Tag: #epistemology

Choice architecture, neoliberalism and the politics of compliance

 

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The point for neoliberalism is not to make a model that is more adequate to the real world, but to make the real world more adequate to its model” – Simon Clarke (2005). (See also If You Look Behind Neoliberal Economists, You’ll Discover the Rich: How Economic Theories Serve Big Business. The road to serfdom – sponsored by big business).

Nudge: when the luxury of making choices has been commodified and packaged

Choice architecture is a term was coined by libertarian paternalists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (2008). It refers to the practice of influencing choice by changing the manner in which options are presented to people.

For example, this can be done by setting defaults, framing, or adding decoy options. 

Choice architecture influences decision-making by simplifying the presentation of choices, by automatically evoking particular associations, or by making one option more salient or “easier” to choose than the alternatives. It works “beneath” our rational and reflective processes.

Personally, I see choice architecture as starkly lit Orwellian features along the short road and cul-de-sac to choiceless choices. It’s a reductive and determined journey, which ends by the state deciding and determining how citizens ought to be

A government that is acting upon the perceptions and behaviours of citizens in order to align them with politically defined socioeconomic outcomes turns democracy on its head. It detaches public policies from genuine wider public needs and interests. Governments are elected in the expectation that they will behave in ways that meet the needs of a population.

Democracy entails a dialogue between government and citizens. However, nudge closes down that dialogue, and restricts human agency – the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices. Policies are increasingly about the government instructing us how to behave. How to be.

Choice architecture redesigns our experiences without our consent. Diversion from the path of those choices chosen for us by choice architects is considered to be pathological. Nudge doesn’t accommodate creative opportunity, critical thinking or any form of genuine learning. It simply claims that we each operate within the confines of bounded rationality. We are cognitively flawed. But nudge doesn’t present the opportunity for citizens to develop awareness of potential limits, to problem-solve or to learn how to become better cognitively equipped.

It’s precisely because we are ALL cognitively flawed that the production of knowledge for governance itself needs be governed.  In this respect, behavioural econmics displays an arrogance and epistemoloical authoritarianism in that it is assumed the theories it’s founded on somehow escape the confines of rational boundaries that everyone else is unable to transcend. It’s like saying “that’s your “human nature”, but not ours”. If we are all cognitively flawed, then no-one is exempt from that rule.

Nudge reduces our experiences to measured, measurable, politically defned quantitative “outcomes”, at the expense of the crucial qualitative accounts and participation of citizens that contribute to a functioning democracy.

Thaler and Sunstein define a “nudge” as:

Any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

This statement puzzles me. If a behaviour is altered in a predictable way, then how will we know if any of the other potential options were forbidden or not, and surely, it means at the very least that the other possibilities – alternative choices – have been foreclosed intentionally by the choice architect. If it didn’t mean that, then why use nudge at all, how exactly does nudging work, and why are we funding it?

Libertarian paternalism or “nudging” is a mechanism to exploit the ways that individuals deviate from rational choice in order to benefit themselves or society at large – for instance, by using our bias toward the status quo to encourage employees to put more of their paychecks into savings.

This benefits employees because it means they will be able to afford to live when they hit hard times, as state provision such as unemployment support and pensions have been incrementally cut away to almost nothing. The powers that be in the UK regard any kind of welfare provision as a “perverse incentive”. This benefits the government because if everyone pays for their own pension, periods of unemployment, sickness and so on, then the government can spend your national insurance contributions and taxes on other things. Like very wealthy people’s tax cuts. 

The privatisation of choice and consent

Power is defined in the social sciences as the ability to influence (“soft power”) or shape and outright control the behaviour of people (“hard power”). Attempts by a government to shape and control the behaviour of citizens (including the targeting of specific social groups), either via policies or by brute force, isn’t generally considered to be compatible with democracy, social justice or notions of inclusion.

Thaler and Sunstein have claimed that governments always influence citizens’ behaviours. We have laws to deter clearly defined crimes such as murder, theft and so on. However, those laws are clearly stated and citizens are aware of their purpose and that they aim to control socially harmful behaviours. They are transparent. Most people would  agree that they are necessary to protect citizens, and most are aware of the probable consequences of being found breaking those laws.

These are overt attempts to dissuade people from behaving in potentially harmful ways towards others and wider society generally tends to endorse them, regarding them as necessary. Such laws permit us to engage our rational processes precisely because they are visible to us. Nudge is designed to bypass our critical and rational capacities.

Nudge or “behavioural economics” is the attempt to shape people’s socioeconomic behaviours without people being aware of the process or the aim. Nudge ceases to work when people become aware that they are being nudged – it only works “in the dark”. 

The Nudge Unit was part-privatised in 2014, which means it is protected from public scrutiny.  It is no longer subject to the Freedom of Information Act, and it can sue for libel.

Ian Dunt said at the time of the Nudge Unit’s privatisation: “The secrecy and legal might of private firms offering public services is morally indefensible whatever the sector. But in the case of nudge it is particularly dangerous, because this is an organisation specifically tasked with implementing policy on the subconscious of the British public.

However sympathetic we are to the goals nudge is trying to achieve – such as reducing car accidents or increasing tax collection – we should be deeply sceptical of its tactics, which involve influencing the public without them knowing it is happening.

This is what makes nudge so toxic an idea. While it seems more liberal than using legislation to clamp down on unhealthy behaviour, it is actually more pernicious. At least when something is banned, you know you are being prevented from doing it. With nudge, you will never know.”

The application of nudge tends to be asymmetrical – is targeted disproportionately at poor citizens. This is because of the political belief – a weighted bias – that poor people are poor because they make “irrational” and “wrong” choice. Conversly, wealthy people are deemed “rational” precisely because they are wealthy. This is a line of teleological reasoning – rather than being causal explanation of the phenomenon of inequality, the aims, ends, or intentions of the observed phenomenon or behaviour are used to explain the process. Teleology refers to a view that justifies certain phenomena, which are explained by reference to their purposes.  The Conservatives see inequality as functional, because it “encourages competition” and serves as an “incentive”. Social scientific arguments among positivists in particular quite often rest on rational short cuts like this. This short cut is a weighted bias that becomes embedded in the process of how particular areas of research are chosen, how the research is designed, and how interpretation of the results and conclusions are framed. Rather than the “scientific method” in social research serving to ensure value neutrality, quite often it simply distils the ideological premises of it.

Nudge reduces a persons’ choices to one choice – that of the state or “choice architects”. Nudge tends to draw on punishments, threats of punishment and negative reinforcements to change the behaviours of poor people – such as those embedded in welfare conditionality and sanctions, which exploit a cognitive bias we have, apparently, called “loss aversion”

Something that the government and libertarian paternalists choose to ignore is that it is poverty itself that restricts choices, not poor people’s cognitive “abilities” or decision-making. A good example is how the use of credit scoring ultimately leads to the poorest people having to pay the most interest on credit, if they manage to get any at all. Being poor limits our choices for credit, and other ways out of financial hardship. It’s difficult to find work that pays an adequate wage to support an adequate standard of living, especially when you have so few resources that you can’t meet all of your basic needs, let alone pay your broadband bill and meet travel costs.

It’s a very dangerously slippery slope when a group of technocrats claim they have perfected the art of knowing what is best for us, and what our best interests are, especially when it is especially geared towards the political goal of fulfilling “small state” ideology. 

Psychopaths see others as a means to an end, they also like to define other people’s “best interests”. They use justification narratives for their behaviours to manipulate people, which are often plausible, but ultimately, this is simply to get their own way.

Similarly, the Conservatives’ use of nudge reflects their ideological agenda, and their justification narratives reflect an authoritarian turn. 

The rise of nudge refects a miserly neoliberal government with an ideological agenda

If people who are poor are struggling with decision-making, then nudging people – even if “opt out” provision is made (and it generally isn’t) – without their knowledge or informed consent cannot be justified as a “non intrusive” intervention, as behavioural economists try to argue. Nudging reduces our autonomy and imposes a framework of psychological reductionism and determinism.

Nudge reflects a basic “stimulus-response” view of human shaping behaviour, except the word “incentive” has replaced “stimulus” in the old behaviourist terminology. Many behavioural economists talk about cognitive processes, and how flawed most people’s are. But nudge methodology reflects a behaviourist approach – there’s no opportunity for learning, and no consideration of human subjectivity – our inner states, meanings, understandings and so on – all that matters is getting people to comply and behave the way the “choice architects” think we should. Cause and effect.

Nudge was introduced as a policy strategy as a way of cutting costs. Libertarian paternalism is a political doctrine, and is therefore not value-neutral. However, libertarian paternalists argue that their methodology – Randomised Controlled Trials (RTCs) – validates their claim to value neutrality.  Behavioural economists argue that the evidence gathered from RTCs is a better, more reliable and valid form of knowledge than the knowledge of “experts”. But such knowledge is insufficient if it is abstracted from the political side of policymaking in which problems are framed and knowledge given meaning. Furthermore, the RTCs are used to add credibility to the theoretical knowledge of “experts”. But often, those presenting a case for evidence-based policies often ignore the multiplicity of evidence relevant to the policy in question. In this respect, RTCs may be used to filter out alternative accounts of the issue being addressed, and so justifying interventions that are inappropriate or may have unintended (or undeclared and ideologically determined, intended) consequences. 

RTCs are an effective way of determining whether or not a particular intervention has been successful at achieving a specific outcome. One significant concern is that RCTs  are being promoted as the ‘gold standard’ in a hierarchy of evidence that marginalises qualitative research, and the accounts of citizens’ experiences – crucial to a functioning democracy. The government has frequently dismissed citizens accounts of policy impacts as “anecdotal”, claiming that “no causal link” between policy and impact can be demonstrated. Given that some of these accounts have been first hand, and about serious harm caused by policy,  it’s easy to see how the use of  a”scientific methodology” so easily becomes a tool for stifling criticism, debate and a mechanism for political expediency. 

RTCs have been the standard of medical research, and are useful for establishing whether cause-effect relationships exist between treatments and outcomes and for assessing the cost effectiveness of a treatment. However, their use in influencing and quantifying an array of complex human behaviours marks a return of the determinism and reductionism that was central to behaviourist perspectives. 

We must also question the appropriateness of the use of a medical model to frame social problems. Poverty, inequality and the unequal distribution of power doesn’t happen because of some disease process: it is because of government policy and decision-making. No amount of blaming individual citizens’ decision-making and applying “behavioural medicine” to the victims of free neoliberal socioeconomics will remedy that. 

Behaviourism is basically the theory that human and animal behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to “internal” states -thoughts or feelings – and that psychological disorders are best treated “externally” by altering “faulty” behaviour patterns. Because nudge is used asymmetrically, and targets poor people disproportionately, it is founded on assumptions that reflect traditional prejudices and assumptions about the causes of poverty, and also serves to endorse and extend existing inequalities in wealth, resources and power. Nudge assummes that poor people’s decision-making is the cause of poverty, rather than institutionalised prejudices and the political decision-making that shapes our socioeconomic environment.

One of our fundamental freedoms as human beings is that of decision-making regarding our own lives and experiences. To be responsible for our own thoughts, reflections, intentions and actions is generally felt to be an essential part of what it means to be human.

Of course there are social and legal constraints on some intentions and actions, especially those that may result in harming others, and quite rightly so.

There are other constraints which limit choices, too, insofar that choices are context-bound. We don’t act in an infinite space of opportunities, alternatives, time, information, nor do we have limitless cognitive abilities, for example.

In other words, there are always some limitations on what we can choose to do, and we are further limited because our rationality is bounded. Most people accept this with few problems, because we are still left ultimately with the liberty to operate within those outlined parameters, some of which may be extended to a degree – our capacity for rationality and critical thinking, for example, can be learned and improved upon. But our thoughts, reflections, decisions and actions are our own, held within the realm of our own individual, unique experiences.

However, the government, and the group of behavioural economists and “decision-making psychologists” (employed at the “Nudge” Unit) claim to have found a “practical” and (somehow) “objective way” from the (impossible) perspective of an “outside observer” – in this case, the government – to define our best interests and to prompt us to act in ways that conform to their views. Without our informed consent. “Compliance” is the defintely the governments’ buzzword. Compliance frameworks are embedded in our welfare system and most of our public services. 

