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The State Of England: Class divisionism in British Culture

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

It must be realised the denotation ‘chav’ is given its birth from a moral panic perpetuated by mainstream publications. Below is a quote from the telegraph by current prime minister Boris Johnson which aims to offer a middle-class readership an implication that we are in fact not ‘all middle class now.’ “The real divide is between the entire class of… the bottom 20 per cent of society - the group that supplies us with the chavs, the losers, the burglars, the drug addicts and the 70,000 people who are lost in our prisons and learning nothing except how to become more effective criminals.”[1] For Johnson, then, the poorest in society are ‘chavs’ whilst at the same time being criminal; of course, this would imply that this bottom 20% of society is what has been called as a modern “ folk devil.”[2] They are something to be appalled by and are demonised precisely in their deviancy; a ‘chav’ is for Johnson, simultaneously a ‘criminal’ and a ‘loser.’

In Chavs: Demonization of the working-class Owen Jones states that; “Chav is an insulting word directed at the working classes.[3] If this is true, then Johnson beats the working class with this label, thus making them social pariahs; to be working class becomes undesirable. But what is most apparent in this is that an implicit message is conveyed this being that surely not everyone can be middle class because if the ‘chav’ exists then systems of identification come into play; perhaps the popular maxim that ‘we are all middle class now’ should instead read; ‘we are all middle class now, unless you are a chav.’ In other words, there is a choice that is already made for you because why would one choose to be a marginalised ‘loser’, instead it appears much more desirable to be middle class.

A chav it appears, is the worst of the working classes, the bottom ’20%’ but in this, they are nevertheless those that would historically be the working class. A working-class person can be a ‘chav’ but a middle-class person cannot because they are not a chav at their worst. It appears, then that the middle classes have developed their own ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality; “nice middle-class people on one side, [and] an unredeemable detritus on the other.”[4] It seems that an appropriation is at play here for if the working classes are now demonized as immoral ‘chavs’ then it heavily implies the middle classes resemble that which juxtaposes this social other that which is moral; where the middle classes were once seen as those ‘not to be trusted ‘they are now seen as that which should be strived towards, and that can now be trusted. Immorality is instead encumbered upon the working classes through the moniker of ‘the chav.’

It has been claimed that distinctions between ‘chavs’ and other classes are usually tied to late capitalism, and how it allows for materialism as an expression of identity.[5] Meaning that certain products become symbolic, for example, a typical ‘chav’ male may sport a Burberry cap and a tracksuit, but what this also connotes is that certain products carry with them connotations and this exemplifies the following ramification; that the Burberry cap, for example, is intrinsically tied to ‘chavs’ and is not palatable to be worn by a middle class person. Here, a distinction is made on materialistic grounds in that there are products for the ‘immoral chav’ and the ‘moral’ middle classes. The cap itself acts twofold; on the one hand, it shows a distinction between the materialist nature of both sects of people; ‘only chavs wear Burberry caps’ and, acts as a marker of one’s class. The Burberry cap is for the chav what the suit and tie is for the office worker; a marker of their status. the problem with these markers of course is that the suit and tie combination connote status, progress, and aspiration. Whilst the symbolic emblem of the chav is tied to that of a ‘criminal loser.’

What is exemplified here is that consumer culture is divided along a class dichotomy; “Those labelled ‘chavs’…[are] frequently ridiculed for failing to meet middle class standards in what they wore and what they ate.”[6] Everything, it appears, is always measured to how and what the middle classes do. In this, working class identity loses its ability to be aspirational because to be middle class is aspirational; instead the identity of the working class becomes non-aspirational. Where the middle class wear a suit and tie to work, the ‘chav’ wears their tracksuit to the job centre. In short, that which is outside middle-class valuation is wrong. For Jones, this exemplifies what he calls ‘chav-hate’ and such marginalisation is used in order to “justify an unequal society.”[7] There is the hard working middle class on the one hand and a lazy underclass on the other and ‘that is how it is.’

In short, chav-hate appears to be the process by which this underclass is caricaturised and scoffed at in the media; exemplified by characters such as MC Devvo and Vicky Pollard. From what has previously been discussed, Owen Jones may appear problematic in the sense that he is in effect ‘part pitying the working classes beyond any semblance of reality’ as Hoggart would proclaim. However, his claims and how they are exhibited in society do appear justified especially when one considers the fact that all the examples which have been discussed are the disparaging remarks made by the middle classes against those outside of themselves; Jones’ proclamations bear much truth when one analyses the novel Lionel Asbo by Martin Amis.

The titular character shares his newly adoptive surname with that of a court order; ASBO is the abbreviation for an anti-social behavioural order. Lionel gains his first of these orders at three years old,[8]however we learn that this is disputed by other claimants, suggesting that Lionel Asbo is in fact not an anomaly for Amis, an implication that he himself substantiates; “there were hundreds of thousands of men who looked pretty much like Lionel Asbo.”[9] What is exhibited here is the fact that what one looks like ties directly to criminality, Asbo looks a certain way and is intrinsically seen to behave a certain way; those who look like Lionel Asbo hold for Amis a predisposition to immorality and deviancy which falls outside of middle class norms. Asbo is the “working class everyman of London”[10] but he received his first social order as a toddler, before he was even socially conscious, he was a deviant.

