Globalization and the Lumpenproletariat

Gabor Steingart on the changing nature of the European lumpenproletariat.

Rather, what stand out are the symptoms of intellectual neglect. The poor of today watch television for half the day. These days, television producers even refer to what they call “Underclass TV.” The new proletariat eats a lot of fatty foods and he enjoys smoking and drinking — a lot. About 8 percent of Germans consume 40 percent of all the alcohol sold in the country. While he may be a family man, his families are often broken. And on Election Day, he casts a protest vote for the extreme left or right wing party, sometimes switching quickly from one to the other.

But the main thing that sets the modern poor apart from the industrial age pauper is a sheer lack of interest in education. Today’s proletariat has little education and no interest in obtaining more. Back in the early days of industrialization, the poor joined worker associations that often doubled as educational associations. The modern member of the underclass, by contrast, has completely shunned personal betterment.

Marx and Engels on the nature of the lumpenproletariat:

The “dangerous class”, [lumpenproletariat] the social scum, that passively rotting mass thrown off by the lowest layers of the old society, may, here and there, be swept into the movement by a proletarian revolution; its conditions of life, however, prepare it far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue.

and here is a reference to this class in Grundrisse that I found interesting and needs to be kept in mind when looking for the modern lumpenproletariat- since there has been a significant rise in the services sector since Marx’s time- note the interesting reference to the ‘honest’ and ‘working’ lumpenproletariat that stands in marked contrast to his comments on the class elsewhere (in the Manifesto, quoted above, and elsewhere)

The same relation holds for all services which workers exchange directly for the money of other persons, and which are consumed by these persons. This is consumption of revenue, which, as such, always falls within simple circulation; it is not consumption of capital. Since one of the contracting parties does not confront the other as a capitalist, this performance of a service cannot fall under the category of productive labour. From whore to pope, there is a mass of such rabble. But the honest and ‘working’ lumpenproletariat belongs here as well; e.g. the great mob of porters etc. who render service in seaport cities etc. He who represents money in this relation demands the service only for its use value, which immediately vanishes for him; but the porter demands money, and since the party with money is concerned with the commodity and the party with the commodity, with money, it follows that they represent to one another no more than the two sides of simple circulation; goes without saying that the porter, as the party concerned with money, hence directly with the general form of wealth, tries to enrich himself at the expense of his improvised friend, thus injuring the latter’s self-esteem, all the more so because he, a hard calculator, has need of the service not qua capitalist but as a result of his ordinary human frailty.

See also the Wikipedia entry for the term.

Link to Der Spiegel article via Eugene Plawiuk’s Le Revue Gauche.
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19 thoughts on “Globalization and the Lumpenproletariat

  1. Dear Friend

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  2. Thanks for your kind words, Abhay.

    I would suggest that you follow the normal practice of quoting a para or so from the original blog and link to the rest of the post. That would save you the hassle of re- building the entire post.

  3. Thanks for the extract. I went on the Der Spiegel site and saw the other extracts from the book as well. Gabor Steingart certainly has some unique insights. Now I have to get hold of the book!

  4. That speigel article was good, thanks.

    I can’t make a general statement here and I don’t have the theoretical understanding of these marxist concepts but grouping every underclass who doesn’t pull himself up into “lumpenproletariat” seems unfair to me. Poverty and deprivation often wreak enormous damage to the psyche of individuals and expecting them to behave “rationally” or join the working class revolution is often asking too much.

    I don’t know if you have read Premchand’s hindi story called Kafan. It is one of his most controversial (still!) stories. In the story a dalit woman dies in child labour and her husband and father-in-law waste the money that they get for her kafan in buying alcohol. Premchand shows how far they have gone from even the most basic of human emotions. Will you call those two men part of lumpen proletariat? This story predictably infuriated both his Gandhian and Marxist admirers because it showed how difficult it is to achieve social change by either appealing to the heart or asking people to join the revolution without realizing whether they are indeed psychologically capable of doing so.

    There is a feeling of hopelessness specially after the failures of many of worker’s revolutions all over the world in making life of workers qualitatively better. It is difficult to motivate people just by slogans now.

  5. A very incisive question, Alok. On the face of it, Marx and his followers have been pretty unkind to the lumpenproletariat. The word has been used practically as an invective. Read this, for example (from Wikipedia): In Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), the term refers to the ‘refuse of all classes,’ including ‘swindlers, confidence tricksters, brothel-keepers, rag-and-bone merchants, organ-grinders, beggars, and other flotsam of society.’

