malthus argued at the end of the 18th century that Poor Laws “diminished the will to save, and weakened incentives to sobriety, industry and happiness”,16 today David Cameron argues that welfare has created a “culture of entitlement” and has remarked that “the benefit system has created a benefit culture. It doesn’t just allow people to act irresponsibly, but often actively encourages them to do so”.17

The unemployed have a particularly long history of demonisation. John Harrison has shown how people receiving benefits have been criminalised since the inception of unemployment benefits:

Stigmatised as the “dole”…granted only after a household means test carried out by the local Public Assistance Committee… No aspect of the 1930s was more hated and remembered more bitterly than the means test. It often involved officials coming into the home; it penalised thrift and encouraged tale-telling and petty tyranny…smelled strongly of the Board of Guardians and the workhouse.18

This proves strikingly similar to contemporary government campaigns on “benefit thieves”, which encourage individuals to ring a confidential hotline to report suspicious behaviour of others and the constant media denunciations of benefit scroungers and fraudsters.19 To acknowledge that people are unemployed because of the economic system would require questioning capitalism; it is easy to see why blaming the poor for their own poverty has always appealed to the ruling class. It is also convenient for these people to deflect questions of theft and fraud onto the poorest in society: MPs’ “overclaimed” expenses, on average 31 times the amount claimed by “benefit thieves”, banking scandals and corporate corruption draw attention to who the real criminals of society are.20

Race and the “underclass”

One frequent criticism levelled at Jones concerns his treatment of race in Chavs. The language of race has long been used to emphasise the supposedly deep foundations of immoral behaviour which invites poverty. Jose Harris notes that “from 1870 down to 1914 popular discussion of the problems of the very poor frequently referred to them in biological and anthropological terms as ‘a backward people’ and ‘a race apart’”.21 During this period, which witnessed the rise of biological racial determinism, some social Darwinists argued not only that there was a hierarchy of races, but that the poor, criminals and prostitutes were themselves evolutionary throwbacks, evidence of racial degeneration of the “white race”.

Likewise, in modern discussions of poverty, culturalist approaches tend to talk about the supposed criminal traits and behaviours of the poor as if they were part of a fixed culture, a hereditary disease-effectively to describe sections of the working class in racial terms. One of the most famous propagators of the culturalist approach to poverty is Charles Murray who has written extensively on the “underclass”: 22

The underclass does not refer to degree of poverty, but to a type of poverty. It is not a new concept. I grew up knowing what the underclass was; we just didn’t call it that in those days. In the small Iowa town where I lived, I was taught by my middle class parents that there were two kinds of poor people. One class of poor people was never even called “poor”. I came to understand that they simply lived with low incomes, as my own parents had done when they were young. Then there was another set of poor people, just a handful of them. These poor people didn’t lack just money. They were defined by their behaviour. Their homes were littered and unkempt. The men in the family were unable to hold a job for more than a few weeks at a time. Drunkenness was common. The children grew up ill-schooled and ill-behaved and contributed a disproportionate share of the local juvenile delinquents.23

The underclass concept itself is incontrovertibly tied up with ideas of race. First appearing in America, the disproportionate concentration of African Americans living in poverty led policymakers and academics to describe “underclass behaviours” as predominantly belonging to the African American community. The idea of a specifically black underclass entrenches the imagined dichotomy between a respectable white working class and a black “sub-class”, existing outside of working class struggle and with distinct interests. Moreover, it denies the role of racism and capitalism in the concentration of poverty in black communities, instead blaming black culture and behaviour. Consequently, whites who fall into similar levels of poverty are described in similar racialised terms.24

An apt example of how class inequalities are sometimes treated as racial issues is Jones’s infamous debate with right wing historian David Starkey immediately after the 2011 British riots. Starkey claimed that “the substantial section of the chavs…have become black. The whites have become black. A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic, gangster culture has become the fashion.” Jones lambasted Starkey for equating economic and social power, and respectability, with whiteness.25 Deploying the language of race functions to ascribe to poor whites static cultural and genetic characteristics, and simultaneously reinforces racist ideas-that whiteness is normal and superior, and blackness alien and inferior with the potential to “infect” white people.

