Who Created the British Underclass?

“A SPECTRE IS haunting the Western world: the underclass.” So begins one of the most powerful critiques of modern degeneracy to ever reach the popular mind. Its author is the pseudonymous Theodore Dalrymple, whose life placed him in a position to observe the cultural decadence that is growing fast among the nations of Europe, with first among them being Britain, the main subject of his books. Having worked as a doctor in some of the poorest countries in Africa, followed by a decade in a busy general hospital in a British slum, Dalrymple spent more than a decade interviewing thousands of his patients in an effort to understand the tragedy that he was witnessing as part of his daily job: namely, that the mental, cultural, emotional, and spiritual impoverishment of the Western underclass was the greatest of any large group of people that he had ever encountered anywhere.”

Now, the very word “underclass” presents a number of problems, some that perhaps my own identity as a non-native speaker of English can discern better than others. Because the underclass that Theodore Dalrymple writes about is definitely not the traditional working class of Britain, whose conservative morals would stand in sharp contrast to the nihilism that Dalrymple identified as the main theme of his patients’ lives. Nor is the underclass better defined in economic terms, as the “nation’s poor.” For as the author reminds us, the underclass is not poor by the standards that have prevailed throughout most of history. Its members often “enjoy comforts that would have put a Roman emperor to shame,” even if they mostly pertain to flat-screen TVs and game consoles. Yet the underclass, hard to define, is easily observed. Living in London for little more than a decade, I got used to the small groups of teenage boys and girls, usually dressed in white trainers, often holding a beer-can at 9 o’clock in the morning, hovering noisily, like white-clad drunken bees, around the monstrous gray building, usually the tallest in the neighborhood, they probably called home. Without any specific context, however, it was impossible to understand that what I saw each morning on my way to work was even “a thing,” and it actually took me a while to make the connection with the phenomenon of the “British tourist” that I knew so well from the cheap resorts of my home country of Greece. But more importantly, Dalrymple asks the question: how did this happen? How did a country that was known for its self-restraint and national pride, managed, in the span of a few decades, produce the most notorious tourists around the world, rooted in a new “social caste” which he calls the “underclass.” His answer, which forever cast him as an enemy of the mainstream liberal establishment, was that “most of the social pathology exhibited by the underclass has its origin in ideas that have filtered down from the intelligentsia.” 

What makes this observation special is that in contrast to other conservative authors who focus more on consumer culture, Dalrymple links the social pathologies of the underclass to the avant-garde of the 20th century, and groups like the Bloomsbury Set, whose members, since the 1930s, had made the transgression of social norms and traditional morality a major theme in their work. Take the example of Virginia Woolf, – singled out in Dalrymple’s “Our culture, What’s Left of It” – an author with little interest in politics, yet a tremendous influence on those who would turn emotional grievances into political tools. In her novel “Three Guineas,” Wolf tries to connect the threat of war to the condition of women’s oppression, both being activities so purely masculine that ending one could apparently end the other. “The past has been nothing but a catalogue of vice, folly, cruelty, and the suppression of women,” she has the main character say when asked about the building of a Women’s College, sounding frighteningly similar to 3rd-wave feminist. The building itself should be made “not of carved stone and stained glass, but of some cheap, easily combustible material which does not hoard dust and perpetrate traditions.” This attitude, the idea that the new is better than the old merely for being new, was originally contained to the artistic avant-garde of British society, and yet, its effects on architecture are visible across Britain today, and more so in the areas housing the underclass. When Virginia Wolf’s character finally gives her “guinea” – one of three according to the book’s title – for rebuilding the college she follows her donation with: “Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies […] And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames.” Anyone with even a superficial knowledge on the state of modern education in the rise of “social justice” movements, can see a self-fulfilling prophecy unfolding in these words. Because before long, the fervent anti-traditionalism of the elites that produced an author like Virginia Woolf, became mandatory for the many. The irony was that, when the predictable social disaster occurred, in the form of a growing underclass devoid of moral bearings, that same elite saw it as evidence of the oppression they had pretended as the cause of social misery.

