Category: Structure and agency

Brendan Mason’s brutal murder reflects the darkest consequence of bias motivated behaviour.

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Brendan Mason, who was brutally murdered by two young men he thought were his friends.
Picture courtesy of the Leicester Mercury

Warning: this article was very distressing to write, and is likely to be very upsetting to read.

Two men who filmed themselves savagely beating a young man with learning difficulties and taunting him, telling him to “smile for the camera”, have been sentenced by Leicester crown court to life imprisonment for his murder. 

In the early hours of 5 July last year, Joshua Hack, aged 21, and Keith Lowe, 22, lured Brendan Mason, a 23 year old man with learning difficulties, to a park, where they said they wanted to spend time with him. Mason believed the two men to be his friends.

When the three of them arrived at the park, Hack and Lowe hung Mason from a tree. They took turns hitting him while the other held him down for several hours, cruelly laughing and taunting him. 

Mason was beaten unconscious, the two young men stripped him naked and threw his body in a pond, leaving him for dead in Abbey Park, Leicester. He was found by park groundsmen at 7.40 am naked, unconscious and bleeding and was airlifted to Walsgrave Hospital in Coventry. 

Medics discovered Mason had 99 separate injuries to his head and body, including brain injury, five broken ribs and a collapsed lung. He died from his injuries later that day.

Hack previously admitted murder. However, Lowe denied it.  However, he was forced to change his plea four days into his trial, after police produced video as evidence of what he did, which he had tried to delete from his phone. 

The court heard the attack had been planned the night before and that Hack and Lowe misinterpreted his behaviour towards a girl at a party. Prosecutor Miranda Moore QC said: “They were describing Brendan as a paedophile and nothing could be further from the truth.”

Mason’s learning difficulties led to a bias in how his ordinary social interactions were perceived.  

She added that police had recovered a “‘trophy’ picture of Lowe standing behind the naked and beaten Brendan, who is sitting cross-legged on the floor”.

A second video, lasting 53 seconds, was deliberately filmed on the mobile phone for others to see. The police managed to retrieve it from cloud storage, showing Lowe taking a direct part in the beating. Lowe had attempted to delete the footage from his phone.

 Moore said: “The audio that goes with it makes that clear.”

The court heard that in the second video, Lowe says: “Brendan. Look at him. Told you whatever he’d done to you, I’d do worse to him, told you that. Move your hand away from your face. Move your hand away from your face now.”

 Moore told the court:

“Officers were able to see the video on the Cloud, showing an unfortunate scene.

It shows Brendan’s battered and naked body with Lowe landing blows.

It was being made for a third party to show them what happened to Brendan.”

The court was also presented with Facebook messages the pair were sending each other while they were in the park with Mason prior to the attack. They used the Facebook messages to plan the attack. Mason who had trusted the two men, believing they were his friends, had no idea to what was about to take place.

At 2:46am, Hack sent Lowe a message saying: “Just hit him and we can both ****off when he’s K’ Od.  Just do it dude.” 

Lowe replied: “Shall we do it because he’s f**ked me off with the lies.”

The court heard how Mason died from inflicted, brutal and unsurvivable brain injuries.

 Mason’s family said in a statement:

“It is not right how two evil people can do such a horrific thing and leave a massive hole in our lives that will never be filled again.

Brendan was a lovely young man and he was so happy. He had numerous learning difficulties and very poor vision.

Even though Brendan had numerous learning difficulties and was very easily led by others, he always knew right from wrong.

The police have been a big part of our life for the past seven months; they have been amazing, but there will never be closure for us.”

Sentencing the two men to life in prison, Judge Michael Chambers said: “You [Lowe and Hack] subjected him [Mason] to a brutal and sustained attack in which you caused him great pain and humiliation.

Brendan Mason was only 23 with his life before him. You subjected him to a merciless attack with extreme violence.

He was sadly a vulnerable young man with learning difficulties. He was kicked mercilessly while naked. The video found was a chilling and deeply disturbing recording of Brendan naked, being kicked repeatedly to the head.

He’s even told to remove his hands from his face so you can kick him. You subjected him to a brutal and sustained attack of extreme violence. You caused him great pain and humiliation.

This was a planned attack, during which you filmed each other assaulting him and you revelled in what you had done, bragging to others. You stripped him naked and left him unconscious. He died later that day.”

The judge added that Hack had lied in his first interview with the police and had even gone with friends to lay flowers at the scene where Mason’s body was found. He said Lowe had bleached his bloodstained trousers, washed his hooded top and hidden his blood-spattered shoes in a bid to cover his tracks.

Senior investigating Officer Detective Chief Inspector Mick Graham said after the trial: “Brendan was known to the defendants and considered them as friends, and they lured him to the park with the full intention of hurting him. Brendan was subjected to a vicious, sustained attack which was filmed by his attackers on their phones. He was left naked and alone in the park having been brutally beaten.”

Hack and Lowe were caught on CCTV footage casually walking into a McDonald’s after they had stripped, hung and then beaten Mason into unconsciousness, seriously and fatally injuring him, and leaving him for dead. Lowe had kept Mason’s mobile phone which he and his then girlfriend were using in the following days.

The growth of prejudice, discrimination and hate crime: Allport’s ladder

Gordon Allport studied the psychological, social, economic and political processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to violence, hate crime and eventually, if the process continues to unfold without restraint, to genocide. In his landmark exploration of how the Holocaust happened, Allport describes psychological and socio-political processes that foster increasing social prejudice and discrimination and he provides insight into how the unthinkable becomes socially and psychologically acceptable: it happens incrementally, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries, and propaganda-driven changes in our attitudes towards “others” that advances culturally, by almost inscrutable degrees.

The process always begins with political scapegoating of a social group and with ideologies that identify that group as an “enemy” or a social “burden” in some way. A history of devaluation of the group that becomes the target, authoritarian culture, and the passivity of internal and external witnesses (bystanders) all contribute to the probability that violence against that group will develop, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to continue evolving, genocide.

Economic recession, uncertainty and authoritarian or totalitarian political systems contribute to shaping the social conditions that trigger Allport’s escalating scale of prejudice. The Conservatives are authoritarians, and prejudice towards vulnerable and socially protected minority groups is almost a cardinal Conservative trait.

Conservatives and the right more generally tend to view the social world hierarchically and are more likely than others to hold prejudices toward low-status groups. This is especially true of people who want their own group to dominate and be superior to other groups – a characteristic known as social dominance orientation. (Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994). 

Neoliberalism, as an overarching political-economic project of the New Right, establishes and maintains social hierarchies and the strong competitive individualism embedded in neoliberal ideology sets up conflict over resources between social groups, undermining social cooperation and solidarity. 

As inequality has grown in the UK, poverty has also invariably increased, which has caused fear and resentment towards intentional, politically constructed scapegoats and outgroups. 

The nature of prejudice

Prejudice, which is based on unjustified generalisations about groups of people, is reductive, it obscures the complexity of the human experience because the person with prejudices oversimplifies the diversity of life found in a single society or throughout the world.  The rise in prejudice and discrimination in the UK is because of right wing ideology and mythology, designed purposefully to divert the public from the fact that they are being systematically dispossessed of their wealth by a minority, and to maintain the legitimacy (and growing wealth) of those perpetrators in power.

The media is far from objective, benign and politically neutral, in fact we have handful of offshore billionaires that have, along with the government, subverted democracy and established a cultural hegemony. This self-appointed elite are telling you that some human lives are worthless, whilst investing in their own, quite literally, at all cost to our society.

The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) reprimanded some British media outlets, particularly tabloid newspapers, for “offensive, discriminatory and provocative terminology”.

