A Very British Domination Contract? Charles W. Mills’ Theoretical Framework and Understanding Social Justice in Britain

Zara Bain


Thinking about social justice in the British context can be complicated, as it well should be, given the myriad complexities and competing perspectives on the very nature, extent, and causes of social justice in British society. Poverty is perhaps unequivocally recognised as a matter of serious social injustice, even if there are those who would contest its causes and explanations. More sophisticated analyses will track not only poverty but will think also about inequality, where it is not just a matter of who has what and why but on how much they have compared to others in the same society. Although there are many who would suggest that even this is too far - since unequal social wealth or resources must, according to some, be the result of‘good stock’, done good over generations - there are others who would claim this does not go far enough. These commentators would insist that we think carefully about how the operations of class, gender, race, and disability - as well as connected issues around sexuality, nationality, migration, gender identity, and language - contribute to historical and contemporary realities of social justice, and injustice, in Britain today.

One set of complications in conversations about social justice in Britain is connected to whether the conceptual and theoretical frameworks we have to think carefully through complex questions of social justice in Britain are either apt or apposite to the task. In this chapter, there are three key claims I want to offer a preliminary sketch in support of: first, that understanding the state of social justice in Britain today requires being willing to think about the complex interactions and co-constitutions of racism, classism, and ableism in the production of poverty, inequality, and injustice; second, that thinking in these complex interactions requires situating and contextualising contemporary forms of the above as historical phenomena with roots that are inextricably bound up with British colonial and imperial histories; and, third, that one useful set of conceptual and philosophical resources for framing and orienting this kind of analysis can be found in the work of Jamaican-American political philosopher, Charles W. Mills. These goals are far more extensive than can be achieved here, but I offer this work (at the encouragement of supportive editors) as what some philosophers call a ‘stimulus to inquiry’ - as an invitation to think through

A Very British Domination Contract? 31 familiar concepts and resources a little differently, since justice may really and truly depend on it.

Mills’ Conceptual and Theoretical Framework

Like other prominent philosophers before him, engagement with Mills’ work tends to pool towards his two most famous cited works, his 1997 book, The Racial Contract, and his 2007 paper ‘White Ignorance’. Most people do not realise that Mills has authored a total of seven books to date. Mills’ arguments, especially in his most recent book Black Rights, White Wrongs (2017), revolve around a critique of liberalism, primarily as an artefact of mainstream political philosophy but also as providing a set of guiding principles and justifications for how to structure liberal democratic polities like the United States and Britain. Liberalism, and liberal democratic societies, takes as foundational the claim that individuals are, and ought to be, recognised as free and equal beings.

There are various ways of dividing up different forms of liberalism which generate different positions. Under utilitarian liberalism, such as we might associate with J. S. Mill, for example, even though people are taken to be morally free and equal, social and political institutions are justified by their ability to produce the best outcomes for the greatest number of people. Under contractarian liberalism, whether the classical, conjectural historical formulations given by Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant, or the contemporary, hypothetical version most associated with Rawls, the basic idea is that we can model socio-political relations using the metaphor of a ‘social contract’, where we imagine free and equal parties entering into a mutually binding agreement to authorise political authority or to justify principles of justice which form the basis for our social arrangements and political institutions.

Contractarian liberalism can be split roughly into two different forms: social-democratic liberalism, such as Rawlsian ‘justice as fairness’ and liberal egalitarianism, as well as laissez-faire liberalism, such as Nozick’s ‘justice as entitlement’-based libertarianism. Under social-democratic contractarian liberalism, ensuring an acceptable basic minimum set of conditions for members of the moral and political community is key. Members are individuals who, in virtue of possessing certain demarcating characteristics (rationality, language use, etc.), count as ‘persons’, independent sources of normative value and, per Kant, ‘ends in themselves’ and whose interests can be secured through the exercise of things like ‘rights’. Under laissez-faire liberalism, priority is given to the preservation of liberty through the respect for Lockean-style property rights and the entitlement to one’s property that comes through the exercise of one’s own and other people’s free choices (Mills, 2017).

