Lazy rascals, spending their substance, and more, in riotous living

The Panthers and the precariat

I’ve always thought “lumpenproletariat” was a bit of a zombie term. Marx invented the term but never really theorized it, instead presenting it – on those few occasions when he used the term more than in passing – through images of heterogeneity:

Alongside decayed roués with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organgrinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la bohème (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).

Indeed, this untheorizable diversity, which “endlessly proliferates categories to encompass the spectacle of the metropolis,” may be the point of the term, as Peter Stallybrass argues in a dazzling essay on Marx and heterogeneity. But “lumpenproletariat” was taken up by Marxists as if it had a secure place within Marxist theory, as if the lumpenproletariat was a definite class with a particular role or characteristics; usually, this Marxist deployment of the term has served only to give a theoretical cover for moralism.

One person who largely avoids this moralism is Fanon, who also builds on one of Marx’s more definite characterisations of the lumpenproletariat, in which the lumpenproletariat are those who are displaced by the breakdown of pre-capitalist society; Fanon is particularly interested in the breakdown of peasant society under the influence of capitalist colonization. In this analysis, lumpenproletarians would be in some sense “pre-proletarian,” and they are pre-proletarian because of the continued existence, if only in disintegrating form, of pre-capitalist society. It seems to me we are now at a point where capitalism has decisively established itself globally, and pre-capitalist society has fully disintegrated. So there are no more lumpenproletarians in the sense Marx and Fanon discussed.

What continues to occur, however, is the disintegration of capitalist society, or the disintegration of particular, temporarily relatively stable, modes of capitalist society. Grasping this was the particular insight of the astonishingly prescient analysis of the lumpenproletariat by the Black Panthers (which I only became aware of through hearing a presentation by Benjamin Mabie at the Historical Materialism conference last week). Eldridge Cleaver defines the lumpenproletariat as

all those who have no secure relationship or vested interest in the means of production and the institutions of capitalist society . That part of the “Industrial Reserve Army” held perpetually in reserve; who have never worked and never will; who can’t find a job; who are unskilled and unfit; who have been displaced by machines, automation, and cybernation, and were never “retained or invested with new skills” ; all those on Welfare or receiving State Aid (On The Ideology of the Black Panther Party).

On this definition, the lumpenproletariat are “post-proletarian,” or rather they find themselves in the condition which is rapidly overtaking the working class as capitalists disassemble mass, industrial capitalism. As Huey Newton explains:

If revolution does not occur almost immediately, and I say almost immediately because technology is making leaps (it made a leap all the way to the moon), and if the ruling circle remains in power the proletarian working class will definitely be on the decline because they will be unemployables and therefore swell the ranks of the lumpens, who are the present unemployables. Every worker is in jeopardy because of the ruling circle, which is why we say that the lumpen proletarians have the potential for revolution, will probably carry out the revolution, and in the near future will be the popular majority….

I think we can all agree that the slave class in the world has virtually been transformed into the wage slave. In other words, the slave class in the world no longer exists as a significant force, and if we agree to that we can agree that classes can be transformed literally out of existence. If this is so, if the slave class can disappear and become something else – or not disappear but just be transformed – and take on other characteristics, then it is also true that the proletarians or the industrial working class can possibly be transformed out of existence (“Speech at Boston College 18th November 1970“).

The Black Panthers had already developed, in the 70s, the analysis of the decline of the particular forms of working class organization in industrial capitalism that has recently been developed under the name of the precariat. Which makes me wonder why these more recent analyses seem to have ignored these discussions from the 70s, and why they have developed a new term, “precariat,” rather than following the Panthers in re-purposing “lumpenproletariat.”

Part of the answer, I think, lies in a feature of the lumpenproletariat I haven’t mentioned yet, it’s tendency towards racialisation. Stallybrass argues that this is already present in Marx’s use (in part as an attempt to displace already existing racialised depictions of the working class), and it has only intensified since then, with the reinterpretation of racial discourses in terms of “culture” and the development of theories of an “underclass” which more or less explicitly pick up this racialisation (this can go both ways, in that existing prejudice against people of colour can be re-presented in cultural terms, while this turn can also be used to reinforce the exclusion of those member of the poor who are phenotypically white from full inclusion at the top of the racial hierarchy – as with the category of “white trash”).

The combination of this racial dimension to the term with the fact that some of the earliest workers in the US to experience most sharply the breakdown of Fordism were Black, explains why the term “lumpenproletariat” found a place in Black Panther theory. It also, more troublingly, might explain why the term “lumpenproletariat” didn’t occur to those who developed the term “precariat,” many of whom are white Europeans with some experience of middle-class security within capitalism. The term “precariat” might serve to differentiate those non-racialised populations who have only recently begun to experience the full effects of the disintegration of Fordism from those people who have been fighting this struggle for much longer. I don’t think this is intentional on the part of those using the term “precariat” – indeed, people often make the claim that one advantage of the term is that it may help those who have recently been rendered precarious see what they have in common with older struggles of more oppressed people. But it may have that effect nonetheless (as can the decision of many who frame themselves as precarious to explicitly organise their struggles at a European level, as with the Euromayday demonstrations).

Which means, I think, that we should be sceptical of the discourse of the precariat. There are risks in using the term “lumpenproletariat,” in trying to wrest the term away from its ossified and unthinking use in Marxist moralism (which the Panthers had a great term for: flunkeyism). But perhaps engaging in that struggle can also encourage us to return to the Black Panthers’ work on the lumpenproletariat, which I think is still incredibly relevant.