Tag: David Harvey

Nudge and neoliberalism

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I’ve been criticising nudge and the closely related discipline of behavioural economics for a few years, sometimes with an international audience (see, for example: The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats.)  Nudge has increasingly seen by governments as a cheap and effective way of achieving social political goals in an era of austerity. 

I have several objections to the “behavioural turn”; some are to do with its impact on democracy, others are to do with its class contingency: poor people are disproportionately nudged, and without their consent. When I say ‘disproportionately’, I mean almost exclusively.

Over the last seven years, behavioural economics has come to be seen as something of a technocratic fix for a failing and overarching socioeconomic system. However, it has more in common with PR, marketing and advertising that psychology or economics. It’s part of the ‘sales pitch’ for neoliberalism, which is already a sold out event.

Behavioural economics epitomizes an era in which politics is concerned chiefly with saving money and combating the symptoms rather than the causes of growing social inequality. Nudges may serve to make poverty infinitesimally more bearable for the government, who can say that they are doing something to ‘solve’ poverty, but certainly not for the poorest people. When you zoom out, you see clearly that exactly nothing is being solved at all. At best, nudge is like persuading a person to learn how to swim in a clean and tidy swimming pool, and them throwing them back into a maelstrom out at sea.

The poorest citizens are targeted with punitive, heavily bureaucratic policies and an administrative authoritarianism, while wealthy people get the freedom to do as they please, and a rewarding form of state libertarian socialism, where the regulation book is ripped up. Unaccountable private companies design nudge strategies for profit, politicians and civil servants learn them and become board room, arm-chair psychologists, experimenting on ordinary citizens to find ways of not paying out for public services. All without the publics’ consent.

What could possibly go right? 

The government and their small army of behavioural economists argue that citizens’ characters, cognitive ‘limitations’ and ‘flawed’ decision making is the root cause of poverty and creates inequality, so handing over money every year to poor people is akin to “treating the symptoms, but ignoring the disease.” Margaret Thatcher, the High Priestess of neoliberalism, once called poverty a “personality defect.”

However, this narrative is based on assumption and fails to take into account the possibility that people’s decisions, behaviours and circumstantial problems are not the cause but the consequences of poverty. Giving poor people more money might well just genuinely work wonders, because simply having too little is THE problem. 

Nudge is an authoritarian prop for a failing neoliberal ideology and policies. Most citizens don’t benefit from a system founded on accumulation by dispossession – a concept presented by David Harvey, which defines the neoliberal capitalist policies in many western nations, from the New Right Thatcher era to the present day, as resulting in the centralisation of wealth and power in the hands of a few, by dispossessing the public of their wealth, public services and land. And increasingly, their autonomy, as public perceptions and behaviours are being aligned with politically determined neoliberal ‘outcomes’. It’s a vicious cycle – a maelstrom. 

Nudge is politically ‘justified’ by a draconian, ideological framework of beliefs, partly based on Victorian meritocratic notions of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’. One theme is that poor people lack the qualities or capacities to be economically competent, and simply make the ‘wrong’ choices. But in a system where everyone competes for resources (as well as a democratic voice, government attention and funding), not everyone is permitted to be wealthy. That is the nature of ‘competition’. There is no such thing as ‘trickle down’ either. Wealthy people don’t generally share their wealth.

Image result for @LanceUlanoff on trickle down

Furthermore, being poor isn’t particularly lucrative, in fact poverty itself tends to be accumulative. Poor people are financially penalised and economically excluded. Poor citizens can’t get loans when they need them, unless they are prepared to pay eyewatering interest rates, of course. Pay as you go metered utilities – gas, electric and water, for example – tend to cost rather more than a monthly or quarterly direct debit. Poor people who get into debt with utility companies tend to be coerced into having payment meters fitted, as they are considered at ‘risk’ of defaulting on payments by big businesses.

It’s somehow become obscenely normal to charge poor people more money than wealthy people for the same services and utilities. I’ve yet to hear of a poor person who became less poor because they are being punished by having more money taken from them.

However, being wealthy is very lucrative; it’s the gift that keeps on giving. This discrimination has been dressed up carefully with a political narrative, using terms like “incentives”. For wealthy people, a reward of more money is apparently an ‘incentive’ to just keep on being wealthy. 

Poor people, however, seemingly require a different form of ‘incentivisation’. They need to be told that it’s ‘wrong’ to be poor, and that it is their own fault, rather than the consequence of a prejudiced and discriminatory government and their flawed, prejudiced and discriminatory policy designs. In a so-called meritocratic system, it follows that wealthy people ‘deserve’ their wealth – even though at least one third of them simply inherited it – and poor people deserve to be poor. If it wasn’t for the myth of meritocracy, inequality and burdening those in poverty with a sense of shame and personal failing would be considered abhorrent. However, neither neoliberalism nor it’s PR and strategic communications agent, behavioural economics, are drawn from the philosophical well of human kindness. They came to life in the degenerative, dry ruins of once civilised societies, marking a Fin de Siècle of  late capitalism.

The socioeconomic system of organisation – neoliberalism – eliminates the possibility that everyone can ‘win’, since neoliberalism is itself founded on competitive individualism, which permits only a few ‘winners’ and many more ‘losers’. The existence of absolute poverty in a wealthy country is ample evidence of a fatally flawed system, so the government uses a rhetoric of a myth – meritocracy – to justify the status quo, blaming citizens’ ‘behaviours’ and ‘attitudes’, rather than recognising the real problem and changing the system, which generates inequality from its very core.

So poor people are penalised for being poor by being incentivised’ by punitive economic sanctions that entail losses from the little money they have. This is so appallingly cruel, because scarcity completely consumes people. It eats away at human potential and stifles possibilities. And removes choices.

The patronising ‘paternalism’ of a government that assumes it ‘knows what is best’ for people – punitive nudges delivered by a group of privileged, powerful and prejudiced elitists – is doomed to fail. The key reason is that being poor means having less choice to start off with. Poor people don’t act on available choices because they can’t. They have none. They are compelled to act on necessity.

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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs outlines that our most basic needs are biological, and meeting these needs is a necessity for survival. There isn’t a ‘choice’.

Taking money from poor people is simply cruel and barbaric. It reduces ‘choices’ and increases necessity and desperation.

If we can’t meet our fundamental needs, we can’t meet higher level psychosocial needs either – the ones that do entail choices about our lives. Poverty has got nothing to do with making “irrational choices” at a personal level. It’s got everything to do with being left with NO choices.

There is a world of difference between ‘choice’ and ‘necessity’. It is time the government and the technocratic behavioural economists busy propping up a failing system recognised and acknowledged this. People are poor because we have a system that diverts available resources away from them, hanging them out to dry. Until that fundamental fact is addressed, nothing will change.

It’s time for a serious and open political debate about inequality, the limits of nudge, democracy and the fundamental failure of neoliberalism. It’s time to stop blaming poor people for poverty and inequality.

Bootstraps

Related

The connection between Universal Credit, ordeals and experiments in electrocuting laboratory rats

 The government plan social experiments to “nudge” sick and disabled people into work

A critique of benefit sanctions:  the Minnesota Starvation Experiment and  Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

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


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The neoliberal ideologues lost their fig leaf and so now turn to shoot the messengers

Yet another remarkable Conservative-led backlash against Oxfam’s annual report on global inequality ahead of the opening of the World Economic Forum in Davos was started almost as soon as the charity issued the press release.  The report says that just 42 people hold as much wealth as the 3.7 billion who make up the poorest half of the world’s population. Inequality has widened over last year, with some 82% of the entire world’s money going to just 1% of the population. 

The report says it is “unacceptable and unsustainable” for a tiny minority to accumulate so much wealth while hundreds of millions of people struggled on poverty pay. It called on world leaders to turn rhetoric about inequality into policies to tackle tax evasion and boost the pay of workers. 

Mark Goldring, Oxfam GB chief executive, said: “The concentration of extreme wealth at the top is not a sign of a thriving economy, but a symptom of a system that is failing the millions of hardworking people on poverty wages who make our clothes and grow our food.”

Oxfam has made changes to its wealth calculations as a result of new data from the bank Credit Suisse. Under the revised figures, 42 people hold as much wealth as the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorer half of the world’s population, compared with 61 people last year and 380 in 2009. At the time of last year’s reportOxfam said that eight billionaires held the same wealth as half of the world’s population.

The wealth of billionaires had risen by 13% a year on average in the decade from 2006 to 2015, with the increase of $762bn (the equivalent of £550bn) in 2017  – enough to end extreme poverty seven times over.

The charity also said nine out of ten of the world’s 2,043 dollar billionaires were men.

Goldring went on to say: “For work to be a genuine route out of poverty we need to ensure that ordinary workers receive a living wage and can insist on decent conditions, and that women are not discriminated against. If that means less for the already wealthy then that is a price that we – and they – should be willing to pay.”

An Oxfam survey of 70,000 people in 10 countries, including the UK, showed widespread public support for action to tackle inequality. Nearly two-thirds of people – 72% in the UK – said they want the government to urgently address the income gap between rich and poor in their country.  

The New Right and neoliberals subsequently have advocated policies that aided the accumulation of profits and wealth in fewer hands with the argument that it would promote investment, thereby creating more jobs and more prosperity for all. As neoliberal policies were implemented around the world inequalities in wealth and income increased, there were health inequalities and poverty increased, contradicting neoliberal theories that by increasing the wealth at the top, everyone would become more affluent. Public funds were simply funnelled away into private hands. (See: the Paradise Papers, for example, and A few words about trickle down economics).

Furthermore, it’s become increasingly apparent that neoliberalism, as a totalising free-market ideology, is fundamentally incompatible with democracy and human rights frameworks.

The socioeconomic changes pushed through by the New Right in the US and the UK in the 80s removed constraints on bankers, made finance more important at the expense of manufacturing and reduced the power of unions, making it difficult for employees to secure as big a share of the national economic wealth as they had in previous decades.

The flipside of rising corporate profits and higher rewards for the top 1% of earners was stagnating wages for ordinary citizens against a backdrop of rapidly rising living costs, and of course, a subsequent higher propensity to get into debt.

Let’s not forget that the main factors behind the global economic crisis were ill-conceived and ideologically motivated fiscal and monetary policies, which were aided and abetted by inadequate regulation and a variety of other neoliberal policy ‘mistakes’. We subesequently learned that squeezing the oligarchs – those whose behaviours were responsible for the Great Recession – is seldom the strategy of choice among free market governments. Instead, they look to the less powerful – ordinary citizens – to carry the consequences and burdens of the greed and reckless risk-taking of the financiers. Government’s can’t stay tough on erstwhile cronies, after all.

The oligarchs use their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed. Responsibility and blame for the recession and the failure of neoliberalism has been re-written: it’s because of the ‘culture of entitlement’, it’s because of the opposition’s previous ‘spendthrift’ policies; ‘it’s because of poor people’s sub-optimal, faulty behaviours’ and ‘cognitive biases’; it’s because of ‘scrounging’ welfare claimants; it’s down to disabled people who are ‘parked’ on welfare; it’s because of immigration which drains our resources: it’s down to ‘inefficient’ public services; it’s because of the ‘bloated’ state. It’s because of anything but what it actually was because of. 

The pre-bust rising delinquencies in US subprime mortgages have all but been forgiven and forgotten. The political solution to catastrophically failing neoliberalism has simply been the application of more aggressive neoliberal policies.

Of course, in a society that celebrates the idea of self interest, greed and accumulating money, it’s easy to infer that the interests of the financial sector are the same as the interests of the country. 

Meanwhile, in the UK, when people were asked what a typical British chief executive earned in comparison with an unskilled worker, people guessed 33 times as much. When asked what the ideal ratio should be, they said 7:1. Oxfam said that FTSE 100 bosses earned on average 120 times more than the average employee.

Goldring said it was time to rethink a global economy in which there was excessive corporate influence on policymaking, erosion of workers’ rights and a relentless drive to minimise costs in order to maximise returns to investors. He is absolutely right. In the wake of the Paradise Papers, the catastrophic collapse of Carillion, which further exposes the neoliberal privatisation ‘efficiency’ myths, the wake of scandals from the likes of G4S, Atos and Maximus,  and Virgin Care. (See also: Doctors bribed with 70-90k salaries to join Maximus and “endorse a political agenda regardless of how it affects patients.). 

Payments to private finance companies where Carillion have a stake, 2017-18 to 2048-49

It’s unsurprising that the neoliberal ideologues are out in force, outraged as their hegemony is crumbling and their fig leaf has been removed. Astroturfing aggressively in an attempt to stigmatise knowledge that is an empirically inconvenience to neoliberal ideologues. The culprits are easily identified because they use the same crib sheet, with comments that are identical almost word for word.

