The Bickerstaffe Record

About me, Being Labour, The world beyond West Lancashire

Discourse, and the material world

07.17.08 | Comment?

A ‘hat tip’, as real bloggers say, to Dave Ostler for bringing this critique by Tom Hampson (of the Fabians) of the growing use of the terms ‘chav’ to my attention.  For starters, I left this as what started out as a brief comment on his blog, but then it kind of grew organically into a mini-statement of my epistemological position as a socialist, so I thought I’d post it on my blog.  Not sure if that is blogging etiquette, though I hope some experienced blogger will tell me if it isn’t – I’m still very much a beignner. 

Anyway……….. The central point in Dave’s post for me is that “the left should devote its efforts not towards inculcating new linguistic taboos but instead take up the real issues raised by the persistence of ingrained poverty in places like Glasgow East…”

 Absolutely….  we should not lose sight of the fact that the primary struggle of the left is to counter material inequality.  That is not to say that language is unimportant – discourse is a vital part of the hegemonic process of the right;  Stuart Hall (1988) showed us that clearly a long while ago in his analysis of the way ‘Thatcherism’ was built on a discourse that articulated  “a number of disparate ideological element which included rational Tory values about law and order, ‘Englishness, the family tradition and patriotism, on the one hand, and classic liberal ideas about the free market and homo economics on the other” (Howarth et al. 2000, p4).    Equally, Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985) classic analysis of how discourse creates political boundaries and ‘othernesses’ as a hegemonic system of control rings true when we look at how ‘chav’ is used. 

But, as Dave suggests, it’s dangerous to take this too far, in the way that Tom Hampson seems to indicate we should; banning/tabooing the word chav will not in itself undo the material conditions that create the need/opportunity for chav-haters to hate chavs.  Discourse is only one strategy, albeit an important one, for neo-liberal societal control.  To suggest that banning its use will resolve inequalities is not only to hand a tactical advantage to the right, who can then bang on about ‘political correctness’ and how the left seeks to control society through language – while actually the reverse is true – it also skirts quite close to the post-modern fallacies of Foucault, Lyotard and Baudrillard, whose ‘all is discourse’,’language is a game’.’nothing is real’ anti-foundationalism actually mask a deep conservatism (for the clearest setting out of this argument, I really like Colin Hay’s should-be-seminal-but-isn’t Political Analysis (2002)). I’m sure Tom Hampson didn’t intend to this by pushing toward a recommendation for ‘tabooing’ the term chav, but that’s the logical consequence for me.   Instead, what socialists should be doing (and like you often do) is to critique how lots of words are used as a controlling device by the right,  not just as an end in itself, but as a means to the end of retaining material inequalities. 

There’s actually a really good, but I suspect overlooked, blogging example here, where Andy Gregg critiques how the term community has been appropriated by the right to create a discourse of ‘otherness’ and ultimately to reinforce material inequalities (or at the very least to create a smokescreen for failure to tackle material inequality). 


Colin Hay (2002) Political Analysis: A Critical Introduction (Basingstoke: Palgrave)

David Howarth et al (eds) (2000) Discourse Theory and Political analysis: Identities, hegemony and social change (Manchester University Press)

Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe  (1985) Hegemony and Social Strategy: towards a radical democratic politics (London: Verso)

Stuart Hall (1988) The Hard road to Renewal (

London: Verso)

have your say

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. Subscribe to these comments.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>