The revolutionary potential of “social scum”
Media pundits, politicians, and the outraged chattering classes often go on about the “underclass.”
Faced with levels of crime, poverty, and social anger that they are neither willing nor able to understand, the term is one of blame and accusation. It’s a useful catch-all for the long-term unemployed, welfare recipients, the homeless, petty criminals, drug addicts, and those who operate on the black economy. These are the people dragging us down, keeping us from success and prosperity with their listless criminal ways.
Commenting on this, I cited Phil from A Very Public Sociologist, on the press’ snobbery towards “a barely coherent sense of dislocation, frustration, and despair that impotently kicks against ‘official’ society” which served as “an unwelcome reminder of the social refuse British capitalism produces generation after generation.”
The question that arises from this is what, if anything, we can do to alter this situation. Capitalism has borne an entire strata of people who live at the bottom of the pile, seemingly without hope or prospects, and that needs to be addressed. Not in some future, classless utopia where the problem is already solved, but in the present day with real people.
The traditional Marxist reaction to these people, in their terms the lumpenproletariat, has been one of fear and scorn.
Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, in the preamble of The Communist Manifesto, refer to them as the “dangerous class, the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society.” To them, “its conditions of life … prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.”
Leon Trotsky, in Fascism: What it is and how to fight it, saw “all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy” as “the bands of [the] declassed and demoralized lumpenproletariat” who serve the interests of the fascists.
There is some truth in this analysis. Certainly, as I wrote in Anti-fascism in the 21st century, “a popular and growing fascist movement quite clearly contains a significant number of quite ordinary working class people who have for one reason or another thrown their lot in with the far-right.” However, whereas I stated that “unless we want to bow to snobbery, we cannot simply write this off as proof that the “lower classes” are all simply vile racists,” Trotsky simply lumped them in with the petty bourgeois as an army of spies and collaborators for fascism.
Marx, likewise, saw them as the group who would never achieve class consciousness. Not only useless in revolutionary struggle, they provided a power base for the ruling class, a point he argued in relation to Louis Bonaparte and the defeat of the 1848 revolution in Naples.
Such attitudes persevere today, with the domination of the antifascist movement by the middle class and the apparent laziness of the working class or their unwillingness to take certain jobs being the main argument against the right-wing stance on immigration. In other words, “all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy” have been written off.
This is entirely consistent with the Marxist attitude towards class struggle.
Mikhail Bakunin argued in On the International Workingmen’s Association and Karl Marx that “the upper layer, the aristocracy of labor, those who are the most cultured, who earn more and live more comfortably than all the other workers” are “unfortunately only too deeply saturated with all the political and social prejudices and all the narrow aspirations and pretensions of the bourgeoisie.” Thus, they are “the least social and the most individualist.”
Yet, “precisely this semi-bourgeois layer of workers would, if the Marxists had their way, constitute their fourth governing class.” He saw this as an inevitability “if the great mass of the proletariat does not guard against it.” Indeed, I have previously made the point that history proved him right.
In contrast to the Marxist view, Bakunin places the greatest potential in “that great mass, those millions of the uncultivated, the disinherited, the miserable, the illiterates, whom Messrs. Engels and Marx would subject to their paternal rule by a strong government – naturally for the people’s own salvation!”
It is “that eternal “meat” (on which governments thrive), that great rabble of the people (underdogs, “dregs of society”) ordinarily designated by Marx and Engels in the picturesque and contemptuous phrase Lumpenproletariat” who are “almost unpolluted by bourgeois civilization” and so carry “all the seeds of the socialism of the future.”
This is not merely conjecture. Concrete examples abound wherein the “dregs of society” have organised themselves to resist the injustices of capitalism, and they offer a concrete example to others in similar situations.
In South Africa, the end of Apartheid and emergence of a social democratic government did not bring about an end to economic inequality. As of 2010, there remains an enormous proportion of the population consigned to shacks and shanty towns, a fact highlighted when many were evicted in the run-up to the world cup. This in the context of increasing state violence against the homeless and the urban poor.
