Sat alongside Liverpool’s impressive Chinatown Gate is the looming figure of the Blackie, a former Congregational chapel besmirched with over a century’s inner-city smoke and grime, giving the building its blackened façade and its playful name. Now serving as a cultural arts community centre, the venue played the perfect host to an evening of socio-political discussion sprung from Owen Jones’ ‘Rebel Rant’, a headline act of Liverpool’s Writing on the Wall Festival. The rant meandered through an array of themes and concerns, and the discussion which ensued demonstrated the extent to which Jones engaged his audience in his appeal for solidarity amongst the working classes for the hope of social change.
Jones, a self-proclaimed socialist and columnist for the Guardian, rose to prominence after the 2011 publication of Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, described as ‘a work of passion, sympathy and moral grace’ by the New York Times who considered the book one of the top ten non-fiction publications of 2011. He has since featured in numerous televised political debates on programmes such as the BBC’s Newsnight or Daily Politics as a spokesperson for the political left. Jones set his ‘Rebel Rant’ in motion by evoking the rich British heritage of a working class who fought for social change, beginning with examples from as far back as the 14th century and stretching through to modern Britain with examples of working class heroes who in some cases went as far as to die in their struggle for positive social change in Britain, such as the Peterloo Massacre of 1819. Reminding his audience of such examples, Jones laid down his theme that positive social change—whether it be improved working conditions, increasing the minimum wage, female emancipation, the abolition of slavery—is never gifted by a generous elite of officials at the top, but rather it is something which is battled for, through protest, the voicing of discontent and sometimes through blood, but it is always something which comes from below, from the working classes. A message which doubtlessly coursed through the minds of his audience as he proceeded to discuss the problems which afflict our contemporary society.
Over quarter of a million people relying on food banks to feed their families, while energy companies hold millions to ransom over ever-inflating energy prices, their bosses stuffing their pockets with profits while families count pennies deciding whether they can afford to heat their home or feed their children. Incessant job cutbacks leaving 27 million Europeans without work and economic growth at a standstill while monstropolous corporations such as Google, Amazon and Starbucks exploit tax havens to avoid contributing to the economies of countries whose people which put billions of pounds in their pockets every year. The institution that Brits are most proud of, the NHS, being threatened by privatization and thus the potential that another set of already-wealthy businessmen might stick their fingers in our pockets and clear us of our hard-earned wages on the back of something as indispensable and essential as healthcare. Relying on politicians for social change, the same politicians who themselves avoid tax and use the taxpayers money to fund unnecessary second homes and extravagant expenses. Governments tapping into the phones of political leaders to watch over their every move yet people such as Edward Snowden and Julian Assange being condemned as criminals for exposing the corruption taking place in the dark recesses of the political world. Five million Brits on housing waiting lists while house prices continue to rocket up 10% a year. A national media which targets minority, often immigrant, communities and uses them as scapegoats to every problem that the United Kingdom faces and leaving the working classes fighting amongst themselves and believing that if we got out of the EU, put a cap on immigration all our problems would magically evaporate, and amidst all this fighting the people on top sit contentedly licking their cream. The same national media which also demonizes users of social benefits, a system established to support those put out of and unable to find work, but despite huge job losses, mass unemployment, the UK in billions of pounds of debt, the people who use this system are nonetheless branded as ‘lazy’ ‘scroungers’ who ‘sponge’ off tax-payer’s money, draining the country of its supposed unbounding riches. And it cannot be a coincidence that this demonization takes place during a time when job centre employees, who Jones claims to have interviewed himself, are pushed to cut individual’s benefits for the slightest and most inane reasons (turning up 2 minutes late, not being able to go to the job centre because you are out job-hunting) as each job centre battles against each other to save the most money and earn its branch a presumably minor reward. Rule, Britannia! These are all things we are aware of on some level, that we have read about in newspapers and been repudiated by. But Jones was able to frame all these different elements to give a startling and rather nauseating image of a Britain on its knees, and when juxtaposed with his evocation of a truly Great Britain whose working classes fought for social change, this image become suddenly deeply saddening.
But Jones stressed to the packed Blackie crowd that this wasn’t simply an event organised for people to come together, vent their frustrations and become nostalgic about a distant, ‘lost’ Britain. Together, as it always has been and always will be, the working classes can achieve change, because that change never does come from the top, but always comes from a battle-cry from the bottom. His was a message of solidarity, of organisation and being active in the face of the crises faced by Brits today. But not only Brits. Recalling a time when he visited Portugal in 2011, Jones pointed out that riots in that country took place within a week or two of the London anti-cuts protests of that year and that the demonstrations in both countries were calling for virtually the same things. Many of the issues we face today are international and must be addressed on that scale. How? Jones referred to the power of social media to engage and communicate, reminding his audience that social networks have the power to make revolution possible as shown by the example of Egypt and other African countries during the Arab Spring. Indeed Jones himself followed this event by jetting off to Barcelona and Madrid where the Spanish translation of his book has took off and clearly sympathises with the millions of unemployed Spanish struggling make a living and even survive in a country suffering from economic disaster.
Jones’ almost-listing of the multitude of problems faced by Europeans and indeed people all over the work may be deemed by his detractors as simply a means of inciting anger and his rather basic, idealistic response of solidarity and protest might be deemed inane and futile. After all, only four years ago thousands of students reacted to governmental intentions of hiking up prices in further education by demonstrating in London. The reaction of the government? To turn a blind eye, gleefully imagine the extra-revenue and increase Universities fees threefold. Is it then any wonder that there seems to be a generation of apathetic voters (or non-voters) who feel futile to creating significant change, who distrust politicians and have little or no optimism for their future? But Jones demonstrated that change can be provoked by the working classes, by the people who fight for their rights and what they believe in. And so if change is to happen, it will only be achieved through solidarity, organisation and demonstration. In a democracy, this is our right and it is this right that gives us optimism and hope for the future. Plus, as Jones puts it, the British working classes ‘stand on the shoulders of giants’—an empowering image and message which certainly resonated deeply with his applauding audience.
The Writing on the Wall Festival continues tonight (21/05) with Spy in the Camp at the Bluecoat withPhil Scraton, Rob Evans and Janet Alder discussing deceit and betrayal by the police, unmasking espionage, phone-hacking and privacy violation.
It will then continue until the end of May. For the full listings of events, please click here.
Owen Jones will release his second book, The Establishment and How They Get Away With It comes out in September. To pre-order, please click here.
And finally thanks for reading!