    In this rather, ahem, picturesque description of the LP, one tends to overlook the defining criteria for the nature of a class(and its instrumental use for a struggle for socialism)- the role that the class plays in the production process. I liked the quote from Grundrisse because for the first time I came across a more objective description of this class (see my commentary on the use of words like ‘honest’ and ‘working’).

    A person does not become lumpen because he is morally bad, but because he plays a non- productive role in the production process- sometimes even trying to enrich himself.

    The example of the porter is a good one- the porter may be honest and even working, but his role in the production process is pretty insignificant, if at all.

    The question is not of (individual) psychology but of the objective position in the (social) production process.

    I cannot comment much on the story by Premchand, my forays into Hindi literature have been very few, but you may want to read a Dalit perspective on Premchand’s writings.

  6. Siyaah- do write about the book in case you get to read it before I do, I am very much interested but will not read it in the near future.

    These Latino writers have made my life miserable- sometimes I wish they would did not write such mesmerising stuff 😦

  7. ‘Wah aadami naya garam kot pahankar chlaa gaya vichaar kee tarah.
    Mein rabarh ki chappal pahane hue pichharh gayaa’
    ‘That man wearing a new warm coat went away like a thought.
    Having worn rubber slippers I was left behind.’(lines of Vinod kumar Shukla’s poem)

    You raised a very important issue. Gabor Steingart seems very interesting, but how would his scheme be unfolded is still unclear. Perhaps we have to read other parts of his story. At times he gives the impression of radical and at times appears apologist/defender of the dynamics of the system. Or perhaps it can be our problem of old reference system. But you gave a necessary turn to the debate.
    Why does Steingart not use the term LP? It is not clear to me (like Alok) that in what terms ‘new’ proletariat of the Europe is lumpenproletariat (LP). And how many of them?
    You rightly said that LP is not exactly a social class, but outside of class. Its dispossession is not same as the dispossession of peasant or proletariat. Dispossession from production system and social classes is constitutive of LP. Your post and comments raised many question? Are unemployed and semi-employed part of LP? Are those who get allowances from the state and homeless part of it? Or should we restrict to the list enumerated by Marx in 18th Brummaire? Is intellectual impoverishment the feature of or the effect of LP? Is the reification and fragmentation of the consciousness of ‘new’ worker unbreakable?
    Why prefix ‘lumpen’ is fixed only with proletariat? Why there is no lumpen bourgeoisie? Is bourgeoisie always already lumpen, for despite of its place within the system, it is basically parasite class thieving/ exploiting worker’s labour? LP and bourgeoisie share the trait of being parasite on other’s labour. So LP is half bourgeoisie and half proletariat—proletariat because has no mean of production under its control and bourgeoisie because of its parasitic nature.
    If playing a non-productive role in production system is the characteristic of LP, then where is the place of those who are involved in the business of share capital? Earlier gambling and lottery were the examples of non-productive, speculative money-making, but after the dominance of financial and share markets speculation become the one of the prime economic activities of the system. Does this refer to the tendency of lumpenisation of economy (so much share and other financial scams!).
    A large scale informal economy and footloose labour is part of the capitalist system. Old left did not organise unorganised sector previously. What are the possibilities of radical consciousness in this section of the working class? Last century witnessed the gradual embourgeoisement of organised working class of Europe. The more well-to-do worker (even in India) has little revolutionary aspirations. It takes a little part in 20’Th century revolutions (most of them occurred in dominantly peasant societies). Even last big revolutionary upheaval of 1968 in France saw students as its main agent. 150 year after Marx, should left rethink its relationship to ‘left-over’ and ‘left behinds’ of the system. Term working class and proletariat are interchangeable, but working class expresses more of a descriptive sense, while proletariat is more engaged politically with revolutionary activity (zizek). Your reference to Marx’s Grundrisse is very illuminating. It expresses the ethical concern of him for transformative activities.

  8. A few points, Ishwar-
    1. The original author has not used the word ‘lumpenproletariat’ was introduced by Eugene Plawik and I took off from there. His site actually addresses the question about the revolutionary potential of the lumpenproletariat.
    2. You will be surprised that between Bakunin and Marx, much of what we can think of now, has already been thought of 😦
    3. >Is bourgeoisie always already lumpen, for despite of its place within the system, it is basically parasite class thieving/ exploiting worker’s labour?

    My initial thought too, but then Marx does assign a role to the bourgeoise. Here his reference is not to exploitation but specifically to the non productive role.

    4. I liked the Grundrisse quote not because of the ethical aspect, but because here the reference to the LP is “more Marxist” than in the 18th Brumaire.

