Race, nation and welfare: Eugenics and the problem of the ‘anti-social’ citizen

This post, guest authored by Sara Salem, is part of a symposium on Robbie Shilliam’s new book Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit

Deservedness is a racialized discourse and rhetoric that works to consistently offset the disorders necessarily engendered in the pursuit of empire’s capital. Political domination in (post)colonial commercial society leaves its trace in the racialization of the undeserving poor.

The 2016 Brexit vote brought to the surface of British politics issues of race, migration, economic inequality and sovereignty. In particular, a narrative around the “white working class” quickly became a central focus point of many Brexit debates, most often in an attempt to understand why a certain demographic voted leave. Not only did this obscure the largely middle-class support for Brexit, thereby displacing what was in hindsight seen as a regressive political decision, but it also took the category of the “white working class” as an empirical given. Robbie Shilliam’s new book, Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit, is an impressive and comprehensive attempt to trace the genealogy of this concept, and to place it within legacies of British imperialism.

In this book, Shilliam provides a framework within which to understand race and class as co-constitutive. Read against analyses that centre class in readings of Brexit, Shilliam’s work can be seen as a critique of economistic understandings of British politics which, although critical, remain trapped within an understanding of capitalist development that does not see empire or race. This is increasingly important in light of current global shifts that have seen the emergence of racist articulations of politics, particularly around the issue of immigration, nationhood, and welfare. This work is an exciting and insightful look into the genealogy of welfare categories, the imperial legacies that inevitably colour contemporary British society, and the broader implications of this in terms of Brexit and the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Ultimately this book urges readers to reconsider simplistic readings of Brexit that focus on a “white working class” that has been left behind, and pushes us to rethink how categories such as the deserving and undeserving poor are—and have always been—racialized.

Race, imperialism and social categories

Demonstrating the racialized nature of the categories of deserving and undeserving poor is perhaps one of the most important contributions the book makes. For Shilliam, these categories are not new and in fact can be traced back to slavery: “The enslavement of Africans was a fundamental reference point for the initial racialization of deserving and undeserving characteristics, with the ‘slave’ – and thereby the condition of blackness—exemplifying the latter.” The poor laws, which date back to the Elizabethan era, put in place a distinction between people who deserved relief and people who did not. Tracing the emergence of a slave analogy being applied to the British working class, Shilliam argues that these analogies worked to racialize the undeserving poor. The poverty these poor Englishmen were experiencing was seen as threatening their very Englishness—it was this process that Blackened them.

Especially interesting is the role settler colonies played in the evolving notion of “Englishness.” In the 1850s, for example, British parliament debated the growing autonomy of white settler colonies, and soon the “filial lines of “Englishness” had become re-articulated in a diasporic framing of belonging, owing much to the proclivities of colonial settler elites.” Further on, Shilliam continues: “Franchise reform effectively transformed those who had in the past political lexicon been considered “deserving poor” into a deserving constituency of skilled and settled workers. In the same movement, these workers were adopted into the Anglo-Saxon family at the same time as this family distanced itself from troublesome non-white colonial populations.” It is precisely here that we see the singularity of the settler colony define the parameters of national belonging in England proper. This in turn had tangible effects on welfare and on the ever-shifting categories of the deserving and undeserving poor.

This moment is pivotal because it is here that the ability to belong to the nation became dependent on race—not class. This is by no means unique to Britain, although the British Empire remains the most expansive example. Welfare states across Europe can and should similarly be read through this optic of race and imperialism. Some of my new research has looked at the Netherlands and the ways in which the Dutch empire was implicated in categories of welfare provision. Generally the Netherlands deals with its imperial past through “social forgetting” (Weiner 2014)—positioning itself as a reluctant imperialist (Wekker 2016, 37) if acknowledging it at all—which is different to the British tendency to remember the empire nostalgically. Where they converge, however, is in an unwillingness to confront how imperial pasts have structured post-imperial presents. In the Netherlands the creation of a civilized Dutchman, which stands in for the white middle class, juxtaposed with a non-civilized (fluid and constantly changing) other, has worked to legitimise certain social, political and economic categories and policies. These policies range from increasingly tough stances on immigration to the increased policing of post-migrant populations and populations of colour.

Alongside this, the public discourse of “white innocence” (Wekker 2016) is performed in the Netherlands in an attempt to deflect accusations of racism. Wekker writes: “The claim of innocence is a double-edged sword: it contains not-knowing, but also not wanting to know, capturing what philosopher Charles W. Mills has described as the epistemology of ignorance,” (2016, 535). Within the Netherlands more recently, this innocence is also performed by displacing racism onto specific demographics, namely the white working class or Dutch people from the countryside. This has resulted in a narrative that posits either the non-existence of Dutch racism, or racism as something only found in certain places among certain people—and only very recently. The role of the white working class here is interesting: on the one hand, it is used as a scapegoat for anything the civilized white Dutchman deems as “illiberal”; but on the other hand, there has also more recently been a discourse claiming that the Dutch white working class has been left behind, a discourse that mirrors the one Shilliam locates in the UK.

