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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.

31 Responses to “Dealing with the renegades”

  1. nash Says:

    Excellent article. There’s certainly no shortage of those with a ‘lumpen mentality’ as you put it. And yes, it’s vital that these people are distinguished from the working class proper. I think many people are confused by this and some regard calls for pro-working class politics with suspicion as a result.

    It’s high time we had an up-to-date definition of ‘working class’ in this country. This article makes a good start and I look forward to further work in this direction, hopefully on this site.

  2. William Laws Says:

    I think the points you make are valid as far as they go. There were two things that concerned me though. You talk about a culture of “Omerta” as if you think its acceptable for working class militants to act as touts to the cops. Surely the issue is that we need to rebuild working class community resistance to both the “renegades” and the police.Its not either or but neither. We have a situation where policing strategy has evolved to consist of containing the working class within fixed spaces, where we can shit on each other invisible to the rest of the world. Are you suggesting we should be looking to extend that to inviting the police into our communities as “allies”.? Drugs and gangs are problems we have to fix ourselves.

    I also think you dismiss too easily the possibility of politicising some of the kids in gangs. Huey Newton used to talk about the brothers on the block as the natural constituency for the Black Panther Party. The gang culture of the 21st century isnt that far removed from street gangs of previous eras. The “war of all against all” promoted by neo-liberalism has become the ruling ideology for our society as a whole-not just for a few kids with blades. The “renegades” are a product of the depoliticisation of working class culture. In struggles to “repoliticise” our communities some of the “renegades” will come on side.

    Just to be clear-I dont think scum who rape mentally handicapped kids and then throw acid on them deserve anything other than the justice of the boot (and then some…) but I dont believe we can see the police as allies in the struggle against anti-working class crime, and I dont think we should sow illusions to the contrary.

  3. nash Says:

    William,

    Where does the article talk about the police being allies? The reference to ‘omerta’ is in relation to child killers. Do you really think that it’s wrong to go to the police with evidence about a child murderer? Surely any reservations about ‘touting’ would have to be put aside, considering that it would be far worse, morally and politically, to let the culprit go unpunished.

    And how exactly can we expect communities that are either too frightened or morally impoverished to go to the police in such cases to administer the ‘justice of the boot’.

    I agree that we should try to politicise gang members where possible but if they don’t want to be politicised then a clear line should be drawn and such people should be seen as enemies of the community (in so far as they are commiting antisocial acts rather than simply illegal ones).

    That’s not to say that the solution involves the police though. In most cases they are singularly uninterested in antisocial behaviour, drugs etc.

  4. huejack Says:

    Huey Newtown, might have believed that the ‘brothers on the block were his natural constituency’ but considering what happened the Panthers ultimately, thoroughly penetrated by criminal and state elements alike, with the former facilitating the latter, Brother Huey may have been wrong.

  5. William Laws Says:

    I accept none of this is open to easy answers. The initial article does equate the culture of “omerta” with a decline in working class values. I’d still say that “omerta” in relation to the state is a working class value. I remember when the IPLO were involved in a rape they were closed down by the IRA, not by Republicans going to the cops. We’re about as far away from that level of politicisation as its possible to get, but rebuilding working class solidarity cant begin by abandoning basic principles just because we cant solve every problem with the forces available to us. Its possible to name and shame someone within a community-posters,grafitti etc and to ostracise them -if thats what you mean by abandoning the culture of omerta then I’d agree-but the solution has to be within our communities not outside them.

    Re the BPP-any organisation which tries to have an open, mass membership risks penetration by the state and by hoods. The risk still has to be taken. Would it have been better if the BPP had stayed as a small clique producing a lefty cultural nationalist newspaper? If you make a difference on any kind of community-wide scale-you get targetted-or are you saying that the constituency of the BPP made it easier to target-in which case, we might as well join the SWP , wash our hands of our own class,and give up.