  9. Ishwar:
    >but after the dominance of financial and share markets speculation become the one of the prime economic activities of the system. Does this refer to the tendency of lumpenisation of economy

    My answer to that question is: No

    I would take a somewhat reductionist stand here from Marx’s Capital- capitalism inverts C-M-C to M-C-M (or more exactly M-C-M’), that is commodity production becomes the locomotive for the creation of more capital.

    Any activity that hastens the creation of M’ from M, that is, results in a quantitative expansion of capital (exchange value) is a productive activity. It may or may not have a use value (or have an artificial use value- which is what much of advertising is all about).

    As a corollory, going beyond capitalism, any activity that results in creation of ‘use value’ is productive.

  10. It appears that a great deal of sanctity has been given to the ‘production process’ as defined and the categories that came up in reference to this…
    While the labour in producing today’s nuclear bombs becomes ‘productive’ ,that of people working in various areas of life like NGOs in education, health sectors may come under at best as lumpen activities…!
    Isn’t it that the ‘production process’ as always but more so today produces not only goods but also ‘bads’ …referece here being to ecological destructive activities and also colossal wastes related with production process…

    A spectre is haunting the world today…,Of human race so irreversibly altering the biophysical cycles of earth by its narrow minded pursuits thus destroying all life and itslf in the process….!
    This may be termed the highest form of alienation possible….
    For all hues of social -economic systems,it seems,nature was always a point of departure and never of return when factoring the ‘costs’ in the production process…Returns and replenishment of a seemingly neutral and’ non-human’ nature was convenintly forgotten,notwithstanding the talk of dilectics of Man-Nature!

    I wonder what has been the consciousness and role of different parties associated with the ‘production process’in salvaging the situation for the better…

  11. I am afraid that on the whole you are right. Ishwar, any comments?

    Rajesh- how about a post on the ‘Dialectics of Nature’ in context of the points that you have raised?

  12. In lieu of comment, I am putting two quotes of Marx taken from ‘Theories of Surplus-Value, Part one- after chapter 7 see addenda’. You can find detail at MIA. Italics is Marx’s own emphasis. Emphasis within * * is added by me.

    1. In this tongue in cheek passage, Marx presents an intricate interrelationship between deviant and normal, as both are produced by the single system:
    ‘A philosopher produces ideas, a poet poems, a clergyman sermons, a professor compendia and so on. A criminal produces crimes. If we look a little closer at the connection between this latter branch of production and society as a whole, we shall rid ourselves of many prejudices. The criminal produces not only crimes but also criminal law, and with this also the professor who gives lectures on criminal law and in addition to this the inevitable compendium in which this same professor throws his lectures onto the general market as “commodities …
    The criminal moreover produces the whole of the police and of criminal justice, constables, judges, hangmen, juries, etc.; and all these different lines of business, which form equally many categories of the social division of labour, develop different capacities of the human spirit, create new needs and new ways of satisfying them. Torture alone has given rise to the most ingenious mechanical inventions, and employed many honourable craftsmen in the production of its instruments.
    The criminal produces an impression, partly moral and partly tragic, as the case may be, and in this way renders a “service” by arousing the moral and aesthetic feelings of the public. He produces not only compendia on Criminal Law, not only penal codes and along with them legislators in this field, but also art, belles-lettres, novels, and even tragedies, as not only Müllner’s Schuld and Schiller’s Räuber show, but also [Sophocles’] Oedipus and [Shakespeare’s] Richard the Third…The effects of the criminal on the development of productive power can be shown in detail… Would the making of bank-notes have reached its present perfection had there been no ||183| forgers? Would the microscope have found its way into the sphere of ordinary commerce (see Babbage) but for trading frauds?… Crime, through its constantly new methods of attack on property, constantly calls into being new methods of defence, and so is as productive as strikes for the invention of machines. And if one leaves the sphere of private crime: would the world-market ever have come into being but for national crime? Indeed, would even the nations have arisen? And hasn’t the Tree of Sin been at the same time the Tree of Knowledge ever since the time of Adam?’(Theories of Surplus-Value)

    2. Bhupinder: How the ‘service sector’ and ‘unproductive labour’ can be a part of productive labour? And now service sector is now bigger in size and more under wage relations and m-c-m’:
    Rajesh: Here perhaps ‘Productive’ and ‘unproductive’ are not moral concepts, but used in reference to the commodity production. And obviously Marx was against such kind of production in toto. And here you will also find the distinction of ‘artist’ and ‘artist as productive labour’—an insight, perhaps later developed by Adorno in his ‘the culture industry’:

