Category: Free will

The importance of citizens’ qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation

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Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter.

However, in the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs.

The merits of quantitative analysis

The government have denied there is a causal link between their welfare policies, austerity measures and an increase in mental distress, premature death and suicide. However, ministers cannot deny there is a clear and well-established correlation, which warrants further research. But the government are hiding behind a distinction often made by researchers, to avoid accountability and to deny any association at all between policy and policy impacts. That’s just plain wrong.

Correlation isn’t quite the same as causality. When researchers talk about correlation, what they are saying is that they have found a relationship between two (or more) variables. “Correlation does not mean causation” is a quip that researchers and quite often, the government, chucks at us to explain that events or statistics that happen to coincide with each other are not necessarily causally related.

However, the possibility of causation isn’t refuted by political denial or somehow invalidated by the establishment of a correlation. Quite the contrary. Indeed an established association implies there may also be a causal link. To prove causation, further research into the association between variables must be pursued. So, care should be taken not to make an assumption that correlation never implies causation, because it quite often does indicate a causal link.

Correlations between two things may be caused by a third factor that affects both of them. This sneaky, hidden third factor is called a confounding variable, or sometimes, simply a confounder.

However, a lot of social research tends to indicate and discuss a correlation between variables, not a direct cause and effect relationship. Researchers are inclined to talk cautiously about associations.

It’s worth bearing in mind that establishing correlation is crucial for research and shows that something needs to be examined and investigated further. That’s precisely how we found out that smoking causes cancer, for example – through repeated findings showing an association (those good solid, old fashioned science standards of replicability and verification). It is only by systematically eliminating other potential associations – variables – that we can establish causalities.

The objective of most research or scientific analysis is to identify the extent to which one variable relates to another variable and the direction of the association. If there is a correlation then this guides further research into investigating whether one action causes the other. Statistics measure occurrences in time and can be used to calculate probabilities. Probability is important in research because measurements, observations and findings are often influenced by variation. In addition, probability theory provides the theoretical groundwork for statistical inference.

Statistics are fundamental to good government; to the delivery of public services and to decision-making at all levels of society. Statistics provide parliament and the public with a window on the work, performance and intentions of a government. Such data allows for the design of policies and programmes that aim to bring about a desired and stated outcome, and permits better targeting of resources.

Once a policy has been implemented it is necessary to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the policy to determine whether it has been successful in achieving the intended outcomes. It is also important to evaluate whether services (outputs) are effectively reaching those people for whom they are intended. Statistics play a crucial role in this process. So statistics, therefore, represent a significant role in good policy-making, monitoring and political accountability. The impact of policy can be measured with statistics.

So firstly, we need to ask why the government are not doing this.

If policy impacts cannot be measured then it is not good policy.

Ensuring accuracy and integrity in the reporting of statistics is a serious responsibility. In cases where there may not be an in-depth understanding of statistics in general, or of a particular topic, the use of glossaries, explanatory notes and classifications ought to be used to assist in their interpretation.

Statistics can be presented and used in ways that may lead readers and politicians to draw misleading conclusions. It is possible to take numbers out of context, as Iain Duncan Smith, amongst others, is prone to do. However, official statistics are supposed to be produced impartially and free from political influence, according to a strict code of practice. This is a government that systematically breaches the code of conduct. See: List of official rebukes for Tory lies and statistical misrepresentations, for example.

We need to ask why the government refuses to conduct any research into their austerity policies, the impacts they are having and the associated mental distress, physical harm, deaths and suicides.

Without such research, it isn’t appropriate or legitimate to deny a causal link between what are, after all, extremely punitive, targeted, class-contingent policies and an increase in adverse consequences, such as premature mortality rates.

It isn’t unreasonable to be concerned about policies that are targeted to reduce the income of those social groups already struggling because of limited resources, nor is it much of an inferential leap to recognise that such policies will have some adverse consequences.

In social research, traditionally, quantitative methods emphasise maintaining objectivity, and aim to keep social inquiries “value-free.” However, the area of study is intentionally selected by researchers, funded by interested parties and there are problems related to the connection between observation and interpretation. Perhaps every observation is an interpretation, since “facts” are seen through a lens of perceptions, pre-conceptions and ideology.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation choose to study poverty. Cynical Iain Duncan Smith simply changes the definition of it to reduce its visibility.

The importance of qualitative research: who are the witnesses?

Social phenomena cannot always be studied in the same way as natural phenomena, because human beings are subjective, intentional and have a degree of free will. One problem with quantitative research is that it tends to impose theoretical frameworks on those being studied, and it limits responses from those participating in the study.

Social reality is not “out there” waiting to be discovered: we are constructing and reconstructing it meaningfully. However, politically, there’s been a marked shift away from understanding the lived experiences of real people in context.

There are also distinctions to be made between facts, values and meanings. Qualitative researchers are concerned with generating explanations and extending understanding rather than simply describing and measuring social phenomena and establishing basic cause and effect relationships. Qualitative research tends to be exploratory, potentially illuminating underlying intentions, responses, beliefs, reasons, opinions, and motivations to human behaviours.

This type of analysis often provides insights into social problems, helps to develop ideas and establish explanations, and may also be used to formulate hypotheses for further quantitative research.

The dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches, theoretical structuralism (macro-level perspectives) and interpretivism (micro-level perspectives) in sociology, for example, is not nearly so clear as it once was, however, with many social researchers recognising the value of both means of data and evidence collection and employing methodological triangulation, reflecting a commitment to methodological and epistemological pluralism.

Qualitative methods tend to be much more inclusive than quantitative analysis, lending participants a dialogic, democratic and first hand voice regarding their own experiences.

The current government have tended to dismiss qualitative evidence from first hand witnesses of the negative impacts of their policies – presented cases studies, individual accounts and ethnographies – as “anecdotal.” However, that is a very authoritarian approach to social administration and it needs to be challenged. 

The most rigid form of quantitative research, associated with positivism, is a traditionally Conservative way of rigidly demarcating the world, imposing hierarchies of priority, worth and order, to assure ontological security and maintain the status quo, regardless of how absurd this shrinking island of certainty appears to the many of us that are being systematically exiled from it.

Neither positivism nor Conservatism extend an acknowledgement, recognition or account of human diversity – which is among our greatest assets, after all. It’s a curious ideological tension for neoliberal Conservatives: they value competitive individualism on the one hand, but have such rigid ideas about pluralism and social group deviations from imposed, value-laden norms, on the other. 

Competitive individualism arises from competitive systems, rather than co-operative, collective ones. The function of the system is to maintain inequality in the society and fields of human engagement, based on the largely unchallenged notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. These are tacit notions at the heart of meritocracy. Neoliberals believe that competition acts as an incentive to people’s behaviours, encouraging a “race to the top”. Those at the top then ‘trickle down’ wealth to benefit the poorest citizens, according to this behaviourist theory. But of course that hasn’t happened.

In any system of competition, there are inevitably relatively few ‘winners’ and rather more ‘losers’. Such is the logic of competition. And most people don’t share their trophies with others.

The competition is rigged in any case, since the Conservatives are not too keen on widening access to equality of opportunity. Such is the acrobatic, logic of elitism. 

The Conservatives don’t like social individualism, difference or diversity within society.  For them, the only individualism worth anything is that defined and categorised by how much money you have.  A ‘good citizen’ is wealthy. The logic follows that they must be ‘good’ to be so wealthy, after all.  Such is the politically convenient circular argument of meritocracy. 

In the current context, the Conservatives’ approach to ‘research’ is tantamount to a politically extended epistemological totalitarianism. (Epistemology is an important and underpinning branch of philosophy that extends various theories of the nature and grounds of knowledge in the social sciences, particularly with reference to its limits, reliability and validity.)

It’s merely politically convenient to use a discredited positivist approach to policy-making, because such pseudoscientific narratives can be used to legitimise and impose virtually any policy.  Pseudoscience was once used to justify eugenic policies, after all. This is an approach that purposefully excludes citizens’ accounts. It’s authoritarian.

However, a qualitative approach to research potentially provides insight, depth and richly detailed accounts. The evidence collected is much more coherent and comprehensive, because it explores beneath surface appearances, and reaches above causal relationships, delving much deeper than the simplistic analysis of ranks, categories and counts.

It provides a reliable and rather more authentic record of experiences, attitudes, feelings and behaviours, it prompts an openness and is expansive, whereas quantitative methods tend to limit and are somewhat reductive. Qualitative research methods encourage people to expand on their responses and may then open up new issues and topic areas not initially considered by researchers. 

As such, qualitative methods are prefigurative and bypass problems regarding potential power imbalances between the researcher and the subjects of research, by permitting participation and creating space for genuine dialogue and reasoned discussions to take place. Research regarding political issues and policy impacts must surely engage citizens on a democratic, equal basis and permit participation in decision-making, to ensure an appropriate balance of power between citizens and the state.

That assumes, of course, that governments want citizens to engage and participate. There is nothing to prevent a government deliberately exploiting a research framework as a way to test out highly unethical and ideologically-driven policies, and to avoid democratic accountability, transparency and public safeguards. How appropriate is it to apply a biomedical model of prescribed policy “treatments” to people experiencing politically and structurally generated social problems, such as unemployment, inequality and poverty, for example? This is happening and needs to be challenged.

Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel, amongst other ministers, claim that we cannot make a link between government policies and the increasing number of deaths of sick and disabled people. There are no grounds whatsoever for their claim. There has been no cumulative impact assessment or monitoring of welfare policies, no inquiry, no further research regarding an established correlation and a longstanding refusal from the Tories to undertake any of these. There is therefore no evidence for their claim.

Such political denial is oppressive – it serves to sustain and amplify a narrow, hegemonic political narrative, stifling pluralism and excluding marginalised social groups, excluding alternative accounts of citizen’s experiences, negating counternarratives; it sidesteps democratic accountability, stultifies essential public debate, obscures evidence and hides politically inconvenient, exigent truths. Denial of causality does not reduce the probability of it, especially in cases where a correlation has been well-established and evidenced.

So, how do we address these issues?

Democracy is not something we have: it’s something we have to DO 

Government ministers like to hear facts, figures and statistics all the time. What we need to bring to the equation is a real, live human perspective. We need to let ministers know how the policies they are implementing and considering directly impact ourselves, their constituents and social groups more widely. One of the most powerful things we can do to make sure the government listens to our concerns is to engage and support the organisation of family, friends, neighbours and wider communities. While many people regard state or national-level politics as an intractable mess that’s impossible to influence, collective voices really do make a difference. The best weapon of influence we have is meticulous documentation of our experiences.

