Sunday, March 29, 2015

"Chavs" by Owen Jones: Deserved More Attention in the States


I wrote a couple of friends from the Isles to explain what a Chav was to me. It’s a term we don’t have here in the states, and I was looking for an equivalent. The best I got was that it represents rednecks and white trash. The coding in the states is a little deeper. Most of our hate is race based. There is some class based hatred and demonization, but for us the race has been the easiest component of othering a population. We do have class-based hatred, with politicians speaking out against welfare queens and food stamp recipients, but I can’t hear those appeals without hearing the dog-whistle that goes along with it.

That I had to ask people about what the title of the book really means could be why it didn’t get the best play on this side of the Atlantic. The class-based othering that goes on, as depicted by Jones, is alien to me in terms of class. I think it is part of the unique histories of our countries. The English ended slavery earlier than we did and we imported our race-based exploitation to our shores where they kept theirs off shore in the various colonies. It was only with decolonization after the Second World War that I am aware of huge race based hatreds. Unless you count the Irish. They have always been dehumanized.
So it was with a pretty blank slate that I read this book.

There is a lot of explanation of how England turned during the Thatcher era, and it coincides with what I know about this country with Reagan, but only more so. But it is not just Thatcher-bashing. Jones looks at the whole of contemporary British society in terms of the demonization of the working class. It is familiar, and it makes me think a couple of things. First, is it right as a leftist to point fingers at Thatcher and Reagan if they seem to just have been agents of larger structural change that was happening in the western world? Would the devastation of the unions and the bifurcation of society between “Makers and Takers” have happened even if there were different characters in those roles? Is neoliberalism just how capitalism adjusts to productivity gains, siphoning the gains to the upper class and eliminating the middle class?

Secondly, what is the role of racial hatred in the states with regard to the class based hatred that Jones chronicles? Is it an impediment to class based identity? I’m not sure if Chavs can supply the answers to these in the context of either country, but it does lay the groundwork for the structure of thought needed for analysis. I look forward to reading his more recent release. Maybe it will get some resect on these shores.