Tag: incentives

Nudge and neoliberalism

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

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

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

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

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

What could possibly go right? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bootstraps

Related

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

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

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

The benefit cap, phrenology and the new Conservative character divination

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


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Words and discrimination: ‘parked’ and ‘vulnerability’

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You can often tell such a lot about people’s views and sometimes, their intentions, by the words and phrases they use. The description of disabled people as being “parked” on benefits (and told/under the impression they will never work again”) is a turn of phrase I loathe. It’s a mantra that’s gained a PR crib sheet resonance from George Osborne and Iain Duncan Smith to Stephen Crabb and Damian Green. To extend the metaphor, parking is subject to the availability of a parking space; permission; to regulations and laws; parking tickets and fines; parking attendants and traffic wardens to police and ensure compliance.

Disability and sickness are compared with the inconvenient abandonment of a vehicle in the middle of a very busy market place. Or the informal blatant plonking and installing of oneself on a sofa or bed, behind outrageously closed curtains in the middle of a busy viral epidemic of the protestant work ethic, prompting further symptoms of oppressive impacted resentments and frank, febrile tutting.

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Yet the Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) Support Group is made up of those individuals who “have a severe limitation which creates a significant disability in relation to the labour market, regardless of any adaptation they may make or support with which they may be provided” (Department for Work and Pensions, 2009: 8).

Disabled people are being excluded, and at the same time, represented in political and mainstream discourse in ways to evoke moral judgments and public emotions such as distrust, disgust and anger. Evidence of state culpability lies in the relationships between political rhetoric, media narrative and punitive, populist social policy.  

However, in official policy documents, welfare cuts have been dressed up as a discourse related to “support” , “social inclusion” and even “fairness” and “equal opportunity”. Though this is only narrowly discussed in terms of employment outcomes. “Inclusion” has been conflated with being economically productive. In contrast, the media rhetoric, and importantly, the consequences of Conservative policies aimed at disabled people, are increasingly isolating and exclusionary, as a result of intentional political outgrouping.

Yet such rhetoric is surely also counter‐productive to even such a limited view of inclusion, inevitably distorting employer responses to ill and disabled people as potential employees. However, Conservative neoliberal policies reflect a consideration of the supply rather than the demand side of the labour market.

“[…] rather than being concerned with the economic position of disabled people in Britain, the development of the Employment and Support Allowance and the Work Programme was concerned with relationships between the supply of labour and wage inflation, and with developing new welfare (quasi) markets in employment services. Attempting to address the economic disadvantages disabled people face through what are essentially market mechanisms will entrench, rather than address, those disadvantages.”  From: Commodification, disabled people, and wage work in Britain – Chris Grover.

Glib, deceptive and diversionary language use and ideological referencing does nothing to address the social exclusion of disabled people, who are already pushed to the fringes of society. Disabled people have become easy political scapegoats in the age of austerity. Scapegoating and outgrouping have become common political and cultural practices. Stigma is being used to justify the most regressive social policies since before the foundation of the welfare state in the 1940s.  

Patronising and authoritarian Conservatives like to speak very loudly over disabled people, and tell us about our own experiences because they really believe we can’t speak for ourselves. They simply refuse to listen to people who may criticise their policies, raising the often dire consequences being imposed on us because of the “reforms”  CUTS. I also think that we are witnessing the most powerful anti-intellectual and anti-rational ethos in government in living memory.

Whilst Conservative rhetoric lacks coherence, rationality, integrity and verisimilitude, it has an abundance of glittering generalities and crib sheet repetition designed from supremacist decisions made around elitist tables behind closed and heavy doors. The Conservatives seem to believe that disabled people aren’t like other citizens and that we don’t need a democratic voice of our own. Policies are designed to act upon us, to “change” our behaviours through the use of “incentives”, whilst we are completely excluded from their design and aims. Our behaviours are being aligned with neoliberal outcomes, conflating our needs and interests with the private financial profit of others. 

As one of the instigators and a witness for the United Nations investigation into the government’s systematic violations of the human rights of disabled people, as a person with disability, I don’t care for being described by a blatantly oppressive Damian Green as “patronising” or being told that disabled people – witnesses – presented an “outdated view” of disability in the UK. The only opportunity disabled people have been presented with to effectively express our fears, experiences, concerns about increasingly punitive and discriminatory policies and have our democratic opinion heard more generally has been through dialogue with an international human rights organisation, and still this government refuse to hear what we have to say.