    I also think that one of the things we need to do is promote some cultural alternatives to what passes for working class culture today- that rap culture has promoted sexism, materialism and inter-communal violence and we need to start drawing a clear line in relation to cultural issues as well. If kids are fed a street culture thats actually promoted by multi-million pound businesses -and told its cool to deal drugs, kill your brothers, rape and pimp-we need to respond.Question is how?

  6. Curtis Says:

    This is a devastatingly accurate and perceptive article which deserves to be widely discussed. Coming from the US, I can say all this is another unwelcome U.S. export because the lumpenization process mentioned here has been rooted in the U.S far longer and is much more corrosive.

    William, there’s a lot of mythology surrounding the BPP and truthfully, the Party’s turn towards the lumpen and not the rooted working class is partially what destroyed it, as many now recognize. The Party didn’t politicize the lumpen; instead the lumpen element undermined the Party, with nearly all the police informers and provacateurs coming from this layer. See “The Black Panther Party Reassessed,” “The Rise and Fall of California’s Radical Prison Movement” and especially “Social Decay and Transformation: A View from the Left’ by Sam Farber, which explicitly deals with all this.

  7. James Says:

    I discovered the IWCA maybe 6 months ago and was very impressed, particularly with their depiction of the middle-class left who didn’t want to know the working class anymore, and i recall mention of the Trots who refer to the poor as the lumpen proletariat. Now, you’re at it yourselves, whatever pompous pseudo-academic rationalisations you wrapped it in here. It’s the old Fabian bull about the deserving and undeserving poor. Is this now the Independent Respectably-employed Working-Class Association? Crime becomes more attractive as opportunity and social mobility decrease. Sure the working class must be protected from amoral, violent thugs, but you sound like Frank Field or Ayn Rand in some of the excerpts below.

    “…emergence of a new underclass…new -and growing- social formation that has willingly embraced a non-work ethic…aspects of housing, education and social security policy, apparently well meaning and benign…the political authority to exclude as well as include …a sharpening of tactics in order to immunise the core of the working class…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.”

  8. Pat Says:

    James, the article explicitly distinguishes between the lumpen elements and the working poor, rather than conflating them as the middle class left does. It also makes clear that it’s the working class that are threatened most -physically and politically- by the rise of lumpen attitudes and behaviour. As for crime becoming more attractive as opportunity and social mobility decrease – the article doesn’t dispute that, but the issue here isn’t crime per se, it’s anti-social behaviour up to and including gang rape and random murder.

  9. Warren Says:

    Whilst I am in agreement with much of this article it has raised the following concerns…

    The gang culture that the article uses to illustrate the damaging influence of the underclass to the working class proper are truly worthy of condemnation, but do the actions of young, mainly male individuals really represent a uniquely separate class? If so then doesn’t this give credence to the middle class ‘culture of poverty’ myth that is equally as politically damaging to the working class?

    It’s worth bearing in mind that there is greater opportunity for social mobility amongst the ‘lower’ classes – i.e between the underclass and working class (let’s face it there’s virtually fuck all mobility between working class and middle class). Many of the kids presently mixed up in gang culture will – if the chance becomes available – go on to become more productive members of the working class in adult life. So we have to be careful in our condemnation.

    Also these kinds of subculture generally mirror (but essentially bastardise) the ideals of the dominant culture – the article correctly points towards neo-liberal norms and values, but although neo-liberalism may be overtly ‘nastier’, these are in essence the same values that are reinforced every day by our media, education system, politicians and businessmen – i.e by the purveyors of the middle class, puritan work ethic. The article describes these values as ‘lumpen’, but they’re simply mainstream aspirations, the only difference is that poor kids are denied any legitimate means to pursue these (mythical) goals. So wouldn’t it be more valuable to try and re-affirm the traditional working class values that were abandoned when the government decided that we were somehow all ‘middle class’? Surely the solution is to work within our communities to develop alternatives to the values that created such unequal class stratification in the first place. Surely we must create something for these kids to aspire towards rather than treat them with the same condemnation as everyone else.

  10. William Laws Says:

    I think Warren has a point. Also where I live in north west London hardly anyone has access to work or the culture of the “work ethic”-does that mean political work is impossible? I thought the IWCA accepted that with the deindustrialisation of large swathes of the UK and the consequent weakening of organised labour that politics needed to be re-located within communities rather than workplaces.

