The Demonization of "Chavs"

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Niccolo and Donkey
The Demonization of "Chavs"

The Utopian

Owen Jones

August 10, 2011


It’s an experience everyone in England has. You’re among a group of friends or acquaintances when suddenly someone says something that shocks you: an aside or a flippant comment made in poor taste. But the most disquieting part isn’t the remark itself. It’s the fact that no one else seems the slightest bit taken aback. You look around in vain, hoping for even a flicker of concern or the hint of a cringe. I had one of those moments at a friend’s dinner in a gentrified part of East London one winter evening. The blackcurrant cheesecake was being carefully sliced and the conversation had drifted to the topic of the moment, the credit crunch. Suddenly, one of the hosts tried to raise the mood by throwing in a light-hearted joke. “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” Now, he was not someone who would ever consider himself to be a bigot. Neither would anyone else present: for, after all, they were all educated and open-minded professionals. Sitting around the table were people from more than one ethnic group. The gender split was fifty-fifty and not everyone was straight. All would have placed themselves somewhere left-of-center politically. They would have bristled at being labeled a snob. If a stranger had attended that evening and disgraced him or herself by bandying around a word like “Paki” or “poof,” they would have found themselves swiftly ejected from the flat.

But no one flinched at a joke about chavs shopping in Woolies. To the contrary: everybody laughed. I doubt that many would have known that this derogatory term originates from the Romany word for child, “chavi.” Neither were they likely to have been among the 100,000 readers of The Little Book of Chavs , an enlightened tome that describes “chavs” as “the burgeoning peasant underclass.” If they had picked it up from a bookshop counter for a quick browse, they would have learned that chavs tend to work as supermarket checkout cashiers, fast-food restaurant workers and cleaners. Yet deep down, everyone must have known that “chav” is an insulting word exclusively directed against people who are working class. The “joke” could easily have been rephrased as: “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will the ghastly lower classes buy their Christmas presents?”

Yet it wasn’t even what was said that disturbed me the most. It was who said it, and who shared in the laughter. Everyone sitting around that table had a well-paid, professional job. Whether they admitted it or not, they owed their success, above all, to their backgrounds. All grew up in comfortable middle-class homes, generally out in the leafy suburbs. Some were educated in expensive private schools. Most had studied at universities like Oxford, LSE or Bristol. The chances of someone from a working-class background ending up like them were, to say the least, remote. Here I was, witnessing a phenomenon that goes back hundreds of years: the wealthy mocking the less well-off. And it got me thinking. How has hatred of working-class people become so socially acceptable? Privately educated, multi-millionaire comedians dress up as chavs for our amusement in popular sitcoms such as Little Britain . Our newspapers eagerly hunt down horror stories about “life among the chavs” and pass them off as representative of working-class communities. Internet sites such as “ChavScum” brim with venom directed at the chav caricature. It seems as though working-class people are the one group in society that you can say practically anything about.

You would be hard pushed to find someone in Britain who hates chavs as much as Richard Hilton. Mr. Hilton is the chief executive of Gymbox, one of the trendier additions to London’s flourishing fitness scene. Known for its creatively titled gym classes, Gymbox is unashamedly aimed at fitness freaks with deep pockets, demanding a steep £175 joining fee on top of £72 a month for membership. As Mr. Hilton himself explains, Gymbox was launched to tap into the insecurities of its predominantly white-collar professional clientele. “Members were asking for self-defence classes, as they were scared living in London,” he says.