Once upon a time, policy was a response from government aimed at meeting public needs. It was part of an intimate democratic dialogue between the state and citizens. Traditional methods of participating in government decision-making include:

  • political parties or individual politicians
  • lobbying decision-makers in government
  • community groups
  • voluntary organisations
  • public opinion
  • public consultations
  • the media
  • prefigurative politics

Nowadays, policies have been unanchored from any democratic dialogue regarding public needs and are more about monologues aimed at shaping those needs to suit the government and rigid policy outcomes. For many of us, policies are being formulated to act upon us as if we are objects, rather than autonomous human subjects. This political dehumanisation has contributed significantly to a wider process of social outgrouping and increasing stigmatisation.

But 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 crucial to social organisation, yet it seems the moment we become distracted, less attentive and permit inequality to fundamentally divide our society, the essential details and defining features of democracy seem to melt into air.

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 Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation and Power.

Whereabouts are you on the ladder? I think socioeconomic status has some bearing on how far up people place themselves and how much power they feel they have to influence decision-making. 

For Arnstein, participation reflects “the redistribution of power that enables the have-not citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be deliberately included in the future. It is the strategy by which the excluded join in determining how information is shared, goals and policies are set, tax resources are allocated, programmess are operated, and benefits like contracts and patronage are parceled out. In short, it is the means by which they can induce significant social reform which enables them to share in the benefits of the affluent society.”

A starting point may be the collective gathering of evidence and continual documentation of our individual narratives concerning experiences of austerity and the welfare “reforms”, which we must continue to present to relevant ministers, parliament, government departments, the mainstream media and any organisations that may be interested in promoting citizen inclusion, empowerment and democratic participation.

We can give our own meaningful account of our own experiences and include our own voice, reflecting our own first hand witnessing, experiencing and knowledge of policy impacts, describing how we make sense of and understand our situations, including the causal links between our own circumstances, hardships, sense of isolation and distress, and Conservative policies and subsequent socioeconomic frameworks, as active, intentional, conscientious citizens. Furthermore, we can collectively demand a democratic account and response (rather than accepting denial and a refusal to engage) from the government.

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Related

How can we find out whether people are really turning against democracy? – Democratic Audit UK

Psychologists Against Austerity campaign – call for evidence

The Psychological Impact of Austerity – Psychologists Against Austerity

A critique of Conservative notions of social research

The Conservative approach to social research – that way madness lies

Research finds strong correlation between Work Capability Assessment and suicide

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

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Don’t believe everything you think: cognitive dissonance

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“Some things have to be believed to be seen.” – Ralph Hodgson

I’ve often thought that once people identify with a political party, there is often an accompanying tendency to edit the world so that it conforms with their ideology. I suspect that exposure to more information about objective reality and politics quite often doesn’t affect partisan bias because people tend to only assimilate those “facts” that confirm what they already believe. Perhaps this is why many people become defensive, aggressive, incoherent and dogmatic when challenged with evidence that contradicts their fundamental world-view.

President Lyndon Johnson once said: It’s a heck of a lot easier to throw grenades than to catch them.

It’s always a good idea to look at who is lobbing the explosives, too. And to see if they are recycling their bombshells

It’s certainly the same with criticism, especially those which challenge our cherished beliefs. Critical thinking is a difficult and sometimes painful process. It requires facing often challenging and contradictory narratives about the fundamental nature of the world and ourselves, analysing and evaluating them. It also requires work: practice, time and effort. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Critical thinking is the foundation for intelligence, for making sound decisions, and for accommodating dissonant narratives within our own paradigm, and importantly, for understanding them.

“Knowledge” isn’t simply something arising from a closed fact-finding mission to confirm what we already hold as a theory of the world, but rather, it’s about understanding the diverse views of others who are part of our world, after all, and who contribute to its rich, meaningful pluralism.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that each account or theory of the world has equal merit and worth, but without a genuinely critical and open exploration of other views, we cannot know the worth of our own views, let alone anyone elses’. Knowledge isn’t something we have, either, it’s something we have to do. Learning is a process that is ongoing, and knowledge is always subject to challenges, revision and expansion.

Never has there been a greater need for critical thinking, yet it seems there has never been a time when that has been more difficult, because of the constant bombardment from the media of fragmented, discordant, conflicting, non-linear narratives, purposefully misdirecting and whopping lies, dead cat ploys, semantic thrifts, glittering generalities, government PR, Orwellian double-speak and other strategies being deployed to keep us in a state of fearful, confused, manipulable stupification and, to be terribly Marxist about this … in a state of false consciousness. Well, dazed and confused, at the very least.

This Adam Curtis video (below) was originally shown as part of Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe show. It’s about strategies adopted by political leaders, here and abroad, to keep the population confused, uncertain what to believe or what to do – and therefore powerless.

Cognitive dissonance warfare is one weapon of choice. It isn’t just the Tories that use this method. 

We are subjected to an overwhelming barrage of partial accounts, contradictory accounts, screaming headlines, vicious lies, smears and ferocious mudslinging – negative campaigning in the media. It’s like being trapped in a hall of mirrors with Beelzebub, a few of hells’ myrmidons and your best friends, all in fancy dress.

So how do we escape the hall of mirrors?