In each of these cases, there is a shared commitment to the view that human beings should be understood, normatively speaking, as free and equal, and liberal democracies promise liberty and equality for all, at least in the eyes of the law, although ideally in society in general. Contractarian liberalism is supposed to be a decisive move to protect such free and equal individuals from domination and exclusion. Yet Mills argues that domination, specifically racial domination, is not peripheral to liberalism but central to it (Mills, 2017). He argues that under liberalism, racism and sexism, for example, are typically framed in terms of anomalous occurrences that disrupt this an otherwise broadly just and ethical normative landscape, with individuals consciously or unconsciously enacting ‘prejudicial’ biases or attitudes that lead to ‘discriminatory’ behaviours (Mills, 2017; Mills, 2003). Instead, as per Marxist and feminist scholarship, racism, like sexism and classism, is the name for the systematic and structural disadvantage that is produced by class, gender, and race, respectively, understood as discrete but interlocking political systems with their own semi-autonomous independent logics and mechanisms: capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy (Mills, 2017).

Ideal versus Non-Ideal Theory

One of Mill’s most well-known arguments is that political theory’s reliance on ideal theory - that mode of analysis and inquiry where we ask what idealised individuals would do under ideal social (and in Rawls's case, epistemic) conditions - involves what O’Neill calls an ‘idealising abstraction’ (O’Neill, 1996 cited in Mills, 2017). Mills argues that ideal theory produces principles of justice for a world that is so ‘metaphysically distant’ from our own in terms of its social ontology' (what things make up and are most important to understanding the social world), and its picture of social relations (how the things that make up the social world relate to one another in society), that the principles of justice it generates are unlikely to be adequate for the world that we actually live in (Mills, 2017). Rather, for Mills any adequate normative, prescriptive account must acknowledge that especially non-voluntary social groups are among the basic units of society and that the sort of relations that in fact exist between those groups are often inter-group relations of domination - the rich dominating and exploiting the poor, men subjugating women, and, in the case of race, whites dominating and exploiting non-whites. Ideal theory’s attempt to ‘bake in’ impartiality to the decision conditions by idealising their elements is ‘ideology’ inasmuch as this obfuscates this reality of inter-group relations of domination as well as liberalism’s involvement in creating and sustaining them (Mills, 2017).

According to Mills, the right response is not to abandon the theoretical pursuit of ideal principles of justice but rather to recognise the error that Mills attributes to Rawls and other ideal theorists, of starting from a picture of the initial conditions that idealises away precisely those forms of injustice that we presumably would want our ideal principles ofjustice to be able to address (Mills, 2017). Instead, we should do non-ideal theory'. For Mills, this involves two simultaneous and interdependent projects: a critical, descriptive project where we can deploy' traditional conceptual tools to reveal the actual rather than idealised workings of the liberal polities, and a positive, prescriptive project where we tty to seek to frame and justify principles ofjustice adequate to deal with racial, gender, class, or other group-based injustices, which our descriptive analysis has helped to reveal (Mills, 2017).

The Domination Contract

Mills, following Rousseau {Discourse on the Origin of Inequality) and Pateman {The Sexual Contract), applies the social contract as a conceptual device that can give us ‘x-ray vision’ of the inner workings of liberal polities while also providing a conceptual bridge between mainstream political philosophy and radical or oppositional political theory (Mills, 1997; Mills, 1998). It allows us to represent social relations as a mutual agreement between some at the expense of, or over, others. This is not a traditional part of the story, or, rather, it is not how we tell the story’ of the traditional story, even though scholars like Rousseau and Pateman insist that it was really there all along (Mills, 2000).

Rousseau argues that the social contract as it emerges from a pre-existing society of unequal relations, primarily of rich and poor (although colonialism and imperialism are more salient to his account than is usually' recognised [see Gordon & Roberts, 2014; Klausen, 2016]), is supposed to be an agreement between all for equal treatment under society' and its laws but is really a ‘confidence trick’ of the rich, used to pacify the poor's desire for the rich’s wealth and power, turning ‘adversaries into defenders’ and constructing institutions which seem to be for the good of all but which are really for the rich’s benefit (Rousseau, 1987). It is therefore a critical ‘class contract’. Pateman’s much later analysis argues that traditional social contract theorists (including Rousseau) incorporated within their accounts the implicit and explicit exclusion of women from being potential parties to the social contract. Even if the social contract succeeds in ending patriarchy' in terms of paternal right (the rule of the father, manifest in the divine right of kings), it reinstitutes patriarchy by' introducing a fraternal contract, were the sons, as brothers and compatriots, contract together to ensure, among other things, effective ownership of and sexual entitlement (or ‘sex right’) to women (Pateman, 1989). This is what makes it a ‘sexual contract’.

