Nudge: the expedient alibi of Conservative neoliberalism

Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. But we are systematically excluded from policy decisions, which are not ‘for us’: Instead, policies ‘act upon us’, and contain instructions from the government about how we must be. How we must be is very much aligned with government ideas about ‘ideal’ neoliberal policy outcomes.

However, in the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs. Instead they are all about fulfilling private needs of a privileged, minority. The 1%, as David Graeber neatly summed up.

In this context, I thought I would briefly explore the government’s uniformly ineffective and ideologically tailored response to Brexit, inequality, poverty, unemployment, disability, ill health and a pandemic. The Conservatives offer us nothing material, that’s just for wealthy people. Apparently wealthy people need ‘incentivising’ with financial rewards, poor people need ‘incentivising’ with having money taken away.

Ordinary people just get elitist pseudoscience imposed upon them: nudge – ‘behavioural change’ policies and ‘behavioural messaging’. Oh, and a flourish of blame: your poverty is all your own fault. It’s nothing to do with policies that give handouts to the rich from public funds, according to the government.

Brexit was all about prejudice towards ‘others’, bluff and swagger, ‘holding our nerve’, nationalistic messaging, and insulting other countries – pseudo psychological strategies that failed. Of course it is all the EU’s fault, nothing to do with the government.

Government policy has been reduced to bullying, ideological bullshit and traditional Tory prejudices. Poor people are sanctioned, as the government believes that inequality and poverty exists because poor people have ‘the wrong attitude’ to work. How were people persuaded that taking money from poor people who have hardly any would ever work to address structural inequalities and poverty? Instead we’ve seen a deepening divide between rich and poor, and the return of absolute poverty – people can’t even meet their basic survival needs (food, fuel and shelter). The ‘behavioural messaging’ to smooth the use of a debunked and punitive behaviourism which absolutely punishes poor people, was justified by using scapegoating strategies and ‘scrounger’ narratives designed by politicians, the 1%, their hired lobbyist and ‘strategic comms’ teams and perpetuated by the media.

Note the theme of bullying people into compliance with Conservative neoliberal ideologies, which are upheld at ANY cost, despite the unmitigated failure of this increasingly authoritarian ideology for the majority of citizens, which is incompatible with our human rights, democracy and any notion of equality.

The response to the pandemic has also been mostly inane, patronising and fascistic slogans, glorified as ‘behavioural communications’, such as “Hands, Face, Space” and “Stay alert, control the virus, save the NHS”. Most of us were expecting the NHS to save us, actually. All three ‘demands’ made of us here are the government’s job. Otherwise, what is the point of them? But instead of protecting the public, we see rampant cronyism; eye-watering amounts of our money handed out for services that were an abject failure, such as ‘Test and Trace (which was not an NHS ‘service’, as the Tories are always keen to have you believe), PPE that wasn’t fit for purpose, while the government uses a pseudoscience to place the responsibility of the virus-related outcomes onto the public.

Instead of adequate health funding, pandemic measures and NHS capacity, the government is flinging absolutely meaningless slogans at us. Nudge is never going to change the world for the better, because its design and purpose is to prop up the status quo, no matter how rotten that is, regardless of how harmful its socio-economic outcomes are for the majority of citizens. Nudges are not policy solutions. It’s a way for the tight fisted government to justify spending less on public services, lifeline support and resources while rewarding private interests.

Take David Halpern’s interests, for example, he is the Head of the Behavioural Insights Team, which is a multimillion-pound profitable company, partly owned by the Cabinet Office, which pays Halpern, who owns 7.5% of its shares, a bigger salary than the prime minister. There lies a whopping potential conflict of interest – a ‘cognitive bias’, if you like: someone who contributes to the Sage committee also has a significant financial incentive to sell his bombastic psychobabbling tosh. Halpern talked about the government’s pandemic strategy in the press in March. It was he who first publicly mentioned the idea of “herd immunity” as part of an effective response to Covid-19 (the government has since denied this was ever the strategy).

More than 600 academics signed an open letter earlier this year voicing their concern about the UK government’s use of behavioural science in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. This letter did not reject the use of behavioural science as part of the response, but simply called for the government to release the behavioural evidence it was using to determine policy. Another example of nudge in response to the novel coronavirus included singing happy birthday while washing your hands. Presumably because the government thinks we are too stupid to count to 20 while scrubbing up.

In practice, behavioural science has not helped at all to mitigate the disaster of the government’s handling of the pandemic. The UK government’s nudge strategy aimed to ‘control the virus’ without incurring the same costs and disruptions as other countries. The novel coronavirus pandemic has put ‘behavioural science’ to the test, it failed, and the UK government has since been forced to change its strategy. The UK has one of the highest Covid 19 mortality rates in the world.

