Democratic Fascism

reblogged from Sociological Review Blog

posted on Monday 21st November, 2016

Imogen Tyler

“If we are to keep the enormity of the forces aligned against us from establishing a false hierarchy of oppression, we must school ourselves to recognize that any attack against Blacks, any attack against women, is an attack against all of us who recognize that our interests are not being served by the systems we support.”

Audre Lorde, 1982

The election of Donald Trump as 45th US President ‘is an extinction-level event’. The conservative-cum-libertarian commentator Andrew Sullivan used this phrase back in May during the most divisive election campaign in US history, and it captures the multiple catastrophes already unfolding in the wake of this election. Indeed, one of Trump’s first actions as President-elect was to appoint climate change-denier Myron Ebell to oversee the introduction of radical policy changes in the US Environmental Protection Agency. Climate scientists have responded with horror; as one commented in despair, it’s “game over for the climate.”

Trump’s promise to build walls, hospitals and roads is “an ersatz economic populism” that clearly spoke to large swathes of the white working and middle classes, but which is a triumph for the billionaire class he represents. For the global elites Trump’s election means ‘a restoration’ of unrestrained gambling and hoarding. “Bankers … stand to make a killing. Massive tax cuts, including an elimination of the estate tax and big reductions for top earners seem like slam dunks in Trump’s Washington.” This election promises, then, a continuation of economic policies intent on the production of grotesque inequalities.

I want to reflect on this extinction-level event through the lens of the kind of fascism that Trump’s election represents, a fascism Alain Badiou has termed “Democratic Fascism”. I would also like to hold in mind those in the US who now face a future with limited healthcare and permanent reductions to welfare, and the forms of harm that are secured and legitimated through the sexual violence and racialized capitalism this fascism comprises.

In a 1932 article on Democracy and Fascism, Leon Trotsky argues that what links fascism and democracy as modes of governance are the systems of financial capitalism from which they emerge; democracy and fascism are capitalist in origin. Trotsky suggests that it is when the “normal” forms of compromise between capitalism and democracy fail, when “parliamentary screens no longer suffice to hold society in a state of equilibrium”, that “the Fascist regime arrives”.

When democracy fails, fascism masses “all the countless human beings whom finance capital itself has brought to desperation and frenzy.” The fascist mass, which draws support from across the class system, can exist only in the absence of organized opposition, which for Trotsky means the resistance of organized labour movements. Fascism thrives upon the continual destruction of solidarity between different factions within the working classes, such as, for example, that between working-class citizens and migrant workers.

Alain Badiou’s description of Trump’s election as “democratic fascism” resonates with Trotsky’s analysis. For Badiou, Trump closely resembles “the fascist of the 30s”, but what is different, he states, is the absence of “strong enemies”. Badiou’s point is that the primary resistance to fascism in Europe in the 1930s came from the left. It was a massing on the left that enabled a broad alliance against fascism to emerge. As he reminds us, struggles between people and capital have shaped the modern world, and liberal democracy is one of the compromises that emerged out ongoing political struggles for ‘equality’ – for freedom, economic redistribution, and rights. What is unprecedented about the current juncture is that globalized capitalism has won. Thus, for Badiou, what is signalled by Trump’s election and the rising power of other populist figures, such as Le Pen, Sarkozy, Hofer, Wilders, Orbán, Kaczyński, Petry, Akesson, Babis, Grillo, is the receding of equality as the radical horizon for politics.

Foucault argued that after the Second World War, the horrors of Nazism, and the rise of communist states in Central and Eastern Europe, a state-phobic consensus emerged in Western Europe, in which “the big state” was imagined to be the primary enemy of human freedom. This fear of fascism and hatred of communism gave rise to new transnational political projects such as the European Union and the United Nations. It also created the conditions for globalized capitalism, birthing the institutions that would deliver neoliberalism, the World Bank and the IMF. Today, the fear of fascism has been well and truly trumped as authoritarian states are reemerging in the West.

This democratic fascism – we voted for it – is the fascism of TINA: “There is no alternative”. Historically, we associate fascism with a centralized economy in which relations of production are harnessed to the ideological goals of the regime. The ideological goals of this era of fascism are inseparable from those of free-market capitalism. The “fascist party” is the party of the elites, CEOs, bankers, and the finance sector. It is the fascism of the City of London, Wall Street, Fox News, the Daily Mail and Trump Tower.

I received an email from a friend the day after Trump’s election proposing that we were witnessing capitalism uncoupling itself from the remaining tethers of the liberal state form. What we have learnt in recent years in the UK, in Turkey, Hungary, Australia, and in many other states where democratic and human rights and freedoms of all kinds have been steadily eroded, or have just plain disappeared, is that this uncoupling of capital and democracy doesn’t mean the end of the state. On the contrary, it means: the rise of authoritarian forms of state power in conjunction with terrorising forms of ethnonationalism; the election of far-right politicians; permanent states of emergency; the erosion of legal justice; the deepening of surveillance and police powers; expanding prison populations. This is the age of penal power, an era in which walls and cages are proliferating at multiple scales and locations. The election of a fascist President to the Whitehouse marks a new stage in this seemingly inexorable process.

Like ’30s fascism, democratic fascism operates through the continual and violent crushing of opposition through the creation of class fractions. Fascists inflame divisions, undermining sources of solidarity within and across classes. Democratic fascism garners legitimation through this crafting of otherness. It relies particularly on what Barbara and Karen Fields term “racecraft”: the “trick of transforming racism into race”(2012, 15). Racism is the lynchpin of democractic fascism.

Misogyny and sexual violence are also key in producing the gendered divisions that fascism relies on. Fascism is Patriarchy.

The life and death stakes of democratic fascism are being played out on the streets of American cities, where #notmypresident protesters attempt to communicate the cataclysmic significance of the election of a white supremacist billionaire to the most powerful political position in the world: “No Trump! No KKK! No Fascist USA!” Others are documenting hundreds of incidents of racist violence, and the racist abuse scrawled on walls, scribbled on car windscreens, chanted at games and spat into faces. People everywhere, Black and Brown, Latinos, Women, Queers, the undocumented, find themselves “thrown against a sharp white background”.

Much of this violence springs from the legitmation of racism by politicans, an intensification of existing forms of state racism. The crafting of racism by political and media elites to reproduce the nation, to garner political capital and legitimize exceptional measures is evident on every scale and in every sphere of public life. It is manifested in propaganda campaigns against migrants, in a rush of border wall and fence-building, in the detention and deportation of migrants, in the election of charismatic right-wing politicians on anti-immigration platforms, in the formation by neo-Nazis of “human walls” against refugees on state borders, in the creation of armed citizen militia groups and “border hunters”, in the formal and informal dispersal of border enforcement roles to state officials, medical authorities, schools and universities, welfare agencies and landlords, in the incessant production of racial stigma and hate-speech in news reporting, social media and everyday speech, and in rising levels of hate-crime and everyday violence against racialized citizens and foreigners.

In Europe the impact of the 2008 financial crisis has accelerated democratic fascism. The response of politicians and their corporate media arms to unrest over permanent reductions in welfare and public services was to further harness the animosities of the electorate to “the problem of race”. This racism operates largely along the axis of citizenship: legal/illegal, native/foreigner. It is distinguished by anti-migrant racism and, in particular, Islamophobia, but has hardened and legitimized hatred towards all racialized citizens, extending to white Central and Eastern European migrant workers in Western Europe. Anti-immigrant rhetoric “masses” the people across class divides. In the US different histories of colonialism and racism, and unrelenting violence and discrimination against Black citizens, has seen racism play out more sharply along colour lines. While state racism isn’t new, the rise of democractic fascism is.

Fascism pivots on racism but also incites hate against non-racialized minorities, the disabled, queers, women and fascism’s political opponents, from refugee advocates to feminists, labour movements and intellectuals, to the judiciary. Democratic fascism is not only deepening an existing social and economic crisis, but has become the main source of crisis, splintering social solidarity in ways unprecedented since the 1930s.