Oppression always involves the objectification of those being dominated; all forms of oppression imply the devaluation of the subjectivity and experiences of the oppressed. 

Just as Herbert Spencer supported laissez-faire capitalism and social Darwinism (on the basis of his Lamarckian beliefs) – and claimed that struggle for survival spurred self-improvement which could be inherited – the Conservatives apply the same tired and misguided, private boarding school myths and disciplinarian moral principles in their endorsement of a totalising neoliberalism: the bizarre belief that competition, struggle and strife is “good” for character and even better for the market economy.

Under the Equality Act 2010 there are several types of discrimination that are prohibited. These are direct discrimination (s.13(1) Equality Act 2010), indirect discrimination (s.6 and s.19 Equality Act 2010, harassment (s.26 Equality Act 2010), victimisation (s.27(2) Equality Act 2010), discrimination arising from disability (s.15(1) Equality Act 2010) and failure to make reasonable adjustments (s.20 Equality Act 2010). 

Disabled people are being conveniently reclassified to fit Treasury cost-cutting imperatives. However, the government prefer to say that we are claiming lifeline support because we are “disincentivised” to find a job because we are claiming lifeline support… there’s a whole ludicrous circular government monologue going on there that we are being quite intentionally excluded from.

This is one common type of ableist behaviour: it is a form of discrimination which denies others’ autonomy by speaking for or about them rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. Ableism characterizes persons as defined by their disabilities and as inferior to non-disabled persons On this basis, people are assigned or denied certain perceived abilities, skills, and/or character traits. And often, denied rights and a democratic voice.

If you ask disabled people about work, most of us will say we would like to – after all, who of us would actually choose to be ill and disabled – but there are social, political, cultural and economic barriers to our doing so. None of us will tell you we don’t work because we feel secure and comfortably off on an ever-dwindling and paltry amount of ESA, which has been subjected to cuts, further threats of cuts from prominent think tanks, increased conditionality, the threat of sanctions, and constant, distressing assessments and reassessments which were designed to find ways of stopping your lifeline support.

Disabled people became amongst the first citizens of a new class: the precariat. In sociology and economics, the precariat is a social class formed by people suffering from precarity, which is a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material and psychological welfare. The emergence of this class has been ascribed to the entrenchment of neoliberalism.

Many disabled people, however, will tell you that they are simply too ill to work. It’s a ludicrous and frankly terrifying state of affairs that the administrating despots in office don’t accept that some people simply cannot work, and persist in hounding them, claiming that cutting social security, originally calculated to meet only basic needs and now reduced to the point where that is no longer possible, is somehow an “incentive” for very sick people to find work. It’s incredible that the government are telling us with a straight face that a poor person’s “incentive” is punishment and financial loss, whilst millionaires are “incentivised” by reward and financial gifts, such as “tax breaks”.

The same approach is apparent in the recent green paper on work, health and disability, where the government casually discusses subjecting disabled people in the ESA support group to compulsory work related activity and “behavioural conditionality” (sanctions are suggested), though the support group were previously exempt from the punitive welfare conditionality regime, since their doctors and the state accepted that this group of people are simply too ill to work. Employers, it is suggested, are to be “incentivised” by financial rewards – tax cuts. When this government discuss “being fair” to the “tax payer”, they are referring to wealthy and privileged people, not the majority of ordinary citizens such as you and I.

Discrimination is defined as “treating a person or particular group of people differently, especially in a worse way from the way in which you treat other people”, based on characteristics or perceived characteristics. Under Labour’s 2010 Equality Act, direct disability discrimination occurs when a disabled person is treated less favourably than a non-disabled person, and they are treated this way for a reason arising from their disability. Indirect discrimination happens when an organisation or government has a particular policy or way of working that has a worse impact on people who share your disability compared to people who don’t. Harassment is defined as someone treating you in a way that makes you feel humiliated, offended or degraded.

The government even have the cheek to call their discrimination “supporting” and “helping” us. I’ve never heard of such immorality, bullying, indecency, prejudice and punishment being called “help” and “support” before. Millionaires are helped; they get financial handouts in the form of tax cuts that they don’t need. Meanwhile we have lifeline income taken away to fund, leaving us without food, fuel and shelter increasingly often. Such mundane language use is an attempt to mask the intentions and consequences of draconian policies. It utterly nasty, manipulative, callous, calculated cold-blooded gaslighting.

