Tag: Euphemism

Dishonest ways of being dishonest: an exploration of Conservative euphemisms

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Conservatives are especially conservative with the truth: the media are the message

In 2004, George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at Berkeley, wrote Don’t Think of an Elephant! Lakoff’s central point was that how issues are framed – which points of view the media and other political agenda setters defined as important and acceptable, and the language used to do so – largely shapes how voters think about them. 

Media manipulation involves a series of related techniques in which partisans create images or arguments that favour their own particular interests. Such tactics may include the use of logical fallacies, psychological manipulations, deception, linguistic, rhetorical and propaganda techniques, and often involve the suppression of information or alternative perspectives by simply crowding them out.  

Discrediting and minimisation are often used in persuading other people or social groups to stop listening to certain perspectives and arguments, or by simply diverting public attention elsewhere. An example of diversion is the recent widespread scapegoating of refugees and people who need social security, such as disabled people or those who have lost their jobs, in a bid to maintain the hegemony of neoliberalism and its values at a time when its failings were brought into sharp focus during and following the global crisis – also exposing failings in the behaviours and practices of the government and the vulture capitalist financier class.

Neoliberalism always gravitates towards increasing inequality, extending and deepening poverty. Fear mongering is sometimes used with a diversion or misdirection propaganda technique to mask this, and may be pervasive. Sometimes politicians and media commentators suddenly take a debate in a weird and irrational but predictable direction to avoid democratic accountability.

The process often begins with a marginalised group being singled out and held to blame for the socioeconomic problems created by the system of socioeconomic organisation itself. Using the construction of folk devils (welfare “skivers” , “workshy” “something for nothing culture”, “culture of entitlement” or “dependency” for example), the political class and media generate moral panic and outrage, which serves to de-empathise the public and to justify the dehumanisation of politically created outgroups.

Stigma, prejudice and discrimination follow, all of which serves to subvert responsibility for the harmful consequences and distress experienced by the targeted group. In the UK, people needing welfare support, and particularly disabled people, have been stigmatised and then targeted with discriminatory policies which have placed a disproportionate burden of austerity – cuts to lifeline support and services – on that social group. The policies have also contravened disabled people’s human rights.

Meanwhile, the vulture capitalist financier class are still being rewarded, profiting from often reckless, economic and socially damaging behaviours. Of course it’s business as usual for this group, regardless of the pressing need for behavioural change and an increased responsibility-taking mindset among them. After all, it is this group that have caused most damage to our economy, and on a global scale.

The media and the government conflate neoliberal authoritarian behaviours, and policies that cause distress and harm to marginalised social groups, with “power and strength”, and any opposition to this with “weakness”.

Campaigners against social injustice are labeled “extremist” and politicians on the left who stand up against prejudice and discrimination are labeled “weak”, “anti-British” and extensively ridiculed and smeared. Every single Labour leader, with the exception of Blair, has had this treatment from the mainstream media.

During the coalition and Conservative governments, the tabloids have chosen and framed most of the debates that have dominated domestic politics in the UK, ensuring that immigration, welfare, law and order, the role of the state, and Britain’s relationship with Europe have all been discussed in increasingly right wing terms, while almost ironically, the government have colonised progressive rhetoric to cover their intentions.

There is therefore a growing chasm between Conservative discourse, and policy intentions and outcomes. There isn’t a bridge between rhetoric and reality. 

The Conservatives have plundered from left wing narrative purely to broaden their superficial appeal and to neutralise opposition to controversial and contentious policy. The legislative context in which such language is being used is completely at odds with how it is being described by purposefully stolen terms and phrases which are being applied most deceitfully.

The negative associations because of Conservative policies have eclipsed the original meanings of the imported language. I always flinch when a Conservative minister says that the government is intending to “support” disabled people into work, or that they want to make welfare “fair” and they support “social justice”,  for example. These words are used in a context of coercive and punitive policy measures.

It’s very disorienting and disarming to see the language of social justice, democracy, inclusion and equality being used to justify and describe policies which extend social injustice, authoritarianism, exclusion and inequality. It’s also much more difficult to challenge actions that are disguised by a tactic of extensive euphemising, that draws on glittering generalities and the narrative of the opposition (the left generally).

Only a Conservative minister would claim that taking money from the lifeline support of sick and disabled people is somehow “fair,” or about “helping”, “supporting” or insultingly, “incentivising” people who have already been deemed unfit for work by their doctors and the state via the work capability assessment, to work.

The Tories all too frequently employ such semantic shifts and euphemism – linguistic strategies – as an integral part of a wider range of techniques of neutralisation that are used, for example, to provide linguistic relief from conscience and to suspend moral constraint – to silence both “inner protest” and public objections – to the political violation of social and moral norms and human rights; to justify acts that cause harm to others while also denying there is any subsequent harm being inflicted by austerity policies; to deny the targeted population’s accounts and experiences of political acts of harm, and to neutralise any remorse felt by themselves and other witnesses.