    The “British Jobs for British Workers” walk-outs have shown that there is no spontaneous working cass consciousness in the way the old left meant it. Politics is about a batle of ideas and a battle of forces. The “spontaneous” ideas we have are the ideas that are rammed down our throats by the papers, tv etc-we’re all born into a world where the cultural norms are already in place. If we want our ideas to supplant the cultural hegemony of neo-liberalism, we have to fight for them and prove they work in practice. One eviction stopped is worth a thousand fucking leaflets. The rise of the BNP, the culture of atomisation and gangs, are all just evidence of the extent to which the old left has deserted the working class, and the shit thats filled the vacuum.

    Solidarity, community etc are values that have to be constantly fought for and demonstrated in practice-we’re standing against the common sense of the day so we have to always swim uphill-but for years no-one has fought for those values in practice . The left exists as newspapers no-one reads and (present company excepted) sad bastards debating angels on pinheads on endless blogging sites. It doesnt exists as a force. In the absence of that-its too easy to say a whole subculture is lost to the values of neo-liberalism-neo-liberalism is the common sense of our time-so it manifests itself in every class and every community-just in different ways depending on the resources available to that community.

  11. Martin Says:

    To address William and Warren’s points:

    1) “do the actions of young, mainly male individuals really represent a uniquely separate class?” The article points out with reference to recent levels of knife crime that “there is nothing similar in working class culture in the past half century to match this level of pathology”. I think it’s fair to say that there is something qualitatively and quantitatively different about this, so then coms the necessity to understand it.

    2) “Many of the kids presently mixed up in gang culture will – if the chance becomes available – go on to become more productive members of the working class in adult life. So we have to be careful in our condemnation.” Sure, this is what Nash addressed in an earlier comment: “I agree that we should try to politicise gang members where possible but if they don’t want to be politicised then a clear line should be drawn and such people should be seen as enemies of the community (in so far as they are commiting antisocial acts rather than simply illegal ones).”

    3) You both refer to the dominance of neo-liberal ideas and the toxic effect they have: absolutely, this is something we’ve written about in depth before (see our article ‘The Soul of Man Under Neo-liberalism: http://www.iwca.info/?p=10111), and this present article acknowledges the same factor. However, that article (which I wrote) is seriously lacking in a number of ways, some of which this present article tries to address. That article was long on understanding but short on condemnation, and condemnation is important. There are plenty of working class people who have limited options and avenues who don’t embrace the ‘no-work ethic’, who try to do the right thing and don’t take “perverse pride in subverting a core socialist tenet: ‘you only take out exactly what you’ve put in’”. Moreover, the working class itself -our constituency- sees itself as distinct from the anti-social elements. Some of our most popular work in Oxford has been evicting drug dealers from Blackbird Leys. This article simply seeks to articulate what lies behind that kind of action: drawing a clear line between our constituency and the scum. The middle class left don’t draw that line: they see us all as one and the same. If we didn’t draw that line, it would be our constituency who would quite rightly resent it most of all: the IWCA is not in business to defend anti-social, anti-working class elements. As the article points out, these elements are destructive to working class morale, they cause solid people to lose heart in the idea of change achieved through collective action. Politically, as Curtis points out, they were corrosive to the Black Panthers, providing most of the police informers (a role that the drug dealers we tangle with probably already play). If the political situation really heats up -as it appears to be starting to-, who are they more likely to side with, the state or us? Let us recognise these elements for what they are: an enemy within.

    4) “where I live in north west London hardly anyone has access to work or the culture of the “work ethic”-does that mean political work is impossible? I thought the IWCA accepted that with the deindustrialisation of large swathes of the UK and the consequent weakening of organised labour that politics needed to be re-located within communities rather than workplaces.” It’s precisely because we recognise this that the distinction between the working class and the lumpen elements -who live on the same estates- needs to be made explicit. If not, the risk is that the two get conflated.