The election of Donald Trump as 45th President “is an extinction-level event”. Hope lies in global anti-fascist struggle. As Audre Lorde suggests, we must find common ground: “Each one of us here is a link in the connection between anti-poor legislation, gay shootings, the burning of synagogues, street harassment, attacks against women, and resurgent violence against Black people.”

Imogen Tyler is Professor in Sociology at Lancaster University. She tweets at @DrImogenTyler.


Anti-Racist Bystander Intervention – #againsthate

Racism is a social issue which we ALL need to address. This is a small preliminary collection of online resources gathered by Dr Alison Phipps, myself and others which offers various kinds of advice on what you can do if you are  witness to hate speech, (I am writing this with race hate in mind, but applies also to sexist, gender-based or disablist hate speech). One of the ideas behind bystander intervention is training individuals and communities to know how to act, (and how to act together, collectively, in public spaces – to support each other to act). Often people stay silent when they witness harassment, as they are frightened of intervening. However, for those who are targeted by hate, the silence of witnesses is often experienced as complicity.


Bystander intervention need not always be confrontational and may include:

  • Supporting the person or group that has been targeted
  • Taking note of anything that may later help identify the perpetrator
  • Recording the incident on your phone or other device if you feel safe to do so
  • Calling the behaviour out as racism or discrimination if you feel safe to do so
  • Confronting or disagreeing with the perpetrator if you feel safe to do so
  • Interrupting or distracting the perpetrator
  • Seeking the help of people around you
  • Reporting the incident (see resources below)
  • (Source:

    Feminist Philosophers Blog suggest the following:”NEVER engage the perpetrator. He is looking for confrontation. Instead speak to the person he is abusing. Say hello. Introduce yourself. Shake his or her hand. And just stand with them. Keep talking. About anything. Weather. Bus schedules. Football. .. Form a group of people with and around them if you can

Suggestions from Shane Boothby, editor of the Leveller:

  • Show solidarity with immigrants, refugees and those in your community who are on the receiving end of abuse.
  • Don’t leave it to those on the receiving end to stand up and criticize xenophobia and racism in the press or in public spaces. Listen and believe that this is happening and do what you can to counter it in the spaces around you, workplaces, family and friends.

See also What is bystander intervention? – an OPENLEARN lecture here on the history of this term from Dr Jovan Byford (Department of Psychology) at the Open University.

Please feel free to contact me with more resources to add: @drimogentyler


  1. United Against Racism have some guidelines here: “Who Not, it Not You?
    How you can intervene when witnessing racist a
  2. At UWE, Dr Rachel Fenton was the Principal Investigator for the Public Health England-funded bystander intervention project. The Intervention Initiative is an educational programme for the prevention of sexual coercion and domestic abuse in university settings, through empowering students to act as prosocial citizens. While the UWE bystander project focuses on sexual and gender-based violence much applies in other situations.
  1. Amnesty International are running an #againsthate campaign targeting Local Councils
  2. Not everybody will want to use or access police support, but if you can/do, you can report hate crimes online : Police advice is to Call 101, contact Crimestoppers or
  3. In London, you can also use the London Met MOPAC Hate Crime app for Android or Apple
  4. You can also use community reporting methods such as Tell MAMA for anti-Muslim incidents @TellMamaUk
  5. also Islamic Human Rights Commission for postbrexit hate crimes
  6. Community reporting antisemitism: Community Security Trust, CST
  7. The Hindu Council have created an online portal to report racism
  8.  Freedom reporting (anarchist solidarity organizing) have some ‘tips for the road’ 
  9. Y-Stop and Search addresses the problems experienced during a police led stop and search. It aims to give you the skills to handle stop and search and your interactions with the police, as well as provide tools for advice, empowerment and reporting police behaviour.
  10. Schools are required to report racist incidents & there are excellent guidelines for teachers online such as this downloadable guide Preventing and dealing with Racists Incidents. A handbook for …also resources from StandUpToBullying 


  1. Australian bystander anti-racist project This is a great set of resources from Professor Kevin Dunn and  researchers in Sydney with training videos and resources. see a recent article about this project
  2. Another Australian bystander intervention training video 
  3. Australia again – SPEAK UP! handbook on tackling racism in different locations/social interactions
  4. A Call For Bystander Intervention To End Racism’  Eric Grollman from Virginia University 
  5. Bystander Anti-Racism, Monash 






Why is my Curriculum White?

A Lancaster launch of the national NUS campaign “Why is my Curriculum White?” will be held next week at which all staff and students are welcome and encouraged to attend. Please circulate widely to colleagues and friends. Watch the UCL campaign video here:

The campaign began at UCL and has now spread to several universities across the country, including Leeds, Manchester and Oxford as part of the movements to decolonise education. It is student run, and supported by Lancaster’s Student Union and some Lancaster academics. It is a movement to decolonize the curriculum on offer at this university. This requires looking reflexively at the curriculum; learning to ask questions, such as why we have certain topics made available, whilst others are omitted; and creating a voice for those who are underrepresented by the education system. In the words of Nathaniel Coleman, who founded the movement at UCL, the campaign is it to “mobilise a social movement around the unifying symbol of the Eurocentric colonial kyriarchy,” basically moving curriculum on from white, Eurocentric, imperialist colonial washing, to a new paradigm of looking at the past and its effect on how we read it today. “Black” and “white” histories in this country go far back together and are intrinsically linked, so why is that we are still saturated in works by predominately white education makers, whilst ethnic minorities are essentially written out of histories and curriculum at many educational establishments?
Further materials that may be of interest are below.
Sofia Akel

why is my curriculm white

John Urry (1946-2016)



I am saddened by the untimely death of my colleague and friend Professor John Urry. I have worked alongside John for 17 years at Lancaster. He was my mentor when I was appointed as a lecturer in 1998 and he has been the warmest, kindest and most encouraging colleague. His death will leave a gaping hole in the Sociology Department; it is impossible to imagine our staff meetings, postgraduate conferences and research events without his smiling presence. John told me that he never intended to retire as he had too much to do. A champion of civic freedom, environmental and social justice issues, John was an anti-elitist in an age increasingly dominated by global elites (the ‘offshore class’ as he called them).  He was a public sociologist, he loved twitter and he used this and other platforms to express criticism of the corrosion of democratic accountability and the erosion of the welfare state. These concerns were reflected in his recent work on inequalities, such as the global wealth gap, the concealment of wealth in tax havens (Offshoring), the inequality effects of climate change and ‘mobility-generated inequalities’. He understood that in order to confront climate change, rich societies urgently need to ‘power down’, but deepening economic inequalities make this almost impossible – therefore more equal societies are a fundamental requirement of post-oil, degrowth human futures. However, John was never a pessimist and one of his many legacies will be his enduring belief in the ability of technology, when harnessed to a sociological imagination, to tackle the most pressing social problems and bring about democratising forms of social change. I am going to miss his optimism most of all.


2013-04-23 17.52.41

John and I at our joint Societies Beyond Oil and Revolting Subjects book launch in Lancaster, 2013.

Connor Sparrowhawk: the erosion of accountability and the administrative grotesque #JusticeforLB

reblogged from a guest post i did for @justiceforlb, with thanks to Dr George Julian for formatting and editing, and Sara Ryan for feedback.

Connor Sparrowhawk, the erosion of accountability and the administrative grotesque

We believe that everyone has the right to be unequal (Thatcher, 1975).

For me, it’s not a question of saying the NHS is ‘safe in my hands’. Of course it will be. My family is so often in the hands of the NHS. And I want them to be safe there. Tony Blair once explained his priority in three words: education, education, education. I can do it in three letters: NHS (Cameron, 2006).

Loving a disabled child
Put yourself for a moment into a mother’s shoes. You have a baby, you call him Connor, he is a beautiful, much loved and much wanted addition to your family. He has learning disabilities, and will later be diagnosed as autistic and epileptic. As he grows up you find the services provided for children like him are patchy, unconnected and difficult to access:

It’s a tough gig bringing up a disabled child. Yep. It shouldn’t be, I know. Appropriate, timely and sufficient support would make a huge difference. And a seismic shift in public attitudes (Sara Ryan, Boundaries, February 11 2013).

