Modern Pauperism and its Consequences: A Dissenting View on the Riots in England (Part I of II)

September 26, 2011 3:05 am Published by Leave your thoughts

“Pauperism is the hospital of the active labour-army
and the dead weight of the industrial reserve army. Its
production is included in that of the relative surplus
population, its necessity theirs; along with the surplus
population, pauperism forms a condition of capitalist
production, and of the capitalist development of wealth.
It enters into the faux frais of capitalist production; but
capital knows how to throw these, for the most part,
from its own shoulders on to those of the working class
and the lower middle class.” (Karl Marx)

The developed economies in Europe and North America, in particular, struggle with the consequences of the global financial meltdown. England was recently a witness to the directionless rioting of an abandoned and poorly treated social strata who live a precarious existence. Those involved in the rioting and looting in London, Birmingham, Manchester and elsewhere were predominantly adolescents belonging to what Marx coined the ‘surplus population’.


Dependent on the demand of national and global markets, a certain proportion of the English population is economically redundant. They are not a temporarily laid off reserve to be reintegrated into the national workforce in the next boom phase, they are for all intents and purposes economically redundant for the long term. Just who is affected by this politico-economic fate is determined through the calculating arbitrariness of employers in the private and public sector in combination with a state-organised social policy. Social policy should guarantee the transfer of money and accommodation to those individuals and families in desperate need of alms and housing in run-down parts of major cities. Moreover, social policy in general – despite its good reputation – initiates and maintains careers at the bottom of our modern competition-based societies. Pauperism is thus an inevitable result of submitting societies to the principles of capitalism. In this context social policy does not hamper the existence of paupers but rather ‘cares’ for them.

Why minorities constitute the majority of paupers

It is no coincidence that immigrants, often in their second or third generations, are affected by this socio-economic process of selection. For the most part unskilled immigrants originated from former colonies and protectorates of the British Empire. The entrenched civic consciousness of bourgeois individuals mimics the official view of state authorities and unerringly distinguishes between those ‘naturally’ belonging to the English society and those only ‘tolerated’ even though already formally naturalised. This form of racism is based on a body of thought established two centuries ago that is still at the core of each nation state: the legal distinction between natives and foreigners. The vicious circle of poverty, poor education and persistently low expectations of employment is thereby complemented by racial discrimination – exceptions prove the rule.

Pauperism and the problem of public order

Those paupers pushed into criminal careers who bother the capitalistic state with their mere existence are treated as a ‘problem of public order’. Young adults, especially those who appear to be from an ethnic background and live in poor areas of larger cities, are therefore constantly and extensively policed. This daily victimisation suffered by disadvantaged youth created a powder keg of emotion and resentment that was ignited after Mark Duggan, a young father of two, was shot dead by police in the Tottenham area of London. Two days after the initial protests, massive riots and subsequent looting hit London after a police officer searched a young black man at a fast food restaurant without reasonable grounds for suspicion. The point is illustrated by a social worker in one of the most deprived districts of London who remarked in an interview:

“It (Tottenham) also has a history of racial tension with local young people, especially blacks, resenting police behavior including the use of stop-and-search powers. [‘] I’ve lived in Broadwater Farm for 20 odd years and from day one, police always pre-judge Turks and black people.” (Black Culture Blog Reference)

Gary Younge, a black journalist, commented in The Guardian Weekly on similar incidences while studying in France:

“I’d seen it (the sneery look) on the faces of the cops who had beaten me up in the metro and those who stopped and questioned me almost daily.” (19 August 2011, p. 18)

The fact that some ethnic minorities are habitually confronted with the suspicion of committing crimes is the manifestation of the attitude of law enforcement agencies aiming to maintain public order. Of course, the phenomenon of riots is not an exclusively English phenomenon and has occurred in recent years in other developed countries. What happened in France and the Banlieues of Paris in 2005 remind us of the fact that there is – in potentialis – much oil on the streets around the developed world that could be set alight without warning.

The righteous indignation of rioters

Interestingly, those affected by this victimisation have developed a complementary and thus adequate consciousness to deal with ongoing social and economic discrimination. It is a ‘defiant consciousness’ that is based on the same moral criteria that are also applied by the society’s leading politicians. David Cameron’s idea of the “Big Society” was a vision of a society whose individuals, of all socio-economic strata, are interconnected by higher values and identical goals, with little room for anyone to veer out of line with the umpteenth ‘reinvention’ of the British society. The victims of this capitalistic society demand to be treated equally and as full members of a ‘Big Society’ which is not interested in them so long as they subject themselves to the rule of law and its accompanying moral standards. They make clumsy advances to the ‘Big Society’ that systematically excludes them by confronting it public with their righteous indignation.