The effects of inequality are not confined to the poor. A growing body of research shows that inequality damages the economy and the social fabric of the whole of society.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said last year: “Research at the IMF and elsewhere makes it clear that persistent lack of inclusion—defined as broadly shared benefits and opportunities for economic growth—can fray social cohesion and undermine the sustainability of growth itself.” And development experts point out that inequality compromises poverty reduction.

The IMF also say “While some inequality is inevitable in a market-based economic system, excessive inequality can erode social cohesion, lead to political polarization, and ultimately, lower economic growth.” In the Fiscal Monitor, the IMF discussed how fiscal policies can help achieve redistributive objectives.

The Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), a think tank insisting since the 1950s that free market have an important role in solving economic and social problems, have spearheaded what can best be described as an aggressive right wing and neoliberal astroturfing campaign on Twitter. It’s because they know neoliberal dogma has run out of road. Manic privatisation, small state extremism, austerity and a profit over human need philosophy have shoved and abandoned us in an economic cul-de-sac.

The IEA are braying in response to Oxfam’s modest call for a fairer, progressive tax system and a more inclusive form of capitalism : “Yet again Oxfam gets it wrong on inequality and poverty, “ says Mark Littlewood, for example, who defends the neoliberal go-to trickle down approach, arguing for growing the overall size of the pie instead of quibbling about how it is sliced. He also says: “Higher minimum wages would also likely lead to disappearing jobs, harming the very people Oxfam intend to help.”

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The origins of trickle-down theory: poor people are expected to live on a diet of horse sh*t.

Yet the growth of low paid and insecure employment under neoliberalism has placed an increasing burden on our rapidly shrinking public services and in particular, such exploitative thinking, which places profit over the needs and rights of workers, has placed a drain on our welfare system, with the highest proportion of costs – most benefits – being paid to people in low paid work.

Littlewood fails to make the link between inequality and growing poverty. You’d think that if this approach worked, we would have seen evidence of it over the years since the Thatcher era. Instead, we have witnessed growing inequality and the return of absolute poverty – which is when people cannot meet the costs to fulfil their basic survival needs, such as for fuel, food and shelter. 

The worlds’ wealth and power is increasingly concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, undermining democracy in the process. On the IEA site, Kate Andrews also tries to completely separate inequality from poverty, but fails miserably in her justification of inequality of the grounds of meritocratic dogma. She intentionally overlooks the dynamics of the triangular relationship between distribution, poverty and economic growth. Poverty can be reduced through increases in income, through changes in the distribution of income, or through a combination of both. 

Accumulation by dispossession –  the consequences of privatisation and commodification of public assets, transferring property and wealth from public to private ownership – has been among the most widely criticised and disputed aspects of neoliberalism. It was originally observed and outlined by David Harvey, who says that neoliberal policies in many western nations, from the 1970s to the present day, has resulted in an accumulation and centralisation of wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public of their wealth, public services, resources, power and land.

This process of accumulation by dispossession intimately ties growing inequality with increasing poverty, especially in an age of neoliberal austerity, a programme which has targeted the poorest citizens disproportionately.

Increasing the income of poor citizens contributes to the expansion of the economy. Andrews also intentionally disregards the fact that almost everyone pays National Insurance and tax, and that poor people tend to pay proportionally more of their income in tax than very wealthy citizens. That’s if wealthy citizens choose to pay any tax  at all – it’s become increasingly optional, politically, to tax the rich. It’s become increasingly apparent over the last decade that the real economic free-riders are the very wealthy and privileged, not the poorest citizens. Poverty and inequality isn’t ordained by the laws of either economics or physics. It’s the result of hegemonic decision-making, and rigidly institutionalised class advantage and disadvantage.  

This is why big players such as the World Bank, United Nations, World Economic Forum, OECD and IMF have gone about setting twin goals and outlining recommendations that policy needs to simultaneously tackle poverty and inequality in rich as well as poor countries.

I’m just wondering if the Twitter trolls and astroturfers have yet ridiculously accused these institutions and organisations of being ‘Corbynites’ , ‘Marxists’ and of joining or supporting Momentum, as they did Oxfam.

oxfam

The condition that people who champion social justice and object to inequality and poverty must be poor and oppressed, otherwise their proposition must be invalid is a peculiarly right wing one, based on a form of faulty narcissistic reasoning. 

By attempting to shift the debate away from the policy changes that have caused inequality, neoliberals are simply trying to legitimate it without the merit of open and rational scrutiny.

One of the primary characteristics of this type of reasoning is an exaggerated sense of entitlement and resentfulness and outrage of other peoples’. These protagonists are the ultimate meritocrats, just as long as they can define who ‘deserves’ what and who does not. Despite the steadfast ethical values such neoliberal champions loudly profess, they are moral relativists in that what they adamantly deem immoral for others is somehow acceptable for themselves. Furthermore, they are also overly sensitive to any perceived slight, challenge or criticism, regardless of how legitimate it may be. Market competition is one thing, pluralism and a healthy competition of ideas is apparently quite another. 

It’s very telling that any call for a degree of social justice and for protecting the poorest citizens against the worst ravages of capitalism is now dismissed by the right wing free market ideologues as ‘radical’. It betrays their utter indifference to the plight of the inevitable and innocent casualties of the catastrophically failing neoliberal experiment, imposed, regardless of the consequences, from the 1980s to date.

It isn’t possible to discuss growing global poverty without reference to its root causes and that invariably involves some reference to government priorities and policies. In a democracy, scrutiny of the impact of political decision-making and policies on citizens ought to be seen as a fundamental priority, rather than being simply increasingly indolently dismissed by authoritarians as ‘radical’ and ‘marxist’. 

Bootstraps


 

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Jeremy Corbyn’s greatest success is the discrediting of neoliberalism. He gets my vote

Jeremy Corbyn Labour conference speech in full (2017)

One of Corbyn’s most important achievements is in extending national debate beyond the limits of neoliberal ideology and challenging the hegemony imposed by Margaret Thatcher. The sell by date was last century, it expired in General Pinochet’s Chile. Yet the Tories continue to flog a dead horse, selling England by the pound, while selling the public very short indeed.

With it’s justification narrative of meritocracy, entrenched notions of ‘deserving and undeserving’ applied post hoc to explain away the steeply unequal hierarchy of the economic order, neoliberalism is founded on deeply eugenic ideas and social Darwinism. Neoliberals from Margaret Thatcher onwards have embraced white supremacist thinkers such as Charles Murray

Murray is a statistically minded sociologist by training. Statistics tend to exclude qualitative accounts and details of the populations researched. They don’t do much to generate understandings or meaningful accounts, often imposing a theoretical framework onto those being studied, rather than presenting any meanigful dialogue between researcher and those researched. The result is rather a restricted, one sided account. 

Murray has spent decades working to rehabilitate long-discredited theories of IQ and heredity, turning them into a foundation on which to build a Conservative theory of society that rejects notions of equality and egalitarianism completely. He is fiercely opposed to welfare programmes and social safety nets of any kind. His thinking is embedded in neoliberal narrative.

In Murray’s view, wealth and social power naturally accrue towards a “cognitive elite” made up of high-IQ individuals (who are overwhelmingly white, male, and from well-to-do families), while those on the lower end of the eponymous bell curve form an “underclass” whose misfortunes stem from their ‘low intelligence’. 

It never crossed his mind that IQ tests simply measure a person’s ability to perform IQ tests. Or that other qualities, such as ruthlessness and dark triad traits (psychopathy, narcissism and Machiavellianism) – which are linked by callousness, manipulation, and a lack of remorse and empathy – are a more accurate measure of qualities that result in “success” and financial reward. The reckless behaviours of the financial class that caused the global crash bear out this theory, after all.

Narcissism consists of dominance motivation, a sense of entitlement, and perceived superiority combined with intolerance to criticism. Machiavellianism includes facile social charm, deceitful behaviour aimed at undermining others, and a reliance on manipulation. Psychopathy shows itself in low or absent empathy, an absence of remorse and conscience, high impulsivity, heartless social attitudes, and interpersonal hostility. Taken together, the most powerful tendency underlying all three Dark Triad traits is a knack for sadism, manipulation and exploiting others. 

Research has indicated that Machiavellianism significantly correlated with right-wing authoritarianism and social dominance orientation. Furthermore, narcissism was associated with right-wing authoritarianism, and both narcissism and psychopathy were associated with social dominance orientation. Finally, dark personality traits have been shown to be associated with moral foundations that in turn are linked to Conservatism.

For example, showed that Machiavellianism predicted both ingroup/loyalty and authority/respect, whereas psychopathy was positively associated with ingroup/loyalty. (Also see: The impact of dark tetrad traits on political orientation and extremism: an analysis in the course of a presidential election.)

The myth of economic growth

The Tories have frequently shrieked, with vindictive and borderline hysterical relish, that Labour’s pro-social economic policies reflect “fiscal irresponsibility”, but that doesn’t resonate with the government’s calamitous economic record over the past seven years. Nor does it fit with historic facts and accuracy. 

The Labour party were in power when the global crash happened. The recession in 2007/8 in the UK was not one that happened as a direct consequence of Labour’s policies. The seeds of The Great Recession were sown in the 80s and 90s. The global crisis of 2008 was the result of the financialization process: of the massive creation of fictitious financial capital and the hegemony of a reactionary ideology, neoliberalism, which is based on the assumption that markets are self-regulating and efficient. 

The New Right argued that competition and unrestrained selfishness was of benefit to the whole society in capitalist societies. It asserted that as a nation gets wealthier the wealth will “trickle down” to the poorest citizens, because it is invested and spent thereby creating jobs and prosperity. In fact the global financial crisis has demonstrated only too well that financial markets provide opportunities for investment that extend relatively few extra jobs and that feed a precarious type of prosperity that can be obliterated in just a matter of days. 

Neoliberalism: the social sins and economic incompetence of the New Right

The financial deregulation promoted by the New Right permitted the financial institutions to dictate government policy and allowed wealth to be channelled into speculative investments, exacerbating the volatility of share and housing markets. Neoliberal theories were embraced and cherished by big business because they provided a legitimation for their pursuit of self-interest, personal profit and ample avenues for business expansion.  

Private companies supported the argument that government regulation interfered with business and undermined “enterprise culture”.  In this view, government intervention in the management of the economy is unnecessary and unwise because the market is a “self-correcting” mechanism. There was also certain appeal in free market ideology for governments too, in that it absolved them of responsibility for economic performance and living standards of the population. Government functions were and continue to be consigned to profit-seeking private companies,.

The New Right advocated policies that aided the accumulation of profits and wealth in fewer hands with the argument that it would promote investment, thereby creating more jobs and more prosperity for all. As neoliberal policies were implemented around the world inequalities in wealth and income increased, there were health inequalities and poverty increased, contradicting neoliberal theories that by increasing the wealth at the top, everyone would become more affluent. Public funds were simply funnelled away into private hands.

Neoliberal politics were shaped by the decisions and policy activities of Reagan and Thatcher, the architects of deregulation, privatisation, competition, the somewhat mysterious “market forces”, reduced public spending, austerity and trickle-down economics.

The changes pushed through in the US and the UK in the 80s removed constraints on bankers, made finance more important at the expense of manufacturing and reduced the power of unions, making it difficult for employees to secure as big a share of the national economic wealth as they had in previous decades.

The flipside of rising corporate profits and higher rewards for the top 1% of earners was stagnating wages for ordinary citizens, and of course a higher propensity to get into debt.

The Conservatives have a historical record of economic incompetence, and of ignoring empirical evidence that runs counter to their ideological stance. Margaret Thatcher’s failed neoliberal experiment resulted in a crashed economy in 1980-1, which had devastating consequences for communities and many individuals.

Neoliberalism gives economic goals and profiteering an elevated priority over social goals. Many of the social gains made as a result of our post-war settlement have been unravelled since the 1980s, and this process accelerated from 2010, under the guise of austerity.  Rather than arising as a response to an economic need, austerity is central to neoliberal economic strategy. 

While free market advocates claim that neoliberalism promotes a democratic, minimal state, in practice, the neoliberal state has consistently demonstrated quite the opposite tendency, requiring authoritarianism and extensive, all pervasive ideological apparatus to implement an anti-social economic doctrine. As David Harvey says in A Brief History of Neoliberalismthe neoliberals’ economic ideals suffer from inevitable contradictions that require a state structure to regulate them.

If the citizens were free to make decisions about their own lives democratically, perhaps the first thing they would choose to undertake is interference with the property rights of the ruling elite, therefore posing an existential threat to the neoliberal experiment. Whether these popular aspirations take the form of drives towards  progressive taxation, unionisation or pushing for social policies that require the redistribution of resources, the “minimal state” cannot be so minimal that it is unable to respond to and crush the democratic demands of citizens. 

Any state method that seeks to subvert the democratic demands of citizens, whether it’s through force, coercion, ideology and propaganda or social engineering, is authoritarian.