Well, I’ve already discussed critical thinking. A good approach is to look for integrity, consistency and coherence in narratives, as well as evidence to support and refute the claims being made. And it’s important to examine scope  –  what those narratives accommodate – how comprehensive they are, how much they connect up, how much they make sense. If they involve personal attacks, this is generally a strategy of diversion, and  indicate the group flinging smears has less to offer the public than the person or being viciously attacked. 

It’s also worth understanding a little more about cognitive dissonance.

Leon Festinger: Let’s see what happens when you are stood up by the aliens.

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Leon Festinger is the social psychologist that proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which basically states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational, and often, maladaptive behaviour.

According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, an uncomfortable discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it to achieve consonance (agreement).

How we do so seems to be very much our own business, with avoidance, biased perception and denial commonly used as a defence to eliminate our discomforts – but as I pointed out earlier, the only real and lasting solution is critical thinking.

Leon Festinger once infiltrated a flying saucer doomsday cult in the late 1950s. The members of this cult had given up their entire lives – left everything and everyone behind – because they believed that the world was about to end and that their faith would ensure that they would be the sole survivors of a global flood. Up until the fateful day, the cult shunned publicity and didn’t entertain journalists.

Festinger posed as a member of the group and was present when the foretold space ship failed to show up. He was particularly interested in what would happen next. How would the disappointed cult react to the failure of their prophecy?

In science, when a theory is challenged by evidence that contradicts it, adjustments or ad hoc hypotheses are sometimes formulated to preserve the theory, attempting to explain away anomalies. However, ad hoc hypotheses are often a key characteristic of pseudoscience, as they are used to ensure a theory is never falsified, no matter how much evidence accrues to falsify that theory. Ultimately, it’s a get out clause for failed theories.

In science, whilst we accommodate gaps in our knowledge, the use of many ad hoc hypotheses is frowned upon. (Einstein’s proposition of hidden variables is a good example of this method of accommodating anomaly: he used an ad hoc hypothesis to explain quantum mechanics and maintain the integrity of relativity theory: explaining quantum entanglement without action at a distance).

Ad hoc hypotheses are a widely used strategy in managing cognitive dissonance. So, after the failure of their prophecy and the non-materialisation of the rescue space ship, the cult suddenly wanted publicity. They wanted media attention. This was apparently so the world would know how their faith had helped save the entire planet from flood.

The hypothesis was that aliens had spared planet earth for their sake – and now their new role was to spread the word and make us all listen. This fascinated Festinger. He observed that the real motivation behind the apparently inexplicable response was the need to not face an uncomfortable truth and to re-assert emotional comfort and equilibrium – to smooth over the apparently unacceptable and whopping inconsistencies between prophecy and events.

Theory and reality.

Explanations of events such as the one offered by the doomsday cult are clearly not founded on a rational process: it’s largely an emotional defence mechanism that is rationalised post hoc. Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the uncomfortable tension we feel when we experience conflicting thoughts or beliefs (cognitions), or engage in behavior that is apparently opposed to our stated beliefs.

What is particularly interesting is the lengths to which people will go to reduce the inner tension without accepting that they might, in fact, be wrong. They will accept almost any form of relief, other than admitting being at fault, or mistaken. If a person believes, for example, that they are not racist, but then they discriminate against someone on the basis of race, they are then faced with the discomfort of acknowledging that they are racist after all. In an attempt to escape this discomfort, they may seek to rationalise (explain away) their behaviour on some other grounds, which may be spurious, but which allows them to hold on to their otherwise discredited belief.

Many UKIP supporters, for example, often say something like: “I’m not racist though, my brother-in-law/ friend/ uncle’s wife is actually Indian/Chinese/African” and so forth.

Another example is the “allthesame” myth. When you present people with evidence that refutes what was originally a Tory propaganda soundbite, rather than acknowledging verifiable evidence, some people choose to start a hate campaign aimed at trying to attribute all kinds of bizarre “motives” to the person simply telling a truth. Truth and populist perspectives are often poles apart.

And such tactics serve only to fragment opposition to the Right even further. Dividing people by using blame and prejudice further weakens our opposition to oppression. The oppressed can be very oppressive, it has to be said.

Festinger quickly realised that our intolerance for cognitive dissonance could explain many mysteries and irrationalities of human behavior.

Politicians have utilised this intolerance to their advantage – most particularly the Right, who deploy rhetoric heavily steeped in propaganda and behavioural manipulation techniques. (See Cameron’s behaviourist Nudge Unit,  I’ve previously discussed the implications of such manipulation on an unconsenting public and the ramifications for democracy.)

Marshall McLuhan once said: There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.

Objective truth does not change according to our inclination to want something else. Facing that may be difficult at times, but the alternative is simply the idle creation of pseudo-enclaves of fleeting comfort – illusions that distract and disempower us. And make us apathetic.

It’s worth noting that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes arise in societies where populations are politically disengaged and apathetic. If we want to change unpalatable truths – part of the way things are –  the only way to do so is to have the courage, first, to face those truths head-on.

We can’t lie those truths away. There are no short-cuts or real, tenable escapes from that. We have to work our way through the confusion, avoiding the appeal and brief comfort of avoidance strategies, defence mechanisms and flat denial – short-cuts down what is invariably a cul-de-sac – difficult though that often is.

Look at where we are: we have Tory small minds attempting to justify the Tory notion of a small state. But small states and competitive individualism foster adversarial relationships, and reduce us all. Small states and individualism disconnect us from others, sever any sense of social responsibility, mutuality, cooperation and obligation we have towards others.