Mills completes the triumvirate of the ‘big three’ of class, gender, and race. He situates the emergence of Enlightenment liberal political theory' against the backdrop of European expansionism via colonialism and imperialism, taking place over a period of 400 years, starting roughly' in 1492 with the colonisation of the Americas by the Spanish and Portuguese, and continuing right up to 20th-century' independence struggles all over Africa, Central, and East Asia. The traditional social contract, he argues, was a contract between Europeans over non-Europeans and involved the construction of racial categorisations like ‘white’ and ‘non-white’ as well as the racial hierarchies popularised by' thinkers like Linnaeus and Kant (Mills, 1997). Unlike other contracts, Mills suggests that the racial contract has perhaps the best claim of being closest to an actual historical contract, inasmuch as European colonisers and imperial powers explicitly adopted not just conceptual and theoretical partitions between Europeans as ‘persons’, i.e. who gets to be free and equally considerable under the eyes of colonial and imperial law, and non-Europeans as what he calls ‘sub-persons’, those to whom recognition and respect are not owed, and who may' be exploited for the benefit of ‘civilised’ European settler and metropolitan societies without transgressing whatever moral obligations are usually thought to be owed to others by otherwise ‘good’ individuals (Mills, 1997).

For Mills, the central role social contract theory’ gives to the concept of ‘personhood’ in liberal polities is precisely what makes it a more powerful conceptual framework for thinking through race and racism as socio-political phenomena than, say, Marxism or post-colonialism. Being able to track this demarcation of who does and who doesn’t get to count as a ‘person’ in the eyes of the state and society, not only ethically and politically but also epistemically, is a crucial mechanism for understanding how racism manifests in Western liberal polities (Mills, 2017). Persons are the free and equal individuals who get to enter into social contracts with one another and form civil society, fully apprised of the facts about society, including their social relations within it; this is taken as a kind of normative ‘ground floor’ from which to build up the rest of our ethical and political relations and obligations. But for those individuals who are thought to fail to live up to the stringent requirements for counting as a ‘person’ - being physically or mentally inferior, irrational, and incapable of responding appropriately to reason - there is something like a normative basement, hidden and kept out of sight, where those who are dehumanised are thought to exist - white supremacy - (Mills, 1998; see also Carastathis, 2013; Crenshaw, 1989). The use of a term most commonly associated with the Nazi movement is thus deliberate; Mills wants those of us living in liberal democratic societies to acknowledge the way that such societies and the theories that justify them rely on the subordination of supposedly lesser persons just as much as those we collectively revile as somehow distinctively or independently racist or eugenicist (Mills, 1997; Mills, 2003).

Rousseau, Pateman, and Mills all use the social contract as a conceptual device in this critical descriptive way (Mills, 2000; Mills, 2017). But on this Mills and Rousseau diverge from Pateman. Mills follows Rousseau in having not one but two social contracts; they hold that the social contract can be rehabilitated to liberatory ends since its exclusionary history' is contingent rather than necessary’. Pateman disagrees, believing that the contract is inherently’ oppressive and that there are other good theoretical alternatives (like democratic theory) for framing principles of justice (Pateman & Mills, 2007).

The ‘domination contract’ is Mills’ term for the social contract metaphor as a conceptual tool which reveals the workings of liberal contractarianism, both as a conceptual or theoretical formation and as a major normative basis justifying social arrangements and political institutions in actual liberal democratic societies. Not only does it reveal those structures and their workings to us, ‘unlike the evasive ideal mainstream contract’, ‘but it also recognises their link with group privilege and group causality’. What the domination contract emphasises is that:

These structures did not just happen to come into existence; rather, they were brought into being and are maintained by’ the actions and inactions of those privileged by’ them. (Mills, 2017: 37)