Sunstein and Thaler argue that policymakers can preserve an individual’s liberty while still nudging a person towards choices that are supposedly in their best interests. However, since no-one can escape their bounds of their own subjectivity to find some mind-independent vantage point, and since all humans operate within a framework of bounded rationality, the behavioural economists’ claim to value-neutrality, and technocratic appeal to the validity of a “scientific” methodology doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

The claim to an “objective” scientific methodology does nothing to compensate for the ideological perspectives of the researcher that invariably influence the choice of an area of study, or the nature of generated hypotheses that are tested in artificial environments – “laboratory” conditions. Isolated, tested, short-range hypotheses cannot tell us much about the vast array of complex processes involved in human decision-making, and take any meaningful account of the influence and depth of a cultural, political, social, economic and historical context. As such, they cannot provide a reliable basis for making inferences to real world circumstances.

The results depend on the interpretation and nature of the data used and the reason for the analysis in the first place. Simple causal explanations of behaviour embody reductionism and determinism – and therefore deny human autonomy. Bounded rationality is a theory that proposes we have limited choices, but behaviourist perspectives inform us that basically, we have none. 

Nudge doesn’t take into account that political decision-making also succumbs to the limits of bounded rationality, and that socioeconomic policies impact upon citizens, rather than citizens making choices – “right” or “wrong” ones – about our socioeconomic organisation.  

Medical RCTs are done within the confine a strict ethical framework, with informed consent being central to that framework. The government is conducting experiments on the population without their informed consent. There are no ethical safeguards in place to monitor and acknowledge any potential harm that arises as a consequence of nudging. This is precisely why there is a  need to incorporate qualitative insights into RTCs used to test pubic policy interventions. 

Nudge ignores the negative impact of the attitudes and behaviours of the wealthy and powerful on society

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“People who are poorer should be prepared to take the biggest risks; they’ve got least to lose.” Lord Freud, 2012

The risk-taking and greedy behaviours of wealthy people caused a global financial crash, which has ultimately led to countries like the UK imposing austerity on the poorest citizens. Excess in risk taking by and excessive leverage of banks meant that the finance class ignored externalities and relied on bail-outs by the government following the crisis.

The incentive structure of banks encouraged strategies that increased aggregate risk in the economy, and regulators allowed banks to use their own models to calculate and report riskiness. Deregulation is at the core of the 2008 Financial Crisis. The attempt to decrease government involvement in the financial system backfired. Ultimately, deregulation put depositors, consumers, and banks at risk. Those paying the price for the decision-making behaviours of those in positions of power are the poorest citizens. Austerity has been used as a diversion from where the responsibility for the banking crisis lies, and has become a mechanism of administering disipline and ensuring the conformity of the poorest citizens.

Yet their remains a widespread lack of concern for the financial system’s risk to the economy. No lessons appear to have been learned, and no-one is concerned with “changing the behaviours” of the perpetrators of the global recession.

“If we must talk about “poor choices” then we have to address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices made by the Poor.” Hubert Huzzah

Austerity measures have caused an unacceptable level of harmhardship and absolute poverty – lacking the means to meet basic survival needs, such as food, fuel and shelter – that we haven’t witnessed as a society since before the establishment of the post-war welfare state. We have also witnessed the violation of the human rights of some socially marginalised groups. This point indicates to me that it isn’t poor people who need “behaviour change” programmes: it’s the rich and powerful who create adverse or “pathological” socioeconomic circumstances and events

“Nudge” bears the hallmark of oppression and is symptom of an authoritarian state. It permits those whose decisions have truly devastating impacts on others and our society to simply carry on doing as they choose, whilst punishing those who are blameless, powerless and don’t participate in decisions regarding how our society is organised. 

As such, nudge has become a prop for neoliberal hegemony and New Right Conservative ideology. It’s a technocratic fix to a socioeconomic system that is not only failing, it’s causing distress and harming many citizens.

Nudge addresses the needs of policy-makers. Not the wider public. The behaviourist educational function, made patronisingly explicit by the Nudge Unit, is now operating on many levels, including through policy programmes, institutionalised attitudes and behaviours, in schools, in forms of “expertise”, and even through the state’s influence on the mass media, other cultural systems and at a subliminal level: it’s embedded in the very language that is being used in political narrative.

Thaler acknowledges that regardless of the original intentions, nudge may be skewed by governments, organisations or individuals looking to capitalise on the cognitive biases of people. Whenever he is asked to sign a copy of his book , he writes “nudge for good” which is a plea, he says, to improve the lives of people and avoid “insidious behaviour.”

In the UK, choice architects work to simply maintain the status quo. Therefore nudge doesn’t and cannot offer us any scope for improving people’s lives.

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Grenfell is a stark monument to the systematic disempowerment of citizens because of the decisions made by the architects of neoliberal policies and the utter disregard and negligence of those in positions of power.

Residents of Grenfell Tower had previously raised serious concerns that a catastrophic event could happen. It did. An action group of Grenfell residents said their warnings fell on “deaf ears” after highlighting major safety concerns about the block. The neoliberalisation of the housing market entailed councils part-privatising public housing – putting them into housing associations or ALMOs (arms length management organisations). This management arrangement was distant and remote – a bureaucratic mechanism rather than a democratic community organisation. 

Austerity was (re)introduced in 2010. Public and social housing budgets were slashed and housing associations encouraged to become more commercial and borrow from banks instead of receiving public funding. At the same time, social security and funding for local government were dramatically cut back. In London alone, 10 fire stations, 27 fire engines and more than 600 firefighters have been lost to cuts since 2010. These undermined emergency responses and efforts to prevent fires by inspecting buildings and taking enforcement action under fire safety regulations.

Government hostility to regulation played a significant role in the unfolding of this terrible tragedy. Following a smaller fatal 2009 fire in South London, a series of recommendations including installing sprinkler systems and reviewing the “stay put” advice given to residents living in higher floors in the event of a fire. These recommendations were sat on, ignored, and delayed despite efforts from parliamentarians and campaigners, and even the magazine representing housing professionals. The requirement to carry out a Fire Risk Safety Assessment by the Fire Brigade was changed to make it the responsibility of landlords – Kensington and Chelsea Council opted to use the cheapest company available to them. 

These assessments are not transparent or public and are now the subject of huge public scrutiny along with the series of decisions that led to Grenfell Tower being “re-clad” in the cheap material that facilitated the rapid spread of the fire.

What is clear is that government decision-making, the ideology of deregulation, of privatising, of austerity, combined to kill people in their homes. Their safety and their lives were not valued by the government nor the system they put in place, nor were their voices heard until it was far too late. 

If we must talk about “poor choices” then we must address all poor choices. Not just those “poor choices” made by the poorest and most disempowered citizens.arnstein-ladder-citizenship-participation

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Sherry Arnstein’s Ladder of Citizen Participation and Power

Related

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

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

 

I’m currently writing a longer and more in-depth critique of behavioural economics, which will be published very soon.

 


 

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A critique of Conservative notions of social research

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The goverment’s archaic positivist approach to social research shows that they need a team of sociologists and social psychologists, rather than the group of “libertarian paternalists” – behavioural economists – at the heart of the cabinet office, who simply nudge the public to behave how they deem appropriate, according to a rigid, deterministic, reductive neoliberal agenda and traditional, class-contingent Conservative prejudices.

 

Glossary

Epistemology – The study or theory of the nature and grounds of knowledge, especially with reference to its limits, reliability and validity. It’s invariably linked with how a researcher perceives our relationship with the world and what “social reality” is (ontology), and how we ought to investigate that world (methodology). For example, in sociology, some theorists held that social structures largely determine our behaviour, and so behaviour is predictable and objectively measurable, others emphasise human agency, and believe that we shape our own social reality to a degree, and that it’s mutually and meaningfully negotiated and unfixed. Therefore, detail of how we make sense of the world and navigate it is important.

Interpretivism – In sociology, interpretivists assert that the social world is fundamentally unlike the natural world insofar as the social world is meaningful in a way that the natural world is not. As such, social phenomena cannot be studied in the same way as natural phenomena. Interpretivism is concerned with generating explanations and extending understanding rather than simply describing and measuring social phenomena, and establishing basic cause and effect relationships.

Libertarian paternalism – The idea that it is both possible and legitimate for governments, public and private institutions to affect and change the behaviours of citizens whilst also [controversially] “respecting freedom of choice.”

MethodologyA system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity to collect data. In the social sciences there has been disagreement as to whether validity or reliability ought to take priority, which reflected ontological and epistemological differences amongst researchers, with positivism, broadly speaking, being historically linked with structural theories of society – Emile Durkheim’s structural-functionalism, for example – and quantitative methods, usually involving response-limiting surveys, closed-ended questionaires and statistical data collection, whereas interpretive perspectives, such as symbolic interactionism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology, tend to be associated with qualitative methods, favoring open-ended questionaires, interviews and participant observation.

The dichotomy between quantitative and qualitative methodological approaches, theoretical structuralism (macro-level perspectives) and interpretivism (micro-level perspectives) is not nearly so clear as it once was, however, with many sociologists recognising the value of both means of data collection and employing methodological triangulation, reflecting a commitment to methodological and epistemological pluralism. Qualitative methods tend to be more inclusive, lending participants a dialogic, democratic voice regarding their experiences.

Ontology – A branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature of reality and being. It’s important because each perspective within the social sciences is founded on a distinct ontological view.

Positivism – In sociology particularly, the view that society, like the physical world, operates according to general laws, and that all authentic knowledge is that which is verified. However, the verification principle is itself unverifiable.

Positivism tends to present superficial and descriptive rather than in-depth and explanatory accounts of social phenomena. In psychology, behaviourism has been the doctrine most closely associated with positivism. Behaviour from this perspective can be described and explained without the need to make ultimate reference to mental events or to internal psychological processes. Psychology is, according to behaviourists, the “science” of behaviour, and not the mind.

Critical realism – Whilst positivists and empiricists more generally, locate causal relationships at the level of observable surface events, critical realists locate them at the level of deeper, underlying generative mechanisms. For example, in science, gravity is an underlying mechanism that is not directly observable, but it does generate observable effects. In sociology, on a basic level, Marx’s determining base (which determines superstructure) may be regarded as a generative mechanism which gives rise to emergent and observable properties.

Randomised controlled trials (RCTs) – RCT is a positivist research model in which people are randomly assigned to an intervention or a control (a group with no intervention) and this allows comparisons to be made. Widely accepted as the “gold standard” for clinical trials, the foundation for evidence-based medicine, RCTs are used to establish causal relationships. These kinds of trials usually have very strict ethical safeguards to ensure the fair and ethical treatment of all participants, and these safeguards are especially essential in government trials, given the obvious power imbalances and potential for abuse. A basic principle expressed in the Nuremberg Code is the respect due to persons and the value of a person’s autonomy, for example.

In the UK, the Behavioural Insight Team is testing paternalist ideas for conducting public policy by running experiments in which many thousands of participants receive various “treatments” at random. Whilst medical researchers generally observe strict ethical codes of practice, in place to protect subjects, the new behavioural economists are much less transparent in conducting research and testing public policy interventions. Consent to a therapy or a research protocol must possess three features in order to be valid. It should be voluntarily expressed, it should be the expression of a competent subject, and the subject should be adequately informed. It’s highly unlikely that people subjected to the extended use and broadened application of welfare sanctions gave their informed consent to participate in experiments designed to test the theory of “loss aversion,” for example.

There is nothing to prevent a government deliberately exploiting a research framework as a way to test out highly unethical and ideologically-driven policies. How appropriate is it to apply a biomedical model of prescribed policy “treatments” to people experiencing politically and structurally generated social problems, such as unemployment, inequality and poverty, for example?

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The increasing conditionality and politicisation of “truths”

The goverment often claim that any research revealing negative social consequences arising from their draconian policies, which they don’t like to be made public “doesn’t establish a causal link.”  Recently there has been a persistent, aggressive and flat denial that there is any “causal link” between the increased use of food banks and increasing poverty, between benefit sanctions and extreme hardship and harm, between the work capability assessment and an increase in numbers of deaths and suicides, for example.

The government are referring to a scientific maxim: “Correlation doesn’t imply causality.” 

It’s true that correlation is not the same as causation.

It’s certainly true that no conclusion may be drawn regarding the existence or the direction of a cause and effect relationship only from the fact that event A and event B are correlated. Determining whether there is an actual cause and effect relationship requires further investigation. The relationship is more likely to be causal if the correlation coefficient is large and statistically significant, as a general rule of thumb. (For anyone interested in finding out more about quantitative research methods, inferential testing and statistics, this is a good starting point – Inferential Statistics.)

