“Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality” (extract from Introduction)

Phew. I have finally finished my book, Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality. It will be published by Zed in April 2020, first as a hardback, costing about £20, and in 2021 as a £10 paperback. It is a long book, about 120,000 words, so I’m pleased to report it will be relatively affordable.


Table of Contents

Introduction: Stigma, the Machinery of Inequality

  1. The Penal Tattoo
  2. From Stigma Power to Black Power
  3. The Stigma Machine of the Border
  4. The Stigma Machine of Austerity
  5. Shame Lives on the Eyelids

6. Conclusion: Rage Against the Stigma Machines


Over the coming months, I will publish a series of short extracts from and blog posts about Stigma. Below is a short extract from the (very long) Introduction.


A vigorous and relentless assault upon human dignity

Stigma, noun. Figurative. A mark of disgrace or infamy; a sign of severe censure or condemnation, regarded as impressed on a person or thing; a ‘brand’. Oxford English Dictionary

Every news bulletin seemed to be calling me scrounger, fraud, cheat or scum. I began self-harming, carving the words ‘failure’, ‘freak’ and ‘waste of space’ into my arms, legs and stomach. Stephanie, 2019

March 2019. I am sitting with my friend Stephanie in the corner of a bar in Lancaster, the small city in North West England where I live and work.[i] Stephanie is a former school teacher and a single mum whom I have got to know through our work together on the Morecambe Bay Poverty Truth Commission, one of several such commissions currently running across the UK, which bring together people living in poverty with local decision makers to try to find ways to ameliorate the destitution which has followed in the wake of austerity – a programme of government reforms which have eviscerated the British welfare state since 2010. When I told Stephanie that I was writing a book about stigma, she asked if she could tell me her stigma story, so I could share it with others, with you, the readers of this book. She asked to meet in this bar because her wounds are raw and she feels a public setting will allow her to retain some composure, some dignity, while she speaks. So here we are, two middle-aged women drinking coffee in a city centre bar; late afternoon sunlight streams in from the window behind the table where we sit, casting shadows over Stephanie’s face, as she explains how she reached a point where she began carving stigma words into her arms, stomach, thighs with a razor blade.

The only way I can describe it is if you watch a washing machine go through its cycle, you have worries and then they calm down, more worries, then they calm down. Then the machine goes into the spin cycle, and you get to that point when it feel like it’s not going to stop, and the only way to get that out is to attack yourself because there is nobody else left. You have to cut that spin cycle. It’s as harsh as pulling the plug. That’s what you are doing, but it only works for a little while…for seconds…then you feel even more shame for having done it.

The story Stephanie tells me begins over a decade ago, when her mum was diagnosed with terminal cancer, the same day her husband told her that he was leaving. Stephanie and her daughter, Isla, moved into her mum’s house so she could care for her. After her mum died, Stephanie got a temporary job as a teaching assistant and started to build a better life. Not long afterwards, she had a serious accident at work which left her immobilised and in chronic pain. A cycle of medical interventions and operations began, which finally culminated in a knee replacement. When she was back on her feet, Stephanie secured a new teaching post, but then Isla became seriously ill and she had to take time off work to care for her. Stephanie’s employer lost patience with the periods of parental leave, and she was forced to quit her job.

There is a familiar story here, about women’s unpaid labour, the care they provide for elderly relatives and children, and how this care work can make it difficult, sometimes impossible, to sustain waged work. During these years of difficult, if ordinary, life events, Stephanie sold her home at a loss to prevent repossession. Then austerity cuts to school budgets meant that the teaching supply work she had been getting by on dried up. Before long she had sold everything of value she owned.

The shame is building throughout these years: time the card was declined when I was shopping. I’d be standing there with £6 of shopping but it wouldn’t go through and everybody in the queue is…you know…every little thing that happens piles on more stigma and shame.

Stephanie was really struggling now to keep a roof over her head. She was increasingly relying on charitable foodbanks to survive. In desperation, she took out a high interest payday loan and a rapid spiral into debt followed. Before long, she says, ‘We started getting letters to evict us.’

The dry mouth each time the phone rings. Her heart beating faster in her chest each time a letter drops on the door mat. The rush of anxiety that accompanies every unexpected knock at the door.  Stephanie couldn’t see a way out of her situation, so she sought advice and was told she should qualify for unemployment benefit and housing benefit. She applied for the relief to which she was entitled, during the exact period when the British Government’s austerity programme of welfare reform was beginning.

