Working class disgrace and the neoliberal proletaroid

by Alex Law, published in the current edition of Perspectives.

Review of Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonizaton of the Working Class, Verso, 2011.

Not so long ago to be working class in Britain was a badge of honour, a source of collective strength and pride. Working class communities might have been materially impoverished and a bit rough around the edges but they were thought to be breeding grounds for a collective spirit of social solidarity that produced forthright and unpretentious people. If this image of the working class too often romanticised, ennobled and homogenised a more complex and internally divided social reality, it nonetheless contained a kernel of truth.

Today, however, elementary truths about Britain as a definite kind of class society are routinely traduced and derided. Society no longer appears to have class at its core. It is pictured instead as hollowed-out shell, a de-classed world so brittle that it shatters into the fragments of ‘Broken Britain’ whenever it collides with a supposedly indulgent culture of welfare entitlement and public sector self-interest. Against these decadent cultures, no longer identified explicitly in terms of class as a category, a mythical ‘Big Society’ will be put back together, Humpty Dumpty-style, through policies designed to forcibly correct and modify the attitudinal and behavioural deficiencies of dysfunctional individuals and families.

The ideological offensive to liquidate class as a denominator of politics and analysis is the flipside of the current assault on the welfare state by the Coalition government. Under the ‘scientific’ cover of what Tom Slater calls ‘decision-based evidence making’, think tanks like Ian Duncan Smith’s misnamed Centre for Social Justice launched an ideological crusade for state-induced social insecurity on the hackneyed and cooked-up charge that the workless poor have become hopeless cases of welfare dependency.[i]

As Owen Jones puts it in Chavs, an utterly compelling critique of class fear and loathing in Britain today, the working class has gone from mythical ‘salt of the earth’ to reviled ‘scum of the earth’.[ii] ‘Working class’ is no longer a badge of authenticity, solidity and respectability but something base, superficial, backward and ridiculous. Lacking middle class aspirations, Jones argues that a discourse of class hatred helps justify record levels of social inequality in Britain today.

Exactly when the rot set it in is hard to gauge. Jones identifies a sea change in the 1990s. For almost forty years after the Second World War the working class was portrayed more or less sympathetically in British culture, from romantic visions of organic working class communities to more hard-edged social realism in Ken Loach films. Some of this output may have been cloying and insufferable, and ideologically questionable, but, as Jones notes, there is a huge difference between being patronised and being despised.

Previously disconnected folk devils began to coalesce for the lumpen bourgeoisie in the figure of ‘the chav’. Jones pinpoints the moment precisely to 1990 when open class hatred was announced by the comedian Harry Enfield’s caricature of ‘proto-chavs’, Wayne and Waynetta Slob. Idle, feckless, ignorant, slovenly, the Slobs became a lazy journalistic cliché for a tabloid media besotted by the urban poor.

Here special malice is reserved for young working class women, routinely depicted as loathsome, self-obsessed, superficial, and promiscuous creatures. The Slobs were closely followed by Vicky Pollard of Little Britain comedy series and Catherine Tate’s teenage chav, Lauren Cooper, a character so truculent that she was just about able to mouth ‘Am I bovvered’. Tate’s not-terribly-clever joke so impressed Tony Blair, ever the street cool guy, that he couldn’t resist getting in on the act himself.

A supporting cast of real-life, damaged caricatures surface from unknown depths of self-loathing to appear on a raft of reality television programmes like Big Brother and Jeremy Kyle. In other programmes such as Wife Swap and Supernanny, viewers are invited to adopt an affronted bourgeois gaze in order to arrive at moral judgements of social inferiority, cultural ignorance and domestic incompetence, and, in the process, claim for themselves the binary qualities of superiority, taste and competence.

Beyond being ridiculed for comedic effect, Jones shows how the discourse of disgust and disdain reached fever pitch during media coverage of the disappearance of Shannon Mathews from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire in February 2008. On the surface, the case was similar in some ways to the disappearance of Madeline McCann the previous year. But while the middle class McCanns elicited widespread sympathy from journalists and public figures the Mathews family faced public censure, moral indignation and ridicule.

While the circumstances surrounding the Matthews disappearance were bizarre, it opened the door for the entire council estate, seen as typical of a wider social stratum, to come under sustained ideological attack. Hence a curious episode involving one troubled family was claimed to be emblematic of what the journalist, Carole Malone, called ‘a sub (human) class that now exists in the murkiest, darkest corners of this country’.[iii]

Same as it ever was?

