Tag: Adam Perkins

Worklessness is not a trait: why blaming and shaming is not a solution – Mireia Borrell-Porta

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The recent controversy around the book The Welfare Trait is part of a long-standing debate on whether poverty is caused by structure or behaviour, writes Mireia Borrell-Porta, a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford.

Here, she offers her own reading of the book and explains why claiming benefits is not simply a question of personality; instead, a number of other factors – including structural economic and environmental – need to be taken into account.

Mireia also cites my own article – Adam Perkins, Conservative narratives and neuroliberalism  – and like me, she draws a parallel with Adam Perkins’s basic antiwelfarist proposition and the New Right supremicist thinking of Charles Murray.

She says: “‘The Welfare Trait’ by Adam Perkins is currently the subject of controversial debate on mainstream and social media. Having been praised (albeit with some nuances) by the Adam Smith Institute and the Spectator, it has been criticised by The Equality Trust and the Guardian among others. The book’s main argument is that welfare benefits are a ‘production line of unfit children’, and that the welfare state is gradually making new generations ‘resistant to employment.’  This is the result of two phenomena, according to Perkins. First, benefits have the effect of increasing childbirth in workless households more than in working ones. Second, individuals with ‘employment-resistant’ personalities are over-represented among welfare claimants, who then pass these ‘inconvenient traits’ on to their children, making them also less likely to work.”

Mireia goes on to say: “Perkins’ argument is also reminiscent of American conservativism from the mid-1970s. A prominent voice at the time was that of political scientist Charles Murray who, concerned with the fact that poverty in the 1970s did not decline and even rose slightly, grew convinced that the culprits were the decline of the husband-wife family and the drop in work levels among the poor. These trends, he argued, were to be traced to a shift in behaviour on the part of individuals who suffered from poverty. He suggested that individuals are generally rational and make their decisions on work and having children depending on the economic incentives of the time. By increasing or decreasing benefits, the welfare state affects such incentives.

In his later writings, personal character was added to these explanations, leading to his claims that the welfare state not only generated perverse incentives, but also enabled certain people to behave as they ‘naturally’ wanted to behave (i.e. allowing them not to work if they did not want to). Personal character was therefore relevant, and at the same time welfare incentives could have a long-term (detrimental) effect on them. His solution was radical: abolish poverty programmes.”

She concludes: “Anyone studying the relationship between behaviour, character or personality and employment should take these variables into account before claiming that ‘the welfare state becomes a production line for damaged kids’. Because, with parental and children behaviour being influenced by the amount of financial resources in a household, the reasonable approach is not to decrease the level of benefits, as Perkins suggests; this is a case for increasing them.”

You can read this excellent artice in full on the LSE site.

Mireia Borrell-Porta is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford. She completed her PhD at the European Institute at the LSE and holds an MSc in European Political Economy from LSE and a BSc in Economics from Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Mireia’s main research interests focus on the interplay between social norms and economic incentives and their joint impact on individual behaviour. Her areas of interest are social policy, and family policy in particular, and political economy. 

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The myth of meritocracy

Related

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

Essentialising marginalised groups and using stigmatising personality constructs to justify dismantling social security is not “science”, it’s psychopolitics

Antisocial personality and lack of conscientiousness is correlated with bogus anti-welfare research

This is an interesting take on Perkins’s book, (and also references my own work –  Adam Perkins, Conservative narratives and neuroliberalism.)

The article is by sociologist Daniel Nehring: Manufactured Controversy: Adam Perkins, the Psychological Imagination and the Marketing of Scholarship

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Antisocial personality and lack of conscientiousness is correlated with bogus anti-welfare research

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Many of us presented extensive and comprehensive rational criticism of Adam Perkin’s book The Welfare Trait, in which Perkins claims to present “scientific proof” that the social security system is creating a generation of work-resistant personalities; that “generous” welfare means that more children are born into disadvantaged households.

According to Perkins, the combination of these two effects means that the welfare state itself is directly increasing, in the long-run, the number of individuals whose personality is leading them to be workshy. He uses these propositions to attempt to add credibility to his lazy, New Right and untenable claim that cutting welfare even further is necessary to prevent poor people from having more children than wealthier people, who are described by Perkins as having solid citizen traits. His work contains many assumptions and prejudices, fundamental methodological flaws, basic logical and mathematical errors, the unconscientious misuse of other researcher’s work, and he dismally fails to support his dismal central proposals and dismal conclusions.

I’m still wondering how studies of mice running around on a wheel can possibly tell us anything about human behaviour, as last time I checked, mice hadn’t evolved to create a welfare state, and had no idea about the complexities concerning the division of labour in capitalist societies. Or power relationships for that matter. Still, there’s nothing like a cage to emphasise exploitative relationships, a life of performance instead of meaning, and the joys of repetitive, pointless tasks that permit only dreams of escape and freedom.

Perkins doesn’t reserve his disdain for people who need social security to mere subtext, his choice of terms and phrases throughout his discourse have an eye-wateringly crude blatancy that simply drips a superficial sense of smug superiority, whilst also inadvertently betraying his own deeper sense of inadequacy. This was also evident in some of his dialogue with critics of his work.

Some of the best criticisms I saw include those of social scientist Andy Fugard, from the University College London (UCL), Jonathan Portes from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, economist Michael O’Connor, international political economist Richard Murphy, fellow blogger and commentator Johnny Void, profilic writer on Bad Science, Ben Goldacre, The Equality Trust, Bernadette Meaden from the Ekklesia think tank, writer and Guardian journalist Dawn Foster, amongst many others.

My own critique was written after I saw the Adam Smith Institute’s original gushing endorsement of Perkins’s spectacularly misanthropic book. I had some discussion with Richard Murphy about it at the time. However, , who wrote the glowing review of The Welfare Trait without actually reading it critically, has since added this to his article:

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With many thanks to @AnitaBellows12 for spotting the addition. Sabisky’s page on the ASI has since been deleted.

