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A missed opportunity
on 8 August 2011
I've read some remarkable reviews of this book in the press, most of which comment on how acutely it makes its argument, the forensic detail with which Jones writes, and the wonderful style he employs. Unfortunately, I didn't see much of any of these, and ultimately found this book frustrating. Not because I disagreed with the overall argument - far from it - but rather because at times it's a blunt analysis framed bluntly. It left me feeling that we on the left really need a much better voice than this.
First, the good points, of which there are some. Jones starts promisingly with some astute points about Dewsbury and how it differs from the media representation during the Shannon Matthews case. An early chapter on 1980s contexts for modern class politics is passionate and useful, if something of a primer for those who have never heard of the miners' strike. The real value of the book lies in its critique of the concept of meritocracy, in a passage that will challenge the thinking of many. Jones also effectively deploys some useful statistics and makes some valuable observations about the effects of the misperception of the median salary (£21,000, since you ask, although a better editor would have meant that we didn't have to be told this at least four times).
These points aside, however, the rest of the book is seriously undermined by three major problems:
Firstly, there's the way in which the book presents the working class themselves. Jones is right to challenge the conservative assumption that the working class remain so through choice, a lack of ambition, aptitude, and so on. The problem, however, is that Jones goes too far in the other direction, to the extent that the working class seem to be little more than passive economic victims. The tone is a little too deterministic (which is emphatically not, as the right would argue, the same as Marxist) and occasionally patronising. Related to this is the fact that the book treats the working class as a homogenous body, despite Jones' disclaimer that this stance is to be avoided. Jones has little to say on the fact that many of these chav-bashing attitudes are themselves rooted in certain kinds of working class cultures, a plurality that gets lost in the book's structure of the middle class sneering at the working class. There's also a tinge of romanticizing the working class here, which Jones explicitly says at the beginning he wants to avoid; sorry, you didn't, and especially not when trying to argue that Jade Goody's "poppadom" comments on Celebrity Big Brother might have been "racially tinged." You reckon?
Secondly, the book lacks any theoretical sophistication. Yes, I know it's aimed at a general readership, but that doesn't mean it can't be informed by more sophisticated arguments (Richard Sennett, for instance, writes beautifully and accessibly on similar concepts - see, for instance, his *The Hidden Injuries of Class* or *The Craftsman*), and for a book published by Verso it's a real disappointment in this respect. Jones talks about 'cultural capital,' but Pierre Bourdieu (a crucial source for how taste reinforces social division - which is what this book is supposed to be about) isn't even mentioned in the endnotes. Even Marx and Engels only get a fleeting mention. The book's main sources are (far too) numerous newspaper articles and the stylings of Polly Toynbee and Johann Hari; the former is at least a respected journalist, but this pedigree means that the book feels more like a string of newspaper opinion pieces than a deeply thought-out analysis. Take, for instance, Jones' solution to these problems, which really boils down to a sense of community (indeed, when he visits Ashington, he writes "There's a real sense of community in the air." Really? What does that smell like?). Community is the panacea here, but this seems simplistic, and Jones says nothing on how communities are also defined by exclusion (again, Richard Sennett and Benedict Anderson would have been really useful here). What's really surprising, however, is that Jones makes no reference at all to those who have written before him, making the very same points. I can just about accept that Richard Hoggart's *The Uses of Literacy* isn't at the forefront of working class studies nowadays, but it's really surprising that Michael Collins' *The Likes of Us*, which brought class back to the forefront, doesn't seem to exist in the world of this book.
Thirdly, Jones is really out of his depth when discussing culture, and unfortunately this takes up a hefty portion of the book. The real problem here is that he enthusiastically points out examples that support his thesis, while completely ignoring the many more that challenge it. For instance, he notes that songs such as the Kaiser Chiefs' "I predict a riot" demonizes the tracksuit wearing underclass, and from this concludes that modern popular culture follows suit; yet he seems utterly unaware that for every Chiefs album, there are many more that celebrate working class culture (the Streets, for instance). Likewise, while I hesitate to mount any kind of defence of *Little Britain*, Jones' criticism that Vicky Pollard presents a "grotesque caricature" misses the point that *all* of *Little Britain* is a grotesque caricature, including of the middle and upper class (had Pollard been missing, of course, this would have been invoked as evidence of removing the working class from culture altogether, although this is a far more sinister charge). But on this point, most striking is Jones' rewriting of wider cultural history. He makes the utterly inaccurate claim that the working class only appear in Victorian fiction as cartoonish figures, either ignoring or being ignorant of late Victorian naturalist fiction (Morrison, Gissing, Harkness, etc) and even very late Dickens; likewise, in a book supposedly about twentieth (and 21st) century cultural depictions of the working class, to have no mention whatsoever of Robert Tressell's *The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists* is absolutely shocking (but then again, this wouldn't square with Jones' argument that accurate depictions of the working class only came about in the 1960s).
I really wanted to agree with this book; indeed, in many respects I do, but in spite of it rather than because of it. I would recommend it as a beginner's text on these issues, but it doesn't really say anything more than what you'll have already read in the Guardian or Independent (oh come on, you're looking at this book - you're not a Daily Mailer, are you?).