A shorter version was published on Blogcritics.
You couldn’t open a British newspaper last month without seeing a columnist referring to Owen Jones’s Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class. Influential it certainly has been, and now that I’ve laid my hands on a copy, it isn’t hard to see why.
First, it serves as a solid primer of the economic dispossession of the past 30 years that has seen working class communities, particularly in traditional manufacturing areas robbed of most of the things that make life living – robbed of decently paid, steady jobs, robbed of the chance to see their children and grandchildren living near them through a lack of housing, and robbed most particularly of hope – of their long-maintained communal aspiration to see the lives of everyone in the community improve together. There’s one figure here that really should be trumpeted from the rooftops: “Nearly two-thirds of the nation’s wealth went on wages back in 1973. Today’s it’s only a little over half.” (p. 157)
And the fact from one survey found that four out of ten middle-income workers felt their occupation had a lower status than their father’s, while only 29 per cent felt it was higher. “Lower middle class” workers, clerical and administrative workers and supervisors, now have lower incomes, and lower status, than the skilled working class of one generation before. (p. 159) Yet, Jones quotes the New Economics Foundation study that found the real value of many lowly-paid occupations is high, while many high-paid cost us a great deal.
This is Jones’s summary of the Thatcher government: “For the first time in generations, it was a blatant government aim to shovel as much money in the direction of the rich as possible.In the first Budget, top bracket taxes of 83 per cent on earned income and 98 per cent on unearned income were slashed to 60 per cent, and corporation tax went from 52 to 35 pre cent. In 1988 the then-chancellor Nigel Lawson went even further: the top rate of tax was reduced to 40 per cent. … the reality of this part of Thatcher’s class war is that it shifted tax burden from the rich to everyone else.” And while in 1979 the average rate of tex was 31.1 per cent, by 1996 that had risen to 37.7 per cent – while the rich kept so much more. (p. 63)
And this book is also good on both the economic and human sides of the huge shift in the British economy from manufacturing to service industries, particularly retailing, which is now the second-biggest employer in the country, with nearly three million people, more than one in 10 workers, nearly two-thirds of them women, employed in shops, a threefold increase since 1980, and half earn less than £7 an hour, while since 2007 25% have seen their pay slashed, a third had their hours cut and a fifth lost benefits.
Yet, as Jones points out, the “Chavtown” website (no, I’ not going to link to it) defines working in a shop as one sign of “chavdom”, even though working in shops was not so long ago considered quite a genteel, middle-class occupation. He follows the life and story of Mary Cunnningham, the now 55-year-old daughter of a miner, who has spent her career in supermarkets. She says: “When I started, you could have a little bit of time with a customer, and get to know your customer, you had your regulars that came to you because you had that little bit of rapport with them. Now it’s get on with the job, you have to have targets… you’re supposed to get through so many customers per hour.” And Mary notes how workers are vulnerable to bullying from managers, and customers. (p. 143)