Class War: Working-Class Activists Reclaiming the Streets of London

Recently, the British working-class anarchist group, Class War, organised its third ‘Fuck Parade’, a roving protest against gentrification through the east London area of Shoreditch. This is a traditionally working-class area, but in recent years has become gentrified with many expensive boutique stores and cafes opening and skyrocketing rents that have squeezed out working-class people. Class War has been active in protesting against gentrification and the social cleansing that has been occurring in London. Working-class people are being forced out of London due to high rents and reductions in public housing. Local councils have been selling off public housing to private developers and evicting tenants. Councils have moved public housing tenants to areas far from their original homes, destroying community networks in the process. Grassroots activist groups have formed to fight these evictions and private for-profit redevelopments. The activist groups are made up of people who are directly affected (the tenants) and allies (some of whom are professionals, such as lawyers and academics).

Class War’s particular mode of protesting is carnivalesque and mocks the rich and powerful. They use props such as banners, flares, flaming torches, masks, and loud music, and their parades and protests are noisy and colourful. Their intention is to take back the streets, at least for a short time, and make working-class voices heard. According to one member, they are part of a long tradition of the London mob – groups of protestors who have challenged authority and targeted symbols of power (including private property) for centuries.

Unlike other Class War actions (such as their long-term presence outside a private development to protest the existence of ‘poor doors’), the recent event in London’s East End attracted quite a lot of media interest, mainly due to the paint bombing of a café called Cereal Killer. This café, situated in historic Brick Lane, has been dubbed a ‘hipster’ business and has become a symbol of gentrification in the area. The café sells sugary cereals at high prices and has been criticised for its lack of community relevance and its promotion of conspicuous consumption. At £3 for a small bowl, the cereal servings are far too expensive for most of the working-class locals. British right-wing newspaper the Daily Mail published a number of articles condemning the protestors and sympathising with the café owners. The café owners even claimed (via Twitter) that they had been the victims of a ‘hate crime’ (which is arguably very offensive to those who are the target of real hate crimes). A fair amount of debate ensued, with some arguing for Class War’s right to be out on the streets and praising the group for taking a stand, and others criticising their tactics and aligning themselves with the café (and other local businesses who felt threatened).

Regardless of whether it’s right or wrong to graffiti on windows and throw paint bombs, the café undoubtedly operates as a symbol for gentrification, and its presence in Brick Lane could be upsetting for working-class locals who are reminded of their poverty every time they walk past people queuing for over-priced cereal ‘cocktails’. What is particularly galling, I think, is the nature of the cereals being sold. The café ‘menu’ mainly consists of processed, sugary cereals — the kinds of unhealthy cereals that working-class people are often criticised and judged for eating. The café appears to be engaging in an ironic celebration of unhealthy foods that can sometimes be staples for working-class people. While they might not be able to afford the name-brand versions, high energy, cheap foods can replace more nutritious foods in some working-class households). The café owners seem to be oblivious of the politics and class-based nature of food consumption.

Amid the general condemnation of the protest and descriptions of the protestors as a ‘hate mob’, the Daily Mail has also attacked one of the members of Class War, Dr. Lisa Mckenzie. In an effort to undermine her credibility, the Daily Mail labelled McKenzie as ‘middle class’ and as someone who travels overseas, drinks champagne, and generally lives a ‘lavish’ lifestyle. The reporters have trawled Mckenzie’s Facebook page to find ‘evidence’ of her suggested middle-class status and posted photographs, including one of her at a celebration, holding a bottle of sparkling wine (presumably the ‘Champagne’ referred to in the article). The articles have sparked abusive and often sexist online comments, emails, and tweets. Despite Mckenzie’s efforts to explain that her position as a research fellow at the London School of Economics does not make her middle class and that she identifies as working class, it seems that the mainstream media cannot comprehend that it is possible to be a working-class academic.

The attempts by the mainstream media to belittle Mckenzie suggest that the idea of an educated working-class woman is very threatening, and the descriptions of her tattoos, working-class accent or (contradictorily) evidence of her ‘lavish’ lifestyle, are used in an attempt to diminish her arguments about gentrification, inequality, social cleansing, and so on. No attempt has been made to read her work, much less to understand her concerns and those of Class War more broadly.

Class War does not apologise for its actions or approaches. Its members are steadfastly anti-establishment, proudly working-class, and deliberately ‘in your face’. They are noisy, they swear, they are disruptive, and they have no problem with offending and upsetting the rich and powerful (and anyone who defends them). Not every social justice activist will approve of their actions, and they do not represent all of the diverse British working class, but they are helping to get issues affecting working-class people discussed in the public sphere, and for that, I (as a working-class academic) am grateful.

