Reading Marx and Engels one sometimes find the terms “Lumpenproletariat” and “Aristocracy of Labour”. In some ways the mirror image of each other, those concepts seem to be much more prominent in the writings of later Marxists than in those of Marx and Engels. To the best of my knowledge, the main references in the works of Marx and Engels are (in chronological order): The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), The Class Struggles in France (1850) and The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852).
But what are they? We’ll leave Aristocracy of Labour for another opportunity. So, what is the Lumpenproletariat?
In Marx’s account of the development of capitalist society the two main dramatis personae are the Proletarian and the Bourgeois. The latter owns the means of production (the firm, the legal embodiment of fixed assets -- installations, machinery, equipment, raw materials -- cash, intangible assets -- rights, patents). The former owns only its labour power. In a capitalist society, therefore, the former gains his/her livelihood by working for the latter.
That’s no revelation. There’s, however, much more than that.
For good or ill, work constrains, shapes, structures, a worker’s whole life. Workers, I suspect, shall need little convincing, but I’ll say a few words to those more skeptic. Let’s say it’s Wednesday. The alarm goes off. One tries to fool oneself thinking: “Well, at least it isn’t Monday” (have you noticed people seem happier on Fridays?). Time to go to work. And one goes, even if one is sleep-deprived, even if one actually hates one’s job. There are bills to pay. Deep down, one knows it: it could be worse.
For the Lumpenproletariat, for instance. The Lumpenproletarian is a member of the supporting cast acting alongside the Bourgeois and the Proletarian. We’ll come to back to this soon.
It’s when faced to those constrains that one understands how boneheaded is that absurd notion of “human agency”, beloved of idealist philosophisers. Let’s face it, individual workers are essentially powerless. If you are a worker, you know it. If you aren’t, I don’t care enough to convince you.
Work determines the clothes one wears and even one’s vocabulary at work (try using with a customer/client the same cuss words you freely use with your mates). Indeed, from the day one gets one’s first job to the day (increasingly distant now) one retires, week after week, month after month, year after year, the best part of one’s life is spent doing things one despises (and in some cases may actually kill us). Bullshit jobs. Upward income/wealth mobility has never been great, but as inequality increases, it’s getting worse: kids have a way to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Indeed, even before getting one’s first job, the need to earn a living already shapes one’s education. That’s one, if not the main, function of school.
One makes friends (often even finds one’s better half) at work. Had a bad day at work? Upon looking at one’s face, one’s partner can tell: “Oh! Poor baby”, he/she says. “Bad day, uh?”
One shares all those experiences and frustrations and even occasional good moments with one’s workmates: whether one likes them or not, whether one’s aware of it or not, we workers are all in the same boat. Sure, some are more prosperous, but things can change with a bout of bad luck.
At the very least, we all share the same need to make our work safer and less exhausting and soul-crushing, to shorten our working time and to increase our wages/salaries.
All of which is expensive to our employers and they know it. That’s the bottom line.
As individuals, we workers are powerless, our only hope to get what we need is by banding together. Together, we can deny our employers what they need: our labour power. Strike. I’ve written how, in the Manifesto, Marx and Engels, with astonishing prescience described how that tendency would lead to the formation of the SPD, in Germany, and Labour, in Britain.
There, Marx and Engels for the first time (that I know) compared Proletariat and Lumpenproletariat: the unlucky ones. Normally lacking a fortune, they don’t have the one thing it takes to be capitalists. Worse, for some reason they either fall out of the Proletariat or never managed to be there, in the first place.
Let’s say a once gainfully employed worker loses her job. Maybe free trade made her employer uncompetitive. Recession, technological change, disease, family complications can all play a part. Migrants and ethnic/racial or religious minorities often find it difficult to insert themselves into the working class. Alternatively, once a small farmer, she moves to the city searching for a better life.
Whatever the case, she joins another Marxist aggregate: the Reserve Army of the Unemployed.
Whatever the cause, savings dwindle and any labour skills become obsolete; when you need them, if they ever existed, professional networks vanish. Temporary unemployment becomes permanent. Higher wages, shorter working hours, and occupational health and safety legislation means little to her personally now, much less working class politics. She is no longer a worker. She is no longer in the same boat workers are.
To survive, at first she may rely on the goodness of strangers: public or private charity. But beggars can’t be choosers: there’s no strike for her. As a wise old man once told me: “the shit well is surprisingly deep, son”. There’s no telling how far she shall fall.
Charity dries up. Even friends and family eventually move on. One day she’ll find herself alone. She’s left with her own individual wits: she may be about to enter the worlds of criminality and addiction. Her children, like the children of workers, may follow in her footsteps.
That is not an Iron Law. There are personal variations, of course. Some will not sink so deep and may get a break: recessions don’t last forever; some may be exceptional (that’s as far as “human agency” goes). In general, however, the final destination of the chronic members of that Reserve Army is, as Marx wrote in The Eighteenth Brumaire:
“[V]agabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaux [pimps], brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars — in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither”.They are the ones who hit rock bottom. Think of Oliver Twist’s London. Visit a food truck for the homeless in Sydney. They are damaged goods: the tomatoes that found no buyers and were left to rot at the end of the fair (using a simile that should be clear to economists, always fond of little models).
Although overwhelmingly affecting former workers, the Lumpenproletariat is not just a matter of class origin, lack of labour skills, or poverty. In The Class Struggles, Marx writes:
"The finance aristocracy, in its mode of acquisition as well as in its pleasures, is nothing but the rebirth of the lumpenproletariat on the heights of bourgeois society."Just like not every capitalist is a billionaire, not every poor or unskilled person is a lumpenproletarian. Conversely, the wealthy can also belong in the Lumpenproletariat: organised and white collar crime.
The Lumpenproletariat is a matter of being at the fringe of society, looking into society. That’s a frightful, hopeless place to be. It breeds humilliation and resentment and violence. For all its dysfunctionality, in many ways even the Lumpenproletariat can be functional in a capitalist society: they justify police repression, they can be mobilized by demagogues.
But, most of all, they are there as a warning to workers: this could be you.