Gareth Stedman Jones has detailed how the “social residuum” of the 19th century “was considered dangerous not only because of its degenerate nature but also because its very existence served to contaminate the classes immediately above it”.26 Yet, although racial ideas have certainly been applied to the domestic white working class, we cannot collapse class into race. Talking about class as if it were race confuses the specifics of both; racial oppression exists to justify unequal relationships in society, whereas class is the relationship of exploitation embodied in the structure of society. Racism may be ideological, but has tangible effects; oppression is lived and is real, but race itself is a historically specific category with no objective basis. Acknowledging that certain sections of society are described in racial language which assigns people particular criminal and poverty-inducing cultures and behaviours helps to uncover how their poverty is legitimised and individualised, but does not explain why that poverty exists.

The working class whitewashed

Furthermore, using the language of race to describe sections of the working class potentially reinforces the propensity to describe the white working class as a specifically dispossessed racial group. In Chavs Jones states that inequality has been racialised, that “the promotion of multiculturalism in an era when the concept of class was being abandoned meant that inequality became almost exclusively understood through the prism of race and ethnic identity”.27 Jones is referring to a liberal multiculturalism that conceives of a set of pre-defined, homogeneous cultures assigned to distinct ethnic groups, living side by side with completely different needs and attitudes, struggling to tolerate the innate differences between them. Within this understanding of multiculturalism the portrayal of the working class as exclusively “white”, with a monocultural British identity, has been used to claim that poverty and inequality are direct results of the presence of ethnic minorities. Alongside the portrayal of the white working class as an endangered cultural relic under attack from distinct “ethnic cultures”,28 it is argued that ethnic minorities receive preferential treatment by the state in the allocation of resources and that the immigration involved puts unnecessary pressure on taxpayers.29

Therefore the white working class are not always portrayed as “chavs”, but can also be represented as victims-particularly as victims of immigration. The Daily Mail frequently prints stories featuring headlines such as “Nine Out Of Ten Jobs Created Last Year Went To Foreign Nationals” and “Mass Immigration Has Made The UK’s Poor Even Poorer”.30 In the 2011 elections Tory candidate Maureen Pearce stood on a patriotic, virulently xenophobic platform which fed off notions of a white British identity under siege. Her manifesto stated a dedication to:

(1) Flying the Union Jack and Cross of St George all year round.

(2) Stopping mass immigration into Britain.

(3) Putting “political correctness” into the dustbin of history.31

Jones rightfully expresses the need to recognise the multiracial nature of the British working class to counter this inaccurate portrayal of a racially homogeneous working class under attack. In his new preface he states, “Chavs was sometimes referred to as a book solely about the white working class. One of the purposes of the book was to take on this narrow, exclusive image of the working class”.32 Although Jones understands that the chav is a representation that does not encompass the reality or diversity of the working class, his focus on this representation only allows him to show how the white working class has been demonised. To demonstrate the demonisation of a multiracial working class, the specific ways in which different sections of the working class have been represented must be recognised. Much could be gained from looking at the similarities in the ways in which chavs, immigrants and people of colour have been represented: derogatory stereotypes serve an ideological function in dismissing the structural causes of inequality, and reinforce the idea that particular groups of people have inherent immutable cultures prone to criminality and sloth. These categories are by no means identical, in either their development or their effects-but it is worth noting their similarities nonetheless.

Jones’s argument that the criminality of working class individuals is used as a template for the entire working class resonates with the way the media and politicians present crimes by particular immigrants and ethnic minorities. In his study of race and the press Teun A Van Dijk found that “crime is not covered [in the press] as involving black individuals, but as a form of ‘group crime’, for which the whole black community tends to be blamed”.33 Immigrants, like chavs, are portrayed as benefit thieves, fraudsters and scroungers. Many politicians are keen to emphasise the supposed inherent degeneracy of immigrants, who are regularly depicted as self-ostracising, with values and interests antithetical to the imagined white national community.

The working class has certainly been demonised, but it has been demonised in many different ways through numerous prisms that veil the commonalities and shared position of exploitation of people from different backgrounds. The chav figure must be placed alongside these other forms of demonisation to show how the multiracial working class is attacked and divided.

