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George Orwell, the cop and ‘the evil poor’

April 26, 2009

Is it just me or is there something perverse about giving any award that bears the name of George Orwell to a cop who refers to ‘the evil poor‘?

orwellbbc2Night Jack is an eloquently written and at times gripping blog but its prejudice wouldn’t be out of place in the Daily Mail, with its hackneyed division of the working class into the respectable and the undeserving.

The respectable working class according to Night Jack are defined by ‘lots of neat gardens, washing hung out to dry, hardly a piece of litter, happy laughing kids playing out, people washing their cars’. The ‘evil poor’ on the other hand are:

Kappa clad, drugged up, workshy, wasters swaggering through the town centre streets with a can of lager in the one hand and a bull mastiff on a string in the other. They aren’t out looking for a job or a chance in life let alone a wash. They are just looking to do you over, nick your stuff, sell you stolen stuff and drugs, take the next drugs and collect the next dole. The attendant girls aren’t much better, shrieking complicit harpies who will all end up looking grey and faded round the edges, kicking dirty nappies out of the way to feed the dog in the kitchen of their two bedroom basic box flat on the grim estate where everything has been broken if it can’t be stolen.

I’d be liar if I said I didn’t recognise the people Night Jack describes so powerfully but description is not analysis or understanding. And to eternalise and essentialise criminality by referring to it as ‘evil’ is to sink to the sort of lazy, tabloid terminology that does nothing to advance our understanding of  an undeniable and massive problem. And if you don’t understand it, you’re never going tackle it effectively.

To be fair, Night Jack apologises for the sensationalism of the term ‘the evil poor’ but admits he ‘could think of no better way to put it’. Well a good place to start might have been to consider how society produces such miscreants, presuming we don’t believe that little lumpen-chavs spring fully formed from their shrieking, harpy-like mothers.

What would George Orwell make of it? He seemed to understand a thing or two about middle class prejudice when he remarked that ‘the real secret of class distinctions in the West’  can be summed up in ‘four frightful words’: ‘The lower classes smell’.

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. nightjack permalink
    April 26, 2009 3:27 pm

    As posted at Liberal Conspiracy who make a similar point

    So The Evil Poor…..and it does seem to be phrase that worries / appalls / sickens people….it’s a phrase. that seems to have been read in some places as The Poor Are Evil.

    There are not many of them, they are generally not poor by any material standard but I deal with them every week as do many of my colleagues and they are a real problem in the real world.

    In every town there are lifestyle criminals who are not victims of social injustice but rather perpetrators of social injustice on those unfortunate enough to live within their hunting ranges. If you have lived any sort of street life rather than some ersatz bohemian alternative you have probably met them. I did 30 years ago when I was living in squats around Vauxhall and Hamersmith as an economic vegetarian.

    Clearly being poor doesn’t mean that you are evil. Equally, being evil doesn’t indicate that you are poor.I could have written a piece on The Evil Rich with plenty of good examples but in that particular post, that’s not what I wanted to talk about.

    Claiming every benefit going whilst pursuing a violent and criminal life avoiding any declared employment is being evil poor. They are not really poor in anything but humanity. Benefits are a top up not a safety net. I find them to be steeped in evil. It is not nastiness, not being a bit anti-social, not being hard to reach or hard to hear. No, it is really stamp on the head when they are down – mug grannies – abandon children – torture animals – destroy amenities – live selfish- hurt people for fun evil. They are not overly bothered about prison and they laugh openly in court at non-custodial interventions. Take a day out in any Magistrates Court anywhere if you want to observe some of them in a safe environment. Denying them by conflating them with the actual “no safety net” poor won’t wash.

    When David Blunkett wrote and talked about the repeat victims of crime effectively held as fearful prisoners in their own houses on the council estates of Sheffield, they were not cowering from a cabal of capitalist bastards and politicians rampaging through the shuttered streets,albeit the said crew might bear some responsibility for the underlying conditions. They were scared of and intimidated by the Evil Poor to the point where they would continue to be victims rather than resort to the Criminal Justice System. They still are.

    As for the folks living on the estate where the sun does shine, I have no judgement of them based on class. I commented on the reliable indicators of a thriving community, a supportive and sustaining community of neighbours. What is wrong with that? It is what every social housing project aspires to create and where it visibly works, it makes me feel good.

