These days they are the underclass, that vast army of uneducated, unemployable, often criminally inclined, very often obese, more than often drugged people of any age found in any especially well developed country with a democratic government.
Karl Marx (left), whom we can safely call an early super-socialist, rather cruelly referred to these as lumpenproletariat. This invention has been nicely translated as meaning ‘the tatterdemalion or slum product’. Philosopher Marx further divided the underclass of his time into three: able-bodied (few), orphans and children born into poverty, but Vladimir Lenin who adapted Marxism to suit his more totalitarian view of things, went further: He called them ‘demoralized, degenerate and unemployable’. If asked, or rather if anyone dared to ask, he would clarify that it was for this problem that labour camps had been invented, or if possible without attracting too much attention – extermination camps. This drastic opinion was not that of Hegel, Marx or Engels, but historians remind us that Lenin’s and later Stalin’s interpretation of Das Kapital tends to stray from the point when required.
Still, if you count among your acquaintance any pinkish persons who lean back on the silk cushions of their armchair and declare that Soviet Russia was a paradise on Earth, you might give them a gentle reminder that it was Marx who spoke of the lumpenproletariat first, and that Lenin’s sugggestion was that they should be herded into extermination camps.
Where did they come from? Marx again has the answer: he gives Britain as an example; throughout the 19th century, while the Empire grew and bankers became obscenely rich, the poor had been pushed into semi-slavery, either as factory or farm hands, or as pathetic domestic servants (little better than serfs really) or as foot-soldiers for use as cannon fodder. If they refused to work, into the workhouse for them; after all, life expectancy was very short, probably not more than forty years with luck.
Britain again: from 1947 to 1962 something called National Service neatly mopped up this lowest of the lower classes by making every able-bodied youth over eighteen serve in one of the three services in the ranks for two years. In practice this period was often reduced to ten weeks’ basic training, after which the ‘officer material’ were shunted off to Eaton Hall or Mons or their equivalents in the Navy or Airforce, from which, if they ‘passed out’ they were officers for the rest of their obligatory service. The system was extraordinary efficient, and equally expensive, as Britain had to pay a (very) small wage and feed and clothe the national servicemen for two years. It was unique in Britain because it enabled boys from all four social classes to meet each other, get to know each other, sleep in huge dormitaries together, shit, shower and shave together, and perhaps, in a war in Northern Ireland or Cyprus- die together. It had never happened before. Upper class youths had only seen the lower classes digging holes in the street or working in holes (the coal mines), or driving a taxi calling them ‘Gov.’
Equally, the lower (and many of the middle) classes knew about the upper classes only through books or newspapers. To many, an English lord was a tall, shadowy figure wrapped in a dark cloak, rattling over cobbles in a hansom cab, ‘moving from atrocity to atrocity in a fog’ (I quote). National Service quickly squashed the rumours, and strange facts began to emerge. For instance, only the British upper class and lower class survived the first weeks of National Service without much bother, because both came from a comparatively savage environment. The toffs had had to endure the frightfulness of an English public school. The lower classes the savagery of street life in a big city. It was the middle class, accustomed to Mum doing everything, with Dad hardly ever seen because he worked from eight to five Monday to Friday and was too tired even to relax at weekends.
Of course the non-commissioned officers in the services were usually professionals, obeying but despising the officer class. One sergeant I knew said he liked the British Army because you could tell an officer in the dark by the way he spoke.
To return to Marx: he thought that in a liberal democracy the unemployable might be educated to a level where they would soon move on happy and equal terms with others. British liberals agreed, and state schools sprang up everywhere in which education was free. But something went wrong; by 2008, after much more than fifty years of beneficent state education, 30,000 British schoolchildren left school with no qualifications at all. Today’s figures were worse.
In these charitable and well meaning years, the rest of society would optimistically and charitably (via their taxes) send these people to school, expect them to eat decent food, and generally extend their lives. Sadly, they also discovered that they must build expensive prisons and hospitals and old people’s homes, because they have at last discovered that the underclass is, after all, uneducated, unemployable, drugged, obese and ill. They also have no wish to work at any time in their life. They have been constantly reminded that they have ‘rights’. Before, in harsher times, their life was nasty, brutish and short, as Dickens discovered. Meanwhile, the politicians thought it impolite to see it as a problem at all, though the ranks of the lumpenproletariat have swollen beyond measure. Lawmakers with kind and liberal minds have made it easier and easier to exist in the underclass; so much so that any tiny initiative to leave it has been eliminated. No figure in public life in Britain has ever learned how to solve the problem. No-one wants to be like Lenin interprteting Karl Marx.
Finally, I think that we have reached a time in history when everybody else, from the working classes to those at the top of the economic scale are forced by common decency to live as if the ‘unemployable’ underclass simply does not exist, and that if one looks away, it will vanish like the smile of the Cheshire Cat.