Milton Friedman, in Capitalism and Freedom (1962) felt that “competitive capitalism” is especially important to minority groups, since “impersonal market forces”, he claimed, protect people from discrimination in their economic activities for reasons unrelated to their productivity. Through elimination of centralized control of economic activities, economic power is separated from political power, and the one can serve as counterbalance to the other. However, he couldn’t have been more wrong. What we have seen instead is an authoritarian turn. The UN conclusions to their recent inquiry into the government’s systematic and grave violations of the rights of disabled people verify his lack of foresight and his conflation of public needs and interests with supply-side economic outcomes.

A word about the use of the term “vulnerability”

The reason that some groups are socially and legally protected – and the reason why we have universal human rights – is because some groups of citizens have historically been vulnerable to political abuse and are structurally discriminated against. The aim of human rights instruments is the protection of those vulnerable to violations of their fundamental human rights. The recent United Nations inquiry into the UK government’s systematic violations of the convention on the rights of persons with disabilities concludes that disabled people in the UK are facing systematic political discrimination, social exclusion and oppression.

The Yogyakarta Principles, one of the international human rights instruments use the term “vulnerability” as such potential to abuse and/or social exclusion. Social vulnerability is created through the interaction of social forces and multiple “stressors”, and resolved through social (as opposed to individual) means. Social vulnerability is the product of social inequalities. It arises through social, political and economical processes.

Whilst some individuals within a socially vulnerable context may break free from the hierarchical order, social vulnerability itself persists because of structural – social, economical and political – influences that continue to reinforce vulnerability. 

The medical model is a perspective of disability as a problem of the person, directly caused by disease, trauma, or other health conditions which therefore requires sustained medical care in the form of individual treatment by professionals. The medical model sees management of the disability  as central and ideally, it is aimed at a “cure,” or the individual’s adjustment and behavioural change that would lead to better “management” of symptoms.

The social model of disability outlines “disability” as a socially created problem and a matter of the full inclusion and integration of individuals into society. In this model, disability is not an attribute of an individual, but rather a complex collection of conditions, created by the social environment. The management of the problem requires social  and political action and it is the collective responsibility of society to create an environment and context in which limitations for people with disabilities are minimal. Equal access and inclusion for someone with an impairment/disability is a human rights concern.

From the 70s, sociologists such Eliot Friedson observed that labeling theory and a social deviance perspective could be applied to disability studies. Social constructivist theorists discussed a non-essentialist perspective: the social construction of disability is the idea that disability is constructed as the social response to a deviance from the norm. “Disability” is constructed by social expectations and institutions rather than biological differences.

I think there is something positive to learn from the variety of models of disability, and should like to point out that despite the potential merits of any one in particular, each have also been heavily criticised, and most importantly, there is nothing to stop an unscrupulous government from intentionally exploiting a theoretical paradigm to suit an ideological design. 

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Eugenics

The French statistician, Alphonse Quetelet wrote in the 1830s of l’homme moyen – the “average man”. Quetelet proposed that one could take the sum of all people’s attributes in a given population (such as their height or weight) and find their average, and that this figure should serve as a norm toward which all should aspire. This idea of a statistical norm threads through the rapid growth in the popularity of gathering statistics in Britain, United States, and the Western European states during this period, and it is linked to the rise of eugenics. Disability, as well as other concepts including: “abnormal”, “non-normal”, and “normal” arose from this mindset.

With the rise of eugenics in the latter part of the nineteenth century, such deviations from the norm were viewed as somehow dangerous to the health of entire populations.

As a social and political movement, eugenics reached its greatest popularity in the early decades of the 20th century, when it was practiced around the world and promoted by governments, institutions, and influential individuals. Many countries enacted various eugenic policies, including: genetic screening, birth control, promoting differential birth rates, marriage restrictions, segregation (both racial segregation and sequestering the mentally ill), compulsory sterilization, forced abortions or forced pregnancies, culminating in genocide

The moral dimensions of the eugenics in the 19th and 20th centuries rejected the doctrine that all human beings are born equal, and redefined human worth purely in terms of genetic “fitness”. More recently in the UK we have seen a moral shift entailing human worth being politically redefined in terms of economic productivity. 

Common early 20th century eugenics methods involved identifying and classifying individuals and their families, including the poor, mentally ill, blind, deaf, developmentally disabled, promiscuous women, homosexuals, and racial groups (such as the Roma and Jews in Nazi Germany) as “degenerate” or “unfit”, leading to their segregation or institutionalization, sterilization, euthanasia, and ultimately, their mass murder. The Nazi practice of euthanasia was carried out on hospital patients in the Aktion T4 centres such as Hartheim Castle.

