An excellent example of using a slogan to reframe debate about neoliberalism and inequality from the Occupy movement
Left wing progressives hope that we can win elections by citing facts, rational debate and by offering policy programmes that serve the majority of voters’ interests. When we lose, we either conclude that we need to move farther to the right, where the voters are; where the Overton window opens, or that we need to move further to the left, to present a genuine alternative to the status quo. That dilemma has rigidly polarised the Labour party, undermining our unity and turning what was once a “broad church” appeal into an either/or basic dichotomy of alliances and reflected interests. The problem is how do we know which of these responses to the dilemmas of being a party in opposition will engage the public? And what if it is neither?
Yet, how can the left possibly lose a debate about the economy and social policy, when our current steeply hierarchical socioeconomic organisation serves the interests of so very few citizens? In fact those policies are seriously harming some social groups, especially those traditionally afforded social protections by previous Labour policies.
Margaret Thatcher once made the absurd claim that the “problem” with socialism is that it “runs out of other people’s money to spend.” However, the New Right became experts on spending our public funds on extending the wealth of a few privileged millionaires, taking money from those who have the very least and handing it out to those who have the very most.
That really is “spending other peoples’ money.” As a consequence, the UK is now the most unequal country in the world, and that includes the US, where the Chicago boys – the founding fathers of neoliberalism – operationalised their experiment in hierarchical and authoritarian modes of neoliberal socioeconomic organisation.
Things ain’t what they ought to be
I’ve pointed out before that it’s easy to mistake the patterns and social circumstances of our era for “natural laws”. We really do need to revisit the is/ought distinction (the naturalistic fallacy: we cannot use descriptive statements – what “is” – to make or justify prescriptive ones – what “ought” to be). So many people assume the Conservative world view of competition, mysterious “market forces” and the “invisible hand”, survival of the wealthiest, and Randian self interest is simply how things are: that these qualities are all fundamental to our “human nature”. They are not.
They are the qualities required of us – what “ought” to be the case – in order to prop up a hierarchical society, preserving a privileged elite and the material inequality and power relations of neoliberalism. Social Darwinism, which is like a comic strip version of Darwinism, was debunked last century, but here we are with policies that are directed by an ideology founded on social Darwinist principles once again. It’s become a “common sense” assumption that we are naturally inclined to be competitive, and as a society, hierarchically ranked, on the basis of power and worth. Yet the matter of what “human nature” actually is has never been resolved over the centuries, let alone accounts of how that “nature” translates into the kind of society we have. Or ought to have, for that matter.
How can the Tories be right in their cynical miserablism, regarding our competitive social Darwinist tendencies? If we are so fundamentally selfish and self-interested, with a generally Hobbesian temperament, moulded a little more by Burke’s profound anti-intellectualism, how, then, did we end up with a trade union and labour movement, working class enfranchisement, the welfare state, the NHS, legal aid, social housing, human rights and to generally progress to develop an altruistic, collectivist, cooperative approach for our post war settlement?
“Human nature” is far more complex and much less static and defined than the Conservatives would have us believe. The kind of society that we live in, with its prevailing beliefs, attitudes and organisation, also contributes significantly to the kind of people we are, and importantly, to how we see ourselves and others.
George Lakoff, a linguist and cognitive scientist, says that Conservatives exalt “obedience to authority,” insulate leaders from accountability, oppose checks and balances against leaders and rely on fear. All of this is true.
Lakoff says the right wins and keeps power by framing issues and “controlling minds”. This explains why Conservatives win elections. They manipulate us more effectively than the Progressives. They’ve been “preparing the seedbed of our brains with their high-level general principles” so that when the “low tax/low welfare society” idea, for example, was planted in its various guises, repeatedly, “their framing could take root and sprout.” And “as a result, progressive messages don’t take root.”
Tories successfully reframe social issues, re-set defaults and normalise their prejudices and values. They become “common sense.” As dominant narratives do. In doing so, the Conservatives shape how the public see themselves and others.
Lakoff proposes that the left present frames instead of raw facts, in order to “train” the public to think less about neoliberal competition and self-interest and more about serving others. It’s not the platform that needs to be changed. It’s the voters.
Lakoff says that we need to beat Conservatives at their own game. “Democracy is too important to leave the shaping of the brains of the public to authoritarians.”
I like a lot of Lakoff’s work, but cannot get behind the idea of using techniques of persuasion to win support and (re)grow a movement. But then, the use of such techniques has been effective for the Conservatives, and that level of manipulation creates a problem for democracy. Lakoff is proposing we address the problem of a managed democracy by attempting to manage it too.