Working class racism

One of the most interesting sections in Chavs is the exploration of how the white working class has been portrayed as a racist rabble. The working class is regularly depicted as actively choosing to live in ignorance: ignorance of manners, ignorance of other cultures and a fervent anti-intellectualism. This portrayal of working class racism has been used to justify attacks upon the welfare state. The odious 2006 report The New East End uses the idea of racial competition over resources precisely for these ends.34 Welfare, it claims, is a “faceless bureaucracy”, an “impersonal force” based on taking “out” of the system, encouraging competition over resources that creates racial tensions, whereas “when competition is channelled into serving national goals, and putting something into the community, then its effect is likely to be increased solidarity, as happened during the war”.35

Yet there is another function in projecting all issues of racism onto the working class. When racism is seen as the product of morally and socially sick individuals who embrace their self-inflicted ignorance it becomes “a problem involving those on the outer edge of society which [does] not threaten the core of present mainstream society, culture, or the state”,36 a problem which can be ignored. The image of the chav is a convenient canvas onto which all problems of racism and crime can be projected by a media and state eager to protect their liberal and tolerant self-characterisation; each denunciation of the racist chav minority a ritual purification to cleanse and absolve themselves from their roles in the development and propagation of racism. Within this climate, where the working class is demonised as a racist underclass, the BNP and far-right groups attempt to align themselves in an empathetic position, claiming they are also wrongly victimised and accused of racism by a hypocritical ruling class.

Jones shows how the typical BNP supporter is likely to be portrayed as a working class lout. This view is also pervasive in much of academia; in a study of the National Front in east London Christopher Husbands has argued that the working class East End has an “unusual local culture” that encourages its inhabitants to be predisposed to politics of racial exclusionism.37 Much of this thinking centres on the presumption that the working class are more likely to be racist than other sections of society. Jones demonstrates how liberal commentators use the apparent racism of the working class to berate and mock them,38 but highlights that it is the working class who are most likely to live and work with, marry and befriend immigrants. Yet he maintains that “attitudes towards immigration are liable to depend on the class of the person who holds them. Indeed, prospective employers stand to gain from cheaper foreign workers”.39

The implication of this is that anti-immigration feeling is stronger within the working class, because it is they who suffer most from an influx of competitive foreign labour. Jones argues that “the average BNP voter is likely to be working class… The BNP has thrived in traditionally white working class areas with a long history of returning Labour candidates,” without acknowledging the real class basis of fascist organisations.40 For example, one prominent former BNP donor is millionaire Charles Wentworth; EDL strategist and funder Alan Lake, or Alan Ayling, is a rich director of a City investment fund; while successive leaked BNP membership lists point to a petty bourgeois core of supporters.41 Additionally, there is no strict correlation between votes for the BNP and levels of deprivation. One report found that the BNP’s election results were negatively correlated with the highest levels of poverty and greatest numbers claiming state benefits, concluding, “Overall it seems the poorer the ward the less likely the BNP are to do well”.42

Furthermore, working class people, black and white, have repeatedly organised and fought against oppression. There is a long history of working class anti-racist struggles, from Cable Street in 1933 to Lewisham in 1977 and contemporary mobilisations against fascist organisations, which complicate the image of a liberal, tolerant middle class desperately trying to hose down the frothing racism of the working class hordes.

While Jones argues that we should direct anger at the bosses rather than immigrants, he nevertheless reduces the causes of racism to the material concerns of the working class. Jones may give some anecdotal evidence of some middle class racists, but this is an inadequate substitute for considering where racist ideas actually come from and the role of capitalism in developing racial categories.43 Working class people do not instinctively turn to racist ideas to explain their material deprivation-the state and media play a fundamental role in shifting the blame for inequality onto immigrants.