Media discourse has often preempted a fresh round of Conservative austerity cuts, resulting in the identification, scapegoating and marginalisation of social groups in advance of targeted, discriminatory policies. Media discourse is being used as a vehicle for the government to push their ideological agenda forward without meeting legitimate criticism, opposition and public scrutiny and without due regard for essential democratic processes and safeguards. The mainstream media will not challenge or undermine the wider state-corporate nexus of which it is a fundamental part.

Noam Chomsky has written extensively about the role of the free market media in reinforcing dominant ideology and maintaining the unequal distribution and balance of power. In Manufacturing Consent, Chomsky and Herman explore the media’s role in establishing the apparence of a political and economic orthodoxy (neoliberalism) and extending a seemingly normative compliance with state policies, while also marginalising antithetical or alternative perspectives, dismissing them as heresy. In the US and UK, most left wing commentors have a very diminished media platform from which to present their perspectives and policy proposals.

This “free-market” version of censorship is more subtle and difficult to identify, challenge and undermine than the equivalent propaganda system which was present in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. 

As Chomsky argues, the mainstream press is corporate owned and so reflects corporate priorities and interests. While acknowledging that some journalists are dedicated and well-intentioned, he says that the choice of topics and issues featured in the mass media, the unquestioned premises on which that “coverage” rests, and the range of opinions that are expressed are all constrained to reinforce the state’s dominant ideology.

How to tell lies dishonestly

Propaganda, PR, spin, manipulation, and techniques of neutralisation (a kind of doublespeak aimed at “switching off” your inner conscience, remorse and morality, and that of witnesses, so you can do things normally considered unacceptable, immoral or plain evil), are indirect or convoluted ways of telling lies. These techniques are very sneaky, often providing “get outs”. As such, the tactics are dishonest ways of being dishonest. While often providing a cover or superficial style of “truth”, the underlying content is always a big lie.

Not “a series of possibilities” or a “terminological inexactitude,” or “a series of misunderstandings” or “an unwise commitment”, but a lie. 

Even the labels “fake news”, “post rationalism” and “post truth” are euphemisms. We live in an age of great political deceit and lies, and an ineffectual, trivial lexicon to describe it.

That’s intentional, manipulative whopping whopper political lies.

The Conservatives have developed a notorious lexicon of euphemisms, especially designed to divert challenges and debate, to hide their aims and intentions and to reduce opposition, in order to manufacture an illusion of consensus, consistent with old school diversionary and bandwaggon propaganda methods.

Winston Churchill came up with the crafty phrase “terminological inexactitude,” which means being conservative with the truth (see what I did there), or to be more direct, it means telling lies. There are indirect ways of lying – less honest ways of being intentionally dishonest, if you will.

Euphemisms are often a form of doublespeak; they are words used to hide, distort or “neutralise” reality.  Euphemisms put political intentions, actions and their consequences in a better light, in much the same way that the mafia employs language to minimise the consequences of their actions. No-one is ever murdered by the mafia, to hear them talk, instead they are simply “given their medicine” , “clipped” or “wacked”, for example. However you say it, people still end up dead, unfortunately. The mafia say that disposing of the bodies of their murder victims is “spring cleaning”.

A credibility assessment of Tory narrating and editing: the sin in the spin exposed

1. “Reforms” = The stealthy privatisation of public wealth. Conservative “reforms” entail cuts to social provisions and public services – paid for by everyone – which support the poorest citizens when they experience hardship. The money is then re-allocated to the wealthiest citizens via generous tax cuts and lower business tax  rates which effectively privatises wealth and profit, while making any risks and costs a social burden.

2. “Targeting those in greatest need” = savage and increasing cuts to social security provision, and in particular, to disabled people’s lifeline support. No-one actually qualifies for support, any more. However, a handful may get a favorable outcome when assessors flip a coin to decide which of the very ill people they meet and put through the mill are lucky enough to meet their target of permitting around six successful claims per year. From 2017, the target will reduce again to three. By 2020, no-one will “need” disability benefits and support, as we will all be cured by work fare and CBT.

Ultimately, this entails a constant moving goalpost of eligibility to publicly funded support. The government reduces the numbers of those previously entitled to welfare by constant, changing and unstated political redefinition of “need”, while implying to the public that welfare and those who need it are dispensable.

3. “Making work pay” = dismantling social security by stealth and driving down wages, ensuring that private companies profit.

4. “National living wage” = small and pitiful increase in minimum wage that does not offset welfare cuts (Universal Credit, benefit cap, reduced eligibility criteria for disability benefits) and other losses, such as job insecurity, poor working conditions, zero hour contracts.