    Further on this point though (and this is a discussion we’re starting to have internally), I think deindustrialisation, and the loss of access to (relatively) well paid, secure employment is important. I feel that the start of this process can be traced to here: capital’s victory over labour, the restructuring of the economy on capital’s terms, the destruction of domestic industry (sent to China) and the subsequent marginalisation, casualisation and pauperisation of the working class. Much of the working class has been reduced to a surplus population, with no work for it to do or any role for it to play. In this context, where the working class has been defeated, degraded and it’s institutions destroyed, it’s that much easier for anti-social values to take hold. But again, to understand is not necessarily to excuse.

  12. William Laws Says:

    In response to Martin-its true that de-industrialisation had a major effect on our class-not only in terms of sapping our strength politically, but also in terms of how we perceive ourselves. The question then is-how do we rediscover our strength as a class “for-itself” without our strength at/through work. I reckon in the context of the crisis of finance it all becomes clearer-the issue is simply “who pays”? We should organise to make sure that the brunt of the crisis of neo-liberalism isnt paid by our class- we should prioritise organising to stop evictions, organise anti-bailiff activities where bailiffs come onto our estates in pursuit of debts (and encouraging us into debt was a deliberate part of the atomisation strategy )-be at the forefront of community anti-cuts campaigns-and make clear that the cost of this mess should be borne by those who caused it-that the tax burden should be shifted so that those who profitted from crisis now have to hand back what they gained through bonuses etc. I also think that the issue of racism is,weirdly, easier to tackle in the present climate-its a lot easier to argue that scapegoating asylum seekers who dont even get basic benefits is a dead-end when bankers are being rewarded with a few billion more for fucking up the economy. And drawing the line over parasitic criminal activities is more straightforward than ever-you dont leech off your own, particulalrly when the state is looking to make your own pay the price for its banker bail-outs.

    There is now at least a level playing field in terms of competing ideologies- the falure of capitalism is now as blatant as the falure of top-down socialism-and for capital its worse-the systemic bankruptcy occurred this time around when there was no organised,militant working class to seek to blame-it failed entirely on the ground of its own logic.

  13. Warren Says:

    Martin says “The article points out with reference to recent levels of knife crime that “there is nothing similar in working class culture in the past half century to match this level of pathology”. I think it’s fair to say that there is something qualitatively and quantitatively different about this, so then comes the necessity to understand it.”

    The rise in the level of knife crime is directly proportionate to the general rise in levels of violence amongst UK children. This is largely down to a society-wide breakdown in real care for our kids – a lack of love and non-peer companionship. It is a combination of highly individualistic values, violent entertainment, social degradation, absent parents, greed, the myth that it is a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world, constant pressure to ‘achieve’ and last – but most definitely not least – blatant classism (i.e. the norms of the dominant middle class culture) that has caused this problem. Impoverished communities have always suffered proportionately higher levels of violence (it happens when you live in a pressure cooker) and as the average level of violence increases so will the levels of violence in impoverished communities – which will inevitably spill over into other communities. This is 100% a class issue, but it is a problem created by the values of the dominant class. The ‘no-work’ ethic can be addressed by creating an alternative ‘work-for-your-community’ ethic based on the traditionally more socially inclined values of working class communities. Part of this work involves stamping out – by any means possible – anything that threatens the safety of people who live in working class communities. But we must address the issue of youth violence as an unfortunate – but explainable – part of our own society and not add to the classism that has helped cause the problem in the first place.

    And just a minor point, coming from a Doncaster ex-pit town I think it’s fair to say that the phrase “an enemy within” can be highly damaging :-)

  14. Martin Says:

    William:

    “The question then is-how do we rediscover our strength as a class “for-itself” without our strength at/through work.” This is what the IWCA, with our miniscule resources, has been trying to do.

    Warren:

    The points you raise on the causes of increasing violence are all valid and the IWCA analysis doesn’t dispute them.

    “But we must address the issue of youth violence as an unfortunate – but explainable – part of our own society and not add to the classism that has helped cause the problem in the first place.”

