Tag: free will

The power of positive thinking is really political gaslighting

The power of positive thinking.

The government invests a lot of time and money in “nudging” people to accept the unacceptable.

George Osborne announced in the budget that the government will be funding a “package of measures” to improve employment outcomes which will entail putting Cognitive Behaviour therapists in more than 350 job centres to provide “support” to those with “common mental health conditions,” and making online access to Cognitive Behaviour Therapy available for people who are claiming employment support allowance (ESA) and job seekers allowance (JSA).

From the HM Treasury document – Budget 2015, page 64: 1.236:

“Budget 2015 also announces a package of measures to improve employment outcomes for people with mental health conditions. Starting from early 2016, the government will provide online Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) to 40,000 Employment and Support Allowance and Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants and individuals being supported by Fit for Work. From summer 2015, the government will also begin to co-locate Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) therapists in over 350 Jobcentres, to provide integrated employment and mental health support to claimants with common mental health conditions.”

The government put up an online contract notice which specifically states:

“This provision is designed to support people with common mental health conditions to prepare for and move into work, with intervention at the earliest possible point in a claim to benefit or access to the Fit for Work service.”

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

We really must question the ethics of linking receipt of welfare with “state therapy,” which, upon closer scrutiny, is not therapy at all. Linked to such a narrow outcome – getting a job – this is nothing more than a blunt behaviour modification programme. The fact that the Conservatives plan to make receipt of benefits contingent on participation in “treatment” worryingly takes away the fundamental right of consent.

Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) is used to change how you think (“Cognitive”) and what you do (“Behaviour”). It bypasses emotions, personal history and narrative, to a large extent, and tends to focus on the “here and now.”

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

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

So we need to ask what are the circumstances that the government are expecting people claiming welfare support to accept stoically. Sanctions? Work fare? Being forced to accept very poorly paid work, abysmal working conditions and no security? The loss of social support, public services and essential safety nets?  Stigma? Starvation and destitution? State punishment and exclusion?

It’s all very well challenging people’s thoughts but for whom is CBT being used, and for what purpose? Seems to me that this is about helping those people on the wrong side of punitive government policy to accept and accommodate that, and to mute negative responses to negative situations. CBT in this context is not based on a genuinely liberational approach, nor is it based on any sort of democratic dialogue. It’s all about modifying and controlling behaviour, particularly when it’s aimed at such a narrow, politically defined and highly specific outcome.

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

There is also an underpinning assumption that working is good for mental health, and that being in employment indicates mental wellbeing. However, isn’t it more likely the case that healthier people are in work, those who aren’t well enough to work don’t?

It’s well-established that poverty is strongly linked with a higher likelihood of being diagnosed with a mental illness. But that does not mean working is therefore somehow “good” in some way, for mental wellbeing. Therapy does not address social conditions and context, and so it permits society to look the other way, while the government continue to present mental disorder as an individual weakness or vulnerability, and a consequence of “worklessness” rather than a fairly predictable result of living a stigmatised, marginalised existence of material deprivation.

Inequality and poverty are political constructions and arise because of ideology and policy-formulated socioeconomic circumstances, but the Conservatives have transformed established explanations into a project of constructing behavioural and emotional problems as “medical diagnoses” for politically-created (and wholly ideologically endorsed) socioeconomic problems.

Austerity, which targets the poorest citizens disproportionately for cuts to their lifeline income and essential services, was one ideologically-driven political decision taken among alternative, effective and more humane choices.

The government are not strangers to behaviour modification techniques and have been applying crude behaviourism to public policy, drawing on the “expertise”of the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT)  – the “Nudge Unit” – that they established and installed in the Cabinet Office in 2010. (See Mind the Mindspace, which outlines some of the implications of a government extending operant conditioning via policies to an unconsenting public.)

It is disadvantaged people and excluded groups who are the primary targets of enormously pseudoscientific, coercive and punitive psychopolicy interventions. It’s a kind of technocratic ‘fix’, designed solely to align the perceptions and behaviours of those citizens failed and harmed by our current socioeconomic organisation to nonetheless accommodate and accept neoliberal outcomes.

The casual manner in which advocates of behaviourism dismiss the right of people to behave in accordance with their own feelings, intuition and instincts exposes their authoritarian (not “libertarian paternalistic”) ambitions.

It’s frankly terrifying that our so-called democratic government is waging an ideological crusade directed at altering citizens’ thoughts and behaviour, and avoiding any accountability, sidestepping any engagement in potentially difficult political debate about their policies and the impacts that they have.

The objectives adopted by the Nudge Unit choice architects, politico-therapists and psychocrats are entirely about the state micromanagement of public perceptions and behaviours.

