Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down – a summary of the implications of Nudge theory

Democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, Coalition policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are all about telling us how to be.

The idea of libertarian paternalism was popularised around five years ago by the legal theorist Cass Sunstein and the behavioral economist Richard Thaler, in their bestselling book Nudge. Sunstein and Thaler argue that policymakers can preserve an individual’s liberty whilst still nudging a person towards choices that are supposedly in their best interests. But who nudges the nudgers? Who decides what is in our “best interests”? That would be the government, of course.

Nudge philosophy is dressed-up as libertarian paternalism, which in turn dresses-up Tory ideology. Another phrase the authors introduced was “choice architecture”, a concept implying that the State can be the architect that arranges personal choice in way that nudges consumers in the right direction.

The direction is towards a small state, with nothing but behavioural “incentives” to justify forcing  citizens who have needs to be “responsible” and “self-sufficient,” achieving this presumably by paying taxes and then pulling themselves up strictly by their own bootstraps. It’s the new nothing for something culture.

Behavioural economics is actually founded on crude operant conditioning: it marks the return of a psycho-political theory that arose in the mid-20th century, linked with behaviourism. Theorists from this perspective generalise that all human behaviour may be explained and described by a very simple reductive process: that of Stimulus – Response. There is no need, according to behaviourists, to inquire into human thoughts, beliefs or values, because we simply respond to external stimuli, and change our automatic responses accordingly, like automatons or rats in a laboratory. Nudge theorists propose that we are fundamentally irrational, and that our decision-making processes are flawed because of “cognitive biases.” Nudge theory therefore bypasses any engagement with our deliberative processes.

Formally instituted by Cameron in September 2010, the Behavioural Insights Team, (also known as the Nudge Unit) which is a part of the Cabinet  Office,  is made up of people such as David Halpern, who is also a part of Cameron’s “Big Society” campaign. He co-authored the Cabinet Office report:  Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour Through Public Policy, which comes complete with a cover illustration of the human brain, with an accompanying psycho-babble of words such as “incentives”, “habit’, “priming” and “ego.” It says the report “addresses the needs of policy-makers.”  Not the public.

The behaviourist educational function made explicit through the Nudge Unit is now operating on many levels, including through policy programmes, forms of “expertise”, and through the State’s influence on the mass media, other cultural systems and more subliminally, it’s embedded in the very language that is being used.

Education is a dialogic process, with consenting, willing participants. Even compulsory education involves consent and dialogue – children are engaged in the process. What the Nudge Unit is doing is not engaging in the least, nor is it done with our consent: we are being acted upon. Not as inquiring subjects, but as passive objects.

At the heart of every Coalition policy is a “behaviour modification” attempt, promoted by the influential Nudge Unit and based on the discredited, pseudo-scientific behaviourism, which is basically just about making people do what you want them to do, using a system of punishments and reinforcements. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.

At the same time, as well as shaping behaviour, the messages being given loud and clear are all-pervasive, entirely ideological and not remotely rational: they reflect and are shaping an anti-welfarism that sits with Conservative agendas for welfare “reform”, “austerity policies” the small State (minarchism) and also legitimises them.

Nudge has made Tory ideology seem credible, and the Behavioural Insights Team have condoned, justified and supported punitive, authoritarian policies, with bogus claims about “objectivity” and by using discredited pseudo-science. Those policies have contravened the human rights of women, children and disabled people, to date. Nudge is hardly in our “best interests,” then.

Coalition narratives, amplified via the media, have framed our reality, stifled alternatives, and justified Tory policies that extend psychological coercion  including through workfare; benefit sanctions; in stigmatising the behaviour and experiences of poor citizens and they endorse the loss of autonomy for citizens who were disempowered to begin with.

A summary of the main influences outlined in the MINDSPACE framework

All of these basic ideas are being utilised to uphold Conservative ideology, to shape Conservative policies and justify them; to deploy justification narratives through the mass media, in schools and throughout all of our other social institutions.

For example, incentives being linked to the mental “shortcut” of strongly avoiding losses shows us precisely where the Tories imported their justification narrative for the welfare cuts and benefit sanctions from. What the government calls  “incentivising” people by using systematic punishments translates from Orwellian Doublespeak to “bullying” in plain language.

“We act in ways that make us feel better about ourselves” – norms, committments, affect, ego are all contributing to Tory rhetoric, lexical semantics and media justification narratives that send both subliminal and less subtle, overt messages about how poor and disabled people ought to behave.

This is political micro-management and control, and has nothing to do with alleviating poverty. Nor can this ever be defined as being in our “best interests.”

There’s an identifiable psychocratic approach to Conservative policy-making that is aimed at the poorest. Whilst on the one hand, the Tories ascribe deleterious intrinsic motives to rational behaviours that simply express unmet needs, such as claiming benefit when out of work, and pathologise these by deploying a narrative with subtextual personality disorder labels, such as scrounger, skiver and the resurrected Nazi catch-all category for deemed miscreants: work-shy, the Tories are not at all interested in your motivations, attitudes, thoughts, hopes and dreams. They are interested only in how your expectations and behaviour fits in with their intent to reduce the State to being a night-watchman – but it watches out only for the propertied class.

Behaviourism was discredited and labelled “pseudoscience” many decades ago, (very memorably by Noam Chomsky, amongst others). Most psychologists and cognitive scientists don’t accept that myriad, complex human behaviours are determined by and reducible to nothing more than an empty stimulus/response relationship; our deeds and words merely a soulless, heartless and mindless cause and effect circuit.

There are serious political ramifications regarding the application of  behaviourism to an unconsenting public. Firstly, that in itself is undemocratic. Skinner was clearly a totalitarian thinker, and behaviour modification techniques are the delight of authoritarians. Behaviourism is basically a theory that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to consciousness, character, traits, personality, internal states, intentions, purpose, thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders and “undesirable” behaviours are best treated by using a system of reinforcement and punishment to alter behaviour “patterns.”

Most psychologists and cognitive scientists don’t endorse behaviourism. Democracy involves governments that shape themselves in response to what people need and want, not about people who reshape their lifestyles in response to what the government wants.

Democracy is meant to involve the formulation of a government that reflects public’s needs. Under the new nudge tyranny that is turned totally on its head: instead the government is devising more and more ways to put pressure on us to change. We elect Governments to represent us, not to manipulate us covertly.

Nudge is actually about bypassing rationality and reason, political accountability and transparency – democratic process, critical debate. The government are substituting those with manipulation, coercion, and an all-pervasive psycho-political experiment.

This was taken from a longer piece, here’s the full articleCameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down: mind the Mindspace.

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