In Britain a public culture of class hatred began in earnest only with the retreat of organised labour in the later 1980s. Jones concentrates, understandably, on this period when anti-working class discourses reached unprecedented levels of vitriol. A longer historical framework, however, would demonstrate that the working class has persistently been the object of symbolic misrepresentation, both populist and scholarly.

Once upon a time celebrated as the very soul of collective values, the working class has been buried repeatedly by the true gravedigger of history – capitalism. In the 1950s consumer affluence was thought to have corrupted working class culture and politics from its true communal essence. Loose talk among social scientists about upward social mobility and ‘embourgoisement’ further paved the way for the end of working class culture as we knew it. In the swinging Sixties urban working class communities/slums were destroyed/cleared. Resettled in new towns and remote housing schemes the old organic life of the working class was replaced by anomic private individuals and their families. In the 1970s and 1980s deindustrialisation, unemployment and the cataclysm of the Miners Strike irretrievably broke labour as an organised force in British society.

Ever since then it’s all been downhill. Whether belligerent youth, benefit claimants, council tenants or public sector trade unions, the working class seem distinctly garish, outdated and ungrateful, a moral rubbish heap set against a society newly-minted as ‘middle class’ according to the self-images of the neoliberal dreamworld. Middle class entertainers, politicians and journalists can embrace chav-hate – all other forms of group hate being ruled out of the game – to openly display the types of cultural capital and social competence that are needed to exist on the other, profitable side of the social ledger.

In place of social truths about class, Jones charts how another reality settled across Britain in the past two decades. Fed by a poisonous diet of self-righteous class disgust, a hateful middle class have since the 1990s declared open season for class-based revenge. This is not a new development and nor is it peculiar to Britain. Vicious class sentiments propelled an orgy of middle class violence and moral revanchism in the wake of the Paris Commune in the 1870s, while in Victorian and Edwardian Britain the masculine figure of the unemployed ‘hooligan’ traumatised the collective imagination of the middle class. Geographers like Neil Smith see an echo of bourgeois revanchism in struggles over property rights in the public spaces of New York city, while Loic Wacquant has charted the punitive regulation of the urban working class in France and America.

Neoliberal bigotry

In times of crisis it is the resentful ‘proletaroid’ middle classes that play the most dangerous part. As the examples of Nazism and the membership profile of UKIP and the British National Party attest, this vents the fury of insecurely-felt domination over outsiders, scapegoats and counter-movements. Today the new punitive vernacular of the lumpen proletaroid represents a pronounced response to group insecurities arising from the contradictory demands of neoliberal political economy.

Distinguishing itself from the unreason of the lumpen proletaroid, a more liberal proletaroid justifies itself with claims that caricatures of class dispossession are somehow representative, accurate and truthful. In such ways, the conceit and self-delusion of the liberal proletaroid validates its own, hard won social success. For instance, at the 2006 Edinburgh Film Festival most media professionals when surveyed thought that Vicky Pollard was an accurate representation of the ‘white’ working class.[iv]

In fact, most working class households are forced to live in poverty not because they are too feckless and lazy to work. Contrary to the rigged methodology of the Centre for Social Justice and proletaroid caricatures, half of all adults living in poverty in the UK are from households that work (52 per cent), either part-time (16 percent), with one or more in full-time work (22 percent), or self-employed (11 percent).[v] Low pay and structural unemployment, not cultural attitudes or slovenly behaviour, are the root causes of class dispossession and social suffering.

An entire chav industry emerged to feed a self-righteous, populist spleen: websites, books, newspapers, television comedy and lifestyle programmes, pop music, and pornography (not metaphorical ‘poverty porn’ as the BBC documentary The Scheme was branded by some commentators).[vi] Chav-hate claimed the sensibilities not just of the usual suspects opining for right-wing, middle market tabloids. It also generated what Jones calls ‘liberal bigotry’ among a conscionable middle class worried about atavistic strains within the ‘white working class’.

