Tag: behaviour modification

IAPT is value-laden, non-prefigurative, non-dialogic, antidemocratic and reflects a political agenda

arnstein-ladder-citizenship-participation

Arnstein’s ladder of citizen participation and inclusion. It represents the redistribution of power that enables marginalised citizens, presently excluded from the political and economic processes, to be purposefully included in the future.

The government’s Work and Health Programme, due to be rolled out this autumn, involves a plan to integrate health and employment services, aligning the outcome frameworks of health services, Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT), Jobcentre Plus and the Work Programme.

But the government’s aim to prompt public services and commissioned providers to “speak with one voice” is founded on traditional Conservative prejudices about people who need support. This proposed multi-agency approach is reductive, rather than being about formulating expansive, coherent, comprehensive and importantly, responsive mental health provision.

What’s on offer is psychopolitics, not therapy. It’s about (re)defining the experience and reality of a marginalised social group to justify dismantling public services (especially welfare). In linking receipt of welfare with health services and state therapy, with the single politically intended outcome of employment, the government is purposefully conflating citizens’ widely varied needs with economic outcomes and diktats, which will isolate people from traditionally non-partisan networks of unconditional support, such as the health service, social services, community services and mental health services.

Services “speaking with one voice” will invariably make accessing support conditional, and further isolate marginalised social groups. It will damage trust between people needing support and professionals who are meant to deliver essential public services, rather than simply extending government dogma, prejudices and discrimination. And meeting ideologically designed targets.

As neoliberals, the Conservatives see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships hierarchically, based on a model of a competitive market place. This requires a highly invasive power and mechanisms of persuasion, manifested in an authoritarian turn. Public interests are conflated with narrow economic outcomes. Public behaviours are politically micromanaged and modified. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined economic outcomes and politically defined norms are stigmatised and outgrouped. 

Othering and outgrouping have become common political practices, it seems.

The Work and Health Programme is a welfare-to-work programme for people with disabilities, mental health problems and for long-term unemployed people, due to be rolled out in the autumn. In the recent Work, Health and Disability green paper, the government mentioned new mandatory “health and work conversations” in which work coaches will use “specially designed techniques” to “help” those people in the ESA Support Group – those assessed by their own doctors and the state as being unlikely to work in the near future – “identify their health and work goals, draw out their strengths, make realistic plans, and build resilience and motivation.” 

Apparently these “conversations” were “co-designed” by the Behavioural Insights Team.

Democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs.

However, policies increasingly reflect a behaviourist turn. They are no longer about reflecting citizens’ needs: they are increasingly about telling some citizens how to be. This has some profound implications for democracy.

Neoliberal policies increasingly extend behaviour modification techniques that aim to quantifiably change the perceptions and behaviours of citizens, aligning them with narrow neoliberal outcomes through rewards or “consequences.” Rewards, such as tax cuts, are aimed at the wealthiest, whereas the most vulnerable citizens who are the poorest are simply presented with imposed cuts to their lifeline support as an “incentive” to not be poor. Taking money from the poorest is apparently “for their own good”.   

Defining human agency and rationality in terms of economic outcomes is extremely problematic. And dehumanising. Despite the alleged value-neutrality of behavioural economic theory and CBT, both have become invariably biased towards the status quo rather than progressive change and social justice.

Behavoural economics theory has permited policy-makers to indulge ideological impulses whilst presenting them as “objective science.” From a libertarian paternalist perspective, the problems of neoliberalism don’t lie in the market, or in growing inequality and poverty: neoliberalism isn’t flawed, nor are governments – we are. Governments and behavioural economists don’t make mistakes – only citizens do. No-one is nudging the nudgers. It’s assumed that their decision-making is infallible and they have no whopping cognitive biases of their own. 

“There’s no reason to think that markets always drive people to what’s good for them.” Richard Thaler.

There’s no reason whatsoever to think that markets are good for people at all. Let’s not confuse economics with psychology, or competitive individualism and economic Darwinism with collectivism and mutual aid. Behavioural economics may offer us titbit theories explaining individual consumer’s decision making, but it’s been rather unreliable in explaining socioeconomic and political contexts and complex systems such as financial crises, and of course behavioual economists don’t feel the same pressing need to explore the decision making and “cognitive bias” of the handful of people who cause those.

It wasn’t those with mental health problems currently claiming social security. They do much less damage to the economy, in fact IAPT means vulture capitalist private companies like G4S and trusts like Southern Care can turn a profit offering “support”. 

The current emphasis on quantitative methodology and standardisation has led to an overwhelming focus on measurement in IAPT settings. Mental health services are now dominated by IAPT, which focuses exclusively on “evidence-based” and short-term interventions for clients with particular diagnoses – mostly anxiety disorders and depression. Most workers in IAPT services offer CBT, often by minimally trained psychological wellbeing practitioners offering “low-intensity” interventions over few sessions.

Verificationism and standardisation leads to a focus on measurement in IAPT settings. CBT mutes the causes of distress, which do not reside “within” the individual: they are intersubjectively constructed, with cultural, socioeconomic and political dimensions. Furthermore, there is little room left for authentic dialogue – qualitative accounts of client’s experiences are not accommodated. In this context, CBT is authoritarian, rather than being prefigurative and genuinely dialogic.

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

We must question the ethics of linking receipt of welfare with “state therapy,” which, upon closer scrutiny, is not therapy at all. Linked to such a narrow outcome – getting a job – it amounts to little more than a blunt behaviour modification programme. The fact that the Conservatives have planned to make receipt of benefits contingent on participation in “treatment” also worryingly takes away the fundamental right of consent.

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

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

So we need to ask what are the circumstances that we expect people to accept stoically. Socioeconomic inequality? Precarity? 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?  

It’s all very well challenging people’s thoughts but for whom is CBT being used. For what purpose? It seems to me that this is about coercing those people on the wrong side of draconian government policy to accommodate that; to mute negative responses to negative situations. CBT in this context is not based on a genuinely liberational approach, nor is it based on democratic dialogue. It’s 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 tends to generate oversimplifications of the causes human distress. It’s not about helping people make better choices, it’s about coercing people to make the choices that policymakers want them to make. Those “choices” are based on enforced conformity to the ideological commitments of policymakers.

It’s assumed that the causes of unemployment are personal and attitudinal rather than sociopolitical or because of health barriers, 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.

There is also widely held assumption that working is good for mental health, and that being in employment indicates mental wellbeing. It’s well-established that poverty is strongly linked with a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with a mental illness. That does not mean working is therefore somehow “good” for mental health. Encouraging people to work should entail genuine support, it shouldn’t entail taking away their lifeline income as punishment “incentive” if they can’t work.

An adequate level of social security to meet people’s basic survival needs is not mutually exclusive from encouraging people to find a suitable job.

It’s worth noting that research indicates in countries with an adequate social safety net, poor employment (low pay, short-term contracts), rather than “worklessness”, has the biggest detrimental impact on mental health. 

CBT does not address the socioeconomic and political context. It permits society to look the other way, whilst the government continue to present mental illness as an individual weakness or vulnerability, and a consequence of “worklessness” rather than a fairly predictable result of living a distressing, stigmatised, excluded existence and material deprivation in an increasingly unequal society.

Inequality and poverty arise because of ideology and policy-formulated socioeconomic circumstances, but the government have transformed established explanations into a project of constructing behavioural and cognitive problems as “medical diagnoses” for politically created socioeconomic problems. Austerity targets the poorest disproportionately for cuts to income and essential services, it’s one ideologically-driven political decision taken amongst alternative, effective and more humane choices.

Both nudge and CBT are being used to prop up austerity and reflect neoliberal managementspeak at its very worst. Neoliberal policies are causing profound damage, harm and distress to those they were never actually designed to “help”. Let’s not permit techniques of neutralisation: the use of rhetoric to obscure the real intention behind policies. It’s nothing less than political gaslighting.

The government’s profound antiwelfarist rhetoric indicates that there’s no genuine intention to support those people with mental health problems and others in need, despite their semantic thrifts and diversions.

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

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

For people with mental health problems, policies are being formulated to act upon them as if they are objects, rather than autonomous human subjects. Such a dehumanising approach has contributed significantly to a wider process of social outgrouping, increasing stigmatisation and ultimately, to further socioeconomic and mental health inequalities.

It’s the government that need to change their behaviour.

It’s us that need to make a stand against hegemonic neoliberal discourse and injustice.

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This article was written for a zine to mark the protest at the 10th annual New Savoy conference on 15 March in London #newsavoy2017. You can read the zine, with other people’s excellent contributions, here.

Also, see: New Savoy Protest against psycho-compulsion of MH claimants – 15th March 2017.

You can read about the background to the Mental Wealth Alliance and the New Savoy demo and lobby here.

You can watch the video here from Let Me Look TV: Protest at the 10th Annual New Savoy Conference 15 March 2017.

Please share.

Related

The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting

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

A critique of the ‘Origins of Happiness’ study

A critique of Conservative notions of social research

Research finds damaging mental health discrimination ‘built into’ Work Capability Assessment. Again.

The Conservative approach to social research – that way madness lies


 

I don’t make any money from my work. I am disabled because of illness and have a very limited income. The budget didn’t do me any favours at all.

But you can help by making a donation to 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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Dr. Robert J. Lifton’s Eight Criteria for Thought Reform, cult thinking and neoliberalism

behavchange
Dr Robert J. Lifton is a psychologist who studied and identified the techniques of mass persuasion and groupthink used in propaganda and in cults (from political to religious). I found his interesting article about the eight criteria for “thought reform” on the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) site.

What struck me immediately about Lifton’s criteria is how easily they may be applied to neoliberalism – a totalising, authoritarian New Right ideology, imposed by an elite of very financially secure and powerful oppressors. Over the last few years, much of the rest of the population in the UK have experienced growing inequality and increasingly precarious socioeconomic circumstances, exacerbated by class-contingent neoliberal austerity and “small state” policies.

The neoliberal approach to public policy has become naturalised. Political theorist Francis Fukuyama, announced in 1992 that the great ideological battles between “east and west” were over, and that western liberal democracy had triumphed. He was dubbed the “court philosopher of [post-industrial] global capitalism” by John Gray.