“They don’t give us the opportunity to work hard. That’s what the government is looking up for: The people there” commented a young rioter pointing towards the finance district of London, whilst being interviewed by a Sky News reporter “They are not thinking of us. They are thinking about that one pocket that is up there.” (YouTube Video)

This indignation was expressed in early August by violent means against authorities, randomly selected store keepers and properties, without any explicit political goals. In the end the English public had to deal with an outburst of rage resulting from the killing of a family man and the police force’s unwillingness to immediately elucidate the circumstances of the shooting. Even the subsequent looting sprees showed that the riots occurred within the moral bounds of the bourgeois society. Of course, rioters broke common ethical standards by setting fire to entire streets of houses and looting shops, but they must have felt entitled to act accordingly: If “the” society deprives “us” from material well-being and confronts “us” with cut and dried opinions, “we” are entitled to take whatever is possible and enjoy “our” moment of power. Thus, even the most deprived elements of the bourgeois society are not tempted to leave the moral grounds of the capitalistic society but radicalise their moral sense.

The response of state authorities: restoring public order and calling for “better” integration

The response of the authorities charged with law enforcement, in London primarily the Metropolitan Police and its public order unit, was unmistakable. The riots with which the police had been confronted were approached as mere public disorder, though exponential in nature. After being outmaneuvered during the first two nights, police forces changed their tactics and reacted quickly to any sign of looting by baton-charging everyone in the vicinity. The state deployed its monopoly of force and arrested a considerable number of rioters until the youth’s rampage collapsed, or more precisely, until adolescent paupers lost their interest in continuing the riots. The fact that various individuals could be easily identified by the police because they looted without taking the precaution of covering their faces, while the media and fellow rioters covered the looting, confirms the impression that “looters have little hope and not much to lose” (Guardian Weekly, 12 August 2011, p. 12). Apart from the danger of losing their freedom and certain basic rights in prison there is not much for them to fear. On the other hand even these basic human rights, which per se have no materially positive content, do not guarantee the satisfaction of elementary needs let alone more sophisticated ones.

In addition to its deployment of force, the government, aware of the living conditions in its poorest urban peripheries, proposes to revive and expand National Citizen Service in order to strengthen the connection between young people and their communities. Without any cynicism David Cameron claims: “Many people have long thought that the answer to these questions of social behavior is to bring back national service. In many ways I agree. Teamwork, discipline, duty, decency: these might sound old-fashioned words but they are part of the solution to this very modern problem of alienated, angry young people” (Daily Mail, 16 August 2011, online edition). Thus, leading politicians in England discuss new and more efficient ways to ‘better integrate’ those confronted with the results of a capitalist economy that as a matter of principle produces ‘winners’ and ‘losers’. The importance of social policy is therefore emphasised throughout the British political establishment. The arsenal of policing and harassment is supplemented by the somewhat cynical offer to arrange oneself voluntarily within the economic role of the surplus population: youths are supposed to get involved with sports supervised by social workers while dreaming of a professional career in the big leagues. Every individual, by and large exceptions, who manages to escape a life in poverty is thereby idolised. Moreover, these successful individuals are supposed to prove to everyone that it is possible escape their socio-economic situation and that there is no need to give up. Young adults are therefore supposed to look out for available apprenticeships, even though many of them do not offer proper career paths but allow them to learn secondary virtues such as discipline, decency, and teamwork.

Ironically, but consistent with the state’s intentions, the bulk of social programs generally come to an end as children in the most deprived communities reach their adolescent years: a phase of life when many tend to challenge their socio-economic status quo. Hoping that the surplus population has accepted its fate without instigating insurrection, authorities frequently do not care for the further development of poor communities beyond the maintenance of public order. Thus, state authorities aim to take possession of the unformed will of the young future proletariat until they have adequately adapted this will and are certain that this ‘dead weight’ of the bourgeois society is silenced – integration in its ideal form.

Cameron’s idea that restoring discipline, decency and duty are part of the solution is plausible only against the background of this ideal of integration. Bearing the consequences of one’s socio-economic status is vital for authorities because morally alienated individuals are an incalculable risk factor to social peace and coherence. In other words, any protests against the living conditions are supposed to stay in line with accepted democratic procedures and opinion-forming processes that methodically mitigate any substantial criticism. The call for uniting behind the ‘Big Society’ project, “the hope of mending our broken society” (ibid.), is not aimed to overcome the existence of the surplus population and to terminate the economic ‘phenomena’ of poverty and deprivation, but to make life in capitalism endurable and let everyone feel emotionally and intellectually at home in the British society. The national “we” is classless and so the great illusion of the national identity is addressed once more by the conservative government in Britain. The forthcoming Olympic Games next year in London will give the British population another chance to identify itself with the national “we” and, as a practical result, to accept any further worsening of the general living conditions as unavoidable but necessary for the further development of the nation. This is likely to make governing a lot easier, significantly reducing the risk of substantial criticism from the streets and thereby completing the circle of modern national economic policy.


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This post was written by Matthias Dapprich

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