Representations of the working class

Even if we accept that there was a time when the working class had an easily identifiable and largely positive representation, problems remain. Peter Hitchcock has argued that the difficulties involved in working class representation start with the fundamental abstractness of class itself:

Representations of class are active negotiations on the meaning of class as it is lived but do not constitute the real proletarian Being as an abstraction for capital. This certainly explains why cultural representations in themselves do not encompass social change, but it also goes a long way towards explaining the tenuousness of working class expression in general.44

The working class has never possessed a unique, homogeneous culture and identity that can be given a singular representation. Representation can provide insights into how class is lived in specific contexts, but cannot fully explain class or social change. In Capital Marx contrasts class in its “pure” abstract form with its historically specific
manifestations, remarking:

In England, modern society is indisputably more highly and classically developed in economic structure. Nevertheless, even here the stratiļ¬cation of classes does not appear in its pure form. Middle and intermediate strata even here obliterate lines of demarcation everywhere.45

While this stratification can exist within a class, the fundamental characteristic of the working class remains intact-the fact of its own exploitation. Therefore this recognition of diversity within the working class does not rid the working class of its collective role or suggest these strata are in antagonistic relations with one another, but rather points to varying degrees of heterogeneity within a shared social position.

As Savage and Miles have explained:

The British working class has always been heterogeneous…no single sector of employment ever accounted for more than 40 percent of the workforce throughout the period [1840-1940]. Even at the peak of Britain’s industrial primacy the majority of workers were not employed in manufacturing. The British working class was never purely an industrial working class.46

As well as being diverse, the working class is also dynamic. Under capitalism, the means of production are continually revolutionised as new industries appear and once-profitable ones go into decline. As the needs of capital change, the working class is reshaped.

Despite this, a certain section of the working class is sometimes treated as representative of the class in its entirety. So the “traditional” white, male manual worker has often been used as shorthand for the working class. But anchoring definitions of class to this historically specific manifestation ignores the diversity of the working class in terms of employment, prioritises a static representation over the dynamism of class, tends to exclude women and ethnic minorities, and undermines understanding of the contemporary working class.

The decline of traditional manufacturing industries, which saw the destruction of many mining and industrial communities that for many had come to represent and embody what it meant to be working class, has led some to claim we are living in a post-class world or that the nature of class has been fundamentally transformed.47 At the end of the 1980s a group associated with the publication Marxism Today, including cultural theorist Stuart Hall, produced a “Manifesto for the New Times”:

The “New Times” argument is that the world has changed, not just incrementally but qualitatively, that Britain and other advanced capitalist societies are increasingly characterised by diversity, differentiation and fragmentation, rather than homogeneity, standardisation and the economics and organisations of scale which characterised modern mass society.48

They argued this meant we were living in a “post-Fordist” world in which social life, culture and politics were no longer primarily based around class, but local decentred identities. Class seemed irrelevant to explaining the new wave of struggles rising in the second half of the 20th century around issues of gender, race and sexuality, and was increasingly regarded as simply one more facet of people’s identities.

While Jones largely avoids such lines of reasoning and vehemently argues that class is still important today, his comments sometimes seem to reflect an understanding of class centred upon representation. This is the case, for instance, when he laments the dearth of working class bands in popular music. This might seem like a pedantic point, but it is important to highlight how easily we can mistake a changed working class for its complete absence. In arguing that there have been no prominent working class bands since Oasis in the 1990s,49 not only does Jones overlook arguably the most successful band in the past ten years, the Arctic Monkeys, who sing in an unmistakably working class Sheffield accent, he also fails to acknowledge that many current artists, such as Cheryl Cole, Tulisa Contostavlos and Emeli Sande, are from working class backgrounds. His examples of The Beatles and Happy Mondays as the heyday of working class prominence in popular music expressed a historically specific working class identity-just as these female artists do today. Of course these artists do not fit into the traditional representations of the working class male manual labourer-but as ethnically diverse women from urban areas they do reflect a changing and variegated working class.

Similarly, while adopting a broad definition of the working class, Jones’s focus is on part-time, agency and short-term workers, employed in supermarkets or call centres. It is easy to see why, as he wants to explore those who are most likely to be demonised as chavs, but it leads to a tendency to see those in the worst paid jobs under the worst conditions as the most representative of the working class. These workers have been described as “precarious”, characterised by insecurity at the hands of a flexible free market, an argument that often goes hand in hand with the idea that globalisation has fundamentally undermined job stability. Jones’s argument that industry can “simply relocate” to countries with less expensive workforces50 misunderstands the selective and uneven character of global industrial relocation: capital mobility is restricted by the expense of relocation and the particular requirements for productivity, such as a skilled workforce and developed infrastructure.51

In the UK the number of part-time workers was 7.9 million at the end of 2011, a rise of 2 million since 1992, and agency work currently accounts for somewhere between 1.1 and 1.5 million workers. Yet part-time work should not be unquestioningly understood as non-permanent and unstable, and agency work cannot be seen as unremittingly enveloping the permanent workforce.52 Despite a trend towards flexibility, significant countervailing tendencies exist.53 One in seven people still work in manufacturing in the UK, while most people still have
permanent jobs.54

The chav is certainly unrepresentative of the working class, but we must be wary of suggesting the working class ever had a straightforward uncomplicated image, or that this representation, in itself, was necessary for the existence of class or for social change.