The Adam Smith Institute has been the impetus behind Conservative policy agendas and was the primary intellectual drive behind the privatisation of state-owned industries during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, and alongside the Centre for Policy Studies and Institute of Economic Affairs, advanced a neoliberal approach towards public policy on privatisation, taxation, education, and healthcare, and have advocated the replacement of much of the welfare state by private insurance schemes.

That the Institute originally seized upon Perkins’s offensive, prejudiced narrative – a blunt eugenic treatise and toxic brand of psychopolitical New Right antiwelfarism and pseudoscientific neuroliberalism – doesn’t come as a surprise. However, such an embarrassing climbdown in the face of well presented and overwhelming evidence that The Welfare Trait is utter nonsense on stilts leaves us wondering just how much psychopolitical rubbish the think tank have previously got away with peddling.

As Johnny Void points out:“It would take another book to point out all the errors, bias and misuse of evidence in The Welfare Trait which reads more like a fervent conspiracy theory than a piece of academic research.  It is genuinely astonishing, to the point of suspicion, that it received peer review and was published at all.  What is not so surprising is the jubilant reaction of right wing pundits who declared their nasty little prejudices finally proved.”

Perkins misuses the cover and credibility of science to blame the casualities of politically designed socioeconomic systems for their own circumstances and problems and to justify an existing social power and wealth hierarchy. It’s no coincidence that eugenicists like Perkins and their wealthy supporters also share a mutual antipathy for political progressivism, trade unionism, collectivism, notions of altruism and of co-operation and class struggle. Now that is profoundly antisocial.

Perkins likes to discuss at some length other people’s alleged traits and personalities, many of which he makes up as he goes along, such as “solid citizen traits” and “employment-resistant personality”. But perhaps he should pay a little more attention to research into the established dark triad, which is a group of three personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy. And look a little closer to home:

The thing is, I’m only being a little tongue in cheek here. Perkins does not like to be challenged, that quickly became very apparent. I think Perkins’s “analysis” highlights only to well the scale of problems that researchers who lack a genuine work ethic, any degree of conscientiousness, any degree of value-neutrality, methodological credibility, philosophical integrity and academic fluency present us with.

While Perkins’s book conveniently fits with Conservative small state ideology, psychopolitical behaviourist narratives, and “culture of dependency” rhetoric, there has never been evidence to support any of the claims that the welfare state creates social problems or psychological pathologies. Historically, such claims tend to reflect partisan interests and establish dominant moral agendas aimed at culturally isolating social groups, discrediting and spoiling their identities, micromanaging dissent, and then such discourses are used in simply justifying crass inqualities and hierarchies of human worth that have been politically defined and established.

We must also challenge the rise of eugenic ideology, again.

Eugenics and its stable mate, social Darwinism, has always placed different classes and races in hierarchies and arrayed them in terms of socially constructed notions of “inferiority” and “superiority.” Charles Murray’s controversial and thoroughly debunked work The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life presents another example of a discredited right-wing ideological architect, funded by the New Right, who was then used to prop up an authoritarian Conservative antiwelfarist dogma that was also paraded as “science.”

Murray had considerable influence on the New Right Thatcher and Reagan governments. Critics were often dismissed, on the basis that they were identified with “censorious political correctness,” which of course is simply a right-wing attempt to close down genuine debate and stifle criticism. The Bell Curve was part of a wider campaign to justify inequality, racism, sexism, and provided a key theme in Conservative arguments for antiwelfarism and anti-immigration policies.

I’m experiencing a distinct sense of déjà vu.

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Related

Adam Perkins, Conservative narratives and neuroliberalism

Essentialising marginalised groups and using stigmatising personality constructs to justify dismantling social security is not “science”, it’s psychopolitics

Criticisms of Adam Perkins and ‘The Welfare Trait’ – Psychology Brief

Adam Perkins: ‘Welfare dependency can be bred out’ – Dawn Foster, The Guardian

A comment on the use of results from “Does welfare reform affect fertility? Evidence from the UK”, Journal of Population Economics, in Adam Perkins’ book, The Welfare Trait – Mike Brewer

The Welfare Trait – Bernadette Meaden

It’s absurd to tie being ‘workless’ to doing no work. Just ask a mother  – Ben Chu, The Independent

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Essentialising marginalised groups and using stigmatising personality constructs to justify dismantling social security is not “science”, it’s psychopolitics

 

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“It’s fear of the political-correctness brigade that has stopped my colleagues going public — quite sensibly, as it turns out. But I felt I owed it to the taxpayers who are funding the welfare state to publish these data.” Adam Perkins.

Tax payers who “fund the welfare state” are not a discrete class of citizens: most of them come to rely on it as a safety net to ensure they can meet their basic needs at some time in their life. Those currently claiming  social security benefits, who are not all of the same people who did last year or the year before, still contribute to one of the largest sources of revenue for the Treasury – VAT and other stealth taxes, such as council tax. In fact almost all benefits are paid back as taxes. The biggest beneficiaries of welfare are those employed to administrate it, especially the growing number of private sector “providers”.

Adam Perkins wrote a book that attempts to link neurobiology with psychiatry, personality and behavioural epigenetics, Lamarkian evolution, economics, politics and social policy. Having made an impulsive inferential leap across a number of chasmic logical gaps from neurobiology and evolution into the realms of social policy and political science, seemingly unfazed by disciplinary tensions between the natural and social sciences, particularly the considerable scope for paradigmatic incommensurability, he then made a highly politicised complaint that people are criticising his work on the grounds of his highly biased libertarian paternalist framework, his highly partisan New Right social Conservatism and neoliberal antiwelfarist discourse. 

The problem of discrete disciplinary discursive practices and idiomatic semantics, each presenting the problem of complex internal rules of interpretation, was seemingly sidestepped by Perkins, who transported himself with apparent ease simply on leaps of semantic faith to doggedly pursue and reach his neoliberal destination. He is certainly very fluent in the language of New Right Conservatism, it has to be said. I’m certain he must be very good friends with Charles Murray, of the Bell Curve fame during the Thatcher and Reagan era..