In his book The End of History and the Last Man, Fukuyama wrote:

“At the end of history, it is not necessary that all societies become successful liberal societies, merely that they end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society…..What we are witnessing, is not just the end of the cold war, or a passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalisation of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”

I always saw Fukuyama as an ardent champion of ultra-neoliberalism, he disguised his conservatism behind apparently benign virtue words and phrases (as part of a propaganda technique called Glittering Generalities), such as “Man’s universal right to freedom.” 

He meant the same sort of self-interested “freedom” as Ayn Rand: “a free mind and a free market are corollaries.” He meant the same kind of implicit social Darwinist notions long held by Conservatives like Herbert Spencer – where the conditions of the market rather than evolution decides who is “free,” who survives, and as we know, the market is rigged by the invisible hand of government.

Fukuyama’s ideas have been absorbed culturally, and serve to normalise the dominance of the right, and stifle the rationale for critical debate.

Fukuyama’s work is a celebration of neoliberal hegemony. It’s an important work to discuss simply because it has been so widely and tacitly accepted, and because of that, some of the implicit, taken-for-granted assumptions and ramifications need to be made explicit. 

Neoliberalism requires an authoritarian approach to public administration. Rather than an elected government recognising and meeting public needs, instead, we now have a government manipulating citizens to adapt their views, behaviours and circumstances to meet the politically defined needs of the state. This turns democracy on its head. It is also presents us with a political framework that is incompatible with the UK’s international human rights obligations and equality legislation. 

Government policies have become increasingly irrational.  We have a government that has decided work is a health outcome, for example. In an absurd world where medical sick notes have been politically redefined as fit notes, sick and disabled people are apparently no longer exempt from work, which is now held to be a magic “cure”. The only way out of the politically imposed punitive and increasing poverty for those who cannot work is… to work. (See: Let’s keep the job centre out of GP surgeries and the DWP out of our confidential medical records.) 

Neoliberalism has become a doxa in the Western world. Here in the UK, citizen behaviours are being aligned with politically defined neoliberal outcomes, via policies that extend behaviour modification techniques, based on methodological behaviourism. Policies that “incentivise” have become the norm. This is a psychocratic approach to administration: the government are delivering public policies that have an expressed design and aim to act upon individuals, with an implicit set of instructions that inform citizens how they should be

Aversives and punishment protocols are most commonly used. Coercive welfare policies are one example of this. The recent eugenics by stealth policy entailing the restricting of welfare support to two children only is another. Both were introduced with the explicitly stated political intention of “changing behaviours” of poorer citizens. Those that cannot or will not conform are politically stigmatised and outgrouped, as well as being being further “disciplined” by state-imposed economic sanctions.

Another particularly successful way of neutralising opposition to an ideology is to ensure that only those ideas that are consistent with that ideology saturate the media and are presented as orthodoxy. Every Conservative campaign has been a thoroughly dispiriting and ruthless masterclass in media control.

Communication in the media is geared towards establishing a dominant paradigm and maintaining an illusion of a consensus. This ultimately serves to reduce democratic choices. Such tactics are nothing less than a political micro-management of your beliefs and are ultimately aimed at nudging your voting decisions and maintaining a profoundly unbalanced, pathological status quo. (See also: Inverted totalitarianism and neoliberalism.)

As a frame of analysis, Lifton’s criteria are very useful in highlighting parallels between cult thinking and how political dogma may gain an illusion of consensus; how it becomes a dominant paradigm and is accepted as everyday “common sense.” 

Kitty.

Lifton’s criteria for “thought reform” are:

  1. Milieu Control.  This involves the control of information and communication both within the environment and, ultimately, within the individual, resulting in a significant degree of isolation from society at large.

  2. Mystical Manipulation.  There is manipulation of experiences that appear spontaneous but in fact were planned and orchestrated by the group or its leaders in order to demonstrate divine authority or spiritual advancement or some special gift or talent that will then allow the leader to reinterpret events, scripture, and experiences as he or she wishes. (This can include “natural order” ideas and political doxa.) 
  3. Demand for Purity.  The world is viewed as black and white and the members are constantly exhorted to conform to the ideology of the group and strive for perfection.  The induction of guilt and/or shame is a powerful control device used here. (Stigma and political outgrouping is used to deter and exile non-conformists.)
  4. Confession.  Sins, as defined by the group, are to be confessed either to a personal monitor or publicly to the group.  There is no confidentiality; members’ “sins,” “attitudes,” and “faults” are discussed and exploited by the leaders. (Mainstream media have bombarded us with “confessions” of “scroungers”, for example. The lives and experiences of those out of work have become public moral “property.”)
  5. Sacred Science.  The group’s doctrine or ideology is considered to be the ultimate Truth, beyond all questioning or dispute.  Truth is not to be found outside the group.  The leader, as the spokesperson for God or for all humanity, is likewise above criticism. (Ties in with Conservative notions of a “natural social order”)
  6. Loading the Language.  The group interprets or uses words and phrases in new ways so that often the outside world does not understand.  This jargon consists of thought-terminating cliches, which serve to alter members’ thought processes to conform to the group’s way of thinking. (See Glittering Generalities and The Conservatives are colonising progressive rhetoric.)
  7. Doctrine over person.  Member’s personal experiences are subordinated to the sacred science and any contrary experiences must be denied or reinterpreted to fit the ideology of the group. 
  8. Dispensing of existence.  The group has the prerogative to decide who has the right to exist and who does not.  This is usually not literal but means that those in the outside world are not saved, unenlightened, unconscious and they must be converted to the group’s ideology.  If they do not join the group or are critical of the group, then they must be rejected by the  members.  Thus, the outside world loses all credibility.  In conjunction, should any member leave the group, he or she must be rejected also.  (Lifton, 1989)

*Italics in blue added by me.

Related

Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification

The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down: mind the Mindspace.

 

Link: The Government Communication Service guide to communications and behaviour changegcs-guide-to-communications-and-behaviour-change1


I don’t make any money from my work. But you can support my work 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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Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification

cogs

“Behavioural theory is a powerful tool for the government communicator, but you don’t need to be an experienced social scientist to apply it successfully to your work.”
Alex Aiken
Executive Director of
Government Communications

Normalising state punishment 

Conservative anti-welfare discourse excludes the structural context of unemployment and poverty from public conversation by transforming these social problems into individual pathologies of “welfare dependency” and “worklessness.” The consequence is an escalating illogic of authoritarian policy measures which have at their core the intensification of punitive conditionality. These state interventions are justified by the construction and mediation of stigma, which is directed at already marginalised social groups that the policies target. The groups, which include sick and disabled people, people who are unemployed, are painted with a Malthusian brush, as a  “burden on the state” and a drain on what are politically portrayed and publicly seen as scarce resources in an era of austerity. Political processes of scapegoating, stigmatisation and outgrouping have been amplified by a largely complicit UK corporate media. 

Such policies and interventions are then rationalised as innovative and new political and economic responses. Behavioural economics theories, which “nudge” is a part of, for example, are aimed at “changing the behaviours” of citizens perceived to “make the wrong choices” – ultimately the presented political aim is to mend Britain’s supposedly “broken society” and to restore a country that “lives within its means”, according to a narrow, elitist view, bringing about a neoliberal utopia built on “economic competitiveness” in a “global race.”  

Disadvantage has become an individualised, private matter: it has been politically reduced and is explained as a private, internal characteristic of disadvantaged individuals, rather than it being an inevitable feature of a socioeconomic form of organisation founded on competitive individualism. This allows the state to depoliticise it, making disadvantage the private and sole responsibility of citizens, whilst at the same time, justifying a psychopolitical approach to changing citizen’s behaviours to fit with neoliberal outcomes. 

Institutions structure political struggles, they provide models, schemas and scripts for citizen’s behaviours. Bureaucratic norms within the welfare state have become increasingly about moral rectification. Debate about addressing structural inequality and poverty has been transformed into political rhetoric about behavioural incentives to change what are deemed to be poor people’s biased attitudes, cognitive deficits and faulty actions. Apparently, wealthy people don’t have these flaws. 

Welfare dependency is now a synonym for poverty, with its perceived dimensions of moral/psychological dependency accepted as a character “trait” or a “personality disorder.”  The sociopolitical relations of subordination, exploitation and economic organisation that were hidden within the discourse of “dependency” have now completely disappeared from public conversations about poverty. 

Context

Narratives about social security in the UK that emphasise a deepening of neoliberalisation became particularly virulent in the context of the global economic crash, which raised threats to the New Right neoliberal hegemony.

In August 2008, James Purnell, then Work and Pensions secretary, ordered a review of welfare to cut costs. The review explored how behavioural economics (nudge) may be used to “motivate” those claiming  welfare support and to establish what the “right conditions” are for the long-term unemployed or to deal with those thought to be “abusing the system.”

The review also addressed issues such as how people’s aversion to loss could be used to reduce the claimant count, which included consideration of the loss of high regard in the community; respect for legitimate authority; reciprocity – including a sense of obligation to give something back – and finally, “social proof” (using normative setting) – responding to the behaviour of others, such as their successful search for work.

Following some targeted survey work carried out by the Department for Work and Pensions, it was claimed that more than half of claimants say they are more likely to look for work because of the threat of sanctions. It was also suggested that attaching more stringent conditions to welfare could draw on the then latest British interest in nudge economics, and the “hidden art of persuasion.” This took place in a context of other European countries and the US exploring similar radical welfare reforms. (See also: Experiments on Unemployment Benefit Sanctions and Job Search Behaviour, 2004).

However, the direct evidence on the impact of sanctions largely concerns how it affected the compliance; rule-following job seeking behaviour and employment rates of those who have actually experienced or been formally warned of a sanction. However, how “employment rates” are actually measured poses a problem, as, in the UK, an outcome of employment is assumed if someone’s claim is closed.

Several US studies have used high quality designs to analyse differences in post-welfare outcomes and found that, on average, those who are sanctioned out of the welfare system are less likely to enter employment than those who leave for other reasons. Sanctioned welfare leavers are more likely to experience severe hardship and some become disconnected from income and other support systems.

Purnell resigned in 2009, as Gordon Brown refused to implement his neoliberal welfare proposals. The Nudge Unit was established and formally instituted as part of the Cabinet in 2010, under Cameron’s coalition government.

I’ve written more than one critical piece about the Government’s part-privatised Nudge Unit – the Behavioural Insights Team – particularly its insidious and malevolent influence on the range of psychocratic policies aimed at “behavioural changes” which are now being imposed on the poorest citizens. 