It divides, isolates and fragments us. Neoliberal small states make us all smaller individuals, less coherent, less connected. Less comprehending. We lose touch with social reality when we disengage with others. We become less rational agents. More dissonant. How can we hold rational, reasoned and democratic debates to oppose what is little more than Tory superstition and prejudice?  

But we must.

Iain Duncan Smith’s “magical elitism” thinking – he’s just knows he’s right – is another indication that we don’t have a democratic government that is willing to engage in dialogue: we have an authoritarian one that is interested only in imposing its own incoherent neoliberal monologue on the masses.

The Queen’s Honours list shows us just what we have become as a society this past 4 years, and how little worth we place on intelligence, honour, basic coherence, decency and genuine achievement. The Maurice Mills MBE is a farce – he blamed Hurricane Katrina on gay people – it’s like open, raucous, insane, cackling laughter from a decrepit, senile, evil elite that has lived far too long. One that is completely detached from our society and its needs. That’s the reality.

Cognitive dissonance theory is an example of the political misuse of psychology which is being used as a means of thought micro-management to ensure that we don’t move and progress. Personal and social development – growth – by their very nature demand that we have the courage to seek to extend ourselves beyond what we know and where we are. It’s very uncomfortable to acknowledge that we are limited, especially when some of that is our own doing, but it’s also essential we do acknowledge it in order to at least try and transcend those limits, extend their context step by step and make progress.

There are no alien space ships to save us from ourselves or from our government. It’s down to us to seek and evaluate the truth, and there really are no shortcuts to positive change and progress. But we can take responsibilty to ensure that what we hold to be true and the decisions we make are fully and bravely informed.

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Work: for what it’s worth

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I’ve yet to see a decent challenge to the Tory proposition that citizenship and rights can be determined by, and ought to be conditional, on how hard-working a person is. Of course the definition of “hard-working” is narrowly restricted to categories of paid employment. People working for nothing on workfare programs aren’t considered to have any value at all. They are simply left to fall down into the vortex created by neoliberal logical gaps.

The Conservatives have always had a pathological need to create social systems comprised of ranks and categories, it’s a fundamental feature of their collective ontological insecurity and fits in very well with the key features and demands of neoliberalism.

It’s complete and utter nonsense. Dogma

People’s worth isn’t measured in terms of their contribution to the increasingly private wealth of businesses, or what they can do for an employer. Or their participation in an increasingly enclosed neoliberal economy. Human worth is universal, regardless of whether or not we work to make someone else rich.

Nor is entrepreneurship the pinnacle of human achievement.

Behave.

If work was so rewarding, there wouldn’t be any resentment directed at people who aren’t working. Workers would be content with their lot, rather than regarding others with envy, sneaking suspicion and vilifying those people trying to simply survive on the meagre benefits that most of them contributed towards via taxes. The establishment and the media would have no public complicity in their perpetual scapegoating, outgrouping and socially divisive programmes. We can always expect a particularly controversial, targeted and damaging policy from the Tories when we see the sudden appearance in the media of a new category of folk devils. It’s intentional, strategic, calculated and scapegoating is presented as a justification narrative for yet another battle against another marginalised group in the establishment’s broader class war.

The truth is that the majority of people don’t find work rewarding at all, and for many, having a paid job isn’t a way out of poverty. Labourers are deeply envious of the perceived freedom of those they feel don’t have to toil. The Conservatives know this and have virtually culturally criminalised being unemployed. This said, if you end up in prison, at least you can rely on being fed, whereas if you are claiming jobseekers allowance or sickness and disability benefits, there’s a substantial risk of being arbitrarily sanctioned, suddenly leaving you without the means of buying food and meeting other basic survival needs.

Effective collective bargaining can only happen if people have the right to refuse jobs that are exploitative. Workfare has taken that right away. Welfare conditionality has taken that right away. 

As welfare provision shrinks, an increasingly desperate reserve army of disposable labour becomes easier to exploit; work choices shrink, wages are driven down, job insecurity grows and working conditions worsen. It’s the cast-iron law of Conservatism. As I’ve pointed out before, the Poor Law of 1834 worked in the same way: the enshrined principle of less eligibility, which meant that conditions in workhouses had to be much worse than conditions available to those in the lowest paid work outside so that there was a deterrence to claiming support. In reality this meant that an individual had to be completely destitute in order to quality for poor relief.  The Tory mantra “making work pay” is based on the same ideology as the less eligibility principle. It was always a front for the neoliberal New Right imperative to dismantle welfare support and compete in a race to the bottom through the various descending layers and facets of absolute poverty. Whilst employers ascend and profit.

We decided, agreed and ratified that each human life has equal worth at an international level after the consequences of hierarchical thinking culminated in the atrocities of World War Two. Hitler thought that some people were worth more than others. All despots do. However, we progressed, we learned. We evolved. We formulated Human Rights as a coherent and collective response.

But it’s a lesson the Tories clearly have forgotten. Or chose not to learn. Our society is more unequal and steeply hierarchical than ever, inequalities are greater here than anywhere else in Europe, and including the USA. That’s a direct result of Tory policy, weighted towards handouts to the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Despite our human rights and equality legislations.