You are unrelenting in seeking support for your child, finding ways to navigate agencies and services making sure he can attend a caring school. You begin to write a blog about your life, random happenings, images and observations; it soon becomes focused on life with your son as he ‘comes to the end of his school life and stands, unaware, on the edge of a huge gap in adult services’. As Connor becomes an adolescent, some of his behaviours become difficult to manage. You reflect on what his adult life holds in store, about the kinds of support he will need to continue to live a good life, a happy life, a decent and dignified live. Leading up to his 18th birthday, Connor gets increasingly anxious and agitated; he is laughing less, then not at all. Things aren’t working, Connor is depressed, unhappy, needs help, you all need help. He has some violent outbursts, and “the crunch” comes when he hits a teaching assistant at school. Connor is referred to a small specialist short-term acute assessment unit where his needs can be evaluated and a future care plan put in place. This NHS unit, Slade House, is only 5 minutes from your home and you will be able to visit him every day. It feels like a good temporary solution, one which will allow your family to work with medical professionals to figure out best options and a future plan for your son.

107 days later

Our beautiful, hilarious, exceptional dude was found unconscious in the bath in the unit before a planned trip to the Oxford Bus Company. The psychiatrist from the unit who called me at work around 10am to say that LB had been taken to hospital, gave no steer he was pretty much dead. I asked her (as an anxiety induced after thought) if he was conscious when he left the unit in the ambulance. She said they’d cleared his airway but he hadn’t regained consciousness. She made no suggestion I should urgently go to the hospital or that I should go with someone. It was a care less call. Much like the ‘care’ he’d always experienced outside home and school.

I arrived at the hospital twenty or so minutes later, with a work colleague who (so, so kindly) insisted on coming with me. I was immediately faced with a LB has a ‘dead heart only kept alive by a ventilator’ story. This news generated my, to that point, unknown sounds.

I hugged him while he died.

Unspeakable horror.

Agonising pain.

We are now in a space I can’t describe (Sara Ryan, The Day After, July 5 2013).

Connor Sparrowhawk (known as Laughing Boy, or LB) drowned in the bath in an NHS Assessment and Treatment Unit (Slade House) for adults with disabilities, on the 4th of July, 2013. Connor was 18 years old and had been in ‘the care’ of the unit for 107 days. The NHS trust (Southern Health) initially attributed his death to natural causes. Connor’s mother, Sara Ryan, a disability researcher, had already been writing a (then anonymous) blog – Mydaftlife– about family life with Connor. After he died she, along with family, friends and supporters, began a campaign to seek justice for him. An inquest into Connor’s death began on Monday 5 October 2015, and for the first time in British history a Coroners hearing, was live tweeted @LBInquest. The Coroner’s Jury found that Connor’s death was preventable, and that neglect had played a part: A two year fight to be told that an epileptic teenager with learning disabilities shouldn’t have been left unsupervised in a bath in ‘a secure and safe’ specialist unit. As a consequence of Connor’s death, and under considerable pressure from the #JusticeforLB campaign, NHS England commissioned Mazars, an auditing firm, to review ‘all deaths of people in receipt of care from Mental Health and Learning Disability services in Southern Health Trust between April 2011 and March 2015’. The findings of this report reveal that this particular trust had failed to investigate the deaths of more than 1,000 patients with learning disabilities or mental health problems.

Focusing on the deaths of learning disability uncovered by Mazars, and drawing on Chris Hatton’s careful analysis, from April 2011 to March 2015, there were in total 365 deaths of people with learning disabilities under the care of Southern Health learning disability services. That’s over 90 deaths of people with learning disabilities being cared for by Southern Health every year and 158 of these deaths were recorded as unexpected. However, Mazars also asks us not to trust this figure, as the recording systems used by Southern Health were ‘not working’, confused and in effect useless:

the deaths of people with a Learning Disability are not made visible in the recorded data presented to the Trust Board and to regulators and commissioners whether expected or not; natural or unnatural. … It is not therefore possible to rely on published information as an accurate measure of risk or death related incidents in the Trust. … The overall level of unexpected deaths has not been reported anywhere so there has not been an accurate reflection of the levels of deaths occurring amongst patients (Mazars, Independent review of deaths of people with a Learning Disability or Mental Health problem in contact with Southern Health NHS Foundation Trust, April 2011 to March 2015, December 2015).

The Mazars report couldn’t, in the absence of accurate data, account for the number of learning disabled people who had died in their care: It did reveal that nobody was accounting for them.

Notably, of the 158 deaths of people with learning disabilities which were recorded as unexpected, Southern Health only reviewed 68 of them, and only 1 of these got as far as what is called a Serious Critical Incident Review. As Hatton notes “In total, 99% of unexpected deaths of people with learning disabilities were not recorded on a national system that would have brought them to the attention of commissioners or the national level Care Quality Commission [the independent regulator of Health and Social Care in England]”. In short:

the Mazars review brings into the open what feels like a fundamental disregard for the lives of people with learning disabilities, even within organisations that are supposed to be supporting people (Chris Hatton, Heart of Darkness, 2015).

The #JusticeforLB movement has succeeded in exposing the most disturbing and penurious facts about the British states treatment of learning disabled people since the Winterbourne Inquiry (which detailed the criminal abuse by staff of patients at a privately owned care facility called Winterbourne View Hospital, near Bristol, but was only exposed by the work of uncover journalism supported by the BBC’s Panorama team). Since Connor’s death, many have come forward to speak about ongoing failures in care for learning disabled people, about neglect, about their struggles to get answers about the deaths of loved ones, and about their fears for the future in the face of seemingly permanent reductions in funding for adult social care. In the context of seemingly permanent austerity, Connor’s death raises fundamental questions about the future of welfare itself. Indeed, it is imperative that we understand #JusticeforLB’s struggle for accountability within the context of ‘the virtually impenetrable Health & Social Care Act (2013)’ (Youssef El-Gingihy, 2015: 3), which came into law three months before Connor’s death. As Jacky Davy, John Lister and David Wrigley note in their important account of the systematic demolition of the NHS, NHS for Sale: Myths, Lies and Deception (2015), one of the first casualties of the Health and Social Care Act (2013) was accountability itself. (see also Accountability in the NHS: Implications of the government’s health reform programme, Jo Maybin, Rachael Addicott, Anna Dixon and John Storey, The King’s Fund, 2011, Lords warn on ministerial accountability in NHS reforms, The Guardian, 2011).

Shouting “into an ideological headwind of gale-force strength” (Peck, 2013)
While we know why Connor died (he died of neglect), to have his death accounted for has proven more challenging. This is due in no small part to the baffling complexity of what we used to call ‘the National Health Service’ (NHS). In effect, the NHS no longer exists, or at least not in a form those who created it would recognize (see El-Gingihy, 2015).

The Kings Fund has produced an animated film which attempts to explain the structure of commissioners, boards, trusts and service providers who constitute the contemporary NHS since the most recent round of ‘reforms’ instituted by the collation Government in 2012:

Today, the closet thing we have to central governance, and national level accountability, within the NHS is “a body” called NHS England, which receives the bulk of tax-payers funding to pay for the services we receive. NHS England is primarily a commissioning body, however, the bulk of actual commissioning work is devolved to local ‘Clinical Commissioning Groups’ (made up of Doctors, nurses, some members of the public ,‘health professionals’, and a significant number of private health company representatives and shareholders) who commission services from a range of ‘pubic’ and ‘private’ service providers. These changes in the government of the National Health Service where made, the public was told, in order to “liberate”, as the Health and Social Care Act (2013) put it, hospitals, GPs and local authorities to decide what kinds and levels of provision to make to the public.

