progress is not the elimination of struggle, but rather a change in its terms’ - Aneurin Bevan

Book review: Owen Jones

I like Owen Jones. As a media commentator he comes across well on television, radio, and in print. He “speaks human” and is able to express with clarity and humour a radical (and from this) grass-roots Labour perspective on British society. Sadly, these are exactly the qualities which have held people back in professional politics over the period that Jones describes in his new book.

Chavs: the demonisation of Britain's working class explains how working people went from being portrayed as “the salt of the Earth to the scum of the Earth”. Jones charts the defeats and consequent decline of the labour movement during the ruling class assault of the past three decades, a class war which is seldom referred to as such because it is fought from above.

Jones uses interviews with working people across the country to challenge stereotypes which have emerged in the wake of the growing power of capital over labour, and the consequent unemployment, casualisation, and wage stagnation.

In this regard, he has produced an accessible book which deserves to be widely read and debated over the next few years. His vision of a revived labour movement, focused on increasing the role of trade unions and co-operatives in the economy, is one that I share.

But I believe the book has two weaknesses:

1) The definitions used by Jones to categorise working people mistakenly draw a distinction between people who depend on an earned income from a wage or salary. I dislike the division of workers as being either “working class” or “middle class” on the basis of a level of autonomy they have over their work because this is only an apparent difference, and not one central to labour markets in a capitalist economy.

The emphasis on what economists call the “labour process” is welcome, however – it matters to people's mental and physical health. But the use of the concept of autonomy to divide working people into two groups leaves Jones open to a line of attack which distracts from the central premise of the book. So although it does not distract from his argument within the book, it is a weakness that critics can seize upon.

Like the terms “left” and “right”, the use of discrete categories of “working class” and “middle class” are detrimental to understanding the forces at work in contemporary politics, disguising what is the key divide in society between suppliers of labour and owners of capital. It is this inequality of power which should be at the forefront of debates on class.

An acceptance within the Labour movement that there are two categories of class amongst labour-suppliers makes it easier for our opponents – seeking to deny that economic rule by the few undermines the living standards of the many – to claim that there is a yawning chasm between the needs and aspirations of more affluent and less affluent workers.

2) Chavs pays insufficient attention to capital-owners, beyond the tacit recognition that there are too few in the form of an endorsement of co-operative enterprise. Perhaps a sequel could look upwards, at the composition and alignment of the ruling class.

If I was writing a follow-up, I would call it Top Dogs and Fat Cats: the disappearance of Britain's ruling class. It would look at how power-relations have become obscured as inequality has increased, and would make the case that the primary strategy of the capitalist class is to disappear from the view of politicians and electors.

Top Dogs and Fat Cats would go back further in time than the past few decades of neo-liberal consensus and the preceding post-war settlement, to the Industrial Revolution and the split between ownership and control both in terms of the joint-stock corporation and the British state.

Economic power was rendered invisible as feudal rule and an agrarian economy gave way to the rule of capital in an industrialised economy. In recent years, the dispersal of power to supra-national bodies such as the European Union and transnational corporations has added a layer of complexity and thus further uncertainty to the question of who governs in British society.

No doubt, Owen will follow up Chavs with another book if he gets the chance. But, much as I would look forward to reading it, I hope he is able to spend more time writing commentaries and appearing on TV and radio in the next few years. Labour needs talented people like Owen.

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