    ‘The production cannot be separated from the act of producing, as is the case with all performing artists, orators, actors, teachers, physicians, priests, etc. Here too the capitalist mode of production is met with only to a small extent, and from the nature of the case can only be applied in a few spheres. For example, teachers in educational establishments may be mere wage-labourers for the entrepreneur of the establishment; many such *educational factories* exist in England. Although in relation to the pupils these teachers are not productive labourers, they are *productive labourers in relation to their employer*. He exchanges *his capital* for their labour-power, and enriches himself through this process. It is the same with enterprises such as theatres, places of entertainment, etc. In such cases the actor’s relation to the public is that of *an artist*, but in relation to his employer he is a productive labourer.’(Theories of Surplus-Value)

  13. Rajesh:
    Please write on ecological question. It is one of the most IMP. and urgent issue.

    1. Do you remember one old Mumbaiya song: ‘Gardish mein hun- aasmaan ka taaraa hun, Awaaraa hun’. It reminds us that Indians also have another kind of relation to LP. This song had been very popular in erstwhile Soviet Union. Can anybody tell us that if there was some ideological reason behind it? :- )

    I also remember a very-very moving film of director de Sica- ‘The Bicycle Thief’: a tale of humanity amidst misery. Hero is an impoverished fellow– both as victim of stealing of bicycle and potential perpetrator of such crime. Petty crime many a times are individual response to the oppression of system.

    2. When I termed bourgeoisie as lumpen, my intention was not to alter or suggest a new categorization of social classes. I know that it is not easy to take ‘panga’ with Baba Marx. I just wanted to make a point that even mot decent, sober, polite, well-mannered, upright and honest bourgeoisie have a ‘lumpenness’— ethically speaking, while proletariat is not lumpen-in-itself. Only its declassed sections got recruited as LP. However, there always remain some lumpen elements in Bourgeoisie class like Oligarchs, gangeters, property mafia, etc.

    3. I think that ‘science’ of historical materialism has no basic quarrel with the ethics of Marxist humanism. However, which one is ‘more Marxist’ is beyond my comprehension.

    4. It is better to take reductionist stand than revisionist one. :- ) Lumpenisation of economy may not be a ‘scientific’ category, but it suggests the role of speculative capital or ‘Aawaara poonjee’ in today’s financial imperialism. But you are right that surplus creation occurs at the level of production, and not at the level of circulation.
    What I wanted to say and cannot say is expressed in following comment of Marx:
    ‘Since the finance aristocracy made the laws, was at the head of the administration of the state, had command of all the organized public authorities, dominated public opinion through the actual state of affairs and through the press, the same prostitution, the same shameless cheating, the same mania to get rich was repeated in every sphere, from the court to the Cafe Borgne [2] to get rich not by production, but by pocketing the already available wealth of others, Clashing every moment with the bourgeois laws themselves, an unbridled assertion of unhealthy and dissolute appetites manifested itself, *particularly at the top of bourgeois society* — lusts wherein ‘wealth derived from gambling naturally seeks its satisfaction, where pleasure becomes debauched, where money, filth, and blood commingle. *The finance aristocracy*, in its *mode of acquisition* as well as in its pleasures, is nothing but the rebirth of the lumpen proletariat *on the heights of bourgeois society.* ( The Class Struggles in France)

    5. You are right that much of what we can think of now, has already been thought of. We either make a gesture of repeating that or re-enacting that. But in one Marxian sense, history repeats itself farcically: using ‘borrowed language’. :- )

    6. Perhaps counterpoising of the industrial proletariat as hero of the revolution with other wage-labourers including LP, is of no use in today’s circumstances. LP was not exactly an economic category, it seems while reading passages of Brummaire and Class struggle in France. Marx was more concerned with their employment by reactionaries and their free-floating character. But after ‘holocaust’ it seems that industrial proletariat is also as vulnerable to fascism as LP. However, it is a separate debate of so-called ‘class consciousness’

    New left should not shun the concept of class strugle but at the same time the concept of working class itself should be expanded and aligned with other anti-systemic movements. Now feminists( unaccounted domestic wages), Greens( ecology has greatest threat from the greed of ‘extraction’ of surplus value), peace movement (there is political economy of war and nuclear race), prostitutes(sex-workers– in Kolkata some groups of new left, other than CPM, organized them), Dalits (Class-caste intersection; Most of the dalits are agricultural labour and most of the capitalists are Marwarhis), adiwasi( imperialist and capitalist forces dispossessing them from natural resources), slum-dwellers, squatters and homeless ( are dispossessed from cities in the name of Metro city, infrastructure, world-class cities, etc.)— All have to fight against empire of capitalism.