Here are some minimal conditions to consider in order to establish causality, taken from Hills criteria:

  • Strength: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is a plausible mechanism between the cause and the effect.
  • Coherence: A relationship is more likely to be causal if it is compatible with related facts and theories.
  • Analogy: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there are proven relationships between similar causes and effects.
  • Specificity: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is no other likely explanation.
  • Temporality: A relationship is more likely to be causal if the effect always occurs after the cause.
  • Gradient: A relationship is more likely to be causal if a greater exposure to the suspected cause leads to a greater effect.
  • Plausibility: A relationship is more likely to be causal if there is a plausible mechanism between the cause and the effect.

Hill’s criteria can be thought of as elements within a broader process of critical thinking in research, as careful considerations in the scientific method or model for deciding if a relationship involves causation. The criteria don’t all have to be met to suggest causality and it may not even be possible to meet them in every case. The important point is that we can consider the criteria as part of a careful and relatively unbiased research process. We can also take other precautionary steps, such as ensuring that there are no outliers or excessive uncontrolled variance, ensuring the populations sampled are representative and generally taking care in our research design, for example.

However, it is inaccurate to say that correlation doesn’t imply causation. It quite often does.

Furthermore, the government are implying that social research is valid only if it conforms to strict and archaic positivist criteria, and they attempt to regularly dismiss the propositions and research findings of social scientists as being “value-laden” or by implying that they are, at least. However, it may also be said that values enter into social inquiry at every level, including decisions to research a social issue or not, decisions to accept established correlations and investigate further, or not, which transforms research into a political act. (One only need examine who is potentially empowered or disempowered through any inquiry and note the government response to see this very clearly).

It’s noteworthy that when it comes to government claims, the same methodological rigour that they advocate for others isn’t applied. Indeed, many policies have clearly been directed by ideology and traditional Tory prejudices, rather than valid research and empirical evidence. For example, it is widely held by the Conservatives that work is the “only route out of poverty”. Yet since 2010, the decline in UK wage levels has been amongst the very worst in Europe. The fall in earnings under the Tory-led Coalition is the biggest in any parliament since 1880, according to analysis by the House of Commons Library, and at a time when the cost of living has spiralled upwards. Many people in work, as a consequence, are now in poverty, empirically contradicting government claims.

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So what is positivism?

Positivism was a philosophical and political movement which enjoyed a very wide currency in the second half of the nineteenth century. It was extensively discredited during the twentieth century.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857,) who was regarded by many as the founding father of social sciences, particularly sociology, and who coined the term “positivism,” was a Conservative. He believed social change should happen only as part of an organic, gradual evolutionary process, and he placed value on traditional social order, conventions and structures. Although the notion of positivism was originally claimed to be about the sovereignty of positive (verified) value-free, scientific facts, its key objective was politically Conservative. Positivism in Comte’s view was “the only guarantee against the communist invasion.” (Therborn, 1976: 224).

The thing about the fact-value distinction is that those who insist on it being rigidly upheld the loudest generally tend to use it the most to disguise their own whopping great ideological commitments. In psychology, we call this common defence mechanism splitting.  “Fact, fact, fact!” cried Mr Thomas Gradgrind. It’s a very traditionally Conservative way of rigidly demarcating the world, imposing hierarchies of priority and order, to assure their own ontological security and maintain the status quo, regardless of how absurd this shrinking island of certainty appears to the many who are exiled from it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Comte’s starting point is the same as Hayek’s, namely the existence of a spontaneous order. It’s a Conservative ideological premise, and this is one reason why the current neoliberal Tory government of self-described “libertarian paternalists” embrace positivism without any acknowledgement of its controversy.

However, positivist politics was discarded half a century ago, as a reactionary and totalitarian doctrine. It’s is true to say that, in many respects, Comte was resolutely anti-modern, and he also represents a general retreat from Enlightenment humanism. His somewhat authoritarian positivist ideology, rather than celebrating the rationality of the individual and wanting to protect people from state interference, instead fetishised the scientific method, proposing that a new ruling class of authoritarian technocrats should decide how society ought to be run and how people should behave. This is a view that the current government, with their endorsement and widespread experimental application of nudge theory, would certainly subscribe to.

Science, correlation and causality

Much scientific evidence is based on established correlation of variables – they are observed to occur together. For example, correlation is used in Bell’s theorem to disprove local causality. The combination of limited available methodologies has been used together with the dismissing “correlation doesn’t imply causation” fallacy on occasion to counter important scientific findings. For example, the tobacco industry has historically relied on a dismissal of correlational evidence to reject a link between tobacco and lung cancer, especially in the earliest stages of the research, but there was a clearly and strongly indicated association. 

Science is manifestly progressive, insofar as over time its theories tend to increase in depth, range and predictive power.

Established correlations in both the social and natural sciences may be regarded, then, as a starting point for further in-depth and rigorous research, with the coherence, comprehensiveness and verisimilitude of theoretical propositions increasing over time. This is basically a critical realist position, which is different from the philosophical positivism that dominated science and the social sciences two centuries ago, with an emphasis on strictly reductive empirical evidence and the verification principle (which is itself unverifiable).

Positivist epistemology has been extensively critiqued for its various limitations in studying the complexities of  human experiences. One critique focuses on the positivist tendency to carry out studies from a “value-free” outsider perspective in an effort to maintain objectivity, whilst the insider or subjective perspective is ignored. There is no mind-independent, objective vantage point from which social scientists may escape the insider. A second critique is that positivism is reductionist and deterministic. It emphasises quantification and ignores and removes context, meanings, autonomy, intention and purpose from research questions by ignoring unquantifiable variables.

It therefore doesn’t extend explanations and understanding of how we make sense of the world. A third critique is that positivism entails generalisation of data which renders results inapplicable to individual cases; data are used to describe a population without accounting for significant micro-level or individual variation. Because of these and other problems, positivism lost much favour amongst sociologists and psychologists in particular. 

Verification was never the sole criterion of scientific inquiry. Positivism probably lost much more methodological and epistemological currency in the social sciences than the natural sciences, because humans cannot be investigated in the same way as inert matter. We have the added complication of consciousness and [debatable] degrees of intentionality, so people’s behaviour is much more difficult to measure, observe and predict. There’s a difference between facts and meanings, human behaviours are meaningful and purposeful, human agency arises in contexts of intersubjectively shared meanings. But it does seem that prediction curiously becomes easier at macro-levels when we examine broader social phenomena, mechanisms and processes. (It’s a bit like quantum events: quite difficult to predict at subatomic level, but clarifying, with events apparently becoming more predictable at the level we inhabit and observe every day.)

Now, whilst correlation isn’t quite the same as “cause and effect”, it often strongly indicates a causal link, and what usually follows once we have established a correlation is further rigorous research, eliminating “confounding” variables and bias systematically (we do use rigorous inference testing in the social sciences). Correlation is used when inferring causation; the important point is that such inferences are made after correlations are confirmed as real and all causational relationships are systematically explored using large enough data sets.

The standard process of research and enquiry, scientific or otherwise, doesn’t entail, at any point, a flat political denial that there is any relationship of significance to concern ourselves with, nor does it involve withholding data and a refusal to investigate further.

Positivism and psychology

Positivism was most closely associated with a doctrine known as behaviourism during the mid-20th century in psychology. Behaviourists confined their research to behaviours that could be directly observed and measured. Since we can’t directly observe beliefs, thoughts, intentions, emotions and so forth,  these were not deemed to be legitimate topics for a scientific psychology. One of the assumptions of behaviourists is that free-will is illusory, and that all behaviour is determined by the environment either through association or reinforcement. B.F. Skinner argued that psychology needed to concentrate only on the positive and negative reinforcers of behaviour in order to predict how people will behave, and  everything else in between (like what a person is thinking, or their attitude) is irrelevant because it can’t be measured.

So, to summarise, behaviourism is basically the theory that human (and animal) behaviour can be explained in terms of conditioning, without appeal to wider socioeconomic contexts, consciousness, character, traits, personality, internal states, intentions, purpose, thoughts or feelings, and that psychological disorders and “undesirable” behaviours are best treated by using a system of reinforcement and punishment to alter behaviour “patterns.”

In Skinner’s best-selling book Beyond Freedom and Dignity1971, he argued that freedom and dignity are illusions that hinder the science of behaviour modification, which he claimed could create a better-organised and happier society, where no-one is autonomous, because we have no autonomy. (See also Walden Two1948: Skinner’s dystopian novel).

There is, of course, no doubt that behaviour can be controlled, for example, by threat of violence, actual violence or a pattern of deprivation and reward. Freedom and dignity are values that are intrinsic to human rights. Quite properly so. All totalitarians, bullies  and authoritarians are behaviourists. Skinner has been extensively criticised for his sociopolitical pronouncements, which many perceive to be based on serious philosophical errors. His recommendations are not based on “science”, but on his own covert biases and preferences.

Behaviourism also influenced a positivist school of politics that developed in the 50s and 60s in the USA. Although the term “behavouralism” was applied to this movement, the call for political analysis to be modeled upon the natural sciences, the preoccupation with researching social regularities, a commitment to verificationism, an experimental approach to methodology, an emphasis on quantification and the prioritisation of a fact-value distinction: keeping moral and ethical assessment and empirical explanations distinct, indicate clear parallels with the school of behaviourism and positivism within psychology.

The political behaviouralists proposed, ludicrously, that normative concepts such as “democracy,” “equality,” “justice” and “liberty” should be rejected as they are not scientific – not verifiable or falsifiable and so are beyond the scope of “legitimate” inquiry. 

Behaviourism has been criticised within politics as it threatens to reduce the discipline of political analysis to little more than the study of voting and the behaviour of legislatures. An emphasis on  the observation of data deprives the field of politics of other important viewpoints – it isn’t a pluralist or democratic approach at all – it turns political discourses into monologues and also conflates the fact-value distinction.

Every theory is built upon an ideological premise that led to its formation in the first place and subsequently, the study of  “observable facts” is intentional, selective and purposeful. As Einstein once said: “the theory tells you what you may observe.”

The superficial dichotomisation of facts and values also purposefully separates political statements of what is from what ought to be. Whilst behavouralism is itself premised on prescriptive ideology, any idea that politics should include progressive or responsive prescriptions – moral judgements and actions related to what ought to be – are summarily dismissed.

Most researchers would agree that we ought to attempt to remain as objective as possible, perhaps aiming for a relative value-neutrality, rather than value-freedom, when conducting research. It isn’t possible to be completely objective, because we inhabit the world that we are studying, we share cultural norms and values, we are humans that coexist within an intersubjective realm, after all. We can’t escape the world we are observing, or the mind that is part of the perceptual circuit.

But we can aim for integrity, accountability and transparency. We can be honest, we can critically explore and declare our own interests and values, for example. My own inclination is towards value-frankness, rather than value-freedom – we can make the values which have been incorporated in the choice of the topic of research, and of the formulation of hypotheses clear and explicit at the very outset. The standardised data collection process itself is uncoloured by personal feelings (that is, we can attempt to collect data reliably and systematically.) However, the debate about values and the principle of objectivity is a complex one, and it’s important to note that symbolic interactionists and post modernists, amongst others, have contended that all knowledge is culturally constructed. (That’s a lengthy and important discussion for another time.)

Nudge: from meeting public needs to prioritising political needs

The idea of “nudging” citizens to do the “right thing” for themselves and for society heralds the return of behaviourist psychopolitical theory. Whilst some theorists claim that nudge is premised on notions of cognition, and so isn’t the same as the flat, externalised stimulus-response approach of behaviourism, my observation is that the starting point of nudge theory is that our cognitions are fundamentally biased and faulty, and so the emphasis of nudge intervention is on behaviour modification, rather than on engaging with citizen’s cognitive or deliberative capacities.

In other words, our tendency towards cognitive bias(es) render us incapable of rational decision-making, so the state is bypassing democratic engagement and prescribing involuntary and experimental behavioural change to “remedy” our perceived cognitive deficits.

Behaviourists basically stated that only public events (behaviours of an individual) can be objectively observed, and that therefore private events (intentions, thoughts and feelings) should be ignored. The paternal libertarians are stating that our cognitive processes are broken, and should be ignored. What matters is how people behave. It’s effectively another reductionist, instrumental stimulus-response approach based on the same principles as operant conditioning.

Nudge is very controversial. It’s experimental use on an unconsenting population has some profound implications for democracy,  which is traditionally based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. However, Conservative policies are no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly all about instructing us how to be.

