The Anathattractive s/State: A Marxist-Semiotic Analysis of the Discourse, Ideology and Practice of Neoliberal Workfare

  • John David Jordan Department of Sociology, Manchester Metropolitan University


This paper explores the complex semiotic entanglement between discourse, ideology and practical application surrounding the neoliberal welfare policy known as workfare. It focuses particularly on the Flexible New Deal - the version of workfare trialled in the UK from 2009 to 2010 under New Labour. The Flexible New Deal was a privately administered, for-profit, payment-by-results scheme which made receipt of welfare benefits conditional upon reciprocal activity – in particular, attendance at workfare centres for “re-training”. This paper provides a Marxist-semiotic analysis of an actual Flexible New Deal centre, based on participant observation in 2010. This is framed within a wider analysis which proposes that an economic undercode dialectically interacts with class-racist ideology to semiotically sculpt the victims of structural unemployment into an apparent culture of pathological dysfunction – a theatrical illusion which nevertheless renders each unemployed person victim to a mendacious “rhyming up” with media folk-devils. In conclusion, this paper argues that via the term “underclass”, individual states of poverty are transformed into the perception of a socially-cancerous, welfare funded, expanding state (i.e. nation) within the State. This elision of personal and plural, and transubstantiation of the processes of poverty into people, is marked by the novel signifier “s/State”.