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 & 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, which is incompatible with human rights, democracy and any notion of equality.
The response to the pandemic has also been mostly inane, patronising 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. 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 slogans at us. Nudge is never going to change the world for the better, because it’s 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 justfy spending less on public services, lifeline support and resources while rewarding private interests.
Take David Halpern’s interests, for example, 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.
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, authoritarianism and in terms of actual support, absolutely nothing at all.
More on Nudge:
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.
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