The context-dependency and determination of value-laden nudge theory

Libertarian paternalists are narrowly and uncritically concerned only with the economic consequences of decisions within a neoliberal context, and therefore, their “interventions” will invariably encompass enforcing behavioural modifiers and ensuring adaptations to the context, rather than being genuinely and more broadly in our “best interests.” Defining human agency and rationality in terms of economic outcomes is extremely problematic. And despite the alleged value-neutrality of the new behavioural economics research it is invariably biased towards the status quo and social preservation rather than progressive social change.

At best, the new “behavioural theories” are merely theoretical, at a broadly experimental stage, and therefore profoundly limited in terms of scope and academic rigour; as a mechanism of explanation and in terms of capacity for generating comprehensive and coherent accounts and understandings of human motivation and behaviour.

Furthermore, in relying upon a pseudo-positivistic experimental approach to human cognition, behavioural economists have made some highly questionable ontological and epistemologial assumptions: in the pursuit of methodological individualism, citizens are isolated from the broader structural political, economic and sociocultural and established reciprocal contexts that invariably influence and shape an individuals’s experiences, meanings, motivations, behaviours and attitudes, causing a deeply problematic duality between context and cognition.

Yet many libertarian paternalists reapply the context they evade in explanations of human behaviours to justify the application of their theory in claiming that their “behavioural theories” can be used to serve social, and not necessarily individual, ends, by simply acting upon the individual to make them more “responsible.” But “responsible” is defined only within the confines of a neoliberal economic model. (See, for example: Personal Responsibility and Changing Behaviour: the state of knowledge and its implications for public policyDavid Halpern, Clive Bates, Geoff Mulgan and Stephen Aldridge, 2004.)

In other words, there is a relationship between the world that a person inhabits and a person’s perceptions, intentions and actions. Any theory of behaviour and cognition that ignores context can at best be regarded as very limited and partial. Yet the libertarian paternalists overstep their narrow conceptual bounds, with the difficulty of reconciling individual and social interests somewhat glossed over. They conflate “social interests” with neoliberal outcomes.

The ideological premise on which the government’s “behavioural theories” and assumptions about the negative impacts of neoliberalism on citizens rests is fundamentally flawed, holding individuals responsible for circumstances that arise because of market conditions, the labor market, political decision-making, socioeconomic constraints and the consequences of increasing “liberalisation”, privatisation and marketisation.

Market-based economies both highly value and extend competitive individualism and “efficiency”,  which manifests a highly hierarchical social structure, and entails the adoption of economic Darwinism. By placing a mathematical quality on social life (Bourdieu, 1999), neoliberalism has encouraged formerly autonomous states to regress into penal states that value production, competition and profit above all else, including attendance to social needs and addressing arising adverse structural level constraints, the consequences of political decision-making and wider socioeconomic issues, such as inequality and poverty.

As a doxa, neoliberalism has become a largely unchallenged reality. It now seems almost rational that markets should be the allocators of resources; that competition should be the primary driver of social problem-solving, innovation and behaviour, and that societies should be composed of individuals primarily motivated by economic conditions and their own economic productivity. Despite the Conservative’s pseudo-positivist claims of value-neutrality, the economic system is being increasingly justified by authoritarian moral arguments about how citizens ought to act.

The rise of a new political behaviourism reflects, and aims at perpetuating, the hegemonic nature of neoliberalism.

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Image courtesy of Tiago Hoisel

 

Don’t believe everything you think: cognitive dissonance

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“Some things have to be believed to be seen.” – Ralph Hodgson

I’ve often thought that once people identify with a political party, there is often an accompanying tendency to edit the world so that it conforms with their ideology. I suspect that exposure to more information about objective reality and politics quite often doesn’t affect partisan bias because people tend to only assimilate those “facts” that confirm what they already believe. Perhaps this is why many people become defensive, aggressive, incoherent and dogmatic when challenged with evidence that contradicts their fundamental world-view.

President Lyndon Johnson once said: It’s a heck of a lot easier to throw grenades than to catch them.

It’s always a good idea to look at who is lobbing the explosives, too. And to see if they are recycling their bombshells

It’s certainly the same with criticism, especially those which challenge our cherished beliefs. Critical thinking is a difficult and sometimes painful process. It requires facing often challenging and contradictory narratives about the fundamental nature of the world and ourselves, analysing and evaluating them. It also requires work: practice, time and effort. But the more you do it, the easier it becomes.

Critical thinking is the foundation for intelligence, for making sound decisions, and for accommodating dissonant narratives within our own paradigm, and importantly, for understanding them.

“Knowledge” isn’t simply something arising from a closed fact-finding mission to confirm what we already hold as a theory of the world, but rather, it’s about understanding the diverse views of others who are part of our world, after all, and who contribute to its rich, meaningful pluralism.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that each account or theory of the world has equal merit and worth, but without a genuinely critical and open exploration of other views, we cannot know the worth of our own views, let alone anyone elses’. Knowledge isn’t something we have, either, it’s something we have to do. Learning is a process that is ongoing, and knowledge is always subject to challenges, revision and expansion.

Never has there been a greater need for critical thinking, yet it seems there has never been a time when that has been more difficult, because of the constant bombardment from the media of fragmented, discordant, conflicting, non-linear narratives, purposefully misdirecting and whopping lies, dead cat ploys, semantic thrifts, glittering generalities, government PR, Orwellian double-speak and other strategies being deployed to keep us in a state of fearful, confused, manipulable stupification and, to be terribly Marxist about this … in a state of false consciousness. Well, dazed and confused, at the very least.

This Adam Curtis video (below) was originally shown as part of Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe show. It’s about strategies adopted by political leaders, here and abroad, to keep the population confused, uncertain what to believe or what to do – and therefore powerless.

Cognitive dissonance warfare is one weapon of choice. It isn’t just the Tories that use this method. 

We are subjected to an overwhelming barrage of partial accounts, contradictory accounts, screaming headlines, vicious lies, smears and ferocious mudslinging – negative campaigning in the media. It’s like being trapped in a hall of mirrors with Beelzebub, a few of hells’ myrmidons and your best friends, all in fancy dress.

So how do we escape the hall of mirrors?

Well, I’ve already discussed critical thinking. A good approach is to look for integrity, consistency and coherence in narratives, as well as evidence to support and refute the claims being made. And it’s important to examine scope  –  what those narratives accommodate – how comprehensive they are, how much they connect up, how much they make sense. If they involve personal attacks, this is generally a strategy of diversion, and  indicate the group flinging smears has less to offer the public than the person or being viciously attacked. 

It’s also worth understanding a little more about cognitive dissonance.

Leon Festinger: Let’s see what happens when you are stood up by the aliens.

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Leon Festinger is the social psychologist that proposed cognitive dissonance theory, which basically states that a powerful motive to maintain cognitive consistency can give rise to irrational, and often, maladaptive behaviour.

According to Festinger, we hold many cognitions about the world and ourselves; when they clash, an uncomfortable discrepancy is evoked, resulting in a state of tension known as cognitive dissonance. As the experience of dissonance is unpleasant, we are motivated to reduce or eliminate it to achieve consonance (agreement).

How we do so seems to be very much our own business, with avoidance, biased perception and denial commonly used as a defence to eliminate our discomforts – but as I pointed out earlier, the only real and lasting solution is critical thinking.

Leon Festinger once infiltrated a flying saucer doomsday cult in the late 1950s. The members of this cult had given up their entire lives – left everything and everyone behind – because they believed that the world was about to end and that their faith would ensure that they would be the sole survivors of a global flood. Up until the fateful day, the cult shunned publicity and didn’t entertain journalists.

Festinger posed as a member of the group and was present when the foretold space ship failed to show up. He was particularly interested in what would happen next. How would the disappointed cult react to the failure of their prophecy?

In science, when a theory is challenged by evidence that contradicts it, adjustments or ad hoc hypotheses are sometimes formulated to preserve the theory, attempting to explain away anomalies. However, ad hoc hypotheses are often a key characteristic of pseudoscience, as they are used to ensure a theory is never falsified, no matter how much evidence accrues to falsify that theory. Ultimately, it’s a get out clause for failed theories.

In science, whilst we accommodate gaps in our knowledge, the use of many ad hoc hypotheses is frowned upon. (Einstein’s proposition of hidden variables is a good example of this method of accommodating anomaly: he used an ad hoc hypothesis to explain quantum mechanics and maintain the integrity of relativity theory: explaining quantum entanglement without action at a distance).

Ad hoc hypotheses are a widely used strategy in managing cognitive dissonance. So, after the failure of their prophecy and the non-materialisation of the rescue space ship, the cult suddenly wanted publicity. They wanted media attention. This was apparently so the world would know how their faith had helped save the entire planet from flood.

The hypothesis was that aliens had spared planet earth for their sake – and now their new role was to spread the word and make us all listen. This fascinated Festinger. He observed that the real motivation behind the apparently inexplicable response was the need to not face an uncomfortable truth and to re-assert emotional comfort and equilibrium – to smooth over the apparently unacceptable and whopping inconsistencies between prophecy and events.

Theory and reality.

Explanations of events such as the one offered by the doomsday cult are clearly not founded on a rational process: it’s largely an emotional defence mechanism that is rationalised post hoc. Festinger coined the term “cognitive dissonance” to describe the uncomfortable tension we feel when we experience conflicting thoughts or beliefs (cognitions), or engage in behavior that is apparently opposed to our stated beliefs.

What is particularly interesting is the lengths to which people will go to reduce the inner tension without accepting that they might, in fact, be wrong. They will accept almost any form of relief, other than admitting being at fault, or mistaken. If a person believes, for example, that they are not racist, but then they discriminate against someone on the basis of race, they are then faced with the discomfort of acknowledging that they are racist after all. In an attempt to escape this discomfort, they may seek to rationalise (explain away) their behaviour on some other grounds, which may be spurious, but which allows them to hold on to their otherwise discredited belief.

Many UKIP supporters, for example, often say something like: “I’m not racist though, my brother-in-law/ friend/ uncle’s wife is actually Indian/Chinese/African” and so forth.

Another example is the “allthesame” myth. When you present people with evidence that refutes what was originally a Tory propaganda soundbite, rather than acknowledging verifiable evidence, some people choose to start a hate campaign aimed at trying to attribute all kinds of bizarre “motives” to the person simply telling a truth. Truth and populist perspectives are often poles apart.

And such tactics serve only to fragment opposition to the Right even further. Dividing people by using blame and prejudice further weakens our opposition to oppression. The oppressed can be very oppressive, it has to be said.

Festinger quickly realised that our intolerance for cognitive dissonance could explain many mysteries and irrationalities of human behavior.

Politicians have utilised this intolerance to their advantage – most particularly the Right, who deploy rhetoric heavily steeped in propaganda and behavioural manipulation techniques. (See Cameron’s behaviourist Nudge Unit,  I’ve previously discussed the implications of such manipulation on an unconsenting public and the ramifications for democracy.)

Marshall McLuhan once said: There is absolutely no inevitability as long as there is a willingness to contemplate what is happening.

Objective truth does not change according to our inclination to want something else. Facing that may be difficult at times, but the alternative is simply the idle creation of pseudo-enclaves of fleeting comfort – illusions that distract and disempower us. And make us apathetic.

It’s worth noting that totalitarian and authoritarian regimes arise in societies where populations are politically disengaged and apathetic. If we want to change unpalatable truths – part of the way things are –  the only way to do so is to have the courage, first, to face those truths head-on.

We can’t lie those truths away. There are no short-cuts or real, tenable escapes from that. We have to work our way through the confusion, avoiding the appeal and brief comfort of avoidance strategies, defence mechanisms and flat denial – short-cuts down what is invariably a cul-de-sac – difficult though that often is.

Look at where we are: we have Tory small minds attempting to justify the Tory notion of a small state. But small states and competitive individualism foster adversarial relationships, and reduce us all. Small states and individualism disconnect us from others, sever any sense of social responsibility, mutuality, cooperation and obligation we have towards others.

It divides, isolates and fragments us. Neoliberal small states make us all smaller individuals, less coherent, less connected. Less comprehending. We lose touch with social reality when we disengage with others. We become less rational agents. More dissonant. How can we hold rational, reasoned and democratic debates to oppose what is little more than Tory superstition and prejudice?  

But we must.

Iain Duncan Smith’s “magical elitism” thinking – he’s just knows he’s right – is another indication that we don’t have a democratic government that is willing to engage in dialogue: we have an authoritarian one that is interested only in imposing its own incoherent neoliberal monologue on the masses.

