Seeing Class through Race: Britain’s Racialized Moral Economy and the Construction of a ‘White Working Class’

This post, guest authored by Rick Saull, 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, Sara Salem, Naeem Inayatullah, and Luke de Noronha.

Race and the Undeserving Poor: From Abolition to Brexit, is a major and timely intervention that addresses the development of Britain’s social order and class relations through the vectors of empire and race. Shilliam offers a distinct and compelling account of the racialized moral economy that has defined Britain from ‘abolition to Brexit’ and through which he seeks to historicize, contextualize and explain the Brexit referendum result. However, there is much more in this book – and far more than I can do justice to in this contribution – than an explanation of Brexit. In a prose infused with both a scholarly clarity and a burning sense of social justice, Shilliam charts the way in which race and racial signifiers have been deployed as a means of determining those who are included and excluded as ‘deserving’ of political recognition and access to welfare goods.

In many respects the most recent episode in this history concerns the attempts by the British Home Office to deport British citizens of Caribbean origin – the children of the ‘Windrush generation’ who contributed to Britain’s post-war reconstruction and, significantly, the foundation and development of the welfare state – because of a lack of official paperwork confirming their status as citizens. This affair – an outcome of the 2014 Immigration Act – is symptomatic of the kind of politics, infused with racialized resentments, grievances and fears, that has come to define our times (and not just in Britain), contributing to a toxic and base political culture associated with concerns about immigration, the future of the welfare state and the continuing fall-out from almost a decade of austerity.

The 2016 Brexit referendum vote provides the end point for Shilliam’s book and the entry point associated with the emergence of a particular racialized narrative that quickly developed – in a similar way to after Donald Trump’s election victory – that the Brexit vote amounted to a political backlash by the forgotten, left behinds of the ‘white working class’ against a ‘cosmopolitan neoliberal elite’ held responsible for overturning the social (and racial) bargain between the governing class and that ‘white working class’. This narrative asserted that the background to the Brexit vote was a consequence of years of ‘uncontrolled immigration’ so that Britain no longer ‘looked like Britain’ – in the words of the UKIP leader, Nigel Farage – in part because immigration had resulted in a fundamental undermining of the political rights and social benefits of British (sic) citizens. In spite, then, of thirty years of neoliberal experimentation – a significant element of which was connected to the labour market flexibility facilitated and realized through immigration – something more than a residue of racialized moral economy remained and re-asserted itself.

Such arguments as to the determining role of white workers in delivering the Brexit vote have been well-refuted (see Bhambra, 2017; Dorling, 2016; Virdee and McGeever, 2017) and Shilliam does this through a careful consideration of the voting data and wider demographics. However, the larger point that Shilliam seeks to emphasise is that what ultimately matters in terms of political determinations and outcomes is how narratives and representations defined by race are constructed and the role such constructions have on actual political agency and the imaginaries that inform political and public policy decisions. Referring back to the repugnant treatment of British citizens from the Windrush generation, this is only explicable from a political context of a government and Home Office needing to be seen to be ‘hard on “illegal” immigrants’ as a way of responding to the concerns of ‘ordinary voters’ about immigration as propagated through the toxic megaphone of UKIP and the right-wing press. In this case, whether ideas or representations are true or reflect a material reality don’t seem to matter to a significant portion of the British (or English) population – at least on this issue – given that the numerous surveys on the social and economic costs/benefits of immigration have almost all determined that immigration has been beneficial to UK society and economy. Indeed, Shilliam’s point seems to be that the unfounded ideas on the role of immigrants in contributing to socio-economic distress reflects the ongoing regurgitation of a set of deeply embedded racialized ideational constructions as to who can be considered deserving and undeserving.

The motivations of many people who voted leave in the Brexit referendum were connected to a set of class-based grievances associated with housing, health care, employment and pay that reflect the lived experience of much of the British working class (Hazeldine, 2017) over the last two-to-three decades and especially so since 2010. Yet, such grievances were not part of a mobilization for ‘Lexit’ but rather tended to concentrate on the figure of the immigrant as the visible manifestation, carrier of and beneficiary of these socio-economic changes. In this rendering the immigrant is neoliberalism. Shilliam captures this as:

[t]he 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

In this respect, the success of neoliberalism in destroying the social and political institutions of class resistance in Britain has been inextricably connected to a re-racialization of class that combined a ‘colour-blind’ ideology of individualized meritocracy supplemented by coded racialized tropes, with the latter providing the moral and cultural ballast that has helped to secure the electoral victories for neoliberalism.

