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« "Excavating" American Conservative Utopias | Main | Clipboards and Context »
Wednesday
Aug222012

Reading "Chavs" in Stockton and Teeside

Owen Jones"Chavs:  The Demonization of the Working Class" has been making the rounds in my house.  My wife bought it, and read it, and then passed it to me.  It's a powerful book, breaking down stereotypes about poor and working people in England, and also contextualizing those stereotypes within the larger economic and political changes in Britain over the last 30 years. 

The term "Chav" is pretty derogatory in England.  It's a term of dubious origin but which has come to mean the violent, disorderly, ignorant, and over-sexualized poor person continually on welfare.  There isn't really a US equivalent--"Hick" or "Redneck" might be the closest thing, but neither of those terms have the same bite as "Chav".  And yet, despite it's offensive connotations, it pops up a lot in public life over here.  There are websites devoted to criticisms and jokes about  chavs  and chav culture, British TV programs that frequently mock Chavs, and endless  newspaper  columns that utilize any unsavory events involving poor and working people as an excuse to lambast all "Chavs".  

It's also a term that is often associated with the area we live in. We moved to the North of England in January of this year.  One of the places that we've frequented is Stockton, a market town with a complex and interesting history that sits along the Tees River.  Historically, it was a ship-building community, and also had sizeable mines nearby, but those are largely gone now.  The surrounding area, known as "Teeside" is, by any measure, is one of the poorest regions in the United Kingdom.  To take one example, in the month we arrived, there were almost 7,000 people looking for work, and only 700 jobs available.   Other parts of Teeside are as bad or worse.  Walking around the town, as I've done quite a bit, it's clear that Stockton has seen better days.  Many of the shops on the High Street are empty, and many of the occupied buildings are charity shops (which can open up tax-free), or gambling shops--the hedge-funds of poor people.  Stockton is also pops up several times on the "Chavtowns" website, described as "the piss soaked pants of Teesside. The streets are paved with s**t in this lovely town". I've heard the word "Chav" thrown around about Stockton and Teeside, and it's never been without scorn and derision.  

Stockton at dusk, from the #17 bus stopThe first thing I noticed about people in Stockton was that the fine art of conversation is an everyday passtime here. To my American sensibilities, rut as they are with silent insularity, this was shocking and confusing, but everyone in Stockton likes to talk.  I have found myself having long conversations with people working cash registers in stores, people waiting for the bus, people having a drink in the pub, and just people hanging out on the street--in other words, the poor and working class people who often get lumped together and caricatured as Chavs.  Undoubtedly my American accent impacts how folks behave towards me, but everyone I've spoken to in Stockton has been extremely friendly and helpful. They aren't violent, abusive, or uncouth.  And many of them talk in an extremely clear-eyed way about the state of their town, the economy, and the perils of everyday life in recession.  They're friendly, clearly hardworking, and not at all the layabouts caricatured by politicans, the media, and Chav websites.  

Reading "Chavs" has illuminated a lot of this descrepancy for me.  Rather than simply criticising the term, Jones uses it as a jumping off point for describing how poor and working people have been politically and economically marginalized in Britain for three decades. In brief, the conservative Thatcher government of the 1980s dismantled many of the important institutions of working class life in England. In particular, they focused on taking down Unions, which were political, economic, and social organizations important to many people, and which provided the possibility of meaningful work in areas like Teeside.  The conservative government also dismantled public council housing by creating "right to buy" flats.  The idea was that poor people could become property owners and elevate themselves above their conditions, but in practice, it segmented poor and working people betwen those who were able to buy their flat and those who weren't.  It also led to rising property values which priced many working people out of the housing market anyway.

The New Labour government of Tony Blair continued and exacerbated this trend by eradicating class from their policies.  In some cases, this happened quite literally, when they re-named social terminology in their briefs and discussions (changing "social class" to "social economic classification", for example).  They promoted policies of financialization over manufacturing, which made people in cities very rich, but didn't do much to help rural or working class people that didn't work in the financial sector.  They also promoted the idea (and policies to go with it) that "we are all middle class now".  This was an abandonment of their traditional constituency (i.e. "Labour") and it largely shifted class from being an economic position to being a "choice".  In other words--if you weren't middle class, it was because you weren't working hard enough.  Thus, the neoliberal tsunami of declining stable employment, the defunding of public welfare and social safety nets under the rubric of "privatization", and an increasing political rhetoric of class as a lifestyle choice (rather than an economic condition) created what Jones calls the "Chav rump".  These are the people most left behind by the society that then turned around and demonized them.    

I'm still learning about life in Stockton and Teeside.  I'm sure it's not all pleasant, and that there are places, as one kid quipped to me, where "if you visit, you'll come back with no shoelaces."  But it's clear to me that this is not a function of lifestyle.  Rather, it's part of a long-term economic and political process that has cut people in places like Teeside out of political and economic standing.  In reading Jones' book, I've been given a new way to "read" the place that I live, and to understand the nature of that process and its impact on the people around me.    

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