Tag: Individualism

It’s the Tories that want something for nothing: the democratic contract and government responsibility

430847_149933881824335_1645102229_n (1)
The Conservative defense of increasing economic inequality, the lionisation of Randian, Libertarian, selfish individualism and the proliferation of ideological justification narratives regarding the dismantling of the “Big (Welfare) State”, where the latter, in Orwellian fashion, is now being indicted for many of the very social and economic ills that the free market era has actually delivered has surely worn threadbare by now. 

It’s abundantly clear that it’s the Tories and the very wealthy that want something for nothing. Cameron’s mantra is “social responsibility, not state control equals Big Society.” Cameron, in his Hugo Young lecture (2009), claimed that the “Big Society demands mass engagement: a broad culture of responsibility, mutuality and obligation”.

But this isn’t about a transfer of political power or decision-making from government to the public: it’s a transfer of responsibility and duty only.

In true Orwellian spirit, Cameron went on to say: “The recent growth of the state has promoted not social solidarity, but selfishness and individualism.”  Only a conservative would claim poverty and social cohesion as their concern and passion, and then attack  the mechanism that until now has been used to alleviate them  – publicly funded state spending.

Democracy (based on the partnership between political and economic enfranchisement) happens when the concept of property encompasses access to “social goods” such as healthcare, education and public infrastructure as a right of citizenship. The idea of political representation becomes consolidated when access to such social goods is guaranteed by a legal process, as well as a political process.

The electoral franchise in countries which adopted a Lockean liberal constitutional  system, such as  Britain, had a property qualification attached to it. Universal suffrage coincided with a wider public access to social goods, giving rise to a new type of social contract: by giving up a portion of their property by way of taxation, the propertied class ensured the survival of capitalism, and the working class escaped the worst ravages of capitalism.

Access to social goods was a means of widening and legitimising the scope of democratic political representation.

However, whilst removing all of our public services, provisions, destroying our post-war settlement, the key features of which were accepted in principle by the main political parties at the time, namely: a mixed economy, a free public sector healthcare and education, a guaranteed (though minimal) state pension and social welfare provision, the government is removing social goods, nullifying the established social contract between state and individual, and is expecting that we each fend for ourselves.

I don’t remember any consent amongst the public to accept diminished living standards in return for Cameron’s proposal of national fiscal security (which he has consistently and spectacularly failed to deliver) and the maintenance of the “market-state”. Nor was there consent for authority, inequality and hierarchy, or an acceptance of being less than we can be and having less than we can have.

Our welfare provision (and I include our National Health Service, here), paid for by us, IS OUR MEANS OF BEING RESPONSIBLE AS A SOCIETY AND INDIVIDUALLY: it is a means of securing provision for ourselves if or when we need it. Our welfare provision is, and has been since its inception, each citizens’ responsibility, because we pay for it. It doesn’t belong to the government.

The consensus that the welfare state was the best basis for a healthy society was first rejected by Thatcher, who notoriously denied the very existence of society, and unashamedly espoused greed as the  “best social driver.”  Cameron, building on Thatcher’s previous groundwork, has effectively delivered an economic enclosure act, claiming OUR collective, public funds, turning that money into the private property right of the rich, in the same way the land enclosure act robbed the public of their commonly shared land, and enabled rich landowners use of their control of state processes to appropriate public land for their private benefit.

Yet despite this blatant theft: the massive transference of public funds to a few private accounts, the demands being made by the state on citizens have never been greater. All the Tories talk about are OUR obligations and individual responsibilities, whilst they claim they have NO responsibility for citizen well-being. But we have paid for state services and continue to do so via the tax and national insurance system.