The Queen’s Honours list shows us just what we have become as a society this past 4 years, and how little worth we place on intelligence, honour, basic coherence, decency and genuine achievement. The Maurice Mills MBE is a farce – he blamed Hurricane Katrina on gay people – it’s like open, raucous, insane, cackling laughter from a decrepit, senile, evil elite that has lived far too long. One that is completely detached from our society and its needs. That’s the reality.

Cognitive dissonance theory is an example of the political misuse of psychology which is being used as a means of thought micro-management to ensure that we don’t move and progress. Personal and social development – growth – by their very nature demand that we have the courage to seek to extend ourselves beyond what we know and where we are. It’s very uncomfortable to acknowledge that we are limited, especially when some of that is our own doing, but it’s also essential we do acknowledge it in order to at least try and transcend those limits, extend their context step by step and make progress.

There are no alien space ships to save us from ourselves or from our government. It’s down to us to seek and evaluate the truth, and there really are no shortcuts to positive change and progress. But we can take responsibilty to ensure that what we hold to be true and the decisions we make are fully and bravely informed.

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The DWP mortality statistics: facts, values and Conservative concept control

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I wrote
last week about the exchange in the Commons between Debbie Abrahams and Iain Duncan Smith regarding the Mortality Statistics Report released by Department of Work and Pensions. Debbie Abrahams asked a very reasonable question:

“The Government’s own data show that people in the work-related activity group are twice as likely to die than the general population. How can the Secretary of State justify £30-a-week cuts for people in that category?”

Duncan Smith gave a petty, vindictive and unqualified retort to avoid answering the question:

“The hon. Lady put out a series of blogs on the mortality stats last week that were fundamentally wrong. Her use of figures is therefore quite often incorrect. I simply say to her—[Interruption.] She has had an offer to meet the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), time and again, but she just wants to sit in the bitter corner screaming abuse.”

Adversarial style over meaningful content every time.

It’s certainly true that Conservatives advocate a limited ambition in politics, especially when it comes to maintaining the state support of even basic levels of human welfare. Small state fetishist Duncan Smith failed to provide a rational and evidenced response to a very reasonable question. He didn’t qualify why he thought that the blogs on the mortality statistics release last week were “fundamentally wrong,” either.

It has to be said that in light of the many official public rebukes that the Tories have faced for telling lies and using misrepresentations of statistics to justify their own value-laden, ideologically driven policies, and given the fact that the Government face a United Nations inquiry regarding the fact that their welfare “reforms” are incompatible with the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, it’s truly remarkable that Priti Patel and Iain Duncan Smith have the cheek to call disability campaigners “thugs” and state that all other accounts of the mortality statistics are “wrong”, or to imply that opposition MPs are “liars”, when they are faced with valid concerns and founded criticisms regarding the consequences of their draconian policies.

Moreover, being civilised, values of decency and legitimate concerns about the welfare of sick and disabled citizens were depreciated as mere matters of “subjective interpretation” and not as worthy subjects of political, rational or objective discussion.

The Mortality Statistics release from Department of Work and Pension “provides further commentary on the appropriate use of this information” – in other words, it informs us what we may and may not do with the “data”, and carries this pre-emptive caution:

“Any causal effect between benefits and mortality cannot be assumed from these statistics.

Additionally, these isolated figures provide limited scope for analysis and nothing can be gained from this publication that would allow the reader to form any judgement as to the effects or impacts of the Work Capability Assessment.”

The way that the statistical data was intentionally presented without context, clarification or meaning, but with a warning that we may not draw any inferences from it lends a whole new layer of meaning to the phrase “the disappeared”.

The question we ought to ask is why? Firstly, why is it the case that we are being told that there is no reliable data regarding the impact of the Government’s policies, including their reformed Work Capability Assessment?

And of course, what is being hidden beneath the excessively  bureacratic management of information?

What kind of Government doesn’t concern itself with the well-being of citizens that it is meant to represent? A basic expectation surely ought to be that Governments monitor the effects of policy, especially the sort of policies that are, by their very design, likely to have a negative impact on sick and disabled people.

Cutting lifeline benefits, and using punishment in the form of sanctions to leave people without money to meet basic survival needs is never going to have a positive, or, to use a toryism, “incentivising” impact on people who are deemed medically unfit for work. The Government know this. And everyone who claims Employment Support Allowance may only do so because a qualified doctor has provided an evidenced statement that those people are unfit for work.

And what justification can there possibly be for a Government that is persistently refusing to carry out a cumulative impact assessment on such extensive, far-reaching welfare “reforms”?

When it comes to “knowledge” and “evidence,” the most significant struggle in what passes for Conservative epistemology is simply nothing more than wrestling with a grasping and malicious stranglehold over control of the terms of discourse. Those who can frame a controversial issue or concept in terms they prefer have the advantage in shaping and controlling public opinion.

There is existing empirical evidence (“data” if you prefer) of the correlation between the Government’s punitive policy regime and its negative effects, including increased mortality. As I argued with the Telegraph journalist Tom Chivers last year, the media have presented a record of evidence of tragic, individual cases where Government policy has clearly been correlated with deaths.

Though Chivers questioned the inferences and experiences of disabled people and disability campaigners back then, and though he stated how abysmally “unclear” the previous mortality statistics release was, remarkably, he didn’t once question that or investigate why.

Many studies have also clearly linked Tory policies with evidence of extremely adverse consequences of Tory policies. But Conservatives don’t take kindly to challenge, preferring to discredit those who criticise policy, and threaten them rather than stepping up to adopt a dialogic, democratic, transparent and accountable approach to Government.

Additionally, MPs, including Dennis Skinner, John McDonnell, Michael Meacher, Debbie Abrahams, Sheila Gilmore, Anne Begg, and Glenda Jackson, amongst many others, have raised concerns regarding people’s awful experiences of the negative impact of the Tory “reforms” as well as the mortality statistics, meticulously citing the evidence of case studies, often from their own constituencies. Those cited cases are recorded on the parliamentary Hansard site.

As well as via the use of early day motions (EDM) and adjournment debate, the many problems concerning the consequences of the welfare “reforms” are also addressed rigorously by the Work and Pensions Committee, through formal inquiries, (again, see Hansard record,) which are also informed by witnesses and empirical evidence.

I’ve also gathered some evidence here: Suicides reach a ten-year high and are linked with welfare “reforms” and here: Remembering the Victims of the Government’s Welfare “Reforms”

The Tories have dismissed such collective accounts of individual cases as “anecdotal evidence,” whilst also dismissing any attempt to cite quantitative data – statistics – as “wrong” simply to divert criticism of their policies and diminish public sympathy and concern.

I’m wondering where the empirical evidence is for Tory notions, such as a “culture of worklessness” or the “something for nothing culture”. Or for “making work pay”. The Tories tend to adopt a pseudo-positivist stance, claiming credibility via their ideological assumptions and by making invalid inferences from statistics when it suits them, and dismissing other accounts as merely “subjective”, yet no-one conflates the fact-value distinction more than the rigidly ideologically bound, staunchly neoliberal Conservatives, who produce every discussion as if there are no alternatives to Conservatism at all.

Statistics tend to dehumanise, and exclude people’s own validating  accounts of experiences of the social phenomena they measure. In a democratic society, qualitative accounts – “the people’s voice” – ought to matter to the Government. The impact of such draconian, punitive policies cannot be reduced to abstract speculation regarding what inferences may and may not be drawn from statistics: this is about very real experiences, real lives and real people being damaged and some, destroyed, in a real world of real and brutal Tory policies.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the point-blank refusal to enter into open debate and to allow an independent inquiry into the deaths that are most likely correlated with Tory policy reflects a callous, irrational and undemocratic government that draws on an underpinning toxic social Darwinist ideology and presents a distinctly anti-enlightenment, impervious epistemological fascism from which to formulate justification narratives for their draconian policies, in order to avoid democratic accountability and to deflect well-reasoned and justified criticism.

The lack of rational responses from Iain Duncan Smith, or concern about the welfare of the sick and disabled people that he tellingly differentiates from “normal” people, and the message from his Department, urging us not to make inferences about the deaths of sick and disabled people is an oblique reference to the fact/value distinction. It’s a method called “framing”. Such concept control is a way of rigging the debate: You must talk about this controversial issue using our categories, terms, and definitions only.

Or a way of avoiding debate altogether.

 The fact/value distinction is the alleged difference between descriptive statements (about what is) and prescriptive or normative statements (about what ought to be). Facts are one sort of thing, values another sort of thing, and the former never determine the latter. That’s the idea, anyway. But it isn’t considered to be very clear-cut when it comes to the “social sciences” such as politics and economics. I go further than the critics of logical positivism, and propose that it’s a false dichotomy anyway, especially where politics and policy-making are concerned, as these are invariably value-laden activities.

Whenever the Conservatives talk about “difficult decisions” or “tough choices”, they are in fact reflecting their own subjectivity and indulging Tory values, demonstrating their intentionality – and the capacity for a degree of free-will. Those “difficult decisions” have included the wilful handing out of £107,000 each per year to millionaires, in the form of a tax-break, and the intentional cutting of our social security down to the bone, the purposeful cutting of crucial public support services.

Sick and disabled people in this country have borne the brunt of the Tory directed austerity cuts. These cuts were the “tough choice” that the Tories freely made, ignoring less cruel and harmful alternative choices that could have been made. The Tories are masters at foreclosing possibilities.

Would you like to see some empirical data about Tory decision-making? Statistics? Facts and figures?  Here they are: Briefing on How Cuts Are Targeted – Dr Simon Duffy and here: Follow the Money: Tory Ideology is all about handouts to the wealthy that are funded by the poor.

tough choices

Government policies are expressed political intentions, regarding how our society is organised and governed. They have calculated social and economic aims and consequences.

How policies are justified is increasingly being 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 propaganda to intentionally divert us from their aims and the consequences of their ideologically (rather than rationally) driven policies. Furthermore, policies have become increasingly detached from public interests and needs.

Regardless of what kind of epistemology you may subscribe to, there are no “facts” that can ever justify the targeted political persecution of social groups in democratic societies. And the Tories know exactly what the impacts of their policies are likely to be. The level and extent of the stigmatisation and scapegoating of sick and disabled people in the media, coming from the Conservative camp to justify punitive cuts informs us of that.

Politics is invariably about values. That’s not a bad thing in itself. However, being open and honest about those values is crucial, and expected behaviour from a democratically elected government.

Human societies are not shaped by unchanging natural laws, despite what the Tories try and tell you. They are shaped by ideas of what ought to be. We make moral judgements about how to live and be. We have potential, intention and we make collective, cooperative decisions about how best to organise society. We progress, we change and evolve. 

Well, except during those times that we have regressive, authoritarian Right-wing Governments. 

Governments ought to face their moral obligations towards the well-being and interests of all citizens, to take responsibility for their ethical decisions and own their value-judgements. Rather than disguise them as shallow and meaningless “facts” to hide behind, as the pseudo-positivist Tories frequently do.

It’s truly remarkable that Tories loudly attribute the capacity for moral agency to people claiming benefits, for example, formulating punitive sanctions and “assessments” to both shape and question the morality of the poor constantly, yet stand outside of any obligation to morality and ethical behaviour themselves. It’s always someone else’s responsibility, never theirs.

Any claim to “value-freedom” in political decision-making does not and cannot exempt ministers from moral responsibility, or justify moral indifference.

A genuinely rational and morally responsible Government would hold an independent investigation into the reasons why people have died after being told they are “fit for work” when they clearly were not, and  commit to keeping data that effectively monitors and accurately reflects the impact of policy changes on citizens. A genuinely rational and morally responsible Government would be concerned about the possibility that their policies are harming people and causing deaths.

After all, this is a first-world liberal democracy, isn’t it?

430847_149933881824335_1645102229_n (1)Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone


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A critical analysis of the DWP’s Mortality Statistics release

 

Disability rights activists protest in London, November 2016

The government’s release of mortality statistics related to sickness and disability benefits has caused fierce debate about what the figures actually mean. It has to be said that the way the figures were presented – in a flat descriptive way – makes drawing causal links and inferences very difficult and making useful comparisons impossible. This of course was intentional.

