Riots, Culture and Iain Duncan Smith’s Poverty of Analysis

by Matthew Richmond

Iain Duncan Smith’s toxic mix of compassionate language and a punitive agenda must be met with radical social analysis and ambitious policies.

First published: 08 November, 2012 | Category: Economy, Employment & Welfare, Inequality, Politics, The Right

In the aftermath of the English riots of 2011 Iain Duncan Smith, alone amongst his peers, exuded a knowing calmness.  As other Conservative politicians rode a wave of populist outrage, engaging in escalatory calls for exemplary punishments and police militarisation, the Department of Work and Pensions Secretary argued the country could not ‘arrest its way out’ of its problems.  In a series of statements over subsequent months he argued that a complex set of underlying factors had fuelled the violence and looting and that only by addressing these could future disturbances be avoided.[1] Indeed, the riots seemed to confirm arguments that he and his think tank, the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), had been making for several years.  They contend that multiple ‘pathways to poverty’, such as worklessness, welfare dependency, family breakdown, drug and alcohol addiction and educational failure interact in complex ways to entrench poverty and exclusion over time.[2] This model appeared to present a radical break from approaches on the Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party that blamed persistent poverty and associated social problems on a lack of effort on the part of the poor.  Instead, Duncan Smith and the CSJ portrayed the poor as victims, both of these self-perpetuating cycles and of a societal failure in confronting them.

At first glance the description of poverty and exclusion constraining individuals’ choices and opportunities looks similar to analyses offered by many on the left.  However, once the causal reasoning is unpicked this model emerges as something quite different.  In Duncan Smith’s policy pronouncements and the multiple reports produced by the CSJ, macro-economic change over recent decades is rarely, if ever, mentioned.  The deindustrialisation of large parts of the UK, structural unemployment, precarisation of lower-income jobs, stagnation of wages and dramatic rise in income inequality play no part in the story they tell.  If these are mentioned at all, they are treated as natural processes, beyond the scope of governments, trade unions, campaigning organisations and, indeed, boards of directors to influence.

By contrast, they offer two explanations time and again for the failure of many to adapt to this new economic reality.  The first is the slide towards a ‘permissive society’ in which single-parenthood, drug use and various other social ills have been normalised.  This has occurred on the watch of a liberal middle class, wilfully ignorant to the disastrous consequences for those living in ghettoised areas of deprivation.  The second is the incentivisation of idleness and dysfunction by the state, and in particular the New Labour government, with its freewheeling approach to welfare spending.  Although the poor themselves are not seen as culpable, the message is clear: at root, the main obstacles to overcoming poverty do not lie in inequitable economic and social structures, but in the self-perpetuating, self-destructive behaviour of those trapped in cycles of poverty.  The policy implications of such an analysis are clear: the loose morality and perverse incentives that enable and encourage this behaviour must be radically overhauled.

This innovative and toxic mix of compassionate language with a punitive policy agenda is the product of a peculiar intellectual trajectory whose origins lie in another period of urban conflagration and political polarisation.  Tracing its development can shed light on the issues we face today and what possible alternatives might be available. 

A step back

The years 1966-68 saw unprecedented waves of rioting and looting across American cities, bringing into plain view the deep social and racial cleavages that still plagued the country after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act.  It was a period of intense debate among politicians and academics about how to confront the ‘urban problem’.  In his report to the Department of Labor (a year before the outbreak of the riots) the Assistant Secretary of Labor Daniel Patrick Moynihan notoriously claimed that the dissolution of the black family lay at the centre of a ‘tangle of pathology’ that would serve to reproduce poverty in the seething urban ghettoes far into the future.[3] His contemporary, the anthropologist Oscar Lewis, posited the existence of a ‘culture of poverty’ among the Puerto Rican population of East Harlem, characterised by violence, promiscuity, low aspirations, hostility to authority and weak levels of political consciousness.[4] He famously asserted that,

Once the culture of poverty has come into existence it tends to perpetuate itself.  By the time slum children are six or seven they have usually absorbed the basic attitudes and values of their subculture.  Thereafter they are psychologically unready to take full advantage of changing conditions or improving opportunities that may develop in their lifetime.[5]

On one level Moynihan and Lewis’s ideas, like Duncan Smith’s, were ‘culturalist’ – they saw the cultural practices of particular groups as impeding their ability to overcome poverty.  However, these conclusions were firmly rooted in an analysis of wider socioeconomic structures.  Lewis argued that the only context in which the ‘culture of poverty’ would emerge was ‘a cash economy, with wage labour and production for profit and with a persistently high rate of unemployment and underemployment, at low wages, for unskilled labour.’[6] He described the cultural manifestations as ‘both an adaptation and a reaction of the poor to their marginal position in a class-stratified, highly individuated, capitalistic society.’[7] Similarly, Moynihan attributed the high levels of family breakdown and poor educational attainment and employment rates of the black population primarily to the historical experience of slavery and persistent white racism, which had relegated them to a subordinate and vulnerable position within the labour market.  Such analyses formed the basis of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reform programme, with its substantial investments in healthcare, education and poverty-reduction in the inner city.

Following the riots, these ideas came under attack on two fronts.  In his leftist critique Blaming the Victim, William Ryan argued that Moynihan and Lewis had conducted and analysed their research to show how the poor,

think in different forms, act in different patterns, cling to different values, seek different goals, and learn different truths… This is how the distressed and disinherited are redefined in order to make it possible for us to look at society’s problems and to attribute their causation to the individuals affected.[8]

Instead he advocated seeing such problems as ‘truly social’; as lying in the organisation of society rather than in those exhibiting the pathology.  Despite such protestations, Ryan actually placed less emphasis on the deep structural causes of poverty and presented the ‘cultural’ issues highlighted by Lewis and Moynihan as grossly exaggerated by the prejudice of mainstream society and its intellectual representatives.  Where certain cultural practices were clearly more prevalent in the inner city, he claimed these were simply rational responses to poverty.  He believed, for example, that the rioters were for the most part reacting to police provocation, rather than engaging in acts of wanton violence. 

Those on the right took a very different view.  Although they saw Moynihan’s and Lewis’s descriptions of lower class dysfunction as accurate, writers like Edward Banfield were not convinced that they were caused by economic factors.  In direct opposition to Ryan, he denied the riots had any social meaning, claiming they were ‘mainly for fun and profit’.[9] In any case he saw the Johnson administration’s state-led solutions as a liberal fantasy, arguing:

So long as the city contains a sizable lower class, nothing basic can be done about its most serious problems.  Good jobs may be offered to all, but some will remain chronically unemployed.  Slums may be demolished, but if the housing that replaces them is occupied by the lower class it will shortly be turned into new slums.  Welfare payments may be doubled or tripled and a negative income tax instituted, but some persons will continue to live in squalor and misery. [10]

Holding what Albert Hirschmann later called an attitude of ‘futility’ towards the role of the state,[11] Banfield believed that only the market had any hope of disciplining the lower class.  This meant lowering the age of compulsory education to fourteen, scrapping labour laws and the minimum wage, which made the lower class uncompetitive to employ, and removing social security, which allowed them to survive without working.[12]

Banfield’s ‘futility thesis’ was later superseded on the right by the ‘perversity thesis’ of Charles Murray.[13] In Murray’s view, the state, and the Great Society reforms in particular, were not only ineffective and wasteful, but in fact responsible for poverty because they instilled welfare dependency amongst an ‘underclass’ who could otherwise be living decent working lives.  Although he described his underclass in far less sympathetic terms than Duncan Smith does today, Murray made similar observations about their dysfunctional behaviour.  He also took aim at the smug liberals and their ‘fashionable’ structural explanations for poverty.  Finally, like Duncan Smith, he failed to mention the economy, despite the damage – well-documented by most others working in his field at the time – that economic restructuring was inflicting on the cities of the U.S.  rustbelt. 

Moving forward

With Iain Duncan Smith’s ‘pathways to poverty’ model, these arguments have gone full circle.  He has combined the compassionate language of Ryan with the counter-factual, anti-state ideology of Murray.  The former meets the needs of a political culture in which all must speak the universalistic discourse of hope and aspiration, even when their policies sow despair and strangle social mobility.  The latter offers a rationale for a government with a radical anti-state agenda to shrink the welfare budget.  Crucially the approach carries a populist appeal to sections of the working poor and the working and lower-middle classes, exploiting resentment against both those on welfare and the mythical ‘liberal elite’ (whom the conservative elite are so fond of blaming for national problems, real and perceived).  Proposals for improving the performance of the economy or distributing its opportunities and dividends more equitably, meanwhile, are quietly bypassed.

To counter this theoretically weak but politically powerful argument, it may be necessary to bring together the best of the Lewis/Moynihan and Ryan schools of thought.  Ryan was surely right to criticise the language of ‘pathology’ and the tendency to see the poor as homogeneously ‘different’.  On the other hand Lewis and Moynihan seemed to better understand the deep structural forces that reproduce inequality in capitalist societies, and their tendency to concentrate social problems in particular places and segments of the population.  For those who saw the 2011 riots as an explosion of social unrest, but one that for the most part lacked any clear political consciousness, their broad approach offers greater explanatory power.

The approach adopted by Iain Duncan Smith will only broaden and intensify the social and economic conditions that lay behind those riots and must be resisted.  As economic stagnation eats into incomes, pensions and the job prospects of the young across the social spectrum, the time may be ripe to rehabilitate the idea of collective action that drove the War on Poverty, and the creation of the welfare state on this side of the Atlantic.  A political programme combining mass job creation and reskilling of the young and long-term unemployed, with steps to introduce a guaranteed living wage and subsidised childcare, would recapture their ambitious aims for a new age.  By seeking to address the challenges faced by those both in and out of work, such an approach would confront the divide and rule tactics that pit the working poor against the unemployed, public sector employees against private, and unionised against non-unionised workers.  It would expose the lie that the key division in contemporary society is between the welfare dependent and everyone else, when, in fact, it is between a small minority who benefit from an economic system based on precarious employment and debt-fuelled consumption, and the vast majority who do not.

Matthew Richmond is a PhD student in human geography at King's College London.  His research focuses on urban integration, inequality and social networks in Rio de Janeiro.


[2] These were described in the CSJ’s 2006 report to the then-Conservative opposition, Breakdown Britain, which became a crucial pillar of David Cameron’s modernising agenda.

[3] Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1965), The Negro Family: The Case for National Action, Washington, DC: Office of Policy Planning and Research, U.S. Department of Labor.

[4] Oscar Lewis (1966), ‘The culture of poverty’, Scientific American, 215: 4.

[5] ibid., p.21.

[6] ibid.

[7] ibid.

[8] William Ryan (1976) [1970], Blaming the victim.  Rev.  ed.  New York: Vintage Books, p.10.

[9] Edward C. Banfield (1974), The Unheavenly City Revisited: A Revision of the Unheavenly City, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, p.211.

[10] ibid., p.235.

[11] Albert Hirschman (1991), The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeapoardy, Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press.

[12] Edward C. Banfield (1974), The Unheavenly City Revisited: A Revision of the Unheavenly City, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, pp. 260-79.

[13] Charles Murray (1984), Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, New York: Basic Books.

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