(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 17 February 2016.)


Thirty-seven of the 64 individuals apprehended by the police in connection with the riot in the morning of the second day of the Chinese New Year were charged with rioting in court on 13 February. Their ages ranged from 17 to 47 (ignoring a 70 year-old who most probably is retired). They can be neatly divided into three groups: 7 of them are students, 12 are not working, and 17 hold jobs that are mostly low skilled work. The average age of the three groups were: students 20.6 years, those not working 27.2 years, and those with jobs 26.4 years.


As we can see, one-third of them are not working. If we exclude the students from the calculation then about 41% of them are not working. This is a very high proportion of non-working individuals in a city where the unemployment rate is unusually low. But in fact, the proportion of young individuals who were not in the labor force for no compelling reason rose dramatically from about 0.6% in 1996 to 4.0% in 2011 (see my article “Demystifying the Rising Poverty Rate” in Hong Kong Economic Journal, 23 September 2015).


Nineteen (or 53%) of them were born after 1990; if we exclude the students then 12 (or 41%) of them were. This is the generation that grew up when Hong Kong’s divorce rate and proportion of single parent households were rapidly escalating (see my article “Family Breakdown, Poverty and Discontent in Public Housing” in Hong Kong Economic Journal, 20 January 2016).


Whether there is any significant difference in the socioeconomic characteristics between the two non-student groups (i.e., those who are not working and those with jobs) is unknown, but I would conjecture that most are likely to come from the lower social economic group of society. This group is also where divorced and single parent households are concentrated, and most of them live in public rental housing estates.


Karl Marx coined an interesting term for this class of workers, the “lumpenproletariat”, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852). He defined them as the layer of the working class that is unlikely ever to achieve class-consciousness and is therefore lost to socially useful production, of no use to the revolutionary struggle, and perhaps even an impediment to the realization of a classless society.


For Marx, the lumpenproletariat are the class of outcast, degenerated and submerged elements that make up a section of the population of industrial centers, which include the chronic unemployed or unemployables, persons who have been cast out by industry, and all sorts of declassed, degraded or degenerated elements.


In the Eighteenth Brumaire, Marx contended that the lumpenproletariat constituted the political power base for Louis Bonaparte of France in 1848. To Marx, the lumpenproletariat had no special motive for participating in revolution, and might in fact have an interest in preserving the current class structure, because its members usually depended on the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy for their day-to-day existence. In that sense, Marx saw the lumpenproletariat as a counter-revolutionary force.


Marx argued that Bonaparte was able to place himself above the two main classes, the proletariat and bourgeoisie, by resorting to the lumpenproletariat as an apparently independent base of power. Marx therefore saw the lumpenproletariat as the power base of a populist dictatorship.


Contemporary sociologists have included all the marginalized elements of society characterized by Marx under this label. The term is now used to refer to those they regard as the victims of modern society, who exist outside the wage-labor system, sometimes even as beggars or people who make their living through disreputable means but depend on the formal economy for their day-to-day existence. The term underclass is also often used to describe them. Many social scientists believe that the largest proportion of the underclass is supported (and perhaps, some argue, even created) by the social welfare state through income and in-kind transfers.


The influential 19th century anarchist activist and theorist Mikhail Bakunin had a view almost the opposite of Marx’s on the revolutionary potential of the lumpenproletariat vs. the proletariat. Bakunin considered that being employed by capital destroyed the revolutionary character of industrial workers. For Bakunin, the revolutionary archetype was found in a peasant milieu, with its longstanding insurrectionary traditions, and amongst educated unemployed youth, assorted marginalized members from all classes, brigands, robbers, the impoverished masses, and those on the margins of society, who had escaped, been excluded from, or not yet subsumed in the discipline of emerging industrial work, in short, all those belonging to the lumpenproletariat.


Marx dismissed the anarchist view and asserted that the real danger to the state did not come from the poor. The poor, members of the lumpenproletariat, did not mount revolutions, although they joined them and often became cannon fodder. The real danger to the elite came from déclassé intellectuals, those educated middle-class men and women who were barred from advancement.