Stoked by the BBC’s White season in 2007, much sanctimonious hand-wringing was displayed in public. Concerned liberals fretted about an abandoned ‘white’ fraction of the working class, supposedly unable to adjust to multicultural Britain and tempted to seek refuge for defensive, exclusionary identities among neo-fascists like the British National Party and the English Defence League. Without lapsing into complacency, Jones documents how effective anti-fascist campaigns halted the electoral appeal of the BNP in working class areas of England and carefully dissects the class politics of the ‘British jobs for British workers’ wave of illegal solidarity strikes in January 2009.

Even here, middle class liberals are able to side-step the question of class as structured social existence. Defining the ‘white’ working class mainly in terms of ethnicity rather than social and economic factors shifts the issue away from pronounced social injustices, entrenched and widened by neoliberal political economy, to behavioural matters of culture and lifestyle.

Silence in class

‘Things can only get better’ proclaimed the triumphalist New Labour anthem in 1997. For New Labour this prospect was possible just so long as the dirty word ‘class’ was expunged from Newspeak, the self-referential language of the middle ground. If Britain was re-presented as a post-class society then things might indeed be made to appear better. Jones notes that even the official classification system for measuring Britain’s social structure was revised at the end of the 1990s from a measure of ‘Social Class based on Occupation’ to one of ‘Socio-economic classification’, a wholly insipid category of doubtful scientific value.

A labour movement weakened on the industrial front in recent decades also invited an onslaught on the second, conceptual, front to deny a reality defined explicitly in terms of class divisions and interests. New Labour objected to any overt reference to class in official data in case it became identified with the adversarial politics of the working class.[vii] Their obsession with abandoning the language of class reflected an exaggerated fear of ‘middle England’. So much so that New Labour minister, Stephen Byers, earnestly proposed the abolition of inheritance tax, something that only the very wealthiest families need pay and which has absolutely no relevance to the social universe of Labour’s dwindling working class constituency.

Far from representing the future of worldwide humanity, the proletariat has had a cruel trick played on it. From the point of view of liberal bigotry it has become deeply conservative, if not downright reactionary, resisting rather than leading the new cultural and political vanguard. Its best elements have deserted it into the professional middle classes, leaving behind a residuum of ill-educated, semi-criminal cretins. If other people get on and move up and out, then why should the barbarian hordes left behind, being indifferent to social success, deserve our support or respect?

Back in the real world, the working class did not and could not be made to disappear. After all, even movers and shakers in ‘the knowledge economy’ and ‘the creative industries’ depend on the products and services produced by an anonymous mass of wage earners. Sociologists often label such workers as belonging to the ‘service class’, restricting the working class narrowly to manual labour. On this basis, extravagant claims can be made that Scotland has passed through ‘a social revolution’ unparalleled in western democracies to become a middle class ‘professional society’.[viii]

Lacking substantive content or the necessary neoliberal context, categories like the service class lump together a wide range of occupations, from highly-paid and well-qualified professionals and managers to the monotony, repetition and disempowerment experienced by call centre workers. Some of these jobs clearly belong together and some don’t, depending on the amount of control and autonomy that people are able to exercise at work, as well as the level of remuneration that they receive. Neither do such classification schemas help us to understand the dynamics of class as a relation of power and a field of struggle.

Euphemistic talk about the most impoverished fractions of the working class resort instead to the abject language of ‘social exclusion’. Here the focus is not on exclusion from employment and wider social circles because of the restructuring of local labour markets by neoliberal priorities. Nevertheless, talk of social exclusion at least attempts to elicit some sympathy for the predicament of the socially dispossessed, even if this is diagnosed in reassuring prescriptions about self-confidence and aspiration.

Outside of the bland neutrality of official classification systems and social exclusion, a more virulent discourse of disdain and disgust circulates. In this vocabulary – of underclass, chavs, neds, schemies, gadgies, scroungers, council scum and so on – public discourse is filled to the brim with symbolic violence. Such terms of disdain and disgust are mobilised to point the finger at an undeserving stratum of social refuse.

The struggle to define reality as ‘classless’ or class-degraded is an elementary aspect of the struggle between social classes over competing claims to a share of the social product. A middle class discourse of disdain and disgust forms part of a struggle over resources that might be kept in the pockets of economic success stories, for instance through low direct taxation, rather than flowing in the direction of the socially redundant through ‘undeserved’ welfare benefits.

To define the reality of the social world in terms of class divisions and interests is therefore to recognise the force of social structures in shaping the possible positions that individuals are made to occupy in social space.