From the shrinking category of legitimate “disability” to forcing people to work for no pay on exploitative workfare schemes, “nudge” has been used to euphemistically frame punitive policies, “applying the principles of behavioural economics to the important issue of the transition from welfare to work.” (See: Employing BELIEF:Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, 2010.)

The Conservatives have claimed to make welfare provision “fair” by introducing substantial cuts to benefits and harsh conditionality requirements regarding eligibility to social security, including the frequent use of extremely punitive benefit sanctions as a means of “changing behaviours,” and “incentivising” people to find work, highlighting plainly that the Conservatives regard unemployment and disability as some kind of personal deficit on the part of those who are, in reality, simply casualties of structural constraints; labor market conditions, exclusion from acceptable living standards because of cuts to income and rising living costs, bad political decision-making and subsequent policy-shaped socioeconomic circumstances.

The word “fair” originally meant “treating people equally without favouritism or discrimination, without cheating or trying to achieve unjust advantage.” Under the Conservatives, we have witnessed more than one manipulated semantic shift, words like “fair” , “support” , “reform” , “responsibility”, “opportunities” and “help” , for example, have become embedded in a narrative of superficial  Glittering Generalities – part of a lexicon of persuasion and precarious psychosemantics that simply prop up Tory ideology  – an idiom of belief – in an endlessly erroneous, irrational and self-referential way.

The problem is that the power of a system of such implicit beliefs to defeat valid objections one by one is entirely due to the circularity  and self-perpetuating nature of such systems, as Iain Duncan Smith, who stands firmly within this idiom, consistently demonstrates only too well. After being rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority (ONS) for his claim that his policies have “forced 8,000 benefit claimants back into work” in 2013, he was informed politely that this wasn’t empirically evidenced – his claim could not be proven with his statistics. His response was: “I have a belief that I am right […] you cannot disprove what I said.” His “theory” tells him what he may observe.

There is a gulf between the rhetoric and empirical evidence on benefit sanctions. The evidence base is both small and limited in its scope, and it does not accommodate the differing approaches to preventing poverty and promoting opportunity that arise in international policy design. Increased welfare conditionality and sanctions are too narrowly based on a rhetoric of moral(ising) philosophy, and takes a highly selective approach evidence.

Iain Duncan Smith is the expert Tory pop-psychologist, fluent in psychobabble words like “incentivise” and “behavioural change” and whilst he demands rigorous research standards from academics and his critics, he doesn’t ever uphold those same standards himself.

If you “just know” you’re right, then does it matter if you regularly make up the evidence to support your mighty powers of New Right and very neoliberal intuitions?  It ought to, and it would if Conservative policy was genuinely based on meeting public needs, evidence and objective measures of effectiveness, rather than being based on prejudice and political expediency.

Words like “fair” and “help” now signpost an intentionally misleading Conservative discourse. Nudge permeates language, prompting semantic shifts towards bland descriptors which mask power and class relations, coercive state actions and political intentions. One only need to look at the context in which the government use words like “fair”, “support”, “help” “justice” and “reform” to recognise linguistic behaviourism in action. Or if you prefer, Orwellian doublespeak.

The Conservatives have orchestrated semantic shifts which reflect neoliberal values and reference a distinctive New Right ideological repertoire, from which is constructed basic pseudo-scientific justification narratives, asserting that people claiming welfare do so, as I said previously, because of “faulty” personal characteristics and various types of cognitive incompetence and laziness. In short, the government have pathologised and stigmatised unemployment, redefining it as a psychological disorder.

The government have also problematised welfare, based on the absurd New Right idea that financial support when people really need it somehow creates problems, rather than it being an essential mechanism aimed at alleviating poverty, extending social and economic support, justice and opportunities: social insurance and security

The government have adopted a strongly disciplinarian approach to structural problems such as poverty, using narratives that are strikingly reminiscent of the attitudes and values that shaped the extremely punitive and ill-conceived 1834 Poor Law amendment act.

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

Restricting choices to “choice”

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare “conditionality” in 2012. Sanctions are based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – a cognitive bias called “loss aversion.” It refers to the idea that people’s tendency is to strongly prefer avoiding losses to acquiring gains. The idea is embedded in the use of sanctions to “nudge” people towards compliance with welfare rules of conditionality, by using a threat of punitive financial loss, since the longstanding, underpinning Conservative assumption is that people are unemployed because of behavioural deficits.

I’ve argued elsewhere, however, that benefit sanctions are more closely aligned with operant conditioning (behaviourism) than “libertarian paternalism,” since sanctions are a severe punishment intended to modify behaviour and restrict choices to that of compliance and conformity or destitution.

Libertarian paternalists claim that whilst it is legitimate for government, private and public institutions to affect behaviour the aims should be to ensure that “people should be free to opt out of specified arrangements if they choose to do so.” The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of coercive, draconian Conservative welfare sanctions.

Last year I wrote about the connection between the Nudge Unit’s pseudoscientific obsession with manipulating people’s decision-making by utilising various cognitive bias theories – in this case, particularly, the behavioural economic theory of loss aversion and the increased use and severity of benefit sanctions. Though most people succumbing to the Nudge Unit’s guru effect (ironically, another cognitive bias) think that “nudging” is just about prompting men to pee on the right spot in urinals, or about persuading us to donate organs and to pay our taxes on time. Nudge is at the very heart of the New  Right’s neo-behaviourist turn, which entails the application of operant conditioning to individualise and privatise social problems such as inequality and poverty. 

When it comes to technocratic fads like nudge, it’s worth bearing in mind that truth and ethics quite often have an inversely proportional relationship with the profit motive. It’s a cognitive bias, if you will.

For anyone curious as to how such tyrannical behaviour modification techniques like benefit sanctions arose from the bland language, inane, managementspeak acronyms and pseudo-scientific framework of “paternal libertarianism” – nudge – read this paper, focused almost exclusively on New Right small state obsessions, paying particular attention to the part about loss aversion, on page 7.

And this on page 18: The most obvious policy implication arising from loss aversion is that if policy-makers can clearly convey the losses that certain behaviour will incur, it may encourage people not to do it,” and page 46: “Given that, for most people, losses are more important than comparable gains, it is important that potential losses are defined and made explicit to jobseekers (e.g.the sanctions regime).”

The recommendation on that page: We believe the regime is currently too complex and, despite people’s tendency towards loss aversion, the lack of clarity around the sanctions regime can make it ineffective. Complexity prevents claimants from fully appreciating the financial losses they face if they do not comply with the conditions of their benefit.”

The Conservatives duly “simplified” sanctions by extending them in terms of severity and increasing the frequency of use. Sanctions have also been extended to include previously protected social groups, such as disabled people.

The paper was written in November 2010, prior to the Coalition policy of increased “conditionality” and the extended sanctions element of the Tory-led welfare “reforms” in 2012.

Sanctioning welfare recipients by removing their lifeline benefit – originally calculated to meet the cost of only basic survival needs – food, fuel and shelter – isn’t about “arranging choice architecture”, it’s not nudging: it’s operant conditioning. It’s a brand of particularly dystopic, psychopolitical behaviourism, and is all about a totalitarian level of micromanaging people to ensure they are obedient and compliant to the needs of  the “choice architects” and policy-makers. Nudge in this context is nothing more than a prop for austerity, neoliberalism and social conservatism.

It is all-pervasive, nudge permeates political rhetoric and discursive practices. Words like “help” and “support” disguise coercive and punitive state actions. Bland language is used to normalise inequality and discriminatory political practices. The word “incentivise,” for example, is used a lot by the Conservatives, but to wealthy people, it means financial privileges in the form of tax cuts and privatised wealth, and to poor people, it means having lifeline income taken away by the state. 

Deploying behavioural modification techniques (and without the public’s consent) marginalises political discussion, stifles public debate, sidesteps democratic dialogue, problem-solving, criticism and challenges and forecloses the possibility of social justice considerations.

Furthermore, an individual’s autonomy, which is also the basis of his or her dignity, as a person, is worthy of protection and should not be interfered with by any kind of behavioural modification, “nudge” or otherwise. Nor should removing people’s lifeline income designed to meet only basic survival needs ever be withdrawn as a state “correction” and punishment.

Nudge operates at a much broader level, too. The intentional political construction of folk devils and purposeful culturally amplified references to a stereotype embodying fecklessness, idleness and irresponsibility, utilising moral panic and manufactured public outrage as an effective platform for punitive welfare reform legislation, is one example of the value-laden application of pseudoscientific “behavioural insights” theory. The new paternalists have drawn on our psychosocial inclinations towards conformity, which is evident in the increasing political use of manipulative normative messaging. (For example, see: The Behavioral Insights Team in the U.K. used social normative messages to increase tax compliance in 2011.) 

The paternalist’s behavioural theories have been used to increasingly normalise a moral narrative based on a crude underpinning “deserving” and “undeserving” dichotomy, that justifies state interventions imposing conditions of extreme deprivation amongst some social groups – especially those previously considered legally protected. Public rational and moral boundaries have been and continue to be nudged and shifted, incrementally. Gordon Allport outlined a remarkably similar process in his classic political psychology text, The Nature of Prejudice, which describes the psychosocial processes involved in the construction of categorical others, and the subsequent escalating scale of prejudice and discrimination

In the UK, the growth and institutionalisation of prejudice and discrimination is reflected in the increasing tendency towards the  transgression of international legal human rights frameworks at the level of public policy-making. Policies that target protected social groups with moralising, stereotypical normative messages, accompanied with operant disciplinary measures, have led to extremely negative and harmful outcomes, but there is a marked political and social indifference to the serious implications and consequences of the impacts of such policies .

The theory tells you what you may observe

There is no evidence that welfare sanctions improve employment outcomes. There is no evidence that sanctions “change behaviours.” There is, in any case, a substantial difference between people conforming with welfare conditionality and rules and gaining appropriate and secure employment.

One difficulty is that since 2011, Job Centre Plus’s (JCP) primary key performance indicator has been off-flow from benefit at the 13th, 26th, 39th and 52nd weeks of claims. Previously JCP’s performance had been measured against a range of performance indicators, including off-flows from benefit into employment.