This, for Mills, is one of the central attractions of the social contract as a conceptual device. In addition to providing a sort of conceptual bridge between radical political theory and mainstream political philosophy (Mills, 1997; Mills, 1998), the social contract captures what is, to Mills, a fairly uncontroversial initial normative commitment, namely the freedom and equality of persons (a position which Mills himself takes to be convincing). Following Hampton, Mills also argues that the social contract captures the artificial and constructed nature of social arrangements and political institutions (Pateman & Mills, 2007). This, in conjunction with the non-ideal methodology’ outlined above, enables us to trace social and political phenomena, like our social institutions around marriage or employment or immigration, and understand them as the product of deliberate action and policy-making, rather than accidents that reflect supposedly ‘natural’ (although certainly naturalised) hierarchies between men and non-men, owners and workers, and whites and non-whites (Pateman & Mills, 2007; Mills, 2003; Mills, 2017).

Mills places importance on liberalism’s conceptual and theoretical framing of both itself and the sorts of domination picked out by the class-, gender-, and race-based domination contracts. Despite transparency being supposedly central to the liberalism’s prescriptions for liberal democratic polities, he notes that conceptual and theoretical opacity is in fact the norm (Mills, 2017). Liberalism’s story of itself is ahistorical, and its representation of the individual as existing prior to social relations obscures, as we have seen, the empirically demonstrable reality of inter-group relations of domination and exploitation. Only by telling this ‘missing half of the story’ (Pateman, 1989) can we begin to unpick what social justice demands within both liberalism as a theory’ and liberalism as a political reality. The ‘official story’’ is whitewashed (literally), and sanitised, with all the violent bits basically' edited out. The epistemology of liberalism is an epistemology’ of domination, and the epistemology’ of domination is one of the systematic production - sometimes deliberate, sometimes not - not of knowledge but of ignorance through socially’ cultivated and state-mandated practices of ignoring, perpetrated through the erasure of the colonial record; the obfuscation of racist, sexist, and ciassist state and institutional action; and the denial of capacity and as persons at all. If non-ideal theory' is Mills’ prescription for how we can correct these structural conceptual and theoretical opacities within liberalism, the epistemology' of ignorance is how we come to identify them as part of the problem set of social injustice, to begin with (Mills, 2015; Mills, 2017).

Britain as a Racist, Ciassist, Eugenicist Polity'

What, if anything, does Mills have to say' about social justice in Britain? The answer is, on the one hand, quite a bit and, on the other, not much specifically so far.

In response to a question about racial liberalism (specifically' the interactions of race and class - or white supremacy and capitalism), Mills remarks that he is ‘not sure about Britain’ compared with the United States, which for him is a clear example of a contemporary' polity founded on both liberalism and racial domination - the racial liberal polity par excellence (Mills, 2017: 9). While the United States repeatedly features in Mills’ work as a primary site of analysis when thinking about a particular state or country, Mills’ account is otherwise decidedly global in scope. He argues, by appeal to the global nature of European settler-colonialism and imperialism, that white supremacy is therefore a global phenomenon, albeit one which involves important geographical and temporal (in the sense of dynamic and shifting manifestations over time and often in response to resistance struggles) shifts and variances (Mills, 2017; Mills, 2003).

Within this broader global context, Britain is very much implicated within Mills’ analysis. Britain arguably played a leading role in the development and expansion of European settler-colonialism and imperialism: the ‘white dominions’ of Canada, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, and the United States; the ‘jewel in the Crown’ that was India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh; Hong Kong and China, as well as the rest of East and South East Asia; what we now call Nigeria and Ghana in West Africa or Kenya and Uganda in East Africa; in the Caribbean and South America, most notably the islands of Jamaica, but also Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, Saint Lucia, The Bahamas, and Barbados, which Britain installed as the world’s first entirely slave-based economy - as well as Guyana and Belize. This is not a thing of the past; even today, Britain retains control of 14 territories (The Telegraph, 2016). Therefore, thinking about white supremacy as a global phenomenon produced by historical and contemporary realities of European colonialism and imperialism requires thinking about Britain’s involvement in that project as an empire and then as a nation-state. Mills knows this, of course, and he rightly implicates Britain accordingly in the global story of white supremacy, both in terms of its past exploits and in terms of the contributions of British philosophers - like Locke, Hume, and J. S. Mill (Mills, 1997).

