Revised extract from ‘Britain and its Poor’ Revolting Subjects
The word ‘Chav’ is now so banal – mouthed openly by primary school children (and sometimes by their teachers)- it has been depleted as the de rigueur class pejorative amongst teenagers, university students, journalists and others concerned with “fashionable” practices of name-calling. In place of ‘chav’ we have a new vocabulary of class disgust for more austere hard times, a language characterised by barbed “nasty names” for those in receipt of state benefits: ‘scroungers’, ‘cheats’……
Some might deny that labels such as ‘scrounging’ are ‘class names’ for the latest round of neoliberal disenfranchisement, but I want to argue that it is important to understand these naming practices as a class struggle.
It is worth remembering that when the term chav was first popularized, it was frequently denied by those who used it that it might be a pejorative ‘class name’. Indeed many political and expert social commentators still make this claim. For example, in May 2011 when Baroness Hussein-Ece, a Liberal Democrat Peer and a member of the coalition government’s Commission for Equality and Human Rights, tweeted, ‘Help. Trapped in a queue in chav-land! Woman behind me explaining latest EastEnders plot to mate, while eating largest bun I’ve ever seen’, journalists and political commentators were divided on what the tweeting of the word chav by a Government-appointed champion of equality and rights might have meant. The Baroness later attempted to defend herself by counter-tweeting that the word chav is ‘endearing in my part of town’. Other ‘evidence’ frequently cited in support of the claim that chav is not a pejorative word is the contention that working-class people use the term, and that it is frequently directed at rich celebrities (“the new planetary vulgate” via @tomslater42) as well as ‘poor people’. As the journalist Ed West wrote in The Telegraph in defence of Baroness Hussein-Ece:
The reason [chav spread with such speed] was because it so perfectly, and succinctly, described a type of person that almost everyone in Britain recognised […]. A type of person defined not just by their clothes, speech and mannerism but their lifestyle and attitude. […] Working-class people use it all the time, understand what it means and, if anything, dislike chavs more than anyone. Why? Because they have to live with them. Being a chav is not about being poor, or unskilled, or any of the traditional markers of the proletariat, but about attitude, and in particular one that lacks civic-mindedness and civility. That’s why it’s perfectly reasonable for people, of all classes, to mock them (West 2011).
For those on the left, however, the use of the term chav is indicative of ‘social racism’ (Burchill 2011) and ‘poisonous class bile’ (Toynbee 2011). As Toynbee writes on the Hussein-Ece affair:
She would presumably never say nigger or Paki, but chav is acceptable class abuse by people asserting superiority over those they despise. Poisonous class bile is so ordinary that our future king and his brother played at dressing up and talking funny at a chav party mocking their lower class subjects. Wrapped inside this little word is the quintessence of Britain’s great social fracture. Over the last 30 years the public monstering of a huge slice of the population by luckier, better-paid people has become commonplace. This is language from the Edwardian era of unbridled snobbery. […] The form and style may have changed – but the reality of extreme inequality and self-confident class contempt is back (Toynbee 2011).
As these two responses to Baroness Hussein-Ece’s tweet reveal, the chav has become a symbolic site of polarized struggles between left- and right-wing social commentators and experts. One of the things which characterizes this struggle is the way in which those who are most critical of this pejorative figuration of class disadvantage attempt to denaturalize the chav by positing an authentic and positive working class figure in its place. For example, in her article Toynbee invokes ‘the remarkably strong work ethic of those in jobs paying little more than benefits, the carers and cleaners doing essential work well, despite lack of money or respect’ (Toynbee, 2011). This strategy of revitalizing working-class identities is also central to Owen Jones’s best-selling book, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class (2011). The positive critical reception to Jones’s book, and his subsequent media celebrity, has worked to stabilise the meaning of the term chav on the liberal-left as a pejorative name for the working class. This is a victory of sorts.
The creation of authentic working-class culture through the figure of the noble suffering worker has been a central strategy for post-war left politics since the second world-war (see Long 2008) and has a much longer history in, for example, 18th and 19th century workers’ struggles. The politicisation of class names is a critical counter-representational strategy that returns pejorative class names back to the elites who fabricated them. This is an important form of what feminist and post-colonial theorists term ‘strategic essentialism’ (see Spivak and also Irigaray) that enables the articulation of class solidarities. It is important to note that is also enables the often more problematic homogenisation and marketization of class differences as forms of popular entertainment.
While I am sympathetic with strategic essentialism as a political tactic, I also want to trouble the positing of authentic working-class identities as a ‘solution’ to the neoliberal political vilification of ‘Britain’s poor’ since, as Deranty notes, ‘[e]very time emancipatory political action attempts to ground itself in some essential property, it falls into contradictions and paradoxes that make it miss its self-given target [and] transform it into its opposite’ (Deranty 2010: p. 22).
In short, the ‘essentialist apriorism’ of ‘authentic class strategies’ risk reinforcing the forms of classificatory violence that they might ostensibly seek to contest (Laclau & Mouffe 2001: p. 177). For example, these strategies most often revolve around the axis of deserving/underserving poor and around particular notions of work, which excludes the gendered work of care and social reproduction (see Kathi Weeks 2012). As such, this ‘strategic essentialism’ often reinforces the same problematic opposition that Marx conjured up in the figure of the revolting feminized lumpen against which he crafted the gallant muscularity of the proletariat (see Revolting Subjects chapter six).
If we want to challenge the status quo, one of the things we need to unpick is the oppositional axis of deserving/underserving–and related to this ‘the presupposition that work, or waged labor, is inherently a social and political good’ (Weeks 2012). We also need to address how figures such as “the benefits scrounger” –whom is pitted against and constitutes the figure of “hard working families”–operate to sustain class hierarchies and values. How are these kinds of classed figures formed and materialised? What work do they do when activated in different mediums and contexts (ie. policy, popular culture)? and How might we resist the stigmatising effects of these figures on everyday understandings of inequality and disadvantage?