Rural Dutch family, 1930s

Eugenics and cleansing the nation

The emergence of the Dutch welfare state is often traced back to an attempt by the Dutch state to discipline the white working class—or the working class as it was referred to at the time. The threat of the white working class was minimized by ensuring that as a group, they were incorporated into the national imaginary, which was disciplined by the state. The emergence of the Dutch welfare state represents an attempt to make the white working class “fit for (bourgeois) society” which was seen as preferable to improving conditions of the working class by raising the standard of living (Martina 2013). Thus the welfare state acted as a disciplinary force that, through biopolitical means, absorbed and neutralized any “threat” coming from the white working class. This later transformed as a means of disciplining bodies seen as racially and/or culturally different. Attention was deflected from structural inequalities, this time regarding institutionalized racism, and instead focused on framing such bodies as in need of socialization through intervention.

Debates around the welfare state in Europe during the early twentieth century often reproduced the idea of cleansing society of people who were seen as unproductive or a burden. Eugenics (across a whole range of negative to positive eugenics) was understood as a necessary intervention in order to prevent the unfit—or antisocial—from multiplying. Leo Lucassen (2010) shows how this played out in numerous contexts. Sweden was often at the forefront of these debates, and in 1909, the Swedish Society for Racial Hygiene was founded, followed in 1910 by the Mendel Society, the first Swedish genetics association. Even before World War I, leading doctors including Herman Lundborg, a prominent figure in racial biology, saw eugenics as a means to counter the problem of immigration, and there was a widely held opinion that the racial unity of the Swedish people was threatened (Lucassen 2010, 273). Swedish communitarian and ‘‘productivist’’ socialism had much in common with fascist and national socialist organic theories on the role of the welfare state. Just as under the Nazis, the welfare state in Sweden had to be protected from ‘‘unproductive anti-socials’’ and so it became a ‘‘eugenic welfare state of the fittest’’ (ibid, 277).

What I want to note here is that this civilizing tendency cannot be neatly separated from imperialism. Not only were these eugenics policies applied to racialized “others” within these nations, but they often relied discursively on the civilized self in distinction to the uncivilized colonial subject. “The colonial project claimed one of its objectives was the civilization of ‘backward races’” (ibid). Thus two civilizing projects were occurring simultaneously: one on the inside—against the (white) working class—and one on the outside against the “backwards” races of the colonies. It is notable that both of these processes include relational constructions of the white middle class and the national self as opposed to an “other” onto which the self was projecting all of its negative qualities.

The connections between social democracy and eugenics are thus clear in Europe, and Shilliam similarly shows their connections in the UK. Fabianism, for example, argued that without intervention into society the nation would “perish from racial degradation.” Importantly, however, these types of arguments drew on knowledge about the colonies, and in particular the Caribbean. Colonial development thus had a direct effect on how welfare in Britain was imagined. The National Insurance Act of 1911 was what institutionalised the eugenicist distinction between “deserving and undeserving stock.” It is here that Shilliam connects debates around eugenics, the deserving and undeserving poor, and the formal establishment of the British welfare state. It is through the debates around the quality of Anglo-Saxon stock that eugenicist interventions were put forward, and this notion of an Anglo-Saxon stock could only be made vis-à-vis the empire.

The universalisation of social insurance in the 1940s marked a new phase in the development of British welfare. William Beveridge’s 1942 report, which backed this universalisation, was rife with eugenicist ideas, in particular that “good stock should be allowed to breed while bad stock would be ameliorated through state intervention.” What is crucial here is that “good English stock” can only be understood at the level of empire. For instance, Beveridge clearly commanded the white British woman to produce strong Anglo-Saxon stock for nation and empire. Shilliam shows how the Beveridge report clearly relied on an imperial division between the Anglo-Saxon family and the colonial subject, as can be seen from his repeated references to the “British race.” Indeed one of his concerns was that the British race was able to continue to reproduce itself and thereby to continue to spread its ideals around the globe. Moreover, Beveridge subscribed to a view whereby nationhood subordinated class to race. These debates went on to influence broader questions around the Commonwealth and immigration from Commonwealth countries. Indeed it is here that we see the clear emergence of deserving whites versus undeserving Black and Asian immigrants. “Within this racialized division of labour, Black and Asian arrivals were considered undeserving of social security and welfare, and came to disproportionately occupy the worst jobs and receive the worst provisions of public goods.” English labour was very much implicated in the consolidation of this division. Looking at Enoch Powell in particular, Shilliam demonstrates the ways in which white labour supported his platform in an attempt to protect themselves from Commonwealth immigrants.

The left behind

The introduction of universal social insurance did to some extent eliminate the formal distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor—although the poor continued to be racialized. It was primarily Black and Asian labour that was channelled into low-skill sectors, and occupations servicing the welfare state—most prominently the NHS—drew on the colonies for labourers to do low-grade work. I want to quote Shilliam’s fascinating discussion of a statement from Powell, where he argued against the new universalism of British welfare:

Once more resonating with contemporary assertions of the “left behind” status of the “white working class,” Powell even presents the “ordinary working man” as the “victim” of equalities legislation. In truth, he argues, the English majority have been minoritized so as to find themselves “made strangers in their own country.” Powell is adamant that he and his supporters must not be considered “racialists,” just as the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) presently asserts. Alternatively, Powell claims to be making a common-sense argument about cultural “fit” and the limits of integrating alien values. But Powell’s position is wilfully disingenuous in so far as he explicitly racializes those who did not wish to integrate: “their colour marks them out.”

