Tag: Folk devils

What I don’t understand about Conservatism

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I don’t understand Conservatism or the lack of rationale of its supporters.

As an ideology, it lacks coherence and scope. Conservative policies lack an empirical evidence base.

It doesn’t take very much critical scrutiny to understand that it is purely ideology (as opposed to socioeconomic needs) and traditional class-based prejudices and moralising that drive Tory legislation. Conservative rhetoric seems so random and inconsistent to me. We have an extremely regressive and authoritarian government with something of a feudal vision, that clearly has no problem with disregarding and contravening the human rights of some social groups – especially those groups that are deemed “protected”.

The Conservatives have no problem dismantling the progressive social gains of our post-war settlement (for example, legal aid, social housing, the NHS, the welfare state). The same government wants to bring back the ancient and barbaric ritual of fox hunting, yet it has the cheek to claim its opposition will “take us back to the seventies”.  Mind you, they say that about every Labour leader at every general election.

I was recently chatting with a political social psychologist about my lack of understanding about the Conservative’s profoundly antisocial and antidemocatic worldview. He told me that Conservatives have a very different moral worldview to those on the left, based on authority and discipline, (which is why they always tend towards a punitive authoritarianism in power) that lacks the notion of human dignity. As such, they are likely to experience a lower “disgust” response to human rights abuses.

There is a continuing debate on whether cognitive or emotional mechanisms underlie moral judgments, or whether emotional mechanisms actually shape cognitive ones. Recent studies have illustrated that emotions – particularly disgust – play a prominent role in moral reasoning. It seems to have a particularly strong influence on our judgments in the social andpolitical domains, too. We can feel disgust for immoral actions, for people, or for entire social groups. 

Presenting some social groups as “disgusting” by the creation of stereotypes and the use of stigmatising rhetoric can also be used intentionally to create social divisions by manipulating social prejudices. Others find the political act of dehumanising others disgusting. 

Social stigma messages bear certain recognisable attributes: they provide cues to categorize and distinguish people, and to demarcated groups as a discrete social entity; they imply a responsibility and blame for receiving placement within this demarcated outgroup and an associated “moral peril”, and this distinguished group is then associated to physical, social and economic peril.

Stigma messages evoke a variety of emotions – fear, anger and disgust – that motivate people to adopt relevant or related social attitudes. Stigma attitudes encourage the sharing of stigma messages with others in a network, which may, subsequently, bond ingroup members whilst further alienating the outgroup.

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Media portrayals of disabled people that preempted public sympathy for those most affected by the punitive Conservative welfare “reforms” – a Conservative euphemism for disproportionately targeted and devastating austerity cuts. Political rhetoric framed the cuts in terms of “incentives” to “encourage” sick and disabled people into work, implying that they are simply “workshy” rather than unable to work, and making out that they are an economic burden on “the tax payer”.

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My own observations are that Conservatives are rather more moralising than moral. They create folk devils, and use the media to generate public disgust and disdain to fuel moral panics and maintain  social outgroups. You can always predict where the next round of austerity cuts will be targeted by the group that is being demonised in the media, and by the othering rhetoric of ministers – usually it’s a variation on the “scrounger/striver” dichotomy and the “burden on the tax payer” narrative. 

The Conservatives also reconstruct the world hierarchically – Conservative policies quite clearly generate and sustain inequality. I don’t understand why anyone would think that some lives are more important and worth more than others, but Conservatives really do.

Conservatives also have a strong need to keep a tight control of the world around them, they seem to fear change and make sense of social reality via taxonomies, categories and counts. As a defense mechanism, it’s really rather anally retentive.

They think that inequality is the “natural order” of things, based on notions of “deserving” and “undeserving”, so inevitably, they think some people’s lives are worth less than others. They don’t seperate wealth, power and status from rights, unfortunately, and miss the whole point of universal human rights frameworks. For the New Right neoliberals, the only rights that matter are property rights and the liberty to compete for resources and wealth. However, human rights are all about holding the wealthy and powerful to account, to prevent abuses of power.

Surely any government that has such a blatant disregard for the rights of some citizens is a serious cause for concern in a wealthy, so-called first world democracy. Democracy by its very nature is, after all, supposed to be inclusive.

You can discern a lot about people by looking at their attitude and behaviour towards animals, because that indicates how they will regard and treat people with little power. Killing animals for “sport” is something I find loathsome and abhorrent. I don’t understand why anyone would or could be so cruel.

