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Underclass: the Excreta of Capitalism

Updated: 15 September 2016

Though records indicate there have always been a small minority of criminals and ‘wastrels’ who formed an ‘underclass’ at the bottom of whatever social stratification any society had at whatever stage in its history, it was Charles Murray (1989) who first identified this social class as an emerging and important factor in contemporary British society. Murray says of the term: “By ‘underclass’, I do not mean people who are merely poor, but people who are at the margins of society, unsocialised and often violent. The chronic criminal is part of the underclass, especially the violent chronic criminal. But so are parents who mean well but who cannot provide for themselves, who give nothing back to the neighbourhood, and whose children are the despair of the teachers who have to deal with them…. When I use the term ‘underclass’ I am indeed focusing on a certain type of poor person defined not by his condition – eg: long term unemployed – but by his deplorable behaviour in response to that condition – eg: unwilling to take jobs that are available to him.”

Those long-term unemployed who fraudulently claim benefits while doing ‘black market’ jobs, the addict who deals drugs themselves, the cheap prostitutes, the gangs who extort money from the shopkeepers on their own estate, etc, etc – these are the kind of people Murray classifies as the ‘underclass’. In fact, many of the characters portrayed in the Shameless TV series would fit Murray’s categorisation!

Generally speaking, in ‘good times’ the underclass are usually relatively small in number because most people in the lower strata of society can at least provide for themselves and their families through means approved by the state and generally acceptable to the culture of their particular society at that time. Also, a number in those strata will perceive routes to ‘better themselves’ and access higher strata through conformity to the approved means for social mobility. In ‘bad times’, with people losing their jobs and their homes – and sometimes their families when marriages and partnerships collapse under financial strain – the underclass often swells, with a consequential explosion in petty crime. The growth in this kind of petty crime can be seen as the Robert K Merton (1938) version of anomie. In this, people are denied legitimate means of getting what the consumer society promotes as desirable and so resort to illegitimate means.

This feature will argue that in the 1980s economic restructuring in the UK and other Western countries led to a fundamental change in the size and nature of the underclass which both exacerbates the contradictions inherent in the very nature of Capitalism – as identified by Karl Marx way back in 1867 – and presents a very real threat to the continued existence of an elitist Capitalist system in Western countries such as the United Kingdom.

The historical perspective
From a historical perspective social stratification can be seen as the BLUE vMEME extending, codifying and legitimising the authority hierarchies developed under RED power systems such as Mediaeval feudal kingdoms. Such RED power hierarchies were themselves a development of the roles ascribed to individuals and groups in PURPLE tribal systems.

The real beginnings of Western Capitalism lie first in the Mercantile trading systems of the 16th and 17th centuries and then the Industrial Revolution. As Marx so clearly illustrated, Capitalism needed the working class proletariat to labour in the factories for the benefit of the ‘owners of the means of production’. Those who managed the proletariat on behalf of the owners – incorporated within the concept of the bourgeoisie – became a core element in the formation of the middle class. This structure of Upper, Middle and Working Class, with people ‘knowing their place’ in it, is essentially BLUE in nature and functioned as a less noxious form of caste system in the UK right through into the post-World War II era.

In the UK and other heavily-industrialised European countries such as Germany, looking back, it can be seen that BLUE was the dominant vMEME in industrial society. Obviously there was some ORANGE present, driving profit strategies and innovation – but, by and large, industrial society was run by BLUE and people fitted more or less into their places. It was pretty much society as Functionalism says it should be, There were some social mobility routes – eg: scholarships to grammar schools for poor working class children – which both kept the lid on the seething resentment of the more politically aware in the working classes at their exploitation because they could see some means of bettering themselves. Such routes also allowed the capitalists to draw into the middle classes the more intelligent and innovative from the proletariat. Marx might have hated the exploitation of the proletariat but it did enable society to function reasonably well, in the interests of a substantial number of its members.

In such a BLUE structure, with a sheen of GREEN enabling benefits to trickle down to the truly poor via the post-World War II Welfare State, theoretically there was no reason for people to gravitate into the underclass: the ‘deserving poor’ would be supported. To some extent at least.

