The Poor Law

Life – Terror. Ecstasy. Fight. Denial. Flight. Failure. PAIN. Forgiveness. Reconciliation. Hope. Love. Peace – Death.

In a world where we condemn Junior Doctors who, literally save lives on a daily basis, for demanding pay that keeps up with the cost of living (of working)? Yet we condone financiers, investors making ever increasing profits, it is easy to talk about class in purely economic terms. 

Our perceptions of class are fuelled by heavily controlled media, tightly bound up in stigmatising value judgments. The (rising) cost of living crisis, blame the benefits ‘scroungers.’ The rising housing crisis, blame the immigrants ‘scroungers?’

The same impulse that condemned the ‘undeserving poor’ to workhouses is apparent in condemnation of the poor for their, apparent, inability to not be poor. We seldom look any further than condemnation without any consideration of the reasons for the world quickly disintegrating to shit.

The degree to which the young middle class, with all their advantages, appear to be further away in spirit and proximity to the current working class is palpable. The gap between the rich and poor has never been so obvious. Protected and coddled by anxious parents from getting too close to anything ‘unsafe’, fighting among themselves for high profile, (unpaid) internships on newspapers, hip-magazines and film production companies, their attitude towards the working class now appears to range from total dismissiveness to often brutal views that ‘they are nasty and horrible’: during the EU Referendum, many middle class children campaigning came very close to saying that the lower orders ‘really, I mean, yah, shouldn’t kinda be allowed to, well, vote…’

Over the past century, Marxist theory of class inequality based on who owns the means of production has been challenged by neoliberalist, free market ‘capitalism’. Class division does not solely rest upon economic inequalities but also cultural inequalities. Marx’s theory that the economic capitalist system is based and founded on absolute arrangements of exploitation, class inequality also rests in meanings, hierarchies and value judgments. It is not solely about who makes the decisions, but who establishes these judgments. Class division has always been a difficult subject, precisely because of those, established, systems of exploitation and how they are designed to work, to perpetuate, the establishment in practise.

It has been easier in the last century for intellectuals to speak of class disadvantage in forms of ‘poverty’ rather than inequality. The idea and the concept of poverty is easier to tackle than that of inequality, and especially the unequal distribution of power and resources within a society. Within an elitist ‘Establishment’ how do you know if you ever have too much?

Class division by any definition – whether Marx, Goldthorpe or Savage – is subjective. Some individuals may not know or identify with a defined class position, but define themselves within the context of their lived experience, based upon upbringing, socioeconomic situation, education etc. Measuring and surveying this type of class inequality, skewered by exploitation and injustice between groups (ethnic, deprived), have become increasingly difficult. Western European countries entered into social contracts post-1945 that include the provision of health, education, housing and social insurance schemes as a means to counter levels of absolute poverty and manage risk. Policy makers, politicians, and their friends in the media over the last 60 years have claimed to eradicate poverty.

Conversations have increasingly been turned away from class inequality and exploitation, towards a conversation about (personal) failures among the poor. If there are ‘still’ problems, after everything we have given them, done for them, then it has to be their fault, we have done everything we can.

Precarity and Stigmatisation

The precariat, according to Guy Standing (2011), are those people across the world who live and work precariously, usually in short-term jobs and without recourse to stable occupational identities or careers (The Arts) artists, creatives. They lack stable social protection, financial stability.

Within a much wider context, increasingly (largely due to Globalisation), they would include economic (and other, war, political) migrants. This class of people are producing new instabilities in society. They are increasingly frustrated and angry but also dangerous because they have no voice, and are hence vulnerable to the siren calls of extreme, right wing political parties and groups – and/or may remove themselves from democratic systems of government completely. At the same time, they attract loathing, stigma, ridicule and amusement through their methods of managing their fear and precariousness.

This manipulation of fear comes through the media. Closely identifying with the local, and tightening their notions of identity through ‘who we are’ and through complicated and voracious notions of belonging. It is manifest in distinct cultural forms: likes, choice of clothing, speech and their strong connection to community belonging and values. As a result, these people are dismissed as old fashioned, immovable, rigid and unable to bend to the wishes of a globalising market. The ways in which they dress, speak, walk and how they raise their families come under scrutiny and they are devalued. When Britain needs people to serve coffee, clean hotel rooms and look after its children there are working class people from Romania, Poland, Nigeria or Brazil who can be enlisted.

The Dangerous Class

Working class people are not only loathed and blamed for their own poverty, but they are also stigmatised as ‘dangerous’. Generations of Britons have debated the ‘state’ of the poorest people: their usefulness, their behaviour, their values and their taste. We have also debated who they are, how we can define them and what we call them. Middle-class anxiety about the poor stretches back to at least 1601 with the introduction of the Poor Law.