It is within this climate that the shack-dwellers have defied low Marxist expectations, organising not one but three influential grassroots organisations;
Over the last couple of years, Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM), an organisation of shack-dwellers from Durban, claimed some remarkable victories for participatory democracy. In 2006, using the Promotion for the Access to Information Act, AbM compelled their municipality to disclose plans for the city’s informal settlements and its housing budget. In February 2009, after tough negotiations with eThekwini, they reached agreement that the ‘clearance’ of the ‘slums’ they live in, would follow principles of in situ upgrading rather than relocation outside city limits. In October 2009, the Constitutional Court upheld AbM’s application that the Kwazulu-Natal Slums Act invited arbitrary evictions and thus declared it unconstitutional.
Yet, the movement’s latest victory was announced in the hour of its greatest affliction. On 26 September, AbM’s strongest base, the Kennedy Road settlement, was attacked by armed militia, apparently acting with the support of local ANC structures. In the aftermath, houses of AbM supporters have been destroyed, 13 members imprisoned and death threats forced its leaders into hiding (see article ‘The attacks on Kennedy Road’). Amnesty international has expressed concern over “the apparent unwillingness of the relevant authorities in investigating these crimes” and official comments, which “could have the effect of inappropriately criminalising a whole organization and making its members vulnerable to threats of violence”.
How comes that a social movement, which has merely used the freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, has attracted so much hatred? Why is it not protected by the State, which is supposed to defend the same freedoms?
Popular social movements like AbM, the Landless People’s Movement in Johannesburg and the Anti-eviction Campaign in Cape Town pose a serious challenge to the ruling party because of their refusal to vote. Since they adopted the slogan ‘No Land! No House! No Vote!’ they have been subjected to all kinds of state repression, ranging from the ban of marches to illegal police assault and detention.
AbM’s radical position did not emerge overnight. For years Kennedy Road had sent representatives to meetings with government. Confrontation started in March 2005 when shack dwellers found out that land they had been promised by their ward councillor and senior officials was developed for a brick-making factory. People embarked on road blocks and mass demonstrations, which soon gained support from other settlements across the city. ANC and government officials reacted angrily. Some suspected opposition parties to incite the poor; some blamed academics at the University of Kwazulu-Natal (UKZN); others spoke of a ‘Third Force’.
In November 2005, S’bu Zikode, the elected chairperson of Abahlali baseMjondolo, responded to these accusations in a newspaper article, which drew enormous attention as it was re-published by mass market magazines and quoted on South African television as well as by the New York Times, the Economist and Al Jazeera:
“The Third Force is all the pain and the suffering that the poor are subjected to every second in our lives. … Those in power are blind to our suffering. … My appeal is that leaders … must come and stay at least one week in the jondolos. They must feel the mud. They must share 6 toilets with 6 000 people. They must dispose of their own refuse while living next to the dump. … They must chase away the rats and keep the children from knocking the candles. They must care for the sick when there are long queues for the tap. … They must be there when we bury our children who have passed on in the fires, from diarrhoea or AIDS.”
Over the years, many intellectuals assisted the shack dwellers movement but it is a misconception that they have formed it. One of the first who went to Kennedy Road and got involved was political scientist Richard Pithouse: “The key factor (for the movement’s success) is that Kennedy Road had developed a profoundly democratic political culture and organization, years before they blockaded the road.” Until 2005, many who later joined AbM were organised in ANC structures. Initial protests were not intended to trigger a break from the ruling party. Pithouse is sure: “The radical opposition was forced on the activists because the party responded with police force instead of engaging with their demands.”
Impressed by the integrity of Sbu Zikode and other shack dwellers and the ideas they expressed, people like Pithouse helped them get in contact with human rights lawyers who would defend those arrested during the protests, and the Freedom of Expression Institute, which asserted their right to march.