But the blame doesn’t entirely belong to the Tories. The next time you look down on your neighbours for being sick, disabled, mentally ill, unemployed or for being from a different ethnic background, remember where that sort of collective thinking takes us as a society. If you don’t believe me, go away and read Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice, have a look at Allport’s Ladder, and compare to where we are now, in the UK, in the 21st Century.

As a society, we need to learn from history. Progress. Evolve.But we are regressing instead. Human Rights are fundamentally incompatible with neoliberalism.

Allport wrote about how the Holocaust happened. Public acceptance of eugenic thinking happens incrementally; rational and moral boundaries are pushed, bit by bit, almost imperceptibly, until the unacceptable becomes acceptable. And prejudice multi-tasks. Hitler killed the sick, disabled, the poor and “workshy” first.

That psychosocial and political process is happening here, unfolding in stages day by day, week by week, year by year: the media are a large part of the ideological mechanism; a state apparatus used to push against our rational and moral boundaries. And this mechanism is being used to de-empathise us, to make us less sympathetic to the plight of politically defined others. And to regard them as having less worth than ourselves. Neoliberalism creates steep hierarchies of power and wealth, it isn’t generous to most people. 

My message here is about the equal worth of all human beings. Who we are is a universal, and not the same as “what” we are or the labels we may acquire because of our superficial characteristics. Those things are artificial and culturally relative. We all share the same basic needs, fears and hopes, we share archetypal dreams and nightmares. To paraphrase RD Laing:

All in each, each in all, all distinctions are mind; of mind, in mind, by mind. No distinctions, no mind to distinguish.

All lives equally precious.

Our worth can never be measured out in meagre pounds and pennies.

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But they don’t and they never will.

Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for the image.

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 difficult or distressing events is beneficial.

The onus is on the individual to adapt to their distress and difficult circumstances 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 welfare support 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?  Stigma? Starvation and destitution? State punishment and exclusion?

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 accept and 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 highly 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 distinctly 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. However, isn’t it more likely the case that healthier people are in work, those who aren’t well enough to work don’t?

It’s well-established that poverty is strongly linked with a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with a mental illness. 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, while 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 citizens disproportionately for cuts to their lifeline income and essential services, was one ideologically-driven political decision taken among 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 enormously pseudoscientific, coercive and punitive psychopolicy interventions. It’s a kind of technocratic ‘fix’, designed solely to align the perceptions and behaviours of those citizens failed and harmed by our current socioeconomic organisation to nonetheless accommodate and accept neoliberal outcomes.

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 – our thoughts, perceptions and behaviours. Not only is this government trespassing on an intimate, existential level; it is tampering with – editing – our perceptions and experiences, damaging and isolating the poorest citizens, burdening them with the blame for the consequences of state policies while also 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. It’s like saying: 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 neoliberal Conservatism: propping up an anti-progressive austerity agenda, regressive ideology, endorsing an ever-shrinking state, while reflecting a profound  Tory misanthropy.

The social problems arising because of a lack of provision will remain unaddressed and unchallenged because of the Conservative paradigm shift in positivist – 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 state 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 has left 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 situated and 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 and distress 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 and stifles ‘resilience’.

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 among 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 collaboration: 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: unlimited scope and reach, sustainable, self-perpetuating, long-lasting provision with an inbuilt preventative agenda. It’s also a prefigurative model. As such, it is founded on democratic principles and the values of  genuine dialogue.

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 poverty and 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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Nihilism isn’t cool, trendy or the path to Nirvana: it’s a lazy abstention from all that matters.

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nihilismˈ noun 1. the rejection of all political, religious and moral principles, often in the belief that life is meaningless. “Insistence that man is a futile being”. synonyms: negativity, cynicism, pessimism; rejection, repudiation, renunciation, denial, abnegation; disbelief, non-belief, unbelief, scepticism, lack of conviction, absence of moral values, agnosticism, atheism, non-theism.
NO PRINCIPLES.

The road to nowhere, dissolution. In short, it’s the absence of belief in anything meaningful, positive, celebratory or decent. No acknowledgement of our remarkable potential as human beings. No faith in anything – it’s grubby, and leaves you groundless, rootless, unprincipled and in a no-place, with no escape.

Russell Brand is a “trendy” nihilist. However, this is not simply another article about Brand, but rather, I want to use this as an opportunity for discussing critical thinking. Brand is as good a case as any to use to explore this and propaganda techniques.

My friend, Charles Britton, commented on an article I wrote about the Russell Brand interview with Jeremy Paxman, and it’s a brilliant comment, because it shows a step-by-step process of critical thinking and analysis that exposes something that many seem to have have missed: an absence. A void. Brand used a lot of words that say nothing at all. Here is the comment:

“When I saw the argument between Russell Brand and Paxman, there were things he said that were clever, and which I liked and there seemed to be a real passion. Apart from the not voting, I thought, I couldn’t agree with that. And apart from the revolution idea because a) they are bloody, b) you don’t know who’ll you’ll end up with in charge (you may even lose the vote), and c) we do have the vote. If there were enough of a groundswell of anger about how we are being treated to spark a revolution, then it would show in how people voted (and how we campaigned). We’d vote out the bastards without needing a revolution! 

(I’m fairly certain that if people can’t be bothered voting, they won’t be bringing on a full-blown revolution any time soon either. Anyone out there got one booked? Please do pencil me in.)