What is striking here is precisely the déjà vu one experiences reading these assertions from Powell: how different are they from the public discourse today around how the ordinary British citizen has been left behind, and the harmful effects equalities legislation has had on the white working class in particular? This public discourse has survived in spite of the apparent racialized division within the British working class; a division that favoured—rather than disadvantaged—white workers.

Indeed another fascinating connection between England and the Netherlands is the appearance of the category “problem family” to denote the urban residuum in the English case and the broader working class in the Dutch case. With the rise of Thatcher and the new conservatism, we see the shift from “equality of outcome” to “equality of opportunity.” In line with this shift, New Labour gave up its commitment to universal welfare, and essentially agreed to the conservative line that undeserving characteristics were from then on to be penalised with conditionalities and sanctions. Similarly, the Dutch welfare state was partly formed through repeated attempts by the Dutch state to discipline and absorb “problematic” families into the national fabric. This has particularly been the case with families who over the years “have been described variously as inadmissible, anti-social, socially ill, unsocial, socially maladjusted, deprived, underprivileged, and problem and multi-problem families,” (van Wel 1992, 149). This often took on a spatial dynamic, with “problematic” families segregated in certain parts of the city or village. Until late in the 1950s, for example, whole families were transferred for treatment into separate hostels or encampments in the countryside.

In much of the literature, the policy of targeting anti-socials for re-education has been traced back to the emergence of a class of factory workers following industrialization in the Netherlands. The worsening conditions within which this new class worked and lived greatly worried Dutch liberals, who mobilized quickly to find a solution. I posit that the civilizing mission must also be placed within a global context, as well as in relation to the Netherlands’ extensive empire. The idea of what constitutes a “healthy, proper family” emerged against the Netherlands’s interior—the white working class—as well as its exterior—the colonies. Tracing the emergence of a class of factory workers following industrialization illustrates how anti-socials were understood as emerging from that particular class in the Netherlands; however, tracing the Dutch empire’s representation of racialized others as uncivilised equally sheds light on who the concept of anti-social was meant to refer to.

Categories such as “problem families” and “anti-socials”—although often understood as referring to people from a certain class—need to be read as racialized categories. As Shilliam demonstrates, it is difficult to imagine such categories as divorced from imperial expansion and imperial politics. Subjects in the metropole were constituted by and through imperialism; thus categories such as deserving and undeserving poor, as well as broader notions of “Englishness” or “Dutchness” should similarly be placed within imperial and racial trajectories. Shilliam notes, for example, how after the 2011 London “riots” David Cameron identified 120,000 “troubled families” and promised he would “modify the undeserving behaviour of their members.” This troubling throwback to Eugenicist problems to “fix problem families” is unmistakable. Troubled families can be understood as the “white working class” or “immigrants,” but what matters is that they cannot be understood separately from one another. Pushing this further, however, is the point that this does not mean we should see white workers as equally disadvantaged compared to Black and Asian workers. Both the British and the Dutch case demonstrate a simple fact: the white working class can assimilate into whiteness—and indeed this was the point of social engineering—but non-whites can never truly become white.

As Shilliam notes towards the end of the book, the campaign around Brexit had less to do with a “visceral racism” than with the “racialized melancholia that harked back to a time when the racialized division of labour could be said to defend ‘England for the English’.” Being left behind essentially meant losing one’s privileged position within society. This is the difficult position the “white working class” finds itself in. The outcry over the white working class being the most dramatically affected by multiculturalism and/or equalities legislation obscures the fact that this outcry is less over their position deteriorating (although in comparison to the white middle and upper classes, it of course has), and more to do with them no longer having a privileged position in comparison to the Black and Asian working class.

Perhaps there is no better symbol that indicates who has really been left behind than the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Shilliam’s reading is that the residents of Grenfell were by all standards part of the “deserving poor”: industrious, aspirational, orderly.” And yet they were immediately classified as part of the undeserving poor—presumably because of their countries of origin. Grenfell is a reminder that those truly left behind in the UK—and Europe, and the US—continue to be the racialized others who carry the history of imperial rule.


Lucassen, L., 2010. A brave new world: the left, social engineering, and eugenics in twentieth-century Europe. International Review of Social History, 55(2), pp. 265-296.

Martina, E.A., 2013. The War on Welfare. Processed Lives.

Shilliam, R. 2018. Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit. Agenda Publishing.

Weiner, M.F., 2014. The ideologically colonized metropole: Dutch racism and racist denial. Sociology Compass, 8(6), pp. 731-744.

Wekker, G., 2016. White innocence: Paradoxes of colonialism and race. Duke University Press.

Wel, F.V., 1992. A century of families under supervision in the Netherlands. The British Journal of Social Work, 22(2), pp. 147-166.


8 thoughts on “Race, nation and welfare: Eugenics and the problem of the ‘anti-social’ citizen

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