Acknowledging Britain’s involvement in global white supremacy is not, however, tantamount to a detailed analysis of the ways that Britain may itself be a racial polity or one predicated on the exclusionary logics identified by the metaphor of the domination contract. Taking Mills’ methodological commitment to non-ideal political theory’ seriously points the way to how one might do this: namely by prefacing our theoretical engagements with empirical ones, where we look more deeply into Britain’s history’ as well as its contemporary realities - for which ample data, both quantitative and qualitative, exists, as well as rigorous sociological and other scholarship - and see whether the conceptual and theoretical frameworks Mills has identified both globally' and locally (as in the case of the United States) might apply or be otherwise illuminating.1 This is, of course, a much larger project than could possibly’ be achieved in a chapter of this length, so I shall settle for two remaining tasks in the next section: first, providing a gestural review of the sorts of empirical issues one might look to as well as some key' recent scholarship on these issues; and, second, offering a sketch of one way' that I think Mills’ domination contract offers something useful for thinking about contemporary' problems with especially racism, classism, and eugenics in contemporary' British discussions of social justice.

What are the empirical - both historical and contemporary - issues that anyone seeking to engage Mills’ conceptual and theoretical framework in Britain might look to? Given that Mills’ major theoretical work focuses on white supremacy, racism, and race, starting here seems sensible. Whether or not racism exists in Britain is a matter of apparently interminable debate. No matter how many scholars, activists, or ordinary people testify to the existence of racial violence in Britain - whether enacted through policies, practices, cultures, norms, language, or action - British politicians and media are wont to spend hours prosecuting questions like whether or not Britain is ‘100% racist’ (Read, 2019), in a cultural obsession borne of the endless impetus to misrepresent both racism and those who would share their grievances about it in public. Even just as a contemporary phenomenon, racism in Britain is ubiquitous, and both reported and documented in just about every walk of life. Racism, both as interpersonal attack (sometimes overt, sometimes not) and as a systemic, structural phenomena, has been documented in British schools (Talwar, 2012; McCamley, 2020) and universities (Ardey and Mirza, 2018; Wright et al., 2018; EHRC, 2019; Ahmet, 2020); in health and social care (Adebowale and Rao, 2020; Devakumar et al., 2020); in policing (OHCHR, 2018; El-Enany and Bruce-Jones, 2015); the judiciary (Herbert, 2016; Halliday, 2019) and the criminal justice system (Lammy, 2017; Ministry of Justice, 2018); in housing (Gulliver, 2017); in employment; and in business (Ashe et al., 2019; Siddique, 2019).

At the level of state policy, a recent example is the changes to immigration legislation introduced since 2010 by successive Conservative and Conservative-led governments. These new laws have the explicit focus of making Britain a ‘really hostile environment’ for ‘illegal immigrants’ and driving down net migration figures (Goodfellow, 2019). The measures effectively turned public sector employees into border agents, with schools, hospitals, employers, and landlords finding themselves at risk of significant fines and potential criminal prosecution if they tailed to ensure that those to whom they offered education, housing, work, or healthcare could produce continuous documentation proving themselves legally resident in Britain. Campaigners pointed out that such measures would lead to racial profiling, with Black, Asian, and other people of colour being disproportionately more likely to be challenged to ‘show their papers’ than their white counterparts (Yeo, 2019). Despite this being accepted by the British courts, it was judged that such discriminatory laws would be in the public interest (which makes sense if ‘the public’ is conceived of implicitly or otherwise as predominantly white) (Secretary of State for the Home Department v R [Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants] 2020).

The hostile environment produced the Windrush scandal in which Black British citizens of Caribbean descent who could not provide continuous documentation spanning the entire period from their arrival or birth in the UK to the present day were treated as illegal immigrants, despite having entered the country as British Overseas Citizens in the years between the 1948 British Nationality Act and successive decades which complicated any claim by British imperial subjects to count as citizens in the British homeland (Hewitt, 2020; Bawdon, 2019). The hostile environment produced or exacerbated a host of injustices in which predominantly non-white people were and continue to be subjected to immigration raids on their homes and workplaces by Immigration Control and Enforcement officials (Wemyss, 2015; Bales, 2017), indefinite detention in privately run domestic detention centres like Yarl’s Wood where inmates live in unsafe conditions facing threats of sexualised assault and increased risk of suicide (Athwal, 2015; Kellezi & Bosworth, 2016; Dearden, 2017), or deportation to countries of direct and ancestral origin where they may have never been, know no one, or be otherwise at risk of violence or death if they re-enter (Turnbull, 2018).