Many from across the political spectrum have objected to Perkins’s book because of the strong whiff of eugenics and social Darwinism that has hit the fan, along with the stench of the long-rotten corpse of Nazism. The atrocities associated with essentialising social groups – attributing “natural”, essential characteristics to members of specific culturally defined groups (based on gender, age, ethnic, “racial”, socioeconomic status, for example) – were thought to be long buried under the brutal and horrifying lessons of history, and quite properly considered taboo.

When societies essentialise others, it is assumed that individual differences can be explained by “inherent”, biological, “natural” characteristics shared by members of a group. Essentialising results in thinking, speaking and acting in ways that promote stereotypical and inaccurate interpretations of individual differences. It invariably involves political discourse that decontextualises structural inequality, using narrative that “relocates” it, coercing the responsibility, internalisation and containment of social problems within some individuals and groups. This always involves processes of projection, stigmatising, outgrouping and scapegoating.

Essentialist thinking is anchored in binary conceptual schema – simplistic and dualistic (two-categories: either this – or that) modes of thought. Both classic and contemporary social theorists have identified and challenged essentialist and dualistic ways of thinking about the social world. Essentialising as a process targets and stigmatises minority groups who historically do not have equal access to power in the cultural production and validation of “knowledge”.

In Perkins’s previous co-authored work – Personality and occupational markers of ‘solid citizenship’ are associated with having fewer children, which is a study of associations between personality and reproductive fitness, he claims that such associations may reveal the adaptive significance of human behavioural traits. He says: “What we dub ‘solid-citizenship’ personality characteristics such as self-control, diligence and responsibility may repay study from an evolutionary perspective as they protect against negative life-outcomes.” 

“Perkins et al. tend to regard risk as a synonym of probability and so equate evolutionary fitness with moral hazard.Hubert Huzzah.

Low conscientiousness, criminality, low educational attainment, low occupational status, extraversion, neuroticism, catholicism, a lack of diligence, responsibility, self control and other assigned personality characteristics are then linked with contraception use, and conflated with low socioeconomic status and negative life-outcomes that are curiously isolated from a wider socioeconomic context.

Again, the very idea that citizenship is defined by certain perceived personal qualities associated with conformity and Conservative values indicates Perkins’s tendency to politicise concepts of human “nature”, and conflate them with New Right narratives, reflected in his interests, choice of research topics and demonstrated in the framing of his conclusions. This reflects a wider current tendency towards the political medicalisation of social problems, which shifts public attention from the sociopolitical and economic context of inequality, poverty and social injustice to politically inculpated, marginalised outgroups.

I have written a lengthy critique of Adam Perkin’s controversial book called “The Welfare Trait.” Whilst I have criticised the work because of its quite blatant partisan ideological, political and economic inception and framing, I have also raised other important issues regarding problematic underpinning assumptions, which include commiting a fallacy of inventing fictitious proximal causes for behaviour, such as “perverse incentives,” problems with constructs of personality and difficulties measuring behaviour traits.

Much of the current understanding of personality from a neurobiological perspective places an emphasis on the biochemistry of the behavioural systems of reward, motivation, and punishment. But those are largely extrinsic factors, located, for example, in political and socioeconomic environments, external to the individual, who responds to their context. This theoretical stance is therefore both limited in terms of depth and explanatory coherence and limiting in terms of generating understanding – the study lacks comprehensiveness and methodological rigour – there is very little consideration of confounding variables, for example, which hinders further potential investigation and discovery. It also reflects in part a re-platforming of an over-simplistic Pavlovian behaviourism. Definition and theory of the biological basis of personality is not universally accepted. There are many conflicting theories of personality in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, philosophy, and neuroscience.

Perkins implies that welfare somehow creates personality disorders and “undesirable” traits. However, such pathologies are defined by experiences and behaviours that differ from societal norms and expectations.

Personality disorder (and mental illness) categories are culturally and historically relative. Diagnostic criteria and categories are always open to sociopolitical and economic definition, highly subjective judgments, and are particularly prone to political abuse.

As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, personality traits are notoriously difficult to measure reliably, and it is often far easier to agree on the behaviours that typify a disorder than on the reasons why they occur. As it is, there is debate as to whether or not personality disorders are an objective disorder, a clinical disease, or simply expressions of human distress and ways of coping. At the very least, there are implications regarding diagnoses that raise important questions about context, which include political and social issues such as inequality, poverty, class struggle, oppression, abuse, stigma, scapegoating and other structural impositions.

An over-reliance on a fixed set of behavioural indicators, some have argued, undermines validity, leaving personality disorder categories prone to “construct drift,” as the diagnostic criteria simply don’t provide adequate coverage of the construct they were designed to measure. There are no physical tests that can be carried out to diagnose someone with a personality disorder – there is no single, reliable diagnostic tool such as a blood test, brain scan or genetic test. Diagnosis depends on subjective judgment rather than objective measurement.

Perkins also conflates descriptive statements with prescriptive ones. Moral conclusions can’t be drawn from non-moral premises. In other words, just because someone claims to have knowledge of how the world is or how groups of people are (descriptive statements), this doesn’t automatically prove or demonstrate that he or she knows how the world ought to be (prescriptive statements).

There is a considerable logical gap between the claim that welfare is somehow “creating” some new kind of personality disorder, called “the employment-resistant personality”,  and advocating the withdrawal of support calculated to meet only the basic physiological needs of individuals – social security benefits only cover the costs of food, fuel and shelter.

Perkins does nothing to consider, isolate and explore confounding variables regarding the behaviours and responses of people needing social security support. He claims our current level of support is too high. However empirical evidence clearly indicates it is set far too low to meet people’s physiological needs fully.

Poverty affects people’s mental health as well as their physical health. There is a weight of empirical evidence confirming that food deprivation and income insecurity are profoundly psychologically harmful as well as physiologically damaging. (See the Minnesota semistarvation experiment, for example.) Describing people’s anger, despondency and distress at their circumstances as “antisocial” is profoundly oppressive. The draconian policies that contribute to creating those circumstances are antisocial, not the people impacted by those policies.

