During a recent taxi ride to the home of one of my students in Ballymun, as we drove along Balbutcher Lane, the driver commented that he resented paying his taxes to keep these people – referring to the people living in this part of Dublin – because “they have never worked in their lives.” Knowing a good many hard working people on Balbutcher Lane, I knew he was airing nothing more than his own ill-informed prejudice, but I did understand what he was digging at. There exists in Dublin, as there exists in most cities around the world, a section of people who are so completely ostracised from the rest of society that they do not work; they are grossly underprivileged, undereducated, desperately poor, often criminal and violent, wholly alienated from the rest of their society, and invariably dependant on whatever welfare system exists. Marx described this segment of the industrial working class as the lumpenproletariat or the dangerous class. In both North America and Europe we have come to label and frequently demonise this group of the urban poor as an underclass which, for the comfort and security of the more privileged classes, must be controlled and pacified at all costs – even if this means the use of state-sanctioned violence.
In a city as socially divided as Dublin we get to hear all of the classist pejoratives used by more affluent people to dehumanise, shame, and blame those who have been born into and so trapped within the lower rungs of the social hierarchy and those who have fallen through the gaps into the precariat and the underclass. What is seldom acknowledged in the regular public discourse about the underprivileged is that the underclass, as a class, like every other social class, is conditioned by the wider social superstructure, and is constituted by the norms that its society foists upon it. That is to say that it did not create itself, but rather, in order to survive, it adapts as a class to meet the conditions set for it by the ruling social paradigm. Our underclass is the necessary result of deindustrialisation, capital flight, and globalised market forces, and – more locally – of social, political, economic, and cultural ghettoization forced upon it by our national government, the judiciary, the police force, and local authorities. Under such conditions people are rendered powerless and defenceless, and, as a necessary consequence, disengage from the rest of society. Relegated, as they are, to the ballast of society these human beings are forced to live by alternative rules, and, more often than not, work harder to survive than those in the more comfortable brackets of society.