    You mention the mothers. If you have not already, have a look at some of the Dunedin Project research. It is interesting in that some of it looks at the influence of parenting and perhaps unsurprisingly finds that it is powerful and nigh on irrevocable by mid childhood. Sure Start was an intersting idea but failed as it was not engaged with much by those mothers where an intervention would be of most benefit to the child.

    I’m off for a shower

    NJ

    • The Merovingian permalink
      April 26, 2009 8:40 pm

      “When David Blunkett wrote and talked about the repeat victims of crime effectively held as fearful prisoners in their own houses on the council estates of Sheffield, they were not cowering from a cabal of capitalist bastards and politicians rampaging through the shuttered streets,albeit the said crew might bear some responsibility for the underlying conditions. They were scared of and intimidated by the Evil Poor to the point where they would continue to be victims rather than resort to the Criminal Justice System. They still are.”

      There you have it, your problem NJ… your only interested in assigning blame to the symptom and not the underlying cause 😉 .

  2. Rab permalink*
    April 26, 2009 4:13 pm

    Blimey NJ,
    Took you mere minutes to respond to that. Are you part of some sort of rapid response unit?

    Good to hear from you. I take your point that ‘being poor doesn’t mean that you are evil’ and ‘being evil doesn’t indicate that you are poor’. But your blog wasn’t so discriminating.

    I’m familiar with those criminals who you describe as ‘generally not poor by any material standard’. They roll around town in flash cars; swaggering about in expensive clothing; houses full of the latest gadgets. They are, therefore, simply not poor. So why associate them with those who are impoverished? The conflation of poverty and criminality provides exactly the sort of ideological cover our political masters need to do fuck all about inequality and want.

    Also you say that ‘as for the folks living on the estate where the sun does shine, I have no judgement of them based on class’. You don’t have to. By contrasting them with the ‘evil poor’ it is implied. You mobilised a set of stereotypes about the working class so well embedded in our culture that they appear natural and unquestionable, but they say more about middle class anxieties and prejudices about the ‘lower orders’ than about the experience of being working class.

    I agree with you on one point though, Prefab Sprout are brilliant – their a bit ‘wet’ and sensitive for a peeler though, aren’t they?

  3. Kate permalink
    April 26, 2009 6:40 pm

    Oh here you all are! For what it’s worth, I have come to the conclusion that everyone is evil whether they claim benefits, evade tax, live in council flats or palatial mansions. I believe everyone is as thick as a plank (except me of course) I think we are all DOOMED Mr Mainwaring. xxx

  4. Rab permalink*
    April 26, 2009 7:07 pm

    Glad to see you’re coming round to all the “right minded people’s” way of thinking Kate/Capt. Mainwaring. For a while there over on Night Jack you looked like you needed a programme of ideological cleansing.

  5. Roland Barthes permalink
    April 26, 2009 8:00 pm

    Rab, you are being a bit obtuse in your reading of Jack’s post aren’t you? If a set of stereotypes about the working class was ‘mobilised’ in your reading of a hard-working police’s hard-boiled prose, isn’t it more indicative of your critical bias than anything else?

    • The Merovingian permalink
      April 26, 2009 8:42 pm

      To be fair when I read NJ’s blog the first impression I got is that he was talking about the scruffy ner-do-wells who are a product of an unfair society, not the Mercedez driving gadget festooned career criminals he now sights as targeting.

  6. Rab permalink*
    April 26, 2009 8:57 pm

    Hello Roland,
    I don’t think I’m being obtuse.

    It’s interesting that you refer to Night Jack’s hard-boiled prose. What you highlight is its generic qualities. I suspect that his style owes at least as much to hard-boiled crime fiction as it does to real life. I don’t offer that as a criticism of his writing. I really like it. But maybe he mediates his experience of policing through the generic prism of crime fiction and that has consequences for how he presents the world he polices. It is one of generic villains. In this respect, his ‘evil poor’ fit into a history of generic representations of the working class, as divided into the respectable and damnable.

  7. Roland Barthes permalink
    April 26, 2009 9:37 pm

    Fair points Rab, fair points.

