It has been several years now since I wrote a post for this blog. This has given me some time to reflect on the issues I wrote about and the manner in which I wrote about them. When this blog was active a few years ago I was accused by many on the left of having betrayed the socialist values I claimed to have espoused. This galled me to a degree because I knew in my heart that I was still very much opposed to the growing inequality across the British Isles. How could I have not been? I myself suffered from it and still do.
In my earlier writing there were instances where my analysis of the deficiencies of the welfare state and the existence of the underclass should have been discussed in a wider context. That is partly what I wish to do in this piece whilst still standing by the bulk of what I previously wrote. There were a few instances (my detractors will argue there were many more) when I deliberately used loaded terminology that I now regret, or made statements that played in to the hands of neo-liberal conservatives who used my critique of the welfare state and the area of the public services in which I worked to bolster their own arguments.
Back then I didn't have too much time to reflect whether there was any truth in the accusations that I had betrayed my progressive values because to be honest I was just mentally exhausted and burned out from the work I did. I think that most people, if they worked in environments where you are on the receiving end of verbal abuse and both the threat of, as well as actual physical abuse, whilst you watch vulnerable people you work with being affected even more severely by loutish behaviour, they too may have over stepped the mark in the appropriateness of the language they used without realising that it could be used to further opposing political ideologies.
In the past few years I have had time to recover from the effects working with the underclass had on me. I have also had the time to reassess whether or not I am still a socialist. In the period after I left working in the youth sector I was unemployed for a short period of time and unexpectedly returned to live in Ireland. During this period I was consumed by political cynicism as a result of my years from working with the underclass. This was due to having been at the forefront of implementing well intentioned social policies by liberals and social democrats that simply don’t work. At the same time I still knew deep down I was opposed to all forms of injustice and gross inequality, but I just wasn’t sure if the left had the answers to these problems any more. However, the years that have followed the financial crisis and the social reality that has come about as a result has led me to conclude that at heart I still very much am a socialist.
Since the financial crash of 2008 I have watched the governments of the British Isles, both in the UK and Republic of Ireland, cut overall spending on public services and the welfare state and the transfer of those resources to a parallel welfare state that serves the needs of the financial sector. This has led to a society where those working in finance and banking were not only shielded from the consequences of the capitalism they purported to believe in, but have grown even wealthier in the aftermath of the crash they caused, whilst disabled people and the poorest have had their incomes slashed to pay for it.
Meanwhile those in work, including the middle classes, have seen their wages stagnate as the top ten percent in society see their incomes soar. Youth unemployment is still staggeringly high and most of the jobs created are either low paid or part time with minimal rights and zero hour contracts. Access to secure affordable accommodation in most major urban areas across these islands is becoming a folk tale recounted by middle class baby boomers to their overly educated off spring who are either working for the minimum wage in one of the ubiquitous coffee shop chains that blight every high street, or they succeeded in being picked from a pool of several hundred desperate to be exploited applicants to do a year of unpaid work before they even have a chance of obtaining paid employment.
Capitalism has never served the interests of the working classes and now it is starting to turn on the middle classes. When the basic needs of the vast majority of people are not met whilst concurrently the wealthiest grow even wealthier, surely this brings in to question the democratic legitimacy of a political system that props up an economic doctrine that serves the interests of an elite minority. As deceased Labour MP Tony Benn pointed out we may have achieved political democracy but economic democracy is still some distance away. As the effects of the austerity agenda pursued by the British and Irish governments on the people of these islands have taken their toll over the past few years in the form of increased hardship and growing inequality I have found myself fervently on the side of ordinary people opposed to the imposition of these policies. I have come to believe once again that the creation of fair, just and equitable societies can only come about when people embrace a sense of collective purpose working together for the common good. It may be a long and arduous process to convince people that this is the case so beguiled are they by consumerism and a form of liberalism that perceives freedom in terms of nothing more than access to an endless array of shopping choices and an aversion to upholding any kind of robust cohesive value system so as to avoid the charge of ‘judgementalism’. The cultural relativists have hollowed out what it means to live in a truly liberal society from the inside out.
Some people may read my analysis here and ask themselves is this the same Winston Smith who was a staunch critic of the welfare state and the area of public services he worked in back in 2006-2011? My earlier writings were never a repudiation of the existence of the welfare state or public services as I have always firmly believed in both. They were merely a critique of the welfare state and those services and how they dis-empowered, infantilised and failed to serve the individuals and the communities from which they came. There is a difference between critiquing something and calling for it’s cessation.
I know from some of the personally abusive emails I had in the past that many people would argue that a man who would use the term 'underclass' is a questionable sort of socialist. However, even the socialist philosopher Karl Marx acknowledged the existence of a feckless underclass in his own time that he termed the 'lumpen proletariat'. The major shortcoming in my previous writings was that I never clearly defined what I meant by the ‘underclass’ and just as importantly how we ended up with this underclass in the first place.
Firstly, when I used the term ‘underclass’ I was not referring to the working class or even dignified unemployed members of the working class in receipt of state benefits. As I have said before I believe strongly in the welfare state. What I was referring to was more a behavioural disposition and an attitude and this could be as common with some of the young people I worked with who had jobs, or were in education as it did with some of those who were inactive. This attitude could be characterised in terms of a complete disregard for how their behaviour affected other people in the forms of various anti-social behaviours along with an unwillingness to take any responsibility to deal with even the most miniscule aspects of their lives. As I documented time and time again it was even a struggle to get many of them to take responsibility for ensuring they received their social welfare entitlements.