The Covid-19 crisis and its economic impact will also have profound structural effects on the UK economy and labour market as the crisis continues to speed up existing trends such as the move to more online shopping, whilst seeing growth in newer trends such as more people working from home.

The nature of the dire consequences of the government’s inadequate coronavirus strategies coupled with a No Deal Brexit are likely to lead to a long and protracted restructuring of the UK economy, the impact of which will be felt for many years to come. For most but not all of us.

I remember reading a  70-page BIT report earlier this year on applying ‘behavioural insights’ to domestic abuse. I didn’t include a single survivor’s voice or narrative, and in which the word “trauma” appeared only once. The report describes domestic abuse as a “phenomenon made up of multiple behaviours undertaken by different actors at different points in time”. Its recommendations are that strange mix of common sense dressed up as behavioural revelation and patronising suggestions that tend to characterise ‘behavioural science’ when it overreaches itself.

Nudge is a form of authoritarianism that draws on psychobabble. I suppose that’s not really new. Authoritarianism requires governments to override citizens’ moral agency, beliefs, thoughts, perceptions and behaviours. That is what nudge and ‘behavioural economics’ is about.

Then there is the use of nudge and behavioural ‘insights’ during the general election campaign, where individuals were psychologically profiled using their internet data, along with other data the government has access to. Targeted ‘messaging’ was then used to psychologically influence voting behaviour. An eye watering amount of public funding went to companies who peddle this utter rubbish and manipulate your perceptions of the realities of others. The NHS needed that money. Our social safety nets needed that money. But this government makes sure that the public ‘wants’ what the public gets, which is basically a few ‘strategic communications’ – words, pseudoscience, wedge rhetoric, authoritarianism and in terms of actual support for the majority, absolutely nothing at all.

More on Nudge:

Nudge and neoliberalism

 The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

A critique of benefit sanctions:  the Minnesota Starvation Experiment and  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification

The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists

Stigmatising unemployment: the government has redefined it as a psychological disorder

The ‘cognitive bias’ of behavioural economics and neuropolitics

Welfare sanctions can’t possibly “incentivise” people to work

Generous welfare benefits increase the work ethic. The government is wrong about ‘perverse incentives’

It’s David Gauke and the government that need to change their behaviours, not poor people

The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down: mind the Mindspace

The just world fallacy

The still face paradigm, the just world fallacy, inequality and the decline of empathy

It is easier than ever before for those with vested interests to spread disinformation on vital matters of public interest. It’s happening every day.

If you want to know what’s really going on, you need to hear from those willing to dig down to the truth. I don’t get paid for my work, and I don’t make any money from advertising. I can’t do this vital work unless readers donate to help me cover costs.

Additionally, I have two degenerative illnesses, which are very painful and have had a steady impact on my mobility, and level of dexterity in my hands, wrists and all of my other joints. Typing is difficult, but I am currently exploring aids and appliances to make the task easier.

I suffer from lupus – which is currently managed with medications – and I was recently given an additional diagnosis of ehlers danlos syndrome (EDS), after years of very painful, unstable joints that pop out of place easily. The diagnosis was in February. All of my appointments were cancelled subsequently, because of the coronavirus. My next rheumatology appointment – usually every 3 months – is now in February 2021. It’s a phone call. I also had weekly physiotherapy appointments, also cancelled. So I’m left with managing my new condition, like many others, without valuable support at the moment.

Please consider making a donation. That ensures I can continue to research, write independent articles and support others facing the injustices of Conservative anti-welfare policies. I support people going through ESA and PIP assessments and appeals, which is an essential lifeline for many people. I can only continue doing that if I can manage my own medical conditions and the disabilities they have, and continue, to cause. 


16 thoughts on “Nudge: the expedient alibi of Conservative neoliberalism

  1. I agree with what’s said in your article but when it comes to the pandemic I think we the public have to just follow official advice and rules as it is an emergency situation, regardless of party politics and who is in power. Then when this is all over there needs to be a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic in every aspect and if faults or wrongdoing is found those responsible should be made accountable.
    Regarding ‘Nudge’ in the wider scheme of things, particularly where Social Security and State Benefits are concerned, it is a form of oppression and psychological abuse that often results in detrimental consequences to those subjected to it. Nudge causes more poverty and pushes people already in poverty into abject destitution, as well as exacerbating homelessness , debt, and suicides. It’s worth remembering though that Nudge was first applied (in my experience) to State Benefits as a part of the mandatory New Deal scheme under New Labour. The Tories however have taken this approach to extremes, hence there are so many people now forced to rely on foodbanks.


  2. Kitty,

    That is just superbly written.


    Thank you.

    I suggest living with this Johnson Rinehart Koch Mercer Government is a scaled up dynamic of Domestic Abuse.

