Building an UnderclassRoundup
tags: britain, urban planning
Social collapse, always a long time coming, usually owes as much to good intentions gone terribly wrong as to malevolent design. The rot creeps in through weak seams and unattended fissures. It insidiously spreads and corrodes, thanks to humanity’s usual admixture of hubris, fecklessness, and evil. Once conditions are beyond repair, the manifold causes of the damage are readily apparent—say, the lead sutures in ancient Rome’s water pipes, the vacillation of good men, the determination of bad ones—but singly, or even in aggregate, they rarely seem sufficient to account for the scale of the catastrophe. In the end, trite as it sounds, a society’s breakdown is inexplicable.
And so last August experts and advocates, journalists and politicians, most seeking the truth and not a few trying to conceal it, offered up institutional pettiness, bureaucratic shortsightedness, official negligence, and political correctness as some of the factors that had contributed to an enormity: the systematic sexual grooming, rape, and trafficking of more than 2,000 pre-teen and teenage girls, white and overwhelmingly working class, by gangs of Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Afghan men in England’s industrial (or post-industrial) North and Midlands—largely Sheffield and its environs, including, most notoriously, the Borough of Rotherham—from 1997 to 2013.
Certainly the explanations propounded last summer help account for the state’s failure to stop these crimes, as did the blind eye of a significant portion of the largely self-segregated Muslim population in Britain’s North. And certainly these crimes emerged from facets of that population’s peculiar sexual culture. But that these horrors were visited upon so many underage victims who were presumably under the care of others, that the crimes were so widespread and spanned so many years (all evidence, by the way, suggests that similar crimes are being perpetrated today), and that virtually all these girls had been left adrift—unmoored from and unprotected by the guidance, love, and authority of their families and community, which left them wholly exposed to predation at once brazen and methodical—reveals a wrecked society that has failed in its most essential purpose.
The extent to which the once resilient, sober yet vibrant society of the British working class has been hollowed out, demoralized, and rendered dysfunctional represents a tragic collapse that itself demands some attempt at explanation. Surely, ultimately—and with a nod to Marx and Engels—that collapse emerged from the profound and unstoppable dynamics of global capitalism. Its creative destruction engendered the English working class and its way of life, and then, by turn, made that class redundant and etiolated its culture. Just as surely—and with another nod to Marx and Engels—the values that modern capitalism has extruded have undermined the ethos and institutions, the family paramount among them, that gave the working class much of its strength. As the great sociological team of Michael Young and Peter Willmott observed in the 1950s when considering the underlying forces that might transform the British working class:
Our time has its own values, perhaps prizing more the individual and less the group, whether of family or any other kind. To grow up may mean increasingly to go away. The virtues of movement, from one area to another, from one job to another, from one set of beliefs to another, may be stressed more than the virtues of stability, tradition, and community, and where the new is praised and the old reproved, perhaps the strength of the time spanning family is bound to be less than in a more steady state.
Not for nothing did the Labour Party’s hero Aneurin Bevan rail against the “ugly,” morally corrosive, and socially destructive effects of the “acquisitive society” and its pursuit of self-fulfillment, embraced by the market-friendly Tories—a stance that prompted the socialist critic Raymond Williams to say that “Labour seems the conservative party.” ...
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