Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The 'underclass'? There's no such thing

As the title of this post suggests, I have a major problem with the entire concept of the 'underclass'. Firstly, in a modern capitalist society like Britain, there is no section of it that is apparently separate from it. Indeed, the term 'underclass', does not so much describe a section of society - but, is in fact a one word argument that separates poverty away from its social causes.

It's extremely instructive that a recent Conservative Party report warns of a ever growing 'underclass' in Britain - what is so surprising, is that it was the Tories who first rubbished the notion of the existence of a permanent economic underclass. Indeed, it was thinkers on the right who argued that the free market should be left alone to lift individuals out of poverty.

By using the term 'underclass', the Tories are openly admitting that they (and market forces) have no political solutions to poverty or unemployment anymore. Instead, abject poverty in the heartlands of Britain is presented as a consequence of immoral individuals who choose crime, and ducking from their social responsibilities. It stands to reason that such individuals only have themselves to blame for their impoverishment. The logic of the term 'underclass' is that nothing can be done to help such people - the term transforms what is essentially a socio-economic problem into a moral one.

Viewed from this perspective, there is only one logical solution to the problem of a 'growing underclass', that is the imposition of a strict moral code - hence the recent calls for the resurrection of Victorian values. In the past, debates about the urban poor ended with a consensus that led to the creation of the welfare state. Discussion of urban impoverishment today, seems to point the finger of blame squarely on the shoulders of the poor themselves.

Anti-working class elitism

The Tories former leader Iain Duncan Smith argued that;

"often people are finding as kids that their lives are already chartered ahead of them, because the of the broken nature, the dysfunctionality of their home life".

Instead of talking about mass unemployment and what the Tories can do about it, Duncan Smith seems to be far happier discussing 'dysfunctionality' in working class homes, and how such homes breed delinquent children. It's becoming very fashionable for our political elites to portray working class people as drug addicted football hooligans, who sponge off the dole, or who waste what little money they do have on crass materialism. This year alone the rhetoric has become markedly vulgar and crude, witness the 'Tosser' campaign relating to personal debt.

What's really important about Duncan Smith's pronouncement is what he didn't say. The argument about the 'underclass' is essentially a reactionary one, with unstated assumptions about a race of people who are apparently inferior to normal people in society. Similar sentiments were made over a century ago by Lord Rosebery; the problem then was how to improve the British imperial race. He argued that in;

"the great cities, in the rookeries and slums which still survive, an imperial race cannot be reared. You can scarcely produce anything in those foul nests of crime and disease but a progeny doomed from its birth to misery and ignominy" (Lord Rosebery, Questions of Empire, 1900, p.10)

Rosebery, like Duncan Smith, felt there was no question that those who lived in 'foul nests' shared in their responsibility for their own predicament. Back then, the moral condemnation of the urban poor drew a distinction between the undeserving poor and the deserving. The Tories' current report is, to all intents and purposes, a throwback to older, Victorian reactionary themes. The fact that the Tories' can openly talk about the lumpen 'underclass' is a stark reminder and indication of the demise of a leftist interpretation of society.


Poverty and the Welfare State: Dispelling the myths. By professor Paul Spicker. A Catalyst pamphlet. 2002.

Thanks to professor Frank Furedi for his article The 'underclass': a race apart? Living Marxism 1991.

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Saturday, December 02, 2006

Car congestion? Simple, build more roads!

The publication of Sir Rod Eddington's report on the future of transport, and roads in particular, seems to epitomise our political elites attitude towards cars these days. Indeed, comments made by the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, a few years ago, illustrates perfectly contemporary attitudes towards modern motoring. The Mayor once said 'I hate cars. If I ever get any power again, I'll ban the lot'.

The debate about the future of transport and roads in the UK is dominated by bean counters and small-mindedness. Eddington's solution to future urban car congestion is simply to make drivers pay more for using congested roads and motorways during peak times - it took him all of some 350 pages to work that one out, how imaginative. The report is in reality, just an echo of the government's own mantra, that is, whatever happens, Britain cannot simply just build it's way out of the problem of congestion. In the foreword of the governments white paper on transport two years ago, the Prime Minister Tony Blair argued that Britain 'cannot simply build our way out of the problems we face'. It was a mantra that was repeated by his Transport Secretary Alistair Darling, in case you didn't quite get the message, he reminded everyone at a speech to the Institute of Public Policy - that - yes, you've guessed it, 'we cannot build our way out of the problem'. Ok, ok, ok, message received and understood.

To me, the report and it's solutions are, to all intents and purpose, a shining example of the politics of petty, small-minded, local green Nimbyism, that is being placed over and above the fundamental notion of providing universal provisions. Indeed, according to Eddington, 'there is no attractive alternative to road pricing'. Well, he's certainly wrong about that, because there is an 'attractive alternative' - BUILD MORE ROADS.

Eddington admits in the report that the invention of the car and motorways have improved the quality of our lives like never before in human history. He also accepts that the car has given us all more freedom and wealth in the process. The history of human development, is the history of making things bigger, better and more efficient. The report is bereft of vision, leadership, and more importantly bold ideas. The truth is, our society, the 5th wealthiest nation on the planet, needs new, bold and exciting ideas to deal with congestion. The only things that our political masters seem to have in mind is rock bottom horizons and taxing motorists out of existence - how novel.

For a more amusing and skeptical view on this issue take a look at the excellent Longrider's piece.

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Friday, December 01, 2006

Hold on a minute, who you calling a tosser?

It appears that the Conservative Party have stooped to an all time political low, head first, straight into the gutter with their latest condescending campaign. For some strange reason, the Tories seem to think it's perfectly acceptable to call, and let's not beat around the bush here, working class men, tossers. The campaign looks as if it could have come straight out of the Jamie Oliver school of nannying politics.

Nowadays, it's becoming commonplace to loath and hate the dreaded plebs in the lower orders, and to talk about them as if they were something horrible that you would normally scrape off the bottom of your shoes. Indeed, even the respectable middle class think it's perfectly fine to let rip on the working class these days - witness Greenpeace's campaign against people who drive 4x4 cars. It seems as far as the Tories, or Greenpeace (and New Labour for that matter) are concerned, the working class are just a bunch of undeserving, ignorant polluters who are addicted to shopping, flash living and easy credit.

Of course, the political elite can get away with such vituperative remarks about the lumpen 'chav' class these days, because the working class are no longer a distinctive political force to be reckoned with. Even upper class twits like Prince William, who would normally be too frightened to walk in the streets by himself, feels perfectly free to lampoon working class men without any comebacks whatsoever.

So, now we have the Tories struggling to legitimise their position by looking down their noses at those people who jump in a London taxi rather than get the tube home after a night out. There was a time when confident politicians used to offer the electorate political visions and ideas about how we go about building the Good Society - today, they only appear to offer 'advice', backed by the law for those who make the wrong 'choice'. If you ask me, the Tories appear more like an organisation of 'we-know-what's-best-for-you' councillors rather than politicians of progressive ideas and substance.

Guido Fawkes reminds us that the Conservative Party have some front lecturing people about getting into too much debt.

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