Archive for the ‘Owen Jones’ Category

Oh, where to start on this one?  If ever a book captured the spirit of 2011, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones must surely be it.  Filled with indignation and outrage over the selfish, capitalist indulgences of the British middle and upper classes, Jones passionately champions the suffering masses against the largely derogative and dismissive image of them presented by the media and politicians.

I admire Jones’ enthusiasm for his subject.  He is clearly fully engaged with his topic, but, also clearly, does not feel it is remotely necessary to even pretend to offer a balanced examination, which can make this book incredibly frustrating.  As much as I agree with some of Jones’ basic and obvious complaints – private sector executives receiving salaries hundreds of times greater than their average worker’s salary, employee exploitation in non-unionized workplaces like call centres – I ultimately lost sympathy and patience with him because of his bias.

There is not a lot of room for subtlety in this book: everything is either black or white with no allowance for shades of grey.  One major, and I would argue false, assumption is that middle class people believe all working class (i.e. the majority of the population) people fit the chav stereotype, which, clearly, Jones does not have a difficult time refuting.  Defining the facts to suit your arguments is a persuasive framing device but it rarely holds up well when people are given any time to consider them, which they clearly do have in this case.  The broad generalizations at each class level over simplified the issues and are part of what made the arguments so unsatisfying.  If more than 50% of the population is working class, how can they possibly all be this way or that?  Certainly Jones is supportive rather than critical of the class that he portrays as victimized and downtrodden, robbed of their dignity and political power by harsh economic changes under Thatcher, but he also doesn’t allow for any dissent with this favoured group.  And as for everyone else…All middle class people are presented as loathing the working class, apparently disgusted by and unwilling to acknowledge never mind speak to salespeople, cleaners, and other menial labourers.  He also has a tendency to view the middle and upper classes as interchangeable, equally guilty of the crimes he chooses to lay at their (apparently shared) door.

Here are few basic things that the book will set you straight on, repeatedly, some of which I agree with, some of which I do not:

  • Individualism is bad.
  • Rent-to-buy home ownership schemes are Very Bad.
  • Free market economics and currency speculation are so bad as to be catastrophic.
  • Politicians, obviously, are Very Bad, especially ones with privileged backgrounds who dare to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities presented to them to establish successful political careers and become Prime Minister (I am endlessly fascinated by this very common complaint.  Should children of privilege squander all their advantages and become dissolute wastrels?  Is that a more acceptable option?  Why are they resented for seizing the opportunities presented and making the very most of them?)
  • Thatcher is VERY Bad

On the other hand,

  • The working class are good.
  • Unions are good.
  • Strong, radicalized unions ready to do battle with the government to ensure the rights and political power of the working class are Very Good.
  • Socialism is Very Good (though I don’t believe Jones’ ever directly says this, it is most certainly the gist of his argument)
  • A progressive personal income tax (which rises by income level, placing the highest rates on the rich) and a lower VAT (which disproportionately impacts low income earners) are Very Good.
  • Working class communities pre-Thatcher, particularly centred around heavily unionized industries, are Very Good Indeed with their strong sense of community, close families and no problems whatsoever (at least in Jones’ heavily romanticized vision of the past)

It is interesting to note what Jones doesn’t include.  There is practically no information on pre-Thatcher Britain.  The golden age of the union was not exactly an era without societal problems, but you wouldn’t know it from this book.  Just about the only pre-Thatcher reference is to Enoch Powell and hints of some racist sentiment floating about.  There’s a vague attempt to deflect accusations of working class racism onto the middle and upper classes instead, arguing that statistically the working classes are the people most likely to live, work and socialize in multicultural settings.  I am perfectly content with this conclusion but shifting blame to other classes without supporting statistics or meaningful examples – save referencing Prince Harry’s antics and some casual stories from Jones’ acquaintances – is sloppy.  While Jones’ is good when discussing the appeal of the BNP, particularly their community-based initiatives, I don’t think he ultimately makes the point he’s trying to on that count.

But the most notable absences are of any international or historical context.  The breaking of the unions, the deindustrialization of Britain, the modern reliance on temporary, poorly paid, over-worked staff, none of this is ever viewed in the context of globalization.  There is no hint that these things were happening all over the Western world.  But, given Jones’ protectionist leanings, it is not hugely surprising that he glossed over these things.  What he seems to long for most is the Britain of the 1960s and 1970s.  It may have been internationally insignificant and economically stagnant, but, with its outrageously high taxation rates and booming social programs, it is also arguably as close as modern Britain has ever come to having a flat society.  Ultimately, I think the lack of context makes the book harder for me to respect and relate to but, at the same time, may be its cleverest framing device of all in helping to spur other readers to action.  The problems of today are presented as a result of successive government’s actions since 1979.  In his conclusion, Jones basically calls for a return to many of social policies of the pre-Thatcher era: building up state-run housing, unionizing poorly paid industries, etc.  All we need to do, he seems to say, is press the reset button and all these problems will go away.  We must erase Thatcher’s legacy of individualism and all will be well.  It’s certainly a tempting vision.

One of Jones’ major complaints is the lack of representation for the working classes in government, particularly at the highest levels, and rightly so.  But his solution is to build the unions back up, band them together, and essentially recreate the lobby that existed pre-Thatcher, which he rather failed to convince me was healthy thing to replicate.  What unions did do magnificently well in the workplace was to give individuals the platform to develop political skills and confidence.  And yet I still don’t have sympathy with the argument that, by breaking the unions, the working class was forcibly silenced.  They lost their main channel, absolutely, but the normal channels afforded by the democratic system were and are still open.  If you want to be represented, stand as a candidate, vote for the candidate who will champion your issues or simply get involved with your current MP who, regardless of party, is accountable to you.  It is a democracy.  Work the system rather than abandon it.  The working class is the majority and those numbers are powerful, if not muted by apathy.

Despite some issues with Jones’ basic arguments, I had a huge amount of fun reading this book.  It appealed to so many of my sides: economics geek, history geek, and, of course, politics geek.  Jones writes like a young journalist on a tear, passionate, outraged, and absolutely convinced of the moral rightness of his arguments.  I have no doubt that many of his readers will come away equally convinced, equally outraged.  Indeed, this almost seems like required reading for the ‘Occupy’ protestors.

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