From ‘Chav’ to ‘Scrounger’ : Stigma and Social Class

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?

1979 Goodbye Nanny Welfare State, Hello Neoliberal Daddy State: Citizen Smith, Thatcherism and the “Loony Left”

Citizen Smith, Thatcherism and the “Loony Left”


We have heard these scroungers and benefit cheats stories before…

In “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” (1936), Keynes argued for an interventionist state which, through mechanisms such as taxation, would operate as a check to the free market. For Keynes, writing in the context of the economic depression of the 1930s, full employment was a fundamental tenet of a civil society. Keynes’s redistributive economic philosophy inspired Beveridge’s pivotal ‘Social Insurance and Allied Services’ (1942), a report that became the blueprint for the creation of the welfare state in Britain. However, it was Marshall’s pivotal essay, Citizenship and Social Class’ (1950), that placed the concept of citizenship at the centre of debates about the establishment of a new ‘civic bargain’ between the individual and the state. Marshall is still the most influential theorist of citizenship in Britain and, in a series of essays and books written over three decades, he laid down the principles of a new social citizenship founded in equality and political solidarity across social classes.

Conversely, however, Gary Day has argued that citizenship was instituted in Britain as a way of breaking up class allegiances through processes of atomisation and individualization (Day, 2001, p. 159). As he writes, ‘the idea of citizenship was […] largely formulated in opposition to class […] it was based on the age-old distinction between the “deserving” and “undeserving” poor, but women, children, the insane, prisoners and migrant workers were among a number of groups who fell outside this apparently universal category’ (Day, 2001, p. 159-160 see also chapter seven).

Nira Yuval-Davis similarly describes the ways in which the invention of citizenship in post-war Britain was a measure which, by design, produced a cast of ‘moral aliens’ at the periphery of the national ‘moral community’ (Yuval-Davis, 1997, p. 17).

Certainly, by the mid-1970s, the toxic combination of global economic recession and rising inflation (stagflation), high unemployment, spiralling taxation and working class militancy began to test Marshallian notions of social citizenship severely, and a right-wing backlash galvanized against the perceived excesses and failures of rights-based citizenship and the post-war social contract. Margaret Thatcher, then leader of the opposition Conservative party, was one of the politicians central to the recasting of Marshallian social citizenship as a failed socialist programme of reform. As she stated in a 1977 speech at the University of Zurich:

“Socialism promised to raise the provision of education, health, and housing. As is becoming patent to almost everyone, the result has been the opposite. […] Socialism whetted appetites for more, but has resulted in less being available. People of all backgrounds are casting off socialist illusions in the light of socialist reality. […]The class struggle is withering away – to adapt a well-known phrase of Marx and Engels” (Thatcher, 1977).

It was in this context that the British television sitcom, Citizen Smith (BBC, 1977-1980), provided a rare explicit popular representation of British citizenship. Through the figure of naïve, unemployed, petty criminal ‘Wolfie’ Smith (Robert Lindsey), Citizen Smith offers us a window into the social and political struggles over the meaning of citizenship which was taking place in Britain during the 1970s, a period of austerity economics and unprecedented strike-actions that culminated in the ‘Winter of Discontent’ (1978-9) and the election of the neoliberal Thatcher Government in 1979.

citizen smith

Wolfie, adorned with a beret, a Che Guevara t-shirt, and a fake fur coat was the self-proclaimed leader of an odd-ball group of friends who called themselves the ‘Tooting Popular Front’. The opening titles sequence depicts Wolfie walking out of Tooting tube station in London to a rousing rendition of internationalist socialist anthem The Red Flag and culminates in his cry, with a raised fist, ‘Power to the People’. The comedy of Citizen Smith hinges on age-old distinctions between the authentic/sham and deserving/undeserving working class (see chapters six and seven of Revolting Subjects). This is dramatized in the programme through skirmishes between the welfare-dependent, “feminized masculinity” of Wolfie and the “authentic” working-class masculinity embodied by the father of Wolfie’s girlfriend, Shirley, ex-miner Charles (Peter Vaughan, Tony Steedman).