Such recent developments in the landscape of racial injustice in Britain should be contextualised against Britain’s history’ of immigration policies. These policies must themselves be laid against the (admittedly' fairly recent) historical context of Britain as an empire and as a globally prolific one at that. As A. Sivanandan (2008) famously' remarked, Black, Asian, and people of colour in Britain ‘are here because you [i.e. the British] were there’. Some important recent scholarship does this, such as Goodfellow’s Hostile Environment (2019) and El-Enany’s Bordering Britain (2020), plus earlier work like Paul’s Whitewashing Britain (1997). All of these texts provide essential context to adjudicating claims over whether it’s possible for a country’ with Britain’s history' and present to frame immigration controls that are not in some deep and foundational sense intertwined with the construction of Britain as a racial polity'.

What about class? Even before we look at interactions with race and racism, class in Britain is complex and entrenched, not least because Britain is a constitutional monarchy with a sitting house of lords and a context where aristocratic landed gentry’, both new money and old, continue to hold significant power, including in government. Evidence of a strong historical association between perceived ‘good breeding’ and good governance in Britain, especially' in the context of its recent colonial and imperial past, is not hard to find (Cobain, 2016), with descendants further fulfilling the supposed promise of upper-class elites through reaching the highest offices in the British state and media (Reeves et al., 2017). On the flipside, poverty levels in Britain have risen in the last ten years, with around 14 million people (or 1 in 5) living in poverty (JRF, 2020). In-work poverty' has increased substantially' in the last 20 years, with over half (56%) of the people living in poverty' living in working households and seven out of ten children living in poverty living in working households too(JRF,2020)?

The overall picture, then, is one in which austerity' measures have disproportionately impacted poor and working-class people negatively' while proving advantageous to those who are already' relatively' if not very' well off (Merrick 2019). Factoring in race and ethnicity’, evidence strongly' suggests that Black, Asian, and people of colour in Britain are disproportionately impacted by' austerity' measures, disproportionately' likely to be poor compared to white counterparts, and are over-represented in low-income and precarious employment, especially' women (JRF, 2020; Hall et al., 2017). All of these factors combine in lethal ways, most starkly reflected in the Grenfell tower tragedy (Bulley et al., 2019) as well as increased vulnerability to infection and death as part of the recent and ongoing COVID-19 pandemic (Public Health England, 2020).

Such realities are not reflected in recent state and media rhetoric, which frequently invokes the needs and views of the ‘white working class’, who are said to have been ‘left behind’, whether in terms of education (Snowdon, 2020; Maidment, 2018) or in terms of political representation (Griffith & Glennie, 2014) and policy spending (Garner, 2011), especially on measures designed to combat racism across various dimensions (Paton, 2014; Burnett, 2015). Austerity is justified in the name of the white working class, whose hard-earned taxes should not be going to supporting ‘scroungers’ and ‘skivers’ - those who have no claim on the state (‘illegal’ immigrants and ‘lifestyle’ foodbank users) and those whose claims are alleged to be faked or exaggerated (disabled and chronically ill people) (Safter, Nolte, & Duffy, 2018; Price et al., 2020). The same is true of the hostile environment since one explicit (but disproven) rationale for ‘cracking down’ on ‘illegal’ immigrants is the extent to which they simultaneously illegitimately consume the hard-earned taxes of the white working class as well as taking their jobs (thus explaining high unemployment or poor and precarious working conditions) (Keating & Janmaat, 2020; Morrison, 2019).