In the case of Connor Sparrowhawk, the liberated services which had been ‘commissioned’ to care for him where provided by an NHS Foundation Trust called Southern Health, who are one of England’s largest providers of ‘community health, specialist mental health and learning disability services’. Mazars concluded that those in charge of overseeing the delivery of Southern Health services had catastrophically failed. In particular they noted that a ‘failure to bring about sustained improvement in the identification of unexpected death and in the quality and timeliness of reports into those deaths is a failure of leadership and of governance’. What are the consequences of this failure of leadership and governance? Who can be held to account in a context where the government has devolved its “constitutional responsibility” to provide NHS services? Where does legal and political responsibility lie? With those whose neglect contributed to Connor’s death? With Southern Health? With the CCG who commissioned their services? With NHS England? With the Secretary of State for Health? If all of these ‘bodies’ are in some part accountable, who can hold them to account, what are the systems for accounting?

the administrative grotesque 
In Abnormal: Lectures at the College de France. 1974-1975, Michel Foucault describes a system of neoliberal governmentality he calls the “administrative grotesque”, ‘in which the person to whom power is given is at the same time ridiculed or made abject or shown in an unfavourable light, through a number of rites and ceremonies’(Foucault, 2003, p. 13). In terms of the administrative bureaucracy faced by #JusticeforLB, we might think here of the rituals of meetings, minutes, memos, investigations, hearings, evidence, reports and the ceremony of public apology. What Foucault argues, is that these rituals often reveal those who wield power in an unfavourable light, even ridiculing them, but this has doesn’t have the effect of limiting their power but on the contrary and perversely, it strengthens and strangely further legitimates their hold on power. As Foucault puts it, the administrative grotesque, grants ‘a striking form of expression to the unavoidability, the inevitability of power, which can function in its full rigor and at the extreme point of its rationality even when in the hands of someone who is effectively discredited’ (Foucault, 2003, p. 13).

What we can learn from this is that practices of calling to account, activist practices engaged in revealing, showing, demanding and even disgracing bureaucrats, managers, mandarins, and politicians, can in effect support the very system they challenge. Hence the response of administrative and governmental bodies to #JusticeforLB and to the grotesque facts revealed by Mazars is: “It’s a Fair Cop”, you are right, we have failed, we haven’t done well enough, we are sorry, you have effectively shamed us, but we cannot, will not, relinquish any power as this will simply make the systems that we are reforming, it will make these failing systems collapse, and the more you needle us, the deeper and more extensive the rot at the heart of the systems of ‘care’ you expose are revealed, the more mandarins implicated in this administrative grotesque, the tighter, in fact, is our grip on power.

The ‘exercise of power through the explicit disqualification of the person who wields it’ speaks to those discredited by the Mazars report for whom there have been no consequences, but also offers useful clues as to the wider system of governmentality which have inexorably eroded systems of accountability, and with it the possibility for redress and justice, within the NHS and other increasingly fragmented and privatised public services and institutions (Foucault, 2003, pp. 35–6). There is, Thatcher liked to say, no alternative. What we face today is TINA on speed. As Jamie Peck puts it:

In contrast to the first major wave of cuts, back in the 1980s – when Thatcher, Reagan and others in the early vanguard of the neoliberal project were confidently predicting a much brighter upside (once the bureaucratic red tape and welfare-state impediments were removed), the political rhetoric of today is colored in much darker hues. Maybe we are still being told that there is no alternative, but now it is that there is no alternative to protracted pain and suffering, to permanent reductions in public services, even those once deemed ‘essential’ (Peck, 2013)

One concrete consequence of these permanent reductions in public services is the erosion of the ability of citizens to hold their Government to account. Or to put it more plainly, permanent reductions in public services necessitates the erosion of structures of accountability.

The hollow rituals of apology without accountability 
On December 10th 2015, the leaked Mazars findings provoked the tabling of an ‘urgent question’ to the Health Sectary Jeremy Hunt in the House of Commons. Hunt made a public apology to Sara Ryan and her family. Hunt thanked the #JusticeforLB campaign, and suggested he was grateful for their exposure of the failures at Southern Health.

In his 2005 book, DIRECT DEMOCRACY: An Agenda for a New Model Party, Hunt not only put forward a case for the privatisation of the NHS, but specifically argued for an end to government accountability for the welfare state. Hunt stated, “what is needed is not the accountability of services to central government – precisely the error of the Attlee settlement whose failed systems we still inhabit.” (Hunt, 2003: 5). Attlee was the Labour Prime-Minister (1945 to 1951) who oversaw the development of the post-war welfare state. His Health Minister, Aneurin Bevan, created the National Health Service (NHS) in 1948. Hunt’s political ambition, to rid the government, and specially the Department of Health, for accountability for failures in care, is precisely what has come to pass, though the establishment of NHS England, and ‘chaotic and ill-prepared’ local Clinical Commissioning Groups. Decentralised ‘accountability’, said Hunt, ‘must be direct, democratic and local’ (Hunt, 2005), in actuality devolved accountability, market-based accountability, exercises authority through obfuscation, a strategy which seems to centre on tiring out those who attempt to question and challenge.

The administrative grotesque which characterises the state we are in, marks a departure from Attlee’s radical vision of a Government for the people to government of the people by an impenetrable networks of vested interests.

The bones of hope
Judith Butler notes, ‘Many people think that grief is privatizing, that it returns us to a solitary situation, but I think it exposes the constitutive sociality of the self, a basis for thinking a political community of a complex order (Butler, 2004, p. 18). The counter-political community of #JusticeforLB has exposed the horror of the administrative grotesque. This has been no small undertaking, but has involved the harnessing of an arsenal of strategies and technologies: the #107days campaign and actions, the use of digital and off-line activist practices: twitter, blogging, vimeo, the #LBBill, the Justice Quilt, the Justice Shed, films, art exhibitions, the #JusticeforLB Symposium, picnics and flags. This is a movement grounded in grief and love, but moved, agitated, kept alive, by the promise of justice for people with learning disabilities, and the possibility of a different welfare future.

Refugees are not a crisis, global apartheid is the crisis

by Imogen Tyler and Jenna Loyd, also published on Open Democracy

This is my family.

Baba, mama, baby all washed up on the shore. This is 28 shoeless survivors and thousands of bodies.

Bodies Syrian, Bodies Somali, Bodies Afghan, Bodies Ethiopian, Bodies Eritrean. Bodies Palestinian.

Jehan Bsesio, ‘No Search, No Rescue’, 2015.

Ursula Le Guin’s dystopian novel The Dispossessed (1974) is set on a moon called Anarres, where an anarchist community established itself after breaking away from the capitalist mother-planet Urras. During a history lesson, children in Anarres are shown archival film footage of a beach on Urras, which speaks to the horrific visual iconography of contemporary Europe. The film’s voiceover provides a commentary upon the images in the film:

“Bodies of children dead of starvation and disease are burned on the beaches. On the beaches of Tius, seven hundred kilometres away … women kept for the sexual use of male members of the propertied class lie on the sand all day until dinner is served to them by people of the unpropertied class”.  A close-up of dinnertime; soft mouths champing and smiling, smooth hands reaching out for delicacies wetly mounded in silver bowls. Then a switch back to the blind blunt face of a dead child, mouth open, empty, black, dry. “Side by side,” the quiet voice … said. (Ursula Le Guin, The Dispossessed, 1974).

Reading the news this summer has involved negotiating similarly jarring images: people desperately paddling towards Mediterranean beaches on overloaded dinghies while tourists sunbathe amidst the flotsam of failed crossings, and the growing piles of discarded lifejackets. In contemporary Europe, previously segregated images of tourists and migrants are now captured within the same visual frame. ‘It is surreal’, Greek photojournalist Yannis Behrakis commented, witnessing the ‘migrants arriving on the beach each day among tourists and posh hotels’.


This year alone, we know that at least 500,000 people have made their way to Europe by perilous sea-crossings, and an estimated 3000 of these have drowned en route. Let’s be clear, the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ is actually a crisis of international borders, neocolonialism, and imperialism. European border-control policies turn voyages to safety, freedom, and opportunity into treacherous and sometimes fatal journeys. As one British journalist notes “They were murdered. Actually, they were massacred. The policy stipulated they should be left to die. So they died”.