This ‘oppressed person’ on £12,000 per year

has composed an article about ‘macho workerism’

in those analysing today’s political situation

in terms of class and economic power

(Tom Leonard)

Denial of the structuring effects of class position removes from the socially dominated a crucial source of collective claim-making. Instead of structural disadvantage in the labour market the blame for material and symbolic dispossession can be laid squarely at the door of genetically or morally flawed individuals. And, vice versa, economic success becomes the morally deserved result of genetically advantaged individuals and their children.

Class-hate in Scotland

Politics, no less than science, is a constant battle to name the world and to make it stick. Words need to acquire significance by making some sense of a common situation for the social group. It is not enough to know the correct definition of the situation. The authority to both speak and be listened to beyond small circles requires social power.

Working class people in Scotland know well the class condescension of using everyday speech forms, coded as socially incompetent in the presence of traditional authority figures like managers, professionals or judges.

right inuff

ma language is disgraceful

(Tom Leonard)

While the specific content and national context differs, class spite in Scotland can have much the same effect. Yet social practices are not an automatic reflex of social structure. There were no urban riots in Scotland while English cities were set aflame in August 2011. Discourses about neds in Scotland are longer running than those about chavs in England and have a different cultural inflection in Scottish society, as well as in comedy or films that critique the social conditions of class disdain like Peter Mullan’s Neds.[ix] There are also empathic existential and phenomenological narratives about the experience of class dispossession in urban Scotland, for instance in the stories of James Kelman and Agnes Owens, the poetry of Tom Leonard or, in a different register, the fantastical lifeworlds of Irvine Welsh.[x]

More usually, though, disdainful discourses about neds and urban working class areas weld bad cultural form to bestial gangs, knife crime and territorial violence. This is especially evident in some of the ways in which the criminal justice system in Scotland is converging with the more punitive and draconian measures in England to deal with the suspect subjects, primarily the impoverished working class, young people and women.[xi] In the culture, retail and leisure-led regeneration of Glasgow, a New York-style ‘zero tolerance’ of ‘aggressive begging’, prostitution, gangs, alcohol and general ‘anti-social’ conduct attempted to sweep the city centre economy clean of its urban dross.

It also surfaced with particular venom over the Glasgow East by-election in 2008, when populist class hatred among mainly London-based journalists pathologised the area and its people as ‘Shettleston Man’ culturally locked into welfare despondency and self-exclusion.[xii] De-industrialised cities like Glasgow and Dundee undoubtedly have deep-seated problems. Until recently, Glasgow had some of the highest levels of people on Incapacity Benefit, a particular target for anti-working class diatribes. At its peak one in five working age adults were claiming Incapacity Benefit, yet after 2003 the number began falling faster than elsewhere.

A major academic study shows that this pattern represents a form of ‘disguised unemployment’, not a welfare dependency-despondency subculture. It reflects the loss of 100,000 manufacturing jobs in the city between 1971 and 1991 – during the 1980s Glasgow fell from 208 to tenth place in the UK for economic inactivity rates – followed by improvements in the local job market in the early 2000s, at the same time as the numbers on Incapacity Benefit started to fall.[xiii]

Jones sees working class electoral support for the BNP as meeting the same need in England of disaffection with New Labour, legitimate class grievances, and working class nationalism that is met by the Scottish National Party in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales.[xiv] This highlights the extent to which Chavs is chiefly concerned with developments in England rather than the rest of Britain. Anti-working class discourses in Scotland are not compounded by the same bellicose forms of ethno-nationalism that can afflict post-imperial English nationalism.

Before we get too self-congratulatory, racism remains a problem in Scotland. Anti-Irish racism, in particular, disfigured the Scottish working class, at times threatening to erupt into serious civil strife. Here the labour movement played a not inconsiderable part in overcoming inter-communal segregation and conflict. It remains a moot point, however, just how much the proposed criminalisation of football-related sectarianism is a deflection from far more serious forms of inter-generational inequalities. Due to relative social immobility, descendents of Irish Catholics are disproportionately represented in the indices of urban deprivation, although by the same token others from a similar Catholic background have been assimilated into the professional middle classes, thanks largely to a welfare state now coming under the regime of government by austerity.

