by Lee Marsden
2nd September 2021

We are all familiar with ‘welfare scroungers’, with the ‘workshy’, the ‘skivers’, and the ‘feckless’. From the ‘guests’ of The Jeremy Kyle Show to the poverty porn of Benefits Street, from Little Britain’s Vicky Pollard to the tabloid stories of disability claimants caught running marathons, the media’s obsession with the apparent moral failings of the poor has cemented in the collective psyche the idea of a morally bankrupt underclass.

The more critical among us see this for what it is: a way of legitimising class disadvantage – of explaining away inequality by making the poor appear responsible for their own fate. But as important as the construction of some moral ‘other’ is in terms of legitimising inequality, does this tell only half of the story? Class is a relational concept, thus for there to be a moral ‘other’, there must be a moral ‘self’. It is my contention that the way the moral ‘in-group’ is constructed within discourse can be just as important in terms of perpetuating inequality.

I recently undertook a study examining the way social class has been portrayed in the UK media during the age of austerity. To do this I analysed coverage of six topics: emergency budget, welfare reform, workfare, bedroom tax, food banks and zero-hour contracts. Building on the literature to date, my aim was to explore not only how class is constructed, but how this ‘creates’ different groups, and what effect this might have on understandings of (and attitudes towards) inequality.

To be clear, moralising discourse did play an important role within the coverage. This is unsurprising given that austerity has had the effect of worsening inequality. In line with the predominant pro-austerity stance taken by the media, an exploitative ‘class’ was constructed – one consisting of a whole range of ‘undesirables’: the ‘feckless’, welfare scroungers and cheats, single mums, etc. all grouped together into one big costly mass. Interestingly enough, these people were cast not as immoral per se, but rather as incapable of moral reasoning –as something akin to the scum that settles in the bottom of a tank when ‘we’ fail to stir the water. The idea that these people are– at least potentially – redeemable gives austerity a purpose beyond simply punishing the ‘work-shy’ and the ‘feckless’; that of ‘correcting’ people, of making them pull their weight and share ‘our’ burden.

What I want to draw attention to here, however, is the other side of this moralising equation. In the context of austerity, the moral in-group is described as, for example, ‘taxpayers’, the ‘squeezed’ and the ‘hardworking people’. The use of such broad terms constructs a group who are united solely by their possession of the ‘correct’ morals; in particular their recognition of the ‘necessity’ of austerity, and their willingness to dutifully tighten their belts in response. The idea of ‘shared struggle’ obscures economic differences, and thus the different stakes members of this group have in the austerity debate. Those who occupy (increasingly) precarious positions within the labour market, for example, are unlikely to benefit from having the welfare safety net eroded beneath them, yet the effect of this vague construction is that they are brought onside regardless.

It is at the very boundary of this supposed moral divide where the real discursive work is done however. Here the ‘exploitative others’ are contrasted with those most proximate; the low-paid workers. If the other is, in this context, marked by an inability to reason in moral terms, and thus a tendency to take the easiest path regardless of the cost to society, then the opposite attributes are hyper-visualised in discussions of, e.g, those ‘who often work long hours for little reward, pay taxes, try to save and look after their families’(The Express, workfare, 22/02/12: 12). As a result, these people are cast as ‘economic martyrs’, as the embodiment of the sound morals that define ‘us’; above all, a willingness to respond to ‘difficult times’ by doing more for less in return.

The idealisation of these ‘economic martyrs’ is effectively a selective re-hashing of nostalgic, romanticised views of the working class. In the course of this re-hashing, emphasis is placed upon selfless sacrifice, and a strong sense of duty to society; after all, ‘cleaning out blocked toilets… is not much fun. But it still needs to be done’(The Sun, zero-hour contracts, 29/04/15). The idea of work being intrinsically rewarding also features prominently – e.g. ‘Work gives shape and meaning to our lives, however much we might gripe about it on occasions’ (The Express, workfare, 01/10/13: 14) – in a seeming attempt to reduce the cognitive dissonance that might arise from a reduction in tangible rewards.

For all the emphasis upon idealised struggle, however, the idea of struggle for fair working conditions is cast as something which should be left behind ‘in the past’. During a time of economic difficulty, demands for fair treatment simply mean that ‘businesses will simply opt to take on fewer workers’(The ExpressOnline, zero-hour contracts, 03/05/15).

The message is thus clear: during difficult times, the idealised workers are they who strive to maximise their own competitiveness, while simultaneously being grateful for anything which is cast down to them. This brings to mind Boxer the horse, the metaphorical representation of the working class in George Orwell’s allegorical novel Animal Farm, whose response to any problem is to proclaim “I will work harder”. It is the construction of a ‘class against itself’– one whose defining features serve to normalise and legitimise the ratcheting down of working conditions in response to a problem which has its roots in the misconduct of financial elites.

Clearly then, the way in which the ‘moral in-group’ is constructed within discourse about class is something future research should pay close attention to. This is especially true as we approach yet more ‘difficult times’. As the recent pandemic leaves a trail of economic upheaval in its wake, a valid question to ask is, for all the valorisation of ‘key workers’, to what degree will these people be the ones who pay the price?

Lee Marsden recently completed his PhD at the University of Sheffield. His research interests include inequalities, social theory, and discourse studies. Coming from a working class background, he is particularly interested in social class and the ways in which class inequality is perpetuated.


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