British news media perspectives on these Mediterranean beach scenes have swayed between apparently distinct poles of xenophobia and humanitarianism. For example, newspapers have featured many stories about family holidays ruined by ‘thousands of boat people from Syria and Afghanistan’ who have turned the Greek islands into ‘disgusting hell hole[s]’.

daily mail KOS.jpg

As families…relax on sun loungers on the beach, just a yards away scores of migrants have set up camp, sleeping on cardboard boxes with rubbish strewn everywhere. Anne Servante, a nurse from Manchester, had come to Kos expecting a relaxing break with her husband Tony, a retired plumber. Instead her summer break has turned into a nightmare as penniless migrants who are in Greece to claim asylum sit outside their restaurant and watch them eat.

In this story, we are directed to read the figures of ‘Anne’ and ‘Tony’ as respectable, hard-working people, while ‘the boat people’ and ‘penniless migrants’ living in a ‘rubbish strewn’ camp are rendered as ‘human waste’. This kind of language classifies and devalues, drawing distinctions between those whose lives are of value and those who are dispensable.

Alongside this genre of racist reportage, there are stories of ‘humanitarian tourist heroes’, like Sandra Tsiligeridu, ‘a former Greek model’, who rescued a Syrian man, Mohammed Besmar, on her way back from a snorkelling trip. Tsiligeridu ‘was cruising back to the Greek holiday island of Kos with family and friends […] when she spotted something out of place in the sea up ahead. A pair of hands appeared to be waving at her from the deep-blue waters of the Aegean Sea’. These adventure stories are concerned with relating the redemption of the European saviour. Journalists report Tsiligeridu as saying, “‘Before I met Mohammed I was angry and sad at the scenes I saw on television. I asked myself “Why do they come here?” “Now I understand the value of human life”. As Teju Cole wryly notes, ‘the white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening’.

These two genres of reporting (humanitarian/saviour and racist/xenophobia) often appear alongside each other in the same newspapers. Flipsides of the same coin they both represent and shape European perspectives on the current crisis at the borders, in which migrants are imagined as alien others, whether ‘deserving refugees’ or ‘illegal migrants’. In both registers the agency, knowledge, and collective capacities of people who have been dispossessed from their homes and livelihoods from European-backed wars and destructive economic policies.

illegals have landed.jpg

In response to overt and implicit anti-migrant racism in coverage of the life and death struggles taking place at Europe’s borders, there have been calls for more care in how this unprecedented exodus of people is described and represented. This has led to what one BBC news headline describes as a ‘battle over the words used to describe migrants’. In August, the Director of News at Al Jazeera issued a directive to journalists to stop using the term ‘migrants’ to describe people crossing into Europe, because it has ‘evolved from its dictionary definitions into a tool that dehumanises and distances’. Indeed, the consequence of the stigmatisation of the term “migrant” has been palpable in European news reporting, as Barry Malone, the online editor at Al Jazeera notes:

It is not hundreds of people who drown when a boat goes down in the Mediterranean, nor even hundreds of refugees. It is hundreds of migrants. It is not a person… It is a migrant. A nuisance.

The logic behind Al Jazeera’s decision is that the term ‘refugee’ has a specific international legal genealogy enshrined in the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. However, this rationale fails to recognise the fundamental erosion of both the legal status and popular meaning of the terms refugee and asylum-seeker in contemporary Europe, which has accompanied the tightening of legal migration channels. Since the 1990s European and other wealthy states have shirked their international obligations as signatories to the 1951 convention through creating new legal classifications that diminish refugee rights. For example, the small number of Syrian refugees which Britain has agreed to house will be granted ‘humanitarian protection status’ for five years, after which time they will either need to apply to remain longer, leave, or be forcibly deported. In other words, Britain is actually accepting no Syrian refugees at all.  As we write, it is unclear whether Germany will accept Syrians as refugees, or, like the UK, will also offer only time-limited protection and leave-to-remain.

Further, Europe and other wealthy countries in the world have implemented policies and programmes designed to keep refugees at bay so they cannot land to make asylum-claims. These include the proliferation of regional and transnational deterrence measures, such as the off-shoring of detention facilities and other nefarious arrangements with transit states, which ‘block safe and legal routes’ of travel in order to prevent people from arriving to make asylum-claims.  The Hungarian government, for example, ‘has invested more than 100 million euros on razor-wire fencing and border controls’ transforming itself into what Amnesty International describe as ‘a refugee protection free zone’.

In September the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) launched a #WordsMatter campaign in response to what the BBC is calling  ‘battle over the words used to describe migrants’.  In a film to accompany the campaign, celebrities explain the UNHCR distinction between a refugee and a migrant hinges on ‘choice’: a migrant chooses to move, while a refugee has no choice, is fleeing persecution. While the campaign is intended to destigmatise the term refugee, like the depictions of vacationing Europeans encountering refugees, the UN video depicts refugees as passive: they are both invisible and voiceless in this film, ventriloquized by celebrity talking heads. The false distinction between refugees who are ‘forced to leave’ and migrants who have ‘chosen’ to cross borders renders refugees ‘as dependent, apolitical non-agents’. The insistence on distinct differences between classes of people on the move mystifies the ‘historical forces, politics, power, hegemony, economic exploitation and colonialism’ that dispossess people from their homes and livelihoods. (Hence the call of self-organising refugees in Kurdistan to ‘Forget the UN!’.)

We can see the impact of this distinction between deserving and undeserving migrants in the fragile political consensus that something must be done for Syrians (authentic refugees), whilst those who have made perilous journeys from ‘forgotten conflicts’ in Africa (Eritrea, Nigeria, Somalia, Sudan, Gambia), South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh), or the Western Balkans (Kosovo, Albania) are classified and criminalised as economic migrants. Hence the ‘growing concern among some migrants and aid officials that the new policies might unwittingly divide the migrants into two distinct classes—with two different kinds of welcomes’. What is actually happening is a more general ‘competitive downgrading of refugee protection standards’ in ways that sustain deeper global divides in wealth, rights, and well-being.

We should be wary of those who insist, in the words of British historian and journalist Tim Stanley, that ‘it is down to the state in which they have arrived to define what they are’. The ‘what’ in this sentence is chilling, a reminder of the ways in which the bureaucratic classification of people operates through what Alexander Wehelyie terms ‘racial assemblages’: the socio-political processes through which humanity is disciplined into ‘humans, non-quite-humans, and nonhumans’ (2014: 8).

The school children on Anarres are not shocked by the film they watch. It transpires that this is a tired lesson and they speculate amongst themselves about whether life on Urras is as ‘disgusting, immoral [and] excremental’ as their teachers would lead them believe. Yet, when the protagonist of The Dispossessed visits Urras as an adult, he discovers precisely the world of ‘commonplace horrors’ he was taught about as a child. So horrific is the inhumanity he witnesses, that he has no language, no words, with which to comprehend and describe it. The lesson here is that when the violence of inequality becomes ordinary, we can no longer comprehend it or imagine alternatives. For Europeans, photographs and television footage of migrant arrivals, of rescues at sea, of overloaded boats, discarded life-jackets, lost objects and dead children on Mediterranean beaches are rapidly becoming commonplace horrors.

The political response to build higher walls and fences, to build prisons and camps, and accelerate deportations will only exacerbate the vulnerabilities faced by 60 million displaced people, that is ‘1 in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum’ (UNHCR, June 2015). The movement of people is not the problem, the violence of global apartheid is the problem. Global apartheid more accurately describes the refugee crisis we are witnessing. Global apartheid, a language of apart-ness, relies on stigmatization and racialization to produce seemingly natural differences between ‘them’ and ‘us’. This language operates in tandem with practices of physical segregation, fortification and militarization of boundaries, detention and expulsion.

In conclusion then, we need to fight for refugee rights, but, taking a cue from the political allegories of Le Guin’s science fiction we also need to nurture more radical alternative perspectives on this crisis in order to see its strangeness and its horror. As Yanis Varoufakis put in on a recent television debate about the refugee crisis in Europe, ‘looked at from space…borders are an absurdity’ (BBC Question Time, 24 Sep 2015).