Sarah Attfield

David Bowie: Creating a Middle-Class Dream for a Working-Class Fan

I recently visited the David Bowie exhibition in Melbourne, Australia, and attended a two-day Bowie symposium. They provided plenty of time for nostalgia and opportunities to listen and sing along to Bowie songs but also to discuss Bowie’s cultural significance as an artist and innovator. I was struck, though, by how often I thought about class during the presentations. Two aspects of class became quite clear – one related to middle -class dreams for working-class teenagers and the other to the how the high cost of fandom affects working-class fans. What does it mean to be a fan who can’t afford the records, clothing, souvenirs, concert tickets, or hair cuts to properly follow their star?

David Bowie’s own class background is somewhat ambiguous. I’d suggest he was lower middle-class – the son of a white collar father and a mother who ‘married up’ (he certainly isn’t a ‘working-class hero’). But it isn’t Bowie’s life growing up in leafy Bromley as David Jones that is so significant. His entry into the bohemian world of art school and his knowledge of fine arts, theatre, literature, art music – in other words, his accumulation of cultural capital — is what interests me most.

When I first discovered Bowie I was a working-class girl living in public housing near an industrial area. When I was very young, the school principal told my mother that education wasn’t very important for the children destined to work in the local factories. Despite some excellent teachers along the way, the schools I attended didn’t encourage an interest in intellectual or artistic pursuits. We were advised to train for vocational occupations. But Bowie created a different dream for me. This dream involved art school and fine arts. I wanted to experience the bohemian life – to paint, write, live in a shared house with other like-minded creative people, and play with identity and performance (preferably not in northeast London where I grew up). In Bowie’s music I found references to many things I was intrigued by but didn’t understand. I didn’t have the cultural capital to decipher them or to recognise the influences in his music from the world of art. It is only since I gained formal education (and cultural capital) that I have been able to see these references at work. The desire for this bohemian life –a middle-class life– was strong. But this dream never eventuated. The reality of working-class life meant that art school didn’t happen, and the need to support myself in a non-bohemian way did, but I did maintain the interest in the arts that Bowie had created for me.

The class dimensions of music fandom have been acknowledged, usually with a focus on the popularity of certain artists with fans from particular class backgrounds. The connection between punk rock and working-class fans is well documented as are the political class dimensions of followers of artists such as Billy Bragg and so on. Not all fans want to follow their idol’s career path in a literal way. Many are content with emulating style and enjoying their idol’s creative output. But fandom requires resources – access to an artist’s body of work and the clothes and accessories needed to emulate their style is expensive.

The Bowie symposium included presentations on Bowie’s musical output, his on-stage performances, and his style. One session focused solely on Bowie’s hair. The majority of the presenters were fans, and many spoke of their experiences at concerts and of buying records and trying to copy his look. These kinds of experiences were out of reach to me. The Bowie music I listened to as a teenager was recorded from a cousin’s records on cheap cassettes. I played them on a much treasured mono tape recorder I’d been given as a gift. The idea of a concert ticket was a faraway fantasy, and I couldn’t afford to pay a hairdresser to give me a Bowie look. Posters, badges, fan club membership and other memorabilia all cost money. I could be resourceful sometimes – cutting out pictures of Bowie from the newspaper or old magazines in lieu of posters. I could afford the occasional badge (and I did make my own). My friends and I mixed our own hair bleaching concoction, and I gave myself some blonde bits (trying to be blonde 1980s Bowie). But I didn’t have the same detailed knowledge of Bowie’s albums and concerts and couldn’t achieve the same level of admired fandom as many of the other delegates.

The Bowie symposium brought home the ways in which the accumulation of cultural capital is so difficult for working-class people. And how dreams about the future are so affected by class position. My bohemian dream set me apart from my working-class cohort (being into David Bowie rather than the mainstream popular bands of the time made me ‘weird’). In a way, Bowie helped me to discover music that was in opposition to the mainstream, but it also set me up for a big disappointment when the reality of working-class life hit and art school dreams made way for retail work. And this is not an experience confined to the 1970s or 1980s. Recent discussions have suggested that in the UK, working-class people are much less likely than their middle-class counterparts to train in the performing arts. The world of film, theatre, and (increasingly) popular music is dominated by middle-class, privately educated artists. The combined effects of lack of cultural capital and the resources needed to fund artistic ventures limits the ability of working-class kids to fulfil their bohemian dreams.