5. “Supporting/helping people into work” = extremely punitive measures of behavioural conditionality and financial sanctions that hinder people in finding appropriate work, aimed at cutting social security spending and presenting lifeline benefits as dispensable to the public, whilst coercing people to behave in ways that benefit the state and that do not benefit those citizens being manipulated and coerced to fulfil the aims of the policy makers.

2, 3, 4 and 5 also undermine collective bargaining, since people are being coerced to take any work available, rather than suitable, secure work with acceptable pay and working conditions. This puts a downward pressure on wages.

6.  “Worklessness” = a made up word that disguises job precarity, unemployment and underemployment, because of government, economic and labour market failure, followed by political scapegoating and widespread, brutal cultural bullying of the poorest citizens.

7. “Extremists”= peaceful campaigners who object to social injustice, anyone else who doesn’t support the neoliberal status quo, authoritarianism, inequality, growing poverty and human rights abuses.

8. “Hard working strivers” = compliant and exploited citizens whose consumerism and systematic oppression keeps Tory donor big businesses in profit. As an imposed ideal, the work ethic also props up injustices like work fare, political scapegoating and prejudice directed at people who lose their jobs and need social security.

9. “Democracy” = authoritarianism, so that means it’s whatever the Tories say it is.

It entails policies which engineer a set of changes with huge distributional consequences: tax credit and benefit cuts will mean low-income working families with children will become significantly worse off, while wealthier families stand to gain a lot as a result of increases in the personal allowance and higher rate tax threshold, for example. 

Recent analysis by the Resolution Foundation shows four fifths of the gains from income tax cuts go to the most affluent half of households, while the poorest third of households will shoulder two-thirds of the government’s benefit cuts. This is an extraordinary indictment on a government that claims to have “fairness” and “social justice” at its heart.

10. “Progressive”= extremely regressive, almost feudal.

11. “Behavioural change”= to separate citizens from the prospects of material progress and to condition them to accept both the status quo and the short straw of neoliberal ” market forces”, cunningly disguised as invisible bootstraps.

12. “Policy” = a method of siphoning money from the poorest citizens and public services into corporate and millionaires’ bank accounts, while punishing the poorest citizens as they are robbed, by telling all and sundry it’s their own fault that they are poor. Usually involves an element of character divination and quack “cures” for “faulty” people. Often justified by an implied “trickle down” of wealth.

Neoliberal policies require a political framework of authoritarianism as they don’t benefit most people, and strip our public assets. A lot of neoliberalism is about governments kidding people that neoliberalism doesn’t cause massive inequalities, poverty, and the removal of publicly funded social support mechanisms.

While the state shrinks radically in terms of what it provides for ordinary people to meet their needs, it paradoxically develops a massive and increasingly bureaucratic order to deceive ordinary people and to impose an authoritarian rule and control citizen perceptions and behaviours, allowing the government to keep on imposing ruthless scorched earth neoliberal policies so that a few very, very wealthy folk can get even wealthier whilst everyone else becomes increasingly miserable and struggles in meeting their basic survival needs.

13.  “Supply side economics” = founded on the mythical “trickle down” and the side-splittingly comedic idea that reducing taxes for the wealthiest will increase Treasury revenue. Usually, it’s hiked VAT and another raid on disabled people’s lifeline support that does that.

The economist John Kenneth Galbraith wrote, “Mr. David Stockman has said that supply-side economics was merely a cover for the trickle-down approach to economic policy – what an older and less elegant generation called the horse-and-sparrow theory: If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.” This basically means the majority of the population are fed a pile of horsesh*t.

14. “Free market”= economic Darwinism, the triumph of rogue multinationals and predatory capitalism, which brings about the commodification of every single basic human need so a few corporations can make sustained, massive profits, while everyone else is dispossessed by the government. 

15. “Big society” = oppressive bureaucratic state that is enforcing the systematic dismantling of the social gains we made with our post-war settlement. It also means privatisation and cutting public services down to Victorian size, but excluding the gin houses. So, in a nutshell, no support but lots of authoritarian surveilance, control and punishment from the government, who continue to spend the public’s taxes on funding tax cuts to millionaires, reducing corporate tax, letting big companies off from their obligations, bailing out banks that cause global recessions and subsidising those hard done by big businesses. 

16. “Work experience” = free labour, exploitation opportunities and big profits for the government’s corporate sponsors. Also part of a wider plan to dismantle welfare and to undermine trade unions and collective bargaining.

17. “The law” = whatever the Tories say it is. If they don’t like it, they simply ignore or re-write it.