Indeed, when asked for evidence by the Work and Pensions Committee, one minister, in her determination to defend the Conservative sanction regime, regrettably provided misleading information on the destinations of JSA, Income Support and Employment Support Allowance claimants from 2011, that pre-dated the new sanctions regime introduced in 2012, in an attempt to challenge the findings of the University of Oxford/LSHTM study on the effects of sanctions on getting JSA claimants off-flow. (Fewer than 20% of this group of people who were no longer in receipt of JSA were recorded as finding employment.) Source: Benefit sanctions policy beyond the Oakley Review – Work and Pensions.

Studies have shown that being “treated” by at least one “stick” (punitive measure) significantly reduces an individual’s earnings after periods of unemployment; on the other hand, participating in a supportive programme affects earnings positively.

 Treatment and policy regime effects of Carrots and Sticks, in % of average earnings

 Effects are expressed in percent of average monthly earnings within 3.5 years after unemployment (3547 CHF = 3290 EUR = 3575 USD in sample). Treatment effects: effects of being exposed to at least one carrot (job search assistance, training) or stick (sanction, workfare programme).

Source: Arni, P, Lalive, R, and G J van den Berg (2015) “Treatment versus regime effects of Carrots and Sticks”, IZA Discussion Paper 9457.

It’s remarkably difficult to reconcile state imposed responsibilities that illiberally target only one social group, with democracy and universal human rights, which are based on core principles like dignity, fairness, equality, respect and autonomy.

We ought to question the claim that the manipulation of public decision-making to cut costs to the state is in our “best interests.” Who is nudging the nudgers, and  clearly they have their own whopping great “cognitive biases.”

Behavioural modification techniques are particularly prone to abuse because they are very effective – all tyrants and bullies are behaviourists – and such techniques represent, because of the range of subtle to threatening methods in which they exercise control and can elicit compliance, a political tool that is difficult to observe, challenge and control.

It’s also worth noting that the application of nudge is entirely experimental and nonconsenusal. For the record, when a government in a so called first world liberal democracy – that are generally expected to recognise and address public needs – decides to act upon citizens to change their behaviours to meet partisan, ideologically directed outcomes, we tend to call that authoritarianism, not nudge.

If it wasn’t for this government’s “behaviourist turn” and psychosemantic approach to the inequality and poverty that their policies tend to extend, the Department for Work and Pensions would have been renamed “The Department for Punitive State Correction and Neoliberal Behaviour Modification Experiments.” 

Nudge. It’s become another clever little euphemism. 
gcs-guide-to-communications-and-behaviour-change1From the Ministry of euphemism and semantic thrifts, 1984th edition

I wrote much of this as part of a considerably longer piece, but felt that this particular point and the evidence regarding the intensification of sanctions was lost in the weight of other important issues raised in the original article: The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

Related

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

Man with diabetes had to have his leg amputated because of benefit sanctions

Cases of malnutrition continue to soar in the UK

Two key studies show that punitive benefit sanctions don’t ‘incentivise’ people to work, as claimed by the government


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The new Work and Health Programme: government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work


Illustration by Jack Hudson

The government’s Nudge Unit team is currently working with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health to trial social experiments aimed at finding ways of: “preventing people from falling out of the jobs market and going onto Employment and Support Allowance (ESA).”

“These include GPs prescribing a work coach, and a health and work passport to collate employment and health information. These emerged from research with people on ESA, and are now being tested with local teams of Jobcentres, GPs and employers.”

This is a crass state intrusion on the private and confidential patient-doctor relationship, which ought to be about addressing medical health problems, and supporting people who are ill, not about creating yet another space for obsessive political micromanagement. It’s yet another overextension of the coercive arm of the state to “help” people into work. Furthermore, this move will inevitably distort people’s interactions with their doctors: it will undermine the trust and rapport that the doctor-patient relationship is founded on.

In the current political context, where the government extends a brutally disciplinarian approach to basic social security entitlement, it’s very difficult to see how the plans to place employees from the Department for Work and Pensions in GP practices can be seen as anything but a threatening gesture towards patients who are ill, and who were, up until recent years, quite rightly exempted from working. Now it seems that this group, which includes some of our most vulnerable citizens, are being politically bullied and coerced into working, regardless of the consequences for their health and wellbeing.

Of course the government haven’t announced this latest “intervention” in the lives of disabled people. I found out about it quite by chance because I read Matthew Hancock’s recent conference speech: The Future of Public Services.

I researched a little further and found an article in Pulse which confirmed Hancock’s comment: GP practices to provide advice on job seeking in new pilot scheme.

Hancock is appointed Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, and was previously the Minister of State for Business and Enterprise. He headed David Cameron’s “earn or learn” taskforce which aims to have every young person earning or “learning” from April 2017.

He announced that 18 to 21-year-olds who can’t find work would be required to do work experience (free labour for Tory business donors) as well as looking for jobs or face losing their benefits. But then Hancock is keen to commodify everyone and everything, including public data.

However his references to “accountability and transparency” don’t stand up to much scrutiny when we consider the fact that he recently laid a statement before parliament outlining details about the five-person commission that will be asked to decide whether the Freedom of Information act is too expensive and “overly intrusive.”

He goes on to say: “And this brings me onto my second area of reform: experimentation. Because in seeking to improve our services, we need to know what actually works.”

But we need to ask for whom services are being “improved” and for whom does such reform work, exactly?

And did any of the public actually consent to being experimented upon by the state?

Or to having their behaviour modified without their knowledge?

Now that the nudge unit has been privatised, it is protected from public scrutiny, and worryingly, it is also no longer subject to the accountability afforded the public by the Freedom of Information Act.

The Tory welfare “reforms” are a big business profiteering opportunity, whilst lifeline benefits are being steadily withdrawn: policy context

The current frame of reference regarding Conservative welfare policies is an authoritarian and punitive one. It’s inconceivable that a government proposing to continue cutting the lifeline income of sick and disabled people, including a further £120 a month to those people in the ESA Work Related Activity group (WRAG), will suddenly show an interest in actually supporting disabled people. There are also proposals to further limit eligibility for Personal Independence Payments (PIP) for sick and disabled people. 

From the shrinking category of legitimate “disability” to forcing people to work for no pay on exploitative workfare schemes, “nudge” has been used to euphemistically frame punitive policies, “applying the principles of behavioural economics to the important issue of the transition from welfare to work.” (From: Employing BELIEF: Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, 2010.)

And guess who sponsored the “research” into “nudging” people into workfare? Steve Moore, Business Development Director from esg, which is a leading welfare to work and vocational skills group, created through the merger and acquisition of four leading providers in the DWP and LSC sector.” How surprising.

It’s even more unsurprising that esg was established by two Conservative donors with very close ties to ministers, and were subsequently awarded very lucrative contracts with the Department for Work and Pensions. I think there may have been a “cognitive bias” in operation there, too. But who is nudging the nudgers?

Of course the “aim” of the “research” is: “breaking the cycle of benefit dependency especially for our hardest to help customers, including the “cohort” of disabled people.”

However, there’s no such thing as a “cycle of benefit dependency”, it’s a traditional Tory prejudice and is based on historically unevidenced myths. Poverty arises because of socioeconomic circumstances that are unmitigated through government decision-making. In fact this government has intentionally extended and perpetuated inequality through its policies.

2020health – Working Together is a report from 2012 that promotes the absurd notion of work as a health outcome.  This is a central theme amongst ideas that are driving the fit for work and the work and health and programme. Developing this idea further, Dame Carol Black and David Frost’s Health at Work – an independent review of sickness absence was aimed at reviewing ways of “reducing the cost of sickness to employers, ‘taxpayers’ and the economy.” Seems that the central aim of the review wasn’t a genuine focus on sick and disabled people’s wellbeing and “health outcomes,” then. Black and Frost advocated changing sickness certification to further reduce the influence of GPs in “deciding entitlement to out-of-work sickness benefits.”

The subsequent “fit notes” that replaced GP sick notes (a semantic shift of Orwellian proportions) were designed to substantially limit the sick role and reduce recovery periods, and to “encourage” GPs to disclose what work-related tasks patients may still be able to perform. The idea that employers could provide reasonable adjustments that allowed people who are on sick leave to return to work earlier, however, hasn’t happened in reality.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has been highly critical of the language used by the government when describing the fit for work service. The association said it was “misleading” to claim that fit for work was offering “occupational health advice and support” when the emphasis was on sickness absence management and providing a focused return to work.

The idea that work is a “health” outcome is founded on an absurd and circular Conservative logic that people in work are healthier than those out of work. It’s true that they are, however, the government have yet again confused causes with effects. Work does not make people healthier: it’s simply that healthy people can work and do. People who have long term or chronic illnesses often can’t work. The government’s main objection to sick leave and illness more generally, is that it costs businesses money. As inconvenient as that may be, politically and economically, it isn’t ever going to be possible to cure people of serious illnesses by cruelly coercing them into work.

The government’s removal of essential in-work support for disabled people – such as the Independent Living Fund, and the replacing of Disability Living Allowance  with Personal Independence Payment in order to reduce eligibility, cut costs and “target” support to those most severely disabled, and the cuts to the Access To Work scheme – means that it is now much more difficult for those disabled people who want to work to find suitable and supported employment.

The politics of punishment

There’s a clear connection between the Nudge Unit’s obsession with manipulating “cognitive bias” – in particular, “loss aversion” – and the increased use, extended scope and severity of sanctions, though most people succumbing to the Nudge Unit’s guru effect (ironically, another cognitive bias) think that “nudging” is just about prompting men to pee on the right spot in urinals, or persuading us to donate organs and to pay our taxes on time.

When it comes to technocratic fads like nudge, it’s worth bearing in mind that truth and ethics quite often have an inversely proportional relationship with the profit motive.

For anyone curious as to how such tyrannical behaviour modification techniques like benefit sanctions arose from the bland language, inane, managementspeak acronyms and pseudo-scientific framework of “paternal libertarianism” – nudge – read this paper, focused almost exclusively on New Right obsessions, paying particular attention to the part about “loss aversion” (a cognitive bias according to behavioural economists) on page 7.

And this on page 18: The most obvious policy implication arising from loss aversion is that if policy-makers can clearly convey the losses that certain behaviour will incur, it may encourage people not to do it,” and page 46: “Given that, for most people, losses are more important than comparable gains, it is important that potential losses are defined and made explicit to jobseekers (e.g.the sanctions regime).” 

The recommendation on that page: We believe the regime is currently too complex and, despite people’s tendency towards loss aversion, the lack of clarity around the sanctions regime can make it ineffective. Complexity prevents claimants from fully appreciating the financial losses they face if they do not comply with the conditions of their benefit.”