When so much of subcultural membership is tied to consumption, I wonder how many other fans out there from working-class families have to sit on the sidelines and watch others love their idols in ways they can’t. If my fandom of Bowie is in question, the answer is because of class.

Sarah Attfield


Managing Emigration in Post-Celtic Tiger Ireland

One of the after-shocks of the economic collapse of the Celtic Tiger boom in Ireland was the return to high levels of emigration with more than 200,000 Irish born people leaving between 2009 and 2015. While mass emigration has long been part of the Irish experience the current wave is set against a backdrop of the impact of the previous fifteen years of rapid (if highly unequal) wealth accumulation and the arrival of new media and digital technologies including social media. Yet in Irish media, it is not stories of leaving but narratives of return – often for short visits – that now, paradoxically, dominate popular representations of Irish emigration. In showcasing the emotional pleasures of return as emigrants reunite with their families, the newly popular genre of the surprise homecoming video masks the real economic and social problems that are driving the latest wave of emigration.

Homecoming videos such as “Irish Mums (sic) Reaction to Surprise Visit From Her Son”, that populate video-sharing sites such as YouTube reflect the preoccupation with the returned migrant in post-Celtic Tiger popular culture. Another example, “Mother Is Reunited With Her Daughter After Three Years” captures an incident on national television institution The Late Late Show in which host Ryan Tubridy first quizzes a mother in the studio audience about what she misses about her daughter then reunites them on air. The popularity of such clips can be gauged by the fact that in a country with around 4.5 million people “Irish Mum” drew half a million views and “Mother is Reunited” almost a million.

The Irish homecoming videos are similar to American homecoming videos of military personnel, which started to appear in high volume from approximately 2005. Both emphasize the emotional intensity of return and steer clear of the political and economic causes of departure. The earliest examples of the Irish videos date from summer 2013 – the same year that national levels of emigration peaked following the global financial crisis. Their appearance coincides with The Gathering, a 2013 tourism initiative supported by multiple national and local organizations which encouraged Irish migrants abroad and the extended diaspora to holiday in Ireland to support the struggling economy. The Gathering raised almost €170 million in tourism related revenue and increased the number of overseas visitors in 2013 by 7.3%. But its greatest achievement, for the political establishment at least, was to switch the focus from the 50,000 Irish people leaving the country that year to the 270,000 Irish people who were returning – even if only on holidays. On the surface, The Gathering was a year-long festival focused on a celebration of the Irish abroad (or the Irish abroad who were willing and able to come back for a visit), but it also served to silence national sentiment about the exodus of mainly young people from Ireland in that exact period. Narratives of loss and leaving were now officially disjointed from the national project.

Irish homecoming videos signal the ways in which not just the returned migrant but also the moment of return has been fetishized in response to the sudden recurrence of high levels of emigration in Ireland and the trauma of economic collapse. The cathartic moment of return has displaced the sorrowful moment of leaving in cultural narratives of emigration. This is striking because historical cultural representations of emigration consistently focused on the moment of leaving, highlighting the individual and national cost of emigration and population loss. In earlier periods of emigration, the ritual of “American Wakes” reflected the assumption that the emigrant would never return, making the moment of departure more poignant. By focusing on the moment of return, the videos suggest that emigration is less permanent and more of a lifestyle choice.   The fantasy of easy return, which often features elite globalized workers, seeks to differentiate Irish migration from non-white economic migration. This, in turn, pulls attentions away from the fact that the economic crash disproportionately affected lower skilled workers and the construction sector. There has been little cultural reflection on the additional 200,000 non-Irish born people who left Ireland in the wake of the crash.

The surprise homecoming videos thus avoid any political or social commentary on the necessity of departure. Rather, they reinforce the continuous inference (from the top down) that all Irish citizens were responsible for the economic downturn because “we all partied” in the peak. The videos therefore represent a form of national compliance – by leaving emigrants become part of the solution rather than part of the problem and their return visits raise no problematic issues about employment or state benefit support. The videos stage a buoyant relationship with Ireland and display traditional notions of Irishness despite the unhappy circumstances which required so many young people to leave. The Gathering instrumentalized citizens, exhorting them to become tourists in their own country. The videos demonstrate that citizens have tended to fit their own experiences with the image of a “business-friendly” nation in recovery. The videos also divert attention from questions about the changing class composition of post-Celtic Tiger Ireland and the ways the recession has imploded the dream of an expansive and secure middle class.

