17 November 2011

The Demonization and Ghettoization of the Working Class

The modern British working class has become an object of fear and ridicule. Their demonization as feckless, criminalized and ignorant by media and politicians alike has also become acceptable by the gentrified young middle-class, who otherwise praises itself with tolerance and acceptance. This fact has become stereotyped by one hate-filled word: chavs. Owen Jones’ well-argued debut that I have read just recently explores how the working class has developed from a strong part in British society to the ‘scum of earth’. In the media, through characters like Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard or Jade Goody the contemporary working class gets ridiculed to a chav caricature. But also in other parts of Europe the sneering at the socially deprived is everyday media-life. In Germany countless docusoaps are relying on the interest of viewers to mock and caricature the under class.  Jones argues that this development was initiated through the downfall of the previous strong British (trade) unions evoked by the Tory government of Margaret Thatcher at the end of the 1970s and continued by Tony Blair’s New Labour and has recently also been associated with David Cameron’s term of the Broken Britain. However, Jones aspiration lies beyond explaining how the working class has become demonized, moreover he advocates for a revivified debate about class in general terms. Thatcherism’s - or neoliberalism’s - attempt to eradicate the working class through igniting the aspiration for everyone to become middle-class under one’s own stem also has demonized a debate relying on the division of the society by class.  The aspiration for the financially deprived very often just means to ‘own more things’. And this aspiration means economic growth in the neoliberalist thinking. The “non-aspirational working class” even had no place in New Labour, the party originating out of British working class. Tony Blair declared upon assuming office in 1997: “ The New Britain is a meritocracy.” But when Michael Young wrote the book The Rise of the Meritocracy back in 1958, “Meritocracy” was not intended to describe a desirable society – far from it. It was meant to raise the alarm at what Britain could become. Young warned that its consequences would mean “that the poor and the disadvantaged would be done down, and in fact they have been… it is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none.” All these developments have fostered growing inequality in British society, one of the most, if not THE most, unequal society in the Western world. It was not for the government to redress inequalities, because the conditions of the poor would only improve if they changed their behaviour. 

The chav charicature: Little Britain's Vicky Pollard pictured as a teenage mum in front of a council estate. Image Source: BBC
 Looking at British cities renders inequality and also the demonization of the working class visible. The urban council estate tenant has become the prototype of the chav caricature. Jones argues that Thatcher’s Right to Buy scheme added to this fact. Through this policy, which gives council estates tenants the right to buy the home they are living in, in areas where demand for housing exceeds supply, the stock of social housing was depleted faster than it was replaced. The remaining stock of council housing was concentrated in undesirable areas with little employment opportunity, further isolating and stigmatising the tenants. Due to the shortage in council homes only the poorest of the poor are entitled to move into a subsidised home, a fact that has drastically reduced the diversity in these areas. Instead of working against these developments in Cameron’s conservative led government this crisis will get more severe. The Tories called for the scrapping of lifetime council tenancy agreements. Instead only the most needy would be eligible for five-year or, at most, ten-year agreements. If it was decided that their conditions had improved sufficiently, they could be turfed out of their homes and made to rent privately. Jones suggests that “Council estates would become nothing more than transit camps for the deprived”. Through these policies combined with plans to cap benefits to workless families, low-income people face eviction from relatively richer areas, forcing them into effective ghettoes. According to estimates by London councils, as many as 250,000 people were at risk of losing their homes or being forced to move. This form of social “cleansing” would be the biggest population movement in Britain since World War II.  Jones speculates that these facts are not only economically motivated but also politically, since it would lead to and exodus of Labour voters from London. But critisims also comes from within the party, as for example London’s mayor, the Conservative Boris Johnson, came out publicly to say that he would not accept “Kosovo-style social cleansing” in the capital. There is a reasonable fear that under these circumstances London and its still diverse neighbourhoods like the borough of Hackney for example develops towards a homogenised urban inner city area with a belt of ghettoes of low-income people at the fringes, comparable to Paris and its belt of banlieues.
These types of displacement have a profound impact on the cosmopolitan character of cities. They add to the contemporary development that cities are under threat to loose their capacity to foster diversity and bring together people of different classes, ethnicities and religions through commerce, politics, and civic practices, as argued by Saskia Sassen. The growing ghettoization of the poor and the rich – albeit in very different types of ghettos – leaves the middle-classes to bring urbanity to these cities. And the middle-classes arguably are not always the most diverse groups in the city. Sassen argues further, that displacement (from countryside to town or from the city centre to the fringes or even within the city) does not add to a rich diversity but rather becomes a source of insecurity.
Owen Jones’ book makes us well aware of these insecurities contemporary society is facing. Although the case he established is very UK specific it is a topic that addresses most of Western governments - and cities. In his closing statement he anticipated a revolution that the current occupy movement is leading:
“At its heart, the demonization of the working class is the flagrant triumphalism of the rich who, no longer challenged by those below them, instead point and laugh at them … But it has not be this way. The folly of a society organized around the interests of plutocrats has been exposed by an economic crisis sparked by the greed of the bankers. The new class politics would be a start, to at least build a counterweight to the hegemonic, unchallenged class politics of the wealthy. Perhaps then a new society based around people’s needs, rather than private profit, would be feasible once again. Working-class people have, in the past, organized to defend their interests; they have demanded to be listened to, and forced concessions from the hands of the rich and the powerful. Ridiculed or ignored though they may be, they will do so again.”
The last weeks have shown that the global occupiers have found a way to organize to defend their interests. And the working class is part of it. The city is the very site of this revolution.

Related to the decline of British working class: Aditya Chakrabortty's recent article on why Britain doesn't make things any more.