In 2013 the Government spent approximately £93.5billion of our money on the private sector. This is half the £187bn government usually spends on goods and services each year. Recent growth in outsourcing of government services to private providers has been widely criticised for a lack of transparency, poor management of money and, in particular, excessive remuneration of top executives and pay inequality between employees. Extreme pay inequality and a succession of scandals in the largest government suppliers suggests that, in its present form, government outsourcing is a very poor use of tax payers’ money and not fit for purpose. This is verified by the Equality Trust’s research report: Subsidising Unfairness

It’s only the very wealthy that gain (enormously) from austerity, and they  manage to avoid  any socially responsible contribution by using government endorsed accounting systems and dodges to avoid paying taxes wherever possible. The estimated amount of taxes unpaid, thanks to evasion, avoidance, error and criminality, soared to £34 billion, according to HM Revenue and Customs. This equates to £1 in every £15 owed in taxes not being collected last year.

Furthermore, it is the poorest 10 percent of households that pay eight percent more of their income in all taxes than the richest – 43 percent compared to 35 percent, outlined in a report from the Equality Trust. The poorest pay more than four times as much of their income, in Cameron’s poll tax-styled council tax system, than the wealthiest top 10 precent.

The government’s “hardworking taxpayer” myth which is at the heart of the Tory ideologically driven austerity narrative, and divert, divide and poison strategy, creates an artificial dichotomy between benefit claimants and taxpayers. Cameron’s diversionary rhetoric has got nothing to do with responsibility and fairness: it’s simply about justifying policies that privilege a wealthy elite at the expense of the poor.

 Such us and them dichotomies  can be linked to the distinctions made between the “deserving” and  “undeserving” poor, going back over a hundred years or more, to the cruel and punitive Poor Law Reform Act. The Tories have purposefully created scapegoats: adversarial identities that are politically constructed according to notions of difference which simultaneously encourages a public comparison to, and rejection of, Others. This Othering narrative portrays benefit recipients as the enemy in a battle against fairness and responsibility.

And the public have bought into it, the Equality Trust thinktank highlights a gulf between perceptions of the tax system and its reality. A poll, conducted with Ipsos Mori, found that nearly seven in ten people believe that households in the highest 10% income group pay more of their income in tax than those in the lowest 10%.

Wealth concentration damages economies. It focuses activity within finance and other services geared towards only towards serving the super rich.Maintaining inequality requires penalising and further impoverishing the poor.

Reducing  wealth inequalities will require the introduction of wealth taxes, like the inheritance tax  we introduced a century ago. Reducing inequality requires a high top rate of income tax. This reduces income inequality not only by raising revenue, but by deterring the profit-driven greedy from asking for more money. When there is a tax rate of 60 percent on incomes above £200,000 a year, it makes little sense to pay employees much more than that.

But the wealthy tend to get so indignant when policy proposals from the opposition indicate that they will be required to actually contribute something to a society that they have taken so much more than others from. There’s been an outraged outcry, for example, regarding Labour’s Mansion tax proposals. These ignoble, self-serving Randians are happy to sit back and allow the poorest and most vulnerable to suffer and starve, whilst being subjected to the unfair, punitive bedroom tax, which contravened human rights: the poorest are bearing the terrible burden of austerity cuts whilst the wealthy continue to profit massively. Presumably, Cameron exempted the very rich from responsibility, duty and contributing  to society in any meaningful way.

Of course this is about restricting political engagement, the Conservatives have always sought to reduce it to a basic partnership between corporate interests and professional politicians. Cameron’s Conservatism rests on the unwitting rejection  of the social democratic consensus by the population which, paradoxically, need what they reject. Public consent is being manipulated to accommodate the idea that democracy is a relationship between rulers and governed, rather than it being about an elected government that reflects, represents and serves public needs. The population are being incrementally subordinated to a political system which is not conducive to the betterment of their lives, well-being or material conditions –  the Tories are imposing an imbalanced social contract comprised of citizen duties with no citizen rights; the acceptance of ever-lower living standards and increasing state authoritarianism.

The Conservative scapegoating narratives, which have blamed Labour, the poor and the unemployed for a recession caused by the private finance sector, and not the “big state” as claimed, have permitted the Coalition to pursue an ideological, destructive and grossly unfair economic strategy, which has generated only a bogus and isolated recovery largely based on government-fuelled asset bubbles in real estate and private finance, with stagnant productivity, plummeting wages, millions of people in precarious jobs, inflated living costs and utterly savage welfare cuts.