The “scientific” reputation of eugenics declined in the 1930s, a time when Ernst Rüdin used eugenics as a justification for the racial policies of Nazi Germany. Adolf Hitler had praised and incorporated eugenic ideas in Mein Kampf in 1925 and emulated eugenic legislation for the sterilization of “defectives” that had been pioneered in the United States once he took power

After World War II, the practice of “imposing measures intended to prevent births within [a population] group” fell within the definition of the new international crime of genocide, set out in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of GenocideThe Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union also proclaims “the prohibition of eugenic practices, in particular those aiming at selection of persons.”

Recently the government in the UK introduced policies that curtail tax credits to the children of mothers claiming financial support for more than two children. Iain Duncan Smith announced that the policy was introduced to “change the behaviours” of people claiming welfare. Of course this assumes that people don’t plan and have their children in more prosperous periods of their lives, and then experience financial hardship for reasons that have nothing to do with their behaviours, such as recession and job losses, or being in low paid work and so on.This has some profound implications for notions of equality and the idea that each human life has equal worth. Such a policy discriminates against children because of when they are born, as well as being discriminating against poor families. Such a policy is an example of negative eugenics by “incentives”

Some campaigners are very critical of the use of the word “vulnerability”, because they feel it leads to attitudes and perceptions of disabled people as passive victims.

Yet I am vulnerable, despite the fact that I am far from passive. Since 2010, no social group has organised, campaigned and protested more than disabled people. Many of us have lived through harrowing times under this government and the last, when our very existence has become so precarious because of targeted and cruel Conservative policies. Yet we have remained strong in our resolve. Despite this, some dear friends and comrades among us have been tragically lost – they have not survived.

In one of the wealthiest democratic nations on earth, no group of people should have to fight for their survival.

I see vulnerability as being rather more about the potential for some social groups being subjected to political abuse. 

We are and have been. This is empirically verified by the report and conclusions drawn from the United Nations inquiry into the grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s human rights here in the UK, by a so-called democratic government.

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The budget: from trickle-down to falling down, whilst holding hands with Herbert Spencer.

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“We are moving Britain from a high welfare, high tax economy, to a lower welfare, lower tax society.”

George Osborne, 8 July 2015

The pro-wealthy and anti-humanist budget indicates clearly that the Conservatives are preoccupied with highlighting and cutting the state cost of sustaining the poorest citizens rather than the costs of subsidising the rich.

I’ve pointed out before that the Conservatives operate a perverse, dual logic: that wealthy people need support and encouragement – they are offered substantial financial incentives – in order to work and contribute to the economy, whereas poor people apparently need to be punished – by the imposition of financial cuts – in order to work and contribute to the economy.

That Osborne thinks it is acceptable to cut the lifeline benefits of sick and disabled people to pay for government failures, whilst offering significant cuts to corporation tax rates; raising the tax-free personal allowance and extending inheritance tax relief demonstrates very clearly that the myth of trickle-down is still driving New Right Conservative ideology, and that policy is not based on material socio-economic conditions and public need. (And Cameron is not a one-nation Tory, despite his claims.)

Research by the Tax Justice Network in 2012 indicates that wealth of the very wealthy does not trickle down to improve the economy, but tends to be amassed and sheltered in tax havens with a detrimental effect on the tax bases of the home economy.

A more recent report – Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality : A Global Perspective by the International Monetary Fund concluded in June this year that there is no trickle-down effect –  the rich simply get richer:

“We find that increasing the income share of the poor and the middle class actually increases growth while a rising income share of the top 20 percent results in lower growth—that is, when the rich get richer, benefits do not trickle down.”

It’s inconceivable that the Conservatives fail to recognise such policy measures will widen inequality. Conservatives regard inequality and social hierarchy as inevitable, necessary and functional to the economy. Furthermore, Conservatives hail greed and envy as emotions to be celebrated, since these drive competition.

Since the emergence of the New Right, from Thatcher to Cameron, we have witnessed an increasing entrenchment of Neoliberal principles, coupled with an aggressive, authoritarian brand of social conservatism that has an underpinning of crude, blunt social Darwinist philosophy, as carved out two centuries ago by the likes of Thomas Malthus and Herbert Spencer.

Spencer is best known for the expression “survival of the fittest,” which he coined in Principles of Biology (1864), after reading Charles Darwin’s work. Spencer extended natural selection into realms of sociology, political theory and ethics, ultimately contributing to the eugenics movement. He believed that struggle for survival spurred self-improvement which could be inherited. Maslow would disagree. All a struggle for survival motivates is just a struggle for survival.