The Welfare State, though, has always been vulnerable to fraud. In pursuing its noble cause of egalitarianism and, where appropriate, applying positive discrimination to advantage the poor and socially disadvantaged, GREEN dismantled in part at least BLUE’s control systems and allowed RED to exploit the welfare structures set up. This process was accelerated dramatically by the cultural changes of the 1960s which saw GREEN undermining BLUE structures right across the board in Western society and unwittingly enabling RED excess.

Thus began the decline of marriage as an automatic first choice for heterosexual relationships and the widescale acceptance of divorce, the advent of the drug culture, the prioritisation of offender rehabilitation over crime deterrence and personal wellbeing over responsibility to your family, employer, community, etc, etc. Growing alongside these hardening attitudes was an insidious disregard for traditional authority structures in general. Thus, underclass-type behaviour became significantly less unacceptable and, in some quarters, even ‘clever’ – ie: ‘getting one over on the system’.

This idea of ‘getting one over on the system’ figured clearly in verbatim reports of some of the perpetrators’ explanations of their behaviours during the London riots of August 2011 which were blamed on the underclass by a number of leading commentators. (See the Blog: The Riots: who’s right – Cameron or Blair?)

Unemployment and social deprivation: the waste by-products of Capitalism
If being in the underclass became more acceptable to its members in the 1960s and 1970s, it was the 1980s which really gave new grist to the underclass.

Margaret Thatcher’s wholescale abandonment of the traditional ‘heavy industries’ (chemicals, steel, coal, etc) to ‘market forces’ inevitably meant their rapid decline, with the result that hundreds of thousands of unskilled and semi-skilled male labourers were put out of work in the Midlands and North of England, South Wales and the Scottish Lowlands. Unlike other post-World War II economic lows, the jobs were gone for good this time and the unemployment would become more or less permanent. To try to make ends meet, the women of the unemployed men often took on 2 or even 3 low-paid/part-time menial jobs – eg: cleaning offices. All too often their demoralised and dispirited menfolk – their PURPLE-ascribed role of ‘breadwinner’ swept away to create shame RED couldn’t cope with – took to drink and/or drugs, they and their children – especially the males – drifting into the underclass and swelling its numbers. (Both the HemsMESH and Humber MeshWORKS projects were focussed on just such areas devastated by the losses of taditional industries.)

One problem inherent in modern Capitalism is that ORANGE’s focus on profit means the wider implications of Capitalist behaviour are missed or glossed over. Thus, ORANGE thinking will not support industries perceived to be unprofitable. Where profit can be increased by implementing technology to cut labour costs, ORANGE will pay the high one-off investments to ameliorate longer-term costs. Where profit can be increased by moving operations overseas to exploit cheaper labour, ORANGE will pay the high one-off moving costs – see the New International Division of Labour. ORANGE doesn’t care about the human costs – the collapse of peripheral businesses, high unemployment, social deprivation, etc. When there are boom times, some of this human waste can be redirected into other areas of economic growth. Thus, under Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, the financial services sector blossomed, with the South-East of England benefiting as a whole as retail and other service industries grew to support those generating the new wealth. However, other regions – particularly those which had been the geographical locations for the now-vanished heavy industries – struggled to create the number of jobs necessary to absorb the amount of human waste produced by the restructuring of the national economy in the 1980s.

As I write, in the turmoil and uncertainty following the Brexit referendum vote, the UK is struggling to maintain the mild momentum regained from the banking crisis of 2008 and the ensuing world-wide recession. In such adverse circumstances Capitalism’s unquenchable thirst for profit and maximising shareholder value turns ever more on the middle classes. A Workplace Foundation report by Paul Sissons in 2011 was one of the first to identify that the ‘hollowing out’ of the middle classes, noted increasingly in the United States for much of the noughties, was now firmly under way in the UK. The graphic below, taken from that report, shows the loss of skilled and professional middle class jobs in the previous 9 years. While it showed a corresponding growth in unskilled/low-skill and menial jobs, it revealed only too clearly how former middle class workers, forced by financial constraints into applying for those jobs, found themselves competing for them with the rump of the working classes.