One obligation that all democratic states have, surely, is that of protecting citizens rights and freedoms. Those are most certainly being steadily diminished, and Cameron has been quite candid about scrapping our Human Rights Act, and withdrawing from the ECHR in the future.

See what I mean? It’s all take take take…

Danny Dorling says: “Gross economic inequality is as vile as racism, misogyny and hatred of the disabled; as damaging in effect; and as dependent on a small group of supporters who believe that just a few should have more and more and more, because they’re “worth it”.”

I believe that growing social inequality generates a political necessity for prejudices: they are entrenched vis-à-vis Social Darwinism in Tory ideology, fueled and perpetuated through justification narratives and amplified via the media.

I’ve said many times previously that never in this country have those who fight for democracy and social justice carried a greater burden or faced the possibility of bigger losses of human rights, human freedoms, human dignity and human welfare than they do right now.

14533697838_dffcc736f2_o (1)

 Many thanks to Robert Livingstone for his brilliant art work

You are not alone: therapy, individualism and collectivism

I have often felt that western individualistic therapeutic models tend to distort therapeutic outcomes. I don’t see humans as self-contained and independent –  we don’t exist in isolation. Indeed, evidence from human and animal studies shows that isolation prompts sensitivity to social threats and usually motivates the renewal of social connections. I see humans as fundamentally interdependent, I was always more inclined (intuitively and academically) towards social psychology and small scale, interpretive and interactionist sociology, but then I tend to slot that into a broader structural context. Rather like R.D Laing’s existential starting point, as he writes, he moves outwards from self, to others, to a society which he analyses using a Marxist frame. We cannot examine mental health without reference to the intersubjective home which cultivates it. Society: the very crucible in which selves are forged.

Many of my colleagues also noted that the complexity of individual personality and psychological processes tended to get lost in a “one-size-fits-all” approach to “improving human functioning and experience.”

For example, that the costs and benefits of different kinds of optimism and pessimism may vary across different individuals, situations, and cultural contexts was rarely if ever taken into consideration. Yet we know that there are times when pessimism and negative thinking are positive psychology, as these approaches often lead to the development of better coping mechanisms via diligent problem-solving, learning and personal growth.

I was always very interested in people’s attitudes toward styles of social interdependence and how people derive self-esteem. Studies show that there are correlations between attitudes towards styles of interdependence and of deriving self-esteem and a sense of self worth which indicate distinctive and theoretically predictable patterns of relationship.

Those who indicate a cathexis for cooperative relationships tend to report patterns of higher self-esteem related to freedom of personal expressiveness and feelings of personal well-being; those people indicating a cathexis for competitive or highly individualised patterns of interdependence experience greater vulnerability on dimensions of self-esteem reflecting a sensitivity to the experiences of approval, success and support of others.

The magnitudes of the correlations between a global measure of personal worth and attitudes towards types of interdependence reflect the extent to which positive social reinforcement is available in these contexts.

In 1902 Charles Horton Cooley wrote about a social psychological concept that came to influence much symbolic interactionist sociology, and its central themes are manifested in labelling theory, for example. Cooley said “the human mind is social.”  As children, we begin to define ourselves within the context of our socialisation. We learn that crying will elicit a response from our parents, not only when we are in need of necessities such as food, but also as a symbol to receive their attention.

The term “looking glass self” was first used by Cooley in his work, Human Nature and the Social Order , it’s a description of a process where a person’s self-concept [cognitive or descriptive component of one’s self] develops through  interpersonal interactions and the perceptions of others. The term refers to people shaping their self-concepts based on their understanding of how others perpetually perceive them to be. Because people conform to how they think others think them to be, to a significant degree.