Spencer’s ideas of laissez-faire; a survival-of-the-fittest brand of competitive individualism; minarchism – minimal state interference in the processes of natural law – and liking for private charity, are echoed loudly in the theories of 20th century thinkers such as Friedrich HayekMilton Friedman and Ayn Rand who each popularised Spencer’s ideas, whilst Neoliberal New Right Conservatives such as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron have translated these ideas into policies.

Ideology has considerable bearing on policies, and policies may be regarded as overt, objective statements of political intent. I’ve said many times over the past five years that Conservatives have forgotten that democracy is based on a process of dialogue between the public and government, ensuring that the public are represented: that governments are responsive, shaping policies that address identified social needs. Conservative policies are quite clearly no longer about reflecting citizen’s needs: they are increasingly authoritarian, and all about telling us how to be.

Conservatives have always coldly conceived society as a hierarchy of human value, and they have, from their pinnacle of supremacist, self-appointed authority, historically cast the vulnerable and the poorest as the putative “enemies of civilization.” Social Darwinism is written in bold throughout their policies.

Furthermore, such a combination of Neoliberal and Conservative political theory, explicitly opposes democratic goals and principles. Neoliberalism was originally used by academics on the Left as a pejorative to capture the policies of imposed exploitation, privatisation, and inequality.

Neoliberalism is now characterised by the use of international loans and other mechanisms to suppress unions, squash state regulation, elevate corporate privilege, privatise public services, and protect the holdings of the wealthy. The term became widely recognised shorthand for rule by the rich, authoritarianism and the imposition of limits on democracy.

Banks, corporations, the financial sector, and the very wealthy are exercising power and blocking any attempt to restructure the economic system that brought about the crash.

Meanwhile, the free market is a market free for powerful interests; the profit motive has transformed the organising value of social life, and those who the Conservatives evidently regard as collateral damage of this socio-economic dogma made manifest are paying the price for the global crash, with Osborne and the Conservatives constructing narratives that problematise welfare support, generating moral panic and folk devils to demonise the poorest citizens in need of support.

Growing social inequality generates a political necessity for cultivating social prejudices.

Such Othering narratives divert public attention from the fact that the right to a fair and just legal system, a protective and effective safety net for the poorest, free healthcare – all of the social gains of our post-war settlement – are all under attack.

I have said elsewhere that Conservative ideology is incompatible with our legal commitments to human rights. The United Nations declaration of Human Rights is founded on the central tenet that each and every human life has equal worth. The Conservatives don’t agree, preferring to organise society into hierarchies of worth and privilege.

Conservative austerity measures and further impending welfare cuts are not only a deliberate attack on the poorest and most vulnerable social groups; the range of welfare cuts do not conform to a human rights standard; the “reforms” represent a serious failure on the part of the government to comply with Britain’s legal international human rights obligations.

The cuts announced by the chancellor include a further reduction to the benefits cap – not only from £26,000 to £23,000, as promised in the Conservative Party’s 2015 manifesto, but down even further to £20,000 outside of London.

Child tax credit, housing benefit and working tax credit will be reduced, with child tax credit only being paid for the first two children. Presumably this is, to quote Iain Duncan Smith, to “incentivise behavioural change,” placing pressure on the poorest to “breed less,” though personally, being the direct, blunt, no-nonsense sort, I prefer to call it a nudge towards “eugenics by stealth.”

The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission say that any cuts to tax credits will cut the incomes of 45 per cent of working families. These cuts are particularly controversial, since the benefits cap was partly justified as a way of “making work pay”  – a Conservative narrative that echoes the punitive 1834 New Poor Law Principle of less eligibility – see: The New New Poor Law.

The Government asserts that its welfare “reform” strategy is aimed at breaking the cycle of “worklessness” and dependency on the welfare system amongst the poorest families. It’s more punitive Poor Law rhetoric.

There’s no such thing as “worklessness”, it’s simply a blame apportioning word, made up by the Tories to hide the fact that they have destroyed the employment market, just as Thatcher did, and as the Conservatives always do.

Punishing the low paid, cutting the income of families who work for low wages directly contradicts the claim that the Conservatives are “making work pay.”