Following Thatcher’s reluctant but necessary resignation, John Major’s government became responsible for British exit from the ERM after Black Wednesday on 16 September 1992. This led to a loss of confidence in Conservative economic policies and Major was never able to achieve a lead in opinion polls again. The disaster of Black Wednesday left the government’s economic credibility irreparably damaged. It’s a pity that the public tend to forget such historical facts subsequently, at election time.

The abiding consequences of Thatcher’s domestic policies from the 1980s and her policy template and legacy set in motion the fallout from the global neoliberal crisis. We are witnessing the terrible social costs of the current government’s perpetual attempts to fix the terminal problems of neoliberalism with more neoliberalism. 

Under the fraying blue banner, the public are now seeing the incongruence between political narrative and reality; there’s an irreconcilable gap between their own lived experiences of neoliberal policies, and what the government are telling them their experiences are.  

“Ten years after the global financial crash the Tories still believe in the same dogmatic mantra – deregulate, privatize, cut taxes for the wealthy, weaken rights at work, delivering profits for a few, and debt for the many.

[…] We are now the political mainstream. Our manifesto and our policies are popular because that is what most people in our country actually want, not what they’re told they should want.” Jeremy Corbyn.

What is the point of a socioeconomic system that benefits only a minority proportion of citizens? It hardly reflects a functioning democracy.  

Ideology is a linked set of ideas and beliefs that act to uphold and justify an existing or desired arrangement of power, authority, wealth and status in a society. Ideological hegemony arises where a particular ideology, such as neoliberalism, is pervasively reflected throughout a society in all principal social institutions and permeates cultural ideas and social relationships. It’s very difficult to “stand outside” of such a system of belief to challenge it, because it has become normalised, taking on the mantle of “common sense”.

Corbyn has talked about forging a “new common sense” during the Conference season. It’s one that has increasingly resonated with the wider public. If there were a general election tomorrow, Labour would win comfortably. In Jeremy Corbyn’s own words, “a new consensus is emerging.” 

However, neoliberal policies are insidious machinations controlled by the capitalist ruling class, in the context of a historic class struggle, to repress, exploit, extort and subjugate the ruled class. One of the key conditions for this to work is public compliance. Such compliance is garnered through an increasingly authoritarian and repressive state.

Of course, as previous discussed, this is one of the biggest inherent ideologic contradictions within neoliberalism: it demands a lean and small state, austerity, and the dismantling of support mechanisms that ensure the quality of life for all citizens, on the one hand, but requires an authoritarian state that is focussed primarily on public conformity and compliance in order to impose a mode of socioeconomic organisation that benefits so few, and lowers the standard of living for so many.

Neoliberalism was never the way forward: it only went backwards

Conservatives would be better named “Regressives”. They’re elitist and really are nasty authoritarians, who have chosen to impose a socioeconomic model that fails most people, destroys all of our public services, extends exploitation of labour, creates massive inequality and absolute poverty, damages the environment, eats away at public funds while shifting them to private bank accounts. Then the need exists to manufacture political justification narratives to cover the devastating social damage inflicted, which stigmatises and blames everyone who is failed by this failing system for being failed.

If the public had known all along what neoliberalism really is, and what its consequences are, they would never have wanted it. People are dying and other people are buying the planned and prepared bent rationale and political denials. Others simply look the other way. Until the consequences of the sheer unfairness of our social and economic organisation touches their own lives.

Apparently, there is “no causal link between punitive “behavioural change” policies and distress”, apparently. Examples of hardship, harm, suicide and death are simply “anecdotal”. Critics of policies and government decision-making are “scaremongering”, “extremists”, “enemies of the state”,  “deluded commies” and so on. Yet most of us are simply advocates of social democracy and justice. 

If you ever wondered how genocide happens, and how a nation come to somehow accept the terrible deeds of despots, well it starts much like this. It unfolds in barely perceptible stages: it starts with prejudiced language, divisive narratives, the promotion of the work ethic, exclusion, media propaganda, widening political prejudice, scapegoating, outgrouping and stigmatisation, acts of violence, and then extermination.

Our moral boundaries are being pushed incrementally. Before you know it, you hate the “workshy”, you believe that disabled people are shirkers who place an unacceptable burden on the state, you see all refugees and migrants as potential thieves, fraudsters and terrorists, and poor people are simply choosing the easy option. When political role models permit the public to hate, directing anger and fear at marginalised social groups, it isn’t long before the once unacceptable becomes thinkable.

The public conforms to changing norms. We become habituated. It’s difficult to believe a state may intentionally inflict harm on citizens. Our own government is guilty of “grave and systematic” abuses of the human rights of disabled people. A government capable of targeting such punitive policies at disabled people is capable of anything.

Conservatives think that civilised society requires imposed order, top down control and clearly defined classes, with each person aware of their rigidly defined “place” in the social order. Conservatism is a gate-keeping exercise geared towards economic discrimination and preventing social mobility for the vast majority.

David Cameron’s Conservative party got into Office by riding on the shockwaves of the 2008 global banking crisis: by sheer opportunism, dishonesty and by extensively editing the narrative about cause of that crisis. The Conservatives shamefully blamed it on “the big state” and “too much state spending.”

They have raided and devastated the public services and social security that citizens have paid for via taxes and national insurance. Support provision for citizens has been cut to the bone. And then unforgivably, they blamed the victims of those savage, ideologically-directed cuts for the suffering imposed on them by the Conservative Party, using the media to amplify their despicable, vicious scapegoating narratives. 

Setting up competition between social groups for resources just means everyone loses except for the very wealthy and powerful. This last 7 years we have witnessed the dehumanisation of refugees and migrants, of disabled people, of unemployed people, of young people, of the elderly and those on low pay. We have also witnessed the unearned contempt for and subsequent deprofessionalisation of doctors, economists, social scientists, academics, teachers, and experts of every hue in order to silence valid and democratic challenges and criticism of destructive government policies and ideology.

Many of us have pointed out that intent behind austerity has nothing to do with economic necessity, nor is it of any benefit to the economy. It’s simply to redistribute public wealth to private (and often offshore) bank accounts. The many deaths correlated with the Conservative’s punitive policies were considered and dismissed as acceptable “collateral damage”. The government constructed a lie about the economic “need” for people “living within our means” but at the same time as imposing cruel cuts on the poorest citizens, George Osborne awarded an obscene handout in the form of a tax cut of £107, 000 each per year to the millionaires.

Neoliberalism has transformed public funds into the disposible income of the very rich. Disabled people are suffering, and some are dying in poverty, unable to meet their basic needs so that wealthy people can hoard a little more wealth. Since 2010, very wealthy people have enjoyed other fiscally rewarding policy whilst the poorest have endured harsh austerity and seen their living standards deteriorate steadily. We have witnessed the return of absolute poverty – where people cannot meet the costs of their basic survival needs, such as for food, fuel and shelter –  as a direct consequence of the diminished welfare state since 2010. 

The current political and cultural narrative was carefully constructed to hide the truth from the wider population, ensuring that responsibility for individual people’s circumstances was relocated from the state to within those harmed by state actions: those ministers doing the harming via policies simply deny any empirical evidence of harm that they are presented, often clinging to psychological explanations of “mental illness” rather than acknowledging the wider role of adverse socioeconomic circumstances and political decision-making in the increasing number of people ending their own life, for example. Cases are despicably and callously dismissed as mere “anecdotal” accounts.

The harm being inflicted on disabled people in order to snatch back their lifeline support cannot be passed off as being the “unintentional consequences” of policies. The government clearly knew in advance what harm such draconian policies would result in. I say this because the evidence is that planning and preparation went into a comprehensive programme of reducing living conditions, public expectation, civil liberties and human rights. Or at least ignoring human rights legal frameworks. The right to redress and remedy has also been removed.

For example, the withdrawing of legal aid – particularly for welfare and medical negligence cases – preparing in advance for a UN inquiry; the political use of denial, behaviourism and pseudoscience to stifle public criticism; the introduction of mandatory reviews to deter appeals for wrongful Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) decisions; the devastating cuts to every support available to the poorest; the deprofessionalising of GPs and medical professionals; the claims that work is the only route out of poverty (when wages are intentionally depressed and many working people live in poverty) despite, evidence to the contrary, and our national insurance and tax system; the framework of psychological and material coercion inflicted on people claiming any form of welfare, forcing them to accept ANY work, thus pushing wages down further, since that completely removes any chance of wage bargaining; further destroying the unions; the passing of controversial and harmful policies by using statutory instruments, which reduces scope for scrutiny and objection in parliament; re-writing policies, legal rulings and changing the law to accommodate Conservative ideological criteria; shaping media “striver/scrounger” narratives and so on – all of these political deeds indicate a government that was well aware of the harmful consequences of their policies in advance of passing them into law, and that planned ahead, taking measures to stifle the potential for a public backlash.

Jeremy Corbyn’s apparently ‘improbable’ success in promoting a politics of social democracy, justice and integrity has matured, and realigned its centre with national sentiment. The Labour party have succeeded in breaking the neoliberal grip on intellectual thought in the UK, at last.

“For a long period of time, all economic thought has been dominated by trickle down economics, where if you issue tax cuts to corporations and the rich, the money will somehow filter down the rest of society,” John McDonnell says. 

“Well that’s significantly been proven wrong in this recent political debate, and we can see it, whether it’s people queuing up at food banks, housing shortages, millions of children living in poverty, two thirds of those families with someone in work. People all around are realising that this economic theory has failed, and what we’re trying to do is offer them an alternative. That’s what our manifesto was all about.”

A paradigm change is long overdue – by which I mean a substantial shift in the accepted way of thinking about the economy.  It may well be imminent. 

By the end of the second world war, the Keynesian revolution was sufficiently advanced for the Labour party to offer a comprehensive new approach to economic policymaking. Similarly, in 1979, the Conservative party was able to present the main elements of neoliberal thinking as the solution to the economic problems that blighted the economy in the 1970s. Up until recently, there was nothing comparable for the opponents of neoliberalism to latch on to.

New Labour continued with the neoliberal project, though they did temper this with a focus on ensuring adequate social provision to mitigate the worst ravages of untrammelled free market capitalism.

May recently felt the need to defend free market capitalism itself, which is a measure of how terrified the Tories are by Labour’s rise. yet the Conservative manifesto had drawn on left wing rhetoric, in order to appeal. It didn’t, however, because no-one believes the Conservatives’ “progressive” claims any more.

Laughably, the Conservative manifesto claimed: “We do not believe in untrammeled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.”

It’s a pretty desperate improvisation by the Tories as they try to respond to angry citizens and mass concerns about social issues like inequality and growing poverty. However, the Conservatives have never been a “savior” of the working people, as their dismantling of Trade Union power demonstrates all too well. The Tories’ savage cuts to spending on public services belied May’s phoney redistributionist rhetoric. May’s hysterical left-wing posturing against the inequality and social division created by Conservatives has simply confirmed that the Anglo-American neoliberal revolution of the 1980s is over.

Corbyn’s Labour party has built a consensus for change. Such change is essential to ensure that the toothmarks of necessity – the bite of absolute poverty, and the social disarray caused by over 35 years of culminating neoliberalism – are eased, soothed and healed in much the same way that the post-war Keynesian consensus era – which brought with it legal aid, social housing, the NHS and welfare – healed our society following the devastating consequences of a world war. 

McDonnell has also articulated his vision for what he terms a “political renaissance”, where people aren’t limited by existing ideas and structures and have the space to come up with ideas that the party can debate and discuss. This is participatory politics and democracy in action. 

He says: “We’re trying to open up every avenue we possibly can for people to get engaged. It’s about asking people what are you interested in, how do you think it works better, what ideas have you got? It just overcomes some of the staleness we might have had in past years.”

This is a welcomed, long overdue and such a refreshing contrast to Conservatism, which is defined by its opposition to social progressivism. Neoliberals have tried to persuade us that there is no alternative to neoliberalism. They lied. A lot. Now they are dazed and confused because the establishment were so certain that Corbyn’s rise wasn’t supposed to happen. It couldn’t, the media informed us. Over and over.

But it has. It was inevitable. The Labour party had an ace up their sleeve: public interest and democratic accountability. Two sides of the same card.

It’s about time someone lit the way for us, enabling us to find the way out of the dark neoliberal torture dungeon. And once we’ve escaped, we really ought to jail our jailers.

At the very least, neoliberalism should be confined to the dustbin of history.

 

Image result for neoliberalism eugenic

 

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The still face paradigm, the just world fallacy, inequality and the decline of empathy

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UNICEF’s reports have consistently put the UK at the bottom of the child well-being league table. See also: UNICEF criticises UK’s failure to tackle child inequality as gap grows.

pie-wealthSource: The Equality Trust 

The still face paradigm and inequality

Before Christmas I read an excellent and insightful article by Michael Bader called The Decline of Empathy and the Appeal of Right-Wing Politics, which was about Edward Tronick’s Still Face experiment in part. Tronick is an American developmental psychologist at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. His studies illuminate the importance of trusting relationships and consistent human responses in children’s development and learning.