In their report, the ECRI said hate speech was a serious problem in the UK. It cited Katie Hopkins’ infamous column in The Sun, where she likened refugees to “cockroaches” and sparked a scathing response from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and the same newspaper’s debunked claim over “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”

“ECRI urges the media to take stock of the importance of responsible reporting, not only to avoid perpetuating prejudice and biased information, but also to avoid harm to targeted persons or vulnerable groups,” the report concluded.

It also named David Cameron and Nigel Farage as among the British politicians and institutions accused of fuelling rising xenophobia in the UK as debate continues to rage over Brexit, the refugee crisis and terrorism.

It found a “number of areas of concern” over intolerant political discourse and hate speech, as well as violent racial and religious attacks.

The media is being used by and large as a right-wing outlet for political techniques of persuasion, our culture has been saturated with a pathological persuasion to hate others. And prejudice tends to multitask, it doesn’t prefer one social group. It grows.

We live in a society where more than one in two disabled people have experienced bullying or harassment in the workplace, according to research by the disability charity Scope.

The survey of 1,009 disabled UK adults during August 2016 reveals 53% have been bullied or harassed at work because of their disability.

We have a government that does not observe the basic rights of disabled people. Furthermore, the Conservatives have systematically contravened the human rights of disabled persons. This is a government that uses gaslighting to avoid dialogue and democratic accountability regarding the consequences of their draconian, discriminatory  and illegal policies. Techniques of neutralisation used by the government include the manipulative use of language that is designed to mislead, for example, using the word “help” and support” to describe punitive policies and harsh cuts to lifeline support for disabled people.

The stereotypical mainstream media portrayals of people with disability and medical conditions as “shirkers” and “fakes”, with a significant increase in articles focusing on disability benefit and fraud has impacted negatively on people’s views and perceptions of  disability related benefits, leading to perceptual bias. This was a tactical political move to de-empathise the public,  preempting any objection and backlash to the brutal cuts the Conservatives applied to disabled people’s lifeline social security.

There are political and economic constraints imposed on this group of people by a highly discriminatory government. This sends out a message to the public – that disabled people have fewer rights than other citizens; that disabled people are not experts of their own condition or experiences and need the state to “incentivise” them to “overcome” their disabilities, and institutionalised discrimination, and that it is okay to direct prejudice at disabled people as they are somehow “less” than other citizens. 

Policies are systemised, intentional political actions and reflect how the government thinks society ought to be. The majority of austerity cuts have been directed at those with disabilities. The recent removal of the Employment Support Allowance (ESA) work related activity component; the scrapping of the Independent Living Fund; the purposeful reduction in those people deemed eligible for ESA using an amended and harsher work capability assessment; the reduction in those deemed eligible for Personal Independent Payment and subsequent access to the motability scheme, may be regarded as punitive measures aimed at an “undeserving” group. Such policies have systematically stigmatised, outgrouped and ultimately, contributed to the cultural dehumanisation of disabled people.

The discriminatory cuts have caused ill people to feel desperate and worthless by depriving them of the practical means to live, and have become another means of promoting an ideology defined by exclusion and inequality. Many people with medical conditions have died as a consequence of not being able to meet their basic needs, people with mental distress and illness have been pushed over the precipice, and have taken their own lives.

There has been a 213 per cent rise in hate crimes against disabled people, with figures rising 40% per year from 2015. Lee Irving was brutally murdered in June, 2015. Irving had severe learning difficulties. He was bullied and tortured over several days at a house in Newcastle. When he died from his terrible injuries, his tormentors dumped his body on a footpath. Wheatley’s mother, Julie Mills, his then girlfriend Nicole Lawrence, 22, and his accomplice Barry Imray, 35, who also has learning difficulties, did nothing to protect Irving. They were bystanders Wheatley’s mother, Julie Mills, 52, his then girlfriend Nicole Lawrence, 22, and his accomplice Barry Imray, 35, who also has learning difficulties, did nothing to protect Irving. They were passive bystanders.

The justification narrative for the last two government’s targeted austerity policies, and the policies themselves have entailed negative role modelling which has influenced the attitudes and behaviours of the public. Hate crimes are bias motivated behaviours.

The major contributing factor to the increase in hate crime is the collective bias, attitudes and behaviours of the current government, which has perpetuated, permitted and endorsed prejudices against social groups, with a largely complicit media amplifying these prejudices. Their policies embed a punitive approach towards the poorest social groups. This in turn means that those administering the policies, such as staff at the department for work and pensions and job centres, for example, are also bound by punitive, authoritarian behaviours directed at a targeted group. 

As authority figures and role models, the government’s behaviour establishes a framework of acceptability. Parliamentary debates are conducted with a clear basis of one-upmanship and aggression rather than being founded on rational exchange. Indeed, Cameron openly sneered at rationality and didn’t engage in a democratic dialogue, instead he employed the tactics of a bully: denial, scapegoating, vilification, attempts at discrediting, smearing and character assassinations. This behaviour in turn gives wider society permission and approval to do the same.

Scapegoating has a wide range of focus: from “approved” enemies of very large groups of people down to the scapegoating of individuals by other individuals. The scapegoater’s target always experiences a terrible sense of being personally edited and re-written, with the inadequacies of the perpetrator inserted into public accounts of their character, isolation, ostracism, exclusion and sometimes, expulsion and elimination. The sense of isolation is often heightened by other people’s reluctance to become involved in challenging bullies, usually because of a bystander’s own discomfort and fear of reprisal. 

The consequences of bystander apathy

Hate crime directed at disabled people has steadily risen over the past five years, and is now at the highest level it’s ever been since records began. That’s the kind of society we have become. 

Prejudice and discrimination cause inequality, which in turn causes more prejudice and discrimination. It requires the linguistic downgrading of human life, it requires dehumanising metaphors: a dehumanising socio-political system using a dehumanising language, and it has now become normalised, familiar and all-pervasive: it has seeped almost unnoticed into our lives. It has started to erode the natural inhibitions that prevent us from inflicting harm on other human beings.

Perpetrators have become increasingly confident in the “validity” of their prejudice, the public are being systematically desensitised and indoctrinated. Mocking, negative stereotypes and negative images become a part of our everyday culture and language: hate speech is normalised, discriminatory policies and practices flourish, hate crimes – bias motivated behaviours – are permitted.

Because we have allowed this process to unfold, as a society. 

The Holocaust is the most thoroughly documented example of the extreme cruelty, savagery and hideousness of dehumanisation. It’s a little too easy to imagine that the Third Reich was an aberration. We can take the easy option and dismiss the Holocaust as a very unusual phenomenon – a mass insanity instigated by a small group of deranged ideologues who conspired to seize political power and exercise their monstrously evil will.

It’s comforting to imagine that these were uniquely cruel and savage people. However, one of the most disturbing discoveries about how the Holocaust happened is not that all of the Nazis were madmen and monsters. It’s that they were mostly ordinary human beings, in a society of ordinary citizens like you and I. 

 

Related

Another bias motivated murder – Who killed Jo Cox?

Conservatives, cruelty and the collective unconscious: behind the cellar door

 



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Critique of the ‘Origins of Happiness’ study. Psychologists Against Austerity respond

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Clinical psychologists have widely criticised Labour peer and economist, Richard Layard, over research he led that claims failed relationships and physical and mental illness were bigger causes of misery than poverty. 

“Happiness scholars” and authors of the study report, Andrew Clark, Sarah Fleche, Richard Layard, Nattavudh Powdthavee and George Ward say:

“Understanding the key determinants of people’s life satisfaction will suggest policies for how best to reduce misery and promote wellbeing. This column discusses evidence from survey data on Australia, Britain, Germany, and the US which indicate that the things that matter most are people’s social relationships and their mental and physical health; and that the best predictor of an adult’s life satisfaction is their emotional health as a child.”

