Just Desserts? Class Disgust, Benefits Debates and Rethinking Value

Just Desserts? Class Disgust, Benefits Debates and Rethinking Value

Andrew Wallace, University of Lincoln

‘Austerity’ Britain has proliferated all manner of retro fashions, dispositions and attitudes, none more so than the re-emergence of good old-fashioned ‘benefits bashing’, achieved through a heady mix of innovative ‘poverty porn’ broadcasting and Coalition rhetoric and policy. However, despite efforts to valiantly expose these dual drivers of ‘claimant class’ defamation, the contemporary ‘benefits scrounger’ has nevertheless come to embody a key problematic for contemporary resisters of inequality and stigmatisation and defenders of social security systems. Specifically, those of us interested in contesting class-based shaming and projects of devaluation are being confronted with a set of analytical and tactical challenges which bring us face to face with the registers of character and morality through which this shaming is organized. These are challenges, I want to argue here, that ‘we’ are in danger of failing.

The emergence of poverty porn and televised debates about ‘benefits’ and the ‘culture’ they are deemed to engender are in many ways clearly horrific developments in the further warping of the social policy landscape. However, in one narrow sense, they have also created a space for resistance which should give social scientists pause for thought. One thing the television media loves more than anything else is to reflect on itself and so it was that on 3rd February 2014 Channel Five screened the ‘Big Benefits Row’ in the midst of a burgeoning public panic about the now infamous ‘Benefits Street’ broadcast on Channel Four between 6th January and 10th Feburary.

The space to which I refer was filled, not by sociologists or social policy experts (not invited), but by the somewhat incongruous, though laudable, spectacle of the host of Channel Five’s show – Matthew Wright (not previously renowned as a balanced social analyst) – in the midst of a typically lurid tabloid ‘debate’ scenario, repeatedly challenging those guests who spouted familiar distortions about those who take up their social security entitlements. Time and again, he tried to stick to the facts and largely succeeded in positioning the contributions of the likes of conservative rent-a-gob du jour Katie Hopkins as extreme and ignorant. This, it seemed, was a something of a breakthrough for evidence-based ‘benefits’ analysis.

If some of the realities of who claims what are filtering through to tabloid television shows then the terms of debate could be changing for the better. Is there really anyone left who thinks that housing benefit bills aren’t high because the lack of housing supply pushes rents up to unaffordable levels? Or that spending on pensions hugely outstrips that on out-of-work benefits? Or that most benefits go to people already in work? Or that the % of families with more than 8 children is miniscule?   Or that tax evasion and fraud is many, many times more costly to the ‘taxpayer’ than social security fraud?Or that most of us, not least the corporate sector, are heavily subsidised by our fellow citizens via various perks and tax breaks? Hopefully not, but in some ways this ‘progress’ has just got us to the base camp of recalibrating how we think about, treat and debate how some citizens are silenced, traduced and marginalised by not only current policy rhetoric and practice, but by the broader project of class hatred through which this policy percolates. In this regard, the ‘Big Benefits Row’ illuminated further challenges that Wright’s ‘facts’ could not quite meet.

To a commentator like Hopkins, the fact that there are only a few thousand (ironically productive) families in the UK with more than 8 children does not matter; what matters is that there are any at all. She doesn’t ‘get it wrong’, in fact she is entirely correct according to her own logic to extrapolate and fulminate about defective cultures and personalities from this tiny percentage. The over-determined benefit ‘scrounger’ motif is always entirely justified, not just because it convenes some perverse stigma-incentive complex where the harder ‘we’ condemn, the more likely ‘they’ will try to change their behaviour (the disingenuous logic of ‘benefit’ cutters everywhere), but because ’they’ deserve to have their flawed choices and failings exposed, criminalised and hated. For her, Richard Littlejohn and the rest of the populist right-wing commentariat, it is culturally important that public ‘debates’ about benefit levels, cuts and entitlements function as a social abjection exercise in which particular subjectivities (usually poor, out of paid work and/or female) are publicly flayed. A technocratic exchange of evidence simply exposing benefits myths, whilst useful in refuting arguments about the ‘dependency’-inducing effects of welfare provision, is something of an unsatisfactory rejoinder to this project.