Underclass Ontologies: extract from a review essay by Samuel Strong

Underclass ontologies (extracted from a review essay in Political Geography, 2015)
by Samuel Strong @samuelrstrong

“There’s a lot to be said about euthanasia regarding certain members of todays society. We are creating a bigger problem with these feral excuse for humans. We complain about immigrants and rightly so but we now have a under class who are of no use to society whatsoever. They are just parasites feeding off the workers of this country”

[sic.] (Rob, Durham) ( Parry, 2014).

The venomous hatred exhibited by the above quotation illustrates much about an underclass ontology in which poor people are loathed and dehumanised. The comment is from an article on the Daily Mail’s website covering the recent television series Benefits Street, and whilst it represents an extreme view, it received a majority of up-votes suggesting a level of receptivity amongst other website users. For those unfamiliar with the show, Benefits Street is a documentary series purporting to reveal everyday life on James Turner Street, Birmingham, where a supposed ninety-percent of people claim benefits. Over the course of five episodes, film-crews not only follow several benefit-claimants as they engage in criminal behaviour, swill lager and buy drugs, but also commit significant screen-time to those not on benefits. The resulting footage was branded ‘poverty pornography’ in parts of the press, sparking widespread outrage for misleading both residents and audiences and for triggering death-threats against the cast ( Bingham, 2014). Furthermore, I propose that this self-described “observational documentary series revealing the reality of life on benefits” has acted as a conduit for a broader set of ‘underclass ontologies’.

Zygmunt Bauman (2011) begins “Collateral damage: Social inequalities in a global age”with two metaphors: a measuring of the strength of human societies through their most vulnerable points as with the carrying capacity of a bridge, and of a fuse in an electrical system failing as the weakest point when the circuit overreaches its potential. The chapters cover topics somewhat clumsily tied to the theme of ‘collateral damage’ – those deemed ‘unavoidable losses’ of the progress of liquid modernity. Altogether, the text is a bricolage of the writer’s oeuvre and for this reason reads like a set of thought-pieces rather than a sustained argument, leaving it to the reader to pull together Bauman’s contribution to this debate on underclass ontologies.

Bauman (2011:3) describes the underclass as an externality inhabiting a below-ness without a function (as in working-class) or position (as in upper-class), and a grouping which “may be ‘in’, but it is clearly not ‘of’ the society”. It is this alterity of people and places which justifies the depoliticisation of their material and symbolic impoverishment and transformation into problems of law and order. Thus, it is an ontology which builds consent for the coercive practices of the neoliberal state, an argument Bauman develops through a distinction between market-driven insecurities (unemployment, repossession) and alternative insecurities (threats to personal-safety, terrorism).  Bauman (2011:54) suggests that because the neoliberal state increasingly retreats from intervening in market-driven insecurities, its “hopes to restore its lost monopoly on the chances of redemption must be artificially beefed up, or at least highly dramatised to inspire a sufficient volume of fears”. However, by separating these two insecurities, Bauman underplays their complex interplay. Continuing with the underclass example, insecurity is generated not simply through Bauman’s description of threat to personal-safety, but also through the political-economic threat to the majority of having to support an undeserving population of ‘market failures’. Crucially, narratives constructing social problems as issues of law and order do not place them outside of the market. Following from Bernard Harcourt (2011), markets and their policing are intertwined – states do not retreat from markets and let them function ‘naturally’. Rather, these economically generated forms of insecurity are regulated by a carceral archipelago. By embracing this illusory separation, Bauman depoliticises not only the link between economic and alternative forms of insecurity, but also the very operation of markets themselves.

In “Punishing the poor: The Neoliberal Government of Insecurity” Wacquant’s (2009) avoids these pitfalls by tracing the (re-)emergence of the prison in a dialectical relationship with viewings of poverty drawn together here as underclass ontologies. Crucially, “the penalization of precariousness creates new realities … tailor-made to legitimize the extension of the prerogatives of the punitive state according to the principle of the self-fulfilling prophecy” ( Wacquant, 2009:35). According to the author, these notions become embodied in condensed ‘castaway-categories’ deployed to maintain these new realities of social insecurity upon which consent is constructed. For instance, Wacquant analyses how consent for the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act in the USA and ‘Megan’s Law’ (the Sexual Offender Act of 1994 which makes the publication of the identity and address of registered sex-offenders a legal necessity) were galvanised through the mobilisation of fears of the black welfare queen and the predatory paedophile. By linking underclass ontologies with policy and ideology, Wacquant conceptualises a ‘centaur state’ in which a liberal head is mounted upon an authoritarian body, practicing laissez-faire upstream but reacting brutally to social inequalities through a punitive downstream.

Therefore, the writer is outlining the reduction of poor people to objects devoid of politics which simultaneously act as conductors for the establishment of consent for coercive policies. However, Wacquant (2009:xix) himself is guilty of this self-same process, admitting in his prologue to “one-sided and overly monolithic” scholarship. As he is aware then, his monograph treats the poor as objects upon which the successful operation of power is pre-supposed.  Wacquant (2009:xix–xx) justifies this approach as an attempt to highlight a single process selectively – an over-simplification that is apparently “an unavoidable moment in the analysis of the surge of the penal state in the neoliberal age and a cost well worth paying if it gets students and activists of criminal justice to pay attention to germane developments in poverty policies”. However, this logic assumes two things. Firstly, that one has to produce a simplified account of power to engage readers. Secondly, it places the means of altering and resisting these policies outside of the people and domain in which they occur. It removes poor people from the realm of the political, suggesting instead that they are unable to challenge the apparently top–down processes of neoliberalisation ( Castree, 2006). In a similar fashion to these underclass ontologies themselves, this approach presents the poor as voiceless, devoid of agency and as wanton cogs in the neoliberal machine.

Bauman (2011:152) likewise renders poor people aphonic, describing the underclass as “stripped of all socially produced and socially accepted trappings and marks that elevate mere biological life to the rank of a social being … The underclass is not merely an absence of community; it is the sheer impossibility of community”. Removing people from sociality occludes their ability to communicate and exercise politics, thus denying their subjectivity. Therefore, it is ironic that elsewhere  Bauman (2011:58) notes that the “denial of subjectivity disqualifies the selected targets as potential partners in dialogue; whatever they might say … is a priori declared immaterial”. Both Wacquant and Bauman describe processes rendering poor people voiceless, yet their analysis remains within this same ontological mode. Furthermore, by pre-supposing the successful operation of these neoliberal transformations, instances of contestation are ignored.  Bauman (2011:153) presents underclass neighbourhoods as ‘Hades’ spaces – as “wilderness beyond which there can only be a void, a bottomless black hole” rather than an emergent, porous boundary through which people slip and climb through. To echo  Castree (2006), Wacquant and Bauman present homogenous top–down studies of power as seemingly ‘necessary illusions’. In so doing, neither author restores subjectivity to marginalised groups, but rather reproduces these underclass ontologies.

This is why Imogen Tyler’s Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain is a singular contribution to this debate. Not only does she interrogate the presentation of impoverished people as objects devoid of politics, but also builds a conceptual apparatus through which their politics are paramount to understanding operations of power. By focusing on the lived experience of ‘being made abject’, Tyler enriches her study with the voice of the subject so starkly absent elsewhere. Rather than approaching neoliberalism as a set of market-based policy developments (an important aspect of course), Tyler (2013:5) adds to this analysis “a thick social and cultural account of neoliberalism as a form of governance – concentrating in particular on the mechanisms through which public consent is procured for policies and practices that effect inequalities”.