Although the underclass and chavs do not exist as a distinct class or social layer, these representations can have a real impact upon how people understand class. The chav is an attempt to win over sections of the working class to a ruling class idea-that there exists a minority who are responsible for their own poverty and from whom the problems of society ultimately stem.

However, these dominant representations are not simply unquestioningly repeated. For instance, people in council housing or in receipt of benefits can differentiate themselves from the other unworthy and lazy poor. But such representations can also be challenged and wholly rejected. As Jones notes, since the 1960s around half of the population have consistently seen themselves as working class, despite the lack of working class representation.55 Representation, in itself, cannot fully explain class, either as an objective relationship of exploitation, or as a definitive indicator to gauge class consciousness or how people understand their class position. The meanings people take from representations are not static and fixed, existing in a vacuum outside of class struggle and the material world. While the ruling class presents its own vision of society and attaches derogatory characteristics to sections within it, social being-our lived experience of class in the socioeconomic structure-challenges and undermines this common sense ideology.

We should not doggedly fixate on older identities or engage in a top-down process of creating an ideal representation that the working class should strive to embody; collective interests and working class identity are transformed and given expression through struggle, rather than workers being passive bearers of imagined idealisations of class identity.


In his conclusion Jones attempts to set out a loose agenda for left politics in the 21st century, which reflects his belief in a predominantly fragmented and deskilled workforce. Therefore, while acknowledging that the workplace
is still important, Jones nevertheless underestimates its continuing significance. Additionally, while Jones is right to argue against politics of rugged individualism and “aspiration” that focuses upon escaping the working class, and for the centrality of class rather than identity politics, some of his criticisms of the left are largely unwarranted. He complains that the current left are “more likely to be manning a stall about Gaza outside a university campus” than tending to the “bread and butter” concerns of the working class.56 But such international issues are class issues. Not only do they have significance for particular oppressed sections of the working class who are Muslim or Arab, but the working class needlessly fight and die in imperialist wars, wasting lives and billions of pounds that could be better used upon housing and welfare. Moreover, support for imperialism is one method the ruling class uses to try to bind a section of the working class to itself, making it essential that the left challenges it.

Although Jones argues that “the biggest issue of British politics today is the crisis of working class representation”,57 the reality is that at the high point of “old” Labour and trade unionism working class parliamentary representation did not translate into unfettered equality. If, as Jones states, “Old Labour remained committed to raising the conditions of the working class as a class, even if this sometimes amounted to mere lip service”,58 we should also recognise that Labour remained committed to upholding a system that exploited those it claimed to represent. The reforms enacted under extra-parliamentary pressure should be seen as bringing significant improvements for the working class, but ultimately, as Tony Cliff noted, “in office, the Labour Party has always ensured the continuity of the capitalist state and guarded its harshest, most anti working class plans”.59

The key to eradicating class inequality does not lie in giving the working class better representation within a system which maintains exploitative relations. Although this may bring improvements under particular conditions, it is the actions of the working class in collective struggles against capital that carry the potential to transcend that system.

Overall, Jones has made a welcome contribution to discussion of class in modern Britain during a period of economic turmoil in which working class people are being attacked. The chav may well mock a class reeling from the defeats under Thatcherism, and the power and influence of the ruling class to make its representations of society the most pervasive certainly impact upon the ways in which people understand society-but this is by no means the end of the story. The experience of growing unemployment and worsening living standards, while the rich visibly increase their wealth and push through policies that attack the poorest in society, undermines notions of classlessness, while social movements such as those based around the 99 percent reveal the common interests among the majority at the bottom of society and point to where the real divisions in society lie.


