Wooden Stakes: In Response to Robbie Shilliam’s Race and the Undeserving Poor

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



Wooden Stakes[1]

I devote most of my words to Robbie’s conclusion because it is only here that I can play the role of academic critic rather than the admiring fan that I really am.  I don’t mind being the appreciative follower.  But on a first reading of this book, I worried that I would have little to say except for delivering a kind of abstract praise.  I am not one of those readers who understands everything all at once.  I need to re-read books.  For example, it is only on the third reading that I am coming to terms with Robert Vitalis’ White World Order, Black Power Politics.  I built a course around Bob’s book so I could re-read it.  And, I am re-organizing my “Introduction to International Relations” course so that it synchronizes with how Vitalis presents the history of race relations and the history of political economy.

Robbie’s book will be no less foretelling for me.  I already imagine re-designing my “International Political Economy” course around it.  I am especially moved by chapter two, “English Poor Laws and Caribbean Slavery.” It formulates the patterns that will be repeated in Robbie’s rendition of history; it sets in motion how, in Robbie’s words, “race is class”; and, it decisively demonstrates the bankruptcy of a methodological nationalism.  The other chapters are also marvels with their own particular rewards.  Each in itself can be read as an integrated offering of theory and history.  But, of course, Robbie skillfully threads them together.

At the end of chapter 7 (“Brexit and the Return of the White Working Class”) Robbie writes:

The vote to leave cannot be considered a rational choice made by a working class, if by rational we mean a forward-looking cost-benefit analysis.  Except that the calculation was not made on personal or “class” interest.  Rather, it was a melancholic racialized nationalism that in large part carried the Brexit vote.  So, perhaps we should not dismiss the populist resentment of the “left behind” too hastily.  Instead of an irrationality, I would argue it is the logic of class as race.

(98, end of chapter 7, emphasis added) [2]

A lot to ponder here.  But I bring your attention to the last claim, “class as race.”  The book leaves its mark on us with those three words.

That “class is race” is based on two moves.  First, Robbie shows us that the distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor has a historical continuity going back hundreds of years.  The distinction is a secularized instrument of “religious charity, formed by moral commandments” (6).  Robbie is referring to the origins of the Poor Laws, but I think the historical lineage also applies to the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor.  The deserving poor are industrious, they are prudent, and they promote patriarchy.  The undeserving poor are idle, licentious, and they spread anarchy (9).

Second, the poor are not a colorless category.  Rather, Robbie shows that what he calls “elite ideology” constitutes the undeserving poor as African slaves.  Therefore, to suggest that elements of the white working class are idle, licentious, and anarchistic is to “blacken” them.  Establishing these two claims –the historical continuity of the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor, and the equation of the undeserving with slaves — is the challenge of the book and its central innovation.  The full demonstration requires appreciating the richness of the book as a whole.

Robbie wishes to make clear that it’s not the working classes who proffer claims about who is and who is not deserving.  The villains are “mendacious elites” (102):

Grenfell Tower singularly demonstrated the callous abandoning of Britain’s working poor by mendacious elites who have pursued marketization over redistribution, gentrification over social security, and contracting-out over public accountability.

(102, emphasis added)

Here Robbie’s passion is fully visible. I am grateful for how he so seamlessly synthesizes his scholarly dedication with political ferocity.  Robbie is a model for me.  Still, I can exploit my inability and my seeming distance from Grenfell Tower and from Brexit by asking the following: don’t we want to know what makes these elites so mendacious?  Or is their mendacity a bedrock condition?  Is there not a juxtaposition here where the dyad “deserving-undeserving poor” is mirrored by the dyad “mendacious-sincere elites”?  Are there sincere elites?  Is the imposition of elite ideology merely a matter of force?  Or ought we to also consider how populist sentiment came to absorb the deserving-undeserving poor condition?  I understand that these are not small questions.  My hope is to ask them without seeming to diffuse Robbie’s political urgency.

A deeper issue, and for me a better target, is the deserving-undeserving distinction itself.  (I want to alert the reader that my criticism is now moving into the “here is the book I would have written if I were the master of Robbie’s material.”  Or, “here is the book I would have wanted him to write if I could have had some magic influence in his process.”  Or more generously, “here is the book I can imagine that builds on his work”).  Allow me to highlight a small confession Robbie reveals about his stance on the “deserving-undeserving poor” distinction (102):

even if we accept the appropriateness of such classifications (I do not) then we would still have to admit that by most measures the residents of Grenfell Tower, as a collective, were deserving poor.