The Dark Triad

Inflicting acts of intentional animal torture and cruelty is quite often associated with antisocial personality disorders. In particular, it is associated with a triad of specific characteristics of personality – Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy (the malevolent Dark Triad). A 2013 study carried out by Dr. Phillip Kavanagh and his colleagues examined the relationship between the three Dark Triad personality traits and attitudes towards animal abuse and self-reported acts of animal cruelty. The study found that the psychopathy trait especially was related to intentionally hurting or torturing animals, and was also a composite measure of all three Dark Triad traits.

So how does animal cruelty link with how a person regards and treats other people?

I’m not going to argue here that all Conservatives are psychopaths. However, I am going to explore values, behaviours, traits, attitudes and worldviews using a framework of psychology.

So, what makes a Conservative a Conservative?

Some researchers have linked personality traits with political ideology. For example, Robert (Bob) Altemeyer’s right wing authoritarianism (RWA) construct emphasises submission, obedience, conventionalism, and aggression as a result of social learning (Altemeyer, 1998), conformist personality, and danger-themed worldviews. 

An additional authoritarian variable, social dominance orientation (SDO; Pratto, Sidanius, Stallworth, & Malle, 1994), found endorsement of intergroup hierarchies and inequalities resulting from a “tough-minded personality” that prefers inequality among social groups, lacks empathy and holds competitive, individualist worldviews (Duckitt, 2005). 

Social Dominance Orientation (SDO) is negatively correlated with empathy, tolerance, communality, and altruism. As I said, Consevatives tend to be quite antisocial.

Some people much prefer wide social inequalities. SDO is conceptualised as a measure of individual differences in levels of group-based discrimination; that is, it is a measure of a person’s preference for status-ranking and hierarchy within society and domination over what are perceived as lower-status outgroups. And animals, whose lives are seen as unimportant and disposable.

See Mass contempt for cruel, unscientific badger culling ignored and:


So Conservatives tend to show a predisposition toward anti-egalitarianism within and between social groups. High scores of SDO predict stereotyping, discrimination and prejudice. SDO also correlates with forms of right wing authoritarianism.

These characteristics and differences may be framed in a theory of basic human values.  

Emotional disgust plays an important role in our ethical outlook more generally. We find certain types of unethical actions disgusting, and this operates to keep us from engaging in them and makes us express disapproval of them. But according to research, psychopaths have extremely high thresholds for disgust. Of course, psychopaths fail to recognise even the most universal social obligations and norms.

Much of the way people make sense of the world is through emotion. It informs our “gut” decisions, it forges and sustains our connections to people and places, our sense of belonging and purpose. It is almost impossible to imagine life without feelings – until you come across a psychopath.

However, psychopaths often cover up their emotional coldness and moral deficit with an above average level of ever-ready charisma and engaging charm. That’s how psychopaths gain power over others and manipulate them ruthlessly, as a means to their own ends. They have a glib and superficial, but usually plausible and cunning charm that obscures their lack of empathy, principles and remorse.  

Psychopaths don’t tend to be socially awkward. They are often of better-than-average intelligence. They do not express true remorse, genuine emotion or a desire to change. Though they are often experts at telling people what they want to hear. 

Social dominance orientation is a personality trait which predicts social and political attitudes, and is a widely used social psychological scale. SDO as a measurable individual difference arose from social dominance theory. Individuals who score high in SDO desire to maintain and, in many cases, increase the differences between social statuses of different groups, as well as individual group members. Typically, they are controlling, manipulative, competitive, aggressive, dominating, tough, and unempathic, uncaring power-seekers.

People scoring high in SDO also prefer strongly hierarchical group orientations. Often, people who score high in SDO have strongly held beliefs in forms of social Darwinism. It has also been found that men are generally higher than women in SDO measures.

Studies have found that SDO has a strong positive relationship with authoritarian, sexist and racist beliefs. With right wing authoritarianism (RWA), it contributes to different forms of prejudice; SDO correlates to higher prejudice against socioeconomically disadvantaged groups, RWA correlates to higher prejudice against threatening groups, while both are associated with increases in prejudice for “dissident” groups. 

SDO is linked with callous affect (which is to be found on the psychopathy sub-scale) – the “polar opposite” of empathy. Research also strongly suggests that those scoring high on SDO proactively avoid scenarios that could prompt them to be more empathetic or tender-minded. This avoidance also decreases concern for the welfare of others.  

