The title “honest lumpen” helps us shrug off the pejorative and demeaning associations that the lumpenproletariat otherwise carries with it across much of Marxist thought, given that they are often described as scum, criminals, and knaves. I argue, however, that “honest” lumpenproletariat is not useful as a rhetorical label, but instead is helpful as an analytic category, as it helps us identify a bloc of lumpen support and solidarity with proletarian goals, specifically those goals that are tied to labor and struggles at sites of production.
The title “honest lumpen” also helps us to avoid dismissing the entirety of lumpens as reactionary or as exclusively prone to becoming “bribed tools of reactionary intrigue,” as Marx referred to them. To the contrary, by better understanding the emergence and tendencies of lumpens, we will come to see that they present a crucial vector for proletarian organizing today and, in particular, for forming and navigating the sphere of the state. It is, after all, far more precise to refer to the huge surplus populations—the contingent labourers, the structurally unemployed, the wide swaths of service sector employees with tenuous contracts, the bloated retiree populations living in state-supported poverty programs—as the “honest lumpenproletariat” or “working lumpenproletariat” then it is to call these populations simply proletarians or surplus populations because of their unique partial relation to productive labor.
Without this moral distinction, how could we differentiate between the scoundrels and the honest amongst the lumpen? How could we locate the way in which lumpenization leads to reaction and to fascism? Yet, the use of the term “honest lumpen” still poses a problem in popular discourse because it dredges up a much shallower sense of moralism that I think worth avoiding. As an analytic category, however, I want to tease out this distinction of the two predominant types of lumpen, so as to better understand the limitations “honest lumpens” present to political discourse in general, especially to socialist political demands, before better gauging the means by which we might forge solidarity with them.
As Barrow writes in chapter 6—titled “The Lumpenproletariat: Communism or Dystopia?”—the honest lumpen is fundamentally bound up with surplus populations, specifically by their partial relation to productive labor. As a result, the honest lumpen poses a more subtle and confused threat to proletarian political goals because they do not define their political interests via labor-based ends and goals. Rather, they are more prone to construing politics in terms of gender, age, race, nationality, ethnicity, locality, sexuality, and lifestyle categories, and less so as “workers.” In each of these expressions, political claims are advanced from social locations that are uncoupled from class positions and other identities defined by participation in the labor market.1Clyde Barrow, The Dangerous Class: The Concept of the Lumpenproletariat (Ann Arbor: Michigan Univerity Press, 2020), 123.
Barrow points out that the cleavages opened by the dynamics of these identity movements are not negotiable within a distributive framework, precisely because these social identities are not defined by distributive positions within the labor market or by places within the social relations of production. This means that appeals to welfare or to state support, which the honest lumpen already receives (albeit through minimal and austerity-dictated social handouts), become very appealing sites of emancipation—but most important, these are demands that are state-governed areas of life and are not necessarily contingent on labor organization. It is important, then, that we do not forget that even the working day is modified within the state and is not merely an economic law, which means that state policy and state power is a primary vector for fulfilling honest lumpen and working class demands more generally.
This fact—that hugely important areas of proletarian struggle, e.g., the working day, are defined and limited by the state and not by the labor market—makes the honest lumpen a crucial partner to any proletarian politics. But these surplus populations, the wide swaths of honest lumpens, have only an implicit demand for greater leisure time and less work; they tend not to have explicit labor-related demands in any way that might achieve such a demand from the state. Explicit anti-work demands are absent because work itself is a rarity, and the condition of the honest lumpen is what Tiqqun calls the “needy opportunist.”2Tiqqun, Now (South Pasadena, CA: Semiotext(e), 2017). The lumpen is forced into conditions of needy opportunism, which make the lumpen’s relation to labor completely hollowed out in terms of negotiation, bargaining, or contestation of wage rates.
Barrow also points out that for post-Marxists such as André Gorz, these bloated surplus populations imply that the only viable path to something resembling a communist revolution can be forged within the welfare state, wherein communism would then get gradually absorbed into the state apparatus through crisis: the surplus populations’ growing need for greater and greater support for survival and basic sustenance. Because the place they occupy within the social division of labor and consumption is determined by policy rather than economics, Claus Offe similarly describes the surplus population of honest lumpens as “policy-takers.” Gorz adds that they have “no transcendent unity or mission, and hence no overall conception of history and society,” and that their disconnection from labor renders the very contours of postindustrial socialism into libertarianism. The honest lumpen thus makes socialism libertarian and policy-focused. For example, a massive sector of the honest lumpen is the elderly populations that are forced to pauperize themselves in old age so that they may properly qualify for Medicare and Medicaid. These honest lumpens are then permitted, after pauperization, to exit the workforce and enjoy a precarious and hellish retirement in a decayed and often privatized assisted living home.