March 1, 2006

Welcome to the underclass

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The blame for Saturday�s riot seems now to be local football hooligans drawn from what has been described as a feral, aggrieved underclass which has, in the economic effervescence of the past few years, been ignored. If this is the case, we had better get used to them because this track-suited, white Irish underclass will grow significantly. And the growth of this suburban underclass � mirroring developments in the US and the UK � are likely to remain firmly beyond mainstream politics.

If you want to catch a glimpse of them when they are not in Celtic shirts organising riots on the pre-paid mobiles, just watch any Eminem video. In the US, this class is referred to as �white trailer-trash� � living in trailer-parks at the wrong parts of the US cities and defined by a weakness for tracksuits, sovereign rings and lotto scratch cards. Eminem is their Elvis, rapping about alienation, anger, destitution, alcoholism, family break-ups, teenager pregnancies and welfare dependency. If they are working, it is for the minimum wage at KFC, McDonalds or Wal Mart. They feature strongly in the Army causalities in Iraq. Despite having little of no stake in US society, they – like the rioters on Saturday – display warped patriotism for flag, country and tribe which is defined more by what they are against than what they are for.

Why, in the US with its long history of well paid blue collar workers, did these people slip down the social pecking order in the past twenty years? And will it happen here? Three major global factors have created the trailer trash underclass in the US and arguably, they are at work here and more worryingly, the pace of change here is faster.

First, with the opening of China, India and Russia over the past fifteen year, the world�s labour force has doubled � this is a once in a century development and has enormous repercussions for politics and society. This means that low-skilled jobs have migrated to China and India in particular and we have only seen the beginning. A good example of what happens when the world is hit with a seismic economic shock of this nature is to look back at what happened to European farming when the full impact of the American prairies was felt on global food markets in the 1860s.

The American settlers push to the West opened up enormous tracts of land that were immediately mechanised. In no time, American farms, unencumbered by small peasant holdings and petty European familial jealousies became considerably more efficient than Europe�s. This huge increase in supply from the American mid-West pushed down world prices for crops. The peasantry that had been the backbone of European society for years, suddenly found themselves facing considerably lower prices at market. Their already meagre incomes fell further. From 1870 to 1900 world agricultural prices fell progressively. This decimated Europe�s small farmers and thousands left the land either, emigrating to the US or Argentina or migrating into the continent�s rapidly expanding industrial cities. Lower food prices also helped industrialisation as it was now cheaper to feed the urbanised masses.

Thus the first victims of globalisation were Europe�s peasant farmers. However, back then there was the safety valve of emigration which many millions of them availed of. Ireland�s post-famine emigration trends also reflect this. Indeed, the political result of the US-inspired, agricultural recessions of the 1870s was the land league, the home rule movement and continued agrarian unrest.

Fast forward to today and similar global rebalancing is occurring. Low-skilled industrial/service workers today are the 21st century equivalent of the 19th centuries� peasant labourers. These jobs have no future in high cost, high-income countries like Ireland. To make matter worse, unlike our ancestors, for today�s displaced low-skilled workers there is nowhere to emigrate to � even if they wanted to.

Equally, there is not much incentive to emigrate, the welfare state sees to that. However, Chinese and others are going to continue to come here so demographic competition will sharpen. Thus, the second squeeze on the underclass comes from immigration. The history of immigration is the history of social fluidity and of winners and losers. Again the history of the Irish in American is instructive in this regard. Whenever there is net immigration, competition for jobs increases dramatically as the immigrants do whatever it takes to get by. The experience of black manual workers in the US faced with thousands of Irish workers coming into the major cities of the US in the 1840s and 1850s gives us a fascinating glimpse of what is likely to happen to our unskilled workers over the next five years.

Initially, the Catholic Irish were seen as untermensch by the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant (Wasp) establishment, but that changed in the late 19th century. Going back to the famine, Ignatiev explains how waves of immigrants from Ireland displaced the American black labourers with alarming speed, by undercutting them in a classic example of 19th century outsourcing.
As is the case today, displacement and outsourcing created much discussion in the editorial pages. Here is an extract from a letter in the Philadelphia Daily Sun newspaper in 1849:
�There is direct competition between the blacks and the Irish as we all know. The wharfs and new building attest to this fact; when a few years ago we saw none but blacks, we now see nothing but Irish.�

Not only did the Irish replace the blacks but, having replaced them, we set up a powerful trade union movement based on race to make sure that we kept them out. Economic history is replete with other examples of the dislocating nature of immigration.

Let�s get back to our own looters that we saw on Saturday, what is likely to happen to them as our economy changes with globalisation? History and recent UK and US experience, suggests that the growth of an indigenous white Irish underclass is not in doubt but two other factors will determine the pace of events. The first is the scale of immigration and the second is the skill level of the Irish workers. If immigration remains at its present rate, we will see another 60,000 workers enter the country in the next twelve months. This rate, likely to taper off but it still puts us top of the European league fro immigration. Just to put the figure in context, we are now accepting in eight times more migrants per head than France. The most striking issue is not the foreigners, but the educational underachievement of our own people.