For Shilliam, the Brexit vote and the decision of significant numbers of white workers to focus on immigration as the source or explanan of their socio-economic ills reflects the long-standing and deeply embedded place of race as constitutive of working class formation in Britain. As he details in a powerful and compelling narrative, the development of the working class in England – as the largest and dominant component of the British metropole – was, at origin, informed by race given that class relations within the metropole were fundamentally connected to Britain’s imperial political economy. However, whilst the workings of the imperial political economy ensured that race – via the exploitation of the colonies and colonial (and African slave) labour – contributed to capitalist development and industrialization, and thus the social and material development of the metropolitan working class, it also revealed itself in the racialized figure of the African/slave. And it is in this latter sense that Shilliam’s account of the longue durée of Britain’s racialized moral economy is most concerned with. For him, the primary device or means through which the moral distinctions that have informed public policy have been made concerns how:

elite actors have racialized and re-racialized the historical distinction between the deserving and the underserving poor through ever more expansive terms that have incorporated working classes, colonial “natives” and nationalities. Elite actors have always been driven in this endeavour by concerns for the integrity of Britain’s imperial – and then postcolonial – order.

Race and the racialization of particular groups is the ideational formula through which the imperial and post-colonial social orders are maintained and, in particular, how the metropolitan working class are managed. Focusing on elite and ruling class commentary – both reactionary and ‘progressive’ – Shilliam outlines a genealogy of the white working class and how the identity of the working class and its political integration into the British state was premised on an elite strategy that sought to differentiate its various parts according to their deserving and undeserving qualities. For Shilliam, then, race, and the singular imaginary of the African/slave is the formative referent for these thinkers (from Edmund Burke and Thomas Carlyle to William Cobbett and the Webbs) in terms of the racialized imaginaries that they deploy to cast out certain layers of the working class as undeserving and threatening because of their social and cultural proximity to the African. Simply put, the Africanization or ‘blackening’ of white workers is what ultimately determines their moral worth and the wider integrity of the nation or people.

In this history we see shifts in the depiction of the African/slave and that of English workers in a mutually evolving construction, racialization and re-racialization where the rendering of one is the dominant Other in the construction and the political possibilities of the other. Nevertheless, this is a story of elite construction that suggests that workers themselves – in the British Isles then and now – are rather passive in their own class formation. Indeed, Shilliam refers to how ‘the “white working class” has never been a self-authored constituency but, at least in good part, an ‘artefact of political domination’. This is partly a consequence of Shilliam’s method – Race and the Undeserving Poor is not social history (from below) – and partly a consequence of focus and what Shilliam wants to reveal. The problem is that it lends itself to a homogenization or essentialization of the English (white) working class, (i.e. it treats the complex minutiae of working class life and struggles as part of a seamless, uninterrupted and singular history and, at times, conflates workers who happen to be white with a self-identified ‘white working class’). In other histories of English class formation and particularly those that have focused on the key ports of empire (see Linebaugh and Redicker, 2002), a different set of stories can be identified as concerns the connections between race and class that problematizes the story that Shilliam outlines.

This is not to suggest that English working-class identity was not, to a significant extent, informed and characterized by the racialization that he describes, nor that, as others (Virdee, 2014) have discussed, working class institutions – the trade unions and the Labour Party – were complicit in the re-racialization of significant portions of the English working class after 1945. However, in focusing on a genealogy of the elite construction of class, including those within the Labour party and trade union movement, there is a tendency to neglect not only the lived social construction of working class life and identity from below, but also the autonomy of working class political agency. As Satnam Virdee has demonstrated, this is not a story that necessarily reveals a history of white working-class resistance to racialization prevented from being fulfilled by a treacherous or complicit political leadership. Indeed, what it does reveal in some instances are forms of internal or ‘indigenous’ working class racism that are not reducible to elite interference and propaganda.

Of course, white workers were influenced by these elite interventions that connect to the well-documented (see Anderson, 1992) ideological limitations that have characterized the politics of the English working class vis-à-vis its French and German counterparts. And yet, we also need to be attentive to the spatial dimensions of working class identity formations and politics as concerns race. We can see this in the case of the nineteenth century with respect to Irish immigration and more recently in terms of the geography of the leave vote and which particular groups of white workers (and where they were concentrated) that voted leave and/or articulated their class grievances via a racialized vernacular. How to explain then the political and class identity of white workers in the big cities who voted remain and who have shown themselves to be resistant, if not antagonist, to elite racialized constructions of moral economy?

Shilliam’s understanding of the racialization of the English white working class resonates with W. E. B. Du Bois’s account of the persistence of racism amongst white workers in the post-Reconstruction United States. Consider what Du Bois called the ‘wages of whiteness’ – a non-material ‘psychological compensation’ reflected in Jim Crow upon which African-Americans were re-racialized as a way of preserving a white supremacist social order. This can be compared with a racialized ordering that rewarded and shifted the boundaries as to who were deemed the ‘deserving poor’ based on their racial/moral worthiness as responsible, hard-working, industrious and patriotic (what he calls the ‘English genus’) and thus warranting the granting of political rights and social goods. For Shilliam, then, the explanation of the extension of the franchise and the beginnings of the welfare state are intimately connected to a racialized moral economy as this was the means through which some workers were integrated and made citizens, whilst others remained cast out. But this tends to downplay social struggle and class conflict – momentary and fluctuating though it was – as well as how, post-1917, other sources of ideological influence animated elite thinking and management of the working class.