Climbing Allport’s Ladder of Prejudice

Since writing my own response to The Welfare Trait I have encountered a surprisingly high number of people in the UK who believe that anyone who can’t work should be left with no money at all to meet their basic survival needs. To clarify, that means they think that not everyone should have a fundamental right to life. My work was labelled “hysterical dogma” by one commentator on the Adam Smith Institute website. I have been very struck by how normalised social Darwinism and related perspectives have become over the last few years, again. And how people that disagree with those views are defined, increasingly as the other. Along with the growing number of other politically defined others. It’s a symptom of an increasingly authoritarian climate.

I was called a “politically correct bleeding heart leftard” by a eugenics advocate on the Telegraph comments section, and was truly baffled that someone could see social conscience, a sense of justice, basic, ordinary qualities of caring, empathy and compassion as somehow pathological qualities. It’s also remarkable that a group of people who claim that sanctions, which entail the removal of people’s means of meeting basic survival needs is “helping” or “supporting” people into work, somehow “fair” and about “making work pay” feel they can lecture anyone else on appropriate language choices, techniques of neutralisation, modes of linguistic behaviourism and censorship.

I have always felt strongly that we have a democratic duty to protect marginalised groups and look out for the cultural underdog –  it’s the oppressed that are denied a voice, their rights, autonomy and identity, not the oppressors. Underdogs are generally seen as casualties of injustice or persecution. They are also most often predicted to be losers in a struggle.

Of course not all underdogs remain underdogs. J.K. Rowling, a lone mother claiming social security, who wrote seven of the best-selling books of all time, created a vulnerable, lovable underdog character, Harry Potter – an oppressed but passionate orphan with character, modesty, integrity and all the best of human qualities. He grew up in a cupboard, wearing oversized hand-me-down clothes and doing accidental bursts of magic to get by. He came to face and fight the forces of evil that had oppressed and terrorised two generations of wizards and witches, and non-magical folk alike.

Jo Rowling had a very difficult seven-year period that left her coping with the death of her mother, who had multiple sclerosis, severe depression, the birth of her first child, divorce from her first husband and relative poverty until she finished the first novel in the series.

What is remarkable about Rowling isn’t her “rags to riches” success, though that is undoubtedly a commendable achievement: it’s the social, moral, and political inspiration she has given to so many, young and old alike, that really stands out, and her considerable philanthropy.

Rowling said: “I wanted Harry to leave our world and find exactly the same problems in the wizarding world. So you have the intent to impose a hierarchy, you have bigotry, and this notion of purity, which is this great fallacy, but it crops up all over the world. People like to think themselves superior and that if they can pride themselves in nothing else they can pride themselves on perceived purity.

Defining a group’s superiority and purity always means defining others as “inferior.”

But is it not normal to care about such issues? Surely that is how we relate to others, our inclination to bond originating from relationships within our families and with significant others, extending to wider communities, and to society as a whole? Yet this way of seeing the world is being pathologised by a growing number of people who see the world only in terms of hierarchies of status and human worth: a raw, “red in tooth and claw” competitive individualism, and always, it seems, for what they can get, how much they can profit and how much they can take from others, rather than what they can give to society.

The general public over the past 5 years have been generally treated by a government of elitist, antidemocratic, cognitive and class supremicists as a political means to an end. Meanwhile people raising genuine concerns about corruption, greed, the stigmatisation of minorities and the growing human rights abuses of marginalised social groups, authoritarianism and so on are ostracised, treated with scorn, ridicule and contempt, and turned into the growing number of Conservative folk devil constructs.

Names such as “extremists”, “raving trot” “loony leftie” “leftard” are bandied around so much now that those using the labels have lost sight of the fact that these are offensive and rude. The really worrying thing is my views are hardly extreme or remotely  radical  – I’m no “commie.” Most people on the political Left are just regular people wanting regular fairness, social justice, equal rights for all, an end to cruel and unnecessary cuts which target only the poorest, and an end to such crass socioeconomic policies that result in massive inequality and poverty. How did being so normal become so non-mainstreamed?

How can it possibly be that to care for the wellbeing of others in our society, and the kind of world our children will inherit from us is somehow wrong, that values of cooperation, mutual aid and compassion are not the norm, that taking a clear ethical position is something to be ashamed of or a reason to be mocked?

The Conservatives have a moralising, rather than a moral political position, and have you noticed that Tory moralising only ever applies to the poorest people and invariably generates public prejudice, discriminatory policies and fosters social divisions?

Political Correctness

It’s a sure sign that the Right have no arguments and critical reasoning to support their fundamental ideological position, that whenever their partisan narratives are challenged by our own narrative, then we are met with blatant attempts to close down debate by a barrage of nasty, resentful, immature name-calling and outrage that is thrown at anyone and everyone that challenges the cultural, epistemological and right-wing ontological status quo and neoliberal doxa.

Some people use the “freedom of speech” plea to justify their prejudice. They say they have a right to express their thoughts. However, speech is an intentional ACT. Hate speech is intended to do harm – it’s used purposefully to intimidate and exclude marginalised, disempowered and vulnerable groups. Hate speech does not “democratise” speech, it tends to monopolise it. Nor is it based on reason, critical thinking or open to debate. Bigotry is a crass parody of opinion and free speech. Furthermore, bigots are conformists – they tend not to have independent thought. Prejudice thrives on Groupthink.

Being inequitable, petty, resentful, vindictive and prejudiced isn’t “being truthful” or “telling it like it is” – a claim which is an increasingly common tactic for the Right – it’s just being inequitable, petty, resentful and prejudiced. And some things are not worth saying. We do have an equal right to express an opinion, but not all opinions are of equal worth. Free speech carries with it some responsibilities.

And the right-wing do frequently dally with hate speech. Hate speech generally is any speech that attacks a person or group on the basis of their race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. In law, hate speech is any speech, gesture or conduct, writing, or display which is forbidden because it may incite violence or prejudicial action against or by a protected individual or group, or because it disparages or intimidates a protected individual or group. Critics have argued that the term “hate speech” is a contemporary example of Newspeak, used to silence critics of social policies that have been poorly implemented in order to appear politically correct.

However, “political correctness” was adopted by US  New Right Conservatives as a pejorative term for all manner of attempts to promote civil rights, multiculturalism and identity politics, particularly, attempts to introduce new terms that sought to leave behind discriminatory baggage attached to older ones, and conversely, to try to make older ones taboo.

