The 'underclass'? There's no such thingAs 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.