These are the artists without studios or theaters, teachers without classrooms, lawyers without clients, doctors without patients and journalists without newspapers, who descend economically. They become, as they mingle with the underclass, a bridge between the worlds of the elite and the oppressed. And they are the dynamite that triggers revolt. Lenin was a lawyer and Mao was a librarian before becoming a revolutionary.


Most of the students charged with rioting in the court appear to be attending universities. In the past they would have joined the ranks of the elite in Hong Kong, but today some complain of low mobility. If they come from underprivileged backgrounds, would they still be able to change their social and economic prospects with a university education? This is a “six billion dollar” question that social science has not yet been able to provide a good answer for Hong Kong, as well as for elsewhere in the industrialized world where middle class income stagnation has been present for some time.


It should be the focus of a lot more high powered and careful studies.


I have often heard observers and government officials worry that an oversupply of university graduates might negatively impact mobility. I have often argued that Hong Kong produces too few university graduates and that is why the rate of return to higher education is so high. Hong Kong is moving into a high value-added service economy. The demand for skills and talent is enormous. Unfortunately our working population is growing very slowly. Investors and startups are having difficulty recruiting the necessary talent despite our outstanding economic infrastructure and institutions. This is turning economic opportunities away.


Another consequence of having too few skilled workers and talents in the labor market is that there are too many unskilled workers. If Hong Kong trained more better-educated skilled workers, then we would decrease the relative proportion of unskilled workers in the labor force and at the same time help boost their wages and incomes, thus reducing overall economic inequality. Currently, the wages and incomes of unskilled workers are held down because there are too many of them for a high value-added service economy, so they feel doubly impoverished because they still have to live in an expensive city.


But one development in higher education is worrying. It is not the over-supply of university graduates per se, but the oversupply of one type of graduate – those postgraduate students for whom there aren’t good job careers and opportunities. This is especially true of research postgraduates rather than taught postgraduates simply because there isn’t at this time a sufficient number of well-paying jobs for them in Hong Kong and Asian universities.


From a disciplinary perspective, few local students have illusions that research postgraduates studies in the sciences will lead to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but in the social sciences and humanities the belief that it could at least lead to freedom and self-realization is still a dream some feel worth pursuing. Unfortunately for most of them, after toiling alone in cramped offices for years, alienated and overworked, the best they can hope for is another 10 years as a tutor or as a part-time lecturer with no job security.


Many I know live in sub-divided housing units in Mongkok. There they meet the lumpenproletariat, armed with their knowledge of Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Marcuse, Sartre, Althusser, Lukács, Gramsci, Lyotard, Foucault, Derrida, Lacan, Žižek, and other nihilist postmodernist thinkers. They are equivocal about whether they are doing social theory, literature, or revolution.


When I was a post-graduate student in the 1970s, toiling in an isolated basement office, struggling to get my thesis finished, I and a number of fellow post-graduate students in the same situation hijacked Andre Gunder Frank’s (of dependency theory fame) term “lumpen bourgeoisie” to describe our predicament and fate.


As doctoral students, we were members of the bourgeois class in the Marxian sense. But like the lumpenproletariat we were at the bottom of the pyramid (some or our more radical fellow students thought replacing the word “pyramid” with “food chain” would have been a more apt description). What lay before of us once our theses were completed was shrouded in uncertainty, and we all felt quite insecure.


The lumpen bourgeoisie is a very appropriate term describing our state of existence at that time. As students living on scholarships, staying in student dormitories, treated at university clinics, and receiving stipends to pay for services and goods, we led an existence outside the wage-labor system, but depended on the support of the formal economy for our day-to-day living. As educated middle-class men and women, we could become déclassé intellectuals if barred from professional and career advancement; and some more ambitious and romantic ones might be keen to organize a revolt.


Are we in Hong Kong exacerbating our deep contradictions, rather than resolving them?

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