Is it possible to propose we manipulate voters and then still claim to be a democrat?
He is right in that the rational approach doesn’t always work, but perhaps it’s more a question of how we present our alternative. I can get behind a shorthand and punchier general messages, just as long as it isn’t a strung together lexicon of glittering generalities with nothing meaningful referenced below the surface level. Integrity matters. The new world order is maintained partly by a precarious new word order. But it rests only on the very surface of our mind. It exists, not because it is rational or serves our best interests, but because it appears to be “normal.”
It’s probably true that many voters don’t pay much attention to the details and implications of policies. We have a tendency towards cognitive miserliness – the Principle of Least Effort; we frequently rely on simple and time efficient strategies when evaluating information and making decisions. But this can lead to prejudices. We formulate stereotypes, for example, which are simplistic ways of categorising others. Heuristics are mental shortcuts we often use in order to lessen the cognitive load that decision making requires. We often rely on habitual, superficial explorations and generalisations because we are caught up in our lives, and so to some degree, its a strategy of necessity and efficiency.
However, this tendency towards cognitive miserliness is also manipulated. We often assign new information to categories that are easy to process mentally. These categories arise from prior information, including schemas, scripts and other knowledge structures, that has been stored in memory and so storage of new information does not require much cognitive energy. Cognitive miserliness means we tend not to stray far from our established beliefs when considering new information. That’s partly why repetition and slogans work so well as propaganda techniques.
My own view is that we should try multiple approaches to messaging the public, but none of it should be simply about changing a vote for the sake of it. We also need to engage citizens in active participation in democracy. That is something the authoritarian Conservatives will never do: they have a policy agenda informed by private companies and millionaires, not ordinary citizens, and that won’t change.
Public needs have been privatised and pushed into the “market place” of competition and invisible capitalist hands. Increasingly, private companies are operating our essential public services, as the Conservatives claim that this is “efficient.” It isn’t, because it’s costing us billions to support unaccountable private businesses whose only motivation is to make profit.(See for example: Doctors bribed with 70-90k salaries to join Maximus and “endorse a political agenda regardless of how it affects patients.” )
Meanwhile, the privatisation of public need means that individuals shoulder the responsibility for them, rather than the state, who are still taking money from the public to fund those public “services.” Making individuals responsible for the consequences of political decision-making and arising socioeconomic problems like unemployment and poverty then justifies an authoritarian state intrusion in the form of “therapy.” For example, the rise of nudging, which is about the political directives to “change behaviours” because people make “the wrong choices” and so it turns democracy on its head.
This is because nudge is used without public consent, and it is solely aimed at “changing behaviours” of citizens to meet the states’ idealised and narrow neoliberal outcomes, rather than it being about actually recognising and meeting social needs and democratic inclusion.
The left tend to have a rather more optimistic, expansive and generous view of human nature. We believe in the human potential for learning, development and progress. However, that optimism is also tempered with an acknowledgement of our darker side, too. Policies which protect social groups that are prone to being exploited, scapegoated and other socially constructed vulnerabilities have largely been Labour party ones.
However, the problem is that the Conservatives hold up a darkly distorting looking-glass to the public, showing only what they want people to see of themselves. In that mirror, we are rendered ugly – always prone to being stupid, selfish, greedy, impulsive savages that need to to be ruled and controlled. Our self perceptions are shaped by significant others. There arises a subsequent social self-fulfilling prophecy. We project and scapegoat: it is always others that are savage and selfish, not us. This is facilitated by the Conservative tendency to marginalise poor people, creating folk devil stereotypes and social outgroups.
We’re capable of changing minds. But we have good SOCIAL reasons to do so. That, for me is the key – there’s a difference between propaganda and reasoning; public interest and simply maintaining the public’s interest. The answer probably lies somewhere in a compromise – using both a rational and evidenced approach and the reductive pop politics soundbites to capture public interests AND public interest.
Tory cuts cost lives was a soundbite of mine from 2015. I wanted to reference war, and highlight the enemy in a longstanding and ongoing class conflict. It’s got integrity as a slogan because I’ve spent a few years writing about and presenting evidence of how Conservative austerity is harming and sometimes killing people.
But I don’t have all the answers. To come up with effective solutions requires our willingness for collaboration and cooperation.
I’m particularly interested in what others think about this issue. If you have any thoughts on this, please leave me a comment, and I will revisit them in due course. We can do what the left always do very well: hold a democratic discussion and problem-solve collectively.
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