 Nowhere is the problem created by the collapse of traditional culture under the silence – or sometimes endorsement – of the elites more evident than the language used by members of the underclass. One of the first things Dalrymple noticed among his patients in London, was their use of the passive voice for acts they committed themselves. “The beer went mad,” said one alcoholic, or “the drugs found him” as a mother was explaining her son’s addiction. The title from one of Dalrymple’s own books is a play on this theme, only this time concerning murder: “The Knife Went In.” This expression of course is also reminiscent of Camus’ novel “The Stranger,” where, at the pivotal scene of the novel, a spiritually empty protagonist, eerily similar in nihilistic apathy to the young members of the underclass,  shoots at a man without a clear emotional connection to his deed: “The trigger gave,” was the author’s way of describing it. Some of the men that Dalrymple treated were so inarticulate they reminded him of patients who suffered a stroke: trying hard to put words together to express their pain. This use of passive terms alone should have warned any sensible person about an internal reality of learned helplessness, a reality where “the beer drinks the alcoholic,” and “the drugs find the addict,” rather than the other way round. Yet, the traditional idea that perhaps there is a correct, as well as incorrect way of speaking, has of late been branded “elitist” by the very individuals who should have defended it, namely, public intellectuals. Across the Atlantic, Professor Steven Pinker published a best-selling book called “The Language Instinct,” where, following similar ideas by Noam Chomsky, insists that from a biological perspective there is no form of the English – or any other language for that matter – that is “grammatically-correct,” as everyone speaks their own “private dialect,” that, scientifically speaking, is adequately for their needs. Needless to say that Pinker and Chomsky express themselves in eloquent prose befitting their status as public intellectuals, and would never want their own children to speak the “dialect” of the underclass. It’s also patently untrue that every language is adequate for its user’s needs, as the desperate attempts to communicate that were mentioned above, easily betray this fact. And just like there is no correct grammar, intellectuals will have you believe there is no “correct culture.” 

This lack of standards in both language and culture had, according to Dalrymple, a catastrophic effect on precisely the segments of British society who were most in need of those standards. Shakespeare should have made for a perfect vehicle in the teaching of morality, by revealing in poetry the secret behind most human suffering: that the heart wants contradictory things. Yet, throughout the ’80s and ’90s, British schools have lowered their standards to such a degree that only short summaries of Shakespeare’s plays are now required to obtain a certificate. People who can speak the language of Shakespeare should be able to resist the onslaught of TV soap operas – so foundational in the shaping of the underclass worldview – yet the members of this class have been betrayed by exactly those who should have protected them: the academics, who, like Pinker in his book, have publicly attacked the teaching of good grammar as “doctrinaire” [5]. The relativization of British history is another grave topic, that has also been noted by other conservative authors [1], who observed students are no longer taught there no real “truths,” but only “opinions.” It’s through this cognitive vacuum that television moved to provide the “education” these children were missing. The effects such media had on the developing minds of young children has been noticed by doctors, who report that early exposure to television often led to the inability to pick-up social clues from the environment, or how to properly respond to them [2]. Furthermore, in the general atmosphere of political correctness, it was never understood how these new perspectives on culture, that mainly “deconstructed” Britain’s past rather than rejoice in its legacy, were in fact so radical they were traditionally held only by a small minority on the Far Left. And without a collective memory to link them with their past, and a language that lacks proper temporality, in short, without standards, the members of the underclass have been condemned “in an eternal present, a present that merely exists, without connection to a past that might explain it or to a future that might develop from it. Theirs is truly a life of one damned thing after another.”

What is more astonishing is that starting from the ’60s intellectuals will not only forgive but actively endorse degeneracy, reflecting a strange reversal in the direction of cultural aspirations. From the wearing of blue jeans – once a worker’s outfit – to black ghetto culture in rich suburbs, it seems that, and for the first time in history, the middle and upper classes actually aspire to be taken for their social inferiors. The identification with groups that are perceived as marginalized has quickly resulted in a demoting of European culture that is so radical it has moved black intellectuals to call whites “a stigmatized group!” [3]. During the ’90s and the wake of Tony Blair, Channel Four’s comedy programs relentlessly attacked the upper classes of Britain until they made them too ridiculous to rule. The millennials who formed their views on the world through television have learned, just like members of the underclass, to associate business success with greed, assuring their failure in the future. During a public debate on drugs, an ex-addict demanded to know the difference between addiction and greed. Asked to elaborate he pointed at a list of consumer goods, BMW cars, mobile phones, and jewelry [4]. 

Being a Greek national, I am no fan of the Empire, my ancestors being mainly on the receiving end of such endeavors. It’s relatively easy to see, however, how it was exactly those mocked by modern comedy, the grammar school graduate, the captain of industry, the scholar, together with their accents and mannerisms, who should have been admired by the young. If a sense of hierarchy of values is not restored, it’s possible that an entire middle class will sink into the same slums that Dalrymple studied during his life.



Dalrymple, Theodore. Life At The Bottom. Monday Books. Kindle Edition. 



[1] Like Hitchens, Peter in “The Abolition of Britain.”

[2] Ibib (p. 133). 

[3] Steele, Shelby. A Dream Deferred (p. 118). HarperCollins.

[4] Hitchens Ibib. (p.158).

[5] On 11 June 1993, no fewer than 576 university teachers of English wrote to the Times Higher Education Supplement, attacking the then government’s ‘doctrinaire preoccupation with grammar and spelling’, as well as an alleged ‘hostility to regional and working-class forms of speech’ [Hitchens Ibib.  (p. 177)].


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