Monday, August 20, 2012

Chavs: What Class Do You (Really) Belong To?

I just finished reading Owen Jones' Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class and it's got me thinking.  Although it's a book about class in Britain, it really got me thinking about how I, and we in Canada, perceive class.

I decided to buy this book after seeing it on the shelves on my trip to London and started to ask questions about class divisions, and particularly White identity, in the UK.  If you've never been to the UK and you are Canadian, the mythical and supposedly outdated concept of "class" will literally slap you in your "middle class" face.

First and foremost, "chav" is a derogatory term identifying some segments of the the White working class in Britain.  Lazy, child-bearing, unemployed, project living, teen moms, that we get to see here in North America on the show Wife Swap.  Here's a negative characterization of a "chav" - Vicky Pollard - that Owens cites in his book.

Owens (the same guy in the YouTube video in my post on Brixton sitting across from the old fart of a bigot historian), explored how "chav", has become a "term of pure class contempt", both within and outside of the working class.  (That being said, he did explain that similar to how some in the gay community have reclaimed the word "queer" as a term of endearment, some in the working class have done the same with "chav".)

Chav is a contentious, politicized, and even racialized term.  I think the best way for a North American to relate is to see how inflammatory, but also widely accepted, the word "nigger" has become in popular culture.  Shit, I was out at the Kiss 92.5's WhamBam concert the other night and you had lily-white teenage girls rapping along word-for-word to Drake and dropping "nigga" like they were auditioning for a role in a Spike Lee movie.  (I'll save those thoughts for another post at a later date.)

What Owens did that I found most intriguing, was talk about class.  He made no bones about it to challenge this British (and I'd argue North American) myth of: "we all belong to the middle class".  Bullshit.  You need a top and bottom to have a middle right?

While the book is specifically about the British class system, particularly to the class war and the deliberate "divide and rule" destruction of the working class by Thatcherism in the 1980s, Owens' theory that the ruling elite, and its soldiers at war - the middle class - have declared open warfare on the most vulnerable in society (through its ideological characterization as a bunch of undeserving and lazy "chavs"), is a framework that I believe can be applied to what's happening in Canada right now.
Owens' definition of the working class:

"People [who] work for others, and lack control over their own labour". (p. 145)

From time to time, our government might call us taxpayers, the "middle class".  But who, or what, belongs to the middle class in Canada?  Owens described those who went to Oxford or Cambridge and sent their kids to private schools the middle class.  What's the Canadian equivalent?  Is a GM worker facing layoffs in Oshawa a part of the middle class?  What about the teachers and doctors our provincial government has decided to piss on?  What if I send my kids to private and not to publicly funded schools, does that remove me from the middle class to the upper echelons of society?

If there's a 1%, ostensibly those of the upper class, is the 99% percent the middle or the working class?

You've got the big bad bankers on Wall Street and the rest of America on Main Street, so who's that dude sleeping on the corner of Unemployed Blvd?  What class does he belong to?  Better yet, what about the 25 year old history graduate working at a call centre?

Start to question the bullshit you hear in the media and from our politicians.  Class is not a dirty word.  Ignorance is.


  1. Owens' definition of the working class:

    "People [who] work for others, and lack control over their own labour". (p. 145)

    Interesting. By that rule, both of my parents are working class, and the dudes who attempted to open Waffle Weiney are middle class because they were entrepreneurs?

    Who really works for themselves or controls their labour? Even entrepreneurs work for the banks that hold their loans.

  2. I really think a lot of it comes down to perception. I believe, just like race, class is socially constructed. You could be a millionaire plumber, but people still see you driving around in your F-150 fixing toilets and it screams "working class" (The dude from "Holmes on Homes" is a perfect example). Or you could be a lawyer chasing ambulances and living paycheque to paycheque, but since you're a lawyer you are firmly seen as (upper) middle class.

    Think about all those people with those big fancy houses that can barely afford their mortgages.

    So no, I don't think there's a concrete rule as to who or what is middle class (unless the government has instituted numbers as to what constitutes the classes, ie. in the US Middle Class is household income between 39k and 118k - a huge in-group gap to say the least).

    Who works for themselves? Couldn't tell you. Maybe a tenured professor?