National Sections of the L5I:

The myth of the underclass

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The recent events in Los Angeles have led bourgeois commentators and academic “Marxists” to brush up the old concept of an “underclass”. Lesley Day and Colin Lloyd argue that this idea is not only useless for analysing the class structure of the US urban centres but is a positive diversion from the search for a working class solution to the crisis of the US inner cities.

"Underclass” was the word on every US media commentator’s lips following the Los Angeles uprising. J K Galbraith, guru of American liberalism, commented on the irony of this in a society that prided itself on being “classless”. But there is nothing in the idea of a modern “underclass” that contradicts the myth of the “classless society”. They are myths that reinforce each other. For the apologists of modern capitalism the “underclass” is precisely a stratum that has fallen out of “the classless” society, an alien minority, a problem with no solutions.

At the same time the underclass myth conveniently allows the capitalist media to ignore or sideline racism. Pointing to black middle class opponents of the rioting and the Korean victims of the looting, Newsweek’s Tom Morgenthau claimed that, “much of the spluttering national debate over race is outdated... The truth is, there is no such thing as ‘black’”.

How convenient. Perhaps there is no such thing as excluding black people from juries either!

In rejecting the myth of the “underclass” Marxists do not deny the existence of the ghettoised urban poor. In pointing to racism as the root cause of the misery and brutality of life in urban black America we do not ignore the existence of a black middle class, or of white rioters.

To understand the real relationship between social deprivation, racism and the uprisings we have to understand the role of racial oppression in capitalist exploitation.

The majority of African-Americans, and the majority of Latinos, like the majority of black people in Britain, are part of the working class. But, as a consequence of their racial oppression, they are a particularly discriminated against and disadvantaged section, more often jobless, homeless, confined to poor jobs and dilapidated housing and denied full political and social participation. A key task for those who wish to lead the working class to victory over capitalism is to challenge this position and ensure that the oppressed take their rightful place, not only as part of the struggle of all the exploited, but as an essential part of its leadership.

The Los Angeles uprising was first and foremost a protest against racism. The original assault on Rodney King and the jury verdict which absolved the police attackers, were plainly manifestations of social oppression—not simply of individual racist attitudes, but of state racism and of the unequal position of black people in US society.

Systematic oppression is a part of capitalist social relations—functional for the most part to the capitalist class’ exploitation of the working class as a whole. Racism divides black and white workers and has been used consistently by the US bosses to break the unity of US workers. It is rooted in the imperialist system of exploitation which survives on virulent nationalism and chauvinism.

Although racism is an inevitable part of modern capitalism there are times when aspects of it are disruptive to bourgeois society. Such a phase occurred after the militant phase of the civil rights movement and the Watts riots of 1965.

During this period the ruling class saw important sections of the black working class taking to the streets to protest against their racial oppression and social conditions. They feared that a growing radical black leadership, such as the Black Panthers, calling for armed struggle and “revolutionary solutions” would connect with this movement. US political leaders pursued a dual strategy to prevent this. Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programme was designed to encourage the expansion and integration of a layer of middle class black people who would in turn act as leaders and pacifiers of the black majority. At the same time state funds were pumped into equal opportunities policies and urban programmes to promote an improvement in job opportunities for sections of the black working class, counteracting alienation and militancy. The other side of their strategy involved isolating, persecuting and murdering the leadership of the Black Panthers and other radical black organisations.

They have succeeded in creating a black middle class. By 1989, one out of seven black American families had incomes exceeding $50,000 annually, compared to less than $22,000 for the average black household. The creation of significant numbers of black political leaders, academics, holders of public office and so on, is another aspect of this development.

But for the black working class things have got worse. What US capitalism could do in a period of expansion in the 1960s was impossible to sustain in the recession hit 1970s and 80s. Not only have these policies been unable to provide new jobs but the recession has led to the destruction of swathes of blue collar jobs including those of black workers. The unemployment rate amongst black workers has risen even faster than that of whites. Meanwhile their income levels have fallen. In 1975 the average annual income of blacks was 63% that of whites, by 1991 the figure had fallen to 56%.

At the same time, budget cutbacks and the policies of Reagan and Bush reversed the urban programmes. The situation in the city centres became particularly acute for the 60% of impoverished black people living in inner city areas.

Countless statistics reveal the existence of racial oppression—higher unemployment amongst blacks and Latinos, higher infant mortality rates, less favourable treatment in the courts.