Yet Osborne has framed his welfare cuts with the “The best route out of poverty is work” mantra, claiming that slashing the social security budget by £46 billion in the next five years, (including cutting those benefits to disabled people, who have been assessed as unfit for work and placed in the Work Related Activity Group (WRAG), and cutting in-work benefits, such as tax credits) is needed to make sure “work pays” and that: “we give a fair deal for those on welfare and a fair deal to the people, the taxpayers of this country who pay for it.”

The Conservatives always conveniently divide people into an ingroup of taxpayers and an outgroup of stigmatised others – non-tax payers. However, most people claiming benefits are either in work, and are not paid enough, through no fault of their own, to pay tax, or are pensioners who have worked most of their lives; or are unemployed, but have previously worked and contributed tax.

Most people claiming disability benefits have also worked and contributed tax, too.

Unemployment and in-work benefit claims are generally a measure of how well or poorly the government is handling the economy, not of how “lazy” or “incentivised” people are.

And only the Tories have the cheek to claim that raising the minimum wage (long overdue, especially given the hikes in the cost of living) is the introduction of a living wage. The basic idea is that these are the minimum pay rates needed so that workers have an acceptable standard of living. Over the last few years, wages have very quickly fallen far behind the ever-rising cost of living.

The increase is at a rate of £7.20 an hour for people over the age of 25.  Housing benefit will be withdrawn from those aged between 18 and 21, while tax credits and universal credits will be targeted at people on lower wages by reducing the level at which they are withdrawn.

The chancellor’s announcement amounted merely to an increase in the minimum wage, and the curbs on tax credits would hit low-paid workers in other ways, unfortunately.

Whilst the announcement of a phased increase in the minimum wage is welcome, it is difficult to see how this will reverse the increasing inequality that will be extended as a further consequence of this budget without a matching commitment to improving the structural framework – the quality and stability of employment available. As it is, we are now the most unequal country in EU.

If the government were sincerely interested in raising wages to make work genuinely pay, ministers would be encouraging rather than stifling trade unionism and collective bargaining. But instead we see further cuts to public sector pay in real terms year after year and the raising of the legal bar for industrial action so that strikes will be effectively outlawed in public services. And let’s not forget the grubby partisan policy of two years ago – the Let Lynton Lobby Gagging Act.

Rhys Moore, director of the Living Wage Foundation, said:

“Is this really a living wage? The living wage is calculated according to the cost of living whereas the Low Pay Commission calculates a rate according to what the market can bear. Without a change of remit for the Low Pay Commission this is effectively a higher national minimum wage and not a living wage.”

Those most affected by the extreme welfare cuts are those groups for which human rights law provides special protections. The UK government has already contravened the human rights of women, children, and disabled people.

The recent report of the UK Children’s Commissioner to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, published in July this year, says:

“Response to the global economic downturn, including the imposition of austerity measures and changes to the welfare system, has resulted in a failure to protect the most disadvantaged children and those in especially vulnerable groups from child poverty, preventing the realisation of their rights under Articles 26 and 27 [of the UN CRC] … Reductions to household income for poorer children as a result of tax, transfer and social security benefit changes have led to food and fuel poverty, and the sharply increased use of crisis food bank provision by families.”

The parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights recently reported on the UK’s compliance with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and found it woefully lacking:

“Welfare cuts will ensure that the government is not in compliance with its international human rights obligations to realise a right to an adequate standard of living under Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic and Social Rights (ICESR) and a child’s right to an adequate standard of living under Article 27 of the UN CRC. Further it will be in breach of the statutory target to eliminate child poverty contained in the Child Poverty Act 2010.”

Just in case you missed it, there has been a very recent, suspiciously timed change to the definition of child poverty, and a proposed repeal of the Child Poverty Act – something that Iain Duncan Smith has been threatening to bring about since 2013.

It’s yet another ideologically directed Tory budget, dressed-up in the rhetoric of economic necessity, detached from public needs.

And Conservative ideology is all about handouts to the wealthy that are funded by the poor.

Related:

George Osborne’s Political MasterstrokeA View from the Attic

Osborne’s class spite wrapped in spin will feed a backlashSeumas Milne

Budget 2015: what welfare changes did George Osborne announce, and what do they mean?  New Statesman: The Staggers

How Osborne’s new cuts breach the UK’s human rights obligations, Lecturer in Law at Lancaster University

Osborne’s Autumn statement reflects the Tory ambition to reduce State provision to rubble

Osborne’s razor: the Tory principle of parsimony is applied only to the poorest

The BBC expose a chasm between what the Coalition plan to do and what they want to disclose

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Thanks to Robert Livingstone