Dr Imogen Tyler (Lancaster University) presented ‘The Riots of the Underclass?: Stigmatisation, Mediation and the Government of Poverty and Disadvantage in Neoliberal Britain’ at the ESRI seminar, on the 12th June. A talk taken from the last chapter of her recent book ‘Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain’.
It is now clear. The scores are in. The earlier claims that ‘the rising tide would lift all boats’ was evidently footnoted in some rightwing think tank policy document ‘the rising tide will lift all boats, for the prompt Viking burial of the “wasted humans”’ (Bauman 2004: 5) – the miners, dockers and other sections of the residuum no longer required by global capitalism, and doomed to be left behind and excluded. We are overwhelmed by evidence that neoliberal policies reinforce inequality and exacerbate exclusion, that the vampire squid of global capitalism routinely preys upon and divests our communities of wealth. Why then, Dr Tyler asked, is there a consensus around the apparent legitimacy of an economy that excludes so many? And, how has this consensus been secured?
Dr Tyler’s talk clarified the processes by which media representations secure the consent for inequality, indeed develop a consensus around the legitimacy of excluding particular groups from a meaningful and secure place in society. This process was explained with reference to the riots of 2011, which were almost immediately greeted by a media consensus that this was the riot of the underclass. The rioters were described in a ‘scum semiotics’ as, ‘Scum, thugs, feral rats, wolves, an army of ants on their BlackBerrys… the dehumanising epithets flew like bricks through a JD Sports window last week’ (Connolly 2011).
Once the cause – the underclass – was quickly determined and vigorously defended the discourse shifted towards promoting an increasingly draconian and vengeful response from the hang ‘em and flog ‘em brigade. In Imogen’s words sections of the public and media binged on ‘penal pornography’ that redounded with images of rioters looting and ‘getting away with it’ and rogues’ galleries of accused rioters on national papers, such as the Sun’s ‘Shop a Moron’, as part of their ‘Name and Shame a Rioter’ campaign.
The longer term consequences of the response to the riots was for them to be taken as a justification for continuing and further entrenching the neoliberal project that has, ironically and tragically, arguably been a cause of the social discord and exclusion to which the young people were responding. The representations of the riots and the rioters’ viewpoints varied but one common theme was the lack of jobs.
One rioter explained:
I literally went there to say, ‘All right then, well, everyone’s getting free stuff, I’m joining in’, like, ’cos, it’s fucking my area. These fucking shops, like, I’ve given them a hundred CVs … not one job. That’s why I left my house (Lewis et al 2011: 26).
David Cameron also located the riots as a consequence of the lack of jobs for young people:
[There] is a moral hazard in our welfare system – people thinking they can be as irresponsible as they like because the state will always bail them out. … I want us to look at toughening up the conditions for those who are out of work and receiving benefits and speeding up our efforts to get all those who can work back to work (Stratton 2011).
The government’s response has been to expand the £5bn ‘The Work Programme’ that deems disabled people fit to work and that unemployed young people should work for free.
The talk was equal parts depressing, persuasive, comprehensive and overwhelming. From descriptions of journalists, commentators, politicians and judges working in concert (Gilroy 2011) to represent the riots as the underclass and disburse rough justice on those caught up in it. There were asides on how production companies generate huge profits by running programmes like My Big Fat Gipsy Wedding, which lead to spikes in abuse and attacks on members of the travelling community, or who production companies choose to appear on News Night and how issues are portrayed.
As ever at ESRI, in the post-talk discussion there were questions about what are the current alternatives, with reference to both UKipper nationalism and ‘Macunians in the sunshine’ seeing off the EDL. Dr. Tyler explained that there are alternatives in micro-political fronts forged by gender and queer groups, and various forms of resistance against austerity policies. In more theoretical terms, this includes a re-articulation of class (drawing on Williams and Ranciere) and exploring the historical and political variations in the institutionalisation of the commons in addition to the intersections of commonality to bring people together.
For me the crux of the matter is the role of the knowledge workers – including here the journalists and wider peddlers of discourse – in reproducing or resisting the neoliberal hegemony. During the riots, blond-haired defender of privilege Boris Johnson joined others in warning academics and commentators not to explain the riots through economic and sociological arguments. To discuss was to justify. This was criminality pure and simple. Academics and those on the left in general were rather more tongue-tied and timid. It is for those committed to social justice to counter these explanations and develop alternative representations. Most importantly, academics must communicate and defend these viewpoints during these times of crises when the focus is firmly and cynically placed on the ‘underclass’ before these spectres are relegated and marginalised to the familiar spotlights of the Jeremy Kyle show, tabloid stories of benefit fraud and the cultural quirks of the feckless and indolent.