How the Criminal Underworld Was Invented by the Middle and Upper Classes

In his latest book, French historian Dominique Kalifa investigates how mainstream representations of poverty have been used for centuries to harm the poor.
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The Artful Dodger introduces Oliver to Fagin in this detail from an original George Cruikshank engraving for Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, ca. 1839.

The Artful Dodger introduces Oliver to Fagin in this detail from an original George Cruikshank engraving for Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist, ca. 1839.

There's nothing more solid or more material than poverty. If you can't afford a meal or a home, that reality presses down with an undeniable weight. Yet poverty is also an imaginary landscape in the minds of the upper and the middle classes: It is a terrain "in which the 'social' is constantly redefined by the 'moral,' and in which flesh-and-blood beings merge with fictional characters," as French historian Dominique Kalifa writes in his newly translated book Vice, Crime, and Poverty: How the Western Imagination Invented the Underworld. The reality of poverty, Kalifa says, is accompanied by a shared dream of poverty—a social narrative that has had, and continues to have, unfortunate material effects on the lower classes.

For centuries, Kalifa argues, poverty was understood in the West through the idea of the lower depths—or, in French, the bas-fonds. The bas-fonds referred to "the hell down into which hordes of vagabonds, wretches, mendicants, 'lost' girls, criminals, and convicts seem to be constantly dragged," Kalifa writes. It encompasses the poor, the immoral, the mentally ill, and the criminal—everyone who's been cast out from supposedly decent society.

Kalifa says that the lower depths, as a social concept, began to coalesce in the Middle Ages.

"Until the 12th century in the Christian world, poverty was sanctified," he tells me. Poor people in those days were seen as blessed by God, and "charity was a necessary action."

But a series of crises, including conflicts like the Hundred Years' War and the Black Death, led to a steep rise in poverty, which overwhelmed traditional charitable institutions and norms. Theologians and other thinkers responded to these developments with "the notion of the bad pauper," according to Kalifa. The poor were separated into the good or deserving poor, versus "the bad one, the undeserving one, who chose poverty instead of work, and perverted the charity system."

The bad poor were lazy people who chose not to work—who pretended to be blind or lame to tug on the heartstrings of people who might be persuaded to toss them a coin out of sympathy. By the 1700s and 1800s, Kalifa says, it was no longer enough to give to those who asked; now, charitable contributors and institutions had to make sure they were giving to the right people.

Over time, the idea of the bad beggar metastasized into an imaginative world, in which vice and poverty became intermingled and mutually reinforcing, each leading to the other in an endless cycle of degradation and filth.

Writers often consciously described this other society as a kind of counterworld. In 1750, for example, the novelist (and magistrate) Henry Fielding observed that criminals in the lower depths of London had their own government, treasury, and officers, and had thereby "reduced theft and robbery into a regular system." Other chroniclers categorized underworld denizens into quasi-scientific taxonomies. Criminologist (and former criminal) Eugène François Vidocq's Memoirs, published in 1828, provides an extensive list of deviant types for police to track, identify, and incarcerate.

An anonymous portrait of Eugène François Vidocq in the style of Achille Devéria.

An anonymous portrait of Eugène François Vidocq in the style of Achille Devéria.

Some portrayals of the lower depths were inspired by a reformist impulse. Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist and Victor Hugo's Les Miserables showed the moral perils of poverty and worked to stir sympathy for, and action on behalf of, the innocent ragged children dragged into crime and prostitution. Crusading reporters like Nellie Bly went undercover in slums, insane asylums, prisons, and sweatshops to uncover abuses.

In other instances, though, as Kalifa explains in his book, a moneyed fascination with the lower depths "arose from a thirst for escape and for social exoticism, an avidity to exploit the potential of the 'sensational' emotions." In London and Paris in the 1800s, there was a vogue for touring the underworld, observing its colorful characters, and in some instances having sex with them. Dickens himself embarked on frequent journeys to slums, workhouses and gin joints.

This kind of voyeuristic slumming is perhaps most hyperbolically reflected in the writing of H.P. Lovecraft, who described New York's neighborhoods in the mid-1920s with a mixture of disgust, fascination, and outright racism: "Red Hook is a maze of hybrid squalor.... The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another.... It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbor whistles."

For Lovecraft and others, this demi-monde served as an entertaining source of horror, and a convenient source of moralizing. "One can contend that this collation of all the dropouts and the outcasts serves as a specter useful to condemn 'bad behaviors,' to point out the social dangers, and to display by contrast the norms and good values of a society," Kalifa says. For writers like Lovecraft, the poor become at once a warning, a way to demonstrate virtue and its opposites, and an exciting sinfulness into which the more affluent can sink when the burden of respectability becomes tiresome.

For the poor, though, being reduced to a figment of someone else's psychodrama can have dangerous downsides. Kalifa tells me that the conflation of outcast populations into a single imaginative space has led the state to collect them in one, often horrifyingly neglected, physical space: In France, the Hôpital Général served as a place of confinement for the poor in the 17th century. Blackwell's Island in New York City included a penitentiary, an asylum for the insane, a smallpox hospital, a charity hospital for women, and an almshouse. Nellie Bly's exposé of Blackwell's mental institution in 1888 created a national scandal—but the institution wasn't completely closed down for another 50 years.

Since World War II, Kalifa says, the concept of the lower depths has been partially dismantled: It wouldn't necessarily seem natural for us anymore to place a penitentiary and a charity hospital next to each other. These days, "the underworld" usually refers to a specific professional criminal class, rather than to everyone who is poor or outcast.

Nonetheless, Kalifa says, "all the elements of the old [imagined] underworld are still around us." Ideas about the deserving and undeserving poor still shape welfare policy: The Trump administration has plans to use Facebook to spy on those who file disability claims to make sure that applicants are truly disabled, just as reformers and moralists in the 1700s were obsessed with ferreting out the supposed ploys of the undeserving poor.

Similarly, politicians still conflate poverty with violence, crime, and disease, as when Republicans describe immigrants seeking jobs and asylum as rapists, or claim that immigrants are spreading smallpox and leprosy. Now, as traditionally, politicians frame sex workers as victims in order to criminalize them. Criminals are still often seen as a separate, subhuman class, deserving to be locked away forever—in contrast with good, wealthy, white people, who deserve leniency and understanding when they engage in illegal activities.

"The original conception of the underworld gathered together the destitute, the criminals, and the outcast in a same category," Kalifa says. "Laboring classes were dangerous classes, every poor person was a potential criminal or a potential prostitute, every vagrant was a threat. Vice, crime, and poverty walked hand in hand." In theory, we've left those ideas behind. In practice, the poor, the mentally ill, and those classified as deviant are all still seen too often as a single stigmatized mass, to be cured, saved, policed, condescended to, and enjoyed as lurid entertainment by those who consider themselves their social superiors. The reality of poverty rests on a dream of poverty. We won't get rid of the first without doing more to change the second.

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