To describe author and activist Owen Jones as a “Bennite” would be something of an understatement. While never having lived through the tumultous  Wilson or Callaghan Labour governments of the 1960’s and 1970’s, (neither did I, though), Jones is very clear at who is at fault for the ills that have befallen the working class in Great Britain.

Thatcher.

The vitriol Jones reserves for Thatcher and her cabinet ministers, and even journalists in Tory papers is unevenly matched against the lamenting school-teacher tone regarding his left-wing friends in the Labour Party.

To understand the premise of Jones’ work, one must first understand what the focal point Jones is entering the discussion. Namely, the disenfranchisement of historically working class men and women in Great Britain who, starting in the end of the Thather era, began to be derisively titled “Chavs” by middle and upper class society. “Chavs”, as both the author and a cursory glance at wikipedia both reveal is a person obsessed with the illusion of station;  as Wikipedia states: “…a young lower-class person who displays brash and loutish behaviour and wears real or imitation designer clothes.”

To be a “chav” then, is to be a the fringes of acceptable society, even within the working class.

Jones leans heavily on his background within British left-wing society to argue that the corruption of the virtuous working class was due in large part to consumerism, Thatcherism, and an unwillingness of Labour leadership to stand up to the rising tide of austerity:

There was a time when working-class people had been patronized, 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 demonization of everything associated with the working class

Jones likely spent hundreds of hours collecting quotes and contrasting perspectives, from  Geoffrey Howe, Lady Thatcher’s first chancellor of the exchequer, to Neil Kinnock, the man who led Labour through some of its most bruising times in recent history.

From the information provided, Kinnock appears resigned that the Left forfeited the fights of the 1980’s rather than create any kind of meaningful change. when asked if the Tories were the ‘real’ class-warriors in British politics, Kinnock shakes his head and bemoans, “ ‘No, because they’ve never had to engage in a class war,’ he said. ‘Largely because we signed the peace treaty without realizing that they hadn’t.'”

Jones concludes that largely as a result of the sustained electoral beatings that Labour suffered from 1979-1992, the survivors of this shipwrecked party latched onto any idea that would keep them from becoming consigned to history, (a very real worry given the declining state of the Liberal party through this time period, which managed to stave off its own place on the ash heap only by creating an odd marriage of convenience with disaffected social democrats to create the modern “Lib-Dem” party), a fact Jones notes with characteristic bluntness:

Because of this desperation and demoralization, Blair and his followers were able to impose the Thatcherite settlement on the Labour Party. Part an parcel of this settlement was the idea that everyone should aspire to be middle class. Little wonder that. when asked what her greatest achievement was, Margaret Thather answered without hesitation: ‘Tony Blair and New Labour. We forced our opponents to change their minds.”

Jones writes lovingly and longingly for a working class establishment that no longer exists in modern Britain, but does not advocate burning down Apple stores to return to this Eden. Instead, his goal is surprisingly reasonable given the disparaging remarks and high standard he holds the Left to in his book.  the result is not a game-changing, epoch-defining solution. Instead, Jones advocates that the Left do what it has always done: advocate and implement good-paying, skilled jobs that provide a decent and dignified income to the working-class.

Admittedly after reading about 260 pages of commentary on how the Left had failed the working class, and the Tories were hell-bent on their destruction, I was a little dejected that the solution Jones advocates is so unsurprising and reasoned. Instead of a Zizek retort, we’re left with a policy proposal.

Chav’s does many things well; chief among them is the crystallization of working-class discontent for the last 30 years. Jones writes with exacting skill and twists the knife into the the Conservative Party with a certain amount of vigour. However, it becomes tiring to read line after line about the moral indecency with which the Tories have governed. After 100 pages or so, I found myself wishing Jones would just wrap it up and get to the point.

Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones. Verso 2011 298 pages. Purchased copy

 

 

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