In the their study, the Origins of Happiness, the authors call for a new focus for public policy: not ‘wealth creation’ but ‘wellbeing creation.'”

The authors say: “Most human misery is due not to economic factors but to failed relationships and physical and mental illness. Eliminating depression and anxiety would reduce misery by 20% while eliminating poverty would reduce it by 5%. And on top of that, reducing mental illness would involve no net cost to the public purse.” 

So the authors propose the delivery of more Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), whilst income redistribution and social justice perspectives are considered trivial and insignificant because they are deemed too costly. Layard in particular enthusiastically endorses CBT, which he regards as the modern evidence-based psychological therapy of choice. Layard was one of the key signatories of The Depression Report, and one of the main campaigners, along with David Clark, for the Increasing Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme, which has entailed the mass provision of CBT.

CBT is a cheap, short-term, goal-oriented treatment that practitioners claim takes a “hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving.” Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behaviour that are claimed to be behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel about their circumstances. However, I have critiqued this approach more than once. 

I’ve also critiqued the use of quantitative methodology and survey methods more generally in policy-making, as such methods frequently fail to pay due regard to authenticity, reliability and validity, inclusion and full participation: quantitative methods tend to be used non-prefiguratively. (See for example: The importance of citizen’s qualitative accounts in democratic inclusion and political participation.)

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Happiness is a neoliberal warm gun: depopulating policy

CBT 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. CBT is primarily about self-governance techniques.

So we need to ask what are the circumstances that the authors are expecting people to accept stoically. Socioeconomic inequality? Absolute poverty? 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? Political authoritarianism? The end of democracy?

It’s all very well challenging people’s thoughts but for whom is CBT being used, and for what purpose? It seems to me that this is about helping those people on the wrong side of draconian 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 narrow, politically defined and specific economic outcomes, which extend and perpetuate inequality. In this context, CBT becomes state “therapy” used only as an ideological prop for neoliberalism.

CBT is too often founded on blunt oversimplifications of what causes human distress – for example, it is currently assumed that the causes of unemployment are psychological rather than sociopolitical, and that particular 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. The deeply flawed political/economic system that entrenches inequality isn’t challenged at all: its victims are discredited and stigmatised instead.

Yet historically (and empirically), it has been widely accepted that poverty significantly increases the risk of mental health problems and can be both a causal factor and a consequence of mental ill health. Mental health is shaped by the wide-ranging characteristics and circumstances (including inequalities) of the social, economic and physical environments in which people live. Successfully supporting the mental health and wellbeing of people living in poverty, and reducing the number of people with mental health problems experiencing poverty, requires engagement with this complexity. (See: Elliott, I. (June 2016) Poverty and Mental Health: A review to inform the Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s Anti-Poverty Strategy. London: Mental Health Foundation).

In the social sciences there is a longstanding and unresolved debate over the primacy of structure or agency in shaping human behaviour. Structure is the recurrent patterned social, economic and political arrangements which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available to citizens. Agency is the capacity of individuals to act autonomously and independently of “outside forces” to make their own free choices. 

Layard et al. dismiss the importance of context on human behaviours, cognitions, perceptions, attitudes and states of mind, and the study is premised and proceeds as if this controversy has been resolved. It hasn’t. 

Such an approach crucially overlooks conflict, the impacts of political decision-making, economic arrangements, social structure, prevailing cultural norms and ideologies, for example.

Rather predictably, Layard’s approach to research (for he’s an economist, not a psychologist, hence his approach shares more in common with the behavioural economists from the cost-cutting, antidemocratic Nudge Unit) conflates human needs and wellbeing with narrow ideological (antiwelfarist, “small state” neoliberal) outcomes, by removing any consideration of the complex interactions, constraints and impacts of the economic, social, cultural and political context on human happiness. Layard’s neuroliberal approach therefore may be read as an endorsement of existing socioeconomic inequalities. 

Furthermore, definitions of “happiness” are culturally specific. They are susceptible to culturally (and politically defined) dominant moral judgements. The happiness imperative may be regarded as an artifact of modern history, not as an inherent feature of the human condition. Across cultures and time, happiness has most frequently been defined as “good luck” and arising because of favourable external conditions. Some definitions place notions of a virtuous life and “hard work” as essential and central qualities of happiness. It’s worth noting that from 1997 to 2001, Layard was an adviser to New Labour and one of the key architects of the “New Deal” and “Welfare to Work” policies. He certainly has clearly defined ideological inclinations.

In those countries with a dominant ideology that is founded on competitive individualism, such as the US and the UK, the definitions of happiness and wellbeing based on chance and context were replaced by definitions focused on favourable internal feelings and states. In other words, happiness came to be regarded as an inner state that we have some personal control over. The significant rise in the availability and popularity of “self help” literature in the western world is a testament of this view that the happiness of citizens is a personal responsibility, and not a political one.

A central theme in this individualist approach is a relentless optimism about the capacity of individuals to improve their own mental health, and accept things as they are in order to bask in earned and fully deserved human happiness and fulfilment. The starting point of the self help perspective, (dating back to Samuel Smiles and his moralising, conservative disquisitions on Thrift and Self help: the austerity ideologue of mid Victorian laissez faire) is that the world is basically okay, the problems arising at an individual level are simply because of how we choose to perceive it – this is reflected in an emphasis on the necessity of changing the way you see and think about the world, particularly in neoliberal economies. It’s very clear why CBT is so appealing to the UK Conservative government. It doesn’t challenge the status quo at all. 

Establishing happiness as a metric is only meant to serve a political end. Indeed, it may even be regarded as a form of political gaslighting. I’m not alone in my concern that “happiness” research could be used to advance authoritarian aims. Studies show that in European elections since 1970, the subjective “life satisfaction” of citizens is the best predictor of whether the government gets re-elected  – this apparently is much more important than economic growth, social conditions, unemployment or inflation.

CBT is the modern descendant of the discredited, ever so quantitative behaviourist tradition, spearheaded by B.F. Skinner, who views persons as nothing more than empty and simple mediators between behaviour and the environment. Integral to this perspective of behaviourism is the concept of behaviour modification through rewards or “consequences.” This has been politically translated into a reductionist economic language of incentives and outcomes. (Stimulus => response.)

This is paralleled with the growth of nudge, which is a technocratic behaviourist solution and ideological prop in the form of behavioural economics, which is also all about generating public policies that aim to quantifiably change the perceptions and behaviours of citizens, aligning them with narrow neoliberal outcomes.

Even the likes of Oliver James (author of Affluenza and The Selfish Capitalist, among other works) critique the symptoms of neoliberal policies rather than the disease: neoliberalism itself.

This is precisely why independent research findings consistently highlight the value of adopting less idiomatic and more value neutral historical, political, cultural and linguistic perspective in the study of public happiness.

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I think it’s fair to say that mental illness is not caused by just one thing. Poverty can be one factor or trigger that interacts with a complexity of other events, such as adverse life events, genetic predisposition, poor physical health or substance abuse. But so far, the strongest evidence suggests that poverty can lead to mental illness, especially disorders such as depression.

Living in poverty causes chronic distress and struggle. Failure to meet basic human needs certainly has an impact on human and social potential – Abraham Maslow explored how our cognitive priorities are reduced when our physiological needs are not met or our survival is threatened. Struggle and distress may have an ultimate biological impact on brain function. According to one controversial hypothesis, schizophrenia is the result of chronic experience of social adversity and defeat, which disturbs the dopamine level and function in the brain, for example.

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A report published by the World Health Organization this year strongly suggests that poor individuals are twice as affected by mental health conditions compared to rich individuals. The report concludes: “Whilst the relationship between poverty and mental health is complicated, individual measures taken to reduce global poverty are likely to have positive impacts on mental health issues in underprivileged populations.”

Regardless, a society may be judged on how it treats its most disadvantaged citizens. The harrowing problems of poverty, as described in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, and social rehabilitation, or lack of it, as portrayed by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables, sadly remain as pressing today.

The statement from Psychologists Against Austerity

The Origins of happiness study overlooked the social and political context of mental health, say campaign group Psychologists Against Austerity. This lets politicians and the architects of austerity off the hook.

The London School of Economics (LSE) study, led by Layard, was published in early December. The report claims that eliminating depression and anxiety would be a cheap way to reduce misery by 20 per cent, while eliminating poverty would be more difficult – and, besides, it would only reduce unhappiness by 5 per cent.

Psychologists against austerity (PAA) have condemned the stark and simplistic dichotomy presented in the report between income and mental illness as predictors of life satisfaction.

In a response published online, the group, which is made up of practising mental health professionals, highlighted the fact “some media reports have gone further, apparently taking the results to imply that there is no causal relationship between poverty and mental illness”, and blamed the researchers for not making the complex relationship between poverty and mental health clearer. According to the psychologists, the two things “are related in a complex variety of ways, with both causally influencing the other”.

The group of psychologists said it was easy for the researchers to downplay the link in their findings, because the relationship is not as simple as happiness being dependent on income alone.

“Living in poverty is more stressful, with fewer buffers, so challenges are more likely to be catastrophic,” their statement said. “People living in poverty have less agency and control over their lives, and live with lower status, often accompanied by stigma, powerlessness and shame.”

Layard’s emphasised that as UK average incomes have increased, the country has not got happier. But PAA point out that in addition to becoming richer, Britain has also become a profoundly more unequal society since the 1980s.

The original study states that relative poverty is more important than absolute poverty in mental health terms, but does discuss this in detail.

Decades of previous research supports PAA’s statement, and many individual psychologists and academics agree with the anti-austerity group’s statement. 

The study “lets politicians off the hook, it lets austerity off the hook” by treating mental illness as if it exists in a void and is not intrinsically linked to societal factors, director of clinical psychology at Canterbury Christ Church University, Dr Anne Cooke, told the Guardian:

“It says that all that doesn’t matter, making a better society doesn’t matter, just offering technical treatments,” she said. “I am one of the people that offers technical treatments and I think they can be extremely helpful to some people but that argument is being stretched beyond the point at which it applies.”

Dr Peter Kinderman, president of the British Psychological Society, has said he welcomed Lord Layard’s call for a focus on national wellbeing through investment in mental health services. But he added, speaking to the Guardian, that he had misgivings about how the study had treated mental illness as a distinct variable from human misery.

Layard’s work has previously led to David Cameron’s adoption of national “wellbeing” statistics, and he was also a driving force behind the adoption of the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies to increase access to “talking therapies” on the NHS.

That latter policy was particularly controversial because it established finding work as an outcome of psychological treatment, which critics said may not be a suitable outcome for some and encouraged a policy of forcing people into work which may not be appropriate for them. PAA and other campaign groups have previously called aspects of the scheme’s implementation “profoundly disturbing”, attacking 2015 plans by then-chancellor George Osborne to link welfare and therapy by placing IAPT therapists in job centres. Layard, who is an economist rather than a psychologist, is now calling for a “new role for the state” that “swaps wealth creation for wellbeing creation” through targeted mental health interventions.

The LSE study has worried psychologists because Layard is highly influential with policymakers. The Labour peer’s recommendations previously led David Cameron to adopt national wellbeing statistics, and Lord Layard was also a driving force behind the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) scheme to increase access to “talking therapies” on the NHS.

Dr Jay Watts, a clinical psychologist, told the Guardian Layard’s call “negates decades worth of data linking mental health to poverty”.

“It’s ripe for misuse … in the current political climate,” she added.

Dr Anne Cooke said there were better ways to improve wellbeing than by focusing on isolated mental health interventions. Policy should take a more holistic public health approach, she proposed.

“Cholera wasn’t eradicated by developing new treatments, it was eradicated by improving drains back in pre-Victorian times.

What [Layard] neglects is the people at the bottom of the pile who are really, really struggling, and in current circumstances there are a lot of them. People who you see at food banks for example, who are in incredible distress and certainly would – most of them or a lot of them – meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder or depression,” she said.

But it’s largely a response to their circumstances. If we do something about that, rates of mental illness in the population are going to come down a lot more effectively than providing a lot more therapy.”

Meanwhile, PAA suggested that rather than doing nothing to help the most disadvantaged people, the study could actually contribute to perpetuating poverty.

“Discussions of mental health that leave out a thorough analysis of poverty and income inequality may be used uphold policies that maintain disadvantage and oppression in society,” the group said.

You can read PAA’s full response here

 

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Adults in the poorest fifth are much more likely to be at risk of developing a mental illness as those on average incomes: around 24% compared with 14%.

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Related

The Psychological Impact of Austerity – Psychologists Against Austerity

Psychologists Against Austerity: mental health experts issue a rallying call against coalition policies 

The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting

 


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

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Who killed Jo Cox?

 

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I’ve said before, probably more than once, that the Conservatives are, on the whole, supremicist creatures of habit rather than reason. They carry with them a poisonous, heavy burden of longstanding, traditional grudges and prejudices. That is why their policies are so stifling and anti-progressive for the majority of us. It’s why Tory policies don’t meet public needs and are so blatantly class-contingent.

There’s always an air of doom and gloom when we have a Tory government, and a largely subdued, depressed, repressed nation, carrying vague and fearful intuitions that something truly catastrophic is just around the corner.

It usually is.

I can remember the anxiety and creeping preternatural fear infecting and agitating young people back in the eighties, and our subsequent teenage, transcendent defiance, which we carried like the banners at the Rock Against Racism marches, in the Thatcher era. It struck me more than once that we always witness the social proliferation of ultranationalist sentiments and fascist ideals whenever we have a Tory government, too. It stems from the finger-pointing divide and rule mantra: it’s them not us, them not us. But of course history refutes as much as it verifies, and we learned that it’s been the Tories all along. Well, some of us did, anyway

With a Conservative government, the general public are always fighting something. Poverty, inequality, 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 the intentionally manufactured recessions that are a key characteristic of every single neoliberal Tory government. 

I think people mistranslate what that something is; they quickly lose sight of what they are fighting, of why they feel fearful.  A loss of identity and sense of belonging is inevitable, because Tory rhetoric is all about outgrouping and othering: dividing, fragmenting society into alienated bite-sized manageable pieces by amplifying an ultimately anomic, pathologically paranoid narrative of sneaking suspicions and hate thy neighbours

The Tories are and always have been psychocrats. They insidiously intrude into people’s everyday thoughts and try to nudge, micro-manage and police them. They 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 and socially damaging authoritarianism.

The man who murdered Jo Cox in cold blood, who shot her, stabbed her, then continued to brutally kick her when she was on the ground, was apparently described as a “loner”. Neighbours expressed their shock at the atrocity he has committed, because he was “quiet” and because he also has a strong work ethic. He tidies people’s gardens and he had said that he believed “hard work” could cure mental illness. That’s a Conservative notion, by the way. Work is now considered to be a “health” outcome. We have a government that wants to put therapists in jobcentres and job coaches in GP surgeries. Not that all hardworking and reserved people are right-wing or murderers, of course. Nor are most people with mental health problems.

He said: “All these [mental health-related] problems are alleviated by doing voluntary work. Getting out of the house and meeting new people is a good thing, but more important in my view is doing physically demanding and useful labour.”

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I wonder how many of those people who readily misjudged Mair because of his superficial politeness and reserved nature would be equally quick to condemn those who cannot work because they are sick and disabled?  Or those so poor that it takes every ounce of energy they have to simply survive, with none spare for cutting people’s hedges or passing on horticultural tips?

The hardworking taxpayer and economic free-rider myth is founded on a false dichotomy, since it is estimated that around 70% of households claim benefits of one kind or another at some point in their lives. In the current climate of poor pay, poor working conditions, job insecurity, and high living costs, the myth of an all pervasive welfare-dependent something for nothing culture is being used to foster prejudice and resentment towards those unfortunate enough to be out of work. It also serves to bolster Right-wing justification narratives that are entirely ideologically driven, which are aimed at dismantling the welfare state, whilst concurrently undermining public support for it.

Thomas Mair was clearly wrong about “hard work” being anything like a positive “mental health outcome” and so are the Tories. It’s frustrating that people don’t pay enough attention to details and look beyond surface appearances. Since when was being “quiet” or submissively “hard working” anything to do with being a decent, humane, moral, empathic and good citizen? And since when did having those qualities exclude the possibility that someone may be a murderer?

As someone with an academic background in psychology (and sociology), and as someone who also worked within mental health services, I have yet to encounter a mental illness that directs people to plan and carry out the brutal murder of their political opponents.

Thomas Mair, it emerges, is a neo-Nazi. He was living quietly, he presented himself to his community as a plausible, calm, respectable character, generating positive public perceptions of himself, whilst arming himself and planning to carry out a murder in a calculated, cold-blooded manner. All of those very dutiful people out there conforming to the frightfully exploitative and alienating Tory redefinition of our social norms, and a narrative that imposes directives of how a small group of authoritarians think we ought to be, seem to fail to recognise how empty such superficial gestures are, and how they lack meaning when they are premised on repression, festering hatred, fear of others and such rage-driven motives. It’s time to take a closer look at what is happening here. Here is where people are getting poorer, more excluded, isolated, more fearful, suspicious, lonelier and angrier by the day. 

And who really bothered to get to know Thomas Mair?

How quickly his local community disassociated themselves from him, preferring instead to see him as some kind of pathological mystery; someone with “mental health problems” hiding in their midst, rather than as a member of the community, as someone living and sharing a realm of intersubjective cultural meanings. Us and them again. He was apparently a pillar of the community, until it was very plain that actually, he wasn’t.

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More than one person killed Jo Cox. Surely our whole, indifferent, ever so competitively individualistic, neoliberal, right-wing, increasingly intolerant, prejudiced society is also culpable. Sure, it was only one person that pulled the trigger of a gun and wielded the knife, but Jo was murdered by a process of unfolding prejudice and hate every bit as much as by the person and weapons chosen and purposefully gathered to carry out the terrible and intentional act. It’s all too easy to dismiss this terrible murder as a random and meaningless act carried out in isolation by a “mentally ill loner” (yet another prejudice), but we must not take the easy option: there is an awful, but far bigger and more important truth to be found in exploring the broader context of these horrific events, difficult though that is. 

The Conservatives (and those further Right) have parochialised both explanations of and responses to the global economic crisis, reducing us to a gossiping around the parish-pump type of politics. Parochialism entails neglect of the interests of identified “outsiders”, and this kind of isolationist tendency has also provided a political platform for nationalism. Parochialism tends to support inter-group hostilities, and it tends to lead to violations of human rights, as we are currently witnessingParochialism directly opposes a fundamental set of [internationally agreed] principles that constitute these rights: namely that all humans beings are of equal worth, and that human rights are universally applicable – they apply to everyone.

Even to the social groups that you don’t like.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that fascists never stop at discriminating against and persecuting the one social group of your choice. Fascists are fascists and tend to discriminate almost indiscriminately. However, fascists generally spare the establishment, curiously enough. Pastor Martin Niemöller famously observed public complicity and the consequences of bystander apathy and silence when he wrote: First they came for the socialistsand I did not speak out – Because I was not a Socialist…”

Of course Britain is not divided by race and culture: it’s divided by wealth inequalities fueled by the government’s ideology, policies and austerity programme.  Blaming people who are unemployed, sick and disabled, refugees and immigrants for the failings of the government has fueled misperceptions that drive support for the far-Right. People complain they can’t get council houses, surely the only really honest question an honest politician ought to ask is: “Why aren’t there more council houses?”

And when there are large numbers of people receiving unemployment benefit or tax credits, then the only honest question to ask is: “Why is the economy failing to provide enough jobs, or pay adequate wages?”

As a society that once promised equality and democracy, we now preside over massive inequalities of wealth: that’s a breeding ground for racism, classism and other vicious resentments.

Hate crime directed at disabled people has risen over the past five years, and is now at the highest level it’s ever been since records began. That’s the kind of society we have become.

Austerity cuts and the steady and deliberate erosion of democratic inclusion have served to awaken the disgruntled beast within people, the one that feeds on anger, disempowerment, demoralisation, fear, resentment and uncertainty. And loss of a sense of meaning and identity.

And wherever antipathy and a degree of enmity exist, the far-Right have always tried to perpetuate, exploit and increase rancour. The fascism of the 20s and 30s gained prominence because it played on wider public fears, manipulating them, and deflecting attention, as ever, from those who are truly to blame for dire social conditions: the ever-greedy elite. There’s a well-established link between political extremism, economic hardship and recession and social cleavages, with the far-Right “anti-system” parties now deceitfully winning the support of those who would never previously have thought of themselves as extremists. 

Such extremism and rancour feeds the disgruntled beast. The political Right have always sought to divide sections of the poor and middle class and set them to fight one against the other; to have us see enemies in our midst which do not exist, so that we see economic policies – the Tory-rigged “free market” competition – as the solution rather than the cause of our problems.

And here we are again.

When you just feed disgruntled beasts, you only end up with beasts.

I’ve often written about the Right’s tendency to infrahumanise, dehumanise and create categories of “others”; scapegoating, using a media manufactured stigma to extend the politics of division and prejudice, and hate-mongering rhetoric.  I’ve also written about how Conservative governments always work to encourage the rise of far-right groups and a toxic climate of nationalism. Thatcher’s government was no different. Now they need to take some responsibility for what that kind of context does to people’s sense of identity and mental health, to social solidarity and community cohesion. They need to take some responsibility for transforming what was a diverse and reasonably tolerant culture into one of labeling and bullying, and ultimately into, dear God, one of murder: Perhaps the Conservatives need to read Gordon Allport’s work about how prejudice escalates and as a reminder from history about the terrible social consequences of that, again.

Gordon Allport studied the psychological and social processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to genocide. In his research of how the Holocaust happened, he describes socio-political processes that foster increasing social prejudice and discrimination and he demonstrates how the unthinkable becomes tenable: it happens incrementally, because of a steady erosion of our moral and rational boundaries, and propaganda-driven changes in our attitudes towards politically defined others, that advances culturally, by almost inscrutable degrees.

Decades of research findings in sociology and psychology inform us that as soon as a group can be defined as an outgroup, people will start to view them differently. The very act of demarcating groups begins a process of ostracisation.

The process always begins with the political scapegoating of a social group and with ideologies that identify that group as  the Other: an “enemy” or a social “burden” in some way. A history of devaluation of the group that becomes the target, authoritarian culture, and the passivity of internal and external witnesses (bystanders) all contribute to the probability that violence against that group will develop, and ultimately, if the process is allowed to continue evolving, extermination of the group being targeted.

Economic recession, uncertainty and political systems on the authoritarian -> totalitarian spectrum contribute to shaping the social conditions that seem to trigger Allport’s escalating scale of prejudice.

Prejudice requires the linguistic downgrading of human life, it requires dehumanising metaphors: a dehumanising socio-political system using a dehumanising language, and it has now become familiar and all-pervasive: it has seeped almost unnoticed into our lives. Because we permitted it to do so. 

‘Though some of us do challenge it, we need the wider public to recognise their moral and rational boundaries are being politically manipulated and systematically pushed. That has consequences. Increasing inequality, poverty, prejudice, discrimination and social injustice and social isolation, decreasing democracy, social inclusion and civic rights are just some such consequences. There are many more, some happening at a profoundly existential level. All at a time when supportive provision is being steadily withdrawn, public and mental health services are in crisis because of the Conservative cuts to funding. And many people are dying as a consequence.

Let’s freeze this, let’s stop and observe the context and full horror of this awful event for a moment, so we can see something of the enormity of the tragic murder of Jo Cox. She was a dedicated Labour MP, who fought tirelessly for social justice. She was just 41 and was taken from a husband and two young children, as well as her friends and constituents. Her final words were “my pain is too much.” Jo’s grieving husband, Brendan, has urged us to “fight the hatred that killed her.”  We must.

It must be time to recognise that each and every one of us bears some responsibility and has some positive contribution to make to the kind of society we live in.

And want to live in.

And surely that society is not the one we witness today.

 

Allport's scale

Adapted from Gordon Allport’s The Nature of Prejudice”

Related 

The Psychological Impact of Austerity – Psychologists Against Austerity

Mainstream politicians ‘clueless on migration debate’, says Jo Cox’s husband – Brendan Cox /  Patrick Wintour

Jo Cox: The Labour MP who campaigned tirelessly for refugees

Jo Cox’s Husband Brendan Pays Moving Tribute To Labour MP After Shooting In Birstall, West Yorkshire

UKIP: Parochialism, Prejudice and Patriotic Ultranationalism

The disgruntled beast

Aktion Arbeitsscheu Reich, Human Rights and infrahumanisation

 


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Frank Field’s New Report: Fixing Broken Britain?

 

In a study report that was published today – Fixing Broken Britain? An audit of working-age welfare reform since 2010, Labour MP Frank Field and co-author Andrew Forsey argue that: 

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills should take a lead role in tackling the dependence of employers and landlords, whose subsidies in the form of tax credits and Housing Benefit have grown exponentially, by raising wages and productivity.

… the next front in welfare reform will see a fundamental switch from the Department for Work and Pensions – historically always responsible for welfare reform – to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, reflecting the new reform agenda.

Field and Forsey, writing for the cross-party think tank Civitas, propose that the next step of welfare reform:

 … involves a renewed drive to help those who have not yet been found a job under the Work Programme – principally the over-50s and the disabled. This should involve weighting the payment-by-results systems further in favour of those claimants facing the steepest barriers to work. This major task, and the prompt and efficient payment of benefits, should be the primary objective of the Department for Work and Pensions.

We believe the payment-by-results system the government introduced now requires a significant recalibration to give the most disadvantaged participants a fighting chance of getting and keeping a job.

The language used in the publication is controversial and I was both concerned and disappointed to see the phrase “welfare dependency” used more than once. It alludes to the Conservative claims of a so-called “culture of dependency”, for which there has never been any supportive empirical evidence presented, (and that’s despite Sir Keith Joseph’s notorious best efforts and meticulous but ultimately forlorn research into a neoliberal New Right myth.)

However, there is much empirical evidence to support structural explanations of unemployment and poverty, but the current government has tended to psychopoliticise these issues, blaming the character and attitudes of unemployed people, reflected in language shifts – for example, the frequent use of words such as “worklessness” which implies responsibility and choice – making unfortunate circumstances a very personal  burden – as opposed to “unemployment”, which at least accommodates factors such as labour market constraints, economic conditions, structural inequalities, state responsibilities and the consequences of political decision-making.

Field and Forsey also recommend “identifying claimants’ strengths and difficulties” as early as possible once they begin claiming benefit; early referrals to the new Work and Health Programme for those on any benefit in most need of support; and lifting the cap on numbers who can enrol on the voluntary welfare-to-work programme for claimants with disabilities, and extending the time for which they can participate.

The problem is that referrals are unlikely to be on a voluntary basis. One of the aims of the Work and Health Programme is to enlist the support of GPs in “prescribing” work coaches to sick and disabled people. Given the confidential nature of the patient/doctor relationship, such an intrusive measure is likely to ultimately undermine people’s trust in their GP, and leave sick people who genuinely cannot work feeling harrassed and coerced by the state. There is good evidence that the work programme has not increased sustainable employment outcomes, and furthermore, it has harmed people with mental health problems.

In fairness to Field and Dorsey, they do accommodate some structural factors in their analysis. They say:

A second major new front against benefit dependency involves raising the earnings of low-paid workers, which requires a national productivity strategy that can be built around the new National Living Wage. The major objective here is to prevent yesterday’s workless poor becoming today’s working poor.

The conditionality attached to the receipt of benefit may have made work an easier option, but real wage growth at the bottom end of the labour market has been the missing piece of the government’s welfare reform puzzle.

In order to enshrine work as the best route out of poverty, the next front in welfare reform must build upon the National Living Wage to deliver the higher productivity that can sustain rising real incomes across the board. This policy needs to be driven by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Field and Forsey criticise Universal Credit, stating that if it is ever rolled out nationally, it will not “incentivise” work.  They go on to say:

The government’s flagship welfare scheme will only deliver a lower marginal tax rate for certain groups of claimants and even for them it will be undermined by Universal Credit’s failure to encompass council tax support and free school meals.

Because of Universal Credit’s higher taper rate for many claimants the strategy of fixing “broken Britain” by offering lower withdrawal rates than the current system lies in ruins.

If creating an incentive to work is the goal the present system for the vast majority of claimants meets that goal more effectively. Any reduction in the marginal tax rate will only come for particular groups of Universal Credit claimants should the benefit be introduced.

But then, the failure of Universal Credit to encompass also Council Tax support and free school meals will throw all of these calculations into a mild chaos, to put it at its gentlest.

However, it’s clear that the whole point of Universal Credit is to facilitate a further withdrawal of funding for welfare support.

Field and Forsey argue in the report that because there is little prospect of Universal Credit being rolled out fully by 2020,  George Osborne should act now to “protect lower-paid families with children within the framework of the welfare cuts he is planning.”

They formulate a five-point plan for in-work benefit reform in the current parliament:

  • The tax credit system should be centred on lower-paid workers with children, with entitlements to families earning up to twice the level of the National Living Wage, a ceiling of £32,000.
  • By 2020, childless couples and single workers without children should no longer be eligible for support from the tax credit system.
  • Jobcentre Plus should be revamped so that staff have the skills to help claimants in work increase their hours and/or pay, either in their current job or by finding a new one.
  • Tax credit claimants should be allowed to increase their earnings by up to £5,000 in any 18-month period without any clawback of entitlement, so that they do not lose large chunks of income for working more or for better pay.
  • Vulnerable workers who cannot currently work a full week should be allowed to work up to 24 hours a week and claim Jobseeker’s Allowance or Employment and Support Allowance, rather than the current 16-hour maximum.

They say:

These five reforms would be much more effective in protecting those in work on modest earnings than anything the government is proposing. They build around the revolutionary idea the chancellor has introduced into British politics, particularly welfare reform, namely of introducing a National Living Wage.

This move begins the process of transferring the responsibility for lower earners’ welfare to employers and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and away from the Department for Work and Pensions and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs.

However, this is a heavily corporate-sponsored “business friendly” neoliberal government with a clear anti-welfare agenda. What could possibly go right?

 —

 This post was written for Welfare Weekly, which is a socially responsible and ethical news provider, specialising in social welfare related news and opinion.

The new social prescribing: ask not what your government can do for you

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I have a background in community work and have always seen it as a progressive mechanism for social transformation; challenging oppression; extending inclusion and democracy; offering learning and personal growth opportunities; empowerment, social justice, equity, fairness, participation, self-determination, amongst many other things. Communities potentially provide essential support for individuals, groups and organisations, and opportunities for reciprocity. Good community work promotes human development, and fosters civic responsibility through solidarity, cooperation and mutual aid.

Social prescribing is basically a community-based referral: it’s a means of enabling primary care services to refer patients with psycho-social, emotional or practical needs to a range of local, non-clinical services, often provided by the voluntary and community sector, and it’s aim is to improve people’s mental health, physical health and wellbeing, using community interventions.

In practice this means that GPs, nurses and other healthcare practitioners work with patients to identify non-medical opportunities or interventions that will help, improving support and the wider social aspects of their lives. The services that patients can choose from include everything from debt counselling, support groups, allotments and walking clubs, to community cooking classes and one-to-one coaching. Both evidence and commons sense suggests that social prescribing may be particularly appropriate and beneficial for isolated, marginalised groups. And needs-led community provision that supports and enhances psychosocial health and wellbeing is an excellent idea.

Poor mental health is often correlated 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 more effective (Orford, 2008).

So far so good.

I had the following message yesterday from friend and fellow writer, Linda:

“I have received an email from my local Tory MP letting me (and other constituents) know that he is going to be setting up a ‘Mental Health Surgery’ Hub with a ‘Mental Health Expert’ who will be handing out ‘social Prescriptions’ as he says he is aware that many mental health problems are caused by ‘Social Problems’. Im wondering if there is perhaps a wider agenda from the Conservatives.”

This is the relevant paragraph taken from his email:

“Since my election in May I have been surprised at the number of my constituents with different mental health issues, so much so I am looking to run a surgery ‘hub’ with a mental health specialist so people can drop in and have their needs assessed and be issued with a form of ‘social prescription’. I recognise many mental health issues are caused or exacerbated by social factors so sometimes a social solution can be more effective than a medical one.

I did a little research.

The 2010 Marmot Review (Fair Society, Healthy Lives) of health inequalities identified social prescribing as an, “approach [that] facilitates greater participation of patients and citizens and support in developing health literacy and improving health and wellbeing”.

It identified additional NHS healthcare costs linked to inequality as being well in excess of £5.5 billion per year. It is claimed that social prescriptions can cut the NHS bill.

However, despite the growing popularity of social prescriptions amongst cash and resource-strapped professionals, the University of York has surprisingly produced research to show that there is little good quality evidence that social prescribing is cost-effective.

But the thing that bothers me the most is the link that the Conservative government have made between social prescriptions, cost-cutting and (as I deeply suspected) as a mechanism of extending behavioural modification (euphemistically called “nudging” by the government’s team of behavioural economists and decision-making “experts”).

I read several current reviews of social precribing, each mentioning both criteria in recommendations for “success.”:

“The work of social prescribing health trainers fits with the approach of the Coalition Government as described in its White Paper on Public Health which emphasises the need to ‘build people’s self esteem and confidence’ in order to bring about changes in behaviour.”

It also fits with the Marmot Review’s recommendation on tackling the social problems that undermine health and with the Coalition Government’s approach to behaviour change as outlined in recent publications such as MINDSPACE.” (Link added by me.)

and:

“In times when finances are under pressure and the NHS is charged with achieving ‘better for less’, primary care needs to be looking at how to do things differently.”

Nesta, who now partly own the Government’s Behavioural Insights Team (the Nudge Unit) are of course at the forefront of promoting social prescriptions amongst medical professionals, firmly linking what is very good idea with very anti-democratic Conservative notions of behaviour change, citizen responsibility and small-state ideology. So, it’s no longer just about helping people to access a wider range of community-based services and support, social prescribing has also places strong emphasis on “encouraging patients to think about how they can take better care of themselves.”

Of course, there is what may easily be construed as a whopping self-serving process of linking behavioural change with social prescribing, opening some potentially very lucrative opportunities for Nesta.  

However, taken at face value, the idea of promoting patient participation in their own care sounds very democratic and reasonable. Common sense, in fact.

In this context, social prescribing can be seen as a logical extention of the Biopsychosocial model (BPS) of ill health. The biological component of the model is based on a traditional allopathic (bio-medical) approach to health. The social part of the model investigates how different social factors such as socioeconomic status, culture and poverty impact on health. The psychological component of the biopsychosocial model looks for potential psychological causes for a health problem such as lack of self-control, difficulties with coping, emotional turmoil, and negative thinking.

Of course a major criticism is that the BPS model has been used to disingenuously trivialise and euphemise serious physical illnesses, implying either a psychosomatic basis or reducing symptoms to nothing more than a presentation of malingering tactics. This ploy has been exploited by medical insurance companies (infamously by Unum Provident in the USA) and government welfare departments keen to limit or deny access to medical, social care and social security payments, and to manufacture ideologically determined outcomes that are not at all in the best interests of patients, invalidating diagnoses, people’s experience and accounts, and the existence of serious medical conditions.

Unum was involved in advising the government on making the devastating cuts to disabled people’s support in the UK’s controversial Welfare Reform Bill. (See also: The influence of the private insurance industry on the UK welfare reforms.)

Secondly, this is a government that tends to emphasise citizen responsibilities over rights, moralising and psychologizing social problems, whilst quietly editing out government responsibilities and democratic obligations towards citizens.

For example, poverty, which is caused by political decisions affecting socioeconomic outcomes, is described by the Conservatives, using elaborate victim-blame narratives, and this is particularly objectionable at a time when inequality has never been greater in the UK. Poverty may only be properly seen in a structural context, including account of the exclusion and oppression experienced by those living in poverty, the global neoliberal order, the gender order, the disability, racial, sexual and other orders which frame social life and precipitate poverty in complex and diverse ways. It’s down to policy-makers to address the structural origins of poverty, not the poor, who are the casualities of politically imposed structural constraints.

In this context, social prescriptions are used to maintain the status quo, and are likely to be part of a broader process of responsibility ascription – based on the traditional Conservative maxim of self-help, which is used to prop up fiscal discipline and public funding cuts, the extensive privatisation of public services, defense of private property and privilege, and of course, the free market. The irony of the New Right, neoliberal, paternalistic libertarianism is that the associated policies are not remotely libertarian. They are strongly authoritarian. It’s a government that doesn’t respond to public needs, but rather, it’s one that pre-determines public interests to fit within an ideological framework

A government that regards individuals as the architects of their own misfortune tends to formulate policies that act upon individuals to change their behaviour, rather than to address the structural constraints (and meet public needs,) such as social injustice and unequal access to resources. This isn’t a government prepared to meet public needs at all. Instead it’s a government that expects citizens to change their behaviour to accommodate the government’s ideologically directed needs.

That approach flies in the face of established professional community work values and principles.

Poor people suffering mental ill health because we live in a society that is extremely unequal, are blamed by the government for the “symptoms” of their poverty – poor eating habits and “lifestyle choices”. But poverty is all about limited choices, which is itself not a “lifestyle choice.” No-one actually chooses to be poor. Government policies, social structures and systemic failures create poverty.

The Conservatives extend an economic Darwinism, coupled with an extremely intrusive disciplinary approach, mass surveillance and a stigmatising rhetoric, whilst moralising a free-market framework that constrains many and preserves the privilege of a few. The absurdity is this: if an economic framework isn’t meeting the needs of a population, it isn’t an adequate response for the government to act upon citizens who have become casualities of that framework, to persuade or coerce people into fitting within an increasingly harmful and useless socioecomomic ideology.