Irish surprise homecoming videos can be read as works of emotion in which the act of leaving is nullified by the ecstasy of return and the cathartic moment of family reunification. They not only ignore the ongoing social damage from a ruinous bank bailout and punitive austerity regime, they also support a national fantasy that Ireland is a place one comes to rather than a place one leaves.

Diane Negra and Eleanor O’Leary

Diane Negra is Professor of Film Studies and Screen Culture and Head of Film Studies at University College Dublin.

Eleanor O’Leary is Executive Officer at the Irish Research Council. From September she will be Assistant Lecturer in Media Studies at IT Carlow


‘Struggle Street’: hard-hitting documentary or middle-class voyeurism?

A new Australian television show, Struggle Street, has attracted much controversy and commentary. The three-part documentary was commissioned by the public broadcaster, SBS, and made by KEO films. The production company’s web site describes Struggle Street as an ‘observational documentary’ that will provide an ‘insight into the experience of those who’ve been dealt some of the worst conditions to start their lives’ and ‘provoke not just a change in public perception, but a debate about the direction of public policy as well’. The show is set in the western Sydney suburb of Mount Druitt and focuses on a number of working-class people experiencing poverty. Mount Druitt has a reputation of being ‘rough’ due to its concentration of public housing, and the western suburbs of Sydney have been marginalised due to their geographical distance from the metropolitan centre and their working-class demographic.

The controversy occurred after the broadcast of a promotional trailer. Some of the show’s participants contacted their local area mayor to complain about how they were depicted in the trailer. The mayor, Stephen Bali, attempted to put a stop to the show’s airing and staged a protest outside the headquarters of SBS. Bali described the show as ‘publically funded poverty porn’ and ‘rubbish’ television. To assist in making his point, a fleet of garbage trucks joined him outside the SBS offices. The mayor (who also had the support of Unions NSW) claimed that not only were the participants being portrayed in a negative way, but the show’s production team had engaged in unethical behaviour and he accused them of staging scenes and misrepresentation. While SBS did agree to pull the promo video on the request of participants, the network’s head of program content, Helen Kellie, defended the show, and it was broadcast as scheduled.

In part because of the protest, the show attracted much interest and debate. Multiple news items, reviews, and commentaries have been written on the show, and it is now one of SBS’s highest rating programs in recent years.

So is it ‘poverty porn’, as suggested by the mayor, or a serious observational documentary intended to create debate and effect change, as stated by the creators? And what happens when we view the show through a working-class lens?

I find the term ‘poverty porn’ problematic, in part because it diminishes the real experience of the participants. I prefer ‘middle-class voyeurism’, which describes both the production and the reception of the show. The show was created by the same company that produced the British series Skint, which also garnered criticism due to its portrayal of working-class poverty in the UK. It could be suggested that the middle-class producers of Struggle Street are exploiting their working-class subjects in order to advance their own careers. After all, the participants are not paid for their time, and the producers do not seem to be offering any long-term assistance to the neighbourhoods depicted. The show is most likely to be watched by middle-class viewers (who are the main demographic of public broadcasters), and most reviews and commentary appear to be written from middle-class perspectives. We see this when KEO’s director of programmes, David Galloway, compares the setting of Struggle Street to that of his previous production River Cottage Australia (which is a cooking show set in a ‘historic and picturesque village’). He describes the two shows as ‘heaven and hell’ and states that people ‘end up’ and are ‘lumped’ in Mount Druitt, making the area sound like a dumping ground for the poor.

The first episode of Struggle Street was very interesting. The participants reveal their struggles with unemployment, disability, homelessness, drug addiction, and lack of formal education. They are candid and generally unselfconscious. Their efforts to make do and try to provide for themselves and their families reveal the social and political reality of working-class life and poverty. They also demonstrate working-class resilience, resourcefulness, and the importance of community as they provide assistance to each other. The show includes working-class humour and philosophical discussions of daily life. As such, it provides important insight into the effects of poverty on working-class Australians. Rather than operating as voyeurism, Struggle Street has the potential to help viewers understand these effects. For those who have lived in poverty, the show validates their experiences and stories, even though some middle-class viewers may not recognize some of the nuances of that experience.