“I still liked some other things he said. Apart from the implication that the parties are all the same. That’s the kind of thing you hear from most of the ”cutting-edge” (aggressive and politically ignorant) stand-ups on TV panel shows and celebs guesting on Question Time. Sadly, this blanket cynicism tends to win-over the politically illiterate of the crowd. Eventually I realised that there wasn’t really anything much in his statements apart from a certain  confident, [apparently] eloquent style. I’m left confused by this, wondering why his Newsnight interview was so “sensational”!


I have also pondered why Brand has such undeserved attention at the moment, and why some seem to think he had something to say, I clearly missed something, so I studied his interview with Paxman carefully. One thing that really struck me is that Brand completely failed to recognise and acknowledge that life wasn’t the same under the last government.

We didn’t have austerity, there were not thousands of sick and disabled people dying, and there was no substantial increase of absolute poverty and wealth inequalities under the Labour government, because of their policies, but these things are happening now.

Labour created human rights and equality policies, and the Tories are steadily unravelling those. Only the wealthy, and indifferent nihilists can afford imperviousness regarding the fundamental contrasts of Labour and Conservative governments. Brand’s self-serving claim that “they are all the same” only echoes what many of the most disruptive, aggressive and very divisive anarchists, militant greens, narxists and trotskyites have been using to misinform anyone who will listen. But a look at the differences in policies shows clearly that there are fundamental differences between the Conservatives and Labour. (For example, see here: Political Parties – NOT all as bad as each other).

So why would Brand or anyone else, for that matter, offer such a defeatist and dangerous idea up – that voting is futile – especially when the consequence is likely to be further divisions amongst those on the left, whilst the right-wing supporters, who ALWAYS vote, will simply ensure we have another Tory government in office in 2015?

How will that help the situation Brand outlined and criticised? And why is it ever okay to advocate no action? How about encouraging people to take some responsibility for how things are, and to work together to change things for the better?

I’ve written elsewhere about Brand’s narcissism and a fundamental lack of concern for others. As empathy, emotional sustenance and support, solidarity, loyalty, and a sense of belonging all become relics of a fast receding past due to the policies of the Tory-led Government, which act upon citizens as if they were objects, rather than serving them, as human subjects, the mass victims of anomic trauma put up as primitive, last resort narcissistic defences.

These, in turn, only exacerbate the very traumatic conditions, social dislocations, and experiences that necessitated their deployment in the first place. But our ability to organise, self-assemble, and act in co-operation and unison is in jeopardy, as is our future as a society, yet Brand advocated no action.

But some people promote themselves, making a lot of money from “criticising” the status quo, and Brand isn’t alone in being privately invested in how things are whilst publicly claiming otherwise.

Brand used recognisble propaganda techniques in his interview with Paxman, that signpost people to a variety of typified meanings, without actually meaningfully exploring any of them, using superficial Buzzwords (and phrases,) and Glittering Generalities.

The narrative isn’t coherent and meaningful, has no real depth, but what Brand does very well is implies – “signposts” you – via common stock phrases, creating the impression he understands and sees the world as you do. He creates a faux sense of rapport by doing so. But if you look elsewhere, the clues about Brand are there, in his books, articles and other interviews. It soon becomes clear that he does not connect with people, he doesn’t seem to relate. He generally seems to see others as a means to his own ends, and tends to exploit them. Those that have a joke at the expense of others have little empathy, and tend to be unsurprisingly exploitative and cruel.

That’s all Brand does, and even in the interview with Paxman, when he was asked something he couldn’t answer, he resorted to talking the piss out of Paxman.

It’s worth bearing in mind that when someone speaks or writes, they are trying to convince you of something. Ask yourself what it is that they want you to believe, then analyse their basic proposition carefully. Examine what they are saying, look for consistency, coherence, reasoning and logic, and look for the evidence to support the proposition.

Analyse what he actually said – there is NO proposition there at all, he used a lot of words to say nothing – it really is a cul-de-sac. Buzzwords and phrases are a propaganda technique to shape people’s perception, and persuade them that you “know” about their lives, situation and that you have insight.

Management jargon is an example – the familiarity of the words and phrases lulls you and fools you into feeling some important recognition has been made.

Here are some of the buzzwords and phrases Brand used to get your attention, gain your credibility, admiration, create a false sense of rapport; people, power, hierarchical, paradigm, serves a few people, humanity, alternate, alternate political systems, destroy the planet, economic disparity, needs of the people, treachery, deceit, political class, disenfranchised, disillusioned, despondent, underclass, represented, social conditions, undeserved underclass, impact, but that’s all just semantics really, political or corporate elites, serve the population, currently, public dissatisfaction.

We have all used these words and phrases, but we have put them together in structured and meaningful comments, with an aim. Brand didn’t do that.

Glittering Generalities is a propaganda technique, arises very often in politics and political propaganda. Glittering generalities are words that have different positive meaning for individual subjects, but are linked to highly valued concepts.

When these words are used, they demand approval without thinking, simply because such an important concept is involved. Brand made use of these Glittering Generalities; socialist, egalitarian, massive redistribution of wealth, heavy taxation of corporations, massive responsibility for energy companies, environment, profit is a filthy word, global utopian system, genuine option (amongst several others).

The whole dialogue is a propaganda vehicle that aims to deliver one message: there’s no point voting. Go back to sleep. There are identifiable dark fifth column ideologies of nihilism (and related forms of anarchism) which have steadily gained popularity among some of the far-left here in the UK. Que sera sera. Idealism often morphs into cynicism.

