Thursday, 8 March 2012

'Chavs'? 'Underclass'? None of it surprises historians


I've just finished (tardily) reading Owen Jones' very good book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Classes (above), which is a rather excellent dissection of the way in which working people have been lambasted, blamed, kicked around and poked for the last two or three decades. Unemployment? Their fault. Poverty? Their fault. National decline? Their fault. Unfashionable cities? Blighted by slovenly youth. Massive deindustrialisation and banking sector profligacy? Not so much of a problem, apparently.

If you believe that, you'll believe anything.

You might even believe the tsunami of nastiness that passes for comment about working people these days. Jones marshalls a fabulous list of lies and half-truths from the popular press. But you don't have to spend your money on those splendid journals to peek into other citizens' dark hearts. Take a look at this lovely offering, about Castleford in Yorkshire, taken from the detestable Chavtowns website:

The town looks like a cross between a level from Fallout and Little Britain... What we have here is mutants in bad shell suits and baseball caps. Most of them would have to go several evolutionary levels to be called chavs elsewhere. Nuking the place would actually improve it. Chief past times here amoung the younger yobs seem to be spray-paint huffing, drunken violence and hanging around smoking and looking scummy...

Lovely stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. You do have to wonder how anyone gets the time to basically carve hateful abuse on the walls of the public sphere. Still. There's much, much more of this pretty much anywhere on the internet you care to look at.

But it's no surprise to historians. Anyone who's read Geoffrey Pearson's Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, or Stanley Cohen's classic Folk Devils and Moral Panics, or Stephen Humphries' Hooligans or Rebels, will know what's going on here. Society's in a flap. We're all going to be poorer than our parents. Our masters need someone to blame. Many have decided to blame working-class communities, the 'white working classes' or the 'underclass'. Whatever we call them, they're unlikely to answer back as we draw on two centuries of lies about fecklessness, work-shyness, dirtiness and violence.

There's a very simple thing we should say about this, dear reader: it stinks.

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