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The scapegoat bites back – Revolting Subjects

Revolting Subjects: social abjection and resistance in neoliberal Britain, by Imogen Tyler, reviewed by Hilary Aked

January 5, 2014
2 min read

revoltingRevolting Subjects opens in Basildon, Essex, the site of the largest forced eviction in Britain’s living memory, when around 500 travellers were forced out of their homes at Dale Farm in October 2011. Such real-world inhumanities motivate the book’s ambitious weaving together of the representation of diverse groups of marginalised people – ‘failed’ asylum seekers, ‘chavs’, women, Muslims – linked through Tyler’s theory of abjection.

This psychoanalytic concept is applied to a political logic of ‘inclusive excluding’. Abjected populations are constructed as objects of disgust and as such are excluded but, at the same time, must exist since they serve as conductors for the fear that generates consent (for example, the ‘asylum invasion complex’, which emerged most strongly in the New Labour years). Tyler convincingly argues that neoliberal states rely to a great extent on the ‘endless reconfiguration of abject others’, a process of scapegoating that is not merely an effect but a fundamental pillar of neoliberalism.

While drawing on some international parallels – from the Parisian banlieues to the Niger Delta – the book offers a scathing assessment of ‘neoliberal citizenship’ in modern Britain. It argues that abjection is ‘a design principle of British citizenship’, with the 1981 Nationality Act and other legislation institutionalising state racism. Revolting Subjects shows how the idea of the ‘underclass’ was ‘deployed as a means of both explaining and containing the meaning of the 2011 riots as an “apolitical event”’; and points out the ‘booming trade in “illegality”’, which has allowed the likes of G4S to profit from the transformation of abject populations into commodities to be managed via ‘asylum markets’.

Tyler aims to reformulate traditional notions of class struggle to incorporate other social classifications – predominantly race and gender inequalities – producing ‘an intersectional account of marginality and resistance’. The book culminates in a polemical call for resistance against the processes producing ‘wasted human lives’. It contributes, as the author puts it, towards ‘a new political imaginary for these revolting times’ of dehumanisation and disenfranchisement and stands as a ‘testament to people’s capacity for revolt’.