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The Riots of the Underclass?: Stigmatisation, Mediation and the Government of Poverty and Disadvantage in Neoliberal Britain.

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


The riots in England in August 2011 comprised one of the most significant events of civil unrest in recent British history. A consensus rapidly emerged, notably within political commentary, print journalism, television and online news media coverage of these five nights of rioting, that these were "the riots of the underclass". This paper explores how and why the conceptual and perceptual frame of the underclass - a frame through which child poverty and youth unemployment are conceived as consequences of a cocktail of "bad individual choices", poor moral judgement, poor parenting, hereditary or genetic deficiencies, and/or welfare dependency - was mobilised as a means of explaining and containing the meaning of these riots. Indeed, the term "underclass" emerged out of a neoliberal consensus that the central social problem to be solved (by policy makers and politicians) is the postindustrial condition of ‘‘welfare dependency”-- rather than problems of inequality, unemployment or poverty. This paper briefly traces the longer cultural and political history of the underclass as an abjectifying category and then examines how the predominance of this underclass framing is used to generate public consent for the shift from protective liberal forms of welfare to penal neoliberal ‘workfare’ regimes. In his response to the riots, Paul Gilroy argued that "one of the worst forms of poverty that’s shaped our situation is poverty of the imagination" (Gilroy 2011). Following Gilroy’s call for alternative critical perspectives that might contest the downward social mobility and deepening inequalities which neoliberal social and economic policies are affecting, this paper explores how we might transform public understandings of poverty and disadvantage by vitalizing alternative understandings of neoliberalism as class struggle.

External organisation (Research grants)

NameManchester Metropolitan University, Manchester
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom