Category: Determinism

A brief history of social security and the reintroduction of eugenics by stealth

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Introduction

Our welfare state arose as a social security safety net – founded on an assurance that as a civilised and democratic society we value the well-being and health of every citizen.

There was a cross-party political consensus that such provision was in the best interests of the nation as a whole at a time when we were collectively spirited enough to ensure that no one should be homeless or starving in modern Britain.

As such, welfare is a fundamental part of the UK’s development –  our progress – the basic idea of improving people’s lives was at the heart of the welfare state and more broadly, it reflects the evolution of European democratic and rights-based societies.

Now the UK “social security” system is anything but. It has regressed to reflect the philosophy underpinning the 1834 Poor Law, to  become a system of punishments aimed at the poorest and most marginalised social groups. The Poor Law principle of less eligibility – which served as a deterrence to poor people claiming poor relief is embodied in the Conservative claim of Making work pay: benefits have been reduced to make the lowest paid, insecure employment a more appealing option than claiming benefits.

Unemployed people have absolutely no bargaining power or choice regarding their work conditions and pay. They are coerced by the state to apply for any work available. This also negatively impacts on collective bargaining more widely, the creation of a desperate reserve army of labor serves to drive wages down further. (See: Conservatism in a nutshell.)

The draconian benefit sanctions are about depriving people of their lifeline benefits because they have allegedly failed to comply in some way with increasingly stringent welfare conditionality – which is aimed at enforcing compliance, “behaviour change” and achieving reductions in welfare expenditure rather than supporting people claiming benefits and helping them to find work.

Removing a person’s means of meeting basic survival needs presents significant barriers to that person finding work. If we can’t meet our basic needs, we cannot be motivated or “incentivised” to do anything but struggle for survival.

Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

 

Such a political aim of “behaviour change” is founded entirely on assumptions and moral judgements about why people are unemployed or underpaid. And of course serious concerns have arisen because sanctions have tended to be extremely discriminatory. Young people, women with childcare responsibilities, people with learning disabilities, people with mental illnesses and disabled people are particularly vulnerable as a consequence of the rigid conditionality criteria.

Frankly, such an approach to welfare seems to be cruelly designed to exclude those people who need support the most. Not only does the current government fail to recognise socio-economic causes of poverty, poor wages, underemployment and unemployment because of political decision-making – preferring to blame individuals for economic misfortune – it also fails to recognise the detrimental wider social and economic implications of penalising poor people for the conservative engineering of a steeply hierarchical society.

As a government that values social inequality, and regards it as necessary for economic growth, insolvency and poverty for some is intrinsic to the Conservative ideological script and drives policy decisions, yet the Tories insist that individuals shape their own economic misfortunes.

Worse, the Conservatives are prepared to leave people without a basic means of support – one that the public have paid for themselves.

Austerity – which is aimed at the poorest members of society – has served to increase inequality, and since the Tory welfare “reforms,” we have seen a re-emergence of absolute poverty. Up until recently, our welfare system ensured that everyone could meet their basic survival needs. That no longer is the case.

A brief history of welfare

A welfare state is founded on the idea that  government plays a key role in ensuring the protection and promotion of the economic and social well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and both political and social responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for well-being.

It was recognised that people experienced periods of economic difficulty because of structural constraints such as unemployment and recession, through no fault of their own. It was also recognised that poor health and disability may happen to anyone through no fault of their own.

The welfare state arose in the UK during the post-war period, and following the Great Depression, for numerous reasons, most of these were informed by research carried out into the causes of poverty, its effects on individuals and more broadly, on the UK economy. There were also political reasons for the Conservatives and Liberals supporting the poorer citizens – the newly enfranchised working class.

Charles Booth in London and Sebohm Rowntree in York carried out the first serious studies of poverty and its causes. They both discovered that the causes were casual labour, low pay, unemployment, illness and old age – not laziness, fecklessness, drunkenness and gambling, as previously assumed. The poverty studies raised awareness of the extent of poverty in Britain and the myriad social problems it caused.

The Boer war of 1899-1902 highlighted the general poor state of health of the nation. One out of every three volunteers failed the army medical due to malnutrition, other illnesses due to poor diet and very poor living conditions. The military informed the government at the time of the shockingly poor physical condition of many of those conscripted.

It was realised that the effects of poverty were potentially damaging to  the whole of society. Health problems and infectious disease – rife in the overcrowded slums – could affect rich and poor alike. It was recognised that the economy suffered if large numbers of people were too poor to buy goods and social problems such as exploitation, debt, crime, prostitution and drunkenness were a direct result of poverty, and not the cause of it.

The discovery of  widespread poor health as a consequence of poverty raised concerns about Britain’s future ability to compete with new industrial nations such as Germany and the USA. National efficiency would only increase if the health and welfare of the population improved.

The growth of the Labour Party and Trade Unionism presented a threat to the Liberals and the Conservatives. The new working class voters were turning to these organizations to improve their lives. The traditionally laissez-faire Liberals recognised this and supported the idea of government help for the working class.

Back to the present: welfare is no longer about welfare

The current Conservative government has taken a distinctly behaviourist turn – a form of psychopolitics which essentially reduces explanations of poverty to the personal – blaming poor people for poverty and unemployed people for unemployment, formulating policies that are about making people change their behaviour, based on a simplistic “cause and effect” approach. The government nudges and we are expected to comply. Increasing the use of benefit sanctions is one policy consequence of this psychopolitical approach.

Of course this brand of psychopolitics is all about the government assuming the fallibility of the population and the infallibility of the government when it comes to decision-making and behaviours.

Although Cameron claims that “Nudge” draws on a “paternalistic libertarian” philosophy, any government that acts upon a population, by reducing liberties, choices and by imposing behavioural modification without public consent – expecting people to change their behaviours and choices unwittingly to fit with what the state deems “right,” rather than reflecting public needs via democratic engagement and a genuine dialogue, is actually authoritarian.

As I’ve said elsewhere, welfare has been redefined: it is pre-occupied with assumptions about and modification and monitoring of the behaviour and character of recipients, rather than with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring economic and social well-being.

Eugenics by stealth

Further intention of directing behavioural change is at the heart of policies that restrict welfare support such as tax credits to two children. The Conservatives have recently announced plans to cut welfare payments for larger families. Whilst this might not go as far as imposing limits on the birth of children for poor people, it does effectively amount to a two-child policy.

A two-child policy is defined as a government-imposed limit of two children allowed per family or the payment of government subsidies only to the first two children.

Of course this is justified using a Conservative ideologically driven scapegoating narrative of the feckless family, misbehaving and caught up in a self-imposed culture of dependence on welfare.

This restriction in support for children of larger families, however, significantly impacts on the autonomy of families, and their freedom to make decisions about their family life. Benefit rules purposefully aimed at reducing family size rarely come without repercussions.

It’s worth remembering that David Cameron ruled out cuts to tax credits before the election when asked during interviews. Tax credit rates weren’t actually cut in the recent Budget—although they were frozen and so will likely lose some of their value over the next four years because of inflation.

Some elements were scrapped, and of course some entitlements were restricted. But either way a pre-election promise not to cut child tax credits sits very uneasily with what was announced in the budget.

Iain Duncan Smith said last year that limiting child benefit to the first two children in a family is “well worth considering” and “could save a significant amount of money.” The idea was being examined by the Conservatives, despite previously being vetoed by Downing Street because of fears that it could alienate parents. Asked about the idea on the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme, Duncan Smith said:

“I think it’s well worth looking at,” he said. “It’s something if we decide to do it we’ll announce out. But it does save significant money and also it helps behavioural change.”

Firstly, this is a clear indication of the Tories’ underpinning eugenicist designs – exercising control over the reproduction of the poor, albeit by stealth. It also reflects the underpinning belief that poverty somehow arises because of faulty individual choices, rather than faulty political decision-making and ideologically driven socio-economic policies.

Such policies are not only very regressive, they are offensive, undermining human dignity by treating children as a commodity – something that people can be incentivised to do without.

Moreover, a policy aimed at restricting support available for families where parents are either unemployed or in low paid work is effectively a class contingent policy.

The tax child credit policy of restricting support to two children seems to be premised on the assumption that it’s the same “faulty” families claiming benefits year in and year out. However, extensive research indicates that people move in and out of poverty – indicating that the causes of poverty are structural rather than arising because of individual psychological or cognitive deficits.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published a study that debunked  the notion of a “culture of worklessness” in 2012.  I’ve argued with others more recently that there are methodological weaknesses underlying the Conservative’s regressive positivist/behaviourist theories, especially a failure to scientifically test the permanence or otherwise of an underclass status, and a failure to distinguish between the impact of “personal inadequacy” and socio-economic misfortune.

Back in the 1970s, following his remarks on the cycle of deprivation, Keith Joseph established a large-scale research programme devoted to testing its validity. One of the main findings of the research was that there is no simple continuity of social problems between generations of the sort required for his thesis. At least half of the children born into disadvantaged homes do not repeat the pattern of disadvantage in the next generation.

Despite the fact that continuity of deprivation across generations is by no means inevitable – the theory is not supported by empirical research – the idea of the cycle of “worklessness” has become “common sense.” Clearly, common perceptions of the causes of poverty are (being) misinformed. The individual behaviourist theory of poverty predicts that the same group of people remain in poverty. This doesn’t happen.

However, the structural theory predicts that different people are in poverty over time (and further, that we need to alter the economic structure to make things better). Longitudinal surveys show that impoverished people are not the same people every year. In other words, people move in and out of poverty: it’s a revolving door, as predicted by structural explanations of poverty.

Many families are in work when they plan their children. Job loss, an accident or illness causing disability, can happen to anyone at any time. It’s hardly fair to stigmatise and penalise larger families for events that are outside of their control.

Limiting financial support to two children may also have consequences regarding the number of abortions. Abortion should never be an outcome of reductive state policy. By limiting choices available to people already in situations of limited choice – either an increase of poverty for existing children or an abortion, then women may feel they have no choice but to opt for the latter. That is not a free choice, because the state is inflicting a punishment by withdrawing support for those choosing to have more than two children, which will have negative repercussions for all family members.

Many households now consist of step-parents, forming reconstituted or blended families. The welfare system recognises this as assessment of household income rather than people’s marital status is used to inform benefit decisions. The imposition of a two child policy has implications for the future of such types of reconstituted family arrangements.

If one or both adults have two children already, how can it be decided which two children would be eligible for child tax credits?  It’s unfair and cruel to punish families and children by withholding support just because those children have been born or because of when they were born.

And how will residency be decided in the event of parental separation or divorce – by financial considerations rather than the best interests of the child? That flies in the face of our legal framework which is founded on the principle of paramountcy of the needs of the child. I have a background in social work, and I know from experience that it’s often the case that children are not better off residing with the wealthier parent, nor do they always wish to.

Restriction on welfare support for children will directly or indirectly restrict women’s autonomy over their reproduction. It allows the wealthiest minority to continue having babies as they wish, whilst aiming to curtail the poor by disincentivisingbreeding” of the “underclass.” It also imposes a particular model of family life on the rest of the population. Ultimately, this will distort the structure and composition of the population, and it openly discriminates against the children of large families.

People who are in favour of eugenics believe that the quality of a race can be improved by reducing the fertility of “undesirable” groups, or by discouraging reproduction and encouraging the birth rate of “desirable” groups.

Eugenics arose from the social Darwinism and laissez-faire economics of the late 19th century, which emphasised competitive individualism, a “survival of the wealthiest” philosophy and sociopolitical rationalisations of inequality.

Eugenics is now considered to be extremely unethical and it was criticised and condemned widely when its role in justification narratives of the Holocaust was revealed.

But that doesn’t mean it has gone away. It’s hardly likely that a government of a so-called first world liberal democracy – and fully signed up member of the European Convention on Human Rights and a signatory also to the United Nations Universal Declaration – will publicly declare their support of eugenics, or their totalitarian tendencies, for that matter, any time soon.

But any government that regards some social groups as “undesirable” and formulates policies to undermine or restrict that group’s reproduction rights is expressing eugenicist values, whether those values are overtly expressed as “eugenics” or not.

Conservatives are not known for valuing diversity, it has to be said.

Implications of the welfare “reforms”: Human rights

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of which the UK is a signatory, reads:

  1. Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
  2.  Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance. All children, whether born in or out of wedlock, shall enjoy the same social protection.

A recent assessment report by the four children’s commissioners of the UK called on the government to reconsider its deep welfare cuts, voiced “serious concerns” about children being denied access to justice in the courts, and called on ministers to rethink plans to repeal the Human Rights Act.

The commissioners, representing each of the constituent nations of the UK, conducted their review of the state of children’s policies as part of evidence they will present to the United Nations.

Many of the government’s policy decisions are questioned in the report as being in breach of the convention, which has been ratified by the UK.

England’s children’s commissioner, Anne Longfield, said:

“We are finding and highlighting that much of the country’s laws and policies defaults away from the view of the child. That’s in breach of the treaty. What we found again and again was that the best interest of the child is not taken into account.”

Another worry is the impact of changes to welfare, and ministers’ plan to cut £12bn more from the benefits budget. There are now 4.1m children living in absolute poverty – 500,000 more than there were when David Cameron came to power.

It’s noted in the report that ministers ignored the UK supreme court when it found the “benefit cap” – the £25,000 limit on welfare that disproportionately affects families with children, and particularly those with a larger number of children – to be in breach of Article 3 of the convention – the best interests of the child are paramount:

“In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

The United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) applies to all children and young people aged 17 and under. The convention is separated into 54 articles: most give children social, economic, cultural or civil and political rights, while others set out how governments must publicise or implement the convention.

The UK ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) on 16 December 1991. That means the State Party (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) now has to make sure that every child benefits from all of the rights in the treaty. The treaty means that every child in the UK has been entitled to over 40 specific rights. These include:

Article 1

For the purposes of the present Convention, a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.

Article 2

1. States Parties shall respect and ensure the rights set forth in the present Convention to each child within their jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind, irrespective of the child’s or his or her parent’s or legal guardian’s race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status.

2. States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of the status, activities, expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members.

Article 3

1. In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.

2. States Parties undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being, taking into account the rights and duties of his or her parents, legal guardians, or other individuals legally responsible for him or her, and, to this end, shall take all appropriate legislative and administrative measures.

3. States Parties shall ensure that the institutions, services and facilities responsible for the care or protection of children shall conform with the standards established by competent authorities, particularly in the areas of safety, health, in the number and suitability of their staff, as well as competent supervision.

Article 4

States Parties shall undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative, and other measures for the implementation of the rights recognized in the present Convention. With regard to economic, social and cultural rights, States Parties shall undertake such measures to the maximum extent of their available resources and, where needed, within the framework of international co-operation.

Article 5

States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.

Article 6

1. States Parties recognize that every child has the inherent right to life.

2. States Parties shall ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child.

Article 26

1. States Parties shall recognize for every child the right to benefit from social security, including social insurance, and shall take the necessary measures to achieve the full realization of this right in accordance with their national law.

2. The benefits should, where appropriate, be granted, taking into account the resources and the circumstances of the child and persons having responsibility for the maintenance of the child, as well as any other consideration relevant to an application for benefits made by or on behalf of the child.

Here are the rest of the Convention Articles

The Nordic social democratic model of welfare

Finally, it’s worth noting, as sociologist Lane Kenworthy has pointed out, that the Nordic welfare experience of the modern social democratic model can:

“promote economic security, expand opportunity, and ensure rising living standards for all . . . while facilitating freedom, flexibility and market dynamism.”

Nordic welfare models include support for a universalist welfare state which is aimed specifically at enhancing individual autonomy, promoting social mobility and ensuring the universal provision of basic human rights, as well as for stabilizing the economy, alongside a commitment to free trade.

The Nordic model is distinguished from other types of welfare states by its emphasis on maximizing labor force participation, promoting gender equality, egalitarian and extensive benefit levels and the large magnitude of income redistribution.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz has noted that there is higher social mobility in the Scandinavian countries than in the United States, and argues that Scandinavia is now the land of opportunity that the United States once was. The Nordics cluster at the top of league tables of everything from economic competitiveness to social health to happiness.

They have avoided both southern Europe’s economic sclerosis and America’s extreme inequality. Development theorists have taken to calling successful modernisation “getting to Denmark”.

The Nordics demonstrate very well that it is possible to combine competitive capitalism with a large state: they employ 30% of their workforce in the public sector, compared with an OECD average of 15%. The main lesson to learn from the Nordics is not ideological but practical.

The state is popular not because it is big but because it works. A Norwegian pays tax more willingly than a Californian because he or she has access to decent schools, support when times are difficult and free health care as a result.

Norway ranks among the richest countries in the world. GDP per capita is among the highest in the world.

Norway regards welfare services not as social costs but as fundamental social investment for open innovation and growth.

Innovation should not be an opportunity for a few only. It should be democratised and distributed in order to tackle the causes of growing inequality.

Inequality hampers economic growth.

We can’t afford not to have a welfare state.

See also:

Children’s Commissioner warns that UK is now in breach of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Human rights are the bedrock of democracy, which the Tories have imperiled.

Welfare reforms break UN convention

Welfare reforms, food banks, malnutrition and the return of Victorian diseases are not coincidental, Mr Cameron

The government refuse to carry out a cumulative impact assessment of welfare “reforms”. Again.

Suicides reach a ten year high and are linked with welfare “reforms”

The poverty of responsibility and the politics of blame. Part 3 – the Tories want to repeal the 2010 Child Poverty Act

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

Propaganda techniques part one: Glittering Generalities – language and the New Word Order.

Image result for securing a better futurePropaganda techniques

Introduction.

This is part one of a series of articles I am writing about propaganda techniques, with the aim of explaining the seven main types that The Institute for Propaganda Analysis identified in 1938, and looking at current examples of their use.

Propaganda techniques are still very commonly used in the media, in advertising, in politics, in rhetoric and debate. In the US, much of the work by the Institute of Propaganda Analysis tended to focus on the techniques of persuasion used by Stalin and Hitler. Many people think that there is no need for research nowadays, but propaganda techniques are still being used widely.

In Britain, the current government has adopted a psychocratic approach to governing, reflected in public policies that have a central aim of  directing”behavioural change” of targeted social groups, and are founded on quasi-scientific understandings of the basis of human decision-making.

The Conservatives claim to champion the small-state and minimal intervention, yet the consequences of their policies insidiously intrude into people’s everyday experiences and thoughts. Our attitudes and beliefs are being manipulated, our decision-making is being “nudged,” citizens are being micro-managed and policed by the state.

The Conservatives use Orwellian-styled rhetoric crowded with words like “market forces”, “meritocracy” “autonomy”, “incentivisation”, “democracy”, “efficient, small state”, and even “freedom”, whilst all the time they are actually extending a brutal, bullying, extremely manipulative, all-pervasive state authoritarianism.

Furthermore, this authoritarianism entails a mediacratic branch of government that powerfully manipulates public opinion. The mind-numbing mainstream media is conformative rather than informative, and is designed to manufacture and manage public consensus, whilst setting agendas for what ought to be deemed important issues. The media is scripting events rather than simply reporting them, filtering information by deciding which events may and may not have precedence.

And really, it’s the same old same old. Propaganda is an extremely powerful weapon and seizing control of the mainstream media is one of the first things that all tyrants do:

“Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.” Benito Mussolini.

The current government is not interested in any form of democratic dialogue. They simply want to set a rigid agenda to control socio-political outcomes to benefit the powerful and wealthy elite.

We are witnessing attempts to control virtually all aspects of social life, including the economy, education, our private life, morals and the beliefs and attitudes of citizens. We are also seeing the rise of political behaviourism, which is closely linked with totalitarian forms of thinking.

The officially proclaimed ideology penetrates into the deepest reaches of societal structure and the totalitarian government seeks to completely control the thoughts and actions of its citizens.” Richard Pipes.

Recent public policies related to behavioural change exploit the emotive, automatic drivers of decision-making through methods such as subconscious priming or default settings. This is extremely worrying, as it bypasses rational processes, and has some serious implications for conceptions of human autonomy and agency, which is central to the design of liberal democracies.

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, Conservative policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly all about telling us how to be.

So we do need to expose and challenge such insidious, anti-democratic state control freakery and psychocratic shenanigans.

scroll2Part 1. Glittering Generalities: all that glitters is glib, not gold.

Glittering Generalities is one category of the seven main propaganda techniques identified by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis in 1938. It’s a device often used by the media and in political rhetoric to persuade us to approve and accept something without examining any evidence.

This is a propaganda technique purposefully designed to divert and distract, so that people are less likely to develop their own critical thoughts. This said, the purpose of all forms of propaganda is to tell you what to think, and not how to think.

Glittering Generalities capitalise on increasingly sloganised political discourses, leading to a loss of conceptual clarity, over-idealisation and they also reflect conceptual miserliness – a tendency for some people to prefer simple, superficial and easy answers, rather than having to expend time and effort to grapple with complexity, critical analysis and the need to weigh up evidence. They also succeed in conveying codified messages that reference underpinning discourses which are often prejudiced and controversial, but presented in a way that bypasses any detailed scrutiny, as a consensus view and “common sense.”  An example is the slogan “Taking our country back” as it references an underpinning racist, supremicist discourse.

Gordon Allport’s Principle of Least Effort is a theory that humans engage in economically prudent thought processes, taking “short-cuts” instead of acting like “naive scientists” who rationally investigate, weigh evidence, costs and benefits, test hypotheses, and update their expectations based upon the results of the “experiments” that are a part of our everyday actions.

Sometimes we are more inclined to act as cognitive misers, using mental short-cuts to make assessments and decisions, concerning issues and ideas about which we know very little, as well as issues of great salience.

The term “Cognitive Miser” was coined by Fiske and Taylor (in 1984) to refer, like Allport, to the general idea that individuals frequently rely on simple and time efficient strategies when evaluating information and making decisions.

Rather than rationally and objectively evaluating new information, the cognitive miser assigns new information to categories that are easy to process mentally. These categories arise from prior information, including schemas, scripts and other knowledge structures, such as stereotypes, that have been stored in our memory.

The cognitive miser tends not to extend much beyond established belief when considering new information. This of course may perpetuate prejudices and cognitive biases.

Glittering Generalities imply – or signpost us – via common stock phrases to our own tacit knowledge, which often lies below our current focal awareness – prior information, beliefs, ideals, values, schemata and mental models, stereotypes and so on, creating the impression that the person using the terms and phrases understands and sees the world as you do, creating a false sense of rapport by doing so. Or the feeling that some very important recognition has been made.

Glittering Generalities propaganda is sometimes based on a kind of logical fallacy known as Equivocation – it is the misleading use of a term with more than one meaning (usually by glossing over which meaning is intended at a particular time)

Glittering Generalities is a technique very often used by people who seek to stifle debate, sidestep accountability and suppress democratic processes. Because Glittering Generalities tend to obscure or gloss over serious areas of disagreement, they hide controversy and submerge alternative propositions.

As such, Glittering Generalities may often be used to neutralise opposition to dominant ideas. It’s a way of disguising partisanship and of manipulating and reducing democratic choices. It’s part of a process of the political micro-management of your beliefs and decision-making.

It also reduces public expectation of opposition and in doing so it contributes to establishing diktats: it’s a way of mandating acceptance of ideology, policies or laws by presenting them as if they are the only viable alternative.

This propaganda technique bypasses rationality altogether, by employing morally laden or emotionally appealing words and phrases so closely associated with highly valued concepts and beliefs that carry conviction – convince us – without need for enquiry, supporting information or reason.

The meanings of such words and phrases is generally based on a loose, tacit public consensus, often varying between groups and individuals. Semantic shift describes a process of how the meanings of words may change over time, but meanings also shift and vary amongst social groups. Language is elusive and changeable. (Words like wicked and bad, for example, shifted subculturally. Originally: evil, corrupt, sinful, malevolent → superb, excellent, great, fantastic. ) Let’s not forget that when we use language, it is with purpose and intent.

So, Glittering Generalities are rather like platitudes or clichés presented as semantic signs to cognitive short-cuts that are often used to distract and placate people, they provide a superficial, broad, symbolic map to a logical cul-de-sac. They are superficially appealing and convincing but ultimately empty, meaningless words or phrases.

To summarise, Glittering Generalities may be identified by the following criteria:

  • Use of attractive, but vague “virtue” words that make speeches and other communications sound good, but in practice say nothing in particular.
  • Use of lulling linguistic patterns such as alliteration, metaphor and reversals that turn your words into easy to remember soundbites that often flow and rhyme in hypnotic patterns.
  • Use of words that appeal to morals and values, which often themselves are related to triggering of powerful emotions.
  • A common element of glittering generalities are intangible nouns that embody ideals, such as freedom, democracy, integrity, justice, respect.

Some further examples of Glittering Generalities are: economic plan, all in it together, big society,  freedom, family values, the common good, democracy,  principles, choice, incentivise, efficiency, fairness, hard-working families, parental choice, a caring society, fiscal responsibility, market choice, meritocracy, personal responsibility, making work pay, scroungers and strivers, anti-austerity, socialism, progressive, disenfranchised, deceit, Westminster establishment, the needs of the people, but that’s all just semantics really.

A good example of a Glittering Generality is the Conservative’s phrase “making work pay.” It refers to the Tory welfare “reforms” which were nothing to do with the level of wages. How does reducing benefits for unemployed people actually make work pay? Especially given the fact that wages have dropped for those in work, at the same time, the cost of living has risen, and consequently many working people are now living in poverty. The question to ask is: making work pay for whom?

The Tories have an Orwellian dexterity in manipulating semantic shifts. They do like to dress-up words and parade them as something else. For example, take the word “reform,” which usually means to make changes to an institution, policy or practice in order to improve it. The welfare “reforms” have involved the steep and steady reduction of welfare provision and an increase in political scapegoating and victim-blame narratives.

We have also seen the return of absolute poverty since the “reforms” were (undemocratically) implemented in 2012, which can hardly be considered as an “improvement” to what came before the Tories made savage and brutal cuts to poor people’s lifeline benefits, making them even poorer, with some people dying as a consequence.

Then there is the Tory drift on the word “fair.”  It’s generally taken to mean treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination, and without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.

However, the Conservatives have repeatedly claimed that cutting people’s lifeline benefits is “fair.”  As I’ve previously stated, the value of wages has also dropped to its lowest level ever, whilst the cost of living has risen and many in low paid work are now living in poverty, in reality the welfare cuts have simply made people desperate enough to take any low paid work, which does not alleviate circumstances of poverty.

Furthermore, how can the welfare cuts be regarded as remotely fair, when they took place in a context where the government handed out £107,000 of public funds to each millionaire, in the form of an annual tax break?

Finally, it’s not only the Tories that utilise propaganda techniques, and some parties on the Left have also used Glittering Generalities. These parties especially capitalized on the public’s growing cynicism and dissatisfaction with the “Westminster establishment.” UKIP and the Scottish National Party drew on nationalism (and independence,) whilst using superficial, simplistic and ambiguous phrases and symbols, the Green Party and other Left-wing factions also drew on public dissatisfaction with “mainstream parties” and appealed to people’s hopes and fears to present an “alternative.”

Both the Greens and the Scottish nationalists presented a rhetoric skillfully tailored and laden with words and phrases that reflect progressive ideals whilst also claiming a position that opposed austerity. Yet this lacked integrity, as the rhetoric wasn’t fully connected to actual manifesto policies.

Crucially, the Scottish National Party’s spending plans implied deeper cuts than Labour’s plans entailed over the next five years, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) said in a report in April, highlighting a “considerable disconnect” between the nationalist’s rhetoric on austerity and their policies.

The Green Party had a similar disconnect between an anti-austerity rhetoric and their incompatable policy proposals of a zero-growth economy and the universal citizen’s income. The latter was heavily criticised because, as it was modelled, the universal basic income would create deeper poverty for the poorest citizens and further extend social inequality.

The Labour Party ran a more rational but superficially less appealing campaign based on improving the material conditions of society for the majority of people. The policy plans for an extensively redistributive tax system, for example, matched the rhetoric about addressing growing social inequality, as well as a social reality. But the current climate of  right-wing anti-intellectualism, widespread disillusionment with the political establishment and increasing public disengagement from democracy doesn’t prompt a rational exploration of policy proposals and any analysis of potential consequences for society from many people.

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

proper Blond

The current government has made the welfare system increasingly conditional on the grounds that “permissive” welfare policies have led to welfare “dependency.” Strict behavioural requirements and punishments in the form of sanctions are an integral part of the Conservative ideological pseudo-moralisation of welfare, and their  “reforms” aimed at making claiming benefits much less attractive than taking a low paid, insecure, exploitative job.

Welfare has been redefined: it is preoccupied with assumptions about and modification of the behaviour and character of recipients rather than with the alleviation of poverty and ensuring economic and social wellbeing.

The stigmatisation of people needing benefits is designed purposefully to displace public sympathy for the poor, and to generate moral outrage, which is then used to further justify the steady dismantling of the welfare state.

But the problems of austerity and the economy were not caused by people claiming welfare, or by any other powerless, scapegoated, marginalised group for that matter, such as migrants. The problems have arisen because of social conservatism and neoliberalism. The victims of this government’s policies and decision-making are being portrayed as miscreants – as perpetrators of the social problems caused by the government’s decisions, rather than as the casualities.

And actually, that a recognisable bullying tactic known as projection, (the vehicle for projection is blame, criticism and allegation), as is scapegoating.

The 2015 budget included plans to provide online Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to 40,000 claimants and people on the Fit for Work programme, as well as putting therapists in more than 350 job centres.

I wrote an article in March about the government plans to make the receipt of social security benefits conditional on undergoing “state therapy.” I raised concern about ethical issues – such as consent, the inappropriateness of using behaviour modification as a form of “therapy,” and I criticised the proposed Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) programme on methodological and theoretical grounds, as well as considering wider implications.

I’ve written at length about the coercive and punitive nature of the conservative psychopolicy interventions, underpinning the welfare “reforms,” and giving rise to increased welfare “conditionality” and negative sanctions.

In particular, I’ve focussed on the influence of the Cabinet’s Behavioural Insights Team or “nudge unit” and “the application of behavioural science and psychology to public policy. (See: The nudge that knocked down democracy, The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting, and Despotic paternalism and punishing the poor. Can this really be England? )

I was pleased to see that the BBC reported a summary of the research findings of Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn, which was supported by the Wellcome Trust. The report – Positive affect as coercive strategy: conditionality, activation and the role of psychology in UK government workfare programmes reflects many of the concerns raised by other professionals. I strongly recommend you read it. (See: Psychologists Against Austerity: mental health experts issue a rallying call against coalition policies.)

The BBC summarised from the report that benefit claimants are being forced to take part in “positive thinking” courses in an effort to “change their personalities.” Those people claiming benefits that do not exhibit a “positive” outlook must undergo “reprogramming” or face having their benefits cut. This is humiliating for job seekers and does not help them find suitable work.

New benefit claimants are interviewed to find out whether they have a “psychological resistance” to work, with those deemed “less mentally fit” given more “intensive coaching.”

And unpaid work placements are increasingly judged on psychological results, such as improved motivation and confidence, rather than whether they have led to a job.

The co-author of the report, Lynne Friedli, describes such programmes, very aptly, as “Orwellian.” She says:

“Claimants’ ‘attitude to work’ is becoming a basis for deciding who is entitled to social security – it is no longer what you must do to get a job, but how you have to think and feel.

“This makes the government’s proposal to locate psychologists in job centres particularly worrying.

“By repackaging unemployment as a psychological problem, attention is diverted from the realities of the UK job market and any subsequent insecurities and inequalities it produces.”

Friedli also criticised the way psychologists were being co-opted as “government enforcers” and called on professional bodies to denounce the practice.

Quite rightly so. It’s our socio-economic system, and the ideologues who shape it that present the problems, not the groups of people forced to live in it as its casualities – the “collateral damage” of neoliberalism and social conservatism.

“I don’t think anything can justify forced psychological coercion. If people want to go on training courses that should be entirely voluntary,” Lynne told BBC News.

She also questioned the aim of the motivational courses and welfare-to-work placements, which felt like “evangelical” self-help seminars.

“Do we really want a world where the only kind of person considered employable is a ‘happy clappy’, hyper-confident person with high self-esteem?

“That is a very a narrow set of characteristics. There is also a role in the workplace for the ‘eeyore’ type.”

Absolutely. Frankly, I would rather have health and safety programmes that are designed by a pessimist, capable of thinking of the worst case scenario, for example, than by a jolly, positively biased, state-coerced optimist.

I would also prefer pessimistic appraisal of social policies. That way, we may actually have impact assessments carried out regarding the consequences of Conservative policies, instead of glib, increasingly Orwellian political assurances that are on the other, more scenic, illusory side across the chasm from social realities.

Although pessimism and depression are considered to be affective disorders, in a functional magnetic resonance imaging study of the brain, depressed patients were shown to be more accurate in their causal attributions of positive and negative social events, and in self assessments, and assessment of their own performance of tasks, than non-depressed participants, who demonstrated a positive bias.

As a former community-based psychosocial practitioner who saw the merits and value of a liberationist model, the question that needs to be asked is: for whose benefit is CBT being used, and for what purpose? Seems to me that this is about helping those people on the wrong side of punitive government policy to accommodate that, and to mute negative responses to negative situations.

The socially dispossessed are being coerced by the state, part of that process is the internalisation of the negative images of themselves created and propagated by their oppressors.

CBT is not based on a genuinely liberational approach, nor is it based on any sort of democratic dialogue. It’s all about modifying and controlling behaviour, particularly when it’s aimed at such a narrow, politically defined and specific outcome.

The problem that we need to confront is politically designed and perpertuated social injustice, rather than the responses and behaviour of excluded, stigmatised individuals in politically oppressed, marginalised social groups.

CBT is founded on blunt oversimplifications of what causes human distress – for example, in this case it is assumed that the causes of unemployment are psychological rather than socio-political, and that assumption authorises intrusive state interventions that encode a Conservative moral framework which places responsibility on the individual, who is characterised as “faulty.”

However, 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. Conservative policies are quite clearly no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly about telling us how to be.

As I have said elsewhere, as well as aiming at shaping behaviour, the psycho-political messages being disseminated are all-pervasive, entirely ideological and not remotely rational: they reflect and are shaping an anti-welfarism that sits with Conservative agendas for neoliberal welfare “reform”, austerity policies, the small State (minarchism) and also legitimises them. (I’ve written at length elsewhere about the fact that austerity isn’t an economic necessity, but rather, it’s a Tory ideological preference.) The Conservatives are traditional, they are creatures of habit, rather than being responsive and rational.

Conservative 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.

Many of the current ideas behind “reforming” welfare come from the Behavioural Insights  Team – the Nudge Unit at the heart of the Cabinet. Nudge theory has made Tory ideology, with its totalitarian tendencies, seem credible, and the Behavioural Insights Team have condoned, justified and supported punitive, authoritarian policies, with bogus claims about “objectivity” and by using discredited pseudoscience. Those policies have contravened the human rights of women, children and disabled people, to date.

Nudge-based policy is hardly in our “best interests,” then.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone


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There is no such thing as a ‘one nation’ Tory: they always create two nations

CnUOm0-WYAIa-NE Tomorrow is cancelled

Cameron has announced that he will not seek a third term of office as Prime Minister. He named three of his senior colleagues – Home Secretary Theresa May, Chancellor George Osborne and London mayor Boris Johnson – as possible replacements for the conservative leadership when he stands down. It doesn’t matter who leads the Tory party: they all share the same despotic tendency.

I’ve often thought that Conservatism is an enclave for those with socially destructive dark triad personality traits (Machiavellianism, Narcissism, and Psychopathy). Tories share the same regressive social Darwinist ideology, so they will always tend to formulate the same policies that divide society into steep hierarchies of wealth and privilege, resulting in massive inequalities, suffering and poverty, lies, corruption and indifference to the majority of the publics’ needs. No matter who is in the driving seat of the Tory tank, it will still knock most of us down and drive over us.

Cameron’s soundbites, such as “we are all in it together” and concepts like “the Big Society” hark back to a traditional paternalist Conservatism that had an element of communitarianism to offer. But without a “big state.” One nation Conservatives are often seen as being less harsh and a tad more “cuddly” than New Right Conservatives. Whilst one nation Conservatism is sometimes hailed as “progressive,” (but only ever amongst Conservatives,) that is tempered by the fact that all tories tend to hold onto a misty-eyed illusion of some great Victorian golden-age and the Feudal era “good ole’ days.” They never look forwards, only backwards.

It was the dominance of so-called “Red Toryism” that facilitated the post-war consensus which saw the welfare state embraced by the major parties in the 1940s. However, most Conservatives, including the new so-called Red Tories, claim that the post-war expansion of the state led to a “breakdown of once-strong communities.” Not only is this claim immensely counter-intuitive, it’s utter pseudo-nostalgic nonsense.

Cameron’s rhetoric is full of references to “rolling back the state”, the “re-awakening of community spirit”, and a restoration of the kind of “intermediate civic institutions” that preceded the welfare state. The whole idea of Cameron’s “big society” is that private charities fill the holes created by public spending cuts. Food banks have increasingly replaced welfare, for example, yet the point of post-1945 European welfare states was to free the needy from dependence on the insecurity of private generosity, which tends to miss out the socially marginalised, and to be least available when times are hardest.

Welfare, or social security, if you prefer, has provided a sense of security and dignity that we never previously enjoyed, it established a norm of decency, mutuality of our social obligations and created a parity of esteem and worth which was, until fairly recently, universal, regardless of wealth and status. The “big bad state” is comprised of civilised and civilising institutions. It is such stable and enduring institutions and subsequently secure individuals that are raised above a struggle for basic survival which provide a frame for coherent communities. The Conservatives, with their demagoguery of rigid class division, and policies of social stratification, tend to create ghettoes, not communities.

Traditional Conservatives were very influenced by Malthus, and opposed every form of social insurance “root and branch”, arguing, as the economist Brad DeLong put it:

“Make the poor richer, and they would become more fertile. As a result, farm sizes would drop (as land was divided among ever more children), labor productivity would fall, and the poor would become even poorer. Social insurance was not just pointless; it was counterproductive.” 

Malthus was a miserable, misanthropic clergyman for whom birth control was anathema. He believed that poor people needed to learn the hard way to practice frugality, self-control, and chastity. He liked to hand out allegoric and austere hair shirts and birch rods for the poor. The traditional Conservatives also protested that the effect of social insurance would be to weaken private charity and loosen traditional social bonds of family, friends, religious, and non-governmental welfare organisations.

The moralising scrutiny, control and punishment of the poor is a quintessential element of Tory narrative. Tory ideology never changes. They refuse the lessons of history, and reject the need for coherence. Tories really are stuck in the Feudal era. They have never liked the idea of something for everyone:

“The crisis is an opportunity to sweep away the rotten postwar settlement of British politics. Labour is moribund. But David Cameron has a chance to develop a “red Tory” communitarianism, socially conservative but sceptical of neoliberal economics.” Phillip Blond, The Rise of the Red Tories, 2009.

The Telegraph identified Blond as a key “driving force behind Cameron’s Big Society agenda.” There are possibly two kinds of Tory. But both types will always engineer two nations: fundamentally demarcated by wealth and privilege: one nation of haves and another of have nots.

Conservatives also believe they have moral superiority, and they always impose a framework of moral authoritarianism on the poorest. For example, Cameron’s idea of “social responsibility” does not extend to the behaviours of irresponsible bankers, the finacial class and the tax-avoidant  wealthy. It’s not just a cognitive dissonance amongst Conservatives – many in the UK fail to recognise the direct relationship between high salaries and a concentration of wealth at the top of society, and low salaries paid to the poor, and poverty at the bottom: there you have it – two nations.

demcracy

The paternalism of traditional Tories and the authoritarianism of the New Right are profoundly undemocratic: neither design can reflect the needs of the public since both frameworks are imposed on a population, reflecting only the needs of the ruling class, to preserve social order.

Solidarity was said to be the movement that turned the direction of history. But we have turned away from it. Émile Durkheim, one of the three founding fathers of theoretical sociology, first developed the concept of social exclusion to describe the manifold consequences of poverty and inequality.

Much of Durkheim’s work was concerned with how societies could maintain their integrity, order and coherence. Durkheim’s answer is that our collective consciousness produces society and holds it together. His view that societies evolve through a stage of mechanistic solidarity to progress to a state of organic solidarity betrays his traditional conservative roots. But Tory notions of solidarity are not based on any belief in the value of cooperation, community, collectivism or altruism: Tories don’t feel any connection with ordinary people. It’s entirely a detached and pragmatic consideration: for Tories, social solidarity serves the sole purpose of maintaining the status quo. Preserving the two nations.

Disraeli’s Conservatism favoured a paternalistic society with the hierarchical social classes maintained but with the working class receiving support from the establishment. He emphasised the importance of social obligation rather than individualism. Disraeli warned that Britain would become divided into two “nations”, of the rich and poor, as a result of increased industrialisation and inequality. Concerned at this stark division, he supported measures to improve the lives of the people, to provide social support and protect the working classes.

One nation Conservatism originally emphasised the obligation of those at the top to those below. This was based on the Feudal concept of noblesse oblige – the belief that the aristocracy had an obligation to be generous and honourable. Disraeli felt that governments should be paternalistic, because it is “good” for society as a whole, to maintain social order. So his ultimate motivation was to simply prop up the established status quo.

Disraeli became Conservative prime minister in February 1868. He devised one nation policy to appeal to working class men as a solution to worsening divisions in society. But conservatives always conclude that the preservation of social hierarchy is in the interests of all classes, and therefore all classes should collaborate in its defense.

Both the lower and the higher classes should accept their roles and perform their respective duties.

The rich man at his castle, the poor man at his gate.

The stability and the prosperity of the nation was seen as the ultimate purpose of collaboration between classes.

Traditional Conservatives believed that organic societies are fashioned ultimately by natural necessity, and therefore cannot be improved by reform or revolution. Indeed, reform or revolution would destroy the delicate fabric of society, creating the possibility of radical social breakdown, from this perspective.

Disraeli once said: “If the cottages are happy, the castle is safe.” Characteristically pragmatic and relatively paternalistic, then.

One nation Conservatives such as R. Butler, I. Macleod, H. Macmillan and Q. Hogg, who harked back to the Disraeli pragmatist tradition, were prepared to accept the expansion of state activity ushered in via by the 1945-51 Labour government programmes, involving selective nationalisation, expansion of the welfare state, Keynesian economic policies and tripartite decision-making. 

Though the Tories continued to place emphasis on the most profitable sectors of the economy, which would remain in private control and they still supported the perpetuation of economic inequality because of their belief that private property was a prerequisite for liberty and that capitalist economic inequality could best promote wider economic growth and rising living standards. However, in fairness, one nation Conservatives also recognised that full employment and the expansion of the welfare state were necessary to improve health, housing, education and to reduce poverty if the UK was to be cohesive.

Thatcher’s New Right neoliberalism was quite a radical break from Tory tradition and it embodied a regressive, mechanistic, individualistic theory of society. She said: “There’s no such thing as society; only individuals and families.”

Traditional Conservatives had a deep mistrust of human rationality and reason and a deep dislike of the abstract, certainly since Edmund Burke. In contrast, the New Right’s neoliberalism heralded a new image of “human nature,” which was very much based on the imported philosophy of Ayn Rand: we are rational and entirely self-seeking, in the context of negative economic freedom (free from state intervention, in theory, a least), within the free market. Rand rejected altruism and opposed collectivism.

Rand was a major inspiration for the American Tea Party movement, which has swept a new generation of Republicans and self-described Conservatives into power in the USA. The Randian neoliberalist economic context has also framed a political, social and moral authoritarianism, disciplinarianism and illiberality that has replaced traditional paternalism, and in this respect, the New Right pioneered a strongly anti-democratic, over-controlling state.

The ideological roots of the New Right also lie partly in the liberal free market economy that dominated the Victorian era, (and liberalism has always been about individualism), along with a strong belief in social hierarchy based on a natural order. However, laissez faire was a form of industrial capitalism. Neoliberalism is a newer form of financial capitalism. As an ideology it is totalising, because it’s also about literalising the market metaphor; thinking all interacations as governed by a rationale like that of markets.

New Right Conservatism weds meritocratic principles to the strong class divide tradition, though it’s an insincere partnership. References to meritocracy are usually used to bolster the claim by the wealthy and powerful that their wealth is deserved. Of course, by inference, poverty is also deserved. Yet we had certainly learned by the 1940s that it is social policies that create inequality and poverty.

Cameron claims Disraeli’s one nation Conservatism as a mantle. However, he has much more in common with Thatcher. Disraeli’s notion of a “benevolent hierarchy” bears little resemblance to the New Right’s persistent attacks on the dependency or entitlement culture deemed to have been created by the welfare state.

And one nation Conservatives would not privatise our public services, NHS and dismantle welfare. Nor would they endorse such unrestained neoliberalism.

The New Right is rather more about noblesse disoblige.

One nation Tories would recognise that the welfare state is a necessity that arose to protect citizens against the worst ravages of unfettered capitalism. It’s really the very least they can do to preserve social order. Inequality didn’t change as a consequence of welfare, but at least poverty was relativised, until recently.

Cameron’s policies of anti-welfarism have resulted in the return of absolute poverty. There’s a certain irony in the Tory preoccupation with preserving social order: their rigid ideologically-driven policies create the very things they fear – dissent, insecurity, disorder, and the recognition of a need for social change and reform. It’s always the case that Tory governments prompt a growth of radicalism and revolutionary ideas. That happens when people are stifled and oppressed.

Social Security policy resulted in the development of what was considered to be a state responsibility towards its citizens. Welfare is a social protection that is necessary. There was also an embedded doctrine of fostering equity in these policies, although that doctrine arose from within the Labour Party, of course.

As I have said elsewhere, New Right rhetoric is designed to have us believe there would be no poor if the welfare state didn’t “create” them. If the Conservatives must insist on peddling the myth of meritocracy, then surely they must also concede that whilst such a system has some beneficiaries, it also creates situations of insolvency and poverty for others.

This wide recognition that the raw “market forces” of laissez-faire and stark neoliberalism causes casualties is why the welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest, there are invariably “winners and losers”. That is the nature of competitive individualism, and along with inequality, it’s an implicit, undeniable and fundamental part of the meritocracy script. And that’s before we consider the fact that whenever there is a Conservative-led government, there is no such thing as a “free market”: in reality, all markets are rigged for elites.

New Right Conservatism has blended classical liberalism, with its roots in competitive individualism and with ideas of a status-based social order. In contrast, democratic socialism has its foundation in solidarity. The former framework atomises society, breaking our sense of common bonds, pitching us against each other to compete for resources, fracturing our narrative of collective, common experience: it is about social exclusion. The latter framework unites us in cooperation, mutuality, mutual aid and reciprocity of perspective: it is about social inclusion.

I’ve said elsewhere that the Conservatives are creatures of habit rather than reason. Traditionalists, always. That is the why their policies are so stifling and anti-progressive for the majority of us. It’s why Tory policies don’t meet public needs. We always witness the social proliferation of fascist ideals with a Tory government, too. It stems from the finger-pointing divide and rule mantra: it’s them not us, them not us. But history refutes as much as it verifies, and we learned that it’s been the Tories all along. With a Conservative government, we are always fighting something. Poverty, social injustice: we fight for political recognition of our fundamental rights, which the Tories always circumvent. We fight despair and material hardship, caused by the rising cost of living, low wages, high unemployment and recession that is characteristic of every Tory government.

I think people often mistranslate what that something is. Because Tory rhetoric is all about othering: dividing, atomising of society into bite-sized manageable pieces by amplifying a narrative of sneaking suspicion and hate thy neighbour via the media.

The Tories foster incoherence and division. The world stopped making sense in 2010. The Tory-led government don’t even pretend to be rational policy-makers. Our foundations and our grounding are being knocked away. Everything becomes relative and fleeting. Transient and precarious.

Except for the rich and powerful: they still have their absolutes. We ordinary people are left just coping with crumbling logic, crumbling lives and a crumbling sense of what is real.

It strikes me that whilst we appear to have enclaves of consensus – and the media help perpetuate that impression – when you step back from that, you begin to see how divisive that apparent group consensus actually is, paradoxically. It’s really a form of bystander apathy.

We have in groups/out groups. We divide and make people into “others.” Each group fighting for something in a manufactured context of “scare resources”, the rising cost of living, sometimes against each other, but with no combined effort and genuine cooperation amongst us, that leaves each individual group wishing in the wind.

Now is the time for people to work together and value cooperation, joint efforts and pooled resources. People’s identities only make sense in the context of society, anyway. The Tories are historically unempathically, unremorsefully and irresponsibly wrong. We are social and interdependent, inter-relating creatures. Social hierarchies damage our bonds.

The barbarians are not outside the gates: they are inside the castle governing us, inflicting irremediable economic deprivation, extending inequalities and divisions of wealth and income, organising our society into competing and antagonistic interests.

Two nations.

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Thanks to Robert Livingstone for the excellent memes. 

The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting

The power of positive thinking.

The government invests a lot of time and money in “nudging” people to accept the unacceptable.

George Osborne announced in the budget that the government will be funding a “package of measures” to improve “employment outcomes” which will entail putting Cognitive Behaviour therapists in more than 350 job centres to provide “support” to those with “common mental health conditions,” and making online access to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy available for people who are claiming employment support allowance (ESA) and job seekers allowance (JSA).

From the HM Treasury document – Budget 2015, page 64: 1.236:

“Budget 2015 also announces a package of measures to improve employment outcomes for people with mental health conditions. Starting from early 2016, the government will provide online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to 40,000 Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants and individuals being supported by Fit for Work. From summer 2015, the government will also begin to co-locate Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) therapists in over 350 Jobcentres, to provide integrated employment and mental health support to claimants with common mental health conditions.”

The government put up an online contract notice which specifically states:

“This provision is designed to support people with common mental health conditions to prepare for and move into work, with intervention at the earliest possible point in a claim to benefit or access to the Fit for Work service.”

Under the government’s plans, therapists from the NHS’s Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme would support jobcentre staff to assess and treat claimants, who may be referred to online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) courses.

We really must question the ethics of linking receipt of welfare with “state therapy,” which, upon closer scrutiny, is not therapy at all. Linked to such a narrow outcome – getting a job – this is nothing more than a blunt behaviour modification programme. The fact that the Conservatives plan to make receipt of benefits contingent on participation in “treatment” worryingly takes away the fundamental right of consent.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is used to change how you think (“Cognitive”) and what you do (“Behaviour”). It bypasses emotions, personal history and narrative, to a large extent, and tends to focus on the “here and now.”

CBT is an approach that facilitates the identification of “negative thinking patterns” and associated “problematic behaviours” and challenges them. This approach is at first glance a problem-solving approach, however, it is of course premised on the assumption that interpreting situations “negatively” is a bad thing, and that thinking positively about bad events is beneficial.

The onus is on the individual to adapt by perceiving their circumstances in a stoical and purely rational way.

So we need to ask what are the circumstances that the government are expecting people claiming benefits to accept stoically. Sanctions? Work fare? Being forced to accept very poorly paid work, abysmal working conditions and no security? The loss of social support, public services and essential safety nets ? Starvation and destitution?

It’s all very well challenging people’s thoughts but for whom is CBT being used, and for what purpose? Seems to me that this is about helping those people on the wrong side of punitive government policy to accommodate that, and to mute negative responses to negative situations. CBT in this context is not based on a genuinely liberational approach, nor is it based on any sort of democratic dialogue. It’s all about modifying and controlling behaviour, particularly when it’s aimed at such a narrow, politically defined and specific outcome.

CBT is too often founded on blunt oversimplifications of what causes human distress – for example, in this case it is assumed that the causes of unemployment are psychological rather than sociopolitical, and that assumption authorises intrusive state interventions that encode a Conservative moral framework which places responsibility on the individual, who is characterised as “faulty” in some way.

There is also an underpinning assumption that working is good for mental health, and that being in employment indicates mental wellbeing. It’s well-established that poverty is strongly linked with a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with a mental disorder. But that does not mean working is therefore somehow “good” in some way, for mental wellbeing. Therapy does not address social conditions and context, and so it permits society to look the other way, whilst the government continue to present mental disorder as an individual weakness or vulnerability, and a consequence of “worklessness” rather than a fairly predictable result of living a stigmatised, marginalised existence of material deprivation.

Inequality and poverty are political constructions and arise because of ideology and policy-formulated socioeconomic circumstances, but the Conservatives have transformed established explanations into a project of constructing behavioural and emotional problems as “medical diagnoses” for politically-created (and wholly ideologically endorsed) socioeconomic problems.

Austerity, which targets the poorest disproportionately for cuts to income and essential services, was one ideologically-driven political decision taken amongst alternative, effective and more humane choices.

The government are not strangers to behaviour modification techniques and have been applying crude behaviourism to public policy, drawing on the “expertise”of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT)  – the “Nudge Unit” – that they established and installed in the Cabinet Office in 2010. (See Mind the Mindspace, which outlines some of the implications of a government extending operant conditioning via policies to an unconsenting public.)

It is disadvantaged people and excluded groups who are the primary targets of dogmatic, coercive and punitive psychopolicy interventions.

The casual manner in which advocates of behaviourism dismiss the right of people to behave in accordance with their own feelings, intuition and instincts exposes their authoritarian (not “libertarian paternalistic”) ambitions.

It’s frankly terrifying that our so-called democratic government is waging an ideological crusade directed at altering citizens’ thoughts and behaviour, and avoiding any accountability, sidestepping any engagement in potentially difficult political debate about their policies and the impacts that they have.

The objectives adopted by the Nudge Unit choice architects, politico-therapists and psychocrats are entirely about the state micromanagement of public perceptions and behaviours.

These objectives resemble ambitions usually associated with totalitarian regimes. This is a gross state intrusion into a previously private domain. Not only is this government trespassing on an intimate, existential level; it is tampering with our perceptions and experiences, damaging and isolating the poorest, burdening them with the blame for the consequences of their own policies whilst editing out state responsibilities towards citizens.

Both CBT and Nudge are aimed at pushing people in ways that bypass reasoning. The assumption is that because our decision-making ability is limited we need to use non-rational means to persuade people to do what is “good” for them. But who has the moral authority to decide that? This is not about helping people make better choices – it’s about coercing people to make the choices that policymakers want them to make. And again, those “choices” are based on enforcing conformity to the ideological commitments of policymakers.

This psychocratic turn is in diametric opposition to Enlightenment narratives – it fosters a profound anti-rationality and anti-autonomy approach, it’s not remotely democratic: it’s based on a ridiculous premise that people use their freedom and liberty poorly, but somehow, those passing that judgement on everyone else are exempted from such judgements themselves. It is also extends profoundly anti-humanistic consequences.

Apparently, some people think that everyone else is susceptible to flawed thinking and behaviours, but that theory magically excludes the theorist from such human failings, since they are claiming some objective, mind-independent vantage point – a position far away from the rest of us: this is your “human nature” but not ours.

Whether or not we agree on the efficacy of CBT as a therapeutic model in principle is a small consideration which is overshadowed by the fact that the government are using such “therapeutic” techniques as a highly partisan tool – to enforce traditional Tory biases and prejudices and to achieve their ideologically-driven policy agenda.

CBT will be deployed in job centres to simply favour the political objectives of Conservatism: propping up an anti-progressive austerity agenda, regressive ideology, endorsing an ever-shrinking state, whilst reflecting Tory misanthropy.

The social problems arising because of a lack of provision will remain unaddressed and unchallenged because of the Conservative paradigm shift in causal explanations of political and social problems: it’s not down to policy, it’s all the fault of individuals (who are of course those individuals affected adversely by policy.)

CBT is a short-term treatment, which is cheap and simple to deliver. I suspect this is one other reason for it becoming more popular with the Coalition than is warranted.

CBT has limitations for treating certain groups, including people with severe and treatment-resistant depression and those with personality disorders.

Studies concerning the efficacy of CBT have consistently found high drop-out rates compared to other treatments, with the numbers abandoning therapy often being more than five times higher than other treatments groups. (P. Cuijpers,  A. van Straten, G.  Andersson & P. Van Oppen. (2008)).

Researchers analysed several clinical trials that measured the efficacy of CBT administered to young people who self-injure. The researchers concluded that none of them were found to be efficacious. (See: Task force on the promotion and dissemination of psychological procedures: A reported adopted by the Division 12 Board – D. Chambless, K. Babich, P. Crits-Christoph,  E. Frank, M. Gilson & R. Montgomery. (1993)).

CBT fails fundamentally on a theoretical level: it lacks basic clarity, depth and coherence. It doesn’t provide a definition of “clear and correct” thinking – curiously, CBT theorists develop a framework for determining distorted thinking without developing a framework for “cognitive clarity” or what would be deemed “healthy, normal thinking.” This leaves a large space for partisan definitions and political agendas.

And why is irrational thinking considered to be a source of mental and emotional distress when there is no evidence of rational thinking causing psychological wellbeing? Furthermore, social psychology has never demonstrated that the normal cognitive processes (whatever they are) of the average person are irrational.

CBT is deterministic: it denies agency and any degree of free-will. Human behaviour, in this view, is determined by the cognitive processes invoked by external stimuli. It focuses on the former, ignoring the latter. CBT theory basically contends that what you feel is somehow not very important to why you do what you do and think what you think.

But human beings are not automata: we are complex and multi-faceted. Our emotionality is a fundamental part of being human, too – our emotional bonds and attachments, and our interactions with significant others over time contribute hugely to shaping who we are: we are socially contextualised. We are intersubjective, reciprocal and intentional beings. A therapy that sidelines how we feel must surely, at best, be regarded as superficial in its efficacy, scope and reach.

Moreover, in emphasising thought processes to the exclusion of complex and legitimate emotions, therapists may contribute to the harmful repression and denial of feelings.

CBT encourages an unhealthy avoidance of psychological discomfort by diverting thoughts from the source of discomfort. CBT may rouse immature, neurotic and pathological defence mechanisms. It devalues resilience based on mature coping strategies such as openness, courage, mindfulness, acceptance and emotional self-sufficiency.

Not only is that psychologically unhealthy for a person, it’s bad for society as it desensitises and de-empathises people, stultifies learning from experience by disconnecting people’s thoughts from their circumstances and from others. It discourages personal development.

Perhaps the most damning criticism of CBT is that it encourages self-deception and self-blame within clients and patients, because it maintains the status quo. The basic premise of cognitive therapy is: except for how the patient thinks, everything is okay. You can see why this would appeal to the Conservatives.

