I, II, III
Of all marginalised groups, I probably "know" "the underclass" best (along with women and homosexuals). My in-laws, who I've spent countless weeks with, are part of it. They're both in early retirement from bottom-end care jobs and get by on welfare, gambling and semi-legal shady deals, plus hunting and fishing. They're perfectly all right people - my father-in-law is a large, super-sharp dynamo who loves animals and wants to be friends with everyone, my mother-in-law is a tiny Finnish woman who's got guts and a warped sense of humour.
This post isn't about them. It's about us and our relation to their social group. For some reason, we can't seem to let the lowest part of society alone. When it comes to "the underclass", it seems everyone has an opinion, and maybe necessarily so.
To begin with it's probably worth it to question the distinction of "the underclass" from the working class at all. My in-laws are decently well-off - they've got a house, only partly mortgaged, and they eat better than us what with the seemingly endless supply of moose meat, venison and whitefish roe. And yet their behaviour marks them out from us, and to a large part of the middle classes (including, I guess, my parents) they're disgusting.
Stephanie Lawler's brilliant 2005 paper "Disgusted subjects: the making of middle-class identities" (PDF, via) penetrates deeply into the idea of middle-class identity building through being disgusted with the underclass, an idea I've less eloquently played with here. What Lawler is basically saying is that in order to appear distinct, universal and tasteful, the middle-class feels compelled to portray/other the less-well-off as lacking in something and degenerated from a proper noble working class. She provides a whole host of great examples of how the working class as an underclass (begging the question above), an undifferentiated, often feminised mass whose cultures and behaviours are disgusting. Whatever culture they actually have doesn't matter - attitudes shift along so as to make them always disgusting.
The left is certainly as guilty as the right in this regard. When it comes to music, the classic example is Adorno's "On popular music", where he indeed sees the genre as an undifferentiated, feminised mass he's disgusted by. Does that make his point about a "culture industry" producing standardized mass-pacifying products less valid? Probably. I think it's interesting to ask in relation to Lawler's paper when othering disgust turns into justified disgust, and I suspect the answer may be close to never; that makes a lot of leftist discussions about various capitalist industries enslaving the working class a mere sociological spiel. Perhaps Morgan Spurlock is as struck in the othering game as ever Adorno.
Once that sort of awareness (or false awareness?) sets in, it's highly tempting to go the other way, and bring out the privilege shame. This is certainly something I've been very guilty of myself. I'm extremely distraught at my own position in society - why was I given the chance to study? Why do I have the rich, educated parents? Why is my social status so high compared to theirs? The result, of course, is that us privilege-ashamed have a more positive view of the underclass than might actually be appropriate.
And so here I am, championing the culture of the subalterns. Perhaps by boosting them I can bring them up a notch, and perhaps I can bring myself down a notch in society's eyes by liking the supposedly naff and disgusting. Unfortunately, the underclass, the more "disgusting" it is, also has a draw to certain parts of the middle class because of its titilating remoteness, muddying up the whole idea. (Hello, Vice Magazine). That way, perhaps industrial cool and privilige shame are two sides of the same coin.
Poor underclass. What with disgust, privilege shame and industrial cool, no-one is ever going to leave them alone nor have a balanced view of their existence. There's always the option of ignoring it all, but then not caring about class injustice is not really an option either...