Tronick’s experimental design was very simple: mothers were asked to play as they usually would with their six-month-old infants. The mothers were then instructed to suddenly blank their face: to make their facial expression flat and neutral – completely “still”  – and to do so for three minutes, regardless of her baby’s activity.  Mothers were then told to resume normal play. The design came to be called the “still face paradigm.

The study demonstrated that when the connection between an infant and caregiver is broken, the infant tries to re-engage the caregiver, and then, if there is no response, the infant withdraws – first physically and then emotionally. Recent studies have found that four-month-old infants, when re-exposed to the “Still Face” two weeks after the first time, show rapid physiological changes that were not present when they were exposed to it the first time.

Tronick said: “It speaks to the incredible emotional capacities [of] the infant — to pick up on the fact that the mother’s not reacting emotionally the way she normally does. The baby has not only this ability to process what’s [happening], but [also] the capacity to respond in a really appropriate way — that is, they try to get the mother’s attention, and then when they fail, they give up, with a sense of their own helplessness. They may be angry and then they become sad.”

Tronick also emphasised the impact of parenting practices embedded in the sociocultural and ecological environment of the infant.

Bader’s inspiring article draws on Tronick’s experimental findings, which he then applies to citizen’s life experiences in the US, in the face of dehumanising encounters with bureacracy, increasingly depopulated policies and a profoundly alienating sociopolitical system. He goes on to discuss how “the pain of the “still face” in American society is present all around us.”

He says: “People feel it while waiting for hours on the phone for technical support, or dealing with endless menus while on hold with the phone or cable company, or waiting to get through to their own personal physician. They feel it in schools with large class sizes and rote teaching aimed only at helping students pass tests.  

They feel it when crumbling infrastructure makes commuting to work an endless claustrophobic nightmare.  And, too often, they feel it when interacting with government agencies that hold sway over important areas of their lives, such as social services […] and city planning departments, or a Department of Motor Vehicles.  Like Tronick’s babies, citizens who look to corporations and government for help, for a feeling of being recognized and important, are too often on a fool’s errand, seeking recognition and a reciprocity that is largely absent. 

This problem is greatly exaggerated by the profoundly corrosive effects of social and economic inequality. Under condition of inequality, the vulnerability of those seeking empathy is dramatically ramped up, leading to various forms of physical and psychological breakdowns. In a classic epidemiological study [The Spirit Level] by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, researchers found a strong correlation between the degree of inequality in a country (or a state, for that matter) and such problems as rates of imprisonment, violence, teenage pregnancies, obesity rates, mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and addiction, lower literacy scores, and a wide range of poor health outcomes, including reduced life expectancy. 

Wilkinson and Pickett’s key finding is that it is the inequality itself, and not the overall wealth of a society that is the key factor in creating these various pathologies.  Poorer places with more equality do better than wealthy ones marked by gross inequality.

Inequality makes people feel insecure, preoccupied with their relative status and standing, and vulnerable to the judgment of others, and it creates a greater degree of social distance between people that deprives them of opportunities for intimate and healing experiences of recognition and empathy.”

The still face of the neoliberal state

It’s impossible to fail to recognise the parallels with citizen’s experiences here in Britain. We have ideological and socioeconomic commonality with the US, especially as both the UK and US are neoliberal states. Neoliberalism is an ongoing, totalising ideological and political-economic project of a resurgent political right that gained ascendancy in the US under Ronald Reagan and in the UK under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.   

Bader says: “As a metaphor for adult life in contemporary society, the “still face” paradigm—the helplessness intrinsic to it and the breakdown of empathy that lies at its foundation—aptly describes the experience of many people as they interact with the most important institutions in their lives, including government.

And, as with Tronick’s babies and their mothers, when our social milieu is indifferent to our needs and inattentive to our suffering, widespread damage is done to our psyches, causing distress, anger, and hopelessness.  Such inattention and neglect lead to anxiety about our status and value, and a breakdown of trust in others.”

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I agree that the growing inequalities we are witnessing in western neoliberal “democracies” create profound psychological trauma and ontological insecurity. Humans are fundamentally social beings. We thrive best when we have a social rationale which tends towards the promotion of cooperative and collective creativity. This was perhaps expressed best in our civilised, progressive institutions and civilising practices, facilitated by the social gains and economic organisation that arose from the post-war settlement.  

Those gains are now being systematically dismantled. Our culture has been saturated with conceptual schema that demand we remain committed to an socioeconomic Darwinism, a kind of economic enclosure: a neoliberal competitive individualist obsession with our private, inner experiences, the pursuit of economic self-interest, and ultimately, this embellishes our separability from other human beings. It alienates us. 

Neoliberalism scripts social interactions that are founded on indifference to others, tending to be dehumanising, adversarial and hierarchical in nature, rather than social and cooperative. Neoliberalism is the antithesis of the responsive, animated human face; of collectivism, mutual support, universalism, cooperation and democracy. Neoliberalism has transformed our former liberal democracy into an authoritarian “still faced” state that values production, competition and profit above all else; including citizens’ lives, experiences, freedoms, well-being, democratic inclusion and social conditions that support all of this.  

Citizens are seen and are being politically redefined in isolation from the broader political, economic, sociocultural and reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape individual experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a problematic duality between context and cognition. This also places responsibility on citizens for circumstances which lie outside of their control, such as the socioeconomic consequences of political decision-making, whilst at the same time, the state is steadily abdicating responsibility for the basic welfare of ordinary citizens. 

Geographer David Harvey describes neoliberalism as a process of accumulation by dispossession: predatory policies are used to centralise wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public of their wealth and assets.  

Neoliberals see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the 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. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined outcomes are stigmatised and outgrouped.  

Stigma is a political and cultural attack on people’s identities. It’s used to discredit, and as justification for excluding some groups from economic and political consideration, refusing them full democratic citizenship. 

Stigma is being used politically to justify the systematic withdrawal of support and public services for the poorest – the casualties of a system founded on competition for allegedly scarce wealth and resources. Competition inevitably means there are winners and losers. Stigma is profoundly oppressive. It is used as a propaganda mechanism to draw the public into collaboration with the state, to justify punitive and discriminatory policies and to align citizen “interests” with rigid neoliberal outcomes. Inclusion, human rights, equality and democracy are not compatible with neoliberalism. 

Othering and outgrouping have become common political practices, and are now culturally embedded. 

This serves to desensitise the public to the circumstances of marginalised social groups. Outgroups serve to de-empathise society and dehumanise stigmatised others

This political and cultural process legitimises neoliberal “small state” policies, such as the systematic withdrawal of state support for those adversely affected by neoliberalism, and it also justifies inequality. By stigmatising the poorest citizens, a “default setting” is established regarding how the public ought to perceive and behave towards politically demarcated outgroups. That default setting is indifference to the plight of others. 

Authors of The Spirit Level, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, say “The truth is that human beings have deep-seated psychological responses to inequality and social hierarchy. The tendency to equate outward wealth with inner worth means that inequality colours our social perceptions. It invokes feelings of superiority and inferiority, dominance and subordination – which affect the way we relate to and treat each other.”

Neoliberalism and the myth of meritocracy

How does inequality and social injustice become acceptable? And why do we, as a society, permit the political construction of scapegoats and outgroups? 

Neoliberalism is premised on the assumption that the market place can somehow replace the state as the ultimate arbiter of cultural logic and value. Relationships between people are mediated by the depersonalising market place.

It is fundamentally Hobbesian in character, neoliberalism privatises citizen’s experiences, who are valued for their economic productivity and are therefore only responsible for themselves.

Bader says: “The failure of our institutions to empathize with the plight of the middle and working classes, to recognize their sacrifice and reward their hard work is traumatic. It is the same type of trauma that children experience when their caretakers are preoccupied or rejecting. The trauma erodes trust. It overwhelms systems that people have developed to deal with stress and creates psychological suffering and illness.” 

He goes on to tell us how our social brains seek a collective experience – of “we” rather than “I” – and often do so by creating a fantasy of an “us” versus “them” that we can devalue and fight.

Tribalism draws on our need for sociability and interconnectedness but it can also be used to pervert it. Rejected by government, employers and wider society, some citizens then go on to reject and demean others. It’s a coping strategy: they are trying to cope with the pain, powerlessness, and lack of empathy that they experience in their social lives.

And we must we also recognise the play of hidden ideologies and the influence of dog whistle and wedge issue politicking. This is a state tactic which manipulates our fundamental human need for a sense of belonging. It’s also about the creation of scapegoats and diversion from the real problem: neoliberalism, authoritarianism and the inequality and increasing precarity that this extends and perpetuates. Hierarchical thinking is embedded in neoliberal and authoritarian ideologies.

Neoliberalism also extends a myth that citizens are autonomous and free to make choices. However, this ignores the well-researched reality that those without resources have few or no choices. 

Neoliberalism is an ideology that manufactures consent to inequalities by offering the myth of meritocracy: the false promise that everyone will eventually benefit by working hard to earn merit, status and wealth. However, it isn’t logically possible for equal opportunities to exist in a highly unequal society. 

This myth undermines the principles of social and economic rights and discredits solidarity, collective responsibility and contravenes our human need for belonging. Success, according to the meritocrats, is shaped by your IQ and individual talents, hard work and personal effort. Yet at least a third of those touting this myth are millionaires who simply inherited their wealth.   

The ideology of meritocracy conceals the fact that class privileges are institutionalised, and are reinforced through the education system, for example. The UNICEF report, Fairness for Children, emphasised the importance of a strong welfare system in reducing inequality – and carried a strong suggestion that the UK Government should reconsider its cuts to benefits. In June last year, following its investigation, the United Nations committee on the rights of the child called on ministers to act regarding austerity, the benefit cap and tax credit cuts, which are undermining children’s rights to an adequate standard of living. The government were also urged to do more to ensure children’s rights to adequate health, housing and education are met, too. 

The government, however, have claimed that welfare cuts reduce poverty by “incentivising” people to work. Meanwhile, over half of those families queuing at food banks are in work, and nearly two thirds of children in poverty live in working families. “Making work pay” is nothing more than a Conservative euphemism for the incremental dismantling of the welfare state, which they intend to continue, regardless of the social consequences. 

Neoliberalism is sustained by ideologues employed by governments, in think tanks, PR companies and as individual consultants, that invent technical justifications for small state neoliberal policies on the grounds of: “efficiencies”, savings, democracy, economic growth, and more recently “fairness” and “social justice.” The latter two especially are founded on the myth of meritocracy, in this context. 

In any competitive system, there are invariably a few “winners” and many more “losers”.  The system itself creates the conditions which mean that many people “lose”. It has nothing to do with the IQ, character or qualities of those people. Competition is adversarial – it’s defined as a situation in which two or more people or groups are fighting to get something which not everyone can have

The Nudge Unit is one example of a technocratic think tank that promotes the myth of meritocracy, which is embedded in the Cabinet Office. The neoliberal Reform think tank and the Adam Smith Institution are others. There is a raft of contemporary academics who are also fueling ideological justifications of neoliberal policies – the likes of Adam Perkins, Richard Layard, Mansel Aylward and Simon Wessley, for example, each in their respective academic fields have each presented “studies” that endorse “small state” antiwelfarism and enforce notions of personal responsibility and competitive individualism. Public interests are steadily being aligned with economic outcomes, driven by private interests. 

Status and rewards in society do not go “naturally” to those who are best “performers” or those who “earn” their privilege: the hierarchy of wealth and power is being purposefully shaped by the state.

Stigma and the just world fallacy

Sociologist Imogen Tyler at Lancaster University, says “[…] the centrality of stigma in producing economic and social inequalities has been obscured ‘because bodies of research pertaining to specific stigmatized statuses have generally developed in separate domains’ (Hatzenbuehler, 2013). In short, stigma is widely accepted to be a major factor in determining life chances, yet research on stigma is fragmented across academic disciplines.”

Tyler’s ongoing work – The Stigma Doctrine, is focused on policy design and implementation, ‘The Stigma Doctrine’ aims to develop a new theoretical account of the ways in which neoliberal modes of government operate not only by capitalizing upon ‘shocks’ but through the production and mediation of stigma.” 

Her explicit focus is on “stigmatization as a central dimension of neoliberal state-crafting.” The project is focussing in particular on welfare “reform”, the neoliberal de/recomposition of class, poverty, work and dis/abilities.

At a basic level, stigma is seen as a mark of disgrace associated with particular circumstances, qualities, or persons. However, it has a fundamental normative dimension, which is culturally and historically specific. 