    Understanding this phenomenon is crucial, but what do we do after that? If we don’t condemn the anti-social elements after understanding them, then we’re de facto excusing them. That’s fine for the Guardian, but what about the majority of working class people who are subject to the same pressures and yet don’t embrace the no-work ethic? It’s this group -our core constituency- who see the dealers, the thieves and the wannabe hoods as the enemy, and quite rightly because it’s their streets, estates and neighbourhoods that are being degraded by lumpenisation. This article is the start of our thinking on this issue, and further undertanding on the roots of this phenomeon is required. But, at bottom, whatever the external sociological pressures, everyone still has the capacity to exercise individual choice. As the article points out: “even if initially a scarcity of choices is what propels these youngsters toward the life, the gang culture is alluring… Put simply most are ‘in the life’ because they want to be.” What this article argues for is simply that those who choose to go against their community (as distinct from going against the law) and who choose to reject the ‘work-for-your-community’ ethic should be recognised for what they are, and dealt with accordingly.

  15. Warren Says:

    I’m not arguing against condemnation; I’m arguing that the use of terms like ‘underclass’ or ‘lumpen’ does not help – and may even strenghten the dominant myth that the poor are responsible for their own impoverishmnet.

    The blatant economic and cultural classism purveyed by the dominant class is already responsible for the continued impoverishment of working class communities (you won’t find that statement in ‘the Guardian’); we need to fight classism (which, come to think of it, may be a good way to strengthen class unity within communities), not present the middle class with yet another tool to use in their demonisation of the poor – the poor, of course, that middle class privilege helped to create in the first place!

    Other than that I’m with you 100% :-)

  16. Martin Says:

    Warren – It was Marx who coined the term ‘lumpenproleteriat’, precisely to identify the fifth column undermining the working class from within that’s being discussed here. The ruling classes have plenty of tools of their own for securing their own hegemony, they’re going to do what they do and they certainly don’t need to take cues from the IWCA. This piece was written by and for our own class, to aid understanding and thus inform strategy. Of course we believe in working class unity: this piece identifies the elements that don’t.

  17. Warren Says:

    Martin – I understand the article, but I’m airing on the side of caution with regard to the language we use. I don’t disagree that there is a definable underclass per se (although I do feel that Marx’s lumpenprole was different in nature to today’s underclass), but one of the ways the class struggle is – deliberately or otherwise – weakened in the UK is through a muddled understanding of the class divide. This is due largely to the liberal, middle class left denying their own complicity in our impoverishment. As economic inequality is now at its highest point since records began and because there is virtually no social mobility between the working class and the middle class it easier than ever to show the class divide between the dominant and the dominated, the included and excluded. With this in mind I believe that it is far more valuable for us to show that the criminal element as a sector of the working class who follow neo-liberal/middle class values to the detriment of their own class than it is to argue that they are a class apart. Like I said, I agree with the content of the article, I just have reservations about the way in which the ideas might be ‘sold’ in working class communities.

  18. Martin Says:

    “I believe that it is far more valuable for us to show that the criminal element as a sector of the working class who follow neo-liberal/middle class values to the detriment of their own class than it is to argue that they are a class apart.”

    That’s exactly what this article does Warren: it identifies these elements as “a renegade section of the working class”. If the selling of that idea means the anti-social elements are ostracised in the name of unifying the rest, so be it. That’s a step ahead of where we are now, where as a result of the lumpen elements running amok many solid people “no longer regard themselves as having any real stake in how their neighbours or the wider community is getting along”.

  19. Warren Says:

    “If the selling of that idea means the anti-social elements are ostracised in the name of unifying the rest, so be it.”

    If it were a case of ostracising the anti-social elements alone then I wouldn’t really be that bothered, I was more worried about potential fall-out. We only have to look at the ‘Chav’ phenomenon to see how things can go. When mainstream society decided to racialise poorer sections of the working class youth it didn’t take them long to make the jump from chav-scum.com to chav-town.com. Streets, estates, towns and regions can become ostracised too. But I guess that if the work can be done to clean up working class estates then that community really isn’t going to care how they’re perceived – especially how they’re perceived by a section of society that’s likely to condemn them regardless of the facts.