The Conservatives duly “simplified” sanctions by extending them in terms of severity, frequency and by broadening the scope of their application to include previously protected social groups.

The paper was written in November 2010, prior to the Coalition policy of increased “conditionality” and extended sanctions element of the Tory-led welfare “reforms” in 2012.

Sanctioning welfare recipients by removing their lifeline benefit – originally calculated to meet the cost of only basic survival needs – food, fuel and shelter – isn’t about “arranging choice architecture”, it’s not nudging: it’s operant conditioning. It’s a brand of particularly dystopic, psychopolitical neobehaviourism, and is all about a totalitarian level of micromanaging people to ensure they are obedient and conform to meet the needs of the “choice architects” and policy-makers.

Nudge even permeates language, prompting semantic shifts towards bland descriptors which mask power and class relations, coercive state actions and political intentions. One only need to look at the context in which the government use words like “fair”, “support”, “help” “justice” and “reform” to recognise linguistic behaviourism in action. Or if you prefer, Orwellian doublespeak.

It’s rather difficult to see how starving people and threatening them with destitution can possibly improve the well-being of many socially excluded people, and help to bring them to inclusion.”

The conclusion that Ancel Keys drew from the Minnesota Starvation Experiment in the the US during the 1940s, (which explored the physical and psychological effects of undernutrition, and stressed the dramatic, adverse effect that starvation had on competence, motivation, behaviour, mental attitude and personality) was that “democracy and nation building would not be possible in a population that did not have access to sufficient food.”

No amount of bland and meaningless psychobabble or intransigent, ideologically-tainted policies can legitimize the economic sanctioning of people who are already poor and in need of financial assistance.

Apparently, citizenship and entitlement to basic rights and autonomy is a status conferred on only the currently economically productive. Previous employment and contributions don’t count as “responsibility,” and don’t earn you any rights – the government believes that citizens owe a perpetual debt of unconditional service to the Conservative’s steeply stratified economy. Not much of a social contract, then. Cameron says he wants to “build a responsible society” by removing people’s rights and reducing or removing their lifeline income. Presumably, free invisible bootstraps are part of the deal.

Government decision-making has contributed the most significant influence on “health outcomes.” Conservative policies have entailed a vicious cutting back of support and a reduction of essential provision for sick and disabled people. In fact this group have been disproportionately targeted for austerity cuts time and time again, massively reducing their lifeline income. It’s not being “workless” that has a detrimental impact on people’s health and wellbeing: it is the deliberate impoverishment of those requiring state aid and support, funded from the public purse, (including contributions from those who now need support), which is being dogmatically and steadily withdrawn.

Making work pay for whom?

If work truly paid, then there would be no need to incentivise” almost 1.2 million low-paid workers claiming the new universal credit with the threat of in-work benefit sanctions if they fail to “take steps to boost their earnings.”

It’s very difficult to see how punishing individuals for perhaps being too ill to work more that a few hours, or those working for low pay or part-time in the context of a chronically weak labour market, depressed wages and with little scope for effective negotiating and collective bargaining can possibly be justified. It’s an utterly barbaric way for a government to treat citizens.

Surely if the government was genuinely seeking to increase choices and to widen access to the workplace for sick and disabled people, it would not be cutting the very programmes supporting and extending this aim, such as the Access to Work scheme  – a fund that helps people and employers to cover the extra living costs arising due to disabilities that might present barriers to work – and the Independent Living Fund.

This government has pushed at the public’s rational and moral boundaries, establishing and attempting to justify a draconian trend of punishing those unable to work, and what was previously unthinkable – stigmatising and punishing legally protected social groups such as sick and disabled people – has become somehow acceptable. We are on a very slippery slope, clearly mapped out previously by Allport’s scale of prejudice.

People’s needs don’t disappear just because the government has decided to “pay down” an ever-growing debt and build a “surplus” by taking money from those that have the least. Or because the government doesn’t like “big state interventions.”

So the recent proposed cut to ESA – and this is a group of sick and disabled people deemed physically incapable of work by doctors – is completely unjustified and unjustifiable. No amount of pseudo-psychology and paternalist cruelty can motivate or “incentivise” people who are medically ill.

It’s for disabled individuals and their doctors – professionals, specialists and experts – to decide if a person can work or not, it’s not the role of the state, motivated only by a perverse economic Darwinist ideology. Maslow taught us that we must attend to our physiological needs before we may be motivated to meet higher level psychosocial ones.

Iain Duncan Smith is a zealot who actually tries to justify further punitive cuts to disabled people’s provision by claiming that working is “good” for people and is the only “route out of poverty.”

Presumably he believes work can cure people of the serious afflictions that they erroneously thought exempted them from full-time employment. 

He stated: “There is one area on which I believe we haven’t focused enough – how work is good for your health. Work can help keep people healthy as well as help promote recovery if someone falls ill. So, it is right that we look at how the system supports people who are sick and helps them into work.”

Duncan Smith undoubtedly “just knows” that his absurd claim is “right.” He’s never really grown out of his “magical thinking” stage, or transcended his dereistic tendencies. His department had to manufacture “evidence” recently in a ridiculous attempt to support Iain Duncan Smith’s imaginative, paternalist claim that punitive sanctions are somehow “beneficial” to claimants, by using fake characters to supply fake testimonials, but this was rumbled and exposed by a well-placed Freedom of Information request from Welfare Weekly.

Recent research indicates that not all work serves to “keep people healthy” nor does it ever “promote recovery.” This assumption that work can promote recovery in the case of people with severe illness and disability – which is why people claim ESA – is particularly bizarre. We have yet to hear of a single case involving a job miracle entailing people’s limbs growing back, vision being restored, or a wonder cure for heart failure, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis and lupus, for example.

The government’s Fit for Work scheme is founded on exactly the same misinformative nonsense. It supports profit-making for wealthy employers, at the expense of the health and wellbeing of employees that have been signed off work because of medically and professionally recognised illness that acts as a real barrier to work.

Furthermore, there is no proof that work in itself is beneficial. Indeed much research evidence strongly suggests otherwise.

And where have we heard these ideas from Iain Duncan Smith before?

Arbeit macht frei.

If work really paid then surely there would be no need to “nudge” people by using sanctions, regardless of whether or not they are employed. “Making work pay” is all about reducing support for those who the government deems “undeserving,” to “discourage welfare dependency” by making any support as horrible as the workhouse – founded on the principle of “less eligibility”, where conditions for those in need of support were punitive and kept people in a state of desperation so that even the lowest paid work in the worst of conditions would seem appealing.

The public/private divide

For a government that claims a minarchist philosophy, remarkably it has engineered an unprecedented blurring of public/private boundaries and a persistent violation of traditionally private experiences, including thoughts, beliefs, preferences, autonomy and attitudes via legislations and of course a heavy-handed fiscal conflation of public interests with private ones.

This also caught my attention from Matthew Hancock’s speech transcript:

“My case is that we need continuous improvement in public services. And for that we must reform the relationship between citizen and state. [My bolding]

“The case for reform is strong. Because people have high and rising expectations about what our public services should deliver. Because budgets are tight, and we have to make significant savings for our country to live within her means.”

Basically, the “paternalistic libertarian” message here is that we will have to expect less and less from the state, as the balance between rights and responsibilities is heavily weighted towards the latter, hence requiring the “reform” of the relationship between citizen and state.

However, surely it is active, democratic participation in processes of deliberation and decision-making that ensures that individuals are citizens, not subjects.

Social democracy evolved to include the idea of access to social goods and improving living standards as a means of widening and legitimizing the scope of political representation.

Political policies are defined as (1) The basic principles by which a government is guided. (2) The declared objectives that a government  seeks to achieve and preserve in the interest of national community. As applied to a law, ordinance, or Rule of Law, it’s the general purpose or tendency considered as directed to the welfare or prosperity of the state or community.

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

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

Nowadays, policies have been unanchored from any democratic dialogue regarding public needs and are more about monologues aimed at shaping those needs to suit the government. 

Nudge does not entail citizen involvement in either its origin or design. The state intrusions are at such an existential level, of an increasingly authoritarian nature, and are of course reserved for the poorest, who are deemed “irrational” and incapable of making “the right decisions.”

Yet those “faulty decisions” are deemed so from the perspective of the Behavioural Insights Team, (the “Nudge Unit”) who are not social psychologists: they are predominantly concerned with behavioural economics, decision-making and how governments influence people – “economologists”, changing people’s behaviours, enforcing compliance to fulfil political aims. That turns democracy completely on its head.

The Nudge Unit gurus claim that we need help to “correct our cognitive biases”, but those who make policies have their own whopping biases, too.

Nudge is the new fudging

Nudge is a prop for New Right neoliberal ideology that is aimed at dismantling a rights-based society and replacing it with an insidiously nudged, manipulated, compliant, and entirely “responsible”, “self-reliant” population of divided, isolated state-determined individuals who expect nothing from their elected government.

The Conservatives are obsessive about strict social taxonomies and economic enclosures. The Nudge Unit was set up by David Cameron in 2010 to try to “improve” public services and save money. The asymmetrical, class-contingent application of paternalistic libertarian “insights” establishes a hierarchy of decision-making “competence” and autonomy, which unsurprisingly corresponds with the hierarchy of wealth distribution.

So Nudge inevitably will deepen and perpetuate existing inequality and prejudice, adding a dimension of patronising psycho-moral suprematism to add further insult to politically inflicted injury. Nudge is a fashionable fad that is overhyped, trivial, unreliable; a smokescreen, a prop for neoliberalism and monstrously unfair, bad policy-making.

As someone who (despite the central dismal and patronising assumptions about the irrationality of others that king nudgers have as a central cognitive bias and the traditional prejudices that Tory ideology narrates,) manages to make my own decisions relatively without bias, intelligently, rationally, critically, carefully and coherently, and that, along with my professional and academic background, I can and will conclude that no matter how you dress it up, nudge is a pretentious, cringeworthy pseudo-intellectual dead-end.

 A Nudge for the Conservatives from history

The more things change for the Tories, the more they tend to stay the same.

In the 1870s, England had a recession and the Conservatives launched a Crusade of cuts to welfare expenditure to diminish “dependency” on poor law outdoor relief – non-institutional benefits called “out-relief” because it was paid to the poor in their own homes from taxation, rather than their having to go into the punitive “deterrent” workhouses.