We tend to make assumptions about people, based on what their circumstances or characteristics are. Central to these assumptions lies a basic moral dichotomy founded on the binary notions of “deserving” and “undeserving”. 

Everyone has heard “what goes around comes around” before, or maybe you’ve seen a person “get what was coming to them” and thought, “that’s karma for you.” These are all shades of the just world fallacy. But in reality, we don’t always “reap what we sow.”

In social psychology, the just world hypothesis is the tendency to attribute consequences to – or expect consequences as the result of – a universal force that restores moral balance. This belief generally implies the existence of destiny, cosmic justice, or divine providence. 

It is very common in fiction for the villains to lose and the virtuous folk to win. It is a reflection of how we would like to see the world – just and fair. In psychology the tendency to believe that this is how the real world actually works is a known cognitive error: the just world is a fallacy. 

Many people have a strong desire or need to believe that the world is an orderly, predictable, and fair place, where people simply get what they deserve. Such a belief plays an important role in our lives – in order to plan our lives or achieve our goals we need to assume that our actions will have predictable consequences. 

Moreover, when we encounter evidence suggesting that the world is not just, we either act to restore justice by helping victims or we persuade ourselves that no injustice has occurred.  We comfort ourselves with the idea that the person without a job is simply lazy, the homeless person is irresponsible, and the ill person made the “wrong” lifestyle choices. These attitudes are continually reinforced in the ubiquitous fairy tales, fables, popular fiction, comics, TV, the mainstream media, current political rhetoric and other morality tales of our culture, including the great myth of meritocracy, embedded in neoliberal narrative, in which “good” is always rewarded and “evil” punished. Only it isn’t.

Deep down, we all would probably like to believe hard work and virtue will lead to success, and laziness, evil and manipulation will lead to ruin, quite often we simply edit the world to match those expectations. 

The normalisation of socioeconomic hierarchy: a nod to Milgram

Social psychologist, Melvin Lerner documents people’s eagerness to convince themselves that beneficiaries deserve their benefits and victims their suffering. In a 1965 study, Lerner reported that subjects who were told that a fellow student had won a cash prize in a lottery tended to believe that the student worked harder than another student who lost the lottery. Lerner observed that when one of two men was chosen at random to receive a reward for a task, that somehow caused him to be more favourably evaluated by observers, even when the observers had been informed that the recipient of the reward was chosen at random. (Lerner, M. J., & Miller, D. T. (1978). Just world research and the attribution process: Looking back and ahead. Psychological Bulletin, 85(5), 1030–1051).

Existing social psychological theories, including cognitive dissonance, do not fully explain these phenomena. In another study a year later, Lerner and a colleague recorded a simulated “learning” experiment in which it appeared that the “participants” were subjected to electric shocks. Lerner found that subjects who observed the videotapes tended to form much lower opinions of these “victimised” participants when there was no possibility of the victim finding relief from the ordeal, or when the victim took on the role of “martyr” by voluntarily remaining in the experiment despite the apparent unpleasantness of the experience.

Lerner concluded that “the sight of an innocent person suffering without possibility of reward or compensation motivated people to devalue the attractiveness of the victim in order to bring about a more appropriate fit between her fate and her character.”

If the belief in a just world simply resulted in humans feeling more comfortable with the universe, its uncertainties and our own precarity, it would not be a matter of great concern for human rights activists, ethicists or social scientists. But Lerner’s just world hypothesis, if correct, has significant social implications. The belief in a just world may well seriously undermine a commitment to social justice.

So, the just world fallacy is founded on a massive misconception: that we always get what we “deserve”. We like to think that people who are not doing well in their lives must have done something to deserve it. Yet we also know that the beneficiaries of good fortune often do nothing to earn it, and people doing harmful deeds often get away with their actions without consequences.

Lerner’s research extended, to some extent, on Stanley Milgram‘s research on social conformity and obedience. Lerner was curious as to how regimes that cause cruelty and suffering manage to maintain popular support, and how people come to accept social norms and laws that produce misery and suffering.

Lerner’s direction of inquiry was influenced by his frequent witnessing of the tendency of observers to blame victims for their suffering, particularly during his clinical training as a psychologist, when he observed treatment of mentally ill persons by the health care practitioners with whom he worked. Though he knew them to be basically kind, educated people, they often blamed patients for the patients’ own suffering. Lerner also describes his surprise at hearing his students derogate disadvantaged people, believing that poor people somehow caused their own poverty, whilst being seemingly oblivious to the social, political and economic (structural) forces that contribute significantly to poverty. 

Zick Rubin of Harvard University and Letitia Anne Peplau of the UCLA conducted surveys to examine the characteristics of people with strong beliefs in a just world. They found that people who have a strong tendency to believe in a just world also tend to be more religious, more authoritarian, more Conservative, more likely to admire political leaders and existing social institutions, and more likely to have negative attitudes and and hold prejudices toward underprivileged groups. To a lesser but nonetheless significant degree, the believers in a just world tend to “feel less of a need to engage in activities to change society or to alleviate plight of social victims.”

It’s ironic that the belief in a just world may take the place of a genuine commitment to justice. For some people, it is simply easier to assume that forces beyond their control mete out justice. When that occurs, the result may be the abdication of personal responsibility, acquiescence in the face of suffering and misfortune, and indifference towards injustice

In the murky waters of real life, evil people often prosper whilst harming others, and quite often never face justice and retribution.

Social reality isn’t founded on some intrinsic and fair principle or quality of the universe. Social justice is something that we must construct and re-construct our selves. In the same way, democracy isn’t something we “have”, it is something we must do.

As a society, we make our own “karma”. We participate in, shape and distribute social justice. That affects those around us. We do need to think about what kind of world we live in, how we ought to live and how that affects our families, friends, neighbours and strangers. A measure of civilisation may be observed in how we behave towards those people we don’t know.

In our society, over the past 6 years, some (previously protected) social groups have become politically defined strangers and economic exiles. If you think that’s okay, it’s worth bearing in mind that sooner or later, someone you know well, perhaps one of your loved ones, will be affected by this ongoing process.

When one group are targeted with injustice and inequality, it affects everyone, and other groups soon follow. Historically, we learned that tyrants don’t stick with targeting and persecuting the group you don’t like. You don’t get a choice ultimately. Prejudice tends to multitask very well, and tyrants remain tyrants no matter who you are.

Wilkinson and Pickett’s research on the harmful effects of economic inequality is a challenge for us to ensure that redistribution is the main focus of our political programme. Their research very clearly shows us that if we work towards greater equality, we can ameliorate a wide range of human suffering. Because neoliberal ideology ultimately disconnects us from each other, we really must work hard to seek common ground with the people on the other side of what American sociologist, Arlie Hochschild, calls the “empathy wall” to reach out, communicate to them that “we not only feel their pain, but we share it, and that, in the end, we are all in this together.”

Hochschild’s work has often described the various ways in which we each  becomes a “shock absorber” of larger social, economic and political forces.  She explores the “deep story” of American citizens – a metaphorical expression of the emotions they live by. She recognised that the people she studied may not vote in favour of their economic self-interest, but they often voted for what they felt was their emotional self-interest as members of a group which feels marginalised, scorned and betrayed by the establishment. This sense of betrayal was utilised by the right, who readily draw on and manipulate the role of emotion in politics.

How much more of the current political-economic just world narrative will people permit to remain largely unchallenged before we all say “enough”?

In democracies, Government’s are elected to represent and serve the needs of the population. Democracy is not only about elections. It is also about distributive and social justice. The quality of the democratic process, including transparent and accountable Government and equality before the law, is crucial to social organisation, yet it seems the moment we become distracted, less attentive and permit inequality to fundamentally divide our society, the essential details and defining features of democracy seem to melt into air. 

Government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, 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, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly depopulated; detached from public interests and needs.

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

My hope for 2017 is that enough of us will recognise that democratic participation is essential, and that injustice directed against one is injustice ultimately directed against all. 

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All the best for the new year. 

In solidarity.

Related  

The Decline of Empathy and the Appeal of Right-Wing Politics – Michael Bader

Who Believes in a Just World? –  Zick Rubin and Letitia Anne Peplau 

The Stigma Project – Imogen Tyler

The Spirit Level authors: why society is more unequal than ever – Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett

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

 


I don’t make any money from my work. But you can make a donation if you wish 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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The Nudge Unit’s u-turn on benefit sanctions indicates the need for even more lucrative nudge interventions, say nudge theorists

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Some context: the new neuroliberalism and “behavioural insights”

The behaviourist turn in government administration – the use of targeted citizen behavioural conditionality in neoliberal policy making –  has expanded globally and is linked to the growth of behavioural economics theory (“nudge”) and a New Right brand of “libertarian paternalism.”  

Reconstructing citizenship as highly conditional stands in sharp contrast to democratic principles, rights-based policies and to those policies based on prior financial contribution, as underpinned in the social insurance and social security frameworks that arose from the post-war settlement.

The fact that the poorest citizens are being targeted with behavioural theory-based interventions also indicates discriminatory policy, which reflects traditional Conservative class-based prejudices. It’s an authoritarian approach to poverty which simply strengthens existing power hierarchies, rather than addressing the unequal distribution of power and wealth in the UK.

Some of us have dubbed this trend neuroliberalism because it serves as a justification for enforcing politically defined neoliberal outcomes. A hierarchical socioeconomic organisation is being shaped by increasingly authoritarian policies, placing the responsibility for growing inequality and poverty on individuals, side-stepping the traditional (and very real) political/structural explanations of social and economic problems.

Such a behavioural approach to poverty also adds a dimension of cognitive prejudice which serves to reinforce and established power relations and inequality. It is assumed that those with power and wealth have cognitive competence and know which specific behaviours and decisions are best for poor citizens, who are assumed to lack cognitive competence (because they are poor and therefore make “the wrong decisions”). Apparently the theories and insights of cognitive bias don’t apply to the theorists applying them to increasingly marginalised social groups. Policy has increasingly extended a neoliberal cognitive competence and decision-making hierarchy. 

It’s very interesting that the Behavioural Insights Team now claim that the state using the threat of benefit sanctions may be “counterproductive”. The idea of increasing welfare conditionality and enlarging the scope and increasing the frequency of benefit sanctions originated from the behavioural economics theories of the Nudge Unit in the first place. 

The increased use and rising severity of benefit sanctions became an integrated part of welfare conditionality in the Conservative’s Welfare “reform” Act, 2012. The current sanction regime is based on a principle borrowed from behavioural economics theory – an alleged cognitive bias we have 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 alleged behavioural deficits and poor decision-making. Hence the need for policies that “rectify” behaviour.

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. At the very least this approach indicates a slippery slope from “arranging choice architecture” in order to support the “right” decisions that are felt to benefit people, to downright punitive and coercive policies that entail psycho-compulsion, such as sanctioning and mandatory workfare. 

Psychology is being misused by the government to explain unemployment (it’s claimed to happen because people have the “wrong attitude” for work) and as a means to achieve the “right” attitude for job readiness. Psycho-compulsion is the imposition of often pseudo-psychological explanations of unemployment and justifications of mandatory activities which are aimed at changing presumed beliefs, attitudes and dispositions. The Behavioural Insights Team have previously propped up this approach.

Welfare conditionality and its experimental approach to behavioural change doesn’t operate within an ethical framework, citizens cannot withdraw from behavioural experiments, nor is this framework based on informed consent. The impact of state directed psycho-compulsion and potential harm that it may cause citizens is not being monitored. 

The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) is composed of mostly behavioural economists, who also claim the title of libertarian paternalists (and who have a clear and distinct ideological premise for their behavioural theories, while attempting to claim “objectivity”.)

They claim that while 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.” Apparently, that proviso doesn’t apply to poor citizens.

The nudges favoured by libertarian paternalists are also supposed to be “unobtrusive.” That clearly is not the case with the application of extremely coercive and punitive Conservative welfare sanctions.

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.

And when one nudge theory fails, there are always lucrative and political opportunities to generate more.

Of course Dr Kizzy Gandy, a leading researcher at the policy unit says: “We are optimistic that behavioural science can help government departments to better design policies to help those who are ‘just managing’ in order to prevent and overcome poverty.”

In a new report released today from the Behavioural Insights Team, the authors say: “There is evidence that welfare conditionality in the UK – mandatory behavior requirements such as attending meetings with work coaches or providing repeated evidence of disability in order to receive benefits – is associated with anxiety and feelings of disempowerment.” 

“However, as far as we know no one has examined whether welfare conditionality has cognitive depleting effects.”

It’s particularly worrying that there is a proposal in the report for further experimental pseudo-psychological approaches to policies aimed at the poorest citizens. The researchers call on the Department for Work and Pensions to conduct experiments into whether welfare conditionality actually had any positive effects and suggested that “self-set” and “enforced goals” might be a better way of “helping people into work.” Although this allows for a little tokenist self-determination and permits a little autonomy, it is still an approach ultimately based on coercion and enforcement.