There’s a simple difference between descriptive and inferential statistics – descriptive statistics simply summarise a current dataset, it’s just raw data. Subsequently, analysis is limited to the data and does not provide a scope that permits the extrapolation of any conclusions about a group or population. Inferential statistics are usually used to test an hypothesis, and aim to draw conclusions about an additional population outside of the dataset. Inferential statistics allow researchers to make well-reasoned inferences about the populations in question, and may be tested for validity and reliability, using various appropriate formulae.

To complicate matters further, the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) claim that they don’t keep detailed information regarding whether a person died before or after their benefit claim was ended. So when the data is about people who died within six weeks of their claim ending, it could mean that the claim ended before they died, or after, because the person had died.

Of course the question we need to ask is why the DWP don’t keep a more accurate record of that data. And furthermore, why are the government so supremely unconcerned about even basic monitoring of the consequences of their welfare “reforms” on sick and disabled people?

I had a lengthy debate with Tom Chivers from the Telegraph last year about this very issue. He said that it was most reasonable to assume that the overwhelming majority of deaths happened before the claim ended, rather than the converse being true. He criticised campaigners for claiming that people were dying as a consequence of the “reforms”.

However, we know from media coverage of some of those tragic deaths that people have died as a consequence of having their employment and support allowance (ESA) benefit claim ended. We also know from the debates in parliament that have been tabled by the opposition on this topic, and the inquiries instigated by the work and pensions committee, that many people have been adversely affected by having their claims ended because they were assessed as “fit for work”, some of the cases presented had also died – details of which can be found on the Hansard record.

So it isn’t a reasonable assumption that most people died and then had their claim closed, on the part of Tom Chivers (and others) at all. But there’s more.

I made a statistical cross comparison of deaths, using the same Department for Work and Pensions statistics as Tom Chivers, though my analysis was undertaken the year before his. I found that the data showed people having their claim for Employment Support Allowance (ESA) stopped, between October 2010 and November 2011, with a recorded date of death within six weeks of that claim ceasing, who were until recently claiming Incapacity Benefit (IB) – and who were migrated onto ESA – totalled 310.

Between January and November 2011, those having their ESA claim ended, with a recorded date of death within six weeks of that claim ending totalled 10,600.

This is a very substantial, significant statistical variation over a comparatively similar time scale (although the 10,600 deaths actually happened over a shorter time scale – by 3 months) that appears to be correlated with the type of benefit and, therefore, the differing eligibility criteria – the assessment process – as both population samples of claimants on ESA and IB contain little variation regarding the distribution in the cohorts in terms of severity of illness or disability. Bearing in mind that those who were successfully migrated to ESA from IB were assessed and deemed unfit for work, (under a different assessment process, originally) one would expect that the death rates would be similar to those who have only ever claimed ESA.

This is very clearly not the case.

Further evidence that very ill and disabled people have been excluded from an award of ESA may be found in the statistical outcomes of tribunals – there is a consistently very high success rate amongst those who have appealed Atos/DWP decisions, over that time period. Those on IB were not required to have continuous assessments, whereas those on ESA are constantly required to undergo the Work Capability Assessment.

Dr Steven Bick indicated that there are targets to reduce the number of people who “qualify” for ESA payments, the WCA is unfairly and irrationally weighted towards finding people fit for work, often when it’s clearly not the case, so each assessment is simply an opportunity for the DWP to end claims. Many claimants have described a “revolving door” process of endless assessment, ceased ESA claim, (based on an outcome of almost invariably being wrongly “assessed” as fit for work), appeal, successful appeal outcome, benefit reinstated, only to find just three months later that another assessment is required.

The uncertainty and loss of even basic security that this process creates, leading to constant fear and anxiety, is having a damaging, negative impact on the health and well-being of so many. A significant proportion of those required to have endless assessments have very obviously serious illnesses such as cancer, kidney failure, lung disease, heart disease, severe and life-threatening chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis, lupus, myalgic encephalomyelitis, rheumatoid arthritis, brain tumours, severe heart conditions, and severe mental health illness, for example. To qualify for ESA, the claimant must provide a note from a doctor stating that the person is unfit for work.

There can be no justification for subjecting people who are so ill to further endless assessments, and to treating us as if we have done something wrong. Negative labelling, marginalising and stigmatising sick and disabled people via propaganda in the media, using despiteful and malicious terms such as “fraudster”, “workshy” and “feckless” is a major part of the government’s malevolent attempt at justification for removing the lifeline of support from sick and disabled citizens.

In addition to very justified anxieties regarding the marked increase in disability hate crime that the Tory-led propaganda campaign has resulted in, many sick and disabled people have also stated that they feel harassed and bullied by the Department for Work and Pensions and Atos. All of this is taking place in a setting of government generosity to very wealthy people, with Osborne implementing austerity cuts, which disproportionately target the poorest citizens, at the same time as he awarded millionaires £107, 000 each per year in the form of a tax cut.

Many sick and disabled people talk of the dread they feel when they see the brown Atos envelope containing the ESA50 form arrive through the letter box. The strain of constantly fighting for ESA entitlement – a lifeline support calculated to meet basic needs –  and perpetually having to prove that we are a ‘deserving’ and ‘genuine’ sick and disabled person is clearly taking a toll on so many people’s health and well being. I know from personal experience that this level of stress and anxiety exacerbates chronic illness. 

Many families of those who have died have said that the constant strain, anxiety and stress of this revolving door process has contributed significantly to their loved ones’ decline in health and subsequent death. The figures from the DWP, and the marked contrast between the ESA and IB death statistics certainly substantiate these claims. At a meeting in June 2012, British Medical Association doctors voted that the Work Capability Assessment (WCA) should be ended “with immediate effect and be replaced with a rigorous and safe system that does not cause unavoidable harm to some of the weakest and vulnerable in society”.

On 22 May 2013, a landmark decision by the courts in a judicial review brought by two individuals with mental health problems ruled that the WCA is not fit for purpose, and that Atos assessments substantially disadvantage people with mental health conditions. Despite the ruling’s authoritative importance, the decision had a similar lack of real-world effect as it did not halt or slow down the WCA process: Atos and the DWP have ignored the judgement and its implications.

Many of us have reasonably demanded a cumulative impact assessment of government welfare policies, AND an inquiry into the statistically significant increase in mortality rates correlated with the government’s welfare “reforms” aimed at sick and disabled people, only to be told that the cases we present as evidence of the need for investigation are merely “anecdotal”.

Yet when the government talk of “scroungers”, the “workshy”, “generations of ‘worklessness'”, a “culture of entitlement”, a “something for nothing culture”, we are expected to accept that at face value as ’empirical evidence”. With no offer of evidence or reasoned discussion to support these ideological claims.

There is an argument to be had (which I’ve presented previously) about the need for more methodological pluralism in social and political research, with a leaning towards qualitative data. The government should not be attempting to invalidate people’s accounts of their own everyday experiences and attempting to re-write them to suit themselves. I’ve a strongly qualitative preference when it comes to methodology, because of issues relating to validity, reliability and because of the meaningful, authentic, rich details that can be gathered this way. Using quantitative methods only tends to exclude the voices of those groups that are being studied. Qualitative methodologies also tend to be more conducive to understanding issues being researched, rather than simply describing them numerically. Statistics tend to dehumanise because they exclude the narratives of citizens’ lived experiences, and of how they make sense of their circumstances.

As it is, we have ministers shamefully rebuked by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) for lying to justify extremely punitive welfare cuts, more than once, yet with even more cuts to come, and an ongoing United Nations’ inquiry into this government’s human rights abuses, it’s very worrying that there is a silence and lack of concern from the wider public about any of these issues.

The point blank refusal to enter into an open debate and open an inquiry into the deaths that are correlated with Tory policy reflects a callous, irrational and undemocratic government that draws on an underpinning toxic social Darwinist ideology and presents a distinctly anti-enlightenment, impervious epistemological fascism from which to formulate justification narratives for their draconian policies, in order to avoid democratic accountability and to deflect well-reasoned and justified criticism.

That ought to be a cause for considerable concern for the wider public of the UK – a very wealthy, former first-world liberal democracy.

 

Campaigners from Disabled People against Cuts (DPAC) protest in central London against welfare reform


Endnote

A few people have asked me what epistemology means. It’s a branch of philosophy, very relevant to science and the social sciences, that is the study and investigation of the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge. It’s about what and how we understand. It’s related to ontology, which is the study of the nature of reality and existence, and both branches of philosophy are important to social sciences such as politics, sociology and psychology, influencing methodology – informing how we conduct research.

I’m always happy to explain any terms or phrases I use. I sometimes use sociology or psychology terminology and conceptual frameworks, because these are often very useful for presenting clearly defined and very specific meanings, and for framing debates meaningfully to raise our understanding of social issues. But I don’t assume everyone has done a degree in the social sciences, so please don’t hesitate to ask for meanings.

I always do when I don’t understand something.


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Miliband: hope, humanism, joined-up thinking and integrity.

 

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One of Miliband’s virtues is that he re-humanises politics. For him, people’s individual experiences matter, and he always cites many examples throughout his speeches. He includes qualitative accounts from real people. It’s a particularly contrasting quality to Cameron’s unempathic, dehumanising, quantitative and negative labelling approach.

To the Tories, we are all reducible to their often cited, fake statistics. The numbers tell us what the Tories want us to “know”, and not what actually is. And we know that the Tories have never been big on free speech – see the Gagging Act, for example. They like to exclude “inconvenient” voices of truth from the grand, overarching Tory narrative. Miliband listens to accounts of people’s realities, and accommodates those accounts. Cameron imposes both accounts and realities upon us.

Hardly surprising, therefore, that the right-wing bitcherati press have taken the piss once again and tried to make Miliband’s approach to the paramount importance of everyday people look small. Littlejohn in particular is being his pernicious, old, fascist self. How anyone that writes for the Mail for a living has the cheek to criticise anyone at all is beyond me. But it shows that the right are determined to portray any strengths that Ed Miliband has as a weakness. Propaganda at its worst. But its so blatant, superficial and unsophisticated, at least.

I have criticised Tory ontology and methodology previously, using social science as a frame of reference. Politics is a social science, and not a “stand-alone” one: it draws on the disciplines of psychology and sociology, too. As a critical interpretivist, I believe that social reality is not “out there” waiting to be discovered: we are constructing and reconstructing it meaningfully. However, politically, there’s been a marked shift away from understanding the lived experiences of real people in context: a systematic dehumanisation. The Tories have depopulated social policy. This is a characteristic of authoritarianism, and other hallmarks include stigmatisation of social groups, moral disengagement, moral exclusion, impunity, and a societal “bystander apathy”, as I’ve discussed elsewhere.

In the social sciences, there was a big shift away from Cameron’s approach to “understanding the social world” from the 70s onwards. Mostly we realised that  counting people’s responses doesn’t give us any clue about meanings and intentions, it can only turn up statistics. And these are open to reductionist and determinist interpretations and inferences from the persons gathering them, as we know.

Qualitative researchers aim to gather an in-depth understanding of human behaviour and intention – the reasons that govern such behaviour. The qualitative method investigates the why and how of our decision making, rather than just what. And we get to interpret our own reality and experiences. We are each experts in our realm of experiences, and Miliband understands this. He invites our expertise, Cameron stifles it.

The social researcher and the politician do not stand apart from or outside of the intersubjectively constructed universe they wish to describe/measure: there is no “objective” vantage point, because we all participate personally within it.

Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist said: Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.

And in Thick Description, which compared the “thin” descriptions of measurements with the “thick”, densely layered description of context and meaning that qualitative research can provide in any given situation, he said : “The difference between a twitch and a wink is vast.  From a purely physiological perspective, a wink is the contraction of the muscles of a single eye that cause the eyelid to close.  So, of course, is a twitch.  And so is a slow-motion, exaggerated parody of a wink; a fast motion parody of a twitch; and any number of parodies of parodies of twitches and winks that a group boys sitting in the back row might engage in to amuse one another on a spring afternoon”.

And any measure of the interactions that include and are driven by these twitches and winks is bound to measure the wrong things and fail to measure the right ones.

No-one but the Tories would try to argue that poverty is an intentional act of the poor, that food banks are a symptom of rising greed rather than need. I have never known a government to be so blatantly insouciant with the measurable social phenomena it causes via its policies. Or with its own credibility, for that matter.

In contrast to quantitative research, qualitative research involves the collection and analysis of information that focuses on the meanings attached to people’s actions and behaviours, often referred to as the lived experience.It defines us as active participants in the world, instead of merely reducing us to statistics and preferences.  It makes priority of our perceptions and experiences and the way we make sense of our lives.