In spring 2009, Gymbox unveiled a new addition to its already eclectic range of classes (including Boob Aerobics, Pole Dancing and Bitch Boxing): Chav Fighting. “Don’t give moody grunting Chavs an ASBO,” its website urged, “give them a kicking.” The rest of the promotional spiel did not pull its punches either, in the voice of a vigilante with a good grasp of PR. “Forget stealing candy from a baby. We’ll teach you how to take a Bacardi off a hoodie and turn a grunt into a whine. Welcome to Chav Fighting, a place where the punch bags gather dust and the world is put to rights.” The leaflets were even more candid. “Why hone your skills on punch bags and planks of wood when you can deck some Chavs…a world where Bacardi Breezers are your sword and ASBOs are your trophy.” There were some who felt that glorifying beating people up might be overstepping the mark. When the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) was called in, Gymbox responded with technicalities. It was not offensive, they claimed, because “nobody in society would admit to being a Chav; it was not a group to which people wanted to belong.” Amazingly, the ASA cleared Gymbox on the basis that chav-fighting classes “would be unlikely to condone or incite violence against particular social groups …” You would have to speak to Richard Hilton to appreciate the depths of hatred that inspired the class. Defining “chavs” as “young Burberry-clad street kids,” he went on to explain:

It is no surprise that, when asked if so-called chavs were getting a hard time in Britain, his response was blunt: “No, they deserve it.” Apparently the class was a hit with gym-goers. Describing it as “one of the most popular classes we have ever run,” he claimed that: “Most people related to it and enjoyed it. A few of the PC brigade were offended by it.” And yet, intriguingly, Mr. Hilton does not think of himself as a bigot—far from it. Sexism, racism and homophobia, for example, were, he said, “completely unacceptable.” An extremely successful businessman, Richard Hilton has tapped into the fear and loathing felt by some middle-class Londoners towards the lower orders. It is a compelling image: sweating City bankers taking out their recession-induced frustrations on semi-bestial poor kids. Welcome to Gymbox, where class war meets personal fitness.

It is easy to gasp at Hilton’s unembarrassed hatred, but the crude image of the working-class teenager he has painted is actually widespread among the middle-class. Thick. Violent. Criminal. “Breeding” like animals. And, of course, these chavs are not isolated elements: they are, after all, regarded as “pillars of strength in the community.”

Gymbox isn’t the only British company to have exploited middle-class horror of large swathes of working-class Britain. Activities Abroad is a travel firm offering exotic adventure holidays with price tags often upwards of £2,000: husky safaris in the Canadian wilderness, Finnish log cabin holidays, that sort of thing. Oh, but chavs need not apply. In January 2009, the company sent a promotional email to the 24,000 people on its database, quoting a Daily Mail article from 2005 showing that children with “middle-class” names were eight times more likely to pass their GCSEs than those with names like “Wayne and Dwayne.” The findings had led them to wonder what sort of names were likely to be found on an Activities Abroad trip. So, the team had a trawl through their database and came up with two lists: one of names you were “likely to encounter” on one of their holidays, and one of those you were not. Alice, Joseph and Charles featured on the first list, but ActivitiesAbroad excursions were a Britney, Chantelle and Dazza-free zone. They concluded that they could legitimately promise “Chav-Free Activity Holidays.” Again, not everyone was amused—but the company was unrepentant. “I simply feel it is time the middle classes stood up for themselves,” declared managing director Alistair McLean. “regardless of whether it’s class warfare or not, I make no apology for proclaiming myself to be middle class.”

When I spoke to Barry Nolan, one of the company’s directors, he was equally defiant. “The great indignation came from Guardian readers who were showing false indignation because they don’t live near them,” he said. “It resonated with the sort of people who were likely to be booking holidays with us. It proved to be an overwhelming success with our client base.” Apparently, the business enjoyed a 44 per cent increase in sales in the aftermath of the furor.

Gymbox and Activities Abroad had taken slightly different angles. Gymbox were tapping into middle-class fears that their social inferiors were a violent mob, waiting to knife them to death in some dark alley. Activities Abroad exploited resentment against the cheap flights which allowed working-class people to “invade” the middle-class space of the foreign holiday. “You can’t even flee abroad to escape them these days”—that sort of sentiment. But both of them were evidence of just how mainstream middle-class hatred of working-class people is in modern Britain.

