Disaster Capitalism: Stigmatization as a form of neoliberal governance


Extracted and reworked from the Afterword of Revolting Subjects

In “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”, Naomi Klein details the ways in which ‘the policy trinity’ of neoliberalism,

‘the elimination of the public sphere, total liberation for corporations and skeletal social spending’ has been enabled through the invention and/or exploitation of crises, be they natural disasters wrought by hurricanes or earthquakes, terrorist attacks on civilian populations or the collapse of international banks (Klein, 2007, p. 16).

In the context of contemporary Britain, the fear and anxiety generated by the ‘shock’ of the current economic crisis provides one explanation for how public consent has been procured for the current programme of seismic welfare reforms that ‘punish the poor’ (Wacquant, 2008) while allowing the amassing of wealth in the hands of individuals and corporations through the privatization and ‘asset-stripping’ of public institutions, infrastructure and natural resources. However, my intention in my book Revolting Subjects has been to develop a ‘thick’ account of the ways in which neoliberal modes of governance operate in everyday life not only by capitalizing upon ‘shocks’ but through the daily, pervasive production and mediation of ‘social insecurity’ (Wacquant, 2010). In short, my aim has been –and continues to be in current work–to produce a rich and textured account of the everyday political and media technologies engaged by state and corporate agents of disaster capitalism in the relentless manufacture of poverty and inequality and to capture some of the practices and processes through which public consent for the disenfranchisement that unfolds from neoliberal ideologies and policies are procured. In particular, I have attempted to capture some of the ways in which social and cultural, emotional and affective economies combine with neoliberal economic policies to produce ‘national abjects’: scapegoats that enable ‘the structures, mechanisms, and justifications of power to function’ (Foucault, 2008, p. 85). To this end Revolting Subjects has explored how the social insecurity generated by neoliberal governmentality has given rise to novel modes of (re)classification – refugees transformed into bogus asylum-seekers, unemployed young people into feckless chavs, people with disabilities into welfare cheats – that cut deep into popular consciousness, and the book has examined how those unfortunate enough to be classified as abject are mobilized to do the dirty ideological work of neoliberalism. They are transformed into symbolic and material scapegoats for the social decomposition effected by market deregulation that has a negative, degrading impact upon us all.

The chapters in Revolting Subjects detail the common origins, in political rhetoric, policy documents and news media, of stigmatizing depictions of marginal populations and groups. However, as Stuart Hall and his colleagues elaborated over thirty years ago, the hardening of public opinion into consent relies upon the repetition and accumulation of expressions and beliefs ‘on the streets’, in ‘conversations between neighbours, discussion at street-corners or in the pub, rumour, gossip, speculation’ (Hall, et al., 1978, p. 129). Increasingly in 21st century Britain, ‘the streets’ include the informal technologies of social media such as blogs, wall posts, text messages and tweets.

What I hope to have impressed upon the reader is that the production and mediation of these revolting subjects is not simply an effect of neoliberal ideologies and policies but is ‘a core organ’ of neoliberal governmentality (Wacquant, 2010, p. 200).

Stigmatization operates as a form of governance which legitimates the reproduction and entrenchment of inequalities and injustices which impact upon us all.

Indeed the ‘selective and aggressive deployment’ of strategies of social abjection is not only ‘constitutively injurious to the ideals of democratic citizenship’, but has perverted the very meaning of democracy and citizenship (Wacquant, 2010, p. 200). As Arundhati Roy puts it:

Until quite recently, right up to the 1980s, democracy did seem as though it might actually succeed in delivering a degree of real social justice. But modern democracies have been around for long enough for neo-liberal capitalists to learn how to subvert them. They have mastered the technique of infiltrating the instruments of democracy – the “independent” judiciary, the “free” press, the parliament – and moulding them to their purpose. […] Free elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary mean little when the free market has reduced them to commodities on sale to the highest bidder (Roy, 2003).

One argument of Revolting Subjects is that national abjects, and the communication mediums which create and sustain them, are in a very material sense the vehicles for the political production of the neoliberal doctrine that there is no alternative. As David Graeber argues in his wonderful book, Debt: The First 5000 Year,

‘the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures’ (Graeber, 2011, p. 382).

