Reasons to be Cheerful

I’m a bit of a secret fan of Theodore Dalrymple’s writings, probably because he is one of the few people to file reports on the contemporary condition of the lumpenproletariat, that social class described by Marx in the 1840’s as consisting of

vagabonds, demobbed soldiers, discharged convicts, runaway galley slaves, swindlers and cheats, thugs, pickpockets, conjurers, card-sharps, pimps, brothel-keepers, porters, day-labourers, organ grinders, scrap dealers, knife grinders, tinkers and beggars

and which is still responsible for much of the anti-social behaviour and crime in contemporary society.

Doctor Dalrymple daily treats the modern equivalents of those identified by Marx above in his medical practice. I can see that this sometimes thankless task might have been instrumental in the development of a world view which is, without wishing to libel the good Doctor, less than optimistic about the human condition.

Dalrymple’s worldview is shared by at least one other right-wing writer. A friend recently let me borrow a copy of the Peter Hitchens book The Abolition of Britain which gave voice to Hitchens desire for a society less coarse and more ordered than the one we live in now. He seems to think we had a more attractive society before the 1960’s. I don’t think I’m misrepresenting Hitchens when I say he’s not exactly bursting with enthusiasm for the future.

I might also place fellow-blogger Melanie Phillips in the same camp. One of her posts yesterday reported that police in Scotland and the North of England had been attacked by violent gangs on Bonfire Night. She asks “Is our society simply disintegrating ?”

It’s a good question which deserves at least an attempt to answer it. To put it another way – is society going to hell in a handcart ? Or a basket for that matter.

I’m not sure it is.

A casual glance at the behaviour of the citizens of London in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries might be an instructive way to kick-off the debate. It’s an exaggeration to say that Boswell and his contemporaries would start the day with a tuppeny tart, get blotto at lunchtime and join in a riot on the way home but not much of an exaggeration. The Eighteenth Century was nasty and brutish if not short. And that was just the lawyers. The rest of the population probably aspired to live in a Hogarth print since it would represent a step-up in their social circumstances.

The Nineteenth Century was pretty unpleasant for most of our ancestors aswell. Compared with now there were only a small number of people who lived what could be described as a civilised life. In contrast enormous numbers made their living from very unpleasant labour or some form of vice. Just look at Marx’s 1840’s list reproduced above or re-read The Condition of the Working Class in England for a forerunner of Dalrymple’s type of observation. We’ve definitely come a long way towards civilised living since then so in the long-term at least I think most of us have actually escaped the handcart.

It must therefore be a short-term trend that induces societal pessimism. I suspect those who complain of declining standards are really talking of the 1960’s as a watershed.

There may be some truth in the view that society has deteriorated since that time if you examine the statistics on declining educational standards, self-destructing families etc. The ‘dumbing down’ of newspapers and, especially, television, since then is also hard to avoid. I won’t attempt to deny that we are on an upward curve in all aspects of life.

But that’s not to deny that the lives of large numbers of people are actually better now than they were in the 1950’s. Reading Dalrymple one would assume that the dysfunction he writes so well about is caused by the ‘permissive society’ since that is the message he seeks to convey. In my opinion that conclusion would be wrong for reasons I’ll attempt to explain after a brief examination of the social class Dalrymple despairs of.

The lumpenproletariat has always existed and I suspect that it always will in one form or another. It’s members are the human equivalent of ‘failed states’. They do not play by the rules of the majority because they don’t want to. However we should note that it’s numbers are in flux. At times of great historical change it’s numbers are swelled by unlucky members of the working and middle-classes (see Marx again on the industrial revolution) and in times of stability it’s membership contracts. To some extent therefore the problems often associated with the lumpenproletariat (anti-social behaviour, lack of interest in work etc) can be lain at the door of societal change though as I have already hinted at no amount of social work or money will eradicate anti-social lumpenproletarian behaviour completely because it is the sociological equivalent of two raised fingers at the ordered, punctual, normative society we inhabit.

Dalrymple’s blaming of the ‘permissive society’ for the behaviour of the worst of his patients behaviour is only half-right. It certainly explains the form of their dysfunction but it fails to explain the substance which, as I have pointed out and which the historically-aware will know, is always present as a sort of anti-matter to societal norms.

If you take the time to cross-examine any handy octogenarians you might discover that anti-social behaviour like domestic violence, child abuse, serial adultery and even rioting have always existed in Britain but because such behaviours weren’t considered worthy of report in newspapers or needful of comment by respectable people they existed in shadow form compared to the exposure they enjoy now.

To take Glasgow as an example I don’t think anyone can seriously suggest that the modern citizens of the dear green place live in a society which can be described as worse than it was in the 40’s and 50’s. Then hundreds of thousands of working-class people lived in appallingly overcrowded insanitary conditions. Alcoholism was a problem so serious that a whole generation of politically-active Glaswegians took to the temperance movement, knife-fights were the normal Friday-night entertainment for another whole swathe of society and casual prostitution was endemic in poorer districts.

Is it really the case that we haven’t made any progress since then ? I believe we have made great progress but that our view of the past, heavily reliant on documents and witnesses which turned a blind eye to many of the social problems we talk openly of today blind us to that progress.