  20. redflag32 Says:

    Well id like to see some stats to back up the claim that the lumpen element is growing from within the working class. As far as i know crime has decreased over the years? And what is the correct definition for the lumpen?

    It seems in this article that the size of the lumpen is being falsely represented as larger than it is. The definition in this article adds youths who are anti-social and who hold ideals counter to the achievement of socialism. I think a distinction has to be made between the youth culture of today which is very influenced by American/Capitalist culture and the lumpen class.

    The capitalist influence on the youth and also its influence on the petit-bourgeois and middle class will only be defeated through the battle of ideas. Capitalist culture is seeping deeply into working class culture, but this doesn’t mean that there is a rise in the lumpen class just because the youth identify with the ideals of capitalism more so than working class ideals.

    Youth culture cant really be defined properly because its so transient. It changes so much because it is so influenced by outside sources, once the outside sources change so does youth culture. Plus, these teens inevitably grow up and move on so their attitudes cant be described as something that is a fixed problem for the working class struggle.

    Its different with the lumpen because, as far as i know, they represent an older generation who just screw the system and who hold low morals. There is no transience there, they act as a fixed problem. They wont grow up, they wont go through the education system, their ideals wont be challenged.

    This article seems to lump youth culture (which is today very capitalist influenced) with the lumpen class. Am i wrong?

  21. William Laws Says:

    In response to redflag32-the issue is really that you th culture now sounds almost as if it comes from a script written as much by Milton Friedman as Public Enemy. Rap culture is explicitly about litle more now than guns drugs and money.For a growing minority, drug dealing and petty crime have become an entirely rational response to an economy which is predicated on acquisition and rampant consumerism. Part of New Labour’s agenda was to complete the transformation of the UK into a low wage , low skill economy, with an educational system re-fitted to crush working class aspiration for any life beyond a series of short-term McJobs-a life without ambition or security. To look to the drug economy as a means to the primitive accumulation of capital-a way of getting cash together to seek to avoid the prospect of such a life-is entirely logical- and-moreover-a choice facilitated by the criminalisation of drug use which all mainstream parties are so keen to see continue. If you seek to maintain a society on the basis of an ideology of material success and an economy which undercuts the prospect of any such material success for the majority, the shit’ll hit the fan before too long.

    Anti-working class crime is the logic of neo-liberalism applied within and against our class. RedFlag73-you cant say kids just grow up and move on-there are kids doing life sentences because they buy into this shit. Guns and drugs on our estates are the collateral damage of 21st century capitalism. The consequences of the defeat and decay of political and social organisation within working class communities in the last quarter-century can only be offset by the re-politicisation and re-organisation of our communities. That means in part a struggle against the influence of capitalist ideologies within our class-within working class cultures.

  22. redflag32 Says:

    Good points William laws.

    Particularly here
    If you seek to maintain a society on the basis of an ideology of material success and an economy which undercuts the prospect of any such material success for the majority, the shit’ll hit the fan before too long.

    and here
    The consequences of the defeat and decay of political and social organisation within working class communities in the last quarter-century can only be offset by the re-politicisation and re-organisation of our communities. That means in part a struggle against the influence of capitalist ideologies within our class-within working class cultures.

    I’m sure we all agree that capitalist culture is seepening deeper into the working class and tht the youth of today represent the advanced stages of that culture in our countries. But does this represent a new big threat which may need to be targetted with new and improved weapons or can the problem be dealt with by using the tools we already use against the advancement of capitalist culture?

    I’m just wary of making youth culture the enemy and not capitalist culture.

  23. William Laws Says:

    Redflag32 at the end of the day youth culture as it is today is a manifestation of capitalist culture- the fundamental point is that we have no”counter culture”, no oppositional youth culture-just kids with no access to cash being spoonfed a lifestyle thats linked to cash and going out and trying to get that lifestyle-at the expense of others in the same communities. I dont think its necessary to accept all the points of the main IWCA analysis -ie whether this is a new phenomenon or not- what is necessary is to deal with anti-social anti-working class crime-as part of rebuilding working class communities.

