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‘What was engineered, in Marxist terms, was a crisis of capitalism which re-created a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since’

A recent column by The Times‘ Minette Marrin posed the question “Are men surplus to requirements?” If Marrin really wants to answer that question and understand her subject, all she needs to do is take heed of the words of new Tory economic adviser Sir Alan Budd.

A recent column by the Times’ Minette Marrin posed the question “Are men surplus to requirements?” Marrin’s curiosity on this subject was prompted by a study undertaken by the Centre for Policy Studies -a right-wing think-tank set up in the mid ‘70s by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph for the express purpose of winning the Tory party around to neo-liberalism- which found that “Three-generation lone-mother families – extended families without men – are developing a new family subculture which involves little paid work.” Marrin ultimately determined that the answer to her question “depends largely on class. Men from the employable and educated classes are still in strong demand among women. But much lower down the socioeconomic scale, among the least privileged, men have become – or have come to seem – entirely optional… One in four mothers is single and more than half of these lone mothers have never lived with a man and survive on welfare. As many of these women become grandmothers, a new pattern has emerged of three generations of mothers without a man in the house – lone granny, lone mum and fatherless children, all expecting the state to stand in for daddy… The culture is passed on, as you might expect. Lone grannies are significantly more likely to have lone and workless daughters than grannies with husbands or employment, and the same is true of their daughters’ daughters. Baby daughters (and baby sons, too) are imbibing with their mother’s milk the idea that men, like jobs, are largely unnecessary in any serious sense… A boy in such an environment who grows up without a father figure is much less likely – for many well documented reasons – to turn into the sort of young man a girl could see as a desirable husband. A girl who grows up without a father never learns how important a man could be in her own child’s life. She will not see her mother negotiating an adult relationship with a male companion, so she won’t know how to do it herself or imagine what she is missing” (link).

Some may find it hard to stomach such sentiments coming from the Murdoch press, prompted by research from Margaret Thatcher’s personal think-tank. However, that should not blind us to the kernel of truth in Marrin’s observations. Indeed, the IWCA has already attempted to address the thorny question of the ‘no work’ ethic and its consequences for the working class (link). And as Marrin makes clear, she is not on a rant against single mothers: in an environment where well-paid, secure work and affordable housing are no longer widely available, “it’s worth remembering that many of them are simply making a rational choice. Badly educated at a rough sink school, facing a dead-end, low-paid job that won’t even cover the cost of childcare, such a girl will naturally decide to do what she wants to do anyway and have a baby to love. She knows she will be better off having welfare babies than stacking shelves and better off, too, if she avoids having a man living with her, even supposing she could find one from among the antisocial, lone-parented youths on her estate. That is because the state subsidises this rational choice, disastrous though it has proved, and has done so for decades”. Marrin poses reasonable questions -why is it that men are becoming “entirely optional” and “largely unnecessary” down the socioeconomic ladder? What are the causes and consequences of welfare dependency culture?-, she is just unable, or perhaps unwilling, to pin the tail on the right donkey. She states that “It is outrageous, for instance, that more than half a century of socialism and feminism has managed to marginalise and make wretched the least privileged of men”. While middle-class socialism and middle-class feminism certainly are no great friends of the working class male -or female-, is it really these two that have ultimately “made wretched the least privileged of men”? Are these really the forces responsible for the fact that eight million people -over 20% of the adult population- are now classed as economically inactive? That levels of unemployment which led to riots in the ‘80s are now treated as part of the landscape? If Marrin wants a more compelling answer, all she needs to do is look a little closer to home.

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne recently announced that, should he move into No. 11 in a few weeks time, he would set up an Office for Budget Responsibility to help oversee the cuts in public spending that will have to be made after the election, and that he would appoint current Tory economic adviser Sir Alan Budd to head up this office. In this, Osborne could hardly have made a better choice: Budd has had a stellar career at the top of UK economic policy making, acting as chief economic adviser to the Treasury and head of the Government Economic Service between 1991 and 1997 before being made a founding member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee by Gordon Brown. It was whilst in the former role that he made a remarkable statement in 1992, about his own role in the Thatcherite project. It needs no comment from us as it speaks for itself:

“The nightmare I sometimes have, about this whole experience, runs as follows. I was involved in making a number of proposals which were partly at least adopted by the government and put in play by the government. Now, my worry is . . . that there may have been people making the actual policy decisions . . . who never believed for a moment that this was the correct way to bring down inflation.

“They did, however, see that it would be a very, very good way to raise unemployment, and raising unemployment was an extremely desirable way of reducing the strength of the working classes — if you like, that what was engineered there in Marxist terms was a crisis of capitalism which re-created a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since.

