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.