Where there’s a scheme …

And Scotland has its own media to propound class bias. Most notoriously, The Scheme depicted the daily lives of six different families from the Onthank and Knockinlaw council house schemes in Kilmarnock. A cast of characters are seen to battle against a series of material, personal and social disadvantages: drug dependency, petty crime, casual violence, dog soiled carpets, ASBOS, teenage pregnancy and abortion, single parenting, foul language, imprisonment, ill health and bereavement.

Originally promoted by BBC Scotland as ‘a snapshot of life in modern day Scotland’, the cast of characters and location is not at all representative of Scottish society. The most that a BBC Scotland spokeswomen could claim was that ‘it is representative of the six families who took part’.[xv] Although the programme was promoted as emblematic of ‘important social problems’, on the contrary, it can lay no claim to depicting the typical characteristics of even the bottom decile of Scottish society.

Some compared the stigmatisation effect that The Scheme had on Onthank with that of a BBC documentary The Fourth World about the Lilybank scheme in 1970s Glasgow.[xvi] But the earlier documentary was a more earnest exercise in serious social documentary analysis, centred around the participant observation of social policy academic and activist Kay Carmichael’s attempt to adjust to ‘the hostile and ugly’ world during a three month stay in the scheme. It gave expression to bored teenagers, gang fights, casual violence, glue sniffing and vandalism, fractious neighbours and a tempestuous public meeting.

But where The Fourth World had a sense of political mission and social analysis, however limited, The Scheme flatters a morbid fascination for abject social suffering.  Little sense is provided of the wider forces of neoliberal political economy that over the past thirty years restructured the material conditions of life for former industrial working class communities in Kilmarnock and Ayrshire.

While Chavs does not really address class fear and loathing in Scotland, the general pattern that Jones recounts is familiar enough. After all, class relations in Scotland are deeply conditioned by the shared assumptions of neoliberal political economy. This remains an urgent reason for disrupting official silences about the class conditioning of Scottish society.


[i] Tom Slater, ‘Manufacturing Ignorance: the Centre for Social Justice and Welfare Reform in Britain’, New Left Project, 8 December 2011. http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/manufacturing_ignorance_the_centre_for_social_justice_and_welfare_reform_in

[ii] Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonizaton of the Working Class, (London, 2011), p.72.

[iii] Jones, p.22.

[iv] Jones, p.127.

[v] John h. McKendrick, Gerry Mooney, John Dickie and Peter Kelly, eds., Poverty in Scotland 2011 (London, 2011), p.101.

[vi] See Alex Law and Gerry Mooney, ‘‘Poverty Porn’ and The Scheme: Questioning Documentary Realism’, Media Education Journal 50 (2012).

[vii] Jones, p.98.

[viii] For a critique see Alex Law and Gerry Mooney, ‘“We’ve never had it so good”: The “problem” of the working class in devolved Scotland’, Critical Social Policy, 26.3, 2006, pp. 523-542.

[ix] See Alex Law, ‘Hatred and Respect: the class shame of ned ‘humour’’, Variant, 25, pp. 28-31. http://www.variant.org.uk/pdfs/issue25/issue25.pdf

[x]  For analysis of Welsh on class suffering in the Fife coalfield see Alex Law and Eddie Rocks, ‘Bitter nostalgia: Social redundancy in Irvine Welsh’s ‘Kingdom of Fife’’, in Ian W. Macdonald (ed.) Digging the Seam: Cultural Reflections on the Consequences of the 1984/5 Miners’ Strike (Newcastle Upon Tyne, 2012).

[xi] See Hazel Croall, Gerry Mooney and Mary Munro, eds., Criminal Justice in Scotland (Abingdon, 2010)

[xii] See Gerry Mooney, ‘The ‘Broken Society’ election: Class hatred and the politics of poverty and place in Glasgow East’, Social Policy and Society, 3.4, pp.1-14.

[xiii] David Webster, James Arnott, Judith Brown, Ivan Turok, Richard Mitchell and Ewan B. Macdonald, ‘Falling Incapacity Benefit claims in a former industrial city: policy impacts or labour market improvement?’, Policy Studies, 31.2, 2010, pp. 163-185. Jones takes note of this study on p. 199.

[xiv] Jones, p.233.

[xv] Caroline Wilson, ‘Will we learn the truth about Kilmarnock’s Onthank estate’, The Herald, 16 May 2010.

[xvi]  Derek Alexander, ‘Decades before The Scheme another Scots community suffered the TV treatment’, Sunday Mail, 27 June 2010.

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