First-hand experiences matter. And quite properly so. It puts us, the people, in the driving seat, we construct our own meanings, rather than having authoritarians like Cameron imposing meanings, definitions, convenient labels and Tory ideology upon us. Quantitative methods tend to hammer the world into a presupposed state  – as Einstein once said: the theory tells you what you may observe. How very Cameron. All quantitative studies can yield are conventionalised expressions of the experience of the author, or the one commissioning the research.

Quantitative, positivist paradigms share commensurable assumptions but are largely incommensurable with critical, constructivist, and participatory paradigms.. In other words, they don’t accommodate any critical  approaches or analysis, nor are they inclusive. How very Cameron.

Furthermore, quantitative methodology in the social sciences depends upon faith in the “verification principle”. Which is itself unverifiable…

How very  cul-de-sac, and how very Cameron.

Quantitative methodology objectifies us, whereas the qualitative method draws on a humanist, hermeneutic/phenomenological approach: understanding moves from the outer manifestations of human action and productivity (the superficial) to the exploration of their inner meanings and references. Numbers cannot convey human experiences: it is thought, language and our expression that converts experience into meaning.

Humanist thinkers within the discipline of psychology, such as Ronald D Laing, drew on a qualitative  approach, and in his earliest works, he starts from the experience of the individual ego, in “The Divided Self” (1961) and moves towards existential phenomenology , and in his later work, such as “The Politics Of Experience And The Bird Of Paradise“(1967), he manages to integrate these perspectives within a Marxist framework.

Laing, along with others who led the anti-psychiatry movement in the late 50’s and early 60’s, such as Erving Goffman and Thomas Szasz, had a profound and hugely significant impact within the field of psychology, which had been dominated by associationism, behaviourism, psychometrics and eugenics and of course, psychoanalysis.

At a time when theorists from social sciences maintained that their perspectives were premised on scientific (usually positivistic) principles, Laing offered a humanist critique of these approaches, which he said trivialised psychology and dehumanised its subjects. Laing shifted the emphasis from an experimental approach, and a searching for “facts” and “predictability” regarding human behaviours to dialogue, intersubjectively constructed and reconstructed meanings and human experience. Laing and others challenged established categories of behaviour deemed pathological or abnormal, by meaningful explorations of individual accounts of their experience of being.

Laing in particular gave a rational voice to those individuals who had experienced exploitation within family relationships, which he studied extensively, discovering sets of interactions that often involved complex tactical games, relationship knots and strategies, with family members making alliances with some and creating enmity with other members. Within the nexus of the family there is an unremitting demand for constant strategic interpersonal interaction based on mutual reciprocal concern and attention. Individuals are therefore vulnerable to existential harm. They are emotionally imprisoned via the nexus, internalising other family members, and the interaction patterns.

Laing believed that some families acted like gangsters, offering each other protection against each other’s violence. Some governments do, too.  He also believed that the internalisation of family interaction patterns becomes our world – and it restricts the development of the self, with individuals carrying the emotional blueprint of their family for the rest of their life, which may inhibit any real autonomy or self awareness. This blueprint may manifest as expression through behaviours that are clinically identified and diagnosed as schizophrenia. Laing and others exposed the negative labelling processes, and ritualised humiliation directed towards those experiencing self-fragmentation because of the internalisation of negative family interaction patterns. For Laing, madness is simply a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world. Of course that world exists within a political framework.

In sociology, phenomenology was expressed in the work of Alfred Schutz (1899 – 1959) who studied the ways in which people directly experience everyday life, and imbue their activities with meanings. In contrast to the predominant structural and somewhat deterministic perspectives within the discipline, Schultz moved away from the tendency of subordinating everything within disaffecting, abstruse and overarching ideologies or grand narratives, and he emphasised a multiplicity of new and often spontaneously co-authored ideologies lived out day-by-day and based on common sense and intersubjectively constructed values.

Schultz expressed a vitalism that engendered an organic way of thinking, with characteristics such as intuitive insight as a way of perceiving things from within, and placed emphasis on understanding as a holistic grasp of the widely varied, often complex and subtle elements of situations, and on experience as something that is lived through in common with others.

Schultz says that we draw on a common stock of knowledge – “typifications” and common sense which orientates us, helps us navigate socially, and achieve a reciprocity of perspective with others. Socialisation processes mediate and normalise this common stock of knowledge.

Phenomenological Sociology went hand in hand with a preference for a qualitative methodology that emphasised authentic everyday accounts of social reality, with agency and meaning being the focus. Quantitative methodology, on the other hand, had primarily focused on measurement, notions of the predictability of behaviours due to these being determined by social structure for example, as was the case with many advocates of Functionalism, such as Social Darwinist Herbert Spencer, and a socially detached and “objective” researcher.

Such a researcher was evidently armed with the belief that he/she possessed the somewhat unique ability to stand outside of human experience and values, unlike the subjects of enquiry, and would thus gather “social facts” and then interpret them from this independently existing standpoint. For example, a sociologist studying drug use amongst young people may gather statistics and hand out closed questionnaires with short directive and directed yes/no type questions. From the information gathered, the researcher may conclude that anomie and alienation lead to drug use, because, for example, many young drug users singled out for study live in deprived inner city areas.

Most young drug users, however, would not use terms like anomie to explain or give meaningful accounts of their drug use. This imposed conceptual framework of the researcher demonstrates very well how detachment and objectivity is not possible, in sociological enquiry. Indeed, some have extended this criticism to scientific enquiry. We each operate within idioms of belief, and Michael Polanyi has proposed that Western Science is such a self-sustaining idiom. (“Personal Knowledge”, 1958). He compares science with Azande Witchcraft, (Evans-Pritchard’s anthropological study: “Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic Among the Azande”), noting that each conceptual framework is “segregated’ by a logical gap” (they are incommensurable), but from within each idiom, beliefs tended to be circulatory, self-confirming and self-sustaining.

This is true of all ideologies. We can make inferences from sociological research, for example, but every sociologist knows about the Hawthorne effect: that the very fact that people know they are being observed changes their behaviour and distorts the result.

Polanyi had become acutely aware of the extent to which worldviews penetrate into language, and that he had sensed that this may have important ramifications for relations between frameworks of belief. As the basis of his argument, Polanyi gives a precis of his epistemology in “Science, Faith And Society” (1946) and “Scientific Beliefs” (1951). Polanyi considers that discovery, verification and falsification of propositions in science do not obey “any definite rule” but proceed with the aid of “certain maxims” which defy both precise formulation and rigorous evaluation. The maxims are “premisses or beliefs … embodied in … the tradition of science”.

Sustained by this tradition, science is governed by the coherent opinion of its practitioners, who employ the “idiom of science” in which its interpretative framework, Polanyi concludes, is an entrenched tangled and negotiated reciprocity of perspective, and all founded on the the belief of scientists that science is true: a personal conviction which they cannot factually justify. And again, how can we verify the principle at the heart of scientific methodology: verificationism itself, for example?

It is also possible to identify imported scientific metaphors operating at the heart of social science. For example, the shift from “structure” to “events” in physics is reflected in a similar shift in theoretical focus in sociology. There was a marked shift in structural and deterministic accounts of human behaviour and a move to study small scale interactions, social events, context bound interactions and situations, which can be linked with phenomenology. Behaviour was relativised by a multiplicity of contexts, which meant that more descriptive methodologies were employed.

A phenomenologist would ask open-ended questions, preferring interviews and the use of dialogue. Responses would be directed as little as possible, ensuring that the account given is a true and meaningful reflection of the direct experience of the person/social agent. This kind of research also reflects immediacy – the here and nowness of the social world, that has a full potential yet to be explored, rather than the positivist emphasis on a narrowing predictability and replicating results to try and determine their’ “accuracy.” It is also democratic and founded on notions of equality.

The person/agent has the centre stage and is the author of the research. Furthermore, phenomenologists have pointed out that sociologists are also embedded in everyday life and cannot therefore escape the shared norms, values and meanings of the life world they inhabit. Phenomenologists value valid accounts, rather than social “facts”, as it is not possible to be “objective” when one occupies a completely intersubjective realm of enquiry.

Miliband, of course, recognises this, he values authenticity, inclusion, equality, democracy and spontaneity over and above ideology. Cameron is completely driven by ideology. and the ghastly assumptions that Tory dogma entails.

Social existence is not one dimensional; it is complex, ambiguous, poorly defined, deceptive, fragmented, emotional and often unpredictable. It is animated by a plurality of perspectives. It is often based on what we take for granted – tacit knowledge – that which is self-evident that informs our intellectual constructions. A phenomenological approach can uncover those taken for granted underpinning assumptions – quintessentially cultural phenomena, in that these assumptions are what societies are built upon.

Miliband understands this. He acknowledges that human experiences are complex, multidimensional, inter and intrasubjective, and multipersonal, many layered events, where both “verifiable statement” and valid existential account each have an important place in our endlessly creative narratives, and of the endless possibilities of our being in a social universe of expansive potential. Cameron only reduces that potential. And he really has, in just four years.

In a sense, we’ve all been doing such qualitative research our whole life, and therefore have very much to contribute to a pluralist, socially democratic society. Miliband knows this, Cameron freely chooses not to. Cameron is an epistemological and ontological fascist: he predefines what we “know”, and what is “acceptable” as “knowledge”, and he predefines social reality, excluding its’ members accounts.

Max Weber’s principle of Verstehen  is a critical approach in all social sciences, and we can see the consequences of its absence in the cold, pseudo-positivist approach of the Coalition in the UK. Their policies clearly demonstrate that they lack the capacity to understand, or meaningfully “walk a mile in the shoes of another”. The Coalition treat the population of the UK as objects and not human subjects of their policies.

My own starting point is that regardless of any claim to value-freedom in political science, we cannot abdicate moral responsibility, and cannot justify moral indifference. We see this positive approach exemplified in our laws, human rights and democratic process. We are also seeing an erosion of this tendency to a globalisation of values, and inclusion of a recognition and account of the full range of human experiences in policy making. Indeed Tory policy has become an instrument of social exclusion and increasing minoritization.

We are being reduced to little more than economic statements here in the UK. We have a Government that tends to describe vulnerable social groups in terms of costs to the State, and responsibility is attributed to these social groups via media and State rhetoric, whilst those decision-makers actually responsible for the state of the economy have been exempted, legally and morally, and are hidden behind complex and diversionary scapegoating propaganda campaigns.

Sartre once said that oppressors oppress themselves as well as those they oppress. Freedom and autonomy are also reciprocal, and it’s only when we truly recognise our own liberty that we may necessarily acknowledge that of others. Conservatism has always been associated with a capacity to inhibit and control, and never liberate. We need to take responsibility for the Government that we have. In fact we must.

Miliband is offering us social democracy. The accusations of political “cross-dressing” from the fringes of the left are utter nonsense, hence the persistent right-wing media smear campaign. Miliband is offering us inclusivity, he speaks with an obvious decency and passion, and has consistently presented us with a  comprehensive and coherent narrative, if only we will listen.

Socialism for a Sceptical Age, by Ralph Miliband was about the continued relevance of socialism in a post-communist world. Ed Miliband has said that the final few sentences of this book are his favourites of all his father’s work:

In all the countries there are people in numbers large and small who are moved by the vision of a new social order in which democracy, egalitarianism and co-operation – the essential values of socialism – would be the prevailing values of social organization. It is in the growth of their numbers and in the success of their struggles that lies the best hope for mankind.”  

“Socialism is not a rigid economic doctrine, but ‘a set of values’ It is ‘a tale that never ends’. Indeed, the strange fact is that  while there’s capitalism, there’ll be socialism, because there is always a response to injustice.” Ed  Miliband. (Source)

He’s right.

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Thanks to Robert Livingstone for his brilliant pictorial truths

Defining features of Fascism and Authoritarianism

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I am a critical Marxist Phenomenologist when it comes to defining our “social reality”. In political terms, that roughly translates as a form of anarcho-socialism. Experience is evidence, which never happens in a neat and tidy “value neutral” way.  Existence is fact, which precedes essence. [Although I am not entirely epistemologically predisposed towards the notion of tabula rasa.]

Max Weber’s principle of Verstehen is a fundamentally critical approach in all social sciences, including politics, and we can see the consequences of its absence in the cold, pseudo-positivist approach of the Coalition in the UK. Their policies clearly demonstrate that they lack the capacity to understand, or meaningfully “walk a mile in the shoes of another”. The Coalition treat the population of the UK as objects of their policies and not as equal human subjects. They do not serve us or meet our needs, they think that we, the public, are here to serve political needs and economic outcomes.