George Herbert Mead described the self as “taking the role of the other,” the premise for which the self is actualised. Through interaction with others, we begin to develop an identity – the “who” we are, as well as developing empathy for others. In respect to this Cooley said:

“The thing that moves us to pride or shame is not the mere mechanical reflection of ourselves, but an imputed sentiment, the imagined effect of this reflection upon another’s mind.”

But we are capable of reflection and reflexivity, [reflexivity includes both a subjective process of self-consciousness and the study of social behaviour with reference to theories about social relationships. We bridge the gap between structure and agency] self-fulfilling and self-negating prophesies [the prophecy has a constitutive impact on the result, changing the outcome from what would otherwise have happened]: we have intentionality and a degree of free-will.

Conservatives perpetuate and utilise our western tendency towards individualism, amplifying it and using it as a way to deliberately undermine social cohesion, cooperation and collective responsibility. It isolates many. Individuals are easier to manipulate and persuade, they are more likely to conform. [See the Milgram experiment]. Furthermore, competing for resources with others diminishes empathy.

Collectivism is a fundamental element of human culture that has existed independently of any one political system and has existed since the founding of human society, roughly some ten thousand years ago. It is a feature of all societies to some degree and therefore may be regarded as an inherent feature of human nature.

But in my [ex-]professional experience, there is an over-emphasis on Western individualism – with its concomitant selfishness, alienation, and divisiveness – it’s one of the root causes of our personal, social and political problems. It’s not possible to address the New Right neoliberalist, narrow, competitive self-interest kind of ontological insecurity – a very paltry view of human “nature” – with a commitment to any higher social purpose. Individualism is fundamentally incompatible with egalitarianism. Laissez faire individualism, as we ought to have learned from history, only ever results in increasing inequality, a nation of a few very rich and a lot of very poor people. It elevates a handful of individuals in terms of social status and oppresses many others, whilst also restricting or destroying our human potential.

Our very language derives from the individualism of Hobbes and Locke, the contemporary cost benefit analysis, and from the individualism of modern therapists – we have the self-made man and the self actualised one -“looking out for number one”, and “being your own best friend”. It’s an overarching narrative, it’s become tacit “knowledge”, yet in the English language, the word “individualism” was first introduced, as a pejorative, by the Owenites in the 1830s.

There is a concomitant dominant paradigm of individualist psychological perspectives that enshrine the idea that human behaviour is primarily governed by self-interest. Humans first seek to ensure survival, and then they seek to dominate. These facets of human nature are seen as a product of genetically coded survival instincts modified by the totality of our environment and expressed as neurochemically-mediated emotions and actions.

This culture of individualism – which is embedded in both Western therapy approaches and enshrined in popular self-help mantras – helps to sustain Conservative free-market ideology and cultivate narcissism. Free-market ideology is deterministic. It implies that there are no institutional choices: the market “decides”, whilst the individual is held responsible for his own fortune, or lack of it. Do mind the logical gaps there…

Furthermore, the government is actually expanding ever more rapidly rather than shrinking – seizing public funds and spending more and more of our money on handouts to the wealthy, and intruding on our lives in increasingly oppressive ways.

“There’s no such thing as society” has become something of a Tory mantra since the Thatcher era. Tories reduce the social to the alienated isolated individual, and individuals are free only insofar as we compete with each other for resources in the market place. The market place is where money is taken from the poor in exchange for their survival, and handed out to the wealthy, in exchange for the subversion of democracy to suit themselves. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

It’s an irony that whilst we traditionally contrast collectivism and individualism, it was collectivism that brought about the process of civic emancipation in Western societies which resulted in social and civic structures that champions the role of individual choice, personal freedom and competition.

Individual sovereignty or individual autonomy is only feasible anyway when it is balanced carefully with personal responsibility and interest in the autonomy of others. But that isn’t happening: instead we have a steep hierarchy of autonomy which is based on economic determinism: a society of a few autonomous, wealthy narcissists and psychopaths, and a growing mass of a stifled, dehumanised, poor precariat class .

Conservatives create a myth that we live in a dangerous world. Such a dangerous world metaphor has long been associated with right-wing ideological views. In the last couple of centuries, though, this metaphor has taken the form of Social Darwinism.