The Crusade included cutting medical payments to lone mothers, widows, the elderly, chronically sick and disabled people and those with mental illness. The 1834 Poor Law amendment was shaped by people such as Jeremy Bentham, who argued for a disciplinary, punitive approach to social problems and particularly poverty, whilst Thomas Malthus focused attention on overpopulation, and moralising about the growth of illegitimacy. He placed emphasis on moral restraint rather than poor relief as the best means of easing the poverty of the lower classes. 

David Ricardo argued that there was a problem with poor relief provision “interfering” with an iron law of wages. Ricardo claimed that aid given to poor workers under the old Poor Law to supplement their wages had the effect of undermining the wages of other workers, so that the Roundsman System and Speenhamland system led employers to reduce wages, and needed reform to help workers who were not getting such aid and rate-payers whose poor-rates were going to subsidise low-wage employers. Yet we found, despite Ricardo’s pet theory, that the poor law deterrent element served to push wages down further.

The effect of poor relief, in the absurd view of the reformers, was to undermine the position of the “independent labourer.” They also wanted to “make work pay.” And end the “something for nothing” culture. But much subsequent evidence shows that reducing support for people out of work actually drives wages and working conditions down.

Neither the punitive poor law amendment act of 1834 or the Crusade “helped” people into work or addressed the lack of available paid work – that’s unemployment, not the made-up and intentionally stigmatizing word “worklessness”.

And its utter failure as a credible account of poverty – the-blame-the-individual narrative and the notion that relief discourages “self-reliance” – fuelled the national insurance act of 1911 and the development of the welfare state along with the other civilising and civilised benefits of the post-war settlement. 

The Conservatives inadvertently taught us as a society precisely why we need a welfare state.

We learned that it isn’t possible to be “thrifty” or help ourselves if we haven’t got the means for meeting basic survival needs. Nor is it possible to be nudged out of poverty when the means of doing so are not actually available. No amount of moralising and pseudo-psychologising about poor people actually works to address poverty, and structural socioeconomic inequalities.

The government’s undeclared preoccupation with behavioural change through personal responsibility is simply a revamped version of Samuel Smiles’s bible of Victorian and over-moralising, a hobby-horse: “thrift and self-help” – but only for the poor, of course. Smiles and other powerful, wealthy and privileged Conservative thinkers, such as Herbert Spencer, claimed that poverty was caused largely by the irresponsible habits of the poor during that era. But we learned historically that socioeconomic circumstances caused by political decision-making creates poverty.

Conservative rhetoric is designed to have us believe there would be no poor people if the welfare state didn’t somehow “create” them. If the Tories 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.

In other words, the same system that allows some people to become very wealthy is the same system that condemns others to poverty.

This wide recognition that the raw “market forces” of the old liberal laissez-faire (and the current starker 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 myth and neoliberal script. And that’s before we consider the fact that whenever there is a Conservative government, there is no such thing as a “free market”: in reality, all markets are rigged for elites.

Public policy is not an ideological tool for a so-called democratic government to simply get its own way. Democracy means that the voices of citizens, especially members of protected social groups, need to be included in political decision-making, rather than so frankly excluded.

We elect governments to meet public needs, not to “change behaviours” of citizens to suit government needs and prop up policy “outcomes” that are driven entirely by traditional Tory prejudice and ideology.

And by the way, we call any political notion that citizens should be totally subject to an absolute state authority “totalitarianism,” not “nudge.”

demcracy
Courtesy of Robert Livingstone

Update: The government have since announced the introduction of a number of “policy initiatives” aimed at reducing the number of people claiming Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). These initiatives are currently still at a research and trialing stage. Health Management, a subsidiary of MAXIMUS are to deliver the fit for work programme, which was set up based on recommendations from the Health at Work – an independent review of sickness absence report by Dame Carol Black and David Frost. The review was aimed at “reducing the cost of sickness to employers, ‘taxpayers’ and the economy.”

Fit for Work occupational health professional will have access to people’s diagnoses from their fit notes, the fit note end date and any further information that the GP considers relevant to their absence from work or current treatment (at the discretion of the GP). The primary referral route for an assessment for the Maximus programme will be via the GP.

The government is cutting funding for contracted-out employment support by 80%, following the Spending Review. The Department for Work and Pensions has indicated that total spending on employment will be reduced, including not renewing Mandatory Work Activity and Community Work Placements, the new Work and Health Programme will have funding of around £130 million a year – around 20% of the level of funding for the unsuccessful Work Programme and Work Choice, which it will replace.

Iain Duncan Smith says: “This Spending Review will see the start of genuine integration between the health and work sectors, with a renewed focus on supporting people with health conditions and disabilities return to and remain in work. We will increase spending in this area, expanding Access to Work and Fit for Work, and investing in the Health and Work Innovation Fund and the new Work and Health Programme.” 

Meeting the Government’s goal of halving the employment gap between disabled and non-disabled workers – moving around one million more disabled people into work – will be no easy task. Not least because despite Iain Duncan Smith’s ideological commitments, and aims to “reduce welfare dependency,” most disabled people who don’t work (and claim ESA) can’t do so because of genuine and insurmountable barriers such as incapacitating and devastating, life-changing illness. No amount of targeting those people with the Conservative doublespeak variant of “help” and nasty “incentivising” via welfare sanctions and benefit cuts will remedy that.

 

The budget: from trickle-down to falling down, whilst holding hands with Herbert Spencer.

proper Blond
“We are moving Britain from a high welfare, high tax economy, to a lower welfare, lower tax society.”

George Osborne, 8 July 2015

The pro-wealthy and anti-humanist budget indicates clearly that the Conservatives are preoccupied with highlighting and cutting the state cost of sustaining the poorest citizens rather than the costs of subsidising the rich.

I’ve pointed out before that the Conservatives operate a perverse, dual logic: that wealthy people need support and encouragement – they are offered substantial financial incentives – in order to work and contribute to the economy, whereas poor people apparently need to be punished – by the imposition of financial cuts – in order to work and contribute to the economy.

That Osborne thinks it is acceptable to cut the lifeline benefits of sick and disabled people to pay for government failures, whilst offering significant cuts to corporation tax rates; raising the tax-free personal allowance and extending inheritance tax relief demonstrates very clearly that the myth of trickle-down is still driving New Right Conservative ideology, and that policy is not based on material socio-economic conditions and public need. (And Cameron is not a one-nation Tory, despite his claims.)

Research by the Tax Justice Network in 2012 indicates that wealth of the very wealthy does not trickle down to improve the economy, but tends to be amassed and sheltered in tax havens with a detrimental effect on the tax bases of the home economy.

A more recent report – Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality : A Global Perspective by the International Monetary Fund concluded in June this year that there is no trickle-down effect –  the rich simply get richer:

“We find that increasing the income share of the poor and the middle class actually increases growth while a rising income share of the top 20 percent results in lower growth—that is, when the rich get richer, benefits do not trickle down.”

It’s inconceivable that the Conservatives fail to recognise such policy measures will widen inequality. Conservatives regard inequality and social hierarchy as inevitable, necessary and functional to the economy. Furthermore, Conservatives hail greed and envy as emotions to be celebrated, since these drive competition.

Since the emergence of the New Right, from Thatcher to Cameron, we have witnessed an increasing entrenchment of Neoliberal principles, coupled with an aggressive, authoritarian brand of social conservatism that has an underpinning of crude, blunt social Darwinist philosophy, as carved out two centuries ago by the likes of Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer.

Spencer is best known for the expression “survival of the fittest,” which he coined in Principles of Biology (1864), after reading Charles Darwin’s work. Spencer extended natural selection into realms of sociology, political theory and ethics, ultimately contributing to the eugenics movement. He believed that struggle for survival spurred self-improvement which could be inherited. Maslow would disagree. All a struggle for survival motivates is just a struggle for survival.

Spencer’s ideas of laissez-faire; a survival-of-the-fittest brand of competitive individualism; minarchism – minimal state interference in the processes of natural law – and liking for private charity, are echoed loudly in the theories of 20th century thinkers such as Friedrich HayekMilton Friedman and Ayn Rand who each popularised Spencer’s ideas, whilst Neoliberal New Right Conservatives such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron have translated these ideas into policies.

Ideology has considerable bearing on policies, and policies may be regarded as overt, objective statements of political intent. I’ve said many times over the past five years that Conservatives have forgotten that democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. Conservative policies are quite clearly no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly authoritarian, and all about telling us how to be.

Conservatives have always coldly conceived society as a hierarchy of human value, and they have, from their pinnacle of supremacist, self-appointed authority, historically cast the vulnerable and the poorest as the putative “enemies of civilization.” Social Darwinism is written in bold throughout their policies.

Furthermore, such a combination of Neoliberal and Conservative political theory, explicitly opposes democratic goals and principles. Neoliberalism was originally used by academics on the Left as a pejorative to capture the policies of imposed exploitation, privatisation, and inequality.

Neoliberalism is now characterised by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squash state regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatise public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. The term became widely recognised shorthand for rule by the rich, authoritarianism and the imposition of limits on democracy.

Banks, corporations, the financial sector, and the very wealthy are exercising power and blocking any attempt to restructure the economic system that brought about the crash.

Meanwhile, the free market is a market free for powerful interests; the profit motive has transformed the organising value of social life, and those who the Conservatives evidently regard as collateral damage of this socio-economic dogma made manifest are paying the price for the global crash, with Osborne and the Conservatives constructing narratives that problematise welfare support, generating moral panic and folk devils to demonise the poorest citizens in need of support.

Growing social inequality generates a political necessity for cultivating social prejudices.

Such Othering narratives divert public attention from the fact that the right to a fair and just legal system, a protective and effective safety net for the poorest, free healthcare – all of the social gains of our post-war settlement – are all under attack.

I have said elsewhere that Conservative ideology is incompatible with our legal commitments to human rights. The United Nations declaration of Human Rights is founded on the central tenet that each and every human life has equal worth. The Conservatives don’t agree, preferring to organise society into hierarchies of worth and privilege.

Conservative austerity measures and further impending welfare cuts are not only a deliberate attack on the poorest and most vulnerable social groups; the range of welfare cuts do not conform to a human rights standard; the “reforms” represent a serious failure on the part of the government to comply with Britain’s legal international human rights obligations.

The cuts announced by the chancellor include a further reduction to the benefits cap – not only from £26,000 to £23,000, as promised in the Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto, but down even further to £20,000 outside of London.