So, while historians would be right to question the extent to which the production of scapegoats to further capitalist agendas are ‘new’ strategies for policing populations – we need think only of the role played by witch-hunts in paving the way for mass industrialization in early modern European history (Federici, 2004) – what is peculiar to our times is the ways in which the language of democracy, fairness and equality is invoked to justify the channelling of public hostilities towards vulnerable and/or disadvantaged populations. It is this paradox which the Opening Ceremony of the Paralympic Games made manifest in its dramatization of the importance of rights and democratic protest at an historical moment when people’s ability to protest against the dramatic curtailing of these rights has been severally curtailed (Taking Liberties (Since 1997), 2007). As Klein writes:

[f]or those inside the bubble of extreme wealth created [by neoliberalism], there can be no more profitable way to organize a society. But because of the obvious drawbacks for the vast majority of the population left outside the bubble, other features of the corporatist state tend to include aggressive surveillance […], mass incarceration, shrinking civil liberties and often, though not always, torture (Klein, 2007, p. 18).

What Klein means by torture in this passage is that which we ordinarily understand by the term, namely the physical detention, abuse and punishment of ‘suspects’ by the state and/or private police or military actors working on behalf of state and/or corporate interests – as seen in the mass rendition and torture of ‘enemy combatants’ in the global war on terror. Yet torture is also, as Klein argues, ‘a metaphor of the shock doctrine’s underlying logic’ (Klein, 2007, p. 15). Revolting Subjects is concerned with torture in this second sense. That is with

the everyday forms of torture visited on those populations constituted as human waste within and by the state (Bauman, 2002; Bauman, 2004).


To this end, I have explored some the ways in which national abjects become enmeshed within the interpellative fabric of everyday life as I have sought to understand a little of what is means to be made abject – to be tortured by words, images, policies and mechanisms of policing and control which continuously produce you as less than human. The common refrain of so many of those people whose words I have collected, in the course of researching this book, is the insistence that they are human. This refrain was common amongst asylum-seekers protesting their detention and/or deportation –

‘I took my clothes off because they treat us like animals. We are claiming asylum, we’re not animals’ (in Dugan, 2008)

– Travellers protesting their forced eviction –

‘if you live in a caravan you are scum’(Roxy Freeman, 2011) –

and the disenfranchised young people who joined in with riots on the streets of London –

‘I’m angry and frustrated. I feel the same as them. Angry with everything – society, police, the way they treat us. They don’t treat us like human beings’ (in Hegarty, 2011).

Homi Bhabha writes that ‘stereotyping is an everyday drama’, the site of ‘fantasy and desire’, and a scene of ‘subjectification and power’ (Bhabha 1983, p. 23). What concerns Bhabha, and has been central also to the project of Revolting Subjects, is the ‘processes of subjectification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse’ (Bhabha 1983, p. 19). As the work of Fanon most clearly articulates, negative and discriminatory stereotypes are not simply ‘the fabrication of false images, which in turn enable discriminatory practices’, but are also a subjectifying force (Bhabha 1983, p. 19). The work of critique thus entails shifting our attention from ‘the identification of images as positive or negative’, to more nuanced understandings of ‘the processes of subjectification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse’ (Bhabha 1983, p. 18). It is the endeavour of Revolting Subjects to understand more fully how this process works, that is

how the tortures of stigma are produced, mediated, embodied and lived.


To this end I have sought to refashion the psychoanalytic concept of abjection. The theory of social abjection which emerges across the course of this book extends Fanon and Bhabha’s analysis of the techniques of colonial and post-colonial subjectification, to the forms of governmentality in operation within contemporary Britain.

In Revolting Subjects I wanted to begin to think about the implications of revolt as a subjectifying force, that is as a means through which those made abject attempt to reconstitute themselves not only as citizens with rights, but as subjects of value. I wanted to map how abject figures come to function as technologies of consent and how abjectified populations refuse and revolt against the disenfranchising effects of their classification. It is my hope that the conceptual paradigm of social abjection will prove useful to others engaged in thinking both about the ways in which representational forms work in ways that ‘get inside’ people: instructing, correcting, regulating and shaping subjectivities (Gill, 2008) and the practices of resistance in which revolting subjects engage to survive stigma and disenfranchisement.

People’s attempts to remake themselves and draw attention the state we are in which I have described in this book as forms of ‘declassificatory politics’.

I would like Revolting Subjects to be a testament to people’s capacity for revolt. But further, as I have attempted to demonstrate, what matters it is not only acts of resistance themselves but the images and the stories of revolt and resistance that emerge ‘as outsiders attempt to recast their identity as politically legitimate subjects of justice’ (McNevin, 2006, p. 138). It is my contention that the documentary after-life of protests, the political parables which I stage in Revolting Subjects, have the capacity to fracture the consensus in ways that enable us to question how and why we consent to the degradation of rights and justice so hard fought for.

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  1. Imogen Tyler

    Reblogged this on Social Abjection and commented:
    reflagging this extract from Revolting Subjects in homage to Stuart Hall who inspires my work


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