This highlights a problematic allusion in that in Amis’ caricature, there exists a fundamental difference between classes; Asbo represents ‘them’ he is their everyman, but he also makes his own nephew feel “ill”[11] in his presence. This echoes Orwell’s discussion of class differentiation based on a physical feeling, the difference is however, Orwell spoke of this in the 1930s, Amis assigns this to his working class character in 2012, hence the implication being that class differences still assert themselves; Amis discusses the working class and trivialises them as essentially repulsing and criminal. Another instance of this is where Des, Lionel’s nephew, is discouraged from writing and instead told by his uncle to go out and smash windows instead.[12]

Here, we see an implication that for Amis, the ‘chav’ cannot be a role model exemplifying this by how they fall outside of middle-class norms, one cannot aspire to stay within their class. To be working class, then appears to be to doom oneself to be the abject, and the deviant. In Amis’ presentation of Des’ primary caregiver, it becomes impossible to be satisfied with being working class; with its embodiment, that is Asbo, being so bad that it makes Des ‘ill’. In this, Amis creates a damming statement this is that a working-class child’s only way to not doom themselves to failure is to reject the lessons of their primary care giver because everything that is being shown to them is categorically wrong. If Asbo functions to be the ‘everyman’ of the working class, and he encourages his nephew to put his writing r paper down in order to brick windows, then he also becomes the embodiment of all that is wrong with the society which is being satirised; modern Britain’s ‘underclass’.

Amis also uses instances of dehumanisation in the novel, in part this is because he means those whom are depicted to be caricatures as opposed to characters due to the satirical outlook which the novel has. However, this perpetuates ‘chav hate’ in that we as readers are encouraged to laugh at the absurdity of the lives depicted, because they are so far removed from that which is ‘the proper middle-class way’ of living them.

Perhaps the most obvious allusion of the absence of traditional middle-class norms is that there exists dysfunction right from the off for a working-class child in the novel; “What did he [Des] know about his dad? Very little. And it was an ignorance that Cilla [Des’ Mother] largely shared.[13] This quote highlights two things these being that sexual promiscuity is rife within the 'under'-classes, so much so that a mother cannot tell their son whom their father is. What should also be noted here is that this exhibits a breakdown of the traditional nuclear family, an implication that the working classes exhibit immorality, as their sexual hedonism is shown to be more important, something which is seen as a cornerstone of traditional middle-class values; a married man and woman live together with their children and raise them. The fact that working-class women reject this notion perpetuates the idea of class differences as Amis presents the working classes as fundamentally different in how they are raised, implying that this difference is found due to the inability of this underclass to adopt to functional societal norms of the home, in this, Des loses a sense of his identity and this is fault of his mother; for Amis, it appears that this underclass is little more than a fast breeding immoral rabble with little to no acknowledgement of their self-destructive immoral tendencies.

The novel is further problematised as the most moral character, Des, discloses at the start of the book that he is having incest relations with his own “gran.”[14] This works twofold; on the one hand, we see further perpetuation of the sexual deviancy ascribed to the working class by Amis, whilst also being placed as readers to having difficulty in holding any real empathetic feelings to this character. Although Des is ‘aspirational’ in accordance with middle class norms in his value of education, this shameless incest relationship will be connoted whenever we read his name on subsequent pages. In short, Des may value ‘the pen over the brick’ but he lacks any real remorse, or acknowledgement of this deviant behaviour. Although Des wishes to be middle class by his will to dedicate himself to his education, the greatest tragedy is that Amis presents the character as never being quite as moral as the middle classes.

The implication here of course is that although he has the aptitude to improve his circumstances, Des is fundamentally estranged from proper assimilation into the middle classes due to his inherent immorality. The greatest irony of Des is this; he may feel ‘ill’ in the face of his uncle, but any middle-class reader would feel ‘ill’ from the first instance of reading what Des has done. Amis here perpetuates the notion of the ‘state of England’ being in an equilibrium; the innately immoral underclass remain in their position, whilst the moral middle class remain in theirs. It appears that, though there is ‘aspirational’ underclass notions, for Amis, borrowing some middle class values does not automatically make one middle class because there is simply an innate difference between the two; they will never be exactly the same.

[1] Boris Johnson, The poor are being robbed in Labour's class war in The Telegraph, (2005) URL: [accessed:15/2/2020] [2]Elias Le Grand The ‘Chav’ as folk devil in Moral Panics in the Contemporary World edited by Julian Petley, Chas Critcher, Jason Hughes, Amanda Rohloff, (Bloomsbury, 2013) [3] Owen Jones, Chavs: the demonization of the working class (Verso,2016) p.2 [4] Ibid.p.7 [5] Keith Mayward Majid Yar, 'The ‘chav’ phenomenon: Consumption, media and the construction of a new underclass in Crime, Media, Culture, pp.16-18 [6] Jones, p.114 [7] Ibid.p.137 [8] Martin Amis,Lionel Asbo:State of England (Penguin,2012) p.27 [9] Ibid.p.6 [10] Megan Faragher, Celetoids and the City: Tabloidization of the Working Class in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo: State of England in Twenty First century British Fiction and the City, edited by Magali Cornier Michael (Palgrave Macmillan,2018) p.108 [11] Amis.ibid.p.7 [12] Ibidp.6 [13] Ibid.p.11 [14] Ibid.p.3

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