Within the supported housing sector that I worked I encountered plenty of 16-25 year olds from middle class backgrounds who I would view as being part of this underclass. The term was never about what socio-economic backgrounds people came from, even if many members of the underclass do come from poor backgrounds they are not by any means wholly representative of the poorest in society. There were also plenty of young unemployed adults that I worked with in supported housing who accessed all available resources in terms of education and training. Some of them had success in finding work, but even before the crash youth unemployment was stubbornly high due to the deficiencies of free market capitalism. This group of young people were overall well behaved, considerate of others and took as much responsibility as they could to improve their situation. I would not consider these young people to have been part of the underclass. They belonged to the working and unemployed lower middle classes.
So just how and why did this underclass come about? I believe it arose as a result of two factors. The first being a swing from the overly authoritarian anti-individualistic rigidly conservative social order of the pre-war period, to the opposite extreme of an excessively liberal social sphere and a decline in the influence of shared collective values in the post war period.
The second factor was Thatcher’s neo liberal economic transformation of the economy which resulted in the economic decimation of many working class communities. Contrary to what many people believe the welfare state actually expanded under Thatcher to deal with the legions of the unemployed her policies created. The effects of neo liberal policies extended beyond the economy and in to the cultural and social sphere. As parts of Britain decayed and along with it whole communities, other parts of the country boomed. Much of this boom was fuelled by the lifting of restrictions on credit. People were being encouraged to consume more and more even if they couldn’t afford it in the here and now. Within less than a couple of decades people had gone from being members of communities with some semblance of a shared value system to being nothing more than consumers, mere indebted props of the new economic order. Individuals went from identifying with their social ties to being defined by their purchases. There were many though within the burgeoning underclass who didn’t have the means or the access to credit to indulge in the consumeristic frenzy in which the rest of the country was embroiled. At the same time though, they, like so many others, imbibed the values of the new economic order with its emphasis on personal gain, materialism and a disregard for the social sphere.
Many did very well out of the neo-liberal economic model including those who managed to escape impoverished backgrounds. However, whilst it created much wealth in Britain it also widened the chasm between the haves and the have nots. Inequality soared during the Thatcher era and when New Labour came to power they tried to ameliorate the effects of Thatcherite economics whilst at the same time being a cheerleader for it. It was like being purposely run down by an ambulance that would then take you to the accident and emergency unit to be bandaged up. Throughout the New Labour era there were whole swathes of well-intentioned social policies that sought to undo the excesses of neo-liberalism with mixed results. Policies such as the Sure Start initiative and Tax Credits were two such examples.
However, across the public policy sphere New Labour actually exacerbated the existence of the underclass because they didn’t understand that the values you instil in people are just as important as the money you put in their pockets. It was the influence of those on the mostly middle class cultural left and excessive liberals (who are actually illiberal) within the social policy sphere that were hostile to the concept of collective values that ensured the ranks of the underclass swelled. I saw the effects of these policies time and time again in the work I did in education, supported housing, care homes and the Youth Offending Service. Gone were the traditional working and lower middle class values of Old Labour. Right and wrong had become blurry concepts in the new era of non-judgementalism and cultural relativism. Judging anti-social behaviour and giving effective consequences was replaced with creating spurious psychological conditions such as conduct disorder and authority oppositional defiant disorder to name just a few. Instead of teaching young people to behave respectfully towards their peers and others in their communities we were instead giving them the message that they had either limited or no control over their behaviour. Predictably they lived up to our low expectations.
There was also a form of class superiority and prejudice implicit across the social policy sphere that was highly disrespectful to those in working class communities. I don’t know how many times I encountered middle class social workers, teachers, youth offending workers and care workers who would try and excuse anti-social behaviour as a result of people coming from a lower socio economic background. I used to point out that this was insulting to the vast majority of the poorly paid working class and struggling lower middle classes who don’t blight the lives of others by their actions and who are more often than not on the receiving end of the effects of living cheek by jowl with members of the underclass.
The culmination of the swing in the 1960s from excessive authoritarianism to excessive liberalism along with the neo liberal economic revolution and its cultural consequences is what has led to today’s underclass. The UK riots in 2011 were the culmination of this mindset. The rioters who attacked and ravaged working and lower middle class neighbourhoods and businesses as well as high street stores for their own gain were merely adhering to the same value system of the banking and financial elite whose actions decimated and are continuing to decimate entire communities. The wealthiest ten percent along with the underclass share the view that life is about maximising personal gain and indulging in one’s desires without any consideration for the effects such a self-centred philosophy has on the rest of society.
As I write this piece here in Dublin rents are soaring to the point that dingy studio apartments, if you can find one, are out of the price range of most working class people and a stretch for the lower middle classes and social housing is almost non-existent. The Irish government tell us that the economy is booming and that unemployment is at 12%, but they don’t include the other roughly 10% of the workforce engaged in government funded workplace initiatives such as exploitative Job-Bridge internships in the private sector or those on community schemes. A short distance away in Britain, a country that was a home to me and may again be one day, more and more people have to rely on food banks to feed themselves and there too affordable secure housing slips further out of the reach of the majority.
Across the British Isles there is an attack on working and lower middle class communities as public services and the welfare state are rolled back to ensure that the income of the ten percent soars. If inequality continues to grow and austerity economics continue to push more and more people in to hardship it may well be that the next riots on our streets will not be spearheaded by a disaffected underclass mirroring the selfish impulses of a wealthy elite, but by working and lower middle class people legitimately venting that they no longer have faith in a political system that props up an economic system that fails to meet their basic needs. Surely there will be a tipping point of how much inequality and hardship people will endure? The time will come when enough is enough.