There is a clear correlation with low socioeconomic status and poor mental health. Poverty is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon, encompassing the lack of means to satisfy basic needs, lack of control over resources, often, a lack of access to education, exclusion from opportunities, and poor health. Poverty is intrinsically alienating and distressing, and of particular concern are the direct and indirect effects of poverty on the development of psychosocial stress. (See also: The Psychological Impact of Austerity – Psychologists Against Austerity.)

State “therapy” aimed at changing the behaviour of individuals diverts attention from growing inequality, and from policies that are creating circumstances of absolute poverty. It also diverts attention from the fact that if people cannot meet their basic physiological needs, they cannot possibly be “incentivised” to meet higher level psychosocial ones. 

I wrote a critical analysis of the government proposal to introduce Cognitive Behaviour Therapists to deliver state “therapy” in job centres earlier this year, with the sole aim of improving “employment outcomes.” There is also an extensive critique of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) included in the article, along with some discussion about the merits of community work, which is very relevant to this discussion. (See: The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting.)

I also wrote earlier this year about how the government has stigmatised and redefined unemployment, problematizing and re-categorising it as an individual psychological disorder. Both articles are very pertinent to this discusion. (See: Stigmatising unemployment: the government has redefined it as a psychological disorders.)

Welfare has been redefined: it is a now a reflecton of a government pre-occupied 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.

Many psychosocial 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.

It’s all too often the case that good ideas are placed in political ideological frameworks, distorted, and are then applied to simply justify and prop up dogma.

Meanwhile, mental health services are facing crisis because of budget cuts by this government, Local Authorities and community services have also been cut to the bone. (See: The cost of the cuts: the impact on local government and poorer communities.) Those with mental health problems are stranded on an ever-shrinking island.

Policy initiatives such as social prescriptions, which focus on how to remediate problems at an individual level, seeing both poverty and mental illness, for example, as simply states of being – rather than dealing with the generative political and economic practices and social relations framework which precipitated that state in the first place, effectively depoliticises political problems leaving people with an internalised state of oppression, disabling them from taking effective action.

The political refusal to permit people to voice their concerns and anxieties in political rather than personal terms further exacerbates sociopolitical marginalisation, low status, it breaks a sense of connectedness with others and wider communities, it reinforces a sense isolation and of personal responsibility for circumstances that are politically constructed and disowned.

 

The Psychological Impact of Austerity – Psychologists Against Austerity

Image result for psychologists against austerity

A recent report from the Psychologists Against Austerity collective directly links cuts to public services with mental health problems.

Well-established psychological research that explains these links already exists. However, this knowledge has been missing from the debate on austerity so far.

Psychologists are often in a position to see the effects that social and economic changes have on people. We also occupy a relatively powerful position as professionals and therefore have an ethical responsibility to speak out about these effects.

Introduction

The Coalition government since 2010 has implemented a program of cuts to public services and welfare that has disproportionately affected  the most vulnerable people in our society in the name of ‘Austerity’. Measures like the bedroom tax, cuts to disability benefits, the introduction of Universal Credit and cuts to local government, social services and NHS budgets have been presented by the Coalition as necessary to the UK’s economic recovery.

Ideas like ‘the nation has maxed out its credit card’ and austerity as a painful but necessary medicine have been used to frame these policy choices as unavoidable and moral.

We argue that recent cuts are both avoidable and immoral. As psychologists we are often in a position to see the effects that societal and economic conditions have on people.

Psychologists also occupy a relatively powerful position as professionals with access to resources like theory and research and therefore have an ethical responsibility to speak about these effects. Indeed, according to the British Psychological Society (BPS) code of ethics, part of the standard for competence is sensitivity to developments in our social and political context.

It is imperative to take into account the psychological costs of austerity for individuals and communities. Psychological impacts of recent austerity policies have been little discussed in media and policy debates, yet there is clear and robust research linking recent austerity policies with damaging psychological outcomes.

Work at an epidemiological level on social determinants of health like the Marmot Review and The Spirit Level shows robust evidence for the effects of social inequality on health, including emotional well-being. Mental health problems are associated with markers of low income and social economic status in all the developed nations, no matter which indicator is used. There are indications of higher levels of mental health problems following austerity, with a rise in antidepressant prescriptions, and GPs reporting increasing numbers of mental health appointments, and a rise in male suicides.

Since the financial crisis, suicides have increased in European countries that have adopted austerity policies (UK, Greece, Spain and Portugal), but not in those who have protected their welfare state (Iceland and Germany). In this paper, we assume that the emotional well-being of societies and individuals is determined by multiple factors that interact with each another. These include economic, societal, familial, psychological and biological influences.

We use the terms ‘emotional well-being’, ‘distress’ and ‘mental health problems’ rather than ‘mental illness’. This is because there is disagreement about whether emotional difficulties are best understood as a product of individual pathology, or a consequence of toxic environments and difficult life experiences. We use diagnostic terminology as a proxy for a wide range of experiences of distress, which are biographically unique. As psychologists, we believe that the diagnostic and medical understanding of ‘mental illness’ often neglects socioeconomic context.

As Lynne Friedli says:

“Mental health is produced socially: the presence or absence of mental health is above all a social indicator and therefore requires social, as well as individual solutions.”

Psychological research provides evidence for some of the wide range of pathways by which increasing social inequality and austerity increase emotional distress. In this paper, we have outlined well-established pathways to short and long term psychological damage from austerity policies; we have called these ‘austerity ailments’.

They are:

  • Humiliation and shame
  • Fear and distrust
  • Instability and insecurity
  • Isolation and loneliness
  • Being trapped and powerless

Key conclusions

Austerity policies have damaging psychological costs. Mental health problems are being created in the present, and further problems are being stored for the future.

We have identified five ‘Austerity Ailments’. These are specific ways in which austerity policies impact on mental health. These experiences have been shown to increase mental health problems. Prolonged humiliation following a severe loss trebles the chance of being diagnosed with clinical depression. Job insecurity is as damaging for mental health as unemployment.

Feeling trapped over the long term nearly trebles the chances of being diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Low levels of trust increase the chance of being diagnosed with depression by nearly 50 per cent.

These five ‘ailments’ are indicators of problems in society, of poisonous public policy, weakness of social cohesion and inequalities in power and wealth. We also know what kind of society promotes good health.

Key markers are that societies are equal, participatory and cohesive.

Some important indicators of a psychologically healthy society are:

1. Agency
2. Security
3. Connection
4. Meaning
5. Trust

Mental health isn’t just an individual issue. To create resilience and promote wellbeing, we need to look at the entirety of the social and economic conditions in which people live.

Implications and recommendations

The evidence presented in this report indicates that a range of key psychological experiences can be directly linked to public policy, and are sensitive to macro social and economic changes.

It is therefore crucial that policy makers and service developers consider the psychological impacts of current and future policies. Creating the conditions for wellbeing and resilience directly helps to prevent distress in the short and long term, thereby saving resources and reducing suffering.

 We call for:

  • Social policy that works towards a more equitable and participatory society, to facilitate individual well-being, resilient places, and strong communities.
  •  Policy makers to take into account the psychological impacts of macro social and economic changes.
  • A social security system that empowers and supports, rather than punishing people in times of need.
  • Public services to increase focus on preventing distress, improving citizen participation and social justice, as well as help facilitate the five positive indicators above.
  • Co-production to be one such model of public service reform. This approach harnesses individuals’ and communities’ assets and expertise rather than viewing them just as passive recipients of and burdens on services.
  • A community-led approach to mental health and emotional wellbeing that develops collective responses to individual needs and by doing so works to strengthen communities and build on communal resources.

You can read the full briefing paper here.

 

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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.