Sept/Oct/Nov 2011

Anomie of the People

The shifting perceptions toward the British underclass

Chris Lehmann


When riots convulsed working-class communities throughout Britain this summer, the predominant reflex in the English media was to lash out at the rioters as criminals, thugs, and hooligans, engaged in senseless destruction for destruction’s sake. To be sure, there was plenty of unhinged mayhem, especially once the unrest entered the looting and fire-setting phase. But to write off the uprisings—which started at the end of a peaceful Tottenham vigil in protest of the police killing of a black man named Mark Duggan—as the “mindless” conduct of individual bad actors, as the general run of commentary did, was to ignore decades of broader upheaval in the class-driven British social order. For as Owen Jones makes clear in Chavs, his bracing anatomy of the casual derision of less fortunate Britons, the creation of a despised British underclass has come about via a profound shift in how working-class life is perceived—and the deliberate delimiting of social goods formerly central to the communal identity of working England into a twilight of public access.

Nothing about this transformation has been subtle. As the neoliberal economic program of housing privatization, public-sector shrinkage, and casualized labor has taken hold in England, working Britons, who once claimed considerable status and influence in the politics and culture of modern England, have become true outcasts. The epithet “chavs,” chiefly applied to lower-class inhabitants of urban council estates who dress in tracksuits and knockoff Burberry gear, speaks volumes about this shift: It’s drawn from a word for child—i.e., a noncitizen—in the language of the Romanies, or Gypsies, i.e., a people without a state.

Click to enlarge

Park Hill, a British council housing estate, Sheffield, 2007.

And as Jones explains, the chav stereotype bespeaks British social privilege at its ugliest. In 2009, a high-end English workout franchise, Gymbox, introduced a line of “Chav Fighting” classes, with promotional literature right out of a Dirty Harry movie: “Forget stealing candy from a baby,” goes one course description, “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 punch bags gather dust and the world is put to rights.” And of course, in the more unbridled forums of the Internet—a medium that thrives in large part on an ethos of entitled grievance—the chav bashing becomes even more gruesome. As Jones writes, one representative comment on a since-removed chav-baiting Facebook page claiming three-quarters of a million members reads (complete with emoticon): “4000 chavs a year die from tesco cheap booze. Every little bit helps :).” An online video game called—yes—Chav Hunter spells out its mission bluntly: “Chav Hunter is about killing those pikey fucks who dress like ’80s rappers. In a sniper fashion, aim for the head.”

How did England’s less fortunate workers—once held to be the backbone of the great industrial Workshop of the World—come in for such intense public vituperation? As Jones argues, the victory of the chav stereotype coincides with the systematic hollowing out of the main institutional supports of working-class life—starting with manufacturing jobs, on through the collapse of public subsidized urban housing, to the issuance of actual “Anti-Social Behaviour Orders” (or ASBOs) in a state-based bid to control and stigmatize the bad behavior of working-class minors.

All these measures were rooted in Margaret Thatcher’s eleven-year reign of market idolatry—and, indeed, in the Thatcher-led Tories’ rhetorical abolition of the very idea of social class in a swiftly privatizing paper economy. But, as Jones notes, these trends continued unabated with the late-’90s rise of Tony Blair’s New Labour government, which pointedly embraced the Thatcherite vision of a Britain designed to advance the “aspirational” working class; the ASBO system, which carries a maximum five-year prison term for repeat offenders, was a New Labour innovation. “New Labour, through programmes like its welfare reform, has propagated the chav caricature by spreading the idea that people are poor because they lack moral fibre,” Jones writes. “Surveys show that attitudes toward poverty are currently harder than they were under Thatcher. If people observe that even Labour holds the less fortunate to be personally responsible for their fate, why should they think any different?”

Why, indeed? As the logic of the Thatcher revolution has spread throughout British society, it has caught the embattled working class in an elegant double bind: The steady hemorrhaging of productive industrial labor and the collapse of affordable housing have worked to mold working-class citizens into targets of public hostility. The flight of affordable public housing has been especially brutal. Under the disastrous “right to buy” privatization of public housing under Thatcher, “the least disadvantaged tenants had bought their homes, while the Tories—followed by New Labour—had refused to build any more. That meant that the remaining, ever-diminishing stock was prioritized for those most in need.”