These objectives resemble ambitions usually associated with totalitarian regimes. This is a gross state intrusion into a previously private domain – our thoughts, perceptions and behaviours. Not only is this government trespassing on an intimate, existential level; it is tampering with – editing – our perceptions and experiences, damaging and isolating the poorest citizens, burdening them with the blame for the consequences of state policies while also editing out state responsibilities towards citizens.

Both CBT and Nudge are aimed at pushing people in ways that bypass reasoning. The assumption is that because our decision-making ability is limited we need to use non-rational means to persuade people to do what is “good” for them. But who has the moral authority to decide that? This is not about helping people make better choices – it’s about coercing people to make the choices that policymakers want them to make. And again, those “choices” are based on enforcing conformity to the ideological commitments of policymakers.

This psychocratic turn is in diametric opposition to Enlightenment narratives – it fosters a profound anti-rationality and anti-autonomy approach, it’s not remotely democratic: it’s based on a ridiculous premise that people use their freedom and liberty poorly, but somehow, those passing that judgement on everyone else are exempted from such judgements themselves. It is also extends profoundly anti-humanistic consequences.

Apparently, some people think that everyone else is susceptible to flawed thinking and behaviours, but that theory magically excludes the theorist from such human failings, since they are claiming some objective, mind-independent vantage point – a position far away from the rest of us. It’s like saying: this is your “human nature” but not ours.

Whether or not we agree on the efficacy of CBT as a therapeutic model in principle is a small consideration which is overshadowed by the fact that the government are using such “therapeutic” techniques as a highly partisan tool – to enforce traditional Tory biases and prejudices and to achieve their ideologically-driven policy agenda.

CBT will be deployed in job centres to simply favour the political objectives of neoliberal Conservatism: propping up an anti-progressive austerity agenda, regressive ideology, endorsing an ever-shrinking state, while reflecting a profound  Tory misanthropy.

The social problems arising because of a lack of provision will remain unaddressed and unchallenged because of the Conservative paradigm shift in positivist – causal explanations of political and social problems: it’s not down to policy, it’s all the fault of individuals (who are of course those individuals affected adversely by state policy.)

CBT is a short-term treatment, which is cheap and simple to deliver. I suspect this is one other reason for it becoming more popular with the Coalition than is warranted.

CBT has limitations for treating certain groups, including people with severe and treatment-resistant depression and those with personality disorders.

Studies concerning the efficacy of CBT have consistently found high drop-out rates compared to other treatments, with the numbers abandoning therapy often being more than five times higher than other treatments groups. (P. Cuijpers,  A. van Straten, G.  Andersson & P. Van Oppen. (2008)).

Researchers analysed several clinical trials that measured the efficacy of CBT administered to young people who self-injure. The researchers concluded that none of them were found to be efficacious. (See: Task force on the promotion and dissemination of psychological procedures: A reported adopted by the Division 12 Board – D. Chambless, K. Babich, P. Crits-Christoph,  E. Frank, M. Gilson & R. Montgomery. (1993)).

CBT fails fundamentally on a theoretical level: it lacks basic clarity, depth and coherence. It doesn’t provide a definition of “clear and correct” thinking – curiously, CBT theorists develop a framework for determining distorted thinking without developing a framework for “cognitive clarity” or what would be deemed “healthy, normal thinking.” This has left a large space for partisan definitions and political agendas.

And why is irrational thinking considered to be a source of mental and emotional distress when there is no evidence of rational thinking causing psychological wellbeing? Furthermore, social psychology has never demonstrated that the normal cognitive processes (whatever they are) of the average person are irrational.

CBT is deterministic: it denies agency and any degree of free-will. Human behaviour, in this view, is determined by the cognitive processes invoked by external stimuli. It focuses on the former, ignoring the latter. CBT theory basically contends that what you feel is somehow not very important to why you do what you do and think what you think.

But human beings are not automata: we are complex and multi-faceted. Our emotionality is a fundamental part of being human, too – our emotional bonds and attachments, and our interactions with significant others over time contribute hugely to shaping who we are: we are socially situated and contextualised. We are intersubjective, reciprocal and intentional beings. A therapy that sidelines how we feel must surely, at best, be regarded as superficial in its efficacy, scope and reach.

Moreover, in emphasising thought processes to the exclusion of complex and legitimate emotions, therapists may contribute to the harmful repression and denial of feelings.

CBT encourages an unhealthy avoidance of psychological discomfort and distress by diverting thoughts from the source of discomfort. CBT may rouse immature, neurotic and pathological defence mechanisms. It devalues resilience based on mature coping strategies such as openness, courage, mindfulness, acceptance and emotional self-sufficiency.

