Interview with Owen Jones on ‘Chavs’ and the London riots

The sea change currently taking place in British politics would be inconceivable without Owen Jones. From his sudden rise to prominence with his book ‘Chavs’, a cogent and concise overview of the changes wrought to working class life by Thatcherism, to his always-compelling Guardian column, he’s been an ever-present positive influence on the Left during one of its most difficult periods in modern history.

In November 2011, in the wake of the success of his book, I interviewed Owen on the subject of that summer’s riots and how it related to the premise of his book. The interview was published in a small monthly left-wing publication and I’d forgotten all about it until the other day. As it’s not available online I thought I’d post it here so it doesn’t entirely disappear into the ether.

RW: First of all I’d like to ask you what kind of reaction you received when you told people what kind of book you were working on.

OJ: When I was writing the book, I struggled to tell people its title – mentioning that you’re writing a book entitled ‘Chavs’ is guaranteed to raise eyebrows. But I think people were interested in the fact I was writing a book on class which – in my view – has been neglected for so long. As much as I’d like to take the credit for the way the book has been received, it has everything to do with the fact that class has crept back on the agenda. If you deny class at a time when the pay of the FTSE 100 chief executives has gone up by 55%, while the average Briton is experiencing the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s – well, you’re a Flat Earther.

RW: Would you say that the demonisation and dehumanising of the working class as encapsulated in the word ‘chav’ is also an international phenomenon? Do you know if there has been an increase in anti-white trash discourse in the US, for example?

OJ: Unequal societies provide fertile ground for demonising those ‘at the bottom’. You see it not just in the US, but also in – for example – Latin American countries, where dehumanising class-ist and racist rhetoric are often intertwined. It’s a way of rationalising inequalities – they become justified on the basis that those at the top and those at the bottom all ‘deserve’ their places.
But it’s also very much the case in both the US and the UK that individuals are expected to get on in life through their own individual efforts. Failing to do so is seen to be the product of personal failure. However, I do think Britain was unique in the nature of the all-out assault on the working-class as a collective political and social group – including the attacks on unions, council housing, industries that sustained entire communities, values like solidarity, and so on. After that, the consensus was that everyone should aspire to be middle-class – and being working-class was no longer something you were encouraged to be proud of, if you like.

RW: I wonder if you are familiar with the work of Owen Hatherley, in his depiction of the physical architecture of the New Labour years is there an affinity with your analysis of the socio-economic climate? And in the light of the increasing profile of Richard Seymour, Mark Fisher and Nina Power is it fair to talk about a new generation of radical and critical thinkers in the UK?

OJ: I’m a huge fan of Owen Hatherley. His work is very powerful because it stands as a damning indictment of New Labour, but with a very unique angle that allows you to understand the politics through the architecture. The likes of Owen Hatherley, Richard Seymour, Mark Fisher and Nina Power are brilliant, powerful left-wing writers, and the movement is very lucky to have them. But I think the emergence of a new generation of young left thinkers has everything to do with the changing political climate, than their undeniable talent. It’s just one manifestation of the radical ideas that are bubbling away among a section of young people. Having grown up in an age of reaction, it’s very heartening to see.

RW: How do the recent riots fit in with the thesis you develop in the book?

OJ: Obviously my book didn’t predict the riots, but I think there are two ways the book and the riots link together. Firstly, the book looks at how skilled, industrial jobs disappeared in a very short space of time and were replaced with fewer service sector jobs that were more insecure, had worse pay, and were less respected. While many young working-class men could leave school at 16 a generation ago and get a relatively well-paid apprenticeship that was a gateway to a long-term job, that’s no longer the case today. The fact that the rioters and looters were overwhelmingly men from poorer working-class communities who were both out of work and education is – I think – hardly surprisingly. Secondly, the book links in with how the post-riot backlash was manipulated. People were understandably and angry and scared in the aftermath of the riots. Right-wing politicians and commentators manipulated it to talk of a “feral underclass” – an escalation of the idea of the undeserving poor: they’re not just undeserving, they’re like animals. David Cameron used the aftermath to attack people on benefits, arguing that one of the solutions was to take on a welfare state that promotes “idleness”. He backed plans by councils to evict rioters and their families (i.e. collective punishment) and to remove benefits from rioters. Talk of taking away benefits is now being extended to all those who break the law. As well as establishing the principle that, if you break the law and you are poor you will be punished twice, it’s also trying to cement the idea of a lawless underclass. ‘Chavs’ tried to take on the idea we’re all middle-class, apart from a problematic rump of the old working-class. That’s a theory that – tragically – has been reinforced in the aftermath of the riots.

RW: Is the politics of aspiration that you refer to sustainable in a recessionary climate?

OJ: Individual aspiration is all about the idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps, that there is room at the top for those who work hard enough. But at a time of protracted economic and social crisis – when people are experiencing the biggest squeeze of living standards since the 1920s through no fault of their own – that myth becomes far harder to sustain. It becomes almost farcical to argue that where you end up is a reflection of your abilities. With a collective attack on people’s rights, I hope that there is a collective response. The recent teachers’ and civil servants’ strike was a form of collective aspiration – people coming together to defend themselves from a tax on public sector workers that’s being used to pay off the deficit.

RW: And finally, given that you contribute to the Labour List website, what are your predictions and hopes for the future of the left in and outside the Labour Party, especially in the light of the Blue (and now Purple, it seems) Labour projects?

OJ: The left everywhere – in Britain and across the world – has been overwhelmed by a perfect storm since the late 1970s. There was the rise of the New Right (best embodied by Thatcherism and Reaganism, but also the juntas in Latin America); the defeats suffered by the labour movement, particularly in Britain; the capitalist triumphalism unleashed after the collapse of Stalinism – There Is No Alternative and The End of History and so on; and neo-liberal globalisation. It’s in this context that New Labour emerged. The reality is that the left still does not exist as a mass political force in the aftermath of this perfect storm, despite the crisis of capitalism that began four years ago. At the top of the Labour Party, Blairites are still very strong and there’s not a strong enough countervailing pressure coming from the left. If we’re going to have a Labour Party that properly represents the working-class majority, that means the unions using their powers far more effectively within the Party, but also a strong grassroots movement both inside and outside the Party that can drag the leadership (kicking and screaming if needs be) to a progressive position.

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