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The Humiliation of the Underclass by John Latham

In the 1980s, the American sociologist Charles Murray argued that a distinct class was forming at the bottom of British society. From a New Right perspective, he claimed that welfare dependency had set in amongst the “underclass” and this was encouraging poor behaviour. However, the intellectual tendency to look down on unfortunate people has a long history. Even the revolutionary Karl Marx described the lumpenproletariat in unflattering terms. Nowadays, we have the less cerebral Jeremy Kyle to put us in our place. This glib mockery may entertain some viewers, but is it time to defend the way many of us appear to get by?

The urban studies expert Richard Florida paid tribute to the role of the affluent creative class in post-industrial societies. He reasoned that tolerant values were useful in cities where tech flourished. Hence his liberalism seemed to have an exclusive edge. Nevertheless, the geographers David Wilson and Roger Kiel countered that the authentic creative class is much further down the social scale. They pointed to individuals coping with difficult circumstances by taking more than one job, for example.

Unfortunately, progressive geographers do not have the influence to disrupt the media narrative surrounding the British “underclass”. Policymakers have made benefit sanctions and food banks into part of everyday life, while ordinary people have absorbed highly edited television like Benefits Street. The actual difficulties of being poor are not going to be captured on so-called reality television. So what is to be done?

It is awkward not to internalise the dominant messages of a divided society. However, nobody should feel ashamed of economic failure. The great artist Samuel Beckett famously had a healthy attitude to faring badly in life. Nor should anyone allow their personal behaviour to be affected by the judgement of hypocritical moralists. After all, it is easier to adhere to conventional social norms when a regular pay cheque is headed your way.

Slacking is a strategy that is well worth considering. It is amazing how easy it is to appear busy. But impersonating those higher up the social ladder is degrading. Why should real people put on fake accents on the telephone? In the UK, the housing crisis means that there are significantly fewer middle class /people than there used to be. Pretending to be middle class when financially insecure is a neurotic attempt to keep up with the Joneses. It is a sure-fire trip to discontent and it is likely to result in excess purchases en route. Slacking is economical, and it may even be fun. For those without ambition, there are abundant opportunities for banter, and for social observation.

In life, travel is typically overhyped because of vested interests. And so is social climbing. Lynsey Hanley recently wrote a sensible book called “Respectable: The Experience of Class” and it makes for an incredibly dull read. The author was once knocked back by the University of Cambridge. She then became a conventional success, even eating food which her parents had never served up. Perhaps she can teach us all how to consume quinoa. Social mobility appears to be in decline so why should we try to squeeze upwards through a networked society?

For many years, the network has been celebrated. Many network participants forget the imbalances in power within the structures. Their activity is often exploited. If we are not paying an entrance fee, we are often sharing content which benefits others. It is almost impossible to sustain genuine self-awareness within a social network. We are so small and insignificant, but we do not always feel this as our friends and acquaintances may tempt us into oversharing. A network society should have led to a vibrant knowledge economy. Certainly, the veteran sociologist Manuel Castells was optimistic about the prospects of networks. Who envisaged the dramatic impact a network society could have on the rapacious behaviour of the American elite?

The authorities tend to hate the so-called underclass because they suspect us of having a great deal of pleasure. Many of them have repressed their most primitive desires to get where they are today. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud argued that civilization endured because of the limitations placed on human instincts. Since then, many of the middle class have avoided scandal to make personal progress. It would almost be unnatural for them not to resent hippies, travellers and poets because these groups have rarely made such miserable sacrifices. Happiness is elusive if sought, and prudent folk have sometimes missed the bus by not taking enough risks.

The truth is that we can only play the actual cards we are dealt. While pure hedonism might not be everybody's cup of tea, we should arguably think about how to have a good time when the deck is stacked against us. As Charles Baudelaire once wrote:
“In order not to feel the horrible burden of Time that breaks your shoulders and bends you down toward the ground, you must get yourself relentlessly drunk. But drunk on what? On wine, on poetry, or on virtue, whatever you like. But get yourself drunk.”

Socialist Oscar Wilde stressed that it was unethical for the comfortable to recommend thrift to the poor. And it is a near-truism that there is no correlation between wealth and happiness. So, when times are hard it is a great idea to ignore the stereotypes that others try to place around our necks.

Older than he cares to admit, John spends his time feeling even older than he is. He produces content, while seeking quiet contentment. He supports Liverpool FC and Jeremy Corbyn, and likes the colour red. His blog Cheepcheepcopy is a scrapbook of political economy, with book reviews. Comments are always welcome.

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