    They have an 80 seat majority, and the good MPs in it are silent. Labour is trying to pretend the family is good. SNP have had to withdraw to reinforce Scotland’s autonomy. The Mefia is complicit.

    The role dynamics within a family abuse system.

    It’s all there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks. I totally agree with your observation. I remember writing a couple of years back that having a Tory government was like living in an abusive relationship that you can never leave.

      Yes, it’s definitely all there.


      1. Here’s the piece I wrote on this,

        I hope the Vaccines work. Until they are rolled out ZCT is, even still, the only viable and humane policy,

        Beneath this is the idea that the entire Hierarchy of Violence and Power Structure is itself a dysfunctional abuse family dynamic scaled up.

        A trauma system. The insanity of trying to avoid perceived trauma of loss of control, by causing trauma to everyone else.

        Nudge slides right into that as a conscious move, an awareness of what is being done to others.

        Your work has hugely encouraged me. So much heart and clarity.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with Steve
    It is indeed great to have you back online.
    Really hope you’re on the way to a full recovery, wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
    Here’s to seeing more of you in 2021.

    Stay safe Kitty
    All the best

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I always thought the rebranding of incapacity benefit to “employment support allowance” was a deliberate denial of the existence of chronic illness and long term disability. It’s a form of toxic positivity, especially when they say things like “the wca test is a test of what you can do, not what you can’t.” The language implies you are on your path to employment. NLP uses this type of language, it’s believed (in NLP thinking) that if you use negative phrases you somehow restrict your own future possibilities, it’s untrue and it shuts down honest communication but people sometimes believe it and it’s an example of the use of nudge policy in real life. Many chronically people could work in academic jobs if positive discrimination was a real thing for disabled people in the uk but it doesn’t exist and it wouldn’t work for everyone but it would be a start.
    The newspaper headlines that followed the introduction of the WCA stated disabled people are all fakers after 75% failed the tests. They never corrected their articles to take into account many people won at tribunal. They never acknowledged that the new tests are so difficult to pass you practically have to be paralysed to get the modern sickness benefit (ESA) and I consider those papers to be complicit in a modern form of hate crime– the mass derision of all disabled people.
    I just read the Guardian article about the imprisonment of the Muslims in China (published Jan 12th 2021) and I was struck by the victim’s comment on how the brainwashing gets to you in the end even if you know it’s not true.
    The wca has badly affected me. The denial of disability and minimisation of the abusive nature of these assessments has affected me. But you’d never know. On the outside I look like a highly functional person managing quite well with my limitations. But I’m disabled in the uk and so in reality I no longer feel like a citizen of value.
    But I know that’s not literally true, so I keep a bit of my self worth topped up with that understanding and self knowledge.
    The fact that you and people like you blog is important because it makes it easier for people like me to remember that and keep that kernel of self awareness vivid in my mind. I guess it’s the positive side of the web– knowing that other people have the same or similar experiences helps to salvage a bit of sanity so thankyou for that. It’s necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally agree, and remember making the same observation about the name change to ‘Employment & Support Allowance’. I’ve written at length over the past decade about how illness is being ‘de-medicalised’. Sick notes took a 180 degree Orwellian turn, to become gaslighting ‘fit notes’. Then there was the threat of ‘job advisers’ having access to our medical notes and updating them, because ‘work will set you free’. Sorry, got the Tories mixed up with some other far right authoritarian despots. I meant ‘work is good for your health.’ Behaviour ‘incentives are replacing medicine for people who are ill, and medical specialists are being de-professionalised.

      Governments that behave like tyrants towards the poorest citizens, ethnic communities, ill and disabled people, and low paid workers spend billions upon billions of pounds on private companies to police and deliver our punishments – think Atos, Maximus, G4S and all of those work programme operators. Punishing very poor people by making them even poorer by sanctions, or making disabled people endlessly ‘prove’ they are disabled is a very lucrative business, allowing the Tories to enrich their wealthy donors and big, rogue, rubbish businesses, who take the money and give nothing worthwhile in return. Then there are all the PR companies hired to make the bullshit stick.

      I wrote this one a few years back, which explores the ideology that underpins such draconian policies.


    2. @ Paul

      You are right, it’s all in the patronising language they use. Sick notes have become “Fit notes”, ridiculous, the Unemployed became “Jobseekers”, and now unemployment is often referred to as “Worklessness”. Whilst the emphasis of the Jobcentres has shifted from helping people to find work to preventing people from claiming State Benefits. They’ve tried to do the same thing with Retirement now becoming a dirty word, you can’t Retire at 65 (unless you have a Private Pension) and you shouldn’t even be thinking about Retiring, there is no limit, you can work ’til you drop.

      Liked by 1 person

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