Importantly, political correctness arose originally from attempts at making language more culturally inclusive. Critics of political correctness show a curious blindness when it comes to examples of “Conservative correctness.” Most often, the case is entirely ignored, or censorship of the Left is justified as a positive virtue. Perhaps the key argument supporting this form of linguistic and conceptual inclusion is that we still need it, unfortunately. We have a right-wing Logocracy, creating pseudo-reality by prejudicial and discimatory narrative and words. We are witnessing that narrative being embedded in extremely oppressive policies and in their justification.

The negative impacts of hate speech cannot be mitigated by the responses of third-party observers, as hate speech aims at two goals. Firstly, it is an attempt to tell bigots that they are not alone. It validates and reinforces prejudice.

The second purpose of hate speech is to intimidate a targeted minority, leading them to question whether their dignity and social status is secure. In many cases, such intimidation is successful. Furthermore, hate speech is a gateway to harassment and violence. (See Allport’s scale of prejudice, which shows clearly how the Nazis used “freedom of speech” to incite hatred and then to incite genocide.) As Allport’s scale indicates, hate speech and incitement to genocide start from often subtle expressions of prejudice, which advance culturally by almost inscrutable degrees.

The dignity, worth and equality of every individual is the axiom of international human rights. International law condemns statements which deny the equality of all human beings. Article 20(2) of the ICCPR requires states to prohibit hate speech. Hate speech is prohibited by international and national laws, not because it is offensive, but rather, because it amounts to the intentional degradation and repression of groups that have been historically oppressed.

The most effective way to diffuse prejudice is an early preventative approach via dialogue: positive parenting, education and debate. Our schools, media and public figures have a vital part to play in positive role-modelling, like parents, in challenging bigotry, encouraging social solidarity, respect for diversity and in helping to promote understanding and empathy with others.

Hate speech categories are NOT about “disagreement” or “offence.” Hate speech doesn’t invite debate. It’s about using speech to intentionally oppress others. It escalates when permitted, into harassment and violence. We learned this from history, and formulated human rights as a consequence. In this context, political correctness is about inclusive free speech, with rationality, critical thinking, democratic civility and a degree of mutual respect chucked in.

I’m proud to be a part of an ethical, rational, reasonable, decent and civilised Left-wing.

And politically correct?

Damn right I am.

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Freedom of speech isn’t about shouting the loudest, trying to intimidate, silence and disempower others or having the last word.

 

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Adam Perkins, Conservative narratives and neuroliberalism

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Eugenics in a ball gown

I had a little discussion with Richard Murphy yesterday, and I mentioned that the right-wing libertarian think tank, the Adam Smith Institute, (ASI) has endorsed* the controversial work of Adam Perkins – The Welfare Trait.” The ASI has been the impetus behind Conservative policy agendas and was the primary intellectual drive behind the privatisation of state-owned industries during the premiership of Margaret Thatcher, and alongside the Centre for Policy Studies and Institute of Economic Affairs, advanced a neoliberal approach towards public policy on privatisation, taxation, education, and healthcare, and have advocated the replacement of much of the welfare state by private insurance schemes.

(*The ASI review, written by Andrew Sabisky, was removed following wide criticism of Perkins’ methodology and other major flaws in his work. Consequently, the original hyperlink leads nowhere, so I’ve added an archived capture, to update.) 

Professor Richard Murphy, a widely respected political economist and commentator, has written an excellent article: The Adam Smith Institute is now willing to argue that those on benefits are genetically different to the rest of us on the Tax Research UK site, which I urge you to read. 

He says “What you see in this is the deliberate construction of an argument that those on benefits are genetically different from other people. The consequences that follow are inevitable and were all too apparent in the 1930s. And this comes from a UK think tank much beloved for Tory politicians.”

The Adam Smith Institute say this in their review of Adam Perkins’s book:

“With praiseworthy boldness, Perkins gets off the fence and recommends concrete policy solutions for the problems that he identifies, arguing that governments should try to adjust the generosity of welfare payments to the point where habitual claimants do not have greater fertility than those customarily employed. The book no doubt went to press before the Chancellor announced plans to limit child tax credits to a household’s first two children, but such a measure is very much in the spirit of this bullet-biting book. The explicit targeting of fertility as a goal of welfare policy, however, goes beyond current government policy. Perkins perhaps should also have argued for measures to boost the fertility of those with pro-social personalities, such as deregulation of the childcare and housing markets to cut the costs of sustainable family formation.”

And: “Over time, therefore, the work motivation of the general population is lowered. This occurs through both genetic and environmental channels. Personality traits are substantially heritable (meaning that a decent percentage of the variation in these traits is due to naturally occurring genetic variation). Given this fact, habitual welfare claimants with employment-resistant personalities are likely to have offspring with similar personalities.”

Personality disorder or simply maintaining the social order?

Two things concern me immediately. Firstly, there is no causal link established between welfare provision and “personality disorder” or “traits”, bearing in mind that the “employment-resistant personality” is an entirely made-up category and does not feature as a clinical classification in either the ICD-10 section on mental and behavioural disorders, or in the DSM-5. Nor is employment status currently part of any clinical diagnostic criteria. Personality disorders are defined by experiences and behaviours that differ from societal norms and expectations.

Personality disorder (and mental illness) categories are therefore culturally and historically relative. Diagnostic criteria and categories are always open to sociopolitical and economic definition, highly subjective judgments, and are particularly prone to political abuse.

Drapetomania” for example, was a pseudoscientific definition of a mental illness that labelled slaves who fled captivity in the 1800s. Samuel A. Cartwright, who invented the category, also prescribed a remedy. He said: “with proper medical advice, strictly followed, this troublesome practice that many Negroes have of running away can be almost entirely prevented. In the case of slaves “sulky and dissatisfied without cause” – apparently a warning sign of their imminent flight – Cartwright prescribed “whipping the devil out of them” as a “preventative measure.” As a further “remedy” for this “disease”, doctors also made running a physical impossibility by prescribing the removal of both big toes. Such abusive application of psychiatry and the medicalisation of distress and rational responses to ethnic degradation and dehumanisation is part of the edifice of scientific racism.