Chav-bashing has become a way of making money because it strikes a chord. This becomes still more obvious when an unrepresentative story in the headlines is used as a convenient hook to “prove” the anti-chav narrative. When ex-convict Raoul Moat went on the run after shooting dead his ex-lover’s partner in July 2010, he became an anti-hero for a minority of some of the country’s most marginalized working-class people. One criminologist, Professor David Wilkinson, argued he was “tapping” into that dispossessed, white-working-class, masculine mentality, whereby they can’t make their way into the world legitimately so behaving the way that Moat has behaved, as this kind of anti-hero, has, I think, touched a nerve.” White working-class men had, at a stroke, been reduced to knuckle-dragging thugs lacking legitimate aspirations. The internet hosted a vitriolic free-for-all. Take this comment on the Daily Mail site:

This form of class hatred has become an integral, respectable part of modern British culture. It is present in newspapers, TV comedy shows, films, internet forums, social networking sites and everyday conversations. At the heart of the “chavs” phenomenon is an attempt to obscure the reality of the working-class majority. “We’re all middle class now,” runs the popular mantra—all except for a feckless, recalcitrant rump of the old working class. Simon Heffer is a strong advocate of this theory. One of the most prominent right-wing journalists in the country, he has often argued that ‘something called the respectable working class has almost died out. What sociologists used to call the working class does not now usually work at all, but is sustained by the welfare state.”3 It has given way to what he calls a “feral underclass.” When I asked Heffer what he meant by this, he replied: “the respectable working class has died out largely for good reason, because it was aspirational, and because society still provided the means of aspiration.” They had moved up the social ladder because “they’ve gone to university, and they’ve got jobs in white-collar trades or professions, and they’ve become middle class.” Where the millions who remain in manual occupations, or the majority of the population who has not attended university, fit into all this is an interesting question. According to Heffer, however, there are really two main groups in British society: “You don’t have families any more that live in sort of respectable, humble circumstances for generation after generation. They either become clients of the welfare state and become the underclass, or they become middle class.”

This is the model of society as seen through Heffer’s eyes. Nice, middle-class people on one side; an unredeemable detritus on the other (the “underclass” who represent “that section of the working class that not only has no ambition, it has no aspiration”); and nothing in between. It bears no relation to how society is actually structured—but then why would it? After all the journalists producing this stuff have little, if any, contact with the people they disparage. Heffer has a thoroughly middle-class background, lives in the country, and sends his kids to Eton. At one point, he admits: “I don’t know a great deal about the underclass” - a fact that has not deterred him from repeatedly slagging them off.
Niccolo and Donkey

There are some who defend the use of the word “chav” and claim that, actually, working-class people are not demonized at all; “chav” is simply used to designate anti-social hooligans and thugs. This is questionable. To begin with, no one can doubt that those on the receiving end are exclusively working class. When “chav” first appeared in the Collins English Dictionary in 2005, it was defined as “a young working-class person who dresses in casual sports clothing.” Since then, its meaning has broadened significantly. One popular myth makes it an acronym for “Council Housed And Violent.” Many use it to show their distaste towards working-class people who have embraced consumerism, only to spend their money in supposedly tacky and uncivilized ways rather than with the discreet elegance of the bourgeoisie. Celebrities from working-class backgrounds such as David Beckham, Wayne Rooney or Cheryl Cole, for example, are routinely mocked as chavs. Above all, the term “chav” now encompasses any negative traits associated with working-class people—violence, laziness, teenage pregnancies, racism, drunkenness, and the rest. As Guardian journalist Zoe Williams wrote, “ ‘Chav’ might have grabbed the popular imagination by seeming to convey something original—not just scum, friends, but scum in Burberry!—only now it covers so many bases as to be synonymous with ‘prole’ or any word meaning ‘poor, and therefore worthless.’”

