Five nights in August 2011 saw the largest and most pervasive scenes of civil unrest in recent British history. From the onset a consensus emerged -within political commentary, the news and online media coverage -that these were the riots of the underclass. This article explores how and why the conceptual and perceptual frame of the underclass was mobilised as a means of explaining and containing the meaning of the riots. First, it traces the longer cultural history of the underclass. It then examines how this framing of the riots -as the riots of the underclass -was used to generate and deepen public consent for the shift from protective liberal forms of welfare to penal ‘workfare’ regimes. The central claim is that if we want critically to contest neoliberal social and economic policies and the downward social mobility and deepening inequalities which these policies engender, it is necessary to challenge the ideas of the underclass that currently underpin public understandings of poverty and disadvantage. It is only then that we can begin to make another sense of the August riots as one part of a deepening neoliberal legitimation crisis.