The classification of homosexuality as a mental illness was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in 1974, and was replaced by the subsequent categories of “sexual orientation disturbance” and then “ego-dystonic homosexuality,” the latter was not deleted from the manual until 1987. Medicalising and stigmatising the experiences, behaviours and beliefs of marginalised social groups, and attempting to discredit and invalidate those group’s collective experiences is a key feature of political and cultural oppression.

Personality traits are notoriously difficult to measure reliably, and it is often far easier to agree on the behaviours that typify a disorder than on the reasons why they occur. As it is, there is debate as to whether or not personality disorders are an objective disorder, a clinical disease, or simply expressions of human distress and ways of coping. At the very least, there are implications regarding diagnoses that raise important questions about context, which include political and social issues such as inequality, poverty, class struggle, oppression, abuse, stigma, scapegoating and other structural impositions.

An over-reliance on a fixed set of behavioural indicators, some have argued, undermines validity, leaving personality disorder categories prone to “construct drift,” as the diagnostic criteria simply don’t provide adequate coverage of the construct they were designed to measure. There are no physical tests that can be carried out to diagnose someone with a personality disorder – there is no single, reliable diagnostic tool such as a blood test, brain scan or genetic test. Diagnosis depends on subjective judgment rather than objective measurement.

A diagnosis of personality disorder is potentially very damaging and creates further problems for individuals by undermining their sense of self, denying their identity, experience and locating the problems, regardless of their origin and who is responsible for them, in themselves. This is in addition to exposing people to stigma and discrimination, both within the mental health system, quite often, and more broadly within our society. Medicalising and stigmatising human distress permits society to look the other way, losing sight of an individual’s social needs, experiences and context. It also alienates the stigmatised individual, and enforces social conformity, compliance and cultural homogeneity.

It may be argued that the concept of personality disorder obscures wider social issues of neglect, poverty, inequality, power relationships, oppression and abuse by focusing on the labelling of the individual. Rather than being concerned with the impact and prevalence of these issues, public outrage is focussed on containing and controlling people who challenge normative consensus and who are perceived to be dangerous. Because there is no objective test to make a diagnosis, this makes the basis of such diagnosis very questionable and highlights the propensity for its political and punitive usage. The “diagnosis” of many political dissidents in the Soviet Union with “sluggish schizophrenia” who were subsequently subjected to inhumane “treatments” led to questions about such diagnoses and punitive regimes through stigma, labeling, dehumanisation, coercion and oppression, for example.

Secondly, to recommend such specific policies on the basis of this essentially eugenic argument betrays Perkins’s intention to provide a pseudoscientific prop for the libertarian paternalist (with the emphasis being on behaviourism) brand of neoliberalism and New Right antiwelfarism.

The taken-for-granted assumption that the work ethic and paid labor (regardless of its quality) may define a person’s worth is also very problematic, as it objectifies human subjects, reducing people to being little more than neoliberal commodities. Or a disposable reserve army of labor, at the mercy of “free market” requirements, if you prefer.

The government is currently at the centre of a United Nations inquiry into abuses of the human rights of ill and disabled people, and is also in breach of the rights of women and children, because of their anti-humanist, draconian welfare “reforms”. Human rights are the bedrock of democracy. The fact that some social groups are experiencing political discrimination and the failure of a government in a wealthy first-world liberal democracy to observe what are meant to be universal human rights ought to be cause for concern.

The rise of neoeugenics

Holocaust documentation has highlighted that the medicalisation of social problems and systematic euthanasia of people in German mental institutions in the 1930s provided the institutional, procedural, and doctrinal origins of the genocide of the 1940s. Eugenics in Germany was founded on notions of “scientific progress,” and was about ensuring mental, racial and genetic “hygiene” and “improving” the German race, which ultimately led to eliminativist attitudes towards politically defined “impure” others.

Eugenics is a theory of the possibility of improving the qualities of the human species or a particular population. It encourages the reproduction of persons with socially defined “desirable genetic qualities” and discourages the reproduction of persons with socially defined “undesirable genetic qualities.” Taken to its most extreme form, eugenics supports the extermination of some groups who some others consider to be “undesirable” population.

One example of eugenic policy is the recent limiting of tax credit support for children in poorer families to two children only. Iain Duncan Smith said that this is to encourage “behavioural change” to prevent poorer families having “too many” children.

Eugenics is widely considered as a movement that endorses human rights violations of some social groups. At the very least, eugenic policy entails violations of privacy, the right to found a family, the right to freedom from discrimination, the right to socioeconomic security and social protection, and at worst, violations of the right to life.

I have frequently referred to Gordon Allport in my writing. He was a social psychologist who studied the psychological and social processes that create a society’s progression from prejudice and discrimination to genocide. Allport’s important work reminds us of the lessons learned from politically-directed human atrocities and the parts of our collective history it seems we would prefer to forget.

In his research of how the Holocaust happened, Allport describes sociopolitical 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, all of which 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 “undesirable” and 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.

Othering is recognised in social psychology as part of an outgrouping process that demarcates those that are thought to be different from oneself or the mainstream, most often using stigmatising to generate public moral outrage. It tends to reinforce and reproduce positions of domination and subordination. Othering historically draws on essentialising explanations, culturalist explanations, behavioural explanations, genetic explanations and racialising explanations.

Hate crime, eugenics and Allport’s ladder

In the UK, much of the media is certainly being used by the right-wing as an outlet for blatant political propaganda, and much of it is manifested as a pathological persuasion to hate others. We are bombarded with anti-muslim rhetoric, “poverty porn”, headlines that condemn people needing social security as “workshy” and “scroungers.” The political scapegoating narrative directed at ill and disabled people has resulted in a steep rise in hate crimes directed at that group. By 2012, hate crime incidents against disabled people had risen to record levels, and has continued to climb ever since, rising by a further 41% last year alone. We are certainly climbing Allport’s ladder of prejudice.