“Now again, I would not say I believe that story, but when I really worry about all this I worry whether that indeed was really what was going on.” (link)

If Marrin -or anyone else- wants to know where dependency culture comes from, there it is. Productive industry in this country has been destroyed, for both political and economic reasons; finance and speculation have been given primacy, redistributing wealth towards the top, with the consequences we see now. It is for this reason that whole swathes of the population are now, in economic terms, surplus to requirements. In the US they deal with their surplus population by sending millions of them to prison. Over here, we subsidise them the bare minimum and banish them to open-air prisons called council estates -or “concentration camps for the poor”, as Irvine Welsh once described the housing schemes on the outskirts of Edinburgh. Dependency culture has come about because the independence of the working class has been destroyed, and it was destroyed because a strong working class was too big a threat to capital. Marrin did not pin the tail on this particular donkey simply because, for her constituency, such an outcome is preferable to the alternative.

14 Responses to “‘What was engineered, in Marxist terms, was a crisis of capitalism which re-created a reserve army of labour and has allowed the capitalists to make high profits ever since’”

  1. xyz Says:

    Nicely put.

  2. Pike Says:

    The quote from Alan Budd is to my mind worth the price of admission so to speak, all on its own. Particulalry because one consequence of working class political emasculation is the ever greater visibility of a strong lumpen element whose activity acts as a compound on working class demoralisation.

    Obviously from an establishment point of view this too is highly desireable.

    As it is the working class communities that bear the brunt of the damage inflicted. Outside of the Daily Mail that is probably not contested.

    However liberals happily confuse the working class and the lumpen, and when they do make a distinction – more often than not – it is condemnation for the former and special pleading for the latter, making it all the more important that the likes of the IWCA pioneers the alternative view.

  3. Damian Says:

  4. Damian Says:

    Ok i have read this article and the dealing with renegades one. The dealing with renegades one seems to take a fairly hostile tone towards this emergent class that it identifies, where it seems to indicate that this no work ethic is somethign that is willingly saught. Yet this article seems to be stressing more the factors from above that has determined the emergence of this grouping.

    If we can infer that this class is the deliberate result of neoliberal economic policy then why should a hostile tone be taken towards this class?

  5. Chaney Says:


    I don’t see a contradiction between understanding why something has happened; recognising the economic/political conditions that caused it to come into play, even taking on board that the new class referred to will originally have been genuine victims – collateral damage as some would have it from the application of a neo-liberal strategy – but now when looked at objectively ‘the lumpen also represent an active challenge to working class cohesion, to working class morale, to a working sense of self in too many neighbourhoods already.

    Challening enough in itself in the short term, but taking on board that the first unprecedented cuts (yes worse than the damage inflicted by Thatcher) in social spending for many many decades are on the way, in such circumstances we can expect nouveau lumpen to show its teeth and thus its true reactionary nature.

    A maxim of war is to know your enemy. That it seems to me is one of the functions of these articles: identifying a potential enemy. An enemy morever that unlike our more traditional opponent is happily esconsed behind our lines.

    Clearly that is one of the reasons Marx himself pointed to the lumpen as ‘the most dangerous class of all’. They are already amongst us simple as that.

  6. Paul B Says:

    For me, the major problem is that what Damien calls the ‘emergent’ class are responsible for destroying working class confidence and what left of a sense of community on many estates. Anti social behaviour is a significant problem and leads to people feeling isolated, scared and without a sense of ownership or control of their community – hardly the conditions in which progressive politics can be built. In fact the growing numbers of the ‘emergent’ class is a double boost for the BNP. Firstly because this group represents a natural constituency of votes/support but also because the conditions they in our communities creates a feertile ground for BNP politics and approach.

    Hand wringing about the neo liberal policies that increased the number of the underclass won’t cut the mustard or gain much sympathy from the people living amongst them. The traditional ‘left’ approach of excusing their behaviour or even defending it increases the already massive gulf between them and the class they claim to be the conscious leadership of and reveals their utter remoteness.

  7. Damian Says:

    Don’t pay too much attention to the word emergent it was just a word that came to mind at the time of writing this.

    I agree with the fact that within communities there are people that make life a misery for everybody else with anti social behaviour and what not. You won’t find any hand wringing from me on that matter. I believe very strongly in personal responsibility and if people do stuff that requires just recompensce then so be it. You wont find me making excuses for them.

    However, i worry about the identification with such behaviour with a particular grouping of people who are on benefits. I think you can find anti social behaviour being displayed from people whatever their social status i don’t think having a job works a panacea against anti social behaviour and certainly in the middle classes antics identified as ‘high jinx’ takes place.