Racial oppression is not just a set of attitudes, it can survive the eradication of specific racist laws. It exists through countless social structures. One of its chief functions, as with the oppression of women and youth, is to provide capitalism with a stratum of second class citizens to do the menial jobs or rot on the dole on minimal benefits when capitalism doesn’t need them.

The emergence of a middle class or even a black bourgeoisie stratifying the black community, does not in any way spell the progressive eradication of that oppression. Jews, the racially oppressed scapegoats of a crisis wracked European capitalism in the 1930s, included hundreds of bourgeois families as well as millions of workers and artisans. That did not stop the racists from turning against all Jews when capitalism’s survival demanded scapegoats for the crisis and pogroms and genocide.

The massive proportion of black people amongst the urban poor, the unemployed and the low paid is testimony to the fact that racism exists. But it is exactly this which also leads academics and media pundits to label the majority of black people in the USA as part of an “underclass”, mainly defined by economic position, encompassing the dispossessed both white and black, the unemployed, rarely employed and long term poor.

Why do Marxists reject this concept? In the first place, because it suggests that the urban poor and the majority of black people are not part of the working class but rather some “special” category. Secondly, because it leads directly to political answers which reinforce both poverty and oppression and diverts attention from the root cause of the problem—capitalism, and the need to overthrow it through a workers’ revolution.

The very term “underclass” is inexact, especially as it is often prefixed with the words “self-perpetuating”. Many of the officially classified poor are low paid workers, others are in and out of work. Even the long term unemployed and poor remain part of the proletariat. When out of work they retain the essential class characteristic: they have no property to support themselves with, nothing to sell except their labour. Throughout capitalism’s history there has existed what Marx and Engels referred to as either the reserve army of labour or the “surplus population”. Capitalism can never provide secure employment for all its workers.

The reserve army takes on different proportions and forms at different stages of capitalism’s history—whether the huge swathes of the newly urbanised poor in Victorian England, migrant workers in modern Europe, or the millions still flocking into the shanty towns of third world cities making up the so-called “informal sector”.

The US urban poor is part of such a reserve army of labour, swollen by factory closures and migration. It is the “surplus population” of a declining imperialist power, with declining profit rates, cut-backs on public expenditure and welfare, and one where racist oppression is particularly rooted.

The gap between rich and poor grew in the USA in the 1980s as it did in Thatcher’s Britain. Thus for many, exclusion from work and social life is a daily and continuing reality. So whilst we reject the “underclass” term we have to recognise the phenomenon of the growing surplus population in both the imperialist countries and the semi-colonies. We have to fight for the proletariat to adopt aims and methods of struggle which can draw this layer into full participation in its ranks.

The reserve army of labour is not an homogeneous “underclass”, it is itself stratified. For some families, existence in the reserve army is a fairly temporary phenomenon. They live in areas or have resources which give a chance of recovery. For others, and this is particularly true in the urban centres of the USA at present, there are few opportunities for escape. A part of this section sinks into the “lumpenproletariat”.

It is well known that Marx and Engels wrote about the “lumpenproletariat” as a “dangerous class” and a “passively rotting mass” who could easily be used by reactionary politicians.

In assessing the character of the LA uprising it is important not to confuse the lumpenproletariat with the much larger reserve army of labour. It is equally important not to deny that the lumpenproletariat exists out of some liberal or romantic view of the inner city uprisings.

Whole sections of the reserve army are criminalised by their lack of other ways to survive and by the activity of the state. This process has been particularly pronounced during the last period of US imperialism’s economic crisis, by the “war on drugs”.

Ignoring the miserable quality of life that induces young people to take drugs as a means of escape, and turning a blind eye to the key capitalists who run the drugs trade and get away with enormous profits, the US state has targeted the young users and petty street dealers. It has declared war on black and Latino communities in the name of the fight against drugs, but with the direct aim of repressing the youth in these potentially explosive ghettoised communities.

In response to this, criminal activity amongst the urban poor, particularly in Los Angeles, has assumed a developed gang organisation for the purposes of protection against both the police and rival gangs.

While it is true that many working class youth pass through the gangs and into normal employment, the criminal gang is a lumpen form of organisation, based on a highly distorted notion of collective solidarity. At the centre of a criminal gang’s networks sit the gang leaders whose role in the drug and sex industry makes them in reality small-time bosses, a semi-legal part of the petit bourgeoisie.

As a form of organisation the criminal gang can only be superceded, and permanent lumpenisation of whole communities avoided, if working class collective organisation penetrates the communities and demonstrates its value. Calls for more policing, crack-downs on prostitution and drug dealing, and patriarchal charity work by the churches and the bosses are no solutions to the problems and are a diversion from the real solution which lies in working class self-organisation in the inner-city.