SDO also has a direct effect on generalized prejudice, as lack of empathy makes one unable to put oneself in another other person’s shoes, which is also a predictor of prejudice and antidemocratic views. Extensive research has provided evidence that a high social dominance orientation is strongly correlated with Conservative political views, and opposition to policy programmes and policies that aim to promote equality. SDO is also positively and significantly correlated with Dark Triad variables. 

Narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy correlated with immigrant threat perceptions and increased prejudice. 

I have a theory that while psychopaths simply lack the capacity for empathy, and can’t learn it, empaths can become desensitised, and unlearn concern for the welfare of others – they can be switched off. Research also suggests this is true. Democratic societies tend to be lower in SDO measures. That’s genuinely democratic societies, which requires the inclusion of all social groups, not just politically defined ingroups. 

Political interventions can shift compassionate left wing people temporarily to the political right. And notably, none of them seem to have anything substantive to do with policy, or with the widely understood political and ideological differences between the left and right. 

Here is a list of five things that can switch off left wing liberals, courtesy of Chris Mooney, an American science and political journalist: 

Distraction. Several studies have shown that “cognitive load” – in other words, requiring people to do something that consumes most or all of their attention, like listening to a piece of music and noting how many tones come before each change in pitch – produces a conservative political shift.

In one study, for instance, left wing and conservative subjects were asked whether government health care should be extended to a hypothetical group of AIDS victims who were responsible for their own fates (they’d contracted the disease while knowing the risks, and having unprotected sex anyway).  

Those on the left of the political spectrum, who were not under load – not distracted – wanted to help such people, despite the fact that they were personally responsible for their plight. But  the left wingers under load were much more like conservatives, appearing to reason using the just world fallacy: that this group of AIDS victims had “gotten what they deserved”. (Cognitive load did not appear to change the view of conservatives in the study.) 

Drunkenness. Alcohol intoxication is not unlike cognitive load, in that it cuts down the capacity for in-depth, nuanced thinking, and privileges economical, quick responses. Sure enough, in a recent study of 85 bar patrons, blood alcohol content was related to increased political conservatism for left wingers and conservatives alike. 

The drinkers still knew whether they were left leaning or conservative, of course. But when asked how much they agreed with a variety of statements of political principles – like, “Production and trade should be free of government interference”—higher blood alcohol content was associated with giving more conservative answers.

Time Pressure. In another study reported in the same paper, participants were asked how much they endorsed a variety of politically tinged words, like “authority” and “civil rights.” In one study condition, they had to see the term and respond to it in about 1.5 seconds; in the other condition, they had 4 seconds to do so. This made a political difference: subjects under time pressure were more likely to endorse conservative terms. 

Cleanliness/Purity. In another fascinating study, subjects who were asked political questions near a hand sanitizer, or asked to use a hand wipe before responding, also showed a rightward shift. In this case, political conservatism was being tied not to distraction, but rather, to disgust sensitivity – an emotional response to preserve bodily purity. 

Fear. After 9/11, public support for President George W. Bush also immediately swelled. In fact, a study showed that Bush’s approval ratings increased whenever terror alert levels were issued by the Department of Homeland Security. Meanwhile, the phenomenon of “liberal hawks” who wanted to attack Iraq was much remarked upon. Why is that? 

The answer seems to involve the amygdala, a region of the emotional brain that conditions our life-preserving responses to danger. Its activity seems to have political implications: When we’re deeply afraid, tough and decisive leaders are more appealing to us. So are militaristic and absolute responses, like going to war and the death penalty; things like civil liberties, meanwhile, matter less to us. 

It is unlikely that all of the phenomena discussed above involve the same cognitive mechanism. For instance, disgust sensitivity is probably operating through a different part of the brain than fear sensitivity. Still, priming people to feel either fear or disgust in this context (the need for “cleanliness”) seems to favor political conservatism, and of course, may be manipulated in favour of politically conservative candidates. 

What all of this suggests in conclusion: Maybe we’ve been thinking about political ideology in very much the wrong way. It seems to be at least partly rooted in things deeper and more primal than the policy issues of the day, and how we individually reason that we ought to handle them. And this can be very easily manipulated. 

Moreover, it is striking that the research literature does not, at least at present, contain such a plethora of ways to bring about a temporary left wing shift – to make conservatives move left. Instead, what these cases seem to reveal are some inherent conservative political advantages, especially at times of deep fear, uncertainty, and stress. (And we’ve seen some of those recently.)