These  ideologies reflect anti-values of defeatism, hopelessness, rejection of democracy, and organised government. What a deadly sedative – a very poisonous narcotic for a nation that desperately needs to rekindle respect for human rights, equality, and shared societal values of co-operation, compassion, hope, mutual support and community.

Nihilism is so dangerous because it is a glib, superficial and reactionary response that fundamentally attacks the very worth of humanity itself – because it’s based on the view that nothing really matters, everything is meaningless, nothing and no-one has any real worth, value or meaning.

Nihilism is a spiralling vortex of wretched and miserable relativism. It leaves people groundless and rootless. Que sera sera.

But we have a responsibility to take an interest in our lives, and the plight of others, regardless of our view of “human nature”.

The is /ought distinction highlights that there’s a fundamental difference between descriptive and prescriptive statements. As conscious beings with at least a degree of free-will, we can hoist our selves out of apathy by learning from consequences, by our empathy and concern for others, by our good will and by our conscious intent.

We are not cultural dupes – determined by social structure, or by our biology, sure, we are influenced by these, and a little constrained by them, but we are also capable of transcending these constraints – we are so much greater than that, or at least we have the potential to be so.

Conservatives don’t value such human potential: they tend formulate policy to squash it, curtail it, they stand against the tide of social evolution. Regressive ideology, authoritarian principles.

There is a tangible link with nihilism, and the egocentricity of psychopathy. First of all, psychopaths may be regarded as moral nihilists. Secondly, psychopaths like an apathetic, disengaged and anomic society, where citizens lack conviction, and there’s an absence or erosion of moral values.

Psychopaths regard the rest of us as being defective, and seek relentlessly to remake the world in their own image, to proselytize their viewpoint and  to “teach” their “defective” empathic fellows to think like them. Unfortunately, they can. People can become psychopathic, they can numb down their sensitivity to others. But a psychopath can never learn to think like an empathic person.

People with a normal capacity for empathy can turn off that capacity and think like psychopaths. Language is a powerful thing, and normal human beings respond to linguistic cues to switch to “psychopathy mode”.

The ancient Greeks and the Founders of our country understood the devastating destructiveness of the language of stigmatising, demonising and othering, particularly to democracies. They called the charismatic psychopaths who excelled at its practice “demagogues.” More recently, neuroscience has provided evidence that such demonising, dehumanising and hate radically alters the way the human brain processes information, making subjects immune to reason, increasingly intolerant, and very easily manipulated.

Divide and conquer is the age old defence of elites. Diversion. I am sure there is a link between nihilism, psychopathy and Conservative ideology. Extensive research has found significant correlations between key antisocial personality traits and  Conservative views. Specifically, the research claims to find elements of narcissism, psychopathy and Machiavellianism in Conservative subjects.

The Tory mantra: “there is no such thing as Society” leaks a significant clue about principle elements of core Conservative beliefs. The Conservative ideological justification for the destruction of the social unit, promotion of competitive individualism and “survival of the fittest” principles, the shrinking of the State and deliberately manipulated destruction of public belief in government overall is psychopathic.

It’s all about isolating people, breaking up networks and destroying co-operation and community. And of course such unifying and community-building ideas are the very foundations of socialist values and principles.

By focusing on competitive individualism as the primary method of improving the economy and society, Conservatism is an inherently misanthropic ideology; as all motives are seen through pure self-interest, cynicism in human nature becomes the norm. If people exist to simply get what they can for themselves, the motivation for sociability and co-operation decreases.

We become insular, fragmented and isolated. The characteristic of the psychopathic value system is its somewhat Manichean world view  – idealised me versus demonised him, idealised us  versus demonised them, reflecting the echo-other world view of the pathological narcissist or psychopath. The Tories deliberately create anxiety about others, divide social groups, reduce social cohesion, and create folk devils to bear the brunt of the blame for consequences of Tory policies.

It’s by no coincidence at all that those folk devils also bear the brunt of inhumane Tory policies, too. The Labour government didn’t get everything right for everyone, but Labour have never persecuted social groups like the Tories have, or wilfully destroyed state support for the most vulnerable citizens.

If we don’t vote, then that leaves the Tory supporters, who will simply vote the Tory authoritarians back into Office, and guess what? That doesn’t affect Brand at all. Well, except for the standard £107, 000 that all millionaires get under this Government, each, per year, in the form of a tax break.

We can politically engage, campaign, lobby politicians, and take some responsibility, rather than shrugging, disengaging, and ensuring that nothing will change. Authoritarian governments require a passive, disengaged public to emerge and to maintain their power. We have a duty to challenge and to push back – to demand positive changes and shape a society that supports those that cannot support themselves, that’s the mark of a civilised society. We simply have to fight our way back to decency.

We have to reclaim the progress we once made in an evolved human rights orientated culture. The Tories have undone many decades of hard work and struggle to establish those rights. We have to act, and we must vote. Vote Labour.

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This is also worth reading: “They are not all the same.” ‘They’re all the same’ is what reactionaries love to hear. It leaves the status quo serenely untroubled, it cedes the floor to the easy answers of Ukip and the Daily Mail. No, if you want to be a nuisance to the people whom you most detest in public life, vote. And vote Labour.”  Robert Webb

– http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2013/10/robert-webb-re-joins-labour-protest-russell-brand

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Thanks to Robert Livingstone for his brilliant artwork