Ample scholarship exists on race and class in Britain. Recent important works include ‘Minority Report: Race and Class in Post-Brexit Britain’ (2017), edited by Khan and Shaheen. Bhattacharyya’s work both in that volume and in texts like and Crisis, Austerity, and Everyday Life (2015), for example, analyses the ways the racialisation of the working class, and the ‘declassing’ of the racialised, serves to obscure the impact of racism on work, mask group interest and unity, obfuscate and exculpate middle-class and state racism, and hamper anti-racist working-class organising (Bhattacharyya, 2015). In his Race and the Undeserving Poor (2018) Shilliam argues similarly that the concept of the white working class is a relatively recent confection and one whose source can be found in the conceptualisation and concomitant racialisation of poverty and the notion of the ‘undeserving poor’. Since the early 19th century, British political and public discourse around poverty explicitly invoked racist ideas about Black people, specifically enslaved Black people, to demarcate a boundary between the poor who are ‘deserving’ of social and political concern and support and those who are not.

Lastly, we come to the relationship between race, class, and disability - framed explicitly in connection with eugenics, for reasons that will hopefully become clear. Disabled people occupy a difficult position both in Britain in general and in terms of thinking about social justice. Disability tends not to factor into discussions of social justice with as much frequency as the ‘big three’ of race, class, and gender. Even where statisticians and reporting bodies have begun to incorporate analysis of markers like gender and class alongside race and vice versa, more often than not disability is treated as a discrete category’ of analysis if it is factored in at all, although increasingly work is being done that challenges this omission. Taking disability on its own, and in relation to class, there are around 13 million disabled people in Britain (roughly one in four people). Disabled people are less likely to be in mainstream education or go to university (ONS, 2019a), less likely to be in employment, and more likely to be in low-paid or precarious work if they arc employed (ONS, 2019b; JRF, 2020). They are more likely to live in poverty - a third of all disabled people live in poverty (versus 20% of the national population generally), while even nondisabled people who live in households with disabled people are 33% more likely to be poor if they live with a disabled adult, and 40% more likely to be poor - twice the national average - if they live in a household with a disabled child (JRF, 2020).3

Insofar as disabled people are more likely to be out of work or in low-income, precarious employment, disabled people are more likely to rely on the benefits system, whether in the form of in-work unemployment support due to sickness (previously Incapacity benefit, now Employment Support Allowance via Universal Credit) or non-means tested benefits for long-term disability aimed at supporting disabled people with associated increased costs arising from living with and managing their condition (previously Disability Living Allowance (DLA), now Personal Independence Payments (PIP)). Post-2010 austerity involved welfare benefit reforms which aimed at reducing the total spend on non-pension benefits by 20%, especially long-term non-means tested benefits like DLA or PIP, but at the cost of disabled people’s wellbeing and independence, as has been documented in detail (Ryan, 2019; Mills, 2018; Sailer, Nolte, & Duffy, 2018; Wickham et al., 2020; Macdonald & Morgan, 2020).

What about the interactions between disability and race and class? Failing to incorporate a disability-oriented analysis in thinking about race and class threatens to erase one group who live at a fairly intense confluence of multiple forms of social injustice. There is some evidence to attest to this fact, but as already mentioned it is relatively meagre even in comparison with statistics reporting on intersections between race, gender and class (Trotter, 2012). To take just one example from the ‘Structurally Unsound’ (2019) report from UCL and the Resolution Foundation, the (aggregated) employment gap for Black, Asian and minority ethnic people compared to white people stands at around 9%, compared with the gap between disabled and nondisabled people which is 31%. But tracking race in conjunction with disability reveals that the employment gap between Black disabled people and white nondisabled people is 44%; Black disabled people are thus 25% more likely than white disabled people to experience an employment gap compared with their white disabled peers (Morris et al., 2019: 10).

Although there is a paucity of data on this specific demographic, it is reasonable to believe that Black and Asian disabled people and other disabled people of colour are more likely than their white disabled and nondisabled peers to be negatively impacted by austerity.4 This is likely to involve having to navigate the challenges of securing disability-related benefits via the DWP as well as having to navigate the hostile environment, both directly at the behest of the Home Office and via their delegated agents in the form of teachers, doctors, landlords, and employers who are effectively incentivised to encounter non-white individuals as potential illegal immigrants, regardless of citizenship status (per Windrush) or potential claim to it.5