    But I think your own writing style and / as / or manner of thinking is probably quite heavily mediated by certain excessively PC sensibilites; call it a ‘generic prism’ of humanities-graduate Guardian readership, if you will.

    To be fair, it’s probably now me who is being obtuse
    😉

  8. Rab permalink*
    April 26, 2009 9:52 pm

    Roland,
    My writing style is generically shit compared to that of NJ. If he gets that novel together I’ll be first in line for the hardback version. Hard-boiled British thrillers? I like that sort of thing. I hope though that he follows through on his Prefab Sprout preference. All that classical stuff and The Magic Flute in Morse just left me cold.

    “excessively PC sensibilites; call it a ‘generic prism’ of humanities-graduate Guardian readership”

    Close but no cigar. Old, would-have-been boot-boy. Turned to education when it became clear that I was better at getting kicked than doing the kickin’. Pretty unreconstructed class warrior with an aversion to identity politics. Wouldn’t piss on The Guardian, preferring the ‘bad company’ of the blogosphere and radical press.

  9. nightjack permalink
    April 26, 2009 10:02 pm

    Rab,

    To be fair, your link popped up on the blog stats a few hours before the post cam up on your site. Anyway, it has been a slow day at home and this is the day when many blogs of “The Left” started to pick up on the “Evil Poor” thing. As a consequence I have been posting lots.

    My prose certainly does owe a lot to many of the people that I have read. I think that is true of all of us. Working out how is called redaction I think. If you redacted me I think that you would find some Chandler,William Gibson, modern journalism and in particular, the more I think about it, Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” It’s not a conscious process but I am sure it is real.

    Anyway, in contrasting the estates, I wanted to graphically point out that “It doesn’t have to be this way” because the residents are poor / working class / unemployed. The sun shine estate really used to be a Daily Mail worthy hell hole until the “decent” (for want of a better catch all phrase) folk made a stand. It was a woman that started the fight back. It always seems to be a strong woman and if I knew why and how to find them it would help things a lot. Windows were smashed, cars keyed, children bullied, threats made and carried out but the residents toughed it out and they won back their estate. It is now a “decent” (there goes that horribly judgmental word again) place for folk to live, raise families and retire. It has not been gentrified or colonised by the middle classes, it is still social housing. This was not a solution imposed by the police, empowered by the council or thought up by social workers. It was a solution from within, wrought by the victims and the result has been a close, generally happy community living in social housing where investments made stay unspoiled.

    If we are talking traditional working class values, the sun shine estate is an exemplar of how people together can make their own lives long term better by challenging and defeating those anti-social bastards that would seek to use them as prey.

    And I am not talking about Mercedes driving drug dealers and the local crime lords. That is another issue entirely. I am talking about those families and young people living on estates throughout the country who make the lives of those around them a fear ridden misery.

    That’s all really.

    • The Merovingian permalink
      April 30, 2009 5:05 pm

      Anyway, in contrasting the estates, I wanted to graphically point out that “It doesn’t have to be this way” because the residents are poor / working class / unemployed. The sun shine estate really used to be a Daily Mail worthy hell hole until the “decent” (for want of a better catch all phrase) folk made a stand.

      I’ve not seen one of these estates in either the Midlands or South London !, Please give me address and details ! I’d like to see them in operation.

  10. nightjack permalink
    April 26, 2009 10:03 pm

    Oh and “Words won’t hold you…broken soldiers”

  11. April 26, 2009 10:07 pm

    Nightjack is an exceptional writer. Quite possibly, he deserves to win a prize. He just doesn’t deserve to win a prize named for George Orwell, that’s the problem.

    There is an underlying edge of – let’s be kind – despair in Nightjack’s blog; a sense the job, as he defines it, can never really be done. He also tends to see ‘social workers’, an all purpose description of other professionals dealing with ‘the poor’, as having an ingrained aversion to seeing any of them as ‘evil’.Actually, most of the time, they’re just fulfilling their alloted roles in the system, as he is. There are supposed to be checks and balances in the system and if it pisses off policemen – or social workers for that matter – so be it.

    The problem is Orwell. Orwell had hope. Orwell wasn’t at all blind to the various faults of the poor or working class people he ran into, but he had hope for their future and belief in their innate decency. It jars terribly to give Nightjack an award named after him.