After the show aired, responses ranged from support for the aims of the show by those who believed it offered a glimpse into the lives of marginalised people, to concerns about its potentially exploitative element. The show was described as ‘brutal and raw’, ‘powerful and poignant’ and ‘required viewing’. It was also described as reinforcing stereotypes and being bad reality TV (rather than documentary) that contained a caricature of Mount Druitt that was unrepresentative of the area as a whole. Most positive reviews agreed that the narration was intrusive and judgmental and the soundtrack distracting and clichéd.

What I found most interesting is the almost complete absence of class from the discussions. Apart from one negative piece (written by an academic) that suggested that ‘class is a taboo topic’ (and also criticized the show for its ‘abjectifying images’ and ‘class racism’), no one mentioned the class system that creates poverty. Commentators used terms such as ‘disadvantage’, ‘dysfunction’, and ‘hardship’, and although some mentioned government policies that lead to cuts in local services, almost no one acknowledged structural class inequalities.

The discussion was even worse on Twitter. Some tweets reflected the reviews and commentary by journalists, but others mocked and attacked the participants of the show with classist and derogatory remarks. For example, one suggested that a person receiving government benefits should not be able to afford a mobile phone. Some Tweeters from western Sydney attempted to distance themselves from the participants, claiming that not all people from Mount Druitt were poor. This sentiment appeared in some of the published commentary as well. Some community leaders were quoted as disappointed with the ‘hopeless’ tone of the show, which ‘undermines all the good work we do’ and reinforces stereotypes. This points to the politics of respectability, as working-class people who are in employment distance themselves from the unemployed and poor.

For all the controversy, there is a place for observational documentary that focuses on the lives of working-class people. Their stories need to be told on working-class terms, though that in itself can be hard to define. While some of those featured in Struggle Street initially complained about how they were represented on the show, two of the show’s main participants, Ashley and Peta Kennedy have stated they are pleased with how the show highlighted their struggle.

In an ideal world, perhaps, poor and working-class people would produce their own documentaries, but poor and working-class people rarely have the resources to do that. Instead, they must collaborate with middle-class filmmakers, and that means there is always the potential for exploitation and sensationalism of working-class experiences for the sake of entertainment. The participants of Struggle Street deserve to have their stories told, and if they are unhappy with their portrayal they should have the right to make these concerns heard. The key, and the challenge, is ensuring that working-class people have control of their stories.

Sarah Attfield


The power of stupid ideas: ‘three generations that have never worked’

This month I ran a workshop with a group of first year undergraduate sociology students at Teesside University (in the North East of England). Our students tend to be from working-class or lower-middle class backgrounds and often the first in their families to go to university. I’d been invited to give an insight into a ‘real life’ research project, and I began by asking for responses and thoughts about some quotations:

‘Behind the statistics lie households where three generations have never had a job’ (ex-British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, 1997).

‘…on some deprived estates…often three generations of the same family have never worked’ (Iain Duncan Smith, 2009; now British government Minister for Work and Pensions).

‘To reintroduce the culture of work in households where it may have been absent for generations’ (Universal Credit, Department of Work and Pensions, 2010; this is a document that introduces a very major overhaul of UK welfare payments).

‘…there are four generations of families where no-one has ever had a job’ (Chris Grayling, ex-Minister for Work and Pensions, 2011).

The idea that there are families in the UK with three (or four, or five and even six have been claimed) generations where no one has ever had a job is a particularly powerful orthodoxy. It is often repeated, rarely questioned, becoming part of a taken for granted vernacular. I was struck by the students’ comments. One said, ‘well, it must be true if all these [people] are saying it’. Another felt the same because ‘they wouldn’t say it unless there was loads of data to back it up’. Simple ideas boldly spoken (and repeated) by people in authority can carry real weight.

But is this idea true?

One of the most avid propagators of this claim is Iain Duncan Smith, Minister of State for Work and Pensions. Although students imagined that ‘there must be loads of data to back it up’, his response to a Freedom of Information Request enquiring about the evidence for his (and others’) assertions about this was that ‘statistical information on the number of UK families that never work is not available.’ Rather, he explained, his views were based on ‘personal observations’.

But my colleagues and I are social scientists, so instead of relying on ‘personal observations’, Tracy Shildrick, Andy Furlong, Johann Roden, Rob Crow, and I began rigorous research to see if there really were families like this. We have continued thinking, analysing, writing about, and presenting the complexities of the research material that we gathered since then. The research generated other questions, but, unusually for a sociological study, we found a clear and unequivocal answer to this first question: the existence of families where ‘no one had worked for three generations’ is highly unlikely.

