Blaming the Polish plumber: phantom agents, invisible workers, and the liberal arena

  • Dorothy NoyesEmail author
Original Article


The French ‘no’ vote to the European constitutional referendum of 2005 was broadly attributed by political elites and mainstream media to popular fear of the Polish plumber. This phantom of globalised neoliberal labour does not, however, emerge from vernacular culture but from a deep-rooted liberal imaginary that constitutes the autonomous individual through repudiation of both intimate and foreign Others. This paper proposes the concept of phantom agents as a mechanism through which accredited political actors seek to account for the exclusions of the liberal arena and, more concretely, deflect blame for bad outcomes from themselves onto voters. Tracing the circulation and afterlife of the plumber figure through political performances across French and Anglo-American arenas, I argue that the normative chain of agencies sustaining liberal democracies—reciprocal attributions of praise and blame among representatives, media, and voters—is discredited by phantom attributions that constrain the visibility of living working-class actors and impede their access to normative political agency as liberal individuals. Accordingly, excluded actors may instead seize agency within the political arena through the ‘acting out’ of phantom personae.


Blame European Union Liberal imaginary Phantom agency Polish plumber Working class 



I am grateful to Laurent-Sébastien Fournier, Christian Reus-Smit, Erik Ringmar, the participants of the Frankfurt workshop and ISA panel from which this special issue emerged, two anonymous JIRD reviewers, and this issue’s co-editors, especially Tobias Wille for wise and patient counsel.


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Mershon Center for International Security StudiesThe Ohio State UniversityColumbusUSA

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