Poor mental health is often linked with poverty (Melzer et al. 2004) poor community integration, and competitiveness amongst social groups (Arrindell et al., 2003). Key questions arise as to the efficacy, therefore, of working with individuals, when much research suggests community work would be much more effective (Orford, 2008).

The Beacon Project (Stuteley, 2002) was pioneered by health workers who supported those with depression and other health problems by working with their whole community – addressing their basic social needs and developing mutual social support systems. There were significant changes in physical and mental health for the whole community, showing the benefits of fostering a psychology of mutual support, altruism, cooperation and building social capital.

Human needs, public services and provisions, developmental processes, social relationships and contexts are important to any comprehensive model of mental health. Community work offers something that CBT can’t: unlimted scope and reach, sustainable, self-perpetuating, long-lasting provision with an inbuilt preventative agenda.

But the government has no interest in addressing mental health and wellbeing or building social support provisions. The government insists that people’s problems are self-generated and endogenous. But the socioeconomic context, policy decisions and consequences are the fundamental cause of unemployment, poverty and much mental distress.

When people are affected by social problems with structural causes, such as inequality, this in turn leads to a lack of opportunity, economic disadvantage and deprivation, unemployment, ill-health, absolute poverty (increasingly), poor housing, political scapegoating and punishment via policy, it’s ludicrously and grossly unfair to further stigmatise them and claim that their problems arise because of how they think and behave.

For the Tories, the only aim of CBT is a strongly emphasised participation in the labour-market, with minimal expectations of the state and minimal reliance on public services.

“Social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.” David Cameron.

No. Social problems are most often the consequence of a government that uses policy to create social inequality, poverty, social exclusion and extremely challenging economic circumstances for those people who have the least to start with. The government uses denial and a process of individualising blame for the problems caused by this government’s ideological austerity programme, which is used to legitimise further cruel constraint by those socio-economic factors caused by the government.

The Tories would have us believe that poor people suddenly become inadequate whenever we have a Tory government. They don’t, but they do become poorer. They are then held responsible and punished for the consequences of Conservatism.

If anyone needs to change the way they think, it’s certainly the Conservatives.

Update June 26, 2015: Mental health workers protest at move to integrate clinic with jobcentre

“This month Prof Jamie Hacker Hughes, president of the British Psychological Society (BPS), pointed out recent research which presented evidence that claimants had been forced to accept psychological treatment. Researchers from Hubbub and Birkbeck, University of London, found unemployment was being rebranded as a psychological disorder in many advanced economies, with interventions being introduced to promote a positive outlook or leave claimants of welfare to face sanctions.

Dave Harper, a reader in clinical psychology at the University of East London, told the Guardian he believed there was an ideological agenda driving the government’s proposals.

“We are in a recession,” Harper said. “There are not many jobs out there and this is implying that unemployed people are to blame for their situation. It’s shifting the focus away from economic policy and on to the individual.”

As a BPS member, I was happy to see a clear, ethical statement from the President.

Related

The just world fallacy

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

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

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The just world fallacy

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The Tories now deem anything that criticises them as “abusive”. Ordinary campaigners are labelled “extremists” and pointing out flaws, errors and consequences of Tory policy is called “scaremongering”.

Language and psychology are a powerful tool, because this kind of use “pre-programs” and sets the terms of any discussion or debate. It also informs you what you may think, or at least what you need to circumnavigate first in order to state your own account or present your case. This isn’t simply name-calling or propaganda: it’s a deplorable and tyrannical silencing technique.

The government have gathered together a Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – it is a part of the Cabinet Office – which is comprised of both behavioural psychologists and economists, who apply positivist (pseudo) psychological techniques to social policy. The approach is not much different to the techniques of persuasion used in the shady end of the advertising industry.  They produce positive psychology courses which the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) are using to ensure participants find satisfaction with their lot; the DWP are also using psychological referral with claims being reconsidered on a mandatory basis by civil servant “decision makers”, as punishment for non-compliance with the new regimes of welfare conditionality for which people claiming out of work benefits are subject.

Positive psychology courses, and the use of psychological referral as punishment for non-compliance with the new regimes of welfare conditionality applied to people claiming out of work benefits are example of the (mis)application of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

CBT is all about making a person responsible for their own thoughts and how they perceive events and experiences and can sometimes be used to empower people. But used in this context, it’s a political means to push an ideological agenda, entailing the “responsibilisation” of poverty, with claimants being blamed for not having a job or for being ill and/or disabled.

However, responding with anger, sadness and despair is normal to many events and circumstances, and to deny that in any way is actually grotesque, cruel and horrendously abusive – it’s a technique called gaslighting – a method of psychological abuse that is usually associated with psychopathic perpetrators.

Gaslighting techniques may range from a simple denial by abusers that abusive incidents have occurred, to events and accounts staged by the abusers with the intention of disorienting the targets (or “victims”.)

The government is preempting any reflection on widening social inequality and injustice by using these types of behavioural modification techniques on the poor, holding them entirely responsible for the government’s economic failures and the consequences of  class contingent policies.

Sanctions are applied to “remedy” various “defects” of individual behaviour, character and attitude. Poor people are being coerced into workfare and complicity using bogus psychology and bluntly applied behavioural modification techniques.

Poor people are punished for being poor, whilst wealthy people are rewarded for being wealthy. Not only on a material level, but on a level of socially and politically attributed esteem, worth and value.

We know from research undertaken by sociologists, psychologists and economists over the past century that being poor is bad for mental wellbeing and health. The government is choosing to ignore this and adding to that problem substantially by stripping people of their basic dignity and autonomy.

The application of behavioural science is even more damaging than the hateful propaganda and media portrayals, although both despicable methods of control work together to inflict psychological damage on more than one level. “Positive psychology” and propaganda serve to invalidate individual experiences, distress and pain and to appropriate blame for circumstances that lie entirely outside of an individual’s control and responsibility.

Social psychologists such as Melvin Lerner followed on from Milgam’s work in exploring social conformity and obedience, seeking to answer the questions of how regimes that cause cruelty and suffering maintain popular support, and how people come to accept social norms and laws that produce misery and suffering.

The just-world” fallacy is the cognitive bias (assumption) that a person’s actions always bring morally fair and fitting consequences to that person, so that all honourable actions are eventually rewarded and all evil actions are eventually punished.

The fallacy is that this implies (often unintentionally) the existence of cosmic justice, stability, or order, and also serves to rationalise people’s misfortune on the grounds that they deserve it. It is an unfounded, persistent and comforting belief that the world is somehow fundamentally fair, without the need for our own moral agency and responsibility.

The fallacy appears in the English language in various figures of speech that imply guaranteed negative reprisal, such as: “You got what was coming to you,” “What goes around comes around,” and “You reap what you sow.” This tacit assumption is rarely scrutinised, and goes some way to explain why innocent victims are blamed for their misfortune.

The Government divides people into deserving and undeserving categories – the “strivers” and “scroungers” rhetoric is an example of how the government are drawing on such fallacious tacit assumptions – that utilises an inbuilt bias of some observers to blame victims for their suffering – to justify social oppression and inequality that they have engineered via policy.

The poorest are expected to be endlessly resilient and resourceful, people claiming social security are having their lifeline benefits stripped away and are being forced into a struggle to meet their basic survival needs. This punitive approach can never work to “incentivise” or motivate in such circumstances, because we know that when people struggle to meet basic survival needs they are too pre-occupied to be motivated to meet other less pressing needs.

Maslow identifies this in his account of the human hierarchy of needs, and many motivational studies bear this out. This makes the phrase trotted out by the Tories: “helping people into work” to justify sanctions and workfare not only utterly terrifying, but also inane.

Unemployment is NOT caused by “psychological barriers” or “character flaws”. It is caused by feckless and reckless governments failing to invest in growth projects. It’s not about personal “employability”, it’s about neoliberal economics, labour market conditions, political policies and subsequent socio-structural problems.

Public policy is not a playground for the amateur and potentially dangerous application of brainwashing techniques via the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) or “nudge unit”. This is NOT being nasty in a nice way: it is being nasty in a nasty way; it’s utterly callous.

The rise of psychological coercion, “positive affect as coercive strategy”, and the recruitment of economic psychologists for designing the purpose of  monitoring, modifying and punishing people who claim social security benefits raises important ethical questions about psychological authority. Psychology is being used as a prop for neoliberal ideology.

We ought to be very concerned about the professional silence so far regarding this adoption of a such a psychocratic, neo-behavourist approach to social control and an imposed conformity by this government.

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone 

Related reading:

AFTER FORCED-PSYCHOMETRIC-TEST DEBACLE, NOW JOBCENTRES OFFER ONLINE CBT – Skywalker

The Right Wing Moral Hobby Horse:Thrift and Self Help, But Only For The Poor

From Psycho-Linguistics to the Politics of Psychopathy. Part 1: Propaganda.

The Poverty of Responsibility and the Politics of Blame

Whistle While You Work (For Nothing): Positive Affect as Coercive Strategy – The Case of Workfare by Lynne Friedli and Robert Stearn (A must read)

 


I don’t make any money from my work. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you. 

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Defining features of Fascism and Authoritarianism

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I am a critical Marxist Phenomenologist when it comes to defining our “social reality”. In political terms, that roughly translates as a form of anarcho-socialism. Experience is evidence, which never happens in a neat and tidy “value neutral” way.  Existence is fact, which precedes essence. [Although I am not entirely epistemologically predisposed towards the notion of tabula rasa.]

Max Weber’s principle of Verstehen is a fundamentally critical approach in all social sciences, including politics, and we can see the consequences of its absence in the cold, pseudo-positivist approach of the Coalition in the UK. Their policies clearly demonstrate that they lack the capacity to understand, or meaningfully “walk a mile in the shoes of another”. The Coalition treat the population of the UK as objects of their policies and not as equal human subjects. They do not serve us or meet our needs, they think that we, the public, are here to serve political needs and economic outcomes.