1: Jones, 2011, p144.

2: Ste Croix, 1984, p100.

3: Callinicos and Harman, 1987, p6.

4: Callinicos and Harman, 1987, p4.

5: Wright, 1979, p17.

6: Jones, 2011, p12.

7: Much of this culturalist approach is influenced by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu.

8: Anthias, 2004, p25.

9: Medhurst, 2000, p20.

10: Medhurst, 2000, p21.

11: Callaghan, 1990, pp174-180.

12: See, for example, Zweig, 1961.

13: Jones, 2011, pp71-72.

14: Welshman, 2006, p4.

15: Stedman Jones, 1976, p314.

16: Welshman, 2006, p5.

17: Cameron, 2011.

18: Harrison, 1984, p371.

19: Although a crude gauge, a quick online search for “benefit fraud” on newspaper websites has the following results. The Sun: 585 articles, the Daily Mail: 1,311 articles, the Telegraph: 5,640 articles.

20: “Benefit Fraud Average Cost 31 Times Lower Than MP Expense Overclaims”, Political Scrapbook, 30 May 2011, http://politicalscrapbook.net/2011/05/mps-expenses-vs-benefit-fraud/

21: Harris, 1993, pp235-236.

22: The notion of the underclass has numerous contested conceptualisations and has both right and left wing adherents. Here I focus only on those who stress cultural and behavioural determinants, rather than those who see the underclass as created primarily by structural causes, while recognising that these approaches are not completely distinct as there is often considerable overlap between the two.

23: Murray, 2006, p24.

24: Although Murray denies race plays a significant role in the British context (Murray, 2006) the ideological underpinnings and assumptions remain.

25: Newsnight, BBC, 12 August 2011.

26: Stedman Jones, 1976, p289.

27: Jones, 2011, pp101-102.

28: This is problematic for several reasons. The notion that ethnic groups have distinct, uncomplicated cultures ignores cultural variation within nationalities and ethnicities. It also ignores the mixing that has gone on for thousands of years between people from different backgrounds to such a degree that to speak of any distinct national or ethnic culture is meaningless. It also denies the ideological role static and fixed conceptions of culture play, and fails to see the various and diverse interpretations and meanings cultures can have to different social groups within different circumstances and contexts, or see culture as a process rooted within material practice and the struggle between social groups. For a more detailed discussion, see Rosen, 2011; Barker, 1981; Jenkins, 2011.

29: For a rebuttal of such claims see Barker, 1981; Kimber, 2010.

30: Daily Mail, 13 May 2011; 31 August 2011.

31: “Labour Slam Tories Over Attempts To ‘Woo the BNP Vote’”, Your Thurrock, 3 May 2011.

32: Jones, 2011, p xiv.

33: Van Dijk, 1991, p100.

34: Indeed, it argues that not only has welfare increased racism, it has been detrimental to women and disproportionately benefits the middle and upper classes.

35: Dench, Gavron and Young, 2006, p7. For a debunking of the myth of cross-class solidarity during the war, see Calder, 1992.

36: Witte, 1996, p174.

37: Husbands, 2007, pp55, 26.

38: Jones, 2011, pp117-118.

39: Jones, 2011, p240.

40: Jones, 2011, p223.

41: Basketter, 2008. For a more detailed analysis of the BNP see Smith, 2009.

42: John, Margetts, Rowland and Weir, 2006, p15.

43: See Callinicos, 1993.

44: Hitchcock, 2000, p29.

45: Marx, 1959, p885.

46: Miles and Savage, 1994, p22.

47: For notable examples of the argument that the working class no longer has a revolutionary role, see Gorz, 1982, and Hobsbawm, 1978, or for a more recent example, Pakulski and Waters, 1996.

48: Hall and Jacques, 1989, p11.

49: Jones, 2011, p133.

50: Jones, 2011, p157.

51: See Harman, 1996.

52: Choonara, 2011.

53: See Dunn, 2004.

54: Smith, 2007.

55: Jones, 2011, p33.

56: Jones, 2011, p257.

57: Jones, 2011, p258.

58: Jones, 2011, p88.

59: Cliff, 1975, p166. See also Coates, 1975, and Miliband, 1972.


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