It is the parenthetical “I do not” that calls my attention.  Not because it is surprising.  Far from it, I assumed from the first page that Robbie would reject this seemingly eternal nugget of hierarchy.  No, what puzzles me is why this distinction is not itself the central target of the book?  To his credit, Robbie aims at it in one bold sentence: “It is the categorical and collective distinction itself [deserving and undeserving] which must be destroyed” (104).  Destroyed, yes.  Amen!  Bravo. Well said.  But why only one sentence?

Of course, it is its conditionality that makes the “deserving-undeserving poor” distinction fall short of an (economic) right.  If you are not idle, not licentious, and not undermining of the patriarchy, then you will receive your economic rights?  This oxymoronic “conditional right” of the poor, originating from Christian charity, as Robbie points out, and lingering continuously with us, is the vampire that will not die.  It inhabits mendacious elites and, I dare say, it also dwells within blackened workers.  Or so I would submit.  I think we are really talking about the foundations of “meritocracy” itself.  I wanted more, indeed, much more on this.

Which is not to say that the conclusion lacks punch.  On the contrary, there are fireworks in it.  Consider these three passages:


The message of this book is that, no matter how painful, a double-critique of progressive politics is required.  Criticism of marketization, deregulation and austerity is not adequate without critique of the racialization of these processes.

(106, emphasis added)

Moreover, the racialization of those deserving and undeserving of social security and welfare precedes and structures neoliberal times. It has structured abolition, imperialism, eugenics, colonial development, even the welfare state and its national compact, as well as Thatcherism, workfare, and our austerity era.  (106-7)

We must face the fact that the “white working class” is not – and has never been – a category indigenous to Britain, least of all England.  We must acknowledge that the working class was constitutionalized through the empire and its aftermaths; and in this respect, class is race.

(107, emphasis added)

These words knock me down with their flair and their verve.  I thank Robbie for the workout.

Still, when I get up, I am left with questions.  He says in the first of the three quotes above that economic critiques are not enough, that we need to see the racialization of these processes.  Agreed.  But “not adequate” in what sense?  Historically or logically?  If he means historically, I cannot quibble.  But is not the logic of meritocracy somewhat different than that of racialization?  Might not those differences matter?

Meritocracy and racialization both produce hierarchies.  Meritocracy’s violence, if we can speak in such terms, originates from not recognizing the unconditionality of “economic rights” (a redundant term, except in an era where rights are seen as only political and where economic rights are invisibilized).  Rights mean we humans have them merely because we are; we needn’t do anything to earn them.  Racialization’s violence stems from misrecognizing who is human.  Or at least in misunderstanding that the quality of humanness cannot be fractioned so that some are more human and others are less so.  If so, might it not matter that these are not the same processes?  Because, it is possible for some to reject racialization processes and still endorse meritocracy.  Thus, liberals can disavow all racialization processes, (and for that matter all gendering processes) and still hold on to meritocracy.  They can think that what each receives or achieves should never depend on race or gender while still believing it should depend on…say, effort, productivity, contribution to society, ability to supply others’ needs, or some such conditional currency.  Implicitly, the hierarchy of class is being affirmed while the hierarchy of race and gender is rejected.  Here class is not race.

I am sure that Robbie is aware of what might seem diminished when he highlights that “class is race.”  It is this awareness coupled with the engaging sway of the book that opens up our response to his superb work.


[1] My thanks to Liz Alexander and Emma Kast for their insightful comments.

[2] The pre-publication manuscript we were given does not contain page numbers.  I have, nevertheless, paginated the manuscript by assigning “1” to the first page of the introduction.


4 thoughts on “Wooden Stakes: In Response to Robbie Shilliam’s Race and the Undeserving Poor

  1. Pingback: The mobility of deservingness: race, class and citizenship in the wake of the ‘Windrush scandal’ | The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: Seeing Class through Race: Britain’s Racialized Moral Economy and the Construction of a ‘White Working Class’ | The Disorder Of Things

  3. Pingback: Shilliam’s Undeserving Refusal. Or, why a relational politics of liberation was always (is always) possible | The Disorder Of Things

  4. Pingback: Race and the Undeserving Poor: Response | The Disorder Of Things

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