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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At 4:54 PM, Anonymous Gary Monro said...


I think the term 'underclass' - and the whole tenor of Iain Duncan Smith's report (confession time: have read excerpts only) - is not so much to indiscriminately denigrate a whole class of people but to deplore a way of living that ensures dreadful outcomes for those least able to do anything about it (children, basically).

One should not deny a person's own hand in their own undoing. As a libertarian you would undoubtedly agree.

Labour have consistently denied the individual's role in the success - so to speak - of their own lives. Labour's view is that society causes most of a person's problems and that society - in the shape of a Labour government, of course - is the only agency capable of correcting such problems. The person him or herself is simply acted on by the state and has no part to play either in their initial downfall or their subsequent return to grace (assuming that it actually happens).

As a conservative - a reactionary, even - I would say that if an individual makes bad decisions that result in lousy outcomes then it's not unfair to point this out. You can't begin to resolve a problem until you clearly identify its causes. The term 'underclass' is being used to describe the worst examples of people who consistently create poor outcomes through destructive behaviour and whose behaviour is an ongoing source of hurt for others.

At 3:05 PM, Anonymous Steve said...

Good post Courtney.

Lecturing people about moral values is a lot cheaper than trying to do something aboutthe conditions that people live in.

My own view is that many of our social problems will require a considerable amount of state intervention to solve - both in the form of the stick and the carrot!

At 12:02 AM, Anonymous Lucyp said...

state intervention to solve - both in the form of the stick and the carrot!
Sounds worrying Steve. Care to elaborate what stick and when you would use it on society?

At 3:26 AM, Anonymous Gary Monro said...


Your 'stick' will then involve punishing people for not doing what you - or the government - wants people to do. Won't that involve lecturing people one way or another in the end?

At 9:22 PM, Blogger Praguetory said...

I'll start by declaring that I have seen IDS speak three times in recent months and spoke to a lot of the other people informing the work he is doing. He is patronising nobody.

To start with I can't believe you are disputing that the number of people living with multiple deprivation is growing. To illustrate this life expectancy is even falling in certain poorer areas in the UK.

State solutions such as welfare benefits have caused problems of their own such as state dependency. No Tories have argued that market forces provide the solution - but we would certainly argue that our solutions will trump Labour's. The types of solutions we will instigate involve localism in many relevant policies from schooling to policing. Where the voluntary sector is achieving results we will facilitate the sharing of best practice and expansion of those organisations that do good. Like it or not, statistically, it is pretty easy to identify those most likely to embark on the life of crime. IDS work is about doing whatever is required to avert people as early as possible.

The analogies you make back to Victorian times are fallacious. I think you have missed the point completely. Maybe if you can argue for a better way forward, you might be able to engage me again.

At 5:13 PM, Blogger Courtney Hamilton said...


I suspect that IDS is a well meaning individual, that is why I don't think I have accused him of being patronising in any way.

What I'm arguing, is IDS is being politically and ideologically lazy - as the BBC article suggests, it was the Tories' and right-wing thinkers associated with them that jumped on the Catalyst pamphlet, in order to discredit of an economic 'underclass'.

The question still remains, why is it, four years later, the Tories are now arguing that in fact, an 'underclass' actually exists? Why did the Tories 'seized' hold of a thesis, which they argued was a 'demolition' of Labour's social policy in 2002? So, wouldn't that same thesis by professor Spicker be a 'demolition' of current Conservative Party social policy today? I'd argue that it would.

"To start with I can't believe you are disputing that the number of people living with multiple deprivation is growing".

I don't think I'm disputing the rise of impoverishment - whether or not deprivation is rising or falling is a matter of statistical evidence. What I'm disputing is the false sociologically use of the term 'underclass' to describe a section of society.

"No Tories have argued that market forces provide the solution."

No, your right, not in those words - but, isn't the 'social enterprise sector', the Tories solution to impoverishment, just a modern euphemism for the free market?

"Like it or not, statistically, it is pretty easy to identify those most likely to embark on the life of crime. IDS work is about doing whatever is required to avert people as early as possible."

Again, professor Spicker is 'adamant' that one cannot just identify such people - indeed, he argues that 'we can not pick out an underclass over an extended period of time', nor is it easy to 'work out who they are'.

"The analogies you make back to Victorian times are fallacious."

It is indeed a difficult continuation of political themes to understand, difficult, but not impossible. This continuation of by-gone themes was not lost on the editor of the Guardian who argued 'despite the warm words much of the Tories' language harks back to the bad old days of the Thatcher government. In putting the emphasis on family breakdown, they risk displaying the old contempt for single-parent families'.

We all know where Thatcher got her 'prejudices' and 'sterotypes' about people who live in poverty, and are out of work - from the morality that was prevalent during the reign of our glorious Queen Victoria.

At 7:56 PM, Blogger Roland Dodds said...

Hey Courtney,

I am working on an end of the year piece where I get some of my favorite bloggers to give me their 3 favorite records of the year, and a quick explanation as to why they picked them. Would you be down to contribute? If you are, just email me at ogfatso(at)

At 8:48 PM, Blogger Courtney Hamilton said...

Sure thing Roland - I'll email you my choices - one from Devendra Banhart comes to mind, I'll let you know the others tomorrow.

At 10:48 PM, Blogger Roland Dodds said...

Many thanks Courtney, and props on the continued upward climb in the blogging world. It is looking mighty fine around here.

At 3:32 PM, Blogger Praguetory said...

I'll have a mull/look at Spicker's work, but I think that the evidence around the higher level of criminality of children raised in certain circumstances (e.g. care homes) is fairly incontrovertible.

At 6:27 PM, Blogger Ole Blue The Heretic said...

A free ecomimy will not move everyone from poverty. The only thing that gets people away from poverty is education.

The free market only makes some individuals rich and successful.

At 8:20 PM, Anonymous Ellee said...

I must admit I don't like the term "under-classing", but there will always be those who are richer and poorer.

I'm delighted that Conservatives are actively researching these difficulties, there is no magic answer, but new opportuties which provide hope by offering training and work, as well as supportive family ties, would be one option I believe might help.

Thank you for your thoughtful comments on my post. And very happy Christmas to you.

At 8:57 AM, Blogger The Intolerant One said...

I know this has nothing to do with the post. I just stopped in to wish you a very Merry Christmas!

At 11:35 AM, Blogger Gavin Ayling said...

I'm more optimistic than you. I do think the blame for poverty is in the hands of those who are poor, but that does not mean we should punish them or look down on them. As you say, children brought up badly or without being driven are not going to excel even if they have the faculties.

There is nothing wrong with recognising this and it is far better to recognise that those who fail to improve themselves should be given help (through non-state funding) and advice than to give them left-wing state support.

Having read your post I am happier about the state of the social security sector which, by popular consensus, is depressingly expensive and ineffective.

At 10:58 PM, Anonymous Ellee said...

Courtney, I look forward to reading your 2007 posts, have a very happy New Year.


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