My own starting point is that regardless of any claim towards the merits of value-freedom in any discussion about society, we cannot abdicate moral responsibility, and cannot justify moral indifference. We see values and principles enshrined in a positive approach, exemplified in our laws, human rights and democratic process. We are also seeing an erosion of this tendency towards a globalisation of values, and inclusion of a recognition and account of the full range of human experiences in policy making. Indeed recently, public policy has become an instrument of stigmatisation, social exclusion and increasing minoritization. 

As a society, we have allowed the state to redefine our collective, universal, relatively egalitarian and civilising support structures, such as social housing, legal aid, welfare and broader public services as being somehow problematic. Those who need support are stigmatised, scapegoated, outgrouped and othered. Yet the social gains of our post-war settlement were made to include everyone, should they fall on difficult times. We each pay into the provision, after all. These are civilising and civilised social mechanisms that ensure each citizen’s life has equal dignity and worth; that no-one dies prematurely because of absolute poverty or because they have no access to justice, medical care and housing. 

Our post-war settlement was the closest that we ever came to a genuine democracy, here in the UK. It arose because of the political consensus, partly founded on a necessity of the state to meet the social needs of the newly franchised working class. 

However, we are now being reduced in terms of human worth: dehumanised to become little more than economically productive actors, here in the UK. We have a Government that tends to describe protected vulnerable social groups in terms of costs to the State, regardless of their contributions to society, and responsibility is attributed to these social groups via scapegoating media and state rhetoric, whilst those decision-makers actually responsible for the state of the economy have been exempted, legally and morally, and are hidden behind complex and highly diversionary scapegoating propaganda campaigns.

Techniques of neutralisation are a series of methods by which those who commit illegitimate acts temporarily neutralise certain values within themselves which would normally prohibit them from carrying out such acts, such as morality, obligation to abide by the law, and so on. In simpler terms, these are psychological methods for people to turn off “inner protests” when they do, or are about to do something they themselves perceive as wrong. Some people don’t have such inner protests – psychopaths, for example, but they employ techniques of neutralisation to manipulate and switch off those conscience protests of others.

Language use can reflect attempts at minimising the impact of such wrongful acts. The Mafia don’t ever commit “murder”, for example, instead they “take someone out”, “whack them” or “give someone their medicine”. But the victim ends up dead, no matter what people choose to call it. Examining discourses and underpinning ideologies is useful as a predictive tool, as it provides very important clues to often hidden political attitudes and intentions – clues to social conditions and unfolding events. Linguistic habits are frequently important symptoms of underlying feelings and attitudes.

We know that benefits, for example, are calculated to meet basic living requirements only such as food, fuel and shelter needs. To take away that basic support is devastating for those people having to struggle for basic survival. The Labour Party recently managed to secure concessions that ensured that the right of appeal for those sanctioned is maintained. Iain Duncan Smith wanted to remove that right. But appeals take months to happen, and meanwhile people are left suffering as a result of having no money to live on.

Sanctions are not “help” for jobseekers; sanctions are state punishment and persecution. It doesn’t matter how hard you look for work when you are one of 2,500,000 unemployed people and there are only 400,000 jobs available. If we want to help people into work we need to create decent paying and secure jobs, rather than  punishing individuals for being out of work during the worst recession for over 100 years.

In a similar way, the Tories attempt to to distort meanings, to minimise the impact of what they are doing. For example, when they habitually use  the word “reform”, what they are referring to is an act that entails “removal of income” and “cuts”, and “incentivise”, “help” and “support”: Tory-speak that means to “punish and take from”. Targets for such punishment and cuts are translated as Tory “statistical norms” or “not targets but aspirations” and “robust expectations of performance”.

The “help” and “incentivisation” that the Tory-led Coalition have provided for jobseekers in the recession, at a time when quality jobs are scarce, secure and stable full-time work is also scarce, are entirely class contingent and punitive. Decent jobs that pay enough to get by on are like …well…Tory statistics; conjured from the aether, a very cheap trick – an illusion. We know that unemployment and underemployment are rising.

Sartre once said that oppressors oppress themselves as well as those they oppress. Freedom and autonomy are also reciprocal, and it’s only when we truly recognise our own liberty that we may necessarily acknowledge that of others. Conservatism has always been associated with a capacity to inhibit and control, and never liberate. We need to take responsibility for the Government that we have. In fact we must.

Fascism evolves over a period of time. No-one ever woke up one morning to find it had suddenly happened overnight. It’s an ongoing process just like Nazism was. Identifying traits is therefore useful. Fascism and totalitarianism advance by almost inscrutable degrees. If you really think it could never happen here, you haven’t been paying attention this past six years to the undemocratic law repeals and quiet edits – especially laws that protect citizens from state abuse – the muzzling of the trade unions, the corporocratic dominance and rampant cronysism, the human rights abuses, the media control and othering narratives, the current of anti-intellectualism and other blows to our democracy.

Dr. Lawrence Britt examined the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia) and several Latin American regimes. Britt found 14 defining characteristics common to each, and it is difficult to overlook some of the parallels with the characteristics of the authoritarian government here in the UK:

1. Powerful and continuing Nationalism – fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.

2. Disdain for any recognition of Human Rights – because of fear of “enemies” and the need for “security”, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The public tend to become apathetic, or look the other way, some even approve of persecution, torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners and so forth.

3. Identification of enemies and scapegoats used as a unifying cause – the public are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: social groups; racial, ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists and so forth.

4. Supremacy of the Military – even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorised.

5. Rampant sexism – The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Divorce, abortion and homosexuality are suppressed and the state is represented as the ultimate guardian of the family institution. Policies emphasise traditional and rigid roles.

6. Controlled mass media – the media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship is very common.

7. Obsession with “National Security” and protecting “borders”- fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.

8. Religion and Government are intertwined – governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion of the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions.

9. Corporate Power is protected – The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.

10. Labour power is suppressed – because the organising power of labour is the only real threat to a fascist government, labour unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed.

11. Disdain for intellectuals and the Arts – fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts and letters is openly attacked.

12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment – under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.

13. Rampant cronyism and corruption – fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.

14. Fraudulent elections – sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear  and propaganda campaigns, and even assassination of opposition candidates has been used, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.

All fascist governments are authoritarian, but not all authoritarian governments are fascists. Fascism tends to arise with manifested forms of ultra-nationalism. Authoritarianism is anti-democratic.

Authoritarian legitimacy is often based on emotional appeal, especially the identification of the regime as a “necessary evil” to combat easily recognisable societal problems, such as economic crises.

Authoritarian regimes commonly emerge in times of political, economic, or social instability, and because of this, especially during the initial period of authoritarian rule, such Governments may have broad public support. Many won’t immediately recognise authoritarianism, especially in formerly liberal and democratic countries.

In the UK, there has been an incremental process of un-democratising, permeated by a wide variety of deliberative practices which have added to the problem of recognising it for what it is.

Authoritarians typically prefer and encourage a population to be apathetic about politics, with no desire to participate in the political process. Authoritarian Governments often work via propaganda techniques to cultivate such public attitudes, by fostering a sense of a deep divide between social groups, society and Government, they tend to generate prejudice between social groups, and repress expressions of dissent, using media control, law amendments or by quietly editing existing laws.

There is a process of gradual habituation of the public to being governed by shock and surprise; to receiving decisions and policies deliberated and passed in secret; to being persuaded that the justification for such deeds was based on real evidence that the government parades in the form of propaganda. It happens incrementally. Many don’t notice the calculated step-by-step changes, but those that do are often overwhelmed with the sheer volume of them.

Authoritarians view the rights of the individual, (including those considered to be human rights by the international community), as subject to the needs of the Government. Of course in democracies, Governments are elected to represent and serve the needs of the population.

Democracy is not only about elections. It is also about distributive and social justice. The quality of the democratic process, including transparent and accountable Government and equality before the law, is critical. Façade democracy occurs when liberalisation measures are kept under tight rein by elites who fail to generate political inclusion. See Corporate power has turned Britain into a corrupt state  and also Huge gap between rich and poor in Britain is the same as Nigeria and worse than Ethiopia, UN report reveals.

Some of the listed criteria are evident now. I predict that other criteria will gain clarity over the next couple of years.

“One doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don’t want to “go out of your way to make trouble.” Why not? – Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

“Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, “everyone is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there will be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this.

In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, “It’s not so bad” or “You’re seeing things” or “You’re an alarmist.” “And you are an alarmist”. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. You are left with your close friends, who are, naturally, people who have always thought as you have.” –  Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free.

Citizens feel increasingly powerless to shape the political institutions that are meant to reflect their interests. Politicians must relearn how to speak to disenfranchised citizens in an inclusive, meaningful way, to show that dysfunctional democracies can be mended. Directing collective fear, frustration and cultivating hatred during times of economic turbulence at politically constructed scapegoats – including society’s protected groups which are historically most vulnerable to political abuse – has never been a constructive and positive way forward. As Gordon Allport highlighted, political othering leads to increasing prejudice, exclusion, social division, discrimination, hatred and if this process is left to unfold, it escalates to hate crime, violence and ultimately, to genocide.

Othering and outgrouping are politically weaponised and strategic inhumanities designed to misdirect and convince populations suffering the consequences of intentionally targeted austerity, deteriorating standards of living and economic instability – all of  which arose because of the actions of a ruling financial class – that the “real enemy is “out there”, that there is an “us” that must be protected from “them.”

In the UK, democracy more generally is very clearly being deliberately and steadily eroded. And worse, much of the public has disengaged from participatory democratic processes.

It’s time to be very worried.

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 Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

Further reading

“We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” Freedom and liberation are an unending task.” Umberto Eco, in Ur-Fascism


I don’t make any money from my work. But you can support Politics and Insights and contribute by making a donation which will help me continue to research and write informative, insightful and independent articles, and to provide support to others. The smallest amount is much appreciated, and helps to keep my articles free and accessible to all – thank you.

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