To call people chavs is no better than public schoolboys calling townies “oiks.” “Chavs” are often treated as synonymous with the “white working class.” The BBC’s 2008 White season of programs dedicated to the same class was a classic example, portraying its members as backward-looking, bigoted and obsessed with race. Indeed, while the “working class” became a taboo concept in the aftermath of Thatcherism, the “white working class” was increasingly spoken about in the early twenty-first century. Because “class” had for so long been a forbidden word within the political establishment, the only inequalities discussed by politicians and the media were racial ones. The white working class had become another marginalized ethnic minority, and this meant that all their concerns were understood solely through the prism of race. They became presented as a lost tribe on the wrong side of history, chavs disorientated by multiculturalism and obsessed with defending their identity from the cultural ravages of mass immigration. The rise of the idea of a “white working class” fuelled a new liberal bigotry. It was OK to hate the white working class, because they were themselves a bunch of racist bigots.

One common defense of the term “chav” points out that “Chavs themselves use the word, so what’s the problem?” They have a point: some young working-class people have even embraced the word as a cultural identity. But the meaning of a word often depends on who is using it. When uttered by a heterosexual, “queer” is clearly deeply homophobic; yet some gay men have proudly appropriated it as an identity. Similarly, although “Paki” is one of the most offensive racist terms a white person can use in Britain, some young Asians use it as a term of endearment among their peers. In 2010, a controversy involving right-wing US shock-jock Dr Laura Schlessinger vividly illustrated this point. After using the word “nigger” on-air eleven times in a conversation with an African-American caller, she attempted to defend herself on the grounds that black comedians and actors used it. In all cases, the meaning of the word changes depending on the speaker. When uttered by a middle-class person, “chav” becomes a term of pure class contempt. Liam Cranley, the son of a factory worker who grew up in a working-class community in Greater Manchester, describes to me his reaction when a middle-class person uses the word: “You’re talking about family: you’re talking about my brother, you’re talking about my mum. You’re talking about my friends.”

Demonizing people at the bottom has been a convenient way of justifying an unequal society throughout the ages. After all, in the abstract it would seem irrational that through an accident of birth, some should rise to the top while others remain trapped at the bottom. But what if you are on top because you deserve to be? What if people at the bottom are there because of a lack of skill, talent and determination? Yet it goes deeper than inequality. At the root of the demonization of working-class people is the legacy of a very British class war. Margaret Thatcher’s assumption of power in 1979 marked the beginning of an all-out assault on the pillars of working-class Britain. Its institutions, like trade unions and council housing, were dismantled; its industries, from manufacturing to mining, were trashed; its communities were, in some cases, shattered, never to recover; and its values, like solidarity and collective aspiration, were swept away in favor of rugged individualism.

Stripped of their power and no longer seen as a proud identity, the working class was increasingly sneered at, belittled and scape-goated. These ideas have caught on, in part, because of the eviction of working-class people from the world of the media and politics. Politicians, particularly in the Labour Party, once spoke of improving the conditions of working-class people. But today’s consensus is all about escaping the working class. The speeches of politicians are peppered with promises to enlarge the middle class. “Aspiration” has been redefined to mean individual self-enrichment: to scramble up the social ladder and become middle-class. Social problems like poverty and unemployment were once understood as injustices that sprang from flaws within capitalism which, at the very least, had to be addressed. Yet today they have become understood as the consequences of personal behavior, individual defects and even choice. The plight of some working-class people is commonly portrayed as a “poverty of ambition” on their part. It is their individual characteristics, rather than a deeply unequal society rigged in favor of the privileged, chavs that is held responsible.

But, though we are all prisoners of our class, that does not mean we have to be prisoners of our class prejudices.

Owen Jones has worked in the British Parliament as a trade union lobbyist and parliamentary researcher. He is writing a PhD on the history of blue-collar America and the rise of the New Right. He lives in London.

This is an exclusive excerpt from Owen Jones’s book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class , published by Verso.

Niccolo and Donkey

Poor babies.