In February 2008, in the midst of the global banking crisis, the Shadow Chancellor George Osborne gave a speech with the title ‘There is a Dependency Culture’ to the Conservative Party. This was the period leading up to 2010 general election, which would see Osborne installed as ‘the austerity Chancellor’. Osborne used this speech as an opportunity to outline the Conservative Party’s economic response to the financial crisis, which centred on plans to implement ‘the most far-reaching programme [of] welfare reform for a generation’.[ii]

There was no evidence for the claims Osborne made in this speech that an overly generous system of welfare provisions was responsible for the national economic outlook, which he variously described as indebted, stagnant, inflexible, vulnerable and exposed. Yet he confidently identified ‘millions of people’ who were ‘languishing on out of work benefits’ as a central challenge facing the British economy: an ‘unproductive’ residuum of people ‘persistently playing the system’ and deceitfully milking the rewards of what he termed a ‘something for nothing culture’. Osborne announced that cuts in benefits, services and provisions, a deterrent welfare system spiked with conditions and sanctions, and punitive workfare programmes outsourced to ‘private and voluntary sectors’ was the ‘tough’ medicine required to move people ‘off benefits and into work’.

He promised that these austerity reforms would end what he described as a ‘shameful’  ‘dependency culture in Britain’, ‘free up supply’ (of capital and labour), ‘unleash billions of pounds’, ‘restore the health of the public finances’, liberate those ‘stuck on benefits’ and ‘transform’ the ‘life chances of millions of families’. In fact, as I examine in Chapter Four of this book, [The Stigma Machine of Austerity], what followed in the wake of austerity is what can only be described as a planned social catastrophe.

When the Conservative Party came to power in a coalition government in 2010, their programme of welfare reform began in earnest. A former job centre advisor has described how her job changed overnight from one of helping people to ‘the persecution of vulnerable people’.[iv] ‘The pressure was incredible’, she says, as frontline staff became subject ‘to constant and aggressive pressure to meet and exceed targets’ to get people off benefits by imposing conditions and sanctions. It was, she says, ‘like “getting brownie points” for cruelty’.[v]

What Stephanie experienced when she applied for benefits was a welfare system in chaos, as it was being redesigned in ways which sought to deter people from making claims. As we will see, the stigma Stephanie encountered when interacting with frontline workers and welfare agencies was shocking. However, this was only one element of what she describes as an ‘overwhelmingly hostile environment’. For what accompanied the implementation of these welfare reforms was an extraordinary political and media propaganda campaign which sought to manufacture public consent for austerity by stigmatising those in receipt of relief.

Stories about ‘benefits cheats’ seeped incessantly into Stephanie’s world; every time she turned on the radio or television or brushed past a rack of newspapers in a shop, she would come across ‘things like these people are stealing your taxes’, which left her ‘thinking that is me they’re talking about’. 

This ‘welfare stigma machine’ needled Stephanie from every direction: ‘It keeps coming, it’s relentless, one constant cycle of judgement, like a knife being stuck repeatedly into you.’

This unremitting stigma slowly eroded Stephanie’s self-esteem. She began to feel that her daughter would be better off without her. She started to regularly self-harm. She became suicidal: ‘I stockpiled tablets waiting for the right moment.’

In 2015, a letter arrived alleging that Stephanie had erroneously claimed income in the form of child tax credit to which she wasn’t entitled, and that this benefit was being stopped while an investigation took place.[vi] This stream of regular income (circa £250 a month) was essential to service the interest on her debts. When Stephanie read this letter, she broke down:’I was in a state. I completely lost it. I was absolutely distraught. I was hitting myself with things. I was scraping my skin off.’

That same day she was supposed to attend an appointment at the job centre, so she rang and explained to them that she was ‘in terrible distress’, but they told her that a failure to attend would be taken as evidence she was unwilling to work, and that she would be sanctioned, potentially losing her right to claim benefits for up to three years. ‘So, I just got in the car. I parked illegally in the middle of the street outside the job centre. I was hysterical. I was bleeding. The security guard looked at me and said I couldn’t go inside. Eventually the man I was supposed to be signing on with came outside of the building with the form.’ The job coach didn’t speak to Stephanie; he simply handed her a pen, and she signed on in the street.

‘As I signed it, blood dripped all over the paper. I will never forget it.’

Nobody expressed concern or worry for Stephanie as she stood outside the job centre with blood dripping from her wrists and arms. Nobody attempted to sooth her, to calm her. Nobody called for medical assistance. When I ask her why nobody did any of these things, she says, ‘Nobody cared.’ She says: ‘You end up not feeling human, like you don’t have the right to be part of that society.’ In the end, you are ‘so dehumanised’ that you begin to perceive yourself as an object, a thing, ‘just scum’.

While Stephanie is describing this to me, her voice is breaking and her body is shaking. I stop her and say, ‘I’m worried that recalling this trauma is repeating the harm.’ She replies, ‘At one point a psychotherapist said to me that sometimes it helps to write down negative thoughts rather than keep them in your head, so what I ended up doing was writing a list of descriptors of myself’; and she recalls them:

waste of space

failure

freak

useless

burden

scrounger

waste of oxygen…

A whole list of negative things.

She continues:

Then one day I started to cut the words from the list into my body. I’d think to myself, I’ll do this one this time. I was writing on myself to say to the rest of the world, who you perceive as looking at you like that: ‘I know, you don’t have to tell me, I already know. I know what you’re thinking, but don’t think I don’t know that as well. Look.’

