Race and the Undeserving Poor

I didn’t plan to write this book. After the Black Pacific, my next book was going to be on Ethiopianism and the gestation of a political tradition of anti-colonial anti-fascism during the inter-war period. June 23rd 2016 interrupted all that, and I wrote Race and the Undeserving Poor instead.

I don’t usually focus my narrations primarily on political domination. Those who have read a bit of my work might know that I am more invested in stories of creatively surviving besides, despite and over and against political domination. But I was deeply disturbed when right-wing demagogues used the return of the “deserving white working class” to push forward a deregulation agenda. I was almost as disturbed by the weaknesses in much (but not all) leftist argumentation, which compromised a clear and comprehensive confrontation of such demagoguery. I felt I had to contribute to a sharpening those critical tools – for myself as much as anyone else.

Not that sufficient tools and narratives haven’t already been crafted by prior generations of intellectuals and activists, especially in Britain and its imperial and postcolonial hinterlands. For example, it is impossible to talk about race and populism without recalling Stuart Hall. And it is – or rather should be – impossible to talk about class-and/as-race without talking about the intellectual activists who took over the Institute of Race Relations in the early 1970s. To be honest, part of the purpose in writing Race and the Undeserving Poor was to bring these existing traditions up-to-date for our current Brexit conjuncture. I started with a blog or two and over the course of a year it turned into the book, which I finished in December 2017.

In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin memorably argues that it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should be innocent, for it is the innocence that constitutes the crime. It is clear, however, that the authors of Brexit – the right-wing Eurosceptics, the right-wing political opportunists, the deregulators, the Atlanticists, the faux-people’s press, the self-appointed business barons of white purity (not supremacy) – that these authors knew exactly what they were doing when it came to pursuing Brexit. There was no innocence, only a wilful and often cynical embrace of populist nationalism. Few of them will pay a price for their mendacious adventurism; their children will by and large be safe. I grew up in 1970s and 80s England. I’ve never had an illusion about the nature of the beast.

In Race and the Undeserving Poor I canvas a long history of British empire and its aftermath by interrogating a set of moments: the abolition of slavery and poor laws (1780s to 1830s); Anglo-Saxon empire, eugenics and national insurance (1840s to 1910s);  welfare and colonial development (1890s to 1950s); universal welfare, trade unions and Commonwealth migration (1940s to 1970s); social conservatism, work-fare and the emergence of the white “underclass” (1970s to 2000s); and, ultimately, the Eurosceptic years leading up to Brexit.

The book narrates an imperial and postcolonial history of political domination told through the moralizing discourses and rhetoric of the undeserving poor. The story pivots on the tensions of – and duplicities thrown up by – capitalism, congenitally embedded (as they have always been) in imperial and postcolonial constellations. My claim is that crucial to the defence and/or adjudication of this political order has been the racialized distinction between those deserving and undeserving of social security and welfare. The recent return of the “white working class” as a deserving constituency has to be placed within these genealogies.

On a number of occasions in the book I make the pithy claim that class is race.  In doing so I am addressing two different political positions.

Firstly, and most importantly, there are the forces on the right that gather under the banner of social conservatism and use populist nationalism as a means to racialize the deserving and the undeserving poor. To the deserving – the “just about managings” – these forces provide very little advantage if at all, while they punish the undeserving in the most insensate way.

Class is race because the popular will is presently supposed to emanate from a “white working class” whose indigeneity is presumed to be de facto proof of their deserving nature. Yet, as my book demonstrates, the white working class is not indigenous. It is a constituency produced and re-produced through struggles to consolidate and defend British imperial order, struggles that have subsequently shaped the contours of Britain’s postcolonial society.

The “white working class” is not a natural or neutral category of political economy. As a constituency, the “white working class” has rarely been self-authored, self-empowered or self-directed. This constituency must be apprehended principally as an elite artefact of political domination.

Secondly, there is presently a tendency for socialists to disparage as “identity politics” social movements that foreground race (as well as gender and sexuality). This tendency derives from conjoint premises: a) the objective structure of class gives its politics a universal reach, hence enabling a solidarity that matches the global reach of capital; b) alternatively, race is a particular identity arising from ruling class ideologies, hence the pursuit of justice along race lines will always subvert the cultivation of wider and deeper solidarities.

My book demonstrates that there is no politics of class that is not already racialized. Many on the left currently argue that certain principles might have to be suspended in order to realistically engage a “majority” – i.e. the “white working class”. I argue that this blunt demographic sensibility entirely obscures the operation of power, which is always to cut the social fabric at its weakest, i.e. through the bodies of those racialized, gendered and nationalized as undeserving. Hence, I finish the book by presenting the post-Brexit future through the Grenfell Tower fire and the fate of the people of Lancaster West estate and the Latimer road area.

As well as contributing to this forum, Lisa Tilley also initiated and organized it. Thanks Lisa! We were both keen that the interlocutors would take the opportunity to relate their own work to their critical engagements with my book, so as to deepen and widen the discussion.


13 thoughts on “Race and the Undeserving Poor

  1. I’m very uncertain about the ‘post-ness’ of colonialism discussed here. For a moment I thought there was an academic consensus, or a consensus in academia that there is as yet no such thing as ‘post colonialism’; at least not contextual with British, Western European (e.g. French) colonialism. France has simply changed the nature of its colonial practices in so-called Francophone Africa; in fact I’d say that the French dialled colonialism up a notch. The British keeps invading African and Asian ‘sovereign’ spaces, places and countries; Iraq, Libya, Yemen immediately spring to mind. America does the same thing on a regular basis; so does Israel. China has introduced a variant which is stealing the show folks! There is more colonialism being practiced in this world, than there ever was. And what about Russian colonialism. So tell me again about ‘post colonialism’. What exactly does it mean; and where is this ‘post colonialism’ to be found.


    • Hi Claudine, the main academic purpose of “postcolonial”, from scholars who popularised the term, is to draw attention to the fact that even after the formal end of colonial rule, our world is still structured along lines of – what other scholars now call – “coloniality”, that is, colonial structures that remain even in the absence of formal colonialism. You’ll see from my brief intro to my book, written above, that I am arguing that the “white working class” is a category that emerges from Britain’s imperial histories into Britain’s “postcolonial” present.

      Other scholars and activists argue that, e.g., if you are looking at settler colonies, then these are still occupied lands, and hence even the term “postcolonial” is inexact, as formal colonial occupation has never stopped.

      Hope that helps.


  2. Thanks for this book Robbie, I heard you speak in Aberystwyth University some months ago and it really helped my thinking on a number of fronts. I hoped I hadn’t misunderstood and really glad, having now read the book, that your ideas are as productive as I had hoped. Really important book, which achieves your aspiration to develop and update the insights and ideas of Hall, Sivanandan et al. Really loved the structure (it reminded me of Yaa Gyasi’s wonderful novel Homegoing) and I am sure I will not be the only person promiscuously deploying the concept of the “blackening of the poor”.

    Much respect



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