Child tax credit, housing benefit and working tax credit will be reduced, with child tax credit only being paid for the first two children. Presumably this is, to quote Iain Duncan Smith, to “incentivise behavioural change,” placing pressure on the poorest to “breed less,” though personally, being the direct, blunt, no-nonsense sort, I prefer to call it a nudge towards “eugenics by stealth.”

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission say that any cuts to tax credits will cut the incomes of 45 per cent of working families. These cuts are particularly controversial, since the benefits cap was partly justified as a way of “making work pay”  – a Conservative narrative that echoes the punitive 1834 New Poor Law Principle of less eligibility – see: The New New Poor Law.

The Government asserts that its welfare “reform” strategy is aimed at breaking the cycle of “worklessness” and dependency on the welfare system amongst the poorest families. It’s more punitive Poor Law rhetoric.

There’s no such thing as “worklessness”, it’s simply a blame apportioning word, made up by the Tories to hide the fact that they have destroyed the employment market, just as Thatcher did, and as the Conservatives always do.

Punishing the low paid, cutting the income of families who work for low wages directly contradicts the claim that the Conservatives are “making work pay.”

Yet Osborne has framed his welfare cuts with the “The best route out of poverty is work” mantra, claiming that slashing the social security budget by £46 billion in the next five years, (including cutting those benefits to disabled people, who have been assessed as unfit for work and placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), and cutting in-work benefits, such as tax credits) is needed to make sure “work pays” and that: “we give a fair deal for those on welfare and a fair deal to the people, the taxpayers of this country who pay for it.”

The Conservatives always conveniently divide people into an ingroup of taxpayers and an outgroup of stigmatised others – non-tax payers. However, most people claiming benefits are either in work, and are not paid enough, through no fault of their own, to pay tax, or are pensioners who have worked most of their lives; or are unemployed, but have previously worked and contributed tax.

Most people claiming disability benefits have also worked and contributed tax, too.

Unemployment and in-work benefit claims are generally a measure of how well or poorly the government is handling the economy, not of how “lazy” or “incentivised” people are.

And only the Tories have the cheek to claim that raising the minimum wage (long overdue, especially given the hikes in the cost of living) is the introduction of a living wage. The basic idea is that these are the minimum pay rates needed so that workers have an acceptable standard of living. Over the last few years, wages have very quickly fallen far behind the ever-rising cost of living.

The increase is at a rate of £7.20 an hour for people over the age of 25.  Housing benefit will be withdrawn from those aged between 18 and 21, while tax credits and universal credits will be targeted at people on lower wages by reducing the level at which they are withdrawn.

The chancellor’s announcement amounted merely to an increase in the minimum wage, and the curbs on tax credits would hit low-paid workers in other ways, unfortunately.

Whilst the announcement of a phased increase in the minimum wage is welcome, it is difficult to see how this will reverse the increasing inequality that will be extended as a further consequence of this budget without a matching commitment to improving the structural framework – the quality and stability of employment available. As it is, we are now the most unequal country in EU.

If the government were sincerely interested in raising wages to make work genuinely pay, ministers would be encouraging rather than stifling trade unionism and collective bargaining. But instead we see further cuts to public sector pay in real terms year after year and the raising of the legal bar for industrial action so that strikes will be effectively outlawed in public services. And let’s not forget the grubby partisan policy of two years ago – the Let Lynton Lobby Gagging Act.

Rhys Moore, director of the Living Wage Foundation, said:

“Is this really a living wage? The living wage is calculated according to the cost of living whereas the Low Pay Commission calculates a rate according to what the market can bear. Without a change of remit for the Low Pay Commission this is effectively a higher national minimum wage and not a living wage.”

Those most affected by the extreme welfare cuts are those groups for which human rights law provides special protections. The UK government has already contravened the human rights of women, children, and disabled people.

The recent report of the UK Children’s Commissioner to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, published in July this year, says:

“Response to the global economic downturn, including the imposition of austerity measures and changes to the welfare system, has resulted in a failure to protect the most disadvantaged children and those in especially vulnerable groups from child poverty, preventing the realisation of their rights under Articles 26 and 27 [of the UN CRC] … Reductions to household income for poorer children as a result of tax, transfer and social security benefit changes have led to food and fuel poverty, and the sharply increased use of crisis food bank provision by families.”

The parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights recently reported on the UK’s compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and found it woefully lacking:

“Welfare cuts will ensure that the government is not in compliance with its international human rights obligations to realise a right to an adequate standard of living under Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESR) and a child’s right to an adequate standard of living under Article 27 of the UN CRC. Further it will be in breach of the statutory target to eliminate child poverty contained in the Child Poverty Act 2010.”

Just in case you missed it, there has been a very recent, suspiciously timed change to the definition of child poverty, and a proposed repeal of the Child Poverty Act – something that Iain Duncan Smith has been threatening to bring about since 2013.

It’s yet another ideologically directed Tory budget, dressed-up in the rhetoric of economic necessity, detached from public needs.

And Conservative ideology is all about handouts to the wealthy that are funded by the poor.

Related:

George Osborne’s Political MasterstrokeA View from the Attic

Osborne’s class spite wrapped in spin will feed a backlashSeumas Milne

Budget 2015: what welfare changes did George Osborne announce, and what do they mean?  New Statesman: The Staggers

How Osborne’s new cuts breach the UK’s human rights obligations, Lecturer in Law at Lancaster University

Osborne’s Autumn statement reflects the Tory ambition to reduce State provision to rubble

Osborne’s razor: the Tory principle of parsimony is applied only to the poorest

The BBC expose a chasm between what the Coalition plan to do and what they want to disclose

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Thanks to Robert Livingstone

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

proper Blond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. Conservative policies are quite clearly no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly about telling us how to be.

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

Conservative narratives, amplified via the media, have framed our reality, stifled alternatives, and justified Tory policies that extend psychological coercion including through workfare; benefit sanctions; in stigmatising the behaviour and experiences of poor citizens and they endorse the loss of autonomy for citizens who were disempowered to begin with.

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

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

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone


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Despotic paternalism and punishing the poor. Can this really be England?

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Framing the game

Earlier this year, David Cameron defended his welfare “reforms”, claiming that: “Labour has infantilised benefit claimants”, and he argued it was “not big-hearted” to leave people claiming sickness allowances when “they could be incentivised to get treatment for alcohol dependence or obesity.”

I should not need to point out that despite the bizarre attempt at stigmatising sick and disabled people with such a loaded, moralising and media agenda-setting comment from our PM, the majority of people claiming sickness benefits are neither dependent on alcohol nor are they claiming because they are obese. This said, I think that alcohol dependence and obesity are illnesses that ought to be treated with compassion instead of moralising. But the general public on the whole do not hold this view. Cameron knows that. In fact Cameron has contributed to the scapegoating of social groups, outgrouping and public division significantly over the past five years

I claim sickness benefit simply because I have a life-threatening illness called lupus. There is no cure, and no-one may imply I am ill because of “life-style choices”. However, people using alcohol often have underlying mental distress, and drinking alcohol is pretty much a social norm. Poverty often means that people are forced to buy the cheapest food, which is the least healthy option. Some illnesses and disabilities cause mobility problems, and some treatments cause weight gain. So it cannot be assumed that alcohol dependence and obesity are simply about “making wrong choices” after all. 

I have to say that it IS “big-hearted” to leave me claiming benefits, Mr Cameron, because I am no longer fit for work. Indeed I was forced to take my case to tribunal after your government tried to “kindly” incentivise me to abandon my legitimate claim for sickness benefit, and the tribunal panel decided that if I were return to my profession(s) (social work and previously, youth and community work – with young people at risk of offending,) that would, though no fault of my own, place me in situations that are an unacceptable risk to my health and safety, and of course would also place others – vulnerable young people – at risk. Which is why I claimed sickness benefit in the first place – because I am too ill to work.

Libertarian paternalism isn’t “fatherly”

Mr Cameron, however, thinks he knows better and continues to insist that it is is everyone’s best interests to work. I can assure him that isn’t the case. So can many others with chronic illnesses and disabilities.

Back in 2013, Esther McVey defended the increased use of welfare conditionality and benefit sanctions in front of the work and pensions committee by infantilising claimants and playing the behaviourist paternalistic libertarian nudge card. She said: “What does a teacher do in a school? A teacher would tell you off or give you lines or whatever it is, detentions, but at the same time they are wanting your best interests at heart.”

“They are teaching you, they are educating you but at the same time they will also have the ability to sanction you.”

Since when did the state become comparable with a strict, punitive, authoritarian headmaster at a remedial school called “we know what’s best for you” in this so-called first-world liberal democracy?  That is not democracy at all: it’s despotic paternalism.

One of the cruellest myths of inequality is that some people are poor because they lack the capability to be anything else. Meritocracy is a lie. It is used to justify the obscene privileges and power at the top of our steep social hierarchy and the cruel exclusion and crushing, humiliating deprivation at the bottom. No-one seems to want to contemplate that people are poor because some people are very very rich, and if the very rich have a little less, the poor could have a little more.

Neoliberalism is a socioeconomic system founded entirely on competition. This means that people have to compete for resources and opportunities, including jobs. Inevitably such as system generates “winners” and “losers”. Poverty has got nothing to do with personal “choices”; the system itself creates inequalities.

Deserving and undeserving: the rich deserve more money, the poor deserve punishment

At least one third of those people with the most wealth have inherited it. It’s a manifestation of prejudice that poor people are seen as “less deserving”, based on “ability” and on vulgar assumptions regarding people’s personal qualities and character. In fact the media, mostly talking to itself,  in judging “the undeserving”  has given a veneer of moral authority to an ancient Conservative prejudice. It’s very evident in policies. The austerity cuts don’t apply to the fabulously lucky wealthy. Whilst the poorest citizens have seen their welfare cut and wages decrease, as the cost of living spirals upwards, millionaires were handed a tax break of £107, 000 each per year.

Surely our stratified social system of starkly divided wealth, resources, power, privilege and access is punishment enough for poor people.

As Ed Miliband pointed out: “David Cameron and George Osborne believe the only way to persuade millionaires to work harder is to give them more money.

But they also seem to believe that the only way to make you (ordinary people) work harder is to take money away.”  So Tory “incentives” are punitive, but only if you are poor. Wealth, apparently, is the gift that just keeps on giving.