In Episode 13, Series 1, after arranging a failed ‘right-to-work’ protest, Wolfie is forced by the local labour exchange (job centre) to take a position as a security officer at a local factory, where, it transpires he will be working directly under Charles. By the end of his first day at work, and much to Charles’s horror, Wolfie has formed a union, initiated a strike and resigned. Wolfie’s comic and drag-like performances of ‘political citizenship without a cause’ revealed the precariousness of the post-war contract. For while Citizen Smith was affectionate in its depiction of Wolfie, this comic infantilizing depiction of class-struggle, unionism and left wing militancy is a precursor to the popular stereotype of the ‘loony left’ that emerged in tabloid newspapers in the 1980s and communicated a growing middle-class intolerance of the perceived economic burden of the welfare state and the feckless, workless youth and parasitical dependents it was imagined to have created. See for example this story about “marxist coffee” in The Mirror from 1985 “Barmy Bernie Goes Coffee Potty” loony_left_big

During the ‘Winter of Discontent’ Thatcher’s Conservative party election campaign incited and capitalized on the fears of the populace that the state was disintegrating. In an election broadcast in January 1979, Thatcher spoke of the ‘industrial action directed straight at the public to make you suffer – directed even at the sick and disabled. […] picketing that threatens to bring the country to its knees – emptying our shops, endangering our farms, closing our factories, taking our jobs’ (Conservative Party, 1979a). She ended her address, proclaiming ‘We have to learn again to be one nation, or one day we shall be no nation. If we have learnt that lesson from these first dark days of 1979, then we have learnt something of value’ (ibid.).

What “learning to be a nation again” meant for Thatcher was eradicating the failed project of social citizenship by diminishing ‘the big state’. This entailed creating the conditions in which the state and state-borders could be most thoroughly penetrated by ‘the free market’. As she argued, ‘the post-war settlement has failed […] the tide is beginning to turn against collectivism, socialism, statism, dirigism, […] and this turn is rooted in a revulsion against the sour fruit of socialist experience’ (Thatcher, 1977).

The Conservative party finessed their message in an election broadcast in April (Conservative Party, 1979b), produced by the advertising firm, Saatchi & Saatchi, which opened with apocalyptic news footage of mountains of uncollected rubbish piled in the streets, empty shelves in supermarkets, stationary lorries, grounded airplanes, closed cemeteries and picketed hospitals, over-laid with an increasingly hysterical voice-over declaiming ‘Crisis? What Crisis?’, a phrase that had been misattributed to the then Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan by The Sun newspaper (Murdoch run).


With the election of the right-wing Thatcher Government in May 1979, the post-war consensus was at an end and citizenship was not only thoroughly dislocated from any Marshallian redistributive ideals, but also from any positive political project.

Loïc Wacquant describes this shift as a period of state ‘remasculinization’ provoked by ‘the institutionalization of social rights [worker’s rights and the rights of women and other minorities] antinomic to commodification’ (Wacquant, 2010, p. 201). As he writes:

The new priority given to duties over rights, sanction over support, the stern rhetoric of the ‘obligations of citizenship,’ and the martial reaffirmation of the capacity of the state to lock the trouble-making poor (welfare recipients and criminals) ‘in a subordinate relation of dependence and obedience’ toward state managers portrayed as virile protectors of the society against its wayward members: all these policy planks pronounce and promote the transition from the kindly ‘nanny state’ of the Fordist-Keynesian era to the strict ‘daddy state’ of neoliberalism” (Wacquant, 2010, p. 201).

This new neoliberal ‘daddy-state’ was personified in Britain by Thatcher’s public persona as the ‘Iron Lady’, a public image that was caricatured in a notorious sketch from the popular satirical puppet show, Spitting Image (ITV, 1984-1996), that depicted Thatcher wearing a man’s suit and pissing at a urinal alongside male cabinet ministers.


The constellation of the welfare state, social rights and class equality which inaugurated the birth of British citizenship was hijacked by penal definitions of citizenship concerned with borders, immigration and security and the punishment of the poor. Citizenship was redesigned as an abjectifying technology, a mode of neoliberal governmentality which in turn produced and continues to produce new abject classes of failed and stateless citizens within the British state.