18. “Cutting the deficit” = it means to probably more than double it, but it’s also a smokescreen for a strong neoliberal programme of austerity and redistributing public wealth into a few private bank accounts, mostly offshore.

19. “Fair” = whatever the Tories say it is. Usually, Conservative “fairness” entails taking money from the poorest citizens, raiding public funds and handing it out to very wealthy people and providing rogue companies with contracts to help them do so.

Ethically bankrupt companies such as Atos, G4S and Maximus also generally cost the public billions more than they promise to save.

20. “Social justice” = rather like Augusto Pinochet’s bureaucratic authoritarianism: huge and growing social inequality, absolute poverty and harsh financial penalties for many people, such as those who are economically inactive because they are too ill to work, and those who have exploitative employers paying them a pittance. Sanctions and welfare conditionality are held to be “fair” and about Conservative “social justice”.

Low taxes for stingy and disproportionately resentful millionaires, who have gained the most from society but don’t feel like giving anything back, is also considered by the Conservatives as “social justice”. Poor and disabled people experiencing harm, distress and dying because of the Conservative austerity cuts is also included in this definition, as are aggressive government denials of “causal links” between blatantly draconian policies and any human suffering whatsoever. Apparently punitive policy that imposes starvation and destitution on the poorest people is in their best interest.

21. “Causal relationship/cause and effect” = whatever the Tories say it is. Anything that challenges Conservative discourse is generally dismissed as “anecdotal”. However the government make up statistics to “empirically support” their own anecdotal narrative and dogma.

22. “Small state”= massively bureaucratic administration aimed at incredibly intrusive and controlling state interventions in the intimate areas of our lives, such as decision-making, attitudes, beliefs and behaviours. These technocratic interventions inevitably reduce the autonomy and remove the liberties of the poorest citizens, whilst those in positions of power, making the decisions, are not held accountable for the consequences of their abysmal, callous and usually very greedy choices.

The Behavioural Insights Team, at the heart of the Cabinet, are contributing to formulating policies to save the government money and to make a lot of profit from that. Their aim is to distract the public and “change the behaviours” of mostly poor citizens, providing both a prop and justification for failing neoliberal policies which result in widespread poverty, precarity and massive social inequalities. Welfare conditionality and sanctions, for example, are forms of punitive behavioural “correction” for the assumed character deficits and “faulty” psychology of people who are not wealthy. It seems the government think with impeccable logic that people can be punished out of being poor, by making them more poor in order to stop them being poor.

Meanwhile those who damaged the economy are left to continue making hefty profits from economy-damaging behaviours, because the government decided to make poor people pay for those “mistakes” via austerity measures instead. The behaviour change agenda sends out the message that it is individuals who somehow “choose” to be poor (yes, really), rather than poverty being an inevitable feature of an economic system that is weighted towards rewarding wealthy citizens while increasingly dispossessing the majority of ordinary citizens.

23. “We are all in it together” = it’s everyone for themselves, unless you are poor. The wealthy get socialism and special handshakes, the poor get laissez faire, the work ethic via operant conditioning, Samuel Smiles’ Victorian moralising bibles: Thrift and Self help, and a liberal dose of Malthusian miserablism.

24. “British values” = extremely divided society with a high level of social prejudice, inequality, absolute poverty and human rights abuses.

Used to redefine working class interests by the establishment, designed as a pressure cooker type of diversionary release for oppressed blue-collar workers, by offering them one “opportunity” to democratically register their alienation, anger and fear because of deteriorating social conditions and political disenfranchisement, via the populist Brexit campaign, while maintaining neoliberal hegemony and ensuring an ever-downward pressure on labour conditions, wages and collective bargaining.

25. “Integrated healthcare” = a combination of savage cuts, homeopathy, cognitive behavioural therapy, “pulling yourself together” and being told that “work is a health outcome” a lot. It’s failure precedes and contributes to justifying privatisation.

26. “Truthfully” = I want you to think I am being honest, but I am not. It’s a delivery style rather than being about actual truth content.

27. “Objectively”= the status quo; ideologically driven, more dogma to follow. Anti-intellectualism.

28. “Safe in our hands” = we fully intend to privatise all public services to make profit for big business and ourselves.

29. “Work is a health outcome” = the creation of an opportunity for big business to exploit sick and disabled people by politically coercing them into low paid, insecure work via punitive policies (euphemistically called “welfare conditionality”), and to build a desperate reserve army of labour, thus driving wages down further whilst simultaneously dismantling the welfare state and the NHS.

30. “Transparency” = corruption and authoritarianism.

euphemisms
Picture courtesy of Tom Pride.


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

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

Normalising state punishment 

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

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

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

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

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

Context

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Restricting choices to “choice”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The theory tells you what you may observe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

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

Cases of malnutrition continue to soar in the UK

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


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