Tories create “scroungers” and “skivers”

As I’ve commented elsewhere, 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 suddenly seem to develop a considerable range of baffling personal ineptitudes and immediately dysfunctional lives.

We see a proliferation of  “skivers” and “scroungers”, an uprising of “fecklessness”, a whole sneaky “culture of entitlement”, “drug addicts”, a riot of general all-round bad sorts, and apparently, the numbers of poor people who suddenly can’t cook a nutritious meal has climbed dramatically, too. We are told that starvation is not because of a lack of money and access to food, but rather, it’s because people don’t know how to budget and cook.

That’s odd, because I always thought that poverty is a consequence of the way society is organised and how resources are allocated through government policies.

That’s a fundamental truth that we seem to be losing sight of, because of the current poverty of state responsibility and the politics of blame.

However, the current government has made the welfare system increasingly conditional on the grounds that “permissive” welfare policies have led to welfare “dependency”.  Strict behavioural requirements and punishments in the form of sanctions were an integral part of the conservative moralisation of welfare, and their  “reforms” aimed to make claiming benefits less attractive than taking a low paid, insecure job.

Sanctions simply worsen the position of the most vulnerable and disadvantaged citizens. Creating desperation by removing people’s means of basic survival forces them into low paid, insecure work and exerts a further downward pressure on conditions of employement and wages. It commodifies the reserve army of labor, which is strictly in the interests of exploitative, profit-driven plutocrats.

Can this really be England? 

Cruel Brittania. A man with heart problems was sanctioned because he had a heart attack during a disability benefits assessment and so failed to complete the assessment. A lone mother was sanctioned because she was a little late for a jobcentre  interview, as her four year old daughter needed the toilet.

A man with diabetes was sanctioned because he missed an appointment due to illness, he died penniless, starving, without electricity and alone as a consequence. His electricity card was out of credit, which meant that the fridge where he should have kept his insulin chilled was not working. Three weeks after his benefits were stopped he died from diabetic ketoacidosis – because he could not take his insulin. Here are 11 more irrational, unfair, purely punitive applications of sanctions.

How can removing the basic means of survival for the poorest people in our society possibly incentivise them, “help them into work” or be considered to be remotely “fair”?

There are targets set for imposing benefit sanctions. Jobcentre managers routinely put pressure on staff to sanction people’s benefits, according to their union. Failure to impose “enough” sanctions is said to result in staff being “subject to performance reviews” or losing pay.  “Success” as an employee at the jobcentre is certainly not about helping people to get a job but rather, it’s about tricking them out of the money they need to meet their basic needs. Such as food, fuel and shelter. Welfare is no longer a safety net: it is an institutionalisation of systematic state punishment of our poorest citizens.

Angela Neville worked as an adviser in Braintree jobcentre, Essex, for four years and she has written a play with two collaborators, her friends Angela Howard and Jackie Howard, both of whom have helped advocate for unemployed people who were threatened with benefit sanctions by jobcentre staff.

One central motivation behind the play was how “morally compromising” the job had become. In one scene an adviser tells her mother that it’s like “getting brownie points” for cruelty. When Neville herself became redundant in 2013, she was warned about being sanctioned for supposedly being five minutes late to a jobcentre interview.

There was a strong feeling among the playwrights that the tendencies in wider society and the media to stigmatise and vilify benefits claimants needed to be challenged and refuted. The play opens with a scene where “nosey neighbours” spot someone on sickness benefit in the street and assume they must be skiving instead of working.

This perspective is one shared widely amongst disabled people, groups, organisations and charities that advocate for and support disabled people, and is evidenced by the rapid rise of disability-related hate crime since 2010, reaching the highest level since records began by 2012. The UK government is currently the first to face a high-level international inquiry, initiated by the United Nations Committee because of “grave or systemic violations” of the rights of disabled people.

That ought to be a source of shame for the both the government and the public, especially considering that this country was once considered a beacon of human rights, we are (supposedly) a first-world liberal democracy, and a very wealthy nation, yet our government behave like tyrants towards the most vulnerable citizens of the UK. And the public have endorsed this.

“This play is about getting people to bloody think about stuff. Use their brains. Sometimes I think, crikey, we are turning into a really mean, spying on our neighbour, type of society,” Angela said.

The title of the play, Can This be England? is an allusion to the disbelief that Angela Neville and many of us feel at how people on benefits are being treated. And she describes the play, in which she also acts, as a “dramatic consciousness-raising exercise”. The idea behind this production is that the play may be performed very simply, with minimum rehearsal. Scripts are carried throughout and few props are used.

It can take place in any room of a suitable size, and there is no need for stage lighting. The script is freely available to all who wish to use it for performances to raise awareness (non-commercial purposes). Click HERE to download a PDF file. If you find it useful please e-mail any feedback to Angela Neville at the Show and Tell Theatre Company.

Psychopolitics

Welfare has become increasingly redefined: it is now 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 well-being. 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.

Framed by ideological concerns, the welfare “reforms” reflect an abandonment of concern for disadvantage and the meeting of human needs as ends in themselves. We have witnessed an extremely punitive system emerge, under the Tories, at a time when jobs are becoming increasingly characterised by insecurity and poor pay. Last year, two-thirds of people who found work took jobs for less than the living wage (£7.85 an hour nationally, £9.15 in London), according to the annual report from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

There are as many people in work that are now in poverty as there are out of work, partly due to a vast increase in insecure work on zero-hours contracts, or in part-time or low-paid self-employment. Poverty-level wages have been exacerbated by the number of people reliant on privately rented accommodation and unable to get social housing, the report said. Evictions of tenants by private landlords outnumber mortgage repossessions and are the most common cause of homelessness. The rapidly rising cost of living – price rises for food, energy and transport – have so many people on low pay struggling to make ends meet.

But pay for people on what were comfortable incomes previously is now outstripped by inflation, leaving many more struggling with rising prices. Public spending has decreased, having a knock-on effect on the economy.

Economic Darwinism doesn’t promote growth

Last year, I wrote about the study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), who found what most of us already knew: that income inequality actually stifles economic growth in some of the world’s wealthiest countries, whilst the redistribution of wealth via taxes and benefits encourages growth.

The report from the OECD, a leading global think tank, shows basically that what creates and reverses growth is the exact opposite of what the current right-wing government are telling us, highlighting the rational basis and fundamental truth of Ed Miliband’s comments in his speech – that the Tory austerity cuts are purely ideologically driven, and not about managing the economy at all.

There is a dimension of vindictiveness in the Tory claim that cutting people’s lifeline benefits will somehow “make work pay”, once you see past the Orwellian unlogic of the statement, and recognise the extent of waged poverty in the UK. Making work pay would rationally need to involve a rise in wages, surely, but that has not happened.

To understand this, it is important to grasp the elitist socio-economic priorities that are embedded in Conservative ideology, which I’ve outlined previously in Conservatism in a nutshell. The whole idea beneath the Orwellian doublespeak is comparable with the punitive Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 – in particular, we can see a clear parallel with the 1834 “less eligibility principle” and the Tory notion of “making work pay” which I’ve previously discussed in The New New Poor Law.

The parallels are underpinned by a shift from macro-level socio-economic explanations of poverty and state responsibility to micro-level punitive, moral psychologising, scapegoating, and the abdication of state (and public) responsibility.

Policies provide a conceptual frame of reference, which tend to shape public attitudes, they are also deeply symbolic gestures that convey subliminal messages. The Conservative war on welfare and the NHS further devalues the worth of human life, turning the needy into a disposable state commodity, a coerced, desperate reserve army of cheap labour.

It also conveys the message that to care about the survival and well-being of others is futile; it pathologises collectivism, cooperation and altruism. This is a government that operates entirely by generating fear and division, on a social, economic and cultural level, but also, increasingly intrusively, within phenomenological, psychological and psychic dimensions too.

How did the poor become such an easy enemy of the state, and how can the public believe the dominant narrative that pathologises the victim, and fail to recognise the irrational, circular argument of benefit sanctions, when the conservatives’ reasoning is that the application of sanctions demonstrates the moral ineptitude of the individual – but it merely acts to justify poverty and inequality.

The perverse logic runs as follows: welfare for the poorest citizens – those who require collective responses to poverty – can only retain public support by threatening to, and by actually making the poorest even poorer. Is this really welfare?

No, not any more.

How can welfare ever be about some politically manufactured, apocryphal and malevolent desire for retribution, based on pseudo-moralising about the poor and demoralised, and a concern for the spiteful, perverted, mean-spirited sense of satisfaction for the better off, at the expense of the material and biological well-being of those in need: the poorest and most vulnerable citizens?

Conservative 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 many others.

Democracy exists partly to ensure that the powerful are accountable to the vulnerable. The Conservatives have blocked that crucial exchange, they despise the welfare state, which provides the vulnerable with protection from  exploitation by the powerful.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, the wide recognition that unbridled capitalism causes casualties is why the welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest, there is inevitably going to be winners and losers. That is the nature of competitive individualism, and along with crass inequality, it’s an implicit, undeniable and fundamental part of the meritocracy script.

Poverty is created by government policies that reflect a pursuit of free market ideals;  by the imposition of neoliberal economic policies – the sort of policies that ensure taxes cuts for the wealthy, banish fiscal and other business regulations, shred the social safety net, and erode social cohesion and stability, whilst directing the media and population to chant the diversionary mantra of self-reliance and individual responsibility.

Poverty intrudes on people’s lives, it dominates attention and constantly commands that our biologically-driven priorities are met, it reduces cognitive resources, it demotivates, it overwhelms, it reduces experience of the world to one of material paramountcy which cannot be transcended, it stifles human potential.

Need is NOT greed, regardless of the malicious justification narratives in the media and spiteful political rhetoric from the champions of social Darwinism and the Randian self-serving free market. Meeting basic survival imperatives – food, warmth and shelter – is a fundamental prerequisite for life. If the means for meeting these basic survival needs is taken away, then people will die. Surely even the most cold, callous, psychopathic and dogmatic defenders of the status quo can manage to work that one out.

Punishing poor people with more poverty is savage, obscene, barbaric, brutal, and can NEVER work to “incentivise” people to not be poor, nor can it change the pathological idiom that shapes and imposes such unfortunate, unforgiving and unforgivable circumstances on those with the least in the first place.

430835_148211001996623_1337599952_n (1)With thanks to Robert Livingstone for his excellent memes