For all our talk about our great education system, new figures reveal that the indigenous Irish are the least skilled people in the workforce. According to the ESRI, 32.9% of Irish workers in the labour force are unskilled and uneducated. (This figure measures the amount of our workers who have left school just a Junior cert or less) This compares to only 3% of our new immigrants from the EU. As a group, these largely eastern Europeans are ten times better educated than we are! 87% of other immigrants � mainly Chinese and Africans – are skilled as opposed to only 67% of us. These are truly shocking comparators and imply that when the going gets tough, the greater skill level of the foreigners will ensure that they will be the ones that will weather the storm. We have already seen the first signs of trouble as new figures reveal an alarming rise in unemployment amongst Irish school leavers in the past year or two.

Think about the following choice. You are faced with two candidates for a basic manual job, one is a well-turned out, numerate, multi-lingual Polish graduate; the other is a snarling, barely literate, local, in full-tracksuit mufti who left school before the Junior cert, which one would you pick? The fact that so many of our workers are unskilled and so many are leaving school early means that what the Americans would describe as the �trailer-trash� underclass is likely to grow rapidly in the years ahead. There will be fewer jobs for the unskilled and more competition for them. If house prices continue to rise and local authority houses fails as it is doing now to keep up with demand, trailer-parks will become a reality. There, cut off from the rest of us, wrapped in their Celtic scarves, an underclass will fester.

Is that the future we want for our society? It�s time now to answer a few hard questions? If nothing else, Saturday�s riot, has at least forced us to wake up.


  1. Niall D

    I’m glad that somebody has raised the whole ‘elephant in the
    kitchen’ around immigration i.e. the relative underskilling
    of the native Irish who’re expected to compete with it. A
    disaster that , as Brain has stated, I don’t see as
    inevitable as some seem to think. Immigration control
    measures ARE an option, this is a made-made social policy.
    IBEC should be told to go jump!

  2. Pete

    >trailer-parks will become a reality

    Aren’t they called halting-sites?

  3. copernicus

    I tend to agree that this is what’s interesting about the
    riot and that this is where we ought to take our cue in
    addressing what happened. My post here
    (http://midnightcourt.blogspot.com/2006/03/sticks-and-stones.html)
    starts:

    “To dig what Saturday’s riot tells us about our society,
    Jack, you also need to know that that while the average
    house price in Ireland is approximately €300,000, the
    average mortgage held is a mere €100,000. Bear with me.”

  4. ronan

    Interesting article. It mirrors to a certain extent another
    good article about the Dublin riots on http://www.indymedia.ie.
    see the following link:

    http://www.indymedia.ie/article/74528

    As far as the comment above comparing “traveller halting
    sites” to “trailer park trash”, shows a complete lack of
    understanding in regard to traveller history (and of the
    basic premise of the above article.

  5. walter

    > two other factors will determine the pace of events. The
    first is the scale of immigration and the second is the
    skill level of the Irish workers.

    There’s a third factor – the provision of welfare. Welfare
    fosters fecklessness. In Ireland we like to use terms like
    ‘the disenfranchised’, ‘the disadvantaged’ and other
    sanitized terms. Let’s be brutally honest here – what we’re
    dealing with are the 2nd and 3rd generation feckless. If we
    can’t be honest about the character of these people how can
    you begin to fix the problem ?

  6. John bennett

    Excellent article, You are really addressing the core
    reason for the riots, the fact that big sections of irish
    society are being left behind by the celtic tiger economy
    that has been generated in the last 10 years. Also the rate
    of immigration into this country has amplified the
    disillusionment of these sectors of society. IT is making
    irish society more competitive (not the irish economy). The
    bottom rung of irish society is now being pushed out by
    immigrants. Im not blaming immigrants here, its not their
    fault, but i am blaming irish government policy and the
    fact that the irish government is afraid to address this
    issue. You are correct in naming blanchardstown and other
    areas as probably where some of the rioters came from.
    These areas of the city are bearing the brunt of the
    governments flawed immigration policy because this is where
    a big proportion of immigrants now live. For the past year
    I have sensed that areas like blanchardstown may be the
    first irish “oldham” with race riots etc.

  7. johnny

    a friend of mine calls these youths coyotes. they are
    opportunistic scavengers. it’s what they do and they don’t
    really dwell on the niceties of politics. get used to them.
    they may be your kids or the kids of your neighbours. they
    are, if they could be bothered to be named, nihilists. they
    will grab the coat tails of whatever game is in town (in
    last week’s case, naive political vanity). you can put them
    in jail. you can question them. you can even torture them.
    but they have no secrets to reveal: they want shoes they
    can’t afford; they want hoodies that are beyond their means.
    they want a laugh that will last until tuesday. they are the
    future. i’d advise you to talk to them

  8. Ian

    These people who rioted last week in Dublin are a sample
    of what ireland will look like. At the moment ireland is
    allegedly a wonderful place to live( even though i
    emigrated two years ago because i could not find work as a
    teacher and could not live on the dole)When the
    multinationals start to pull out and the mortgages rise to
    levels people will not be able to pay back ( remember the
    ecb controls our interest rates not our central bank ) then
    it will not only people young people with hoodies that are
    rioting , it will be the ordinary unemployed masters
    holding, former marketing executives who once held a 100000
    euro job and owned four houses who will be asking for his
    dole payment to increase by pinning some 65 year old women
    to a street corner with a shopping trolley as a weapon of
    mass destruction.