We searched very hard to find such families. We chose two extremely deprived working-class neighbourhoods – in Glasgow and Middlesbrough, because we assumed that they were the sorts of places most likely to reveal this phenomenon. Despite deploying all the strategies and tactics we could think of (including financial inducements), we were unable to find any. This does not mean that they do not exist. Some people believe in fairies or Yetis, and one cannot prove they do not exist. We can say, however, that it is highly improbable that they do. Or, if they do, their numbers are infinitesimally small. Other research drew upon the best available secondary statistics and concluded that less than half of one per cent of all workless households in the UK might have two generations where no one had ever had a job. Households with three generations that have never worked are, logically, going to be far, far fewer in number than even this tiny fraction.

This was, actually, a quite predictable conclusion. A little socio-economic history helps. How long is ‘three generations’? Maybe sixty years, so back to the 1950s, or earlier. The proposition is that there are families where no one has had a job since the 1950s. The UK welfare state has become tougher and tougher over this period, particularly in the last few years. We have very tight ‘conditionality rules’ and ‘activation tests’; recipients of unemployment benefits must provide evidence of their worthiness for these on a weekly basis. It is difficult to imagine a person being able to defraud the state for the whole of his/ her working life – and then his/ her son or daughter doing the same and then his/ her son or daughter after them, for sixty years.

We also need to think about what has happened in working-class communities over this period. Certainly the neighbourhoods we studied were impoverished and had high unemployment rates, but they have not always been so. In the 1960s, Middlesbrough was a very successful, prosperous local economy with full employment. During the 19th and 20th centuries it became world famous for its prowess in industrial production (being the source of the Sydney Harbour and Golden Gate Bridges, and the Indian Railway network). Glasgow’s importance was so profound that it became known as ‘the second city of the British Empire’. Middlesbrough had ‘full employment’ in the 1950s and ‘60s; jobs (for working-class men, at least) were in good supply during the exact periods in which this plague of intergenerational worklessness was said to be taking grip. If we are to properly understand the stories of these families and how they became distanced from the labour market, we need to locate family biographies in place and history and, following CW Mills, to trace the connections between ‘private troubles of individual milieu’ and ‘public issues of social structure’. These localities have experienced radical disinvestment and the wrecking of their economic bases. To use Alice Mah’s phrase, they have undergone ‘ruination’, with Middlesbrough now having the reputation of ‘the most deindustrialised locale in the UK’. In hearing the stories of these families we were not hearing tales of ‘welfare dependency’ stretching across the generations but about how, through massive deindustrialisation, many of the working-class families that live in these places have been stripped of the possibility of making a decent life through decent employment.

Debunking welfare myths is an important job for social scientists but so is trying to understand what purpose these myths serve – and why they retain their power. By the end of the workshop, students were getting quite angry and raising questions about the power of the myth: ‘so how can they say this? It’s ridiculous. It’s just daft!’. They were able to understand these simple messages about deindustrialisation and the wrecking of regions, so why can’t clever and powerful people – the Prime Ministers and Ministers of State in the UK (from different political parties) that continue to espouse stupid ideas?

I think there are lots of answers to such questions. One is that myths about a lazy, work-shy underclass serve a clear ideological function: they help ‘sell’ the sweeping cuts to social security spending that have been enacted by the UK government under their austerity programme. Social security budgets have received some of the deepest cuts – and these have tended to be viewed very favourably by the general public, working-class and unemployed people included. Conditions of widespread employment insecurity and falling wages breed mistrust, fear, and anger. ‘Others’ are blamed. These are fertile conditions for stupid ideas about ‘shirkers’ who see ‘unemployment as a life-style choice’ and who ‘sleep their days away on benefits’ in families where ‘no-one has worked for three generations’ (all terms used by government ministers). In other words, we are witnessing the resurrection of the age-old phantom of the ‘undeserving poor’, trotted out to ease the way for further welfare cuts that, in fact, hurt some of the already most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in our society.

Robert MacDonald

Robert MacDonald is Professor of Sociology at Teesside University, UK. He has researched and written widely about social exclusion, work and youth.


The Return of the Undeserving Poor

In the nineteenth century, critics and policy makers made a clear distinction between the “deserving” and the “undeserving” poor. The deserving poor worked hard, kept their homes and families clean, went to church regularly, maintained sobriety, and otherwise adhered to middle-class morals. They deserved help because their poverty was not their fault. But the undeserving poor had earned their poverty not only by refusing to work, or to work hard enough, but also by rejecting the middle-class model. If they were poor, it was because they hadn’t tried hard enough.