In 1832 a Royal Commission, under the chairmanship of the Bishop of London, conducted a detailed survey of the state of poor law administration. His report took the view that poverty was essentially caused by the indigence of individuals rather than economic and social conditions. If not dealt with, the poor become dangerous and criminal.

The Commission’s 22 recommendations were to form the basis of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. It led to a major overhaul of how poor relief was administered, splitting the poor into the deserving (respectable, perhaps ‘unlucky’) and (deviant, problematic, and criminal) (Welshman 2007).

Culture value and the Great British Class Survey

The Great British Class Survey. Taking the survey to the group at the bottom that were identified as ‘precariat’ – working class, but do not have the stability of employment, homes, and social goods that previous generations after 1945 had secured through their political involvement with co-operative and trade-union movements. 

Groups of women and men in East London and in Nottinghamshire, survey questions, that the participants knew that they were getting it wrong. They knew what was really being asking in terms of class, culture, and value. They knew that their answers were not valued or ‘legitimate’. They knew that disliking opera had a value judgment attached to it. They knew that their liking the TV programme Mrs Brown’s Boys would be judged too, but to them one was funny and the other was boring.

Although many of the respondents had seen opera on television or heard operatic music, it didn’t seem like anything they might want to do after a hard day at work. “It seems like hard work to me,” said one young mother from Nottingham. The surveyors knew what was really being asked, and so did the participants; they also knew what the answers would be.

It became more embarrassing when the next question on the survey, was about bingo. This is a clear example of how cultural capital works within people’s lives and also how it is used to create and reproduce elitism and stigma. When stately homes, opera, and museums are your pursuits, you know these activities are recognised as ‘good taste’. They enable you to move through society easily. But when your interests and activities are going to the bingo, the pub or watching the telly, these answers count against you. They show you up, more importantly, they, powerfully, they put you down especially when manipulated within the media.

Why are some things judged of more value than others? And why are other things devalued, even though you like them? One of the most common judgements made is how the way women dress, and why they are ‘looked down on’ for wearing big, false eye-lashes, and why when a TV show wants to show a ‘common’ character it shows her wearing hair-rollers, wearing PJ’s or a tracksuit with collagen lips and lots of ‘bling’ jewellery.

This is the bias cultural element to class distinction, and is as significant to inequality and injustice as the economic material forces which produce it. Bev Skeggs (2005) has argued that the consequences of stigmatisation, and rebranding the poor working class as valueless, have been central in producing new ways of exploitation through the fields of culture, and media, inventing new forms of class differentiation which are produced through processes of what Pierre Bourdieu would term symbolic violence.

Will we (ever) stop stigmatising the poor?

We should start by admitting the problem, and recognising snobbery for what it is: a means of legitimising cultural distinction and perpetuating the status quo. Stop using the poor as a political football. Then we should be clear that to be working class is not an admission of failure or lower status. It could mean a cultural system of shared values, communitarianism, co-operativism: a sense of and celebration of localism, of community, fairness, (equal) opportunity rather than failure. We should realise that true social equality would mean some of the children of the rich (and the middle classes) moved ‘down’ the social ladder.

The fact that we are moving away further from a solution to this problem is an irony when young people are all supposed to be voting for a kinder more caring society and supporting a radical solution – but it is a dehumanised approach, in the way that the same type of young people made a similar radical choice in, say, Germany, in the 30s. It is all about theory and comes with middle class fashionable baggage – woe betide any working person who does not fit the identikit that has been laid down for them or utters views about (for example) migration that they are not allowed to.

To this I would just add that there IS only one way, alas, that this issue will currently be tackled in present circumstances, Ii is to blame the poor, however wrong and unfair that is. Otherwise it means admitting that the elites have it wrong. And we can’t have that, can we?

It is in fact just like how the left-of-centre media has bought the total lie spread by the EU and IMF that the Greece crisis was all the fault of ‘reckless Greeks’ (it is not, it is the fault of elites and the bodies spreading the smears… plus political failures). Easier just to attack the working class for its views and suggest that they should not really have a voice because they do not agree with current middle class trends. Whether your views are Marxist or Friedman, I think we have reached the point where ‘We All’ need to recognise when we have too much?

Thanks for Reading


Published by Riff

Husband to my inspirational, (long suffering,) wife Gail, father to two, amazing (adult) children, Aubrey & Perri, teacher, former guitarist. When I started this blog I quickly became granda(r) to my beautiful, first grandson Henderson. Grandparenting, something I was relishing but had began to believe I would not get to experience. I now have three incredible grandsons, Henderson, Fennec and just days ago Nate. I Love people. I love my family, my incredible friends, I have love(d) what I do (my Job), I love Music, Glastonbury Festival, Cars, Everton .... I love many things but, most of all, I fucking love life.

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