This ruthless “survival of the fittest” concept [a phrase coined by British conservative sociologist Herbert Spencer, and not Darwin] is a one-sided [and frequently distorted] view of the fuller scientific picture of evolution that has developed over the second half of the twentieth century. Since the 1960s, biologists have made advances in understanding how evolution motivates various kinds of altruistic cooperation in nature – in addition to self-interest. Kropotkin had observed this at the time Darwin wrote his classic text anyway, in his own work “Mutual Aid”. Nonetheless, public opinion of folk-Darwinism, which situates people in a dangerous “red in tooth and claw, jungle world,” has  been very frequently been evoked to support a right-wing moral philosophy.

Kropotkin’s work about altruism and cooperation was dismissed because, despite the fact it was very coherent and compelling, and provided empirical evidence, it did not fit the Conservative and Liberal laissez faire dominant paradigm at the time, which was comprised of the ideas of Mathus, Smith’s laissez faire economics and “market forces”, competitive individualism. These are culturally specific and relative views, and not ones which are shared by many eastern countries, for example.

The Social Darwinist survival of the fittest idea appears most obviously and prevalently in narratives of the extreme right. Hitler saw life as a zero-sum struggle between races, in which one group would always seek to dominate the other. In 1928, Hitler gave a speech in Kulmbach, Bavaria, he envisioned a conflict between races in pseudo-Darwinian terms:

“The idea of struggle is as old as life itself, for life is only preserved because other living things perish through struggle . . . in the struggle, the stronger, more able, win, while the less able, the weak, lose . . . it is not by the principles of humanity that man lives or is able to preserve himself above the animal world, but solely by the means of the most brutal struggle.”

Hitler rejected that cooperative behaviour in human and non-human animals plays a significant role in the struggle for survival and in fitness generally. Moreover, the inhuman acts committed by humans in the name of Nazism greatly surpassed the brutality of any other animal. Nonetheless, Hitler viewed the world as extremely dangerous, and he attributed the danger to a misconstrued Social Darwinism.

Marx described us as essentially creative and productive beings. It is not just that we produce for our means of survival, it is also that we engage in creative and productive activity over and above what is necessary for survival and find fulfilment in this activity. This activity is inherently social – most of what we produce is produced collectively. This contrasts completely with the individualist basis of conservative and liberal thinking, which came from the likes of Edmund Burke, I agree with Marx: we are fundamentally social creatures.

We become consciously aware of ourselves as a discrete being through language – and language is inherently inter-subjective; it is a social practice. What we think – including what we think about ourselves – is governed by what we do and what we do is always done socially and collectively.

In contrast to the tories, the left have fairly expansive view of human nature – it is our nature to be creatively adaptable and for our understanding of what is normal in terms of behaviour to be shaped by the social relationships around us. For Marx, we flourish and thrive in a society that allows us to express  sociability and creativity. Self fulfilment and self-realisation is a reciprocal process because we are social beings.

There never was a time when we had a more compelling need for democracy, cooperation and collective citizen participation than now. That means we need to transcend the individualistic therapeutic mentality and dog-eat-dog individualism that is descending from the establishment via a divisive, toxic political rhetoric, the media and the Nudge Unit – which is aimed at “fixing” our alleged irrationality, so that we behave in line with state definitions of rationality. Of course this assumes our collective fallibility and the infallibility of the Nudgers.

The conceptual framework was already in place though. As a society, we have long thought that the self is [pathologically] more important than others.

And personally, I think we need more therapists who sometimes say: “Today, I couldn’t give a f*ck about how you feel, I would like you to consider the impact of your actions on the feelings and experiences of others, let’s explore that …”

Because you are not alone. None of us are.


Manly P Hall
Picture courtesy of Robert Livingstone.

“All being in each being
Each being in all being
All in each
Each in all
All distinctions are mind, by mind, in mind, of mind.
No distinctions no mind to distinguish.” R.D Laing