The main demand of the movement was always land or housing close to working opportunities, schools and clinics. Assisted by the Cape Town-based NGO Open Democracy Advice Centre (ODAC), AbM used the law to get access to the official plans for their areas. Plans confirmed that the municipality basically aimed at the demolition of shacks and people’s relocation to the periphery. The threat of eviction mobilised even more people to support the movement.
Since their ward councillor wouldn’t resign, shack dwellers effectively started to govern themselves and gradually gained recognition by government departments. The Kennedy Road Development Committee started to issue letters confirming residence, which are needed to access social grants. AbM managed to marginalise politicians and negotiate directly with state officials about the installation of public toilets, issues of policing and disaster relief after shack fires. Clearly, this was made possible by the pressure created through mass mobilisation and skilful media work.
Repeated arrests and police violence against the movement’s leaders, evictions and fire disasters in several shack settlements did not break its momentum. Throughout 2006 and 2007, AbM organised marches against the Ethekwini municipality, which privileged middle class housing, office and entertainment parks. Faced with shack dwellers’ determination and growing embarrassment over the fatalities caused by shack fires, the Metro started to negotiate.
Project Preparation Trust (PPT), a service provider facilitating housing projects on behalf of government, was mandated to find a consensus. AbM seized the opportunity but did not compromise its commitment to grassroots democracy. When PPT requested the nomination of two negotiators, this was rejected. Abahlali insisted that each of the 14 affiliated settlements could send 2 representatives. Representatives had no mandate to make decisions during negotiations. Hence, each proposal had to be brought back and discussed in the respective community. AbM even sent ‘less prominent’ people in order to broaden the knowledge about the process. For political scientist Pithouse this is fascinating stuff: “AbM deliberately works with a delay through participation. They embark on ‘slow politics’ to ensure that all members of the community are part of decisions.”
These movements in South Africa are not the only examples of lumpen organisation. New York’s Movement for Justice in El Barrio, Take Back the Land in Miami, and the Brazilian Homeless Workers’ Movement are just a few of the better known examples.
The groups have varying degrees of success, as well as varying degrees to which they fit the ideal of self-organisation built from below. But what is clear is that all of them defy Marx’s stereotype of a “passively rotting mass.” They are refuse, in the sense that they have been tossed away by the economic system of capitalism and their own societies, but rather than being complacent about this they are organised to fight it.
In Britain, such people are in “the social reservoir from which the BNP and EDL fish, that gave us Kerry Katona and Jade Goody,” to use the Sociologist’s words. But they are so not by nature, but because they have nowhere else to turn.
The growth of the English Defence League is a case in point on this. It is a reactionary organisation, which offers no viable solution to the problems of the working class and the long-term unemployed. But it purports to offer a solution to something, which is more than anybody else is giving them. The fact that a social group which has all but detached itself from the electoral and political process goes to the polls or to the streets for the far-right should instantly dispel the common stereotype of those at the bottom of the social pyramid as apathetic or apolitical.
But it be equally fallacious to infer from this any inherent reactionary tendency. As I said before, it is the fact that the fascists are the alternative that gives them their appeal, rather than what they stand for. The successes of the Independent Working Class Association (IWCA) and the London Coalition Against Poverty (LCAP), amongst others, show the potential of groups which do not simply tap into the discontent of the “underclass,” but act upon it and fight for improvement.
The point is that, if we condemn all those at the bottom of the pile as racists, reactionaries, and listless scum, then with no other outlet the realities of their social condition will make them just that. We can keep them as our entertainment on the Jeremy Kyle show, the objects of our moral opprobrium in the Sun and the Daily Mail, and the villains of the piece in the BNP and the EDL.
But if we abandon one of the groups hit hardest by capitalism in this manner, all we succeed in doing is displaying our irrelevance to the reality of class struggle. Capitalism is consigning people to the scrap heap every day, and if we want to challenge that we need to be involved in organising those people, not pouring scorn upon them.