There is a clear distinction to be made between “behavioural science” – which is almost entirely about economic outcomes; what is politically deemed “best” for citizens and social conformity, and mainstream psychology – which embraces a much broader and deeper perspective of the complexities of human potential and wellbeing.

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 – here is an interesting read: Employing BELIEF: Applying behavioural economics to welfare to work, which is focused almost exclusively on New Right small state obsessions.

(Update 27/10/17 – the link to the original document no longer works. But I found a copy with the same page layout here, luckily: – https://www2.learningandwork.org.uk/sites/default/files/publications/CESI_employing_BELIEF.pdf).

Pay particular attention to the part about the alleged cognitive bias called 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 lone parents, sick and 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. I wrote about this at length earlier this year, here: Nudging conformity and benefit sanctions: a state experiment in behaviour modification.

The Behavioural Insights Team, (otherwise known as the Nudge Unit) was set up by David Cameron in 2010. In their most recent report called Poverty and decision-making: How behavioural science can improve opportunity in the UK, the nudge researchers now say that burdening unemployed people with responsibilities, using the threat of sanctions might actually be making it harder for them to get jobs.

According to the behavioural economist theorists authoring this highly jargonised report, government policies designed to help people are reducing and impairing people’s so-called cognitive scope and abilities.

However, it’s difficult to imagine how punitive sanctioning, which entails the removal of people’s lifeline income, originally calculated to meet the costs of only basic survival needs, such as for food, fuel and shelter, could ever be seen as “helping people.”

I don’t believe that Orwellian semantic shifts can ever provide a genuine and effective solution to poverty and inequality. 

Some major inconsistencies and incoherences in the report

In the latest BIT report, loss aversion is mentioned again:  “People dislike losses more than they like equivalent gains. Babcock, Congdon, Katz, and Mullainathan (2012) hypothesise that people may experience loss aversion if they consider taking a job paying below past earnings. Therefore, they may stay on unemployment benefits longer than they should. Unrealistic wage expectations may be reinforced when the social status and personal identities of workers are strongly tied to their previous job.” [My emphasis]

Note the phrase “unrealistic wage expectations” and later incoherent comments in the report about in-work poverty, which I will highlight.

The summary report states in the introduction: A third of the UK population spent at least one year in relative income poverty between 2011 and 2014.

Traditionally policymakers and anti-poverty organisations such as the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) have focused on boosting people’s economic capital (e.g., income) and human capital (e.g., educational attainment) to reduce poverty. While investments in these areas have led to important gains in opportunity for many Britons, emerging research from behavioural science shows that other less tangible resources, which derive from psychological, social and cultural processes, significantly influence people’s ability to overcome disadvantage.

BIT was commissioned by JRF to examine the role of individual decisions in shaping people’s experiences of poverty in the UK and to identify the drivers of these decisions. This reflects JRF’s interest in looking beyond traditional, structural drivers of poverty. Our findings, based on a review of the published literature, are presented in a new report, launched today.”

 

Let’s cut to the chase. The entire document is framed by the use of a distinct and established narrative; it’s composed of a pre-loaded ideological language, references and signposts, using comments and phrases like “[…] we explain some of the ways that cognitive, character and social capital influence social mobility, via decision-making.”  

And a sub-heading:Character capital: Self-efficacy and responsive parenting.” Apparently, “home visits by health workers have had positive effects in preventing intergenerational poverty.” That’s quite a remarkable claim, given that the document acknowledges poverty is actually increasing in the UK.

The whole concept of character capital is itself founded on the notion that people with an “internal locus of control” tend to perform tasks better than those with an “external locus of control.” This is about where people place the responsibility for what they achieve – either “inside” individuals, based solely on notions of merit, specific skills and talents, or external to individuals – “outside” of them, based on environmental conditions such as competition, chance, opportunities, socioeconomic, employment market context and so on. However, the cited evidence to support this theory was later contradicted in the report.

It’s also worrying that it is implied those who believe that achievement is linked with structural conditions are “under-performers.” It reads a little like a Samuel Smiles Victorian treatise on “thrift, character and self-help.”

It’s also an almost subliminal method of dismissing the impact of structural constraints on the opportunities available to individuals. It serves to make invisible what was once a key consideration in public discussions about poverty: the unequal distribution of power, wealth, resources and opportunity.

Also of note: “low levels of financial literacy” was conflated with notions of “human capital”, which “potentially exacerbate the effects of depleted cognitive capital among low income groups when choosing between credit options.”  Nothing to see here, then, regarding the behaviour of lenders. I mean whoever heard of a bank offering an overdraft to people who actually need one. Still, thank goodness there are generous companies like Wonga, always ready to step up to the mark, with eye-watering interest rates to offer those on low incomes.

The research authors seem to think that the only human potential worth recognising is that of our economic decision-making. Yet when people are materially poor, budgeting and decision-making are invariably constrained – that’s intrinsic to the very nature of poverty.

Limited decision-making and reduced available choices don’t cause poverty: they are the subsequent exclusion effects of poverty.

It’s telling that none of the recommendations made in this document actually address the structural and political causes of material poverty and growing inequality in the UK.

There is a substantial incoherence in some of the claims made, too. For example: “The world of work is possibly the single most important policy area for maximising individual and household resources to prevent and overcome poverty.”

Yet: “Just under half of those in poverty in the UK live in a workless household (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2014)”. So work clearly doesn’t pay for over half of those people in poverty. 

In fairness, it is later acknowledged that: “However, simply being in work is not sufficient to prevent or overcome poverty. Nearly two-thirds of children in poverty live in working families.” 

This heavily jargonised rhetoric is, on the whole, about looking for cheap individualist “solutions” to poverty that disregard the need for improving people’s material and financial situations, by extending on an existing neoliberal narrative of alleged individual fault, character deficits, cognitive bias and decision-making flaws.

None of this will raise the profile of crucial issues such as the conditions imposed by austerity and neoliberal policies, socioeconomic organisation and political decision-making, that are having a profound impact on growing inequality and increasing poverty in the UK. The persistent use of the word “workless” rather than “unemployed” is another linguistic signpost for neoliberal competitive individualism, too. 

Geographer David Harveydescribes neoliberalism as a process of accumulation by dispossession: predatory policies are used to centralise wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public of their wealth and assets. The report does not refer to the mode of political-economic organisation of which growing inequality and poverty are an intrinsic and inevitable feature.

Proposed solutions: more of the same

Summary of recommendations:

MINIMISING COSTS

Consumer credit

1 Make it easier to access low cost credit through extending access to interest-free Budgeting Advances; assisting credit unions to expand online services; and providing tax relief to individuals taking out payroll loans.

2 Further restrict practices by high cost credit providers that play on consumer biases, and test remedies that will improve consumer credit decision-making.

3 Continue to evaluate financial capability programmes through initiatives like the Money Advice Service What Works Fund.

(Access to credit does not alleviate poverty in the long-term.)

Savings

1 Test ways of automating rainy day savings through employer enrolment, default savings accounts with banks, and Universal Credit payments.

2 Evaluate the effectiveness of financial apps for helping people save.

3 Optimise the Help to Save matching scheme, through testing auto-enrolment and prizes for regular saving, to encourage low-income groups to save.

(Poor citizens do not have sufficient funds to make savings. And research shows that absolute poverty is growing in the UK, which means that many people often don’t have sufficient funds for meeting even fundamental survival needs, such as for food and fuel.) 

MAXIMISING RESOURCES

Work

1 Use identity-building activities in Jobcentres to cultivate intrinsic motivation for work in order to improve the quality and sustainability of jobs that people find.

2 Collect longer-term and more holistic outcome measures of labour market interventions to understand their full impact on poverty.

3 Develop a simple tool for Jobcentres to identify capital deficits in order to match interventions to individual job seeker needs.

Entitlements

1 Develop a common “cognitive load stress test” that measures how easy it is for eligible groups to access government entitlements.

2 Use annual entitlement summaries to prompt existing welfare recipients to apply for other assistance they may be eligible for, and to help them budget.

3 Experiment with the design of welfare conditionality to boost cognitive capacity and self-efficacy, such as having claimants set their own payment conditions.

PREVENTING INTERGENERATIONAL POVERTY

Parenting

1 Provide families in or near poverty with free access to evidence-based online parenting programmes.

2 Develop community to strengthen social ties between parents from different backgrounds.

3 Conduct research into whether small and inexpensive adjustments to housing conditions can reduce cognitive load and improve parental decision-making.

Post secondary education

1 Make the application process for post-secondary education as simple as possible, for example, by pre-populating application forms.

2 Use personalised assistance and prompts to encourage students and parents to apply to post-secondary education.

3 Link formal information about returns to post-secondary education with informal information (from peers) about what post-secondary education will be like.

Every single intervention recommendation fails to address the structural causes of poverty, which lie outside of the control of people experiencing poverty. Yet most of these recommendations are aimed at prompting the state to act upon individuals.  

Proposals such as providing access to parenting programmes, “identity-building activities in Jobcentres to cultivate intrinsic motivation for work”, “rainy day savings”, and to “develop a simple tool for Jobcentres to identify capital deficits in order to match interventions to individual job seeker needs” all sound like a New Right blame-storming exercise. Again, the problem of poverty is regarded as being intrinsic to the individual, rather than one that is about material deprivation which arises in a wider political, economic, cultural and social context.

Post secondary education costs money and isn’t supported by the state. The Education Maintenance Award (EMA) was withdrawn by the Conservatives, and the cost of a university education is now far too much for many young people from poorer backgrounds because of the tripling of fees and reduction in maintenance support. It’s the government that need a nudge, here. This is a good example of how opportunities and choices are being limited for poorer citizens by cuts and constraints imposed by the neoliberal ideologues in office.  

The government never question the decision-making of the powerful and wealthy, yet it certainly wasn’t the poorest citizens that caused the global recession in 2007, nor was it the poorest citizens that imposed damaging austerity policies. The poorest people are burdened with a disproportionate weight of austerity cuts to their income and support. The wealthiest citizens have meanwhile been gifted with substantial tax cuts. 

Nudge is a state prop for neoliberalism, inequality and social control

Neoliberals argue that public services present moral hazards and perverse incentives. Providing lifeline support to meet basic survival requirements is seen as a barrier to the effort people put into searching for jobs. From this perspective, the social security system, which supports the inevitable casualties of neoliberal free markets, has somehow created those casualties. But we know that external, market competition-driven policies create a few “haves” and many “have-nots.” This is why the  welfare state came into being, after all – because when we allow such competitive economic dogmas to manifest without restraint, we must also concede that there are always ”winners and losers.”

Neoliberalism organises societies into hierarchies. Inequality is therefore an inevitable feature of the UK’s current mode of socioeconomic organisation. 

The UK currently ranks highly among the most unequal countries in the world.

Inequality and poverty are central features of neoliberalism and the causes therefore cannot be located within individuals.  

Neoliberals see the state as a means to reshape social institutions and social relationships based on the 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. Social groups that don’t conform to ideologically defined outcomes are stigmatised, and outgrouped.

Shamefully, in a so-called first world, wealthy liberal democracy, othering and outgrouping have become common political practices.  

Replacing spent micro-managementspeak with more micro-managementspeak

The Nudge Unit, which was part-privatised in 2014, have now warned that some Government policies were reducing so-called “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of the people they were designed to help. So more theoretical psychobabble to overwrite the previous psychobabble which didn’t work when applied via policy.

This is bland neoliberal managementspeak at its very worst. The policies are causing profound damage, harm and distress to those they were never actually designed to “help”. Let’s not permit an evading of accountability and techniques of neutralisation: the use of rhetoric to obscure the real intention behind policies, as well as the consequences of them. It’s nothing less than political gaslighting. 

Of course the report attempts to apply “the latest findings from behavioural science to improve government services.” In a neoliberal framework, there are many lucrative opportunities for private companies to experiment in the psychological management of populations who have become the casualties of political decision-making, for political ends. The ethical relativity, moral entrepreneurship and sheer financial opportunism on display here certainly reflect some fundamental neoliberal values and principles. The main one being profit over human need.

Dr Kizzy Gandy proposes that cost-effective “simple tweaks” to services could help improve the way services worked. “Government policies should help people to have less on their mind, not more,” she added. 

However, I propose that government policies in democratic societies should also be designed to meet the public’s needs, including alleviating poverty, rather than being about impoverishing targeted social groups and then undemocratically acting upon individuals, without their consent, directing them how to behave in order to accommodate government ideology and meet politically defined neoliberal outcomes.

Material poverty steals aspiration and motivation from any and every person that is reduced to struggling for basic survival. Abraham Maslow (a real social psychologist) explained that when people struggle to meet their basic physical needs, they cannot be “incentivised” to fulfil higher level psychosocial needs – that includes job seeking.

