Described as a book that is a classic of our times, Life at the Bottom was first published in 2001. The book informs us that: ‘The majority of the British underclass is white, and that it demonstrates all the same social pathology as the black underclass in America – for similar reasons of course’ (pviii). The book goes on to attempt to explain these reasons in great detail.
From the off this book left me perplexed, annoyed and frustrated in equal measure. I know it’s only twenty years old, but some of it reads like it was written by some crotchety old Puritan from the 1600’s. Yet, despite this, I couldn’t help but nod in agreement frequently throughout the book. His take on the breakdown of marriage (and his criticisms of the liberal agenda for doing so) was bang on the money. Consider this quote. ‘If anyone wants to see what sexual relations are like, freed of contractual and social obligations, let him look at the chaos of the personal lives of the members of the underclass’ (pxi). He goes even further.
Here are abortions procured by abdominal Kung Fu (no idea); children who have children, in numbers known before the advent of chemical contraception and sex education; women abandoned by the father of their child a month before or a month after delivery; insensate jealousy, the reverse of the coin of general promiscuity, that results in the most hideous oppression and violence; serial step-fatherhood that leads to sexual and physical abuse of children on a mass scale; and every kind of loosening of the distinction between the sexually permissible and the impermissible.
Brutal, right? Devastating, even. But let me assure you he hits the nail full on the head here, even if he uses a sledgehammer to do it! This behaviour surrounds me on the scheme with the younger generation (under thirty). No rules. No moral compass. No sense of responsibility. Abortion on demand. Partners changed like clothing. Children are disposable. Paedophilia is rife. Nobody talks about it and yet so many adults in my church, and many more associated with it, have suffered physical and/or sexual abuse as children.
Dalrymple asks: ‘Does the fate of the underclass matter? If the misery of millions of people matters, then the answer must surely be yes’ (pxiii). Sadly for him, and the underclass, he has no solutions, only observations. In fact, at many points, I stopped reading and gave silent thanks that we have the hope of the world – the good news of the Lord Jesus. That is the ultimate answer to these problems. Even though he touches on spirituality (more of that later) he gives it no real credence whatsoever.
‘The aim of untold millions is to be free to do exactly as they choose and for someone else to pay when things go wrong’ (p5). What Dalrymple does capture really well is the underlying dishonesty at the heart of people who refuse to take responsibility for their actions. He picks up the fact that drug addicts (as an example) will use specific language when in the room with doctors, social workers or probation officers. In other words, people who could help them get access to the prescription drugs they want. They also play the victim card with alarming regularity. It’s not their fault. ‘It’s the disease’ is a favourite. As is ‘I had a bad upbringing and that’s why I behave like I do’. They are just the innocent party subject to things outside of their control! Yet, Dalrymple observes, they never afford this grace to those in authority (namely the police) whom they feel have wronged them. They never think, ‘“Poor cops! They were brought up in authoritarian homes and now project the anger that is really directed at their bullying dads on to me. They need their heads sorted out.” On the contrary…they assume the police act out of free, if malevolent, will’ (p10).
Now hang in, because this is where it gets dark, and I have written about this before. For Dalrymple the problems are compounded because the system is actually benefitting from these people and their behaviour(s). ‘There is now a much-enlarged constituency for liberal views: the legions of helpers and carers, social workers and therapists, whose incomes and careers depend crucially on the supposed incapacity of large numbers of people to fend for themselves and to behave reasonably’ (p12). This is where he gets a hearty amen from me. For years I was told by social workers that I couldn’t help my anti-social behaviour. I was a product of a bad upbringing and that’s why I made poor life choices. Yet, when I was confronted with the God of the Bible, I was taught about my wilful rebellion and my need to take responsibility for my sin and my behaviour; first toward God, and second toward society.
The knowledge that I was responsible for my own sinful rebellion (regardless of childhood injustices outside of my control) did not crush me but, miraculously, set me free. That is the liberating power of the gospel! I was constantly being told that I needed to love myself – when in fact what I needed to do was love myself less! Loving myself more made me self-centred, narcissistic and unable to empathise with anybody I felt didn’t understand me and my issues. What I really needed to do was to understand myself better, take responsibility for some of my terrible life choices and grow into maturity. Christ helped, and is helping me still, with all of that. Becoming part of a local church was the best thing ever for me. It put me into situations with people who were completely unlike me, who annoyed me at times, frustrated me often, but forced me to deal with my own heart and sinful ways of dealing with pressure and anger.
In Part Two I’ll discuss the second part of Dalrymple’s book, which talks about further pressures of living on an estate.