Dealing with the renegades
Amidst all the concern about knife crime and gang culture, it is often tacitly assumed that the perpetrators are representative of alienated working class youth. Not so: what they are more generally representative of is a new -and growing- social formation that has willingly embraced a non-work ethic. It needs to be recognised that these lumpen elements represent a grouping that is quite separate from, and actively hostile to, the interests and well-being of the working class proper.
Recently a columnist from The Independent lashed out in a fury at the white working class, describing them as lazy, self-pitying and “the always-wretched and complaining” (link). To emphasise her theme, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown cited Karen Matthews as representative of what she unapologetically considers a lower breed. With a little more thought she might have strengthened her argument by adding the names Sean Mercer and the parents of ‘Baby P’ to complete an unlovely ambassadorial trinity.
Less easily dismissed is an article in the Guardian, by Andrew O‘Hagan entitled ‘What went wrong with the working class?’ It will make uneasy reading for some. He states bluntly that ‘the English working class is dead’ (link) while Yasmin Alibhai-Brown bitches that it isn’t. While some of O’Hagan’s observations are indeed valid, where both he, like Alibhai-Brown, gets it wrong is in confusing and conflating the traditional working class with the emergence of the new underclass. This is hardly uncommon, as the benefits in propaganda terms for supporters of the status quo are self-evident. And for similar reasons, the ‘nouveau lumpen’ -a social and political menace that is deeply corrosive first and foremost to the morale and well-being of working class communities themselves- is rarely if ever addressed in political terms either.
Admittedly the biggest problem in identifying the trend is the physical proximity between the emerging underclass and the working class proper. Though they may share the same estates at the same time the former harbours instincts, values and aspirations at variance with and indeed hostile (like sort of low rent neo-liberals) to traditional working class custom and practice. This is what goes to make it so potentially destructive a fifth column. Karl Marx himself concluded that it represented ‘the most dangerous class of all’ (our italics) for similar reasons. And given its current scale, a class is what it undoubtedly is.
What is society to them, or they to society?
Teen on teen murder may grab the headlines, but the prevalence of male teen pack on lone adult (often middle-aged) male murder is a barely less lethal, though much less heralded phenomenon. What also goes unmentioned in the midst of all the hand-wringing is that these crimes are effectively premeditated, in the sense that the perpetrators are ‘going equipped’, the tools of the job seemingly always at hand. But far more dangerous than any knife or gun is the psychological conditioning required for the sometimes entirely random murder as a rite of passage: well over 50 teen murders in London alone in two years and counting. That there is nothing similar in working class culture in the past half century to match this level of pathology cannot be ignored. The razor gangs, teddy boys, mods and rockers, punks and skinheads, and football hooligans did not come close. Which suggests that the type of individuals being steadily immersed into the gang culture are themselves the product of a new social formation. Instead of being the representative of alienated working class youth as portrayed especially in liberal and right wing circles, the leaders and opinion formers are more often than not the progeny of the ‘fallen idle’ – a renegade section of the working class that has learned to embrace the ‘no-work ethic’.
And even if initially a scarcity of choices is what propels these youngsters toward the life, the gang culture is alluring. More than anything what it promises the pack member (there is almost always a pack factor) is instant gratification. Money, status and sex (consensual or otherwise – mass rape goes unreported though is apparently not uncommon) all seem instantly more attainable, with the core philosophy all wrapped up rather opportunistically in the flag of ‘respect’. Put simply most are ‘in the life’ because they want to be. It might also be tempting to dismiss it all, as some do, as nothing but a lethal subculture (on the mistaken grounds that the scum only kill each other) but the belief system and philosophy they draw on -get rich quick, the weak go to the wall- has a considerably wider and more venomous resonance.
Why this is important politically is that once a lumpen mentality is allowed to take root over a generation or more, a pattern is set seemingly for other socio/ political relationships too. In place of civic pride, community spirit, or basic empathy and solidarity (none of which have any place in their world) there is instead an over-developed sense of individual entitlement combined with a perverse pride in subverting a core socialist tenet: ‘you only take out exactly what you’ve put in’. It follows that outside of what affects them directly as individuals or maybe immediate family there is a malign indifference. After all what is society to them, or they to society? All told, the corrupting consequences of the no-work ethic appear to be numerous and hardwired.
A knock-on consequence is that many ordinary working class communities become blighted by a not dissimilar contagion. Thoroughly demoralized, many no longer regard themselves as having any real stake in how their neighbours or the wider community is getting along. Previously a deep sense of community and comradeship made many an otherwise downtrodden area bearable. Working class families enjoyed the same sense of belonging be they in the Gorbals, the East End or Harlem. It made life worth living. This sense of shared working class values has been almost entirely extinguished in many areas of Britain today. In Moss Side there is no evidence of local outrage at child killers living in its midst. So three years on the killer of Jesse James walks free. And though a number of individual have been charged and convicted in relation to the murder of 11 year old Rhys Jones in Liverpool’s Croxteth, a similar code of ‘omerta’ dominated that investigation.
Much of this destruction can be directly attributed to the 30 year crusade by Reagan/Thatcher/Blair, who, inspired by right-wing think tanks, became convinced they could actually influence how people think. Atomising social relations and fundamentally changing what people had faith in, is, if anyone needs reminding, what neo-liberalism was really about. Having done so successfully, we now are reaping the whirlwind.
Consequently with the arrival of each new generation previously identifiable working class ideals are eroded or displaced, while ‘lumpen’ characteristics typified by a venal and brazen opportunism seem to become ever more pronounced. In some areas it already appears to be the natural condition.
Understanding more and condemning more
Understandably the emergence of the ‘underclass’ (with the working poor being wrongly included) has been greeted with glee by many right-wing academics. Usually because it affords them a soft target, an ideal opportunity, without ever appearing to over-reach, to justify the existing order and validate middle class prejudice. Among the more seriously motivated the scrutiny of this new social set is to discern if it might carry a possible threat to the existing political order. In actual fact they needn’t worry, for as an effective fifth column it is already proving a considerable buttress to the status quo though arguably still in its infancy.
But precisely because the IWCA is in business to ensure that a political threat to the system is not extinguished, aspects of housing, education and social security policy, apparently well meaning and benign, when mixed with the overarching neo-liberal narrative may have become toxic. If that proves to be the case they have to be pinpointed and rooted out. What strengthens our class – as a class - is always strategically good while any polices which emasculate, diminish or dilute it is strategically bad.
The first task therefore is to explain where this new social formation has come from and how it functions, while at the same time backing long reaching solutions that promise to check or reverse its growth, a stance that might be best explained by re-working an oft-quoted comment from John Major on criminality in 1993: ‘we need to understand a little more and condemn a little more‘. In a post-industrial world having the ability to confidently define the core working class constituency is a must. Because it is only out of such a process that the political authority to exclude as well as include can emerge.
In the shorter term a sharpening of tactics in order to immunise the core of the working class from its influence in the here and now are no less important. On the upside, the credit crunch and with it the evisceration of neo-liberal values and principles will force those among the working class who were encouraged to believe that simply taking out a mortgage automatically led to social elevation to think again. And politically regroup. It is of course likely that a crushing recession will increase the numbers living in poverty, but the collective conclusions arrived at will also drive a welcome wedge between the working poor and the detritus of what will in time come to be regarded as little more than a failed social experiment.