Further criticism 

Labour Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, Debbie Abrahams, said: “Even the government’s own Behavioural Insights Team now recognise the mountains of evidence that the widespread use of sanctions is not leading to better outcomes for people seeking work. Indeed, this government team’s report suggests that sanctions may be operating as a barrier to finding a job.

“This government should be ashamed of their persistent failure to act on this issue over many years, after I, and other campaigners, have provided evidence of the devastating impacts of their sanctions policy.  I have committed to putting an end to Tories’ cruel and unnecessary sanctions regime, as part of our work to transform the social security system.” 

In fairness to the BIT, the report does say on page nine, among the listed areas of proposed future research: “A significant portion of behavioural science research focuses on improving the decisions of end-users – in this case people in poverty. But what about the decisions of service providers and policymakers? How can we improve the quality of their decisions to support people [to] escape poverty? And how can we build their empathy with those whose opportunities are at stake?”  

But who is nudging the nudgers?  I would think nudgers are “incentivised” by those providing the contracts that pay their salaries, on the whole. The government part-own the nudge unit.

Researchers from a variety of universities across the UK, using qualitative longitudinal interviews with nine groups of welfare service users from across England and Scotland, aim at determining longer-term effects of sanctions. The first wave findings from this collaborative ongoing study regarding the effects and ethics of welfare conditionality were released last year 

It was found that linking continued receipt of benefit and services to mandatory behavioural requirements has created widespread anxiety and feelings of disempowerment. The impacts of benefit sanctions are universally reported by service users as profoundly negative, having severely detrimental financial, material, emotional, psychological and health impacts. Some individuals disengaged from services, some were even pushed toward “survival crime”.  

The most surprising thing about these findings was the general lack of surprise they raised.

A recurring theme is that sanctions are grossly out of proportion to “offences”, such as being a few minutes late for an appointment. Many reported being sanctioned following administrative mistakes. The Claimant Commitment was criticised for not taking sufficient account of individuals’ capabilities, wider responsibilities and vulnerabilities. Many saw job centres as being primarily concerned with monitoring compliance, imposing discipline and enforcement, rather than providing any meaningful support. 

Power relations, class and economic organisation have now completely disappeared from public conversations about poverty. Neoliberal anti-welfarism, amplified by a corporate media, has aimed at reconstruction of society’s “common sense” assumptions, values and beliefs. Class, disability and race narratives in particular, associated with traditional prejudices and categories from the right wing, have been used to nudge the UK to re-imagine citizenship, human rights and democratic inclusion as highly conditional.  

This is not just about shifting public rational and moral boundaries to de-empathise the electorate to the circumstances of politically defined others. It also obscures the consequences more generally of increasingly non-inclusive, anti-democratic, prejudiced and extremely punitive policies.  

The bottom line is that government policies are expressed political intentions regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences. In democratic societies, citizens’ accounts of the impacts of policies ought to matter. 
 
However, in the UK, the way that policies are justified is being increasingly detached from their aims and consequences, partly because democratic processes and basic human rights are being disassembled or side-stepped, and partly because the government employs the widespread use of linguistic strategies: euphemisms, superficial glittering generalities and techniques of persuasion to intentionally divert us from aims and consequences of ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs. 

For example, the state has depoliticised disadvantage, making it the private responsibility of citizens, whilst at the same time, justifying a psychopolitical approach that encodes a punitive Conservative moral framework. 

According to the behavioural economist theorists, in their highly jargonised and fairly meaningless report, government policies are reducing so-called “cognitive bandwidth” or “headspace” of the people they were designed to help.

That the government imposes additional “cognitive costs”, as well as material and financial ones, on low-income groups, is hardly a groundbreaking revelation. 

I can put it much more plainly, and strip it of neoliberal psychobabbling: imposing sanctions on people who already have very limited resources is not only irrational, it is absurdly unjust, damaging, distressing and spectacularly cruel. 

See also:

Benefit Sanctions Can’t Possibly ‘Incentivise’ People To Work – And Here’s Why

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

Welfare, Conditional Citizenship and the Neuroliberal State – Conference Presentation

 

 

Poverty and Patrimony – the Evil Legacy of the Tories.

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If we look back through history, we see that in any period of time when persecution and punishment of the poor, and destruction of the integral bonds of our society reflects the dominant paradigm, that paradigm is scripted by harsh, shrill ideologues and economic liberals. The Poor Law of 1834 is a very good historical example. That also was also about “making work pay”, by ensuring, through the principle of less eligibility, that those without a job were far more miserable and had much less than the lowest paid worker.

Owen Jones recently claimed that: “The political right is the inevitable, rational product of an unequal society”. I disagree. Unequal society is and always has been the rational product of Conservative Governments.

If Toryism is simply about rationalising from the relative isolation of a privileged background, and a belief that “hard work” means prosperity – those old mythological meritocratic principles – then how is it so that unemployment and poverty grows and extends under EVERY Tory Government? And why would such rationalisation include persecution and punishment of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society? And such WILFUL denial of their suffering, and even death, because of Tory policies?

And since when did the aristocracy work hard for their own wealth? Self-reliance, from a Tory perspective is only for those who have no money. Making work payis one of the biggest and most malicious lies the current Tory-led Government have told, to justify raiding our tax-funded welfare provision and using it to provide handouts to the very wealthy – £107, 000 EACH PER YEAR in the form of a tax cut for millionaires. The Conservatives claim that it is “unfair” that people on benefits are “better off” than those in workBut the benefit cuts are having a dire impact on workers as well. Wages have decreased in value and are now at an all time low, while the cost of living has risen steeply. Making work pay for whom?

That calculated lie isn’t a product of “rationalisation” from Tory upbringing and background: we are not simply products of our life experiences, because we have intentionality and a degree of free will to shape those experiences and relate to others. It is therefore wilful greed, theft and deliberately inflicted punishment on the most vulnerable. It is the destruction of a once civilised society that represented ideals which were from the very best of us as a species – altruism, mutual aid, cooperation, compassion and empathy.

Human rights enshrined these ideals and human qualities. Our welfare, social support programs  and National Health Service embedded these ideals. Sixty years of human social evolution and progress is being unraveled wilfuly and deliberately by the Tories. If that isn’t evil, then I don’t know what is.

Poverty is not simply about being on a low income and going without – it is also to do with being denied health, justice, education, adequate housing and social activities, as well as basic autonomy, self-esteem and a sense of identity.

It is about being marginalised and excluded from society. It’s also about stigmatisation and minoritization. This part of the process is blatantly deliberate and wilful. It is undertaken by the wealthy and politically powerful. To justify the calculated impoverishment of others for the gain of a few. It’s what David Harveydescribes  as a process of accumulation by dispossession: predatory policies are used to centralise wealth and power in the hands of a few by dispossessing the public of their wealth and assets.  

I wonder how we should characterise the socioeconomic period we have seen ushered in by the Tory-led Coalition? It’s one that will certainly change the life course and character of more than one generation. It will leave an indelible imprint on so very many. It has already plunged many communities into a despair not seen for many decades, and my fear is that ultimately it is likely to warp our politics, culture and the character of our society for many years to come. It is change propelled by loss for the majority of people. It isn’t simply a material loss, it’s so much worse.

Shocking Key findings from the Poverty and Social Exclusion Project, in The Impoverishment of the UK report, reveals that:

• Over 30 million people (almost half the population) are suffering some degree of financial insecurity.
• Almost 18 million people cannot afford adequate housing conditions.
• Roughly 14 million cannot afford one or more essential household goods.
• Almost 12 million people are too poor to engage in common social activities considered necessary by the majority of the population.
• About 5.5 million adults go without essential clothing.
• Around 4 million children and adults are not properly fed by today’s standards.
• Almost 4 million children go without at least two of the things they need.
• Around 2.5 million children live in homes that are damp.
• Around 1.5 million children live in households that cannot afford to heat their home.

For me, the grim figures and statistics understate the magnitude of the real crisis, though they do provide us with some quantitative proof of the catastrophic loss, and the wilful destruction of our civilised public services and civilising social support mechanisms. But it’s the qualitative changes that I am considering, too. I think that the collective psyche has changed as a result the new political authoritarianism that goes hand in hand with neoliberal policies, incremental impoverishment and micro-management of the population, ethical relativism and moral impoverishment, political scandal and lies, distortions of language and contortions of rationale, and a subversion of democracy that we are going through. Sorry, being subjected to

And we’re different as a result.Yet somehow we have let all of this this happen. The term bystander apathy refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the number of people present, the less likely people are to help a person in distress. When an emergency situation occurs, observers are more likely to take action if there are few or no other witnesses.

There are two major factors that contribute to the bystander effect. First, the presence of other people creates a diffusion of responsibility. Because there are other observers, individuals do not feel as much pressure to take action, since the responsibility to take action is thought to be shared among all of those present. So who will step forward?

The second reason is we seem to have the need to behave in socially normative, “acceptable” ways. When other observers fail to react, individuals often take this as a signal that a response is not needed or not appropriate.

But who defines “socially normative”? The media? Our parents? Social institutions? Isn’t that ultimately down to us?  Don’t we have a capacity for making choices, don’t we have a degree of free will and intentionality, each of us?  So who will take some responsibility?

I don’t believe in the simplistic “economic entropy” model that we have been provided with as a means of explanation for the draconian social policies we are currently witnessing. The Coalition continue to deny that alternatives to austerity are viable. But we know that austerity is damaging our economy, and it is simply a front for an enormous wealth transfer from the taxpayer to private interests, and the very wealthy. The case for austerity is not even convincing: it hasn’t worked. It has not reduced borrowing. The Government borrowing is likely to come out at £120bn this year, exactly where it’s been for the previous two years. The Coalition has borrowed more in three years than the previous Government borrowed in thirteen.

Surveys and lab experiments show that, for better or worse, Schadenfreude is a powerful psychological force: at any fixed level of income, people are somehow happier when the income of others is reduced. However, that Schadenfreude becomes more apparent generally in those with the greatest power and wealth. This is a fundamental quality that the Tory-led Coalition have both fueled and drawn on to justify their crass redistribution of our public wealth to private bank accounts. Whilst they repress our most positive human qualities: caring, cooperation and altruism. Well…they try.

But it’s a terrible fact that whilst those who don’t experience empathy, such as psychopaths, can’t generally learn to, those who can may be switched off. Dehumanising language and dehumanising metaphors, narratives that emphasise prejudice and construct the other and political outgrouping can all serve to de-empathise the general public. As Wittgenstein once said, the limits of my language are the limits of my world. 

Social qualities are so rarely acknowledged by Tories because the implications counter the dominant narrative of meritocracy, competition, free markets, hierarchies, outgroups and legitimated authority figures. The view exemplified by Ayn Rand, that any kind of altruism is actually bad is found at the core of Conservative ideology, and manifests in their social Darwinist policies. She argued that thinking about the needs of others is an enemy of freedom, strength and self-expression. Whose freedom, strength and self-expression does Rands’ recommendations of competitive individualism and individual selfishness suppress? Oh yes, the most vulnerable and poor. Hello America.

The real catastrophe is that we have collectively allowed the associations between people, society and politics to become unravelled. We are truly alienated from decision-making about how our society is, and should be. But we opted out. We let go of our responsibility to each other. Research shows that some 70% of the public supports the welfare cuts. That includes many labour party supporters.

Tory rhetoric has succeeded in creating and justifying monetary apartheid. But this is the reality of the situation: poverty is now more acutely absolute, and becoming more widespread because of an enormous wealth transfer from the taxpayer to private interests, and a bogus ideological austerity programme, presented as a fait accompli. But how do you sell such a thing to civil society? How are the Tory-led Government getting away with such blatant theft and lies?

The battle is being won by the calculated use of techniques of persuasion. Disability hate crime is up by 25% after the Government’s attacks on disabled people needing to claim benefits. The government insinuated that they are all committing benefit fraud, that these are people pretending to be ill to avoid work. Negative day-to-day reporting, with political endorsement and open support from malevolent individuals such as Mark Hoban and Iain Duncan Smith, constantly portrays people with a disability and those facing unemployment as a burden or drain on society.

This method of constructing “Otherness” by the politically powerful colluding in dominant social narrative, commonly via the mainstream media, is a recognised method of social exclusion, minorization and marginalisation. Constructing “Other” social identities involves highlighting difference, rather than acknowledging our common, shared human qualities, characteristics and needs, and typically involves the demonisation and dehumanisation of specific groups, which further justifies political attempts to “civilise” and exploit these “inferior” others. It is a method of propaganda that is commonly employed by authoritarian Governments to justify atrocities such as ethnic cleansing.