    Both the article and one of the posters seem to share marx’s view on this class constituting the most dangerous one of all. But why Marx’s take on things? Why not Bakunin’s who has a more positive view if you like of the role of the lumpen in making a more egalitarian order? To me it would stand to reason that the people most shafted by the system most would have a higher stake than others in changing that system. Further, if they constitute a ‘reserve army of labour’ then would it not follow that they belong to the same class as those in labour ie the working class.

    I worry about pointing the finger at this so called class as it smacks a little bit of the reactionary tone of people on kilroy having a go at ‘dole scum’ because they work in a shit job and think that the person on benefits has life very easy but even a cursury glance at what one is entitled to would put that myth to death. Does this tone not contribute to the stigmatisation of the most powerless people in society?

  8. Martin Says:


    If you look at the discussion on the ‘Dealing with the renegades’ article, you’ll see that our American correspondent Curtis has already drawn attention to an experiment in attempting to mobilise unreconstructed lumpen elements, namely the Black Panthers. In Curtis’s words: “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”.

  9. John, Todmorden Says:

    It may be the case that there was a program to remove the working class and its influence enabling the enpowerment of the capitalists. Of course there is definately a need for a new structure to bring about a transformation of existence for those at the lower end of the socioeconomic scale.
    As the system stands at the moment though, you have got the working poor on pittance wages (many with little chance of rising up the economic ladder) and a lumpen long term unemployed underclass claiming everything going which is inevitably increasing tensions and a sense of embitterment and anger amongst the working poor. The fact that the neo liberals put the working poor in the same bracket as the lumpen when discussing the working class only further confuses the issue and furthers the working poor’s legitimate feelings of unjustness and abandonment. Its as if the neo liberals have time and concern for the lumpen as they are percieved to be a disadvantaged category of people and that the neo liberals have no time for the working poor who the neo liberals constantly try to stifle and ridicule.
    I don’t believe that underclass mothers make a conscious ‘rational’ choice in most cases. They just fall into the idea of having babies because the state makes it so easy to have multiple numbers of children. Many of the lumpen underclass go through the motions at schools which bend over backwards to help them because the lumpen know the state will bail them out as they have witnessed it happen throughout their lives. they have no intention of getting a job because they have no awareness or notion that this is the what is expected of a functioning society.

  10. JFBridge Says:

    I completely agree with the sentiments stated in the article.While growing up in the 70′s,the Keynesian/Butskellite consensus was in stark decline due to the oil crisis and industrial strife.We still had a manufacturing base of sorts,but the knives were out and being sharpened for the culture of a mixed economy,and the emphasis on a system dominated by the financial and service sector was about to take over by the decade’s end.All the traditions of apprenticeships and jobs for life down the pits,at the steel mill,textile factory,etc. were sacrificed and ruthlessly axed from both a social (to weaken trade union power) and political (to control inflation) point of view,and it has not stopped for three decades.

    It’s no use paraphrasing the excellent points made in the article and by other contributors,but the excesses of rampant,unfettered montetarism have had a catastrophic effect on vast swathes of the UK,most severely felt in working-class communities,which,with the odd exception,have now become underclass ghettoes,neglected by national governments and derided and sneered at by self-satisfied,public school-educated newspaper columnists who never constructively decipher the reasons why they became this way,and don’t have a single plan for said types to escape this particular existence.

    Alan Budd’s stated confession is now around three decades too late for the millions that have suffered under uncontrolled capitalism and unregulated bankers,though that’s hope in the forthcoming General Election,there will be no enthusiasm for any of the three main parties adherence to neo-liberalism,and they may be persuaded a more balanced economy is the way forward again,like we had for over three decades before it’s eventual demise at the end of the 70′s.I fear that a form of reindustrialisation will be a struggle though;keeping the underclass placated by generous benefits (and encouraged to behave as amorally as possible) is a better outcome for the elitists than powerful trade unions.Something has to change sooner or later,but it will be a long haul.

  11. Damian Says:

    Martin -

    Seems like a fair point regarding what happened with BPP looking towards that group. I will be attempting to read up on that stuff over the summer.

    John – You say “As the system stands at the moment though, you have got the working poor on pittance wages (many with little chance of rising up the economic ladder) and a lumpen long term unemployed underclass claiming everything going which is inevitably increasing tensions and a sense of embitterment and anger amongst the working poor. ”

    I would say that there are some innacuracies in this statement. Firstly the massive differential between the amount of benefits fraudulently claimed vis a vis the amount of net savings the tresury makes due to unclaimed benefits that people are entitled to would suggest quite the opposite, that people aint claiming everything going.