  12. Rab permalink*
    April 26, 2009 10:37 pm

    NJ
    I hit the publish button before I had finished writing the post and then had to delete it, so that’s why you probably got an early warning. When you responded so quickly I was going to quip: Bloody hell, I wish the coppers responded that quickly round our way! But I figured you’d be sick to death of that one.

    I think the reason your ‘evil poor’ post has aroused such ire amongst us lefties is that it hits a rather sensitive nerve. If you’ve ever been involved in an industrial dispute you’ll know that the media and powerful present two types of worker. There’s the honest, decent, salt of there earth ones and then there is the militant, lazy-bastard, Red Robbo troublemakers, who’ll down tools at the drop of a hat. Its the ideological short-hand that tabloid editors and the Right use to discredit any action taken by workers. So for instance, firemen are the brave and heroic until they strike to preserve their service and conditions, then they are negligent bastards putting the public at risk. Well, they can’t be both. They’re either one or the other.

    It’s this sort of splitting of the working class that your reference to the ‘evil poor’ seems to evoke and it is that which I suspect has brought out the left-wing critics.

    Also you’ve got to consider historically what we have just been through. Since the 80s the industrial, political and cultural organisations of the working class have been systematical trashed by successive governments. Part of the fall-out of that is a post-industrial poor – unlovely and unloveable – that is routinely held up for derision in the tabloids, referred to frequently as chavs, and viewed as a disgrace to the nation, while the fuckers who committed this crime are regarded as some sort of national saviours.

    In the end, NJ, as the Sprouts would have it: ‘Words are trains for moving past what really has no name’ but they still injury and cause offence.

    Time for bed…

    All the best,
    Rab

  13. Roland Barthes permalink
    April 26, 2009 10:41 pm

    Charlie

    The job CAN never be done – Orwell makes this entirely clear with his dystopias – but there is ample hope in Nightjack’s blog; if only in his onoing commitment to keep doing the job. But there is also a deeper commitment apparent in NJ’s writing: a commitment to reality. ‘Hope’ is simply escapism without reality. Realism is a precondition of hope and praxis.

    • The Merovingian permalink
      April 30, 2009 5:07 pm

      Actually both hope and despair are causal links in creating reality. Both hope and despair lead people to commit acts in the ‘real world’. Realism is not a precondition of hope or despair either can be be created from imaginary or irrational beliefs or faiths that have no bearing in the ‘physical’ world. So no hope isn’t escapism. Escapism confers some sense of reaching a place in which one feels out of the path of any potential danger, Hope itself can lead one to put them self in the very path of said danger. Also as NJ rightly says the Police do not have the ability to solve the problem mearly attempt to deal with the after affects. Therefore how can that be hope ? how can stagnation be hope ? surely hope infers change for the better ?

  14. Dr. Disco permalink
    April 27, 2009 3:44 pm

    All politics aside, Orwell would probably praise it for its clarity – “If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy” (Orwell, Policitcs & the English Language, 1946).

  15. dunnagall permalink
    April 28, 2009 9:28 am

    Then again, it’s not really about the clarity of the writing. One can write with clarity and still be bound by the “worst follies of the orthodoxy”, whatever that might be in any given political or cultural context.

    As for the police state, we are all vulnerable regardless of which newspaper we read. I’m sure John Major would be most upset to think that his little old lady riding her bike to church on a beautiful Sunday morning could be hauled off and duffed up for carrying a copy of the King James bible, a dangerous and seditious piece of literature if ever there was one.

    Charge 1: “Render to Ceasar what is Ceasar’s…”? (Matt 22:21) Tax evasion, your honour!

    Charge 2: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on the earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword” (Matt 10: 34). Conspiracy to plot and execute a terrorist act, your honour!

    Send her down!!!

  16. Dr Disco permalink
    April 29, 2009 1:41 pm

    Ahem. *What* exactly is “it” that isn’t about the clarity? Please be more clear.

    • The Merovingian permalink
      April 30, 2009 5:10 pm

      Indeed. Once simple language becomes the majority of communication is it not then the orthodoxy itself ? Are there not follies in simplification ? Orwell wasa great political commentator and an apt theorist on Language but then Marx was an apt economist… doesn’t mean we should follow his every tenet with gay abandon no ?