Work-Foundation-2011[1]

In the long lead-up to the 2015 general election, then-Labour leader Ed Miliband (2014) spelled out explicitly the fate of the middle classes: “Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts for the next four years published at the Budget predict that real earnings will on average increase at only half the level of economic growth in 2015 and will still lag behind, even in 2018. And even these figures mask the truth of what is happening to middle-income Britain. It is expected that wage rises will disproportionately benefit those at the top while some major costs, such as housing, which hits working families hardest, are not included in the official statistics. So any gains middle-income Britain gets as the economy picks up will be nothing compared with the scale of the crisis that remains or the assault on family finances of recent years…. The middle class, once the solid centre of our economy, is being hollowed out with growing insecurity and the prospect, for the first time since the war, that their children will be worse off than they were.”

Thus, in the UK – and other Western nations – there is an ever-growing number of people who previously enjoyed the status and income of being middle class but now find themselves excluded and pushed down the social and employment hierarchies. Their BLUE will be frustrated; they did everything they should have done – worked hard, paid their taxes and supported their children in school, etc. For some at least, their RED will grow strong in their frustration – making them potentially vulnerable to being sucked into the underclass. In Zigmunt Bauman’s (1988) terms, they are moving from the ‘seduced’ to the ‘repressed’.

The impact of Brexit – to whatever extent it happens – is likely to have negative effects on growth in the UK and create a downward pressure on wage levels,  according to many expert commentators – eg: the  Resolution Foundation, as reported by The Independent’s Andrew Grice. This will most likely result in further hollowing out of middle class jobs, more people becoming ‘repressed’and yet further swelling of the underclass.

So what are we to do with all the human waste Capitalism has created in the past 30 years and is still continuing to create?

Boredom, poverty, ignorance and hopelessness are the characteristics of the lives of so many of those at the bottom of the social hierarchies. It is especially hard for the males. Their PURPLE traditions portray males as breadwinners – that is their role – so what are they to do when there are no jobs for them and their RED is shamed by their failure to fulfil their PURPLE role?

Why some and not others?
This is a key question. Some people, of whatever social class, thrown out of work and reduced to poverty or near-poverty, do not resort to benefit fraud, prostitution, extortion, burglary, drug dealing and other behaviours associated with the underclass. So why do some become part of the underclass and some don’t?

Anyone who believes in ‘doing what’s right’, does it and is effectively punished for it (made redundant, marriage break-ups, etc) will have their BLUE vMEME frustrated. However, not everyone so treated will drift into the underclass, so there must be other variables involved than the failure of BLUE. It may be that the response will be affected by what other vMEMES are active in their vMEME stacks. Someone with strong ORANGE may reinvent themselves to take on a job or role that is still needed. Particularly, if that someone also has YELLOW in the mix as that 2nd Tier vMEME excels in looking beyond the obvious to solve problems.

Also important may be the schemas operating in the individual’s selfplex and the memes they have been exposed to in their past and are being exposed to during their troubles. Eg: someone whose father lied and cheated during their formative years is more likely to submit a fraudulent benefit claim than someone who has been raised with the value of honesty, even in difficult times. (This is an indicator of how much more we need to understand the relationship between schemas/memes and vMEMES!)

Correspondingly, culture and gender are likely tp be key factors – particularly if they intersect. For example, Steve Strand (2007) is just one researcher who has investigated the effects of a disproportionately high number of single, matriarch-dominated black families in the UK – 57% compared to the white 23% – on educational attainment. Black boys, lacking the role model of a father and his discipline, stereotypically perform poorly and often drift into gangs and underclass-type activity during their teens. However,black girls perform much better – often as good if not better than their white counterparts. This is thought to be due to the girls seeing their mothers as strong, emotionally robust women succeeding against adversity and modelling that.

Some may also be affected by the extremes of temperament. Those who are high in the temperamental dimension of Psychoticism (usually male) are more likely to display the ruthlessness, impulsiveness and compulsiveness often associated with underclass-style crime. Those who are the opposite end of that dimension – strong in Impulse Control (usually female) – are likely to be too accepting of whatever is going on and swept along with it.

Dealing with the underclass
As Blair Gibbs has noted in an powerful and thought-provoking study of the underclass for The Spectator in 2005, the underclass is denoted not by poverty per se but attitude. So it is attitude and the formation and management of attitude that are key to how we approach dealing with the underclass.