The question is how to respond? Whilst it is tempting to dismiss or ignore Hopkins and her ilk as cartoon villains who peddle convenient hatreds and for social science to take solace in its commitment to the social security ‘facts’, there is a deeper challenge here that mere evidence of ‘wrongness’ or ‘inaccuracy’ is unable to support. Public support for ‘welfare’ cuts remains seemingly stable and projects of abjection, so appealing to media producers and consumers, embed deeply structured articulations of disgust that go way beyond debates about minimum incomes and eligibility criteria to inform a cultural politics of class that frames decisions and ‘respectable knowledge’ (Skeggs 1997) about citizen desserts and rights. In light of this, a strategy of defending our corner in a ‘benefits’ row has to be extended to a broader programme unpicking the way in which this and every other fiscal crisis pivots around a pernicious (not to mention gendered and ethnicised) politics of class revulsion and the delegitimating of the already ‘meagre capitals’ (Skeggs 1997) of the working class.

In the course of this unpicking, there is an analytical decision to make. Alongside beating the benefits evidence drum and campaigning for a more generous yet publicly popular benefits system, it remains the case that uncomfortable questions about the binaries of dessert which underlie our social security system (and its deracination) have to be confronted. Currently, welfare-defending too often works through tropes of ‘respectability’ and reveals a squeamishness about ‘defective’ lifestyles and subjectivities. For example, Chavs writer Owen Jones insisted at one point during a Newsnight debate on ‘poverty porn’ in February, that the classic tabloid favourite, the benefits-binging family of 10, was statistically ‘unrepresentative’ of how most poor families rear children, live and claim. We do not need to cut social security, he implied, because it does not encourage uncontrolled breeding on the scale suggested.

The trouble with this argument is that it focuses on proportion and impact and lets Hopkins et al off the hook in terms of her/their broader configurations of classed and gendered readings of restraint and decorum. Does Jones think that a family of eight or more is vulgar? Are they deserving of condemnation in other words? If so, he should say that and focus on protecting those he thinks deserve protecting. If not, he should, in the course of making the case for a benevolent welfare system, be defending to the hilt the right for any set of citizens, especially the precarious, to evade the gaze of disgust so casually deployed by those with punishment and repression on their mind and in so doing help to expose the way in which moral value is so casually written out of all working (and non-working) class ‘scripts’, not merely those ‘just’ victims of ‘chav’ ideology.

Perhaps it is time therefore to ally benefits myth-busting with some clearer intellectual scrutiny of the categories of contempt that the populist right leads, the respectable right supports and much of the Left all too often tacitly follows (“they/we’re not all like that”) and how these operate through contemporary benefits debate. If the ‘undeserving’ are only accounted for as a statistical anomaly or counter-point – in a stable binary of poor person scrutiny – then any harm or injustice then encountered is at risk of being validated. As Gary Younge noted in a recent article about the murder of an ‘A-grade black student’ in the USA:

“When that terrain is conceded the argument moves from “this shouldn’t happen to anybody” to “it shouldn’t have happened to this person because they are a somebody”; from “I can’t believe they’re treating black people like this” to “I can’t believe they’re treating a black A-student like other black kids”.

In highlighting the obscenity of inequality and defending social security, we should not be seduced into privileging ‘deserving’ cases or simply crying foul at ‘misrepresentation’ (important though this may also be) because this results in the politico-ethical conundrum of undeservingness which evidence alone cannot address. If we are to assume that some configuration of the ‘Left’ is interested, let us strengthen the rejection of these binaries and instead scrutinise and challenge the ‘hygienic’ readings of ‘work’, ‘care’, ‘wanting’ and ‘needing’ against and through which some are so keen to measure, embody and regulate the subaltern.

In light of Stuart Hall’s recent passing we would do well to remember, as noted here , how the welfare claimant has become the public figure through which so many of our modern anxieties around behaviour, restraint and dependency are now obnoxiously projected. We either interrogate these manouevres before the ‘alchemic austerity’  dust settles or we limit our focus to claimant ‘facts’ and risk leaving these disreputable projects of abjection unchallenged. This is not about glorifying ‘dysfunction’ but about exposing and transforming the parameters of value and worth through which it is composed. If the Left is not up to this task, perhaps it is time to ask why?


Skeggs, B (1997) Formations of Class and Gender, Sage: London.

Andrew Wallace is Senior Lecturer in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Lincoln and researches class, community and ‘defective’ subjectivities. He is currently developing a research project exploring the imaginaries, registers and functions of ‘deservingness’. Andrew tweets @Wallazio