  17. dunnagall permalink
    May 1, 2009 6:57 am

    In reply to Dr Disco, the “it” I refer to in my previous post is the relationship between politics and the English language. I doubt anyway that Orwell would set politics aside to praise a piece of writing just for its clarity or simplicity. It would be like giving a student an A for a beautifully written but totally vacuous essay. 🙂

  18. Dr Disco permalink
    May 5, 2009 6:53 pm

    Dear Merovingian – who are you calling gay?

  19. The Merovingian permalink
    May 18, 2009 10:08 am

    Lol you can’t blame a guy for using the word gay and expressing it in it’s more archaic meaning 😀

  20. May 19, 2009 5:44 pm

    ‘evil poor’ response – from a virgin blogger – Nineteen Eighty-Four is a vision of extreme authoritarianism. A malevolent big brother is constantly watching, with a culture of fear, suspicion, and informing. Restrictions are placed on the population for their own protection. People live on a diet of synthetic meals and cheap ‘’victory-brand’’ gin. Love is derided and individualism smashed under the boot of the greater good (the cops will love this). A simple language called ‘’newspeak’’ bombards the population with constant propaganda (like most NHS trust newsletters). Free thought is controlled through the thought police and ‘’doublethink’’ is valid. It’s a harsh vision, but Orwells vision has similarities to today’s world, the world of those who are there to protect us, and indeed to today’s centralising NHS.

    Messages are simplified and the organisation is increasingly intent on controlling thought, your not here to enjoy yourself. Employees have PCP’s, personal contribution plans and patients are suspicious of our advice. In the book Brave New World, its all about me and a consumerist society. Casual sex and mood enhancing drugs are state policy. The underclass, (the evil-poor) the Gammas are left to a drug induced oblivion. The world is wrecked by consumption and reading is irrelevant. Humans are mass produced in factories, (rather perfect for the NHS, perhaps the police, they could even be programmed how to think – appropriately).

    Media studies and the cops of the evil poor type would greatly benefit from reading or indeed watching ‘’the great social classics’’ – we should all be challenged to ‘’think’’ rather than merely encouraged to learn or to think appropriately.

    Now what’s the rock bottom on yer wee Toyota Hiace van? And is she full of ribena?

    Lux et veritas et red diesel

  21. Rab permalink*
    May 20, 2009 6:26 pm

    James,
    You’ve covered just about everything there. And it sounds like the NHS is suffering from a dose of meninsuits and managerialism. As Norman Stanley Fletcher of HM Slade prison once said: don’t let the bastards grind you down.

    Red diesel, the people’s fuel!

  22. May 21, 2009 7:41 pm

    The evil poor do exist, they are a product of a capitalist society according to Marx. I come from the working class and the evil poor have grown in numbers over the last 20 years. The decent working class are the ones who suffer at their hands and decency and respect are not virtues but weakness to these people. I remember growing up and being bullied by these people because both of my parents worked. Anyone who is slightly different is a victim, and they destroy lives and communities. Liberals and socialists see everything in terms of economics and because chavs are poor its the fault of inequality. The more you give these people the less they appreciate it, the more you help them the less they do for themselves. They are inadequate and have not been socialised correctly.

  23. Rab permalink*
    May 21, 2009 8:33 pm

    Thanks for your comment, Mike.

    I’m not unsympathetic to your position. The depressing reality and banality of violent, anti-social behaviour among sections of the most impoverished is I think one of the most pressing political questions.

    You make the point that the so-called evil poor have grown in numbers in the past 20 years. Isn’t it incumbent upon us to ask why? Has it something to to with the failure of successive governments to tackle poverty and growing inequality? The gap between rich and poor has actually grown under Labour, so even the defeat of the Tories brought no respite.

    And I agree with you to some extent when you suggest that the ‘evil poor’ can’t be explained away in purely economic terms but I think no matter how you look at this it is substantially an economic problem. I’m reminded of Dickens’ Ghost of Christmas Present (I think) who throws back his coat to reveal two emaciated children, Want and Ignorance.

    Want and Ignorance are twin evils but I doubt that they are inherent in the people who suffer them.

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