    Secondly, a significant amount of the working poor are working only because the state is effectivly subsidising low income jobs through child tax credits and working tax credits. Take for instance the archetypal lone parent whose option is limited to the low paid jobs in the job market. If you take a look at how much a claimant can channel into the private childcare industry through tax credits (which itself pays insanely low wages), quite often this money dwarfes what this person could claim on income support and housing benefit etc if they chose not to work.

    BUt obviously if someone is working, whether it is subsidesed by the state or not it is very easy for them to buy into the daily mail mantra that thier taxes are being taken away from them to benefit scroungers. So this in my view creates a false sense of solidarity with ‘middle england’ types as opposed to seeing the reality that by being in this position they are being exploited by private industry in collaberation with the state who are taking advantage of thier relativly powerless position in society.

    Although i concede to Martins point that we should not follow the BPPs parties follow by allowing criminal dodgy types into our ranks – i really see that ultimately solidarity should lie with both the working poor and the non working poor – both of whom have become cherrys to be picked by private industry both through a reserve army of labour keeping wages low and benefits designed to subsidise low paid industry.

  12. Paul B Says:

    Damian, I think if you look back to the original article that the IWCA could not be more clear who we are are talking about here ” 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” The working poor clearly do not fit this description and the point John makes is generally correct unless one wants to be pedantic about the language used. There are also plenty of working class people on the dole as a result of cuts and the race to the bottom that has seen manufacturing work off shored.

    The group the IWCA are talking about haven’t worked, don’t want to work, see nothing wrong in not working, could not care less about solutions to tackle the conditions you mention and are ‘in the lifestyle’ through choice and not circumstance. They are not low paid cleaners or unemployed steel workers. These people are totally recognisable where I live – and I suspect in every other working class area too. The IWCA is correct to say that this formation is growing and needs to be taken on.

    Working class confidence and commitment to progressive politics has many impediments – the British left and those who are active in it, the BNP, a rotten political class but also drug dealers/gangs and various other lumpen elements. All of these impediments needs tackling – and tackling head on.

  13. John, Todmorden Says:

    I aggree totally with Paul B. I was just going to try to put this point of view but Paul has said it better than I could have done.
    It is obvoius that, by any means, not all of the so called underclass are ‘on the take’ and have no social conscience. It must be difficult if you are trapped in a cycle of benefit existentiallity and see no escape but genuinely want to contribute to society. I just feel there is a certain growing section of the so caled underclass who as Paul says have willingly embraced the non-work ethic. I think it is completely understandable that the working poor bare a justifiable resentment towards this non work ethic underclass group of people. I cannot stand Gordon Brown when he talks about ‘fairness for all’. This non work ethic section of underclass don’t deserve any government handouts and it is by contrast completeley un’fair’ to the working poor. The working class have no connection to the ‘non work ethic’ group but the liberal left make this association. This ‘non work ethic’ group would not want to contribute in any new pro IWCA system because they are too lazy and have it too easy. Surely whatever system exists either now or in the future they can’t go on being molicoddled by the government.
    Surely it is the case that if this ‘non work ethic’ underclass did not exist then the employers of the working poor would be able to pay the working poor higher wages as the employers would not be paying such massive business taxes to the state. I do aggree though that private and for that matter public industry would still exploit the working poor (even if their wages went up slighty) due to the reserve army of labour.
    I think this is one of the problems for the working poor that is has become all too easy to denounce anyone from the working poor who criticises this ‘non work ethic’ grouping as a right winger who only speaks with a kind of reactionary ‘mantra’ like form of irrationality. I don’t see why if you read the Daily Mail or if you subscribe to the many of the opinions within (not all of course) that you are inevitably as Damian says creating “a false sense of solidarity with ‘middle England’ types”.
    Also those workers who are not subsidised by the government but still consider themselves to be on low pay in comparrison to the cost of living, if for example they have a family to bring up, need to be taken into account when discussing the working poor.
    Yes of course there are many former industrial towns which have a significantly larger than average ‘underclass’ in proportion to the population of Britain as a whole, and ergo there are probably more ‘non work ethic’ people in these places but it must be made clear that this non work ethic grouping exists in places, which are not former industrial heartlands, throughout the whole of Britain.

  14. Sam Says:

    ‘actively hostile to, the interests and well-being of the working class proper’

    There are crims/snitches/muderers/rapists/and genral scum at every layer of society. Just look at the police!

    Wheres your evidance of the lumpen destorying the Black Panther Party? I thought the whole party was lumpen. Huey P Newton learnt all about the law so he could break it, he did small husttling on a daily basis. And he and his party were responsible for all the good that they did. The breakfast programes etc all came from his lumpen brain.

    Also remember the reason they didnt engage with this ‘proper working class’ because black people were and still are largly an underclass in america, thats why they were black nationalist before class warriors.

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