A recent TUC study in the UK revealed people’s perceptions about the scale of the welfare bill and welfare fraud were entirely unrelated to the reality. This method of crass negative labelling, demonisation and scapegoating clearly works, as attempts to justify the dismantling of our social security and support for the vulnerable. That is an outrage.

The same type of dehumanising rhetoric that the Nazis used to justify the Holocaust, ultimately. And for those itching to cry 

This deliberately misleading rhetoric concerning those who have to seek support from the welfare state, such as the contrived contrast between “strivers” and “shirkers”, underpinned by the anachronistic, discredited notions of “deserving” and “undeserving” –  and other similar, not so subliminal betrayals spilt into legislative cruelty, of an underlying brand of authoritarian and elitist egoism –  is undermining that trust and, with it, one of the key foundations of our society. We have welfare to protect the poorest; those with least power, to ensure that no-one has to live in absolute poverty. Well, at least we did.

Now we have a Government that regards public funding for our welfare provision as their very own reward pot, disposable income for the already wealthy. Whilst the poorest people in our society have seen their only safety net (self funded via taxes) snatched away by this vicious, misanthropic brood of schadenfreuders. 

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Quantitative Data on Poverty from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

The minimum cost of living has soared by a quarter- 25% –  since the start of the economic downturn, according to a report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which details the true inflationary pressures facing low income households. The research finds families are facing an “unprecedented erosion of household living standards” thanks to rapid inflation and flat-lining wages.

Cuts to benefits and tax credits have exacerbated the problem over the past 12 months, according to the report. Now we are seeing the hard evidence that the Coalition’s “reforms” are pushing employed people in low paid work and unemployed people into absolute poverty, as our welfare system is no longer meeting basic living needs, and Government policy has distorted the original purpose of our social security, using rhetoric about costs to “the tax payer”, whilst carefully excluding the fact from their monologue that most benefit recipients are also tax payers.

A terrible and frightening consideration is that this report doesn’t include the latest round of benefit cuts – the very worst of them to date – that were implemented in April of this year. The report was produced prior to then, covering the period up to April, but doesn’t include it.

A quarter of households in the UK already fell short of the income required to reach an adequate standard of living – for them a 25% increase in costs intensifies the everyday struggle to make ends meet. The  price of food and goods we need for an acceptable living standard has risen far faster than average inflation. This has combined with low pay increases to create a widening gap between income and needs.

The freeze in child benefit, the decision to uprate tax credits by just 1% and the increase in the cost of essentials faster than inflation mean that a working couples with children an  working lone parents will lose out, making a mockery of the Coalition’s claim of ” making work pay”.

Over the past five years:

• Childcare costs have risen over twice as fast as inflation at 37%.
• Rent in social housing has gone up by 26%.
• Food costs have increased by 24%.
• Energy costs are 39% more.
• Public transport is up by 30%.

Since 2010, wages have been rising more slowly than prices, and over the past 12 months, incomes have been further eroded by cuts to benefits and tax credits. Ministers argue that the raising of the personal tax allowance to £10, 000 for low income households will help, however, the report says its effect is cancelled out by cuts and rising living costs.

I would add that for many who are low paid, and the increasing numbers of part-time workers, this political gesturing is meaningless. The policy only benefits those who earn enough to pay tax. Most of this group are affected by the benefit cuts – many have to claim housing benefit and council tax benefit, and they are therefore likely to be affected by the bedroom tax and the poll tax-styled reductions to benefits under the Localism Bill, to compound matters.

It has to be said  that the greatest percentage change in net income from the personal tax free allowance of £10,000 is seen by those on the upper end of the income scale – not, as is often claimed, low earners. This does explain the policy. Increasing the personal allowance serves to increase the gap between the those on the lowest incomes and those on  middle range incomes, resulting in low income households falling further into poverty.

At the low paid end of salaried work there are a cohort of workers trapped in a cycle of very poorly paid, low – skilled work, zero hour contracts, with few, if any, employee rights. They tend to work for a few months here and there, in work is often seasonal. There is no opportunity for saving money or hope of better employment prospects. This group of workers tend to live hand to mouth from one pay day to the next, so have no opportunity to build a reserve when the contract ends, there is nothing in reserve.

The net result is that it is increasingly very difficult for low-to-middle income families to balance the weekly budget. There is now a widening gulf between public expectations of a minimum decent living standard and their ability to earn enough to meet it. I would add that the gap between  low and middle income families is widening, and will continue to do so because of the impact of policies that have recently been implemented.

Welfare support is one of the hallmarks of a civilised society. All developed countries have such support for the vulnerable, and the less developed ones are striving to establish their own. Welfare states depend on a fair collection and redistribution of resources, which in turn rests upon the maintenance of trust between different sections of society and across generations. In the UK, the poorest people not only pay taxes, they also pay the highest taxes.

Statisticians hold two basic definitions of poverty – relative poverty is a measure which looks at those well below the median average of income (60% of income) – who are excluded from participating in what society generally regards as normal activities. This kind of poverty is relative to the rest of society, and is the type that we have seen and measured since the welfare state came into being.

Absolute poverty refers to a level of poverty beyond the ability to afford the essentials which we need simply to live and survive. People in absolute poverty cannot afford some of the basic requirements that are essential for survival. It is horrifying that this is now the fastest growing type of poverty in Britain, according to research bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) and Joseph Rowntree Foundation.  When the IFS produced its report on growing child poverty, David Cameron’s callous, calculated  and unflinching reaction was to question the figures, rather than accept the consequences of his Government policies.

And it IS calculated and deliberate legislative spite. The Government’s own impact assessment has demonstrated that the 1% uprating in the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Act will have a disproportionate effect on the poorest. Families with children will be particularly hard hit, pushing a further 200,000 children into poverty. In addition, those with low to middle earnings and single-earner households will be caught by the 1% limit on tax credit rates. These new cuts come on top of the cumulative impact of previous tax, benefit and public expenditure cuts which have already meant the equivalent to a loss of around 38% of net income for the poorest tenth of households and only 5% for the richest tenth.

According to a TUC report, average wages have dropped by 7.5 per cent since the Coalition came into office. This has a direct impact on child poverty statistics, which the government has conveniently ignored in its latest, Iain Duncan Smith-endorsed, child poverty figures.

Child poverty is calculated in relation to median incomes – the average income earned by people in the UK. If incomes drop, so does the number of children deemed to be in poverty, even though – in fact – more families are struggling to make ends meet with less money to do so.

This is why the Department for Work and Pensions has been able to sound an announcement that child poverty in “workless” families (which translates from Tory propaganda-speak to “victims of the Government- induced recession”) has dropped, even though we can all see that this is nonsense. As average incomes drop, the amount received by  families not in work – taken as an average of what’s left – appears to rise, even though, as we know, the increase is not even keeping up with inflation any more.

Liam Byrne said: “The IFS report shows that the price of ministers’ failure on child poverty isn’t just a million more children growing up poor – it’s a gigantic £35 billion bill for the tax payer. It’s not just a moral failure, but an economic disaster.

“Ministers should be doing everything they can for struggling families but instead they are slashing working families’ tax credits whilst handing a massive tax cut to the richest people in the country. That tells you all you need to know about this Government’s priorities.”

“Not only is there a cost attached to rising levels of child poverty but the trend is illegal. Left unabated child poverty will reach 24% in 2020, compared with the goal of 10% written in law.”

Iain Duncan Smith, the welfare and pensions secretary, has publicly questioned whether poverty targets are useful – arguing that “feckless” parents only spend money on themselves. The spirits of Samuel Smiles, Thomas Malthus and David Ricardo, they of the workhouse mentality, speak clearly through Iain Duncan Smith from across the centuries.

And of course the Department for Work and Pensions ludicrously continue to blame the previous Administration. We know, however, that the research here shows starkly that poverty has risen under this Government, and we are now seeing cases of childhood malnutrition, such as scurvy. The breakfast clubs established under the previous Labour Government, as a part of the Extending Schools program and Every Child Matters Bill often provided crucial meals, particularly  for children who relied on school provision  – in fact, for one in four of all UK children, school dinners are their only source of hot food. Malnutrition is rising and schools see children coming in hungry.

The previous Government recognised the importance of adequate nutrition and saw  the link between low educational attainment, behavioural difficulties and hunger in school. The breakfast club provision also helped parents on low incomes in other ways, for example, the free childcare that these wrap-around services provided is essential to support them to keep on working.

There are further issues worth a mention from Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review, that are not in the report. They are worth a mention not least because they tell you all you need to know about the Coalition. They speak volumes about Tory-led intention, malice and despicable aims. They expose the lie once again that the Tories “support” the most vulnerable citizens.

I’m very concerned about Osborne’s plans to set a cap on benefits spending. This cap will include disability benefits, but exclude spending on the state pension. Disabled people have already faced over £9 billion of cuts to benefits they rely on, with at least 600,000 fewer expected to qualify for the new Personal Independence Payment, which is replacing disability living allowance, and over 400,000 facing cuts to their housing benefit through the bedroom tax. Disabled people of working age have borne the brunt of cuts, and the Government is once again targeting those who can least afford to lose out.

By including “Disability Benefits” in the cap, the Government have signalled clearly that they fully intend severing any remaining link between social security and need. We are hurtling toward a system that is about eradicating the cost of any social need. But taxation hasn’t stopped, however, public services and provisions are shrinking.

Barely a month now passes without one of David Cameron’s ministers being rebuked for some act of statistical chicanery (or, indeed, the Prime Minister himself). And it’s not just the number crunchers at the UK Statistics Authority who are concerned. An alliance of 11 churches, including the Methodist Church, the Quakers and the Church of Scotland, has written to Cameron demanding “an apology on behalf of the Government for misrepresenting the poor.”

Many people have ended their lives. Many people have died because of the sustained attack from our Government on them both psychologically and materially, via what ought to be unacceptable, untenable and  socially unconscionable policies. People are going without food. People are becoming homeless. There are people now living in caves around Stockport The UK is the world’s six largest economy, yet 1 in 5 of the UK population live below the official poverty line, this means that they experience life as a daily struggle for survival.

And this is because of the changes this Government is making. And we are allowing them to do so. Unless we can form a coalition with other social groups in our society, we are unlikely to influence or  produce enduring, positive political change.

The author of the Joseph Rountree Doundation report, Donald Hirsch, says the cumulative effect is historically significant:

From this April, for the first time since the 1930s, benefits are being cut in real terms by not being linked to inflation. This combined with falling real wages means that the next election is likely to be the first since 1931 when living standards are lower than at the last one.” 

For most of us. The millionaires, however, are celebrating a rise in their already lofty standard of living. That’s not mentioned in the JRF report, so I thought I would mention it. Just so you know where our money is going, why poverty is rising and where the real ‘culture of entitlement’ label belongs: with the rich.

Further reading: 

Chris Mould, a former NHS chief executive, now the director of food bank charity the Trussell Trust, is scathing about how the state can coldly impose benefit penalties on vulnerable individuals while “knowing that no one will actually die of starvation because someone else – the voluntary sector – is looking after them”. In some ways, Trussell may be regarded as embodying the government’s “big society”, by Cameron, but Mould himself is a member of the Labour party – A question of responsibility 

Food poverty ‘puts UK’s international human rights obligations in danger

“A DWP spokesperson said: “Our welfare reforms will improve the lives of some of the poorest families in our communities, with the universal credit simplifying the complex myriad of benefits and making 3 million people better off.”

That comment left me dumbfounded. How can welfare CUTS  (not “reforms”) improve the lives of some of the poorest families?  Once again we see the enormous chasm between Government rhetoric and stark, terrible reality. The conservatives’ idea of “helping” people who are struggling is to take money from them,to  punish and stigmatise and to deny and negate the subsequent devastating experiences of their poor victims. Tory gaslighting.

It is grossly irresponsible and hateful that journalists and politicians collude in this manner to create a climate that engenders hatred, hostility and abuse towards people for whom life is already so difficult. This would be true at any time, but especially at a time of such uncertainty, when people are fearful of the future and looking for others to blame for their misfortune.

Many people have ended their lives. Many people have died because of the deliberate, sustained attack from our Government on them both psychologically and materially, via what ought to be unacceptable, untenable and  socially unconscionable policies. People are going without food. People are becoming homeless.

And this is because of the changes this Government is making. And we are allowing them to do so. Unless we can form a coalition with other social groups in our society, we are unlikely to influence or produce enduring, positive political change.

Iain Duncan Smith’s most shocking statistical lie yet: Child poverty 
The demonisation of the disabled is a chilling sign of the times
Constructing the Other
Holocaust and Genocide Studies: Visualising Otherness
Why tackling poverty is crucial in achieving a truly tolerant society
According to the Tories, economic terrorism is the new humanism.The Conservative-led government IS evil, Owen Jones – even if its supporters aren’t
Quantitative Data on Poverty from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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Thanks to Robert Livingstone for his brilliant memes