March 1, 2006
The blame for Saturdayï¿½s 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 ï¿½ mirroring developments in the US and the UK ï¿½ 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 ï¿½white trailer-trashï¿½ ï¿½ 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 worldï¿½s labour force has doubled ï¿½ 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 Europeï¿½s. 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 Europeï¿½s small farmers and thousands left the land either, emigrating to the US or Argentina or migrating into the continentï¿½s 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 Europeï¿½s peasant farmers. However, back then there was the safety valve of emigration which many millions of them availed of. Irelandï¿½s 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 centuriesï¿½ peasant labourers. These jobs have no future in high cost, high-income countries like Ireland. To make matter worse, unlike our ancestors, for todayï¿½s displaced low-skilled workers there is nowhere to emigrate to ï¿½ 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:
ï¿½There 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.ï¿½
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.
Letï¿½s 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 ï¿½ 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 ï¿½trailer-trashï¿½ 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? Itï¿½s time now to answer a few hard questions? If nothing else, Saturdayï¿½s riot, has at least forced us to wake up.