This should sound familiar to anyone who’s been reading op-ed pages lately. While no one has yet directly accused today’s poor people of being “undeserving,” scholars and pundits have been fretting about their morals. In Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010, Charles Murray argued that declining morality among the lower class (which as one reviewer noted, Murray was “too polite” to name) was creating economic and social dysfunctions. Robert Putnam traces similar patterns in his latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, though Putnam also notes the role of deindustrialization in shaping those patterns. But in response to Putnam’s study, David Brooks focuses on the moral issues rather than economics or policy. In many poor areas, he writes, “there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life.” He suggests that we should hold the poor and working class “responsible” for their choices.

These and other commentaries suggest a shift in focus in American public discourse about economic inequality. Rather than hearing about the power of a few elites to influence policy so that they gain an ever larger share of wealth, and rather than analyzing how business and employment practices contribute to the stagnation and decline in wages – the kinds of issues raised by the Occupy Movement — the debate increasingly focuses on whether those who have less are victims of policies and business practices or of their own flawed morality.


Poor and working-class people, some critics argue, contribute to their troubles by not having stable marriages, giving birth to too many children from too many fathers, not being reliable workers, and over-indulging in drugs and alcohol. They focus on momentary pleasures rather than long-term planning, and parents aren’t sufficiently willing to sacrifice to improve their children’s lives. For commentators like Murray and Brooks, these behaviors are based in weak morality, not in social or economic conditions. The discussion echoes ideas that surfaced in the 1960s, when the Moynihan Report famously blamed the economic struggles of African Americans on the rise of the matriarchal family.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the effects on children – and on the wider social fabric — of drug and alcohol abuse, household instability, or domestic and neighborhood violence. These are real problems, and they undermine children’s sense of security and connection and teach children to have low expectations for their futures, which in turn can contribute to problems in school. However, analyses that look only at the problems in poor and working-class communities miss important strengths that may not be visible to the more elite outsiders who conduct these studies and write the columns. They may miss the networks of mutual aid that help people survive when they lack other resources, and they undervalue the street smarts and resilience that children can learn from growing up amid struggle.


More important, they too easily dismiss the structural and policy causes of these patterns and underestimate the challenges of creating stability in an era when steady jobs are becoming ever more scarce. How can people establish stable home lives when so many jobs are temporary, poorly paid, and require workers to juggle constantly changing shifts at multiple work sites? One explanation of the instability of many poor and working-class households appears in Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which outlines how instead of reducing drug use or the drug trade, the war on drugs ensured that many poor children grew up with their father in prison instead of in the home. As Alexander notes, after prison, fathers often can’t return to their homes or find stable employment.

Critics too often oversimplify both the causes and the debate. For example, Ross Douthat suggests a false and simplistic divide, claiming that those on the left blame poverty entirely on money, while those on the right blame it on morals. Putnam’s book makes clear that both the issue and the debate are more complex than this. But though he ties the social decline of the poor and working class to the loss of industrial jobs, he then suggests solutions that focus on strengthening families and education, suggesting policy changes that don’t address the larger economic causes. And in today’s political climate, his prescriptions reflect wishful thinking rather than realistic strategies.


To be fair, both Brooks and Douthat temper their concerns for the morality of the poor with calls for the elite to change, as well. As Brooks writes, “privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate, the comprehensive failures of leadership in government and industry. Social norms need repair up and down the scale, universally, together and all at once.” Douthat offers an even stronger critique of the elite, though he still casts the problem in moral terms: “our upper class should be judged first — for being too solipsistic to recognize that its present ideal of ‘safe’ permissiveness works (sort of) only for the privileged, and for failing to take any moral responsibility (in the schools it runs, the mass entertainments it produces, the social agenda it favors) for the effects of permissiveness on the less-savvy, the less protected, the kids who don’t have helicopter parents turning off the television or firewalling the porn.”

I want to suggest a different way of thinking about the elite’s role, focused less on personal morality and more on social responsibility. What might happen if the elite stopped pursuing profit at all costs and embraced the social responsibility of creating working conditions that foster stability for working families? What if instead of blaming the “undeserving poor,” they took responsibility for using their own power to change the conditions that create instability for poor and working-class lives?

Sherry Linkon

The Soft Show of Force in Australian Police Reality Television Shows

Summer in Australia (December to February) is the non-ratings period on television, which means the expensive dramas (both local and foreign) are replaced by cheaper alternatives. Locally made police reality TV shows dominated this summer, such as Gold Coast Cops, RBT (about Random Breath Test units), Kalgoorlie Cops, Territory Cops and Highway Patrol. I found myself somewhat obsessed with these the fly-on-the-wall style ‘ride along’ documentaries that follow a formula, stretching four or five stories into a one-hour episode.

