‘We must first attend “violently” to things as they are, without illusions or false hopes, if we are to transcend the present.’ – Stuart Hall
In the essay ‘Abjection and Miserable Forms’, written a year after the Nazi Party’s election to power in Germany, Georges Bataille argued that “abjection” is a mechanism of social exclusion that classifies part of the population as moral outcasts, as ‘represented from the outside with disgust as the dregs of the people, populace and gutter’. Yet these abject others are also animated at the centre of public life as figures of disgust, fascination and outrage, employed to reproduce and legitimate the prevailing order. I developed Bataille’s ideas in Revolting Subjects, elaborating the concept of “social abjection” to examine the machinations of neoliberal forms of government in contemporary Britain. Revolting Subjects restaged a series of recent revolts by “abject populations”, including the protests of migrants in detention and facing deportation, the resistance of Gypsies and Travellers to eviction from their land and homes, and the riots of young people across England in the summer of 2011. My aim was to elaborate an account of social abjection as a vital technology of state power, detailing the forms of revolt that being treated ‘with disgust as the dregs of the people’ gives rise to.
Of course, there is nothing new about the political use of disgust and stigma; strategies of abjection have been deployed throughout history as weapons in efforts to oppress and exploit particular social groups. For example, as Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argue, ‘excoriating the behaviour of the poor’ through ‘rituals of public degradation’ has always been central to the government of poverty, underpinning policy reforms to force people into (low-paid, precarious) work. However, one of the premises of Revolting Subjects is that there is a relationship between the governmental exercise of abjection, the forms abjection takes in different historical periods, and the changing social and economic imperatives of different systems of capitalism.
Welfare is a particularly revealing lens through which to examine changes in the form and intensity of social abjection and state stigmacraft.
After WWII the new deal of welfare capitalism in Britain sought to provide a safety net for all citizens, and to lessen the stigma of receiving relief. Indeed, “stigma alleviation” was a stated aim when William Beveridge introduced universal entitlements to “social security” of pensions, unemployment benefits and health care. Of course, the actual distribution of state welfare continued to be managed through classist, Patriarchal and racist value-systems of “deservedness” and “eligibility”. However, post-war social movements, including unions, the civil rights movement, feminism, gay and lesbian activism, anti-psychiatry and disabled people’s activism, continually challenged the normative values and social stigma of welfare provision. Indeed the existence of many of these movements for social justice was enabled, at least in part, by the solidaristic ideals and new freedoms afforded by the welfare state.
Thatcherism and the ascendance of “neoliberal commonsense” marked a decisive break with the welfare-state consensus. It is not only that the values of neoliberalism are inimical to those of socialist-inspired state welfare, but that the political economy of neoliberalism actively pursues and requires inequality as a principal means of capital accumulation; as Margaret Thatcher put it, ‘everyone has the right to be unequal’. Post-welfare Britain is characterised by ‘deepening inequalities of income, health and life chances … on a scale not seen since before the Second World War’(Stuart Hall, 2014) But what enabled this shift in public attitudes to inequality, poverty and welfare? How was consent procured for seismic reforms that ‘punish the poor’ while amassing wealth in the hands of individuals and corporations through privatization and the ‘asset-stripping’ of public institutions, infrastructure and natural resources ? Revolting Subjects addresses this by examining the practices of social abjection that accompanied the embedding of ‘neoliberal commonsense’ in Britain. By tracking the formation of a series of ‘national abjects’, or ‘neoliberal abjects’, from welfare scroungers to bogus asylum-seekers, it exposes some of the mechanisms through which consent for inequality was manufactured.
Revolting Subjects was written during the first years of the Conservative-Liberal Coalition Government (2010-2015) a ‘concerted neoliberal ideological assault’ that would see ‘the deepest and most precipitate cuts ever made in social provision’ in British history. Indeed, in many ways it foreshadowed a spectacular amplification of stigma production from above, a “war against welfare” prosecuted in political rhetoric and popular culture (newspapers and reality television ‘poverty porn’). This war targeted immigrants, working-age (unemployed and underemployed) people, and, for the first time in recent history, even labelled many disabled people as ‘underserving’ of social care or support. Since the publication of Revolting Subjects the welfare crisis has deepened, and there has been a distinctly illiberal authoritarian turn in politics, not only in Britain but across the globe.
Amnesty International’s 2017 annual report details ‘a global trend towards angrier and more divisive politics’, placing ‘the idea of human dignity and equality […] under vigorous and relentless assault from powerful narratives of blame, fear and scapegoating, propagated by those who sought to take or cling on to power’ (Amnesty 2017). This is evident in the mainstreaming of previously marginal ethnonationalist and fascist values and sentiments, the ascendance of far-right politicians and parties, the erosion of access to systems of legal justice and redress, deepening surveillance and policing powers, the limiting of press freedoms, expanding prison populations, and a marked increase in racist, disabilist and misogynistic hate speech and violence in public forums. As Stuart Hall argued, neoliberalism has set in motion a ‘profound reshaping of social life’ and these changes are fuelled by the crafting of stigma, violence and hatred from above. Revolting Subjects sought to understand the mechanisms through which consent for these profound changes was orchestrated in order that we might better contest the state we are in.
The sister book to Revolting Subjects, provisionally titled Stigma Machines: Essays on Inequality and the Politics of Shame (Zed 2018) will continue this work.