These contemporary interactions have a variety of historical precedents, and one way of tracing the intertwined histories of disability and race in the construction of the polity is to examine the role of eugenic ideology and practice in the history of British society. Shilliam makes this move in his argument in Race and the Undeserving Poor precisely because of the way that eugenic ideals - popularised by Sir Francis Galton at UCL - about natural inferiority, especially as tied to race, featured strongly in public debates and political decision-making about who or what counted as the ‘deserving poor’. Shilliam points in particular to the simultaneous racism and eugenics invoked by 19th-century movements towards socialised medicine (Shilliam, 2018: 33-80). Similarly, in the founding of the British welfare state - William Beveridge, as well as Sidney and Beatrice Webb -explicitly justified it in terms of the ‘improvement’ of the ‘British race’ (Shilliam, 2018: 74-75) as part of a late imperial manoeuvre to facilitate shoring up British power in the context of dwindling (but still brutal) colonial and imperial power, and even inasmuch as the NHS and rest of the welfare state were funded in large part by wealth obtained through colonial theft and expropriation (Bhambra & Holmwood ,2018).

The relationship between the British empire and disability is further complicated if we consider the ways variously documented by scholars like Nair and Cleall where, for example, British imperialists explained blindness and other impairments in non-Europeans by reference to their race, since racial inferiority was, of course, often explicitly grounded in claims to physical and also mental - cognitive, rational, and psychological - infirmity (Nair, 2017). Similarly rehabilitating colonised people who had undergone amputation and other injuries in war became framed in terms of assimilating them into British cultural and social norms (Nair, 2019). Lastly, the complex interactions between disability and colonialism (Cleall, 2015; Kennedy, 2015) are reflected in the institutionalisation of disabled people in what were explicitly called ‘colonies’ situated on the British mainland (Arneil, 2017), as introduced by the Mental Deficiency Act 1913, and which were presented as idyllic communities but which, according to their residents, were often anything but (Jarrett & Walmsley, 2019, citing Potts &Fido, 1991).


Thinking carefully and critically about social justice - about its scope, its nature, its causes and effects, as well as what might, or perhaps must, be done to reduce, mitigate against, ameliorate, or prevent it - especially in the British context, warrants paying close attention to the ways in which different systems and structures of domination - not only class and gender but also and especially race and disability - produce and reproduce recognisable social injustices such as destitution, poverty, disenfranchisement, and unjustifiable incarceration. I have argued that one useful conceptual and theoretical framework that can help to reveal this can be found in Mills’ scholarship. By developing further the project of critical social contract theory in the tradition of Rousseau and Pateman, with arguments against ideal theory, against a colour-blind liberalism that is really a foundation-ally racialised liberalism, and Mills offers us a non-ideal contractarian analysis that may really offer ‘x-ray vision’ into parts of society many would readily, if not always credibly, deny precisely because it pushes us to look at the world as it really is, to learn our history, and to be always on the lookout for the many ways that ignorance about matters of significant import to questions of social justice can be actively, resiliently produced.


  • 1 For existing attempts to apply a Millsian framework to the UK in a manner different from the proposed, see Bassel & Emejulu 2018; Bain 2018; Beckles-Raymond 2019.
  • 2 The causes and exacerbators of both in-work and out-of-work poverty are complex, including rising housing and living costs, decreases in pay and precarious hours as well as access to employment, as well as cuts and freezes to (non-pcnsion) benefits, tax credits and social security (JRF 2020), all of which have been exacerbated by increased restrictions on workers' rights, and (shifting) barriers to accessing employment tribunals as well as cuts to legal aid (Heins & Bennet 2018; Law Society 2018).
  • 3 Note that carers are similarly disproportionately represented.
  • 4 Portes and Reed 2017 report on behalf of the EHRC that BME people and disabled people separately are among the worst hit by austerity; Hall et al 2017 report on behalf of the Runnymede Trust report that BME women are especially likely to be impacted. Neither report traces disability in conjunction with race and gender.
  • 5 Consider the tragic story of Errol Graham, a Black disabled British man who died of starvation in 2018 after his benefits were stopped (BBC 2020); the case of Prince Fosu, a Ghanaian national who experienced severe mental distress and was incarcerated in immigration detention where he sadly died as a result of “neglect and gross failures” (Inquest 2020); Rayan Crawford, a Black disabled father of two who was deported to Jamaica (Bulman, 2020); and Osime Brown, a 21-year-old Black autistic man with complex needs under threat of deportation to Jamaica (Voice Online, 2020).


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