Aristotle famously wrote that “man is by nature a political animal.” Perhaps it’s about time that we pay more attention to what the word “nature” here really means. 

However, the more that a society encourages citizens to cooperate and feel concern for the welfare of others, the lower the SDO is in that culture. High levels of national income and empowerment of women are also associated with low national SDO, whereas more traditional societies with lower income, patriarchal organisation and more closed institutional systems are associated with a higher SDO.  

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

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

Rhetoric that draws on dehumanising language may be used to desensitise citizens to the welfare of others, as previously discussed. The media is sometimes used to amplify demogogues – leaders who gain popularity by exploiting prejudice and ignorance among the public, by appealing directly to the emotions of the crowd and shutting down reasoned debate and decorum. Demagogues quite often overturn established customs of political conduct and democracy, and have no empathy for those outgroups that they direct the public’s manipulated prejudices towards. 

The rise of the of the Conservative demagogue and the return of political incorrectness 

As a political idiom, Conservatism seems unlikely to spawn demagogues. However, the rise of the neoliberal New Right marked a radical break with tradition for the Conservatives. 

Demagogues often advocate immediate, forceful action to address a “national crisis” (corresponding with a danger-themed worldview) while accusing moderate and thoughtful opponents of “weakness” or “disloyalty”. Or even “economic incompetence”. Demagogues are skilled at turning power deriving from popular support into a force that undermines the very freedoms and rule of law that democracies are made to protect. 

The most fundamental technique of all demagogues is scapegoating: blaming an ingroup’s problems on an outgroup, usually of a different socioeconomic class, ethnicity or religion. For example, the Conservatives exploited a global economic crisis to begin dismantling the welfare state, unforgivably stigmatising and outgrouping disabled people and others claiming lifeline social security, and targeting them with an extremely disproportionate and punitive burden of austerity cuts, using the media to amplify their construction of folk devils to stir up public moral panic

People who need welfare support were portrayed as “scroungers” and “frauds” (regardless of the fact that this is largely untrue) to desensitise the public regarding the often devastating impacts of the subsequent draconian policy programme. 

Demagogues have often encouraged their supporters to violently intimidate opponents, both to solidify loyalty among their supporters and to discourage or physically prevent people from speaking out or voting against them.

Image result for crush the saboteursMost demagogues make a show of appearing to be down-to-Earth, ordinary citizens just like the people whose votes they seek.

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                      Who are they trying to kid?

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Ideologies that promote or maintain group inequality are the tools that legitimise discrimination. To work, ideologies appear as self-apparent truths, while those that promote them appeal to emotions and prejudice. The use of slogans as a vehicle for emotive messaging is also common among demagogues. 

Like “Taking our country back” , “Are you thinking what we’re thinking” and other political straplines that indicate clearly that the “Big Society” isn’t so big on equality and diversity. However, as history ought to have taught us, nationalist demagogues don’t simply target the group that you may dislike. They move on to other social groups – usually scapegoating those with the least power to divert you from the damage that those with the most power are inflicting on our society.  

Even “Strong and stable leadership”, trotted out over and over, amidst the fourth wave of feminist activism, is coming from a party that is notoriously resistant to structural change through positive discrimination schemes. There is lots of evidence that self declared “strong leaders” (rather than democratic ones) are usually not, and can cause a lot of damage, politically and in the workplace.

“Strong leadership” most often entails the promotion of a compelling vision by such leaders of a totalistic nature; individual consideration, expressed in a “recruitment system” designed to activate a process analogous to conversion; and the promotion of a culture characterized by conformity and the penalising of dissent. This is a feature of neoliberalism rarely discussed: it’s incompatible with democracy and human rights. 

Pinochet promised “strong leadership and economic stability”, following his coup d’état and subsequent neoliberal experiment, aided and abetted by the Chicago boys. Both Pinochet’s Chile and Hitler’s Germany highlight the dangers of self proclaimed “strong leaders” with a liking for positivism, technocratic “solutions” and a disregard for democracy and human rights. Neoliberalism requires an authoritarian government to impose it, as it invariably leads to the repression of the majority of people, and the “economic freedom” of a small, privileged group.

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Demagogues often seem to be incoherent and glib, but it is because they tailor their public messaging to meet the perceptions and attitudes of a variety of groups, aiming at as wide an audience as possible, hoping to appeal to everyone.