This means that working class organisations must be built that can both advance effective struggles to secure collective goals and practically help the urban poor through working class controlled social centres, benefits advice, physical defence etc.

Black male youth in particular are the victims of lumpenisation and criminalisation. More of them are in jail than are in further education. But the majority do not permanently join the ranks of the lumpenproletariat. Indeed the intention of the most politically conscious black activists from the Black Muslims through the Panthers, to many of today’s socialist and black separatist activists, is to prevent this lumpenisation.

Revolutionary communists argue in the ranks of the organised working class for a programme which addresses the need of those oppressed both by racism and poverty. At the same time we campaign vigorously within the most political and militant sectors of the oppressed and poor for working class forms of struggle.

Our answer to racist juries, racist policing and lumpen gang warfare is the imposition of working class order in our own communities. Quotas on juries, the election of black judges, mayors and police chiefs might ensure that particular outrages like the King verdict occur less frequently. But they will not eradicate the social conditions that spawned the police attack on Rodney King, nor that fuelled the response of the black community.

Ghetto policing does not just mean a repressive police force. It means that for whole sections of the community there is no effective police force, and no rule of law. Armed crackdowns go alongside day to day rake-offs and deals between police and criminal leaders and agreed “no go” areas where the community is left to the mercy of the criminals and gangs.

At the same time the National Guard is testimony to the racist nature of the US state machine. The regular army, recruited from the dole queues and sent to the Gulf, Lebanon and Central America to die for Uncle Sam contains over 30% black and Latino soldiers. The National Guard—the organised expression of “every American’s right to bear arms”—is overwhelmingly white and middle class. This is quite deliberate. The National Guard is there to defend the bourgeoisie and its property at home against the workers. It is a strike-breaking force where it is needed and is there to repress expressions of outrage, riots and looting.

When spontaneous risings of the oppressed take place all workers should defend the oppressed against the state repression meted out. We seek to organise resistance to state repression, win organised workers in the factories to solidarity strike action, and to channel protest into mass demonstrations and the organised defence of working class areas. Revolutionaries fully understand why looting takes place. We do not condemn it. At the same time we do not advocate it or glorify it. It is a dead end. It is an illusory and temporary redistribution of wealth, often from shopkeepers only one step above the working class themselves. Often it destroys jobs as well as property.

The inner cities of the USA do not contain a hopeless “underclass”. They contain oppressed and exploited workers. US politicians are right to wring their hands in impotence. Declining imperialism has no answers. But there is a working class answer to poverty and oppression. US workers, black and white, have to fight now for:
• A massive programme of public works under trade union control to rebuild the inner cities and give jobs to everybody, funded by a tax on wealth.
• No to work-for-dole or New Deal schemes which pay slave wages.
• Free state health care available to all at the time of need.
• For a massive expansion of state education and nursery provision. No to the education credit/voucher systems. No state subsidy for private and religious schools.
• The enforcement of anti-racist measures at work and in the trade unions.
• The building of caucuses of black and Latino workers at work and in the unions.
• For the organisation of the unemployed. For a massive unionisation campaign, financed by the AFL/CIO, amongst the unemployed. For the unemployed to receive full rights within the unions of their choice at reduced rates.
• Disband the National Guard and all special police forces. Get the police and armed forces out of black/Latino areas and support the right for black self-defence.
• No restrictions on the right to bear arms.
• For weapons’ training for all workers and unemployed under workers’/community control. For the building of a working class led community militia that can defend the communities from police repression and stand as an alternative to the rule of the streets by the gangs or other criminals.
• For a workers’ tribunal to try and decide on punishment for all the police officers involved in the Rodney King affair.
• For workers’/community courts to deal with all cases of police brutality and racist violence, as well as anti-social and criminal activity.
• Drop all charges resulting from the protests against the Rodney King verdict. For the immediate release of all those arrested during the riots

North American capitalism is in decline. Alongside the miracles of modern technology virtual third world conditions of health and housing exist for millions. The only answer is a workers’ revolution. Workers in the USA have to break from the open bosses parties, and from trade union and black community leaders who encourage dependence on these parties. They have to form their own workers’ party around a revolutionary programme for the overthrow of capitalism. The tradition of militant black struggle, a tradition born before the American workers’ movement itself, will ensure that black Americans take their rightful place amongst the leaders of the fight for that party.