In Marxism the lumpen were traditionally understood as a lumpenproletariat; a supposedly, non-productive and homogenised underclass who are vulnerable to persuasion and often demonised as a monolithic group called the “dangerous classes” and “social scum”.
These are the people authority often single out as those the respectable classes should fear. They would include persons demonised in the 2011 State of Emergency. Marx described them in this way: “Alongside decayed roues with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers, discharged jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus, brothel keepers, porters, literati, organ-grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars-in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French term la boheme.”
Often missed in real life discussions of the lumpenproletariat is their constitution. How do people end up there? For some, such questions blur and vanish in a form of class racism against the poor who are imagined as immoral-jamettes who have either chosen poverty or deserve it.
Another way the lumpenproletariat’s formation is hidden is by the nature of modern politics where to borrow a phrase from Professor of English, Peter Stallybrass, “the state guarantees a political equality that leaves social inequality untouched”. Or as Marx described it, “the state abolishes, after its fashion, the distinctions established by birth, social rank, education, occupation, when it decrees that birth, social rank, education, occupation are non-political distinctions; when it proclaims, without regard to these distinctions, that every member of society is an equal partner in popular sovereignty.”
This is the sense in which some anthropologists describe “the political is a fraud” because ultimately the state ignores the legacies of history and primitive accumulation in the constitution of its various class groups. Supposedly on the day after Independence, colonialism became post-colonialism, and all that passed before it – the racial hierarchy, the white supremacy, the class inequality – vanished and no longer determined the direction of local socio-economic realities.
It is important here to recognise the lumpenproletariat and their envelopment within a culture of dependency are not the only members of the lumpen. Marxists also spoke about the lumpenbourgeoisie who too sustain their existence by perpetuating a culture of dependency.
As the socialist Hal Draper once put it, “scum separates by floating upward”. This was his metaphor for the lumpen found at the height of society, those lying and cheating members of the elite, and the moral pauperism surrounding the many who got rich not by production but by pocketing the wealth of others.
In postcolonial societies André Gunder Frank noted the lumpenbourgeoisie – or what some others have called the “comprador bourgeoisie” – was the primary actor in, and reason for, the current underdeveloped and stunted societies of Latin America and the Caribbean. Such leaders and politicians – as distinct from a more nationalist section of the bourgeoisie – were and are themselves members of an elite culture of dependency. Their own personal interests, wealth and political power was, and is, tied to the state and the export economy demanded by Europe and America, and the corruption demanded by the Imperial, and now produced by the neoliberal, encounter.
For Marx, and also Frantz Fanon, the irony in all this is that the lumpen are potentially a great heterogeneous political force. Their position on the outskirts of the traditional class system – i.e. without showing any loyalty or strict class consciousness toward it – and their socio-economic vulnerability means yes they can be easily manipulated by the political and business classes through inducements, patronage and bribes.
But due to this lack of class solidarity the lumpen are also free floating. They are vulnerable and receptive to reactionary ideologies and movements. They are hence potentially the revolutionary class. Either way the lumpen as a term reflects how at both the top and bottom of society some will always be attracted and enculturated to an on-going culture of dependency whether that is more welfarism, bobol, or embedded dependence.
The lumpen then remind us that cultures of dependency are a fundamental organising principal of all post-colonial nations. It is a historically constituted, structural and social feature of them. This means fundamental social change is hard to achieve because cultures of dependency are deeply entrenched in the local political culture.