Review of Chavs and The Precariat

Among those who understand social classes as things it is acknowledged that they have changed. As Guy Standing explains this change, ‘globalisation has resulted in a fragmentation of national class structures’ (p.7). Whereas Owen Jones sees change imposed by a deliberate political strategy of successive Conservative/ Coalition and New Labour governments.

Insofar as this is still of academic concern, given the predominance of a ‘discursivity’ which denies the facticity of class, a sociological spectrum ranges from a world of rationally calculating economic individuals, through sliding scales of status to the eight occupational groups of the soon-to-be-abolished UK Office of Population and Census Statistics. The five A-Es of market researchers with their additional electorally crucial C1s and C2s are reduced in the conventional three upper-middle-working class pyramid, while Marx’s two basic classes have been recast globally as other intermediate classes and the peasantry have collapsed into a proletariat that is possibly now more numerous than ever.

However as Standing sees it, rather than remaining within the ranks of Marx’s proletariat, increasingly large numbers of people are being pushed into a new and insecure ‘precariat’. Drawn from different sections of society, this new, growing and mainly youthful class is also ‘dangerous’ because it may be hostile to the privileges it sees enjoyed by labourism’s dwindling core.

‘First used by French sociologists in the 1980s, to describe temporary or seasonal workers’, in Italy precariati implies ‘a precarious existence as a normal state of living’, though it is not Hardt and Negri’s Multitude. In Germany ‘the term has been used to describe not only temporary workers but also the jobless who have no hope of social integration (p.13). This is close to Marx’s lumpenproletariat, ‘that passively rotting social scum’ but it is not that either.

For Jones, it is the British working class that has been recast ‘From salt of the earth to scum of the earth.’ (p.72). ‘What the Tories are doing is placing the chav myth at the heart of British politics, so as to entrench the idea that there are entire communities around Britain crawling with feckless, delinquent, violent and sexually debauched no-hopers’ (p.80). This follows from ‘Thatcher’s ruinous class war’ in which ‘those working-class communities that suffered most were… herded into an “underclass” whose poverty was supposedly self-inflicted’ (p.67). However, where New Labour redefined poverty as social exclusion to focus on a minority blamed for their own ‘unemployability’, the Coalition (and Miliband?) are concerned with ‘the squeezed middle’, writing off the working-class majority.

Owen quotes polls showing half the population still describe themselves as working class, a constant figure since the 1960s (p.33) because ‘well over half the workforce’ (p.144), ‘more than 28 million’ are still ‘in blue-collar manual and white-collar routine clerical jobs’ (p.33). The demonization of this majority is ‘the flagrant triumphalism of the rich who, no longer challenged by those below them, instead point and laugh at them’ (p.269)

Sociologically this leaves out the middle class who are insufficiently differentiated from ‘the rich’. So when Owen writes, ‘the myth of the classless society gained ground just as society became more rigged in favour of the middle class’ (p.167) and ‘The result is a society run by the middle class for the middle class’ (p.182), typically of most class analysis, he leaves out the ruling class.

Owen concedes, ‘Most middle-class people cannot afford to go private, and want good properly funded local schools and hospitals’ (p.268) and he adds ‘middle-level occupations… are shrinking’ (p.152) as ‘More and more university graduates are forced to take relatively humble jobs’ (p.176). This indicates a polarising class structure going pear-shaped rather than the persistence of the old pyramid with the bottom half disguised as ‘chavs’. As Owen confirms, right to buy ‘drove a wedge through working-class Britain, creating a divide between homeowners and council tenants’ (p.61). It is the formerly unskilled, ‘rough’ and ‘unrespectable’ section of the manually working class that has been ‘demonized’ leaving a new ‘respectable’ middle-working/ working-middle class between the snobs and the yobs, as has been said. These ‘hard working families’ are the target of politicians’ blandishments as they scrabble desperately to run up a down escalator, contributing to the hysteria about education, for instance – another bubble about to burst, so that, as Owen rightly says, ‘at the centre of a new political agenda must be a total redefinition of aspiration’ (p.258).

Owen’s other answers are similar to Standing’s: ‘straddle the internal divisions within the working class that widened under Thatcherism’ (p.259) while ‘Another core demand must be for decent, skilled, secure, well-paid jobs’ (p.260) in a Green New Deal that, ‘As well as providing an array of new jobs, would give working-class people a stake in the environment by transforming it into a bread-and-butter issue’ (p.262). Similarly Standing: ‘In shifting from jobs, the right to work must be strengthened’ (p.163) but he ignores the profit motive which drives the dystopia of a self-regulating market system and thus abandons the Utopia of a world free from profit. Owen goes beyond Standing’s ‘mild Utopianism’ to recognise Utopia is now survival, a future for humanity or no future. There is literally no other way forward. This is the contemporary version of the choice between Socialism or Barbarism.

Both books make us think about the great class transformation that is taking place. Is this creating a new class, or once again reforming a new working class that will be different from the old one? The numerical (if not yet ideological) feminisation that constitutes such a large part of Standing’s precariat ensures that it will be different, while the redivision of knowledge as well as of labour also bids farewell to Leninist forms of political organisation that united ‘progressive intellectuals’ with manual workers and peasants. Rather than such vanguards, ‘The precariat,’ as Standing concludes (p.183), ‘is not victim, villain or hero – it is just a lot of us’. Or the lot of us!

Guy Standing

The Precariat, The New Dangerous Class

London Bloomsbury 2011

(£19.99 pbk; £57 hard cover)

ISBN 978-1849663519/ 9781849663519



Owen Jones

CHAVS, The demonization of the working class

London: Verso 2011

(£14.99 pbk; £? hard cover)

ISBN 978-1-84467-696-5/

298 pp

Patrick Ainley is co-author with Martin Allen of Lost Generation? New strategies for youth and education, London: Continuum 2010

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