A freedom of information request to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) discloses that between 2010 and 2015 the government closed 1,041,219 alleged cases of benefit fraud put forward by the public. Insufficient or no evidence of fraud was discovered in 887,468 of these. In 2015 alone, of the 153,038 cases closed by the DWP’s Fraud and Error Service, 132,772 led to no action. People can use an online form on the DWP website to anonymously report “suspects,” listing their eye colour, piercings, scars, tattoos and other details they deem relevant. Suspicions can also be logged through the DWP benefit fraud hotline.

The inaccurate reports throws into question multiple government advertising campaigns, claiming that the public has a “role” in identifying “benefit cheats”. Television adverts, social media posts, letters and radio campaigns have been used to warn claimants about fraudulently claiming benefits. Government statistics show fraudulent claims accounted for 0.7% – or £1.2bn – of total benefit expenditure in the financial year 2012-2013. Some of that figure may also contain a proportion of DWP errors. An estimated £1.6bn was underpaid to claimants by the DWP. Yet people’s neighbours are being encouraged to engage in a McCarthy-style reporting of suspected benefit fraud. And a significant proportion of the public are reporting innocent citizens.

There is considerable incongruence between cases of genuine fraud and public perception: an Ipsos Mori survey in 2013 found the public believed 24% of benefits were fraudulently claimed – 34 times greater than the level seen in official statistics.

The political construction of social problems also marks an era of increasing state control of citizens with behaviour modification techniques, (under the guise of paternalistic libertarianism) all of which are a part of the process of restricting access rights to welfare provision.

The mainstream media has been complicit in the process of constructing folk devils: establishing stigmatised, deviant welfare stereotypes and in engaging prejudice and generating moral outrage from the public:

“If working people ever get to discover where their tax money really ends up, at a time when they find it tough enough to feed their own families, let alone those of workshy scroungers, then that’ll be the end of the line for our welfare state gravy train.” James Delingpole 2014

Poverty cannot be explained away by reference to simple narratives of the workshy scrounger as Delingpole claims, no matter how much he would like to apply such simplistic, blunt, stigmatising, dehumanising labels that originated from the Nazis (see arbeitssheu.)

The Conservatives have strongly authoritarian tendencies, and that is most evident in their anti-democratic approach to policy, human rights, equality, social inclusion and processes of government accountability.

Conservative policies are entirely ideologically driven. It is a government that is manipulating public prejudice to justify massive socioeconomic inequalities and their own policies which are creating a steeply hierarchical society based on social Darwinist survival of the wealthiest “libertarian” principles. We have a government that frequently uses words like workshy to describe vulnerable social groups.

Conservative narrative and eugenics

This is a government intentionally scapegoating poor, unemployed, disabled people and migrants. A few years ago, a Tory councillor said that “the best thing for disabled children is the guillotine.” More recently, another Tory councillor called for the extermination of gypsies, more than one Tory (for example, Lord Freud, Philip Davies) have called for illegal and discriminatory levels of pay for disabled people, claiming that we are not worth a minimum wage to employers.

These weren’t “slips”, it’s patently clear that the Tories believe these comments are acceptable, and we need only look at the discriminatory nature of policies such as the legal aid bill, the wider welfare “reforms” and research the consequences of austerity for the poorest and the vulnerable – those with the “least broad shoulders” – to understand that these comments reflect how many Conservatives think.

Occasionally such narrative is misjudged, pushing a little too far against the boundaries of an established idiom of moral outrage, and so meets with public resistance. When this happens, it tends to expose the fault lines of political ideology and psychosocial manipulation, revealing the intentional political creation of folk devils and an extending climate of prejudice.

In EdgbastonKeith Joseph, (1974) announced to the world that:

“The balance of our population, our human stock is threatened … a high and rising proportion of children are being born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring them up. They are born to mothers who were first pregnant in adolescence in social classes 4 and 5. Many of these girls are unmarried, many are deserted or divorced or soon will be. Some are of low intelligence, most of low educational attainment.”

And in 2010, the former deputy chairman of Conservative Party, Lord Howard Flight, told the London Evening Standard:

“We’re going to have a system where the middle classes are discouraged from breeding because it’s jolly expensive. But for those on benefits, there is every incentive. Well, that’s not very sensible.”

In 2013, Dominic Cummings, a senior adviser to the UK Secretary of State for Education, provoked a flurry of complaints about his eugenicist approach, claiming that “a child’s performance has more to do with genetic makeup than the standard of his or her education.”

Steven Rose, Emeritus Professor of Biology, offered a more detailed analysis in New Scientist, concluding:

“Whatever intelligence is, these failures show that to hunt for it in the genes is an endeavour driven more by ideological commitment than either biological or social scientific judgement. To suggest that identifying such genes will enable schools to develop personalised educational programmes to match them, as Cummings does, is sheer fantasy, perhaps masking a desire to return to the old days of the 11 plus. Heritability neither defines nor limits educability.”

Pseudoscience has long been used to attempt to define and explain social problems. Lysenkoism is an excellent example. (The term Lysenkoism is used metaphorically to describe the manipulation or distortion of the scientific process as a way to reach a predetermined conclusion as dictated by an ideological bias, most often related to political objectives. This criticism may apply equally to either ideologically-driven “nature” and “nurture” arguments.)

Eugenics uses the cover and credibility of science to blame the casualities of socioeconomic systems for their own problems and justify an existing social power and wealth hierarchy. It’s no coincidence that eugenicists and their wealthy supporters also share a mutual antipathy for political progressivism, trade unionism, collectivism, notions of altruism and of co-operation and class struggle.

It isn’t what it ought to be

Adam Perkins wrote a book that attempts to link neurobiology with psychiatry, personality and behavioural epigenetics, Lamarkian evolution, economics, politics and social policy. Having made an impulsive inferential leap across a number of chasmic logical gaps from neurobiology and evolution into the realms of social policy and political science, seemingly unfazed by disciplinary tensions between the natural and social sciences, particularly the considerable scope for paradigmatic incommensurability, he then made a highly politicised complaint that people are criticising his work on the grounds of his highly biased libertarian paternalist framework, highly partisan New Right social Conservatism and neoliberal antiwelfarist discourse. 