Which means those who would carry out interventions need to understand the nature of vMEMES and how they work. They need also to understand Memetics – the viral transmission of ideas. And they need to be able to teach those with extreme temperaments how to manage them better. However, the contexts in which the underclass flourishes also needs to be understood so that strategies can be developed which minimise the situational factors which would tempt someone into the underclass. And that means changing or tempering Capitalism so it does not create such large amounts of human waste.

It’s not that Capitalism per se is wrong. Indeed the collapse of European Communism at the end of the 1980s and the adoption by China of a form of Capitalism inside its authoritarian controls vindicate Capitalism as the means of wealth generation in the modern world. Unfortunately, when Capitalism is driven by unfettered ORANGE, there is no motivation to look beyond the wealth I can generate for me. And that leads to severe inequalities in wealth. We can castigate Margaret Thatcher for her abandonment of the poor and the traditional working classes in favour of encouraging individuals to generate wealth for themselves but it was Labour’s Tony Blair, more than Thatcher’s successor John Major, who encouraged individual focus on wealth generation. There could be no more damning indictment of Blair’s failure to reduce inequality than the Office of National Statistics (2007) reporting that the gap between rich and poor was greater than when Labour had swept to power in 1997. Interestingly Britain became the world’s second wealthiest nation in that 10 years (World Bank, 2007), based on gross national income. So it would appear the Blair years were very good ones for the wealthy and appalling ones for the poor. No wonder the underclass has grown in the UK!

More equal societies – such as the Scandinavian countries – where GREEN has succeeded in reducing social and economic disparities have been noted as being happier and healthier societies (Richard Wilkinson & Kate Picket, 2010) than the likes of the UK and the USA. However, tax rates are very high in the Scandinavian countries – eg: 51.1% of GDP in Sweden and 43.3% in Finland, compared to 34.7% in Germany and 33.5% in Canada – and it has to be doubted whether such models are sustainable in the context of the ongoing worldwide economic difficulties. When companies and individuals are under the dual pressure of high taxes and declining income, GREEN thinking often gets dumped as people scale down the Spiral to less complex ways of thinking. Certainly the rise of the far right in many European countries – see Whither the EU…? – seems to indicate that all is far from well in those countries.

Rather than simply applying a ‘social justice sheen’ to the processes of Capitalism, we need 2nd Tier perspectives on how Capitalism should work in a compassionate but disciplined society to minimise the amount of human waste produced and thus limit the size and power of the underclass.

It’s beyond the scope of this feature to speculate on what 2nd Tier-influenced economic systems might look like. However, there is a small number of thinkers who are working on what 2nd Tier economic models might look like. ’Reinventing Capitalism’ by Jon Freeman (2015), and ‘New Currency’ by Jordan Bruce Macleod (2009)  and  ‘MEMEnomics’ by Said E Dawlabani (2013) are 3 thought-provoking attempts to develop a 2nd Tier perspective.  Dawlabani’s  MEMEnomics blog continues to show the development of his thinking on financial and economic matters. While there is yet to be anything like a definitive understanding of what 2nd Tier economics might be, these important pioneers are pointing the way to developing that understanding.

But we need their work – and the work of others like them – if we are to restructure Capitalism organically so we can still have that drive to generate wealth but the opportunities for generating wealth are available to all and there is a cultural mindset to work at legitimate wealth generation.

Society will never be without an underclass but the sheer mushrooming growth of the underclass makes it a threat to all other strata in society. Continued growth of the underclass at the kind of levels we have seen since the 1980s is simply unsustainable. The strain on the social security systems, the epidemics of petty and violent crime, the increase in racial tensions and anti-immigration sentiments, combined with an increasingly open contempt for the rich elites, are all indicators that social cohesion is breaking down. The fabric of society is being stretched and torn and we can only expect more violence and more crime unless that new approach the likes of Freeman, Macleod and Dawlabani are grasping for is developed and taken on board by the Capitalist elites.

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  1. Tim Saunders says

    You don’t mention him but Guy Standing is doing some important work on what he calls the Precariat which is highly pertinent to your paper https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=9OraivQ45ME