When I arrived home after my conversation with Stephanie, I lay down on my bed and wept for a long time.

A vigorous and relentless assault upon human dignity

In the foreword to the 2016/2017 Amnesty International Report on the state of the world’s human rights, Amnesty’s Secretary General Salil Shetty warned that we are witnessing ‘a global trend towards angrier and more divisive politics’ in which ‘the idea of human dignity’ is ‘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’.[vii] ‘Across the world’, he writes, ‘leaders and politicians wagered their future power on narratives of fear and disunity, pinning blame on the “other” for the real or manufactured grievances of the electorate.’[viii]

It is the thesis of Stigma that in order to counter the ‘vigorous and relentless assault’ upon human dignity that is a major characteristic of current global authoritarian turn, we require a better understanding of how stigma is propagated as a governmental technology of division and dehumanisation. We need to track the role played by ‘stigma politics’ in producing the toxic climate of fear and hatred that is enveloping and dividing societies and communities. We need to examine how ‘stigma power’ is crafted and cultivated as a means of levearing political capital. We need a better understanding also of the ways in which this divisive politics gets under the skin of those it subjugates; how this state-cultivated stigma changes the ways in which people think about themselves and others – corroding compassion, crushing hope, weakening social solidarity.

Stigma seeks to enrich sociological understandings of stigma as a concept, idea, material force and practice. It hopes also to enliven wider public debates about what stigma is, where stigma comes from, how and by whom stigma is produced and for what purposes. Stigma is concerned with what social scientific accounts of stigma frequently neglect, namely: an understanding of stigma as embedded within the social relations of capitalism, and as a form of power entangled with histories of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. 

Stigma stretches the frameworks within which we ordinarily think about stigma. It aims to dislodge stigma from the settled meanings it acquired within twentieth-century social sciences, and to disrupt the individualistic, ahistorical and politically anaesthetised conceptualisations of stigma inherited from this tradition. Stigma is concerned with undisciplining stigma, with decolonising stigma, and with thinking about stigma within a distinctly political register.

[….]

Fighting shame

The overarching aim of Stigma is to deepen the understanding of stigma as a governmental technology of exploitation; to draw new lines of connection between people’s dehumanising experiences of stigmatisation and the socio-political machining of stigma in service of extractive forms of capitalism. In recalibrating our understanding of stigma as an exploitative apparatus, this book seeks to make stigma into a more useful concept: a device for thinking more deeply about how power etches itself into us and ‘take up residence within us’. While stigma is a disabling force, a form of power that is inscribed in bodies, places and communities in ways that often leave profound and permanent scars, understanding the wounds of stigma as social and political injuries can assist in the forging of networks of care and solidarity. As the women from Leeds Poverty Truth Commission put it in Fighting Shame (2019), their film about living with the stigma of poverty in austerity Britain: ‘It’s important that people hear about the shame. It’s about living the shame, feeling it, living on, inspiring people through that shame.’ Stigma has always been resisted by those it is pressed upon. 

It is the argument of Stigma that the knowledge garnered through histories of struggle against stigma ‘has important implications for emancipatory politics’, informing strategies of resistance to authoritarian forms of government today and improving our capacity to understand and resist the divisions which stigma politics are designed to cultivate. This is a task to which we urgently need to attend, with all the imagination and tools at our disposal. 


[i]Where appropriate I have used pseudonyms to protect the identities of people whose testimonies I have drawn on in this book, but I use their words with their consent.

[ii]George Osborne, “There Is a Dependency Culture,” February 28, 2008.

[iii]Workfare is the term used to describe welfare programmes in which you are required to undertake unpaid work in order to receive state benefit payments, ordinarily unemployment benefits. The introduction of austerity in 2010 saw a dramatic shift in policies with workfare and other conditions designed into the benefits system. For a good account of this shift see Anne Daguerre and David Etherington, “Workfare in 21st Century Britain: The Erosion of Rights to Social Assistance” (Middlesex University, November 2014), and also the research undertaken by anti-workfare activist groups such as Boycott Workfare, http://www.boycottworkfare.org/.

[iv]Mary O’Hara, “As a Jobcentre Adviser, I Got ‘Brownie Points’ for Cruelty,” The Guardian, February 4, 2015,

[v]O’Hara.

[vi]Child Tax Credit was a benefit available to low income households to assist with the costs of raising a child, it has now been replaced with Universal Credit. In Stephanie’s case the tax authorities stated that she had erroneously claimed an additional element of this benefit relating to childcare costs for a few weeks one summer, in actuality she was entitled to this supplement, but the enquiry to ascertain this took a further two years, during this period all her Child Tax Credit income was frozen.

[vii]Salil Shetty, “Foreword, Amnesty International Report 2016/17: State of Human Rights,” 2017, 12,

[viii]Shetty, 12.

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