Escape from moral quietism: What might Britain’s chav and Australia’s bogan offer the US’ hillbilly?

Across the US, Britain and Australia, debate over the working classes dispossessed by so-called ‘neoliberalism’ have become commonplace. While working class minorities suffer doubly due to racism, the white working class has been reduced to hillbillies, chavs and bogans: individual failures, unwilling to embrace the opportunities that globalizing capitalism holds out. Differences between the three nations are important. The archetypal hillbilly celebrates independence and finds recourse to welfare shameful. Conservative hillbilly authors such as J.D. Vance (Hillbilly Elegy) champion such values by promoting a self-help morality tale. However, Vance’s fantasia devalues the role played by rightwing political activists, who successfully shifted welfare policy from a ‘rights-based’ and political to an opportunity-driven and moralistic model in order to, among other things, reduce the tax burden on ‘deserving’ Americans. Nevertheless, others such as A.R. Hochschild (Strangers in Their Own Land) and Nina Eliasoph before her (Avoiding Politics) show that many poor US whites do indeed abhor ‘politics’ and actively pride themselves on such moralizing. In Britain and Australia by contrast, the archetypal chav and bogan celebrate ‘getting something for nothing’, as working class author Owen Jones (Chavs) and comedian Pauly Fenech (Housos) suggest. For Jones, chavism is a rational ‘in your face’ response to the decimation of working class solidarity and with it, political power under neoliberalism reformism. For Fenech, boganism similarly represents active rejection of suburban Australian affluence by those unable to fully enjoy it. This paper compares and contrasts the moral quietism of the hillbilly with the active refusal of the chav and the bogan. And, it considers possibilities for undermining moral quietism and repoliticizing politics in the world of the hillbilly by translating Jones’ strategy of promoting media debate over economic redistribution and Fenech’s strategy of celebrating resourcefulness, racial inclusiveness and anti-consumerism.