Not only is that psychologically unhealthy for a person, it’s bad for society as it desensitises and de-empathises people, stultifies learning from experience by disconnecting people’s thoughts from their circumstances and from others. It discourages personal development and stifles ‘resilience’.

Perhaps the most damning criticism of CBT is that it encourages self-deception and self-blame within clients and patients, because it maintains the status quo. The basic premise of cognitive therapy is: except for how the patient thinks, everything is okay. You can see why this would appeal to the Conservatives.

Poor mental health is often linked with poverty (Melzer et al. 2004) poor community integration, and competitiveness among social groups (Arrindell et al., 2003). Key questions arise as to the efficacy, therefore, of working with individuals, when much research suggests community work would be much more effective (Orford, 2008).

The Beacon Project (Stuteley, 2002) was pioneered by health workers who supported those with depression and other health problems by working with their whole community – addressing their basic social needs and developing mutual social support systems. There were significant changes in physical and mental health for the whole community, showing the benefits of fostering a psychology of mutual support, altruism, cooperation and collaboration: building social capital.

Human needs, public services and provisions, developmental processes, social relationships and contexts are important to any comprehensive model of mental health. Community work offers something that CBT can’t: unlimited scope and reach, sustainable, self-perpetuating, long-lasting provision with an inbuilt preventative agenda. It’s also a prefigurative model. As such, it is founded on democratic principles and the values of  genuine dialogue.

But the government has no interest in addressing mental health and wellbeing or building social support provisions. The government insists that people’s problems are self-generated and endogenous. But the socioeconomic context, policy decisions and consequences are the fundamental cause of unemployment, poverty and much mental distress.

When people are affected by social problems with structural causes, such as poverty and inequality, this in turn leads to a lack of opportunity, economic disadvantage and deprivation, unemployment, ill-health, absolute poverty (increasingly), poor housing, political scapegoating and punishment via policy, it’s ludicrously and grossly unfair to further stigmatise them and claim that their problems arise because of how they think and behave.

For the Tories, the only aim of CBT is a strongly emphasised participation in the labour-market, with minimal expectations of the state and minimal reliance on public services.

“Social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.” David Cameron.

No. Social problems are most often the consequence of a government that uses policy to create social inequality, poverty, social exclusion and extremely challenging economic circumstances for those people who have the least to start with. The government uses denial and a process of individualising blame for the problems caused by this government’s ideological austerity programme, which is used to legitimise further cruel constraint by those socio-economic factors caused by the government.

The Tories would have us believe that poor people suddenly become inadequate whenever we have a Tory government. They don’t, but they do become poorer. They are then held responsible and punished for the consequences of Conservatism.

If anyone needs to change the way they think, it’s certainly the Conservatives.

Update June 26, 2015: Mental health workers protest at move to integrate clinic with jobcentre

“This month Prof Jamie Hacker Hughes, president of the British Psychological Society (BPS), pointed out recent research which presented evidence that claimants had been forced to accept psychological treatment. Researchers from Hubbub and Birkbeck, University of London, found unemployment was being rebranded as a psychological disorder in many advanced economies, with interventions being introduced to promote a positive outlook or leave claimants of welfare to face sanctions.

Dave Harper, a reader in clinical psychology at the University of East London, told the Guardian he believed there was an ideological agenda driving the government’s proposals.

“We are in a recession,” Harper said. “There are not many jobs out there and this is implying that unemployed people are to blame for their situation. It’s shifting the focus away from economic policy and on to the individual.”

As a BPS member, I was happy to see a clear, ethical statement from the President.

Related

The just world fallacy

Cameron’s Nudge that knocked democracy down – a summary of the implications of Nudge theory

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Pictures courtesy of Robert Livingstone

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Defining features of Fascism and Authoritarianism

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

Max Weber’s principle of Verstehen is a fundamentally critical approach in all social sciences, including politics, and we can see the consequences of its absence in the cold, pseudo-positivist approach of the Coalition in the UK. Their policies clearly demonstrate that they lack the capacity to understand, or meaningfully “walk a mile in the shoes of another”. The Coalition treat the population of the UK as objects of their policies and not as equal, subjective human beings. Whenever the government are challenged and confronted with evidence from citizens that their policies are causing harm, they simply deny the accounts and experiences of those raising legitimate concerns.

The Conservatives do not serve us or meet our needs, they think that we, the public, are here to serve political needs and to fulfil politically defined economic outcomes. In fact we are being increasingly nudged to align our behaviours with neoliberal outcomes.

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

As a society, we have allowed the state to redefine our collective, universal, relatively egalitarian and civilising support structures, such as social housing, legal aid, welfare and broader public services as being somehow problematic. Those who need support are stigmatised, scapegoated, outgrouped and othered. The government tells us that welfare and other public services present “moral hazards”, and that they “disincentivise” citizens to be self sufficient. Yet the social gains of our post-war settlement were made to include everyone, should they fall on difficult times. We each pay into the provision, after all.