This approach overcomes the false externalities in Bauman’s depiction of ‘underclass’, which are mired in the conflation of being spoken-for and being invisible. Bauman (2011:57) conceptualises “contemporary menaces … as a rule distantly located, concealed and surreptitious, seldom close enough to be witnessed … for all practical purposes invisible”, which misses Tyler’s (2013:20) vital observation that underclass ontologies hyper-visibilise the abject body, meaning “waste populations are in this way included through their exclusion”. Returning to Levinas, rather than becoming empty pieces in a hollow underclass ontology, abject figures signify the boundaries of our ethical norms of responsibility and of the political. As with Wacquant’s linkage between the perception and punishment of poverty, for  Tyler (2013:47) ‘national abjects’ are “employed to legitimise neoliberal forms of governmentality by effecting insecurity within the body politic”. Tyler’s conceptual approach fruitfully draws together distinct examples of such ‘national abjects’ ranging from protesting asylum-seeking mothers, the Dale Farm evictions in 2011 and the English riots of the same year. As she remarks early in her monograph, “the voices of resistance against the abjectifying logics of neoliberal governmentality are growing louder” ( Tyler, 2013:2). Revolting Subjects restores subjectivity to poor people by re-conceptualising the intimate connections between abjection, the neoliberal state and the “ontological obliteration of personhood” ( Tyler, 2013:76).

Central to this re-conceptualisation are underclass ontologies. All of the texts under review draw attention to the linkage between the viewing of poverty and the neoliberal state, illuminating, with varying degrees of success, how thoroughly depoliticised the nexus between the viewing and response to poverty has become. As  Rancière (2007:11) states, “politics is the art of suppressing the political … Depoliticisation is the oldest task of politics, the one which achieves its fulfilment at the brink of its end”. The demarcation of an underclass without politics removes poverty from its historical and geographical context, serving to re-nature the intensely political processes and spectacles of power shaping these ontologies. Without these contexts, the violent sorting of people and capital through markets is perceived as a natural order, with those appearing to deviate from the norm not only viewed as individual market failures, but as moral failures for exiting this natural system.

Benefits Street

This review now turns to discussing Benefits Street as a springboard for examining the forging of these new realities of the deserving and undeserving through one particular distinction – the abject and the aspirational. The programme relies profoundly upon synecdoche and metonymy in its showcasing of revolting bodies on primetime television, which reached around five million people each week. Its dramatis personae include both exemplars and effigies – incorporating the ‘idler’ (White Dee, Danny), the pathologised ‘substance-abuser’ (Fungi, Sam), the ‘benefit fiddler’ (Mark, Becky), the ‘entrepreneurial citizen’ (Smoggy, Tich), the ‘hardworking immigrant’ (Marius, George) and the ‘exposed child’ (Gerrard, Callum). Thus, for a documentary claiming to portray “life on benefits”, the devotion of such significant screen-time to people in work exposes the underlying intention to accentuate any deviations from the norm.

Idle bodies spill-out spatially and metaphorically from the houses of James Turner Street onto mattresses, sofas, doorsteps and garden-walls. As one ‘idler’, Danny, states: “I’m capable of getting a job y’know. I’ve got qualifications coming out of my f**king ears. I’m just being a lazy d**khead”, instead earning money shoplifting (episode one, 24:45). Contrastingly, we see door-to-door salesman Smoggy (the ‘50p man’) displaying an entrepreneurial aspiration to turn the poverty of the area into a means of making a living. Furthermore, Smoggy’s endeavours “make a difference for people, that’s my reward … Me helping them is them helping me” (episode one, 24:30). Importantly, by segueing these two people in the sequencing of the show, producers also segue acts of revulsion and admiration against each other. Whilst Danny is a figure of hatred for his laziness and criminality, audiences may approve of Smoggy as a successful neoliberal and moral subject (Dardot & Laval, 2013).

The second episode of the show focuses on two sets of Romanian migrants living in material conditions noticeably worse than those bêtes noires on benefits. As Marius summarises in episode two, “we’re poor but poverty isn’t the issue here. The issue is love. It’s the love of our families that drives us to work” – an ambition to secure the futures of their children viewers may identify with (19:00). Alternatively, most ‘white’ characters on benefits appear to skive these parental responsibilities, as illustrated by White Dee urging her daughter to sign-on for unemployment allowance: “just imagine if you stay at home all day and get money and not have to do anything for it” (episode four, 2:00). In this material iconography, aspiration and abjection are codified by ‘race’. Building on Edward Said’s critique of the mutual constitution of people, place and difference through oppositional registers of ‘race’, it is deviations from the norm which are again distinguished. Thus, the normative interpretation of ‘dark’ and foreign bodies as the ‘wretched of the earth’ makes their ambition all the more outstanding: they strive despitethis norm of being abject. Furthermore, that these aspiring characters escape from the chains of place despite this racialised standard weakens the legitimacy of more nuanced, geographical explanations of poverty. Presentation of these strivers establishes the logic that if one person can overcome poverty, why cannot everybody else? – it encourages the audience to perceive the abject person’s failure as individual failure, thus reducing poverty to a self-imposed, depoliticised condition. The rubbish filling James Turner Street furthers these racialised codifications. On one hand we see idle bodies wallowing in filthy, unhygienic conditions (such as the repeated image of Mark and Becky lazing on a thrown-out sofa), and on the other those turning this waste and scrap metal into a livelihood (Tich, George’s family). In the language of Bauman, audiences are viewing the wasted lives of capitalism, and yet through its sequencing of the distinction between abject and aspirational, Benefits Street invites viewers to revile these ‘filthy white’ bodies not as wasted, but as willing pieces of waste itself ( Tyler, 2008).

This distinction is also evident in the pathologised substance-abuser rarely seen without lager and cigarettes in-hand, embodied by Fungi, Danny and his companions whom White Dee describes as “Mr N*bhead, Mr Crackhead, Mr P**shead” (episode one, 18:30). We witness Danny spending money from his shoplifting-spree on drugs whilst bemoaning his inability to “provide for [his children] new trainers, new tracksuits, the latest gear” (episode one, 25:30). This tends to evoke disgust on two levels: that he equates his paternal role with providing his children with the latest fashion, and secondly that he uses this parental responsibility as a justification for the criminality funding his drink and drugs (a stark contrast with Marius living in self-imposed squalor to help provide for his family).

The drunkard substance-abuser is metonymic for a pathologised population writ large. Following from Foucault (1989), pathologisation justifies certain operations of power which confine, control and mark these bodies as threats to the population. Crucially, this spreads from the body of the pathologised and into an archipelago of institutions seeking to intervene against this errant figure. For Wacquant, this process of pathologisation is now being applied to the poor more generally, constructing an abject population of market and moral failures in turn justified by and constituting the neoliberal state’s punitive practices warehousing and surveilling the poor. During Benefits Street, this punishment of the poor is both explicit, such as Danny’s arrest and Mark and Becky’s benefit fraud, and implicit through the narrator’s avowal that “at the far end of James Turner is Winson Green Prison. To some on the street, it’s a second home” (episode one, 11:00).

The show’s reduction of people on benefits to pathologised objects means that its children appear especially exposed. As the narrator states over images of Fungi swilling lager and talking about stabbings, “kids learn a lot about life from the grown-ups of James Turner Street” (episode three, 21:30). Repeated imagery of children playing on mattresses in the street, climbing over fences and attempting to jump from windows draws attention to ‘poor’ parenting in both senses of the word, particularly the failure to maintain distinctions between safe private and dangerous public spaces. The inherent gendered organisation of space into public and private spheres means that the exposure of children to danger in unregulated public and poorly protected private space results in mothers in particular perceived to be failing (McDowell, 1999). With the presence in the domestic sphere of Mark and other unemployed men, this gendered division is challenged – as Tich notes: “In Africa, if you don’t work you don’t eat. But here men they sleep and look after the kids” (episode three, 27:00). This racialised and feminised imaginative geography portrays these abject men as stuck in private space and polluting public space with their deviance and pathologies, whilst simultaneously re-masculinising their aspirational counterparts.