The problem of discrete disciplinary discursive practices and idiomatic language habits, each presenting the problem of complex internal rules of interpretation, was seemingly sidestepped by Perkins, who transported himself across distinct spheres of meaning simply on leaps of semantic faith to doggedly pursue and reach his neuroliberal antiwelfarist destination. He seems to have missed the critical domain and central controversies of each discipline throughout his journey.

Perhaps he had a theory-laden spirit guide.

Einstein once famously said: “The theory tells you what you may observe.”

On reading Perkins’s central thesis, the is/ought distinction immediately came to mind: moral conclusions – statements of what “ought” to be – cannot be deduced from non-moral premises. In other words, just because someone claims to have knowledge of how the world is or how groups of people are – and how mice are, for that matter, since Perkins shows a tendency to conflate mice behaviour with human behaviour – (descriptive statements), this doesn’t automatically prove or demonstrate that he or she knows how the world ought to be (prescriptive statements).

There is a considerable logical gap between the unsupported claim that welfare is somehow “creating” some new kind of personality disorder, called “the employment-resistant personality”, and advocating the withdrawal of support calculated to meet only the basic physiological needs of individuals – social security benefits only cover the costs of food, fuel and shelter.

While Perkins’s book conveniently fits with Conservative small state ideology, behaviourist narratives, and “culture of dependency” rhetoric, there has never been evidence to support any of the claims that the welfare state creates social problems or psychological pathologies. Historically, such claims tend to reflect partisan interests and establish dominant moral agendas aimed at culturally isolating social groups, discrediting and spoiling their identities, micromanaging dissent, and then such discourses are used in simply justifying crass inequalities and hierarchies of human worth that have been politically defined and established.

It’s truly remarkable that whenever we have a Conservative government, we suddenly witness media coverage of an unprecedented rise in the numbers of poor people who have suddenly seemingly developed a considerable range of personal “ineptitudes” and character “flaws.” Under the Thatcher administration, we witnessed Charles Murray’s discredited pseudoscientific account of “bad” and “good” folk-types taking shape in discriminatory policy and prejudiced political rhetoric.

Social Darwinism has always placed different classes and races in hierarchies and arrayed them in terms of socially constructed notions of “inferiority” and “superiority.” Charles Murray’s controversial work The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life presents another example of a discredited right-wing ideological architect, funded by the right-wing, who was then used to prop up an authoritarian Conservative antiwelfarist dogma that was also paraded as “science.” Murray had considerable influence on the New Right Thatcher and Reagan governments. Critics were often dismissed, on the basis that they were identified with “censorious political correctness,” which of course was simply a right-wing attempt to close down genuine debate and stifle criticism. The Bell Curve was part of a wider campaign to justify inequality, racism, sexism, and provided a key theme in Conservative arguments for antiwelfarism and anti-immigration policies.

A recent comprehensive international study of social safety nets from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard economists refutes the Conservative “scrounger” stereotype and dependency rhetoric. Abhijit Banerjee, Rema Hanna, Gabriel Kreindler, and Benjamin Olken re-analyzed data from seven randomized experiments evaluating cash programs in poor countries and found “no systematic evidence that cash transfer programs discourage work.”

The phrase “welfare dependency” was designed to intentionally divert attention from political prejudice, discrimation via policies and to disperse public sympathies towards the poorest citizens. It is used to justify inequality.

Adam Perkins does nothing to consider, isolate and explore confounding variables regarding the behaviours and responses of people needing social security support. He claims our current level of support is too high. I beg to differ. Empirical evidence clearly indicates it is set much too low to meet people’s physiological needs fully. Poverty affects people’s mental health as well as their physical health. There is a weight of empirical evidence confirming that food deprivation and income insecurity is profoundly psychologically harmful as much as it is physiologically damaging. (See the Minnesota semistarvation experiment, for example.) Describing people’s anger, despondency and distress at their circumstances as “antisocial” is profoundly oppressive. The draconian policies that contribute to creating those circumstances are antisocial, not the people impacted by those policies.

If people can’t meet their basic survival needs, it is extremely unlikely that they will either have the capability or motivation to meet higher level psychosocial needs, including social obligations and responsibilities to find work and meet increasingly Kafkaesque welfare conditionality requirements.

However, people claiming social security support have worked and contributed to society. Most, according to research, are desperate to find work. Most do. It is not the same people year in year out that claim support. There is no discrete class of economic freeriders and “tax payers.” The new and harsh welfare conditionality regime tends to push people into insecure, low paid employment, which establishes a revolving door of work and welfare through no fault of those caught up in it.

There is a clear relationship between human needs, human rights, and social justice. Needs are an important concept that guide empowerment based practices and the concept is intrinsic to social justice. Furthermore, the meeting of physiological and safety needs of citizens ought to be the very foundation of economic justice as well as the development of a democratic society.

The Conservatives (and Perkins) claim that the social security system, which supports the casualties of neoliberal free markets, have somehow created those casualties. But we know that the competitive, market choice-driven Tory policies create a few haves and many have-nots.

As I’ve pointed out many times before, such political rhetoric is designed to have us believe there would be no poor if the welfare state didn’t “create” them. But if 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.

Inequality is a fundamental element of the same meritocracy script that neoliberals so often pull from the top pockets of their bespoke suits. It’s the big contradiction in the smug meritocrat’s competitive individualism narrative. This is why the welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest without restraint, there are always winners and losers. Inequality is a central feature of neoliberalism and social Conservatism, and its cause therefore cannot be located within individuals.

It’s hardly “fair”, therefore, to leave the casualties of competition facing destitution and starvation, with a hefty, cruel and patronising barrage of calculated psychopolicical scapegoating, politically-directed cultural blamestorming, and a coercive, punitive behaviourist approach to the casualities of inbuilt, systemic, inevitable and pre-designated sentences of economic exclusion and poverty.

That would be regressive, uncivilised, profoundly antidemocratic and tyrannical.

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This work was cited and referenced in Challenging the politics of early intervention: Who’s ‘saving’ children and why, by Val Gillies and Rosalind Edwards, here.

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