  9. Brian

    You write as though immigration is something over which we
    have no control. Are we all to be displaced in our own
    country by cheap labour from abroad. What does it mean to be
    a citizen of Ireland. Our Government is exercising no
    control and above everything else it is a policy that will
    see Fianna Fail and the PDs out of office at the next
    election. The general population were not out on O’Connell
    Street rioting but they are at home fuming and bubbling over
    with anger at the mismanagement of the economy. The hoodies
    who attacked the Gardai were there only because they are
    young enough and foolish enough to risk injury and
    imprisonment for their actions. They are just a symptom of
    the underlying frustration that is felt throughout society.
    Your excellent article, which cites the American experience
    of economic expansion and its consequences on the indigenous
    underclass, does not transfer ideally to the current Irish
    situation.
    American society has always dealt ruthlessly with
    lawbreakers, particularly poor lawbreakers. The United
    States has the largest prison population in the entire
    world, made up mainly of people from its underclass.
    Disproportionate numbers are from the ethnic minorities and
    American society is quite happy to continue to treat its
    social problems as if they are just crime statistics.
    The situation here in Ireland is different in as much that
    we do not have a long history of stable economics; we do not
    have along history of stable government. We are sitting on a
    powder keg of predictable difficulties, which have been
    allowed to fester since the foundation of the State less
    than eighty-five years ago. Among the issues which will all
    to easily destabilise this country are growing unemployment
    in the manufacturing sector, poor healthcare, poor education
    opportunities, continued erosion of welfare benefit, the
    widely held view that the Government is totally in the hands
    of big business, particularly the construction industry. The
    construction industry here has always been cyclical and
    although this current cycle is it’s longest and most
    lucrative it cannot go on indefinitely. Then what?
    No manufacturing jobs, no construction jobs, nowhere to
    emigrate to, pressure will build up to explosive levels. The
    immigrants will be the scapegoat for the lack of Irish job
    opportunities.
    In a country where selection of the most insignificant
    junior government minister is based on village pump politics
    it is very likely that the leadership will be totally unable
    to cope with a real economic crisis and the demands of the
    voters to find a quick solution.
    We have a government, which cannot deal with a sector of our
    society, the travellers, who have been with us since the
    start .It was a failure of the past rulers to find devices
    or organisations to establish means to integrate the
    travellers, which has seen them remain at the bottom of our
    society.
    Education and Healthcare were handed over to the religious
    orders under the supervision of the Roman Catholic Church
    who probably saw no profit in helping out the Travelling
    community. It would not have been easy to lock them in
    institutions with the other poor wretches abandoned by the
    State.
    The ultimate danger lies in the fact that certain
    organisations in this relatively young State have a very
    recent history of using armed struggle as an acceptable
    means to bring political change.
    Scratch the surface of any Irishman and you will find a
    rebel waiting to emerge and he will not always be a young
    member of the underclass wearing a hooped shirt and carrying
    a paving stone.
    The Celtic Tiger economy has begun the process of polarising
    politics in Ireland.
    The new poles of wealth and poverty will be surrounded at
    the wealthy end by the Progressive Democrats and the poverty
    end by Sinn Fein. Both these parties will increase their
    seats at the next election. As neither of these parties will
    be big enough to form a government the larger coalition
    parties will effectively be the dog shaken by the tail.
    Whoever they are they will be shaking with anxiety. Expect
    the next emigration phase to be led by the new rich running
    away to their boltholes in the Costas and the Algarve.
    Your correspondent Walter is of the view that the rioters
    are living on generous welfare and wants them cut off.
    Someone once said that the law is essentially a contract
    between the rich and the poor.
    It should be remembered that when the rich break the
    contract by starving the poor,
    the result is usually the rich mans house burning down.
    Walter should read some history. Successful societies thrive
    on being inclusive of all the people and on compromise
    before disagreement..

  10. David Mc Williams

    Thank you all for your excellent and thought-provoking
    comments. I’m going to come back to this issue in this
    week’s Indo column and again all comments very welcome.
    David

  11. John

    David,

    Your article was an interesting read. I recently spoke to a
    yound Dublin chap here in Sydney, out for the one year
    holiday.

    When I asked him what he missed or didn’t miss about home,
    he replied I certainly don’t miss the public transport
    because of the scum bags who use it.

    It was sometime I had forgot about from my Dublin days in
    the 80′s

  12. Nathan

    A mufti is defined as:

    “A Muslim legal expert who is empowered to give rulings on
    religious matters”.

    Is this word now used in Dublin as a term of abuse?

  13. Ray

    Hogwash,they rioted because the sight of a load of orangie
    men marching down o connell street is an affront to
    Ireland, you people spend too much time in Starbucks
    drinking Frappamochoccinolattes to understand the
    significance of the march proceeding. You people take
    ANALysis to a new level.

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