    Crime contributes massively to atomisation and demoralisation, so organising against it is the first stage to turning things round. In terms of whether its an issue the traditional left have flinched from addressing-the number of posts on this thread suggest its an issue many of us have felt has been ignored for too long.

    As a slightly different example- the latest tabloid rumour re the 13 year old baby father story is that the real father is his 16 year old brother and that both families knew this but knew the 13 year old would sell better to the tabloids. What it comes down to is drawing a physical line against anti-working class crime-but also a moral/ideological line within our communities-that the race to the bottom has to stop somewhere-that the white working class equivalent of a minstrel dance has to end-that not every behaviour is acceptable in pursuit of cash money. Before the lefties start up-I’m not suggesting a working class version of the Taliban!! What I am suggesting is that working class militants have to be seen to stand for something and-logically-to stand against other things…,

  24. Curtis Says:

    Being from the States, I can’t comment with any confidence on conditions in the UK. But for rebuilding any culture of resistance, I personally think we need to treat this lumpen element the way scabs used to be to treated in traditional working class culture. Yes, you know people cross pickets because they’re hurting financially (the social causes), but the bottom line is they have to be stopped because of the harm they do to collective interests; everyone is ultimately harmed by their actions. The same ethos needs to spring up concerning the lumpen element.

  25. Paul Says:

    There’s not much I can add to what’s already been except to reiterate how important it is that the sort of pondlife this article describes are differentiated from the real working class. To conflate the two as Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and the rest of her ilk do, is erronous at best and at worst fraudulently dishonest.

  26. Carl Says:

    Just as the repulsive BNP promote simplistic solutions to complex problems, the left are guilty of simply reducing everything to outdated Marxist relationships to the means of production.

    It was as a student of social policy many years ago, that I came to realise that the generosity of the welfare state over the last 5 decades has perpetuated misery, and has in fact been the main causal factor for the growth of a large underclass.

    I won’t sell the argument here but I urge all to read Charles Murray’s classic ‘Emergence of a British Underclass’ (1994). Murray, an American social scientist, often written off as a right wing hater of the poor, or racist, uses official statistics to explain worrying social trends such as the growth of violent crime and to use Murray’s own definition; the underclass is “about a TYPE of poverty, not a level of poverty”.

    Sociology and the left in general continue to bury their heads in the sand as the demographic time bomb continues to tick!!

    One hundred years ago or thereabouts, the Labour Party emerged as parilementrary champion of the respectable and truly downtrodden working class. Now after years of profligate and naive welfarism the statistically significant white underclass have now got their voice.

    Marx was certainly correct in his analysis of the lumpen proletariate and until we all face the reality of the true ugliness of this underclass as opposed to explaining everything away as a capitalist conspiracy then the BNP will I’m afraid become a very dangerous force.

  27. Rosa Simonetti Says:

    The ‘nouveau lumpen’ referred to are actually the BNP supporters the IWCA wants to canvass votes from.

  28. Carl Says:

    To Rosa,

    nice idea your suggestion of… “the ‘nouveau lumpen’ referred to are actually the BNP supporters the IWCA wants to canvass votes from” however the lumpen proletariate will never be purseuded of the benefits of a socialist society as by definition they are impervious to reasoned argument and they prefer a simplistic aggressive based argument based on xenophobic solutions.

    I think the drive for racism goes deep when one deals with a primitive and inferior class (that is morally and intellectually inferior, rather than any biological implication) and I think it fulfills a need with these people for them to imagine that other races are inferior, in that they may know that they are at the bottom of the social heap but they have a strong need to feel that that ethnic minorities are beneath them.

    Nick Griffen whom I’m sure feels a sense of inferiority due to his repulsive physical unsightly and Quasimodo type appearance also has this need to feel his ego boosted through race hatred. I think most racist urges stem from an inadequate sense of self.