As Cindi Katz argues (2006:110), “children … are a ready canvas on which all manner of social phenomena and anxieties are inscribed, only to be discovered there and used to naturalise one thing or another.” The corporalisation of vulnerability in the figure of the child is sequenced during the show in a fashion evoking two particular gendered registers of fear around poor parenting – or to use Katz’s terminology, ‘terror talk’. Firstly, anxiety arises from a neo-Malthusian, political-economic concern for the reproduction of an underclass of benefit-dependent groups mired in inter-generational joblessness. The homogenised figure of the poor, sexually-excessive welfare mother – which Tyler (2008)describes as the ‘chav scummy-mummy’ – reproducing without the means or will to support her offspring condenses this fear and forges consent for the removal of any ‘incentives’ (housing and income support, child benefit) for poor mothers to reproduce. Secondly, it also dramatises a political-ecological fear around social reproduction. Katz (2001) traces the shifting spatiality of social reproduction through its increasing privatisation both in terms of marketisation (privileged women shifting the burden of childcare onto poorer women) and confinement to private spaces. Crucially, the environment in which social reproduction takes place shapes fears of its bodily outcomes. Thus, the fecklessness and deviance on James Turner Street raises anxieties stimulating the revulsion of mothers unable or unwilling to protect their children from these pathologising spaces.


The material iconography of Benefits Street can be interrogated through the key theme of underclass ontologies found in all the texts under review. Returning again to Levinas, this short discussion has revealed the extent to which the exteriority of the Other pierces the interiority of the Self. Whilst the categories of deserving and undeserving are in opposition, they are reliant upon each other to signal not only deviations from the norm but also the boundary between the two. The everyday politics of poverty are not distinguished through this Manichean lens – rather, each individual is to some extent both a skiver and a striver. What is crucial to this delineation is whether or not that individual is able to express their own politics and morality, thus becoming a political subject rather than an object devoid of agency to be disgusted by or admired.

William Bunge (2011:240) described his seminal monograph Fitzgerald as “a call to action, not merely an exercise in abstraction. Every adult should find himself enraged somewhere in this volume”. If the objective of political geography is to intervene throughresearch and writing, then the link between reading and revolt is paramount to assessing the contribution of texts to the discipline. Whilst all three pieces enrage the reader and contribute to this debate of underclass ontologies, both Bauman and Wacquant partially reproduce this depoliticisation rather than challenge it. In contrast, Tyler’s insightful monograph invites the reader to conceptualise anew how these highly symbolic distinctions are mobilised and contested in order to constitute demarcations between those with and without politics. By engaging with Benefits Street and its material iconography deliberately re-assembling this distinction between skivers and strivers, this short piece has foregrounded the need to study the construction and consequences of these underclass ontologies. This leaves us with the real issue, then, which is how to turn the discipline of political geography into a more explicitly public project – one which, to follow Bunge, enrages us by enriching the emergent forms of counter-narrative contesting these underclass ontologies in the public commons.

No Justice, No Peace: From Tottenham to Baltimore

No Justice, No Peace: From Tottenham to Baltimore

Imogen Tyler, Lancaster University and Jenna Loyd, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee


(first published

West Baltimore, 8.39 am April 12: Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man, stood on the street talking with friends. Police officers approached on bicycles and made “eye contact” with Gray, who then attempted to leave. The police chased him and video footage shot on neighbours’ mobile phones shows police holding Gray face-down on the pavement. One witness described how an officer pressed a knee into Gray’s neck as he was handcuffed, while another bent his legs upwards: “They had him folded up like he was a crab or a piece of origami”.

By the time the police van arrived with Gray at the Western District police station some 45 minutes later “he could not talk and he could not breathe”, according to a police officer quoted in the Baltimore Sun report. It was only then that police called medics who transferred him to hospital. Doctors determined that Gray had three fractured vertebrae and a damaged larynx, his spinal cord 80% severed at his neck. Gray died of his injuries a week later on April 19.

“No Justice, No Peace” has echoed through the streets as thousands of people have protested Gray’s death. Protest marches on April 25 and walk-outs of students on April 27 were followed by what some call rioting, others unrest or rebellion. Officials and mainstream news coverage have decried property destruction, including burning of police cars, and theft.

Baltimore’s mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, declared that “violence will not be tolerated” and the governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, called city residents “lawless gangs of thugs roaming the streets” before declaring a state of emergency, suspending habeas corpus, implementing a 10pm curfew, and deploying National Guard troops.

Crisis over policing

Gray’s death at the hands of the police was the latest to provoke protest. Natalie Finegar, the deputy district public defender said that it was a “daily occurrence” for her clients to describe some sort of mishandling by the police. These range from “jump outs” where officers spring from patrol cars and shake down a suspect, to serious assaults. The city of Baltimore has paid out more than US$5.7m in undue force lawsuits between 2008 and 2011.

According to Baltimore resident Kane Mayfield the conflict has:

been mis-characterised pretty much by mainstream sensationalists who come down here to soak up the angel dust of civil unrest and sell it to white America. It’s fun. I get it. You know? Look at them. Black rage. It’s nice.

But property destruction is not equivalent to death – particularly in a context where so many black people are killed and harmed by police with near impunity. It is telling that there are no comprehensive data on homicides by police in the US. A partial snapshot from recent FBI data reveals a white police officer killed a black person in a “justifiable homicide” about twice a week between 2005-2012.

Anger over police treatment of black suspects.
EPA/Andrew Gompert

The protests communicate a legitimation crisis over policing in the United States. A cycle of renewed dissent against state racial violence has become increasingly visible since July 2013, following the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. “Black Lives Matter”, “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot”, “I Can’t Breathe” and “Shut It Down” have become protest slogans after the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City.


Across the Atlantic, “No Justice, No Peace“ was also the cry of protesters gathered to hear a verdict of “lawful killing” in the case of the police shooting of Mark Duggan in London, 2011.

Duggan’s death sparked the most extensive riots in recent British history. As with recent events in the US, the English summer riots of 2011 raised serious concerns about policing within inner-city communities. The findings of the 2011 Guardian-LSE research project, Reading the Riots: Investigating England’s summer of disorder, suggested that the riots were motivated by a sense of “poverty, injustice and a visceral hatred of the police”. Some 73% of people they interviewed said they had been stopped and searched by the police at least once in the previous year.

Time and again, anger over perceived misuse of “stop-and-search” has been one of the causes of rioting in Britain. In 1981, riots in Brixton sparked three months of rioting by black, Asian and white youths across most of the country’s inner-cities. The Brixton uprising was triggered by Operation Swamp 81, which saw the police employ ancient vagrancy legislation, called “sus laws” (suspected person) laws’, in a mass stop-and-search operation.

Britain’s SUS laws in action – to often if you are black or ethnic minority.
David Parry/PA Wire

The Scarman Report into the causes of the 1981 riots stated that the black population of Brixton had been subject to “disproportionate and indiscriminate” policing. Sus laws were repealed yet stop-and-search substantially increased.

An estimated 1m stop and searches are carried out in the UK each year and in 2009-2010, according to the Equality and Human Rights Commission: “Black people were stopped 23.5 times more frequently than white people and Asian people 4.5 times more frequently.

In 2014, a revised code of conduct on stop-and-search was introduced; recent figures show a 12% reduction, but more radical reform is required.

Race to the bottom

Stop-and-search is a day-to-day expression of violent relationships between police and communities. People interviewed by StopWatch detail the enduring stigma affected by these policing practices. Police harassment of black citizens communicates authoritative messages about the place of ethnic minorities in society.

Racial discrimination intersects with other inequalities: poverty, rising economic inequality (between the richest and the poorest and between ethnic groups), joblessness (in 2012 the unemployment rate for black youths in the UK was 55.9%, double that of their white peers), high levels of incarceration, inadequate housing, unequal access to education and healthcare.

Fifty years since the civil rights movement and the ostensible end of state-sanctioned discrimination, austerity and welfare retrenchment has created even deeper divides. A recent special issue of Feminist Review on the politics of austerity details the multiple ways in which “divides of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality and class” are intensifying. The UK and US are relying on the same forms of policing to resolve the resulting economic and political conflicts. Racial and economic inequality fuelled the riots in London 2011 and the same thing has sparked the unrest we see in Baltimore and other US cities today.

Imogen Tyler is Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University.
Jenna Loyd is Assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.