My own starting point is that regardless of any claim towards the merits of value-freedom in any discussion about society, we cannot abdicate moral responsibility, and cannot justify moral indifference. We see values and principles enshrined in a positive approach, exemplified in our laws, human rights and democratic process. We are also seeing an erosion of this tendency towards a globalisation of values, and inclusion of a recognition and account of the full range of human experiences in policy making. Indeed recently, public policy has become an instrument of stigmatisation, social exclusion and increasing minoritization. 

As a society, we have allowed the state to redefine our collective, universal, relatively egalitarian and civilising support structures, such as social housing, legal aid, welfare and broader public services as being somehow problematic. Those who need support are stigmatised, scapegoated, outgrouped and othered. Yet the social gains of our post-war settlement were made to include everyone, should they fall on difficult times. We each pay into the provision, after all. These are civilising and civilised social mechanisms that ensure each citizen’s life has equal dignity and worth; that no-one dies prematurely because of absolute poverty or because they have no access to justice, medical care and housing. 

Our post-war settlement was the closest that we ever came to a genuine democracy, here in the UK. It arose because of the political consensus, partly founded on a necessity of the state to meet the social needs of the newly franchised working class. 

However, we are now being reduced in terms of human worth: dehumanised to become little more than economically productive actors, here in the UK. We have a Government that tends to describe protected vulnerable social groups in terms of costs to the State, regardless of their contributions to society, and responsibility is attributed to these social groups via scapegoating media and state rhetoric, whilst those decision-makers actually responsible for the state of the economy have been exempted, legally and morally, and are hidden behind complex and highly diversionary scapegoating propaganda campaigns.

Techniques of neutralisation are a series of methods by which those who commit illegitimate acts temporarily neutralise certain values within themselves which would normally prohibit them from carrying out such acts, such as morality, obligation to abide by the law, and so on. In simpler terms, these are psychological methods for people to turn off “inner protests” when they do, or are about to do something they themselves perceive as wrong. Some people don’t have such inner protests – psychopaths, for example, but they employ techniques of neutralisation to manipulate and switch off those conscience protests of others.

Language use can reflect attempts at minimising the impact of such wrongful acts. The Mafia don’t ever commit “murder”, for example, instead they “take someone out”, “whack them” or “give someone their medicine”. But the victim ends up dead, no matter what people choose to call it. Examining discourses and underpinning ideologies is useful as a predictive tool, as it provides very important clues to often hidden political attitudes and intentions – clues to social conditions and unfolding events. Linguistic habits are frequently important symptoms of underlying feelings and attitudes.

We know that benefits, for example, are calculated to meet basic living requirements only such as food, fuel and shelter needs. To take away that basic support is devastating for those people having to struggle for basic survival. The Labour Party recently managed to secure concessions that ensured that the right of appeal for those sanctioned is maintained. Iain Duncan Smith wanted to remove that right. But appeals take months to happen, and meanwhile people are left suffering as a result of having no money to live on.

Sanctions are not “help” for jobseekers; sanctions are state punishment and persecution. It doesn’t matter how hard you look for work when you are one of 2,500,000 unemployed people and there are only 400,000 jobs available. If we want to help people into work we need to create decent paying and secure jobs, rather than  punishing individuals for being out of work during the worst recession for over 100 years.

In a similar way, the Tories attempt to to distort meanings, to minimise the impact of what they are doing. For example, when they habitually use  the word “reform”, what they are referring to is an act that entails “removal of income” and “cuts”, and “incentivise”, “help” and “support”: Tory-speak that means to “punish and take from”. Targets for such punishment and cuts are translated as Tory “statistical norms” or “not targets but aspirations” and “robust expectations of performance”.

The “help” and “incentivisation” that the Tory-led Coalition have provided for jobseekers in the recession, at a time when quality jobs are scarce, secure and stable full-time work is also scarce, are entirely class contingent and punitive. Decent jobs that pay enough to get by on are like …well…Tory statistics; conjured from the aether, a very cheap trick – an illusion. We know that unemployment and underemployment are rising.

Sartre once said that oppressors oppress themselves as well as those they oppress. Freedom and autonomy are also reciprocal, and it’s only when we truly recognise our own liberty that we may necessarily acknowledge that of others. Conservatism has always been associated with a capacity to inhibit and control, and never liberate. We need to take responsibility for the Government that we have. In fact we must.

Fascism evolves over a period of time. No-one ever woke up one morning to find it had suddenly happened overnight. It’s an ongoing process just like Nazism was. Identifying traits is therefore useful. Fascism and totalitarianism advance by almost inscrutable degrees. If you really think it could never happen here, you haven’t been paying attention this past six years to the undemocratic law repeals and quiet edits – especially laws that protect citizens from state abuse – the muzzling of the trade unions, the corporocratic dominance and rampant cronysism, the human rights abuses, the media control and othering narratives, the current of anti-intellectualism and other blows to our democracy.

Dr. Lawrence Britt examined the fascist regimes of Hitler (Germany), Mussolini (Italy), Franco (Spain), Suharto (Indonesia) and several Latin American regimes. Britt found 14 defining characteristics common to each, and it is difficult to overlook some of the parallels with the characteristics of the authoritarian government here in the UK:

1. Powerful and continuing Nationalism – fascist regimes tend to make constant use of patriotic mottos, slogans, symbols, songs, and other paraphernalia. Flags are seen everywhere, as are flag symbols on clothing and in public displays.

2. Disdain for any recognition of Human Rights – because of fear of “enemies” and the need for “security”, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The public tend to become apathetic, or look the other way, some even approve of persecution, torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners and so forth.

3. Identification of enemies and scapegoats used as a unifying cause – the public are rallied into a unifying patriotic frenzy over the need to eliminate a perceived common threat or foe: social groups; racial, ethnic or religious minorities; liberals; communists; socialists, terrorists and so forth.

4. Supremacy of the Military – even when there are widespread domestic problems, the military is given a disproportionate amount of government funding, and the domestic agenda is neglected. Soldiers and military service are glamorised.

5. Rampant sexism – The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Divorce, abortion and homosexuality are suppressed and the state is represented as the ultimate guardian of the family institution. Policies emphasise traditional and rigid roles.

6. Controlled mass media – the media is directly controlled by the government, but in other cases, the media is indirectly controlled by government regulation, or sympathetic media spokespeople and executives. Censorship is very common.

7. Obsession with “National Security” and protecting “borders”- fear is used as a motivational tool by the government over the masses.

8. Religion and Government are intertwined – governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion of the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions.

9. Corporate Power is protected – The industrial and business aristocracy of a fascist nation often are the ones who put the government leaders into power, creating a mutually beneficial business/government relationship and power elite.

10. Labour power is suppressed – because the organising power of labour is the only real threat to a fascist government, labour unions are either eliminated entirely, or are severely suppressed.

11. Disdain for intellectuals and the Arts – fascist nations tend to promote and tolerate open hostility to higher education, and academia. It is not uncommon for professors and other academics to be censored or even arrested. Free expression in the arts and letters is openly attacked.

12. Obsession with Crime and Punishment – under fascist regimes, the police are given almost limitless power to enforce laws. The people are often willing to overlook police abuses and even forego civil liberties in the name of patriotism. There is often a national police force with virtually unlimited power in fascist nations.

13. Rampant cronyism and corruption – fascist regimes almost always are governed by groups of friends and associates who appoint each other to government positions and use governmental power and authority to protect their friends from accountability. It is not uncommon in fascist regimes for national resources and even treasures to be appropriated or even outright stolen by government leaders.

14. Fraudulent elections – sometimes elections in fascist nations are a complete sham. Other times elections are manipulated by smear  and propaganda campaigns, and even assassination of opposition candidates has been used, use of legislation to control voting numbers or political district boundaries, and manipulation of the media. Fascist nations also typically use their judiciaries to manipulate or control elections.

All fascist governments are authoritarian, but not all authoritarian governments are fascists. Fascism tends to arise with manifested forms of ultra-nationalism. Authoritarianism is anti-democratic.

Authoritarian legitimacy is often based on emotional appeal, especially the identification of the regime as a “necessary evil” to combat easily recognisable societal problems, such as economic crises.

Authoritarian regimes commonly emerge in times of political, economic, or social instability, and because of this, especially during the initial period of authoritarian rule, such Governments may have broad public support. Many won’t immediately recognise authoritarianism, especially in formerly liberal and democratic countries.

In the UK, there has been an incremental process of un-democratising, permeated by a wide variety of deliberative practices which have added to the problem of recognising it for what it is.

Authoritarians typically prefer and encourage a population to be apathetic about politics, with no desire to participate in the political process. Authoritarian Governments often work via propaganda techniques to cultivate such public attitudes, by fostering a sense of a deep divide between social groups, society and Government, they tend to generate prejudice between social groups, and repress expressions of dissent, using media control, law amendments or by quietly editing existing laws.

There is a process of gradual habituation of the public to being governed by shock and surprise; to receiving decisions and policies deliberated and passed in secret; to being persuaded that the justification for such deeds was based on real evidence that the government parades in the form of propaganda. It happens incrementally. Many don’t notice the calculated step-by-step changes, but those that do are often overwhelmed with the sheer volume of them.

Authoritarians view the rights of the individual, (including those considered to be human rights by the international community), as subject to the needs of the Government. Of course in democracies, Governments 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 critical. Façade democracy occurs when liberalisation measures are kept under tight rein by elites who fail to generate political inclusion. See Corporate power has turned Britain into a corrupt state  and also Huge gap between rich and poor in Britain is the same as Nigeria and worse than Ethiopia, UN report reveals.

Some of the listed criteria are evident now. I predict that other criteria will gain clarity over the next couple of years.

“One doesn’t see exactly where or how to move. Believe me, this is true. Each act, each occasion, is worse than the last, but only a little worse. You wait for the next and the next. You wait for the one great shocking occasion, thinking that others, when such a shock comes, will join with you in resisting somehow. You don’t want to act, or even to talk, alone; you don’t want to “go out of your way to make trouble.” Why not? – Well, you are not in the habit of doing it. And it is not just fear, fear of standing alone, that restrains you; it is also genuine uncertainty.

“Uncertainty is a very important factor, and, instead of decreasing as time goes on, it grows. Outside, in the streets, in the general community, “everyone is happy. One hears no protest, and certainly sees none. You know, in France or Italy there will be slogans against the government painted on walls and fences; in Germany, outside the great cities, perhaps, there is not even this.

In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, “It’s not so bad” or “You’re seeing things” or “You’re an alarmist.” “And you are an alarmist”. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end? On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. You are left with your close friends, who are, naturally, people who have always thought as you have.” –  Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free.

Citizens feel increasingly powerless to shape the political institutions that are meant to reflect their interests. Politicians must relearn how to speak to disenfranchised citizens in an inclusive, meaningful way, to show that dysfunctional democracies can be mended. Directing collective fear, frustration and cultivating hatred during times of economic turbulence at politically constructed scapegoats – including society’s protected groups which are historically most vulnerable to political abuse – has never been a constructive and positive way forward. As Gordon Allport highlighted, political othering leads to increasing prejudice, exclusion, social division, discrimination, hatred and if this process is left to unfold, it escalates to hate crime, violence and ultimately, to genocide.

Othering and outgrouping are politically weaponised and strategic inhumanities designed to misdirect and convince populations suffering the consequences of intentionally targeted austerity, deteriorating standards of living and economic instability – all of  which arose because of the actions of a ruling financial class – that the “real enemy is “out there”, that there is an “us” that must be protected from “them.”

In the UK, democracy more generally is very clearly being deliberately and steadily eroded. And worse, much of the public has disengaged from participatory democratic processes.

It’s time to be very worried.

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 Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

Further reading

“We must keep alert, so that the sense of these words will not be forgotten again. Ur-Fascism is still around us, sometimes in plainclothes. It would be so much easier, for us, if there appeared on the world scene somebody saying, “I want to reopen Auschwitz, I want the Black Shirts to parade again in the Italian squares.” Life is not that simple. Ur-Fascism can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world. Franklin Roosevelt’s words of November 4, 1938, are worth recalling: “I venture the challenging statement that if American democracy ceases to move forward as a living force, seeking day and night by peaceful means to better the lot of our citizens, fascism will grow in strength in our land.” Freedom and liberation are an unending task.” Umberto Eco, in Ur-Fascism


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