Why British NeoLiberals Need the Underclass


Dr David Bates, Principal Lecturer in Politics and International Relations


What are we to make of George Osborne’s pronouncement at the Conservative Party Conference that the long term unemployed are to be compelled to carry out up to thirty hours unpaid labour, report daily to a job centre, or to undergo intensive ‘treatment’ as a condition of the receipt of benefits?  

Clearly the populist right wing press love this sort of thing. We need only look at the headlines in the Daily Mail.

George Osborne’s intervention raises some important issues.

First, unemployment is not in general the result of feckless individuals failing to ‘get on their bike’ and find a job; unemployment is a structural fact of late capitalist economies. The deindustrialisation of European economies (concomitant with the industrial expansion of China and India) produces long term unemployment and cross-generational exclusion.

There are in short, not enough jobs for everyone. Late capitalism will never achieve ‘full employment’.    

Second, though ‘unproductive’ at the economic level, the unemployed maintain a key economic utility – specifically the disciplinary role they play in keeping ‘labour costs’ down. This is why neo-liberals such as Mr Osborne do not want to see ‘full employment’. In economies with full employment, the bargaining power of labour is increased. And this bargaining power translates pretty quickly into political power. 

Third, neo-liberalism – or at least Mr Osborne’s vision of it – has an ideological need for the unemployed underclass. Karl Marx called this group the ‘lumpenproletariat’, the ‘scum’ and ‘offal’ of nineteenth century industrial society. The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin embraced them as the ‘flower of the proletariat’. The Victorian ruling elites called them the ‘undeserving poor’. Osborne first characterises them as those wanting ‘something for nothing’. What they need is a good dose of ‘tough love’. He speaks of a ‘war on welfare’, by which it would seem he means a war on welfare claimants.

The ‘underclass’ are the constitutive ‘Other’ of indebted neo-liberal subjects. They are what an increasingly exhausted, alienated, and exploited section of the population look to with disdain when they start their second job of the day. They are what the lower middle classes chose to despise, while gazing on their ‘shameless’ exploits with titillation in the pages of the Daily Mail. They are what Osborne needs to move the public gaze away from bankers, white collar criminals, gangster capitalists, mortgage brokers, and indeed politicians – those really to blame for the ‘state we are in’.

Paradoxically – as Karl Marx would have been only too well aware, given that he included bankers within the category of the lumpenproletariat – Osborne’s ‘friends’ are not far removed from his ‘enemies’. We see this in the context of the 2010 violence on the streets of Britain. ‘Rioters’ become a pathological form of the desiring consumer so necessary for the reproduction of neo-liberal subjectivity. The ‘defective consumer’ becomes the violent consumer. If their social location is a parasitic one, this is not unlike the contemporary global corporation (aided by a friendly IMF), which ensures by all means possible that it reduces its tax burden. It is not unlike the senior banker who takes his or her bonus and runs for the door.  

To this extent we truly have an economic system which starts to eat itself! The real question is who will benefit from this cannibalism?


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