These are civilising and civilised socioeconomic mechanisms that ensure each citizen’s life has equal dignity and worth; that no-one dies prematurely because of absolute poverty or because they have no access to justice, medical care and housing. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work is no longer a guaranteed route out of poverty, as wages have stagnated and remain lower than they were before the global recession. More than half of the people queuing at food banks are in work.

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

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

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

Fascism evolves over a period of time. No-one ever woke up one morning to find it had suddenly happened overnight. It’s an ongoing process just as Nazism was. Identifying traits is therefore useful. Fascism and totalitarianism advance by almost inscrutable degrees. 

If you really think it could never happen here, you haven’t been paying attention this past few years to the undemocratic law repeals and quiet edits – especially laws that protect citizens from state abuse – the muzzling of the trade unions, the corporocratic dominance and rampant cronysism, the human rights abuses, the media control and othering narratives, the current of anti-intellectualism and other serious blows to our democracy.

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

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

2. Disdain for any recognition of Human Rights – politically justified by stirring up fear of “enemies” and the need for “security”, the people in fascist regimes are persuaded that human rights can be ignored in certain cases because of “need.” The public tend to become apathetic, or look the other way, some even approve of persecution, torture, summary executions, assassinations, long incarcerations of prisoners, often without charge and so forth. But the whole point of human rights is that they are universal.

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

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

5. Rampant sexism – The governments of fascist nations tend to be almost exclusively male-dominated. Under fascist regimes, traditional gender roles are made more rigid. Divorce, abortion and homosexuality are suppressed and the state is represented as the ultimate guardian of the family institution. Policies emphasise traditional and rigid roles. The government become the ‘parent’, because they “know what’s best for you”. Families that don’t conform are pathologised. 

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

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

8. Historically, religion and Government are intertwined – governments in fascist nations tend to use the most common religion of the nation as a tool to manipulate public opinion. Religious rhetoric and terminology is common from government leaders, even when the major tenets of the religion are diametrically opposed to the government’s policies or actions. But technocratic rule – referencing ‘science’ may also be used to appeal to the public and garner a veneer of  credibility.

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

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

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

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

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

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

All fascist governments are authoritarian, but not all authoritarian governments are fascists. Fascism tends to arise with forms of ultra-nationalism. Authoritarianism is anti-democratic. Totalitarianism is the most intrusive ‘totalising’ form of authoritarianism, involving the attempted change, control and regulation of citizens’ perceptions, beliefs, emotions, behaviours, accounts and experiences.

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

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

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

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

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

Authoritarians view the rights of the individual, (including those considered to be human rights by the international community), as subject to the needs of the government. Of course in democracies, governments are elected to represent and serve the needs of the population.

Again, the whole point of human rights, as a protection for citizens, is that they apply universally. They are premised on a view that each human life has equal worth.

Democracy is not only about elections. It is also about distributive and social justice. The quality of the democratic process, including transparent and accountable government and equality before the law, is critical. Façade democracy occurs when liberalisation measures are kept under tight rein by elites who fail to generate political inclusion. See Corporate power has turned Britain into a corrupt state  and also Huge gap between rich and poor in Britain is the same as Nigeria and worse than Ethiopia, UN report reveals.

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

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

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

In the university community, in your own community, you speak privately to your colleagues, some of whom certainly feel as you do; but what do they say? They say, “It’s not so bad” or “You’re seeing things” or “You’re an alarmist.” (Or “scaremonger”)

“And you are an alarmist”. You are saying that this must lead to this, and you can’t prove it. These are the beginnings, yes; but how do you know for sure when you don’t know the end, and how do you know, or even surmise, the end?

On the one hand, your enemies, the law, the regime, the Party, intimidate you. On the other, your colleagues pooh-pooh you as pessimistic or even neurotic. You are left with your close friends, who are, naturally, people who have always thought as you have.” –  Milton Mayer, They Thought They Were Free.

Citizens feel increasingly powerless to shape the political institutions that are meant to reflect their interests. Politicians must relearn how to speak to disenfranchised citizens in an inclusive, meaningful way, to show that dysfunctional democracies can be mended.

Directing collective fear, frustration and cultivating hatred during times of economic turbulence at politically constructed scapegoats – including society’s protected groups which are historically most vulnerable to political abuse – has never been a constructive and positive way forward.

As Gordon Allport highlighted, political othering leads to increasing prejudice, exclusion, social division, discrimination, hatred and if this process is left to unfold, it escalates to hate crime, violence and ultimately, to genocide.

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

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

It’s time to be very worried.

Allport's ladder

Further reading

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


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