However, those peddling right wing “populist” think narratives generally commit intellectual malpractice, as the foundation of their superficial anti-elitism is founded on yet more social oppression, hierarchies, supremicist reasoning, prejudice and constructed categories of social scapegoats. It’s little more than a flimsy sales pitch for more elitism. And welfare chauvinism.  

Many demagogues also focus on the exploitation of national “crises” to push through controversial policies while citizens are too emotionally and physically distracted by disasters, upheavals or wars to mount an effective resistance. Neoliberalism is the ultimate form of such “disaster capitalism”. 

I don’t level the terms “authoritarian”, “demagogue” and “populist” arbitrarily against politicians I don’t like: these are categories that have been academically established following vigorous research, quite independently of my own views. 

Right wing demagogues tend to present a tax paying, beleaguered white middle class of economic “producers,” encouraging them to see themselves as being inexorably squeezed by parasitic groups above and below.

The rage is whipped up and directed upwards against a caricature of the conspiratorial “faceless bureaucrats,” “banksters” and “plutocrats” – rather than challenging an unfair economic system run on behalf of the privileged and powerful wealthy and corporate interests. The attacks and oppression generated by such populist white rage, however, is most painfully felt by those that are scapegoated with perceived lower socioeconomic status and historically. this has always been immigrants, refugees, and other traditionally marginalized groups, such as disabled people, lone parents and those out of work. 

Meanwhile the media is used as a political tool to erect fact proof screens around fundamental truths.

To divert opposition to this process, we have a manufactured and confusing era of “fake news” and “post truth” that suits state agendas. We have extensive state surveilance, and “behaviour change” programmes, which include the online presence of covert astroturfers and psychological operations teams attempting to infiltrate, manipulate, warp and control online discourse and public perception, and in doing so, are compromising the integrity of the internet itself.

The Conservative’s behaviour change agenda is also embedded in public policies that target in particular those who are the casualties of government economic policies, to imply blame in order to stigmatise and punish people, while systematically withdrawing our social security support and public services, and withdrawing the means of redress and remedy – legal aid has gone. Yet the Conservatives know that without equal access to justice, ordinary people simply cease to be free.

The rise of right wing political populists threatens democracy worldwide, says a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) released earlier this month. 

Trump and other populist leaders work from a similar propaganda crib sheet that supports bigotry, prejudice and discrimination; scapegoats immigrants and refugees for economic problems; encourages people to give up their rights in favour of authoritarian rule as a defense against perceived “outside threats”; and foments division between demographics, the report states.

HRW executive director Kenneth Roth says: “The rise of populism poses a profound threat to human rights. Trump and various politicians in Europe seek power through appeals to racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and nativism. They all claim that the public accepts violations of human rights as supposedly necessary to secure jobs, avoid cultural change, or prevent terrorist attacks. In fact, disregard for human rights offers the likeliest route to tyranny.”

Roth cited Trump’s campaign promises to curtail women’s and minority rights, deport millions of immigrants, use torture against detainees, and crack down on freedom of the press, as examples of “the politics of intolerance.”

Roth goes on to say: “We forget at our peril the demagogues of the past: the fascists, communists, and their ilk who claimed privileged insight into the majority’s interest but ended up crushing the individual. When populists treat rights as obstacles to their vision of the majority will, it is only a matter of time before they turn on those who disagree with their agenda.”

He also noted parallel campaigns in Europe that used xenophobia and nationalism to encourage people to vote away their rights, with Brexit being one of the most prominent outcomes.

He’s right. This kind of nationalist and anti-European rhetoric endangers not only economic prosperity, but also democracy. 

Political incorrectness is still incorrect

Back in 2000, Hugo Young wrote an article in the Guardian entitled Enoch Powell was expelled for this kind of demagoguery. Quoting William Hague, he says: “Labour has made this country a soft touch for the organised asylum racketeers who are flooding the country with bogus asylum seekers.” 

“That translates: asylum is ipso facto a racket, aliens are taking over Britain, every one of them is a fraudster until proved otherwise. All that’s missing is the Tiber flowing with blood.

“For we’ve been here before. The only difference between Enoch Powell’s philippic in 1968 against the migrant masses whose numbers were destroying the British nation, and Mr Hague’s demagogic caricature of asylum in 2000, is that whereas Powell was expelled from the shadow cabinet for saying what he said, today’s shadow cabinet has made his political strategy their own.

“Ann Widdecombe, Hague’s blustering ally in this matter, finds it perfectly respectable to list each of the mild pro-immigrant measures Labour has taken since 1997 as part of her anti-asylum indictment, without ever referring to the causes of the increased demand. As far as the Tory party is concerned, the Kosovo war never happened and Balkan, let alone Somali or Rwandan or Nigerian or Colombian, tragedies do not exist – though Rhodesia looks like being an exception.

“A screen of respectability sometimes covers Mr Hague’s own words. There are references to the need to protect “genuine” asylum-seekers from the rest. But here is authentic bogusness, the genuine bogus article, addressed to a party which in its present incarnation shows no interest in asylum-seekers of any kind, the genuine any more than the deceiving.

“Any such refinement would complicate the political message, now delivered into the local elections, that the Tories alone can be relied on to take a harsh line against the flooding influx of racketeering aliens.”

It’s possible to identify an emergent right wing populist theme right here. And an overall strategy for creating scapegoats. I can’t help but wonder how many of those ordinary people who felt that Powell’s infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech “spoke to them” would feel the same resonance with what he wrote about hospital waiting lists in his book Medicine and Politics:

“It might (!) be thought macabre to observe that if people are on a waiting list long enough, they will die—usually from some cause other than that for which they joined the queue. Short of dying, however, they frequently get bored or better, and vanish.”

Nobody really knows if Powell has ever tried to make a joke, but if he has that passage was not it. It was written, with much more in the same heartless vein, by a man who was once Minister of Health. 

During a meeting with parents of babies that had been born with severe deformities caused by the morning sickness drug thalidomide, he was remarkably unsympathetic to the victims, refusing to meet any with affected babies. He simply said that “anyone who took so much as an aspirin put himself at risk.”

Powell had an unrepentant contempt for popular opinion, despite his apparent rapport with supporters of “ethnic nationalism” and a dark void where his empathy should have been. The Thatcher era Conservatives, fueled the rise far right groups such as the National Front. Cameron’s government fueled the rise of UKIP. It suits their purpose in creating social division and diversion. As for Powell, well he was simply an unrepentant, ruthlessly ambitious capitalist politician.

Powell also refused to launch a public inquiry into the Thalidomide scandal, resisted calls to issue a warning against any left-over thalidomide pills that might remain in people’s medicine cabinets (as US President John F. Kennedy had done), and said “I hope you’re not going to sue the Government…. No one can sue the Government.”

Since Powell, there has always been an easily identifiable racial minority for the Tories to blame for all working class problems and frustrations usually created by the Conservatives.

Many of the socially liberal democratic gains made in the form of our post-war sttlement for the UK citizenry are being dismantled by the Conservatives, and they show no shame in using a “them and us” rhetoric to achieve it. That is, each time they have created a convenient “them” to point to. 

And that’s the thing about fascism and demagoguery. It grows. Fascists don’t just target and punish social groups that you may not like. They add to their repertoire all the time. First it may be “foreigners”, next it may be disabled people and those without jobs, then the elderly.

A fascist is a fascist, regardless of who you are and how safe from prejudice you think you may be. The truth is that no-one who is an ordinary citizen is safe. Prejudice multitasks. The growth of social prejudice, originating from nationalism, has historically led some societies to commit the most terrible and inhumane acts.

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In light of this discussion, I don’t understand Conservatism one bit. I can’t understand why it has persisted. The Conservatives, from Thatcher onwards, have remained disciples of the anec­dotal dictator who thought that the way to eradicate pov­erty in Chile was to kill poor people by slow starvation, and “disappear” his many opponents.

I don’t understand ordinary people who support the Conservatives, because their “long term economic plan” has to be enforced by an authoritarian government. It will entail an incremental closing down of trade union activity, the loss of even basic citizens rights, the prohibition of all political activities and all forms of free expression, including on the internet, which the Conservatives intend to regulate and control.

It will entail the constant division and reduction of our society into further “us and them” categories. It will require the use of cultivated widespread public fear and anxiety as a constant diversion to the growing inequalities, human rights abuses and mass poverty that the government intend to inflict on the UK via the neoliberal policy programme.

I don’t understand how anyone can fail to see that state oppression – repression for the majorities and “economic freedom” for a minority of privileged groups – are two sides of the same Conservative coin drawn from a neoliberal currency. I don’t understand why people cannot see this unfolding now.

I don’t understand why the penny hasn’t yet dropped.