The practical impact of these key policy assumptions has been the creation of an underclass by market fiat. “Over two-thirds of those living in social housing belong to the poorest two-fifths of the population,” Jones observes. “Nearly half of social housing is located in the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods. Things have certainly changed compared to thirty years ago, when a staggering 20 per cent of the richest tenth of the population lived in public housing.” Now, very much by contrast, the privatized and unreplenished British public-housing stock has marooned many council inhabitants in economic and cultural isolation, and has made them prey to a vicious circle of opprobrium. Without basic social goods such as secure high-wage labor or strong union representation, they become pariahs—and then political leaders and pundits feel empowered to denounce them as near-alien barbarians who richly deserve their economic misfortune. And that view, in turn, justifies the British political class in continuing to withhold social benefits from this class of subcitizens—at which point the cycle can start over once more, with renewed force.

This intensive class segmentation also means that it’s open season on working-class British citizens in pop culture. A bizarre and lurid 2008 tabloid story reported that Karen Matthews, a single mother in a council estate, conspired with the uncle of her domestic partner to fake the disappearance of her daughter Shannon. But rather than treating the whole sad tale as the freakish occurrence it was, the British press rushed to interpret it as a representative case study in the debauched conduct of a barely civilized, alien culture festering away in the heart of respectable England. The Daily Mail’s conservative columnist Melanie Phillips wrote that the Matthews affair helped “reveal the existence of an underclass which is a world apart from the lives that most of us lead and the attitudes and social conventions that most of us take for granted.” Warming to the caricature, Phillips pressed the evidence-free claim that there were now “whole communities where committed fathers are so rare that any child who actually has one risks being bullied.” Not to be outdone, John Ward, a Conservative councillor in Kent, argued that the Matthews scandal supported “an increasingly strong case for compulsory sterilisation of all those who have had a second child—or third, or whatever—while living off state benefits.” Conservative Britain was so determined to upbraid Karen Matthews for daring to live outside the privatized reveries of the market order, in other words, that some partisans on the right rallied to a brand of eugenics in response.

Likewise, when the loathsome full-surveillance reality show Big Brother took on a contestant named Jade Goody, a twenty-one-year-old dental nurse from a council family mired in poverty and substance abuse, the British media went on a rampage. Jones recounts:

Labelled a “pig”, she was mercilessly ridiculed for not knowing what asparagus was (the horror!) and for asking if “East Angular” was abroad. “Vote the pig out!”demanded the Sun, which also referred to her as an “oinker”. As the campaign became a hysterical witch hunt (indeed, one of the headlines was: “Ditch the Witch!”), members of the public stood outside the studios with placards reading, “Burn the Pig!”

Nor did the abuse let up when the news broke that Goody had been diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2008. While much of the British press expressed unwonted and belated sympathy for Goody, Spectator columnist Rod Liddle was not detained by any concern for proprieties. When it came to “the coarse, thick, Bermondsey chav,” he wrote, one could not rule out the likelihood that a fatal illness was a mere publicity stunt: “Or again, it is not inconceivable, I suppose, that written into Goody’s contract was a demand that at some point she be seen to be suffering from a potentially fatal illness, given that without one she isn’t very interesting any more. A stroke would have made for more dramatic television, but cancer, you have to say, has a certain cachet.”

This particular cachet did indeed claim Goody’s life the following year. Meanwhile, of course, Liddle’s own professional class continues to thrive: “Over half of the top hundred journalists were educated at a private school, a figure that is even higher than it was two decades ago,” Jones writes. “In stark contrast, only one in fourteen children in Britain share this background.”

And that, in a sense, is the new social contract in post-Thatcher England: Not only do members of the British overclass feel empowered to dehumanize their social inferiors without shame; more often than not, they are actually rewarded for it. This was, among other things, one of the obvious, if little-noted, forces behind the British political class’s painfully slow reaction to the August riots; the Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, and London’s Conservative mayor, Boris Johnson, had to be roused from their summer getaways to respond to the crisis. We Americans would do well to closely heed these acute symptoms of social estrangement in a class-bound social order in which culture warfare has become a kind of blood sport.

Chris Lehmann is an editor of Bookforum and the author of Rich People Things: Real-Life Secrets of the Predator Class (Haymarket Books, 2011).

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