Review: Revolting Subjects
Thom Tyerman reviews Imogen Tyler’s Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain published by Zed Books
Taking a wide variety of issues and cases Imogen Tyler provides a comprehensive analysis that displays with clarity the complex workings of neoliberal governmentality in contemporary Britain. Central to her thesis is the ‘revolting subject’ which is produced as the social and political ‘abject’ of society. This is a scapegoat figure for collective public revulsion and anger, by which a ‘consensus’ is achieved for the continued neoliberalisation of the state and society through the ‘aesthetic’ manipulation and control of media representations and information. Throughout, Tyler reveals the resistance that emerges at these sites of neoliberal abjection, examining their radical potential as well as their limitations, ultimately calling for the reintroduction of class struggle as a political vocabulary within public discourse.
Social ‘abjection’ refers to the condition of being excluded within society as its ‘human waste’, as “leech-like bodies” which are a drain on the state and an infection within the polity (27; 46). It also names the material and discursive practices of implementing “negative public configurations” to achieve a “disgust consensus” enabling the scapegoating of this ‘revolting’ section of the population for the ill-effects of neoliberal governance This justifies them being targeted for punitive measures for the sake of the “hygiene” of the nation, whilst providing political and economic capital for the unhindered neoliberalisation of the nation state (23; 38; 46).
Tyler explores the dynamics of abjection through examining various ‘revolting subjects’ including asylum seekers, the maternal body, Gypsy and Traveller populations, the workless ‘chav’, and the riotous youth. By uncovering the mechanisms of demonization and stigmatisation in each case, she maps out how neoliberal citizenship is normatively delineated and imposed through the securitisation, racialization, medicalization, and cultural depoliticisation of a national “underclass” comprising of ‘failed’ and ‘non’ citizens. Through such methods the distinctions between participants/nonparticipants, working/workless, deserving/undeserving are drawn and emotively asserted in the definition of the ethical boundaries of British citizenship. Consent for the political agenda of neoliberalism is achieved through the depoliticisation of these categories in public discourse. For example in the cultural representation of the workless ‘chav’ as a racialised biological category, unemployment is presented as a hereditary problem to be cured through punitive government policies in order to restore the ‘health’ of the nation.
This consent further reinforces the normative status of “neoliberal subject-citizens” as “entrepreneurial, individual, self-managing and flexible workers”, the idealised representation that promotes as it obscures the precarious conditions of labour and power inequality necessary for neoliberal exploitation (186-187). At the same time, the marketization of state welfare and security apparatuses is effected as the necessary antidote to their infection by this underclass, as is demonstrated by the massive expansion of a corporate immigration security complex and ATOS involvement in welfare assessments (94-95; 207). Thus state functions are privatised and expanded for the production of private profit.
To have abject status in society is to be in a deeply precarious situation wherein nonconformity with the neoliberal norm of citizenship in this context of manufactured public consensus of disgust leaves persons vulnerable to the full corrective force of state power. Irregular migrants are trapped in a ‘limbo’ of destitution, exploitation and the constant threat of indefinite detention (95); the independence of Gypsy and Traveller populations is penalised through local council persecution and eviction (142); welfare provisions are removed from the workless to coerce them into exploitative employment and workfare schemes; and the younger generations are subjected to discrimination and racism from the police.
However, Tyler shows how forms of resistance emerge at these sites of abjection which challenge neoliberal governmentality. ‘Revolting’ practices of naked protest, occupation, and rioting are understood as instances of “counter-political speech” (47). Here the abjected draw upon their abject identity in order to performatively assert a “disidentification” (173) with it whilst simultaneously embodying and introducing into public discourse alternative forms of “commoning”, manifold collective identities that stand in opposition to neoliberal exclusion and “enclosure” (124; 151). However, such practices are shown to be limited in their resistant potential owing to the persistent government of political consensus by neoliberal classifications. Thus despite the riots being a practice of collective resistance against inequality, harassment and demonization they were represented in the media as proof of the assumed consensus in which “the rioters became the abjects they had been told they were” (204).
Tyler’s book is, ultimately, an engagement with one final and fundamental ‘revolting subject’ – class. Or rather, the way in which class has been eradicated as a political vocabulary from public discourse. The primary turning point is identified as the rejection of class politics by New Labour which coincided with the devaluation of class as an explanatory framework in (an increasingly market-dominated) academia (153-157). At the centre of this process, and necessary for its possibility, was the construction (abjection) of an “underclass” comprising of all the cases mentioned above. In this way the class dynamic of neoliberalism has been obscured and so unchallenged in mainstream political debate which is preoccupied with the figure of the revolting subject. What Tyler offers is an insight into the ways in which neoliberal ‘reality’, and the notion of there being “no alternative”, is produced through the denial of class from public debate and how the construction of abject identities as scapegoats for political and economic inequalities effects a democratic consensus on citizenship which legitimises the continuation and expansion of neoliberal policies throughout the state and society (212).
This book should also be seen as an appeal to re-present neoliberalism and resistance against it in terms of the class conflict it actually constitutes. This requires anyone engaged in this struggle to be attentive to the specific dynamics of neoliberal governmentality in contemporary Britain and the mechanisms by which inequalities and exploitation are variously realised in particular locations. Essential to this is an understanding of how material inequalities are achieved through classificatory discursive practices in public discourse and the “declassificatory” nature of resistance (178).
In relation to the current on-going dialogue on the topic of ‘left unity’ and how to realise a systematic resistance and alternative to neoliberal capitalist governance, I believe this book indicates the limitations of an introspective focus on activist realignment projects. It reveals instead the necessity of engaging with the diversity of existing localised resistances by abject communities in a way that both situates them within a framework of (complex) class struggle and promotes a multiplicity of alternative political identities and practices against those of neoliberal capitalism. Anticapitalist politics must investigate the specifics of how the neoliberal class project functions today in order to manifest any lasting resistance. Tyler’s book is an excellent contribution in this regard.