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Generous welfare benefits increase the work ethic. The government is wrong about ‘perverse incentives’

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The UK establishment have intentionally created a scapegoating project. A dominant political and cultural narrative has targeted people needing social security support, constructing welfare folk devils and generating moral panic. This is to justify the dismantling of the welfare state, and to de-empathise the public to the plight of the poorest citizens. The government have misled the public, claiming social security provision leads to a “culture of dependency”. International research shows this is untrue.

Comparative research at an international level has undermined the government claim that the UK welfare state encourages “widespread cultures of dependency” and presents unemployed people with “perverse incentives”. 

study, which links welfare generosity and active labour market policies with increased employment commitment, was published in 2015. It has demonstrated that people are more likely to look for work if they live in a country where welfare provision is generous and relatively unconditional. Empirically, the research includes more recent data, from a larger number of European countries than previous studies.

The research also compared employment motivation in specific sub-sections of communities across countries: ethnic minorities, people in poor health, non-employed people and women, and adds depth to previous studies. It has been concluded that comprehensive welfare provision is increasingly seen as a productive force in society (Bonoli, 2012), that stimulates employment commitment (Esser, 2005) and supports individual inclusion and participation in society and the labour market, particularly among disadvantaged groups

Sociologists Dr Kjetil van der Wel and Dr Knut Halvorsen, from Oslo and Akershus University College, Norway, examined responses to the statement “I would enjoy having a paid job even if I did not need the money” presented to the interviewees for the European Social Survey in 2010.

In a paper published in the journal Work, employment and society, (published by the British Sociological Association and SAGE) titled The bigger the worse? A comparative study of the welfare state and employment commitment, sociologists compare the responses with the amount the country spent on welfare benefits and employment schemes, whilst taking into account the population differences between states.

The researchers found that the more a country paid to unemployed and disabled people, and invested in employment schemes, the more its population were likely to agree with the statement, whether employed or not.

They found that almost 80% of people in Norway, which pays the highest benefits of the 18 countries, agreed with the statement. By contrast in Estonia, one of least generous, only around 40% did. It’s also the case that the countries with the highest levels of financial support for those in need also have the highest employment rates, which challenges neoliberal antiwelfare narratives regarding so-called “perverse incentives” and their highly controversial and stigmatising “scrounger” rhetoric.

The UK was then considered average in terms of our generosity of benefit levels, and the percentage of subjects agreeing with the statement was almost 60%.  However, this research was carried out in 2010, prior to the radical changes to the UK social security system that happened with the Coalition Welfare Reform Act in 2012 and subsequent Conservative policies.

The researchers also found that government programmes which intervene in the labour market to support unemployed people in finding work made it more likely that those people agree that they wanted to work even if they didn’t need the money. In the countries with the most interventionist states, around 80% agreed with the statement and in the least around 45%. The UK’s response, though one of the least interventionist then (and is even less positively interventionist now), was around 60%.

In the article, the researchers say: “Many scholars and commentators fear that generous social benefits threaten the sustainability of the welfare state due to work norm erosion, disincentives to work and dependency cultures. 

A basic assumption is that if individuals can obtain sufficient levels of well-being – economic, social and psychological – from living off public benefits, compared to being employed, they would prefer the former. When a ‘critical mass’ of individuals receive public benefits rather than engaging in paid work, the norms regulating work and benefit behaviour will weaken, setting off a self-reinforcing process towards the ‘self-destruction’ of the welfare state. The more people are recipients of benefits, the less stigmatizing and costly in terms of social sanctions it is to apply for benefits.

However, other commentators suggested that because employment rates are higher in countries with generous welfare states, more people will have positive experience of work. People who receive generous benefits when out of work may feel more inclined to give something back to the state by striving hard to find work.

This article concludes that there are few signs that groups with traditionally weaker bonds to the labour market are less motivated to work if they live in generous and activating welfare states.

The notion that big welfare states are associated with widespread cultures of dependency, or other adverse consequences of poor short term incentives to work, receives little support.”

On the contrary, employment commitment was much higher in all the studied groups in bigger welfare states. Hence, this study’s findings support the welfare resources perspective over the welfare scepticism perspective.”

The UK government launched an unprecedented range of cuts on public services which happened between 2010 to 2015. However, the UK’s millionaires were awarded substantial tax cuts over that time period. George Osborne handed out a cut in tax that rewarded millionaires with £107, 000 each per year at the same time the welfare “reform” bill became policy.

