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The Working Class in Exile
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In his 2011 book, Owen Jones—a former trade-union lobbyist and political researcher, now a journalist—offers an angry and impassioned take on the rise of the "chav" phenomenon. "Chav" entered the popular lexicon of the U.K. in 2004, the latest in a long line of stigmatizing terms referring to the white working class. Sometimes defined as an acronym for "Council Housed and Violent," the term usually refers to the "non-aspirational," "non-respectable" sections of the white working class, characterized by unemployment, welfare dependency, social housing tenancy, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, promiscuity, and overarching moral degeneracy. However, for many, "chav" and "working-class" have become synonymous. Jones states that while racism and homophobia are increasingly taboo subjects, the "class hatred" directed toward chavs "has become an integral, respectable part of modern British culture. It is present in newspapers, TV comedy shows, films, internet forums, social networking sites, and everyday conversations" (p. 6).

Although Jones's arguments and examples are specific to the U.K. context, the central themes of the book will strike chords with many U.S. readers, at a time when writers such as David Brooks (2010) and Charles Murray (2012) are increasingly concerned with the apparent slippage of the white working class from "respectability" into what Brooks termed "underclass-style dysfunction." Indeed, chav has its own U.S. equivalents, particularly in terms such as "white trash" and "hillbilly." Jones's work certainly seems to have garnered interest in the U.S.; the New York Times listed it as one of its top ten non-fiction books in 2011.

A key strength of Jones's account is his attention to context. He situates the construction of the chav within the sweeping political, social, cultural, and economic changes that have transformed Britain since the 1970s. He credits deindustrialization, the rise of neoliberal economic governance, welfare and housing reforms, the decline of the trade union movement, and the impact of these changes with transforming traditional white working-class communities. He offers a portrait of white working-class communities plagued by economic and social problems, lacking adequate forms of representation in the workplace and politics, and marginalized by mainstream cultural representations that patronize, distort, and degrade. These themes will be familiar to American readers, particularly across the Rust Belt, where the loss of industry, economic restructuring, and suburbanization has transformed blue-collar communities.

Rather than presenting these transformations as "natural" or "inevitable," as many accounts of working-class decline do, Jones ties them to decades of neoliberalism and industrial transformation. Indeed, while the account of the Thatcherite assault on the working class will be familiar to most readers, Jones shows that the political unwillingness and failure of the Blairite New Labour project to address the inequalities faced by working-class communities may be even more damning. The net result has not been about "improving the lot of the working class; it is about escaping the working class" (p.88, emphasis in original). For Jones, the denigration of the working class reflects broader societal attitudes toward work in the de-industrial context and the devaluation of low-paid, low-skilled, insecure labor: "By putting the emphasis on escaping these jobs rather than improving their conditions, we end up disqualifying those who remain in them. We frown upon the supermarket checkout staff, the cleaners, the factory workers—slackers who failed to climb the ladder offered by social mobility" (p. 98).

Jones outlines how the figure of the chav has become a politically and socially convenient caricature of the working classes as economic polarization and inequality increase rapidly, compounded by government austerity. Politicians and pundits use the idea of the chav to dismiss inequality as due to bad choices, outmoded lifestyles, poor attitudes, and a lack of application. Jones argues that this recasts Britain as a meritocratic, individualized state in which aspiration—or rather the lack of aspiration—is seen as the only barrier to social mobility. Jones notes that stigmatizing the white working classes ironically represents the U.K. as a classless society. As the "respectable" working class is redefined as part of an expanding middle class, the working class is further marginalized as the identity of the feckless...


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