This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.
There are currently over 500,000 homeless in America, while more than 750,000 have died from drug overdoses in the last 20 years. One out of five people incarcerated in the world is in the U.S., while we represent only 4 percent of the world’s population. Then there are the unemployed and the underemployed. A lot of Americans are not participating in the dream of upward mobility. In fact, more and more Americans see their lives trending downward, drowning in debt and facing diminished life spans — a trend that the coronavirus and the federal response to it has in many ways exacerbated.
You could be forgiven for not being familiar with the term Lumpenproletariat, a term coined by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels denoting a class below the working class that is oppressed but disengaged from politics. Marxist studies in general and this specific aspect of Marxist theory have been sidelined in the past century. But University of Texas Professor Clyde W. Barrow’s new book “The Dangerous Class: The Concept of the Lumpenproletariat” (University of Michigan Press), brings a Marxist clarity to why capitalism has created so many disenfranchised citizens.
“In the last century Marxist political theorists generally ignored the lumpenproletariat, because they believed it would simply disappear as the result of a socialist revolution,” Barrow told me. “But obviously that revolution did not happen — at least not in the form envisioned by Marx.”
Perhaps the key to understanding why so many are ground down by our economy is to be found in another concept drawn from Marx and highlighted by Barrow, the “relative surplus population”: There are more people who want to work than the number of jobs for them. Capitalism demands an ever-growing return on its invested capital via increased profits. The easiest way to do this is to squeeze workers: pay labor less; reduce their benefits; evade labor laws (the gig economy); and, when all else fails, find the absolute lowest priced workers on the globe by making everything overseas. Equally important, business owners introduce labor saving technologies that displace workers by reducing the demand for labor, which creates the paradox that as capitalist societies generate more and more wealth, the number of jobs relative to the total population decreases over time. The result is that a larger and larger proportion of people are discarded from the economy and become a “surplus” population (from the perspective of capitalists).
In his book, Barrow makes it clear that this was true in the 19th century when Marx wrote his famous “Communist Manifesto,” but Barrow digs much deeper, citing less well-known books by Marx like “The German Ideology,” “The Eighteenth Brumaire” and “Grundrisse,” as well as works by Frederick Engels, such as “The Condition of the Working Class in England” and “The Peasant War in Germany.” In these books, Marx and Engels describe how the modern lumpenproletariat began with the mechanization of agriculture, which displaced peasants and agricultural laborers from the land. Looking for work, they migrated to the new industrial cities. They often found none, or jobs at subsistence pay.
Marx describes the Lumpens as passive. Why did Marx not think of them as likely to rise up by joining the labor movement or a union?
“They are too far removed from the production process and, therefore, they are not organized by economic relations of production in the way that full-time workers are brought together in the workplace every day,” Barrow said. “Lumpens live day-to-day and they typically find their voice in spontaneous street riots, which have little lasting effect on the political order.”
As their ranks grow, they are subject to increasing repression and harassment from the upper classes who just wish they would go away. Perhaps no better illustration can be found than in present-day Manhattan, around the mega towers on New York City’s Central Park South. Apartments on the dizzying 131st floor can cost upwards of $60 million. The Lumpen homeless greet residents as they walk out the door.
While one might think that such abject poverty and hopeless conditions would radicalize the lumpenproletariat (19th century anarchists thought so), Marx argued that the lumpenproletariat’s “conditions of life…prepare [them] far more for the part of a bribed tool of reactionary intrigue” than a force for progressive social change. This is perhaps the most unique aspect of Barrow’s historical analysis. In America, how is it that the very poorest counties, with minimal health care and high rates of poverty, voted for Trump, a supposed billionaire who wanted to take what little revenue flows their way and give it to his 1 percent friends, via a tax cut for corporations and the wealthy?
Barrow answers by tracing this development to the deindustrialization of America that began in the 1970s and unfolded across the country for the next four decades. It hit the white working class hard and it left these former proletarians – now lumpenproletarians – angry, bitter and longing for a return to the good old days when America was great for them. Coal miners became Walmart greeters, retirees watched their pensions disappear in corporate bankruptcies, auto and steel workers lost their jobs forever.
“Another way to put it is that an entire generation of proletarians slowly watched themselves and their children sink into lumpenproletarian status, with no bottom in sight,” Barrow said.
Thus, as a long-time television reality TV star, Donald Trump — a lifetime capitalist and con artist — found it easy to don “the garb of authenticity in claiming to stand for the people by courting the support of newly déclassé́ white Americans, sometimes dog-whistling, sometimes openly espousing racist, nativist, and chauvinist views. And so, Trump became the new clown prince of the lumpenproletariat.”
Trump mobilized them, he organized them, and he legitimized their anger by giving it a false enemy — in immigrants, in minorities, in the country of China and in shadowy global elites who all conspired to take their jobs. In effect, Trump outplayed Marx by asking them “What do you have to lose?” and then promising them a world to gain.
The thing I found most fascinating about Barrow’s book was the spot-on accuracy of Marx’s predictive abilities (not to be confused with his solutions). I think we can all agree that the countries that instituted a dictatorship of the proletariat, Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China, did not have successful societies. So, what form of government do we want?
For me, the answer is clear. I do not want to live in a world riddled with homelessness, drug addiction, and high levels of incarceration. I do not want a Lumpenproletariat of suffering citizens while I go about my privileged life, particularly when it seems to steer the nation toward authoritarian and even fascist solutions. Even as America does away with Trump, we could latch onto someone more articulate and, hence, more dangerous in the future.
If capitalism, with its internal need for profit, creates this class and watches or even encourages its growth, then something is wrong and requires radical change. Barrow and I discuss this concept more in-depth in a podcast here.
Jonathan Russo has been an executive in the New York media world for 40 years and has written about politics, economics, foreign policy and cultural issues for over a decade. His work has appeared in The HuffPost, Observer, Daily News, Times of Israel, Worth.com, Real Clear Markets and Real Clear World.