The biggest percentage of cuts affected social security benefits and local government, which has adversely impacted on housing, local authority services and ultimately, on ordinary people in local communities. The cuts in social care and welfare fall disproportionately on two groups that overlap: people in poverty and disabled people. They fall hardest of all on people with the most severe disabilities, who need both benefits and social care.

Using an extremely divisive justification narrative peppered with words such as “workshy” and “scrounger”, and redefining what is “fair”, the government made out that UK tax payers were a discrete group from people needing welfare support, and that the latter group were a kind of economic free rider, sharing a “something for nothing culture”.  The government intentionally fostered resentment in employed people “paying taxes to carry the burden of those who won’t work”.

The Conservatives have persistently claimed that there are moral hazards and adverse behavioural consequences attached to providing poverty relief. This is a view shared by other neoliberal nation states, such as the US.

Policies represent perceptions and establish state instructions regarding how various social groups ought to be perceived and treated. They reflect how a government thinks society should be organised. They encode messages about how people ought to behave and how our individual degree of freedoms are defined, extended or restricted. Policies are always intentional acts that shape socioeconomic organisation.

The government have colonised left wing rhetoric, and conflated social justice and inclusion with work, making citizenship and human rights conditional, and contingent on a person’s economic productivity. They claimed to be “the party of workers”, yet the Conservatives have legislated more than once to undermine collective bargaining and trade unionism more generally. There has been a marked downward shift in wage levels and working conditions over the past six years, as well as drastic reductions in welfare support.

The word “reforms” is now a euphemism for cuts. Words like “support” and “help” are used as techniques of neutralisation, to divert people from the coercive, punitive and targeted elements of the “reforms”. These are semantic shifts of Orwellian proportions. 

The majority of unemployed people move in and out of work, indicating that policy, the economy and labour market conditions, rather than personal failings and dubious “cultures”, are the reason why people become unemployed. The tax payer/benefit claimant dichotomy is a false one. Everyone contributes to welfare, that is why national insurance was introduced: to pay for support provision that you may need in the future.

Furthermore, unemployed people pay taxes, and stealth taxes such as VAT contribute a significant amount to the Treasury. When social security benefits were originally calculated, they covered only the costs of food and fuel. It was assumed that people claiming support were exempt from council tax and paying rent. That is no longer the case, but benefit levels have not risen to adjust for this. 

The highest welfare spending has actually been on pensions, followed by in-work benefits. The latter subsidises employers paying low wages that don’t support families in meeting the costs of living. However, under the new Universal Credit, in-work support will be conditional and significantly reduced, especially for those families on low pay with children. 

The Conservative’s austerity cuts have disproportionally targeted the very people that a fair and civilised society should protect. This was justified partly by the global economic recession, though not everyone was expected to “live within their means” and contribute to reducing the national deficit. Remarkably, those that caused the recession appear to have got off free from obligation to contribute to the reduction of the debt, in a “low tax, low welfare society.”

The Conservative cuts were also justified by the perpetuation of a dominant neoliberal discourse based on small state ideology, antiwelfare myths and the purposeful creation of welfare folk devils and moral panic.

One consequence of the Conservative’s “reforms” has been the return of absolute poverty in the UK – some people cannot meet their basic needs and are going without adequate food and fuel. Many people have suffered distress, harm and some have died as a result of the government’s welfare regime. 

The Samaritan’s recent study – Dying from Inequality – links suicidal behaviours with socioeconomic deprivation. Their report says: “Suicide risk increases during periods of economic recession, particularly when recessions are associated with a steep rise in unemployment, and this risk remains high when crises end, especially for individuals whose economic circumstances do not improve. Countries with higher levels of per capita spending on active labour market programmes, and which have more generous unemployment benefits, experience lower recession-related rises in suicides.”

There is also a further extensive cost to human potential. As Abraham Maslow indicated, if people cannot meet their basic physical needs, they are not likely to fulfil psychosocial ones.

 christianity-and-social-justice-exploring-the-meaning-of-welfare-reform-29-638

Graphic courtesy of Dr Simon Duffy,  The Centre for Welfare Reform.

Related

A bad job is worse for your mental health than unemployment, say UK’s top psychologists

Dying from inequality: socioeconomic disadvantage and suicidal behaviour – report from Samaritans

The Minnesota Starvation Experiment provided empirical evidence that demonstrates clearly why welfare sanctions can’t possibly work as an “incentive” to “make work pay”


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