    7. I cannot understand Gabor’s article fully, as I am unaware of what is the politics behind new term ‘underclasses. Perhaps underclass is new name of LP in Europe. Is there an ethnic and racial angle of this problem, perhaps in Germany too (Turkish). Their exclusion from human-social-welfare rights may have such angles. What is the relation between Underclass and process of Globalisation? Globalisation is also producing nationalist far right responses against the Glo. of labour market.
    Gary Day writes that ‘the term underclass combines concerns about delinquency, dependency, and unemployment. Those on the right use the term to refer to ‘those unwilling to take jobs’… those on the left argue that the underclass is an integral part of the class system, since it means that those in work can be replaced by those out of work should the former agitate for higher wages or better condition.’

  14. Dear Ishwar- I cannot thank you enough for bringing in Adorno, and so much rigour to this discussion. Let me see if I can make a summary post out of this.

    That quote from Theories of Surplus Value is most illuminating, I never went upto this volume of Capital ! (and between you and me, Rajesh and myself read Das Capital together, and at least I unconditionally surrendered to the Old Man merely after the first volume, and wholeheartedly agree:
    >I know that it is not easy to take ‘panga’ with Baba Marx.

    and would add: ab se woh kaam karenge jo aasaan hoga

    Finally, thanks for that insight on Bicycle Thief, I saw it last last year but probably need to re- view it.

    About the Awaara song, let me see if I can dig up something. Shailendra was generally not so ideologically inclined as Sahir, but one never knows there may be something. I wish Shahid was here too in this discussion – he would throw in a couple of anecdotes besides.

  15. Ishwar-

    The “underclass” Steingart is talking about is ethnically and linguistically German. Turkish immigrants are split into two groups in the minds of most Germans, as well, but that’s another subject. For perspective, I’m an American living in Bavaria, working in IT for the US Army. My German friends are university graduates. However, I know several discouraged long-term unemployed Germans whose 15-35 year old children seem to be firmly entrenched in this new underclass. It’s sad to watch.

    Bavaria is one of the better-off states in Germany, but in my part of Bavaria, the Oberpfalz (Upper Palatinate), unemployment is high and there is a distinct underclass solidifying.

    Part of the problem I see is that if, at the tender age of 10, you do not make it into Realschule (mid-level school) or Gymnasium (top-level, university-preparatory school), you end up in Hauptschule. Hauptschule is meant to be vocational school, and back when there were plenty of good manufacturing jobs, it was ok, it didn’t leave kids feeling hopeless about their futures when they were only 12 or 13 years old as it does now.

    It seems like the best predictor of which school path a child will follow is what school path his parents did. There are two basic tracks for family formation here: the university and technical college graduates who don’t get married until they’re around age 30 and go on to have one, MAYBE two children, but then the Hauptschule leavers who finish their education around age 16 and, seeing nothing else ahead, start having children soon after.

  16. Bhupinder:
    1. I have read only first chapter of the first volume of Capital, I have acquainted more with his philosophical or general writing. I reached to the above passage of Surplus value, when I was reading an entry on ‘crime’ in Bottomore’s ’Dictionary of Marxist Thought’, which is an unorthodox (and sometime critical as well) introduction to the debates around many ‘Marxist’ terms.
    2. Thank for offering a summary post, but I think that enough discussion has been done at the moment. And I am also going for a ‘chhutti’ for sometime from the net world, thus will be unable to participate in future discussion.

    Thank you very much for relevant and useful information. It comes from your direct experience, hence very illuminating and insightful.

  17. I understand, Ishwar. Thanks for your very enliving presence and hope to have you back soon !

    Hopefully, I would have read a little more on Zizek by then, thanks for pulling me back to theory.

  18. It has been yearssince I read any theory, leave alone Marxist theory but all this – (fatty foods,using borrowed monet to pay for television cable while going bankrupt,extreme vote ] sounds familiar and relatable to various POVs expressed at the wake of the Katrina episode, of course it had two dimensions of race and economy.Again I wish to draw attention to one distinct aspect, it is not just a Marxist usage but if you draw some of the American suburbia (middle and upper middle class ) into conversations you would hear that they group this section of people (who supposedly don’t help themselves or help others help them etc) into something akin to this lumpenproletariat.The problem is that it is referred to not as a mere theoritical group but in an unkind sense..

  19. Vidya: A feature of poverty in much of the developed world, but specially in the US, is that the poverty is often “invisible” (except in some downtowns or ghettoized areas).

    It also tends to be along racial lines and in a society where socialization spaces are restricted to shopping malls, the human relation, or empathizing with the poor, is grossly absent.

    Why this does not translate into protest of the subaltern is something that needs to be explained, I cannot think of any particular explanation for this.

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