“Chav” is a tricky term to pin down, but the very disagreement over its origins is revealing. Some insist it originated in the sneers of students at the exclusive Cheltenham Ladies College directed towards the townspeople, and stands for “CHeltenham AVerage”. A more likely etymology involves the Romany word “charvi”, which simply means a child, whilst books like The Chav Guide to Life have come up with mocking acronyms such as “Council Housed And Violent”. But wherever it originated, the word is conjures up an instant picture of young people in cheap sportswear, swigging alcopops, brandishing knives and selling each other drugs whilst getting their fifteen-year-old girlfriends pregnant. They are a favourite subject for the right-wing tabloids, and where the term “chav” is found, the words “feral”, “benefits” and “underclass” will often be somewhere in the vicinity, not to mention “lifestyles funded by your taxes!” In US terms, a “chav” might be understood to be somewhere between “white trash” and “welfare queens”, not far from the world of Shameless.
Whenever the subject of “chavs” comes up in the liberal media, (such as Polly Toynbee’s piece in the UK Guardian ahead of this book’s release), the discourse tends to fall into predictable oppositions. Liberal commentators object to the term, arguing that it derides and criminalizes the working class, lumping them all together as benefits-scrounging, drug-taking, badly-dressed monsters. Talking about working class people in these terms simply legitimises their exclusion from political and economic power, and makes their poverty into a moral failing instead of a social injustice. In turn, right-wing critics deride Toynbee and her ilk as out-of-touch bleeding hearts lounging in North London coffee-shops who have never experienced the terror of living in a crime-ridden housing estate over-run by dysfunctional scroungers. The working classes, they argue, hate the chavs more than any Bollinger-swilling aristocrat ever could, because they have to live around them every day.
Part of the problem, as Owen Jones points out, is that it’s a very emotive, but very slippery word. (Bafflingly, a London gym which offered courses in beating up “chavs” was deemed not to be in breach of advertising standards when the regulator accepted their argument that no-one would self-identify as a “chav” and therefore they could not be classed as inciting violence against a particular group of people.) Those being kept awake every night and threatened every day by their neighbours’ antisocial behaviour might want to use “chav” to make it distinguish themselves from their tormentors, but when students at the universities I attended took the piss out of “proles”, I’m afraid they didn’t begin by saying “A large number of disadvantaged people maintain a difficult and admirable mode of life, but aren’t the minority of others funny, with their ill-chosen clothes and lazy accents?” They don’t ridicule “chavs” because they admire authentic working class culture, but because they find poor people contemptible and amusing. After all, the The Chav Guide to Life lists “Chav occupations” such as cleaner, barmaid and security guard: these are essential, tax-paying workers in the kind of low-paid and insecure employment that Barbara Ehrenreich wrote about in Nickel and Dimed.
At the heart of Jones’ argument is the notion that by demonizing the working class as “chavs”, the upper middle class has consolidated its hold on political and economic power, whilst assuring themselves (and everyone else) that their privilege is entirely due to their own merits. He is entirely unapologetic about using the language of “class war” since, according to his analysis, the upper classes have been engaging in a class war of their own ever since the Conservative governments of the 1980s and 90s. The Thatcherite emphasis on “aspiration” and individual success, in place of the old values of solidarity and community, has dismantled the idea that there might be anything of value to be found in a working class life or culture. In mainstream political discourse, anyone living a working class life is a loser, since they have failed to “aspire” sufficiently to join the middle class. We have given up on “equality” either of outcome or opportunity, in favour of the idea of “social mobility” which by definition involves individuals rising and leaving other people behind them.
This is fluent stuff, though not particularly original: it’s a standard left-wing critique of the Thatcher era and its baleful influence on the subsequent New Labour government, when “we are all middle class now” became a mantra. However, Chavs offers a penetrating account of how this vision of Britain is built up in the media, with every case of murder or child abuse on a council estate framed as typical of the terrifying “underclass”, whilst similar cases in more affluent neighbourhoods are presented as sheer aberrations which reveal nothing about their community. It examines how newspapers construct an idealised “Middle England” as at risk from the “chavs”, despite this “middle class” lifestyle seeming to involve two cars, regular foreign holidays and a salary vastly above the actual income of an average British household. It takes a media phenomenon – the appearance of the” chav” as a recognisable figure on TV and in the newspapers – and asks whose interests are served when we talk about people in this way.
The analysis presented in Chavs speaks to our current situation in Britain. With a a right-wing government looking to make drastic cuts in welfare spending, whilst insisting that fiscal austerity is the only option because “we’re all in this together”, the demonization of the working class as feckless, reprehensible “chavs” gives the Conservative administration a free hand to carry out its programme. Benefit fraud costs the country a pittance compared to the billions lost every year through the exploitation of tax loopholes by corporations, yet it is the “chavs” who act as a focus for the very real fears of the insecure middle classes. Say what you like about people who wear Burberry tracksuits, but they didn’t securitize any subprime mortgage debt. Jones’ book is a level-headed challenge to this rhetoric of class loathing which so efficiently and so dangerously displaces our outrage and our anxieties.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, July 2011.