Owen-ing up to inequality

On first seeing Owen Jones, author of Chavs, I was quite surprised. Far from the towering and stern colossus of contemporary social commentary, the man who entered Blackwell’s that night was friendly, informally dressed and relaxed. With his satchel and boyish face he looked much like a regular student, a point he was quick to make in his opening line.

If you haven’t heard of Chavs you will soon. Jones’ work is ‘an illuminating, disturbing portrait of inequality and class hatred in modern Britain’ (the blurb). It’s a deeply sobering read; far from Burberry and Jade Goody it shows how both the right and the left have dehumanised the working class to justify our growing gap in wealth and privilege. Ever donned faux-Burberry for a bop? In Jones’ eyes you are as guilty of discrimination as those who ‘black-up’. Through careful comparisons, such as the cases of Madeline McCann and Shannon Matthews, Jones exposes the ruthless double standards we have been applying to the most vulnerable people in society. He also highlights the consequences of tolerating inequality; extremism, drug-abuse and crime. The book is now standard reading material for Labour MPs.

You might then assume that the August riots would have presented Jones with an almighty ‘I told you so’ moment. “Some people say the book predicts them but it doesn’t” he explained, adding “I’m planning to write another introduction for the mass-market”.  Terms Jones had already condemned, such as ‘feral underclass’ reappeared during the riots, with one gym chain tweeting it had to close early due to a ‘chav infestation’. Was he disappointed by the recent subsidence in interest? “I think that could be positive” he replies “people will be more likely to reflect on it and be less emotional when talking about it”. Yet he agrees the riots should not be totally ignored “my fear is that they are a dark foreshadow on things to come’.

Yet Jones’ best known contribution to the analysis of the riots was his part in the now infamous David Starkey ‘racism’ debate on BBC’s Newsnight. Starkey’s claim that “whites have become black”, claiming Enoch Powell “was absolutely right” and his attack on triggered a wave of disgust throughout the country. Had Starkey get carried away by him own argument? Jones doesn’t think so; “he knew exactly what he was doing- he turned up with Enoch Powell quotes”. In fact Jones holds little sympathy at all for the disgraced historian, arguing that “there’s no way someone like him, with as much media experience as he has, went into that thinking nothing would happen…I don’t think he expected the backlash afterwards”. Starkey’s arguments were “a calculated attempt to introduce race at a time of national crisis”.

Moving to their other moment of great unrest in recent times, the 2010 student protests, I ask Jones what he thinks about the commentators pointing to intergenerational injustice highlighted by Ed Howler and Shiv Malik’s book; Jilted Generation. Jilted Generation is another recent social commentary, in much the same style of Jones’, arguing that our parents’ generation is squandering away our future prosperity. Jones has no time for these arguments however; ‘this so-called bunch of baby boomers (the target of Jilted Generation’s attacks) were made up of different classes…it included people who lost millions of jobs in the 80s…we’re talking about middle aged miners who’s lives were ruined…the idea that they’ve had this pampered upbringing which has been denied to everyone else I just think is absurd’. For him ‘the focus has to be class…the people who have suffered the worst consequences of economic crisis since the 70s are the working class’.

Yet he sees the protests as crucial as rousing the trade unions, and the working class as a whole, to action in the face of government cuts; ‘they showed it was possible to resist, that gave heart to trade unionists’. The cuts are ‘part of a generalised attack on huge numbers of people; public sector workers, pensioners, those on housing benefits, the unemployed…it’s all part of one assault’. According to him, class conflict is re-emerging because the crisis continues to increase inequality. ‘The people at the top are richer then they’ve ever been’ Jones laments ‘while people at the bottom experience the greatest squeeze since the 1920s’. The distribution of wealth is ‘comparable to the Victorian era’ with call-centres the new satanic mills.

What’s fascinating about Jones is that he’s far from the stereotypical image of the privileged, bespectacled Oxford postgraduate ‘champagne class warrior’. Jones’ background is astoundingly genuine; he comes from post-industrial Stockport, and has actually worked in a call centre, selling hearing aids. Ultimately, whether or not you agree with his staunch anti-Thatcherism, he poses questions that, however uncomfortable, we all need to confront urgently.

Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class is available in Blackwells Bookshop now

Follow Sam Richardson’s blog at http://thelondonmob.wordpress.com/