In many respects this goes to the heart of the matter of the moral economy that Shilliam is concerned with excavating. The question of ‘deservedness’ – a quality attributed by one, active or dominant agent towards another passive or subordinate recipient concerning an entitlement. This moral quality that, necessarily, inscribes a hierarchy of determination contrasts with a moral economy of rights or needs determined not by elites concerning who is and who is not deserving, but either won through social struggle or articulated via a universalized language of citizenship. That the moral economy of rights and citizenship is not free from racialized constructions might be accepted but, equally, the assumption of universal access to rights and benefits would appear to radically alter the moral framing and distinctions associated with ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’; it also fundamentally problematizes this moral distinction in the public realm.  Further, the suggestion that such shifts – most notably the creation of the post-war welfare state and National Health Service – should be seen to reflect a continuation of a form of ‘political domination’ of the (white) working class seems to stretch the point somewhat.

The question of working class agency and its rendering as rather passive and homogenous in Shilliam’s story also connects to his conceptualization of elite and ruling class agency, particularly with respect to the current conjuncture of Brexit. In this case, elite opinion – articulated through policy intellectuals around New Labour and David Cameron – reveals a continuing racialized animation of the working class and its ‘anti-social behaviour’ as evidenced in elite and media responses to the August 2011 urban riots across England. However, on the question of immigration, the centrality of race or racialized framings of immigration as defining of ruling class or elite opinion is more mixed. Here, and which has some parallels with Trump’s stance on immigration in the US, the leading fractions of the capitalist class remain at loggerheads with the forces behind Brexit – in and outside of the Conservative Party. So, whilst elite opinion-formers and ideologues from David Goodhart at Policy Exchange and Douglas Murray at The Spectator can be conceptualized as a continuation of the longue durée of Britain’s racialized moral economy and who remain concerned with the preservation of a particular kind of racialized social order concerning the working class, this seems to be much less of a determining political imperative of other shades of (neoliberal) elite opinion on the subject of immigration and social order. Further, the Brexit vote appears to demonstrate a fundamental fissure between the organization of Britain’s political economy and the neoliberal class interests that prevail within it from a sustainable and stable political coalition of the kind that secured Thatcher’s election victories and the new political dispensation heralded by her victory.

This brings me to my closing comments based on the final chapter of Race and the Undeserving Poor, and the fundamental political question that comes after a critique: what is to be done? Shilliam refers to the possibilities and hopes associated with the transformation of the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership but is cautious about how far Corbynism and, in particular, Labour’s ambivalent position on the Brexit vote reveals the continuing racialized underside of Labour’s class politics. In many respects this concern reflects the overall political thrust of the book as a broadside against the advocates of ‘Lexit’. Whilst Shilliam and others have quashed the simple but convenient narrative that the northern white working class secured Brexit, the tactical political question remains of the need for Labour to secure a majority in the House of Commons which will require winning seats in Brexit-land and this will involve – and the June 2017 election strategy managed to make some progress in achieving it – winning the votes of Brexiters and some who voted UKIP in the past. Without these seats, the MP for Hackney North will not get the keys to the Home Office. There are continuing discussions within and around the Labour Party on the party’s stance towards the Brexit decision (see Cooper, 2018) but the prospect of the most pro-immigrant and anti-racist political leader gaining power in British history seems to be strangely under-played in the concluding discussion of the book. If not now, when?


Anderson, Perry English Questions (London: Verso, 1992)

Bhambra, Gurminder ‘Brexit, Trump, and “Methodological Whiteness”: On the Misrecognition of Race and Class,’ British Journal of Sociology 68/S1 (2017)

Cooper, Luke (2018) ‘Why Europe Needs Corbyn,’ Red Pepper (April 2018),

Dorling, Danny ‘Brexit: The Decision of a Divided Country’ BMJ 354 (July, 2016)

Hazeldine, Tom ‘Revolt of the Rustbelt,’ New Left Review, 105 (2017)

Linebaugh, Peter and Rediker, Marcus The Many-Headed Hydra: The Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (London: Verso, 2002)

Virdee, Satnam Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)

Virdee, Satnam and McGeever, Brendan ‘Racism, Crisis, Brexit,’ Ethnic and Racial Studies (2017)


3 thoughts on “Seeing Class through Race: Britain’s Racialized Moral Economy and the Construction of a ‘White Working Class’

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

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

  3. Pingback: Race and the Undeserving Poor | Robbie Shilliam

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