    The BNP trade in the most vile recesses of the human ego and I’m sure that racism is actually secondary to a general misanthropy whereby nationalism and racism becomes a mere rallying flag for a hatred of human kind born out of emotional pain of the protagonists. This is what I meant about ‘simplistic Marxist ideas of relationships to the means of production’.

    Yes Marx over 100 years ago was correct to believe that the lumpen proletariate were never going to form part of a revolutionary movement but now I think we need a more sophisticated analysis to explain the motivations of the underclass. Also we need to consider welfare reform to effectively ‘design out’ this reactionary and parastical class.

  29. Steve Says:

    “Yes Marx over 100 years ago was correct to believe that the lumpen proletariate were never going to form part of a revolutionary movement but now I think we need a more sophisticated analysis to explain the motivations of the underclass. Also we need to consider welfare reform to effectively ‘design out’ this reactionary and parastical class.”

    Actually Carl, Marxists do have a critique of the welfare state. In advanced capitalist states – despite anti-welfare neo-liberal rhetoric – welfare still plays a handy role for ruling elites in legitimating the mass unemployment that free market philosophy has a regular tendency to create. At present, welfare coupled with the usual bourgeois sloganeering like ‘we can see the green shoots’, ‘capitalism always has slumps but emerges stronger’ – as a carrot to tempt the working class into giving the market ‘one more chance’.

    Marx’s analyses of capitalism shouldn’t be ignored by IWCA. They can be a useful starting point, but shouldn’t be the final word. But Carl’s right with regards to Marxist tendencies towards economic reductionism. It may be one thing to explain capitalist crises as a large reason for crime and anti-social behaviour, but its another excusing such behaviour. Unlike other organisations across the spectrum this is a balanced position that IWCA appears happy to take.

  30. Karlo Says:

    Yes Steve,

    I especially like what you say when you offer the view;

    “It may be one thing to explain capitalist crises as a large reason for crime and anti-social behaviour, but its another excusing such behaviour”. This is the crux of the matter I think.

    We need to win support from the working class as it is mainly the working class who have to suffer at the hands of the underclass and their anti social and criminal behaviour (as well as vile racist behaviour). The working class will not be fobbed with excuses and Marxist rhetoric and the move towards left-realism particularly within a discourse of criminology has demonstrated that when policing is seen as part of the community as has been the case so far through Labour’s flagship Crime and Disorder Act 1998, then in fact there is a call for more measures to intervene in areas of deprivation. Local consultation with people who live in poor areas consistenly shows calls for more police in their neighbourhoods.

    Yes we may remember the police during the Miners srike in the 1980s but things have come a long way since then and the people have begun to trust a community led policing.

    The experience of community safety has been mostly sucessful under Labour and Marxists shouldnt always take a knee-jerk approach to seeing the police as part of the problem.

  31. Karlo Says:

    To some of the above writers who shy away from the term ‘underclass’ I would say that like all labels we need some kind of convieniant and generally agreed reference point.

    I agree that the working poor shouldnt be included and I do agree with the main right wing underclass proponent Charles Murray when he says “the underclass is not about a LEVEL of poverty but a TYPE of poverty”.

    Anyone who has lived or lives in neighbourhoods where these people dominate and bully percieved weaker others will perhaps instead shy away from tired old Marxist cliches of failures of capitalism etc.
    To paraphrase George Orwell I think the underclass is a sort of human fungus that grows from morally corrupt consumerism. Or maybe that a capitalist society gets the underclass it deserves!

    The underclass eschew all decent working class values in favour of a grotesque parody of macho materialism and grabbing of crass ephemeral commodities such as the latest trainers and designer tracksuits and plasma TVs etc.

    Yes capitalism is essentially the root of the problem but liberal and do-gooder ideas do not help and I do return to Marx with his no-nonsense and brilliant perjorative term ‘lumpen’ as however way we look at these people they stand for something very ugly, ignorant and primitive.

    The BNP will benefit from the demographic of a growing welfare state underclass while the left will do waht it does best and sit back and pontificate on ‘the failures of capitalism’!!

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