While watching, I started to wonder why I found them so fascinating. After all, like many people from working-class backgrounds, I am ambivalent towards the police. Working-class people often have cops in the family, like my mother, who was a member of the London Metropolitan Police in the 1950s. But working-class people are also likely to have witnessed or experienced police harassment, discrimination, and sometimes, brutality (especially if they are working-class people of color). When I was growing up on a public housing estate in London, my peers taught me to call the police ‘pigs’ or ‘the filth.’ At the same time, adults told me to call a police officer if I was in danger, and the police are usually the first people we call when trouble occurs.

I find myself having arguments with some of my middle-class left-wing activist colleagues who are often quite quick to describe the police as the violent arm of authority, and I have seen police use heavy handed tactics when I’ve been involved in rallies or pickets (as a white woman I have never experienced police harassment due to my race) . But I can’t help but think of the police as individuals, usually from working-class backgrounds, who in the end often share the same concerns as the protestors. I am aware that some police are racist, sexist, and homophobic. Some are quick to use violence, and many are blind to the entrenched racism within their ranks. But there are good police, too, who try to make a difference and view their work as a community service.

The relationship is complicated. I am often disturbed and outraged by police behavior, but I love to watch police reality TV. I like the characters, both the cops themselves and the people they interact with (who are usually working-class, too). Police reality TV is one of the only formats in Australian TV that depicts people working. The audience is given the chance to ride along with the officers as they work through their shifts. I value these representations of a working day (or night). We get to see the cops filling out paperwork and waiting around as well as chasing down suspected criminals. It isn’t all high drama (at least not in the Australian shows), and it looks very different from the slick police dramas that dominate the ratings for the rest of the year. Some of the police are charming, others are brusque. Some are overweight or unfit, some share interesting insights, and others just get on with the job. They don’t always catch the criminals, and we witness their frustration or resignation when things go awry. Some seem to be extremely patient as they calmly take notes while being subjected to a barrage of abuse. Others seem to be keeping a short fuse tightly under control for the sake of the cameras. And there is diversity, too, in the cultural backgrounds of the officers and in the gender mix.

What do these shows communicate? Do they educate? Entertain? Provide good police PR? Criminologist Paul Mason suggests that many people gain an understanding of the police from representations on television, so it’s possible that the shows educate the public on police procedures, protocols, and duties. The audience can learn police jargon and terms such as DUI (driving under the influence) or about potential punishments for the alleged crimes depicted (the shows often include a coda explaining what happened to those arrested). As a viewer, I like to watch the officers preparing a breathalyzer test or reading suspects their rights. These aspects highlight the repetition of their jobs and provide insight into the everyday aspects of policing, in contrast to the unrealistic glamour represented in many police dramas. They demonstrate that work is often tedious and frustrating (as well as dangerous).

These shows can be educational in other ways, too. They raise social issues, such as alcohol abuse, domestic violence, or the role police play in assisting people with mental illnesses. They might also send a warning to people thinking about driving while drunk or behaving anti-socially, reminding viewers of the consequences of such behavior (and implying that the cops are present and will catch those who break the law).


How do they operate as entertainment? There is an enjoyable voyeuristic element to the ‘ride on’ format, not just in terms of watching the cops but also watching the public interacting with them (whether they are the suspects or those calling for help). Riding along by watching these shows also offers vicarious pleasure, feeling part of the arrests and the chases and helping the public.

The shows also operate as excellent PR for the police and depict the police in a sympathetic light. The police units involved cooperate with the program makers, and police chiefs often endorse the shows. Although the shows might include the occasional harsh word or impatient tone, or even a slightly heavy handed, physical restraint of a suspect, they never show police brutality. There is no hint of racism, sexism, or homophobia on the part of police. There are no police shootings (which contradicts the reports of shootings seen regularly in the press). There are no deaths in custody, or suggestions of corruption. The world of the reality show cops is wholesome. Sometimes it might be a little bumbling, but it is never sinister.

Overall, I think the shows work on a variety of levels, but ultimately they represent the police in a positive way. That means we need to pay attention to what they leave out. Enjoying the representation of working-class jobs is all very well, but the gaps need to be exposed and relationship of working-class people with the police (often fraught with contradictions) should be acknowledged.

Sarah Attfield