Right wingers wheeled out a well-worn cliché to explain the riots last week—the underclass. “London riots: the underclass lashes out,” read one Daily Telegraph headline, while the Financial Times said the riots were “the intifada of the underclass”.
But the idea doesn’t quite stand up even for those who vigorously promote it. Even the Sun had to admit that workers had rioted. One front page headline described the rioters: “Lifeguard, postman, hairdresser, teacher, millionaire’s daughter, chef and schoolboy, 11.”
The theory of the underclass is that a distinct class of people exists on the fringes of society. They live chaotic, immoral lifestyles in so-called “sink” estates, working in casual jobs or claiming benefits.
Their predicament is their own doing, and not down to government policy.
Because this underclass has no stake in society, they see no problem with ruining hard-working people’s lives through their behaviour.
But is it true? People who work are working class—however menial, low-paid or insecure their job. There isn’t a fundamental divide between those in relatively secure jobs and those on casual contracts.
Class is based on your relationship to the means of production. If you’re part of the handful of rich people who own the factories, shops, offices and other workplaces, you’re in the ruling class.
If you have to sell your ability to work in these places, you are working class.
The only exception are those who work but have more control than the mass of workers. These are the middle class, and include senior managers and small shopkeepers.
So what about those who don’t have jobs and seem to have no relationship to production?
If there was a solid block of people who had never worked, proponents of the underclass theory might have a point. But there isn’t.
Most working class people spend at least part of their lives in employment, if not most of it.
One 2002 report, Poverty and the Welfare State: Dispelling the Myths, found there was no permanent underclass.
Its author, Professor Paul Spicker, concluded that, “We cannot pick out an underclass over an extended period of time.”
He added, “Poverty is not the moral, cultural or social problem of a permanently excluded underclass, but an economic risk that affects everyone.”
Whether people work or not depends largely on the state of the economy.
Of course, there are some people who are out of work long term—ironically often because they have disabilities incurred through working!
And many young people are unemployed today because of the lack of jobs for them to go into. Few can carry on studying after they finish school because of the cuts to education.
But unemployed workers don’t make up a distinct class with different interests to employed workers. There is no such thing as the underclass.
So why is the idea so prevalent?
For our rulers, it isn’t just about economics. It’s also about “morals”—and they use this argument to shore up their system.
The idea of the underclass echoes a very old notion—the 18th century one of the undeserving poor. It comes from looking at the world from the view of those who run it.
Workers who do what they are meant to do—work, obey the law and don’t complain—are defined as the “respectable” working class. Those who don’t are the underclass.
The idea has a racist undertone. It is part of trying to whip up fear against the poorest and most marginalised people in society, including black and young people.
Charles Murray, a right wing criminologist, developed the theory. He said black people and single parents were predisposed to criminality.
The right use the argument to do three things. First, divide the working class by using the threat of being reduced to underclass status to discipline workers.
Second, blame individuals, not capitalism, for unemployment and deprivation.
Third, justify cuts to benefits and services—not only because people don’t “deserve” them, but also because such support “harms” them, trapping them in poverty. Cutting it will “encourage” them into work.
This assumes that unemployment is caused by a lack of motivation—rather than the workings of the capitalist system.
Attacks on the “underclass” are portrayed as targeting a minority. They are really about policing the entire working class and imposing measures that will make everyone’s life harder.
But there is one small group that’s lazy and has no morals. It’s the millionaire politicians and the rich—and they have no right to tell us how to live our lives.